Saturday, August 28, 2010

More Examples of US Hospital Market Consolidation: Connecticut and Florida

Two recent stories from two different parts of the US continue the theme of ever increasing concentration of power in our health care system.


The Hartford Business Journal reported on growing interest in mergers among small Connecticut hospitals.
Rising costs and reductions in government reimbursements related to health care reform could lead to consolidation among the state’s 29 acute care hospitals in the coming months and years, industry experts said.

Indeed signs of consolidation in Connecticut are already taking shape. Danbury and New Milford hospitals, for example, recently signed an affiliation agreement that will put both organizations under the control of a single corporate parent.

Meanwhile, the Central Connecticut Health Alliance, which is the parent company of the Hospital of Central Connecticut, has signed a memorandum of understanding to affiliate with Hartford Healthcare. If that deal gets federal regulatory approval, the two organizations would be integrated under the Hartford Healthcare umbrella.

Note that this story suggests the rationale has everything to do with financial issues, and little to do with patient care issues.
In some cases, deals could be fueled by the needs of cash-strapped, independent hospitals to find larger, more stable partners. In other cases, independent hospitals that have remained financially stable may look to form partnerships to gain greater access to capital markets.

'There are a lot of hospitals that are struggling financially and I think the changes that health care reform is going to bring with reimbursements could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back,' said Vincent Capece, the senior vice president and chief operating officer of Middletown-based Middlesex Hospital, which has nearly 300 beds. 'It will force hospitals to either go out of business, or find a partner.'

Mergers or partnerships allow smaller, independent hospitals to leverage the purchasing power of larger institutions — especially with insurance companies — and consolidate backroom or administrative services, among other benefits.

Note also that the recent US attempt at health care reform, later characterized as health insurance reform, is seen as driving, not preventing mergers.
Hospital officials say talks of mergers, or other types of partnerships, are likely to continue as the economy remains on shaky ground and health reform changes the landscape of how the industry does business.

Officials say reform will lead to reduced Medicare reimbursements from the federal government and require significant capital investments as hospitals prepare for larger patient loads and acquire new technology to provide more efficient care.


The Orlando Sentinel reported on increasing merger hospital merger activity in central Florida.
In health-care circles, the summer of 2010 may be remembered as the end of small, independent hospitals in Central Florida. Three community facilities here have set their course toward consolidation by joining — or announcing plans to join — large systems.

This month, Health Central, the last independent hospital in Orange County, voiced its intention to partner with a hospital chain. In July, the Wuesthoff hospital system in Brevard County was purchased by a for-profit corporation in Naples that owns 60 hospitals across the country. And on July 1, a partnership between Bert Fish Medical Center and Florida Hospital took effect, giving the system the option to buy the New Smyrna Beach facility.

The latter case could apparently lead to quite a substantial local concentration of power:
In Orlando, two major hospital chains dominate: Orlando Health, which owns all or part of eight hospitals, and Florida Hospital, which owns or operates 13 hospitals in Central Florida and 18 throughout the state.

Both are likely suitors for Health Central, which operates a 171-bed hospital, a nursing home and other health-care services in west Orange County.

Officials from Orlando Health did not respond to requests for interviews.

Florida Hospital system already is involved in a partnership with Bert Fish Medical Center that could lead to a purchase of the facility in 2015. As part of the agreement, Florida Hospital, which is owned by Winter Park-based Adventist Health System, would provide $24 million in capital improvements for Bert Fish in the next five years, pay off the hospital's debt and prop up an underfunded pension plan. In addition, residents in the hospital's taxing district were told their tax rates would go down.

The partnership cements Florida Hospital's dominance in Volusia and Flagler counties, where it already owns hospitals in DeLand, Orange City, Daytona Beach, Ormond Beach and Palm Coast. Its sole remaining competitor is Halifax Health, which owns hospitals in Daytona Beach and Port Orange.

This story contained some protestations from hospital leaders that it is all about the patients:
Florida Hospital officials say their goal is not to create health-care monopolies.

'We're a church-sponsored, church-related organization,' said Florida Hospital Vice President Richard Morrison. 'It's our mission to serve people — and if we can come to other communities and bring what we think is a distinctive approach to health care, then we'll do that.'

On the other hand,
'Hospitals today are like mom-and-pop grocery stores were 40 years ago,' said Dr. Kevin Schulman of Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. Before there was a Publix in every neighborhood, there were small grocery stores. Today, like the grocers, hospitals are joining forces or selling out to regional chains.

For the hospitals, there's strength in numbers, Schulman said. A large hospital system has more leverage when negotiating with insurance companies. Likewise, there's power in purchasing.

But these widespread hospital mergers 'have led to more market power for hospitals. Another word for that is 'monopoly,'' Schulman said.

Furthermore, just as history tells us, monopoly may be good for monopolists but not for everyone else.
A single small hospital doesn't have much clout to bargain with insurance companies. On the other hand, a hospital system that dominates a market is more likely to be able to charge higher rates to insurers — and their customers, say experts.

'There may be some efficiencies in being larger,' said Dr. Robert Berenson, a health-policy expert at the Urban Institute, a think tank in Washington. 'More to the point, however, it gives a hospital much more leverage in negotiating with health plans.'

And although there are many forces driving hospitals to join larger systems, Berenson says the results have been clear to health-care economists.

'There's some theory that [consolidation] improves quality,' he said, 'but the reality is, it drives up prices.'

While at least the folk wisdom among doctors is that the federal authorities will jump on any two doctors who informally discuss their prices, in the laissez faire, let the good times roll era of the 1980s through 2000s, there seemed to be little governmental concern about hospital (or health care in general) consolidation of power:
'Because many hospitals are not-for-profit entities, we seem to have given them a lot more latitude from an antitrust perspective, [Dr Kevin] Schulman said. 'Yet they act like the worst of the for-profit monopolies.'


As we just noted, advocates of laissez faire commercialized health care often trumpet the advantages of competitive markets as a rationale for deregulation. While there are theoretic, and possibly empiric reasons to think that competitive markets are the optimal way to distribute goods and services, we recently discussed aspects of health care that make it extremely hard for health care markets to be ideally competitive.

In the 1960s, it became recognized that physicians' professionalism, hospitals' devotion to their missions, and sometimes even (gasp) government regulation might partially compensate for distortions in the health care market. However, as supposed free market advocates became more powerful, they pushed for the commercialization of medicine and hospitals, reducing professionalism and mission support, and the hollowing out government regulation. (However, why did the people who attacked medical societies' codes of ethics as monopolistic have no interest in attacking market domination by insurers or hospital systems? Inquiring minds want to know.)

As we said last time, true health care reform would help physicians and other health care professionals uphold their traditional values, including, as the AMA once stated, "the practice of medicine should not be commercialized, nor treated as a commodity in trade." True health care reform would put health care "delivery" back in the hands of mission-focused, not-for-profit organizations, which put patients' health, safety and welfare first.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for pointing out the adverse consequences of decades of un-informed lawmaking by the Congress. This is scary, indded. We,as patients, are all grist for the cash registers of these for profit "not-for-profits". Lrd have mercy.