Workforce problems in U.S. hospitals are troublesome enough for the American College of Healthcare Executives to devote a new category to them in its annual survey on hospital CEOs’ concerns. In the latest survey, executives identified “workforce challenges” as the No. 1 concern for the second year in a row.
Financial challenges, which consistently held the top spot for 16 years in a row until 2021, were listed the second-most pressing concern in the American College of Healthcare Executives’ annual survey.
Although workforce challenges were not seen as the most pressing concern for 16 years, they rocketed to the top quickly and rather universally for healthcare organizations in the past two years. Most CEOs (90 percent) ranked shortages of registered nurses as the most pressing within the category of workforce challenges, followed by shortages of technicians (83 percent) and burnout among non-physician staff (80 percent).
Here are the most concerning issues hospital CEOs ranked in 2022, along with the score of how pressing CEOs find each issue.
1. Workforce challenges (includes personnel shortages and staff burnout, among other issues) — 1.8
2. Financial challenges — 2.8
3. Behavioral health and addiction issues — 5.2
4. Patient safety and quality — 5.9
5. Governmental mandates — 5.9
6. Access to care — 6.0
7. Patient satisfaction — 6.6
8. Physician-hospital relations — 7.6
9. Technology — 7.7
10. Population health management — 8.6
11. Reorganization (mergers and acquisitions, partnerships and restructuring) — 8.7
Within financial challenges, most CEOs (89 percent) ranked increasing costs for staff and supplies as the most pressing, followed by operating costs (66 percent) and Medicaid reimbursement (63 percent). CEOs are less concerned about price transparency and moving away from fee-for-service.
Seventy-eight percent of CEOs ranked lack of appropriate facilities/programs as most pressing within the category of behavioral health and addiction issues. That was followed by lack of funding for addressing behavioral health and addiction issues (77 percent).
The results are based on a survey administered to CEOs of community hospitals (non-federal, short-term, non-specialty hospitals). ACHE asked respondents to rank 11 issues affecting their hospitals in order of how pressing they are. Results are based on responses from 281 executives.
Financial analysts have said that 2022 may have been the worst year for hospital finances in decades. This year looks like it will be yet another year of financial underperformance, with rural providers in especially dire circumstances.
What’s driving this bleak financial reality? It’s “primarily an expense story,” said Erik Swanson, a senior vice president at Kaufman Hall‘s data analytics practice.
“Growth in expenses has vastly outpaced growth in revenues — since pre-pandemic levels since last year, and even the year prior — such that margins are ultimately being pushed downward. And hospitals’ median operating margin is still below zero on a cumulative basis,” he declared, referring to 2021 and 2020.
Here’s some context about how dismal this situation is: Even in 2020, a year in which hospitals saw extraordinary losses during the first few months of the pandemic, they still reported operating margins of 2%.
What’s even more disconcerting is that hospitals are underperforming financially pretty much across the board, Swanson said.
Rural hospitals are in even worse shape, but more on that below.
Other hospitals have been forced to shutter service lines to offset these financial losses. Some are also turning to integration and consolidation.
For example, Hermann Area District Hospital in Missouri said last month that it is seeking a “deeper affiliation” with Mercy Health or another provider. This announcement came after the hospital eliminated its home health agency as a cost-cutting measure. In December, the hospital projected a loss of $2 million for 2022.
The merger was finalized one day after North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein expressed concern about how the deal could impact rural communities. He said that while he didn’t have a legal basis within his office’s limited statutory authority to block the deal, he was worried that it could further restrict access to healthcare in rural and underserved communities.
Stein brings up an extremely valid concern. Rural hospitals’ dismal financial circumstances are becoming more and more worrisome — in fact, about 30% of all rural hospitals are at risk of closing in the near future, according to a recent report from the Center for Healthcare Quality and Payment Reform (CHQPR).
A crucial reason for this is that it is more expensive to deliver healthcare in rural areas — usually because of smaller patient volumes and higher costs for attracting staff. Another factor is that payments rural hospitals receive from commercial health plans isn’t enough to cover the cost of delivering care to patients in rural areas, said Harold Miller, CEO of CHQPR.
“Many people assume that private commercial insurance plans pay more than Medicare and Medicaid. But for small rural hospitals, the exact opposite is true,” he said. “In many cases, Medicare is their best payer. And private health plans actually pay them well below their costs — well below what they pay their larger hospitals. One of the biggest drivers of rural hospital losses is the payments they receive from private health plans.”
In Miller’s view, rural hospitals perform two main functions: taking care of sick people in the hospital and being there for people in case they need to go to the hospital.
