S&P upgrades view on nonprofit health sector as COVID-19 cases drop

Dive Brief:

  • S&P Global Ratings on Wednesday upgraded its view on the nonprofit healthcare sector to stable. It had been at negative since March 2020, a view that was affirmed in January.
  • Analysts said the change results from coronavirus vaccination rates and decreasing COVID-19 cases as well as a drop in the unemployment rate that should reduce payer mix shakeup. They also pointed to generally healthy balance sheets across the sector.
  • Headwinds remain, most notably labor expenses as burnout among staff was heavily exacerbated by the pandemic. Increased salaries and benefit expenses will dampen margins going forward, according to the report.

Dive Insight:

The change is another sign for providers that their financial situation is on a rather swift recovery from the upheaval caused by the pandemic. Although some facilities, especially those that are smaller and in rural areas, are certainly still struggling, that was the case before COVID-19 as well.

Most nonprofit health systems reported first-quarter results that showed improved volumes and investment returns. Some are still sporting more than a year’s worth of cash on hand.

Many of them took advantage of federal coronavirus relief funds, most of which can now be used more flexibly. A few, like Kaiser Permanente, did fine without the aid and ended up returning it.

The S&P analysts warned, however, that potential COVID-19 outbreaks this fall would be a setback. That remains a concern with some parts of the country lagging in vaccination rates and the increasing prevalence of more contagious COVID-19 variants.

Other risks include the end of enhanced federal reimbursement and the return of the Medicare sequester cuts when the public health emergency ends, which is expected to be after the end of this year.

But the analysts said agile management teams should be able to combat these challenges.

“[T]o the extent that the pandemic has enabled faster decision making and allowed management teams to pivot and identify new opportunities for expense base restructuring and revenue enhancement, we believe these risks are manageable within our view of the stable sector view,” according to the report.

How hospital operators fared financially in 2020

“For the most part providers were dependent on that CARES funding. I think they would have been in the red or break even without it,” Suzie Desai, a senior director at S&P Global Ratings, said.

The pandemic weighed heavily on the financial performance of not-for-profit hospitals in 2020, but some of the larger health systems remained profitable despite the upheaval — in large part thanks to substantial federal funding earmarked to prop up providers during the global health crisis. 

Industry observers have been closely watching to see how health systems ultimately fared in 2020. Now, with the fiscal-year ended and accounted for, analysts say the $175 billion in federal funds was crucial for providers’ bottom lines.

Without the stimulus funding, it is very likely we would have seen more issuers [hospitals/health] systems experience either lower profitable margins, or outright losses from operations,” Kevin Holloran, senior director of U.S. public finance for Fitch Ratings, said.  

Still, the pandemic put a squeeze on nonprofit hospital margins last year, according to a recent Moody’s report that showed the median operating margin was 0.5% in 2020 compared to 2.4% in 2019.

The first half of the year hit providers especially hard as volumes fell drastically, seemingly overnight. Revenue plummeted alongside the volume declines as the nation paused lucrative elective procedures to preserve medical resources.

One estimate showed hospitals lost more than $20 billion as they halted surgeries in the early months of the outbreak in the U.S. 

But as the year wore on, the outlook improved as some volumes returned closer to pre-pandemic levels. At the same time, health systems worked to cut expenses to mitigate the financial strain.

Still, some health systems did post operational losses even with the federal funds meant to help them. Moody’s found that 42% of 130 hospitals surveyed posted an operating loss, an increase from 23% the year prior. Yet, the 2019 survey included more hospitals, a total of 282.

Sutter Health, the Northern California giant, reported an operating loss for 2020 and said it was launching a “sweeping review” of its finances as the pandemic exacerbated existing challenges for the provider. Washington-based Providence also reported an operating loss for 2020. However, both Sutter and Providence were able to post positive net income thanks in large part to investment gains.    

Investment income can aid nonprofit operators even when core operations are stunted like during 2020. Though, initially, the pandemic put stress on the stock market as uncertainty around the virus and its duration ballooned. The stock market took a dive and it was reflected in some six-month financials as both operations and investments took a hit. 

“COVID and the stimulus is (hopefully) a once in a lifetime disruption of operations,” Holloran said, who noted analysts have been trying to assess whether the top line losses can be placed squarely on COVID-19. If that’s the case, analysts are typically more apt to keep the provider’s existing rating. 

“For the most part providers were dependent on that CARES funding. I think they would have been in the red or break even without it,” Suzie Desai, a senior director at S&P Global Ratings, said.

For example, Arizona’s Banner Health would have posted an operating loss without federal relief, according to their financial reports. Banner Health was able to work its way back to black after it reported a loss through the first six months of the year. The same was true for Midwest behemoth Advocate Aurora. 

The providers that were able to weather the storm of the pandemic tended to be integrated systems that had a health plan under their umbrella. 

Kaiser Permanente ended the year with both positive operating and net income and returned relief funds it received.   

“The integrated providers, yeah, were one group that just had a natural hedge with the insurance premiums still coming in,” Desai said.  

Still, the hospital lobby is hoping to secure more funding for its members as the threat of the virus is still present even amid large scale efforts to vaccinate a majority of Americans to reach a blanket of protection from the novel coronavirus and its variants.

A New Front in America’s Pandemic: College Towns

The coronavirus is spiking around campuses from Texas to Iowa to North Carolina as students return.

Last month, facing a budget shortfall of at least $75 million because of the pandemic, the University of Iowa welcomed thousands of students back to its campus — and into the surrounding community.

