The cost of hospital contract labor in 22 numbers

Many hospitals and health systems aim to recruit and retain permanent staff to replace contract labor positions, which have seen wages skyrocket because of staff shortages during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Hospitals across the country have relied on contract labor and temporary staffing agencies to support their clinical teams when many burned-out providers are exiting healthcare. An October survey conducted by Bain & Company found that 25 percent of physicians, advanced practice providers and nurses are considering changing careers. Eight-nine percent of the providers thinking about leaving the profession cited burnout as the driving force. 

Staffing shortages are driving labor costs to an unsustainable level for hospitals operating on razor-thin margins and reducing temporary staffing costs is top of the agenda for many financial executives looking to reduce expenses in the coming quarters.

Here are 22 numbers that demonstrate the cost of contact labor for hospitals, according to reports from Kaufman Hall, Definitive Healthcare, Vaya Workforce and big hospital operators:

1. The demand for contract labor increased 500 percent in fall 2021 compared with 2019, according to healthcare staffing services company Vaya Workforce. While demand has since decreased, it is still nearly triple pre-pandemic levels and is projected to remain as high as 20 percent above the 2019 baseline.

2. In 2020, the average amount hospitals spent on contract labor was $4.6 million, more than double the average expense of $2.2 million in 2011, according to a report from Definitive Healthcare, a data and analytics company.

3. Rochester, Minn.-based Mayo Clinic Hospital, Saint Mary’s Campus spent $286.8 million on contract labor in 2020, the most of any hospital in the country that year, according to Definitive Healthcare’s analysis of about 3,100 U.S. hospitals

4. From 2019 to 2022, the hourly wage rate for contract nurses increased 106 percent, according to Kaufman Hall. Contract nurses are earning an average of $132 an hour in 2022 versus $64 an hour in 2019. At the height of the pandemic, some travel nurses earned up to $300 an hour, with rates as high as these placing immense pressure on hospital balance sheets.

5. The rise in contract labor from 2019 through March of 2022 led to a 37 percent increase in labor expenses per patient, equating to between $4,009 and $5,494 per adjusted discharge.

6. Hospitals with 25 beds or fewer spent about $460,000 on contract labor in 2020 compared to hospitals with more than 250 beds that spent almost $11 million on average, according to Definitive Healthcare.

7. Hospitals in the western U.S. have the highest contract labor expenses, with an average of $9.6 million reported in 2020. Large cities, high cost of living and high salary rates in the region contribute to this high average.

8. Labor costs were one of the core reasons Franklin, Tenn.-based Community Health Systems reported a net loss of $42 million in the third quarter, but CFO Kevin Hammons said he expects to see a 40 percent to 50 percent reduction in contract labor costs next year compared with 2022.

9. Nashville, Tenn.-based HCA Healthcare reported a 19 percent decrease in contract labor costs in the third quarter compared to the second quarter, allowing the system to absorb much of the market-based wage adjustment costs for its employee workforce, CFO Bill Rutherford said during an Oct. 21 earnings call.  

10. According to Kaufman Hall’s “2022 State of Healthcare Performance Improvement” report, published Oct. 18, 46 percent of hospital and health system leaders identify labor costs as the greatest opportunity for cost reductions. This was significantly up from the 17 percent of respondents who noted labor costs as their greatest opportunity to cut costs last year.

11. There are some hopeful signs that the use of contract labor has stabilized and is steadily falling, according to Kaufman Hall: 44 percent of hospitals in its survey reported that their utilization of contract labor is declining while 29 percent said that it is holding steady.

Massachusetts’ 19K vacant hospital jobs: ‘Our healthcare system has never been more fragile’

There are an estimated 19,000 full-time job vacancies across Massachusetts acute care hospitals, according to a survey published Oct. 31 by the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association.

Hospitals are working to address backlogs and transfer patients to post-acute care settings while skyrocketing labor costs — including a projected $1 billion in travel labor costs this year — are compounding healthcare facilities’ financial woes, according to the report. These challenges are hampering hospital operations as well as leading to care delays and reduced access to care.

