In last week’s graphic, we showed how the nation’s largest health insurance companies earn annual revenues several times greater than the largest health systems. In the graphic above, we unpack the 2022 revenue of five of the largest payers, to show just how diversified they have become.
UnitedHealth Group (UHG) continues to lead the way not only as the largest US payer, but also the most vertically integrated, growing its OptumCare provider business by over 30 percent last year.
Playing catch-up, the other payers have also shown willingness to spend large sums on provider acquisitions, with CVS dropping nearly $20B on primary care company Oak Street and home health company Signify last year. UHG and Humana also recently spent over $5B each, on their own home health companies, in pursuit of lower cost settings for treating their Medicare Advantage enrollees.
In contrast, Cigna and Elevance have not been as active in the M&A space of late, prompting Cigna investors to question the CEO on whether the company may be at a competitive disadvantage. We’d expect the race to create full-stack, vertically integrated healthcare platforms, of the kind illustrated by these large payers, to gain steam across the rest of 2023 and beyond. Looming even larger than UHG, CVS Health, and the like: Amazon and Walmart, both of which are actively pursuing their own platform visions in healthcare.
The deal, first announced in March 2022, will bring LHC’s home health locations, hospice sites, and long-term acute care hospitals across 37 states into UHG’s Optum division. LHC also has over 400 joint-venture arrangements with hospitals. The acquisition received heightened scrutiny from antitrust regulators, but was ultimately allowed to proceed.
The Gist: LHC’s postacute footprint expands UHG’s Medicare Advantage value play, guaranteeing postacute capacity and providing a platform to funnel care into lower-cost settings.
UHG’s strategy is right in line with its peers: Humana fully owns home health provider Kindred at Home (now branded CenterWell Home Health), and CVS Health plans to acquire Signify Health, which provides home care services with an emphasis on risk scoring. But achieving lower cost of care will require integration of postacute referrals and care management across rapidly expanding physician networks.
We’ve updated our annual comparison of the relative size of the largest healthcare companies, with the graphic below comparing 2022 revenues to 2019 for a sense of how different companies and industry sectors weathered the pandemic.
The annual revenues of the five largest health systems in 2022 pale in comparison to the industry’s true giants—and the gap only widened over the pandemic. The largest health systems averaged just 5 percent annual growth since 2019, while the largest companies in each other healthcare subsector have grown revenues by over 10 percent annually.
Unsurprisingly, the pandemic drove Pfizer’s revenue to a record $100B in 2022—over half of that was driven by the company’s COVID vaccine and antiviral treatment, Paxlovid. Amazon’s 2022 revenue was nearly double its pre-COVID level. While very little of that growth came from healthcare, it enabled the company to fund investments like its all-cash $3.9B purchase of One Medical, which closed this week.
Even the nation’s largest health systems cannot compete with that kind of firepower, and looking beyond revenue paints an even more difficult picture. According to Kaufman Hall, although the median hospital has grown its revenue by 15 percent, it has seen expenses climb 20 percent, and lost 26 percent of margin since 2019.
Ann Arbor, MI-based University of Michigan Health (UM Health), part of Michigan Medicine, announced last Thursday that it will acquire Lansing, MI-based Sparrow Health System, forming a $7B health system with over 200 care sites across southeast and mid-Michigan. The acquisition will connect Sparrow’s six hospitals to UM Health’s flagship academic medical center (AMC) and sole hospital, while extending the reach of Sparrow’s 70K-member health plan, in which UM Health had previously invested. Pending regulatory approvals, the deal is expected to be completed in the first half of 2023.
The Gist: Given Sparrow’s recent financial struggles—the system announced hundreds of layoffs in September after posting a $90M loss in the first half of 2022—this was a sensible pickup for UM Health, extending its reachinto lower-cost community healthcare adjacent to its current market. Other AMCs have made similar moves in recent years, as the differentiated services of an AMC and the local patient reach of community hospitals make for a strong pairing—and this deal will go far toward advancing UM as a truly regional system.
