KPMG primes shrinking CFO, CPA pipeline

The shortage of accountants is one of the main concerns keeping KPMG’s Greg Engel up at night. The firm is teaming up with universities to expand the talent pool.

KPMG’s Greg Engel likens the accounting profession to the turtle in the proverbial race with the hare — a turtle that’s seeking to pull ahead even as it competes with flashier industry sectors for workers.

The shortage of accounting talent is one of the main concerns keeping Engel — vice chair of tax in the U.S. for the Big Four accounting firm — up at night as he assesses the new year’s challenges, even as KPMG has undertaken numerous initiatives to ease the talent crunch

At the same time, he sees a potential silver lining for his sector in the recent surge of layoffs in the formerly sizzling tech sector that has won over some college graduates who might have otherwise gone into accounting.

“A lot of people went to the technology sector because it was exciting. But now that Meta and Twitter and all these other companies are laying off people, kids going into college might go, ‘wait a minute, maybe KPMG sounds a little better than Twitter,’” Engel said in an interview. “Accounting is that boring, stable profession that doesn’t do as well in hugely expansive economies but does great when the economy’s on the downslide.”  

Making accounting’s case

Historically, the Big Four accounting and consulting firms have mounted robust programs designed to recruit and train accounting students right out of colleges and major universities. 

KPMG, along with PwC, Ernst & Young and Deloitte, hire thousands of graduates and students each year out of colleges, often training them through internships which lead to full-time jobs. Many of the certified public accountants go on to be controllers, tax directors and even CFOs. The entry level accounting salary range at such programs in the tax area can be roughly in the $70,000 to $80,000 range, depending on the market, according to some industry estimates. 

“The hallmark of the Big Four was to train people really, really well,” Engel said. The longer employees stay at a firm, the better their prospects after they leave, Engel said.

That means an employee who leaves after a couple years could probably join a company’s accounting department at a lower level, he said. But if the employee leaves after rising to the level of senior manager, he or she could join the same company as controller — and those who leave as a partner might join as a CFO, Engel said.  

CFO machine showing signs of wear  

But the machine generating CPAs and CFOs has shown signs of wear in recent years. For one thing, KPMG has not been immune to the Great Resignation. It was hit by the surge in turnover that weakened the middle ladder rungs of its workforce. “There’s a kind of battle in the middle,” Engel said. The company responded in part by hiring experienced accountants from companies like Apple and Home Depot, he said. 

At the same time, accounting has attracted fewer students in recent years. The total number of U.S. students completing a Bachelor’s degree in accounting fell about 8% in the 2019-2020 school year compared with the 2011-2012 period, shrinking to 52,481 graduates from 57,482, according to a 2021 report from the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.

Priming the pipeline

Firms and accounting organizations have been taking deliberative steps in recent years to boost their case with talent and solve the talent shortage. For instance, the AICPA and the Department of Labor announced in November that they had teamed up to cultivate candidates and expand the pool of professionals, CFO Dive reported

If students are not deterred by the accounting profession’s long hours and subdued reputation, they may feel reluctant to put in the credit hours required before taking the exam to become a Certified Public Accountant. That typically means a student will need more study beyond that of a four-year degree. 

In an effort to make the extra course work pay off, KPMG worked with a number of universities to develop a Master in Accounting and Data Analytics Program that gives students the data analysis skills that are increasingly important in the field.

Recently, an additional seven universities were added to the program and KPMG has pledged to provide more than $7 million in scholarships. The schools added to the program included some historically Black Colleges and Universities such as Howard University School of Business and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. Other universities that offer the program include Villanova University and The Ohio State University. 

Separately, KPMG has teamed up with Engel’s alma mater, the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa, to help strengthen the accounting program and opportunities for students attending Des Moines Area Community College.

The company will also aim to provide internships to the students who often attend school at night or part-time, which can make it difficult to obtain the credit hours needed to become a CPA. 

“We’re going to start adding people to the profession with two-year associates degrees,” Engel said, noting that similar programs are cropping up elsewhere. “We’ll give them a pathway to add the extra courses and programs they need.” 

5 trillion-dollar questions hanging over hospitals

Big questions tend to have no easy answers. Fortunately, few people would say they went into healthcare for its ease.

The following questions about hospitals’ culture, leadership, survival and opportunity come with a trillion-dollar price tag given the importance of hospitals and health systems in the $4.3 trillion U.S. healthcare industry. 

