In a recent STAT News article, reporters Tara Bannow and Bob Herman took an in-depth look at private-equity firm Welsh, Carson, Anderson & Stowe, examining the performance of four of its healthcare portfolio companies. They show how the firm’s A-list partners, clients, and board members have promoted controversial business practices—often at the expense of publicly funded healthcare programs—that conflict with its well-curated public image.
The Gist: This article emphasizes how the complex and opaque regulatory structure of American healthcare allows motivated parties like PE firms to find technically legal, though ethically suspect, business models, which can easily tip over into outright illegality.
It highlights the “revolving door” flow of executives between industry and government, which allows investment firms to play a long game by actively shaping the regulatory landscape and lobbying to create business opportunities where none previously existed. Justified backlash at “gotcha” business models and profit-seeking at the expense of vulnerable patients may swamp any positive contribution that PE investment and rollups may make to the business of healthcare.
A recent JAMA study of 578 US dermatology, gastroenterology, and ophthalmology practices acquired by PE firms from 2016 to 2020 found a steady rise in spending in the two years after acquisition, indicating that the average charge per commercial claim increased 20 percent, and the average allowed amount per claim rose 11 percent. It also found that, compared to a large control group with similar patient risk scores, PE-acquired practices saw new patient visits increase by 38 percent and total visit volume increase by 16 percent.
The Gist: While the study’s authors note that these findings could be explained by changes in practice operations or management, they point out they could also be caused by an overutilization of profitable services not tied to an increase in value or benefit to the patient.
We think the latter is likely the case here, and that this study provides evidence of PE-induced overutilization aimed at meeting aggressive growth targets.
But this is just the latest wave of ownership-induced overutilization: 20 years ago the same spotlight was on physician-owned imaging, cardiac, and other outpatient diagnostics, with several studies then documenting higher utilization in these facilities. Nonetheless, this latest trend is an important one to document and quantify, as the number of physicians working in PE-backed organizations continues to rise.
Mark Cuban’s pharmacy, Cost Plus Drug Co., has hundreds of drugs marked at discounted prices, but some pharmacy experts say there’s a larger problem that needs fixing, CNBC reported July 28.
The online pharmacy launched in January with about 100 drugs, and by its one-year anniversary, plans to have more than 1,500 medications, according to the company’s website. The business model, which allocates for a $3 pharmacy dispensing fee, $5 shipping fee and a 15 percent profit margin with each order, aims to uproot the pharmaceutical industry, which has faced criticism for years about its opaque business practices.
Gabriel Levitt, the president of PharmacyChecker, a company that monitors the cheapest drug prices, told CNBC there’s more to be done.
“As much as I support the venture, what they’re doing does not address the big elephant in the room,” Mr. Levitt said. “It’s really brand-name drugs that are increasing in price every year and forcing millions of Americans to cut back on medications or not take them at all.”
Brand-name drugs are 80 percent to 85 percent more expensive than generics since brand-name drugs have to repeat clinical tests to prove efficacy, according to the FDA. Cost Plus Drug Co. only offers generics. Mr. Cuban told CNBC he hopes to sell brand-name medications “within six months,” but added that it’s a tentative timeline.
On Thursday, the Biden administration issued the first of what is expected to be a series of new regulations aimed at implementing the No Surprises Act, passed by Congress last year and signed into law by President Trump, which bans so-called “surprise billing” by out-of-network providers involved in a patient’s in-network hospital visit.
The interim final rule, which takes effect in 2022, prohibits surprise billing of patients covered by employer-sponsored and individual marketplace plans, requiring providers to give advance warning if out-of-network physicians will be part of a patient’s care, limiting the amount of patient cost-sharing for bills issued by those providers, and prohibiting balance billing of patients for fees in excess of in-network reimbursement amounts.
The rule also establishes a process for determining allowable rates for out-of-network care, involving comparison to prevailing statewide rates or the involvement of a neutral arbitrator, but falls short of specifying a baseline price for arbitrators to use in determining allowable charges. That methodology, along with other details, will be part of future rulemaking, which will be issued later this year.
Of note, the rule does not include a ban on surprise billing forground ambulance services, which were excluded by Congress in the law’s final passage—even though more than half of all ambulance trips result in an out-of-network bill. Expect intense lobbying by industry interests to continue as the details of future rulemaking are worked out, as has been the case since before the law was passed.
While burdensome for patients,surprise billing has become a lucrative business model for some large, investor-owned specialist groups, who will surely look to minimize the law’s impact on their profits.