Iowa City braced, cautious optimism mixing with rising panic. The university had taken precautions, and only about a quarter of classes would be delivered in person. But each fresh face in town could also carry the virus, and more than 26,000 area residents were university employees.

“Covid has a way of coming in,” said Bruce Teague, the city’s mayor, “even when you’re doing all the right things.”

Within days, students were complaining that they couldn’t get coronavirus tests or were bumping into people who were supposed to be in isolation. Undergraduates were jamming sidewalks and downtown bars, masks hanging below their chins, never mind the city’s mask mandate.

Now, Iowa City is a full-blown pandemic hot spot — one of about 100 college communities around the country where infections have spiked in recent weeks as students have returned for the fall semester. Though the rate of infection has bent downward in the Northeast, where the virus first peaked in the U.S., it continues to remain high across many states in the Midwest and South — and evidence suggests that students returning to big campuses are a major factor.

In a New York Times review of 203 counties in the country where students comprise at least 10 percent of the population, about half experienced their worst weeks of the pandemic since Aug. 1. In about half of those, figures showed the number of new infections is peaking right now.

Despite the surge in cases, there has been no uptick in deaths in college communities, data shows. This suggests that most of the infections are stemming from campuses, since young people who contract the virus are far less likely to die than older people. However, leaders fear that young people who are infected will contribute to a spread of the virus throughout the community.

The surge in infections reported by county health departments comes as many college administrations are also disclosing clusters on their campuses.

*Brazos County, Tex., home to Texas A&M University, added 742 new coronavirus cases during the last week of August, the county’s worst week so far, as the university reported hundreds of new cases.

*Pitt County, N.C., site of East Carolina University, saw its coronavirus cases rise above 800 in a single week at the end of August. The Times has identified at least 846 infections involving students, faculty and staff since mid-August.

*In South Dakota’s Clay and Brookings counties, ballooning infections in the past two weeks have reflected outbreaks at the state’s major universities. In McLean County, Ill., the virus has been spreading as more than 1,200 people have contracted the virus at Illinois State University.

*At Washington State University and the University of Idaho, about eight miles apart, combined coronavirus cases have risen since early July to more than 300 infections. In the surrounding communities — rural Whitman County, Wash., and Latah County, Idaho — cases per week have climbed from low single-digits in the first three months of the pandemic, to double-digits in July, to more than 300 cases in the last week of August.

The Times has collected infection data from both state and local health departments and individual colleges. Academic institutions generally report cases involving students, faculty and staff, while the countywide data includes infections for all residents of the county.

It’s unclear precisely how the figures overlap and how many infections in a community outside of campus are definitively tied to campus outbreaks. But epidemiologists have warned that, even with exceptional contact tracing, it would be difficult to completely contain the virus on a campus when students shop, eat and drink in town, and local residents work at the college.

The potential spread of the virus beyond campus greens has deeply affected the workplaces, schools, governments and other institutions of local communities. The result often is an exacerbation of traditional town-and-gown tensions as college towns have tried to balance economic dependence on universities with visceral public health fears.

In Story County, Iowa, a local outcry following a burst of new Iowa State University cases pressured the university on Wednesday to reverse plans to welcome 25,000 football fans for its Sept. 12 opener against the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. In Monroe County, Indiana, the health department quarantined 30 Indiana University fraternity and sorority houses, prompting the university to publicly recommend that members shut them down and move elsewhere.

In Johnson County, where the University of Iowa is located, cases have more than doubled since the start of August, to more than 4,000. Over the past two weeks, Iowa City’s metro area added the fourth-most cases per capita in the country. The university has recorded more than 1,400 cases for the semester.

With a population of roughly 75,000, Iowa City relies on the university as an economic engine. The University of Iowa is by far the community’s largest employer, and its approximately 30,000 students are a critical market. Hawkeye football alone brings $120 million a year into the community, said Nancy Bird, executive director of the Iowa City Downtown District.

When the pandemic first hit in March, the university sent students home and pivoted to remote instruction, like most of the country’s approximately 5,000 colleges and universities. That exodus, heightened by health restrictions, has been an existential challenge for many downtown businesses, Ms. Bird said.

Jim Rinella, who owns The Airliner bar and restaurant, said the 76-year-old landmark across the street from campus “had zero revenue the whole month of April.” May was almost as scant, he said, and in June, he shut down after a couple of employees became infected.

By the time he reopened after July 4, too few students were in town to come close to making up the losses. He and his wife, Sherry, had hoped the campus reopening in August might be a lifeline.

The Rinellas live in Detroit, where they have other businesses, and Mr. Rinella said he was out of town when crowds jammed downtown on the weekend before the Aug. 24 start of classes. He said he immediately called his manager to make sure they were following state and local health rules.

But the photos taken by the local press from outside his establishment and others were damning. In an open letter, the university president lashed out, saying he was “exceedingly disappointed” in the failure of local businesses to keep students masked and socially distanced. Days later, the governor cited high infection rates among young people as she closed bars and restricted restaurants in Johnson County and five other counties with high concentrations of students.

Now The Airliner — where a booth is named for the University of Iowa’s most famous dropout, Tom Brokaw, and a modeling scout is said to have discovered Ashton Kutcher — has to close at 10 p.m. as well as require customers to buy a meal and sit far apart if they want to drink there.

“I’m at a pain point,” Mr. Rinella said. “If my grandfather hadn’t started the place, I’d question whether I want to be in the restaurant business.” A recent lunch hour visit found one customer at the bar drinking a beer.

