Thursday, July 08, 2010

The Failure of "Success Healthcare" - When Financial Maneuvering Takes Precedence Over the Health Care Mission

In the last few years, it seems that the whole world got tangled up in a web of complex financial dealings that mostly benefited those moving the money and paper, but often harmed everyone else.  So it should be no surprise that health care was similarly affected. 

A story from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch provided an illustrative case.  The news article began discussing the current difficulties of two local St Louis hospitals, then provided an explanation in what amounted to a series of flashbacks. Let me re sequence it a bit, starting with the background of two local hospitals that got caught up in web.

For several decades, Forest Park Hospital — founded in 1889 as Deaconess Central Hospital — was one of the city’s leading community hospitals, serving a broad spectrum of patients including many African-American residents from north St. Louis.

But in recent years, the hospital’s revenues and its number of patient visits had waned because, in part, of the emergence of major hospitals in west St. Louis County and its decision in 2006 to discontinue obstetric services.

As the hospital struggled, it continued to be passed along from one owner to the next. In 2004, it was acquired by Argilla Healthcare Inc. Argilla merged with Doctors Community Healthcare Corp. of Scottsdale, Ariz., which became Envision Hospital Corp.

Former board member Buford said Forest Park’s downfall began several years ago when Envision executives made the decision to use the hospital’s profits to help prop up a faltering hospital that Envision owned in Washington.

In 2005, Envision sold the buildings and land of Forest Park Hospital and St. Alexius Hospital to Medline Industries, the Illinois manufacturer of surgical supplies.

How the Hospitals were Sold to Success Healthcare LLC

To address its financial problems, Envision decided to sell its accounts receivable to a firm in Florida. Here is the rationale:
Less successful hospitals operate on razor-thin profit margins, waiting for slow-paying state and federal agencies to provide Medicaid and Medicare reimbursements. Such hospitals have difficulty obtaining financing and lack dependable cash flow.

To provide support to a distressed hospital, the Florida partners would purchase its accounts receivables at a discount. For instance, if the government, a health insurer or patient owed a hospital for services, the partners would purchase that invoice for less money. The hospital, in turn, would have cash in hand.
Note that "hospitals tend to avoid such cash-flow companies, because some of them use heavy-handed collection tactics." However,
For struggling Forest Park and St. Alexius, selling their accounts receivables was an alluring option.
Forest Park also was dogged by creditors and having difficulty making its payroll and paying utility bills.

That’s when Envision began doing business with one of the Florida partners’ firms, Sun Capital Healthcare Inc., which purchased $61 million in receivables from Forest Park and St. Alexius.

When Envision defaulted on its sales agreement in September 2008, the Florida partners formed Success [Healthcare LLC] to purchase the two hospitals for $39.5 million.

The Promise of a Turn Around

To the public and the struggling hospitals, the purchase by Success Healthcare LLC seemed a promise of deliverance:
Eighteen months ago, the new buyers of Forest Park Hospital vowed to revive the beleaguered institution.

They voiced optimism that the once-thriving, 450-bed medical center could be saved by fresh capital and determined leadership. They seemed equally enthusiastic about their other acquisition — St. Alexius Hospital in south St. Louis. Even the name of their company — Success Healthcare LLC — evoked the sense that better days were ahead.

When Success Healthcare bought Forest Park Hospital in December 2008, company officials spoke of transitions, not cutbacks.

In a statement, the company called Forest Park and St. Alexius hospitals important community assets, saying that it planned to enact a 'turnaround plan and financial strategy' in the next six months “that will support the immediate and long-term objectives for the hospitals.'
The Actual Results

Better days were not ahead.  Instead, as summarized by the Post-Dispatch article,
But the three partners from South Florida were ill-prepared to make good on their words. In reality, they were already deep in a financial scandal that involved the potential loss of more than $500 million in investor funds, the suicide of an investment manager in Bermuda, and allegations of fraud and self-dealing.

The mess resulted from the involvement of what became Success Healthcare LLC and an off-shore financier. First, here is some information on the history of the ironically named Success Healthcare LLC:
In recent years, [Peter] Baronoff, [Howard] Koslow and [Lawrence] Leder had built a small empire of health-related companies, whose holdings include at least 18 hospitals, and two finance firms. The firms share an office building at 999 Yamato Road in Boca Raton, Fla.

Baronoff, a former deputy mayor of Boca Raton, had worked as a wine and spirits importer. Koslow had experience in financial services and real estate. Leder, an accountant, was a former supervisory auditor for the U.S. General Accounting Office.

The partners marketed themselves as 'rescuing health care clients in financial emergencies,' including providers that file for bankruptcy protection or are considering such a filing.

Then enter the off-shore financier:
Court records indicate that the Florida partners approached [William] Gunlicks in 1999 to invest in the health care receivables business. Two of the partners — Koslow and Baronoff — formed a Bermuda-based venture with Gunlicks in December 2009 called Stewards & Partners Ltd. to attract offshore investors.