To fulfill the latter job, rural hospitals must operate 24/7 emergency rooms. These hospitals get paid when there’s an emergency, but not when there isn’t — even though the hospital is incurring costs by operating and staffing these units.
“Rural hospitals have a physician on duty 24/7 to be available for emergencies. But they don’t get paid for that by most payers. Medicare does pay them for that, but other payers don’t. If the hospital is doing two different things, we should be paying them for both of those things. Hospitals should be paid for what I refer to as ‘standby capacity,’” Miller said.
He bolstered his argument by pointing to these analogies: Do we only pay firefighters when there’s a fire? Do we only pay police officers when there’s a crime?
It’s also important to remember that rural hospitals are in the midst of transitioning to a post-pandemic environment, now without the pandemic-era financial assistance they received from the government, said Brock Slabach, chief operations officer at the National Rural Health Association.
“Rural providers are looking to move into the future without the benefit of those extra payments. And they’re in an environment of really high inflation. It’s over 8%, and for some goods and services in the healthcare sector, that’s going to be over 20% in terms of increased prices. Wages and salaries have also gone up significantly. But patient volumes have maintained below average or average. That all presents a huge challenge,” Slabach said.
Many rural hospitals can’t escape their fate. From 2010 to 2021, there were 136 rural hospital closures. There were only two closures in 2021, and Slabach said 2022 produced a similarly low number. But these low totals are due to government relief, he explained. Slabach said he’s expecting an increase in rural hospital closures in 2023.
When a rural hospital closes, it means community members have to travel far distances for emergency or inpatient care. Miller pointed out another problem: in many rural communities, the hospital is the only place people can go to get laboratory or imaging work done. The hospital might also be the only source of primary care for the community. Shuttering these hospitals would be a massive blow to rural Americans’ healthcare access.
In the face of these potentially devastating blows to patient access, financial analysts’ outlook is bleak.
Higher inflation and costly labor expenses will continue to have negative effects on hospitals — both rural and urban — in 2023, according to an analysis from Moody’s. Expenses will also continue to increase due to supply chain bottlenecks, the need for more robust cybersecurity investments and longer hospital stays due to higher levels of patient acuity.
All of this doom and gloom begs the question — are any hospitals doing well financially?
These three systems all had positive operating margins for the majority of the pandemic, including most recently in the third quarter of 2022.
Large public health systems have shareholders to report to and stock prices to worry about. Does this mean they’re more likely to deny care to patients who can’t afford it while other hospitals pick up the slack?
Slabach said it’s tough to say.
“Obviously, hospitals try to mitigate their exposure to risk when it comes to taking care of patients. Most hospitals do a really good job of providing services and care to people who don’t have insurance or don’t have the means to pay. But that gets stressed in this current financial environment. So indeed, there may be instances where what you suggested might happen, but it’s not because they want to deny services or deny care. It’s because they have a bigger picture they have to maintain,” Slabach said.
And the big picture involving dollar signs for hospitals looks pretty bleak in 2023.
As everyone in our industry knows, sluggish volumes amid persistently rising costs, especially for labor, have sent health system margins into a downward spiral across 2022. Using the latest data from consultancy Kaufman Hall, the graphic above shows that by the end of this year, employed labor expenses will have increased more than all non-labor costs combined.
While contract labor usage, namely travel nursing, is declining, the constant battle for nursing talent means travel nurses are still a significant expense at many hospitals. Through the first six months of this year, over half of hospitals reported a negative operating margin, and the median hospital operating margin has dropped over 100 percent from 2019.
Larger health systems are not faring better: all five of the large, multi-regional, not-for-profit systems we’ve highlighted below saw their operating margins tumble this year, with drops ranging from three points (Kaiser Permanente) to nearly seven points (CommonSpirit Health and Providence).
While these unfavorable cost trends have been building throughout COVID, health systems now have neither federal relief nor returns from a thriving stock market to help stabilize their deteriorating financial outlooks.
Health system boards will tolerate negative margins in the short-term (especially given that many have months’ worth of days cash on hand), but if this situation persists into 2023, pressure for service cuts, layoffs, and restructuring will mount quickly.
Envision will see weak liquidity over the following 12 to 18 months, and its $1.4B cash reserve will likely run dry by the end of next year.
Physician staffing company Envision Healthcare is struggling financially, and these struggles are reflected in a Moody’s Investors Service credit rating downgrade, which took into account ongoing labor pressures and a decline in volumes linked to the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to Moody’s, Envision will see weak liquidity over the following 12 to 18 months, and its $1.4 billion cash reserve will likely run dry by the end of next year. Moody’s said bankruptcy or restructuring is likely in the cards, and its Corporate Family Rating (CFR) has been downgraded from C to Caa3.
