Private equity (PE) tends to get a bad rap when it comes to health care. Some see it as a disruptive force that prioritizes profits over the patient experience, and that it's hurting the industry by creating a more consolidated marketplace. Others, however, see it as an opportunity for innovation, growth, and more movement towards value-based care.
Radio Advisory's Rachel Woods sat down with Advisory Board's Sarah Hostetter and Vidal Seegobin to discuss the good and bad elements of PE and what leaders can do to make it be a valuable partner to their practices.
Read a lightly edited excerpt from the interview below and download the episode for the full conversation.
Rachel Woods: Clearly there are a lot of feelings about private equity. I'm frankly not that surprised, because the more we see PE get involved in the health care space, we hear more negative feelings about what that means for health care.
Frankly, this bad guy persona is even seen in mainstream media. I can think of several cable medical dramas that have made private equity, or maybe it's specific investors, as the literal enemy, right? The enemy of the docs that are the saviors of their hospital or ER or medical practice. Is that the right way we should be thinking about private equity? Are they the bad guy?
Sarah Hostetter: The short answer is no. I think private equity is a scapegoat for a lot of the other problems we're seeing in the industry. So the influx of money and where it's going and the influence that that has on health care. I think private equity is a prime example of that.
I also think the horror stories all get lumped together. So we don't think about who the PE firm is or what is being invested in. We put together physician practices and health systems and SNPs, and we lump every story all together, as opposed to considering those on their individual merits.
Woods: And feeds to this bad guy kind of persona that's out there.
Hostetter: Yeah. And like you said, the media doesn't help, right? If the average consumer is watching and seeing different portrayals or lumped portrayals, it's not helping.
Vidal Seegobin: Private equity, as all actors in our complex ecosystem, is not a monolith, and no one has the monopoly on great decisions in health care, nor do they have a monopoly on the bad decisions in health care. And so if you attribute a bad case to private equity, then you also have to attribute the positive returns done from a private equity investment as well.
Hostetter: Agree with what Vidal's saying, but bottom line is that every stakeholder is not going to have the same outcomes or ripple effects from a private equity deal. It really depends on the deal itself, the market, and the vantage points that you take.
Woods: I want to actually play out a scenario with the two of you and I want you to talk about the positive and the potentially negative consequences for different sectors or different stakeholders.
So let's take the newest manifestation that Sarah, you talked to us through. Let's say that there is a PE packed multi-specialty practice heavily in value-based care. That practice starts to get bigger. They acquire other practices, including maybe even some big practices in a market and they start employing all of the unaffiliated or loosely affiliated practices in the market.
I am guessing that every health system leader listening to this episode is already starting to sweat. What does this mean for the incumbent health system?
Seegobin: So I think one thing that's going to be pretty clear is that size does confer clear advantages and health care is part and parcel that kind of benefit. What I think is challenging is when we're entering into a moment where access to capital is challenging for health systems in particular and we're going to need to scale up investments, health systems could see themselves falling further and further behind as private equity makes smart investments into these practices to both capture and retain volume. And as a consequence of that, reduces the amount of inpatient demand or the demand to their bread and butter services.
Hostetter: And I think it's really important that you phrase the question, Rae, as health system. Because we so often equate health system and hospital.
But a health system includes lots of hospitals, it includes ambulatory facilities, a range of services. And so I think for systems to equate health system and hospital, it's really hard when any type of super practice or large backed practice comes into the market.
Whether we are talking about a plan backed practice, a PE backed practice, or just a really large independent group. There are pressures on health systems who think of their job or their primary service as the hospital. And there is a moment where the power dynamics can shift in markets away from the health system, if they aren't able to pivot their strategy beyond just the hospital.
Woods: Which is exactly why health systems see this scenario as, let's just say it, threatening. Sarah, then how do the physicians feel? Do they have the opposite feelings as the incumbent health systems?
Hostetter: There's a huge range. Private equity is incredibly polarizing in the physician practice world, the same way that it is in other parts of the industry. So I think there is a hope from some practices that private equity is a type of investor that is aligned with them.
Physicians who go into private practice historically tend to be more entrepreneurial. They are shareholders in their own practice, so there are some natural synergies between private equity, business minded folks, and these physicians.
Also, even though I go into a small business, it takes a lot to run a small business, so there are potentially welcome synergies and help that you can get from a PE firm. On the flip side of that, there are groups who would never in a million years consider taking a private equity investment and are unwilling to have these conversations.
Woods: There is a tendency, especially in the conversation that we're having, for folks to think about private equity as being something that primarily impacts the provider space, at least when it comes to health care. But I'm not sure that that's actually true. So what consequences, good or bad, might the payers feel? Might the life sciences companies feel?
Seegobin: So one common refrain when talking about private equity and their acquisition or partnering with traditional health care businesses like physician practices is that they are immediately focused on cutting costs. So they are going to consolidate all of the purchasing contracts, they are going to make pretty aggressive decisions about real estate, all the types of cost components that run the business.
Now, if you are a kind of life sciences or a diagnostic business for whom you would depend on being an incumbent in those contracting decisions, you're worried that the private equity is either going to direct you to a lower cost provider, or in many cases, another business that the private equity firm owns as well, right?
They would love to keep synergies within the portfolio of businesses that they've acquired and they partner. So if you were relying on incumbent or historical purchasing practices with these physician practices, it can be disrupted, depending on the arrangement.
Hostetter: And then I think there's a range of potential implications for payers. So you have some payers who themselves are aggregating independent practices, and they're targeting the same type of practices that the PE firms that are betting on value-based care are targeting. They are targeting primary care groups who are big in Medicare Advantage. So there's some inherent competition potentially for the physician practice landscape there.
Woods: Well, and I think they're trying to offer the same thing, right? They're trying to offer capital. They're trying to do that with the promise of autonomy. And they're coming up against a competitive partner that is saying, "I can do both of those things and I can do it better and faster."
Hostetter: Yeah. And both of them are saying we can do it better and faster than hospitals. That's the other thing, right?
Woods: Which, that part is probably true.
Hostetter: Yeah. Their goals are aligned and they believe they can get there different ways. And I think autonomy is a big sticking point here for me or a big bellwether for me, because I think whoever can get to value-based care while preserving autonomy is going to win. You have to have some level of standardization to do value-based care well. You can't just let everyone do whatever they want. You need high quality results for lower cost. That inherently requires standardization. So who can thread the needle of getting that standardization while preserving a degree of autonomy?
It's fascinating, as we've had this call, it was suggested multiple times that payers actually might be the end of the line for some of these PE deals. That there's a lot of alignment between what payers are trying to do with their aggregation and what PE firms who are investing in primary care do, and hey, payers have a lot of money too. So could we actually see some of these PE deals end with a payer acquisition? Because they're trying to achieve similar things, just differently.