- Sutter Health is launching a “sweeping review” of its finances and operations due to the pandemic’s squeeze on the system in 2020, which led to a $321 million operational loss, the system said Thursday.
- The giant hospital provider in Northern California said it will take “several years to fully recover,” adding that it plans to restructure and even close some programs and services that attract fewer patients, and will reassign those employees to busier parts of its network.
- Sutter, which spent $431 million to modernize its facilities last year, is also reassessing its future capital investments due to its current financial situation.
The pandemic “exacerbated” existing challenges for the provider, including labor costs, Sutter said.
Expenses again outpaced revenue in 2020 and Sutter fears the trajectory is “unsustainable.”
In 2020, Sutter generated revenue of $13.2 billion which was eclipsed by $13.5 billion in expenses, which was actually lower than its total expenses reported in 2019.
Last year, the system invested heavily to prepare for the pandemic, buying up personal protective equipment and other supplies all while volumes declined. Sutter estimates it spent at least $121 million on COVID-19 supplies, which does not include outside staffing costs.
Sutter said labor costs represented 60% of its total operating expenses, blaming high hospital wage indexes in Northern California, which it said are among the priciest in the country.
Still, Sutter was able to post net income of $134 million thanks in part to investment income, which was also deflated compared to the year prior.
Volume has not rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, the system said.
Admissions, emergency room visits and outpatient revenues all fell year over year, according to figures in Sutter’s audited financial statements.
Other major health systems were pinched by the pandemic but were able to post a profit, including Kaiser Permanente.
Ann Arbor-based Michigan Medicine will start construction on its $920 million hospital in the coming months, after delaying the project last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a March 8 health system update.
Michigan Medicine said its planning team has resumed design work on the facility.
The 12-story, 690,000-square-foot hospital is expected to house 264 private rooms, 20 operating rooms and three interventional radiology suites.
Citing a financial loss exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the academic health system delayed the project in May 2020.
With the delay, the new hospital is slated to open in the fall of 2025.
The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the pace of artificial intelligence adoption, and healthcare leaders are confident AI can help solve some of today’s toughest challenges, including COVID-19 tracking and vaccines.
The majority of healthcare and life sciences executives (82%) want to see their organizations more aggressively adopt AI technology, according to a new survey from KPMG, an audit, tax and advisory services firm.
Healthcare and life sciences (56%) business leaders report that AI initiatives have delivered more value than expected for their organizations. However, life sciences companies seem to be struggling to select the best AI technologies, according to 73% of executives.
As the U.S. continues to navigate the pandemic, life sciences business leaders are overwhelmingly confident in AI’s ability to monitor the spread of COVID-19 cases (94%), help with vaccine development (90%) and aid vaccine distribution (90%).
KPMG’s AI survey is based on feedback from 950 business or IT decision-makers across seven industries, with 100 respondents each from healthcare and life sciences companies.
Despite the optimism about the potential for AI, executives across industries believe more controls are needed and overwhelmingly believe the government has a role to play in regulating AI technology. The majority of life sciences (86%) and healthcare (84%) executives say the government should be involved in regulating AI technology.
And executives across industries are optimistic about the new administration in Washington, D.C., with the majority believing the Biden administration will do more to help advance the adoption of AI in the enterprise.
“We are seeing very high levels of support this year across all industries for more AI regulation. One reason for this may be that, as the technology advances very quickly, insiders want to avoid AI becoming the ‘Wild Wild West.’ Additionally, a more robust regulatory environment may help facilitate commerce. It can help remove unintended barriers that may be the result of other laws or regulations, or due to lack of maturity of legal and technical standards,” said Rob Dwyer, principal, advisory at KPMG, specializing in technology in government.
Healthcare and pharma companies seem to be more bullish on AI than other industries are.
The survey found half of business leaders in industrial manufacturing, retail and tech say AI is moving faster than it should in their industry. Concerns about the speed of AI adoption are particularly pronounced among small companies (63%), business leaders with high AI knowledge (51%) and Gen Z and millennial business leaders (51%).
“Leaders are experiencing COVID-19 whiplash, with AI adoption skyrocketing as a result of the pandemic. But many say it’s moving too fast. That’s probably because of current debate surrounding the ethics, governance and regulation of AI. Many business leaders do not have a view into what their organizations are doing to control and govern AI and may fear risks are developing,” Traci Gusher, principal of artificial intelligence at KPMG, said in a statement.
