Friday, February 25, 2011

Send Mercenaries, Guns, and Money? - Cerberus Tries to Buy Jackson Health

The latest twist in the tale of one of the US great safety-net public hospitals raises some interesting questions.  As reported by John Dorschner in the Miami Herald, Jackson Health System has had some bad times:
the system, ... has served for a century as Miami-Dade County’s safety net healthcare system for the poor and uninsured. But money and management woes in recent years have pushed the system to the brink of failure time and again. Last week, its executives said it would run out of cash in July unless drastic measures are taken.
The Bid for Jackson Health

The latest drastic measure proposed was a take-over by a for-profit corporation, one that we have heard of before:
A Massachusetts hospital chain led by a Cuban American heart surgeon with family ties to Miami has sent Jackson Health System a non-binding 'expression of interest' letter, offering to take over the financially troubled public hospitals, invest $600 million in capital and assume $500 million in debt.

The $1.1 billion offer from Ralph de la Torre of Steward Health Care System was delivered Tuesday morning to members of the capital committee of the Public Health Trust, Jackson’s governing body.

Questions Appear Immediately

The proposed deal immediately raised questions and concerns. The very nature of the deal was unclear:
Trust member Ernesto de la Fe said he wasn’t sure if the company was proposing a straight-out sale, while other board members said they thought the offer envisioned 'a public-private' partnership.

Also, in a follow-up story by the same reporter, there were questions about the rapid time-table,
Jackson is in such difficult financial conditions – its executives warn it may run out of cash in July – that many leaders are willing to consider a sale, but they wondered whether the 90-day timetable set by Steward Health Care System is realistic and what the deal might mean for the 500,000 uninsured persons in Miami-Dade County.
There were questions about the company which proposed to buy Jackson:
'We need to know a lot more about this company,' said Sal Barbera, an adjunct professor at Florida International University and a former hospital executive.

Steward has existed only since November, when Cerberus Capital Management finalized a $895 million deal to turn six Catholic hospitals into a for-profit entity. Steward has since bought two other small hospitals. Altogether, the Steward system has 1,565 licensed beds. Jackson has 2,100. De la Torre has been a hospital executive for less than three years.

That’s 'a very short track record,' said Mark Rogers, a Trust member and former chief executive of the Duke University Hospital.
Would the Mission be Upheld?

The issue of whether a private, for-profit company would respect the mission of a safety-net hospital came up quickly,
Alan Sager, a health policy professor at Boston University, said some Steward facilities are money losers in poor neighborhoods. 'Some of us had a lot of questions' about the Cerberus take-over and how the investment company could squeeze returns for investment out of hospitals that were struggling as nonprofits.

'We asked repeatedly. We never received answers,' Sager said.

He said his fear is that patient care will be reduced to make profits. 'I think there should be concerns about preserving essential patient care in Dade County' if Steward took over Jackson, he added.

'If the object is merely to cut costs to make money … then that is not the right approach for Jackson,' said Rogers, the former Duke executive. 'Clearly some costs have to come out, but we have to invest in new programs to maintain the quality of medical care that Jackson has always provided.'

One day later, John Dorschner again writing for the Miami Herald raised more questions about why a large private equity company would want to buy a money-losing public hospital system? First he noted,
While the human face on the $1.1 billion bid to buy Jackson Health System is a Cuban-American heart surgeon with strong family ties to Miami, a vast and powerful entity looms in the background: Cerberus Capital Management.

The company, named for the mythological three-headed dog that guards the gates of Hades, is one of the biggest private investment firms in the United States, and it is the owner of Steward Health Care, the Boston hospital group that this week said it is interested in buying Miami-Dade’s public hospitals

The question that perplexes some Trust members is why such a big-time investment firm would be interested in a healthcare system with three public hospitals that lost $244 million in fiscal 2009, is expected to lose $105 million in fiscal 2010 and is projected to run out of cash in July unless drastic measures are taken.

The concern, again, was whether Cerberus would uphold the current mission of the hospital system:
Trust Treasurer Marcos Lapciuc said Thursday that Cerberus is 'in the driver’s seat' on this deal, not Steward. 'They are going to expect some return on their investment. This is not going to be charitable donation,' he said.

Of course, the central mission of the current Jackson Health System would seem to be charitable.
To build the health of the community by providing a single, high standard of quality care for the residents of Miami-Dade County

The implication of "single, high standard" is that applies to all residents, regardless of financial status or ability to pay.

More Questions

The CEO's Short Term Focus

There is good reason to question whether Steward Health Care, formerly Caritas Christi, and now owned by Cerberus Capital Management would uphold that mission. As we noted recently, the Steward Health Care CEO seems to have a very short-term focus, suggested by the track record of the Cerberus CEO, who quickly left an organization he had aggressively promoted, suddenly switched from the Republican party to become a big contributor to the Democratic party, abandoned his medical license after developing a good reputation as a cardiovascular surgeon, and famously was quoted, "burn the boats on the beach, baby." Would he support the long-term commitment needed to make both the Massachusetts based and now the proposed Florida based hospitals, most of which are safety net hospitals, succeed?

"Leakage Reduction" - a Threat to Physicians' Professionalism?

