Private equity firm, flush with cash, sees ‘upside’ and more acquisitions.
Like hospital chains across the U.S., LifePoint Health tapped federal relief money to blunt the cost of the Covid-19 pandemic. It was a potent lifeline, a total of $1.5 billion.
But LifePoint is unusual in one respect, its owner: private equity firm Apollo Global Management, led by billionaire Leon Black.
LifePoint was certainly eligible for the money. But the extent of the federal assistance could contribute to concern in Washington over whether private equity-backed hospitals should have been. In July, the U.S. House passed a bill that would require health-care companies to disclose any private equity backing when seeking short-term loans from the federal Medicare program.
The reason for lawmakers’ concern: Private equity firms have ample access to cash. As recently as June, the Apollo fund that owns LifePoint had more than $2 billion to support its investments. Apollo, which manages $414 billion, recently told investors in an internal document that LifePoint was in such a strong market position that it was planning to make acquisitions of less fortunate hospitals.
The relief flowing to LifePoint illustrates a drawback of a government program designed to send out money quickly to every hospital, regardless of financial circumstances, according to Gerard Anderson, a health policy professor at Johns Hopkins University.
“This particular hospital system does not appear to need the money,” he said.
LifePoint and Apollo say they absolutely did. In their view, taxpayer money helped cover the soaring cost of treating Covid-19 patients and lost revenue because of the loss of fees from lucrative elective procedures. The assistance enabled the chain to retain all of its workers and provide essential service to its communities, they said.
“No health-care provider, including LifePoint, is immune to this, regardless of their ownership,” said LifePoint spokesperson Michelle Augusty.
Said an Apollo spokesperson: “Apollo is proud of LifePoint’s response to the Covid pandemic as they continue to provide vital care for both Covid and non-Covid patients.’’
LifePoint owns a far-flung collection of small-town hospitals, from Western Plains Medical Complex in Dodge City, Kansas, to Bourbon Community Hospital in Paris, Kentucky. For years, private equity has been pushing into every corner of American health care. Many medical professionals worry that these Wall Street-style investors will inevitably put profits before patients – something private equity denies.
LifePoint’s Willamette Valley Medical Center in McMinnville, Oregon.
In April, LifePoint Chief Executive Officer David Dill and other hospital officials met with President Donald Trump. Dill urged Trump to keep helping hospitals, noting that LifePoint’s medical centers tend to be in the middle of the country, “smaller communities, which I know are communities very important to you,’’ according to a transcript of the meeting.
“Rural hospitals are a very important part of the infrastructure in this country and also treating the uninsured and the Medicaid population as well,’’ Dill said.
Trump pointed out that the hospitals didn’t appear to be in the “hot spots.” Dill acknowledged they were handling only “a couple hundred Covid patients.” (The company said it has now cared for almost 20,000.)
In April, the month the government started distributing assistance, LifePoint borrowed $680 million in the capital markets. It also had access to $900 million in cash and an $800 million credit line, according to Moody’s Investors Service.
By Apollo’s own account, LifePoint was doing just fine when the pandemic struck. In fact, it was thriving – and looking to expand. As of March 31, shortly before LifePoint got taxpayer dollars, Apollo’s investors were on track to double their money, internal documents show. On paper, they were sitting on a gain of more than $800 million.
“Independent hospital systems have greater difficulty weathering prolonged periods of financial stress,’’ Apollo wrote to its investors in May. “A consolidation strategy will provide meaningful upside for Apollo funds’ investment.’’
Apollo said the crisis represented an opportunity: “The coronavirus pandemic will serve as a catalyst for additional M&A opportunities given the attractive scale and overall position of the LifePoint platform.”
Apollo is one of three private equity firms whose hospitals, as a group, received a total of about $2.5 billion in bailout grants and loans, according to an analysis of the latest federal records. That’s a conservative figure because it doesn’t count the many smaller sums distributed to subsidiaries.
LifePoint’s UP Health System-Marquette in Michigan.
Apollo’s LifePoint hospitals received the most: $941 million in subsidized loans and $535 million in outright grants.
While Democratic lawmakers have said such firms could have instead tapped their own cash stockpiles, private equity industry representatives have said they have a duty to manage that money in the best interests of their investors, which include public pension plans.
