CMS

Walgreens: Purveyor or Provider?

Walgreens-store

An intriguing question emerged from last week’s merger announcement from Walgreens Boots Alliance and Rite Aid.  Led by CEO Stefano Pessina and his largely European executive team, will Walgreens be purveyor focused on retail sales or provider engaged with a transforming U.S. health care system?

The signals are mixed.  A tea-leaf reading of last week’s investor call suggests Walgreens is destined to be a purveyor, focused on selling products and services.  Today, however, Walgreens announced a big technology move that points to a provider future, closely integrated with payers and providers.

Purveyor or provider?  Read on.

Tobacco:  To Sell or not to Sell

“Are you considering eliminating tobacco,” Barclays Capital analyst Meredith Adler asked Walgreens president Alex Gourley during the investor call as the company fielded questions about earnings and the merger.

Gourley had just praised RiteAid for its new, sales-increasing wellness format, saying it was an opportunity for Walgreens, which also is seeing success with its new health, wellness and beauty positioning.

“It seems pretty clear,” said Adler, explaining her question, “that providers and payers feel uncomfortable working with a retail pharmacy that still sells tobacco.”  In the background was the 2014 tobacco sales halt of CVS Health, which boasts 49 clinical affiliations, including Cleveland Clinic.

Gourley’s answer:  No.

Walgreens would instead continue investing in smoking cessation.  Anyway, he noted, only about three percent of all tobacco sales occur in a drugstore.  He did not pivot to emphasize how Walgreens is working with providers and payers, notwithstanding tobacco sales.

A tea-leaf saying “purveyor”? Perhaps.

Outposts in Seattle

Gourley could easily have drawn the analyst’s attention to a Walgreens announcement just two months previously.  In August, Walgreens and Seattle-based Providence Health & Services launched a new “strategic clinical collaboration.”

Providence will own and operate clinics in 25 Washington and Oregon Walgreens stores under its Providence and Swedish brand names.  The first three will open in early 2016, with the remainder following in two years.

Rite Aid made a similar move in the Seattle market in May when it announced a joint venture between its RediClinic subsidiary and MultiCare Health System.   The joint venture will operate clinics in 11 stores staffed by board certified MultiCare Nurse Practitioners in collaboration with MultiCare affiliated physicians.

Seattle, home to only three CVS stores, will provide a sheltered environment for Walgreens and Rite Aid to test the strategy of developing “deeper and more strategic relationships” with health systems.  In particular, Providence is quite a catch, having directly contracted with Boeing to provide health care for the aircraft maker’s employees.

The EpicCare Connection

However, the nation’s 1,000 CVS MinuteClinics dwarf both Walgreens 400 Healthcare Clinics and Rite Aid’s small number of in-store RediClinics.  Surpassing 25 million patient visits since the opening of its first clinic, CVS says it is opening three new MinuteClinics a week.   Aiming for 1,500 clinics by 2017, CVS is acquiring all of Target’s 1,660 pharmacies and 80 clinics.

CVS is converting all of its MinuteClinics to the market leading EpicCare electronic medical records (EMR) system.  Used broadly across health care, Epic also has strong interoperability with other EMR systems.   This will provide seamless data exchange with most American hospitals.

“EpicCare will help us work more closely with physician practices as part of the medical home team, facilitate co-management of patients, and advance our mission to make health care more accessible, convenient and affordable for Americans,” said MinuteClinic chief medical officer Nancy Gagliano, M.D.

Dr. Patrick Carroll agrees.  Today, the chief medical officer for Walgreens Healthcare Clinics announced the clinics would begin moving to EpicCare early next year.  “As our clinics play an increasingly important role in health care, supporting the health care system, provider practices and patients’ medical homes, care coordination can be critical,” he echoed.

So, a provider future for Walgreens?  It certainly looks like it.  “This will benefit our patients, clinic providers and partners, and serves as an instrumental part of our strategic growth plan [emphasis added],” explained Carroll.

Confusing Signals

However, as recently as May, Walgreens quietly shuttered 35 clinics, a move two former employees described to Crains Chicago Business as signaling “uncertainty whether Walgreens really wants to spend more on primary care and in particular upgrading the clinics’ electronic medical record systems.”   Today’s announcement erases some of that uncertainty, at least with respect to the EMR system.

