Sunday, February 06, 2011

The New Steward Health Care: Will Superbowl Ads and "Leakage Reduction" Keep the Ship Afloat, or Will a "Greater Fool" Be Left Trying to Bail it Out?

Some recent publications raise interesting questions about the leadership of a regional health care organization which now seems to have intentions of going national. 

A Superbowl Ad for Steward Health Care

The millions watching the Superbowl, maybe the biggest single US sports event, expect to be dazzled by the new, extremely expensive advertisements to be aired during the television coverage of the event.  The Boston Globe reported that the glitzy offerings by Volkswagen and Budweiser will have an odd companion, at least in the Boston area:
The local television audience for Super Bowl XLV on Sunday will get the usual array of high-impact commercials, from the suds of Budweiser to the sedans of Kia Motors. But amid all the elaborate productions, one quieter spot might stand out — an ad for Steward Health Care System, the Boston company formed to oversee the six Caritas Christi hospitals.

During the 30-second commercial, Massachusetts residents talk about the importance of quality health care, as the camera roams through Brighton and Dorchester — the homes of St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center and Carney Hospital.

There was no such marketing campaign for the hospitals before November, when they were bought by New York private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management. The ad will be broadcast only on WFXT-TV (Channel 25), not nationally.

Officials at Steward said they were looking to introduce the health care service company to customers who may have never heard of Steward. The campaign also further demonstrates a different marketing approach for the regional hospital network as it transitions to a for-profit health care player.

Why would a hospital system advertise during the Superbowl?
Brian Carty, chief executive marketing officer at Steward, said that’s the aim: make a debut during the Super Bowl to reach a large swath of local consumers.

'You can only launch a brand once, and we wanted to launch it in the biggest way we could,' said Carty.

It certainly is curious, particularly when the brand is only new in the most superficial sense. As noted above, Steward Health Care System is the new name given the former Caritas Christi, a regional Massachusetts health care system that was formerly non-profit and run by the Catholic Church, but was recently bought out by Cerberus Capital Management, a private equity company.

We discussed concerns about whether a private equity group would put its short-term financial gain ahead of the patient care mission if given the chance to run a hospital system in a series of posts in spring, 2010.

A CEO with a Short-Term Focus

Things get curiouser and curiouser. The Boston Globe also just published a lengthy report on former Caritas Christi, now Steward Health Care CEO Ralph De La Torre, which emphasized, perhaps unintentionally, his chronic focus on short-term gain.
[Friend and mentor Dr David] Torchiana has been fielding questions from lots of colleagues wondering what de la Torre might to next. 'My view of Ralph,' he tells them, 'is that he's aggressive and unpredictable.'

Forced Out His BIDMC Chief
Dr de la Torre trained as a cardiovascular thoracic surgeon who apparently was a very highly regarded surgeon. But then, the article described how Dr de la Torre forced out his clinical and academic leader at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center:
He stayed at Boston Medical for only a year, jumping to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center for a better opportunity. Dr. Frank Sellke, Beth Israel’s relatively young interim chief of cardiothoracic surgery, saw great things in him.

But then,
After a couple of years, Sellke, who officially became chief in 2001, started hearing chatter that de la Torre was gunning for his job. He didn’t take it seriously. Traditionally, to be a chief at a Harvard-affiliated hospital like Beth Israel, you needed heavy research and teaching credentials, which de la Torre did not have. 'When I heard Ralph was trying to undo me, I thought it was joke,' Sellke says. 'It turns out the joke was on me.'

In 2004, de la Torre greatly expanded his reach when hospital officials named him chief of cardiac surgery, a section within the division of cardiothoracic surgery. Two years later, he gained freer reign over cardiac care after the hospital removed Sellke as chief of the division. Sellke – who stresses that he is happy now as a chief at Brown Medical School and remains one of the country’s best-funded cardiac researchers – says that although he respects de la Torre’s talents, he lost respect for him as a person. 'He has a take-no-prisoners approach. If he interrupts or destroys someone else’s career, that doesn’t bother him in the least.'
Developed CardioVascular Institute, then Left
After this little coup d'etat, Dr de la Torre hatched a plan to integrate cardiovascular care at the BIDMC, but then flew the coop after it did not work out as planned:
Instead, he hatched a plan to revolutionize cardiac care at Beth Israel. Traditionally, cardiac surgeons, vascular surgeons, and cardiologists operated in their own silos, even though they were all treating related cardiovascular diseases. De la Torre proposed the CardioVascular Institute, or CVI, as a way to break down those silos and centralize care by creating a 'hospital within a hospital.'

