Massive Growth in Expenses and Rising Inflation Fuel Continued Financial Challenges for America’s Hospitals and Health Systems

https://www.aha.org/costsofcaring

Hospitals are experiencing significant increases in expenses for workforce, drugs and medical supplies

Introduction

For over two years since the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, America’s hospitals and health systems have been on the front lines caring for patients, comforting families and protecting communities.

With over 80 million cases1, nearly 1 million deaths2, and over 4.6 million hospitalizations3, the pandemic has taken a significant toll on hospitals and health systems and placed enormous strain on the nation’s health care workforce. During this unprecedented public health crisis, hospitals and health systems have confronted many challenges, including historic volume and revenue losses, as well as skyrocketing expenses (See Figure #1).

Hospitals and health systems have been nimble in responding to surges in COVID-19 cases throughout the pandemic by expanding treatment capacity, hiring staff to meet demand, acquiring and maintaining adequate supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect patients and staff and ensuring that critical services and programs remain available to the patients and communities they serve. However, these and other factors have led to billions of dollars in losses over the last two years for hospitals, and over 33% of hospitals are operating on negative margins.

The most recent surges triggered by the delta and omicron variants have added even more pressure to hospitals. During these surges, hospitals saw the number of COVID-19 infected patients rise while other patient volumes fell, and patient acuity increased. This drove up expenses and added significant financial pressure for hospitals. Moreover, hospitals did not receive any government assistance through the COVID-19 Provider Relief Fund (PRF) to help mitigate rising expenses and lost revenues during the delta and omicron surges. This is despite the fact that more than half of COVID-19 hospitalizations have occurred since July 1, 2021, during these two most recent COVID-19 surges.

At the same time, patient acuity has increased, as measured by how long patients need to stay in the hospital. The increase in acuity is a result of the complexity of COVID-19 care, as well as treatment for patients who may have put off care during the pandemic. The average length of a patient stay increased 9.9% by the end of 2021 compared to pre-pandemic levels in 2019.4

As hospitals treat sicker patients requiring more intensive treatment, they also must ensure that sufficient staffing levels are available to care for these patients, and must acquire the necessary expensive drugs and medical supplies to provide high-quality care. As a result, overall hospital expenses have experienced considerable growth.

Data from Kaufman Hall, a consulting firm that tracks hospital financial metrics, shows that by the end of 2021, total hospital expenses were up 11% compared to pre-pandemic levels in 2019. Even after accounting for changes in volume that occurred during the pandemic, hospital expenses per patient increased significantly from pre-pandemic levels across every category. (See Figure #1)

The pandemic has strained hospitals’ and health systems’ finances. Many hospitals operate on razorthin margins, so even slight increases in expenses can have dramatic negative effects on operating margins, which can jeopardize their ability to care for patients. These expense increases have been more challenging to withstand in light of rising inflation and growth in input prices. In fact, despite modest growth in revenues compared to pre-pandemic levels, median hospital operating margins were down 3.8% by the end of 2021 compared to pre-pandemic levels, according to Kaufman Hall. Further exacerbating the problem for hospitals are Medicare sequestration cuts and payment increases that are well below increases in costs. For example, an analysis by PINC found that for fiscal year 2022, hospitals received a 2.4% increase in their Medicare inpatient payment rate, while hospital labor rates increased 6.5%.5

These levels of increased expenses and declines in operating margins are not sustainable. This report highlights key pressures currently facing hospitals and health systems, including:

  1. Workforce and contract labor expenses
  2. Drug expenses
  3. Medical supply and PPE expenses
  4. Rising economy-wide inflation

Each of these issues separately presents significant challenges to the hospital field. Taken together, they represent conditions that would be potentially catastrophic for most organizations, institutions and industries. However, the fact that the nation’s hospitals and health systems continue to serve on the front lines of the ongoing pandemic is a testament to their resiliency and steadfast commitment to their mission to serve patients and communities around the country.

Hospitals and health systems are the cornerstones of their communities. Their patients depend on them for access to care 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Hospitals are often the largest employers in their community, and large purchasers of local services and goods. Additional support is needed to help ensure hospitals have the adequate resources to care for their communities.

I. Workforce and Contract Labor Expenses

The hospital workforce is central to the care process and often the largest expense for hospitals. It is no surprise then that even before the pandemic, labor costs — which include costs associated with recruiting and retaining employed staff, benefits and incentives — accounted for more than 50% of hospitals’ total expenses. Therefore, even a slight increase in these costs can have significant impacts on a hospital’s total expenses and operating margins.

As the pandemic has persisted for over two years, the toll on the health care workforce has been immense. A recent survey of health care workers found that approximately half of respondents felt “burned out” and nearly a quarter of respondents said they anticipated leaving the health care field.6

This has been mirrored by a significant and sustained decline in hospital employment, down approximately 100,000 employees from pre-pandemic levels.7 At the height of the omicron surge, approximately 1,400 hospitals or 30% of all U.S. hospitals reporting data to the government, indicated that they anticipated a critical staffing shortage within the week.8 This high percentage of hospitals reporting a critical staffing shortage stayed relatively consistent throughout the delta and omicron surges.

