Insurance stocks have almost tripled in value since the health law took full effect in 2013, helped by an expanding economy and growing demand for care for seniors. But those forces haven’t helped hospitals. A Bloomberg index of U.S. hospital stocks is near its lowest level in four years and the prognosis is grim for two of the largest for-profit chains.
Tenet Healthcare Corp. and Community Health Systems Inc., which run or lease more than 200 hospitals and employ more than 250,000 people around the United States, have seen their shares plunge almost 40% in the past year. Both are mired in debt, with restless shareholders pushing for changes.
Hospitals are struggling with rising costs and empty beds. Millions of people gained coverage under the Affordable Care Act, but many were enrolled in Medicaid, which is less lucrative for hospitals, said John Morrow, a managing director at Franklin Trust Ratings who analyzes the industry. Insurers and government programs are also pushing patients toward cheaper doctor’s offices and clinics.
Investors “are losing faith,” said Morrow. Tenet and Community “are probably past their day. I don’t think the Street is going to put up with them any longer.”
Against that backdrop, investors are bracing for yet another weak quarter from the companies after bellwether HCA Healthcare Inc.’s preliminary results trailed expectations largely thanks to the effects of this year’s hurricanes.
Tenet and Community are straining under the weight of an acquisition binge that saddled each with about $15 billion of debt and poorly performing facilities.
Tenet spent billions to buy Vanguard Health Systems Inc., do a joint venture with United Surgical Partners International Inc., and acquire facilities in the U.K. Community purchased Triad Healthcare Corp. and Health Management Associates Inc., which it has struggled to integrate.
Tenet shares on Wednesday fell less than 1% to $14.17, while Community shares were off 2.5% to $6.17.
Rival HCA, by contrast, has been “much more disciplined,” doing no major deals in the past 15 years, according Bloomberg Intelligence’s Jason McGorman. Despite facing many of the same challenges as its sicklier foes, the largest U.S. for-profit hospital chain has been able to better preserve shareholder value.
Tenet and Community “don’t really generate a lot of cash flow, so a lot of that cash has to go service debt and they can’t invest a ton back into their hospitals,” McGorman said. “That gives HCA even more of an advantage because they have more cash to reinvest and attract new talent.”