Future AI investment
Healthcare organizations are ramping up their investments in AI in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In a Deloitte survey, nearly 3 in 4 healthcare organizations said they expect to increase their AI funding, with executives citing making processes more efficient as the top outcome they are trying to achieve with AI.
Healthcare executives say current AI investments at their organizations have focused on electronic health record (EHR) management and diagnosis.
To date, the technology has proved its value in reducing errors and improving medical outcomes for patients, according to executives. Around 40% of healthcare executives said AI technology has helped with patient engagement and also to improve clinical quality. About a third of executives said AI has improved administrative efficiency. Only 18% said the technology helped uncover new revenue opportunities.
But AI investments will shift over the next two years to prioritize telemedicine (38%), robotic tasks such as process automation (37%) and delivery of patient care (36%), the survey found. Clinical trials and diagnosis rounded out the top five investment areas.
At life sciences companies, AI is primarily deployed during the drug development process to improve record-keeping and the application process, the survey found. Companies also have leveraged AI to help with clinical trial site selection.
Moving forward, pharmaceutical companies will likely focus their AI investments on discovering new revenue opportunities in the next two years, a pivot from their current strategy focusing on increasing profitability of existing products, according to the survey. About half of life sciences executives say their organizations plan to leverage AI to reduce administrative costs, analyze patient data and accelerate clinical trials.
Industry stakeholders are taking steps to advance the use of AI and machine learning in healthcare.
The Consumer Technology Association (CTA) created a working group two years ago to develop some standardization on definitions and characteristics of healthcare AI. Last year, the CTA working group developed a standard that creates a common language so industry stakeholders can better understand AI technologies. A group also recently developed a new standard to advance trust in AI solutions.
On the regulatory front, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last month released its first AI and machine learning action plan, a multistep approach designed to advance the agency’s management of advanced medical software. The action plan aims to force manufacturers to be more rigorous in their evaluations, according to the FDA.
Mercy Hospital & Medical Center in Chicago has secured a nonbinding purchase agreement with Insight Chicago just months before it is slated to close its doors, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Under terms of the deal, still being negotiated, Insight Chicago would operate Mercy Hospital as a full-service, acute care facility. Insight Chicago is a nonprofit affiliated with a Flint, Mich.-based biomedical technology company.
The deal is subject to regulatory approval, but if it goes through, it would keep the 170-year-old safety-net hospital open.
Securing a potential buyer is the latest in a series of events related to the Chicago hospital.
On Feb. 10, Mercy filed for bankruptcy protection, citing mounting financial losses and losses of staff that challenged its ability to provide safe patient care.
The bankruptcy filing came just a few weeks after the Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board rejected a plan from Mercy’s owner, Trinity Health, to build an outpatient center in the neighborhood where it planned to close Mercy. The same board unanimously rejected Livonia, Mich.-based Trinity’s plan to close the hospital in December.
The December vote from the review board came after months of protests from physicians, healthcare advocates and community organizers, who said that closing the hospital would create a healthcare desert on Chicago’s South Side.
Mercy said that until the pending deal with Insight Chicago is signed and approved by regulators, it still plans to close the facility. If the agreement is reached before the May 31 closure, Mercy will help transition services to Insight Chicago, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
Insight Chicago told local NPR affiliate WBEZ that it has a difficult task ahead to build community trust and address the financial issues that have plagued the Chicago hospital.
“I think the big main point we want to understand between now and then is the community needs to build trust with the community, and I think to build trust we have to tell the truth and be sincere,” Atif Bawahab, chief strategy officer at Insight, told WBEZ. “And there’s a reality of the situation as to why [the hospital] is going bankrupt and why several safety net hospitals are struggling.”
In its bankruptcy filing, Mercy said its losses have averaged about $5 million per month and reached $30.2 million for the first six months of fiscal year 2021. The hospital also said it has accumulated debt of more than $303.2 million over the last seven years, and the hospital needs more than $100 million in upgrades and modernizations.
Provider executives already know America’s hospitals and health systems are seeing rapidly deteriorating finances as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. They’re just not yet sure of the extent of the damage.
By the end of June, COVID-19 will have delivered an estimated $200 billion blow to these institutions with the bulk of losses stemming from cancelled elective and nonelective surgeries, according to the American Hospital Association.
A recent Healthcare Financial Management Association (HFMA)/Guidehouse COVID-19 survey suggests these patient volumes will be slow to return, with half of provider executive respondents anticipating it will take through the end of the year or longer to return to pre-COVID levels. Moreover, one-in-three provider executives expect to close the year with revenues at 15 percent or more below pre-pandemic levels. One-in-five of them believe those decreases will soar to 30 percent or beyond.
