Private equity acquisitions targeted large, high-margin hospitals over 15-year period

investors sitting at a table with tablets and graphs
New data contrast the “prevailing narrative” of private equity extracting value from distressed businesses, but don’t yet answer whether investors’ interests in higher margins compromise quality care, researchers wrote in Health Affairs. (freedomz/shutterstock)

From 2003 to 2017, private equity firms focused their acquisition crosshairs on larger hospitals with higher operating margins and greater patient charge-to-cost ratios, according to a new review of healthcare investments published in Health Affairs.

These private equity (PE)-owned hospitals also saw greater increases to their operating margins and charge-to-cost ratios over the course of the 15-year study period than their non-PE-owned counterparts.

Combined with a decrease in all-personnel staffing ratios, the study’s researchers said these data make a case for further investigation into how PE investment may be influencing operational decisions to boost profits and secure favorable exits.

“[Short-term acute care] hospitals’ large size, stable cashflow environment and prevalence of valuable fixed assets (that is, properties) make them highly desirable targets for acquisition,” researchers wrote in Health Affairs. “Broadly speaking, PE acquisition of hospitals invites questions about the alignment of the financial incentives necessary to achieve high-quality clinical outcomes.”

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To inform that discussion, the researchers reviewed PE deal data collected by Pitchbook, CB Insights and Zephyr. They also collected information on hospital characteristics and financials from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ (CMS) Healthcare Provider Cost Reporting Information System database and the American Hospital Association’s Annual Survey.

Their efforts yielded 42 PE acquisitions involving 282 different hospitals during the 15-year time period. These deals were most frequent among hospitals in Mid-Atlantic and Southern states.

Of note, 161 of the acquired hospitals were tied to a single deal: Bain Capital, Kohlberg Kravis & Roberts and Merrill Lynch Global Private Equity’s roughly $33 billion (more than $21 billion cash, $11.7 billion debt) acquisition of HCA Healthcare in 2007.

The study outlined differences between the PE-acquired hospitals and others that were not acquired before any of the deals (in 2003) and after (in 2017).

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Nearly three-quarters of hospitals acquired by PE were for-profit in 2003, versus about a quarter of those that were not acquired, the researchers wrote. By 2017, those respective proportions had increased to 92.3% and 25.3%.

Acquired hospitals were significantly larger in terms of beds and total discharges both in 2003 and in 2017. In fact, while acquired hospitals increased in size during the 15-year window, other hospitals decreased in beds and discharges by 2017.

Nurse staffing ratios were similar on both ends of the study period for both categories of hospitals. However, all-staff ratios were lower among the soon-to-be-acquired hospitals in 2003 and saw a slight decrease over the years, whereas hospitals that had not been acquired instead recorded an increase over time.

In terms of financials, the researchers reviewed measures including net patient revenue per discharge, total operating expenses per discharge and the percentage of discharges paid out by Medicaid. Differences among these three areas were not significant with the exception of a larger 15-year increase in total operating expenses per discharge among non-PE hospitals.

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The primary financial differences between the PE and non-PE hospitals were instead found among the organizations’ percent operating margins and charge-to-cost ratio, the researcher wrote.

In 2003, both measures were higher among the soon-to-be acquired hospitals. By 2017, the percent operating margin and charge-to-cost ratio increased 66.5% and 105% among the PE-acquired hospitals, respectively, versus changes of -3.8% and 54.2% for the non-PE hospitals.

These and the study’s other findings outline the playbook an investor could follow to identify a profitable hospital and increase its margins, the researchers wrote.

“Post-acquisition, these hospitals appeared to continue to boost profits by restraining growth in cost per patient, in part by limiting staffing growth,” they wrote.

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The trends affirm findings published in a 2020 JAMA Internal Medicine study, which similarly tied PE acquisition to moderate income and charge-to-cost ratio increases over the same time period, the researchers wrote.

The data also contrast “the prevailing narrative” that PE investors target distressed businesses to extract value for a quick turnaround sale, they wrote. Outside of a few outlier acquisitions, the researchers said that PE’s goal for short-term acute care hospitals appears to be the opposite—operations refinement and further profit improvements among potential top performers.

Still, the differing structure of PE investments warrants questions as to whether these groups are promoting high-quality outcomes alongside their high margins, Anaeze Offodile II, M.D., an assistant professor at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and the study’s lead author, said during an accompanying Health Affairs podcast.

In contrast to the public market, PE investments often lean on leveraged buyouts that are higher risk and higher reward, he said. Partners are targeting a three-to-seven-year exit window for their investments and often need to hit 20% to 30% annualized returns.

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More investigation is needed to determine whether these economic incentives come in tandem with better care or are instead hindering patient outcomes, he said.

“The question becomes ‘Are there unintended consequences or tradeoffs invited due to pursuit of profitability?’” Offodile said during the podcast. “I think someone could make the same argument that if there is a value enhancement strategy by PE firms, then it behooves them to actually raise the level of care delivery up because that enhances the value and engineers a better sale.

“In seeing that sort of exploratory result and how it challenged the prevailing narrative, we’re glad that we took this sort of [setting the] stage approach, and I look [forward] to seeing what we find—which we’re doing now—with respect to quality, spending, access domains,” he said.