The tight labor market is impacting provider volumes

https://mailchi.mp/8e26a23da845/the-weekly-gist-june-17th-2022?e=d1e747d2d8

Health systems are on edge after two quarters of shaky financial performance, with skyrocketing labor and supply costs compressing margins. But in addition to cost challenges, many are also reporting a softening of demand, with profitable surgeries and other procedures and diagnostics being hit hard. Some report seeing a drop in elective services (as one COO told us, “We may have finally worked our way through the backlog of delayed procedures from 2020 and 2021”), but in many cases, hospitals are missing the staff necessary to open up much-needed surgical capacity.

One system reported having to shut down operating rooms due to a lack of surgical techsEven more pressing is a shortage in anesthesia capacity, with systems across the country having trouble staffing anesthesiologists and nurse anesthetists. Some practitioners have been rolled up into large, investor-owned groups, which then have taken providers out-of-network for key insurers.

But regardless of ownership structure, a shortage of providers has led to “shoestring staffing” with little ability to cover absences or departures, leading to last-minute cancellations of procedures. Pediatric hospitals have been particularly hard-hit. Most rely on subspecialty-trained anesthesiologists, and as one physician leader pointed out, children’s hospitals use anesthesia not just for surgeries, but also for diagnostics, radiation therapy and other treatments where sedation isn’t required for adults. 

All in, the shortage of anesthesiologists is leading to critical treatment delays and exacerbating revenue concerns. Moreover, systems are facing frustrated consumers, who care little about the complexities of the healthcare workforce shortage and supply chain challenges that led to an abrupt cancellation of their care. 

COVID-fatigued health workers are mobilizing

https://www.axios.com/2022/06/02/health-care-workers-unions-covid-fatigue

Health care workers nationwide are organizing and pushing for workplace changes like better pay or more favorable staffing ratios after waves of pandemic-fueled burnout and frustration.

Why it matters: COVID-19 and its aftereffects triggered an exodus of health care workers. Those who stayed are demanding more from health systems that claim to be reaching their own breaking points.

  • “The pandemic exacerbated a crisis that was already there,” Michelle Boyle, a Pittsburgh nurse told Axios. “It went from being a crisis to being a catastrophic freefall in staffing.”

Driving the news: About 1,400 resident physicians in public Los Angeles County hospitals have authorized a strike if their demands for pay parity with other local facilities aren’t met in contract negotiations this week.

  • Nurses demonstrated across Pennsylvania in early May, protesting one state lawmaker’s inaction on legislation that would have set nurse-to-patient ratios.
  • A fight is brewing in Minnesota as contracts covering 15,000 nurses in several hospital systems are expiring.
  • Some 2,000 resident physicians and interns at Stanford University and the University of Vermont Medical Center joined an affiliate of the SEIU for medical workers that claims more than 20,000 members nationwide.
  • In North Carolina, where union membership is low, staff at Mission Health in Asheville voted to unionize largely over staffing concerns.

Less than half of the of nearly 12,000 nurses polled by the American Nurses Association last year believe their employer cares about their concerns, and 52% of those surveyed said they intend to leave their jobs or are considering doing so.

The other side: Hospital operators generally oppose unionization efforts, as well as mandated staffing ratios.

  • “The last thing we need is requirements set by somebody in Washington as to exactly how many nurses ought to be providing service at any given time,” said Chip Kahn, CEO of the Federation of American Hospitals. “That ought to be a local decision based on the need in the hospital at the time.”
  • The American Organization for Nursing Leadership, an affiliate of the American Hospital Association, also opposes staffing ratios.
  • The industry says decisions on staffing and workplace rules are best left to local executives who need to be flexible to meet shifting demand for care.
  • “You’re basically taking away the flexibility of those on the scene to determine what it takes to provide the needed patient care,” Kahn said.

Go deeper: The pandemic drove up labor costs significantly for hospitals that were forced to pay travel nurses to fill workforce gaps during COVID surges.

  • April marked the fourth month in a row this year that major hospitals and health care systems reported negative margins, a Kaufman Hall report found. And executives say things could worsen amid inflation and stubborn supply chain woes.

And yet, some big hospital chains like Tenet reported strong earnings in the first quarter.

