HomeHealthcareTesting Time for an Invisible Empire – The Well being Care Weblog

Testing Time for an Invisible Empire – The Well being Care Weblog


By Jeff Goldsmith

Years in the past, the biggest residing factor on this planet was considered the blue whale. Then somebody found that the biggest residing factor on this planet was truly the 106 acre, 47 thousand tree Pando aspen grove in central Utah, which genetic testing revealed to be a single organism. With its huge community of underground roots and symbiotic relationship with an unlimited ecosystem of fungi, that aspen grove is a superb metaphor for UnitedHealth Group. United, whose revenues quantity to greater than 8% of the US well being system, is the biggest healthcare enterprise on this planet. The foundation system of UHG is an unlimited and poorly understood subsidiary known as Optum.

At $226 billion annual revenues, Optum is the biggest healthcare enterprise within the US that no-one is aware of something about. Optum by itself has revenues which might be rather less than 5% of complete US healthcare spending. An ill-starred Optum subsidiary, Change Healthcare, which suffered a catastrophic $100 billion cyberattack on February 21, 2024 that put a lot of the US well being system on life assist, put its mum or dad firm Optum within the headlines.

However Change Healthcare is a tiny (lower than 2%) piece of this huge new (lower than twenty years outdated) healthcare enterprise. If it had been freestanding, Optum can be the 12th largest firm within the US: equivalent in dimension to Costco and barely bigger than Microsoft. Optum’s topline revenues are nearly 4 instances bigger than HCA, the nation’s largest hospital firm, one third bigger than the whole thing of Elevance, United’s most important well being plan competitor, and greater than double the scale of Kaiser Permanente.

If there actually had been economies of scale in healthcare, they might imply that care was of demonstrably higher worth supplied by huge enterprises like Optum/United than in additional fragmented, smaller, or much less built-in options. It’s not clear that it’s. If worth doesn’t attain sufferers and physicians in ways in which matter to them—in higher, inexpensive, and extra responsive care, in improved well being or in a much less hassled and extra fulfilling follow—in the end the care system in addition to United will endure.

What’s Optum?

Optum is a diversified well being providers, financing and enterprise intelligence subsidiary of aptly named UnitedHealth Group. It offers well being providers, purchases medication on behalf of United’s well being plan, and offers consulting, logistical assist (e.g. claims administration and IT enablement) and enterprise intelligence providers to United’s well being plan enterprise, in addition to to United’s opponents.

Of Optum’s $226 billion topline, $136.4 billion (or 60% of its complete revenues) signify medical and enterprise providers supplied to United’s Well being Insurance coverage enterprise. Company UnitedHealth Group, Optum included, generated $29 billion in cashflow in 23, and $118.3 billion since 2019. United channeled nearly $52 billion of that money into shopping for health-related companies, almost all of which find yourself housed inside Optum.

Supply: 2023 UNH 10K

For a lot of the previous decade, Optum has been driving power of incremental revenue development for United. Optum’s working income grew from $6.7 billion in 2017 (34% of UHG complete) to $15.9 billion in 2023 (55% of complete). Nevertheless, the 2 most worthwhile items of Optum by working margin—Optum Well being and Optum Perception—have seen their working margins fall by one third in simply 4 years. The slowing of Optum’s profitability is a big problem for United.

Gaul Had Three Elements, So Does Optum

The most important and least worthwhile (by % margin) piece of Optum is its large Pharmacy Profit Supervisor, Optum Rx, the third largest PBM within the US.

Optum Rx is greater than half of Optum by income ($116.1 billion) however lower than a 3rd of its income. The core of its revenue comes from rebates from drug corporations for that includes their medication on OptumRx’s formulary- which governs which medication United Healthcare subscribers get entry to and the way a lot they pay for them. Optum Rx derives nearly 62% of its revenues from managing pharmaceutical spending for United’s well being plan, however the the rest for servicing each well being plan opponents of United and self-funded employers. It’s the most “vertical” piece of Optum—in that it has the very best share of its revenues coming from United out of all of Optum’s main segments.

The accounting for these rebates is, to place it gently, lower than clear. A few of these rebates are returned to UHG clients (similar to self-funded employers). Some are returned to insurers apart from United for which Optum Rx processes pharmaceutical claims. And a few are saved as revenue inside both Optum Rx or United’s medical insurance enterprise. Optum Rx doesn’t disclose the last word vacation spot of many billions in rebates.