Fewer workers mean that fewer beds are available for patients, while the demand for care increases due to deferred care throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the behavioral health crisis and reduced access to community-based services continue to challenge hospitals throughout the state. At any given time, more than 1,500 patients are in acute hospital beds awaiting placement to a specialized behavioral health bed or post-acute care, according to the MHA.

“Our healthcare system has never been more fragile, and its leaders have never been more concerned about what’s to come in months ahead,” Steve Walsh, president and CEO of the MHA, said in an Oct. 31 news release shared with Becker’s Hospital Review. “They are exhausting every option within their control to confront these challenges, but this is an unsustainable reality and providers are in dire need of support.”

In response to the survey, 37 hospitals — representing 70 percent of the state’s total hospital employment — reported 6,650 vacancies among 47 positions critical to hospital operations and clinical care. The positions range from direct care nurses to lab personnel and clinical support staff. Eighteen of the 47 positions have a vacancy rate greater than 20 percent

At a 56 percent vacancy rate, licensed practical nurses is the most in-demand position, while home health aides (34 percent), mental health workers (32 percent), infection control nurses (26 percent) and CRNAs (24 percent) are also highly sought after.

Survey respondents identified 6,650 vacancies. The 47 positions included in the survey, which was conducted this summer, account for less than half of all hospital roles. The MHA said it extrapolated that across all positions and hospitals to arrive at an estimated 19,000 vacancies across the state.

Staffing shortages are driving labor costs to an unsustainable level for many hospitals already grappling with margins close to zero or in the red. Hospitals have relied on high-cost temporary staffing to fill critical positions during the pandemic, resulting in average hourly wage rates for travel nurses increasing 90 percent since 2019, according to the report. Massachusetts hospitals reported spending $445 million on temporary registered nurse staffing halfway through the fiscal year, with temporary RN staffing costs increasing 234 percent from fiscal year 2019 to March 2022.

If urgent steps are not taken to address healthcare’s staffing shortage, hospitals will continue to face capacity challenges and overpay for labor, which will lead to fiscal instability, according to Mr. Walsh. 

The MHA urged providers, payers, public officials and government agencies to address the workforce crisis by investing in training and education, expanding the workforce pipeline, providing financial support to hospitals and advancing new models of care such as telehealth and at-home care. 

Surging flu and RSV cases suggest difficult winter ahead

https://mailchi.mp/f1c5ab8c3811/the-weekly-gist-october-28-2022?e=d1e747d2d8

Early into flu season, nationwide flu activity is ten times higher than at the same point last year. Meanwhile, cases of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a virus most severe in young children and the elderly, have tripled in the past two months, with some children’s hospitals reporting “unprecedented” admissions for the virus. And most experts expect at least some winter COVID surge, possibly involving several different variants. The combined threat of these viruses circulating together has been labeled a potential “tripledemic.” 

The Gist: Across the past two winters, the widespread adoption of COVID prevention measures, including masking and social distancing, kept the spread of other viruses at bay. But with return to normal life for most Americans, other viruses have returned to circulation—and with a vengeance, as population immunity toward flu and RSV has weakened. 

While it’s hard to predict when and where local surges will occur, hospitals struggling with staffing shortages may be forced to hire more contract labor to care for an influx of patients—making this a potentially challenging winter for already stretched facilities.

COVID’s lingering effects on the US workforce

https://mailchi.mp/f1c5ab8c3811/the-weekly-gist-october-28-2022?e=d1e747d2d8

As the nation continues to grapple with the fallout from COVID, one of the greatest unknowns is “long COVID”, the broad range of health problems experienced by a significant number of individuals after contracting the virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines long COVID as any post-COVID condition lasting three months or longer.

In the graphic above, we aim to quantify the prevalence of long COVID and its ongoing impact on the US workforce. While estimates for these numbers vary, data compiled by Brookings show that COVID infections in roughly one in four working age adults have resulted in long COVID, and up to one in four individuals with long COVID are unable to work due to their lingering health problems. Long COVID is also more prevalent in middle-aged adults, who are often at the peak of their working years. Dealing with symptoms like chronic fatigue and brain fog, long COVID patients are more likely to be unemployed or working reduced hours, compared to a pre-COVID baseline of the general adult population. 