Apollo built its rural hospital empire through the acquisition of three regional hospital chains in 2015, 2016 and 2018. Apollo Investment Fund VIII LP owns 76% of LifePoint, which is based in Brentwood, Tennessee.
Even though many individual rural hospitals are struggling, Apollo says it can operate them more efficiently by merging them together. LifePoint now owns 88 hospitals in 29 states. It had almost $9 billion of annual revenue last year.
Apollo says that on its watch, the chain has improved its infrastructure and technology, recruited care providers and built new centers.
And for rural hospitals, Apollo argues, bigger is better.
“We continue to believe that rural hospitals can benefit from being part of a larger well-run system that enables access to greater resources and infrastructure for improved patient care,” the Apollo spokesperson said.
National physician staffing firm Mednax announced the sale of its radiology practice—which includes teleradiology company Virtual Radiologic, known as vRad—to venture-backed Radiology Partners for $885M.
Publicly-traded Mednax has been hit hard by both contracting disputes with UnitedHealthcare, as well as pandemic-related volume declines. Both its anesthesiology and radiology businesses suffered big losses with the halt of elective procedures in the spring, and saw volumes decline between 50-70 percent compared to the prior year.
The company began divesting in May with the sale of its anesthesiology division to investor-backed North American Partners in Anesthesia. Mednax leaders say these decisions to sell were made independent of the pandemic, and that they have been planning to return to the company’s roots of focusing exclusively on obstetrics and pediatric subspecialty care, including changing its name back to Pediatrix.
Acquiring firm Radiology Partners is the largest radiology practice in the country, working with 1,300 hospitals and healthcare facilities. With this acquisition, it will have 2,400 radiologists practicing in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
Hospital-based physician staffing firms have been especially hard hit by COVID-induced volume declines. This has created a softening in valuations and opened the door for investment firms to accelerate practice purchases.
We expect the pace of deals to quicken as independent practices experience continued financial strain—with large national groups leading the way, taking advantage of lower practice prices to build large-scale specialty enterprises.
Surprise bills can occur when patients with insurance unknowingly receive care from an out-of-network provider while at an in-network facility (such as a bill from an anesthesiologist for a scheduled surgery).
That provider is not bound by a set rate negotiated with an insurer and may charge more for a service than the insurer is willing to pay, and patients can end up on the hook for the difference.
It is difficult to capture the full extent of the problem, but research shows that surprise bills, also called balance bills, occur often, and have only been increasing in frequency and size over the past few years.
42% of hospital and ER visits may come with an unexpected charge
$2,000 average size of a surprise bill for a hospital visit
66% of Americans fear surprise bills
80% of Americans support surprise bill protections
The Source: Who’s To Blame?
Hospitals employ some physicians directly, but many also contract with speciality physician groups of surgical assistants, anesthesiologists, radiologists, emergency medicine doctors and pathologists who may not be in the same insurance networks as the hospital. This is why most surprise bills occur. Research shows that private equity firms also play an important role, buying up speciality physician groups and using surprise billing as a core part of their business model.
Insurers often take a lot of heat for the price of health care, but they play a more limited role in surprise billing. They can create narrow networks that leave hospitals or doctors out and open the door to balance billing. Insurers also do a poor job of maintaining accurate in-network provider directories, which means patients may think they’re choosing an in-network doctor when they are not.
While surprise bills from hospitals are less common than from physicians, they do occur when, for instance, a hospital is not in a patient’s network, but the patient is rushed there because of an emergency.
Air and ground ambulances rides are another source of surprise bills. One analysis showed that air ambulances resulted in median potential surprise bills of almost $21,700.
Insurers reimburse providers for out-of-network bills based on a set amount. Most bills propose using established in-network rates.
This process requires an insurer and provider to submit payment offers to a neutral party who makes the final call.
This approach combines the payment standard with arbitration to resolve disputes. An insurer pays a set amount, and if the provider disagrees, it can initiate arbitration.
With federal solutions at a standstill, 30 states have passed varying levels of protections from surprise billing. As of July, 2020, 16 states have more comprehensive protections, which ensure that insured patients are only responsible for paying in-network costs, even when receiving care from out-of-network providers or emergency services at an out-of-network facility. Georgia was the latest state to pass such a law in July 2020. The other 14 states offer far more limited protections.