1. How will leaders insist on quality first in a world where it’s increasingly harder to keep trains on time? 

Hospitals and health systems have had no shortage of operational challenges since the COVID-19 pandemic began. These organizations at any given time have been or still are short professionals, personal protective equipment, beds, cribs, blood, helium, contrast dye, infant formula, IV tubing, amoxicillin and more than 100 other drugs. After years of working in these conditions, it is understandable why healthcare professionals may think with a scarcity mindset

This is something strong leaders recognize and will work to shake in 2023, given the known-knowns about the psychology of scarcity. When people feel they lack something, they lose cognitive abilities elsewhere and tend to overvalue immediate benefits at the expense of future ones. Should supply problems persist for two to three more years, hospitals and health systems may near a dangerous intersection where scarcity mindset becomes scarcity culture, hurting patient safety and experience, care quality and outcomes, and employee morale and well-being as a result. 

The year ahead will be a great test and an opportunity for leaders to unapologetically prioritize quality within every meeting, rounding session, budgetary decision, huddle and town hall, and then follow through with actions aligned with quality-first thinking and commentary. Working toward a long-term vision and upholding excellence in the quality of healthcare delivery can be difficult when short-term solutions are available. But leaders who prioritize quality throughout 2023 will shape and improve culture.

2. Who or what will bring medicine past the scope-of-practice fights and turf wars that have persisted for decades? 

It is naive to think these tensions will dissolve completely, but it would be encouraging if in 2023 the industry could begin moving past the all-too-familiar stalemates and fears of “scope creep,” in which physicians oppose expanded scope of practice for non-physician medical professionals. 

Many professions have political squabbles and sticking points that are less palpable to outsiders. Scope-of-practice discord may fall in that category — unless you are in medicine or close to people in the field, it can easily go undetected. But just as it is naive to think physicians and advanced practice providers will reach immediate harmony, so too is it naive to think that aware Americans who watch nightly news segments about healthcare’s labor crisis and face an average wait of 26 days for a medical appointment will have much sympathy for physicians’ staunch resistance to change. 

The U.S. could see an estimated shortage of between 37,800 and 124,000 physicians by 2034, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. Ideally, 2023 is the year in which stakeholders begin to move past the usual tactics, arguments and protectionist thinking and move toward pragmaticism about physician-led care teams that empower advanced practice providers to care for patients to the extent of the education and training they have. The leaders or organizations who move the needle on this stand to make a name for themselves and earn a chapter or two in the story of American healthcare. 

3. Which employers will win and which will lose in lowering the cost of healthcare? 

Employers have long been incentivized to do two things: keep their workers healthy and spend less money doing it. News of companies’ healthcare ventures can be seen as cutting edge, making it easy to forget the origins of integrated health systems like Oakland, Calif.-based Kaiser Permanente, which dates back to one young surgeon establishing a 12-bed hospital in the height of the Great Depression to treat sick and injured workers building the Colorado River Aqueduct. 

Many large companies have tried and failed, quite publicly, to improve healthcare outcomes while lowering costs. Will 2023 be the year in which at least one Fortune 500 company does not only announce intent to transform workforce healthcare, but instead point to proven results that could make for a scalable strategy? 

Walmart is doing interesting things. JPMorgan seems to have learned a good deal from the demise of Haven, with Morgan Health now making some important moves. And just as important are the large companies paying attention on the sidelines to learn from others’ mistakes. Health systems with high-performing care teams and little variation in care stand to gain a competitive advantage if they draw employers’ attention for the right reasons. 

4. Who or what will stabilize at-risk hospitals? 

More than 600 rural hospitals — nearly 30 percent of all rural hospitals in the country — are at risk of closing in the near future. Just as concerning is the growing number of inner-city hospitals at increased risk of closure. Both can leave millions in less-affluent communities with reduced access to nearby emergency and critical care facilities. Although hospital closures are not a new problem, 2022 further crystalized a problem no one is eager to confront. 

One way for at-risk hospitals to survive is via mergers and acquisitions, but the Federal Trade Commission is making buying a tougher hurdle to clear for health systems. The COVID-19 public health emergency began to seem like a makeshift hospital subsidy when it was extended after President Joe Biden declared the pandemic over, inviting questions about the need for permanent aid, reimbursement models and flexibilities from the government to hospitals. Recently, a group of lawmakers turned to an agency not usually seen as a watchdog for hospital solvency — HHS — to ask if anything was being done in response to hospital closures or to thwart them. 

