Hospital system earnings for the second quarter of the year painted a stark picture of how federal relief funding helped offset massive losses in patient volume sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic.
But a full financial recovery may not happen until next year, some analysts warn.
Major hospital systems such as HCA Health and Universal Health Services posted profits in the second quarter despite plummeting volumes sparked by the cancellation of elective procedures and patients avoiding care due to fears of exposure to the virus. A key boost, however, came from a $175 billion fund passed by Congress and loans under the Medicare Accelerated and Advance Payments Program.
“These companies survived the June quarter and exited the quarter with substantial amounts of liquidity,” said Jonathan Kanarek, vice president and senior credit officer for Moody’s Investors Services. “We think [liquidity] is probably the most critical factor for them as far as weathering the storm.”
Congress has approved $175 billion to help prop up providers, of which the Department of Health and Human Services has distributed more than $100 billion.
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services also gave out $100 billion in advance Medicare payments before suspending the program in late April. But the payments are loans that hospitals have to start repaying as soon as this month, as opposed to the congressional funding that does not have to get paid back.
Hospital system earnings illustrated how pivotal the relief funds were to combat massive holes in patient volumes.
Tenet Healthcare, which operates 65 hospitals across the country, reported Monday that it earned in the second quarter adjusted earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) of $732 million. But of that $732 million, more than 70% of it was aid from the relief fund.
Tenet wasn’t the only for-profit system where relief funding was a large part of their adjusted EBITDA.
Community Health Systems, which operates 95 facilities, reported an adjusted EBITDA of $454 million in the second quarter. But most of that figure was due to the $448 million that it got from the relief funds.
The provider funding made up a smaller portion of HCA Healthcare’s earnings. The system of 184 hospitals reported that the funding made up 31% of its adjusted EBITDA.
Hospital system volumes greatly declined in April as facilities were forced to cancel elective procedures and patients were scared of going to the hospital.
For example, Tenet’s hospital admissions in April were 33% of what it had in the same month in 2019. But volumes started to recover as shelter-in-place orders expired and some states got a better handle on the pandemic.
Tenet saw admissions grow in June to 90% of what they were in June 2019.
But it remains unclear what hospital finances will look like for the rest of the year. Major systems like Tenet and HCA have scrapped their 2020 financial outlook because of the pandemic.
“We don’t think the shape of this recovery or trajectory will be linear in nature,” Kanarek said. “We think there will be a lot of starts and stops.”
Those starts and stops will depend on the extent of the spread of the virus in an area.
Some states such as Florida, Texas and Arizona have seen massive spikes in the virus in recent weeks, which has put renewed strain on systems. Texas’ governor canceled elective procedures in eight counties back in June, some of which included major cities such as Houston and Dallas.
“I am a little skeptical that we are going to be back to normal before we ultimately have a vaccine,” Kanarek said.
It is also murky on whether hospitals will continue to get more financial help from Congress.
The House passed the HEROES Act more than a month ago that gives providers another $100 billion, but it has stalled in the Senate.
Congress and the White House have been in extensive talks for more than a week on a new relief package. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell released a package last week that had $25 billion in relief funding and lawsuit liability protections for providers.
But even without the additional funding, for-profit hospitals have made some moves to prepare for more shutdowns such as accessing capital markets to add additional lawyers of bank liquidity, Kanarek said.
“We can only hope 2021 will look like a more normal year for hospitals, perhaps more like 2019, but there is still a lot of uncertainty out there,” he said.
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.
[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.
US jobless claims for the week that ended Saturday totaled 1.43 million, the Labor Department said Thursday. That came in slightly below the consensus economist estimate of 1.45 million.
It marked a second consecutive weekly increase after the prior week’s report ended a 15-week streak of declines. This week’s report brought total filings over a 19-week period to more than 54 million.
Continuing claims, the aggregate total of people receiving unemployment benefits, totaled 17 million for the week that ended July 18.
More than a million Americans filed for unemployment benefits last week, reflecting the continued high level of pandemic-induced layoffs as the US rolls back its economic-reopening efforts.
