Consolidation of hospitals and health systems means consolidated medical laboratory services as well, and that impacts laboratory revenue and staff

Though COVID-19 shifted many healthcare systems’ priorities in 2020—including quite dramatically altering the priorities of the nation’s clinical laboratories—the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic does not appear to have slowed the pace of healthcare mergers and acquisitions. Many such deals are kept secret until closed by Dec. 31. They are then then announced after Jan. 1, so we may see additional big and surprising healthcare acquisitions announced in coming weeks.

Leaving aside the shock waves brought about by COVID-19, transformational changes to the healthcare community have been underway for a while.

In his article on HealthManagement.org, healthcare consultant Paul D. Vitale, MPA, FACHE, noted that for the past several years, health systems have set records in the mergers and acquisitions space. In 2017, he noted, there were more than 115 deals, and by 2019, there was a series of “mega” mergers, each worth more than $10 billion. The pattern continued in 2020, even with economic concerns brought about by the pandemic.

“According to many health systems, acquiring another organization, or merging with it, holds the key to future success. Faced with intense pressure to cut back on costs, mergers and acquisitions can leverage the economies of scale,” he wrote.

Below are several “deals” that closed in 2020 or are expected to close in 2021.

Atrium Health and Wake Forest Baptist

North Carolina’s Atrium Health and Wake Forest Baptist Health—including the Wake Forest School of Medicine—have completed a merger, Healthcare Finance News reported. The resulting organization will be called Atrium Health and Eugene A. Woods, President and CEO of Atrium Health, will head the combined enterprise.

Pre-merger, Atrium Health’s network included 41 hospitals and 900 care locations, while the Wake Forest Baptist Health system was comprised of 42 hospitals and 1,500 care locations. Plans are underway to build a second campus for the school of medicine, where 3,500 students will be trained in more than 100 specialized programs.

Julie Ann Freischlag, MD, CEO of Wake Forest Baptist Health and Dean of Wake Forest School of Medicine
“The impact of the strategic combination will be far-reaching, elevating North Carolina as a clear destination of choice to receive medical care for people all across the nation,” Julie Ann Freischlag, MD (above), CEO of Wake Forest Baptist Health and Dean of Wake Forest School of Medicine, told Healthcare Finance News. “Through our combined, nationally recognized clinical centers of excellence in multiple specialties, we will be able to expand our research in signature areas, such as cancer, cardiovascular, regenerative medicine and aging, and target bringing research breakthroughs to the community in less than half the time of the national average.” Freischlag will serve as Atrium Health’s Chief Academic Officer as well. (Photo copyright: Triad Business Journal.)

Doctors Acquire a Controlling Stake of Steward Health Care

In June, physicians in Dallas purchased a controlling stake of Steward Health Care through a structured recapitalization transaction. Though not strictly a merger and acquisition, the deal represents a similar transformational change of a health system. The change makes Steward the largest physician-owned-and-operated health system in the country, noted a news release.

Ralph de la Torre, MD, CEO and founder of Steward
Ralph de la Torre, MD (above), CEO and founder of Steward, says the industry is in the midst of a transformational moment. “The COVID-19 global pandemic has exposed serious deficiencies in the world’s healthcare systems, with a disproportionate impact on underserved communities and populations,” he stated in the news release. “We believe that future healthcare management must completely integrate long-term clinical needs with investments. As physicians first, we will focus on creating structures and timelines that meet the long-term clinical needs of our communities and the short-term needs of our patients.” (Photo copyright: The Boston Globe.)

Harrington Healthcare System and UMass Memorial Health Care

In January 2020, Harrington Healthcare of Massachusetts announced it was pursuing a corporate affiliation with UMass Memorial Health Care. The transaction was expected to be finalized by 2021.

Ed Moore, President and CEO of Harrington Healthcare
“When we entered into our initial agreement with UMass Memorial in January, we had no idea what the next several months would bring,” said Ed Moore (above), President and CEO of Harrington Healthcare, in a news release. “Our team performed exceptionally well, and the community supported us every step of the way, but we could not have provided the outstanding care we did without the partnership and support of the clinical team at UMass Memorial. This experience redoubled our confidence that becoming part of the system would offer maximum benefit to our community at a time that requires flexibility, scale, and resources.” (Photo copyright: Worcester Telegram.)

Will More Announcements Come in 2021? Probably

For clinical laboratory managers and pathologists, the healthcare mergers and acquisitions of greatest interest are those that involve hospitals and health systems. When two big health systems merge—such as the transaction involving Atrium Health and Wake Forest Baptist Health—one of the first clinical services to undergo rationalization and consolidation is the clinical laboratory. One reason for this is because it is much easier to move more lab test specimens around the system than it is to move patients. So, many healthcare merger and acquisition deals directly affect the medical laboratory professionals employed by the institutions involved in the transaction.

Despite the pandemic—or because of the financial stresses created by it—there continue to be strong buyers and financially-weak sellers. For this reason alone, pathologists and clinical laboratory administrators should expect to see a regular flow of merger or acquisition announcements involving major healthcare organizations during 2021.

—Dava Stewart

Related Information:

Healthcare Mergers and Acquisitions—Making Waves in 2020

Atrium Health and Wake Forest Baptist Health Complete Merger

Team of Steward Doctors Acquire Controlling Stake of Steward Health Care

Harrington HealthCare System and UMass Memorial Health Care Approve Definitive Terms for Corporate Affiliation

10 Major Healthcare Merger and Acquisition Deals Announced in 2020