Maintaining hospital access in rural and urban settings is a top priority, and the lack of interest and creativity to maintain it is strikingly stark. As a realistic expectation for 2023, it would be encouraging to at least have an injection of energy, innovation and mission-first thinking toward a problem that grows like a snowball, seemingly bigger, faster and more insurmountable year after year.

Look at what Mark Cuban was able to accomplish within one year to democratize prescription drug pricing. Remember how humble and small the origins of that effort were. Recall how he — albeit being a billionaire — has put profit secondary to social mission. There’s no one savior that will curb hospital closures in the U.S., but it would be a good thing if 2023 brought more leadership in problem-solving and matching a big problem with big energy and ideas. 

5. Which hospital and health system CEOs will successfully redefine the role? 

Many of the largest and most prominent health systems in the country saw CEO turnover over the past two years. With that, health systems lost decades of collective industry and institutional knowledge. Their tenure spanned across numerous milestones and headwinds, including input and compliance with the Affordable Care Act, the move from paper to digital records, and major mergers and labor strikes. The retiring CEOs had been top decision-makers as their organizations met the demands of COVID-19 and its consequences. They set the tone and had final say in how forcefully their institutions condemned racism and what actions they took to address health inequities. 

To assume the role of health system CEO now comes with a different job description than it did when outgoing leaders assumed their posts. Many Americans may carry on daily life with little awareness as to who is at the top of their local hospital or health system. The pandemic challenged that status quo, throwing hospital leaders into the limelight as many Americans sought leadership, expertise and local voices to make sense of what could easily feel unsensible. The public saw hospital CEOs’ faces, heard their voices and read their words more within the past two years than ever. 

In 2023, newly named CEOs and incoming leaders will assume greater responsibility in addition to a fragile workforce that may be more susceptible to any slight change in communication, transparency or security. They will need to avoid white-collar ivory towers, and earn reputations as leaders who show up for their people in real, meaningful ways. Healthcare leaders who distance themselves from their workforce will only let the realistic, genuine servant leaders outshine them. In 2023, watch for the latter, emulate them and help up-and-comers get as much exposure to them as possible. 

30 health systems with strong finances in 2022

Here are 30 health systems with strong operational metrics and solid financial positions in 2022, according to reports from Fitch Ratings and Moody’s Investors Service.

1. Advocate Aurora Health has an “AA” rating and a stable outlook with Fitch. The health system, dually headquartered in Milwaukee and Downers Grove, Ill., has a strong financial profile and a leading market position over a broad service area in Illinois and Wisconsin, Fitch said. The health system’s fundamental operating platform is strong, the credit rating agency said.

2. Atlantic Health System has an “Aa3” rating and stable outlook with Moody’s. The Morristown, N.J.-based health system has strong operating performance and liquidity metrics, Moody’s said. The credit rating agency expects Atlantic Health System to sustain strong performance to support capital spending. 

3. Banner Health has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The Phoenix-based health system’s core hospital delivery system and growth of its insurance division combine to make it a successful, highly integrated delivery system, Fitch said. The credit rating agency said it expects Banner to maintain operating EBITDA margins of about 8 percent on an annual basis, reflecting the growing revenues from the system’s insurance division and large employed physician base.

4. BayCare has an “AA” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The 14-hospital system based in Clearwater, Fla., has excellent liquidity and operating metrics, which are supported by its leading market position in a four-county area, Fitch said. The credit rating agency expects strong revenue growth and cost management to sustain BayCare’s operating performance. 

5. Bon Secours Mercy Health has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The Cincinnati-based health system has a broad geographic footprint as one of the five largest Catholic health systems in the U.S., a good payer mix and a leading or near-leading market share in eight of its 11 markets in the U.S., Fitch said.

6. Bryan Health has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The Lincoln, Neb.-based health system has a leading and growing market position, very strong cash flow and a strong financial position, Fitch said. The credit rating agency said Bryan Health has been resilient through the COVID-19 pandemic and is well-positioned to accommodate additional strategic investments. 

7. CaroMont Health has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The Gastonia, N.C.-based system has a leading market position in a growing services area and a track record of good cash flow, Fitch said.  

8. Christiana Care Health System has an “Aa2” rating and stable outlook with Moody’s. The Newark, Del.-based system has a unique position as the state’s largest teaching hospital and extensive clinical depth that affords strong regional and statewide market capture, and it is expected to return to near pre-pandemic level margins over the medium-term, Moody’s said.

9. Cone Health has an “AA” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The Greensboro, N.C.-based health system has a leading market share and a favorable payer mix, Fitch said. The health system’s broad operating platform and strategic capital investments should enable it to return to stronger operating results, the credit rating agency said.

