47-hospital Sanford Health, based in Sioux Falls, SD, and 11-hospital Fairview Health Services, based in Minneapolis, MN, have signed a letter of intent to form a combined $14B health system that would retain Sanford’s name. Sanford has been seeking a health system partner for several years; most recently it was in talks with Intermountain Health, before they ended the process following a COVID-masking controversy with Sanford’s then-CEO. An announced merger with Iowa-based UnityPoint Health was also called off in 2019. Sanford had earlier attempted to combine with Fairview, in 2013, but abandoned plans after receiving pushback from Minnesota’s Attorney General, who was concerned that services could be cut, and that the system’s long-term partnership with University of Minnesota could be at risk.
The Gist: Perhaps Sanford has finally found its dance partner, one that gives it access to the booming Minneapolis metropolitan area, which the largely rural health system lacks. Like many recent mergers, the deal brings together two systems across non-overlapping markets, making it likely to pass antitrust scrutiny.
Fairview has posted losses for the last two consecutive years, making it an easier pickup for Sanford, which can now introduce its 220K member health plan to a new market. We expect more health system mergers like this in 2023, as margin pressures are motivating many to seek the promise of shelter in scale.
UHG closed its $13B acquisition of data analytics company Change in early October, just weeks after the Justice Department failed in its bid to block the sale on antitrust grounds. In court proceedings, UHG denied it intended to use Change data to give its insurance arm, UnitedHealthcare, a competitive advantage against the rival insurers who use Change as an electronic data interchange clearinghouse.
But a new ProPublica report highlights how communications between UHG and consulting firm McKinsey & Co. point to this potential data advantage as one of the clear upsides from acquiring Change. The McKinsey report was explicitly dismissed by the US District Court judge who, in his ruling in UHG’s favor, was persuaded by testimony from senior executives and evidence of UHG’s history of maintaining internal data firewalls.
The Gist: UHG has a longstanding business interest in maintaining the trust of rival insurers that use its data analytics unit, OptumInsight. Voluntary and internally imposed firewalls between the UHG’s insurance arm and its other businesses are key to maintaining this trust. Although Justice Department lawyers could not provide convincing evidence that UHG has or intends to breach its firewalls, there is still reason to monitor any such activity closely.
The failure of the McKinsey report to sway the court against the deal illustrates how difficult it is for the Justice Department to challenge vertical mergers, even when there is compelling evidence that such deals may impact competition.
Private equity groups have invested about $1 trillion into nearly 8,000 healthcare transactions in the past decade, and some experts are pushing for more scrutiny of its increasing influence on the industry amid concern it may be causing higher medical bills and diminished quality of care, a Nov. 14 Kaiser Health News report said.
Because such investment groups typically invest less than $101 million, such transactions do not attract automatic antitrust reviews at the federal level, the report continued. That represents more than 90 percent of private equity investments in the industry.
Nevertheless, companies owned or managed by private equity groups have agreed to pay fines of more than $500 million since 2014 in over 30 lawsuits under the False Claims Act, which deals with false billing submissions, KHN’s investigation found.
The problem may be most acute in certain specialist fields and in certain metropolitan areas. While private equity, for example, plays a role in just 14 percent of gastroenterology practices nationwide, it controls about 75 percent of that market in at least five metropolitan areas across five states, including Texas and North Carolina, according to research from UC Berkeley’s Nicholas C. Petris Center.
And private equity pockets may be getting deeper. In 2021 alone, over $206 billion was invested by such groups in healthcare, and there is plenty of “dry powder” around for more, KHN reported. The Healthcare Private Equity Association, for example, which boasts about 100 investment companies as members, says the firms have $3 trillion in assets awaiting allocation.
Private equity, like everything else, may have some poor performers but it doesn’t help to generalize as groups “vary tremendously” in how they operate their healthcare investments, Robert Homchick, a Seattle attorney, told KHN.
“Private equity has some bad actors, but so does the rest of the [healthcare] industry,” he said. “I think it’s wrong to paint them all with the same brush.”
Concerns remain, however, that, at least in some cases, private equity involvement is simply a vehicle for maximizing returns, often at the expense of patients. In addition to the $500 million fines, there is also evidence of some private equity groups pushing through additional testing and mandated patient numbers to boost returns, often in medically questionable scenarios, the report said, citing the example of National Spine and Pain Centers previously owned by private equity group Sentinel Partners.
In that case, National Spine paid $3.3 million in a whistleblower case related to allegations of unnecessary treatment and testing, KHN said.
The scope of such private equity dominance in some markets worries many industry observers, and much more needs to be done to help reel in such potential abuses, they say.
“We’re still at the stage of understanding the scope of the problem,” said Laura Alexander, former vice president of policy at the nonprofit American Antitrust Institute, which collaborated on the Petris Center research. “One thing is clear: Much more transparency and scrutiny of these deals is needed.”
On Monday, a federal judge denied the Department of Justice (DOJ)’s attempt to block UHG’s $13B purchase of Change Healthcare, a technology firm specializing in claims processing and data analytics.
