We’ve been having “year ahead” discussions with our health system members over the past few weeks, although it’s been difficult for some to carve out time for planning in the midst of the Omicron surge.
One common theme is that, from a financial perspective, 2022 is expected to be a more difficult year. For many systems, despite the trying COVID situation, the past two years have been financial record-setters. In 2020, systems benefited from a massive infusion of COVID relief funding from the government, and in 2021, they continued to enjoy enhanced reimbursement due to COVID, plus had a resurgence of volume as patients sought care that was previously postponed.
2022 looks to be a more “normal” year—meaning a return to the financial pressures of pre-pandemic times. Those include mounting price compression from payers, an accelerating shift of care from inpatient to outpatient settings, and increasing competition for patients from disruptors and others. At the same time, patient acuity will continue to rise, with patients presenting sicker and with more comorbidities. The cost of caring for those patients will escalate, as the workforce shortage drives labor costs higher and supply chain woes persist.
We’d anticipate a year or more of belt-tightening among many health systems, as they adjust to the post-pandemic environment.
Large insurers Humana and Cigna, along with “insurtech” startups Bright Health and Alignment Healthcare, all lowered expectations for their MA membership growth after missing 2022 enrollment targets. The companies blamed fierce competition for the nation’s estimated 29.5M MA lives, and highlighted a focus on diversifying revenue through other business arms like healthcare delivery and service sales.
The Gist: Insurers’ missed expectations are leading some to question whether the MA market is beginning to weaken, but these concerns are overblown, with last fall’s enrollment affected by the pandemic, which hindered brokers’ ability to reach seniors.
Some MA-focused startups are finding challenges in their attempts to scale, and their stock prices will continue to retreat from the lofty valuations that drove their public offerings.
Insurers still have plenty of running room to grow their MA books of business, but will face increasing scrutiny of their ability to manage patients and control costs for the aging population.
- HCA has purchased MD Now Urgent Care, Florida’s largest urgent care chain, adding 59 urgent care centers to its existing 170. Meanwhile Tenet’s $1.1B deal to buy SurgCenter Development cements its position as the nation’s largest ambulatory surgery center (ASC) operator, eclipsing Envision-owned AMSURG and Optum-owned Surgical Care Affiliates.
The Gist: Healthcare services are increasingly moving outpatient and even virtual—a trend only accelerated by the pandemic. With this latest acquisition, Tenet will now own or operate nearly seven times as many ASCs as hospitals. Such national, for-profit systems are looking to add more non-acute assets to their portfolios, to capitalize on a shift fueled by both consumer preference for greater convenience, and purchaser pressure to reduce care costs.
- While CFOs, on the whole, remain optimistic about an economic rebound this year, they’re concerned about labor availability and accompanying cost pressures, according to a quarterly survey by Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and the Federal Reserve Banks of Richmond and Atlanta.
- Over 75% of CFOs included in the survey said their companies faced challenges in finding workers. More than half of that group also said worker shortage reduced their revenue—especially for small businesses. The survey panel includes 969 CFOs across the U.S.
- “CFOs expect revenue and employment to rise notably through the rest of 2021,” Sonya Ravindranath Waddell, VP and economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond said. “[But] over a third of firms anticipated worker shortages to reduce revenue potential in the year.”
As many companies struggle to find employees and meet renewed product demand, it’s unsurprising CFOs anticipate both cost and price increases, Waddell said.
About four out of five CFO respondents reported larger-than-normal cost increases at their firms, which they expect will last for several more months. They anticipate the bulk of these cost increases will be passed along to the consumer, translating into higher-priced services.
Despite labor concerns, CFOs are reporting higher optimism than last quarter, ranking their optimism at 74.9 on a scale of zero to 100, a 1.7 jump. They rated their optimism towards the overall U.S. economy at an average of 69 out of 100, a 1.3 increase over last quarter.
For many CFOs, revenue has dipped below 2019 levels due to worker shortage, and in some cases, material shortages, Waddell told Fortune last week. Even so, spending is on the rise, which respondents chalked up to a reopening economy.
“Our calculations indicate that, if we extrapolate from the CFO survey results, the labor shortage has reduced revenues across the country by 2.1%,” Waddell added. “In 2019, we didn’t face [the] conundrum of nine million vacancies combined with nine million unemployed workers.”
Consumer prices have jumped 5.4% over the past year, a U.S. Department of Labor report from last week found; a Fortune report found that to be the largest 12-month inflation spike since the Great Recession in 2008.
To reduce the need for labor amid the shortage, many companies will be “surviving with just some compressed margins for a while, or turning to automation,” Waddell said.
An estimate from the Partnership for America’s Healthcare Future predicts that nearly four out of five 60- to 64-year-olds would enroll in Medicare, with two-thirds transitioning from existing commercial plans, if “Medicare at 60” becomes a reality.
In the graphic above, we’ve modeled the financial impact this shift would have on a “typical” five-hospital health system, with $1B in revenue and an industry-average two percent operating margin.
If just over half of commercially insured 60- to 64-year-olds switch to Medicare, the health system would see a $61M loss in commercial revenue.
There would be some revenue gains, especially from patients who switch from Medicaid, but the net result of the payer mix shift among the 60 to 64 population would be a loss of $30M, or three percent of annual revenue, large enough to push operating margin into the red, assuming no changes in cost structure. (Our analysis assumed a conservative estimate for commercial payment rates at 240 percent of Medicare—systems with more generous commercial payment would take a larger hit.)
Coming out of the pandemic, hospitals face rising labor costs and unpredictable volume in a more competitive marketplace. While “Medicare at 60” could provide access to lower-cost coverage for a large segment of consumers, it would force a financial reckoning for many hospitals, especially standalone hospitals and smaller systems.
A topic that’s come up in almost every discussion we’ve had with health system executive teams and boards recently is workforce strategy. Beyond the immediate political debate about whether temporary unemployment benefits are exacerbating a shortage of workers, there’s a growing recognition that the healthcare workforce is approaching something that looks like a “perfect storm”.
The workforce is mentally and physically exhausted from the pandemic, which has taken a toll both professionally and personally. Many workers are rethinking their work-life balance equations in the wake of a difficult year, during which working conditions and family responsibilities shifted dramatically. That, along with broader economic inflation, is driving demands for higher wages and a more robust set of benefits.
Meanwhile, many health systems are shifting into cost-cutting mode, due to COVID-related shifts in demand patterns and continued downward pressure on reimbursement rates, forcing a renewed focus on workforce productivity.
These combined forces threaten to create a negative spiral, which could lead to even worse shortages and deteriorating workplace engagement. It’s striking how quickly the “hero” narrative has shifted to a “crisis” narrative, and we agree completely with one health system board member who told us recently that workforce strategy is now the number one issue on his agenda.
No easy answers here, but we’ll continue to report on innovative approaches to addressing these difficult challenges.