10. Deaconess Health System has an “AA” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The Evansville, Ind.-based system has a leading market position in its primary service area and a favorable payer mix, Fitch said. The ratings agency said it expects Deaconess’ operating EBITDA margins to improve and stabilize around 10 percent by 2023, reflecting strong volumes and focus on operating efficiencies. 

11. El Camino Health has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. El Camino Health, which includes hospital campuses in Los Gatos, Calif., and Mountain View, Calif., has a solid market share in a competitive market and a stable payer mix, Fitch said. The credit rating agency said El Camino Health’s balance sheet provides moderate financial flexibility.

12. Gundersen Health System has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The La Crosse, Wis.-based health system has strong balance sheet metrics, a leading market position and an expanding operating platform in its service area, Fitch said. The credit rating agency expects the health system to return to strong operating performance as it emerges from disruption related to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

13. Hackensack Meridian Health has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The Edison, N.J.-based health system has shown consistent year-over-year increases in market share and has a solid liquidity position, Fitch said. 

14. Inova Health System has an “Aa2” rating and stable outlook with Moody’s. The Falls Church, Va.-based health system has a consistently strong operating cash flow margin and ample balance sheet resources, Moody’s said. Inova’s financial excellence will remain undergirded by its favorable regulatory and economic environment, the credit rating agency said. 

15. Intermountain Healthcare has an “Aa1” rating and stable outlook with Moody’s. The Salt Lake City-based health system has exceptional credit quality, which will continue to benefit from its leading market position in Utah, Moody’s said. The credit rating agency said the health system’s merger with Broomfield, Colo.-based SCL Health will also give Intermountain greater geographic reach.

16. Mass General Brigham has an “Aa3” rating and stable outlook with Moody’s. The Boston-based health system has an excellent clinical reputation, good financial performance and strong balance sheet metrics, Moody’s said. The credit rating agency said it expects Mass General Brigham to maintain a strong market position and stable financial performance. 

17. Mayo Clinic has an “Aa2” rating and stable outlook with Moody’s. The credit rating agency said Mayo Clinic’s strong market position and patient demand will drive favorable financial results. The Rochester, Minn.-based health system “will continue to leverage its excellent reputation and patient demand to continue generating favorable operating performance while maintaining strong balance sheet ratios,” Moody’s said. 

18. MemorialCare has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The Fountain Valley, Calif.-based health system has excellent leverage metrics and a strong financial profile, Fitch said. The credit rating agency said it expects the system’s leverage metrics to remain strong over the next several years. 

19. Methodist Health System has an “Aa3” rating and stable outlook with Moody’s. The Dallas-based system has strong operating performance, and investments in facilities have allowed it to continue to capture more market share in the fast-growing Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, area, Moody’s said. The credit rating agency said it expects Methodist Health System’s strong operating performance and favorable liquidity to continue.

20. OhioHealth has an “AA+” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The Columbus, Ohio-based system has an exceptionally strong credit profile, broad regional operating platform and leading market position in both its competitive two-county primary service area and broader 47-county total service area, Fitch said. 

21. Parkview Health has an “Aa3” rating and stable outlook with Moody’s. The Fort Wayne, Ind.-based system has a leading market position with expansive tertiary and quaternary clinical services in Northeastern Indiana and Northwestern Ohio, Moody’s said. 

22. Presbyterian Healthcare Services has an “Aa3” rating and stable outlook with Moody’s and an “AA” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The Albuquerque, N.M.-based system is the largest in the state, and it has strong revenue growth and a healthy balance sheet, Moody’s said. The credit rating agency said it expects the health system’s balance sheet and debt metrics to remain strong. 

23. Rady Children’s Hospital has an “AA” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The San Diego-based hospital has a very strong balance sheet position and operating performance, and it is also a leading provider of pediatric services in the growing city and tri-county service area, Fitch said. 

24. Rush Health has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The Chicago-based health system has a strong financial profile and a broad reach for high-acuity services as a leading academic medical center, Fitch said. The credit rating agency expects Rush’s services to remain profitable over time. 

25. Stanford (Calif.) Health Care has an “AA” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The health system has extensive clinical reach in a competitive market and its financial profile is improving, Fitch said. The health system’s EBITDA margins rebounded in fiscal year 2021 and are expected to remain strong going forward, the crediting rating agency said. 

26. ThedaCare has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The Neenah, Wis.-based system has a focused strategy, strong financial profile and robust market share, Fitch said. 

