The answer is that they cannot, if we think about running the business on a long-term basis. What makes it work is extracting cash and the exit strategy, the heart and soul of private equity.
As Warren Buffett might say, let's keep this simple. A for-profit hospital system has the following disadvantages vis-a-vis a non-profit hospital system: (1) Its finances are a mixture of equity and taxable debt, both of which are more expensive than the nontaxable debt of a non-profit; (2) it pays taxes--federal and state income tax, property tax, and sales tax--on which the non-profit is exempt; and (3) it is an unattractive vehicle for charitable donations, compared to the tax-advantages offered donors of non-profits.
These are hefty financial advantages for non-profits, which nonetheless are fortunate if they are able to earn an operating margin of 3%. Admittedly, that's 3% of revenues, not a 3% return on capital.
An equity investor in a for-profit doesn't care about margin, strictly speaking, but rather is focused on the rate of return of his or her investment. But let's stick with the operating margin just for a moment, and let's just accept that a 3% margin would not generate the kind of equity return demanded by the market place: You pick the hurdle rate: 15%, 20%, 25%, more? It doesn't matter. A three percent margin just doesn't get you there.
Given the extra costs inherent for a for-profit firm, how can it do better than the 3% margin of the non-profit hospital? How can it offset the relative disadvantages by decreasing its costs or increasing its revenues sufficiently? Creswell and Abelson suggest that part of the answer for HCA has been to "upcode" its patients, collecting more money for the same services. They note that individual doctors receive great pressure to contribute to the hospital's income statement by offering unnecessary, high contribution services. They also suggest that HCA intentionally sends away lower paying patients. Finally, they hint that there might be some operating efficiencies employed by the for-profits that are not used by non-profits.
I do not judge those assertions (although I note that these are very thorough reporters), but I say to you that even this mix of actions would not produce such a substantially different margin as to satisfy private equity investors. Those investors are satisfied by two financial techniques employed by private equity firms in all kinds of industries.
First, use the cash flow of the firm to produce interim equity returns. Focus on EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, and depreciation). Employ a capital structure with a very high percentage of debt (i.e., leverage up). Minimize capital investments by not fully funding depreciation. Sell off unnecessary assets. These include things like the pathology laboratory, where you discontinue running your own laboratory. Call Quest and sell them the business, agreeing to pay them laboratory fees. Also, monetize the real estate value of your buildings, perhaps with sale-lease backs or outright sales. Meanwhile, purchase physician practices that will produce referral volumes, offering above-market prices. Pay your debt service costs, but extract as much cash as possible.
Your goal is to show steady growth in EBITDA. Think about it this way: The top line (revenue) is actually more important than your bottom line (net income after interest, taxes, and depreciation). You will do anything to add revenue (even, in the case of Vanguard Health Systems, buying the distressed Detroit Medical Center).*
But wait, some of those tactics produce cash in the short run but add operating costs in the long run. Some actually lose money. What good is that?
The answer comes from the second financial technique: Avoid the long run by flipping the business in an IPO (or to another private equity firm in a secondary buyout). The capital markets are awash in cash right now, money seeking opportunities. There is always a greater fool. You pick your timing, and you go to market with a success story--a record of top line growth, of EBITDA returns in the teens, a prominent public presence. Here's the secret part. You don't actually need to generate that much cash in your IPO to produce a great return for the equity investors. Remember, you have been extracting cash all along for them. Plus, you are highly leveraged. A small increment on the sale prices relative to your purchase price gives you a nice hit on the equity return.
How best to characterize this whole situation? Please review this thoughtful summary by private equity experts at Day Pitney: "It is kind of like the gold rush in years past."
* I am mainly talking about the US market here. For-profit hospitals in non-US locations can do very well indeed on a bottom-line basis. They play in countries with national health insurance. People who can afford private insurance or who are provided it by their employers (or international visitors) go to them for unregulated private-pay service, especially in the high-end, high-compensation specialties. Those specialties might have long waiting times at the nationalized hospitals, or they might not be offered at all, or they might be viewed as substandard. Those hospitals, too, often have a dominant geographical advantage in that market segment.
Interestingly, though, the unregulated nature of such hospitals can mean that the actual quality of care is undocumented, as they can be exempt from governmental reporting requirements. Thus, such hospitals can have an unjustified reputational advantage, offering the appearance of higher quality without ever proving it. They could also engage with impunity in the kind of practice cited in another Abelson and Creswell New York Times article, Hospital Chain Inquiry Cited Unnecessary Cardiac Work.