Here are eight health systems with strong operational metrics and solid financial positions, according to reports from Fitch Ratings, Moody’s Investors Service and S&P Global Ratings.
1. Minneapolis-based Allina Health has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The health system has a strong financial profile and is the acute care leader in the broad Twin Cities metro area, Fitch said. The credit rating agency said Allina’s proven ability to rebound quickly from operating challenges supports the stable outlook.
2. Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta has an “Aa2” rating and stable outlook with Moody’s. The system has strong operating margins and is the leading pediatric provider in the Atlanta area, Moody’s said. The credit rating agency expects Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta to continue to generate robust margins and maintain exceptional liquidity while undergoing a new campus expansion project.
3. La Crosse, Wis.-based Gundersen Health System has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The health system has consistently strong operating performance, strong balance sheet metrics and a low debt burden, Fitch said. The credit rating agency said Gundersen’s rating continues to be supported by its leading market position and expanding operating platform.
4. Houston Methodist has an “AA” rating and stable outlook with S&P. The system, which comprises an academic medical center and six community hospitals, has a strong enterprise profile and a history of excellent margins and cash flow, S&P said. The credit rating agency said Houston Methodist is well positioned to withstand the pressures from COVID-19.
5. Indianapolis-based Indiana University Health has an “AA” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The health system has a solid balance sheet and strong operating cash flow despite short-term pressure from the COVID-19 pandemic. The credit rating agency expects IU Health’s EBITDA margins will range between 12 percent and 14 percent annually when margins recover from the pandemic.
6. Broomfield, Colo.-based SCL Health has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch and an “Aa3” rating and stable outlook with Moody’s. The system has a track record of exceptional operations, consistent improvement in unrestricted liquidity levels and significant financial flexibility, Fitch said. The credit rating agency said SCL Health is well positioned to manage the pressures of COVID-19, having built up cash reserves.
7. San Diego-based Scripps Health has an “AA” rating and stable outlook with Fitch and an “Aa3” rating and stable outlook with Moody’s. The health system has a strong balance sheet, strong operations and has maintained a low leverage position, Fitch said. The credit rating agency expects Scripps will continue generating operating levels that are consistent with historical trends following recovery from the pandemic.
8. San Diego-based Sharp HealthCare has an “Aa3” rating and stable outlook with Moody’s and an “AA” rating and stable outlook with S&P. The health system has a healthy financial profile, an excellent balance sheet, a solid business position and is the leading provider in a competitive service area, S&P said. The credit rating agency said the system’s financial performance has remained stable despite COVID-19 and the recession.
“It’s new territory, which is why we’re taking that measured approach on rating actions,” Suzie Desai, senior director at S&P, said.
The healthcare sector has been bruised from the novel coronavirus and the effects are likely to linger for years, but the first half of 2020 has not resulted in an avalanche of hospital and health system downgrades.
At the outset of the pandemic, some hospitals warned of dire financial pressures as they burned through cash while revenue plunged. In response, the federal government unleashed $175 billion in bailout funds to help prop up the sector as providers battled the effects of the virus.
Still, across all of public finance — which includes hospitals — the second quarter saw downgrades outpacing upgrades for the first time since the second quarter of 2017.
S&P characterized the second quarter as a “historic low” for upgrades across its entire portfolio of public finance credits.
“While only partially driven by the coronavirus, the second quarter was the firstsince Q2 2017 with the number of downgrades surpassing upgrades and by the largest margin since Q3 2014,” according to a recent Moody’s Investors Service report.
Through the first six months of this year, Moody’s has recorded 164 downgrades throughout public finance and, more specifically, 27 downgrades among the nonprofit healthcare entities it rates.
By comparison, Fitch Ratings has recorded 14 nonprofit hospital and health system downgrades through July and just two upgrades, both of which occurred before COVID-19 hit.
“Is this a massive amount of rating changes? By no means,” Kevin Holloran, senior director of U.S. Public Finance for Fitch, said of the first half of 2020 for healthcare.
Also through July, S&P Global recorded 22 downgrades among nonprofit acute care hospitals and health systems, significantly outpacing the six healthcare upgrades recorded over the same period.
“It’s new territory, which is why we’re taking that measured approach on rating actions,” Suzie Desai, senior director at S&P, said.
Still, other parts of the economy lead healthcare in terms of downgrades. State and local governments and the housing sector are outpacing the healthcare sector in terms of downgrades, according to S&P.
Virus has not ‘wiped out the healthcare sector’
Earlier this year when the pandemic hit the U.S., some made dire predictions about the novel coronavirus and its potential effect on the healthcare sector.
Reports from the ratings agencies warned of the potential for rising covenant violations and an outlook for the second quarter that would result in the “worst on record,“ one Fitch analyst said during a webinar in May.
That was likely “too broad of a brushstroke,” Holloran said. “It has not come in and wiped out the healthcare sector,” he said. He attributes that in part to the billions in financial aid that the federal government earmarked for providers.
Though, what it has revealed is the gaps between the strongest and weakest systems, and that the disparities are only likely to widen, S&P analysts said during a recent webinar.