But even states with comprehensive protections cannot protect all patients from surprise medical bills. States are not able to regulate job-based coverage that falls under a federal law known as the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, which applies to most employer sponsored insurance. These patients remain vulnerable to surprise medical bills until Congress takes action to ban the practice.
Click on the map below for an interactive map from the Commonwealth Fund that details each state’s protections.
The Sticking Point: Will Congress Pass Protections?
Despite strong bipartisan support for protecting patients from surprise bills, disagreement comes over how much physician groups should charge and how much insurers should pay. Essentially, resolving this issue may mean Congress has to pick sides.
As a result, stakeholders such as hospitals and private equity-backed physician groups, in particular, have pushed back on federal legislation, arguing that banning surprise billing will cripple their bottom line. These equity-backed physician groups have powerful lobbying groups, and in 2019, spent at least $5 million to persuade lawmakers to halt the legislation.
The pandemic has increased the risk that patients will unknowingly receive care from an out-of-network provider or at an out-of-network facility. The Trump administration tried to limit surprise bills for those in need of COVID-19 treatment by banning hospitals and providers that receive money from its Provider Relief Fund from sending balance bills to patients. But this approach leaves significant gaps and has had mixed success.
Ontario, Calif.-based Prime Healthcare announced Aug. 14 that it has completed the acquisition of St. Francis Medical Center, a 384-bed hospital in Lynwood, Calif.
Here are four things to know about the deal:
1. Prime purchased St. Francis Medical Center out of bankruptcy. The hospital entered bankruptcy in 2018 when its previous owner, El Segundo, Calif.-based Verity Health, filed for Chapter 11 protection.
2. Under the $350 million deal, which closed after a four-month review process, Prime committed to invest $47 million in capital improvements at the hospital. Those investments include installing Epic’s EHR and Omnicell systems for automated medication dispensing. Prime said it also plans to expand the hospital’s service lines.
3. A spokesperson told Becker’s Hospital Review that Prime extended offers to approximately 80 percent of the more than 2,000 employees at St. Francis Medical Center. “In the midst of this pandemic and economic challenges, Prime has remained deeply committed to St. Francis, the caregivers, patients and community, and we continue to evaluate staffing and will post additional positions based on future community needs,” the spokesperson said.
4. With the addition of St. Francis Medical Center, Prime owns and operates 46 hospitals in 14 states. The company has nearly 40,000 employees.
Despite objections for California attorney general and a last-minute attempt from an opposing bidder to block the sale, El Segundo, Calif.-based Verity Health System won bankruptcy court approval to sell a 384-bed hospital in Lynwood, Calif., to Prime Healthcare Services, according to The Wall Street Journal.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra conditionally approved the sale to Prime in July. Mr. Becerra set 21 conditions for the sale of St. Francis Medical Center to Prime Healthcare, a for-profit provider based in Ontario, Calif.
Verity challenged three of the conditions outlined by the attorney general, saying they were overly burdensome. The disputed conditions revolved around the amount of charity care and community-benefit services the hospital would need to provide.
As a result, the attorney general opposed authorizing the sale and approving Verity’s Chapter 11 liquidation plan, according to the Journal.
U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Ernest Robles overruled the objections, which should allow the $350 million sale to finalize. The judge also said he would approve Verity’s Chapter 11 liquidation plan.
In addition, in late July, Los Angeles-based Prospect Medical Holdings made a last-minute attempt to block Prime from buying St. Francis Medical Center.
Prospect Medical, backed by a private equity firm, reportedly offered to pay $50 million more than Prime and offered to accept all of the attorney general’s conditions.
However, the bankruptcy judge said Prospect lacked standing to oppose the Prime sale, and it didn’t submit its bid until after the deadline passed, according to the report.
[Readers’ Note: This is the first of two articles on the Future of Hospitals in Post-COVID America. This article
examines how market forces are consolidating, rationalizing and redistributing acute care assets within the
broader industry movement to value-based care delivery. The second article, which will publish next month,
examines gaps in care delivery and the related public policy challenges of providing appropriate, accessible
and affordable healthcare services in medically-underserved communities.]
In her insightful 2016 book, The Gray Rhino: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore,
Michelle Wucker coins the term “Gray Rhinos” and contrasts them with “Black Swans.” That distinction is
highly relevant to the future of American hospitals.
