Two-year-old Zion Gastelum died just days after dentists performed root canals and put crowns on six baby teeth at a clinic affiliated with a private equity firm.
His parents sued the Kool Smiles dental clinic in Yuma, Arizona, and its private equity investor, FFL Partners. They argued the procedures were done needlessly, in keeping with a corporate strategy to maximize profits by overtreating kids from lower-income families enrolled in Medicaid. Zion died after being diagnosed with “brain damage caused by a lack of oxygen,” according to the lawsuit.
Kool Smiles “overtreats, underperforms and overbills,” the family alleged in the suit, which was settled last year under confidential terms. FFL Partners and Kool Smiles had no comment but denied liability in court filings.
Private equity is rapidly moving to reshape health care in America, coming off a banner year in 2021, when the deep-pocketed firms plowed $206 billion into more than 1,400 health care acquisitions, according to industry tracker PitchBook.
Seeking quick returns, these investors are buying into eye care clinics, dental management chains, physician practices, hospices, pet care providers, and thousands of other companies that render medical care nearly from cradle to grave. Private equity-backed groups have even set up special “obstetric emergency departments” at some hospitals, which can charge expectant mothers hundreds of dollars extra for routine perinatal care.
As private equity extends its reach into health care, evidence is mounting that the penetration has led to higher prices and diminished quality of care, a KHN investigation has found. KHN found that companies owned or managed by private equity firms have agreed to pay fines of more than $500 million since 2014 to settle at least 34 lawsuits filed under the False Claims Act, a federal law that punishes false billing submissions to the federal government with fines. Most of the time, the private equity owners have avoided liability.
New research by the University of California-Berkeley has identified “hot spots” where private equity firms have quietly moved from having a small foothold to controlling more than two-thirds of the market for physician services such as anesthesiology and gastroenterology in 2021. And KHN found that in San Antonio, more than two dozen gastroenterology offices are controlled by a private equity-backed group that billed a patient $1,100 for her share of a colonoscopy charge — about three times what she paid in another state.