Beyond the Byline: Private equity’s interest in healthcare draws congressional scrutiny

Beyond the Byline: Private equity's interest in healthcare draws congressional scrutiny

Alex Kacik: Hello. Welcome back to Modern Healthcare’s Beyond the Byline, where we offer behind the scenes look into our reporting. I’m your host, Alex Kacik. I write about hospital operations for Modern Healthcare. Today I’m talking with Jessie Hellmann, our politics reporter to talk about private equities interest in the post acute space. Thanks for joining me, Jessie.

Jessie Hellmann: Thanks for having me.

Alex Kacik: So private equity firms are investing more into healthcare. They’re rolling up specialty practices. They’re investing in risk bearing primary care providers, also in the behavioral health space, home health, urgent care, and long-term care facilities, and other areas where they think they can generate a return on investment. It seems wherever there’s fragmentation, they look to scale operations to spread costs over a wider asset base. But this has prompted concerns about what impact this investment is having on operations of these various healthcare entities. I’m curious, Jessie, what’s caught Congress’s attention at this point?

Jessie Hellmann: So I think Congress paying attention to private equity investment in healthcare isn’t necessarily something that is new. We know private equity has been investing in healthcare at an increased rate over the past 10 years, and they did look at the issue about 10 years ago. I think what kind of spurred them to take another look at it is the pandemic and the impact of COVID on nursing homes. We saw 20% of COVID deaths happening in nursing homes. Despite the fact that nursing home residents are only about 1% of the population. So lawmakers are wondering what impact, if any private equity investment on nursing homes is having on patient health outcomes?

Alex Kacik: To give you a little insight into our reporting process, we often try to talk with private equity firms and they aren’t really compelled to disclose any of their investment strategies. Tara Bannow has a story coming out this week that’s looking into how private equity firms are investing in urgent care facilities. Typically, they eye like a three to five-year turnaround time where they’ll become investors in some sort of, let’s say a post acute, whether it’s hospice or assisted living and skilled nursing and try to sell it for a profit over that time period. And then they have a variety of strategies to try to cut costs, increase revenues. When it comes to the post acute sector there’s been a gradual transition from not-for-profit ownership to for-profit entities. And plus we’re seeing private equity increasingly take on majority ownership of these facilities, but we haven’t seen a lot of data on how private equity investment impacts outcomes.

Alex Kacik: We got a little bit of insight February from the paper, a working paper looked at how investment, private equity investment correlates to patient outcomes. And that was published in the National Bureau of Economic Research. What did that paper show Jessie?

Jessie Hellmann: So I think it’s working paper caught the attention of a lot of members of Congress who just felt very disturbed by the results. The working paper concluded that going to a private equity owned nursing home, increased mortality for patients by 10%. And some of the reasons the authors gave our staffing reductions. One of the ways private equity can try to turn a profit at nursing homes is by cutting staff. Other studies have shown generally that having a higher staff to patient ratio can lead to poorer health outcomes. So that’s one of the reasons they gave. Another reason potentially is higher use of anti-psychotic drugs in nursing homes owned by private equity, which can also increase higher mortality in the elderly population.

Alex Kacik: Yeah. And like you said, we’ve seen this cost cutting strategy play out. And when there are fewer people on staff and let’s say they’re looking at, their caseload goes from six to 10 or 12 of a day. It just gets hard for them to manage and care for each one of those patients. Staffing being typically around half of these entities expense balance sheets. That’s often where they’ll eye some cost cutting and potential return there as they look to boost their margins. But it’s interesting, you brought up in terms of the anti-psychotic drugs in your reporting, you showed that at times private equity firms could also contracts with subcontractors that have related businesses. So I don’t know if that’s related to technology or maybe staffing management. I thought that was an interesting development where they seem to be double-dipping of sorts.

Jessie Hellmann: Yeah. That’s something Congress wants to learn more about. There’s a bill introduced last year by Ways and Means Committee chairman Richard Neal about which significantly increased the amount of information, private equity and other investors with controlling interest in health entities have to report to the IRS. And a big part of that information they’re looking for is on these related party transactions. One of the ways private equity can make money off of an investment in a nursing home is by contracting with a related entity that is also owned by the private equity firm. It can be a staffing service, it could be a pharmacy, and just overcharging for those services. Congress wants to know how often that’s happening, both because that’s money that’s not going to patient care. But also if these nursing homes are participating in Medicare and Medicaid, which most are, they want to know where that money is going.

Alex Kacik: And on the real estate side, I’ve seen some sale lease back transactions too, where previously these companies will own outright these real estate assets, and then they’ll sell them and then lease them back from another entity. It’s one way they can develop some quick cash and providers can reap the sale proceeds and they also get the benefit of not having to do all the maintenance and infrastructure to those buildings. But it also creates somewhat of a disconnect at times between building and facility management and operations. So yeah, I imagine that how these contracting trends and strategies are playing out they’ll be taking a look at all these different types of investment strategies in ways that they’ve maybe to try to regenerate a return. I imagine this will be all under congressional purview if this bill goes through.