The CVI officially opened in 2007, with de la Torre as president and CEO. He continued his work as a surgeon, maintaining the salary of more than $1.3 million that he had earned the previous year.

Pomposelli says de la Torre’s enormous talent, intellect, and drive helped the CVI succeed in many ways, notably in removing waste from hospital operations and in building strong networks of affiliated physicians. De la Torre wined and dined community cardiologists around the region, persuading them to become affiliates and refer patients to Beth Israel for care.

But Pomposelli concedes that the CVI fell short in other ways. The silos were harder to break down than they thought, especially since “we didn’t pay enough attention to academics and research.” Also the “enhanced revenues” to physicians turned out to be far less than promised, leading to resentment. Pomposelli, who remains the chief of vascular surgery at Beth Israel, stresses that the CVI still exists, but in a much less ambitious form. 'Ralph’s a builder. He loves the deal, loves creating new things,' Pomposelli says. 'I don’t think he loves managing things as much. Running the CVI turned out to be tedious and difficult.'

And de la Torre was out the door before this idea turned out to be less than what he touted:
In 2008, just a year after seeing his brainchild become a reality, de la Torre told Pomposelli he would be leaving to run the ailing Caritas hospital network.
Left Republican Party, Became Democrat

After assuming control of Caritas, Dr de la Torre seemed to abandon his previous political affilisations.
As recently as 2007, he was a registered Republican.

De la Torre (pronounced DEL-a-TOR-ree) says that, like many children of Cuban immigrants, he has long identified with the conservative Republican outlook on foreign policy, though he is a social liberal. Sometime after he moved to Newton, he switched his registration to independent. Regardless, he stresses that he was not politically active until recently, when he became motivated to fund Democratic candidates because of that party’s commitment to overhauling health care.

Then, the instant Democrat contributed substantially to the campaign of Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, who had to approve the take-over by Cerberus of Caritas:
she was the guest of honor at a ... fund-raiser held at the de la Torre home the previous fall when she was running for US Senate.

Some state Republicans complained that Coakley should not have been signing off on a deal being advanced by a major campaign donor, although they could produce no evidence that her office’s review was anything but thorough and deliberative.

And he hosted a better noticed fundraiser that that included a visit by President Obama,
Just before 5 p.m. on a Saturday in mid-October, a Cadillac limousine climbed the curvy driveway outside the Newton home belonging to Dr. Ralph de la Torre and his wife, Wing. Inside, the 75 guests were anxiously awaiting the main attraction while staying busy wondering how long the de la Torres’ adorable 2-year-old twin sons would be able to keep their neckties attached and their dress shoes on. Swell parties like this are not uncommon in the West Newton Hill neighborhood, which is dotted with multimillion-dollar houses like the de la Torres’ place. Still, this gathering stood out for two reasons. First, just about every person attending had paid $15,000 a pop to be there. Second, the guest of honor was none other than President Obama.
Abandoned Surgery and His Medical License

More strikingly Dr de la Torre also effectively abandoned the profession which had earlier brought him so much recognition:
After a decade of training to become a cardiac surgeon and endless effort to become one of the best in the business, de la Torre decided to walk away from surgery. He’d been in practice for only about nine years.

De la Torre says it’s impossible to be a great heart surgeon working only part time. He even took the drastic step of letting his medical license expire, his way of refusing to look back. 'Burn the boats on the beach, baby!' he says.
Saving Caritas: "Leakage Reduction"
So what set of boats would he burn to promote Steward Health Care? When he took over Caritas, he was able to improve its finances, but only up to a point,
The hospitals in the chain – flagship St. Elizabeth’s in Brighton, the Carney in Dorchester, Holy Family in Methuen, Good Samaritan in Brockton, St. Anne’s in Fall River, and Norwood Hospital – were all hurting. Worse, the system was weighed down by debt and underfunded pensions. De la Torre moved quickly to cut costs, improve efficiency, and negotiate increased reimbursement rates paid to Caritas hospitals by Blue Cross and other insurers. His actions helped turn around Caritas’s finances, going from a $20 million loss in 2008 to a $30 million operating income in 2009. But the debt, pension liabilities, and lack of access to capital combined to become an albatross on the chain. As of March 2009, Caritas had only 40 days’ cash on hand, according to Mark Rich, the CFO, who took to keeping extra-large bottles of Tums on his desk.