The combination of employee burnout, fewer available staff, increased patient acuity and higher demand for care especially during the delta and omicron surges, has forced hospitals to turn to contract staffing firms to help address staffing shortages.

Though hospitals have long worked with contract staffing firms to bridge temporary gaps in staffing, the pandemic-driven-staffing-shortage has created an expanded reliance on contract staff, especially contract or travel registered nurses. Travel nurses are in particularly high demand because they serve a critical role in delivering care for both COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients and allow the hospital to meet the demand for care, especially during pandemic surges.

According to a survey by AMN Healthcare, one of the nation’s largest health care staffing agencies, 95% of health care facilities reported hiring nurse staff from contract labor firms during the pandemic.9 Staffing firms have increased their recruitment of contract or travel nurses, illustrating the significant growth in their demand. According to data from EMSI/Burning Glass, there has been a nearly 120% increase in job postings for contract or travel nurses from pre-pandemic levels in January 2019 to January 2022. (See Figure #2)

Similarly, the hours worked by contract or travel nurses as a percentage of total hours worked by nurses in hospitals has grown from 3.9% in January 2019 to 23.4% in January 2022, according to data from Syntellis Performance Solutions. (See Figure #3) In fact, a quarter of hospitals have experienced nearly a third of their total nurse hours accounted for by contract or travel nurses.

As the share of contract travel nurse hours has grown significantly compared to before the pandemic, so too have the costs of employing travel nurses compared to pre-pandemic levels. In 2019, hospitals spent a median of 4.7% of their total nurse labor expenses for contract travel nurses, which skyrocketed to a median of 38.6% in January 2022. (See Figure #3) A quarter of hospitals — those who have had to rely disproportionately on contract travel nurses — saw their costs for contract travel nurses account for over 50% of their total nurse labor expenses. In fact, while contract travel nurses accounted for 23.4% of total nurse hours in January 2022, they accounted for nearly 40% of the labor expenses for nurses. (See Figure #3) This difference has grown considerably compared to pre-pandemic levels in 2019, suggesting that the exorbitant prices charged by staffing companies are a primary driver of higher labor expenses for hospitals.

Data from Syntellis Performance Solutions show a 213% increase in hourly rates charged to hospitals by staffing companies for travel nurses in January 2022 compared to pre-pandemic levels in January 2019. This is because staffing agencies have exploited the situation by increasing the hourly rates billed to hospitals for contract travel nurses more than the hourly rates they pay to travel nurses. This is effectively the “margin” retained by the staffing agencies. During pre-pandemic levels in 2019, the average “margin” retained by staffing agencies for travel nurses was about 15%. As of January 2022, the average “margin” has grown to an astounding 62%. (See Figure #4)

These high “margins” have fueled massive growth in the revenues and profits of health care staffing companies. Several staffing firms have reported significant growth in their revenues to as high as $1.1 billion in just the fourth quarter of 202110, tripling their revenues and net income compared to 2020 levels.11

The data indicate that the growth in labor expenses for hospitals and health systems was in large part due to the exorbitant rates charged by contract staffing firms. By the end of 2021, hospital labor expenses per patient were 36.9% higher than pre-pandemic levels, and increased to 57% at the height of the omicron surge in January 2022.12 A study looking at hospitals in New Jersey found that the increased labor expenses for contract staff amounted to $670 million in 2021 alone, which was more than triple what their hospitals spent in 2020.13 High reliance on contract or travel staff prevents hospitals and health systems from investing those costs into their existing employees, leading to low morale and high turnover, which further exacerbates the challenges hospitals and health systems have been facing.

II. Drug Expenses

Prescription drug spending in the U.S. has grown significantly since the pandemic. In 2021, drug spending (including spending in both retail and non-retail settings) increased 7.7%14, which was on top of an increase of 4.9%15 in 2020. While some of this growth can be attributed to increased utilization as patient acuity increased during the pandemic, a significant driver has been the continued increase in prices of existing drugs as well as the introduction of new products at very high prices. A study by GoodRx found that in January 2022 alone, drug companies increased the price of about 810 brand and generic drugs that they reviewed by an average of 5.1%.16 These price increases followed massive price hikes for certain drugs often used in the hospital such as Hydromorphone (107%), Mitomycin (99%), and Vasopressin (97%).17 For another example, the drug manufacturer of Humira, one of the most popular brand drugs used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, increased the price of the drug by 21% between 2019 and 2021.18 A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that in Medicare Part B and D markets, half of all drugs in each market experienced price increases above the rate of inflation between 2019 and 2020 – in fact, a third of these drugs experienced price increases of greater than 7.5%.19 At the same time, according to a report by the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review (ICER), eight drugs with unsupported U.S. drug price increases between 2019 and 2020 alone accounted for an additional $1.67 billion in drug spending, further illustrating that drug companies’ decisions to raise the prices of their drugs are simply an unsustainable practice.20

