Saying farewell (for now) to a terrible financial quarter

Judging from our recent conversations with health system executives, we’d guess CEOs across the industry woke up this morning glad to see the first quarter in the rearview mirror.

Almost everyone we’ve spoken to has told us that the past three months have been miserable from an operating margin perspective—skyrocketing labor costs, rising drug and supply prices, and stubbornly long length of stay, particularly among Medicare patients.

In the words of one CFO, “I’ve never seen anything like this. For the first time, we budgeted for a negative margin, and still didn’t hit our target. I’m not sure how long our board will let us stay on this trajectory before things change.”

Yet few of the drivers of poor financial performance appear to be temporary. Perhaps the over-reliance on agency nursing staff will wane as COVID volumes bottom out (for how long remains unknown), but overall labor costs will remain high, there’s no immediate relief for supply chain issues, and COVID-related delays in care have left many patients sicker—and thus in need of more costly care. Plus, the lifeline of federal relief funds is rapidly dwindling, if not already gone.

Expect the next three quarters (and beyond) to bring a greater focus on cost cutting, especially as not-for-profit systems struggle to defend their bond ratings in the face of rising interest rates.

Buckle up, it’s going to be a bumpy landing.

Biden’s $5.8 trillion budget: 9 healthcare takeaways

President Joe Biden proposed a $5.8 trillion budget March 28 for fiscal year 2023, which includes funding for healthcare. 

Nine healthcare takeaways:

1. Pandemic preparedness. The budget calls for a five-year investment of $81.7 billion to plan ahead for future pandemics. The funding would help support research and development of vaccines, improve clinical trial infrastructure and expand domestic manufacturing. 

2. Mental health parity. Under the proposed budget, federal regulators would get the power to levy fines against health plans that violate mental health parity rules. The budget calls for $275 million over 10 years to increase the Labor Department’s capacity to ensure health plans are complying with the requirements and take action against those plans that do not. The budget also proposes funding to bolster the mental healthcare workforce and boost funding for suicide prevention programs. 

3. Vaccines for uninsured adults. The proposed budget calls for establishing a new Vaccines for Adults program that would provide uninsured adults access to recommended vaccines at no cost.

4. Title X funding. The budget proposes providing $400 million in funding for the Title X Family Planning Program, which provides family planning and other healthcare services to low-income individuals.

5. Cancer Moonshot initiative. The budget proposes several investments across the FDA, CDC, National Cancer Institute and Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health to advance President Biden’s Cancer Moonshot initiative. The initiative aims to reduce the cancer death rate by 50 percent over the next 25 years. 

6. Spending to reduce HIV. The proposed budget includes $850 million to reduce new HIV cases by increasing access to HIV prevention services and support services.

7. Veterans Affairs medical care. President Biden’s proposed budget allocates $119 billion, or a 32 percent increase, to medical care for veterans. The money will fully fund inpatient, outpatient, mental health and long-term care services, while also investing in training programs for clinicians to work in the VA.

8. Discretionary funding for HHS. President Biden is asking Congress to approve $127.3 billion in discretionary funding for HHS in fiscal 2023, representing a $26.9 billion increase from the department’s allotment for fiscal 2021.

9. Mandatory spending for the Indian Health Service. The budget request for the Indian Health Service calls for shifting the healthcare agency from discretionary to mandatory funding. The budget calls for $9.1 billion in funding, a 20 percent increase from the amount allocated in fiscal 2021.

Labor shortages will strain hospital budgets through 2022, Moody’s says

https://www.healthcaredive.com/news/labor-shortages-pressure-hospital-budgets-expenses/607759/

Dive Brief:

  • The delta variant of the coronavirus continues to pile on staffing challenges for hospitals as they spend more resources on recruiting and retaining employees, jack up benefit options and offer steep sign-on bonuses, according to a Tuesday report from Moody’s Investors Service.
  • Those expenses will strain hospital profitability at a time when lucrative non-emergency procedures are on hold in some areas to handle incoming COVID-19 inpatients. Moody’s expects the weight on hospital budgets to continue through next year.
  • Although demand for temporary nursing staff dipped last week, it is still well beyond pre-pandemic levels, according to data gathered by Jefferies analysts. Crisis jobs — those that are rapid response or bill more than $100 an hour — represent more than three quarters of staffing firm Aya Healthcare’s openings, the third highest percentage Jefferies has recorded.

Dive Insight:

The highly contagious delta variant is wreaking havoc on the U.S. healthcare system as mostly unvaccinated people are filling ICUs more than a year and half into the pandemic. Clinicians who have throughout that time been stressed working long and difficult hours are reporting intense burnout as some mull leaving the profession altogether.

Meanwhile, vaccine mandates have gone into effect for many hospitals. Although they report that the vast majority of employees are complying, even the small losses of those who refuse can take a hit to staffing resources.
This need has driven increases to the salaries nurses can command, as well as to benefit packages, sign-on bonuses and the offer of services like child care, Moody’s said.

The report also noted that the current shortage — unlike previous ones — also includes nonclinical staff such as dietary and environmental services workers.

While Moody’s focuses on nonprofit operators, expense challenges will be an important metric to watch during the upcoming earnings season. Although all major for-profit hospital operators beat Wall Street expectations on earnings and revenue in Q2 and most posted profit increases, expenses were a rising line item.

Hospital labor expenses rise

For-profit health systems’ labor costs year over yearhttps://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/G7DCw/2/

And consultancy Kaufman Hall has warned U.S. hospitals will lose about $54 billion in net income this year, while an earlier Moody’s report predicted impacts to the country’s health system from COVID-19 will last for decades.

As the Biden administration works to encourage more vaccinations through a combination of carrots and sticks, it remains unclear when delta may peak and what future variants could bring. Even after hospitals are on more stable ground in terms of capacity, further challenges will remain as patients return for care they deferred earlier.

And there are more long-term concerns as well. “Even after the pandemic, competition for labor is likely to continue as the population ages — a key social risk — and demand for services increases,” according to the Moody’s report.

Jefferies analysts agreed, saying the demand for temp nurses will go down but remain elevated. “Additionally, the fundamental demand drivers for nurses that existed even before COVID (i.e., nurse population demographics) have been boosted by the lingering effects of the pandemic on the profession and are likely to boost demand for temp staffing post-2022,” they wrote in the Wednesday note.