Moody’s maintains for-profit hospitals’ stable outlook

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Dive Brief:

  • Moody’s Investors Service announced in a recently released report that the outlook for U.S. for-profit hospitals is stable.
  • Outpatient services will drive revenue growth. Moody’s said outpatient service growth will result in EBITDA growth of 2.5-3% for for-profit hospitals over the next 18 months. That growth will be offset somewhat by higher patient costs and more uninsured Americans, which may lead to more bad debt for hospitals.
  • Moody’s warned that recent hurricanes in Florida and Texas, which are the two largest states by revenue among for-profit hospitals, may cause short-term financial issues, but Moody’s expects those hospitals will recover quickly.

Dive Insight:

Payers, both private and public, continue to squeeze hospital margins as they push patients to outpatient services. Moody’s said volumes to lower-cost settings will continue. Revenue growth from outpatient services will rise faster than inpatient services.

Moody’s said patients with high-deductible health plans, who pay more out-of-pocket costs, are going to seek less costly settings than hospitals to save money. Also, the CMS’ proposal to allow several orthopedic procedures on an outpatient basis could cause more financial harm for hospitals. “If finalized, this will further push surgeries out of the inpatient setting.”

For-profit hospitals will capture some of the added outpatient volume through their own outpatient departments and associated ambulatory surgery centers. However, some volume will go to competitors, Moody’s warned.

Moody’s expects payer rates will rise, but lower than usual — 1.5-2% net revenue per adjusted admission over the next 18 months. Some factors that will affect the slower growth include the CMS changing disproportionate share payments and proposing 1.75% rates for hospital outpatient procedures, and private payers implementing cost-controlling policies. These policies include Anthem’s plan to no longer pay for MRIs and CTs scans in hospital outpatient departments. Instead, patients will need to get the services at lower-cost, freestanding imaging centers.

Moody’s also warned that rising bad debt and expenses are pressuring margins.

“Higher patient responsibility and fewer insured patients will lead to lower volumes, but also higher costs of uncompensated care. Even with strong cost controls, given the high fixed costs of operating hospitals, it will be difficult to expand margins in an environment of weak patient volumes and rising bad debt expense. At the same time, nursing shortages and rising fees associated with medical specialists (including outsourced emergency departments) will also pressure margins,” said Moody’s.

However, some for-profit systems may see improved margins in the coming months. Moody’s said Quorum Health and Community Health Systems (CHS) will benefit from shedding less profitable facilities, while LifePoint Health and HCA Healthcare will improve margins over time as they improve efficiencies at recently acquired facilities.

Moody’s also warned that Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which destroyed portions of Texas and Florida, will affect the largest for-profit hospitals: HCA Healthcare, Tenet Healthcare and CHS, which all have “significant presence” in those areas. For those states, Moody’s expects “incremental expenses,” such as cleanup and remediation, staffing and overtime, as well as transporting critically ill patients to other facilities, will play a financial role for those systems in the next two quarters.

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