The rise in local case counts reverberated at the county’s community college, which decided to start its fall semester with continued online instruction. Iowa City’s K-12 schools followed suit, which also meant canceling extracurricular activities, including sports, until students come back to the classroom in person.

“This is one of our last chances for college coaches to see us play or to get recent films sent out to college coaches. For some of us, playing in college is a goal we have been working toward since we were 11 or 12,” Lauren Roman, a 17-year-old high school volleyball player, told the school board last month. She burst into tears as she explained that she has waited since March for college recruiters to see her play. “Some of us really do need that scholarship money.”

“This sucks,” the board vice-president Ruthina Malone, agreed at the same meeting, choking up as she described emails she had received from families of children whose education relies on in-person instruction. But, she told the board, “we do not operate in isolation.” Her husband, she said, is an art teacher who would like nothing more than to teach again in person, and she works at the university.

The pandemic has hurt colleges’ finances in multiple ways, adding pressure on many schools to bring students back to campus. It has caused enrollment declines as students have opted for gap years or chosen to stay closer to home, added substantial costs for safety measures, reduced revenue from student room and board and canceled money-generating athletic events.

Governments have not always stepped into the breach: In Iowa, the state cut $8 million from its higher education appropriation even after the Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s universities, requested an $18 million increase. Over the summer, the University of Iowa announced a salary freeze and other significant cuts. This was before the Big Ten Conference postponed fall competition, erasing more than $60 million from the university’s athletics program.

When the university announced its plans for reopening with a combination of in-person and virtual instruction, it did not mention its finances as a factor, though it froze tuition rather than reduce it, as some universities have done. It also mandated mask wearing inside buildings and said it would test students with symptoms or who had been exposed to the virus.

Still, its decision to hold in-person classes drew criticism from some faculty. “We’re scared for our health and yours,” one group of instructors wrote in an open letter to students in July.

And its decision not to test asymptomatic students unless they had been exposed unnerved some city officials. Dr. Dan Fick, the campus health officer, said the university wanted to avoid a false sense of security.

But Janice Weiner, who represented the City Council in meetings with the business community and campus, questioned the approach. “We have a robust and capable medical community, we have good public health officials, we have everything we need,” she said. “But then the university didn’t require everyone coming back to campus to be tested.”

Iowa City is a blue town in a state with a pro-Trump Republican governor, Kim Reynolds, who has clashed with the state’s cities over masks and Covid policies.

Though the governor in March restricted large gatherings, closed Iowa schools and banned indoor operations of many businesses, she began relaxing those orders in May and has argued that face-mask mandates couldn’t be legally enforced.

Several municipalities have nonetheless passed ordinances requiring face masks, including Johnson County and Iowa City — largely in preparation for the return of students. But because state health rules have become a patchwork, not all returning students come from places where mask wearing is required, said Ms. Weiner. And, she said, the inconsistency offers an excuse to those who don’t want to wear them.

Interviews with students suggested that concern had at least some justification.

“If people get sick, they get sick — it happens,” Mady Hanson, a 21-year-old exercise science major, said last week on campus. She added that she and her family had survived Covid-19 and that she resented the city’s “ridiculous” restrictions.

“We’re all farmers and don’t really care about germs, so if we get it, we get it and we have the immunity to it.”

Both university and city officials said they believe the spike in cases has been a wake-up. “When we look back,” said Dr. Fick, “I think we’ll be proud that when students got the message, a majority stepped up.”

On the City Council, Ms. Weiner was less upbeat.

“There’s not a whole use in placing blame — we have to figure out a way forward,” she said. “But it’s going to take a herculean effort here for our numbers to start to go down.”

 

 

 

Executive Order On Housing Doesn’t Guarantee An Eviction Moratorium

https://www.forbes.com/sites/advisor/2020/08/10/trumps-executive-order-on-housing-doesnt-guarantee-an-eviction-moratorium/?tid=newsletter-dailydozen&utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=dailydozen&cdlcid=5d2c97df953109375e4d8b68#3a33cbc3359a

After negotiations for another stimulus package hit a dead end in Washington last week, President Donald Trump signed executive orders to extend relief in the meantime. One order, according to the president, would extend the federal eviction moratorium. 

The original moratorium, included in the CARES Act, prohibited landlords or housing authorities from filing eviction actions, charging nonpayment fees or penalties or giving notice to vacate. It expired on July 24 and only applied to federally subsidized or federally backed housing.

But housing advocates are pushing back, saying Trump’s executive order to extend an eviction moratorium actually does nothing at all—and keeps struggling Americans at risk of losing their housing. 

 

Details on the Order

Trump’s order doesn’t actually extend the federal eviction moratorium. Instead, it calls on the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to “consider” whether an additional eviction ban is needed.

“The Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Director of CDC shall consider whether any measures temporarily halting residential evictions of any tenants for failure to pay rent are reasonably necessary to prevent the further spread of COVID-19 from one State or possession into any other State or possession,” reads the order.

Additionally, the executive order does not provide any new money to help struggling renters during the pandemic. Instead, it says the secretary of Treasury and the secretary of Housing and Urban Development—Steven Mnuchin and Ben Carson, respectively—can identify “any and all available federal funds” to provide temporary rental assistance to renters and homeowners who are facing financial hardships caused by COVID-19.

During a White House press briefing on Monday, Kayleigh McEnany said the president did “did what he can within his executive capacity…to prevent resident evictions.”At the time of publishing, officials mentioned in Trump’s executive order have not released guidelines on extending the federal eviction moratorium.

