Private Equity, Obfuscatory Advertising, and Making Health Care a Commodity: Lessons from Cerberus Capital Management

The use of advertising by Steward Health Care, currently a regional hospital system here in New England, continues to provide lessons about how public relations and marketing may be used to shape the health care policy debate.  Stand by because the story is convoluted.

Steward Promotes "New Health Care," Whatever That May Be

This week, Commonwealth reported on Steward's latest high profile advertising campaign in the Boston area,
Steward Health Care is using the Olympics to hone its image. The Boston-based chain of 10 community hospitals, many of which were on the verge of going under when Steward acquired them, is running a series of ads on WHDH-TV (Channel 7) during Olympics coverage that cast the company as a delivery system for a new type of world-class health care.

While visible, the advertisements are notably vague. One features
a Steward employee who says she believes 'world class health care is here.' Another of the initial ads features individual doctors and technicians pledging to be stewards of 'the new health care,' which is the tagline for all of the Steward ads.

What the 'new health care' means is never fully explained in the ads

One local health care expert
Paul Levy, the former CEO of Beth Israel Deaconness Medical Center, said he thinks the ads are part of a campaign by [Steward Health Care owner] Cerberus [Capital Management] to make Steward more attractive to would-be buyers. 'This has very little to do with anything other than establishing the image and the brand of the Steward hospitals so when the day comes when Cerberus sells the company it will be better received in the public markets,' Levy said.

The article had noted that
Cerberus Capital Management, a New York private equity firm, owns Steward,...

So it is possible that no one at Steward really has any idea what sort of "new health care" the organization is promoting

Steward's CEO Promotes Health Care as a Commodity

However, there is reason to think that the top leadership of Steward, and probably of Cerberus Capital Management, the private equity group that owns it, actually does have a clear idea what new health care they are promoting.

Almost simultaneous with the Commonwealth article and the Olympic advertising campaign an interview appeared with Steward's CEO in Fortune. CEO Dr Ralph de la Torre first pitched medicine as science,
A lot of us physicians went into medicine because we loved the art aspect of it. There wasn't a lot of real hard-core science when many of today's doctors went into medicine. It was your intuition, your abilities, the gestalt of what was going on. But something happened in medicine along the way. It started becoming a real science, and a lot of studies have come out that guide what we do and how we do it. We as a society need to understand that science has to guide our practice of medicine. Not everyone with a headache needs a CAT scan; not everybody with a sprained ankle needs an MRI.

This sounds like it could be an affirmation of evidence-based medicine, the approach that attempts to base medicine on systematic search for and critical review of the best clinical research, among other things. However, De la Torre takes it a big step further, citing:
In deference to those who love the individual hospital, you have to look back at America and the trends in industries that have gone from being art to science, to being commodities. Health care is becoming a commodity. The car industry started off as an art, people hand-shaping the bodies, hand-building the engines. As it became a commodity and was all about making cars accessible to everybody, it became more about standardization. It's not different from the banking industry and other industries as they've matured. Health care is finally maturing as an industry, and part of that maturation process is consolidation. It's getting economies of scale and in many ways making it a commodity.

Apparently Dr De la Torre does not see a distinction any longer between health care, or to use an old-fashioned word, medicine, traditionally considered an art or practice of caring for individual patients, and making automobiles on an assembly line. Dr De la Torre may be deeply misinterpreting evidence-based medicine, which is about evidence from clinical research, but also much more. Consider how the Cochrane Collaboration discusses it:
Evidence-based health care

Evidence-based health care is the conscientious use of current best evidence in making decisions about the care of individual patients or the delivery of health services. Current best evidence is up-to-date information from relevant, valid research about the effects of different forms of health care, the potential for harm from exposure to particular agents, the accuracy of diagnostic tests, and the predictive power of prognostic factors [1].

Evidence-based clinical practice is an approach to decision-making in which the clinician uses the best evidence available, in consultation with the patient, to decide upon the option which suits that patient best [2].

Evidence-based medicine is the conscientious, explicit and judicious use of current best evidence in making decisions about the care of individual patients. The practice of evidence-based medicine means integrating individual clinical expertise with the best available external clinical evidence from systematic research [3].

[1] Cochrane AL. Effectiveness and Efficiency : Random Reflections on Health Services. London: Nuffield Provincial Hospitals Trust, 1972. Reprinted in 1989 in association with the BMJ. Reprinted in 1999 for Nuffield Trust by the Royal Society of Medicine Press, London, ISBN 1-85315-394-X.[2] Gray JAM. 1997. Evidence-based healthcare: how to make health policy and management decisions. London: Churchill Livingstone.
[3] Sackett DL, Rosenberg WMC, Gray JAM, Haynes RB, Richardson WS. 1996. Evidence based medicine: what it is and what it isn't. BMJ 312: 71–2 [3] [Full text]

Note the emphasis on making decisions for individuals based on what is best for each, and the integration of evidence from clinical research with clinical expertise. This is far from commoditization.

Nonetheless, Dr De la Torre seems to envision "new health care" like a 1930s automobile assembly line, with the physicians and other health professionals cast as assembly line workers, and the patients cast as automobiles.

Our next example may provide some explanations for this point of view.

Steward's Advertising Raises Questions of Whose Hands Should be on Health Care

As we discussed earlier, Steward Health Care has been working on acquiring a struggling local Rhode Island hospital system, and in doing so is in a dispute with the statewide non-profit Blue Cross health insurance company. Steward had been putting daily full-page advertisements in the local paper. A recent version (27 July, 2012), had this text:

With 80% of the market under its control, Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island thinks it can decide which hospitals survive or fail. The people of Rhode Island beg to differ.