But even if UM Health got a good deal on the acquisition, the current status of Sparrow’s infrastructure and workforce will require considerable investment (UM Health has already committed $800M in the deal’s announcement).
An enlightening piece published this week in Stat News lays out exactly how UnitedHealth Group (UHG) is using its vast network of physicians to generate new streams of profit, a playbook being followed by most other major payers. Already familiar to close observers of the post-Affordable Care Act healthcare landscape, the article highlights how UHG can use “intercompany eliminations”—payments from its UnitedHealthcare payer arm to its Optum provider and pharmacy arms—to achieve profits above the 15 to 20 percent cap placed on health insurance companies.
So far in 2022, 38 percent of UHG’s insurance revenue has flowed into its provider groups, up from 23 percent in 2017. And UHG expects next year’s intercompany eliminations to grow by 20 percent to a total of $130B, which would make up over half of its total projected revenue.
The profit motive behind payer-provider vertical integration is as clear as it is concerning for the state of competition in healthcare.
UHG now employs or affiliates with 70K physicians—10K more than last year—seven percent of the US physician workforce, and the largest of any entity.
Given the weak antitrust framework for regulating vertical integration, the federal government has proven unable to stop the acquisition of providers by payers. Eventually, profit growth for these vertically integrated payers will have to come from tightening provider networks, and not just acquiring more assets. That could prompt regulatory action or consumer backlash, if the government or enrollees determine that access to care is being unfairly restricted.
Until then, the march of consolidation is likely to continue.
Consolidation continues across the healthcare industry with many hospitals and health systems looking to complete planned acquisitions or sales by the end of 2022 or early 2023.
Here are 15 planned hospital or health system sales that Becker’s Hospital Review has reported on in the last month:
1-2. El Segundo, Calif.-based Pipeline Health System, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in October, has agreed to sell two hospitals — Weiss Memorial Hospital in Chicago and West Suburban Medical Center in Oak Park, Ill. — to Princeton, N.J.-based Ramco Healthcare Holdings and Resilience Healthcare.
Pending approval of a motion submitted Nov. 22 to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Texas, Resilience is expected to assume operations of the two hospitals on Dec. 2.
Since acquiring ownership of the hospitals in 2019, Pipeline said it has invested $60 million to improve facilities, add technology and expand clinical programs. The hospitals employ a combined total of 1,700 employees.
3-4. The Centurion Foundation, an Atlanta-based nonprofit organization, has inked an asset purchase agreement to acquire the CharterCare Health Partners system from Los Angeles-based Prospect Medical Holdings.
Two hospitals are included in the transaction: Providence, R.I.-based Roger Williams Medical Center and Our Lady of Fatima Hospital. The change in control application process is expected to be submitted to the Rhode Island Department of Health and the state attorney general before the end of 2022.
5. West Reading, Pa.-based Tower Health plans to sell Chestnut Hill Hospital in Philadelphia to Temple University Health System for $28 million. The news comes less than a year after the health system closed two other hospitals: Brandywine Hospital in Coatesville, Pa., and Jennersville Hospital in West Grove, Pa.
Tower Health plans to rebuild around its flagship Reading Hospital and the two other hospitals it acquired for $423 million from Franklin, Tenn.-based Community Health Systems: Phoenixville Hospital and Pottstown Hospital. It also owns St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia in a joint venture with Drexel University.
6. As of Nov. 14, potential buyers can submit offers for Singing River Health System, a three-hospital system with locations in Ocean Springs, Pascagoula and Gulfport, Miss.
Supervisors from Jackson County — which owns the health systems — gave the green light for proposals to sell Singing River Health System. Potential buyers have until March 10 to submit their bids.