Black Swans are high impact events that are highly improbable and difficult to predict. By contrast, Gray Rhinos are foreseeable, high-impact events that we choose to ignore because they’re complex, inconvenient and/or fortified by perverse incentives that encourage the status quo. Climate change is a powerful example
of a charging Gray Rhino.
In U.S. healthcare, we are now seeing what happens when a Gray Rhino and a Black Swan collide.
Arguably, the nation’s public health defenses should anticipate global pandemics and apply resources
systematically to limit disease spread. This did not happen with the coronavirus pandemic.
Instead, COVID-19 hit the public healthcare infrastructure suddenly and hard. This forced hospitals and health systems to dramatically reduce elective surgeries, lay off thousands and significantly change care delivery with the adoption of new practices and services like telemedicine.
In comparison, many see the current American hospital business model as a Gray Rhino that has been charging toward unsustainability for years with ever-building momentum.
Even with massive and increasing revenue flows, hospitals have long struggled with razor-thin margins, stagnant payment rates and costly technology adoptions. Changing utilization patterns, new and disruptive competitors, pro-market regulatory rules and consumerism make their traditional business models increasingly vulnerable and, perhaps, unsustainable.
Despite this intensifying pressure, many hospitals and health systems maintain business-as-usual practices because transformation is so difficult and costly. COVID-19 has made the imperative of change harder to ignore or delay addressing.
For a decade, the transition to value-based care has dominated debate within U.S. healthcare and absorbed massive strategic, operational and financial resources with little progress toward improved care outcomes, lower costs and better customer service. The hospital-based delivery system remains largely oriented around Fee-for-Service reimbursement.
Hospitals’ collective response to COVID-19, driven by practical necessity and financial survival, may accelerate the shift to value-based care delivery. Time will tell.
This series explores the repositioning of hospitals during the next five years as the industry rationalizes an excess supply of acute care capacity and adapts to greater societal demands for more appropriate, accessible and affordable healthcare services.
It starts by exploring the role of the marketplace in driving hospital consolidation and the compelling need to transition to value-based care delivery and payment models.
COVID’s DUAL SHOCKS TO PATIENT VOLUME
Many American hospitals faced severe financial and operational challenges before COVID-19. The sector has struggled to manage ballooning costs, declining margins and waves of policy changes. A record 18 rural hospitals closed in 2019. Overall, hospitals saw a 21% decline in operating margins in 2018-2019.
COVID intensified those challenges by administering two shocks to the system that decreased the volume of hospital-based activities and decimated operating margins.
The first shock was immediate. To prepare for potential surges in COVID care, hospitals emptied beds and cancelled most clinic visits, outpatient treatments and elective surgeries. Simultaneously, they incurred heavy costs for COVID-related equipment (e.g. ventilators,PPE) and staffing. Overall, the sector experienced over $200 billion in financial losses between March and June 20204.
The second, extended shock has been a decrease in needed but not necessary care. Initially, many patients delayed seeking necessary care because of perceived infection risk. For example, Emergency Department visits declined 42% during the early phase of the pandemic.
Increasingly, patients are also delaying care because of affordability concerns and/or the loss of health insurance. Already, 5.4 million people have lost their employer-sponsored health insurance. This will reduce incremental revenues associated with higher-paying commercial insurance claims across the industry. Additionally, avoided care reduces patient volumes and hospital revenues today even as it increases the risk and cost of future acute illness.
The infusion of emergency funding through the CARES Act helped offset some operating losses but it’s unclear when and even whether utilization patterns and revenues will return to normal pre-COVID levels. Shifts in consumer behavior, reductions in insurance coverage, and the emergence of new competitors ranging from Walmart to enhanced primary care providers will likely challenge the sector for years to come.
The disruption of COVID-19 will serve as a forcing function, driving meaningful changes to traditional hospital business models and the competitive landscape. Frankly, this is long past due. Since 1965, Fee-for-Service (FFS) payment has dominated U.S. healthcare and created pervasive economic incentives that can serve to discourage provider responsiveness in transitioning to value-based care delivery, even when aligned to market demand.
Telemedicine typifies this phenomenon. Before COVID, CMS and most health insurers paid very low rates for virtual care visits or did not cover them at all. This discouraged adoption of an efficient, high-value care modality until COVID.