 

Housing Advocates React to Trump’s Eviction Order

Housing advocates have not reacted positively to Trump’s executive order, suggesting officials extend an eviction moratorium.

“The executive order that he signed this weekend is really nothing more than an empty shell that creates chaos and confusion, and it offers nothing more than false hope to renters who are at risk of eviction because that executive order does literally nothing to prevent or stop evictions,” Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, said on Sunday during an MSNBC interview.

The House of Representatives included a more thorough plan to prevent evictions in its HEROES Act proposal. The proposal included $175 billion in rent and mortgage assistance and would replace the original federal eviction moratorium with a 12-month moratorium from all rental housing, not just federally subsidized ones. There also would be funds available to provide homeowners with assistance to cover mortgage and utility payments, property taxes or other resources to help keep Americans housed.

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) introduced the Coronavirus Response Additional Supplemental Appropriations Act as part of the GOP’s HEALS Act proposal. Shelby’s bill included significantly less money for housing assistance than the HEROES Act—$3.2 billion—and would be used for tenant-based rental assistance. Shelby’s proposal did not include any language about extending the CARES Act eviction moratorium. 

A recent report by a group of housing advocates finds there could be as much as 40 million renters at risk of eviction in the coming months. The U.S. unemployment rate currently sits at 10.2%. 

Individuals who are struggling to pay rent might have assistance options available. Some cities and states have implemented their own eviction moratoriums—you can learn more about them by visiting the Eviction Lab at Princeton University. There are also legal aid options, like Just Shelter, that will help tenants who are facing eviction for low-cost or free.

 

 

 

 

Cartoon – Unemployment Insurance vs. Raising the Minimum Wage

If you make less than $600 week, you’re underpaid. Period.

No photo description available.

Pandemic relief funds pivotal in keeping hospitals afloat during Q2

https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/hospitals/hospital-earnings-highlight-pivotal-role-federal-relief-funds-staying-afloat-during?mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiTURoaU9HTTRZMkV3TlRReSIsInQiOiJwcCtIb3VSd1ppXC9XT21XZCtoVUd4ekVqSytvK1wvNXgyQk9tMVwvYXcyNkFHXC9BRko2c1NQRHdXK1Z5UXVGbVpsTG5TYml5Z1FlTVJuZERqSEtEcFhrd0hpV1Y2Y0sxZFNBMXJDRkVnU1hmbHpQT0pXckwzRVZ4SUVWMGZsQlpzVkcifQ%3D%3D&mrkid=959610

Hospital system earnings for the second quarter of the year painted a stark picture of how federal relief funding helped offset massive losses in patient volume sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic.

But a full financial recovery may not happen until next year, some analysts warn.

Major hospital systems such as HCA Health and Universal Health Services posted profits in the second quarter despite plummeting volumes sparked by the cancellation of elective procedures and patients avoiding care due to fears of exposure to the virus. A key boost, however, came from a $175 billion fund passed by Congress and loans under the Medicare Accelerated and Advance Payments Program.

“These companies survived the June quarter and exited the quarter with substantial amounts of liquidity,” said Jonathan Kanarek, vice president and senior credit officer for Moody’s Investors Services. “We think [liquidity] is probably the most critical factor for them as far as weathering the storm.”

Congress has approved $175 billion to help prop up providers, of which the Department of Health and Human Services has distributed more than $100 billion.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services also gave out $100 billion in advance Medicare payments before suspending the program in late April. But the payments are loans that hospitals have to start repaying as soon as this month, as opposed to the congressional funding that does not have to get paid back.

Hospital system earnings illustrated how pivotal the relief funds were to combat massive holes in patient volumes.

Tenet Healthcare, which operates 65 hospitals across the country, reported Monday that it earned in the second quarter adjusted earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) of $732 million. But of that $732 million, more than 70% of it was aid from the relief fund.

Tenet wasn’t the only for-profit system where relief funding was a large part of their adjusted EBITDA.

Community Health Systems, which operates 95 facilities, reported an adjusted EBITDA of $454 million in the second quarter. But most of that figure was due to the $448 million that it got from the relief funds.

The provider funding made up a smaller portion of HCA Healthcare’s earnings. The system of 184 hospitals reported that the funding made up 31% of its adjusted EBITDA.

Hospital system volumes greatly declined in April as facilities were forced to cancel elective procedures and patients were scared of going to the hospital.

For example, Tenet’s hospital admissions in April were 33% of what it had in the same month in 2019. But volumes started to recover as shelter-in-place orders expired and some states got a better handle on the pandemic.

Tenet saw admissions grow in June to 90% of what they were in June 2019.

But it remains unclear what hospital finances will look like for the rest of the year. Major systems like Tenet and HCA have scrapped their 2020 financial outlook because of the pandemic.

“We don’t think the shape of this recovery or trajectory will be linear in nature,” Kanarek said. “We think there will be a lot of starts and stops.”

Those starts and stops will depend on the extent of the spread of the virus in an area.

Some states such as Florida, Texas and Arizona have seen massive spikes in the virus in recent weeks, which has put renewed strain on systems. Texas’ governor canceled elective procedures in eight counties back in June, some of which included major cities such as Houston and Dallas.

“I am a little skeptical that we are going to be back to normal before we ultimately have a vaccine,” Kanarek said.

It is also murky on whether hospitals will continue to get more financial help from Congress.

The House passed the HEROES Act more than a month ago that gives providers another $100 billion, but it has stalled in the Senate.