Between the lines: California is the only state to have set staffing ratios for nurses, but hospital unions in other states have fought for similar requirements in their contracts.

  • In California, every nurse on a general hospital floor has no more than five patients to care for at a time; nurses in ICUs should care for no more than two patients.
  • Nurses want look-alike standards in states like Pennsylvania, where only some hospitals have staffing ratios, saying short-staffing threatens patients’ well-being.

What we’re watching: While many legislative proposals failed this year, unions representing health care workers say their message is getting across.

  • Unions in Illinois, Pennsylvania and Washington state are redoubling efforts for staffing ratio legislation modeled on California’s.
  • In New York, nurses passed a law that took effect in January mandating staffing committees at hospitals.

The bottom line: The labor tension is a sobering coda to a health crisis that’s stretched health systems and workers alike in unprecedented ways.

“What you’re seeing is nurses finally saying enough is enough and this system is broken and we need it to be fixed,” said Denelle Korin, a nurse alliance coordinator with Nurses of Pennsylvania.

CEO resignations hit record high

Dozens of hospital CEOs have resigned this year as a record number of chiefs across all industries have exited their roles, according to a May 18 Challenger, Gray & Christmas report. 

Nearly 520 CEOs left their posts between Jan. 1 and the end of April, the highest total since the executive outplacement and coaching firm began tracking CEO changes in 2002. The total is up 18 percent from the 440 CEO exits announced in the same period of 2021. 

Thirty-six hospital CEOs exited their roles in the first four months of this year. That’s up from the 20 hospital chiefs who resigned in the same period last year, according to the report. 

CEOs are leaving their positions and businesses are making changes at the top for several reasons, Challenger, Gray & Christmas Senior Vice President Andrew Challenger said. 

“Inflation, staffing shortages, and possible recession concerns are giving more cause for companies to reevaluate leadership,” Mr. Challenger said. “This, after years of companies trying to figure out the right formula to attract and retain talent and create a culture of inclusion, issues that often start at the top.”

Hospital labor expenses up 37% from pre-pandemic levels in March

Dive Brief:

  • Hospitals’ labor costs rose by more than a third from pre-pandemic levels by March 2022, according to a report out Wednesday from Kaufman Hall.
  • Heightened temporary and traveling labor costs were a main contributor, with contract labor accounting for 11% of hospitals’ total labor expenses in 2022 compared to 2% in 2019, the report found.
  • Contract nurses’ median hourly wages rose 106% over the period, from $64 an hour to $132 an hour, while employed nurse wages increased 11%, from $35 an hour to $39 an hour, the report found.

Dive Insight:

The new data from Kaufman Hall supports concerns hospital executives expressed while releasing first quarter earnings results, as higher-than expected labor costs spurred some operators, like HCA, to lower their financial full-year guidance.

The ongoing use of contract labor amid shortages driven by heightened turnover was a key factor executives cited for higher costs, and follows the findings from Kaufman Hall’s latest report.

More than a third of nurses surveyed by staffing firm Incredible Health said they plan to leave their current jobs by the end of this year, according to a March report. While burnout is driving them to leave, higher salaries are the top motivating factor for taking other positions, that report found.

Kaufman Hall’s report, which analyzes data from more than 900 hospitals across the country, found hospitals spent $5,494 in labor expenses per adjusted discharge in March compared to $4,009 roughly three years ago.

Costs rose for hospitals in every region, though the South and West experienced the largest increases from pre-pandemic levels as those expenses rose 43% and 42%, respectively.

The West and Northeast/Mid-Atlantic regions saw the highest expenses consistently from 2019 to 2022, according to the report.

“The pandemic made longstanding labor challenges in the healthcare sector much worse, making it far more expensive to care for hospitalized patients over the past two years,” said Erik Swanson, senior vice president of data and analytics at Kaufman Hall.

“Hospitals now face a number of pressures to attract and retain affordable clinical staff, maintain patient safety, deliver quality services and increase their efficiency,” Swanson said.

The report also notes that hospitals are competing with non-hospital employers also pursuing hourly staff, though those companies can pass along wage increases to consumers through higher prices “in a way healthcare organizations cannot,” the report said.

