“Private investment in U.S. health care has grown significantly over the past decade thanks to investors who have been keen on getting into a large, rapidly growing, and recession-proof market with historically high returns,” Lovisa Gustafsson, Shanoor Seervai, and David Blumenthal wrote in the Harvard Business Review in 2019. “Private equity and venture capital firms are investing in everything from health technology startups to addiction treatment facilities to physician practices. In 2018, the number of private equity deals alone reached almost 800, which had a total value of more than $100 billion. While private capital is bringing innovation to health care through new delivery models, technologies, and operational efficiencies, there is another side to investors entering health care. Their common business model of buying, growing through acquisition or ‘roll-up,’ and selling for above-average returns is cause for concern. Take the phenomenon of surprise bills: medical invoices that a patient unexpectedly receives because he or she was treated by an out-of-network provider at an in-network facility. These have been getting a lot of attention lately and are driven, at least in part, by investor-backed companies that remain out of network (without contracts with insurers) and can therefore charge high fees for services that are urgently or unexpectedly required by patients. Private equity firms have been buying and growing the specialties that generate a disproportionate share of surprise bills: emergency room physicians, hospitalists, anesthesiologists, and radiologists.In other sectors of the economy, consumers can find out the price of a good or service and then choose not to buy it if they don’t believe it to be worth the cost. In surprise bill cases, they can’t. Patients are often unaware that they need these particular services in advance and have little choice of physician when they use them. To blunt growing bi-partisan political support for protecting patients from surprise bills, various groups have lobbied against legislation that would limit the practice. They include Doctor Patient Unity, which has spent more than $28 million on ads and is primarily funded by large private-equity-backed companies that own physician practices and staff emergency rooms around the country. Their work seems to be having an impact: efforts to pass protections have stalled in Congress.” Lovisa Gustafsson, Shanoor Seervai, and David Blumenthal, “The Role of Private Equity in Driving Up Health Care Prices,” Harvard Business Review.
Jeanne Pinder is the founder and CEO of ClearHealthCosts. She worked at The New York Times for almost 25 years as a reporter, editor and human resources executive, then volunteered for a buyout and founded... More by Jeanne Pinder