27. Trinity Health has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The Livonia, Mich.-based system’s large size and market presence in multiple states disperses risk and the long-term ratings incorporate the expectation that Trinity will return to sustained stronger operating EBITDA margins. 

28. UnityPoint Health has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The Des Moines, Iowa-based health system has strong leverage metrics and cash position, Fitch said. The credit rating agency expects the health system’s balance sheet and debt service coverage metrics to remain robust.

29. University of Chicago Medical Center has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The credit rating agency said it expects University of Chicago Medical Center’s capital-related ratios to remain strong, in part because of its broad reach of high-acuity services. 

30. Yale New Haven (Conn.) Health has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The health system’s turnaround efforts, brand recognition and market presence will help it return to strong operating results, Fitch said. 

2022 Was Hospitals’ Worst Financial Year in Decades, But 2023 Won’t Be Much Better

https://medcitynews.com/2023/01/2022

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.

For example, the financial reports for the country’s three largest nonprofit health systems — AscensionCommonSpirit Health and Trinity Health — revealed they are all struggling. Ascension reported a $118.6 million loss in the third quarter of 2022, CommonSpirit posted a $227 million loss, and Trinity posted a $550.9 million loss.

Even Kaiser Permanente, one of the country’s largest health systems with an integrated delivery model, reported a $1.5 billion loss for the third quarter of 2022.

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.

We can also look at the mega-merger between Atrium Health and Advocate Aurora Health, which was completed last month. The deal, which is designed for cost synergy, creates the fifth-largest nonprofit integrated health system in the U.S. 

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.

Rural providers across the country are dealing with the stressors Slabach described and clamoring for more government help. For example, the Michigan Health & Hospital Association sought more money from the state last month after having to take 1,700 beds offline.

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?

The answer is yes, a select few. Let’s look at the three largest for-profit health systems in the nation — Community Health SystemsHCA Healthcare and Tenet Healthcare. As of 2020, these three public health systems accounted for about 8% of hospital beds in the U.S. 

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.

6 health systems hit with credit downgrades

A number of health systems experienced downgrades to their financial ratings in recent weeks amid ongoing operating losses, declines in investment values and challenging work environments.

Here is a summary of recent ratings since Becker’s last roundup Nov. 15:

The following systems experienced downgrades:

Adventist Health (Roseville, Calif.): Saw a downgraded long-term credit rating on bonds it holds, declining from “A” (negative) to “A-” (stable) by S&P Global Ratings.

The December downgrade follows a 2021 downgrade from Fitch Ratings from “A+” to “A.” That downgrade reflected “a series of one-time events and the lingering deleterious impact from the novel coronavirus” which “resulted in lower than anticipated operating EBITDA margins,” Fitch said. In November, Fitch added to this assessment by downgrading Adventist’s outlook from stable to negative, reflecting “continued negative operational pressure.” 

The group, which operates 23 hospitals in California, Hawaii and Oregon, was also assigned an “A” rating by Fitch to 2022 bonds and other outstanding debt.

Catholic Health (Buffalo, N.Y.): The group was downgraded on debt from “B1” to “Caa2” by Moody’s and is in danger of defaulting on its covenants.

The nonprofit health system, which serves residents in Western New York with four acute care hospitals and several other facilities, saw its rating drop in November on approximately $364 million of debt.

Duke University Health System (Durham, N.C.): Downgraded to an “AA-” credit rating by Fitch Ratings.

The December downgrade comes amid concern over Duke’s planned integration of the Private Diagnostic Clinic, a for-profit medical group with more than 1,800 physicians.

The rating, reduced from “AA,” applies both to specific bonds the group holds and to its overall issuer default rating. In addition to the integration of the Private Diagnostic Clinic, Fitch also cited concern over macro issues such as labor and inflationary pressures, which have helped to drag down operating results for the health group.

Main Line Health (Radnor Township, Pa.): – Had its bond rating downgraded to “A1” from “Aa3” by Moody’s.

The December downgrade reflects a multiyear trend of weak operating performance and expectations of tepid progress into 2023, Moody’s said.

In addition to Main Line’s revenue bond rating declining, its outlook has been revised to stable from negative at the lower rating. The hospital group has approximately $651 million in outstanding debt, Moody’s said.

Prime Healthcare (Ontario, Calif.): The group was downgraded on probability of default rating to “B2-PD” from “B1-PD” as well as its ratings of the system’s senior secured notes to “B3” from “B2” by Moody’s.