New US weekly jobless claims totaled 1.43 million in the week that ended Saturday, the Labor Department reported Thursday. That was slightly below the consensus economist estimate of 1.45 million compiled by Bloomberg. It also was a minor increase over the prior week’s 1.3 million filings, a reading that marked the first gain in 15 weeks.
In just a few months, the more than 54 million unemployment claims filed during the coronavirus pandemic have far surpassed the 37 million during the 18-month Great Recession. The latest figure is more than double the 665,000 filed during the Great Recession’s worst week.
“A combination of uncertainty from rising virus cases to the withdrawal of financial support is concerning for an already fragile recovery,” said Daniel Zhao, senior economist at Glassdoor. “The economy is still in deep risk of falling sideways – where conditions improve so sluggishly that the effects of the crisis become increasingly permanent.”
Continuing claims, which represent the aggregate total of people receiving unemployment benefits, came in at 17 million for the week that ended July 18, a decline from the prior period’s revised number.
Stubbornly high weekly claims for unemployment insurance add to growing concerns that the economic recovery from the pandemic-induced recession is stagnating as coronavirus cases increase. A number of states have had to pause or roll back their reopening plans to deal with COVID-19 spikes, harming the economic recovery.
Going forward, industry watchers will be waiting to see what the July jobs report shows. The report, due August 7, reflects a reference period that includes last week, when initial jobless claims ticked up for the first time in 15 weeks. That could foreshadow a negative headline jobs number in July, although the nonfarm payroll report has become increasingly difficult to predict.
Last week, the additional $600 unemployment benefit from the CARES Act expired, meaning that soon millions of Americans will see a significant decrease in weekly income. The GOP this week introduced its proposal, the HEALS Act, that would cut the weekly benefit to $200 until states could implement a program that’d replace 70% of wages for most filers.
In the week ending July 25, there were 829,697 initial claims from 50 states reporting for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, the program that extended benefits to gig workers and independent contracts. The total applications for all state programs for the week ending July 11 was 30.2 million.
Starting this month, some providers are facing the prospect of their Medicare payments garnished to repay COVID-19 loans.
The pressing Aug. 1 deadline has sparked concerns from some experts and hospital groups that worry providers couldn’t afford to lose out on Medicare revenue as they combat revenue losses caused by the pandemic. While the program was intended to be a short-term solution, COVID-19 surges are proving that is not the case for some hospitals.
At the onset of the pandemic in March, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) extended the advance payment program, which has been used previously to help providers beset by disasters such as hurricanes. Providers and suppliers could apply for advance Medicare payments to offset massive losses sparked by declines in patient volumes due to COVID-19.
Most providers could get up to 100% of their Medicare payments for a three-month period, and inpatient acute care hospitals, children’s hospitals and some cancer hospitals can request up to 100% for a six-month period. Critical access hospitals could have gotten up to 125% over six months.
CMS had given out $100 billion of loans before suspending the program.
“It was very effective because the process was already in place,” said Denise Burke, a partner with the healthcare compliance and operations group for law firm Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis.
The goal behind the program is to help providers stay afloat and was meant to be a short-term solution, as repayment starts 120 days after a provider gets the first payment. But that is the problem, experts say.
“It was intended as a short-term bridge so they could get through the summer before everything returned to normal, only problem is nothing has returned to normal,” said Dan Mendelson, founder and former president of consulting firm Avalere Health.
Now, repayment for the first loans are due on Aug. 1 as more and more states are seeing massive surges of COVID-19. Some major hospital systems, such as HCA and CHS, have been able to offset massive declines in revenue thanks to the loans and money from a $175 billion provider relief fund passed by Congress.
Hospitals have one year from the date of the accelerated payment to repay the balance of the loan, but Medicare Part A providers and Part B suppliers have 210 days from the accelerated payment to repay.
“CMS should think about relative to financial position of the provider,” Mendelson said. “Some providers are doing just fine and can repay loans just like everybody else.”
After the 120-day period is up, CMS will take 100% of Medicare claims payments that would have gone to the provider to offset the balance of the loan.