The nonprofit hospitals and health systems pegged with a downgrade have tended to be smaller in size in terms of scale, lower-rated already and light on cash, Holloran said.
Still, some of the larger health systems were downgraded in the first half of the year by either one of the three rating agencies, including Sutter Health, Bon Secours Mercy Health, Geisinger, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and Care New England.
“This is something that individual management of a hospital couldn’t control,” said Rick Gundling, senior vice president of Healthcare Financial Management Association, which has members from small and large organizations. “It wasn’t a bad strategy — that goes into a downgrade. This happened to everybody.”
Deteriorating payer mix
Looking forward, some analysts say they’re more concerned about the long-term effects for hospitals and health systems that were brought on by the downturn in the economy and the virus.
One major concern is the potential shift in payer mix for providers.
As millions of people lose their job they risk losing their employer-sponsored health insurance. They may transition to another private insurer, Medicaid or go uninsured.
For providers, commercial coverage typically reimburses at higher rates than government-sponsored coverage such as Medicare and Medicaid. Treating a greater share of privately insured patients is highly prized.
If providers experience a decline in the share of their privately insured patients and see a growth in patients covered with government-sponsored plans, it’s likely to put a squeeze on margins.
The shift also poses a serious strain for states, and ultimately providers. States are facing a potential influx of Medicaid members at the same time state budgets are under tremendous financial pressure. It raises concerns about whether states will cut rates to their Medicaid programs, which ultimately affects providers.
Some states have already started to re-examine and slash rates, including Ohio.
[Readers’ Note: This is the first of two articles on the Future of Hospitals in Post-COVID America. This article
examines how market forces are consolidating, rationalizing and redistributing acute care assets within the
broader industry movement to value-based care delivery. The second article, which will publish next month,
examines gaps in care delivery and the related public policy challenges of providing appropriate, accessible
and affordable healthcare services in medically-underserved communities.]
In her insightful 2016 book, The Gray Rhino: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore,
Michelle Wucker coins the term “Gray Rhinos” and contrasts them with “Black Swans.” That distinction is
highly relevant to the future of American hospitals.
Black Swans are high impact events that are highly improbable and difficult to predict. By contrast, Gray Rhinos are foreseeable, high-impact events that we choose to ignore because they’re complex, inconvenient and/or fortified by perverse incentives that encourage the status quo. Climate change is a powerful example
of a charging Gray Rhino.
In U.S. healthcare, we are now seeing what happens when a Gray Rhino and a Black Swan collide.
Arguably, the nation’s public health defenses should anticipate global pandemics and apply resources
systematically to limit disease spread. This did not happen with the coronavirus pandemic.
Instead, COVID-19 hit the public healthcare infrastructure suddenly and hard. This forced hospitals and health systems to dramatically reduce elective surgeries, lay off thousands and significantly change care delivery with the adoption of new practices and services like telemedicine.
In comparison, many see the current American hospital business model as a Gray Rhino that has been charging toward unsustainability for years with ever-building momentum.
Even with massive and increasing revenue flows, hospitals have long struggled with razor-thin margins, stagnant payment rates and costly technology adoptions. Changing utilization patterns, new and disruptive competitors, pro-market regulatory rules and consumerism make their traditional business models increasingly vulnerable and, perhaps, unsustainable.
Despite this intensifying pressure, many hospitals and health systems maintain business-as-usual practices because transformation is so difficult and costly. COVID-19 has made the imperative of change harder to ignore or delay addressing.
For a decade, the transition to value-based care has dominated debate within U.S. healthcare and absorbed massive strategic, operational and financial resources with little progress toward improved care outcomes, lower costs and better customer service. The hospital-based delivery system remains largely oriented around Fee-for-Service reimbursement.
Hospitals’ collective response to COVID-19, driven by practical necessity and financial survival, may accelerate the shift to value-based care delivery. Time will tell.
This series explores the repositioning of hospitals during the next five years as the industry rationalizes an excess supply of acute care capacity and adapts to greater societal demands for more appropriate, accessible and affordable healthcare services.
It starts by exploring the role of the marketplace in driving hospital consolidation and the compelling need to transition to value-based care delivery and payment models.
COVID’s DUAL SHOCKS TO PATIENT VOLUME
Many American hospitals faced severe financial and operational challenges before COVID-19. The sector has struggled to manage ballooning costs, declining margins and waves of policy changes. A record 18 rural hospitals closed in 2019. Overall, hospitals saw a 21% decline in operating margins in 2018-2019.
COVID intensified those challenges by administering two shocks to the system that decreased the volume of hospital-based activities and decimated operating margins.
The first shock was immediate. To prepare for potential surges in COVID care, hospitals emptied beds and cancelled most clinic visits, outpatient treatments and elective surgeries. Simultaneously, they incurred heavy costs for COVID-related equipment (e.g. ventilators,PPE) and staffing. Overall, the sector experienced over $200 billion in financial losses between March and June 20204.