7-9. New Orleans-based LCMC Health plans to acquire three Tulane University hospitals — New Orleans-based Tulane Medical Center; Covington, La.-based Lakeview Regional Medical Center; and Metairie, La.-based Tulane Lakeside Hospital — from Nashville, Tenn.-based HCA Healthcare.
LCMC Health will purchase the three hospitals for $150 million, expanding its portfolio to nine hospitals in the New Orleans area. The two parties hope to finalize the deal by the end of 2022 or early 2023.
10-12. Peoria, Ill.-based UnityPoint Health – Central Illinois and Des Moines, Iowa-based UnityPoint Health plans to spin off three Illinois hospitals to Urbana, Ill.-based Carle Health.
The transaction results in Carle Health taking over as the parent organization of UnityPoint Health – Central Illinois, which includes Peoria-based Methodist and Procter, and Pekin (Ill.) Hospitals and affiliated clinics, Peoria-based UnityPlace and Methodist College.
An April 1 closing date is anticipated, pending all regulatory approvals.
13. Hill Country Memorial Hospital in Fredericksburg, Texas, has entered into an agreement to become part of San Antionio-based Methodist Healthcare System.
Hill Country Memorial has 15 locations, including a hospital, an urgent care clinic, and primary and specialty care offices. Methodist Healthcare — a 50-50 co-ownership between HCA Healthcare and Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas — has more than 30 facilities, including eight hospitals and nine freestanding emergency departments.
The transaction is expected to be completed in early 2023.
14. Orlando (Fla.) Health plans to acquire Sabanera Health Dorado, an acute care hospital in Puerto Rico.
The hospital will change its name to Doctors’ Center Hospital-Orlando Health Dorado, according to Orlando Health, which will team up with four additional hospitals operated by the Doctors’ Center Hospital team. The operation of all five hospitals will remain with the Doctors’ Center Hospital group.
15. Tacoma, Wash.-based MultiCare Health System and Yakima (Wash.) Valley Memorial reached an acquisition agreement, according to an Oct. 21 news release shared with Becker’s Hospital Review.
Terms of the agreement include Memorial becoming a wholly owned subsidiary of MultiCare, MultiCare investing in new programs, installing an integrated electronic health record, and providing a sustainable future for Yakima’s only hospital. The transaction is subject to routine regulatory approval and closing conditions.
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.”
The Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board unanimously approved a plan to change ownership for 10 Advocate Aurora facilities in the state covered by the system’s plan to merge with Charlotte, N.C.-based Atrium Health, the Chicago Tribune reported Nov. 14.
Atrium and Advocate Aurora, dually headquartered in Milwaukee and Downers Grove, Ill., announced plans to merge into a 67-hospital system with upward of $27 billion in revenue in May. The merger would create one of the largest health systems in the country, with more than 1,000 sites of care across Illinois, Wisconsin, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama, according to the report.
The approval comes after the board voted in September to delay the approval. Board members’ concerns stemmed from the availability of information and their understanding about the deal.
Since that meeting, Advocate Aurora has answered many of the board’s questions, such as the reasons for the combination and the proposed governance structure, according to the report. Some board members said they still wanted more information, but the board is required by law to approve certain types of applications as long as they are complete.
The board’s approval was needed for the merger because the affiliation is considered a change of 50 percent or more of the voting members of a nonprofit corporation’s board of directors that controls a healthcare facility’s operation, license, certification or physical plant and assets. The board of directors of Advocate Health — the combined system’s new name — will be made up of an equal number of members from Advocate Aurora and Atrium Health.
Advocate Aurora shared the following statement with Becker’s on the board’s approval:
“Securing the Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board’s approval brings us one step closer to coming together with Atrium Health, which will allow us to improve the lives of our patients, the health of our communities and the opportunities for our team members. We look forward to closing, which we anticipate before the end of the year.”
Atrium shared the following statement with Becker’s:
“We are pleased to see that the process continues to move forward and remain optimistic our combination with Advocate Aurora Health will be finalized before the end of the year.”