As hospitals have worked to treat sicker patients during the pandemic, they have been forced to contend with sky-high prices for drugs, many of which are critical and lifesaving for their patients. For example, in 2020, 16 of the top 25 drugs by spending in Medicare Part B (hospital outpatient settings) had price increases greater than inflation — two of the top three drugs, Keytruda and Prolia — experienced price increases of 3.3% and 4.1%, respectively.21

As a result of these price increases, hospital drug expenses have skyrocketed. By the end of 2021, total drug expenses were 28.2% higher than pre-pandemic levels.22 When taken as a share of all non-labor expenses, drug expenses have grown from approximately 8.2% in January 2019, to 9.3% in January 2021, and to 10.6% in January 2022. (See Figure #5) Even when considering changes in volume during the pandemic, drug expenses per patient compared to pre-pandemic levels in 2019 saw significant increases, with a 36.9% increase through 2021.

While continued drug price increases by drug companies have been a major driver of the growth in overall hospital drug expenses, there also are other important driving factors to consider:

  • Drug Treatments for COVID-19 Patients: Remdesivir, one of the primary drugs used to treat COVID-19 patients in the hospital, has become the top spend drug for most hospitals since the pandemic. This drug alone accounted for over $1 billion in sales in the fourth quarter of 2021.23 Priced at an average of $3,12024Remdesivir’s cost was initially covered by the federal government. However, hospitals must now purchase the drug directly.
  • Limitation of 340B Contract Pharmacies: The 340B program allows eligible providers, including hospitals that treat many low-income patients or treat certain patient populations like children and cancer patients, to buy certain outpatient drugs at discounted prices and use those savings to provide more comprehensive services to the patients and communities they serve. Since July 2020, several of the largest drug manufacturers have denied 340B pricing to eligible hospitals through pharmacies with whom they contract, despite calls from the Department of Health and Human Services that such actions are illegal. Because of these actions, many 340B hospitals, especially rural hospitals who disproportionately rely on contract pharmacies to ensure access to drugs for their patients, have lost millions in 340B drug savings.25 In addition, these manufacturers have required claim-level data submissions as a condition of receiving 340B discounts, which has increased costs to deliver the data as well as staff time and expense to manage that process. The loss of 340B savings coupled with increased burden of providing detailed data to drug companies have contributed to increasing drug expenses.
  • Health Plans’/Pharmacy Benefit Managers’ (PBMs’) “White Bagging” Policies: Health plans and PBMs have engaged in a tactic that steers hospital patients to third-party specialty pharmacies to acquire medication necessary for clinician-administered treatments, known as “white-bagging.” This practice disallows the hospital from procuring and managing the handling of a drug — typically drugs that are infused or injected requiring a clinician to administer in a hospital or clinic setting — used in patient care. These policies not only create serious patient safety concerns, but create delays and risks in patient care; add to administration, storage and handling costs; and create important liability issues for hospitals.

Taken together, these factors increase both drug expenses and overall hospital expenses.

III. Medical Supply and PPE Expenses

The U.S., like most countries in the world, relies on global supply chains for goods and services. This is especially true for medical supplies used at hospitals and other health care settings. Everything from the masks and gloves worn by staff to medical devices used in patient care come from a large network of global suppliers. Prior to the global pandemic, hospitals had established relationships with distributors and other vendors in the global health care supply chain to deliver goods as necessitated by demand. After the pandemic hit, many factories, distributors and other vendors shut down their operations, leaving hospitals, which were on the front lines facing surging demand, to fend for themselves. In fact, supply chain disruptions across industries, including health care, increased by 67% in 2020 alone.26

As a result, hospitals turned to local suppliers and non-traditional suppliers, often paying significantly higher rates than they did prior to the pandemic. Between fall 2020 and early 2022 costs for energy, resins, cotton and most metals surged in excess of 30%; these all are critical elements in the manufacturing of medical supplies and devices used every day in hospitals.27 As COVID-19 cases surged, demand for hospital PPE, such as N95 masks, gloves, eye protection and surgical gowns, increased dramatically causing hospitals to invest in acquiring and maintaining reserves of these supplies. Further, downstream effects from other global events such as the war in Ukraine and the energy crisis in China, as well as domestic issues, such as labor shortages and rising fuel and transportation costs, have all contributed to drive up even higher overall medical supply expenses for hospitals in the U.S.28 For instance, according to the Health Industry Distributors Association, transportation times for medical supplies are 440% longer than pre-pandemic times resulting in massive delays.29

Compared to 2019 levels, supply expenses for hospitals were up 15.9%30 through the end of 2021. When focusing on hospital departments involved most directly in care for COVID-19 patients − primarily hospital intensive care units (ICUs) and respiratory care departments − the increase in expenses is significantly higher. Medical supply expenses in ICUs and respiratory care departments increased 31.5% and 22.3%, respectively. Further, accounting for changes in volume during surge and non-surge periods of the pandemic, medical supply expenses per patient in ICUs and respiratory care departments were 31.8% and 25.9% higher, respectively. (See Figure #6) These numbers help illustrate the magnitude of the impact that increases in supply costs have had on hospital finances during the pandemic.

