Is a Supergroup the Right Fit For You?

As it gets harder and harder out there for an independent physician or a small, unaligned physician practice to survive, supergroups or group practices without walls continue to gain in popularity.  A supergroup is a group of physicians or physician practices coming together under a single employer identification number in the organization of a single legal entity.  Some supergroups focus on one specialty while others are multi-specialty.

Like everything in life, there are pros and cons to supergroups and whether or not a particular attribute is a pro or a con may vary from physician to physician.  This post reviews some of the most important advantages and disadvantages.

Pros

Supergroups allow physicians to share, and reduce, expenses.  This is most often done in the context of consolidating back office functions and non-clinical staff.  Sharing non-clinical staff can allow physicians to build a more sophisticated administrative operation and pool their resources to hire more experienced staff and executives.  It also generally allows physicians to further divest themselves from involvement in administrative services and focus more on clinical care, an aim of many physicians.  Moreover, physicians can utilize the existence of a centralized administrative office to reduce the amount of space that they lease in their individual offices.  Physicians can also gain greater power to negotiate with suppliers and purchase more supplies in bulk thereby saving more money.

Supergroups are generally, by their nature, large groups (hence the term “super”).  In this day and age, more physicians can translate into better leverage with payors which can translate into higher reimbursement rates.

Physicians can use their greater resources in a supergroup to invest in technology to keep up with the ever increasing burden of regulations and reporting systems that require extensive use of technology as well as hopefully deliver higher quality care by harnessing data.

Additionally, as reimbursement continues to plateau or decrease, many physicians are looking at ancillary revenue streams.  However, to gain a share of this revenue, generally, a not insignificant capital investment is necessary.  Supergroups, with their greater resources, are better positioned to invest this capital as well as achieve savings by purchasing equipment that can be shared by multiple physicians in the group, thereby keeping costs down.

Joining a supergroup can also allow a physician to affiliate with a hospital without giving up much in the way of independence.  There are supergroups that are managed by a health system, but which otherwise generally allow the physicians to practice as they always have been.  The health system is usually paid a fair market value management fee for the management services provided to the supergroup.  Also, the affiliation of a supergroup with a hospital may give the supergroup more leverage in negotiations with payors, thereby providing an additional benefit to its member physicians.

Being a part of a supergroup may also allow a physician to establish a channel with private equity firms.  Many physicians want to enter into deals with private equity firms, but either are too small to gain notice or do not have a sophisticated enough back-office operation in order to appear attractive.  Supergroups can work on establishing more robust administrative operations, add physicians to grow larger and then approach private equity as a more attractive target with additional negotiation power.  

Cons

Despite the relative independence of physicians and profit centers in supergroups, there will still be some loss of independence.  A physician will no longer be his or her only boss as it is inevitable that some decisions will be made by a centralized board.  The extent of those decisions does vary by group.  Even if every physician is a member of the board (not advisable), each physician will have only one vote, and one vote will not be enough to carry the day.

A clash of cultures is a possibility as well.  Different physicians and practices have different ways of doing things, and given the centralization of some aspects of the group, fights over cultures do occur from time to time.

There is also a cost in forming a supergroup.  Practices will incur expenses in coming together to form the entity, develop governing documents, contribute assets, merge benefit plans and hire new management.  While these costs will hopefully be dwarfed over time by savings and higher profit margins, this is not a guarantee.

There will also be business and legal obstacles in coming together.  Some practices may be more profitable than others.  Some may carry higher overhead than others.  Some may be more productive than others.  Additionally, Stark law compliance is paramount in forming a supergroup, particularly if there are ancillary services involved that are considered “designated health services” under the Stark law.

Forming or joining a supergroup is a big decision and can be a daunting task for physicians.  It is important to consider all of the issues involved and assess the ramifications carefully before jumping completely into the pool.