In Seattle, Walgreens will provide in-store space, overseeing any needed build out.  Providence will be using its own Epic system.  “Patients will experience a seamless patient experience through our existing electronic health record system, providing direct connectivity to the clinics and billing systems, which will ensure better continuity of patient care and collaboration among providers,” said Providence senior vice president of physician services Mike Waters.   Now, Walgreens will be able to connect directly.

Convincing Collaborations

In Seattle, a provider land lord; in Tampa, still a provider.  There, Walgreens partners with a multi-specialty practice, assuming risk in an accountable care organization (ACO), Diagnostic Clinic Walgreens Well Network.  Serving 7,500 patients, the ACO saved $1.5 million or 2% in costs.  However, Walgreens has exited ACO partnerships with Baylor Scott & White in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and New Jersey’s Advocare.  The company continues a clinical affiliation with Baylor Scott & White.

Meanwhile, Walgreens has launched additional collaborations with CHE Trinity Health, a 30-hospital, Michigan-based system, Arizona Priority Care, a unit of California’s Heritage Provider Network, and Mercy Health – Cincinnati.  Leading Trinity Health is former Medicare official Dr. Richard Gilfillan, chair of the Health Care Transformation Task Force; Mercy Health is part of the nation’s largest not for profit health system, Ascension Health; and Arizona Priority Care specializes in accountable care.

In Baltimore, Walgreens has a long-standing relationship with Johns Hopkins Medicine (JHM).  The company provides grants for population health research overseen by a joint committee.  Two years ago, it opened a store, including a Healthcare Clinic, adjacent to the JHM campus.  In this case, Walgreens’ board certified nurse practitioners staff the clinic, although they and company pharmacists can work with JHM faculty.

Rite Aid’s Health Alliance program should dovetail nicely with Walgreens provider collaboration initiatives.  The program brings together physicians, pharmacists and special care coaches to provide care and support to individuals with chronic and poly-chronic health conditions, helping them achieve health improvement goals established by their physicians.

Eight provider organizations currently are participating in Health Alliance, which leverages Rite Aid’s population health subsidiary, HealthDialog.  Another 11 reportedly are be interested.  On average, patients participating in the Rite Aid Health Alliance are 36% more adherent to their medications; they have lost an average of 7.7 pounds; they have a 39% reduction in blood pressure; and they have lowered their blood sugar by 36%, reports Drug Store News.

Big Bet on Consumer Technology

Rite Aid is also bringing Cleveland Clinic physicians into some of its Ohio stores via telehealth start up HealthSpot.  Installed in the stores is a kiosk, enclosed for privacy, which includes a video connection with a physician and the capability to take and transmit vital signs to the physician.

Opting for mobile, Walgreens is using the Pager platform, designed by an early Uber architect, to connect customers with physicians.  It also is relying on the MDLive platform for telemedicine, and working with WebMD on a wellness app, and with PatientsLikeMe enabling people to share medication experiences with each other.

Walgreens has been a leader in using technology to engage its customers.  Its app is the third most downloaded retail app in the U.S. and the number one brick and mortar pharmacy app, reports mobihealthnews.  Fourteen million people visit a Walgreens app or website each week and Walgreens fills more than one mobile prescription every second.

Walgreens’ Epic Catch-Up

However, until the EpicCare announcement today, Walgreens lagged in using technology to engage providers.  Its electronic record system could not easily communicate with other systems, forcing stores to use secure fax and email to communicate with physicians and other providers.   That raised serious questions about the future of its provider collaborations and role as a provider.

Now, EpicCare means Walgreens can be more than a purveyor.  It can also be a provider, fully integrated into the new health care.

Express Scripts 2020: Back to the Future?

Express Scripts

The clocks are ticking for Express Scripts.  Having achieved formidable “size and scale,” how will the nation’s largest pharmacy benefit manager synchronize with value-based health care?  With each day, between the medical and pharmacy benefits, the time to value is diverging.