IV. Impact of Rising Inflation

Higher economy-wide costs have serious implications for hospitals and health systems, increasing the pressures of higher labor, supply, and acquisition costs; and potentially lower consumer demand. Inflation is defined as the general increase in prices and the decrease in purchasing power. It is measured by the Consumer Price Index (CPI-U). In April 2021, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that the CPI-U had the largest 12-month increase since September 2008. The CPI-U hit 40-year highs in February 2022.31 Overall, consumer prices rose by a historic 8.5% on an annualized basis in March 2022 alone.32

As inflation measured by consumer prices is at record highs, below are key considerations on the potential impact of higher general inflation on hospital prices:

  • Labor Costs and Retention: Labor costs represent a significant portion of hospital costs (typically more than 50% of hospital expenses are related to labor costs). As the cost-of-living increases, employees generally demand higher wages/total compensation packages to offset those costs. This is especially true in the health care sector, where labor demands are already high, and labor supply is low.
  • Supply Chain Costs: Medical supplies account for approximately 20% of hospital expenses, on average. As input/raw good costs increase due to general inflation, hospital supplies and medical device costs increase as well. Furthermore, shortages of raw materials, including those used to manufacture drugs, could stress supply chains (i.e., medical supply shortages), which may result in changes in care patterns and add further burden on staff to implement work arounds.
  • Capital Investment Costs: Capital investments also may be strained, especially as hospitals have already invested heavily in expanding capacity to treat patients during the pandemic (e.g., constructing spaces for testing and isolation of COVID-19 patients). One of the areas that has seen the largest increase in prices/shortages is building materials (e.g., lumber). Additionally, a historically large increase in inflation has resulted in increases in interest rates, which may hamper borrowing options and add to overall costs.
  • Consumer Demand: Higher inflation also may result in decreases in demand for health care services, specifically if inflation exceeds wage growth. Specifically, higher costs for necessities (food, transportation, etc.) could push down demand for health care services and, in turn, dampen hospital volumes and revenues in the long run.

Health care and hospital prices are not driving recent overall inflation increases. The BLS has cited increases in the indices for gasoline, shelter and food as the largest contributors to the seasonally adjusted all items increase. The CPI-U increased 0.8% in February on a seasonally adjusted basis, whereas the medical care index rose 0.2% in February. The index for prescription drugs rose 0.3%, but the hospital index for hospital services declined 0.1%.33

This is consistent with pre-pandemic trends. Despite persistent cost pressures, hospital prices have seen consistently modest growth in recent years. According to BLS data, hospital prices have grown an average 2.1% per year over the last decade, about half the average annual increase in health insurance premiums. (See Figure #7) More recently, hospital prices have grown much more slowly than the overall rate of inflation. In the 12 months ending in February 2022, hospital prices increased 2.1%. In fact, even when excluding the artificially low rates paid to hospitals by Medicare and Medicaid, average annual price growth has still been below 3% in recent years.34

Conclusion

While we hope that our nation is rounding the corner in the battle against COVID-19, it is clear that the pandemic is not over. During the week of April 11, there have been an average of over 33,000 cases per day35 and reports suggest that a new subvariant of the virus (Omicron BA.2) is now the dominant strain in the U.S.36 As a result, the challenges hospitals and health systems are currently facing are bound to last much longer.

As COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations are decreasing in some parts of the U.S. and increasing in others, hospitals and health systems continue to care for COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients. With additional surges potentially on the horizon, the massive growth in expenses is unsustainable. Most of the nation’s hospitals were operating on razor thin margins prior to the pandemic; and now, many of these hospitals are in an even more precarious financial situation. Regardless of potential new surges of COVID-19, hospitals and health systems continue to face workforce retention and recruitment challenges, supply chain disruptions and exorbitant expenses as outlined in this report.

Hospitals appreciate the support and resources that Congress has provided throughout the pandemic; however, additional support is needed now to keep hospitals strong so they can continue to provide care to patients and communities.

Consumer confidence unshaken by Omicron—at least so far

https://mailchi.mp/0b6c9295412a/the-weekly-gist-january-7-2022?e=d1e747d2d8

While Omicron’s rapid spread is causing COVID hospitalizations to surge once again, the impact on consumer confidence may be different this time around. Drawing on the most recent data from analytics firm Strata Decision Technology, the graphic above shows how hospital volumes have fluctuated throughout the pandemic. Hospital volumes mostly returned to pre-COVID levels early last summer, until the Delta surge caused patients to begin avoiding care across all settings once again. 

