Nursing Home Investors Care about Cash Flow. They are Not Into Charitable Care.
It’s amazing to me how far nursing home industry lobbyists are getting with their hardship pleas. At this time they are being rewarded by legislatures for letting their workforce deteriorate to a crisis level. There are some simple truths – perhaps simple logic – regarding why qualified, competent medical professionals are hard to find these days.
Let’s start with the cutting edge of corporate finance: the “time value of money.” Investors calculate their free cash flow over five years before investing their money. Their decision is based on yearly cash flow discounted to the present time. This means that they determine what a dollar is worth at the present time versus what it will be worth in 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 years if invested in a project or business. I won’t bother my readers with the formula for determining “net present value,” but debt financing of real estate and tax arbitrage play a major role in that calculation.
In the case of the nursing home industry, real estate is debt financed. Reimbursement for capital costs such as depreciation and interest typically exceed payment on loan principal and flow into the cash channel that will be “earnings” pocketed by investors. At some point, principals will equal and begin to exceed returns from real estate and debt tax advantages. The property will be flipped at that point.
Keeping food costs low, paying substandard wages, dangerously low staffing, and putting sick, fragile, elderly and disabled people in a room with a stranger are techniques for increasing cash flow from Medicare, Medicaid, self pay, managed care, and whatever other form of third party payer reimbursing care.
Why Would Investors Be in The Nursing Home Business if It Weren’t A Profitable Business?
Because privatized, tax-funded, medical care is financialized (finance overrides medical care) decisions regarding care are frequently and generally based on financial metrics. The quality of care is confined within the parameters of expected cash flow (discussed above). Furthermore, with “cash as King,” immediacy of returns rather than long-term planning and reinvestment for a better medical care system in the future drives decision making about staffing and overall conditions in acute care, long-term, and skilled nursing facilities.
The problem is this: the public, the media, and legislators do not have a good overall view of how the nursing home system works from a financial perspective. Federal and state agencies have been derelict in making accessible, understandable, financial and ownership data available to researchers and the public in general. California is more advanced in this regard than other states but still has a way to go in making the system fully transparent in that state.
In the past few weeks, I reviewed 2020 cost reports of 205 facilities in San Diego, San Bernardino, and Orange counties. I entered data regarding revenue, net income, number of beds, and the proportion of revenue from various third party payers (e.g., Medicare, Medicaid, Managed Care, etc.). As opposed to the claim from a Kansas nursing home lobbyist that providers have a median net income of 1/2 percent, I’m finding a median of close to 7% even though many claims of losses look dubious to me. Furthermore, net income is not a reflection of earnings or cash flow. Depreciation and interest are expensed on the income statement even though these are not cash expenses.
Nothing in the cost reports will tell us how much cash is extracted through real estate transactions. Nor do they indicate how much cash is flowing into parent corporations and holding companies. We know how much that is for public listed corporations – most of which are real estate investment trusts – because we can easily access financial reports they file with the SEC. As my colleague Charlene Harrington and I have pointed out, they were not hurt by COVID in 2020 (“COVID-19 had little financial impact on publicly traded
nursing home companies “J Am Geriatr Soc. 2021;1–4. https://doi.org/10.1111/jgs.17288). We will soon have an article in The International Journal of Healthcare Research regarding the robust financial performance of The Ensign Group since issuing a IPO in 2007.
The late Roy Christensen, founder of both Genesis and The Ensign Group, and his family have become fabulously wealthy by channeling money out of their large chain of facilities into stock options, stock awards, and executive pay. The Ensign Group is rapidly acquiring facilities and undertaking financial maneuvers like spin offs for the purpose of moving property around without incurring capital gains and corporate income taxes. They have also channeled a large share of their hundreds of millions in stock over the years into a variety of family trusts, which keeps their wealth intact and away from the IRS.