About 1 in 10 nursing homes in California and nationwide are owned by private equity (PE) investors, and new research suggests that death rates for residents of those facilities are substantially higher than at institutions with different forms of ownership.
Researchers from New York University, the University of Chicago, and the University of Pennsylvania found that the combination of subsidies from Medicare and Medicaid alongside incentives for PE owners to increase the value of their investments “could lead high-powered for-profit incentives to be misaligned with the social goal of affordable, quality care [PDF].” The researchers — Atul Gupta, Constantine Yannelis, Sabrina Howell, and Abhinav Gupta — reported that nursing homes owned by private equity entities were associated with a 10% increase in the short-term death rate of Medicare patients over a 12-year period. That means more than 20,000 people likely died prematurely in homes run by PE companies, according to their study, which was published in February by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER).
In addition to the higher short-term death rates, these homes were found to have sharper declines in measures of patient well-being, including lower mobility, increased pain intensity, and increased likelihood of taking antipsychotic medications, which the study said are discouraged in the elderly because the drugs increase mortality in this age group. Meanwhile, the study found that taxpayer spending per patient episode was 11% higher in PE-owned nursing homes.
Double-Checked, Triple-Checked, Quadruple-Checked
The researchers were stunned by the data. “You don’t expect to find these types of mortality effects. And so, you know, we double-checked it, triple-checked it, quadruple-checked it,” Atul Gupta, a coauthor of the NBER study, told NPR reporter Gabrielle Emanuel.
There’s nothing new about for-profit nursing homes, but private equity firms are a unique subset that in recent years has made significant investments in the industry, Dylan Scott reported in Vox. PE firms typically buy companies in pursuit of higher profits for shareholders than could be obtained by investing in the shares of publicly traded stocks. They then sell their investments at a profit, often within seven years of purchase. They often take on debt to buy a company and then put that debt on the newly acquired company’s balance sheet.
They also have purchased a mix of large chains and independent facilities — “making it easier to isolate the specific effect of private equity acquisitions, rather than just a profit motive, on patient welfare.” About 11% of for-profit nursing homes are owned by PE, according to David Grabowski, professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School. The NBER study covered 1,674 nursing homes acquired in 128 unique transactions.
While the owners of many nursing homes may not be planning to sell them, they also have strong incentives to keep costs low, which may not be good for patients. A study funded by CHCF, for instance, found that “early in the pandemic, for-profit nursing homes had COVID-19 case rates five to six times higher than those of nonprofit and government-run nursing homes. This was true of both independent nursing homes and those that are part of a corporate chain.”
Nationally, about 70% of nursing homes are operated by for-profit corporations, 24% of nursing homes are nonprofit, and 7% are government-owned. Corporate chains own 58%. In California, 84% of nursing homes are for-profit, 12% are nonprofit, and 3% are government-owned, according to the CHCF report.
Growing PE Investment in Health Care
Given the dramatic increase in PE ownership of nursing facilities coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, the higher death rates are troubling. The year-over-year growth between 2019 and 2020 is especially striking. Before the pandemic, 2019 saw 33 private equity acquisitions of nursing homes valued at just over $483 million. In 2020, there were 43 deals valued at more than $1.5 billion, according to Bloomberg Law reporter Tony Pugh.
And PE interest in health care is not restricted to nursing homes, explained Gretchen Morgenson and Emmanuelle Saliba at NBC News. “Private equity’s purchases have included rural hospitals, physicians’ practices, nursing homes and hospice centers, air ambulance companies and health care billing management and debt collection systems.” Overall, PE investments in health care have increased more than 1,900% over the past two decades. In 2000, PE invested less than $5 billion. By 2017, investment had jumped to $100 billion.
Industry advocates argue that the investments are in nursing homes that would fail without an influx of PE capital. The American Investment Council said private equity firms invest in “nursing homes to help rescue, build, or grow businesses, often providing much-needed capital to strengthen struggling companies and employ Americans,” according to Bloomberg Law.