This lack of transparency is, understandably, a topic of political controversy. Congress is contemplating tightening PBM disclosures and presumably redirecting the move of rebates again to health-plan clients and, gasp, probably to sufferers themselves. Given the widening political controversy about whether or not PBMs truly save customers cash, Optum Rx’s enterprise mannequin is a serious strategic vulnerability for UHG.

The second main piece of Optum, OptumInsight, has been within the glare of public controversy since its Change Healthcare subsidiary was hacked by the mysterious Russian hacker collective BlackCat in February. Its important enterprise strains are: enterprise intelligence, consulting, IT enablement, and enterprise course of outsourcing to non-UHG well being enterprises. OptumInsight is the smallest of Optum’s three items at $18.9 billion, however essentially the most worthwhile—22.5% revenue margin—$4.3 billion in working earnings. I’ve written extensively about OptumInsight, nearly 42% of whose revenues derive from servicing United’s different companies, however is not going to repeat that evaluation right here.

Optum Well being

The piece we wish to give attention to right here is the biggest generator of income for Optum, Optum Well being, a diversified healthcare providers enterprise. Optum Well being is a $95.3 billion enterprise, which makes it the second largest care enterprise within the US after Kaiser Permanente. It generates almost $6.6 billion in working revenue for United. Nevertheless, Optum Well being’s revenue margin declined from greater than 10% in 2018 to about 6.6% within the third quarter of 2023. If not circled, Optum Well being’s declining profitability is a menace to United’s enterprise valuation and repute. Because of this when Optum reported disappointing 3Q23 earnings, United’s Chairman Steven Hemsley cleaned home at Optum Well being, putting in new management.

Since United just isn’t required to reveal acquisitions that aren’t “materials”, there isn’t any method of realizing what United has truly purchased and what it presently owns. However Optum Well being is house to an unlimited assortment of doctor teams, surgicenters, a big pressing care community, and two of the biggest house well being businesses within the US. It’s a sprawling nationwide roll-up of healthcare property.

Optum claims 90 thousand physicians in its networks however is cagey on what number of are literally employed by Optum and what number of are unbiased physicians in Unbiased Apply Associations that wrap across the employed teams and are widespread within the West and Southwest. An informed guess can be that Optum employs from 45 to 60 thousand physicians. If true, this may nonetheless be between double and triple the scale of Permanente Medical Teams. Optum’s profitability dwarfs that of Kaiser (see beneath), maybe a operate of Kaiser working 39 hospitals and Optum not working a single one.

Supply: UNH 10K, Kaiser Annual Report

Optum Well being receives $57.7 billion (or 60% of its complete revenues) from United’s well being plan—the vertical half. But it surely additionally claims $21.8 billion in premium revenue, e.g. capitation, from “non-affiliated” clients, particularly well being plan opponents of United’s well being plans. That capitation represents nearly 23% of Optum Well being’s complete revenues. As well as, Optum Well being reviews $14.1 billion in providers revenue, nearly definitely “fee-for-service” primarily based revenue from different well being plans. What share of Optum Well being’s $6.6 billion in income come from these contracts with United’s opponents is a compelling thriller, since this isn’t reported in United’s monetary disclosures.

Regardless of the revenue break up, Optum Well being could be very a lot dependent not merely on the kindness of strangers, however of opponents of United’s core enterprise. An necessary and unknowable query is whether or not Optum’s contract renewals with these opponents have enabled it to get better the hovering prices of nursing protection, momentary doctor protection, turnover and retirements, and different labor components which have exploded within the wake of the COVID pandemic. Each care supply enterprise within the US has confronted rising individuals prices, as the biggest care supply enterprise within the US, these forces haven’t spared Optum.

Optum’s medical group acquisition technique to date has focused unbiased (e.g. non-hospital) medical teams with vital at-risk (e.g. “capitated”) populations, primarily in Medicare Benefit plans. These included the unique asset, the Nevada primarily based Sierra Medical Group which United acquired when it bought the Sierra Well being Plan in 2007, but in addition Healthcare Companions, Monarch and North American Medical Administration (primarily based in Los Angeles), WellMed in central Texas, Atrius and Reliant in Massachusetts, Everett and PolyClinic in Seattle and Kelsey Seybold Clinic in Houston Texas. It’s a rising presence in Oregon, New York and Connecticut by primarily smaller acquisitions. The map beneath confirmed the place Optum Well being’s property had been as of 2022.

