Hospitals brace for omicron as margins weaken further, Kaufman Hall reports

Dive Brief:

  • Hospitals saw operating margins continue to erode in October, declining 12% from September under the weight of rising labor costs, according to a national median of more than 900 health systems calculated by Kaufman Hall. It was the second consecutive monthly drop and comes as facilities are preparing for the fast-spreading omicron variant of the coronavirus.
  • Although expenses remained highly elevated, patient days and average length of stay fell for the first time in months in October, likely reflecting lower hospitalization rates as the pressure of treating large numbers of COVID cases began to ease, Kaufman Hall said in its latest report.
  • At the same time, operating room minutes rose 6.8% from September, pointing to renewed patient interest in elective procedures.

Dive Insight:

Doctors and nurses have barely caught a breath from the most recent surge in inpatient volumes driven by the delta variant. Now, hospitals face the possibility of a fresh wave of cases led by omicron.

“Performance could continue to suffer in the coming months as hospitals face sustained labor increases and the uncertainties of the emerging omicron variant,” according to the Kaufman Hall report.

The new variant has not been detected in the U.S. as of Wednesday morning, but Canada is among the 20 countries that have confirmed cases.

Scientists are scrambling to understand the characteristics of the omicron variant. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told a White House press briefing Tuesday that omicron’s mutation profile points to “increased transmissibility and immune evasion.” But it is too soon to tell whether omicron will cause more severe disease than other COVID-19 variants, or how well current vaccines and treatments work against it, Fauci said.

Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel told the Financial Times he thought existing vaccines would be less effective against omicron than earlier variants. Moderna, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and other manufacturers are already working to adapt their vaccines to combat the new threat, first reported by South African scientists on Nov. 24.

Regeneron also said its COVID-19 antibody drug, the top-selling treatment in the U.S., might be less effective against omicron. The company said it is now conducting tests to determine how the variant affects its drug.

As the focus shifts to preparing for omicron, labor costs are squeezing hospital margins. Leading hospital systems including Kaiser Permanente and Advocate Aurora Health were among those reporting pressure on margins from rising labor expenses in the third quarter.

The median hospital operating margin, not including federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding, was down 31.5% in October, compared to pre-pandemic levels in the same month of 2019, according to Kaufman Hall’s snapshot. Hospitals in the West, South and Midwest that were hardest hit by the delta variant saw year-over-year margin declines.

Total labor expenses rose nearly 3% from September to October, 12.6% compared to October 2020 and 14.8% compared to October 2019, Kaufman Hall said. Full-time equivalents per adjusted occupied bed decreased 4.5% versus 2020 and 4% versus 2019, suggesting higher salaries due to nationwide labor shortages, rather than increased staffing levels, are driving up labor expenses.

Total non-labor expenses, however, decreased 1% in October from September for supplies, drugs and purchased services, following months of increases.

Broader economic trends such as U.S. labor shortages are adding to the extreme pressures of the pandemic. Hospitals face greater uncertainties in the coming months as a result, as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations appear to once again be on the upswing before many have even had a chance to recover from the last surge,” Erik Swanson, a senior vice president of data and analytics at Kaufman Hall said.

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