Here are 14 health systems with strong operational metrics and solid financial positions, according to reports from credit rating agencies Fitch Ratings, Moody’s Investors Service and S&P Global.
1. Ascension has an “AA+” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The St. Louis-based system’s rating is driven by multiple factors, including a strong financial profile assessment, national size and scale with a significant market presence in several key markets, which produce unique credit features not typically seen in the sector, Fitch said.
2. Berkshire Health has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The Pittsfield, Mass.-based system has a strong financial profile, solid liquidity and modest leverage, according to Fitch.
3. ChristianaCare has an “Aa2” rating and stable outlook with Moody’s. The Newark, Del.-based system has a unique position with 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.
4. Cone Health has an “AA” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The rating reflects the expectation that the Greensboro, N.C.-based system will gradually return to stronger results in the medium term, the rating agency said.
5. Harris Health System has an “AA” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The Houston-based system has a “very strong” revenue defensibility, primarily based on the district’s significant taxing margin that provides support for operations and debt service, Fitch said.
6. Johns Hopkins Medicine has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The Baltimore-based system has a strong financial role as a major provider in the Central Maryland and Washington, D.C., market, supported by its excellent clinical reputation with a regional, national and international reach, Fitch said.
7. Orlando (Fla.) Health has an “AA-” and stable outlook with Fitch. The system’s upgrade from “A+” reflects the continued strength of the health system’s operating performance, growth in unrestricted liquidity and excellent market position in a demographically favorable market, Fitch said.
8. 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 is also a leading provider of pediatric services in the growing city and tri-county service area, Fitch said.
9. Rush System for Health has an “AA-” and stable outlook with Fitch. The Chicago-based system has a strong financial profile despite ongoing labor issues and inflationary pressures, Fitch said.
10. Salem (Ore.) Health has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The system has a “very strong” financial profile and a leading market share position, Fitch said.
11. TriHealth has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The rating reflects the Cincinnati-based system’s strong financial and operating profiles, as well as its broad reach, high-acuity services and stable market position in a highly fragmented and competitive market, Fitch said.
12. UCHealth has an “AA” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The Aurora, Colo.-based system’s margins are expected to remain robust, and the operating risk assessment remains strong, Fitch said.
13. University of Kansas Health System has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with S&P Global. The Kansas City-based system has a solid market presence, good financial profile and solid management team, though some balance sheet figures remain relatively weak to peers, the rating agency said.
14. Willis-Knighton Health System has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The Shreveport, La.-based system has a “dominant inpatient market position” and is well positioned to manage operating pressures, Fitch said.
With input from stakeholders across the industry, Modern Healthcare outlines six challenges health care is likely to face in 2023—and what leaders can do about them.
1. Financial difficulties
In 2023, health systems will likely continue to face financial difficulties due to ongoing staffing problems, reduced patient volumes, and rising inflation.
According to Tina Wheeler, U.S. health care leader at Deloitte, hospitals can expect wage growth to continue to increase even as they try to contain labor costs. They can also expect expenses, including for supplies and pharmaceuticals, to remain elevated.
Health systems are also no longer able to rely on federal Covid-19 relief funding to offset some of these rising costs. Cuts to Medicare reimbursement rates could also negatively impact revenue.
“You’re going to have all these forces that are counterproductive that you’re going to have to navigate,” Wheeler said.
In addition, Erik Swanson, SVP of data and analytics at Kaufman Hall, said the continued shift to outpatient care will likely affect hospitals’ profit margins.
“The reality is … those sites of care in many cases tend to be lower-cost ways of delivering care, so ultimately it could be beneficial to health systems as a whole, but only for those systems that are able to offer those services and have that footprint,” he said.
2. Health system mergers
Although hospital transactions have slowed in the last few years, market watchers say mergers are expected to rebound as health systems aim to spread their growing expenses over larger organizations and increase their bargaining leverage with insurers.
“There is going to be some organizational soul-searching for some health systems that might force them to affiliate, even though they prefer not to,” said Patrick Cross, a partner at Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath. “Health systems are soliciting partners, not because they are on the verge of bankruptcy, but because they are looking at their crystal ball and not seeing an easy road ahead.”
