The ‘Medical Aggregators’: Are We Entering Round Deux?
First a little historical context:
For those with a healthcare ‘event horizon’ slightly more seasoned than the current health reform and related social media data frames, you might remember the initial round of aggregation in medicine lead by disruptive nameplates such as MedPartners (now operating the PBM CareMark), PhyCor, FPA Medical Management, and their second or third tier physician practice management ‘me too’ copycats.
They all emerged from a robust round of venture capital backed industry determination tagged as ‘PPMC’s’, i.e., physician practice management companies. These ‘aggregators’ were the darlings of Wall Street for a while, though with some exceptions, i.e., US Oncology (formerly Physician Reliance Network), most witnessed relatively short life spans, from IPO to unwinding in perhaps a 10 year run (see: MedPartners collapse and Aftermath).
Yet, despite the promise outlined in the offering prospectus’, why did these entities fail so miserably as the ‘white knight’ consolidators or aggregators of a multi-trillion dollar ‘cottage medical industry’? Their business model proferred essentially three core benefits:
- Centralized, standardized and more efficient back office medical administrative management
- Scale of market asset concentration and therefore increased sophistication and leverage (improved pricing) with third party payor negotiation, and downstream contract management; and
- Serve as an ‘anchor play’ with respect to the broader design and implementation of rational though market based local delivery organization and financing, i.e., PPMC’s would harness and more effectively articulate a business culture among physicians that valued clinical integration, medical risk management, and ultimately the allocation of limited health care resources
At least this was the longer term expectation from a ‘win/win’, i.e., payor and provider perspective, of the more established players. Most however, in an effort to demonstrate value (i.e., earn their management fee) to their physician boards, focused on short term margin improvement (better rates, focus on more profitable services via improved payor mix, maximizing the contract revenue/recovery cycle, and reduced overhead, etc.), vs. the strategic focus of managing the risk (both quality and cost) of their local population (i.e., enrolled members).
So rather quickly the strategic basis of the PPMC appeal was subordinated to a short term focus (i.e., increasing net revenues) due to a rising chorus of claims that at its core the business model was merely a third party ponzi scheme which introduced another mouth to feed from an increasingly constrained health care supply chain.
Net/net, the PPMC industry flamed out big time and did not fulfill its ‘roll-up’ promise of the practice of medicine. Now many years later, we are at another tipping point. Witness the current round of promising vehicles with a similar vision of organizing physicians. These candidates include: hospital systems, health plans, integrated delivery systems, emerging ACOs, medical homes, and even niche play organizers in the concierge, or direct practice space including SignatureMD, MDVIP, HealthAccess Rhode Island, CarePractice, Qliance, and HelloHealth, as well as the rapidly emerging series of retail pharmacy sponsored primary care clinics, e.g., CVS/CareMark Minute Clinic, etc.
Too many docs are unwilling to risk the capital of private practice, and instead are looking to hook-up with one or more of these institutional or VC backed entrepreneurial sponsors. Will they succeed where their predecessors failed? If so, why?
From my perspective, it will clearly depend on the business model chosen to enable competition of the right variety, and the degree to which the venture embraces, nurtures and expresses physician culture that values collaborative group practice. Top down, corporate strategies dependent upon an over worked and out gunned medical director or VP of medical affairs will miss the mark. The more likely way for these ventures to succeed is by ‘baking’ the culture from the ground up. In other words, ‘seed it and they will come’. One of my mentors (Ernest Holmes) once wrote long ago: ‘the soil can’t argue with the seed’. Lets nourish the soil first, then make sure we plant the seeds with the right constitution and vision.
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