Unable to conduct in-person clinical visits, providers embraced virtual care visits and accelerated its mass adoption. CMS and
commercial health insurers did their part by paying for virtual care visits at rates equivalent to in-person clinic visits. Accelerated innovation in care delivery resulted.
THE COMPLICATED TRANSITION TO VALUE
Broadly speaking, health systems and physician groups that rely almost exclusively on activity-based payment revenues have struggled the most during this pandemic. Vertically integrated providers that offer health insurance and those receiving capitated payments in risk-based contracts have better withstood volume losses.
Modern Healthcare notes that while provider data is not yet available, organizations such as Virginia Care Partners, an integrated network and commercial ACO; Optum Health (with two-thirds of its revenue risk-based); and MediSys Health Network, a New Yorkbased NFP system with 148,000 capitated and 15,000 shared risk patients, are among those navigating the turbulence successfully. As the article observes,
…providers paid for value have had an easier time weathering the storm…. helped by a steady source of
income amid the chaos. Investments they made previously in care management, technology and social
determinants programs equipped them to pivot to new ways of providing care.
They were able to flip the switch on telehealth, use data and analytics to pinpoint patients at risk for
COVID-19 infection, and deploy care managers to meet the medical and nonclinical needs of patients even
when access to an office visit was limited.
Supporting this post-COVID push for value-based care delivery, six former leaders from CMS wrote to Congress in
June 2020 calling for providers, commercial insurers and states to expand their use of value-based payment models to
encourage stability and flexibility in care delivery.
If value-based payment models are the answer, however, adoption to date has been slow, limited and difficult. Ten
years after the Affordable Care Act, Fee-for-Service payment still dominates the payer landscape. The percentage of overall provider revenue in risk-based capitated contracts has not exceeded 20%
Despite improvements in care quality and reductions in utilization rates, cost savings have been modest or negligible. Accountable Care Organizations have only managed at best to save a “few percent of Medicare spending, [but] the
amount varies by program design.”
While most health systems accept some forms of risk-based payments, only 5% of providers expect to have a majority (over 80%) of their patients in risk-based arrangements within 5 years.
The shift to value is challenging for numerous reasons. Commercial payers often have limited appetite or capacity for
risk-based contracting with providers. Concurrently, providers often have difficulty accessing the claims data they need
from payers to manage the care for targeted populations.
The current allocation of cost-savings between buyers (including government, employers and consumers), payers
(health insurance companies) and providers discourages the shift to value-based care delivery. Providers would
advance value-based models if they could capture a larger percentage of the savings generated from more effective
care management and delivery. Those financial benefits today flow disproportionately to buyers and payers.
This disconnection of payment from value creation slows industry transformation. Ultimately, U.S. healthcare will not
change the way it delivers care until it changes the way it pays for care. Fortunately, payment models are evolving to
incentivize value-based care delivery.
As payment reform unfolds, however, operational challenges pose significant challenges to hospitals and health
systems. They must adopt value-oriented new business models even as they continue to receive FFS payments. New
and old models of care delivery clash.
COVID makes this transition even more formidable as many health systems now lack the operating stamina and balance sheet strength to make the financial, operational and cultural investments necessary to deliver better outcomes, lower costs and enhanced customer service.
MARKET-DRIVEN CONSOLIDATION AND TRANSFORMATION
Full-risk payment models, such as bundled payments for episodic care and capitation for population health, are the
catalyst to value-based care delivery. Transition to value-based care occurs more easily in competitive markets with many attributable lives, numerous provider options and the right mix of willing payers.
As increasing numbers of hospitals struggle financially, the larger and more profitable health systems are expanding their networks, capabilities and service lines through acquisitions. This will increase their leverage with commercial payers and give them more time to adapt to risk-based contracting and value-based care delivery.
COVID also will accelerate acquisition of physician practices. According to an April 2020 MGMA report, 97% of
physician practices have experienced a 55% decrease in revenue, forcing furloughs and layoffs15. It’s estimated the
sector could collectively lose as much as $15.1 billion in income by the end of September 2020.
Struggling health systems and physician groups that read the writing on the wall will pro-actively seek capital or strategic partners that offer greater scale and operating stability. Aggregators can be selective in their acquisitions,
seeking providers that fuel growth, expand contiguous market positions and don’t dilute balance sheets.