The DOJ sought to block the purchase on antitrust grounds, arguing that UHG would have access to technologies that its rivals use to compete, but the judge, writing in a sealed ruling, found the DOJ’s case inadequate. It is unclear at this point whether the DOJ will appeal.
Change will now join UHG’s OptumInsight division, though in response to anticompetitive concerns, the ruling ordered UHG to sell part of Change’s claims payment and editing business, as it had already planned to do.
The Gist: Antitrust regulators have had much greater success at challenging horizontal healthcare mergers but have struggled to find solid footing to fight vertical deals.
The UHG-Change case was closely watched in part because of the precedent it would have set in terms of holding “platform” aggregators in check. As UHG and other healthcare titans continue to acquire assets up and down the value chain (physician practices, ambulatory surgery centers, clinics, telehealth capabilities, risk products), it’s increasingly clear that the government will face an uphill climb to question the competitive effects of these vertical M&A activities.
A lawsuit filed last week accuses RWJBarnabas Health of “a years-long systemic effort” to hamper competition and monopolize acute care hospital services in northern New Jersey.
The case brought by CarePoint Health to a U.S. District Court accuses the state’s largest integrated healthcare delivery system of “aiming to destroy the three hospitals operated by CarePoint as independent competitors” with the support of healthcare real estate investors and Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, the state’s largest health insurer.
CarePoint Health includes the 349-bed Christ Hospital, 224-bed Bayonne Medical and 348-bed Hoboken University Medical Center (HUMC).
The group said RWJBarnabas intended to force the first two hospitals to shut down but acquire the third due to its more profitable payer mix.
“RWJBarnabas Health’s] goal explicitly disregarded the needs of the poor, underinsured and charity care patients which CarePoint serves in its role as the safety net hospital system in Jersey City and surrounding areas,” CarePoint wrote in the lawsuit.
The slew of alleged tactics listed in the lawsuit largely surround RWJBarnabas Health’s “serial acquisitions” of hospitals, providers and real estate that “has gone unchecked by the state and [New Jersey Department of Health],” CarePoint wrote.
This included an alleged bad faith proposal to acquire Christ Hospital and HUMC, the true intent of which CarePoint said was to “gain market knowledge and gather competitive intelligence, and use this newly-acquired information to freeze programmatic growth and any significant hiring or construction at Christ Hospital.” The process had a negative impact on CarePoint’s employee retention and staffing, according to the suit.
The plaintiff also alleged that RWJBarnabas used its political connections to influence whether state departments granted CarePoint Certificates of Need for multiple revenue-generating projects as well as COVID-19 relief funding.
Further, CarePoint accused RWJBarnabas of strategically adjusting its service offerings in competitive markets to drive uninsured or underinsured patients to CarePoint facilities while using its relationships with Horizon and ambulance operators to drive emergency room traffic and well-insured patients, respectively, to competing locations.
These collective actions constitute violations of the Sherman Antitrust Act as well as the New Jersey Antitrust Act, CarePoint wrote.
“The idea that [RWJBarnabas Health] would use its influence to jeopardize the health of that community and the care providers of a competing hospital not only directly contradicts its own vision, but clearly demonstrates that [RWJBarnabas Health] is far more interested in anti-competitive and predatory business activities than serving the New Jersey community,” CarePoint wrote.
RWJBarnabas Health discounted the allegations in an email statement.
“This is yet another in a series of baseless complaints filed by CarePoint, an organization whose leadership apparently prefers to assign blame to others rather than accept responsibility for the unsatisfactory results of their own poor business decisions and actions over the years,” a spokesperson for the system told Fierce Healthcare. “RWJBarnabas Health has a longstanding commitment to serve the residents of Hudson County, and is proud of the significant investments we have made in technology, facilities and clinical teams as we advance our mission.”
RWJBarnabas Health treats over 3 million patients per year and employs 37,000 people. The academic healthcare system runs 12 acute care hospitals and four specialty hospitals alongside other locations and services. It disclosed more than $6.6 billion in total operating revenues across 2021.
The system’s merger and acquisition activity placed it in the federal spotlight this past year after the Federal Trade Commission moved to block its planned integration of New Brunswick-based Saint Peter’s Healthcare System. The deal was called off in June.
With a closely divided Congress, President Biden has leaned heavily on regulatory actions to advance his healthcare priorities. With the midterm elections fast approaching, the graphic above assesses the impact of those actions, and outlines which legislative components Democrats may still try to pass before November.
From the start, the administration has signaled the importance of promoting competition in healthcare markets, and has devoted more scrutiny to hospital mergers—while leaving most attempts at vertical integration unchallenged. Through Medicaid waivers, it has worked to expand insurance coverage, rolling back Trump-era work requirements, expanding postpartum coverage, and encouraging states to experiment with public option plans on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) exchanges.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has continued the steady march toward value programs, revising the Direct Contracting model to factor in health equity. Despite these incremental moves, Medicare Advantage (MA) remains the focus of long-term efforts to control Medicare spending, and MA programs have seen payments boosts year-over-year.
