CVS Health data may signal trouble for chronic health care conditions

Non COVID-19 doctor visits are being put off amid the pandemic and that may spell trouble ahead for those with chronic conditions. Here's what CVS Health is seeing.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

CVS Health executives said initial data from March and April may signal problems ahead for customers with chronic health conditions as they refrain from filling prescriptions and visiting physicians due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In its first-quarter earnings report, CVS Health delivered strong results and a diversified business. The company reported earnings of $1.53 a share on revenue of $66.8 billion, up 8.3% from a year ago. Adjusted earnings were $1.91 a share, 28 cents a share better than Wall Street estimates.

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Last year, CVS Health outlined its digital transformation strategy with the integration of health benefits provider Aetna. Those bets on analytics, mobile touchpoints, and Minute Clinics appear to have paid off. Simply put, CVS Health will have a front-row seat as the new normal in health care develops.

CVS Health CEO Larry Merlo outlined how health care consumption has changed quickly.

Utilization of telemedicine for virtual visits through MinuteClinic is up about 600% compared to Q1 '19. Retail prescription home delivery is up more than 1,000%. Additionally, we saw a fourfold increase in the number of consumers adding front store items to their prescription deliveries. We also saw a double-digit percentage increase in app usage across CVS Pharmacy, Caremark and specialty year-over-year. And as an example, in specialty pharmacy, digital refills were up approximately 50%.

Additionally, in our Aetna health app, we engaged more households in Q1 than we did in the first 3 quarters of 2019. And to support our COVID-19 testing sites, our team used our digital platform to quickly launch a streamlined experience, which has enabled online screening and scheduling for testing, with 85% of consumers highlighting a positive experience.

Given CVS Health's perch in the health care pipeline, it has the data to highlight oncoming issues. One big issue may be chronic conditions increasing or going untreated. CVS Health said patients are filling fewer prescriptions, putting off new treatments, and seeing doctors less.


CVS Health said that the utilization of its benefits fell in April. CVS Health CFO Eva Boratto said:

Prescriptions are about flattish in both Retail/ Long-Term Care and Pharmacy Services compared to April 2019 as we saw the March pull forward of prescriptions reverse and a drop in new prescriptions related to lower physician visits.

Front store sales were down about 11% compared to April 2019 as increased basket size was more than offset by a reduction in store traffic as shelter in place took hold. The reduction in discretionary utilization that Health Care Benefits started to see in March continued through April. And based on what we know today, our MBR (medical benefit ratio) could be at its lowest level in Q2. Early data for the month of April suggests decreases in utilization of about 30% across an array of services compared to April 2019. Additionally, we cannot predict what impact delays in utilization will have on its members with chronic conditions as mistreatment could adversely affect their health.

Specifically, CVS Health said April new therapy starts -- including new maintenance prescriptions and prescriptions for acute events -- are down 25% from a year ago. Karen Sue Lynch, president of the CVS Health's Aetna unit, outlined the hit to non-COVID-19 care. For instance, inpatient care was down 30%, outpatient down about 25% and physician visits down 35%. Lab, radiology, and home health services were down 50%.

What's unclear at this point is how many consumers pulled prescriptions forward ahead of stay-at-home orders and drained April's demand pipeline. CVS Health maintained its 2020 profit outlook. 

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