Time to Value

Under fee for service, the time to value is relatively short for both benefits.  The physician bills soon after an encounter.  Similarly, the patient (for the most part) uses her pharmacy benefit to get her prescription, after which Express Scripts pays the pharmacy, collects a rebate (on a brand) and bills its client.

In value-based health care, the time to value lengthens to include outcomes and, as a result, expands to include many more inputs.  As Michael Porter explained, using the Institute of Medicine as his source, “Because care activities are interdependent, value for patients is often revealed only over time and is manifested in longer-term outcomes.” According to Porter, “The only way to accurately measure value, then, is to track patient outcomes and costs longitudinally.”

Value Based Health Care

By 2020, 75% of commercial payments will be through value-based arrangements, if the Health Care Transformation Task Force — a coalition of providers, payers, purchasers and patients – has its way. In 2014, 38% of payments to hospitals were value-oriented, compared to 10% for specialists and 24% primary care physicians in the outpatient setting, reported Catalyst for Payment Reform.

Meanwhile, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) wants 30% of Medicare payments in alternative payment models by the end of 2016 and 50% by the end of 2018.  The percentage stood at 20%.  Alternative payment models include Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs), advanced primary care medical home models, bundled payments for episodes of care, and integrated care.

Great Value from Express Scripts

To be sure, Express Scripts has added substantial value to the pharmacy benefit transaction.  It led the conversion to generic drugs, most notably and unprecedentedly when it moved against Pfizer’s Lipitor with simvastatin (generic Zocor) in 2006.  Now, Express Scripts’ drug exclusion announcements are routine events and its public campaign against high priced specialty drugs compelling.  The company has also narrowed retail networks and, for nearly a year, excluded Walgreens.

For years, Express Scripts has mined its mountain of data for insights and it pioneered the application of behavioral economics to the pharmacy benefit, in an effort called “consumerology.”   The company now has its own research laboratory, to which Medco’s Therapeutic Resource Centers and RationalMed program have been important additions.  Using these assets, the company has driven drug costs down, promoted greater use of lower cost drugs and achieved stronger adherence to drug regimens.

Better adherence can indeed lead to improved outcomes, thus increasing Express Scripts time to value, as demonstrated by its ScreenRx® program.  However, the company’s value proposition remains tethered to the pharmacy benefit transaction, instead of the ultimate clinical outcomes of value based health care.  At most, its contribution to those outcomes can be inferred, but not routinely measurable — yet.

Drug Payment Models

Take the pay-for-outcomes vs. pay-for-performance conversation now underway between Express Scripts and some drug manufacturers.   For its newly approved heart failure drug Entresto, Novartis proposed an initial discount with a performance bonus if it successfully lowered hospitalization rates in patients suffering from the condition.  The company said Entresto does a better job of preventing heart failure deaths and hospitalizations than lower cost alternatives already on the market.

Express Scripts was not buying it.  Instead, the company countered with an indication-based model, emphasizing its “elegance.”  It would differentiate pricing for specific cancer drugs based on how well they work against different types of tumors.

“Unlike the outcomes-based rebate systems that have been tried by others in the past, our model won’t require plans to reconcile payments long after-the-fact based on downstream health outcomes of a specific patient,” responded Express Scripts.

However, a leading pioneer of outcomes-based rebate systems has been Cigna, which Express Scripts client Anthem is set to acquire. Cigna’s arrangements have involved Merck’s diabetes drug Januvia (sitagliptin), the EMD Serono multiple sclerosis drug Rebif (interferon beta-1a) and, recently, Gilead’s hepatitis C drug Harvoni (ledipasvir/sofosbuvir).  Cigna based the Harvoni contract on elimination of the disease.

Hepatitis C

Arguably, disease elimination would reduce high cost liver transplants – a significant and valuable outcome.  Presumably, that is why Cigna, Anthem, Aetna, Humana and United Healthcare – with their longer, medical benefit time to value equation — all contracted with Gilead for Harvoni. They did so exclusively, presumably for better discounts.  Prime Therapeutics, owned by a number of Blue Cross plans contracted for both Harvoni and AbbVie’s Viekira Pak.