Financial challenges may also lead more physician practices to join health systems, private-equity groups, larger practices, or insurance companies.
“Many independent physicians are really struggling with their ability to maintain their independence,” said Joshua Kaye, chair of U.S. health care practice at DLA Piper. “There will be a fair amount of deal activity. The question will be more about the size and specialty of the practices that will be part of the next consolidation wave.”
3. Recruiting and retaining staff
According to data from Fitch Ratings, health care job openings reached an all-time high of 9.2% in September 2022—more than double the average rate of 4.2% between 2010 and 2019. With this trend likely to continue, organizations will need to find effective ways to recruit and retain workers.
Currently, some organizations are upgrading their processes and technology to hire people more quickly. They are also creating service-level agreements between recruiting and hiring teams to ensure interviews are scheduled within 48 hours or decisions are made within 24 hours.
Eric Burch, executive principal of operations and workforce services at Vizient, also predicted that there will be a continued need for contract labors, so health systems will need to consider travel nurses in their staffing plans.
“It’s really important to approach contract labor vendors as a strategic partner,” Burch said. “So when you need the staff, it’s a partnership and they’re able to help you get to your goals, versus suddenly reaching out to them and they don’t know your needs when you’re in crisis.”
When it comes to retention, Tochi Iroku-Malize, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), said health systems are adequately compensated for their work and have enough staff to alleviate potential burnout.
AAFP also supports legislation to streamline prior authorization in the Medicare Advantage program and avoid additional cuts to Medicare payments, which will help physicians provide care to patients with less stress.
4. Payer-provider contract disputes
A potential recession, along with the ensuing job cuts that typically follow, would limit insurers’ commercial business, which is their most profitable product line. Instead, many people who lose their jobs will likely sign up for Medicaid plans, which is much less profitable.
Because of increased labor, supply, and infrastructure costs, Brad Ellis, senior director at Fitch Ratings, said providers could pressure insurers into increasing the amount they pay for services. This will lead insurers to passing these increased costs onto members’ premiums.
Currently, Ellis said insurers are keeping an eye on how legislators finalize rules to implement the No Surprise Act’s independent resolution process. Regulators will also begin issuing fines for payers who are not in compliance with the law’s price transparency requirement.
5. Investment in digital health
Much like 2022, investment in digital health is likely to remain strong but subdued in 2023.
“You’ll continue to see layoffs, and startup funding is going to be hard to come by,” said Russell Glass, CEO of Headspace Health.
However, investors and health care leaders say they expect a strong market for digital health technology, such as tools for revenue cycle management and hospital-at-home programs.
According to Julian Pham, founding and managing partner at Third Culture Capital, he expects corporations such as CVS Health to continue to invest in health tech companies and for there to be more digital health mergers and acquisitions overall.
In addition, he predicted that investors, pharmaceutical companies, and insurers will show more interest in digital therapeutics, which are software applications prescribed by clinicians.
“As a physician, I’ve always dreamed of a future where I could prescribe an app,” Pham said. “Is it the right time? Time will tell. A lot needs to happen in digital therapeutics and it’s going to be hard.”
6. Health equity efforts
This year, CMS will continue rolling out new health equity initiatives and quality measurements for providers and insurers who serve marketplace, Medicare, and Medicaid beneficiaries. Some new quality measures include maternal health, opioid related adverse events, and social need/risk factor screenings.
CMS, the Joint Commission, and the National Committee for Quality Assurance are also partnering together to establish standards for health equity and data collection.
In addition, HHS is slated to restore a rule under the Affordable Care Act that prohibits discrimination based on a person’s gender identity or sexual orientation. According to experts, this rule may conflict with recently passed state laws that ban gender-affirming care for minors.
“It’s something that’s going to bear out in the courts and will likely lack clarity. We’ll see differences in what different courts decide,” said Lindsey Dawson, associate director of HIV policy and director of LGBTQ health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “The Supreme Court acknowledged that there was this tension. So it’s an important place to watch and understand better moving forward.”