A map of the united states

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The Vertical Integration Conundrum

Healthcare strategists have touted the thought of vertical integration –pioneered by Kaiser Permanente—which affords a complete healthcare service expertise—just about soup to nuts—by its well being plan. The one solution to entry Kaiser physicians and hospitals is by enrolling of their well being plan. Vertical integration has been seen as a method of lowering well being value (by eliminating middlemen’s income) and procuring services and products extra effectively, although precise proof that it does so is scarce upon the bottom.

With United, the well being plan preceded the well being providers. Within the first thirty years of its existence, United was a “community” plan, which contracted with unbiased hospitals and medical doctors for care. With the Sierra acquisition in 2007, United launched into an journey in strategic ambiguity—proudly owning doctor clinics which supplied care to United clients in addition to these of competing well being plans. After Sierra and WellMed, a big capitated medical group in central Texas that Optum acquired in 2011, Optum’s medical group acquisitions have been, at finest, loosely tied to United’s well being plan enrollment. A 2018 evaluation confirmed at finest modest overlap between United’s Medicare Benefit market presence and the Optum Well being community.

Making United “extra vertical” in Optum markets can be difficult. Providing monetary incentives to the Optum Well being sufferers presently enrolled in competing plans to change to United would pose two challenges. One is that this may injury Optum Well being’s contracts with competing well being plans. And sharing financial savings (e.g. a few of United’s income) with sufferers to redirect their care or decreasing their charges would scale back well being plan revenue margins.

Conversely, telling Optum sufferers that they may solely get care in the event that they enrolled in United’s well being plan would set off a firestorm of unfavorable publicity to not point out retaliation and cancelled contracts by United’s well being plan opponents. Telling United subscribers they may solely get care from Optum physicians and services would overwhelm them in quantity and set off longer ready instances and supplier burnout. In sum, it doesn’t seem to make enterprise sense for United to make Optum extra “vertically aligned” with its well being plans. So straddling opponents in native markets appears to be an ambiguity with which United should cope going ahead.

How a lot unregulated and invisible revenue United’s well being plans can generate  “inside” United’s seen and extremely regulated medical loss ratio (MLR) by selectively and generously compensating Optum’s physicians, surgical services, and so on. is essentially the most compelling thriller of this enterprise mannequin. Matthew Holt, a veteran business observer, has termed this technique of maximizing enterprise revenue by contracting favorably with your self “supplier fracking.” Corporations that management each insurance coverage and care supply have quite a lot of flexibility in what the accountants time period “switch pricing”.  This flexibility is effective and can be misplaced had been Optum to be spun off in a future United restructuring.

Two Large Dangers for the Partially Built-in Optum Well being

There are two different main clouds on the horizon for Optum Well being. One is the Federal Commerce Fee’s proposal to ban of non-compete clauses for company staff, together with physicians. Non-compete clauses successfully make the affected person populations of acquired doctor teams the property of Optum. If physicians go away Optum, they’re required to maneuver out of the group to follow, surrendering their sufferers to the corporate.

Lots of the senior physicians who had been fairness holders within the giant practices acquired by Optum departed millionaires with United’s money, forsaking junior colleagues to endure by each Optum system conversions and management modifications that affected their every day lives as practitioners. Outlawing non-competes would allow disgruntled Optum physicians to stay of their house communities and take their sufferers with them.

If FTC precedents maintain, the non-compete clause prohibition won’t apply to non-profit hospitals (80% of all hospitals are non-profit), placing Optum and different company employers of physicians at a aggressive drawback. In my view, entities that depend on coercive measures like non-competes to guarantee doctor loyalty have to take a protracted exhausting take a look at their company tradition.

The FTC’s proposed ban on non-competes is a serious enterprise danger for Optum Well being’s huge agglomeration of medical teams. If enacted, it might power Optum administration immediately to deal with doctor working situations, values, and priorities. United does have the potential for markedly lowering the documentation burden for Optum physicians that care for United sufferers by selectively altering its claims overview methods. It will likely be attention-grabbing to see in the event that they accomplish that.

