Last week’s New York Times article on cardiac care at some HCA-owned hospitals yielded a chorus of comments from readers who argued that for-profit hospital care is inherently low-quality care. As it happened, in working on a history of the investor-owned hospital sector, I had just been crunching data that might either support or refute that assertion. The results are surprising, if far from decisive.
Last September, the Joint Commission released the first of what it said would be annual lists recognizing “Top Performers on Key Quality Measures™” among the nation’s accredited hospitals. The all-star roster is based on “core measure performance data” that hospitals report to the Commission. The data cover adherence to “accountability measures ” established as best practice in the eyes of the Commission – making sure to prescribe beta-blockers for heart attack patients at discharge, for example, or to discontinue prophylactic antibiotics within 24 hours after surgery.
Unlike hospital quality measures that look at results – death rates and other outcomes – this one looks at processes. In theory, then, it ought to be more fair to hospitals that tend to serve sicker or more compromised patients, such as government-run hospitals in inner cities.
For more than a year, I have immersed myself in the history of for-profit hospital chains and their associated enterprises. My goal is to produce an account of the for-profit sector that will be a valuable resource to all parties involved in the serious health care policy-making that must surely take place in coming years.
Along the way, I have begun to understand the pressures that will soon make for-profit provider chains an even greater force than they already are – and will lead to an existential crisis in the non-profit hospital sector.
Hospitals wield immense influence in every city and county in the U.S. They are always among the largest employers in town. They touch the lives of all in the community as the sites of all births, most deaths and many health events in between.
Even the smallest hospital, in the smallest town, is worth tens of millions of dollars. Thus, for example, buyers in 2010 paid $28 million for a 124-bed facility in Marion, South Carolina (population 7,000), and $86 million for a 108-bed hospital in Ottumwa, Iowa (population 25,000). And at the upper end of the scale, another buyer acquired the 2,000-bed Detroit Medical Center for $1.5 billion.
Those buyers were for-profit hospital chains, and the sellers were non-profit operators. Some of the factors motivating such transactions have been around since the advent of the for-profit chain era in the 1960s – including inadequate access to capital for charities and local governments that needed to upgrade their hospitals, competitive pressure from deep-pocketed for-profits, and crises arising from poor management and governance. Although not-for-profit hospitals have long been coping with those issues and have often chosen to solve their problems by selling out to the for-profit chains, eighty percent of American hospitals are still non-profits, with about a third of those being government-owned. Those proportions are about to change dramatically.