The second, extended shock has been a decrease in needed but not necessary care. Initially, many patients delayed seeking necessary care because of perceived infection risk. For example, Emergency Department visits declined 42% during the early phase of the pandemic.
Increasingly, patients are also delaying care because of affordability concerns and/or the loss of health insurance. Already, 5.4 million people have lost their employer-sponsored health insurance. This will reduce incremental revenues associated with higher-paying commercial insurance claims across the industry. Additionally, avoided care reduces patient volumes and hospital revenues today even as it increases the risk and cost of future acute illness.
The infusion of emergency funding through the CARES Act helped offset some operating losses but it’s unclear when and even whether utilization patterns and revenues will return to normal pre-COVID levels. Shifts in consumer behavior, reductions in insurance coverage, and the emergence of new competitors ranging from Walmart to enhanced primary care providers will likely challenge the sector for years to come.
The disruption of COVID-19 will serve as a forcing function, driving meaningful changes to traditional hospital business models and the competitive landscape. Frankly, this is long past due. Since 1965, Fee-for-Service (FFS) payment has dominated U.S. healthcare and created pervasive economic incentives that can serve to discourage provider responsiveness in transitioning to value-based care delivery, even when aligned to market demand.
Telemedicine typifies this phenomenon. Before COVID, CMS and most health insurers paid very low rates for virtual care visits or did not cover them at all. This discouraged adoption of an efficient, high-value care modality until COVID.
Unable to conduct in-person clinical visits, providers embraced virtual care visits and accelerated its mass adoption. CMS and
commercial health insurers did their part by paying for virtual care visits at rates equivalent to in-person clinic visits. Accelerated innovation in care delivery resulted.
THE COMPLICATED TRANSITION TO VALUE
Broadly speaking, health systems and physician groups that rely almost exclusively on activity-based payment revenues have struggled the most during this pandemic. Vertically integrated providers that offer health insurance and those receiving capitated payments in risk-based contracts have better withstood volume losses.
Modern Healthcare notes that while provider data is not yet available, organizations such as Virginia Care Partners, an integrated network and commercial ACO; Optum Health (with two-thirds of its revenue risk-based); and MediSys Health Network, a New Yorkbased NFP system with 148,000 capitated and 15,000 shared risk patients, are among those navigating the turbulence successfully. As the article observes,
…providers paid for value have had an easier time weathering the storm…. helped by a steady source of
income amid the chaos. Investments they made previously in care management, technology and social
determinants programs equipped them to pivot to new ways of providing care.
They were able to flip the switch on telehealth, use data and analytics to pinpoint patients at risk for
COVID-19 infection, and deploy care managers to meet the medical and nonclinical needs of patients even
when access to an office visit was limited.
Supporting this post-COVID push for value-based care delivery, six former leaders from CMS wrote to Congress in
June 2020 calling for providers, commercial insurers and states to expand their use of value-based payment models to
encourage stability and flexibility in care delivery.
If value-based payment models are the answer, however, adoption to date has been slow, limited and difficult. Ten
years after the Affordable Care Act, Fee-for-Service payment still dominates the payer landscape. The percentage of overall provider revenue in risk-based capitated contracts has not exceeded 20%
Despite improvements in care quality and reductions in utilization rates, cost savings have been modest or negligible. Accountable Care Organizations have only managed at best to save a “few percent of Medicare spending, [but] the
amount varies by program design.”
While most health systems accept some forms of risk-based payments, only 5% of providers expect to have a majority (over 80%) of their patients in risk-based arrangements within 5 years.
The shift to value is challenging for numerous reasons. Commercial payers often have limited appetite or capacity for
risk-based contracting with providers. Concurrently, providers often have difficulty accessing the claims data they need
from payers to manage the care for targeted populations.
The current allocation of cost-savings between buyers (including government, employers and consumers), payers
(health insurance companies) and providers discourages the shift to value-based care delivery. Providers would
advance value-based models if they could capture a larger percentage of the savings generated from more effective
care management and delivery. Those financial benefits today flow disproportionately to buyers and payers.
This disconnection of payment from value creation slows industry transformation. Ultimately, U.S. healthcare will not
change the way it delivers care until it changes the way it pays for care. Fortunately, payment models are evolving to
incentivize value-based care delivery.
As payment reform unfolds, however, operational challenges pose significant challenges to hospitals and health
systems. They must adopt value-oriented new business models even as they continue to receive FFS payments. New
and old models of care delivery clash.
COVID makes this transition even more formidable as many health systems now lack the operating stamina and balance sheet strength to make the financial, operational and cultural investments necessary to deliver better outcomes, lower costs and enhanced customer service.
MARKET-DRIVEN CONSOLIDATION AND TRANSFORMATION
Full-risk payment models, such as bundled payments for episodic care and capitation for population health, are the
catalyst to value-based care delivery. Transition to value-based care occurs more easily in competitive markets with many attributable lives, numerous provider options and the right mix of willing payers.
As increasing numbers of hospitals struggle financially, the larger and more profitable health systems are expanding their networks, capabilities and service lines through acquisitions. This will increase their leverage with commercial payers and give them more time to adapt to risk-based contracting and value-based care delivery.
