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There’s a reason that we cover the largest home health and home care companies so closely at Home Health Care News.
It’s not all we cover, of course, but what the biggest players see as pain points, opportunities and places to grow are often an indication of what the rest of the home care and home health industries are feeling or seeing – or what they may see or feel in the near future.
That’s why, when we wrap up our biggest stories of 2022 in our year-end lists, you’re likely to see a lot on the UnitedHealth Group’s (NYSE: UNH) pending acquisition of LHC Group Inc. (Nasdaq: LHCG).
The latter is one of the aforementioned companies we’ve covered for so long. The former is one of the largest companies in the U.S. – period.
That news originally came out in March. We’re now turning the calendar to December, and the deal has still not been finalized, but should be soon.
One of the biggest talking points since early 2020 has been that, if there’s one silver lining to COVID-19 for home-based care, it’s that so many more Americans – policymakers, payer executives, health system executives and plain old consumers – have realized the value of it.
Sometimes, it’s hard to quantify that. But from a symbolic perspective, one of the top-5 largest companies in the country in terms of revenue buying up one of the largest home health, hospice and personal home care companies in the country is the best indication of that increased awareness.
It’s not just UnitedHealth Group’s words, but also their actions. Yet their words are also indicative of this shift to the home.
“It’s not just about the clinics; it’s now about the home and the community,” UnitedHealth Group CEO Andrew Witty said Tuesday at the company’s investor conference.
Witty said that less than seven minutes into his opening remarks. His colleagues then piled on, in what felt more like an ode to the value of home-based care than a presentation to investors. But I may be biased.
What Witty and other UnitedHealth Group leaders said at the company’s executive conference is the topic of today’s exclusive, members-only HHCN+ Update.
Using the home to drive value
UnitedHealth Group and Optum already had home-focused efforts before conversations with LHC Group began.
In fact, I wrote about those efforts in August of 2021, seven months before the LHC Group news.
“We are helping people navigate care from everywhere — in the comfort and convenience of home, in a provider’s office, online and across every touch point in between,” Dr. Philip Painter, UnitedHealthcare’s CMO for Medicare and retirement, told me at the time. “This flexibility is particularly important for our Medicare members, who may have complex care needs or mobility challenges.”
We’re likely to know a bevy of more exciting details about what UnitedHealth Group, Optum and LHC Group have planned for the future in the coming weeks, but until then, those golden, home-focused nuggets are stuck in a quiet-period purgatory.
But we can still read between the lines through Witty’s mentions of home-based care capabilities just seven minutes into his company’s presentation.
“And as you think about next year, and the very substantial number of lives which will be looked after by the home and community, risk-bearing-entity platform, complementary to the clinic platform,” Witty said. “About half of those lives looked after by home and community are in geographies where we have no clinics. So the home and community platform itself gives us yet another opportunity to extend the notion, the idea that we believe in – that comprehensive value-based care delivers better medical outcomes, better quality for patients, a better role for providers and crucially better value for money for payers.”
Witty continued: “We think it’s a truly sustainable way to modernize the health care system for all of the key participants.”
Optum Health has clinics within its portfolio, but also those home- and community-based capabilities that will be bolstered by LHC Group.
The Eden Prairie, Minnesota-based Optum is a diversified health services company that employs more than 190,000 people worldwide. UnitedHealth Group is expecting Optum Health on its own to generate more than $92 billion in revenue in 2023. For context, LHC Group brought in about $2.22 billion in revenue in 2021.
Besides M&A, UnitedHealth Group and Optum don’t just see the home and community settings as a place to grow, but instead, a means to grow their value-based care plans.
“Through home and community, we [can] find a new way to bring the good idea to people’s homes without necessarily having to wait to build out the clinic strategy,” Witty said. “It’s a great way for us to accelerate the delivery of what we believe to be a highly effective, extremely sustainable approach to more people, more quickly.”
Optum CEO Dr. Wyatt Decker expanded on Witty’s opening comments, and then passed it on to Caitlin Zulla – the CEO of the Optum-owned SCA Health – who again jumped right into the benefits of at-home care.
“The site of care has a powerful impact on both patient outcomes and cost,” Zulla said. “The ability to guide patients to the right level of care, in the right setting, and at the right time. And bringing together all the right pieces to offer a comprehensive experience that empowers both the care provider and the patient are critical elements to effective value based care for us.”
Specifically, she said that home-based medical care can reduce hospital admissions, ER visits and time spent in skilled nursing centers by 15% to 25%.
“Our home care model is centered around our patients’ needs,” Kristy Duffey, the chief nursing officer at Optum Health, also said. “As their health status changes, we adapt our visits and can spend over an hour with them depending on the complexity of their needs. We might see a patient several times a week, a few times a month, or multiple times a year. And if a patient has an urgent need, we will see that patient the same day.”
In the past year alone, Duffey said that Optum Health has doubled the number of people it serves with its home-based care approach.
“You can expect the at-home capabilities … to generate a significant portion of our value-based care growth next year,” Dirk McMahon, the president and COO of UnitedHealth Group, added.
What this means
If the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) is not yet convinced that home health – or personal home care, for that matter – can help drive costs down, keep Medicare beneficiaries more healthy and keep the program from running out of money in the next decade, the agency should look no further than UnitedHealth Group.
Sure, CMS does not act like a private business. In fact, that is almost deliberate.
But considering the dire realities the country faces – a Medicare program running out of money and more people than ever entering into their senior years – it may be wise to take note of strategies elsewhere.
If home health and home care companies can’t get the message through on their own, pointing to a company like UnitedHealth Group seems worthwhile.
A company that is looking to save billions of dollars on costs by keeping patients more healthy with home-based care as its guiding light.