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Just three years ago, Community Health Systems was the largest for-profit operator of hospitals with more than 200 facilities scattered in rural and suburban areas with growing populations. Now, the company is hemorrhaging money, sitting atop a mountain of debt and teetering on the edge of bankruptcy — all major reasons why CHS has lost almost 90% of its market value.

Expand chart
Data: Money.net; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon / Axios

"I think the company has a nontrivial chance of defaulting," said one CHS investor who asked to be unnamed because of the sensitivity of the issue. Tomi Galin, a CHS spokeswoman, did not make any company officials available for an interview, but said the company is confident it will have "a stronger core group of hospitals that are better positioned for long-term growth."

Why it matters: CHS sits in a massive hole after a string of missteps, according to industry insiders. And it's not likely to get better for CHS, or the local communities that rely on a CHS facility, as more people get treated in lower-cost outpatient centers instead of the hospital.

The collapse: It began in 2013 and continued into January 2014. That's when CHS completed its acquisition of Health Management Associates, a for-profit hospital chain that had a slew of financial and legal problems. The deal was worth $7.6 billion, including debt, and made CHS the largest for-profit hospital company by number of facilities.

"That was the death knell," a health care investment banker said. "HMA was a troubled company, and (CHS) thought bigger would be better."

Here's what has happened at CHS since then:

  • A market cap that crumbled from roughly $7.5 billion in 2015 to less than $800 million today.
  • Net losses of almost $1.9 billion from the start of 2016 through the second quarter of this year.
  • A ballooning debt load totaling $14.7 billion as of June 30.
  • Larry Robbins, a prominent hedge fund manager, dumped his entire portfolio of CHS stock. Paul Singer of Elliott Management did the same earlier this year.
  • A fire sale of 30 hospitals to get cash to pay down debt.
  • Some of those sold hospitals were HMA remnants, while others were considered CHS' better, more profitable hospitals. "It's almost like they're burning the furniture," the banker said. An investor said CHS was "selling off the fine china" to meet debt payments.
  • A completed spin-off of Quorum Health that, in essence, threw many struggling rural hospitals off CHS' books. Quorum isn't faring well either.
  • High amounts of uncompensated care. CHS owns many hospitals in the South, and most of those states did not expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. That means CHS has absorbed more uncompensated care than hospitals in Medicaid expansion states.

Looking ahead: CHS plans on divesting even more hospitals, executives said during their latest earnings call. They likely will be profitable hospitals, as buyers won't touch money-losing inpatient facilities with dwindling admissions.

But large debt payments are due in 2019 through 2022. Short-term cash from transactions appears to be a bandage, and a subsequently smaller profit base won't solve the big debt picture, making bankruptcy a real possibility, an investor said.

Galin, the CHS spokeswoman, said the money from the hospital sales "are being used to reduce our debt" and that "cash flow generation remains strong."

Leadership questions: Many CHS executives have retired or left in the past two years, including longtime CFO Larry Cash. Wayne Smith, the CEO of the hospital chain since 1997, remains in his position. Smith is one of the highest earners among hospital executives and reaped more than $1 million in bonuses alone the past two years even though CHS' stock price tanked.

Numerous sources would not go on the record to talk about CHS. One hospital industry analyst said this when asked how Smith still had his job despite the company's problems: "Your question is very valid."

Go deeper

Scoop: Gina Haspel threatened to resign over plan to install Kash Patel as CIA deputy

CIA Director Gina Haspel. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

CIA Director Gina Haspel threatened to resign in early December after President Trump cooked up a hasty plan to install loyalist Kash Patel, a former aide to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), as her deputy, according to three senior administration officials with direct knowledge of the matter.

Why it matters: The revelation stunned national security officials and almost blew up the leadership of the world's most powerful spy agency. Only a series of coincidences — and last minute interventions from Vice President Mike Pence and White House counsel Pat Cipollone — stopped it.

Updated 10 hours ago - Politics & Policy

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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Health: Coronavirus deaths reach 4,000 per day as hospitals remain in crisis mode — CDC warns highly transmissible coronavirus variant could become dominant in U.S. in March.
  2. Politics: Biden says, "We will manage the hell out of" vaccine distribution — Biden taps ex-FDA chief to lead Operation Warp Speed amid rollout of COVID plan — Widow of GOP congressman-elect who died of COVID-19 will run to fill his seat.
  3. Vaccine: Battling Black mistrust of the vaccines"Pharmacy deserts" could become vaccine deserts — Instacart to give $25 to shoppers who get vaccine.
  4. Economy: Unemployment filings explode againFed chair: No interest rate hike coming any time soon —  Inflation rose more than expected in December.
  5. World: WHO team arrives in China to investigate pandemic origins.

John Weaver, Lincoln Project co-founder, acknowledges “inappropriate” messages

John Weaver aboard John McCain's campaign plane in February 2000. Photo: Robert Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images)

John Weaver, a veteran Republican operative who co-founded the Lincoln Project, declared in a statement to Axios on Friday that he sent “inappropriate,” sexually charged messages to multiple men.

  • “To the men I made uncomfortable through my messages that I viewed as consensual mutual conversations at the time: I am truly sorry. They were inappropriate and it was because of my failings that this discomfort was brought on you,” Weaver said.
  • “The truth is that I'm gay,” he added. “And that I have a wife and two kids who I love. My inability to reconcile those two truths has led to this agonizing place.”