The rating action follows a series of transactions including restructuring of Envision’s senior secured credit facilities, and issuing a new revolving credit facility in July 2022 and other debt in April 2022 at its subsidiary, AmSurg. Moody’s deemed Envision’s transactions to be a distressed exchange, as the loans were exchanged at a price below par. That’s a default under Moody’s definition.
Envision’s capital structure is unsustainable, the rating agency said. Recovery rates for much of the company’s debt will be low. Moody’s expects operating performance will continue to deteriorate due to ongoing labor pressures within the industry, as well as rising interest rates that will cause interest expense to nearly double.
The refinancing has not materially reduced debt, and while the maturities have been extended, Envision remains at risk of being unable to service its debt.
WHAT’S THE IMPACT
There are some factors in play that mitigate some of the risks. Envision has considerable scale and market position as one of the largest physician staffing outsourcers in the country, said Moody’s. The company has strong product diversification within its physician staffing and ambulatory surgery center segments.
However, continuing business pressures and increased interest expense will cause Envision’s free cash flow to be significantly negative in 2022 and beyond.
When assigning the new ratings, Moody’s considered the expected loss on the Envision debt, which the Rating Agency expects will be significant. Moody’s noted that to the extent that there is asset recovery on the Envision business, the share of proceeds to the term loans will be applied to the Envision senior secured first out term loan before the other debt. But it’s expected that there will be material losses.
The outlook is stable for both Envision and the AmSurg subsidiary. Moody’s expects the company to remain distressed and there is a heightened risk of default given the weak liquidity and risks surrounding the ongoing sustainability of the business.
THE LARGER TREND
Envision operates an extensive emergency department, hospital, anesthesiology, radiology and neonatology physician outsourcing segment. The company also operates more than 250 ambulatory surgery centers in 34 states, and is owned by private equity firm KKR. Revenues for the period ending June 30 were about $7 billion.
Although it’s unlikely in the near term, a substantial improvement in Envision’s liquidity position – including refinancing of the existing debt – would be needed to support an upgrade. Envision would also need an improvement in its operating performance, Moody’s said.
Earlier this month, Envision filed a lawsuit against UnitedHealthcare over the insurer’s denied claims, sparking a countersuit from UHC, which claimed Envision fraudulently upcoded claims for services provided to UHC members.
UHC removed Envision from its network last year, claiming the firm’s costs did not reflect fair market rates. According to Envision’s lawsuit, UHC denied about 18% of submitted commercial claims – a number that swelled to 48% of all claims after Envision’s removal from UHC networks, the firm said. And for the highest-acuity claims, Envision is accusing UHC of denying 60% of those claims.
Meanwhile, in June, physicians at Corona Regional Medical Center and Temecula Valley Hospital in California threatened to leave the hospitals if for-profit owner Universal Health Services changes the staffing management firm to Envision, according to an emergency room doctor who heads the hospitals’ current staffing firm, Emergent Medical Associates (EMA). Physicians objected to Envision citing concerns of lower pay and staffing levels leading to lower quality of care.
Months of inching performance gains were upended in July as the nation’s hospitals logged “some of the worst margins since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Kaufman Hall wrote in its latest industry report.
Decreasing outpatient revenues paired with pricier inpatient stays were chief among the culprits and outpaced minor improvements in expenses, the group wrote in its monthly sector update for July.
What’s more, seven straight months of negative margins “reversed any gains hospitals saw this year” and has the advisory group forecasting a brutal year for the industry.
“July was a disappointing month for hospitals and put 2022 on pace to be the worst financial year hospitals have experienced in a long time,” Erik Swanson, senior vice president of data and analytics with Kaufman Hall, said in a statement. “Over the past few years, hospitals and health systems have been able to offset some financial hardship with federal support, but those funding sources have dried up, and hospitals’ bottom lines remain in the red.”
Kaufman Hall placed its median year-to-date operating margin index at -0.98% through July, compared to the -0.09% from January to June the group had reported during last month’s report. Hospitals’ median percent change in operating margin from June to July was -63.9%, according to the report, and -73.6% from July 2021.
The month’s volume trends hinted at the larger shift toward scheduling procedures for ambulatory settings, Kaufman Hall wrote. For instance, operating room minutes declined 10.3% from June to July and 7.7% year over year, according to the report.
Patients who did come into the hospital tended to be sicker, the firm continued. Average length of stay increased 2% from last month and 3.4% year over year. Patient days increased 2.8% from the previous month but were down 2.6% from the prior year, while adjusted discharges dipped 2.8% from June and 4.2% from July 2021.
