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December 19, 2011

Small-Hospital Mergers A Signal That Crisis Is Upon Us

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If you’re wondering how healthy an industry is, look at how many smaller players are selling out. And if the smaller players are bailing like rats from the proverbial ship, consider that industry to be in crisis. That’s my theory, anyway. Read on and see if you agree.

You know, when I watched Community Health Systems and HCA and Tenet doing their little dances on the catwalk a few years ago, tendering offers and buying up sinking ships, I thought hey, that’s what big chains do. Didn’t register much.

One year ago, when I watched VC firm Cerberus Capital Management pick up Boston’s Caritas Christi chain, I saw signs of hospital desperation. After all, VC firms don’t sink their money into companies that offer a small, predictable return;  in this case, they acquired financially distressed properties with a very substantial upside.

So, what of this year?  Merger mania continues $7.3 billion of total healthcare-related M&A this year. (For more background, check out this hospital M&A list from business information provider Hoover’s. It’s been a wild year, and next year is likely to keep up the pace.

I’m not really surprised by the merger mess, and I doubt you are either. After all, hospitals have been running at minimal or even negative margins for many years, and now that health reform is breathing down everyone’s necks the pressure is climbing. The question is what this means for the industry.

Consider that one John Reiboldt of investment bank Coker Capital Advisers called the single stand-alone hospital a “concept of the past” at this year’s HIMSS event. Even if he’s wrong — or ahead of himself — the folks in his industry  are clearly poised to strike. And they’ll be making offers beleaguered single- and small-chain hospitals can’t refuse, capice?

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