There is no shortage of challenges to confront in healthcare today, from workforce shortages and burnout to innovation and health equity (and so much more). We’re committed to giving industry leaders a platform for sharing best practices and exchanging ideas that can improve care, operations and patient outcomes.
Check out this podcast interview with Ketul J. Patel, CEO at Virginia Mason Franciscan Health and division president, Pacific Northwest at CommonSpirit Health, for his insights on where healthcare is headed in the future.
In this episode, we are joined by Ketul J. Patel, Division President, Pacific Northwest; Chief Executive Officer, CommonSpirit Health; Virginia Mason Franciscan Health, to discuss his background & what led him to executive healthcare leadership, challenges surrounding workforce shortages, the importance of having a strong workplace culture, and more.
Payers, pharmacy benefit managers and drug manufacturers are no strangers to heavy criticism from the public and providers alike. Now another sector of the healthcare system has found itself increasingly caught in the crosshairs of constituents looking to point a finger for the rising cost of care: hospitals.
As sharp words against the industry bubble up more often and encompass a wider variety of issues, it marks an important turn in the ethos of American healthcare. Most policymakers have historically wanted hospitals on their side, and health systems are often the largest employer within their communities and in many states.
“In my career, I’ve never seen things more aligned to the detriment of hospitals than it is now,” Paul Keckley, PhD, said. Dr. Keckley is a widely known industry analyst and editor of The Keckley Report, a weekly newsletter discussing healthcare policy and current trends.
Confidence in the medical system as a whole fell from 51 percent in 2020 to a record low of 38 percent in 2022. Though the healthcare system is among all major U.S. institutions facing record-low public confidence, are hospitals ready for an era of widespread distrust?
“We’re going into hospital purgatory. It’s a period in which old rules may not work in the future,” Dr. Keckley said. “The only thing we know for sure is that it’s not going to get easier.”
State-versus-hospital fights have popped up throughout the U.S. over the past year. Most recently, in Colorado, a back and forth unfolded between Gov. Jared Polis and the state’s hospital association over who is ultimately responsible for high care costs. In a speech Jan. 17, the Democratic governor accused Colorado’s hospitals of overcharging patients and sitting on significant cash reserves.
“It’s time that we hold them accountable,” he said.
The Colorado Hospital Association says the data supporting those claims does not reflect the several ongoing industry challenges, among them labor shortages, regulatory burdens and inflationary pressures.
“Unfortunately, we continue to hear rhetoric against the hospitals and health systems that have worked diligently on healthcare quality, access and affordability,” CHA said in a statement to Becker’s. “Colorado’s hospitals and health systems have been working with the administration on many of these programs, including reinsurance, hospital discounted care, price transparency, out-of-network patient protections, and more.”
Some 1,500 miles eastward, another incident of hospital-community conflict grew. In January, Pennsylvania lawmakers promoted a nonpartisan report that accuses UPMC of building a monopoly in the state through consolidation over the last decade — the Pittsburgh-based system refuted the claims, saying they were based on “flawed data.”
To the south, North Carolina officials accused the state’s seven largest health systems in June of using pandemic aid to enrich themselves. Hospitals said the accusations were based on “cherry-picked data” spun in a way that does not reflect their ongoing challenges.
As state- and market-level fights against hospitals intensify and grab national attention, hospitals and health systems may find themselves less familiar in steadying public perception than their payer and pharmaceutical counterparts, who are no strangers to vocal opponents.
“With public opinion shifting a bit amid COVID, and with some anecdotal evidence that hospitals are doing some bad things, state policymakers feel that they are enjoying the political will to make these gestures,” Ge Bai, PhD, said. “It’s also a key issue for voters. Even if they don’t do anything in reality, the gesture will probably get political capital.”
Dr. Bai is a professor of accounting and health policy at Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins University. She believes a key underlying factor driving hospital critiques as of late is the reduced public confidence in medicine by way of the pandemic.
“The hospital industry has moved away from its traditional charitable mission and toward a business orientation that is undeniable,” she said. “With the [pandemic] dust settling, I think a lot of people realize the clinicians are the heroes, but hospitals are maybe not as altruistic as they once thought.”