It remains to be seen if the forty percent of consumers who said they were less likely to seek non-emergency care during the Delta surge feel similarly about the Omicron spike. So far, consumer sentiment seems to be holding steady at last summer’s levels, though we’re still a few weeks away from Omicron’s expected peak. 

As the pandemic enters its third year, it’s also likely that consumers who have been delaying care will simply be unwilling or unable to hold off any longer. But even if Omicron doesn’t dissuade consumers from seeking non-COVID care, health systems will be hard pressed to accommodate both COVID and non-COVID care amid worrisome staffing shortages. 

How much nurse pay is rising—and why

Travel Nurse Guaranteed Pay: The Truth - The Gypsy Nurse

Amid a nationwide staffing shortage, rising demand for nurses has led hospitals to increase salaries and other benefits to attract and retain workers, Melanie Evans reports for the Wall Street Journal.

Hospitals increase salaries, benefits to keep up with nursing demand

Hospitals across the country have been struggling amid staffing shortages, particularly of nurses, Evans reports. According to health care consultancy Premier, nurse turnover rates have increased to around 22% this year, up from the annual rate of about 18% in 2019.

“We are employing more nurses now than we ever have, and we also have more vacancies than we ever had,” said Greg Till, chief people officer at Providence Health & Services.

To retain their current nurses and attract new staff, many hospitals have increased their nurses’ salaries to remain competitive in the job market, Evans reports.

For example, HCA Healthcare, one of the largest hospital chains in the country, said it increased nurse pay this year to keep up with Covid-19 surges and compete with rivals also trying to fill vacant positions.

Similarly, Jefferson Health in May raised salaries for its nearly 10,000 nurses by 10% after the system discovered that rivals had increased their compensation. “The circumstances required it,” said Kate Fitzpatrick, Jefferson’s chief nurse executive.

In addition, Citizens Memorial Hospital in Bolivar, Mo., this month raised its nurses’ salaries by up to 5% after rivals in other nearby cities increased their workers’ wages. Sarah Hanak, Citizen Memorial’s CNO, said the hospital also increased the hourly wages of nurses working overnight shifts by around 15% to ensure sufficient staffing for those shifts.

“We were forced to,” Hanak said. “We absolutely have to stay competitive.”

Overall, the average annual salary for RNs, not including bonus pay, grew to $81,376, according to Premier—a 4% increase across the first nine months of the year. This is larger than the 3.3% increase in the average annual nurse salary for 2020 and the 2.6% increase in 2019, Evans writes.

In addition to salary increases, some organizations, such as Providence, are also offering other benefits to attract and retain nurses, such as more time off, greater schedule flexibility, and new career development opportunities. Many hospitals are also hiring new graduates to work in specialized roles in ORs and other areas, allowing them to advance their careers more quickly than they would have before.

Overall, this rising demand for nurses has allowed those entering the workforce to negotiate higher salaries, more flexible working hours, and other benefits, Evans writes.

“I think you get to write your ticket,” said Tessa Johnson, president of the North Dakota Nurses Association.

Nurse compensation increases were inevitable—here’s why

It was inevitable that we would get to this point: baseline nurse compensation on a clear upward trajectory. Inevitable because this boils down to laws of supply and demand. Amid a clear nursing shortage, organizations are being forced to raise baseline compensation to compete for increasingly scarce qualified nurses. This is true in nearly every market, even for those considered to be ‘destination employers.’

If anything, what’s most surprising in the data from Premier is the moderated increase of around 4%. From a worker’s perspective, that’s not even covering cost of living increases due to inflation. However, amid this new data, it’s important to keep two things in mind:

Two considerations for health care leaders

  1. New data only captures baseline compensation.Differentials—which organizations must standardize and expand across shifts, specialties, and even settings—plus overtime put baseline compensation much higher. Not to mention lucrative sign-on bonuses, that members tell us are increasingly table stakes in their markets. In general, we don’t recommend this type of incentive that does nothing for retention. You’re better off investing those resources in baseline compensation as well as beefing up your RN bonus plan to incentivize retention.
  2. There is a new floor for wages (and it’s only going up from here).

Open questions (and important indicators) we are assessing

  • What happens to wages for entry-level clinical roles? As the shortage of RNs persists, organizations will need to make a shift to team-based models of care, and those are only possible with a stable workforce of entry-level personnel. Right now, that part of the health care workforce is anything but stable. When you consider their work and their wages in comparison to out-of-industry players that pay the same or better, that’s a clear area where investment is required. 
  • Will the share of nurses working permanently with travel agencies return to pre-pandemic levels? That’s to say, what will those RNs who experienced the traveler lifestyle and pay value more moving forward: the flexibility and premium pay or stability of permanent employment? Even if this number stabilizes a couple percentage points above pre-pandemic levels, that will aggravate provider’s sense of shortage.