Some hospitals, like HCA Healthcare and Universal Health Services, are looking to raise prices for health plans amid rising nurse salaries, according to reporting from The Wall Street Journal.

Another recent report from group purchasing organization Premier found the CMS underestimated hospital labor spending when making payment adjustments for the 2022 fiscal year, resulting in hospitals receiving only a 2.4% rate increase compared to a 6.5% increase in hospital labor rates.

To match the rates hospitals are now paying staff, an adequate inpatient payment update for fiscal 2023 is needed, that report said.

The CMS proposed its IPPS rule for FY 2023 on April 18 that includes a 3.2% hike to inpatient hospital payments, which provider groups like the American Hospital Association rebuked as “simply unacceptable” considering inflation and rising hospital labor costs.

Companies should brace for a culture of quitting

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.

More Americans are quitting — and job openings hit record high

Across industries, 4.54 million Americans quit or changed jobs in March, the highest level since December 2000, according to seasonally adjusted data released May 3 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The count is up from 4.38 million in February. In the healthcare and social assistance sector, 542,000 Americans left their jobs in March, compared to 561,000 the previous month, according to the bureau.

The number of job openings in the U.S. also hit a record high of 11.55 million in March, up from 11.34 million in February, according to the bureau. Job openings in the healthcare and social assistance sector remained similar in February and March, at around 2 million.

During the pandemic, hospital CEOs are among those who have joined the list of workers quitting. Additionally, older, tenured employees in America are part of the trend.

Although there continues to be churn in the labor market, Fitch Ratings projects the U.S. labor market will recover jobs lost during the pandemic by the end of August.

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.

One-third of hospitals operating with negative margins & 6 other things to know

Hospitals and health systems have lost billions over the last two years, leaving more than 33 percent of them with negative margins, according to an April 25 report by the American Hospital Association.

Six findings:

1. Employment is down by 100,000 jobs compared to pre-pandemic levels, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found. But at a time when hospitals are desperately trying to fill positions, labor expenses per patient were 19.1 percent higher in 2021 than in 2019. Labor expenses are more than 50 percent of hospitals’ total expenses, meaning a small increase in labor costs can have a major effect on hospital’s total expenses and operating margins. 

2. The report attributed the increase in labor expenses to hospitals’ dependence on contract staff, specifically nurses. In 2019, travel nurses accounted for a median of 4.7 percent of hospitals’ total nurse labor expenses, compared to a median of 38.6 percent in January.

3. Hourly billing rates for contract employees rose 213 percent compared to pre-pandemic levels. This created a 62 percent profit margin for staff agencies.

4. Drug expenses soared by 36.9 percent per patient compared to pre-pandemic levels. 

5. Medical supply expenses also rose through 2021, by 20.6 percent, compared to pre-pandemic levels. For intensive care units and respiratory care departments — which were most involved in COVID-19 care — medical supply expenses grew 31.5 percent and 22.3 percent, respectively.

6. Economywide, the consumer price index saw major increases, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found. Meanwhile, hospital prices rose modestly, by an average of 2.1 percent per year in the last decade, about half the average annual increase in health insurance premiums. 

Retail wages are rising. Can hospital pay keep up?

While healthcare workers battle burnout, hospitals have been ramping up wages and other benefits to recruit and retain workers. It has created a culture of competition among health systems as well as travel agencies that offer considerably higher pay.

But other healthcare organizations are not hospitals’ only competitors. Some hospitals, particularly those in rural areas, are struggling to match rising employee pay among nonindustry employers such as Target and Walmart.

“We monitor and we’ve been looking and we ask around in the community and we can ask who’s paying what,” Troy Bruntz, CEO of Community Hospital in McCook, Neb., told Becker’s. “So we know where Walmart is on different things, and we’re OK. But if Walmart tried to match what Target’s doing, that would not be good.”

At Target, the hourly starting wage now ranges from $15-$24. The organization is making a $300 million investment total to boost wages and benefits, including health plans. Starting pay is dependent on the job, the market and local wage data, according to NPR.

Walmart raised the hourly wages for 565,000 workers in 2021 by at least $1 an hour, The New York Times reported. The company’s average hourly wage is $16.40, with the lowest being $12 and the highest being $17.