Medicare Advantage (MA) focused companies, like Oak Street Health (14x revenues), Cano Health (11x revenues), and Iora Health (announced sale to One Medical at 7x revenues), reflect valuation multiples that appear irrational to many market observers. Multiples may be exuberant, but they are not necessarily irrational.
One reason for high valuations across the healthcare sector is the large pools of capital from institutional public investors, retail investors and private equity that are seeking returns higher than the low single digit bond yields currently available. Private equity alone has hundreds of billions in investable funds seeking opportunities in healthcare. As a result of this abundance of capital chasing deals, there is a premium attached to the scarcity of available companies with proven business models and strong growth prospects.
Valuations of companies that rely on Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement have traditionally been discounted for the risk associated with a change in government reimbursement policy. This “bop the mole” risk reflects the market’s assessment that when a particular healthcare sector becomes “too profitable,” the risk increases that CMS will adjust policy and reimbursement rates in that sector to drive down profitability.
However, there appears to be consensus among both political parties that MA is the right policy to help manage the rise in overall Medicare costs and, thus, incentives for MA growth can be expected to continue. This factor combined with strong demographic growth in the overall senior population means investors apply premiums to companies in the MA space compared to traditional providers.
Large pools of available capital, scarcity value, lower perceived sector risk and overall growth in the senior population are all factors that drive higher valuations for the MA disrupters.However, these factors pale in comparison the underlying economic driver for these companies. Taking full risk for MA enrollees and dramatically reducing hospital utilization, while improving health status, is core to their business model. These companies target and often achieve reduced hospital utilization by 30% or more for their assigned MA enrollees.
In 2019, the average Medicare days per 1,000 in the U.S. was 1,190. With about $14,700 per Medicare discharge and a 4.5 ALOS, the average cost per Medicare day is approximately $3,200. At the U.S. average 1,190 Medicare hospital days per thousand, if MA hospital utilization is decreased by 25%, the net hospital revenue per 1,000 MA
enrollees is reduced by about $960,000. If one of the MA disrupters has, for example, 50,000 MA lives in a market, the decrease in hospital revenues for that MA population would be about $48 million. This does not include the associated physician fees and other costs in the care continuum. That same $48 million + in the coffers of the risk-taking MA disrupters allows them deliver comprehensive array of supportive services including addressing social determinants of health. These services then further reduce utilization and improves overall health status, creating a virtuous circle. This is very profitable.
MA is only the beginning. When successful MA businesses expand beyond MA, and they will, disruption across the healthcare economy will be profound and painful for the incumbents. The market is rationally exuberant about that prospect.
From 2003 to 2017, private equity firms focused their acquisition crosshairs on larger hospitals with higher operating margins and greater patient charge-to-cost ratios, according to a new review of healthcare investments published in Health Affairs.
These private equity (PE)-owned hospitals also saw greater increases to their operating margins and charge-to-cost ratios over the course of the 15-year study period than their non-PE-owned counterparts.
Combined with a decrease in all-personnel staffing ratios, the study’s researchers said these data make a case for further investigation into how PE investment may be influencing operational decisions to boost profits and secure favorable exits.
“[Short-term acute care] hospitals’ large size, stable cashflow environment and prevalence of valuable fixed assets (that is, properties) make them highly desirable targets for acquisition,” researchers wrote in Health Affairs. “Broadly speaking, PE acquisition of hospitals invites questions about the alignment of the financial incentives necessary to achieve high-quality clinical outcomes.”
To inform that discussion, the researchers reviewed PE deal data collected by Pitchbook, CB Insights and Zephyr. They also collected information on hospital characteristics and financials from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ (CMS) Healthcare Provider Cost Reporting Information System database and the American Hospital Association’s Annual Survey.
Their efforts yielded 42 PE acquisitions involving 282 different hospitals during the 15-year time period. These deals were most frequent among hospitals in Mid-Atlantic and Southern states.
Of note, 161 of the acquired hospitals were tied to a single deal: Bain Capital, Kohlberg Kravis & Roberts and Merrill Lynch Global Private Equity’s roughly $33 billion (more than $21 billion cash, $11.7 billion debt) acquisition of HCA Healthcare in 2007.
The study outlined differences between the PE-acquired hospitals and others that were not acquired before any of the deals (in 2003) and after (in 2017).
Nearly three-quarters of hospitals acquired by PE were for-profit in 2003, versus about a quarter of those that were not acquired, the researchers wrote. By 2017, those respective proportions had increased to 92.3% and 25.3%.
