The Strangest Show On Earth

Denver-based health-care mogul Kent Thiry runs DaVita, his multibillion-dollar kidney dialysis company, unlike anything the buttoned-down corporate world has ever seen. Are his carnival-like theatrics a stroke of genius, or are they designed to distract people from the hard truths about his business?

September 2012

In June, I met with Thiry in one of DaVita’s reflection rooms. I’d already seen him a half-dozen times at speaking engagements inside and outside the company. At these events, he was always onstage or surrounded by his many handlers, and this was our sole extended one-on-one encounter. On the day of our sitdown, DaVita had not yet announced its $55 million whistleblower settlement, or the fact that news of this agreement would soon trigger multiple investigations into DaVita's financial statements by law firms representing the company's shareholders.*

We discuss Thiry’s Village, his youth and early career, his family, and his future, which he expects will have a strong public-service component. This, he says, will not include a run for public office, despite his long-standing connections to some of the political world’s loftiest stars.

As we speak, his sparkling, sky-blue eyes convey their now-familiar enthusiastic anticipation, the welcoming sense that he’s about to be presented with a problem he can’t wait to solve. When I ask about the relentless legal and ethical inquiries DaVita has faced, the CEO, for the first time, betrays his default up-with-people persona. His face flushes slightly and his voice tightens. Regarding the decade-long barrage of DOJ-led investigations, he explains that in the American health-care system, regulations are often clarified retroactively. “The government sometimes says, ‘It’s not black and white; it’s a gray area, and we think you went too far over the middle three years ago,’ ” he says. “We aren’t perfect every single day, but we take our commandments, as we call them, very seriously.”

About the nurse in Texas who violated Thou Shalt Not Kill, Thiry is somber but almost resigned. He admits the inherent risk of such offenses, and that he can’t see a way to eliminate them. “If a nurse wants to harm patients and is seriously thoughtful about it,” he says, “whether you’re a hospital, a surgery center, or a dialysis clinic—it’s impossible to make that impossible.”

In the meditative silence of the reflection room, Thiry tells me, with characteristic pride, that DaVita’s clinical quality is “way better” than the typical not-for-profit dialysis company. The clinical numbers bear this out, he says, as do the smiling faces on all of those Walls of Fame. (Although the for-profit/nonprofit argument is debatable, even the doctor-activist Peter Laird admits he’s received some excellent care in his limited personal experience with DaVita clinics.) Thiry insists, without going into detail, that his company’s business model has saved money for taxpayers for years and has been noted “by a whole bunch of members of Congress” as a role model for American health care. About his persistent critics, Thiry’s response echoes many on his side of the national health-care debate. “It comes with the territory,” he says. “We don’t know of any health-care company in America that hasn’t had to go through investigations and audits of this sort, and very few have our 13-year track record. For some people it’s just unacceptable that this model is profit-based. They’ll always attack us. They’re not evil people. It’s just that their ideology doesn’t allow for a virtuous for-profit company.”

DaVita’s promise to become “the greatest health-care community the world has ever seen” purposely omits the word “dialysis,” another decision the company arrived at democratically. Last May, DaVita spent $4.42 billion to purchase HealthCare Partners, one of the largest networks of physicians in the United States, with more than 8,300 doctors handling almost 670,000 patients. In other words, regardless of whether you have kidney problems, the odds are increasing that your health-care needs may one day be assessed and administered by a company Kent Thiry runs.

Few people are in a better position to make this a reality. He’s got the momentum and the money, and he could hardly be more connected. President Obama’s health-care czar and deputy chief of staff, Nancy-Ann DeParle, made more than $2 million in compensation and stock sales as a DaVita board member from 2002 to 2008; and Thiry and Mitt Romney go back almost 30 years.

Then, of course, there are the “citizens.” As Thiry extends DaVita’s ambitions beyond dialysis, his village of 41,000 (and counting) is growing into an army. And that glittering new building at 16th and Wewatta isn’t so much a headquarters as it is a fortress; one that, so far, has been almost impenetrable. Unless Thiry and his devotees are derailed by more federal investigations, whistleblower suits, or what may prove to be false profit reports, the DaVita Way might one day become a philosophy that everyone working in or receiving health care must heed—regardless of whether they believe it’s “one for all” or “all for one.”

*Although the original version of this story reported that the United States Securities and Exchange Commission had launched an investigation of Davita's financial statements, the SEC has not announced such an inquiry. We regret the error.