His solution was the private equity take-over:
In classic de la Torre style, the deal promised something for each of the stakeholders. The archdiocese, which administered the Caritas pension fund, would see support for the fund to the tune of $295 million as well as a continued commitment that the hospitals would follow Catholic doctrine and not perform abortions or sterilizations. The SEIU would get job preservation and a stronger beachhead in Boston from which to try to expand its organizing efforts into the city’s big-name hospitals. The communities would see their local hospitals stay alive, even getting spruced up rather than stripped for parts. And Cerberus would get a dynamic leader who could offer them both a laboratory for testing the post-health care-overhaul national market and a sort of cloak of righteousness, given the hospitals’ history of working with the poor.

But how would Cerberus make money on its investment? The explanation in the article raises more questions than it answers:
As he sees it, through investment in information technology and bricks-and-mortar hospitals, he will be able to offer a highly integrated 'accountable care organization' that gives patients quality care, close to home, thereby keeping costs down. The key is insisting that patients get all but the most complex care from their community hospital, rather than seeking treatment for pneumonia or a broken arm at a big shop like Mass. General.

Left unsaid, though, is who could effectively "insist" that patients get all their care within the system?

The notion that such insistence is the key also appeared in other reports on the Cerberus take-over of Caritas. For example, on October 14, 2010, the Boston Globe reported on Dr de la Torre's responses to the Massachusetts Public Health Council in a hearing on whether the take-over should be approved:
De la Torre said his aim was to stop the 'leakage' of patients from communities served by Caritas hospitals to academic medical centers in Boston.

'The business plan, the strategy, or whatever you want to call it, is all about keeping care locally,' he said. 'If we improve the facilities, improve the infrastructure, make it so that our very own patients want to stay in our hospitals, that’s the business plan.'

The same notion appeared in a post in local television station WPRI's news blog about the possible take-over by Steward of another local hospital
Private equity investors did not buy Caritas and turn it into a for-profit medical complex for the purpose of standing still. Caritas executives say they want to improve business by reducing 'leakage' — patients leaving its suburban medical settings to be treated in Boston teaching hospitals.

In fact, a little Google searching revealed that Caritas Christi Network Services had been pushing "leakage reduction" in its own newsletter in the Fall, 2009 issue:
Our job now is to focus performance on two critical success factors:
reducing leakage and improving quality.

Leakage Reduction: Keep the Care in Caritas

Network-wide Referral Management

Our first initiative to help reduce leakage is to implement a network wide referral management

Region Specific Leakage Action Plans

Each of the Hospital and IPA presidents will collaborate to develop region specific action plans to reduce leakage. Together they will develop goals, identify reporting needs, and establish processes to achieve leakage targets. The participation and support of each physician IPA member will be important to the success of this initiative.

You and Your Patient

Your support in keeping the care you provide within the Caritas system and in participating in the care management initiatives is critical to the system’s success.

Note that Caritas Christi Network Services is apparently the subsidiary of Caritas Christi, now Steward Health Care, that employs physicians:
Caritas Christi Network Services (CCNS) is the second largest physician network in Massachusetts. Established in 2001, CCNS is responsible for the implementation and successful execution of managed care contracts, providing physicians with medical management services (referral and care management), quality improvement programs, data analysis, information systems and financial expertise.

But here is where it gets really tricky. It is one thing to aim to improve hospital services and accessibility in the hopes of attracting more patients. It is another thing to push physicians to refer patients to specific facilities for economic reasons, because physicians are supposed to make decisions for individual patients, including decisions about where to refer, based on the particular patient's needs and preferences.

So there are major questions about both the effectiveness and the ethics of "leakage reduction" based on applying leverage to physicians.

Summary: Will Someone End Up the "Greater Fool?"
Meanwhile, Paul Levy, the soon to be former CEO of BIDMC, who has not been afraid to say what he thinks on his blog, now called Not Running a Hospital, suggested that Cerberus, and by implication, Dr de la Torre, are not in this for the long haul. He first introduced the "greater fool" theory of business management,
It seems that there is no end to the number of people with cash who will be intoxicated by a good story line, even when there is little substance to back it up. All of these stories depend on the capital markets to bolster the price of investments, counting on the 'greater fool' theory: There is always someone who will take on a bad investment at just the wrong time, providing a good return to those who are lucky enough to escape before the crash.

Then he raised the concern:
Those seeking to regulate the behavior and financial decisions of for-profit hospitals will find that their post hoc authority will likely be insufficient to protect the public interest from a depletion of plant and equipment and from a plan that is mainly meant to burnish the pre-tax and pre-depreciation short-term earnings of the firm so that it is ready for the initial public offering or resale to another private equity firm.

