Although the nursing shortage has attracted much attention in recent months, the healthcare workforce crisis is hitting at all levels of the labor force. As the graphic above shows, the attrition rate for all hospital workers in 2021 was eight percentage points higher than in 2019.
Among clinicians and allied health professionals, certified nursing assistants (CNAs) have the highest turnover levels. Given the demands of the job and relatively low pay, CNA openings have been consistently difficult to fill. But it’s become even harder to hire for the role in today’s labor market as job openings near an all-time high.
Although labor force participation rates have rebounded to 2019 levels, pandemic-induced economic shifts have led to a boom in lower-wage jobs. In 2021 alone, Amazon opened over 250 new fulfillment centers and other delivery-related work sites. The company is competing directly with hospitals and nursing facilities for the same pool of workers at many of these new sites.
In fact, our analysis shows that more than a quarter of hospital employees currently work in jobs with a lower median wage than Amazon warehouses. Health systems have historically relied on rich benefits packages and strong career ladder opportunities to attract lower-wage employees, but that’s no longer enough—Amazon and other companies have ramped up their benefits, such that they now meet, or even surpass, what many hospitals are providing.
The time has come for health systems to reevaluate their position in local labor markets, and better define and promote their employee value proposition.
In an effort to rein in healthcare costs for its employees, Walmart sends them directly to health systems that demonstrate high-quality care outcomes, otherwise known as Centers of Excellence.
Through the COE program, Walmart will cover the travel and treatment costs for employees seeking a range of services, but only with providers the company is contracted with. Walmart then reimburses with bundled payments negotiated with the providers.
To determine which providers get access to its 1.6 million employees, Walmart starts by examining health systems. Lisa Woods, vice president of physical and emotional well-being at Walmart, and her team analyze public data, distribute requests for information and conduct detailed on-site visits.
Below are the 18 health systems or campuses to which Walmart will refer patients for defined episodes of care in 2022. (See how COE participants have evolved since 2019 or 2021.)
The explosion of apps, wearables, and other health tech solutions targeted at employers has overwhelmed and frustrated many HR executives who make decisions about employee health benefits. At a recent convening of health insurance brokers we participated in, several bemoaned the challenge of helping their clients understand which solutions might bring real value.
One shared, “For the past few years, it’s felt like ‘App-apalooza’ out there. CHROs [chief human resource officers] get pitches for new apps every day…there are literally thousands out there saying they’ll reduce costs and improve employee health, but it’s next to impossible to tell which ones of them actually work.”
Brokers expressed surprise at how little evidence, or in some cases, actual patient and client experience, some health tech companies brought to the table: “We have startups coming to our clients talking about their millions of dollars in funding, but when you dig into what they’re actually doing, not only can they not show outcomes data, you find out they’ve only worked with a few dozen patients!”
But among the sea of apps purporting to manage any and every employee health need, from chronic disease to fertility to sleep quality, brokers reported their clients were finding value in a few distinct areas.
Technology-based mental health solutions received high marks for increasing access to care, with the prediction that “tele-behavioral health could become a standard part of most benefits packages very quickly”.
More surprisingly, employers shared positive feedback on the impact of virtual physical therapy solutions: “I was skeptical that it would work, but people like being able to rehab at home. And not only is it cheaper, we’re seeing higher adherence rates.”
But even the best apps are often challenged by a lack of connectivity to the rest of a patient’s healthcare. The technologies that will have the greatest staying power will be those that not only deliver results, but are able to move beyond point solutions to become part of an integrated care experience, meaningfully connected to other providers involved in a patient’s care.
Despite being frontline healthcare workers, most Stanford residents were excluded from the first round of the health system’s COVID vaccine rollout in December 2020. The system ultimately revised its plan to include residents, but the delay damaged Stanford’s relationship with residents, adding momentum to the unionization movement. Meanwhile, Keck’s residents unanimously voted in favor of joining the union, aiming for higher compensation and greater workplace representation.
The Gist: While nurses and other healthcare workers in California, as in many other parts of the country, have been increasingly banding together for higher pay and better working conditions, physician residents and fellows contemplating unionization is a newer trend.
Physicians-in-training have historically accepted long work hours and low pay as a rite of passage, and have shied away from organizing. But pandemic working conditions, the growing trend of physician employment, and generational shifts in the physician workforce have changed the profession in a multitude of ways.
Health systems and training programs must actively engage in understanding and supporting the needs of younger doctors, who will soon comprise a majority of the physician workforce.
Corporate America is facing a flurry of questions about how it provides health benefits in the wake of a leaked U.S. Supreme Court draft that indicates the federal right to abortion could be overturned.
Why it matters: Businesses hoping to use reproductive health benefits as part of efforts to recruit and retain employees would have to be careful not to run afoul of laws should states be allowed to ban abortions.
The balancing act over the next several months could get messy, experts warn.
What they’re saying: “It’s a serious issue for employers,” said Candice Sherman, the CEO of the Northeast Business Group on Health. The group represents roughly 80 large companies such as American Express, Colgate, Moderna and Pfizer.
Limits on abortion coverage have the potential to impact the physical and mental health of the workforce and could come as many employers are addressing equity and inclusion for women, people of color and LGBTQ employees, Sherman said.