But it remains unclear whether CMS can change the terms of the repayment to give providers and suppliers more time, especially if they are struggling.
“CMS moves deadlines all the time,” Mendelson said. “The question is whether they can or are willing to exercise this discretion in this case.”
It also is unlikely that CMS will resume the program, which some provider groups have also called for.
“It seems unlikely CMS will continue to allocate money through the advance payment program that has fewer terms and conditions than allocating through provider relief fund,” Burke said, referring to the $175 billion fund that Health and Human Services is still allocating.
CMS did not return a request for comment as of press time.
A major problem for some hospitals is they may not have the liquidity available to repay the loans.
“There are a lot of hospitals struggling right now because volumes are off,” Mendelson said. “This comes down to the fact that people are staying away from the hospital to the extent they possibly can.”
Provider groups such as the American Hospital Association are imploring Congress to forgive the loans, or at the very least change the repayment terms.
For instance, some groups want to lower the interest rates to 50 or 25% of a Medicare payment as opposed to 100%.
But talks on a new COVID-19 relief package have stalled so far no deal has emerged.
Senate Republicans released their own package earlier this week that includes another $25 billion for providers and gives liability protections for hospitals and other businesses. But the package doesn’t include changes to the loans.
Four months into the COVID-19 pandemic, fewer than 10% of U.S. primary care practices have been able to stabilize operations.
Nearly 9 in 10 primary care practices continue to face significant difficulties with COVID-19, including obtaining medical supplies, meeting the increasing health needs of their patients, and finding sufficient resources to remain operational, according to a recent survey of close to 600 primary care clinicians in 46 states.
Only 13% of primary care clinicians say they are adapting to a “new normal” in the protracted pandemic, the survey found.
More than four months into the pandemic and at a time when 39 states are experiencing an increase of COVID-19 cases, fewer than 4 in 10 clinicians feel confident and safe with their access to personal protective equipment, according to the survey from the Larry A. Green Center in partnership with the Primary Care Collaborative, which was conducted July 10 to July 13.
Among the primary care clinicians surveyed, 11% report that staff in their practice have quit in the last four weeks over safety concerns.
A primary care provider in Ohio said this: “The ‘I can do 4-6 weeks of this’ transition to ‘this feels like a new/permanent normal’ is crushing and demoralizing. Ways to build morale when everyone is at a computer workstation away from other staff (and patients) feels impossible.”
“In the first few months of the pandemic, the country pulled together to stop the spread of the virus, and it seemed like we were making progress. Primary care clinicians and practices were working hard, against tremendous challenges,” said Rebecca Etz, Ph.D., co-director of The Larry A. Green Center in a statement.
“But now the country is backsliding, and it’s clear that primary care doesn’t have enough strength to deal with the rising number of cases. If primary care were a COVID-19 patient, it would be flat on its back,” Etz said.
The survey conducted by the Larry A. Green Center is part of an ongoing series looking at the attitudes of primary care clinicians and patients during the COVID-19 pandemic and the abilities of practices to meet patients’ needs.
Close to 40% of primary care providers report they are maxed out with mental exhaustion and 18% say they spend each week wondering if their practice or job will still be there next week.
In addition to feeling stressed, clinicians and their practices are also experiencing upheaval. The survey found that 22% of clinicians report skipped or deferred salaries, and 78% report preventive and chronic care is being deferred or delayed by patients.
Primary care clinicians report that 42% of in-person volume is down but overall contact with patients is high, while 39% report not being able to bill for the majority of work delivered, the survey found.
“Given the rapidly rising infection rates and persistent lack of PPE, more than a third of primary care clinicians are reporting feeling unsafe at the office, and 20% are cutting back on face-to-face visits while doing more remote outreach,” said Ann Greiner, president and CEO of the Primary Care Collaborative in a statement.
Greiner said this is a clear signal that payers must advance or retain parity for telehealth and telephonic calls.
“It also is a clarion call to move to a new payment system that doesn’t rely on face-to-face visits and that is prospective so practices can better manage patient care,” she said.
Providers say they need more support from private insurers, particularly when it comes to reimbursing for telehealth and telephone visits.