So the question is whether Superbowl advertisements and "leakage reduction" management can really make the new Steward Health Care a lasting success? And if not, will Cerberus Capital Management hang around just long enough to buff the system up for the next buyer?

And if that happens, Levy noted:
Who gets hurt if these deals go bust when the next generation of owners takes over and discovers that creating the margin to generate the expected return is very hard in the hospital world? Well, that very last set of investors, the 'greater fools.' But, as we have seen in the examples above, the hurt goes much further. Hospitals, though, are in a special category. Investors may come and go, but the community depends on its local hospital to provide high quality service. It is the residents of the community who are left holding the bag if the hospital corporation reaches the conclusion that ownership is not financially viable.

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.


Anonymous said...

The only thing I could ad to this piece is: Here we see a sales person allowed to take over the reigns of leadership.

Sales people have some common traits:

Ego, and the feeling of superiority.

The need to win at any cost and the willingness to say anything that is need to get what they want.

The desire to be the center of attention.

Ultimately sales are about belief in the person and sales people relish this role. Here we see this personality in the extreme. In the past a sales manager would control and mark a person like this as not managerial material.

Sadly, in much of American business this has become the norm. Past performance is swept aside in favor of someone with no track record who promises, that with their over the top plan, they can change the world. Reality is something that is to be bent to the needs of this person. Accounting tricks and staying one step ahead of the consequences of their actions keep these people employed.

As noted, it is those left at the end of the process who now have to clean up the mess, while the perpetrators of this fraud look for new jobs telling everyone who will listen: I made X million dollars at my last job and improved sales by Y amount.

Steve Lucas

AfraId said...

Here is how a debt ridden hospital makes money for a health system:
1) Buy a hospital that is failing and has a large debt.
2) Use the debt and the losses to justify a higher billing rate to Medicare based on a higher cost of doing business caused by the losses.
3) Medicare grants the increase because they have to, your costs are your costs after all.
4) Write off the debt, settle for 50 cents on the dollar or just jettison the asset in favor of keeping the higher rates in place for your other hospitals.
5) Repeat as often as you can to get your rates up as high as they can go.

Big health systems have been playing this game for quite some time now.

InformaticsMD said...

As he sees it, through investment in information technology and bricks-and-mortar hospitals, he will be able to offer a highly integrated 'accountable care organization

Investment in IT? Yes, that's the ticket.

It is sad to see such foolish ideas from someone now in charge of what I remember as a decent hospital from several electives there in the late 1970's, Carney.

It is one thing to aim to improve hospital services and accessibility in the hopes of attracting more patients. It is another thing to push physicians to refer patients to specific facilities for economic reasons

Aside from clinical issues of what's best for the patient, let's hope actual kickbacks are not part of this scheme.

-- SS

HMathewson, MD said...

I hope the Steward Health System Super Bowl ad was just for "bragging rights". It certainly had little or no "branding effect" on the 8 people watching it with me in Massachusetss. Like many other of the Super Bowl ads it was not at all clear as to what it was actually advertising until the very end, and the Stewart ad did not finish with a bang or even an memorable visual image. I, alone of all the ones in the room, noticed some hospital names in the ad, but that was it. The price of bragging is very high nowadays.

Anonymous said...


it depends on how you define "actual kickbacks"

I know systems already at the primary care level that are linking "total cost of care" for a patient panel to physician salary.

When administration makes it clear that keeping someone "in house" will keep that total cost of care down, physicians will respond accordingly.

More generally, the move back to capitation (with fancy new terms like ACO, bundled care, etc.) is one big physician kickback.

Afraid said...

I'm astounded that no AMC troll has yet commented on the reveal of how to profit from buying busted hospitals.

It is a glaring problem that Medicare allows and condones.

Drive your costs up with paper write offs and this will allow you to increase your Medicare billing. Further drive your costs up with paper write downs and double dips when you shutter the facility and then you can further justify billing rate increases.

All of the financial calculations are loaded with overhead burden from the buyer, which is the effectively used twice to justfy higher rates.

I know this because I saw it and understood the strategy behind it. It worked very well and is spreading like wildfire through the big hospital market.

What I am amazed about is that lack of any response can often be more telling of concern. Hard to prove and sounds silly to many I'm sure -- "of course they are petrified, they don't respond."

They actually believe its legal though and no Qui Tam would beat them on it. Who knows?