The signs of progress are encouraging, but the metrics are still down slightly when compared to last month.
Slowly, the financial health of the nation’s healthcare institutions are improving. Hospitals and health systems continued to see performance improvements in April compared to the devastating losses experienced in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hospital margins, volumes, and revenues were up across most performance metrics, both year-to-date and year-over-year, but were down compared to March, according to the latest issue of Kaufman Hall’s National Hospital Flash Report. There was no explicit reason given for the dip, but any number of factors small and large could play into the results. It’s possible that clearer trend lines will develop over time.
WHAT’S THE IMPACT?
While any signs of progress are encouraging, the April results draw a clear contrast to the severity of record-low performance seen during the first two months of the pandemic in 2020, rather than strong overall performance so far this year.
Operating margin, for example, rose 101.9% (or 8.6 percentage points) compared to January-April 2020, not including federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding. With the funding, operating margin was up 90.6% year-to-date, or 6.9 percentage points.
Operating margin was up 113.1% (39.3%) without CARES and 109.5% (21.4%) with CARES, compared to the first full month of the pandemic in April 2020, when nationwide shutdowns and broad restrictions on outpatient procedures caused operating margins to plummet 282% year-over-year.
April 2021 hospital margins, however, remained relatively thin. The median Kaufman Hall hospital operating margin index was 2.4% for the month, not including CARES. Even with the funding, it was 3.3%.
When it came to volumes, hospitals saw them increase across most metrics compared to 2020 levels, but decrease slightly compared to March. Adjusted discharges were up 5.9% year-to-date and jumped 66.4% year-over-year, while adjusted patient days rose 10% year-to-date and 64.8% year-over-year. Both metrics fell 1% month-over-month.
Emergency department visits were mixed, falling 7% compared to the first four months of 2020, but rising 57.2% year-over-year and 5.3% month-over-month. Operating room minutes were down 3.6% from March, but increased 26.1% year-to-date, and shot up 189.2% compared to April 2020, when COVID-19 abruptly halted most outpatient procedures.
Revenues followed a similar pattern, with gross operating revenue (not including CARES) up 16.7% year-to-date and 71.8% year-over-year, but down 2.5% compared to the prior month. Inpatient revenue rose 10.6% year-to-date and 37.1% year-over-year, but was down 1.9% month-over-month. Outpatient revenue rose 20.3% year-to-date, jumped 114.8% compared to April 2020, but fell 2% from March.
Total expenses continued to increase both year-to-date and year-over-year, but saw moderate decreases month-over-month. Total expense was up 6.6% year to date and 13.1% year over year. Total labor expense increased 6.1% year-to-date and 9.4% year-over-year, and total nonlabor expense rose 7% year-to-date and 16.3% year-over-year.
Compared to March, though, all three metrics were down about 3%. Expense results were mixed when adjusted for the month’s volumes. Total expense per adjusted discharge, for example, increased 2% compared to January-April 2020, but fell 32.3% from April 2020 and 2% from March.
THE LARGER TREND
Despite the ongoing pandemic, the 2021 financial outlook for the global healthcare sector is mostly positive, as strong demand for products and services – including those related to COVID-19 – will more than offset lingering pressures from the public health emergency, Moody’s Investors Service found in December.
The demand will remain strong, largely due to aging populations, the improvement in access and the introduction of new and innovative products. There is one caveat: steadily rising healthcare expenditures, which will cause payers to continue to restrict utilization and lower prices.
In October, Moody’s found that owning a public hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic carried operational risk, which will compound the fiscal and credit difficulties facing many large urban counties across the U.S.
Whether recovery from the coronavirus this year is relatively rapid or relatively slow, America’s hospitals will face another year of struggle to regain their financial health.