Democratic senators are probing the private equity giant KKR about its care for people with disabilities, following a BuzzFeed News investigation that found dire conditions at a group home company the firm owns.
In a five-page letter sent Thursday, the senators asked the firm to disclose any facilities that have been found to be in violation of state and federal law, and any settlements reached with people in the company’s care. The senators — Elizabeth Warren, Ron Wyden, Bernie Sanders, and Patty Murray — also demanded detailed financial information, including executive compensation and debt payments.
“We have long been worried about the deleterious impact of private equity on health care and patient care,” the senators wrote. “Your company illustrates how private equity firms exploit the health care industry to squeeze out profits at every stage.”
KKR is responsible for the care of thousands of people with disabilities through its ownership of BrightSpring Health Services, one of the nation’s largest group home operators. Following its March 2019 acquisition of BrightSpring, KKR focused on expanding the business even as a crisis mounted in its group home division, BuzzFeed News found. Conditions grew so dire that nurses and caretakers quit in droves, West Virginia prohibited the company from accepting new residents, and some of the most vulnerable people in its care suffered and died.
Overseen by KKR’s handpicked board of directors, BrightSpring executives in many cases kept wages lower than those at competing facilities or Walmarts, despite pleas from local managers that they were unable to safely staff the homes. Some managers resorted to making employees work three days straight or threatening to have them arrested if they tried to leave. At least three people died following alarming lapses in their care. One of them died after state authorities warned the company — twice — that she was in danger.
Neither KKR nor BrightSpring immediately responded to a request for comment about the senate letter. In response to BuzzFeed News’ investigation, BrightSpring called the findings “inaccurate, misleading, and fundamentally flawed.” KKR issued a statement saying, “We vehemently disagree with the grossly misleading narrative you presented,” and adding that it had invested $200 million per year in “quality first initiatives” and raised compensation significantly. The companies refused an on-the-record interview.
KKR and other private equity firms have transformed healthcare in recent years, quietly acquiring enormous portions of this sector, from entire hospital chains to addiction treatment centers to women’s health clinics. In 2021 alone, private equity firms invested about $172 billion — more than 10 times the yearly budget of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — in US healthcare companies, according to the industry tracking group PitchBook.
That expansion has drawn scrutiny from several lawmakers concerned that the firms’ playbook — load a company up with debt, push for big returns, and quickly offload the asset — has in some instances had devastating consequences for both employees and people dependent on these companies’ services. Last year, for example, the Senate Finance Committee held a hearing that examined deaths in private equity-owned nursing homes and Sen. Warren, Sen. Ron Wyden, and Sen. Sherrod Brown launched an investigation into the quality of care at for-profit hospice companies owned by these firms.
Since the BuzzFeed News investigation was published, several other lawmakers have also expressed concern about the quality of care BrightSpring Health has provided under KKR’s ownership.
“Senator Manchin believes the reporting about conditions [in] BrightSpring homes is disturbing and unacceptable,” said a spokesperson for the Democratic senator from West Virginia. Regulators regulators in the state grew so concerned about conditions in the homes that they forced BrightSpring to stop accepting new clients and ultimately reached a settlement in which the company did not admit to wrongdoing but had to close or sell a fifth of its federally certified homes. “Senator Manchin and his staff will continue to work with all parties involved to find a solution to ensure West Virginians are getting the quality care they need and deserve.”
Rep. Richard Neal, the Democratic chair of the House Ways and Means Committee said, “This is extremely troubling reporting that underscores why I’ve long sought to bring greater transparency to private equity’s role in health care through legislation, hearings, and requests to the executive branch. More must be done to protect vulnerable Americans from harm in for-profit care facilities, and that’s why I’m continuing to push for greater accountability in the industry.”
KKR has until June 2 to respond to the request for information from Warren and other senators.