“Twenty large chains received more than $5 billion in federal grants even while sitting on more than $100 billion in cash.
A multibillion-dollar institution in the Seattle area invests in hedge funds, runs a pair of venture capital funds and works with elite private equity firms like the Carlyle Group.
But it is not just another deep-pocketed investor hunting for high returns. It is the Providence Health System, one of the country’s largest and richest hospital chains. It is sitting on nearly $12 billion in cash, which it invests, Wall Street-style, in a good year generating more than $1 billion in profits.
And this spring, Providence received at least $509 million in government funds, one of many wealthy beneficiaries of a federal program that is supposed to prevent health care providers from capsizing during the coronavirus pandemic.
With states restricting hospitals from performing elective surgery and other nonessential services, their revenue has shriveled. The Department of Health and Human Services has disbursed $72 billion in grants since April to hospitals and other health care providers through the bailout program, which was part of the CARES Act economic stimulus package. The department plans to eventually distribute more than $100 billion more.
So far, the riches are flowing in large part to hospitals that had already built up deep financial reserves to help them withstand an economic storm. Smaller, poorer hospitals are receiving tiny amounts of federal aid by comparison.
Twenty large recipients, including Providence, have received a total of more than $5 billion in recent weeks, according to an analysis of federal data by Good Jobs First, a research group. Those hospital chains were already sitting on more than $108 billion in cash, according to regulatory filings and the bond-rating firms S&P Global and Fitch. A Providence spokeswoman said the grants helped make up for losses from the coronavirus.
Those cash piles come from a mix of sources: no-strings-attached private donations, income from investments with hedge funds and private equity firms, and any profits from treating patients. Some chains, like Providence, also run their own venture-capital firms to invest their cash in cutting-edge start-ups. The investment portfolios often generate billions of dollars in annual profits, dwarfing what the hospitals earn from serving patients.
Many of these hospital groups, including Providence, are set up as nonprofits, which generally don’t have to pay federal taxes on their billions of dollars of income.
By contrast, hospitals that serve low-income patients often have only enough cash on hand to finance a few weeks of their operations.
After the CARES Act was passed in March, hospital industry lobbyists reached out to senior Health and Human Services officials to discuss how the money would be distributed.
Representatives of the American Hospital Association, a lobbying group for the country’s largest hospitals, communicated with Alex M. Azar II, the department secretary, and Eric Hargan, the deputy secretary overseeing the funds, said Tom Nickels, a lobbyist for the group. Chip Kahn, president of the Federation of American Hospitals, which lobbies on behalf of for-profit hospitals, said he, too, had frequent discussions with the agency.
The department then devised formulas to quickly dispense tens of billions of dollars to thousands of hospitals — and those formulas favored large, wealthy institutions.
One formula based allotments on how much money a hospital collected from Medicare last year. Another was based on a hospital’s revenue. While Health and Human Services also created separate pots of funding for rural hospitals and those hit especially hard by the coronavirus, the department did not take into account each hospital’s existing financial resources.
“This simple formula used the data we had on hand at that time to get relief funds to the largest number of health care facilities and providers as quickly as possible,” said Caitlin B. Oakley, a spokeswoman for the department. “While other approaches were considered, these would have taken much longer to implement.”
Hospitals that serve a greater proportion of wealthier, privately insured patients got twice as much relief as those focused on low-income patients with Medicaid or no coverage at all, according to a study this month by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
“If you ever hear a hospital complaining they don’t have enough money, see if they have a venture fund,” said Niall Brennan, president of the nonprofit Health Care Cost Institute and a former senior Medicare official. “If you’ve got play money, you’re fine.”
In a letter this month to the Department of Health and Human Services, two House committee chairmen said the Trump administration appeared to be disregarding Congress’s intent in how it was distributing the aid.
“The level of funding appears to be completely disconnected from need,” wrote the two Democrats, Representatives Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey and Richard E. Neal of Massachusetts.
It is the latest instance in which enormous and hastily enacted federal bailout programs have benefited those who don’t appear to need the money. A package of $170 billion in federal tax breaks, for example, will go overwhelmingly to many of the country’s richest people and biggest companies. A program to rescue small businesses initially directed hundreds of millions of dollars in loans to publicly traded companies while many smaller firms were frozen out.
That pattern is repeating in the hospital rescue program.
For example, HCA Healthcare and Tenet Healthcare — publicly traded chains with billions of dollars in reserves and large credit lines from banks — together received more than $1.5 billion in federal funds.
An HCA spokesman said the aid didn’t cover the expected lost revenue and higher expenses caused by the coronavirus, while a Tenet spokeswoman said the pandemic had suppressed the company’s profits.
The Cleveland Clinic got $199 million. Last year it had so much money on hand — its $7 billion in cash helped generate $1.2 billion in investment profits — that it paid investment advisers $28 million to manage the fortune.
Angela Kiska, a Cleveland Clinic spokeswoman, said the federal grants had “helped to partially offset the significant losses in operating revenue due to Covid-19, while we continue to provide care to patients in our communities.” The Cleveland Clinic sent caregivers to hospitals in Detroit and New York as they were flooded with coronavirus patients, she added.
The St. Louis-based Ascension Health, which operates 150 hospitals nationwide, has received at least $211 million from Health and Human Services. The company, with $15.5 billion in cash, operates a venture capital fund and an investment advisory firm that helps other companies manage their money.
Even if Ascension stopped generating any revenue whatsoever — a doomsday scenario — it would have enough cash to fully operate for nearly eight months.“