Moody’s also revised the outlook in November to negative from stable because it projects operating expenses will continue to pressure the 45-hospital system’s profitability in the near term, presenting challenges for “the company’s pace of deleveraging,” according to a Nov. 18 news release.

Westchester County Health Care Corp. and Charity Health System (Valhalla, N.Y): The group was downgraded from “Baa2” to “Baa3” by Moody’s.

The December downgrade for CHS is based on WCHCC’s legal guarantee to pay debt service on CHS’ Series 2015 bonds, if CHS is unable. The outlook for both systems remains negative with WCHCC and CHS having $773 million and $127 million of debt, respectively, at the end of fiscal year 2021, Moody’s said.

The dire state of hospital finances (Part 1: Hospital of the Future series)

About this Episode

The majority of hospitals are predicted to have negative margins in 2022, marking the worst year financially for hospitals since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In Part 1 of Radio Advisory’s Hospital of the Future series, host Rachel (Rae) Woods invites Advisory Board experts Monica WestheadColin Gelbaugh, and Aaron Mauck to discuss why factors like workforce shortages, post-acute financial instability, and growing competition are contributing to this troubling financial landscape and how hospitals are tackling these problems.

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As we emerge from the global pandemic, health care is restructuring. What decisions should you be making, and what do you need to know to make them? Explore the state of the health care industry and its outlook for next year by visiting advisory.com/HealthCare2023.

Here’s how hospitals can chart a path to a sustainable financial future (Part 2: Hospital of the Future series)

Radio Advisory’s Rachel Woods sat down with Optum EVP Dr. Jim Bonnette to discuss the sustainability of modern-day hospitals and why scaling down might be the best strategy for a stable future.

Read a lightly edited excerpt from the interview below and download the episode for the full conversation.https://player.fireside.fm/v2/HO0EUJAe+Rv1LmkWo?theme=dark

Rachel Woods: When I talk about hospitals of the future, I think it’s very easy for folks to think about something that feels very futuristic, the Jetsons, Star Trek, pick your example here. But you have a very different take when it comes to the hospital, the future, and it’s one that’s perhaps a lot more streamlined than even the hospitals that we have today. Why is that your take?

Jim Bonnette: My concern about hospital future is that when people think about the technology side of it, they forget that there’s no technology that I can name that has lowered health care costs that’s been implemented in a hospital. Everything I can think of has increased costs and I don’t think that’s sustainable for the future.

And so looking at how hospitals have to function, I think the things that hospitals do that should no longer be in the hospital need to move out and they need to move out now. I think that there are a large number of procedures that could safely and easily be done in a lower cost setting, in an ASC for example, that is still done in hospitals because we still pay for them that way. I’m not sure that’s going to continue.

Woods: And to be honest, we’ve talked about that shift, I think about the outpatient shift. We’ve been talking about that for several years but you just said the change needs to happen now. Why is the impetus for this change very different today than maybe it was two, three, four, five years ago? Why is this change going to be frankly forced upon hospitals in the very near future, if not already?

Bonnette: Part of the explanation is regarding the issues that have been pushed regarding price transparency. So if employers can see the difference between the charges for an ASC and an HOPD department, which are often quite dramatic, they’re going to be looking to say to their brokers, “Well, what’s the network that involves ASCs and not hospitals?” And that data hasn’t been so easily available in the past, and I think economic times are different now.

We’re not in a hyper growth phase, we’re not where the economy’s performing super at the moment and if interest rates keep going up, things are going to slow down more. So I think employers are going to become more sensitized to prices that they haven’t been in the past. Regardless of the requirements under the Consolidated Appropriations Act, which require employers to know the costs, which they didn’t have to know before. They’re just going to more sensitive to price.

Woods: I completely agree with you by the way, that employers are a key catalyst here and we’ve certainly seen a few very active employers and some that are very passive and I too am interested to see what role they play or do they all take much more of an active role.

And I think some people would be surprised that it’s not necessarily consumers themselves that are the big catalyst for change on where they’re going to get care, how they want to receive care. It’s the employers that are going to be making those decisions as purchasers themselves.

Bonnette: I agree and they’re the ultimate payers. For most commercial insurance employers are the ultimate payers, not the insurance companies. And it’s a cost of care share for patients, but the majority of the money comes from the employers. So it’s basically cutting into their profits.

Woods: We are on the same page, but I’m going to be honest, I’m not sure that all of our listeners are right. We’re talking about why these changes could happen soon, but when I have conversations with folks, they still think about a future of a more consolidated hospital, a more outpatient focused practice is something that is coming but is still far enough in the future that there’s some time to prepare for.

