Post-merger, a first goal is often to achieve cost savings by consolidating hospital laboratory testing into fewer medical laboratory sites
Major integrated delivery network (IDN) healthcare systems continue to acquire other hospitals. These deals are getting larger in scope and confirm that the trend of hospital consolidation is robust and ongoing. They also present a challenge for clinical laboratories that service the IDN’s physicians from both inside and outside the networked systems.
One most recent example is the announced mega-merger of non-profit BJC HealthCare (BJC) in St. Louis and faith-based non-profit Saint Luke’s Health System (St. Luke’s) in Kansas City, both in Missouri. St. Louis Post-Dispatch described the deal as “one of the biggest local hospital mergers in recent memory.”
And for good reason. According to Healthcare Dive, the partnership that will create a 28-hospital, $10 billion dollar health system with more than 100 specialty and primary care offices serving patients in Illinois, Kansas, and Missouri. Fiscally, BJC showed $6.3 billion in revenue last year and Saint Luke’s $2.4 billion.
Mega mergers are a big deal (pun intended). They can give the new healthcare organization unrivaled competitive authority in the marketplace potentially passing along lower healthcare prices to patients. But they come at cost to embedded clinical staff, including medical laboratories.
The health system merger gives BJC/St. Luke’s “huge leverage in terms of negotiating power with the insurers,” Ryan Barker, an independent healthcare policy consultant, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Clinical laboratories are also impacted in these mergers when hospital systems consolidate their testing capabilities and locations. (Photo copyright: Missouri Foundation for Health.)
Impact of the BJC/St. Luke’s Merger
BJC and St. Luke’s signed a non-binding agreement to merge on May 31 and plan to reach a final agreement before the year’s end barring regulatory interference. The duo’s combined 28-hospital system will operate out of two headquarters: One in St. Louis managing southern Illinois and eastern Missouri, and another in Kansas City to serve parts of Kansas as well as western Missouri, Healthcare Dive reported.
The merger of BJC and St. Luke’s means the formation of a “clear market leader in Missouri,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported, adding that BJC has 40% of the market’s patient discharges and St. Luke’s holds 20% of the market share in the “state’s second largest metropolitan area.”
This will likely manifest itself in leverage during negotiations with healthcare payers that service that area.
“It continues to be the case that the hospitals are trying to gain the upper hand on the insurers,” John Romley, PhD, Associate Professor in the University of Southern California (USC) Price School of Public Policy and USC Mann School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Romley is also an economist at the USC Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics, and adjunct economist at the Rand Corporation. “That was true 10 years ago. That’s true today,” he added.
“That’s what I always worry about with consolidation is the impact on [healthcare] pricing,” Ryan Barker, an independent healthcare policy consultant in St. Louis and former Vice President of Health Policy at Missouri Foundation for Health, told the Post-Dispatch.
Other Large Health System Mergers and Acquisitions
There have been a growing number of large-scale mergers and acquisitions of IDNs in the last few months. Dark Daily’s sister publication The Dark Report has covered these deals in multiple intelligence briefings.
Most recently, in “Kaiser Acquires Geisinger Health in Value-Based Deal,” The Dark Report outlined Kaiser Foundation Hospitals’ (KFH) acquisition of Pennsylvania-based Geisinger Health. Based in Oakland, California, KFH is part of the Kaiser Permanente integrated delivery network.
Healthcare policy makers were surprised by the merger, as Kaiser and Geisinger were often cited as two of the best IDNs in the nation.
Now under single ownership there will be implications that take years to play out, especially for clinical laboratories that now must service a significantly larger physician base. Conversely, if the new combined healthcare system decides to combine multiple medical laboratories to save on costs it will have a huge impact on lab staff.
Another deal recently announced involves UPMC’s (University of Pittsburgh Medical Center) announcement to merge with multihospital Washington Health System (WHS) in Washington, Pennsylvania, a WHS news release noted. But the move has drawn pushback from elected officials and organized labor, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.
UPMC has recorded rapid growth over the year acquiring smaller hospitals, but hospital mergers are getting closer inspections from federal regulators, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noted.
SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania—part of the Service Employees International Union—was first to request an investigation by the US Department of Justice for what it called a “long and egregious history of labor law violations.” It also claimed that UPMC merged with 27 hospitals from 1996 to 2019, adding 10 between 2016 and 2018, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.
And in “Sanford/Fairview Merger Has Implications for Clinical Labs,” The Dark Report explored the merger between IDNs Sanford Health of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Fairview Health Services in Minneapolis. The mega merger creates a 58 hospital/79,000 employee multi-hospital system.
Concentrated ownership of diagnostic services impacts clinical laboratories in many ways. The Dark Report noted that combined IDNs often review clinical laboratory services across the entire healthcare network. Opportunities for third-party commercial labs to step in and run the hospitals’ local laboratory services may also present themselves.
Impact IDN Mergers Have on Clinical Laboratories
Mergers occur for many reasons. Monetary stress has a wide-reaching impact, and some healthcare researchers suggest that financial pressures may cause hospitals formerly hopeful about their medical laboratory outreach businesses to consider selling their programs, as The Dark Report noted.
One significant impact that health system mergers and acquisitions can have on clinical laboratories is to reduce their number, particularly by consolidating testing from multiple sites into a core laboratory.
“There is a growing body of empirical research about the potential for competitive harm to labor markets from consolidation and concentration,” Federal Trade Commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter, JD and FTC Chair Lina M. Khan, JD, wrote in a joint 2022 statement about the merger of the first and second biggest healthcare providers in Rhode Island. “The loss of competition from mergers may be especially pernicious in the healthcare sector where skilled medical professionals are uniquely limited in employer options within their local geographic area,” the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.
In this case, the plans to merge were ended after the FTC sued to block the partnership.
More IDN Mergers on the Way
But increased FTC scrutiny does not seem to have slowed the trend toward larger merger and acquisition deals. Kaufman Hall’s 2023 National Hospital Flash Report states that both mergers and acquisitions are trending toward cross-regional partnerships and predicts a “new wave of transaction activity,” Healthcare Dive reported. The report looks at actual and budget data collected over the past three years that was sampled from more than 900 hospitals on a recurring monthly basis.
And so, moving into the future, clinical laboratories can expect to see more mergers and acquisitions of IDNs, with consolidation, regionalization, and standardization occurring in the combined IDN’s clinical laboratory once the merger is completed and leadership begins to look for ways to save costs. Labs are generally first to be consolidated because it is easier to move lab specimens than it is to move patients.
—Kristin Althea O’Connor