Congress and the White House have been in extensive talks for more than a week on a new relief package. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell released a package last week that had $25 billion in relief funding and lawsuit liability protections for providers.

But even without the additional funding, for-profit hospitals have made some moves to prepare for more shutdowns such as accessing capital markets to add additional lawyers of bank liquidity, Kanarek said.

“We can only hope 2021 will look like a more normal year for hospitals, perhaps more like 2019, but there is still a lot of uncertainty out there,” he said.

 

 

 

 

Industry Voices—6 ways the pandemic will remake health systems

https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/hospitals/industry-voices-6-ways-pandemic-will-remake-health-systems?mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiTURoaU9HTTRZMkV3TlRReSIsInQiOiJwcCtIb3VSd1ppXC9XT21XZCtoVUd4ekVqSytvK1wvNXgyQk9tMVwvYXcyNkFHXC9BRko2c1NQRHdXK1Z5UXVGbVpsTG5TYml5Z1FlTVJuZERqSEtEcFhrd0hpV1Y2Y0sxZFNBMXJDRkVnU1hmbHpQT0pXckwzRVZ4SUVWMGZsQlpzVkcifQ%3D%3D&mrkid=959610

Industry Voices—6 ways the pandemic will remake health systems ...

Provider executives already know America’s hospitals and health systems are seeing rapidly deteriorating finances as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. They’re just not yet sure of the extent of the damage.

By the end of June, COVID-19 will have delivered an estimated $200 billion blow to these institutions with the bulk of losses stemming from cancelled elective and nonelective surgeries, according to the American Hospital Association

A recent Healthcare Financial Management Association (HFMA)/Guidehouse COVID-19 survey suggests these patient volumes will be slow to return, with half of provider executive respondents anticipating it will take through the end of the year or longer to return to pre-COVID levels. Moreover, one-in-three provider executives expect to close the year with revenues at 15 percent or more below pre-pandemic levels. One-in-five of them believe those decreases will soar to 30 percent or beyond. 

Available cash is also in short supply. A Guidehouse analysis of 350 hospitals nationwide found that cash on hand is projected to drop by 50 days on average by the end of the year — a 26% plunge — assuming that hospitals must repay accelerated and/or advanced Medicare payments.

While the government is providing much needed aid, just 11% of the COVID survey respondents expect emergency funding to cover their COVID-related costs.

The figures illustrate how the virus has hurled American medicine into unparalleled volatility. No one knows how long patients will continue to avoid getting elective care, or how state restrictions and climbing unemployment will affect their decision making once they have the option.

All of which leaves one thing for certain: Healthcare’s delivery, operations, and competitive dynamics are poised to undergo a fundamental and likely sustained transformation. 

Here are six changes coming sooner rather than later.

 

1. Payer-provider complexity on the rise; patients will struggle.

The pandemic has been a painful reminder that margins are driven by elective services. While insurers show strong earnings — with some offering rebates due to lower reimbursements — the same cannot be said for patients. As businesses struggle, insured patients will labor under higher deductibles, leaving them reluctant to embrace elective procedures. Such reluctance will be further exacerbated by the resurgence of case prevalence, government responses, reopening rollbacks, and inconsistencies in how the newly uninsured receive coverage.

Furthermore, the upholding of the hospital price transparency ruling will add additional scrutiny and significance for how services are priced and where providers are able to make positive margins. The end result: The payer-provider relationship is about to get even more complicated. 

 

2. Best-in-class technology will be a necessity, not a luxury. 

COVID has been a boon for telehealth and digital health usage and investments. Two-thirds of survey respondents anticipate using telehealth five times more than they did pre-pandemic. Yet, only one-third believe their organizations are fully equipped to handle the hike.

If healthcare is to meet the shift from in-person appointments to video, it will require rapid investment in things like speech recognition software, patient information pop-up screens, increased automation, and infrastructure to smooth workflows.

Historically, digital technology was viewed as a disruption that increased costs but didn’t always make life easier for providers. Now, caregiver technologies are focused on just that.

The new necessities of the digital world will require investments that are patient-centered and improve access and ease of use, all the while giving providers the platform to better engage, manage, and deliver quality care.

After all, the competition at the door already holds a distinct technological advantage.

 

3. The tech giants are coming.

Some of America’s biggest companies are indicating they believe they can offer more convenient, more affordable care than traditional payers and providers. 

Begin with Amazon, which has launched clinics for its Seattle employees, created the PillPack online pharmacy, and is entering the insurance market with Haven Healthcare, a partnership that includes Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase. Walmart, which already operates pharmacies and retail clinics, is now opening Walmart Health Centers, and just recently announced it is getting into the Medicare Advantage business.

Meanwhile, Walgreens has announced it is partnering with VillageMD to provide primary care within its stores.

The intent of these organizations clear: Large employees see real business opportunities, which represents new competition to the traditional provider models.

It isn’t just the magnitude of these companies that poses a threat. They also have much more experience in providing integrated, digitally advanced services. 

 

4. Work locations changes mean construction cost reductions. 

If there’s one thing COVID has taught American industry – and healthcare in particular – it’s the importance of being nimble.

Many back-office corporate functions have moved to a virtual environment as a result of the pandemic, leaving executives wondering whether they need as much real estate. According to the survey, just one-in-five executives expect to return to the same onsite work arrangements they had before the pandemic. 

Not surprisingly, capital expenditures, including new and existing construction, leads the list of targets for cost reductions.

Such savings will be critical now that investment income can no longer be relied upon to sustain organizations — or even buy a little time. Though previous disruptions spawned only marginal change, the unprecedented nature of COVID will lead to some uncomfortable decisions, including the need for a quicker return on investments. 