For the past decade, they've watched Blue Cross starve Landmark Medical Center of its funding. And this year, when Blue Cross issued an ultimatum to terminate the hospital, Rhode Islanders heard enough.

In a poll conducted this week by John Marttila, a nationally recognized leader on public attitudes concerning health care, 76% of respondents said that Blue Cross shouldn't be allowed to use their monopoly to dictate the fate of Rhode Island hospitals. They also felt, by a 2-1 margin, that if Landmark did indeed close, Blue Cross would be to blame.

However, soon after, investigative reporting by the Providence Journal's Ms Felice Freyer revealed that maybe the poll should have been interpreted differently. Not unexpectedly, Ms Freyer revealed the poll to have been "commissioned by Steward." Its basic results were really:
Just over half the respondents knew that Landmark was being sold to Steward, and of those, 58 percent did not have an opinion, 29 percent supported the sale, and 13 percent opposed it. However, among those who knew about the sale and also live in northern Rhode Island, the approval rating was higher –– 37 percent support the sale, with 15 percent disapproving and 48 percent having no opinion.

The pollster than provided prompting, perhaps in an attempt to get results more favorable to its client:
One of the questions starts with this statement: 'Blue Cross Blue Shield provides health insurance to 80 percent of Rhode Island. By refusing to negotiate on reimbursement rates, Blue Cross can essentially determine if hospitals in the state stay open or if hospitals close.' Based on that statement, 76 percent of respondents agreed that 'Blue Cross should not be allowed to use its monopoly to dictate which hospitals stay open and which close their doors.'

Unfortunately, it appears that the prompting statement was perhaps not fully accurate:
In 2011, Blue Cross covered 66 percent of Rhode Islanders with private health insurance, not 80 percent, according to a report by the Office of the Health Insurance Commissioner.

Blue Cross denies that it has refused to negotiate.

'We have negotiated in good faith and have offered a fair contract to Landmark Hospital that is consistent with our reimbursement arrangements for other independent hospitals,' Blue Cross said in a statement. 'Unfortunately, Steward has been unwilling to enter into a contract under those conditions.'

While they touted probably methodologically biased survey results, Steward's local advertising campaign's headline might prompt some people to think about whose hands should really be on their health care. The advertising tries to limit this question to Blue Cross' influence. However, one might also ask whose hands control Steward Health Care?

Whose Hands are on Steward Health Care?

As the Commonwealth article above pointed out, Steward Health Care is a wholly owned subsidiary of Cerberus Capital Management, a New York based private equity firm.

Cerberus' top leadership includes
- CEO Steven A Feinberg, who, as we noted previously, was listed as number 21 on a list of the 25 most powerful businessmen in 2007 by Fortune, at that time running through Cerberus 50 companies with total revenues of $120 billion.  On Wikipedia, his net worth was estimated as $2 billion in 2008.
- Chairman John W Snow, who, as we noted previously, resigned as Treasury Secretary in the administration of President George W Bush "in 2006 only because it was revealed that he had not paid any taxes on $24 million in income from CSX, which had forgiven Snow's repayment of a gigantic loan that the company had made to him," according to Chareles Ferguson in Predator Nation.
- Chairman, Cereberus Global Investments J Danforth Quayle, the controversial former US Vice President during the George H W Bush administration.

Furthermore, Cerberus Capital Management, which wholly owns Steward Health Care, owns several other businesses.  As we noted here, these include, DynCorp (see their web-site), which has been called one of the "leading mercenary firms," by an article in the Nation.  As reported by Bloomberg, DynCorp, and hence indirectly about Cerberus, and Steward Health Care, in 2011 settled accusations that it overbilled the US government for construction work in Iraq.   Furthermore, as we noted here, Cerberus also owns the biggest manufacturer of firearms and ammunition in the US. As reported by BusinessWeek in 2010, Cerberus owns 13 brands of fire-arms and munitions under the umbrella Freedom Group.

So while Cerberus Capital Management would like us to believe that Rhode Island residents question the hands of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Rhode Island on a struggling local hospital system, it seems to be trying to avoid questions about whose hands would be on the hospital system were Cerberus Capital Management's subsidiary Steward Health Care to acquire it. 


So, to recapitulate this winding story....   A regional hospital system has been pushing its "new health care" idea.  However, its former surgeon CEO promotes new health care as commoditized health care, assembly line health care, in which doctors become assembly line workers and patients become widgets.  This seems bizarre until one realizes that the CEO actually works for a huge private equity firm whose goal is to make a lot of money in the short-term.  Standardized, commoditized health care is likely to be cheaper to provide than individualized health care.  Private equity firms thrive by cutting their subsidiaries' costs, and then selling them quickly, sometimes before the long-term consequences of these cuts become apparent.  (Look here.)

So there are two lessons.

To repeat the lesson from our earlier post, everybody, doctors, other health care professionals, health policy makers, patients, and the public ought to be extremely skeptical of the marketing and public relations efforts of big health care organizations.  Based on the examples above, they ought to be particularly skeptical of organizations that are overtly for profit, and/or have a clear focus on short-term revenue generation.  As a society we need to think about how to best counter these biased, incomplete, sometimes grossly deceptive efforts to manipulate public psychology and opinions through our rights to free speech and a free press.

To add a lesson, everybody, doctors, other health professionals, health policy makers, patients and the public ought to be extremely wary of the ongoing corporatization of medicine and health care.  Corporate leaders who often get large incentives for maximizing short term revenue are likely to be enthused about turning our health care into a commodity.  Doctors and health care professionals should not want to be assembly line workers, and patients surely should not want to be widgets.