After a year of unloading hospitals in the U.S. and focusing on internal challenges, Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp. is eyeing expansion opportunities overseas.
The Nashville-based company is reportedly considering buying out its partner in a four-hospital joint venture in London and is negotiating to buy five other private hospitals in London for more than $321 million, according to a report that quoted no sources in London's Sunday Telegraph newspaper.
Although Columbia officials declined to confirm the report, a spokesman said such a move would fit the company's goal of making strategic acquisitions.
"We're not announcing any specific plans, but we've always had the strategy to focus on markets where our facilities are a strong first or second, or where we could become a strong first or second with a reasonable amount of capital over a period of time," said Ed Fishbough, a Columbia spokesman.
Columbia's interests in six foreign hospitals with a total of 742 beds constitute a small fraction of its portfolio of more than 200 hospitals.
But after having made only one net hospital acquisition so far in 1999 and shedding about 100 facilities, the company is signaling to investors that it has completed the internal restructuring it began in 1997, analysts say. The reorganization began after the federal government launched investigations into Columbia's cost reporting practices.
"Maybe the fact that they're willing to look at (foreign expansion) today is a sign that they're doing better on all fronts," said Jim Baker, of Suntrust Equitable Securities Corp. in Nashville.
England has a government-supported system of free care and a private system for those willing to pay for healthcare. Columbia's current holdings are part of the private system.
Among the hospitals Columbia is reportedly pursuing in London are Devonshire Place Hospital, Lister Hospital and London Bridge Hospital. All were recently put on the market by their owner, Kuwait Investment Office, an arm of the Kuwaiti government.
A spokeswoman for London Bridge Hospital declined to discuss talks with Columbia but said there have been several interested buyers.
Two other London facilities mentioned as acquisition targets for Columbia are Parkside and Holly House hospitals.
Columbia owns a 51% interest in Harley Street Clinic, Princess Grace Hospital, Portland Hospital for Women and Children, and Wellington Hospital. The co-owner of those London hospitals is British insurance company PPP Healthcare, which was recently acquired by Axa, a French company.
Philip Hickley, an Axa spokesman, said the company has been reviewing its partnership with Columbia.
Columbia's two other foreign hospitals are Clinique de Carouge and Hospital de la Tour, both in Geneva, Switzerland. Analysts have speculated that the company might also build on its presence there.