COVID also will accelerate acquisition of physician practices. According to an April 2020 MGMA report, 97% of
physician practices have experienced a 55% decrease in revenue, forcing furloughs and layoffs15. It’s estimated the
sector could collectively lose as much as $15.1 billion in income by the end of September 2020.
Struggling health systems and physician groups that read the writing on the wall will pro-actively seek capital or strategic partners that offer greater scale and operating stability. Aggregators can be selective in their acquisitions,
seeking providers that fuel growth, expand contiguous market positions and don’t dilute balance sheets.
Adding to the sector’s operating pressure, private equity, venture investors and payers are pouring record levels of
funding into asset-light and virtual delivery companies that are eager to take on risk, lower prices by routing procedures
and capture volume from traditional providers. With the right incentives, market-driven reforms will reallocate resources to efficient companies that generate compelling value.
As this disruption continues to unfold, rural and marginal urban communities that lack robust market forces will experience more facility and practice closures. Without government support to mitigate this trend, access and care gaps that already riddle American healthcare will unfortunately increase.
WINNING AT VALUE
The average hospital generates around $11,000 per patient discharge. With ancillary services that can often add up to
more than $15,000 per average discharge. Success in a value-based system is predicated on reducing those discharges and associated costs by managing acute care utilization more effectively for distinct populations (i.e. attributed lives).
This changes the orientation of healthcare delivery toward appropriate and lower cost settings. It also places greater
emphasis on preventive, chronic and outpatient care as well as better patient engagement and care coordination.
Such a realignment of care delivery requires the following:
A tight primary care network (either owned or affiliated) to feed referrals and reduce overall costs through
better preventive care.
A gatekeeper or navigator function (increasingly technology-based) to manage / direct patients to the most
appropriate care settings and improve coordination, adherence and engagement.
A carefully designed post-acute care network (including nursing homes, rehab centers, home care
services and behavioral health services, either owned or sufficiently controlled) to manage the 70% of
total episode-of-care costs that can occur outside the hospital setting.
An IT infrastructure that can facilitate care coordination across all providers and settings.
Quality data and digital tools that enhance care, performance, payment and engagement.
Experience with managing risk-based contracts.
A flexible approach to care delivery that includes digital and telemedicine platforms as well as nontraditional sites of care.
Aligned or incentivized physicians.
Payer partners willing to share data and offload risk through upside and downside risk contracts.
Engaged consumers who act on their preferences and best interests.
While none of these strategies is new or controversial, assembling them into cohesive and scalable business models is something few health systems have accomplished. It requires appropriate market conditions, deep financial resources,
sophisticated business acumen, operational agility, broad stakeholder alignment, compelling vision, and robust
Providers that fail to embrace value-based care for their “attributed lives” risk losing market relevance. In their relentless pursuit of increasing treatment volumes and associated revenues, they will lose market share to organizations that
deliver consistent and high-value care outcomes.
CONCLUSION: THE CHARGING GRAY RHINO
America needs its hospitals to operate optimally in normal times, flex to manage surge capacity, sustain themselves
when demand falls, create adequate access and enhance overall quality while lowering total costs. That is a tall order requiring realignment, evolution, and a balance between market and policy reform measures.
The status quo likely wasn’t sustainable before COVID. The nation has invested heavily for many decades in acute and
specialty care services while underinvesting, on a relative basis, in primary and chronic care services. It has excess
capacity in some markets, and insufficient access in others.
COVID has exposed deep flaws in the activity-based payment as well as the nation’s underinvestment in public health.
Disadvantaged communities have suffered disproportionately. Meanwhile, the costs for delivering healthcare services
consume an ever-larger share of national GDP.
Transformational change is hard for incumbent organizations. Every industry, from computer and auto manufacturing to
retailing and airline transportation, confronts gray rhino challenges. Many companies fail to adapt despite clear signals
that long-term viability is under threat. Often, new, nimble competitors emerge and thrive because they avoid the inherent contradictions and service gaps embedded within legacy business models.
The healthcare industry has been actively engaged in value-driven care transformation for over ten years with little to
show for the reform effort. It is becoming clear that many hospitals and health systems lack the capacity to operate profitably in competitive, risk-based market environments.
This dismal reality is driving hospital market valuations and closures. In contrast, customers and capital are flowing to
new, alternative care providers, such as OneMedical, Oak Street Health and Village MD. Each of these upstart
companies now have valuations in the $ billions. The market rewards innovation that delivers value.
Unfortunately, pure market-driven reforms often neglect a significant and growing portion of America’s people. This gap has been more apparent as COVID exacts a disproportionate toll on communities challenged by higher population
density, higher unemployment, and fewer medical care options (including inferior primary and preventive care infrastructure).
Absent fundamental change in our hospitals and health systems, and investment in more efficient care delivery and
payment models, the nation’s post-COVID healthcare infrastructure is likely to deteriorate in many American communities, making them more vulnerable to chronic disease, pandemics and the vicissitudes of life.
Article 2 in our “Future of Hospitals” series will explore the public policy challenges of providing appropriate, affordable and accessible healthcare to all American communities.
