As a result of the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, private equity (PE) investment activity saw a significant decline in many industries throughout the remainder of 2020. However, PE investments in healthcare have been viewed by some as a form of safe haven as the U.S. economy began to revitalize in the second half of 2020. While total deal value decreased by 7% from 2019 to 2020, total deal count increased by 10% as more investors looked to add-on existing platforms rather than seeking out new, larger targets of interest. Healthcare providers should be aware of some potential considerations when entering into PE investments or engaging in merger and acquisition activity.
A significant amount of deal activity materialized as a response to the numerous forced shutdowns caused by the pandemic. According to one survey conducted by the Alliance of M&A Advisors, while PE deals in other sectors experienced varying degrees of depressed activity levels through the Summer of 2020, healthcare transactions had the highest successful close rate of any industry (approximately 32%). Reported deal activity returned to 97% of pre-COVID levels by December 2020. Entering 2021, the PE transactions market remained very active, in large part due to PE firms being able to obtain cheap debt financing due to low interest rates. The transition to a new presidential administration and anticipated tax increases also caused many providers to contemplate exits ahead of potential increases in capital gains rates. Some areas worth noting that have garnered particularly strong preference amongst PE investors are behavioral and mental health, home health, and health technology services. While primary care has historically seen less PE activity than other healthcare segments, this seems to be changing as value-based care and capitated payment models become more popular.
Regarding business concerns relative to PE activity, there are many issues that are unique to the healthcare industry and providers should make sure that they have a clear understanding of how deals with PE investors may implicate these considerations. At the most basic level, states with corporate practice of medicine laws may restrict what types of entities or individuals may own or control a medical practice. Also, complex corporate structures and those that involve cross-ownership or ownership of multiple types of providers may implicate federal or state fraud and abuse laws, such as the Stark Law, Anti-Kickback Statute, and EKRA. As a practical consideration, long-time healthcare providers entering ventures with PE entities should ensure they understand how control of operations and the flow of revenues are allocated in the resulting structure. Moreover, the Executive Order issued by President Biden in July 2021 directs law enforcement to “focus in particular on … healthcare markets (which includes prescription drugs, hospital consolidation, and insurance), and the tech sector.” This may well result in heightened scrutiny of PE transaction in the healthcare industry and may also lengthen the timeline for closing deals in order to ensure compliance.