In 2021, over 70 percent of Americans said they trusted physicians and nurses, but only 22 percent said the same about hospital executives, according to a study from the University of Chicago and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
“It’s a tough job and a complicated business to run, and everybody in the community has an opinion about it based on anecdotal evidence,” Dr. Keckley said. “I think much of the blame too for hospitals taking a lot of hits has been boards that are not prepared to govern.”
For both Drs. Keckley and Bai, there are other major issues they each point to as contributing factors to the growing wariness around hospital operations:
A lack of compliance with CMS price transparency rules. Some of the most recent studies estimate hospital compliance rates could range from 16 percent to 55 percent, while hospitals say the issue has been mischaracterized. CMS has penalized very few hospitals for noncompliance since the rule took effect in 2021.
The decades-long trend of consolidation hitting a tipping point. With consolidation, hospitals have long argued the trend would lead to more efficiency, care access, quality of care and lower costs. One of the most comprehensive consolidation studies to date was released Jan. 24 in JAMA and concluded that merged health systems have led to “marginally better care at significantly higher costs.”
“Hospitals are doing exactly what they’re supposed to do — make money to survive and expand,” Dr. Bai said. “Instead of blaming individual players, we have to raise the bar and think about who created the system in the first place that makes competition so difficult — the government.”
State retirement benefits plans struggling financially. Though not a new trend, unfunded healthcare benefits promised to retired public employees and their dependents continues to grow around the country, incentivizing state lawmakers to look in new directions to save on costs. Unfunded retiree healthcare liabilities across all states surpassed $1 trillion in 2019, according to the American Legislative Exchange Council.
Competition from other healthcare sectors. Competition for patients has arrived from other healthcare sectors, especially from payers. In 2023, UnitedHealth Group’s Optum owns or is affiliated with the most physicians in the country at 60,000, though it’s likely higher after several large acquisitions last year.
“The center of gravity in healthcare has shifted from hospitals that muscled their way into scaling,” Dr. Keckley said. “The reality is that providing hospital services in non-hospital settings that are safe, effective and less costly is where the market, and insurers, are going.”
Despite the uptick in states and Americans that have gone into fault-finding mode against hospitals and those running them, operating a financially successful hospital or health system in 2023 is a monumental task, perhaps even close to impossible for many. Last year, approximately half of U.S. hospitals finished the year with a negative margin, making it “the worst financial year” for the industry since the start of the pandemic, according to Kaufman Hall’s latest “National Flash Hospital Report.”
“Hospitals aren’t going into this with a huge amount of goodwill at their backs, and I think that’s what they need to be prepared for,” Dr. Keckley said. “You can’t just go in and tell the story of ‘look at what we do for the community’ or ‘look at all the people we employ’ — that is not going to work anymore.”
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.
Financial analysts have said that 2022 may have been the worst year for hospital finances in decades. This year looks like it will be yet another year of financial underperformance, with rural providers in especially dire circumstances.
What’s driving this bleak financial reality? It’s “primarily an expense story,” said Erik Swanson, a senior vice president at Kaufman Hall‘s data analytics practice.
“Growth in expenses has vastly outpaced growth in revenues — since pre-pandemic levels since last year, and even the year prior — such that margins are ultimately being pushed downward. And hospitals’ median operating margin is still below zero on a cumulative basis,” he declared, referring to 2021 and 2020.
Here’s some context about how dismal this situation is: Even in 2020, a year in which hospitals saw extraordinary losses during the first few months of the pandemic, they still reported operating margins of 2%.
What’s even more disconcerting is that hospitals are underperforming financially pretty much across the board, Swanson said.
Rural hospitals are in even worse shape, but more on that below.
Other hospitals have been forced to shutter service lines to offset these financial losses. Some are also turning to integration and consolidation.
For example, Hermann Area District Hospital in Missouri said last month that it is seeking a “deeper affiliation” with Mercy Health or another provider. This announcement came after the hospital eliminated its home health agency as a cost-cutting measure. In December, the hospital projected a loss of $2 million for 2022.
The merger was finalized one day after North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein expressed concern about how the deal could impact rural communities. He said that while he didn’t have a legal basis within his office’s limited statutory authority to block the deal, he was worried that it could further restrict access to healthcare in rural and underserved communities.
