The rising danger of private equity in healthcare

Private equity (PE) acquisitions in healthcare have exploded in the past decade. The number of private equity buyouts of physician practices increased six-fold from 2012-2021. At least 386 hospitals are now owned by private equity firms, comprising 30% of for-profit hospitals in the U.S. 

Emerging evidence shows that the influence of private equity in healthcare demands attention. Here’s what’s in the latest research.

What is private equity?

There are a few key characteristics that differentiate private equity firms from other for-profit companies. At a 2023 event hosted by the NIHCM Foundation, Assistant Professor of Health Care Management at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania Dr. Atul Gupta explained these factors:

  1. Financial engineering. PE firms primarily use debt to finance acquisitions (that’s why they’re often known as “leveraged buyouts”). But unlike in other acquisitions, this debt is placed on the balance sheet of the the target company (ie. the physician practice or hospital). 
  2. Short-term goals. PE firms make the majority of their profits when they sell, and they look to exit within 5-8 years. That means they generally look for ways to cut costs quickly, like reducing staff or selling real estate. 
  3. Moral hazard. PE companies can make a big profit even if their target firm goes bankrupt. This is different from most investments where the success of the investor depends on how well the target company does.

The nature of private equity itself has serious implications for healthcare, in which the health of communities depends on the long-term sustainability and quality improvement of hospitals and physician practices. But are these concerns borne out in the real world?   

PE acquisition and adverse events

A recent study in JAMA from researchers at Harvard Medical School and the University of Chicago analyzed patient mortality and the prevalence of adverse events at hospitals acquired by private equity compared to non-acquired hospitals. The study used Medicare claims from more than 4 million hospitalizations from 2009-2019, comparing claims at 51 PE-acquired hospitals and 249 non-acquired hospitals to serve as controls.

In-hospital mortality decreased slightly at PE-acquired hospitals compared to controls, but not 30-day mortality. This may be because the patient mix at PE-acquired hospitals shifted more toward a lower-risk group, and transfers to other acute care hospitals increased. 

However, there were concerning results for patient safety. The rate of adverse events at PE-acquired hospitals compared to control hospitals increased by 25%, including a 27% increase in falls, 38% increase in central line-associated bloodstream infections (CLABSI), and double the rate of surgical site infections. The authors found the rates of CLABSI and surgical site infections at PE-acquired hospitals alarming because overall surgical volume and central line placements actually decreased. 

What could be behind these higher rates of adverse events after PE acquisition? In a Washington Post op-ed, Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the School of Public Health at Brown University, writes that it’s down to two things: staffing levels and adherence to patient safety protocols. “Both cost money, and it is not a stretch to connect cuts in staffing and a reduced focus on patient safety with an increased risk of harm for patients,” he writes.   

Social responsibility impact

Private equity acquisitions may have a negative effect on patient safety, but what about social responsibility? In a recent report from PE Stakeholder on the impact of Apollo Global Management’s reach into healthcare, the authors use the Lown Institute Hospitals Index to understand hospitals owned by Apollo perform on social responsibility. Lifepoint Health, a health system owned by Apollo, was ranked 222 out of 296 systems on social responsibility nationwide. And in Virginia, North Carolina, and Arizona, some of the worst-ranked hospitals in the state for social responsibility are those owned by Lifepoint Health, the PE Stakeholder report shows.

Apollo Global Management is the second largest private equity firm in the United States, with $598 billion total assets under management, according to the report. The PE stakeholder report outlines concerning practices by Apollo, including putting high levels of debt that lowers hospitals’ credit ratings and increases their interest rates, cutting staff and essential healthcare services, and selling off real estate for a quick buck. If we care about hospital social responsibility we should clearly be concerned about private equity acquisitions. 

The bigger picture

Private equity buyouts did not come from out of nowhere, so what does this trend tell us about our healthcare system? PE acquisitions are in many ways a symptom of larger issues in healthcare, such as increasing administrative burden, tight margins, and lack of regulation on consolidation. For owners of private physician practices that face a lot of administrative work, deciding to sell to a PE firm to reduce this workload and focus on patient care (not to mention, getting a hefty payout) is a tempting proposal. 

In the Washington Post, Ashish Jha describes what made his colleague decide to sell his practice to a PE firm: “The price he was getting was very good, and he was happy to outsource the headache of running the business (managing billing, making sure there was adequate coverage for nights and weekends, etc.).”

“In many ways, private equity is both a response to and an accelerator of broader health system trends – one in which consolidation is happening quickly, care is being delivered by larger and larger entities, and corporate influence is growing.”

Jane M. Zhu, MD, MPP, MSHP, Associate Professor of Medicine at Oregon Health & Science University, at NIHCM Foundation Event

PE buyouts are also indicative of a larger trend, what some researchers call the “financialization” of health. As Dr. Joseph Bruch at the University of Chicago and colleagues describe in the New England Journal of Medicine, financialization refers to the “transformation of public, private, and corporate health care entities into salable and tradable assets from which the financial sector may accumulate capital.”  

Financialization is a sort of merging of the financial and healthcare sectors; not only are financial actors like private equity buying up healthcare providers, but healthcare institutions are also acting like financial firms. For example, 22 health systems have investment arms, including nonprofit system Ascension, which has its own private equity operation worth $1 billion. The financialization of healthcare is also reflected in the boards of nonprofit hospitals. A 2023 study of US News top-ranked hospitals found that a plurality of their board members (44%) were from the financial sector. 

What we can do about it?

What can we do to mitigate harms caused by PE acquisitions? In Health Affairs Forefront, executive director of Community Catalyst Emily Stewart and executive director of the Private Equity Stakeholder Project Jim Baker provide some policy ideas to stop the “metastasizing disease” of private equity:

  • Joint Liability. Currently PE firms can put all of their debt on the balance sheet of the firm they acquire, letting them off the hook for this debt and making it harder for the acquired company to succeed. “Requiring private equity firms to share in the responsibility of the debt…would prevent them from making huge profits while they are saddling hospitals and nursing homes with debts that ultimately impact worker pay and cut off care to patients,” write Stewart and Baker.
  • Regulate mergers. Private equity acquisitions often go under the radar because the acquisitions are small enough to not be reported to authorities. But the U.S. Federal Trade Commission could be more aggressive in evaluating mergers and buyouts by PE, as they have done recently in Texas, where a PE firm has been buying up numerous anesthesia practices. 
  • Transparency of PE ownership. It can be hard to know when hospitals are bought by a PE firm. The Department of Health and Human Services could require disclosure of PE ownership for hospitals as they have done for nursing homes.
  • Remove tax loopholes. The carried interest loophole allows PE management fees to be taxed at as capital gains, which is a lower rate than corporate income. Closing this loophole would remove a big incentive that makes PE buyouts so attractive for firms.  

“It is clear that the problem is not the lack of solutions but rather the lack of political will to take on private equity,” write Steward and Baker. We need not to not only stem the tide of PE acquisitions sweeping through healthcare, but address the financialization of healthcare more broadly, to put patients back at the center of our health system.