Behind Optum's physician acquisition strategy

UnitedHealth Group's Optum, parent company of ASC chain SCA Health, is on a spending spree, scooping up physician groups and expanding its portfolio. 

The company is now affiliated with more than 70,000 physicians, making it the largest employer of physicians in the country. 

Most recently, Optum snagged Middletown, N.Y.-based Crystal Run Healthcare, a multispecialty physician group with more than 400 providers. It also acquired Houston-based Kelsey-Seybold for $3 billion, Dallas-based Healthcare Associates of Texas for $300 million and Auburndale, Mass.-based Atrius Health for $236 million in the last year.

The company is also looking to partner with health systems. In January, 1,400 office-based employees at Brewer, Maine-based Northern Light Health were transferred to Optum.

"A lot of these health systems are looking for a new relationship or they're wondering, 'How do I make sure I'm staying an independent health system and continuing to deliver the best clinical care that I can?'" Mike Valli, president of Optum's Northeast Region, told Becker's. "Over the past specifically five to six years, we've been aggregating a ton of assets that can help enable the administrative functions of these systems. The idea behind these relationships is, really, how do we bring everything Optum has to offer for a provider system to them in one relationship?"

On the ASC side, SCA Health has expanded past surgery center management into specialty care. In May, Surgical Care Affiliates rebranded to SCA Health and updated its logo to symbolize growth momentum and added a tagline: "The future of specialty care."

"When I joined the organization in 2015, we were an ambulatory surgery center company singularly focused on partnering with surgeons in their ASCs," Caitlin Zulla, CEO of Optum Health's east region and former CEO of SCA Health, told Becker's last year. "Since then, we've evolved to support physician specialists more holistically across the specialty care continuum."

With this shift, Optum and SCA Health are looking at growth not just through number of ASCs, "but the quality of care we provide, the proportion of spend in value-based care arrangements, our increased connectivity to practices and health systems, and additional ancillary services that support specialists' independence," Ms. Zulla said. 

This strategy is different from other ASC giants such as Dallas-based United Surgical Partners International, Tenet Healthcare's ASC arm. 

USPI is the company's "gem for the future," Tenet CEO Saum Sutaria, MD, said last year, and the company continues to rely on ASCs rather than physicians to carry the company's growth. USPI said it will pump $250 million into ASC mergers and acquisitions and plans to have more than 600 ASCs by 2025.

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