That is often communicated by companies through benefit design.
State of play: Some large companies like Amazon, Apple and Lyft have already announced plans to provide workarounds in those states with abortion restrictions.
But many others are still on the sidelines as they tease out employees’ priorities on abortion-related benefits, as well as the potential costs and legal risks.
Eleven states restrict insurance coverage of abortion in all private insurance plans written in the state, including those offered through Affordable Care Act markets, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Six other states require abortion coverage in private health insurance plans.
Zoom in: One of the most immediate questions is what kind of employer-sponsored abortion coverage — as well as enhanced benefits like travel stipends — might create legal liabilities for companies in states that ban abortion.
“There’s a question as to whether providing transportation benefits could be construed, or at least alleged by the states in enforcement, as aiding and abetting,” said Garrett Hohimer, director of policy and advocacy for the Business Group on Health. That group counts corporations like The Walt Disney Co., Walmart and General Motors among its members.
Yes, but: In the case of a challenge, companies would have a strong argument that federal protections for providing abortion care benefits preempt state laws, Emily Dickens, the head of government affairs for the Society for Human Resource Management, told Axios.
Dickens pointed specifically to the Pregnancy Discrimination Act which specifically says an employer is permitted to provide health insurance coverage for abortion, as well as protections under ERISA law.
But, but, but: It’s not a sure thing. For instance:“ERISA is not a get out of jail free card,” Hohimer warned, saying there is some question about how the law would be interpreted.
While experts largely believe the Affordable Care Act would provide protections for birth control coverage, it’s unclear how fertility benefits such as egg freezing, surrogacy or in vitro fertilization might be affected, Sherman said.
What to watch: Many large companies already offer health benefits allowing workers to travel to Centers of Excellence for procedures like joint replacements or cancer care.
Those kinds of benefits will likely gain more attention because of the attention surrounding reproductive health, Hohimer said.
Sherman said this may also raise questions about whether there’s flexibility in the tax code to expand the scope of Flexible Spending Accounts or Health Savings Accounts to cover travel for any health care issues.
The bottom line: “Assuming this discussion comes down the way we think it may, organizations are going to have to work very hard,” Sherman said.
Stanford and Lucile Packard Children’s hospitals in Palo Alto, Calif., and the Committee for Recognition of Nursing Achievement reached a tentative agreement on a three-year contract for about 5,000 nurses represented by the union, according to hospital and union statements.
The sides reached the agreement April 29, the fifth day of a strike, and union members approved it May 1.
“After extensive discussions, we were able to reach consensus on a contract that reflects our shared priorities and enhances existing benefits supporting our nurses’ health, well-being and ongoing professional development,” Stanford said in its latest negotiations update.
With the new agreement, striking nurses will return to work May 3.
Meanwhile, in a news release shared with Becker’s, the union highlighted parts of the agreement, including improvements it said “ensure high patient acuity is reflected in staffing.”
The agreement also includes a combined 7 percent base wage increase in 2022 (a 5 percent increase followed by a 2 percent increase) for nurses, 5 percent in 2023 and 5 percent in 2024, as well as funds specifically for mental healthcare of workers, according to the union.
As part of the labor deal, the hospitals also agreed to continue medical benefits for striking nurses without disruption, the union said.
“From day one of our contract negotiations, CRONA nurses have been unified in our goals of improving staffing and making our profession more sustainable,” Colleen Borges, president of CRONA and pediatric oncology nurse at Packard hospital, said in the release. “We stood strong behind our demands for fair contracts that give us the resources and support we need to take care of ourselves, our families and our patients. We are proud to provide world-class patient care — and are glad the hospitals have finally listened to us.”
Dale Beatty, DNP, RN, chief nurse executive and vice president of patient care services for Stanford Health Care, and Jesus Cepero, PhD, RN, senior vice president of patient care and chief nursing officer for Stanford Children’s Health, acknowledged on the Stanford negotiations page that reaching an agreement has been challenging.
Now “we can all take pride in this agreement. And we are proud of our team for maintaining continuity of care for our patients,” they said.
More information on negotiations is available here and here.
Organizations should prepare themselves for a continuation of quits as a new culture of quitting becomes the norm as the annual quit rate stands to jump up nearly 20 percent from annual pre pandemic levels, according to Gartner.
The pre pandemic average for quits stood at 31.9 million, but that figure could rise to 37.4 million this year, said executive consultancy Gartner in an April 28 news release.
“An individual organization with a turnover rate of 20 percent before the pandemic could face a turnover rate as high as 24 percent in 2022 and the years to come,” Piers Hudson, senior director in the Gartner HR practice said in the news release. “For example, a workforce of 25,000 employees would need to prepare for an additional 1,000 voluntary departures.”
The reason for the likely increase in quits is new flexibility in work arrangements and employees’ higher expectations, according to Gartner. A misalignment between leaders and workers is also contributing to the attrition.
“Organizations must look forward, not backward, and design a post-pandemic employee experience that meets employees’ changing expectations and leverages the advantages of hybrid work,” said Mr. Hudson.
Hospitals are experiencing significant increases in expenses for workforce, drugs and medical supplies
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:
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.8This 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.9Staffing 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 2020.13High 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 $3,12024, Remdesivir’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
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.36As 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.