Preparing for generations of Medicare growth

https://mailchi.mp/72a9d343926a/the-weekly-gist-september-24-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

The healthcare industry is now at the peak of the long-awaited transition of the Baby Boom generation into Medicare. The “greying” of the Boomers will continue to bring a rapid influx of new Medicare beneficiaries, but this is just the beginning of a protracted period of growth for the program, with the number of Medicare-eligible Americans increasing by more than 50 percent over the next three decades.

Using data from the US Census Bureau, the graphic above shows how the generational makeup of the Medicare population will change across time. The next decade will bring the fastest growth, as the latter half of the Baby Boom generation turns 65. Over that time, the Medicare-eligible population will increase by almost a third. Gen X will begin to age into Medicare in 2029. (Go ahead, take a minute. It hurts.) While fewer in number, Gen X beneficiaries, combined with the longer lifespan of Baby Boomers, will bring no respite from Medicare growth, with enrollment still increasing 11 percent between 2030 and 2040. 

As the country looks at a prolonged period of Medicare cost growth, we’ll be counting on a ballooning workforce of Millennials and Gen Z youngsters—each part of generations even larger than the Baby Boom—to continue to fund the Medicare trust across the next 25 years, when the first Millennials will receive their Medicare cards. (See how it feels?)

Shortage of healthcare workers amid high demand for jobs

https://mailchi.mp/13ef4dd36d77/the-weekly-gist-august-27-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

The US now has more job openings than any time in history—and the mismatch in workforce supply and demand in the broader economy is even more acute in the healthcare sector. While the industry saw significant job losses in April 2020, employment in many healthcare subsectors quickly rebounded to slightly below pre-pandemic levels, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

While ambulatory and hospital employment has mostly recovered, employment in nursing and residential care facilities has continued to decline. 

Healthcare’s sluggish return to pre-pandemic employment levels is not for lack of demand. The number of job listings has grown nearly 30 percent since the second quarter of 2020, to nearly 4.5M openings, while new hires have flatlined, resulting in over half of healthcare job listings remaining unfilled as of Q2 2021. 

In a recent McKinsey & Company survey of over 100 large US hospitals, health system executives ranked workforce shortages among nurses and clinical staff as their greatest barrier to increasing capacity.

Amid the current COVID surge, many systems are offering sizeable bonuses to attract new employees. These strategies will be critical across the next year, as systems look to reduce spending on costly travel nurses, manage COVID surges while continuing to offer elective care, and forestall further burnout.

But longer term, rethinking job functions, integrating new technology and finding ways to educate and upskill critical clinical talent will be key to winning the war for talent.

Hospitals saw gains in volume, revenue and margin in April, finds Kaufman Hall

https://www.healthcarefinancenews.com/news/hospitals-saw-gains-volume-revenue-and-margin-april-finds-kaufman-hall

Hospitals saw gains in volume, revenue and margin in April, finds Kaufman  Hall | Healthcare Finance News

The signs of progress are encouraging, but the metrics are still down slightly when compared to last month.

Slowly, the financial health of the nation’s healthcare institutions are improving. Hospitals and health systems continued to see performance improvements in April compared to the devastating losses experienced in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hospital margins, volumes, and revenues were up across most performance metrics, both year-to-date and year-over-year, but were down compared to March, according to the latest issue of Kaufman Hall’s National Hospital Flash Report. There was no explicit reason given for the dip, but any number of factors small and large could play into the results. It’s possible that clearer trend lines will develop over time.

WHAT’S THE IMPACT?

While any signs of progress are encouraging, the April results draw a clear contrast to the severity of record-low performance seen during the first two months of the pandemic in 2020, rather than strong overall performance so far this year.

Operating margin, for example, rose 101.9% (or 8.6 percentage points) compared to January-April 2020, not including federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding. With the funding, operating margin was up 90.6% year-to-date, or 6.9 percentage points. 

Operating margin was up 113.1% (39.3%) without CARES and 109.5% (21.4%) with CARES, compared to the first full month of the pandemic in April 2020, when nationwide shutdowns and broad restrictions on outpatient procedures caused operating margins to plummet 282% year-over-year.

April 2021 hospital margins, however, remained relatively thin. The median Kaufman Hall hospital operating margin index was 2.4% for the month, not including CARES. Even with the funding, it was 3.3%.

When it came to volumes, hospitals saw them increase across most metrics compared to 2020 levels, but decrease slightly compared to March. Adjusted discharges were up 5.9% year-to-date and jumped 66.4% year-over-year, while adjusted patient days rose 10% year-to-date and 64.8% year-over-year. Both metrics fell 1% month-over-month.

Emergency department visits were mixed, falling 7% compared to the first four months of 2020, but rising 57.2% year-over-year and 5.3% month-over-month. Operating room minutes were down 3.6% from March, but increased 26.1% year-to-date, and shot up 189.2% compared to April 2020, when COVID-19 abruptly halted most outpatient procedures.

