Hospitals experiencing some of the worst margins since beginning of pandemic: Kaufman Hall

https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/providers/julys-hospital-margins-were-among-worst-pandemic-kaufman-hall-says

Despite a a seventh straight month of industrywide negative margins, “hospitals and health systems must think strategically and make investments to strengthen performance toward long-term institutional goals despite the day-to-day financial challenges they experience,” Kaufman Hall’s Erik Swanson said.

Months of inching performance gains were upended in July as the nation’s hospitals logged “some of the worst margins since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Kaufman Hall wrote in its latest industry report.

Decreasing outpatient revenues paired with pricier inpatient stays were chief among the culprits and outpaced minor improvements in expenses, the group wrote in its monthly sector update for July.

What’s more, seven straight months of negative margins “reversed any gains hospitals saw this year” and has the advisory group forecasting a brutal year for the industry.

“July was a disappointing month for hospitals and put 2022 on pace to be the worst financial year hospitals have experienced in a long time,” Erik Swanson, senior vice president of data and analytics with Kaufman Hall, said in a statement. “Over the past few years, hospitals and health systems have been able to offset some financial hardship with federal support, but those funding sources have dried up, and hospitals’ bottom lines remain in the red.”

Kaufman Hall placed its median year-to-date operating margin index at -0.98% through July, compared to the -0.09% from January to June the group had reported during last month’s report. Hospitals’ median percent change in operating margin from June to July was -63.9%, according to the report, and -73.6% from July 2021.

The month’s volume trends hinted at the larger shift toward scheduling procedures for ambulatory settings, Kaufman Hall wrote. For instance, operating room minutes declined 10.3% from June to July and 7.7% year over year, according to the report.

Patients who did come into the hospital tended to be sicker, the firm continued. Average length of stay increased 2% from last month and 3.4% year over year. Patient days increased 2.8% from the previous month but were down 2.6% from the prior year, while adjusted discharges dipped 2.8% from June and 4.2% from July 2021.  

These trends came together as a brake check on 2022’s to-date revenue gains. Gross operating revenue fell 3.6% from June but remains up 5.5% year to date. Outpatient revenue was down 4.8% from June and maintains a 7.1% year-to-date increase. Inpatient revenue declined 0.7% from June but is still up 3.6% year to date.

The silver lining in Kaufman Hall’s report were total expenses that, although up 7.6% from July 2021, saw a modest 0.4% decline since June. Those savings came squarely among supply and drug expenses as total labor costs and labor expense per adjusted discharge still grew 0.8% and 3.5%, respectively, since June. Increases in full-time employees per adjusted occupied bed “possibly” suggest increased hiring, the group wrote in the report.

Kaufman Hall acknowledged the “urgency of day-to-day pressures” driving the month’s sudden performance dips but urged hospital leaders to prioritize long-term operational improvements as they work to keep the organization afloat.

“2022 has been, and will likely continue to be, a challenging year for hospitals and health systems, but it would not be prudent to focus on short-term solutions at the expense of long-term planning,” Swanson said. “Hospitals and health systems must think strategically and make investments to strengthen performance toward long-term institutional goals despite the day-to-day financial challenges they experience.”

Kaufman Hall’s monthly reports are based on a sample of more than 900 nationally representative hospitals.

The group isn’t alone in its doom-and-gloom warnings for providers. Fitch Ratings recently wrote that high expenses, jilted volume gains and other challenges are unlikely to resolve before the end of the year. As such, the agency downgraded its outlook for the nonprofit hospital industry from “neutral” to “deteriorating.”

Read the full report here

Patient acuity is driving up hospital costs, AHA says

https://www.healthcarefinancenews.com/news/patient-acuity-driving-hospital-costs-aha-says?mkt_tok=NDIwLVlOQS0yOTIAAAGGiU3xe0NkF9CXkX2TRevw1rc34F0gW3xrh4u01QiSJCzDyJT2rG2TAkJAz344ryPgANhHM9yerPG9lZlib0xHBLXAwqAMIXRTIvQXgJLT

The AHA wants Congress to halt Medicare payment cuts and extend or make permanent certain waivers, among other requests.

The American Hospital Association has released a report on patient acuity that shows hospital patients are sicker and more medically complex than they were before the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is driving up hospital costs for labor, drugs and supplies, according to the AHA report. 

Hospital patient acuity, as measured by average length of stay, rose almost 10% between 2019 and 2021, including a 6% increase for non-COVID-19 Medicare patients as the pandemic contributed to delayed and avoided care, the report said. For example, the average length of stay rose 89% for patients with rheumatoid arthritis and 65% for patients with neuroblastoma and adrenal cancer. 