The Debate Over Staffing
A bare-bones nursing staff is implicated in poorer quality at PE-owned nursing homes, both before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. Staff is generally the greatest expense in nursing homes and a key place to save money. “Labor is the main cost of any health care facility — accounting for nearly half of its operating costs — so cutting it to a minimum is the fastest profit-making measure owners can take, along with paying lower salaries,” journalist Annalisa Merelli explained in Quartz.
Staffing shrinks by 1.4% after a PE purchase, the NBER study found.
The federal government does not set specific patient-to-nurse ratios. California and other states have set minimum standards, but they are generally “well below the levels recommended by researchers and experts to consistently meet the needs of each resident,” according to the journal Policy, Politics, & Nursing Practice.
According to nursing assistant Adelina Ramos, “understaffing was so significant [during the pandemic] that she and her colleagues . . . often had to choose which dying or severely ill patient to attend first, leaving the others alone.”
Ramos worked at the for-profit Genesis Healthcare, the nation’s largest chain of nursing homes, which accepted $180 million in state and federal funds during the COVID-19 crisis but remained severely understaffed. She testified before the US Senate Finance Committee in March as a part of a week long look into how the pandemic affected nursing homes. “Before the pandemic, we had this problem,” she said of staffing shortages. “And with the pandemic, it made things worse.”
$12.46 an Hour
In addition, low pay at nursing homes compounds staffing shortages by leading to extremely high rates of turnover. Ramos and her colleagues were paid as little as $12.46 an hour.
“The average nursing home in the US has their entire nursing home staff change over the course of the calendar year. This is a horrible way to provide good, quality nursing home care,” Grabowski told NPR, speaking of his March 2021 study in Health Affairs.
Loss of front-line staff leads to reductions in therapies for healthier patients, which leads to higher death rates, according to the NBER study. The effect of these cuts is that front-line nurses spend fewer hours per day providing basic services to patients. “Those services, such as bed turning or infection prevention, aren’t medically intensive, but they can be critical to health outcomes,” wrote Scott at Vox.
Healthier patients tend to suffer the most from this lack of basic nursing. “Sicker patients have more regimented treatment that will be adhered to no matter who owns the facility,” the researchers said, “whereas healthier people may be more susceptible to the changes made under private equity ownership.”
Growing Interest on Capitol Hill
In addition to the Senate Finance Committee hearings, the House Ways and Means Committee held a hearing at the end of last month about the excess deaths in nursing homes owned by PE. “Private equity’s business model involves buying companies, saddling them with mountains of debt, and then squeezing them like oranges for every dollar,” said Representative Bill Pascrell (D-New Jersey), who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee’s oversight subcommittee.
The office of Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) will investigate the effects of nursing-home ownership on residents, she announced on March 17.
The hope is that the pandemic’s effect on older people will bring more attention to the issues that lead to substandard nursing home care. “Much more is needed to protect nursing home residents,” Denise Bottcher, the state director of AARP’s Louisiana office, told the Senate panel. “The consequence of not acting is that someone’s mother or father dies.”
Large health insurers no longer just provide coverage, but are instead repositioning themselves as vertically integrated healthcare organizations that span the care continuum.
The graphic above shows five-year total revenue growth by segment for the top five health insurance companies.
Some, like Anthem and Humana, are still in the early stages of revenue diversification, leveraging partnerships and investments to fill service gaps—in Humana’s case, these are mainly centered on the Medicare Advantage population.
On the other hand, the insurance revenue of Cigna and CVS Health is already dwarfed by pharmacy benefit management (PBM) revenue (as well as retail clinic revenue for CVS).
UnitedHealth Group (UHG) is clearly leading the pack, with a robust revenue diversification and vertical integration strategy.
Its Optum subsidiary grew 62 percent over the last five years, nearly double the rate of its UnitedHealthcare insurance business. Already the largest employer of physicians in the country, Optum recently announced plans to acquire Massachusetts-based 715-physician group, Atrius Health. It also announced its intent to acquire Change Healthcare, one of the largest providers of revenue and payment cycle management solutions.