According to the survey, a primary care doctor in Illinois said, “Recently told we would not be able to conduct telephone visits due to lack of reimbursement. I work in a low-income Medicare population which has low health literacy and no technology literacy. We were 80% telephone and 20% Zoom and in-office. This further exemplifies the extreme health care disparities in the U.S.”
Even upticks in COVID-19 patients haven’t made up for the revenue losses, since reimbursement for those services is comparatively slim.
Elective procedures are in a strange place at the moment. When the COVID-19 pandemic started to ramp up in the U.S., many of the nation’s hospitals decided to temporarily cancel elective surgeries and procedures, instead dedicating the majority of their resources to treating coronavirus patients. Some hospitals have resumed these surgeries; others resumed them and re-cancelled them; and still others are wondering when they can resume them at all.
In a recent HIMSS20 digital presentation, Reenita Das, a senior vice president and partner at Frost and Sullivan, said that during the pandemic, plastic surgery activity declined by 100%, ENT surgeries declined by 79%, cardiovascular surgeries declined by 53% and neurosurgery surgeries declined by 57%.
It’s hard to overstate the financial impact this is likely to have on hospitals’ bottom lines. Just this week, American Hospital Association President and CEO Rick Pollack, pulling from Kaufman Hall data, said the cancellation of elective surgeries is among the factors contributing to a likely industry-wide loss of $120 billion from July to December alone. When including data from earlier in the pandemic, the losses are expected to be in the vicinity of $323 billion, andhalf of the nation’s hospitals are expected to be in the red by the end of the year.
Doug Wolfe, cofounder and managing partner of Miami-based law firm Wolfe Pincavage, said this has amounted to a “double-whammy” for hospitals, because on top of elective procedures being cancelled, the money healthcare facilities received from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act was an advance on future Medicare payments – which is coming due. While hospitals perform fewer procedures, they will now have to start paying that money back.
All hospitals are hurting, but some are in a more precarious position than others.
“Some hospital systems have had more cash on hand and more liquidity to withstand some of the financial pressure some systems are facing,” said Wolfe. “Traditionally, the smaller hospital systems in the healthcare climate we face today have faced a lot more financial pressure. They’re not able to control costs the same way as a big system. The smaller hospitals and systems were hurting to begin with.”
LOWER REVENUE, HIGHER COSTS
Some hospitals, especially ones in hot spots, are seeing a surge in COVID-19 patients. While this has kept frontline healthcare workers scrambling to care for scores of sick Americans, COVID-19 treatments are not reimbursed at the same level as surgeries. Hospital capacity is being stretched with less lucrative services.
“Some hospitals may be filling up right now, but they’re filling up with lower-reimbursing volume,” said Wolfe. “Inpatient stuff is lower reimbursement. It’s really the perfect storm for hospitals.”
John Haupert, CEO of Grady Health in Atlanta, Georgia, said this week that COVID-19 has had about a $115 million negative impact on Grady’s bottom line. Some $70 million of that is related to the reduction in the number of elective surgeries performed, as well as dips in emergency department and ambulatory visits.
During one week in March, Grady saw a 50% reduction in surgeries and a 38% reduction in ER visits. The system is almost back to even in terms of elective and essential surgeries, but due to a COVID-19 surge currently taking place in Georgia, it has had to suspend those services once again. ER visits have only come back about halfway from that initial 38% dip, and the system is currently operating at 105% occupancy.
“Part of what we’re seeing there is reluctance from patients to come to hospitals or seek services,” said Haupert. “Many have significantly exacerbated chronic disease conditions.”
Patient hesitation has been an ongoing problem, as has the associated cost of treating coronavirus patients, said Wolfe.
“When they were ramping up to resume the elective stuff, there was a problem getting patients comfortable,” he said. “And the other thing was that the cost of treating patients in this environment has gone up. They’ve put up plexiglass everywhere, they have more wiping-down procedures, and all of these things add cost and time. They need to add more time between procedures so they can clean everything … so they’re able to do less, and it costs more to do less. Even when elective procedures do resume, it’s not going back to the way it was.”