In 2022, patient acuity as reflected in the case mix index rose 11.1% for mastectomy patients, 15% for appendectomy patients and 7% for hysterectomy patients.

WHY THIS MATTERS

Mounting costs, combined with economy-wide inflation and reimbursement shortfalls, are threatening the financial stability of hospitals around the country, according to the AHA report.

The length of stay due to increasing acuity is occurring at a time of significant financial challenges for hospitals and health systems, which have still not received support to address the Delta and Omicron surges that have comprised the majority of all COVID-19 admissions, the AHA said. 

The AHA is asking Congress to halt its Medicare payment cuts to hospitals and other providers; extend or make permanent certain waivers that improve efficiency and access to care; extend expiring health insurance subsidies for millions of patients; and hold commercial insurers accountable for improper and burdensome business practices.

THE LARGER TREND

Hospitals, through the AHA, have long been asking the federal government for relief beyond what’s been allocated in provider relief funds.

In January, the American Hospital Association sought at least $25 billion for hospitals to help combat workforce shortages and labor costs exacerbated by what the AHA called “exorbitant” rates on the part of some staffing agencies. The Department of Health and Human Services released $2 billion in additional funding for hospitals.

In March, the AHA asked Congress to allocate additional provider relief funds beyond the original $175 billion in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.

Earlier this month, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services increased what it originally proposed for payment in the Inpatient Prospective Payment system rule. The AHA said the increase was not enough to offset expenses and inflation.

How hospitals are cutting back to reduce costs

Despite efforts to curtail high expenses, rising inflation and declining federal aid have led many hospitals to begin laying off workers and cutting certain services, Katheryn Houghton writes for Kaiser Health News.

Hospital costs have skyrocketed during the pandemic

At the beginning of the pandemic, hospitals’ financial challenges were largely related to the costs of responding to Covid-19 and missed revenue due to delayed care. However, hospital leaders now say their financial situations are a result of the omicron surge, rising inflation, and growing staffing challenges.

Many hospitals received millions of dollars in federal aid during the pandemic, but much of that money has since dwindled. For example, Bozeman Health said it received $20 million in aid in 2020, but this decreased to $2.5 million in 2021 and around $100,000 in 2022.

Many health systems say low surgery volumes, high supply costs, higher acuity patients, and languishing investments have all contributed to their declining revenues and growing expenses. In particular, labor costs have increased significantly during the pandemic, particularly as staffing shortages pushed hospitals to use more contract workers.

“If you talk with just about any hospital leader across the country, they would put workforce as their top one, two, and three priorities,” said Akin Demehin, senior director of quality and patient safety policy for the American Hospital Association.

According to Brad Ludford, CFO at Bozeman Health, the system spent less than $100,000 a month on contract workers before the pandemic, but that has now increased to roughly $1.4 million a week. Overall, the health system’s labor costs have increased around 12% from the same time last year, reaching around $20 million a month, during the first half of the year.

John Romley, a health economist and senior fellow at the Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics at the University of Southern California, said some hospitals are likely now losing money, particularly with less federal aid coming in and growing inflation on top of their already high expenses.

For example, Bozeman Health president and CEO John Hill said the health system spent $15 million more than it earned in the first six months of the year. Several other health systems, including Providence, have also reported net operating losses this year.

Hospitals lay off workers, cut services to help reduce expenses

To reduce expenses, many hospitals are beginning to lay off workers and cut certain services, which has forced some patients to travel farther to receive care.

For example, Bay Area Hospital in Oregon recently ended 56 contracts with travel nurses and cut its inpatient behavioral health services due to the high costs of quickly filling vacant positions. Hospitals in California, Mississippi, New York, Oregon, and other states have also had to reduce the sizes of their workforces.

St. Charles Health System, headquartered in Bend, Oregon, laid off 105 workers and eliminated 76 vacant positions in May. The system’s CEO at the time, Joe Sluka, said, “It has taken us two pandemic years to get us into this situation, and it will take at least two years for us to recover.”

Similarly, Bozeman Health has laid off 28 workers in leadership positions and has not been able to provide inpatient dialysis at its largest hospital for months.

According to Hill, Bozeman took several other measures before deciding to cut jobs, including stopping out-of-state business travel, readjusting workloads, and reducing executive compensation. At the same time, it worked to transition contract workers to full-time employees and offered existing staffers a minimum-wage increase.

However, “[i]t still has not been enough,” Hill said. The health system currently has 487 open positions for essential workers.

According to Vicky Byrd, an RN and CEO of the Montana Nurses Association, hospitals should be offering longtime employees the same incentives they use to recruit new workers, such as bonuses for longevity and premium pay for taking extra shifts, to increase retention.