 

5. Consolidation is coming.

Consolidation can be interpreted as a negative concept, particularly as healthcare is mostly delivered at a local level. But the pandemic has only magnified the differences between the “resilients” and the “non-resilients.” 

All will be focused on rebuilding patient volume, reducing expenses, and addressing new payment models within a tumultuous economy. Yet with near-term cash pressures and liquidity concerns varying by system, the winners and losers will quickly emerge. Those with at least a 6% to 8% operating margin to innovate with delivery and reimagine healthcare post-COVID will be the strongest. Those who face an eroding financial position and market share will struggle to stay independent..

 

6. Policy will get more thoughtful and data-driven.

The initial coronavirus outbreak and ensuing responses by both the private and public sectors created negative economic repercussions in an accelerated timeframe. A major component of that response was the mandated suspension of elective procedures.

While essential, the impact on states’ economies, people’s health, and the employment market have been severe. For example, many states are currently facing inverse financial pressures with the combination of reductions in tax revenue and the expansion of Medicaid due to increases in unemployment. What’s more, providers will be subject to the ongoing reckonings of outbreak volatility, underscoring the importance of agile policy that engages stakeholders at all levels.

As states have implemented reopening plans, public leaders agree that alternative responses must be developed. Policymakers are in search of more thoughtful, data-driven approaches, which will likely require coordination with health system leaders to develop flexible preparation plans that facilitate scalable responses. The coordination will be difficult, yet necessary to implement resource and operational responses that keeps healthcare open and functioning while managing various levels of COVID outbreaks, as well as future pandemics.

Healthcare has largely been insulated from previous economic disruptions, with capital spending more acutely affected than operations. But the COVID-19 pandemic will very likely be different. Through the pandemic, providers are facing a long-term decrease in commercial payment, coupled with a need to boost caregiver- and consumer-facing engagement, all during a significant economic downturn.

While situations may differ by market, it’s clear that the pre-pandemic status quo won’t work for most hospitals or health systems.

 

 

 

Pandemic reveals flaws of unemployment insurance programs

https://thehill.com/policy/finance/510368-pandemic-reveals-flaws-of-unemployment-insurance-programs

Pandemic reveals flaws of unemployment insurance programs

The lapse of enhanced jobless benefits amid a record-breaking crush of applications is exposing the flaws and shortcomings of how the U.S. provides unemployment insurance.

The economic toll of the coronavirus pandemic has torn holes in a federal safety net woven by individual systems for every state plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. More than 30.2 million Americans were on some form of unemployment insurance as of mid-July, with the Labor Department reporting a growing number of new applications in subsequent weeks.

Friday’s expiration of a $600 weekly add-on to state benefits plunged those vulnerable Americans into financial peril.

Congressional Democrats and Trump administration officials are now deadlocked over negotiations for a broader coronavirus relief package that’s expected to include some form of federal unemployment benefits.

But short-staffed unemployment offices across the U.S. grappling with outdated technology and unprecedented demand would face challenges from implementing a scaled-down or more complicated approach to the weekly payments.

Economists and labor market experts also warn that any solution that emerges from the negotiations would take weeks, if not months, to get up and running, risking a potentially catastrophic fiscal cliff for tens of millions of U.S. households.

“You ought to be able to deliver the program that’s on the books,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, former director of the Congressional Budget Office and a White House economist under former President George W. Bush.

“The states, collectively, seem to have not kept up the systems and we now have a big problem because of that,” he added.

The unprecedented size and speed of the pandemic-driven economic collapse has posed a brutal challenge for state unemployment agencies. After 10 years of steady economic expansion, the labor market quickly went from the lowest unemployment rate in 50 years to the highest level of joblessness since the Great Depression.

New claims for unemployment benefits were averaging roughly 200,000 nationwide a week before the pandemic — a manageable level for state agencies that had largely been neglected during the longest stretch of growth in modern U.S. history. But the coronavirus lockdowns spurred 3.3 million new claims between March 15 and March 22, a then-record that would be doubled the following week. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, the previous record was 695,000 from the first week of October 1982.

A little more than four months after the pandemic hit, state agencies are now processing roughly 2 million new claims a week for both unemployment insurance and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), a program designed to cover those who don’t qualify for typical benefits.

“On some level, you can’t really blame states for not being prepared for that level of onslaught,” said Michele Evermore, senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project.

“Usually, you see the recession starting up and state agencies say ‘You know, this looks like a recession here, so let’s start to staff up.’ This came on all at once, so we’ve had these neglected, antiquated systems and then there’s all these other stressors.”

The U.S. economy has been in recession since February, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Processing the massive surge of unemployment claims on shoddy technology would have been hard enough for states. Adding enhanced benefits and PUA claims to the mix strained state agencies even more.

“It took time to upgrade those systems. It took time to hire and train new staff who could deal with the volumes of the calls, and all in a pandemic, when face-to-face contact and training and being together in office were not possible,” said Julia Pollak, labor economist at job recruitment and posting company ZipRecuriter.

“So it’s easy to see in hindsight why it all fell apart.”

Enhanced unemployment benefits are among the biggest obstacles to reaching a deal on what’s likely to be the last coronavirus relief package before the election. While President Trump and Republicans are divided over how and whether to extend the federal boost, Democrats are largely united behind extending the benefits and reducing them gradually along a curve tied to the unemployment rate.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has called for including such a mechanism, known as an automatic stabilizers, in the coronavirus package being negotiated.

Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), vice chair of the Joint Economic Committee, introduced a separate bill designed to tackle economic downturns beyond the coronavirus recession. His measure would establish a six-tier system for reducing the federal benefit in line with a state’s unemployment rate.

The approach was endorsed by former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, who oversaw the central bank’s response to the Great Recession, and his successor, Janet Yellen.

“Every time you get close to a cliff and there’s a political battle and political price to be paid, probably by both sides, rather than just saying ‘This is what’s needed,’ let’s kick it in,” Beyer said in an interview.

“We talked to economists all across the country and virtually everyone we talked to said this makes the most sense.”

But Republican lawmakers and right-leaning economists have pushed back on efforts to codify mandatory spending and make decisions now about what will be needed to mitigate future crises.

“It’s hard for me to understand why it’s appropriate now to anticipate the economic conditions in the future and tie the hands of future elected representatives of Congress,” Holtz-Eakin said.

“It forked out $2.3 trillion in [the CARES Act] across the board in ways that got to small businesses, to households, to the employed, the unemployed. If you’re going to have one in 100-year events, that’s how you deal with them,” he added.

Republicans have instead proposed replacing the flat $600 weekly boost with a percentage of the worker’s pre-pandemic earnings in addition to what is prescribed by each state. While the wage-replacement is more tailored, Evermore warned that making the necessary calculations for each claimant could overwhelm an already teetering system.

“If you told states that they had to do a percentage replacement — oh, my gosh, that’s a recipe for crashing everything,” she said.

“It’s just not how the system is set up to work.”

 

 

 

 

The Mask Slackers of 1918

As the influenza pandemic swept across the United States in 1918 and 1919, masks took a role in political and cultural wars.

The masks were called muzzles, germ shields and dirt traps. They gave people a “pig-like snout.” Some people snipped holes in their masks to smoke cigars. Others fastened them to dogs in mockery. Bandits used them to rob banks.

More than a century ago, as the 1918 influenza pandemic raged in the United States, masks of gauze and cheesecloth became the facial front lines in the battle against the virus. But as they have now, the masks also stoked political division. Then, as now, medical authorities urged the wearing of masks to help slow the spread of disease. And then, as now, some people resisted.

In 1918 and 1919, as bars, saloons, restaurants, theaters and schools were closed, masks became a scapegoat, a symbol of government overreach, inspiring protests, petitions and defiant bare-face gatherings. All the while, thousands of Americans were dying in a deadly pandemic.

The first infections were identified in March, at an Army base in Kansas, where 100 soldiers were infected. Within a week, the number of flu cases grew fivefold, and soon the disease was taking hold across the country, prompting some cities to impose quarantines and mask orders to contain it.

By the fall of 1918, seven cities — San Francisco, Seattle, Oakland, Sacramento, Denver, Indianapolis and Pasadena, Calif. — had put in effect mandatory face mask laws, said Dr. Howard Markel, a historian of epidemics and the author of “Quarantine!

Organized resistance to mask wearing was not common, Dr. Markel said, but it was present. “There were flare-ups, there were scuffles and there were occasional groups, like the Anti-Mask League,” he said, “but that is the exception rather than the rule.”

At the forefront of the safety measures was San Francisco, where a man returning from a trip to Chicago apparently carried the virus home, according to archives about the pandemic at the University of Michigan.

By the end of October, there were more than 60,000 cases statewide, with 7,000 of them in San Francisco. It soon became known as the “masked city.”

“The Mask Ordinance,” signed by Mayor James Rolph on Oct. 22, made San Francisco the first American city to require face coverings, which had to be four layers thick.

Resisters complained about appearance, comfort and freedom, even after the flu killed an estimated 195,000 Americans in October alone.

Alma Whitaker, writing in The Los Angeles Times on Oct. 22, 1918, reviewed masks’ impact on society and celebrity, saying famous people shunned them because it was “so horrid” to go unrecognized.

“The big restaurants are the funniest sights, with all the waiters and diners masked, the latter just raising their screen to pop in a mouthful of food,” she wrote.

When Ms. Whitaker herself declined to wear one, she was “forcibly taken” to the Red Cross as a “slacker,” and ordered to make one and put it on.

The San Francisco Chronicle said the simplest type of mask was of folded gauze affixed with elastic or tape. The police went for gauze masks, which resembled an unflattering “nine ordinary slabs of ravioli arranged in a square.”

There was room for creativity. Some of the coverings were “fearsome looking machines” that lent a “pig-like aspect” to the wearer’s face.

The penalty for violators was $5 to $10, or 10 days’ imprisonment.

On Nov. 9, 1,000 people were arrested, The San Francisco Chronicle reported. City prisons swelled to standing room only; police shifts and court sessions were added to help manage.

“Where is your mask?” Judge Mathew Brady asked offenders at the Hall of Justice, where sessions dragged into night. Some gave fake names, said they just wanted to light a cigar or that they hated following laws.

Jail terms of 8 hours to 10 days were given out. Those who could not pay $5 were jailed for 48 hours.

On Oct. 28, a blacksmith named James Wisser stood on Powell and Market streets in front of a drugstore, urging a crowd to dispose of their masks, which he described as “bunk.”

A health inspector, Henry D. Miller, led him to the drugstore to buy a mask.

At the door, Mr. Wisser struck Mr. Miller with a sack of silver dollars and knocked him to the ground, The San Francisco Chronicle reported. While being “pummeled,” Mr. Miller, 62, fired four times with a revolver. Passers-by “scurried for cover,” The Associated Press said.

