Hospitals paying $24 billion more for labor during the COVID-19 pandemic


https://www.healthcarefinancenews.com/news/hospitals-paying-24-billion-more-labor-during-covid-19-pandemic

Clinical labor costs are up by an average of 8% per patient day, translating to $17 million in additional annual labor expenses.

As the delta variant pushes COVID-19 caseloads to all-time highs, hospitals and health systems across the country are paying $24 billion more per year for qualified clinical labor than they did pre-pandemic, according to a new PINC AI analysis from Premier.

Clinical labor costs are up by an average of 8% per patient day when compared to a pre-pandemic baseline period in 2019. For the average 500-bed facility, this translates to $17 million in additional annual labor expenses since the beginning of the public health emergency.

The data also shows that overtime hours are up 52% as of September. At the same time, the use of agency and temporary labor is up 132% for full-time and 131% for part-time workers. The use of contingency labor – positions created to complete a temporary project or work function – is up nearly 126%.

Overtime and the use of agency staff are the most expensive labor choices for hospitals – usually adding 50% or more to a typical employee’s hourly rate, Premier found.

And hospital workers aren’t just putting in more hours – they’re also working harder. The analysis shows that productivity, measured in worked hours per unit of departmental volume, increased by an average of 7% to 14% year-over-year across the intensive care, nursing and emergency department units, highlighting the significance of the increases in cost-per-hour.

Another complicating factor is that hospital employees are more exposed to COVID-19 than many other workers, with quarantines and recoveries requiring the use of sick time. The data shows that use of sick time, particularly among full-time employees (FTEs) in the intensive care unit, is up 50% for full-time clinical staff and more than 60% for part-time employees when compared with the pre-pandemic baseline.

WHAT’S THE IMPACT

The combined stressors of working more hours while under the constant threat of coronavirus exposure are pushing many hospital workers to the breaking point. In fact, the data shows clinical staff turnover is reaching record highs in key departments like emergency, ICU and nursing. 

Since the start of the pandemic, the annual rate of turnover across these departments has increased from 18% to 30%. This means nearly one-third of all employees in these departments are now turning over each year, which is almost double the rate from two years ago.

This is a number that could increase as new vaccination mandates take effect. Already, one Midwestern system reported a loss of 125 employees who chose not to be vaccinated, while a New York facility reported another 90 resignations. Overall, staffing agencies are predicting up to a 5% resignation rate once vaccine mandates kick in. 

While a minority of the overall workforce, losses of even a few employees during times of extreme stress can have a ripple effect on hospital operations and costs.

THE LARGER TREND

According to the American Hospital Association, hospitals nationwide will lose an estimated $54 billion in net income over the course of the year, even taking into account the $176 billion in federal CARES Act funding from last year. Added staffing costs were not addressed as part of CARES and are further eating into hospital finances. 

As a result, some are now predicting that more than half of all hospitals will have negative margins by the end of 2021 – a trend that could be dire for some community hospitals. 

Prior to the pandemic, about one quarter of hospitals had negative margins, the Kaufman Hall data showed. At the beginning of 2021, after almost a year of COVID-19, half of hospitals had negative margins.

Meanwhile, the most potentially disruptive forces facing hospitals and health systems in the next three years are provider burnout, disengagement and the resulting shortages among healthcare professionals, according to a March survey of 551 healthcare executives.

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