Adding to the sector’s operating pressure, private equity, venture investors and payers are pouring record levels of
funding into asset-light and virtual delivery companies that are eager to take on risk, lower prices by routing procedures
and capture volume from traditional providers. With the right incentives, market-driven reforms will reallocate resources to efficient companies that generate compelling value.
As this disruption continues to unfold, rural and marginal urban communities that lack robust market forces will experience more facility and practice closures. Without government support to mitigate this trend, access and care gaps that already riddle American healthcare will unfortunately increase.
WINNING AT VALUE
The average hospital generates around $11,000 per patient discharge. With ancillary services that can often add up to
more than $15,000 per average discharge. Success in a value-based system is predicated on reducing those discharges and associated costs by managing acute care utilization more effectively for distinct populations (i.e. attributed lives).
This changes the orientation of healthcare delivery toward appropriate and lower cost settings. It also places greater
emphasis on preventive, chronic and outpatient care as well as better patient engagement and care coordination.
Such a realignment of care delivery requires the following:
A tight primary care network (either owned or affiliated) to feed referrals and reduce overall costs through
better preventive care.
A gatekeeper or navigator function (increasingly technology-based) to manage / direct patients to the most
appropriate care settings and improve coordination, adherence and engagement.
A carefully designed post-acute care network (including nursing homes, rehab centers, home care
services and behavioral health services, either owned or sufficiently controlled) to manage the 70% of
total episode-of-care costs that can occur outside the hospital setting.
An IT infrastructure that can facilitate care coordination across all providers and settings.
Quality data and digital tools that enhance care, performance, payment and engagement.
Experience with managing risk-based contracts.
A flexible approach to care delivery that includes digital and telemedicine platforms as well as nontraditional sites of care.
Aligned or incentivized physicians.
Payer partners willing to share data and offload risk through upside and downside risk contracts.
Engaged consumers who act on their preferences and best interests.
While none of these strategies is new or controversial, assembling them into cohesive and scalable business models is something few health systems have accomplished. It requires appropriate market conditions, deep financial resources,
sophisticated business acumen, operational agility, broad stakeholder alignment, compelling vision, and robust
Providers that fail to embrace value-based care for their “attributed lives” risk losing market relevance. In their relentless pursuit of increasing treatment volumes and associated revenues, they will lose market share to organizations that
deliver consistent and high-value care outcomes.
CONCLUSION: THE CHARGING GRAY RHINO
America needs its hospitals to operate optimally in normal times, flex to manage surge capacity, sustain themselves
when demand falls, create adequate access and enhance overall quality while lowering total costs. That is a tall order requiring realignment, evolution, and a balance between market and policy reform measures.
The status quo likely wasn’t sustainable before COVID. The nation has invested heavily for many decades in acute and
specialty care services while underinvesting, on a relative basis, in primary and chronic care services. It has excess
capacity in some markets, and insufficient access in others.
COVID has exposed deep flaws in the activity-based payment as well as the nation’s underinvestment in public health.
Disadvantaged communities have suffered disproportionately. Meanwhile, the costs for delivering healthcare services
consume an ever-larger share of national GDP.
Transformational change is hard for incumbent organizations. Every industry, from computer and auto manufacturing to
retailing and airline transportation, confronts gray rhino challenges. Many companies fail to adapt despite clear signals
that long-term viability is under threat. Often, new, nimble competitors emerge and thrive because they avoid the inherent contradictions and service gaps embedded within legacy business models.
The healthcare industry has been actively engaged in value-driven care transformation for over ten years with little to
show for the reform effort. It is becoming clear that many hospitals and health systems lack the capacity to operate profitably in competitive, risk-based market environments.
This dismal reality is driving hospital market valuations and closures. In contrast, customers and capital are flowing to
new, alternative care providers, such as OneMedical, Oak Street Health and Village MD. Each of these upstart
companies now have valuations in the $ billions. The market rewards innovation that delivers value.
Unfortunately, pure market-driven reforms often neglect a significant and growing portion of America’s people. This gap has been more apparent as COVID exacts a disproportionate toll on communities challenged by higher population
density, higher unemployment, and fewer medical care options (including inferior primary and preventive care infrastructure).