I guess my question is what do you say to that pushback? And are there any inflection points that you’re watching for that would really need to hit for this kind of change to hit all hospitals, to be something that we see across the industry?

Bonnette: So when I look at hospitals in general, I don’t see them as much different than they were 20 years ago. We have talked about this movement for a long time, but hospitals are dragging their feet and realistically it’s because they still get paid the same way until we start thinking about how we pay differently or refuse to pay for certain kinds of things in a hospital setting, the inertia is such that they’re going to keep doing it.

Again, I think the push from employers and most likely the brokers are going to force this change sooner rather than later, but that’s still probably between three and five years because there’s so much inertia in health care.

On the other hand, we are hitting sort of an unsustainable phase of cost. The other thing that people don’t talk about very much that I think is important is there’s only so many dollars that are going to health care.

And if you look at the last 10 years, the growth in pharmaceutical spend has to eat into the dollars available for everybody else. So a pharmaceutical spend is growing much faster than anything else, the dollars are going to come out of somebody’s hide and then next logical target is the hospital.

Woods: And we talked last week about how slim hospital margins are, how many of them are actually negative. And what we didn’t mention that is top of mind for me after we just come out of this election is that there’s actually not a lot of appetite for the government to step in and shore up hospitals.

There’s a lot of feeling that they’ve done their due diligence, they stepped in when they needed to at the beginning of the Covid crisis and they shouldn’t need to again. That kind of savior is probably not their outside of very specific circumstances.

Bonnette: I agree. I think it’s highly unlikely that the government is going to step in to rescue hospitals. And part of that comes from the perception about pricing, which I’m sure Congress gets lots of complaints about the prices from hospitals.

And in addition, you’ll notice that the for-profit hospitals don’t have negative margins. They may not be quite as good as they were before, but they’re not negative, which tells me there’s an operational inefficiency in the not for-profit hospitals that doesn’t exist in the for-profits.

Woods: This is where I wanted to go next. So let’s say that a hospital, a health system decides the new path forward is to become smaller, to become cheaper, to become more streamlined, and to decide what specifically needs to happen in the hospital versus elsewhere in our organization.

Maybe I know where you’re going next, but do you have an example of an organization who has had this success already that we can learn from?

Bonnette: Not in the not-for-profit section, no. In the for-profits, yes, because they have already started moving into ambulatory surgery centers. So Tenet has a huge practice of ambulatory surgery centers. It generates high margins.

So, I used to run ambulatory surgery centers in a for-profit system. And so think about ASCs get paid half as much as a hospital for a procedure, and my margin on that business in those ASCs was 40% to 50%. Whereas in the hospital the margin was about 7% and so even though the total dollars were less, my margin was higher because it’s so much more efficient. And the for-profits already recognize this.

Woods: And I’m guessing you’re going to tell me you want to see not-for-profit hospitals make these moves too? Or is there a different move that they should be making?

Bonnette: No, I think they have to. I think there are things beyond just ASCs though, for example, medical patients who can be treated at home should not be in the hospital. Most not-for-profits lose money on every medical admission.

Now, when I worked for a for-profit, I didn’t lose money on every Medicare patient that was a medical patient. We had a 7% margin so it’s doable. Again, it’s efficiency of care delivery and it’s attention to detail, which sometimes in a not-for-profit friends, that just doesn’t happen.

High labor costs, inflation make healthcare outlook negative, Moody’s says

Sustained high labor expenses and inflationary pressures will continue to affect the healthcare industry in 2023, keeping the outlook for nonprofit hospital systems negative, Moody’s said in a Dec. 7 report.

In addition to such pressures, persistent COVID-19 surges, supply chain disruptions and the need for continued cybersecurity investments will also increase expenses, the report said. And while operating revenue is expected to modestly improve next year, the ending of federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding, net Medicare cuts and the end of the public health emergency will negatively affect hospital revenues, Moody’s said.

“This level of operating cash flow production will likely prove insufficient over the long term to enable adequate reinvestment in facilities, maintain investment in programs, or support organizational growth — key considerations that drive our negative outlook,” said Brad Spielman, vice president, senior credit officer for Moody’s.

Some of the less well-funded healthcare systems could even face breaches of covenant amid such a challenging backdrop, Moody’s warned. Such covenants typically refer to issues like days of cash on hand or minimum coverage of debt.

Management in such challenged systems have taken measures to mitigate the danger of such breaches, the report said. These include liquidating investments and drawing on lines of credit as well as refinancing debt, an unfavorable option in the current economic situation.

