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$8 Billion Gain Puts Frist Family First among Health Care Sector Billionaires

Washington, DC – Private, for-profit hospital billionaire Thomas F. Frist Jr. and his immediate family have seen their wealth double during the pandemic, rising from $7.5 billion on March 18, 2020* to $15.6 billion on March 8, 2021, an increase of $8.1 billion, or 108 percent. That’s according to new analysis of Forbes data by the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) published today.

More than $4 billion of the gains have come since September 2020. The total increase puts the Frist family first among billionaires in the health care sector. The family is also the only hospital owner among health care sector billionaires.

“HCA and the Frists join the ranks of pandemic profiteers that have seen their fortunes soar during a time of national tragedy,” said Omar Ocampo, report co-author and researcher at the Institute for Policy Studies. “They are leading the parade of health care sector billionaires with the greatest wealth gains over the last year.”

“The Frist-HCA business model of squeezing employees and pinching pennies is even more troubling during a pandemic when their workers have been on the frontlines of health provision,” said Chuck Collins, report co-author, and director of the Program on Inequality at the Institute for Policy Studies. “While the Frists have been sequestered in protective bubbles, their workers are making enormous sacrifices to care for their patients. The least they can do is provide them with protective equipment and hazard pay they deserve.”

The Frists have a 20 percent ownership stake in Hospital Corporation of America (HCA), the largest for-profit hospital conglomerate in the U.S. Frist family wealth has fluctuated with the value of these holdings but has been above $7 billion since March 2016, according to Forbes.

For the report, Frist Family Pandemic Fortunes, IPS researchers studied billionaires in the health sector and found 27. The Frists lead these 27 billionaires with the largest wealth increases, including billionaire fortunes tied to big pharma and biotechnology. The Frist family is the only hospital owner on the list.

The IPS report found that:

  • HCA made nearly $4 billion in profits in 2020 during the pandemic, up more than $200 million from 2019.
  • In 2019, HCA’s staffing levels were 29% below the national average. HCA’s low staffing levels have been linked to poor patient outcomes. For example, low staffing levels at HCA’s Colorado hospitals may have contributed to patient death as well as other preventable harm.
  • HCA CEO Sam Hazen was paid $27 million in 2019, making him the highest paid CEO in the hospital sector for that year (2020 figures have not yet been released). His pay is 478 times the median HCA employee, up from 383 times in 2018; over 1,038 times the lowest paid worker at HCA. Hazen is paid roughly $13,000 an hour.

The extraordinary wealth gains of the Frist family come at a time when the health care industry has reaped enormous profits during the pandemic, even as workers and their patients face enormous strains. For example, the report says, “The company cut supply costs by $112 million even though workers spoke out for months about inadequate PPE and having to reuse single use equipment like masks and gloves.”

Inadequate wages have been the focus of critics of HCA for some time, but the issue worsened during the pandemic as frontline health care workers were forced to take much greater risks. Meanwhile, HCA continued to push back on worker demands. For example, it has successfully delayed a vote to unionize 1,800 nurses at its Mission Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina for six months last year, claiming that this was necessary during a pandemic.

One frontline HCA worker who has risked his life in the line of duty at his hospital in Kansas City, MO is Jemelle Brown, environmental services technician at HCA’s Research Medical Center. He said, “HCA made nearly $4 billion in profits last year, yet pays me poverty wages even as I risk my life for this job. I haven’t been able to afford a place to live on my own for my son and I for the past two and a half years because I make only $13 an hour despite working for the largest for-profit hospital corporation in the nation. During this pandemic, I contracted COVID-19 at work and could have died – all for a job that doesn’t even pay me enough to live on.”

The surge in wealth flowing to Frist family is extraordinary, even for U.S. billionaires who have seen the growth of their wealth accelerate during the pandemic. U.S. billionaires have seen their wealth increase $1.3 trillion, or 44 percent, over the 11 months since the beginning of the pandemic lockdowns in March 2020*, according to an analysis by IPS and Americans for Tax Fairness (ATF). The combined wealth of 660 U.S. billionaires now tops $4.2 trillion.

For perspective, the $4.2 trillion in wealth is nearly double the collective $2.4 trillion in wealth held by the entire bottom half of American society, or 165 million people.

The Institute for Policy Studies is a multi-issue research center that has conducted ground-breaking research on inequality for more than 20 years. The IPS Program on Inequality and the Common Good, and the website, provide research, advocacy and policy development on issues related to economic inequality.


*Editor’s Note: March 18, 2020 is used as the unofficial beginning of the pandemic because by then most federal and state economic restrictions responding to the virus were in place. March 18 was also the date that Forbes picked to measure billionaire wealth for the 2020 edition of its annual billionaires report, which provided a baseline that IPS and Americans for Tax Fairness compare periodically with real-time data from the Forbes website. PolitiFact has favorably reviewed this methodology.

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