The nation's largest private insurer has been terminating its contracts with physician staffing firms in a bid to extract lower prices, part of a years-long pattern analysts say could spur other payers to follow.
UnitedHealthcare contends it is simply trying to curb the rising cost of healthcare by driving out high-cost providers that charge far more than the median rate in its network. The payer said it had hoped to keep these firms in network "at rates that reflect fair market prices," a UnitedHealthcare spokesperson told Healthcare Dive.
The most recent action targeted Mednax, a firm that provides specialty services including anesthesia, neonatology and high-risk obstetrics in both urban and rural areas. United cut Mednax contracts in four states, pushing those providers out of network, potentially putting patients at risk of balance bills.
United also recently canceled its in-network contracts with U.S. Anesthesia Partners in Texas, starting in April, which caused Moody's to change its outlook to negative for the provider group because the contracts represent 10% of its annual consolidated revenue.
These latest moves to end relationships with certain physician staffing firms seem to have escalated in recent years, Sarah Kahn, a credit analyst for S&P Global, told Healthcare Dive.
Since the insurer's 2018 tussle with ER staffing firm Envision, "it's sort of ramped up and become more aggressive and more abrupt and more pervasive," Kahn said of the contract disputes.
United said the volume of negotiations it's involved in has not changed in recent years, and added that it expects to renegotiate the same amount of contracts in 2020 that it did in 2019. However, United pointed a finger at a small number of physician staffing firms, backed by private equity, that are attempting to apply pressure on United to preserve the same high rates.
Private equity firms have been increasingly interested in healthcare over the past few years, accelerating acquisitions of medical practices from 2013 to 2016. Private equity acquired 355 physician practices, representing 1,426 sites of care and more than 5,700 physicians over that time frame, according to recent research in JAMA. The firms had a particular focus on anesthesiology with 69 practices acquired, followed by emergency physicians at 43.
Mednax is a publicly traded company. But Envision is owned by investment firm KKR; TeamHealth is owned by private equity firm Blackstone; and U.S. Anesthesia Partners is backed by Welsh, Carson, Anderson & Stowe.
Proposed legislation around surprise billing may be influencing United's actions, Kailash Chhaya, vice president and senior analyst at Moody's, told Healthcare Dive. Congress has been weighing legislation that seeks to eliminate surprise billing, mainly through two vehicles, either using benchmark rates or arbitration.
If Congress ultimately decides on a bill that uses benchmark rates, or ties reimbursement for out-of-network providers to a benchmark rate (or average), it would benefit insurers like United to lower its average rate for certain services, Chhaya said. One way to do that is to end relationships with high-cost providers.
"It would help payers like UnitedHealth if that benchmark rate is low," Chhaya said.
In late 2018, United threatened to drop Envision from its network, alleging the firm's rates were responsible for driving up healthcare costs, according to a letter the payer sent hundreds of hospitals across the country. United and Envision eventually agreed to terms, but United seemed to outmuscle Envision as the deal secured "materially lower payment rates for Envision" that resulted in lower earnings, S&P Global analysts wrote in a recent report.
In 2019, United began terminating its contracts with TeamHealth, which has a special focus on emergency medicine. The terminations affect two-thirds of TeamHealth's contracts through July 1. The squeeze from United caused Moody's to also change Team Health's outlook to negative as an eventual agreement would likely mean lower reimbursement and lower profitability for company, the ratings agency said.
"They're trying to lower their payments to providers. Period," David Peknay, director at S&P Global, told Healthcare Dive.
Data shows prices — not usage — is driving healthcare spending. Physician staffing firms are frequently used for ER services and the ER and outpatient surgery experienced the largest growth in spending between 2014 and 2018, according to data from the Health Care Cost Institute.
United said it had been negotiating with TeamHealth since 2017 and does not believe TeamHealth should be paid significantly more than other in-network ER doctors for the same services. United alleges its median rate for chest pains is $340. But if a TeamHealth doctor provides the care it charges $1,508.
"As Team Health continues to see more aggressive and inappropriate behavior by payors to either reduce, delay, or deny payments, we have increased our investment in legal resources to address specific situations where we believe payor behavior is inappropriate or unlawful," according to a statement provided to Healthcare Dive.
TeamHealth said it will not balance bill patients in the interim.
The pressure from payers, particularly United, is unlikely to relent. The payer insures more than 43 million people in the U.S. through its commercial and public plans.
"I don't think anyone is safe from such abrupt terminations," Kahn said. However, United disputes the characterization of abruptly terminating contracts and says in many cases it has been negotiating with providers to no avail.
Likely targets in the future may include firms with a focus on emergency services, which tend to be high-cost areas, S&P's analysts said. In their latest report, Kahn and Peknay pointed to The Schumacher Group, which is the third-largest player in emergency staffing services. However, it commands a market share of less than 10%, far less than its rivals Envision and TeamHealth.
Smaller firms may not be able to weather the pressure as effectively as very large staffing organizations.
For those smaller groups, it may be wise for them "to sit tight on their cash or prepare from some pressure," Kahn said.
Although some believe it may influence other payers to follow suit, Dean Ungar, vice president and senior analyst with Moody's, said United may be uniquely placed to exert this pressure because it has its own group of providers it can use and considerable scale.
"They are better positioned to play hardball," Ungar said.