Tower Health, which has six hospitals in the Philadelphia area, is looking for a bigger nonprofit to lift it out of its financial misery, but the biggest health systems in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh say they’re not interested.
Executives at the University of Pennsylvania Health System and UPMC told investors last week they are not in the market for an acquisition of a money-losing organization like Tower. Thomas Jefferson University also has its hands full finishing its recently approved acquisition of Einstein Healthcare Network.
That’s a small group, but their positions could reflect a tough reality for the Tower Health board, which is trying to steer the Berks County health system out of financial duress caused by a rapid and unprofitable expansion in the three years before COVID-19 wreaked havoc on hospital finances.
Tower, which employs 14,000 people who are worried about their future, had no comment last week on its search for what it called a “like-minded” suitor to take over.
In the last 18 months, Tower’s operating losses have approached $600 million at its seven hospitals, including St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia, physicians practices, and other businesses.
During the fall and winter Tower’s board of directors was trying to sell individual hospitals — all except its seventh hospital and flagship Reading Hospital in West Reading. Then last month it decided to put the entire system on the block to see if it could offer a better solution for Tower’s crushing $1.5 billion debt load and dwindling cash.
A sale of the 737-bed flagship would likely attract a line of bidders, but Philadelphia-area health care observers said they would be surprised to see much interest in the entire system, which includes five money-losing community hospitals in Chestnut Hill, Coatesville, Jennersville, Phoenixville, and Pottstown.
A municipal bond investor on Tuesday asked Penn’s chief financial officer, Keith Kasper, “if your team would be willing to risk your AA category rating from Moody’s for an M&A opportunity out there in the market right now.”
“The answer to that would be no,” Kasper said.
On a separate call, a different bond analyst asked UPMC officials if they were interested in acquisitions in the short term.
“We’ve heard an awful lot of industry chatter about how big, integrated systems that came through the pandemic very well are very well positioned for M&A to gobble up weaker competitors. We have no interest in doing that,” UPMC’s chief financial officer, Ed Karlovich, answered.
UPMC’s most recent large acquisitions -- Pinnacle Health in 2018, which expanded the Pittsburgh system’s reach into Lancaster County, and Western Maryland System last year -- “were very far from distressed situations,” Karlovich said. “Those were very large, well-functioning, highly-rated organizations on their own two feet. We’re not engaged in any diligence right now on anything.
Thomas Jefferson University, which went on an acquisition tear starting in 2015, just overcame the Federal Trade Commission’s legal opposition to its acquisition of Einstein Health Network. That deal is expected to be completed this year. Jefferson also plans to acquire Temple University Health System’s 50% interest in Health Partners Plans, a nonprofit Medicaid insurer in Philadelphia.
“We obviously aren’t going to do any more hospital-to-hospital mergers” after the Einstein and Health Partners deals, Stephen K. Klasko, Jefferson’s chief executive, said at a Biznow meeting last month.
Other Pennsylvania systems with hospitals in markets adjacent or close to Tower’s include Geisinger Health, Penn State Health, Lehigh Valley Health Network, and St. Luke’s Health University Health Network. ChristianaCare’s main hospital is in Newark, not far from Tower’s Jennersville facility in Southern Chester County.
Those systems either didn’t comment or had nothing specific to say.
“While we do not have anything to share regarding Tower Health, we are always open to discussions that explore opportunities to make better health a reality for the communities we serve,” a Geisinger spokesperson said.
A spokesperson for Penn State, which already owns St. Joseph Medical Center in Reading, said it would be inappropriate “to speculate on the status or future of another health system.”
Penn State, which is partially owned by Highmark, a Blue Cross Blue Shield health insurance giant based in Pittsburgh, is digesting last year’s acquisition of Holy Spirit Health System in Camp Hill, Pa., and has plans to build two new hospitals, including one in Lancaster County.
Meanwhile Tower, acting under the guidance of consultants, is in a race to stop the deterioration of its financial condition, including the declining cash it has to pay bills. That crucial figure fell sharply last fall.
Last Thursday, Tower Health laid off 15 people at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children, including four doctors. The North Philadelphia hospital had an operating loss of $31 million in the last six months of last year.
Last week, Tower promoted Suzanne Wenderoth, a physician, to chief executive of all physician groups at Tower. Her task is to “lead the clinical reorganization and physician practice transformation initiatives that are critical to securing a bright future for Tower Health,” Tower’s interim CEO P. Sue Perrotty said in a news release.
Wenderoth had been chief clinical officer of Tower Health Medical Group, which employs nearly 900 doctors. It had a massive operating loss of $122.8 million on revenue of $123.3 million in the six months ended Dec. 31.