These trends came together as a brake check on 2022’s to-date revenue gains. Gross operating revenue fell 3.6% from June but remains up 5.5% year to date. Outpatient revenue was down 4.8% from June and maintains a 7.1% year-to-date increase. Inpatient revenue declined 0.7% from June but is still up 3.6% year to date.
The silver lining in Kaufman Hall’s report were total expenses that, although up 7.6% from July 2021, saw a modest 0.4% decline since June. Those savings came squarely among supply and drug expenses as total labor costs and labor expense per adjusted discharge still grew 0.8% and 3.5%, respectively, since June. Increases in full-time employees per adjusted occupied bed “possibly” suggest increased hiring, the group wrote in the report.
Kaufman Hall acknowledged the “urgency of day-to-day pressures” driving the month’s sudden performance dips but urged hospital leaders to prioritize long-term operational improvements as they work to keep the organization afloat.
“2022 has been, and will likely continue to be, a challenging year for hospitals and health systems, but it would not be prudent to focus on short-term solutions at the expense of long-term planning,” Swanson said. “Hospitals and health systems must think strategically and make investments to strengthen performance toward long-term institutional goals despite the day-to-day financial challenges they experience.”
Kaufman Hall’s monthly reports are based on a sample of more than 900 nationally representative hospitals.
The group isn’t alone in its doom-and-gloom warnings for providers. Fitch Ratings recently wrote that high expenses, jilted volume gains and other challenges are unlikely to resolve before the end of the year. As such, the agency downgraded its outlook for the nonprofit hospital industry from “neutral” to “deteriorating.”
“To say that 2022 has challenged healthcare providers is an understatement,” Erik Swanson, a senior vice president of data and analytics with Kaufman Hall, said in an email report. “It’s unlikely that hospitals and health systems can undo the damage caused by the COVID-19 waves of earlier this year, especially with material and labor costs at record highs this summer.”
The median Kaufman Hall year-to-date operating margin index for hospitals was -0.09% through June, for the sixth month of cumulative negative actual operating margins. However, the median change in operating margin in June was up 30.8% compared to May, but down 49.3% from June 2021.
Hospital revenues for June continued to trend upward, even as volumes evened out, according to the Kauffman Hall data. Organizations saw a 2.1% drop in patient length of stay. Both patient days and emergency department visits each dropped by 2.6% in June when compared to May. Hospital’s gross operating revenue was up 1.2% in June from May.
Expenses have been dragging down hospital margins for months, however, June saw a slight month-over-month improvement as total hospital expenses dropped 1.3%, despite this, year-over-year expenses are still up 7.5% from June 2021. Physician practices saw a drop in provider compensation, according to the Kaufman Hall data, however, this wasn’t enough to offset expenses. The competitive labor market for healthcare support staff resulted in a new high for total direct expense per provider FTE in Q2 2022 of $619,682—up 7% from the second quarter of 2021 and 12% from the second quarter of 2020.
“Given the trends in the data, physician practices need to focus on efficiency in the second half of 2022,” Matthew Bates, managing director and Physician Enterprise service line lead with Kaufman Hall, said in the email report. “Amid historically high expenses, shifting some services away from physicians to advanced practice providers like nurse practitioners or physician assistants could help rein in the costs of treating an increased patient load while taking some of the weight off the shoulders of physicians.”
Not-for-profit hospitals and healthcare systems continue to face significant operating challenges as they attempt to keep revenues on pace with escalating operating expenses fueled by inflation, according to a June 27 report from S&P.
Highlights from the report:
The first quarter of 2022 marked the toughest performance quarter on record for U.S. not-for-profit hospitals and health systems, highlighted by widespread inflationary pressures across the sector.
High labor expenses are likely to cause sustained operating hurdles, and demands on cash flow combined with weaker investment market returns could reduce financial flexibility through the remainder of 2022 and into 2023.
S&P notes that higher interest costs are likely to make borrowing options more expensive. Furthermore, the re-introduction of sequestration and the likely end of the public health emergency later this year will also have to be absorbed into cash flow.
The regulatory environment is becoming tougher and eliminating mergers and acquisitions as an option for many providers. Given recent denials by the Federal Trade Commission and other regulatory agencies, this option may be increasingly difficult to deploy. If these denials affect organizations that are already struggling operationally, options could become increasingly limited for certain providers.
Welcome to the second installment of Pulse on Healthcare. This month’s issue takes a look at the issues causing financial distress for healthcare organizations, and how CFOs can take action to relieve it.