“It’s not just about recruiting — you can get anybody in the door for $20,000 bonuses,” Byrd said. “But how are you going to keep them there for 10 or 20 years?”

Going forward, some hospitals are considering automating more of their services, such as allowing patients to order food through an iPad instead of an employee, and are trying to adjust workloads, including having more flexible schedules, to retain their current workers.

“Now that we’ve adapted to life with covid in many regards in the clinical setting, we are dealing with the repercussions of how the pandemic impacted our staff and our communities as a whole,” said Wade Johnson, CEO of St. Peter’s Health

Nonprofit hospitals’ ‘deceptively strong’ financial metrics likely to end, Fitch says

Nonprofit hospitals’ median financial metrics showed improvement last year, but Fitch Ratings is projecting declines for next year and beyond. 

The credit rating agency analyzed 2021 audited data and reported that “AA” rated hospital medians showed a 20 percent increase in cash to adjusted debt. “BBB” rated health systems had an 8 percent increase.

“The deceptively strong numerical improvements over prior years’ medians are less a sign of sector resiliency and more a cautionary calm before the storm,” Fitch Ratings senior director Kevin Holloran said in the Aug. 18 report. “Additional expenses, primarily labor, have become part of the permanent fabric of hospital operations, that when combined with ongoing incremental challenges will exert tremendous pressure on providers through calendar 2022 and beyond.”

Fitch predicts hospital medians will flip this time next year due to inflationary pressures, a challenging operational start to 2022 and additional omicron sub-variants. 

Fitch also highlighted staffing as a concern for hospital medians. 

“We are likely two years before some level of ‘normal’ returns to the sector,” Mr. Holloran said in the report. “For many hospitals, their ‘value journey’ will be on temporary hold until expenses stabilize and become more predictable.”

Outlook ‘deteriorating’ for nonprofit hospitals, Fitch says

Citing more severe than expected macro headwinds, Fitch revised its sector outlook for nonprofit hospitals and health systems to “deteriorating” Aug. 16. 

Nonprofit hospitals have been hamstrung by labor and broader macro inflationary pressures that “are rendering the sector even more vulnerable to future stress,” Fitch senior director Kevin Holloran said in an Aug. 16 news release. Investment losses have also contributed to a rockier 2022 than anticipated, and operating metrics are down significantly compared to last year. 

“While severe volume disruption to operations appears to be waning, elevated expense pressure remains pronounced,” Mr. Holloran said. “Even if macro inflation cools, labor expenses may be reset at a permanently higher level for the rest of 2022, and likely well beyond.”

Many nonprofit hospitals and health systems are expected to violate debt service coverage covenants this year, according to the news release.  

Read the full report here.

Buy a rural hospital for $100? Investors pick up struggling institutions for pennies

Rural communities with struggling hospitals often turn to outside investors willing to take over their health care centers. Some are willing to sell the hospitals for next to nothing to companies that promise to keep them running.

ERIN, Tenn. — Kyle Kopec gets a kick out of leading tours through the run-down hospitals his boss is buying, pointing out what he calls relics of poor management left by a revolving door of operators.

For instance, at a hospital in this town of 1,700 about a 90-minute drive northwest from Nashville, the X-ray machine is beyond repair.

“This system is so old, it’s been using a floppy disk,” said Kopec, 23, marveling at the bendy black square that hardly has enough memory to hold a single digital photo. “I’ve never actually seen a floppy disk in use. I’ve seen them in the Smithsonian.”

There’s a point to exposing these rural hospitals’ state of disrepair — the company Kopec works for, Braden Health, is buying buildings worth millions of dollars for next to nothing with a promise to keep running them as health centers serving their communities. Braden for its part, thinks it can run them more effectively than the previous owners and turn a profit.

The hospitals Braden Health is taking over sit in one of the worst spots in one of the worst states for rural hospital closures. Tennessee has experienced 16 closures since 2010 — second only to the far more populous state of Texas, which has had at least 21 closures.

The local governments that own these facilities are finding that remarkably few companies — with any level of experience — are interested in buying them. And those that are willing don’t want to pay much, if anything.

Braden Health’s Kyle Kopec holds up a sample of diagnostic images left behind at an abandoned hospital they’re taking over. They have to figure out what to do with old medical records stacked in boxes.

“When you’re on the ropes or even got your head under water, it’s really difficult to negotiate with any terms of strength,” said Michael Topchik, director of the Chartis Center for Rural Health, which tracks distressed rural hospitals closely. “And so you, oftentimes, are choosing whoever is willing to choose you.”

At this point, large health systems have already acquired or affiliated with the hospitals that have the fewest problems, Topchik said. The hospitals that are left are those that other potential buyers passed on. