Tag: Private equity

Wait Till Health Care Tries Dynamic Pricing


Nice try, Wendy’s. During an earnings call last month, President and CEO Kirk Tanner outlined the company’s plan to try a new form of pricing: “Beginning as early as 2025, we will begin testing more enhanced features like dynamic pricing and day-part offerings along with AI-enabled menu changes and suggestive selling.” 

None of the analysts on the call questioned the statement, but the backlash from the public was immediate — and quite negative. As Reuters described it: “the burger chain was scorched on social media sites.”

Less than two weeks later Wendy’s backtracked – err, “clarified” – the statement. “This was misconstrued in some media reports as an intent to raise prices when demand is highest at our restaurants,” a company blog post explained. “We have no plans to do that and would not raise prices when our customers are visiting us most.”

The company was even firmer in an email to CNN: “Wendy’s will not implement surge pricing, which is the practice of raising prices when demand is highest. This was not a change in plans. It was never our plan to raise prices when customers are visiting us the most.”

OK, then. Apology accepted.

At this point it is worth explaining a distinction between dynamic pricing and the more familiar surge pricing. As Omar H. Fares writes in The Conversation: “Although surge pricing and dynamic pricing are often used interchangeably, they have slightly different definitions. Dynamic pricing refers to any pricing model that allows prices to fluctuate, while surge pricing refers to prices that are adjusted upward.”

Uber and other ride sharing services are well known for their surge pricing, whereas airlines’ pricing is more dynamic, figuring out prices by seat by when purchased by who is purchasing, among other factors.

Wendy’s wouldn’t be the first company to use dynamic pricing and it won’t be the last. Drew Patterson, co-founder of restaurant dynamic pricing provider Juicer, told The Wall Street Journal that dozens of restaurant brands used his company’s software. The company’s website doesn’t publicize those brands, of course. Still, he emphasized: “You need to make it clear that prices go up and they go down.” 

Dave & Busters is public about its pricing strategy. “We’re going to have a dynamic pricing model, so we have the right price at the right time to match the peak demand,” Dave & Buster’s CEO Chris Morris said during an investor presentation last year.  On the other hand, Dine Brands (Applebee’s/IHOP) Chief Executive John Peyton said. “We don’t think it’s an appropriate tool to use for our guests at this time.”

The potential revenue benefits are obvious, but there are risks, as Wendy’s quickly found out. Mr. Fares says: “One of the biggest risks associated with dynamic pricing is the potential negative impact on customer perception and trust. If customers feel that prices are unfair or unpredictable, they may lose trust in the brand.”

What Wendy’s tried to announce is not ground-breaking. Catherine Rampell pointed this out in a Washington Post op-ed:

In other words, things will be cheaper when demand is low to draw in more customers when there’s otherwise idle capacity. Lots of restaurants do this, including other burger chains. It’s usually called “happy hour.” Or the “early-bird special.” Non-restaurants do it, too. Think the weekday matinee deals at your local movie theater or cheaper airfares on low-traffic travel days.

Indeed, The Wall Street Journal reported: “An estimated 61% of adults support variable pricing where a restaurant lowers or raises prices based on business, with younger consumers more in favor of the approach than older ones, according to an online survey of 1,000 people by the National Restaurant Association trade group.” 

I wonder what the support would have been if the question had been about healthcare instead of restaurants. 

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What Can We Learn from the Envision Bankruptcy?


Envision, a $10 billion physician and ambulatory surgery firm owned by private equity giant Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy on May 15.  It was the largest healthcare bankruptcy in US history.   Envision claimed to employ 25 thousand clinicians- emergency physicians, anesthesiologists, hospitalists, intensivists, and advanced practice nurses and contracted with 780 hospitals.  Envision’s ER physicians delivered 12 million visits in 2021, not quite 10% of the US total hospital ED visits.

