By Fred Schulte

Kaiser Health News

Two-year-old Zion Gastelum died just days after dentists performed root canals and put crowns on six baby teeth at a clinic affiliated with a private equity firm.

His parents sued the Kool Smiles dental clinic in Yuma, Arizona, and its private equity investor, FFL Partners. They argued the procedures were done needlessly, in keeping with a corporate strategy to maximize profits by overtreating kids from lower-income families enrolled in Medicaid. Zion died after being diagnosed with “brain damage caused by a lack of oxygen,” according to the lawsuit.

Kool Smiles “overtreats, underperforms and overbills,” the family alleged in the suit, which was settled last year under confidential terms. FFL Partners and Kool Smiles had no comment but denied liability in court filings.

Private equity is rapidly moving to reshape health care in America, coming off a banner year in 2021, when the deep-pocketed firms plowed $206 billion into more than 1,400 health care acquisitions, according to industry tracker PitchBook.

Seeking quick returns, these investors are buying into eye care clinics, dental management chains, physician practices, hospices, pet care providers, and thousands of other companies that render medical care nearly from cradle to grave. Private equity-backed groups have even set up special “obstetric emergency departments” at some hospitals, which can charge expectant mothers hundreds of dollars extra for routine perinatal care.

As private equity extends its reach into health care, evidence is mounting that the penetration has led to higher prices and diminished quality of care, a KHN investigation has found. KHN found that companies owned or managed by private equity firms have agreed to pay fines of more than $500 million since 2014 to settle at least 34 lawsuits filed under the False Claims Act, a federal law that punishes false billing submissions to the federal government with fines. Most of the time, the private equity owners have avoided liability.

New research by the University of California-Berkeley has identified “hot spots” where private equity firms have quietly moved from having a small foothold to controlling more than two-thirds of the market for physician services such as anesthesiology and gastroenterology in 2021. And KHN found that in San Antonio, more than two dozen gastroenterology offices are controlled by a private equity-backed group that billed a patient $1,100 for her share of a colonoscopy charge — about three times what she paid in another state.

It’s not just prices that are drawing scrutiny.

Whistleblowers and injured patients are turning to the courts to press allegations of misconduct or other improper business dealings. The lawsuits allege that some private equity firms, or companies they invested in, have boosted the bottom line by violating federal false claims and anti-kickback laws or through other profit-boosting strategies that could harm patients.

“Their model is to deliver short-term financial goals and in order to do that you have to cut corners,” said Mary Inman, an attorney who represents whistleblowers.

Federal regulators, meanwhile, are almost blind to the incursion, since private equity typically acquires practices and hospitals below the regulatory radar. KHN found that more than 90% of private equity takeovers or investments fall below the $101 million threshold that triggers an antitrust review by the Federal Trade Commission and the U.S. Justice Department.

Spurring growth

Private equity firms pool money from investors, ranging from wealthy people to college endowments and pension funds. They use that money to buy into businesses they hope to flip at a sizable profit, usually within three to seven years, by making them more efficient and lucrative.

Private equity has poured nearly $1 trillion into nearly 8,000 health care transactions during the past decade, according to PitchBook.

Fund managers who back the deals often say they have the expertise to reduce waste and turn around inefficient, or moribund, businesses, and they tout their role in helping to finance new drugs and technologies expected to benefit patients in years to come.

Critics see a far less rosy picture. They argue that private equity’s playbook, while it may work in some industries, is ill suited for health care, when people’s lives are on the line.

In the health care sphere, private equity has tended to find legal ways to bill more for medical services: trimming services that don’t turn a profit, cutting staff, or employing personnel with less training to perform skilled jobs — actions that may put patients at risk, critics say.

KHN, in a series of articles published this year, has examined a range of private equity forays into health care, from its marketing of America’s top-selling emergency contraception pill to buying up whole chains of ophthalmology and gastroenterology practices and investing in the booming hospice care industry and even funeral homes.

These deals happened on top of well-publicized takeovers of hospital emergency room staffing firms that led to outrageous “surprise” medical bills for some patients, as well as the buying up of entire rural hospital systems.

“Their only goal is to make outsize profits,” said Laura Olson, a political science professor at Lehigh University and a critic of the industry.

Hot spots

When it comes to acquisitions, private equity firms have similar appetites, according to a KHN analysis of 600 deals by the 25 firms that PitchBook says have most frequently invested in health care.

Eighteen of the firms have dental companies listed in their portfolios, and 16 list centers that offer treatment of cataracts, eye surgery, or other vision care, KHN found.

Fourteen have bought stakes in animal hospitals or pet care clinics, a market in which rapid consolidation led to a recent antitrust action by the FTC. The agency reportedly also is investigating whether U.S. Anesthesia Partners, which operates anesthesia practices in nine states, has grown too dominant in some areas.

Private equity has flocked to companies that treat autism, drug addiction, and other behavioral health conditions. The firms have made inroads into ancillary services such as diagnostic and urine-testing and software for managing billing and other aspects of medical practice.

Private equity has done so much buying that it now dominates several specialized medical services, such as anesthesiology and gastroenterology, in a few metropolitan areas, according to new research made available to KHN by the Nicholas C. Petris Center at UC-Berkeley.

Although private equity plays a role in just 14% of gastroenterology practices nationwide, it controls nearly three-quarters of the market in at least five metropolitan areas across five states, including Texas and North Carolina, according to the Petris Center research.

Similarly, anesthesiology practices tied to private equity hold 12% of the market nationwide but have swallowed up more than two-thirds of it in parts of five states, including the Orlando, Florida, area, according to the data.

These expansions can lead to higher prices for patients, said Yashaswini Singh, a researcher at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University.

In a study of 578 physician practices in dermatology, ophthalmology, and gastroenterology published in JAMA Health Forum in September, Singh and her team tied private equity takeovers to an average increase of $71 per medical claim filed and a 9% increase in lengthy, more costly, patient visits.

Singh said in an interview that private equity may develop protocols that bring patients back to see physicians more often than in the past, which can drive up costs, or order more lucrative medical services, whether needed or not, that boost profits.

“There are more questions than answers,” Singh said. “It really is a black hole.”

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