Revenues followed a similar pattern, with gross operating revenue (not including CARES) up 16.7% year-to-date and 71.8% year-over-year, but down 2.5% compared to the prior month. Inpatient revenue rose 10.6% year-to-date and 37.1% year-over-year, but was down 1.9% month-over-month. Outpatient revenue rose 20.3% year-to-date, jumped 114.8% compared to April 2020, but fell 2% from March.

Total expenses continued to increase both year-to-date and year-over-year, but saw moderate decreases month-over-month. Total expense was up 6.6% year to date and 13.1% year over year. Total labor expense increased 6.1% year-to-date and 9.4% year-over-year, and total nonlabor expense rose 7% year-to-date and 16.3% year-over-year. 

Compared to March, though, all three metrics were down about 3%. Expense results were mixed when adjusted for the month’s volumes. Total expense per adjusted discharge, for example, increased 2% compared to January-April 2020, but fell 32.3% from April 2020 and 2% from March. 

THE LARGER TREND

Despite the ongoing pandemic, the 2021 financial outlook for the global healthcare sector is mostly positive, as strong demand for products and services – including those related to COVID-19 – will more than offset lingering pressures from the public health emergency, Moody’s Investors Service found in December.

The demand will remain strong, largely due to aging populations, the improvement in access and the introduction of new and innovative products. There is one caveat: steadily rising healthcare expenditures, which will cause payers to continue to restrict utilization and lower prices.

In October, Moody’s found that owning a public hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic carried operational risk, which will compound the fiscal and credit difficulties facing many large urban counties across the U.S.

Whether recovery from the coronavirus this year is relatively rapid or relatively slow, America’s hospitals will face another year of struggle to regain their financial health.
 

Approaching a “new normal” for healthcare volumes?

https://mailchi.mp/45f15de483b9/the-weekly-gist-october-9-2020?e=d1e747d2d8

Eight months into COVID-19, national healthcare volumes are still lagging pre-pandemic levels. The graphic above shows highlights from Strata Decision Technology’s recent analysis of volume data from 275 hospitals nationwide between March and August, and reveals that inpatient, and especially emergency department, volumes are still well below 2019 levels. 

This isn’t surprising. Consumer confidence in healthcare facilities hasn’t changed much since April, with many still reporting feeling unsafe in emergency care and hospital settings. Even some outpatient providers are still seeing lags compared to last year.

While outpatient volume as a whole has rebounded, critical outpatient diagnostics, including mammographies and colonoscopies, are still down significantly, leading to reduced downstream oncology and surgical volume as well, at least in the short-term.
 
COVID-19 is also accelerating the outmigration of high-margin surgical procedures like total knee replacements. Comparing a two-week period in August to the same period last year reveals that inpatient knee procedures are down by nearly 40 percent, while similar outpatient procedures are up over 80 percent.

As Strata Executive Director Steve Lefar said in a recent conversation with Gist Healthcare Daily’s Alex Olgin, these data expose “an elasticity of demand the healthcare industry never even knew existed” and that “the demand curve for healthcare services may be permanently adjusted because people are just changing their behaviors.” 

While we expect volumes will ebb and flow over coming months in step with the local severity of COVID-19, health systems should plan for a longer-term “new normal” with volume below pre-pandemic levels.

Fitch Q2 outlook for nonprofit hospitals: ‘worst on record’

https://www.healthcaredive.com/news/fitch-analysts-hospital-worries-FY-2020/577875/

Nicklaus Children's Health System Receives A+ Rating from Fitch ...

From the Mayo Clinic to Kaiser Permanente, nonprofit hospitals are posting massive losses as the coronavirus pandemic upends their traditional way of doing business.

Fitch Ratings analysts predict a grimmer second quarter: “the worst on record for most,” Kevin Holloran, senior director for Fitch, said during a Tuesday webinar.​

Over the past month, Fitch has revised its nonprofit hospital sector outlook from stable to negative. It has yet to change its ratings outlook to negative, though the possibility wasn’t ruled out.

Some have already seen the effects. Mayo estimates up to $3 billion in revenue losses from the onset of the pandemic until late April — given the system is operating “well below” normal capacity. It also announced employee furloughs and pay cuts, as several other hospitals have done.

Data released Tuesday from health cost nonprofit FAIR Health show how steep declines have been for larger hospitals in particular. The report looked at process claims for private insurance plans submitted by more than 60 payers for both nonprofit and for-profit hospitals.

Facilities with more than 250 beds saw average per-facility revenues based on estimated in-network amounts decline from $4.5 million in the first quarter of 2019 to $4.2 million in the first quarter of 2020. The gap was less pronounced in hospitals with 101 to 250 beds and not evident at all in those with 100 beds or fewer.

Funding from federal relief packages has helped offset losses at those larger hospitals to some degree.

Analysts from the ratings agency said those grants could help fill in around 30% to 50% of lost revenues, but won’t solve the issue on their own.

