Better Solutions for Healthcare

ProPublica: How Rich Investors, Not Doctors, Profit From Marking Up ER Bills

By Isaac Arnsdorf

June 12,  2020

In 2017, TeamHealth, the nation’s largest staffing firm for ER doctors, sued a small insurance company in Texas over a few million dollars of disputed bills.

Over 2 1/2 years of litigation, the case has provided a rare look inside TeamHealth’s own operations at a time when the company, owned by private-equity giant Blackstone, is under scrutiny for soaking patients with surprise medical bills and cutting doctors’ pay amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Hundreds of pages of tax returns, depositions and other filings in state court in Houston show how TeamHealth marks up medical bills in order to boost profits for investors. (Some of the court records were marked confidential but were available for download on the public docket; they were subsequently sealed.)

TeamHealth declined to provide an interview with any of its executives. In a statement for this story, the company says it’s fighting for doctors against insurance companies that are trying to underpay: “We work hard to negotiate with insurance companies on behalf of patients even as they unilaterally cancel contracts and attempt to drive physician compensation downward.”

But the Texas court records contradict TeamHealth’s claims that the point of its aggressive pricing is to protect doctors’ pay. In fact, none of the additional money that TeamHealth wrings out of a bill goes back to the doctor who treated the patient.

Instead, the court records show, all the profit goes to TeamHealth.

“These companies put a white coat on and cloak themselves in the goodwill we rightly have toward medical professionals, but in practice, they behave like almost any other private equity-backed firm: Their desire is to make profit,” said Zack Cooper, a Yale professor of health policy and economics who has researched TeamHealth’s billing practices and isn’t involved in the Texas lawsuit.

“In the market for emergency medicine, where patients can’t choose where they go in advance of care, there’s a real opportunity to take advantage of patients, and I think we’re seeing that that’s almost precisely what TeamHealth is doing, and it’s wildly lucrative for the firm itself and its private equity investors.”

Some of TeamHealth’s own physicians say they’re uncomfortable with the company’s business practices.

“As an emergency medicine physician, I have absolutely no idea to whom or how much is billed in my name. I have no idea what is collected in my name,” said a doctor working for TeamHealth who isn’t involved in the Texas lawsuit and spoke to ProPublica on the condition of anonymity because the company prohibits its doctors from speaking publicly without permission….