Steward CEO a no-show at Massachusetts hearing

Dallas-based Steward Health Care CEO Ralph de la Torre, MD, did not attend an April 3 field hearing in Boston after U.S. Senator Ed Markey invited him to join and testify on March 15 to discuss the health system's financial troubles.

The "When Health Care Becomes Wealth Care: How Corporate Greed Puts Patient Care and Health Workers at Risk" hearing was held by the Senate's health, education, labor and pensions committee and addressed for-profit companies' impact on healthcare. 

Mr. Markey is chair of HELP's primary health and retirement security subcommittee.

"Dr. de la Torre's chair is as empty as the promises he made to the public," Mr. Markey said during the hearing. "We are going to not stop until we get the answers from Dr. de la Torre for the people of Massachusetts."

Mr. Markey also used the hearing to discuss his new legislation, the Health Over Wealth Act, which would protect providers and patients affected by private equity. 

The legislation would mandate private equity companies to set aside funds to protect care access and remove tax breaks that incentivize companies to strip hospital assets.

It would also allow healthcare workers and patients to review and block deals that could affect patient access, care and safety; require for-profit companies to report on their finances, real estate deals, and how much payment investors and shareholders are receiving; ensure for-profit companies report on staffing ratios, patient care cost and worker retention; and provide HHS tools to block private equity investments from companies taking part in price gouging, understaffing and added healthcare barriers.

"The strongest protections will come from elevating the voices of patients, providers and communities," Mr. Markey said.

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren also suggested a change in law to address private equity in healthcare.

"I have introduced the most comprehensive bill to overhaul the private equity industry," she said. "In addition, investors should face extra restrictions when they buy up hospitals and healthcare practices. I have a bill to accomplish that as well."

Steward's plans to sell its physician group to UnitedHealth Group's subsidiary Optum were also discussed during the hearing. If approved, physicians at Steward facilities across nine states would be employed under Optum.

"There is one and only one thing of value that private equity hasn't already taken: Steward's physician group," Ms. Warren said. "Optum may be willing to pay Steward hundreds of millions of dollars, but the deal provides no guarantee that the hospitals would stay open."

The hearing comes after Ms. Warren and Mr. Markey released a joint statement that suggested Cerberus Capital Management, a private equity firm that founded Steward, profited by around $800 million and "looted" the health system when it exited in 2020. 

Becker's has reached out to Steward, Cerberus, Medical Properties Trust and Optum for comment and will update this story as more information becomes available. 

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