Available cash is also in short supply. A Guidehouse analysis of 350 hospitals nationwide found that cash on hand is projected to drop by 50 days on average by the end of the year — a 26% plunge — assuming that hospitals must repay accelerated and/or advanced Medicare payments.
While the government is providing much needed aid, just 11% of the COVID survey respondents expect emergency funding to cover their COVID-related costs.
The figures illustrate how the virus has hurled American medicine into unparalleled volatility. No one knows how long patients will continue to avoid getting elective care, or how state restrictions and climbing unemployment will affect their decision making once they have the option.
All of which leaves one thing for certain: Healthcare’s delivery, operations, and competitive dynamics are poised to undergo a fundamental and likely sustained transformation.
Here are six changes coming sooner rather than later.
1. Payer-provider complexity on the rise; patients will struggle.
The pandemic has been a painful reminder that margins are driven by elective services. While insurers show strong earnings — with some offering rebates due to lower reimbursements — the same cannot be said for patients. As businesses struggle, insured patients will labor under higher deductibles, leaving them reluctant to embrace elective procedures. Such reluctance will be further exacerbated by the resurgence of case prevalence, government responses, reopening rollbacks, and inconsistencies in how the newly uninsured receive coverage.
Furthermore, the upholding of the hospital price transparency ruling will add additional scrutiny and significance for how services are priced and where providers are able to make positive margins. The end result: The payer-provider relationship is about to get even more complicated.
2. Best-in-class technology will be a necessity, not a luxury.
COVID has been a boon for telehealth and digital health usage and investments. Two-thirds of survey respondents anticipate using telehealth five times more than they did pre-pandemic. Yet, only one-third believe their organizations are fully equipped to handle the hike.
If healthcare is to meet the shift from in-person appointments to video, it will require rapid investment in things like speech recognition software, patient information pop-up screens, increased automation, and infrastructure to smooth workflows.
Historically, digital technology was viewed as a disruption that increased costs but didn’t always make life easier for providers. Now, caregiver technologies are focused on just that.
The new necessities of the digital world will require investments that are patient-centered and improve access and ease of use, all the while giving providers the platform to better engage, manage, and deliver quality care.
After all, the competition at the door already holds a distinct technological advantage.
3. The tech giants are coming.
Some of America’s biggest companies are indicating they believe they can offer more convenient, more affordable care than traditional payers and providers.
Begin with Amazon, which has launched clinics for its Seattle employees, created the PillPack online pharmacy, and is entering the insurance market with Haven Healthcare, a partnership that includes Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase. Walmart, which already operates pharmacies and retail clinics, is now opening Walmart Health Centers, and just recently announced it is getting into the Medicare Advantage business.
Meanwhile, Walgreens has announced it is partnering with VillageMD to provide primary care within its stores.
The intent of these organizations clear: Large employees see real business opportunities, which represents new competition to the traditional provider models.
It isn’t just the magnitude of these companies that poses a threat. They also have much more experience in providing integrated, digitally advanced services.
4. Work locations changes mean construction cost reductions.
If there’s one thing COVID has taught American industry – and healthcare in particular – it’s the importance of being nimble.
Many back-office corporate functions have moved to a virtual environment as a result of the pandemic, leaving executives wondering whether they need as much real estate. According to the survey, just one-in-five executives expect to return to the same onsite work arrangements they had before the pandemic.
Not surprisingly, capital expenditures, including new and existing construction, leads the list of targets for cost reductions.
Such savings will be critical now that investment income can no longer be relied upon to sustain organizations — or even buy a little time. Though previous disruptions spawned only marginal change, the unprecedented nature of COVID will lead to some uncomfortable decisions, including the need for a quicker return on investments.
5. Consolidation is coming.
Consolidation can be interpreted as a negative concept, particularly as healthcare is mostly delivered at a local level. But the pandemic has only magnified the differences between the “resilients” and the “non-resilients.”
All will be focused on rebuilding patient volume, reducing expenses, and addressing new payment models within a tumultuous economy. Yet with near-term cash pressures and liquidity concerns varying by system, the winners and losers will quickly emerge. Those with at least a 6% to 8% operating margin to innovate with delivery and reimagine healthcare post-COVID will be the strongest. Those who face an eroding financial position and market share will struggle to stay independent..
6. Policy will get more thoughtful and data-driven.
The initial coronavirus outbreak and ensuing responses by both the private and public sectors created negative economic repercussions in an accelerated timeframe. A major component of that response was the mandated suspension of elective procedures.
