Cross-Market Mergers Aren’t For the Patients

Private Equity

Make sure you’re sitting down for this one, because new research suggests that cross-market hospital mergers aren’t doing patient wallets any favors.

To investigate the impact of cross-market mergers on both prices and quality, researchers rounded up 214 hospitals that acquired hospitals further than 50 miles away, then compared them to 955 control hospitals without any merger activity during the study period. This was also the first study to use claims data to back its findings.

Six years after acquisition, acquirers had increased their prices for patients by an average of 12.9% relative to control hospitals, yet saw no discernible impact on mortality or readmissions.

  • The impact was even higher among serial acquirers with at least four separate acquisitions, which increased prices by a steep 16.3%. This wasn’t a small subset either, representing 45% of the M&A hospital group.
  • On top of that, there was a 21.8% price increase when the target’s market share was greater than the acquirer’s (vs. 9.7% when the opposite was true), which makes sense as smaller acquirers have more to gain from acquiring an entity with more market power.

There have been a couple of other studies examining the impact of cross-market mergers, but this was the first to use claims data to untangle some of the factors driving the price effects (serial acquisitions, target size) while showing no significant impact on quality.

Although the mechanisms behind the price effects weren’t within scope, there are a few potential reasons that likely contributed.

  • Common customers – If the target and acquirer hospitals both share the same customer, having a larger operational footprint improves bargaining power (e.g. employers need provider networks that span multiple patient markets if they have employees in multiple markets).
  • Tying – A health system with a strong position in one market could tie its services to a second market (e.g. a cutthroat system could operate at a loss in a second market to drive out competitors while staying afloat using margin from its primary market).
  • Change in control – Acquirer hospitals are able to increase prices at the target because it wasn’t maximizing profit for whatever reason. Given the increases this study shows at the acquirers themselves (which by definition didn’t change control), this one is probably ruled out.

The Takeaway

All-in-all, the evidence is mounting that competing hospitals don’t make massive acquisitions for altruistic reasons (earth-shattering, we know). If the scale wasn’t already tipped toward needing more antitrust scrutiny of cross-market mergers, this study seems to get us past the usual conclusion of “more research is needed.”

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