Here are eight health systems with strong operational metrics and solid financial positions, according to reports from Fitch Ratings, Moody’s Investors Service and S&P Global Ratings.
1. Baylor Scott & White Health has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with S&P. The health system has an expansive and growing market position in Texas, healthy operating performance and robust cash flow, S&P said. The health system’s financial cushion positions it well for its COVID-19 response, according to the credit rating agency.
2. South Bend, Ind.-based Beacon Health System has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. Beacon is the acute care leader in its northern Indiana service area and has a track record of strong operating margins, Fitch said. The credit rating agency expects Beacon to return to strong operating margins and sustain strong liquidity, despite pressure from the COVID-19 pandemic.
3. Boston Children’s Hospital has an “Aa2” rating and stable outlook with Moody’s. The hospital has a preeminent reputation as the top children’s hospital in the U.S., robust cash reserves and strong fundraising capabilities, Moody’s said. The credit rating agency expects the hospital’s exceptional market position and robust liquidity to help it return to pre-COVID-19 levels to support proposed increases in leverage and capital investments.
4. Carle Foundation, a three-hospital system based in Urbana, Ill., has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The health system has a very strong financial profile, and Fitch expects it to sustain profitable operating margins after managing through the pandemic.
5. Salt Lake City-based Intermountain Healthcare has an “AA+” rating and stable outlook with Fitch and an “Aa1” rating and stable outlook with Moody’s. The health system has a leading market position, low debt levels and strong absolute and relative cash levels, Moody’s said. The credit rating agency expects Intermountain will be able to substantially return to and sustain pre-COVID-19 volume levels and margins.
6. Oakland, Calif.-based Kaiser Permanente has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The rating agency said Kaiser has a leading market share in California and other key markets, and its operational profile is arguably the most emulated model of healthcare delivery in the nation.
7. New York City-based Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with S&P. The hospital has robust fundraising capabilities, an advantageous payer mix and has expanded its ambulatory footprint, providing additional revenue diversity, S&P said.
8. Tacoma, Wash.-based MultiCare Health System has an “Aa3” rating and stable outlook with Moody’s and an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch.. The 10-hospital system has an extensive footprint, a track record of successfully executing on multiple projects and strategic ventures concurrently and good financial management, Moody’s said. The credit rating agency expects MultiCare to return to stronger operating results after recovering from disruptions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Covid-19 pandemic has devastated the health-care industry. In addition to the tragedies that the pandemic has brought, health systems have universally experienced severe and rapid deterioration of their bottom lines due to plummeting patient volumes, pausing of high margin elective surgical procedures, and increased expenses.
By some estimates, health system losses will be around $200 billion by the end of June and revenues have dropped by around 50 percent. As a result of the financial uncertainty caused by the pandemic, many hospital and health systems terminated or delayed potential transactions as they focused on managing the crisis and protecting their workforces and communities.
But this may just be the calm before a big M&A storm.
Rise in M&A Activity
Through our work as legal and communications counselors, we have seen preliminary M&A activity rise in recent weeks, with providers exploring and negotiating transactions, including several that have not yet been publicly announced.
Some systems are looking to capitalize on the time between the end of the first wave of Covid-19 and a potential resurgence in the fall to get letters of intent finalized and announced. This coming M&A activity presents legal and communications challenges when the national spotlight is firmly on health systems.
Providers are starting to resurrect deals that were paused during the initial period of the Covid-19 crisis, including Community Health System’s sale of Abilene Regional Medical Center and Brownwood Regional Medical Center to Hendrick Health System.
Some systems are seeking new strategic partners, such as Lake Health in Ohio, and New Hanover Regional Medical Center in North Carolina, which resumed its recent RFP response process after a pause.
Still others are looking for new opportunities consistent with pre-Covid growth strategies, as adjusted for pandemic-related developments and challenges.
Larger and more financially robust health systems are expected to weather the crisis, whereas smaller systems and hospitals with less cash and tighter operating margins, including rural and critical access hospitals, may be facing insolvency, closure, and bankruptcy. This creates a scenario where one party is financially distressed as a result of the pandemic and needs to partner with or join another system to survive. These circumstances will likely fuel increased consolidation in the health-care industry.
For a struggling provider, joining a larger system can offer much-needed financial commitments, access to capital, disciplined management structure, economies of scale for purchasing and improved IT infrastructure, among many other strategic benefits. A well-positioned system, even if financially weakened due to pandemic challenges, will be able to negotiate favorable deal terms if it has significant strategic value to its prospective partner.
Communications Strategy is Important
As providers explore and execute partnerships, they must implement a stakeholder and communications strategy that focuses on benefits for each side given the new financial reality. Doing so will minimize criticism of opportunism by the acquiring system—and best position a definitive agreement and successful deal.
An effective communications strategy will emphasize how the proposed transaction will maintain or improve quality or affordability, ensure access to care for communities and address financial challenges faced by health systems as a result of the pandemic.