Meanwhile, Express Scripts contracted exclusively and presumably at a deep discount with AbbVie for Viekira Pak, excluding Harvoni from its 2015 formulary.  Viekira Pak is a four pill a day regimen to Harvoni’s one pill, with similar effectiveness and different safety profiles.  The latter comes from a review by Advera Health Analytics, which analyzes real world outcomes data.

Payer Cost

Advera Executive Vice President, Jim Davis, argued that exclusive deals emphasize the payer trend of focusing on immediate savings rather than overall outcomes, total cost of care and most importantly patient safety.

He echoed findings of a 2014 survey by the consulting firm EY that found “payers are highly focused on immediate cost containment, which means that the longer-view approach that emphasizes outcomes and keeping total costs down is irrelevant to payers.”

Express Scripts clearly is not alone in its short-term focus on controlling immediate costs.  However, it alone of the major PBM’s has the shortest time to value horizon because its “center of gravity” remains the pharmacy benefit transaction.

Competitor Time to Value

Both Caremark and EnvisionRx are subsidiaries of providers CVS and RiteAid respectively.  CVS recently inked a big data deal with IBM’s Watson cloud to predict patient health and RiteAid is pursuing innovative care initiatives with EnvisionRx.  OptumRx, and now Catamaran, are part of UnitedHealth Group, which concentrates on linking “demographic, lab, pharmaceutical, behavioral and medical treatment data.”

Synchronizing Express Scripts

Often offered in answer to the question of how Express Scripts will synchronize with value-based health care is a merger or other arrangement with Walgreens mirroring CVS/Caremark.  That may be part of a solution, but it will not be the entire or sufficient answer.

Also not the answer, but still important, Express Scripts should remain independent and continue to leverage its size and scale to lower drug prices.  Ironically, its assault on Giliad’s Solvadi and Harvoni, and then its exclusive contract with AbbVie, lowered Giliad’s prices, benefiting Express Scripts’ competitors.

Anthem Contract

It is through Express Scripts’ relationship with Anthem that the PBM can extend its time to value horizon and synchronize with value based health care.

Key will be the creation of a new, outcomes-focused collaborative thrust involving Anthem’s HealthCore, which is conducting real world evidence research with drug manufacturers, Cigna and its innovative payment models and the Lab at Express Scripts.  The only alternatives would be losing the Anthem business or relegation to functional role, much like Medco’s with UnitedHealth Group, the pending 2013 loss of which led to Express Scripts’ acquisition of Medco in 2012.

Notably, Anthem CEO Joe Swedish told investment analysts during a conference call on his company’s acquisition of Cigna “We do believe there’s significant value and opportunity from a better pharmacy contract.”  Cigna CEO David Cordani, who will serve as COO of the combined company added, regarding Cigna’s PBM business, “We have meaningful optionality relative to the program as it stands, and you should think about that optionality as being preserved and further expanded.”

Back to the Future

In the face of this challenge, Express Scripts would do well to go back to the future, twenty years ago when it launched a visionary effort to link pharmacy and medical claims.  Embodied in a “before-its-time” subsidiary called Practice Patterns Science (PPS), the initiative sought to build clinical data warehouses for health plans that organized all of a patient’s financial medical claims into meaningful, condition-specific, longitudinal episodes of care.”

Express Scripts’ CEO at the time, Barrett Toan, explained, “Having identified an episode of care for a patient, the drug therapy costs for the episode are compared to the associated medical costs.  What we’re finding is, in some cases, the drug costs are helping us control the overall costs.”   He pointed to a $380 reduction in epilepsy medical costs resulting from using a newly approved drug costing just $30 more.   An episode is a time line, which may be long or short depending on the nature of the disease.

Epilogue

With the DeLorean time machine at the ready, enter target destination California and target date April 3, 2015.   Flux capacitor powered, you will arrive in a Federal court where Dr. Douglas Cave won a $12 million patent infringement suit against UnitedHealth Group over the PPS technology.

Cave had been president of PPS and, when Express Scripts shut down the subsidiary.  The company gave him the intellectual property rights, including the disputed patent for physician efficiency measurement.  He now operates Cave Consulting Group in San Mateo, California, and filed an anti-trust suit in July against UnitedHealth Group alleging UHG obtained its patent laws fraudulently and violated anti-trust laws.