They also warned another surge of COVID-19 cases could happen as hospitals attempt to recover from the steep losses they felt during the first half of the year.

Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, warned lawmakers this week that the U.S. doesn’t have the necessary testing and surveillance infrastructure in place to prep for a fall resurgence of the coronavirus, a second wave that’s “entirely conceivable and possible.”

“If some areas, cities, states or what have you, jump over these various checkpoints and prematurely open up … we will start to see little spikes that may turn into outbreaks,” he told a Senate panel.

That could again overwhelm the healthcare system and financially devastate some on the way to recovery.

“Another extended time period without elective procedures would be very difficult for the sector to absorb,” Holloran said, suggesting if another wave occurs, such procedures should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, not a state-by-state basis.

Hospitals in certain states and markets are better positioned to return to somewhat normal volumes later this year, analysts said, such as those with high growth and other wealth or income indicators. College towns and state capitols will fare best, they said.

Early reports of patients rescheduling postponed elective procedures provide some hope for returning to normal volumes.

“Initial expectations in reopened states have been a bit more positive than expected due to pent up demand,” Holloran said. But he cautioned there’s still a “real, honest fear about returning to a hospital.”

Moody’s Investors Service said this week nonprofit hospitals should expect the see the financial effects of the pandemic into next year and assistance from the federal government is unlikely to fully compensate them.

How quickly facilities are able to ramp up elective procedures will depend on geography, access to rapid testing, supply chains and patient fears about returning to a hospital, among other factors, the ratings agency said.

“There is considerable uncertainty regarding the willingness of patients — especially older patients and those considered high risk — to return to the health system for elective services,” according to the report. “Testing could also play an important role in establishing trust that it is safe to seek medical care, especially for nonemergency and elective services, before a vaccine is widely available.”

Hospitals have avoided major cash flow difficulties thanks to financial aid from the federal government, but will begin to face those issues as they repay Medicare advances. And the overall U.S. economy will be a key factor for hospitals as well, as job losses weaken the payer mix and drive down patient volumes and increase bad debt, Moody’s said.

Like other businesses, hospitals will have to adapt new safety protocols that will further strain resources and slow productivity, according to the report.​

Another trend brought by the pandemic is a drop in ER volumes. Patients are still going to emergency rooms, FAIR Health data show, but most often for respiratory illnesses. Admissions for pelvic pain and head injuries, among others declined in March.

“Hospitals may also be losing revenue from a widespread decrease in the number of patients visiting emergency rooms for non-COVID-19 care,” according to the report. “Many patients who would have otherwise gone to the ER have stayed away, presumably out of fear of catching COVID-19.”

 

 

 

7 health systems with strong finances

https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/finance/7-health-systems-with-strong-finances-01072020.html

Here are seven health systems with strong operational metrics and solid financial positions, according to reports from Fitch Ratings, Moody’s Investors Service and S&P Global Ratings.

1. Durham, N.C.-based Duke University Health System has an “Aa2” rating and stable outlook with Moody’s. The three-hospital system benefits from its role as the academic medical center of Duke University’s School of Medicine and is a nationally recognized and leading provider of tertiary and quaternary services, according to Moody’s. The credit rating agency expects the health system to maintain operating cash flow margins in the double-digit range.

2. Edison, N.J.-based Hackensack Meridian Health has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with S&P and Fitch. The health system has a solid financial profile and a strong presence in a large and demographically favorable market, according to Fitch. S&P expects the health system’s depth of clinical services and operations to contribute to its stable financial performance.

3. Fountain Valley, Calif.-based MemorialCare has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch and S&P. The health system has a strong balance sheet and financial profile, according to Fitch. The credit rating agency expects MemorialCare’s cash flow to improve due to its market strategy, which focuses on revenue diversification.

4. Portland-based Oregon Health & Science University has an “Aa3” rating and stable outlook with Moody’s and an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with S&P. OHSU, which is the only academic medical center in Oregon, has favorable operating performance, strong philanthropy and its clinical offerings draw patients from across Oregon and neighboring states, according to Moody’s. The credit rating agency expects OHSU’s revenue to continue to grow.

5. Boston-based Partners HealthCare, which is changing its name to Mass General Brigham, has an “Aa3” rating and stable outlook with Moody’s. The health system has an excellent reputation in clinical care and research, a seasoned management team, large size and diversity of revenue sources across several locations and lines of business, according to Moody’s. The credit rating agency expects Partners to achieve an operating surplus in fiscal 2020.

6. Norfolk, Va.-based Sentara Healthcare has an “Aa2” rating and stable outlook with Moody’s. The health system has a leading market position in its core service area, strong patient demand, and solid margins, according to Moody’s. The credit rating agency expects Sentara’s liquidity and debt metrics to remain at recent levels.

7. Livonia, Mich.-based Trinity Health has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch and S&P. The health system has a significant market presence in several states and a strong financial profile, according to Fitch. The credit rating agency expects the health system’s operating margins to continue to improve.