Health systems should articulate how their M&A activity will stabilize affected health systems, allow them to manage the Covid-19 crisis and future pandemics, and continue to meet the overall care needs of the community. It can also highlight how these partnerships will facilitate continued care in a market, which otherwise might lose a valuable health-care resource, as well as the positive economic benefits the transaction will bring for local communities.
Communications that support the vision, rationale and benefits of a deal will also need to be relevant to the regulatory bodies whose approval may be required.
Public perception and support of health-care providers have been extremely positive during the pandemic to date, as evidenced by homemade banners, balcony tributes, and praise on social media. Health systems and their staffs have borne personal risk and financial pain by focusing on patients and public health at the expense of all else. This goodwill can be valuable as health systems seek stakeholder and community support for their transactions.
That goodwill can also quickly be forgotten.
As health systems race to the altar to beat out competitors for M&A targets and other strategic relationships, it is critical that they are thoughtful in structuring their deals and justifying the activity.
For example, acquisitions and partnerships involving substantial outlays of capital and lucrative executive compensation or severance packages will be viewed negatively if undertaken by a system that instituted large compensation reductions across the system or even furloughed or laid off employees during the pandemic.
As the dust begins to settle from the first wave of Covid-19, it is clear that there will be drastic changes to how health systems do business. The pandemic will also create financial winners and losers. Hospitals and health systems must think proactively about a strategy for growth as opportunities with willing transaction partners arise.
But being proactive must be balanced against appearing to be opportunistic or taking advantage of the worst health crisis in our lifetimes. To maintain their goodwill and reputations, health systems should continue to do deals for the right reasons and for the benefit of their communities.
Trinity Health saw revenue decline in the first nine months of fiscal year 2020, and the Livonia, Mich.-based health system ended the period with an operating loss, according to unaudited financial documents.
Trinity Health saw revenue decline less than 1 percent year over year to $14.2 billion in the first nine months of the fiscal year, which ended March 31. The health system attributed the drop in revenue to the COVID-19 pandemic and the divestiture of Camden, N.J.-based Lourdes Health System in June 2019.
The 92-hospital system’s expenses were also up 1.2 percent year over year. Trinity Health ended the first three quarters of fiscal 2020 with expenses of $14.3 billion. Same-hospital expense growth was driven by increases in labor and supply costs, purchased services and costs related to its conversion to the Epic EHR platform in the Michigan region. The health system said the pandemic added $14.1 million of costs in March.
Trinity Health has taken several steps to reduce operating and capital spending in response to the pandemic, including implementing furloughs and reducing salaries for executives. In early April, Trinity Health announced plans to furlough 2,500 employees, most of whom are in nonclinical roles.
Trinity Health reported an operating loss of $103.5 million for the first nine months of the current fiscal year, compared to operating income of $115.2 million in the same period a year earlier.
After factoring in investments and other nonoperating items, Trinity Health posted a net loss of $883.5 million in the first three quarters of fiscal 2020, down from net income of $457.9 million a year earlier. Nonoperating losses in the first nine months of fiscal 2020 were primarily driven by the pandemic’s effect on global investment market conditions in March, the health system said.
To help offset financial damage, Trinity Health received funds from the $175 billion in relief aid Congress has allocated to hospitals and other healthcare providers to cover expenses and lost revenue tied to the pandemic. The health system said it received a total of $600 million in federal grants in April and May.
Trinity Health also applied for and received $1.6 billion of Medicare advance payments, which must be repaid.
Though Trinity Health is unable to forecast the pandemic’s impact on its financial position, it said the ultimate effect of COVID-19 on its operating margins and financial results “is likely to be adverse and significant.”
Dozens of top recipients of government aid have laid off, furloughed or cut the pay of tens of thousands of employees.
HCA Healthcare is one of the world’s wealthiest hospital chains. It earned more than $7 billion in profits over the past two years. It is worth $36 billion. It paid its chief executive $26 million in 2019.
But as the coronavirus swept the country, employees at HCA repeatedly complained that the company was not providing adequate protective gear to nurses, medical technicians and cleaning staff. Last month, HCA executives warned that they would lay off thousands of nurses if they didn’t agree to wage freezes and other concessions.
A few weeks earlier, HCA had received about $1 billion in bailout funds from the federal government, part of an effort to stabilize hospitals during the pandemic.
HCA is among a long list of deep-pocketed health care companies that have received billions of dollars in taxpayer funds but are laying off or cutting the pay of tens of thousands of doctors, nurses and lower-paid workers. Many have continued to pay their top executives millions, although some executives have taken modest pay cuts.
The New York Times analyzed tax and securities filings by 60 of the country’s largest hospital chains, which have received a total of more than $15 billion in emergency funds through the economic stimulus package in the federal CARES Act.
The hospitals — including publicly traded juggernauts like HCA and Tenet Healthcare, elite nonprofits like the Mayo Clinic, and regional chains with thousands of beds and billions in cash — are collectively sitting on tens of billions of dollars of cash reserves that are supposed to help them weather an unanticipated storm. And together, they awarded the five highest-paid officials at each chain about $874 million in the most recent year for which they have disclosed their finances.