While essential, the impact on states’ economies, people’s health, and the employment market have been severe. For example, many states are currently facing inverse financial pressures with the combination of reductions in tax revenue and the expansion of Medicaid due to increases in unemployment. What’s more, providers will be subject to the ongoing reckonings of outbreak volatility, underscoring the importance of agile policy that engages stakeholders at all levels.
As states have implemented reopening plans, public leaders agree that alternative responses must be developed. Policymakers are in search of more thoughtful, data-driven approaches, which will likely require coordination with health system leaders to develop flexible preparation plans that facilitate scalable responses. The coordination will be difficult, yet necessary to implement resource and operational responses that keeps healthcare open and functioning while managing various levels of COVID outbreaks, as well as future pandemics.
Healthcare has largely been insulated from previous economic disruptions, with capital spending more acutely affected than operations. But the COVID-19 pandemic will very likely be different. Through the pandemic, providers are facing a long-term decrease in commercial payment, coupled with a need to boost caregiver- and consumer-facing engagement, all during a significant economic downturn.
While situations may differ by market, it’s clear that the pre-pandemic status quo won’t work for most hospitals or health systems.
Nationwide, state and local government leaders are warning of major budget cuts as a result of the pandemic. One state – New York – even referred to the magnitude of its cuts as having “no precedent in modern times.”
Declining revenue combined with unexpected expenditures and requirements to balance budgets means state and local governments need to cut spending and possibly raise taxes or dip into reserve funds to cover the hundreds of billions of dollars lost by state and local government over the next two to three years because of the pandemic.
Without more federal aid or access to other sources of money (like reserve funds or borrowing), government officials have made it clear: Budget cuts will be happening in the coming years.
And while specifics are not yet available in all cases, those cuts have already included reducing the number of state and local jobs – from firefighters to garbage collectors to librarians – and slashing spending for education, social services and roads and bridges.
In some states, agencies have been directed to cut their budget as much as 15% or 20% – a tough challenge as most states prepared budgets for a new fiscal year that began July 1.
As a scholar of public administration who researches how governments spend money, here are the ways state and local governments have reduced spending to close the budget gap.
State and local governments laid off or furloughed 1.5 million workers in April and May.
They are also reducing spending on employees. According to surveys, government workers are feeling personal financial strain as many state and local governments have cut merit raises and regular salary increases, frozen hiring, reduced salaries and cut seasonal employees.
Washington state, for example, cut both merit raises and instituted furloughs.
A survey from the National League of Cities shows 32% of cities will have to furlough or lay off employees and 41% have hiring freezes in place or planned as a result of the pandemic.
Employment reductions have met some resistance. In Nevada, for example, a state worker union filed a complaint against the governor to the state’s labor relations board for violating a collective bargaining statute by not negotiating on furloughs and salary freezes.
Most of the employee cuts have been made in education. Teachers, classroom aids, administrators, staff, maintenance crews, bus drivers and other school employees have seen salary cuts and layoffs.
The job loss has hurt public employees beyond education, too: librarians, garbage collectors, counselors, social workers, police officers, firefighters, doctors, nurses, health aides, park rangers, maintenance crews, administrative assistants and others have been affected.
Residents also face the consequences of these cuts: They can’t get ahold of staff in the city’s water and sewer departments to talk about their bill; they can’t use the internet at the library to look for jobs; their children can’t get needed services in school.
Most of these cuts have been labeled temporary, but with the extensions to stay-at-home orders and a mostly closed economy, it will be some time before these employees are back to work.
Suspending road, bridges, building and water system projects
As another way to reduce costs quickly, a National League of Cities survey shows 65% of the municipalities surveyed are stopping temporarily, or completely, capital expenditure and infrastructure projects like roads, bridges, buildings, water systems or parking garages.
In New York City, there is a US$2.3 billion proposed cut to the capital budget, a fund that supports large, multiyear investments from sidewalk and road maintenance, school buildings, senior centers, fire trucks, sewers, playgrounds, to park upkeep. There are potentially serious consequences for residents. For example, New York housing advocates are concerned that these cuts will hurt plans for 21,000 affordable homes.
Suspending these big money projects will save the government money in the short term. But it will potentially harm the struggling economy, since both public and private sectors benefit from better roads, bridges, schools and water systems and the jobs these projects create.
Delaying maintenance also has consequences for the deteriorating infrastructure in the U.S. The costs of unaddressed repairs could increase future costs. It can cost more to replace a crumbling building than it does to fix one in better repair.