Acquired hospitals were significantly larger in terms of beds and total discharges both in 2003 and in 2017. In fact, while acquired hospitals increased in size during the 15-year window, other hospitals decreased in beds and discharges by 2017.
Nurse staffing ratios were similar on both ends of the study period for both categories of hospitals. However, all-staff ratios were lower among the soon-to-be-acquired hospitals in 2003 and saw a slight decrease over the years, whereas hospitals that had not been acquired instead recorded an increase over time.
In terms of financials, the researchers reviewed measures including net patient revenue per discharge, total operating expenses per discharge and the percentage of discharges paid out by Medicaid. Differences among these three areas were not significant with the exception of a larger 15-year increase in total operating expenses per discharge among non-PE hospitals.
The primary financial differences between the PE and non-PE hospitals were instead found among the organizations’ percent operating margins and charge-to-cost ratio, the researcher wrote.
In 2003, both measures were higher among the soon-to-be acquired hospitals. By 2017, the percent operating margin and charge-to-cost ratio increased 66.5% and 105% among the PE-acquired hospitals, respectively, versus changes of -3.8% and 54.2% for the non-PE hospitals.
These and the study’s other findings outline the playbook an investor could follow to identify a profitable hospital and increase its margins, the researchers wrote.
“Post-acquisition, these hospitals appeared to continue to boost profits by restraining growth in cost per patient, in part by limiting staffing growth,” they wrote.
The trends affirm findings published in a 2020 JAMA Internal Medicine study, which similarly tied PE acquisition to moderate income and charge-to-cost ratio increases over the same time period, the researchers wrote.
The data also contrast “the prevailing narrative” that PE investors target distressed businesses to extract value for a quick turnaround sale, they wrote. Outside of a few outlier acquisitions, the researchers said that PE’s goal for short-term acute care hospitals appears to be the opposite—operations refinement and further profit improvements among potential top performers.
Still, the differing structure of PE investments warrants questions as to whether these groups are promoting high-quality outcomes alongside their high margins, Anaeze Offodile II, M.D., an assistant professor at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and the study’s lead author, said during an accompanying Health Affairs podcast.
In contrast to the public market,PE investments often lean on leveraged buyouts that are higher risk and higher reward, he said. Partners are targeting a three-to-seven-year exit window for their investments and often need to hit 20% to 30% annualized returns.
More investigation is needed to determine whether these economic incentives come in tandem with better care or are instead hindering patient outcomes, he said.
“The question becomes ‘Are there unintended consequences or tradeoffs invited due to pursuit of profitability?’” Offodile said during the podcast. “I think someone could make the same argument that if there is a value enhancement strategy by PE firms, then it behooves them to actually raise the level of care delivery up because that enhances the value and engineers a better sale.
“In seeing that sort of exploratory result and how it challenged the prevailing narrative, we’re glad that we took this sort of [setting the] stage approach, and I look [forward] to seeing what we find—which we’re doing now—with respect to quality, spending, access domains,” he said.
Finding a good long-term care facility for a loved one has always been a difficult process. A new National Bureau of Economic Research working paper suggests that families should also be paying attention to who owns the facility, finding asignificant increase in mortality in nursing homes owned by private equity investors.
Examining Medicare data from over 18,000 nursing homes, 1,674 of which were owned by private equity (PE) firms, researchers found that PE ownership increased Medicare patient mortality by 10 percent—translating to a possible 20,150 additional lives lost. PE-owned facilities were also 11 percent more expensive.
Counterintuitively, lower-acuity patients had the greatest increase in mortality. Researchers found staffing decreased by 1.4 percent in PE-owned facilities, suggesting that shorter-staffed facilities may be forced to shift attention to sicker patients, leading to greater adverse effects on patients requiring less care.
Antipsychotic use, which carries a higher risk in the elderly, was also a whopping 50 percent higher.
Nursing homes are low-margin businesses, with profits of just 1-2 percent per year—and PE ownership did not improve financial performance.
Researchers found private equity profited from three strategies:“monitoring fees” paid to services also owned by the PE firm, lease payments after real estate sales, and tax benefits from increased interest payments, concluding that PE is shifting operating costs away from patient care in order to increase return on investment. Private equity investment in care delivery assets has skyrocketed over the past decade.
This study draws the most direct correlation between PE investment and an adverse impact on patient outcomes that we’ve seen so far, highlighting the need for increased regulatory scrutiny to ensure that patient safety isn’t sacrificed for investor returns.
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.”