Absent fundamental change in our hospitals and health systems, and investment in more efficient care delivery and
payment models, the nation’s post-COVID healthcare infrastructure is likely to deteriorate in many American communities, making them more vulnerable to chronic disease, pandemics and the vicissitudes of life.
Article 2 in our “Future of Hospitals” series will explore the public policy challenges of providing appropriate, affordable and accessible healthcare to all American communities.
For-profit hospital operator Quorum Health received approval of its plan to recapitalize the business Monday in U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware. Quorum expects to emerge from bankruptcy in early July, according to regulatory filings.
The system filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy April 7 to address current liquidity needs while continuing to care for patients and keep its hospitals operating amid a pandemic, according to a statement. It entered into a restructuring agreement with a majority of its lenders and noteholders.
Quorum still needs the court to issue a final order, but said the reorganization will reduce its debt by about $500 million, as originally expected.
Tennessee-based Quorum Health, which operates 22 rural and mid-sized hospitals in 13 states, may have been more ill-positioned financially than other systems going into the pandemic.
The company went public in May 2016 with 38 hospitals — 14 of which have since shuttered. In 2017, private equity firm KKR took a 5.6% stake in the system for $11.3 million.
Beyond being Quorum’s largest debt-holder today, KKR also owns about 9% of its public shares. In December, the firm offered to buy Quorum out and take the hospital chain private at $1 a share.
But that didn’t pan out, and Quorum instead ended up filing for bankruptcy in April, soon after the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The restructuring agreement now “allows our company to begin a new chapter with the flexibility and resources to continue supporting our community hospitals as they serve on the frontlines of this pandemic and beyond,” Marty Smith, Quorum’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, said in a statement Monday.
“We are grateful for the confidence of our financial stakeholders and partners, as well as our dedicated employees and physicians, and look forward to building on the significant progress we have made in strengthening our operations in recent years,” he said.
Healthcare is Hard: A Podcast for Insiders; June 11, 2020
Over the course of nearly 20 years as Chief Research Officer at The Advisory Board Company, Chas Roades became a trusted advisor for CEOs, leadership teams and boards of directors at health systems across the country. When The Advisory Board was acquired by Optum in 2017, Chas left the company with Chief Medical Officer, Lisa Bielamowicz. Together they founded Gist Healthcare, where they play a similar role, but take an even deeper and more focused look at the issues health systems are facing.
As Chas explains, Gist Healthcare has members from Allentown, Pennsylvania to Beverly Hills, California and everywhere in between. Most of the organizations Gist works with are regional health systems in the $2 to $5 billion range, where Chas and his colleagues become adjunct members of the executive team and board. In this role, Chas is typically hopscotching the country for in-person meetings and strategy sessions, but Covid-19 has brought many changes.
“Almost overnight, Chas went from in-depth sessions about long-term five-year strategy, to discussions about how health systems will make it through the next six weeks and after that, adapt to the new normal. He spoke to Keith Figlioli about many of the issues impacting these discussions including:
Corporate Governance. The decisions health systems will be forced to make over the next two to five years are staggeringly big, according to Chas. As a result, Gist is spending a lot of time thinking about governance right now and how to help health systems supercharge governance processes to lay a foundation for the making these difficult choices.
Health Systems Acting Like Systems. As health systems struggle to maintain revenue and margins, they’ll be forced to streamline operations in a way that finally takes advantage of system value. As providers consolidated in recent years, they successfully met the goal of gaining size and negotiating leverage, but paid much less attention to the harder part – controlling cost and creating value. That’s about to change. It will be a lasting impact of Covid-19, and an opportunity for innovators.
The Telehealth Land Grab. Providers have quickly ramped-up telehealth services as a necessity to survive during lockdowns. But as telehealth plays a larger role in the new standard of care, payers will not sit idly by and are preparing to double-down on their own virtual care capabilities. They’re looking to take over the virtual space and own the digital front door in an effort to gain coveted customer loyalty. Chas talks about how it would be foolish for providers to expect that payers will continue reimburse at high rates or at parity for physical visits.