Stein brings up an extremely valid concern. Rural hospitals’ dismal financial circumstances are becoming more and more worrisome — in fact, about 30% of all rural hospitals are at risk of closing in the near future, according to a recent report from the Center for Healthcare Quality and Payment Reform (CHQPR).
A crucial reason for this is that it is more expensive to deliver healthcare in rural areas — usually because of smaller patient volumes and higher costs for attracting staff. Another factor is that payments rural hospitals receive from commercial health plans isn’t enough to cover the cost of delivering care to patients in rural areas, said Harold Miller, CEO of CHQPR.
“Many people assume that private commercial insurance plans pay more than Medicare and Medicaid. But for small rural hospitals, the exact opposite is true,” he said. “In many cases, Medicare is their best payer. And private health plans actually pay them well below their costs — well below what they pay their larger hospitals. One of the biggest drivers of rural hospital losses is the payments they receive from private health plans.”
In Miller’s view, rural hospitals perform two main functions: taking care of sick people in the hospital and being there for people in case they need to go to the hospital.
To fulfill the latter job, rural hospitals must operate 24/7 emergency rooms. These hospitals get paid when there’s an emergency, but not when there isn’t — even though the hospital is incurring costs by operating and staffing these units.
“Rural hospitals have a physician on duty 24/7 to be available for emergencies. But they don’t get paid for that by most payers. Medicare does pay them for that, but other payers don’t. If the hospital is doing two different things, we should be paying them for both of those things. Hospitals should be paid for what I refer to as ‘standby capacity,’” Miller said.
He bolstered his argument by pointing to these analogies: Do we only pay firefighters when there’s a fire? Do we only pay police officers when there’s a crime?
It’s also important to remember that rural hospitals are in the midst of transitioning to a post-pandemic environment, now without the pandemic-era financial assistance they received from the government, said Brock Slabach, chief operations officer at the National Rural Health Association.
“Rural providers are looking to move into the future without the benefit of those extra payments. And they’re in an environment of really high inflation. It’s over 8%, and for some goods and services in the healthcare sector, that’s going to be over 20% in terms of increased prices. Wages and salaries have also gone up significantly. But patient volumes have maintained below average or average. That all presents a huge challenge,” Slabach said.
Many rural hospitals can’t escape their fate. From 2010 to 2021, there were 136 rural hospital closures. There were only two closures in 2021, and Slabach said 2022 produced a similarly low number. But these low totals are due to government relief, he explained. Slabach said he’s expecting an increase in rural hospital closures in 2023.
When a rural hospital closes, it means community members have to travel far distances for emergency or inpatient care. Miller pointed out another problem: in many rural communities, the hospital is the only place people can go to get laboratory or imaging work done. The hospital might also be the only source of primary care for the community. Shuttering these hospitals would be a massive blow to rural Americans’ healthcare access.
In the face of these potentially devastating blows to patient access, financial analysts’ outlook is bleak.
Higher inflation and costly labor expenses will continue to have negative effects on hospitals — both rural and urban — in 2023, according to an analysis from Moody’s. Expenses will also continue to increase due to supply chain bottlenecks, the need for more robust cybersecurity investments and longer hospital stays due to higher levels of patient acuity.
All of this doom and gloom begs the question — are any hospitals doing well financially?
These three systems all had positive operating margins for the majority of the pandemic, including most recently in the third quarter of 2022.
Large public health systems have shareholders to report to and stock prices to worry about. Does this mean they’re more likely to deny care to patients who can’t afford it while other hospitals pick up the slack?
Slabach said it’s tough to say.
“Obviously, hospitals try to mitigate their exposure to risk when it comes to taking care of patients. Most hospitals do a really good job of providing services and care to people who don’t have insurance or don’t have the means to pay. But that gets stressed in this current financial environment. So indeed, there may be instances where what you suggested might happen, but it’s not because they want to deny services or deny care. It’s because they have a bigger picture they have to maintain,” Slabach said.
And the big picture involving dollar signs for hospitals looks pretty bleak in 2023.
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 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 Westhead, Colin 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.
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.
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.
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.