At least 36 of those hospital chains have laid off, furloughed or reduced the pay of employees as they try to save money during the pandemic.
Industry officials argue that furloughs and pay reductions allow hospitals to keep providing essential services at a time when the pandemic has gutted their revenue.
But more than a dozen workers at the wealthy hospitals said in interviews that their employers had put the heaviest financial burdens on front-line staff, includinglow-paid cafeteria workers, janitors and nursing assistants. They said pay cuts and furloughs made it even harder for members of the medical staff to do their jobs, forcing them to treat more patients in less time.
Even before the coronavirus swept America, forcing hospitals to stop providing lucrative nonessential surgery and other services, many smaller hospitals were on the financial brink. In March, lawmakers sought to address that with a vast federal economic stimulus package that included $175 billion for the Department of Health and Human Services to hand out in grants to hospitals.
But the formulas to determine how much money hospitals receive were based largely on their revenue, not their financial needs. As a result, hospitals serving wealthier patients have received far more funding than those that treat low-income patients, according to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
One of the bailout’s goals was to avoid job losses in health care, said Zack Cooper, an associate professor of health policy and economics at Yale University who is a critic of the formulas used to determine the payouts. “However, when you see hospitals laying off or furloughing staff, it’s pretty good evidence the way they designed the policy is not optimal,” he added.
The Mayo Clinic, with more than eight months of cash in reserve, received about $170 million in bailout funds, according to data compiled by Good Jobs First, which researches government subsidies of companies. The Mayo Clinic is furloughing or reducing the working hours of about 23,000 employees, according to a spokeswoman, who was among those who went on furlough. A second spokeswoman said that Mayo Clinic executives have had their pay cut.
Seven chains that together received more than $1.5 billion in bailout funds — Trinity Health, Beaumont Health and the Henry Ford Health System in Michigan; SSM Health and Mercy in St. Louis; Fairview Health in Minneapolis; and Prisma Health in South Carolina — have furloughed or laid off more than 30,000 workers, according to company officials and local news reports.
The bailout money, which hospitals received from the Health and Human Services Department without having to apply for it, came with few strings attached.
Katherine McKeogh, a department spokeswoman, said it “encourages providers to use these funds to maintain delivery capacity by paying and protecting doctors, nurses and other health care workers.” The legislation restricts hospitals’ ability to use the bailout funds to pay top executives, although it doesn’t stop recipients from continuing to award large bonuses.
The hospitals generally declined to comment on how much they are paying their top executives this year, although they have reported previous years’ compensation in public filings. But some hospitals furloughing front-line staff or cutting their salaries have trumpeted their top executives’ decisions to take voluntary pay cuts or to contribute portions of their salary to help their employees.
The for-profit hospital giant Tenet Healthcare, which has received $345 million in taxpayer assistance since April, has furloughed roughly 11,000 workers, citing the financial pressures from the pandemic. The company’s chief executive, Ron Rittenmeyer, told analysts in May that he would donate half of his salary for six months to a fund set up to assist those furloughed workers.
But Mr. Rittenmeyer’s salary last year was a small fraction of his $24 million pay package, which consists largely of stock options and bonuses, securities filings show. In total, he will wind up donating roughly $375,000 to the fund — equivalent to about 1.5 percent of his total pay last year.
A Tenet spokeswoman declined to comment on the precise figures.
The chief executive at HCA, Samuel Hazen, has donated two months of his salary to a fund to help HCA’s workers. Based on his pay last year, that donation would amount to about $237,000 — or less than 1 percent — of his $26 million compensation.
“The leadership cadre of these organizations are going to need to make sacrifices that are commensurate with the sacrifices of their work force, not token sacrifices,” said Jeff Goldsmith, the president of Health Futures, an industry consulting firm.
Many large nonprofit hospital chains also pay their senior executives well into the millions of dollars a year.
Dr. Rod Hochman, the chief executive of the Providence Health System, for instance, was paid more than $10 million in 2018, the most recent year for which records are available. Providence received at least $509 million in federal bailout funds.
A spokeswoman, Melissa Tizon, said Dr. Hochman would take a voluntary pay cut of 50 percent for the rest of 2020. But that applies only to his base salary, which in 2018 was less than 20 percent of his total compensation.
Some of Providence’s physicians and nurses have been told to prepare for pay cuts of at least 10 percent beginning in July. That includes employees treating coronavirus patients.
Stanford University’s health system collected more than $100 million in federal bailout grants, adding to its pile of $2.4 billion of cash that it can use for any purpose.
Stanford is temporarily cutting the hours of nursing staff, nursing assistants, janitorial workers and others at its two hospitals. Julie Greicius, a spokeswoman for Stanford, said the reduction in hours was intended “to keep everyone employed and our staff at full wages with benefits intact.”
Ms. Greicius said David Entwistle, the chief executive of Stanford’s health system, had the choice of reducing his pay by 20 percent or taking time off, and chose to reduce his working hours but “is maintaining his earning level by using paid time off.” In 2018, the latest year for which Stanford has disclosed his compensation, Mr. Entwistle earned about $2.8 million. Ms. Greicius said the majority of employees made the same choice as Mr. Entwistle.