The Battleground Over Physicians. This is the other area to watch as payers and providers clash over the hearts and minds of consumers. The years-long trend of physician practices being acquired and rolled-up into larger organizations will significantly accelerate due to Covid-19. The financial pain the pandemic has caused will force some practices out of business and many others looking for an exit. And as health systems deal with their own financial hardships, payers with deep pockets are the more likely suitor.”
Though U.S. hospital staffing companies are slowly beginning to recover from the COVID-19 shutdown and corresponding drop in revenues, that rebound will lag behind hospitals.
Recovery of giants like ER staffing firm Envision and AMN Healthcare, which has the largest network of qualified clinicians in the U.S., will be hindered as hospitals prefer to keep their own staff employed over external contractors amid a recession.
The “pace of recovery will not be linear,” and depends on the mix of service lines and geography, S&P Global analysts said in a Thursday note. Analysts also expect hospitals to aggressively renegotiate rates and terms with staffing companies later in the year, which could depress margins even more in the long-term.
The collapse in patient volume following stay-at-home guidelines implemented earlier this year has had a well-documented effect on provider finances. Hospitals and doctor’s offices prepared for an influx of COVID-19 patients as lucrative elective procedures declined and revenues imploded.
At the nadir in April, anesthesiology services were down 70%, radiology down 60% and ER visits down 40%, S&P said. Analysts expect tentative recovery in May and June, but no return to pre-pandemic volume until mid-2021.
The dramatic reduction slashed the revenues and cash flows of staffing companies, though the worst is likely over. At the beginning of the pandemic, staffing companies and hospitals alike took preventive measures like furloughing nonessential and back-office workers, extending vendor payment terms, aggressively collecting old receivables and onboarding doctors to telehealth. Many have kept up adequate frontline capacity too, despite uncertain demand.
The economy saw some small gains in May as furloughed employees began to trickle back to work. But the increase in health services employment that month came largely in dental health workers and physician offices. Hospitals shed another 27,000 jobs.
Hospitals will likely fill staffing needs internally, bringing back furloughed or laid off employees first as operations slowly improve, before turning once again to medical contractors.
“Given the extended disruption, a looming recession, and possible lasting changes to health care providers, credit metrics will be much weaker than what we had previously expected for nearly all staffing companies,” analysts wrote. “Some staffing companies, particularly those that are highly leveraged, may face very significant liquidity pressures for several months. It is possible not all will be able to withstand the sharp decline.”
S&P Global has taken a number of negative rating actions on staffing companies since late March.
Envision and anesthesiology firm ASP Napa, both rated ‘CCC’ with a negative outlook, have the greatest potential for a default. Envision, owned by private equity firm KKR and one of the largest U.S. physician staffing firms, is reportedly considering a bankruptcy filing as it struggles with $7 billion in debt.
Knoxville, Tenn.-based Team Health and clinical practice management firm SCP Health have enough liquidity to chug along for several more months of lower-than-normal volumes, while AMN and Utah-based CHG Healthcare Services are both in more solid positions to weather the pandemic, S&P said.
But professional outsourced staffing businesses, like anesthesiology and radiology, should recover more quickly, and many firms have gotten financial support from lenders and private equity backers. Team Health, for example, approved a senior secured term loan from its PE sponsor, Blackstone, which covers interest payments in April through mid-May.
Liquidity was also helped by the passage of the $2.2 trillion CARES relief legislation late March.
Several staffing companies have reportedly received grants from the $100 billion allocated by the legislation for providers, along with no-interest loans from accelerated Medicare payments, sparking questions over whether companies backed by cash-rich private equity firms need the funds.
The 35-hospital system announced June 2 that a management group of Steward physicians led by the company’s CEO and founder acquired a controlling interest of Steward from Cerberus Capital Management, a private equity firm. The physicians will control 90 percent of the company and Medical Properties Trust will maintain its 10 percent stake.
“The COVID-19 global pandemic has exposed serious deficiencies in the world’s health care systems, with a disproportionate impact on underserved communities and populations,” Steward CEO and Founder Ralph de la Torre, MD, said in a news release. “We believe that future health care management must completely integrate long-term clinical needs with investments. As physicians first, we will focus on creating structures and timelines that meet the long-term needs of our communities and the short-term needs of our patients.”
Steward was founded more than a decade ago, and Cerberus invested in the company in 2010. Today, Steward has 35 hospitals in nine states and more than 40,000 employees.