E Pluribus Unum

The opposite main cloud on the horizon is the unionization of physicians. In accordance with AMA, some 67 thousand practising physicians (e.g. not interns, residents or fellowship trainees) are members of labor unions. There are been a number of latest excessive profile cases the place disillusioned hospital-employed physicians elected union illustration (Allina in Minneapolis/St Paul, Windfall St. Vincent and Legacy Well being in Portland OR, are latest examples).

Unionization is usually not motivated immediately by compensation points however quite by a way of powerlessness and a sense that core points that have an effect on the worker will not be being addressed. Unionization would each improve Optum’s working prices and cut back its administration’s flexibility. Optum Well being’s teams are by far the biggest and most profitable goal of doctor unionization in america.

Down within the Valley

The rising market dangers for Optum will be seen in two medium sized cities in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. In the course of the early pandemic, Eugene-based Oregon Clinic encountered terminal working difficulties and bought to Optum in late 2020. In March of this 12 months, Optum despatched letters to sufferers of departing Oregon Clinic physicians that they must discover care elsewhere as a result of they had been unable to recruit replacements for his or her physicians. These 32 physicians resigned, apparently, as a result of they had been sad with working situations at Oregon Clinic after the Optum takeover. Studying between the strains, attributable to non-competes, the departing physicians had been unable to stay the Eugene space and thus unable to proceed seeing long-standing sufferers.

In the meantime, up the street forty miles in Corvallis, Optum requested that the State of Oregon expedite overview of its proposed acquisition of the Corvallis Clinic attributable to accelerating money move difficulties that made it unattainable for the Clinic to satisfy its payroll. The State in the end acceded to Optum’s request.   The obvious reason for the money move downside: the Change Healthcare cyberattack, which made it unattainable for Change, an Optum subsidiary to simply accept or pay claims from its supplier networks, together with, almost definitely Corvallis Clinic. In different phrases, the catastrophic system failure of 1 piece of Optum seemingly accelerated one other piece of Optum’s acquisition of the biggest doctor group on the town.

Taken collectively, these simultaneous issues haven’t served to boost Optum’s picture as a care supplier within the southern Willamette Valley. They make the corporate seem as a chilly and exploitative outsider capitalizing on issues it helped create. These occasions is not going to improve the chance of United rising its core insurance coverage enterprise within the space or endear the corporate to Oregon’s well being system regulators, or its state managed Medicaid program, the Oregon Well being Plan.

Outgrowing Its Nervous System?

Optum Well being has nearly quadrupled in dimension prior to now six years, however its revenue margin has fallen by a 3rd. Given the explosive tempo of acquisitions and the associated fee pressures on doctor practices throughout and after the COVID pandemic, this margin deterioration is no surprise. Nevertheless, if Optum Well being’s new administration doesn’t stabilize its working efficiency, margins might deteriorate additional, placing strain on United’s earnings.

There are no evident economies of scale or co-ordination in doctor providers. How Optum can recruit and retain prime quality motivated physicians and superior follow nurses to its huge care system is a serious problem to the enterprise. They are going to want a compelling reply to the query: “Why work for Optum?” The reply can’t be: we’re big and also you don’t have a alternative. How the corporate creates worth for its tens of hundreds of physicians and nurses would be the central administration going through United, or certainly any large-scale employer of those complicated professionals.

There may be rising proof that there are diseconomies each of scale and co-ordination in well being providers typically. These diseconomies manifest themselves within the huge empty area between the enormous enterprise and the physicians and sufferers who depend on them. Each denial of care by United’s AI-driven claims administration system makes a tiny dent within the firm’s shopper picture. Affected person anger over arbitrary and self-interested well being plan meddling in care selections resulted in first managed care backlash within the late 1990’s. United’s latest Web Promoter Rating of -5 means that it has a protracted solution to journey to regain buyer confidence and loyalty.

The physician-patient relationship stays the bedrock of the well being system. If the nerve endings of an enterprise don’t attain out and sense the impact it’s having on that relationship, it isn’t going to be very lengthy earlier than it both ceases to develop or ceases to be worthwhile or, seemingly, each. United and Optum have reached that tipping level proper now. Observe Optum’s physicians and their sufferers and see the long run.

Acknowledgements: Trevor Goldsmith supplied analysis and technical assist for this piece. The creator appreciates Ian Morrison, Andrew Mueller  and Jamie Robinson for studying and commenting on this piece.

Jeff Goldsmith is a veteran well being care futurist, President of Well being Futures Inc and common THCB Contributor. This comes from his private substack



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