As we also noted recently, the main tenet of his business plan seemed to be to reduce "leakage," to make sure patients who start within the system are referred within the system and do not "leak" elsewhere. The problem with this is that physicians are supposed to decide how to manage patients, and specifically to decide where to refer patients in the patients' interests, not just to keep money flowing to the health care system. "Leakage reduction" may possibly threaten physicians' first commandment, to make decisions to maximize benefits and minimize harms to individual patients, before all other considerations. Also, as we noted earlier, since Steward Health Care purchased not only some Massachusetts hospitals, but a big network of physician practices, there could be a risk that the physicians who are now employed by a private equity group would be pushed to make referral decisions for financial reasons, rather than in the best interests of the patients.

Note that a recent (posted 9 February, 2011) advertisement for a Senior Medical Director (physician leader) of the Caritas Christi Network Services, the physician group owned by Steward Health Care LLC, said the Director's first goal would be:
This position will have a leadership role in all aspects of the CCNS system, including responsibility and accountability for:
- Lead/Mentor/Support IPA based Medical Directors (at both the IPA and Pod level) to achieve Medical Management goals and objectives in Quality, Leakage, Utilization, and Risk performance
Keeping Company with Gun and Ammunition Manufacturers and "Mercenaries"

There are also questions about whether the corporate culture of Cerberus Capital Management would be compatible with the management of safety-net hospitals. Cerberus has some current investments in firms whose operations seem oddly askew from providing medical care to patients regardless of their ability to pay.

First, Cerberus owns the biggest manufacturer of firearms and ammunition in the US. As reported by BusinessWeek last year,
Cerberus had more than DPMS [Firearms] in its sights. From April 2006 to January 2008 it bought three other firearms companies: Bushmaster, Remington, and Marlin. And it kept adding to its collection. Cerberus now controls 13 brands in a holding company it created, Madison (N.C.)-based Freedom Group. With sales of $848.7 million in 2009, Freedom Group is the largest gun and ammo maker in the U.S. That means Stephen A. Feinberg, Cerberus' founder and managing member, is the country's top civilian gun magnate.

In addition,
Luth, the rifle maker, says that when he arrived at Cerberus' Park Avenue offices to negotiate a deal in 2007, he discovered that Feinberg and several of his partners 'are real gun guys.'

Also, as reported by the New York Times, Cerberus recently bought one of the biggest "private military contractors,"
DynCorp International, the private military contractor, said on Monday it has agreed to sell itself to Cerberus Capital Management for $1.5 billion, as the private equity industry continues to return to its core business of deal-making.

Cerberus will pay $17.55 a share for DynCorp, a 49 percent premium to Friday’s closing price of $11.75. DynCorp now has 28 days under a 'go-shop' provision within the deal agreement to find a higher and better offer.

While DynCorp has continued to win new contracts from the federal government, it has also been the subject of controversy over the years for its assignments in Iraq.

That controversy was amplified in an article in The Nation by Jeremy Scahill, entitled "The Mercenary Owners, They Are a Changin' (Sort of)
Blackwater and DynCorp, the two leading mercenary firms servicing the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have both undertaken steps toward significant structural changes over the past month. In the case of DynCorp, the ownership of the whole business seems to be changing hands, while Blackwater is dumping its private air force.

Cerberus Capital Management, one of the largest private equity firms in the US announced April 12 it was buying DynCorp, the massive, publicly traded company, which is akin to the Wal-Mart of the private security industry, for $1 billion in cash. Cerberus counts among its big wigs former vice president Dan Quayle, who often represents the company internationally. DynCorp has had its share of scandals over the years, including whistle blower allegations that personnel have engaged in organized sex-slave trading with girls as young as 12 and allegations its personnel have assaulted journalists. It has been rebuked by the State Department for its 'aggressive behavior' in interactions with European diplomats, NATO forces and journalists in Afghanistan. A 2007 US government audit of DynCorp's work in Iraq found that the State Department 'does not know specifically what it received for most of the $1.2 billion in expenditures under its DynCorp contract for the Iraqi Police Training Program.' More recently, the company was in the news facing allegations its training of the Afghan National Police was shoddy, including allegations its trainees didn't know how to adjust the sights on their AK-47s. If the Cerberus deal goes through, it will mean that the publicly-traded DynCorp will go private, meaning that it will be infinitely more difficult to get information on the company.

Cerberus seems to have had a dream of owning its own mercenary business for at least a few years. In April 2008, the company was reportedly looking to buy Blackwater. The deal apparently fell through because of concerns over Blackwater's reputation.

So we have come a long way from 1980, when the US American Medical Association gave up the rule that the practice of medicine should not be "commercialized, nor treated as a commodity in trade."  (See posts here and here.)   Now we have private equity firms buying or trying to buy formerly non-profit safety net hospital systems to be included in portfolios that can include gun and ammunition manufacturers and private armies.  Now we have physician networks owned by private equity firms focused on choking off "leakage."  Such ownership may initially inject lots of money into the system, and may eventually profit the new private owners, but what will we give up in this brave new world of commercial safety-net hospitals and for-profit physician practices?

As we said before,.... Deals that turn not-for-profit hospital systems into privately held for-profit systems ought to be scrutinized with extreme skepticism. Furthermore, once such deals are made, the results ought to be watched extremely closely to make sure they do not put private gain ahead of individuals' and the public's health. For-profit hospitals have generally not lived up to the promises they made to provide quality, accessible health care at a cheaper price.  It is yet to be seen whether private equity running for-profit hospital systems (and physicians networks) will do any better.


The title requires apologies to Warren Zevon, who famously performed "Send Lawyers, Guns and Money."

1 comment:

Doubly Afriad said...

They own an army of mercenaries? Oh my.