But between 1999 and December, 2009, things had had gone bad,
The first sign of serious problems appeared in April 2009, when the Securities and Exchange Commission filed a case against money manager William Gunlicks, a former Chicago banker whose investment funds provided hundreds of millions of dollars to the Florida partners to help finance their ventures. The SEC accused Gunlicks of placing at risk about $550 million in investor funds, including $5 million invested by the archdiocese of New Orleans.

Soon after, Gunlicks’ fund manager in Bermuda killed himself with an overdose of pills, upset that he had lured investors to the troubled fund, according to media reports. Gunlicks, who declined to comment, settled the SEC case — agreeing not to operate another investment fund.

In July 2009, a receiver appointed by a federal judge — whose mission is to recover Gunlicks’ investor’s money — sued the Florida partners’ finance companies for allegedly defaulting on loan payments to Gunlicks. The receiver accused the partners of fraudulently transferring hundreds of millions of dollars to purchase or prop up distressed hospitals that they owned. Investors also have sued the Florida partners.

The troubles afflicting Success Healthcare LLC quickly affected the hospitals they had promised to save:
There are conflicting accounts about the financial strength of the Florida partners, but this is clear: They do not appear to have the wherewithal to operate Forest Park as a full-service hospital, and their financial troubles could also negatively affect St. Alexius, which reported in 2008 a bare-bones profit margin of 1.38 percent.

Daniel Newman, the court-appointed receiver, has asserted that the Florida partners’ finance firms 'had long been insolvent ... and had been losing money.' He has accused them of overstating their revenues and assets to conceal at least $50 million in losses in recent years.

The results on local health care were not good:
By April of this year, Forest Park Hospital had laid off about three-quarters of its staff and reduced its operations to a small emergency department, 20-bed psychiatric ward, laboratory and pharmacy.

'It’s a very dire situation,' said Dr. James Buford, president of the Urban League and a former member of the Forest Park Hospital’s board. 'It wouldn’t surprise me if the hospital went under. There hasn’t been a necessary infusion of capital to make it work.'

Today, Forest Park Hospital is an almost empty landmark that overlooks the renovated Highway 40 (Interstate 64). The hospital is trying to use only one of its six floors and staffs a few dozen patient beds. Meanwhile, St. Alexius Hospital continues to offer a range of patient services, though it staffs only about one-third of its 456 licensed beds.


First, I must admit that it is possible that the two St Louis hospitals could not have been maintained in their original configurations by even the most knowledgeable, dedicated, and visionary leadership. It may be that there location was untenable, given the growth of powerful competitors.

However, it is hard to believe that the complex financial maneuvers in which they were caught up provided any benefits to patients, health care, or health professionals. Instead, it is likely that these maneuvers provided considerable personal gains to the people behind them (although these were not investigated in the St Louis Post Dispatch story).

The big lesson: be very skeptical of glorious promises, especially those that come from new health care leaders who turn out to have no knowledge or background in health care. (Note that the leaders of Success Healthcare had no apparent background in actually providing health care, and no apparent commitment to the values health care professionals ought to support.) When you meet the new boss, assume at best he or she will be "same as the old boss," (to the lyrics of "Won't Get Fooled Again.")  We seem to be caught up in a business culture in which every new leader and fashionable management strategy is hyped and spun, and somehow people believe it all, forgetting how badly the previously hyped leaders and strategies crashed.

How many times have we health professionals been told the new CEO, the new corporation taking over, the new business strategy will make everything better? How often has that been true?

Health care desperately needs leadership that understand the context, and believes in the values.  The quick buck artists have been making themselves rich, while health care on the ground becomes poor.  How much money goes into the pocket of the clever leaders for their fancy financial maneuvers, rather than to provide patient care?  The answer might explain why US health care is the most expensive in the world, while primary care, and in this case, basic hospital acute care becomes less available.


MedInformaticsMD said...

The term of art for this type of "entrepreneur" is "parasite."

Anonymous said...

I have been fortunate enough to travel to Europe a number of times, mostly France. In casual conversations with business people at the airport, or on the plane, a couple of points keep reoccurring; the Americans speak about how slow the business process is in Europe. The Europeans speak about how fast the Americans want to close a deal.

The Europeans then go on to explain how a contract and low bid are only pieces of paper. They want to do business with people, because it will be people who will deliver the product or service. It will also be people who will resolve any conflicts in the bid or contract.

Those long lunches and dinners are designed to reveal any flaws in the person or company they are going to do business with and develop a deeper understanding of the abilities of the company.

Anyone can blow into town for a day, rent a big room at a hotel and buy dinner. It takes more knowledge and ability to spend a couple of days with a client and explain their product or business plan. If a vendor cannot explain their product to the client, delivery dates and process, how can they put that plan into action?

There is much we can learn from those in Europe, both good and bad. This is one of the good things. Know who you are dealing with and do they have the experience and financial ability to deliver on their contract.

Steve Lucas