Meanwhile, Costco raised its minimum wage to $17 an hour, according to NPR. The federal minimum wage is $7.25.

Estimated employment for healthcare practitioners and technical occupations is 8.8 million, according to the latest data released March 31 by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This includes nurse practitioners, physicians, registered nurses, physician assistants and respiratory therapists, among others. 

In sales and related occupations, estimated employment is 13.3 million, according to the bureau. This includes retail salespersons, cashiers and first-line supervisors of retail salespersons, among others.  

While retail companies up their wages, at least one hospital CEO is monitoring the issue.

Healthcare leaders weigh their options

Mr. Bruntz said rising wages among retailers is an issue his organization monitors. Although Target does not have a store in McCook, there is a Walmart, where pay is increasing.

“I was quoted a few months ago saying Walmart was approaching $15 an hour, and we can handle that,” Mr. Bruntz said. “But when it gets to $20 or $25, it’s going to be an issue.”

He also said he cannot solely increase the wages of the people making less than $15 or less than $25 because he has to be fair in terms of wages for different types of roles.

Specifically, he said he is concerned about what matching rising wages at retailers would mean for labor expenses, which make up about half of the hospital’s cost structure.

“I double that half, that’s 25 percent more expenses instantly,” Mr. Bruntz said. “And how is that going to ratchet to a bottom line anything less than a massive negative number? So it’s a huge problem.”

Clinical positions are not the only ones hospitals and health systems are struggling to fill; they are encountering similar difficulties with technicians and food service workers. Regarding these roles, competition from industries outside healthcare is particularly challenging.

This is an issue Patrice Weiss, MD, executive vice president and chief medical officer of Roanoke, Va.-based Carilion Clinic, addressed during a Becker’s panel discussion April 4. The organization saw workforce issues not just in its clinical staff, but among environmental services staff.

“When you look at what … even fast food restaurants were offering to pay per hour, well gosh, those hours are a whole lot better,” she said during the panel discussion. “There’s no exposure. You’re not walking into a building where there’s an infectious disease or patients with pandemics are being admitted.” 

Amid workforce challenges, Community Hospital is elevating its recruitment and retention efforts.

Mr. Bruntz touted the hospital as a hard place to leave because of the culture while acknowledging the monetary efforts his organization is making to keep staff.

He said the hospital has a retention program where full-time employees get a bonus amount if they are at the employer on Dec. 31 and have been there at least since April 15. Part-time workers are also eligible for a bonus, though a lesser amount.

“It also encourages staff [who work on an as-needed basis] to go part-time or full-time, and [those who are] part-time to go full-time,” Mr. Bruntz said. “That’s another thing we’re doing is higher amounts for higher status to encourage that trend.” 

Additionally, Community Hospital, which has 330 employees, offers a referral bonus to staff to encourage people they know to come work with them. 

“We want staff to bring people they like. [We are] encouraging staff to be their own ambassadors for filling positions,” Mr. Bruntz said.  

He said the hospital also will offer employees a sizable market wage adjustment not because of competition from Walmart but because of inflation.

Graham County Hospital in Hill City, Kan., is also affected by the tight labor market, although it has not experienced much competition with retail companies, CEO Melissa Atkins told Becker’s. However, the hospital is struggling with competition from other healthcare organizations, particularly when it comes to patient care departments and nursing. While many hospitals have struggled to retain employees from travel agencies, Graham County Hospital has mostly been able to avoid it.

“As the demand increases, so does the wage,” Ms. Atkins said. “In addition to other hospitals offering sign-on bonuses and increased wages, nurse agency companies are offering higher wages for traveling nurse aides and nurses. We are extremely fortunate in that we have not had to use agency nurses. Our current staff has stepped up and filled in the shortages [with additional incentive pay].”

To combat this trend, the hospital has increased hourly wages and shift differentials, as many healthcare organizations have done. It has also provided bonuses using COVID-19 relief funds.

Overall, Mr. Bruntz said he prefers “not to get into an arms race with wages” among nonindustry competitors. 

“It’s not going to end well for anybody. We prefer not to use that,” he said. “At the same time, we’re trying to do as much as possible without being in a full arms race. But if Walmart started paying $25 for a door greeter and cashier, we would have to reassess.”