HCA’s $1 billion in federal grants appears to make it the largest beneficiary of health care bailout funds. But its medical workers have a long list of complaints about what they see as penny-pinching practices.
Since the pandemic began, medical workers at 19 HCA hospitals have filed complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration about the lack of respirator masks and being forced to reuse medical gowns, according to copies of the complaints reviewed by The Times.
Ed Fishbough, an HCA spokesman, said that despite a global shortage of masks and other protective gear, the company had “provided appropriate P.P.E., including a universal masking policy implemented in March requiring all staff in all areas to wear masks, including N95s, in line with C.D.C. guidance.”
Celia Yap-Banago, a nurse at an HCA hospital in Kansas City, Mo., died from the virus in April, a month after her colleagues complained to OSHA that she had to treat a patient without wearing protective gear. The next month, Rosa Luna, who cleaned patient rooms at HCA’s hospital in Riverside, Calif., also died of the virus; her colleagues had warned executives in emails that workers, especially those cleaning hospital rooms, weren’t provided proper masks.
Around the time of Ms. Luna’s death, HCA executives delivered a warning to officials at the Service Employees International Union and National Nurses United, which represent many HCA employees. The company would lay off up to 10 percent of their members, unless the unionized workers amended their contracts to incorporate wage freezes and the elimination of company contributions to workers’ retirement plans, among other concessions.
Nurses responded by staging protests in front of more than a dozen HCA hospitals.
“We don’t work in a jelly bean factory, where it’s OK if we make a blue jelly bean instead of a red one,” said Kathy Montanino, a nurse treating Covid-19 patients at HCA’s Riverside hospital. “We are dealing with people’s lives, and this company puts their profits over patients and their staff.”
Mr. Fishbough, the spokesman, said HCA “has not laid off or furloughed a single caregiver due to the pandemic.” He said the company had been paying medical workers 70 percent of their base pay, even if they were not working. Mr. Fishbough said that executives had taken pay cuts, but that the unions had refused to take similar steps.
“While we hope to continue to avoid layoffs, the unions’ decisions have made that more difficultfor our facilities that are unionized,” he said. The dispute continues.
Apparently anticipating a strike, a unit of HCA recently created “a new line of business focused on staffing strike-related labor shortages,” according to an email that an HCA recruiter sent to nurses.
The email, reviewed by The Times, said nurses who joined the venture would earn more than they did in their current jobs: up to $980 per shift, plus a $150 “Show Up” bonus and a continental breakfast.
Here are nine health systems with strong operational metrics and solid financial positions, according to reports from Fitch Ratings, Moody’s Investors Service and S&P Global Ratings.
1. Advocate Aurora Health, which has dual headquarters in Milwaukee and Downers Grove, Ill., has an “Aa3” rating and positive outlook with Moody’s and an “AA” rating and stable outlook with S&P. Moody’s said it expects Advocate Aurora to maintain low leverage, a favorable liquidity position and healthy long-term margins, despite the near-term impact from COVID-19.
2. Phoenix-based Banner Health has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch and an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with S&P. The health system has a strong financial profile and growing financial stability in its insurance division, Fitch said. Notwithstanding the impact from the COVID-19 pandemic, Fitch expects Banner’s improvement to operating margins will resume and continue to support spending levels and liquidity growth.
3. Clearwater, Fla.-based BayCare Health System has an “Aa2” rating and stable outlook with Moody’s. The health system has strong operating performance and favorable balance sheet metrics, Moody’s said. The credit rating agency expects the health system to maintain strong liquidity and to move quickly with capital expansion.
4. Cincinnati-based Bon Secours Mercy Health has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The health system has a broad geographic footprint, a good payer mix and a strong financial profile, Fitch said. The credit rating agency anticipates that Bon Secours Mercy Health will increase capital spending over the next three years due to strategic investments in its expanded markets.
5. Omaha, Neb.-based Children’s Hospital and Medical Center has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The hospital has a dominant market position as the only comprehensive pediatric provider in Nebraska, and its operating cash flow levels are robust enough to absorb any short-term pressure related to the COVID-19 pandemic, Fitch said.
6. Naples, Fla.-based NCH Healthcare System has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The health system has a strong financial profile, robust operating performance and a leading market position in a favorable service area, Fitch said.
7. Stanford (Calif.) Health Care has an “Aa3” rating and stable outlook with Moody’s. The health system has unique clinical offerings and a strong reputation for patient care and research, Moody’s said. The credit rating agency expects Stanford Health Care to maintain strong patient demand and grow absolute cash flow over the next several years.
8. West Des Moines, Iowa-based UnityPoint Health has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The health system has strong leverage metrics and regional diversification, Fitch said. The credit rating agency expects the system’s cash flow margins to return to levels of at least 7 percent beyond early 2021 after declining in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
9. Arlington-based Virginia Hospital Center has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The credit rating agency expects Virginia Hospital Center’s strong operating performance to continue after the market recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.