The present interest-rate environment, however, currently makes such a move relatively costly,” the report noted.

The Moody’s report follows quickly on the heels of a similar one from Fitch Ratings Dec. 1 that highlighted the “formidable challenge” of high labor expenses and inflationary pressures facing the industry.

Big payers ranked by Q3 profits

The nation’s largest payers have filed their third-quarter earnings reports, revealing which grew their profits the most year over year.

1. UnitedHealth Group: $5.3 billion
The company’s third quarter earnings increased over 28 percent year over year. Total net earnings in 2022 are $15.7 billion, an increase of 16.2 percent from $13.5 billion in 2021.

2. Cigna: $2.8 billion
The company’s third quarter earnings increased over 70 percent year over year. Total net earnings in 2022 are $5.5 billion, an increase of over 29 percent from $4.2 billion in 2021.

3. Elevance Health: $1.6 billion
The company’s third quarter earnings increased over 7 percent year over year. Total net earnings in 2022 are $5.06 billion, an increase of nearly 2 percent from $5 billion in 2021.

4. Humana: $1.2 billion
The company’s third quarter earnings decreased over 21 percent year over year. Total net earnings in 2022 are $2.8 billion, a decrease of over 4 percent from $2.9 billion in 2021.

5. Centene: $738 million
The company’s third quarter earnings increased over 26 percent year over year. Total net earnings in 2022 are $1.4 billion, an increase of over 89 percent from $748 million in 2021.

6. CVS Health: $3.4 billion losses
The company’s third quarter losses are attributable to an opioid legal settlement. Total net earnings in 2022 are $1.9 billion, a decrease of over 71 percent from $6.6 billion in 2021.

10 health systems with strong finances

Here are 10 health systems with strong operational metrics and solid financial positions, according to reports from Fitch Ratings and Moody’s Investors Service.

1. Advocate Aurora Health has an “AA” rating and a stable outlook with Fitch. The health system, dually headquartered in Milwaukee and Downers Grove, Ill., has a strong financial profile and a leading market position over a broad service area in Illinois and Wisconsin, Fitch said. The health system’s fundamental operating platform is strong, the credit rating agency said. 

2. Allina Health System has an “AA-” rating and a stable outlook with Fitch. The Minneapolis-based system is the inpatient market share leader in a highly competitive market and has a strong relation with payers in the market, Fitch said. Alliana’s financial profile is strong, the ratings agency said. 

3. Banner Health has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The Phoenix-based health system’s core hospital delivery system and growth of its insurance division combine to make it a successful, highly integrated delivery system, Fitch said. The credit rating agency said it expects Banner to maintain operating EBITDA margins of about 8 percent on an annual basis, reflecting the growing revenues from the system’s insurance division and large employed physician base.

4. Bon Secours Mercy Health has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The Cincinnati-based health system has a broad geographic footprint as one of the five largest Catholic health systems in the U.S., a good payer mix and a leading or near-leading market share in eight of its eleven markets in the U.S., Fitch said.

5. Bryan Health has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The Lincoln, Neb.-based health system has a leading and growing market position, very strong cash flow and a strong financial position, Fitch said. The credit rating agency said Bryan Health has been resilient through the COVID-19 pandemic and is well-positioned to accommodate additional strategic investments. 

6. Deaconess Health System has an “AA” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The Evansville, Ind.-based system has a leading market position in its primary service area and a favorable payer mix, Fitch said. The ratings agency said it expects Deaconess’ operating EBITDA margins to improve and stabilize around 10 percent by 2023, reflecting strong volumes and focus on operating efficiencies.

7. Gundersen Health System has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The La Crosse, Wis.-based health system has strong balance sheet metrics, a leading market position and an expanding operating platform in its service area, Fitch said. The credit rating agency expects the health system to return to strong operating performance as it emerges from disruption related to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

8. Hackensack Meridian Health has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The Edison, N.J.-based health system has shown consistent year-over-year increases in market share and has a solid liquidity position, Fitch said. 

9. Intermountain Healthcare has an “Aa1” rating and stable outlook with Moody’s. The Salt Lake City-based health system has exceptional credit quality, which will continue to benefit from its leading market position in Utah, Moody’s said. The credit rating agency said the health system’s merger with Broomfield, Colo.-based SCL Health will also give Intermountain greater geographic reach.

10. Yale New Haven (Conn.) Health has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The health system’s turnaround efforts, brand recognition and market presence will help it return to strong operating results, Fitch said.