Mr. Wisser was injured, as were two bystanders. He was charged with disturbing the peace, resisting an officer and assault. The inspector was charged with assault with a deadly weapon.

That was the headline for a report published in The Los Angeles Times when city officials met in November to decide whether to require residents to wear “germ scarers” or “flu-scarers.”

Public feedback was invited. Some supported masks so theaters, churches and schools could operate. Opponents said masks were “mere dirt and dust traps and do more harm than good.”

“I have seen some persons wearing their masks for a while hanging about their necks, and then apply them to their faces, forgetting that they might have picked up germs while dangling about their clothes,” Dr. E.W. Fleming said in a Los Angeles Times report.

An ear, nose and throat specialist, Dr. John J. Kyle, said: “I saw a woman in a restaurant today with a mask on. She was in ordinary street clothes, and every now and then she raised her hand to her face and fussed with the mask.”

Suffragists fighting for the right to vote made a gesture that rejected covering their mouths at a time when their voices were crucial.

At the annual convention of the Illinois Equal Suffrage Association, in October 1918, they set chairs four feet apart, closed doors to the public and limited attendance to 100 delegates, the Chicago Daily Tribune reported.

But the women “showed their scorn” for masks, it said. It’s unclear why.

Allison K. Lange, an associate history professor at Wentworth Institute of Technology, said one reason could have been that they wanted to keep a highly visible profile.

“Suffragists wanted to make sure their leaders were familiar political figures,” Dr. Lange said.

San Francisco’s mask ordinance expired after four weeks at noon on Nov. 21. The city celebrated, and church bells tolled.

A “delinquent” bent on blowing his nose tore his mask off so quickly that it “nearly ruptured his ear,” The San Francisco Chronicle reported. He and others stomped on their masks in the street. As a police officer watched, it dawned on him that “his vigil over the masks was done.”

Waiters, barkeeps and others bared their faces. Drinks were on the house. Ice cream shops handed out treats. The sidewalks were strewn with gauze, the “relics of a torturous month,” The Chronicle said.

The spread had been halted. But a second wave was on the horizon.

By December, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors was again proposing a mask requirement, meeting with testy opposition.

Around the end of the year, a bomb was defused outside the office of San Francisco’s chief health officer, Dr. William C. Hassler. “Things were violent and aggressive, but it was because people were losing money,” said Brian Dolan, a medical historian at the University of California, San Francisco. “It wasn’t about a constitutional issue; it was a money issue.”

By the end of 1918, the death toll from influenza had reached at least 244,681, mostly in the last four months, according to government statistics.

In January, Pasadena’s city commission passed a mask ordinance. The police grudgingly enforced it, cracking down on cigar smokers and passengers in cars. Sixty people were arrested on the first day, The Los Angeles Times reported on Jan. 22, in an article titled “Pasadena Snorts Under Masks.”

“It is the most unpopular law ever placed on the Pasadena records,” W.S. McIntyre, the chief of police, told the paper. “We are cursed from all sides.”

Some mocked the rule by stretching gauze across car vents or dog snouts. Cigar vendors said they lost customers, though enterprising aficionados cut a hole in the cloth. (They were still arrested.) Barbers lost shaving business. Merchants complained traffic dropped as more people stayed home.

Petitions were circulated at cigar stands. Arrests rose, even of the powerful. Ernest May, the president of Security National Bank of Pasadena, and five “prominent” guests were rounded up at the Maryland Hotel one Sunday.

They had masks on, but not covering their faces.

As the contagion moved into its second year, so did the skepticism.

On Dec. 17, 1918, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors reinstituted the mask ordinance after deaths started to climb, a trend that spilled over into the new year with 1,800 flu cases and 101 deaths reported there in the first five days of January.

That board’s decision led to the creation of the Anti-Mask League, a sign that resistance to masks was resurfacing as cities tried to reimpose orders to wear them when infections returned.

The league was led by a woman, E.J. Harrington, a lawyer, social activist and political opponent of the mayor. About a half-dozen other women filled its top ranks. Eight men also joined, some of them representing unions, along with two members of the board of supervisors who had voted against masks.

“The masks turned into a political symbol,” Dr. Dolan said.

On Jan. 25, the league held its first organizational meeting, open to the public at the Dreamland Rink, where they united behind demands for the repeal of the mask ordinance and for the resignations of the mayor and health officials.

Their objections included lack of scientific evidence that masks worked and the idea that forcing people to wear the coverings was unconstitutional.

On Jan. 27, the league protested at a Board of Supervisors meeting, but the mayor held his ground. There were hisses and cries of “freedom and liberty,” Dr. Dolan wrote in his paper on the epidemic.

Repeal came a few days later on Feb. 1, when Mayor Rolph cited a downturn in infections.

But a third wave of flu rolled in late that year. The final death toll reached an estimated 675,000 nationwide, or 30 for every 1,000 people in San Francisco, making it one of the worst-hit cities in America.

Dr. Dolan said the story of the Anti-Mask League, which has drawn renewed interest now in 2020, demonstrates the disconnect between individual choice and universal compliance.

That sentiment echoes through the century from the voice of a San Francisco railway worker named Frank Cocciniglia.

Arrested on Kearny Street in January, Mr. Cocciniglia told the judge that he “was not disposed to do anything not in harmony with his feelings,” according to a Los Angeles Times report.

He was sentenced to five days in jail.

“That suits me,” Mr. Cocciniglia said as he left the stand. “I won’t have to wear a mask there.”