Cities and towns hit
In many states, the new budgets severely cut their aid to local governments, which will lead to large local cuts in education – both K-12 and higher education – as well as social programs, transportation, health care and other areas.
New York state’s budget proposes that part of its fiscal year 2021 budget shortfall will be balanced by $8.2 billion in reductions in aid to localities. This is the state where the cuts were referred to in the budget as “not seen in modern times.” This money is normally spent on many important services that residents need everyday –mass transit, adult and elderly care, mental health support, substance abuse programs, school programs like special education, children’s health insurance and more. Lacking any of these support services can be devastating to a person, especially in this difficult time.
Fewer workers, less money
As teachers and administrators figure out how to teach both online and in person, they and their schools will need more money – not less – to meet students’ needs.
Libraries, which provide services to many communities, from free computer use to after-school programs for children, will have to cut back. They may have fewer workers, be open for fewer hours and not offer as many programs to the public.
Parks may not be maintained, broken playground equipment may stay that way, and workers may not repave paths and mow lawns. Completely separate from activists’ calls to shift police funding to other priorities, police departments’ budgets may be slashed just for lack of cash to pay the officers. Similar cuts to firefighters and ambulance workers may mean poorly equipped responders take longer to arrive on a scene and have less training to deal with the emergency.
To keep with developing public safety standards, more maintenance staff and materials will be needed to clean and sanitize schools, courtrooms, auditoriums, correctional facilities, metro stations, buses and other public spaces. Strained budgets and employees will make it harder to complete these new essential tasks throughout the day.
To avoid deeper cuts, state and local government officials are trying a host of strategies including borrowing money, using rainy day funds, increasing revenue by raising tax rates or creating new taxes or fees, ending tax exemptions and using federal aid as legally allowed.
Colorado was able to hold its budget to only a 3% reduction, relying largely on one-time emergency reserve funds. Delaware managed to maintain its budget and avoided layoffs largely through using money set aside in a reserve account.
Nobody knows how long the pandemic, or its economic effects, will last.
In the worst-case scenario, budget officials are prepared to make steeper cuts in the coming months if more assistance does not come from the federal government or the economy does not recover quickly enough to restore the flow of money that governments need to operate.
Eleven hospitals and health systems since Feb. 18 have advanced, completed or begun facility expansions and renovations with price tags of $300 million or more.
1. Moffitt Cancer Center’s $400M hospital construction to start in July
Tampa, Fla.-based Moffitt Cancer Center will begin construction of its 10-story, $400 million hospital in July.
2. UCSF’s plans 1.5M-square-foot hospital
The University of California San Francisco plans to build a 1.5 million-square-foot hospital and research facility in the city. The first phase of the construction included a $500 million pledge from the Helen Diller Foundation, according to The San Francisco Chronicle.
3. City of Hope buys site for $1B cancer hospital, research center
Duarte, Calif.-based City of Hope has purchased a 190,000-square-foot building and 11 acres of land as part of a $1 billion investment in a new hospital and cancer research center in Irvine, Calif.
4. Texas Children’s to build $450M hospital in Austin
Texas Children’s Hospital plans to build a $450 million freestanding women and children’s hospital in Austin, the organization said May 20.
5. Dell Children’s to invest $700M in new hospital, expansion
Austin, Texas-based Dell Children’s Medical Center plans to invest $700 million in the next three years to expand in the state
6. Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia pumps $3.4B into expansion
Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia is planning to build a new 22-story patient tower.
7. Valleywise Health breaks ground on $900M Phoenix medical center
Phoenix-based Valleywise Health broke ground late February on its $900 million medical center in Phoenix. The health system told Becker’s Hospital Review May 13 that the project is “on track for completion in late 2023, and so far, no significant delays.”
8. UC Davis Medical Center details $1.9B expansion
UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, Calif., plans to invest $1.9 billion in expansion and renovation projects over the next 10 years.
9. MUSC opens $389M Charleston children’s hospital
The Medical University of South Carolina opened its $389 million children’s hospital to patients Feb. 22.
10. Pennsylvania hospital’s $327M modernization project OK’d
Media, Pa.-based Riddle Hospital’s $327 million upgrade and expansion project received the green light from the Middle Township board and its parent organization, Main Line Health.
11. Texas A&M plans to build $550M complex in Texas Medical Center
College Station-based Texas A&M University plans to build a $550 million complex in the Texas Medical Center, a sprawling Houston hub of healthcare institutions.