‘A triple whammy’: Why hospitals are struggling financially amid the delta surge


Hospitals were struggling before the pandemic. Now they face financial  disaster (opinion) - CNN

n addition to treating an influx of Covid-19 patients, many hospitals are struggling with what one administrator calls a “triple whammy” of financial burdens—stemming from plummeting revenue, higher labor costs, and reduced relief funds, Christopher Rowland reports for the Washington Post.

Hospitals in less-vaccinated areas face spiking labor costs

In areas with low vaccination rates, particularly in southern and rural communities, hospitals have been overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients, exacerbating labor shortages as workers burn out or leave for more lucrative positions, Rowland reports.

“The workforce issue is just dire,” Stacey Hughes, EVP of government relations and policy for the American Hospital Association (AHA), said. “The delta variant has wreaked significant havoc on hospitals and health systems.”

In Louisiana, Mary Ellen Pratt, CEO of St. James Parish Hospital, said many nurses quit due to the grueling conditions as Covid-19 cases spiked. “I didn’t have any extra money to incentivize my staff to pick up additional shifts,” she said. “This is coming out of bottom-line money I don’t have.”

Separately, Lisa Smithgall, SVP and chief nursing executive at Ballad Health, said the health system—which has 21 hospitals in eastern Tennessee and southwestern Virginia—has faced similar problems retaining staff amid Covid-19 surges.

“We knew we were at risk in our region because of where we live and because of our vaccination rate being so poor,” Smithgall said. “At one point, we were seeing four or five nurse resignations per week. They couldn’t do it again; they emotionally didn’t have it. They were so upset with our community.”

To fill in these growing gaps in their workforce, many hospitals have had to turn to costly contract workers, Rowland reports—a significant financial burden that further strains hospitals’ resources.

For example, Ballad Health went from hiring fewer than 75 contract nurses before the pandemic to 150 in August 2020 and 450 in August 2021. Moreover, according to Smithgall, contract nurses previously made double or triple what permanent staff nurses made, but now Ballad sometimes has to pay up to seven times as much for contract nurses as hospitals compete for workers to fill shifts.

Delayed elective surgeries deepen hospitals’ financial struggles

Many hospitals, including those in areas with high vaccination rates, have delayed elective surgeries, a crucial source of revenue, amid nationwide surges in Covid-19 cases, Rowland reports—further compounding financial struggles for many organizations.

On Aug. 26, Ballad Health postponed a long list of elective surgeries—including hernia repair, cardiac and interventional radiology procedures, joint replacements, and nonessential spine surgery—to preserve space in its hospitals and conserve workers. Ballad is now allowing elective surgeries again, but only for a limited number of procedures that do not require overnight stays.

Similarly, St. Charles Health System in Oregon postponed elective surgeries in August “while we responded to a surge that was significantly greater and much more sudden than the surge in 2020,” Matt Swafford, the health system’s VP and CFO, said.

According to Swafford, the health system lost $5 million a week through August and September, around $1 million of which was repayment of emergency advances on Medicare reimbursements from last year.

“I don’t think anybody saw this level of surge coming in 2021 after what we saw in 2020,” he said. “We’re just not equipped to be able to simultaneously respond to the urgent needs of the community [for more typical surgeries and care] at the same time that a third of our beds are occupied by highly infective Covid patients.”

Many hospitals likely to end the year at a deficit

Further compounding the issue, according to Moody’s Investors Service, is that the provider relief funds that previously made up 43% of operating cash flow at nonprofit and government-run hospitals in the United States are now dwindling down.

In addition, the latest portion of provider relief funds to be distributed must be based on expenses incurred by hospitals before March 31, 2021, which don’t account for months of the delta surge, Rowland reports.

Premier, a group purchasing and technology company serving more than 4,000 hospitals and health systems, analyzed payroll data of 650 hospitals and found that U.S. hospitals have spent a total of $24 billion a year during the pandemic to cover excess labor costs, primarily for overtime and contract nurses. This was an increase of 63% from October 2019 to July 2021, Rowland reports, with hospitals in the Upper Midwest and across the South seeing the largest increases.

“It’s going to leave them huge deficits that they are going to have to work out of for years to come,” Michael Alkire, Premier’s CEO, said.

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