Jessie Hellmann: Yeah. So health investors with controlling interest, would have to report gross receipts, acquisitions, real estate payments, and leases, and any payments to entities related to the provider. So Congress is really just trying to get a better understanding of private equities involvement, healthcare, specifically with nursing homes. But also, I know as we’ve talked about the four other areas they’re investing in urgent care, stuff like that.

Alex Kacik: Yeah. And I’m wondering, just the historical context of this. You mentioned, Congress has looked into this some 10 years ago. Imagine the pandemic and the related effects have prompted them to look at this again, as they try to understand how those intersected, private equity investment and how these healthcare companies operated during the pandemic. But has there been a lot of movement here over the years? It sounds like private equity in general has been able to maintain relative secrecy or just isn’t obligated to report a whole lot. So I’m just wondering if you could shed some light on some of the historical context when it comes to how Congress has looked and intervened in any of these private equity deals.

Jessie Hellmann: So about 10 years ago, Congress looked at this issue and required that private equity report more information in Medicare cost reports. Those are not public, which makes it hard for researchers, and journalists, and the public to know exactly what is in these reports. And as you noted, transparency hasn’t improved much over the years. So I think they’re hoping to take another look at the issue, maybe bring down the hammer a little harder. And then after that, once they have a greater feel for the landscape of the investment and the healthcare space, I think that is when they will look about what they should do about it. If it does affect patient outcomes, I’m sure they’re going to want to do more work on that specifically.

Alex Kacik: Sure. And you’re looking at patient outcomes. You’re also looking at better control healthcare costs, which many say are at this point, increasing at an unsustainable rate accounting for almost a fifth of our GDP and running 3.8 trillion in the total US bill in 2019. And another way to get at those costs, Congress is also looking into consolidation across healthcare, specifically between hospitals and hospitals acquisitions of physician practices. I know Senator Klobuchar has a related bill in the works that would increase some of the regulatory oversight and increased funding. So they could add more employees to, not only do new investigations, but also retrospective studies on how these mergers affected these local markets.

Alex Kacik: The FTC has asked insurers for claims data regarding hospital physician deals and transactions. And states like California are also weighing legislation that would prompt more oversight of smaller transactions. I’m curious, do you see any overlap, as Congress looks at private equity? I know we watched that subcommittee hearing that was from a couple of weeks ago and some senators have questions, not only about the effect on cost, but also private equity investments. Do you see some overlap here on how they’re trying to tackle some of these pernicious and long-standing issues related to increasing costs and potentially harmful effects of competition?

Jessie Hellmann: Yeah. I think there are questions about how private equity affects hospital consolidation. And experts of that hearing noted that we just don’t know yet. There’s not a lot of data on the issue. And so I think that’s really what Congress is trying to get at, but I also think separately Congress is hoping to do more on the issue of hospital consolidation outside of the private equity space. And I think that shows a willingness to address the issue of rising healthcare costs and what the source of that is. And that’s how much we pay for services.

Alex Kacik: Yeah. This week I’ll have a story that’s looking at why some hospitals are looking to separate from their parent companies and trying to analyze how expenses and revenue changed after mergers. At least the four or five cases that we studied, a lot of times expenses and revenues increased at a similar rate, which lends itself to the conclusion that a lot of times these entities get bigger, but not more efficient. Looming over this too is Xavier Becerra the new HHS secretary and Kamala Harris who both served as a respective California attorneys general. And they were tough on hospital mergers during their stents. So behind all these deals, I imagine there’s increased interest on how the Biden administration will view some of this potential and by competitive activity and these investments coming from outside healthcare.

Jessie Hellmann: Some members of Congress are also looking at what they can do about what they say are anti-competitive contracts between insurers and providers, where they say all or nothing provisions that require an insurance plan have all of a systems providers in their network, or none at all are unfair. So I think that that’s another area we’re going to see Congress potentially acting on, is some of these contracts.

Alex Kacik: Great, Jessie. Hey, well, thank you so much for sharing your time and insight. We look forward to keeping up with that story and what else you got coming out of The Hill. So thank you so much.

Jessie Hellmann: Thank you.

Alex Kacik: All right. Thank you all for listening. If you’d like to subscribe and support our work, there’s a link in the show notes. You can subscribe to Beyond the Byline, wherever you listen to your podcasts. And you can stay connected with our work by following Jessie and I and Modern Healthcare on Twitter, and LinkedIn. We appreciate your support.

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Marie Maynes
Marie Maynes is a Sports enthusiast and writes for the Sports section of ANH.