Given the outsized role of the Optum division in driving UHG’s growth and profitability, it may soon face a dilemma that other publicly traded, diversified companies have had to confront: shareholder demands to unlock value by spinning off the business into a separate company.
Central to fending off that kind of activism by shareholders: demonstrable steps to integrate the myriad businesses the company has acquired into a functional whole. Just as Amazon’s hugely profitable Web Services business has become a target of spin-off demands, so too, eventually, may UHG’s Optum.
As Warren Buffett turns 90, the story of one of America’s most influential and wealthy business leaders is a study in the logic and discipline of understanding future value.
Patience, caution, and consistency. In volatile times such as these, it may be difficult for executives to keep those attributes in mind when making decisions. But there are immense advantages to doing so. For proof, just look at the steady genius of now-nonagenarian Warren Buffett. The legendary investor and Berkshire Hathaway founder and CEO has earned millions of dollars for investors over several decades (exhibit). But very few of Buffett’s investment decisions have been reactionary; instead, his choices and communications have been—and remain—grounded in logic and value.
Buffett learned his craft from “the father of value investing,” Columbia University professor and British economist Benjamin Graham. Perhaps as a result, Buffett typically doesn’t invest in opportunities in which he can’t reasonably estimate future value—there are no social-media companies, for instance, or cryptocurrency ventures in his portfolio. Instead, he banks on businesses that have steady cash flows and will generate high returns and low risk. And he lets those businesses stick to their knitting. Ever since Buffett bought See’s Candy Shops in 1972, for instance, the company has generated an ROI of more than 160 percent per year —and not because of significant changes to operations, target customer base, or product mix. The company didn’t stop doing what it did well just so it could grow faster. Instead, it sends excess cash flows back to the parent company for reinvestment—which points to a lesson for many listed companies: it’s OK to grow in line with your product markets if you aren’t confident that you can redeploy the cash flows you’re generating any better than your investor can.
As Peter Kunhardt, director of the HBO documentary Becoming Warren Buffett, said in a 2017 interview, Buffett understands that “you don’t have to trade things all the time; you can sit on things, too. You don’t have to make many decisions in life to make a lot of money.” And Buffett’s theory (roughly paraphrased) that the quality of a company’s senior leadership can signal whether the business would be a good investment or not has been proved time and time again. “See how [managers] treat themselves versus how they treat the shareholders .…The poor managers also turn out to be the ones that really don’t think that much about the shareholders. The two often go hand in hand,” Buffett explains.
Every few years or so, critics will poke holes in Buffett’s approach to investing. It’s outdated, they say, not proactive enough in a world in which digital business and economic uncertainty reign. For instance, during the 2008 credit crisis, pundits suggested that his portfolio moves were mistimed, he held on to some assets for far too long, and he released others too early, not getting enough in return. And it’s true that Buffett has made some mistakes; his decision making is not infallible. His approach to technology investments works for him, but that doesn’t mean other investors shouldn’t seize opportunities to back digital tools, platforms, and start-ups—particularly now that the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated global companies’ digital transformations.
Still, many of Buffett’s theories continue to win the day. A good number of the so-called inadvisable deals he pursued in the wake of the 2008 downturn ended paying off in the longer term. And press reports suggest that Berkshire Hathaway’s profits are rebounding in the midst of the current economic downturn prompted by the global pandemic.
At age 90, Buffett is still waging campaigns—for instance, speaking out against eliminating the estate tax and against the release of quarterly earnings guidance. Of the latter, he has said that it promotes an unhealthy focus on short-term profits at the expense of long-term performance.
“Clear communication of a company’s strategic goals—along with metrics that can be evaluated over time—will always be critical to shareholders. But this information … should be provided on a timeline deemed appropriate for the needs of each specific company and its investors, whether annual or otherwise,” he and Jamie Dimon wrote in the Wall Street Journal.
Yes, volatile times call for quick responses and fast action. But as Warren Buffett has shown, there are also significant advantages to keeping the long term in mind, as well. Specifically, there is value in consistency, caution, and patience and in simply trusting the math—in good times and bad.