Most hospitals have adjusted their costs to mitigate some of the financial hit. Even some larger systems, such as 92-hospital nonprofit Trinity Health in Michigan, have taken to measures such as laying off and furloughing workers and scaling back working hours for some of its staff. At the top of the month, Trinity announced another round of layoffs and furloughs – in addition to the 2,500 furloughs it announced in April – citing a projected $2 billion in revenue losses in fiscal year 2021, which began on June 1.
Hospitals are at the mercy of the market at the moment, and Wolfe anticipates there could be an uptick in mergers and consolidation as organizations look to partner with less cash-strapped entities.
“Whether reorganization will work remains to be seen, but there will definitely be a fallout from this,” he said.
In many respects this recession is unique. Most recessions result from developments inside the economy, but an external shock—the public health crisis—caused this one. To avoid getting sick, people have curtailed working, shopping, and attending school. Whatever the cause, the coronavirus recession, like all recessions, is imposing heavy costs. Many workers have lost jobs and income, and many business owners’ financial survival is at risk. The economy’s extraordinarily rapid decline earlier this year—as well as the sharp but incomplete rebound following the first steps toward reopening—reflect this recession’s unusual source. In addition, the sectors suffering most differ from past recessions. The heaviest blows have fallen on service industries that involve close personal contact (including retail trade, leisure and hospitality, and transportation) rather than, as is more typical, on the housing, capital investment, and durable goods sectors. Lower-paid workers, as well as women and minorities, are over-represented in the most-affected sectors, and thus have borne a disproportionate share of the job and income losses. And, the virus has affected almost every country, with potentially devastating consequences for trade and international investment.
Because this recession is unprecedented in so many ways, forecasting the recovery is difficult. The course of the pandemic itself is by far the most important factor. As long as people fear catching a potentially deadly illness from other people, they will be cautious about resuming normal activities, even after state and local governments lift lockdowns. Thus, controlling the spread of the virus must be the first priority for restoring more-normal levels of economic activity—but, more importantly, for saving possibly tens of thousands of lives. Members of Congress, local leaders, and other policymakers need to do all they can to support testing and contact tracing, medical research, and sufficient hospital capacity, and they must work to ensure that businesses, schools, and public transportation have what they need to operate safely. Both authors of this testimony are serving on state re-opening commissions, which has provided us insight into the substantial challenges to safe re-opening.
If the pandemic comes under better control, economic recovery should follow. However, the pace of the recovery could be slow and uneven, for several reasons.First, in the face of ongoing uncertainty, households and businesses may remain cautious for a time. They may increase saving and reduce spending, hiring, and capital investment. The longer the recession lasts, the greater the damage it will inflict on household and business balance sheets and the longer it will take to repair the damage. Second, the depth of the recession may leave scars—business closures and the deterioration of unemployed workers’ skills—that will affect growth for several years. Third, depending on the course of the virus, some restructuring of the economy may be needed. For example, people and resources will need to be redeployed out of the sectors most damaged by the pandemic, and business operations will need to be reorganized to protect workers and customers. All of that will take time and money. Fiscal and monetary policies must aim to speed the recovery and minimize the recession’s lasting effects.
ACTIONS BY THE FEDERAL RESERVE
The Federal Reserve has moved swiftly and forcefully in this crisis. It eased monetary policy in March by lowering the federal funds rate, the overnight interest rate on loans between banks, nearly to zero and indicating that it plans to keep rates low for several years. Low interest rates probably had limited economic benefits in the spring. Lockdowns prevented people from spending or working more. However, we expect low rates will spur spending in sectors like housing as the economy reopens. And the Fed may well do more in coming months as re-opening proceeds and as the outlook for inflation, jobs, and growth becomes somewhat clearer. In particular, to maintain downward pressure on longer-term interest rates, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) likely will provide forward guidance about the economic conditions it would need to see before it considers raising its overnight target rate. And it likely will clarify its plans for further securities purchases (quantitative easing). It is possible, though not certain, that the FOMC will also implement yield-curve control by targeting medium-term interest rates. It could, for example, target two-year rates by announcing its willingness to buy two-year Treasury notes at a fixed yield. The completion of the Fed’s internal review of its tools and framework in coming months will help guide these decisions.
