A Giant Hospital Chain Is Blazing a Profit Trail

Profits at the health care industry giant HCA, which controls 163 hospitals from New Hampshire to California, have soared, far outpacing those of most of its competitors.

The big winners have been three private equity firms — including Bain Capital, co-founded by Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate — that bought HCA in late 2006.

HCA’s robust profit growth has raised the value of the firms’ holdings to nearly three and a half times their initial investment in the $33 billion deal.

The financial performance has been so impressive that HCA has become a model for the industry. Its success inspired 35 buyouts of hospitals or chains of facilities in the last two and a half years by private equity firms eager to repeat that windfall.

HCA’s emergence as a powerful leader in the hospital industry is all the more remarkable because only a decade ago the company was badly shaken by a wide-ranging Medicare fraud investigation that it eventually settled for more than $1.7 billion.

Among the secrets to HCA’s success: It figured out how to get more revenue from private insurance companies, patients and Medicare by billing much more aggressively for its services than ever before; it found ways to reduce emergency room overcrowding and expenses; and it experimented with new ways to reduce the cost of its medical staff, a move that sometimes led to conflicts with doctors and nurses over concerns about patient care.

In late 2008, for instance, HCA changed the billing codes it assigned to sick and injured patients who came into the emergency rooms. Almost overnight, the numbers of patients who HCA said needed more care, which would be paid for at significantly higher levels by Medicare, surged.