Financial Reserves and Credit Management

For large capital projects—construction of a new cancer
treatment center, for example, or replacement of an
aging facility—issuance of municipal debt is one of the
most affordable ways for not-for-profit hospitals and
health system to finance the project

The affordability of that debt is, however, partly contingent on the
organization’s ability to maintain a strong credit rating,
and financial reserves—again measured as Days Cash on
Hand—are a significant component of that credit rating.

There are two basic forms of municipal debt:

Ÿ General obligation bonds are backed by the full
taxing power of the issuing municipal authority and
are considered relatively low risk. Hospitals that are
owned by a city or county can be funded by general
obligation bonds, although there are practical
limitations on their ability to issue these bonds,
including in many instances the need to obtain voter
or county commissioner approval. Organizations

without municipal ownership—including most
not-for-profit hospitals and health systems—
cannot issue general obligation bonds.

Ÿ Revenue-backed municipal bonds are backed by
the ability of the organization borrowing the debt
to meet its obligation to make principal and interest
payments through the revenue it generates over the
life of the bond. Because revenues can be disrupted
by any range of factors, revenue-backed bonds are
higher risk for investors. Most healthcare bonds
are revenue-backed municipal bonds.

When determining whether to invest in revenue-backed
municipal healthcare bonds, investors will look to the
credit rating of the hospital or health system that is
borrowing the debt. Credit ratings—issued by one or
more of the three major credit rating agencies (Fitch
Ratings, Moody’s Investors Service, and S&P Global
Ratings)—provide an assessment of the probability

that the hospital or health system will be able to meet
the terms of the debt obligation. These ratings are
tiered. A credit rating in the AA tier is better than a credit
rating in the A tier, which is better than a rating in the
BBB tier. Ratings below the BBB tier are considered sub-investment grade.

Organizations with a sub-investment
grade rating can still access various forms of debt,
but the amount of debt they can access generally will
be lower, the cost of the debt will be higher, and the
covenants that lenders require will be more stringent
than for investment-grade rated organizations.

Financial reserves and credit ratings

Days Cash on Hand is one of the most important factors
credit rating agencies use because it is an indicator
of how long the rated organization could withstand
serious disruption to its operations and cashflow.
The rating agencies issue median values for the various
metrics they use to determine credit ratings. Median

values for Days Cash on Hand increased significantly
across most rating categories for all three agencies
in 2020 and 2021; this reflects the temporary inflow
of pandemic relief funding through, for example,
the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security
(CARES) Act.

We anticipate these medians will move
closer to pre-pandemic levels as relief funds are
exhausted and hospitals repay remaining balances
on Medicare’s COVID-19 Accelerated and Advanced
Payment (MAAP) program funds. But even before
the pandemic, organizations in 2019 had a median
Days Cash on Hand
of 276 to 289 days at the AA level,
173 to 219 days at the A level, and 140 to 163 days at
the BBB level.

In other words, the Days Cash on Hand
benchmark for organizations seeking to maintain an
investment-grade rating would be well over 100 Days
Cash on Hand, and well over 200 Days Cash on Hand for
organizations seeking to achieve a higher rating level.
Again, these reserves are proportionate to the operating
expenses of the individual hospital or health system.

Impact of credit ratings on access to capital

Organizations that can achieve a higher rating can
also borrow money at more affordable interest
rates. Figure 3 shows average interest rates for
municipal bonds across a range of maturities as of
mid-December 2022 (maturity is the term in years
for repayment of the bond at the time the bond is
issued). Lower-risk general obligation municipal bonds
are shown as the baseline, with lines for AA, A, and
BBB rated healthcare revenue-backed bonds above
it. As a reminder, most hospitals and health systems
cannot borrow money using general obligation bonds;
instead, they use higher-risk revenue-backed bonds
Because revenue-backed bonds are a higher risk for
investors than tax-based general obligation bonds,

even hospitals and health systems with a strong
AA credit rating will pay a higher interest rate than
would a city or county that could back repayment of
the bond with tax revenues (see the line for AA rated
Healthcare Revenue Bonds compared to the line
for AAA rated General Obligation bonds). But there
is also a significant gap between the interest rate a
hospital with an AA credit rating would pay compared
to the interest rate available to a hospital with a lower
BBB rating
. Here, the difference is approximately
three-fourths of a full percentage point. When the
amount borrowed for a major new hospital project
can run into the hundreds of millions of dollars,
that difference represents significant savings for
organizations with a higher credit rating.

Financial reserves and debt capacity

Financial reserves and the funds they generate—
including investment income—also help define an
organization’s debt capacity: essentially, the amount of
debt an organization can assume without jeopardizing
its current credit rating. There are two key ratios here:

Ÿ The first is total unrestricted cash and investments
to debt.
In general, the more favorable that ratio is,
the more latitude a hospital or health system has to
take on additional debt, especially if the organization
is toward the middle to top end of its rating tier.

Ÿ The second is the debt service coverage ratio,
which measures the organization’s ability to
make principal and interest payments with funds
derived from both operating and non-operating
(e.g., investment income) activity. A higher ratio
here means the organization has more funds
available to service debt.

The ability to assume additional debt is an important
safety valve
if, for example, an organization needs to
mitigate poor financial performance to fund ongoing
capital needs or strategic initiatives.


Not-for-profit hospitals and health systems often
borrow debt through revenue-backed municipal
bonds, meaning that the debt obligations will be
met by the revenue the organization generates
over the life of the bond.

Ÿ Because revenue-backed bonds are higher
risk than general obligation bonds
backed by a
municipality’s taxing authority (revenues can
be disrupted), investors seek assurance that an
organization will be able to meet its obligations.

Ÿ Credit ratings offer investors an assessment of
an organization’s current and near-term ability to
meet these obligations.

Ÿ Days Cash on Hand is an important metric in
assessing the organization’s credit rating, and a
higher rating generally requires a higher number of
Days Cash on Hand.

Ÿ A higher credit rating allows organizations to
borrow money at more affordable interest rates.

Ÿ A higher level of financial reserves and investment
income in relation to existing debt obligations also
increases an organization’s debt capacity, creating
an important safety valve if an organization has
to borrow money to mitigate poor operating or
investment performance.

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