Meanwhile, the fate of President Biden’s signature healthcare campaign promises remains in the hands of an intransigent Congress. Senate Democrats are currently trying to negotiate a deal on a bill allowing Medicare drug negotiations and extending ACA subsidies, an important provision to protect millions from receiving premium hike notices just weeks before Election Day.
Private insurers pay high and rising prices to hospitals. But whether this is “good” or “bad” depends on what’s behind this phenomenon. Do high prices reflect investments in quality? Or do they instead reflect issues like lack of competition due to hospital consolidation? The answer matters for efforts to reduce health care spending.
In a new paper in the Journal of Health Economics, Craig Garthwaite, Christopher Ody and Amanda Starc investigated whether the prospect of financial rewards drove differences in hospital quality measures — including things like mortality rates, patient experience, technology adoption and emergency department wait times. Specifically, the authors’ examined whether hospitals are more likely to invest in quality if they will be rewarded through higher prices. This is more feasible if they’re serving lots of commercially insured patients, since private insurers may pay higher rates if patients value those hospitals. But that strategy may not be successful in areas with large shares of the population on Medicare and Medicaid, which do not negotiate prices.
The researchers found that:
Hospitals in areas with more privately insured patients had higher quality scores compared to hospitals with more publicly insured patients.
Hospitals targeting more privately insured patients also had higher costs than those relying more on payers like Medicare and Medicaid.
These results suggest hospitals make strategic investments in quality to attract privately insured patients. This is consistent with what one might expect from market competition and the results of other recent research. These findings do not, however, imply that prices are “optimal.” Prices also reflect factors like provider consolidation that have little observable effects on quality. Indeed, hospital prices likely reflect a mix of valuable and wasteful spending.
The analysis does have limitations. The authors used the demographics of the areas around the hospital instead of each hospital’s actual potential mix of patients. In addition, it is possible that some quality differences across hospitals actually reflect differences between patients with private and public insurance which aren’t easy to capture in data. However, the authors’ results were similar across several quality measures, including those where this is less of a concern.
These results can help better inform efforts to reduce health care costs. Policymakers interested in reducing hospital prices should be aware that doing so might reduce investments in quality. This suggests placing a greater emphasis on policies that target prices stemming from clear sources of inefficiencies, like consolidation, since such tradeoffs are likely smaller.
Steward Health Care is abandoning its proposal to sell five Utah hospitals to HCA Healthcare, and New Jersey-based RWJBarnabas Health dropped its plan to purchase New Brunswick, NJ-based Saint Peter’s Healthcare System. These pivots come just weeks after the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) filed suits to block the transactions, saying they would reduce market competition. The FTC said in a statement that these deals “should never have been proposed in the first place,” and “…the FTC will not hesitate to take action in enforcing the antitrust laws to protect healthcare consumers who are faced with unlawful hospital consolidation.”
The Gist: These latest mergers follow the fate of the proposed Lifespan and Care New England merger in Rhode Island, and the New Jersey-based Hackensack Meridian Health and Englewood Health merger, which were both abandoned after FTC challenges earlier this year.
Antitrust observers find these recent challenges unsurprising, as all were horizontal, intra-market deals of the kind that commonly raise antitrust concerns. What will be more telling is whether antitrust regulators can successfully mount challenges of cross-market mergers, or vertical mergers between hospitals, physicians, and insurers.
Consumers and employers recently filed lawsuits against Hartford HealthCare, HCA Healthcare, and Advocate Aurora Health, accusing the health systems of using their market power to increase prices through anticompetitive contracting practices. New reporting from the Wall Street Journal finds that all three suits are receiving funding from billionaire John Arnold, through his charitable foundation Arnold Ventures, which has sponsored several efforts to reduce healthcare spending. While the health systems say that the claims are baseless, the law firm leading the suits, Fairmark Partners, says that it’s attempting to enforce antitrust laws through the courts.
The Gist: Amid the Biden administration’s increased scrutiny of health system anticompetitive behavior, state governments and philanthropic groups are also taking a more active role in challenging hospital deals and contracting practices.
While these groups have targeted hospital prices because they’re a significant source of increased healthcare spending, these lawsuits do little to address the perverse underlying incentives that push hospitals to seek higher prices from commercial patients, to cross-subsidize what they view as insufficient pricing from public payers.
LHC, a postacute care behemoth with several hundred home health and hospice locations, as well as a dozen long-term care hospitals, would greatly expand Optum’s ability to provide home-based and long-term care. The FTC’s second request for information threatens to delay the deal, which was set to close in the latter half of this year.
The Gist: The LHC deal is the second UnitedHealth Group (UHG) transaction that antitrust regulators have targeted recently. The Department of Justice filed alawsuit earlier this year to block UHG’s acquisition of Change Healthcare, alleging that acquiring a direct competitor for claims solutions would reduce competition.
The FTC has historically focused its efforts on horizontal integration, but the LHC scrutiny, in combination with a recent inquiry into pharmacy benefit managers, indicates its focus may be expanding to vertical integration.