Thursday, April 01, 2010

More Doubts About Private Equity Taking Over Not-for-Profit Hospital Systems

Last week, we posted about how buy-outs of not-for-profit hospital systems by private equity firms seemed to be a new fashion in health care.  Since then, new doubts have been raised about whether this is a good idea.

Detroit Medical Center, Vanguard Health, and the Blackstone Group

Letters to the Detroit Free Press raised concerns,
As a nonprofit corporation, DMC's mission is to provide quality health care to the community. Management is accountable to Detroit area citizens and health care consumers, not to profit-motivated investors.

As a private, for-profit corporation, its mission will be to provide profit for its shareholders. Management will be accountable to shareholders and will be rewarded in relation to the rate of return on their investments.

Also, the Free Press reported that a coalition of local not-for-profit organizations challenged the legality of the proposed sale,
The sale of the Detroit Medical Center to a for-profit Nashville company violates state law and raises issues about whether poor patients who depend on the DMC will be assured of care for years to come, three nonprofit Michigan organizations said today.

Marjorie Mitchell, executive director of Michigan Universal Health Care Network, said the organizations e-mailed today a three-page list of concerns about the sale to Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox.

Mitchell testified briefly today at the Detroit City Council about the issue and distributed the letter. The two other nonprofit organizations signing the letter were Metropolitan Organizing Strategy Enabling Strength, or Moses, an organization of community and religious leaders active on health issues, and Michigan Legal Services, a Detroit legal aid organization. The three groups called themselves the Coalition to Protect Detroit Health Care.

Citing a provision in state law, the letter said Michigan law is clear that nonprofit companies should not 'permit assets … to be used, conveyed or distributed for non-charitable purposes.'

'The mission of a for-profit is to serve the stockholders,' the letter to Cox said. The letter said it is the opinion of the three groups that the purchase by Vanguard of the DMC 'violates Michigan’s nonprofit corporation statute.'

The three organizations asked Cox to hold public meetings to answer questions about the impact of the proposed sale on the health of Detroiters, particularly uninsured people.

The groups also have questions about how the DMC’s $140-million charitable assets will be used as well as concerns that use of state Renaissance Zone money would benefit a for-profit company.

Caritas Christi Health Care and Cerberus Capital Management

Boston Globe news articles noted that Cerberus failed recently not only in its management of Chrysler, but of GMAC (now also bailed out by the US government), its management is secretive even for the opaque world of private equity, and it has no experience running "large medical systems." 
A letter by Dr Arnold Relman, distinguished former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, warned,
Cerberus promises to keep the present hospital management, add much money beyond the purchase price toward the operation and improvement of the hospitals, maintain charity support, and not sell the system — for three years. After that, who knows? Cerberus follows its own interests, and it will take money out of the community, not contribute to it.

As a close observer of the for-profit hospital industry ever since its beginnings, I predict that Cerberus will sell to another business sooner or later, and the initial promises will be forgotten. That’s what happened at Framingham’s MetroWest Hospital.

Control over the kinds of medical services provided by the hospital would be lost. Unprofitable services such as pediatrics, obstetrics, and outpatient psychiatry would disappear. Business-owned hospitals will resist major reforms to control medical costs or reorganize a community’s medical services in the public interest.

Caritas Christi ran an advertisement in local papers that referred to Cerberus as its new "financial sponsor," suggesting that the company was going to give a still not-for-profit health care system a grant, quite different from what was really proposed, which was that Cerberus would become the owner of a formerly not for-profit health care system, thus rendering it into a privately held, for-profit system.  One wonders why the public relations people thought they needed to spin the deal thus.

Finally, the Boston Globe profiled current Caritas Christi CEO Dr Ralph de la Torre, who apparently negotiated a deal that would leave him "as chief executive of Caritas, while also putting him in charge of acquiring other hospitals for Cerberus." But the article raised questions about what sort of leader he would be. It characterized him as transformed "from doctor to dealmaker," who now "stands to win a much bigger payout." Worse, it suggested that winning, as evidenced by making more money than anyone else, rather than access to quality patient care, is his prime motivation.
He used to say, ‘It’s not about the money, but that’s one way people keep score.’

