By JEFF GOLDSMITH
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”.