S&P upgrades view on nonprofit health sector as COVID-19 cases drop


Dive Brief:

  • S&P Global Ratings on Wednesday upgraded its view on the nonprofit healthcare sector to stable. It had been at negative since March 2020, a view that was affirmed in January.
  • Analysts said the change results from coronavirus vaccination rates and decreasing COVID-19 cases as well as a drop in the unemployment rate that should reduce payer mix shakeup. They also pointed to generally healthy balance sheets across the sector.
  • Headwinds remain, most notably labor expenses as burnout among staff was heavily exacerbated by the pandemic. Increased salaries and benefit expenses will dampen margins going forward, according to the report.

Dive Insight:

The change is another sign for providers that their financial situation is on a rather swift recovery from the upheaval caused by the pandemic. Although some facilities, especially those that are smaller and in rural areas, are certainly still struggling, that was the case before COVID-19 as well.

Most nonprofit health systems reported first-quarter results that showed improved volumes and investment returns. Some are still sporting more than a year’s worth of cash on hand.

Many of them took advantage of federal coronavirus relief funds, most of which can now be used more flexibly. A few, like Kaiser Permanente, did fine without the aid and ended up returning it.

The S&P analysts warned, however, that potential COVID-19 outbreaks this fall would be a setback. That remains a concern with some parts of the country lagging in vaccination rates and the increasing prevalence of more contagious COVID-19 variants.

Other risks include the end of enhanced federal reimbursement and the return of the Medicare sequester cuts when the public health emergency ends, which is expected to be after the end of this year.

But the analysts said agile management teams should be able to combat these challenges.

“[T]o the extent that the pandemic has enabled faster decision making and allowed management teams to pivot and identify new opportunities for expense base restructuring and revenue enhancement, we believe these risks are manageable within our view of the stable sector view,” according to the report.

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