While it’s difficult to assess the precise impact on the nation’s current labor shortage, the estimate that 4M working age adults are no longer working because of long COVID equals about 40 percent of the 10M total job openings in August of this year, undoubtedly exacerbating ongoing economic challenges. 

The Coming Insurance Storm

Employers face a brutal increase in health-insurance premiums for 2023, Axios’ Arielle Dreher writes from a Kaiser Family Foundation report out this morning.

  • Why it matters: Premiums stayed relatively flat this year, even as wages and inflation surged. That reprieve was because many 2022 premiums were finalized last fall, before inflation took off.

“Employers are already concerned about what they pay for health premiums,” KFF president and CEO Drew Altman said.

  • “[B]ut this could be the calm before the storm … Given the tight labor market and rising wages, it will be tough for employers to shift costs onto workers when costs spike.”

🧠 What’s happening: Nearly 159 million Americans get health coverage through work — and coverage costs and benefits have become a critical factor in a tight labor market.

🔎 Between the lines: In the tight labor market, some employers absorbed rising costs of coverage instead of passing them on to workers.

  • An October survey of 1,200 small businesses found that nearly half had raised prices to offset rising costs of health care.

🧮 By the numbers: It cost an average of $22,463 to cover a family through employer-sponsored health insurance in 2022, KFF found.

  • Workers contributed an average of $6,106.

Read the report

Fitch: Nonprofit hospitals face prolonged labor challenges despite recent respite

Nonprofit hospitals are bracing for a challenging few months as healthcare and social assistance job vacancies remain high against a backdrop of low unemployment, Fitch Ratings said in an Oct. 25 update.

Healthcare and social assistance job openings fell for two consecutive months to 7.7 percent as of August, but the number of openings remains above the highest level recorded before the COVID-19 pandemic.

One encouraging sign is the slowly declining number of quits — 2.3 percent (486,000 quits) in August 2022 compared with a peak of 3.1 percent (626,000 quits) in November 2021. However, current quit rates remain high and are on track to exceed last year, according to Fitch.

“[not-for-profit] hospital quits will need to normalize to well below pre-pandemic levels in order to reduce staffing shortages and a reliance on contract/temporary labor,” Fitch Director Richard Park said in the news release.

The labor shortage saw hospital employees’ average weekly earnings increase 21.1 percent since February, significantly higher than the 13.6 percent earnings growth of overall private sector employees, according to Fitch. But ambulatory healthcare services employees’ earnings increased by only 12.6 percent over the same period.

“Wage increases and employee recruitment challenges may amplify the role of ambulatory care in the overall healthcare sector and continue the acceleration of inpatient care to outpatient settings,” Mr. Park said.

https://www.fitchratings.com/research/us-public-finance/labor-strife-to-continue-for-us-nfp-hospitals-despite-reprieve-25-10-2022

ED patient acuity largely unchanged by COVID (at least so far)

https://mailchi.mp/6a3812741768/the-weekly-gist-september-9-2022?e=d1e747d2d8

Many health systems are wondering if consumers are now leveraging new access points, including telemedicine, for low-acuity urgent care instead of going to the emergency department (ED), something which many experts are forecasting. For the graphic above, we partnered with healthcare software and analytics firm Strata Decision Technology to try to answer this question.

Using their national StrataSphere dataset for short-term acute care hospitals, we found that ED patient acuity levels in July 2022 were virtually identical to those in July 2019, though 2022 volumes were down by four percent. Admission and observation decisions across the two groups were also largely the same. We’ll be keeping our eye on the data to see if the story changes, as individuals who have delayed care over the last two and a half years now return, presenting to the ED with more advanced disease.

While current ED patients may not be more acute than before, the ongoing shortage of clinical labor may explain why some hospitals tell us that their EDs feel busier than ever. Measured by total worked hours of ED employees per adjusted patient day, the amount of labor dedicated to each patient requiring an overnight ED stay is down around forty percent from 2019 across hospital EDs of all staffing levels. With fewer labor hours to go around, each team member on the floor now has more to do.