The Fed also has been active beyond monetary policy.
First, the Fed has served as market maker of last resort by acting to stabilize critical financial markets when capital or other regulatory constraints have interfered with normal market-making or arbitrage. The Fed has served this role for repurchase agreements (repos) since September, when intermittent liquidity shortages led to spikes in repo rates. Banks did not provide liquidity to offset these spikes, as they normally would, citing balance sheet limits and other constraints. Because repo markets are critical to the functioning of broader financial and credit markets, as well as for the transmission of monetary policy, the Fed has restored more-normal function in repo markets by conducting large-scale repo operations and by steadily increasing the quantity of reserves in the banking system.
An even larger shock occurred in March, when uncertainty about the pandemic led hedge funds and others to scramble to raise cash by selling longer-term securities. The upsurge in the supply of longer-term securities, including Treasuries, was more than dealers and other market-makers could handle. Key financial markets, including for Treasury securities, experienced substantial volatility. To stabilize these markets, which like the repo market play a critical role in our financial system, the Fed purchased large quantities of Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities, again serving as market maker of last resort. It also set up a new repo facility to allow foreign official institutions to borrow dollars, using their Treasury reserves as collateral, thus avoiding the need to sell those Treasuries. Although risk and liquidity premiums in these key markets have returned closer to normal, at some point the Fed and the Treasury will need to review why the market-making facilities in place before the pandemic hit did not work more efficiently.
Second, the Fed has served as lender of last resort to the financial system, a classic function of central banks. Banks and other financial intermediaries typically borrow short and lend long—that is, they rely heavily on short-term funding to finance long-term loans and investments. If they lose their short-term funding—because their funders lose confidence or for other reasons—they can be forced to sell their assets in fire sales, restrict credit to customers, and, in extreme cases, become insolvent. Central banks can short-circuit that dangerous dynamic by lending to financial institutions against good collateral, replacing the lost liquidity. In the 2007-2009 crisis, which centered on the financial system and included a global financial panic, the Fed as lender of last resort took many actions to provide liquidity to financial institutions, with the goal of stabilizing the system and preserving the flow of credit to the economy.
Fortunately, the financial system is in much better shape today than in was during the financial crisis. Banks in particular are strong, with much higher levels of capital and liquidity. The Fed nevertheless has once again taken steps to ensure that the financial system has sufficient liquidity. Largely replicating our playbook from the crisis era, the Fed has eased terms on the discount window (which provides short-term loans to banks); re-established the Primary Dealer Credit Facility (which lends to broker-dealers); and established a facility that lends indirectly to money market mutual funds, ensuring that the funds can meet depositor withdrawals. In a novel step, the Fed also created a facility that lends to banks, without recourse, against Payroll Protection Program loans, ensuring that banks have sufficient funds to make those loans.
Under the heading of lender of last resort to the financial system, establishing currency swap lines with fourteen foreign central banks was one of the most important actions the Fed took in the 2007-2009 crisis. The Fed has revived this program. Currency swap lines allow foreign central banks (who assume all the credit risk) to lend dollars to banks in their jurisdictions. The broad availability of dollar liquidity is essential because most global banks do substantial borrowing and lending in dollars, including lending within the United States. The swap lines sustain the flow of dollar credit and reduce volatility in dollar-based markets, to the benefit of the U.S. economy.
Third, the Federal Reserve, with the support of the Congress and the Treasury, has also served during the current crisis as a lender of last resort to the non-financial sector, backstopping key credit markets facing the prospect of severe disruption from the pandemic. To take on this role, the Fed invoked its emergency lending powers under Section 13(3) of the Federal Reserve Act. Since those powers require that the Fed’s lending be well secured, it has had to rely on funds appropriated by the Congress and allocated by the Treasury to cover possible losses. Using these authorities, the Fed revived financial crisis-era facilities to stabilize commercial paper and asset-backed securities markets. Going beyond the financial crisis playbook, the Fed has also added new facilities to lend to corporations and state and local governments and to buy outstanding corporate bonds.