The Envision bankruptcy eclipsed by nearly four-fold in current dollars the Allegheny Health Education and Research Foundation (AHERF) bankruptcy in the late 1990’s.   KKR has written off $3.5 billion in equity in Envision.   Envision’s most valuable asset, AmSurg and its 257 ambulatory surgical facilities, was separated from the company with a sustainable debt structure.  And at least $5.6 billion of the remaining Envision debt will be converted to equity at the barrel of a gun, at dimes on the dollar of face value. 

KKR took Envision private in 2018 when Envision generated $1 billion in profit, in luminous retrospect the peak of the company’s good fortune.   Envision’s core business was physician staffing of hospital emergency departments and operating suites.    In 2016, then publicly traded, Envision merged with then publicly traded ambulatory surgical operator AmSurg.  This merger seemed at the time to be a sensible diversification of Envision’s “hospital contractor” business risk.   

Indeed, Envision’s bonus acquisition of anesthesia staffing provider Sheridan, acquired by AMSURG in 2014,  helped broaden its portfolio away from the Medicaid intensive core emergency room staffing business (EmCare), which required extensive cost-shifting (and out of network billing) to cover losses from treating Medicaid and uninsured patients.   It is clear from hindsight that where you start, e.g. your core business, limits your capacity to spread or effectively manage your business risk, an issue to which we will return.

The COVID hospital cataclysm can certainly be seen as a proximate cause of Envision’s demise.

The interruptions of elective care and the flooding of emergency departments with elderly COVID patients, which kept non-COVID emergencies away, damaged Envision’s core business as well as nuking ambulatory surgery. By the spring of 2020, Envision was exploring a bankruptcy filing.  An estimated $275 million in CARES Act relief and draining a $300 million emergency credit line from troubled European banker Credit Suisse temporarily staunched the bleeding.  But the pan-healthcare post-COVID labor cost surge also raised nursing expenses and led to selective further shutdowns in elective care and further cash flow challenges.  

While one cannot fault KKR’s due diligence team for missing a global infectious disease pandemic, with hindsight’s radiant clarity, there were other issues simmering on the back burner by the time of the 2018 deal that should have raised concerns.  Two large struggling investor owned hospital chains,  Tenet and Community Health Systems, began divesting marginal properties in earnest in 2018, placing a lot of Envision’s contracts in the pivotal states of Florida and Texas at risk.

More importantly,  there were escalating contract issues with  UnitedHealth, one of Envision’s biggest payers,  as well as increasing political agitation about out-of-network billing, which provided Envision vital incremental cash flow.  These problems culminated in a United decision in January 2021 to terminate insurance coverage with Envision, making its entire vast physician group “out of network”. 

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Some of My Best Friends are in Private Equity

Like moths to a flame, private equity investors are quick to pounce on those sectors of the economy that have the potential for higher than average returns. Such investors also have an appetite for the higher risk that accompanies those sectors. In this manner, private equity can serve a useful role in capital formation for the economy. It also helps money managers who want a portion of their portfolio to be in that part of the risk-reward spectrum.

Health care is a fertile field for private equity. You might not think so because of concern about rising costs, but as someone once said, “One person’s costs are another person’s income.” Let’s look at it this way. First, more people will have access to insurance to pay for diagnosis and treatment because they will be newly eligible for private insurance under the national health care reform law. Second, demographic changes in society are producing an ever-increasing demand for health care services. Longer lifespans and the aging population offer a growing number of people with cancer and the other diseases that are more likely to occur with age. The number of Medicare beneficiaries is projected to rise from 46.6 million today to 78 million in 2030. (It was 40 million in the year 2000.)

It is with this background that we should consider the growing interest by private equity in proton beam facilities. You have heard before about my real concern about the cost impact of rapid expansion of the number of such facilities.

I want to expand on that today and give you a sense of how the dollars work in this kind of investment. I have pointed out how the Medicare rate-setting process contributes to its profitability. Let’s look at this in very rough form.Continue reading…