According to the 2022 BDO Healthcare CFO Outlook Survey, 63% of healthcare organizations are thriving, but 34% are just surviving. And while healthcare CFOs have an optimistic outlook—82% expect to be thriving in one year—they’ll need to make changes this year if they’re going to reach their revenue goals. To prevent and solve for financial distress, CFOs need to review and address the underlying causes. Otherwise, they might find themselves falling short of expectations in the year ahead.
Here are six ways for CFOs to address financial distress:
1. Staffing shortages: 40% of healthcare CFOs say retaining key talent will be a top workforce challenge in 2022.
How can you avoid a labor shortage? Think about increasing wages for your frontline staff, especially your nurses. You could also reconsider the benefits you’re offering and ask yourself what offerings would be attractive for your frontline staff. For example, whether you offer free childcare could mean the difference between your staff staying and walking out for another employment opportunity. Additionally, consider enhancing or simplifying processes through technology to relieve some strain from day-to-day tasks.
2. Budget forecasting: Almost half (45%) of healthcare organizations will undergo a strategic cost reduction exercise in 2022 to meet their profitability goals.
How else can you cut costs? One option is to adopt a zero-based approach to budgeting this year. This allows you to build your budget from the ground up and find new areas to adjust costs to free up resources. Consider some non-traditional cost reduction areas, like telecommunication or select janitorial expenses, which are overlooked year after year. Cost savings in these areas can be substantial and quick to implement.
3. Bond covenant violations: 42% of healthcare CFOs have defaulted on their bond or loan covenants in the past 12 months. Interestingly, 25% say they have not defaulted but are concerned they will default in the next year.
How can you avoid violations? The first step to take is to meet with your financial advisors, especially if you are worried you’re going to default on your bond or loan covenants. You want to get their counsel before you default so you can prepare your organization and mitigate the damage. Ideally, they can help you avoid a default altogether.
4. Supply chain strains: 84% of healthcare CFOs say supply chain disruption is a risk in 2022.
How can you mitigate these risks? Supply chain shortages are a ubiquitous problem across industries right now, but not all of the issues are within your control. Focus on what is, including assessing your supply chain costs and seeing where you can find the same or similar products for lower prices. Identifying alternative suppliers may end up saving you a lot of frustration, especially if your regular suppliers run into disruptions.
5. Increased cost of resources: 39% of healthcare CFOs are concerned about rising material costs and expect it will pose a significant threat to their supply chain.
How can you alleviate these concerns? Price increases for the resources you purchase — including medical supplies, drugs, technology and more — could deplete your financial reserves and strain your liquidity, exacerbating your financial difficulties. You may be able to switch from physician-preferred products to other, most cost-effective products for the time being. Switching medical suppliers may even save you money in the long run. Involving clinical leadership in the process can keep physicians informed of the choices you are making and the motivation behind them.
6. Patient volume: 39% of healthcare CFOs are making investments to improve the patient experience.
How can you satisfy your patient stakeholders? As hospitals and physician practices get closer to the new normal of care, patients are returning to procedures and check-ins they put off at the height of the pandemic. Patients want a comfortable experience that will keep them coming back, including a safe and clean atmosphere at in-person offices.
They also want access to frictionless telehealth and patient portals for those who don’t want to or can’t travel to receive care. Revisit your “Digital Front Door Strategy” and consider ways to improve and streamline it. These investments can also go toward improving health equity strategies to ensure everyone across communities is receiving the same level of care.
A recent conversation with a health system CFO made us realize that a long-standing nugget of received healthcare wisdom might no longer be true. For as long as we can remember, economic observers have said that healthcare is “recession-proof”—one of those sectors of the economy that suffers least during a downturn. The idea was that people still get sick, and still need care, no matter how bad the economy gets. But this CFO shared that her system was beginning to see a slowdown in demand for non-emergent surgeries, and more sluggish outpatient volume generally.
Her hypothesis: rising inflation is putting increased pressure on household budgets, and is beginning to force consumers into tougher tradeoffs between paying for daily necessities and seeking care for health concerns. This is having a more pronounced effect than during past recessions, because we’ve shifted so much financial risk onto individuals via high deductibles and cost-sharing over the past decade.
There’s a double whammy for providers: because the current inflation problems are happening in the first half of year, most consumers are nowhere near hitting their deductibles, leading this CFO to forecast softer volumes for at least the next several months, until the usual “post-deductible spending spree” kicks in.
Combined with the tight labor market, which has increased operating costs between 15 and 20 percent, this inflation-driven drop in demand may have hospitals and health systems experiencing their own dose of recession—contrary to the old chestnut.