These programs have not extended much credit, so far, but that does not mean they have not succeeded. By establishing the programs, the Fed gave private investors the confidence to re-engage by reassuring them that the government would not allow these critical markets to become dysfunctional. Indeed, the corporate and municipal bond markets largely stabilized after the announcements, before any loans were made. Of course, if these markets seize up again, the Fed’s programs can extend credit.
The Fed also established the Main Street Lending Program to lend (through banks) to medium-sized companies. It is too soon, however, to judge its performance. This program is very different from anything the Fed has attempted before and poses difficult technical challenges. Although the Fed took many public comments while setting up the program, and made substantial changes, questions remain about how many banks and borrowers will participate. The Fed and Treasury may have to further ease terms for borrowers and increase incentives for banks for this program to have the desired effect. Or, the Fed and Treasury could add a new facility, along the lines of funding-for-lending programs run by the Bank of England and the European Central Bank, that simply subsidize banks for making additional loans to qualifying borrowers (for example, businesses below a certain size). That approach leaves the underwriting decision completely with the banks, while the size of the subsidy can be adjusted as needed to achieve the desired level of lending.
Finally, the Fed has also taken actions as a bank regulator—for example, encouraging banks to work with borrowers hobbled by the pandemic. It decided recently, based on stress test results, to bar stock buybacks by banks and to limit—but not eliminate—their dividends. Based on our experience in the global financial crisis, we think the Fed may find it needs to go further. Although banks are currently strong, it is possible the pandemic will so damage the economy that credit losses mount rapidly. For a successful recovery, the banking system must remain strong and able to lend.
Is there more the Fed could do? As we noted, the Fed likely will provide more clarity about its monetary policy plans, and it may need to adjust the terms or borrower eligibility requirements of its various lending facilities. Broadly speaking, though, the Fed’s response has been forceful, forward-looking, and comprehensive. But, as Chair Powell often notes, the Fed’s authorities allow it to lend, not spend. Some households and firms will need subsidies or grants, rather than loans, and spending is, of course, the province of the Congress.
WHAT FISCAL POLICY MIGHT DO
The fiscal response to the pandemic has thus far been quite effective. Enhanced unemployment insurance and the Paycheck Protection Program have helped unemployed workers and their families, together with many businesses, survive the spring shutdowns. The fiscal support for the Fed’s lending programs likely will help preserve credit availability, possibly with only a portion of the allocated funds being spent.
However, some programs authorized by the Congress are ending, and new actions are necessary. Our recommendations for further fiscal action are:
First, Congress should develop a comprehensive plan to support medical research; increase testing, contact tracing and hospital capacity; make available critical supplies; and support state and local efforts to safely open businesses, schools, and public transportation.
Nothing is more important for restoring economic growth than improving public health. Investments in this area are likely to pay off many times over.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created financial challenges for hospitals and health systems, and, without additional federal aid, half of US hospitals could be operating in the red in the second half of this year, according to an analysis released by the American Hospital Association on July 21.
Five takeaways from the analysis:
1. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the median hospital margin was 3.5 percent. COVID-19 is expected to drive the median hospital margin from positive to negative.
2. Without funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, hospital margins would have been a negative 15 percent in the second quarter of 2020. Margins are still expected to drop to a negative 3 percent in the second quarter.
3. Without additional aid from the federal government, hospital margins could sink to a negative 7 percent in the second half of this year.
4. In the second quarter of this year, nearly half of U.S. hospitals had negative margins. Those hospitals will remain with negative margins without further financial support.
5. “Heading into the COVID-19 crisis, the financial health of many hospitals and health systems were challenged, with many operating in the red,” said hospital association President and CEO Rick Pollack in a news release. “As today’s analysis shows, this pandemic is the greatest financial threat in history for hospitals and health systems and is a serious obstacle to keeping the doors open for many.”
The full report, prepared by Kaufman, Hall & Associates and released by the AHA, is available here.