Recession fears are rising. Why are people still quitting their jobs?

Interest rates are rising, inflation is lingering at four-decade highs, the economy appears to be slowing and experts fear a recession is on the way. But Americans are still quitting their jobs at near-record rates in the face of growing economic uncertainty. 

The percentage of American workers who quit their jobs set a record earlier this year and has only dropped slightly as the economy slows from two years of torrid growth. After reaching 2.9 percent this spring, the quits rate dropped to 2.7 percent in July, according to data released Tuesday by the Labor Department.

The idea of quitting a job amid a period of increased cost of living and a dubious economic future may seem counterintuitive. But the labor market has remained stacked in favor of workers, who see ample opportunities to boost their earnings to supplant increased costs from inflation.

Despite recent declines, job openings still outnumber unemployed workers by a sizable margin, illustrating just how tight the labor market remains,” wrote AnnElizabeth Konkel, an economist at Indeed Hiring Lab, in a Monday analysis.

There were roughly two open jobs for every unemployed American, according to Labor Department data, giving job seekers ample opportunities to find new jobs with better pay or working conditions. Businesses are still scrambling to find enough workers to keep up with consumer spending — which is well above pre-pandemic levels — from a workforce that remains smaller than it was before COVID-19.

“It seems possible that employer demand would need to cool significantly more before recruiters start to notice an easing in recruiting conditions,” Konkel wrote.

In other words, employers still have too many open jobs and not enough candidates to avoid boosting wages and other perks to find talent. And that means workers still have ample incentive to quit for a better-paying job, particularly with inflation still high.

Job seekers on Indeed.com are looking for ever-higher wages, Konkel explained. The number of Indeed users seeking jobs with a $20 per hour wage rose above those seeking $15 per hour in June 2022, and the number of jobseekers looking for $25 per hour is up 122 percent over the past 12 months.

Konkel attributed the spike in job seekers looking for more money to the steady increase in advertised wages and the inflation they’ve helped to feed.

Once job seekers know it’s possible to attain a higher wage, their expectations may shift and act as a pull factor in searching for a higher dollar amount. In this case, the shift in job seeker expectations from searching for $15 to instead $20 is clear,” Konkel explained.

“On the flip side, inflation continues to take a bite out of workers’ paychecks,” she continued, noting that only 46 percent of workers saw wage gains that outpaced inflation.

The pressure to quit for a higher paying job has been highest in the private sector, where 3.5 percent of the workforce left their current employer in July. Workers in industries with historically low wages, tough working conditions and limited teleworking options have led the charge.

The leisure and hospitality sector posted a whopping 6.1 percent quit rate in July, down sharply from 6.9 percent a year ago but still nearly twice the national quit rate.

Restaurants and bars in particular have struggled to return to pre-pandemic employment levels despite rapidly raising wages. The pressure has also made it nearly impossible for those businesses to fire or lay off employees, even amid usual season turnover.

“Hospitality companies tell us that what was once a ‘one strike, you’re out’ rule for employees who failed to show up at work without notice is now more like a ‘ten strikes, you’re out’ rule. They cannot afford to fire workers because they cannot afford to replace them,” said Julia Pollak, chief economist at ZipRecruiter.

“The decline in terminations in industries like hospitality have been so large, they have more than offset the increase in layoffs in the tech sector,” she explained.

Quits have also remained high in retail (4 percent) and the transportation and warehousing sectors (3.5 percent), with both industries facing threats from a decline in goods spending and rising interest rates.

Even so, there are some signs of waning worker confidence, which may lead to a decline in quits.

ZipRecruiter’s job seeker confidence index dropped 4.5 points in August to an all-time low of 97.8, Pollak said, with a greater number of applicants looking for job security over higher wages.

Since the pandemic, job seekers have been looking for higher pay, less stress, and greater flexibility. In August however, job security rose to the second-place spot in their priority ranking,” Pollak explained.

“One in four employed job seekers say they feel less secure about their current job than they did six months ago. Rising risk of a recession, paired with a wave of recent tech layoffs, has made employees more concerned about the precarity of their jobs.”