In addition, Dr De la Torre has now so transformed into a CEO that "he let his medical license lapse."


Let me note some people think that the notion that how much money one makes should be considered a "score," and that he who dies with the most money wins, was one of the central reasons for the global financial collapse. For example, Nancy Rapoport suggested some New Year's resolutions for corporate boards (in 2008!), including:
I will remind myself and my colleagues that the level of CEO compensation is not an indicator of the company’s performance and that the arms race towards excessively high executive compensation is not a winnable race. At the point when money becomes just a way of keeping score, compensation is probably too high.

Earlier in 2007, Michael Kinsley wrote presciently in Time about,
a development in the larger economy. For most people, the point of money is that you can buy things with it. But at the top, where people already can buy whatever they want, the purpose of money is keeping score: making sure that you don't slip down in the Forbes 400 list.
So, putting someone who believes that he must always make more money in order to keep "winning" in charge of a large health care system does not seem to be a recipe for better patient care or more access, but rather for ever-increasing executive compensation while making money becomes the overwhelming priority for the organization, completely eclipsing such quaint concepts as quality of care, reasonable costs, or adequate access.

Recent history has not shown that for-profit hospitals deliver cheaper, better, or more accessible care than not-for-profit institutions. While their presence has influenced not-for-profit hospitals to behave more like for-profit institutions, costs have risen inexorably while quality and access decline.  

Moreover, for-profit hospitals run by private equity (as opposed to publicly traded corporations) would likely to be even more opaque than they were when they were not-for-profit. Increasing opacity of health care would likely worsen, not improve our current problems.

Deals that turn not-for-profit hospital systems into privately held for-profit systems ought to be scrutinized ith extreme skepticism. The questions raised above about the currently proposed deals ought to be addressed, In addition, I would suggest that all such deals should be conditioned on a requirement that the taken-over hospitals, and their parent private equity companies have to disclose at least as much as both public for-profit health care corporations and not-for-profit health care organizations are required to disclose, e.g., their ownership, the make-up of their boards of directors, the compensation, in detail, of their most highly paid officers, employees, and board members, all conflicts of interest affecting their leaders, etc. By the way, maybe such disclosure should be required of all health care organizations above some reasonable minimum size. If private equity companies are unwilling to make such disclosures, maybe they should not be allowed to run health care organizations.


Gregg Masters said...

Bravo! This is a very timely and important topic; and I am delighted you've shined the light on these non-profit to for profit conversions.

I think it is fair to say, that the entity acquiring these 'community assets' disproportionately benefits, although I would like to see rigorous academic analysis & confirmation of the theory that conversion deals (there have been quite a few since the advent of AMI, NME, HCA, Humana and their present day iterations), don't deliver. We are now in a position to examine whether the promised 'community' benefits have indeed been realized; or whether this was simply one way for very smart people to legally gain the system and extract (vs. add) value from the commmunity (not investors) they ostensibly serve.

Unknown said...

And thanks for the shout-out, too!

Keith said...

Time and again, for profit entities have tried to acquire health care entities with the intent of making them more profitable, but they inevitabley fail. We've seen management companies acquire physician practices with the assumption that they could be run more efficiently, and more recently another private equity firm acquiring a major nursing home chain with the hopes of extracting a handsome profit (Manor Care).

The math does not ad up in each circumstance; you cannot operate health care facilitis that often have razor thin profit margins and are efficiently run, for the most part, and still generate profit for the shareholders, without some financial wizardry that usually involves extracting the accumulated equity out of the hospital and leaving it an empty shell unable to survive. This is what will undoubtedly happen if these transactions are allowed to proceed to completion by these modern day robber barons.

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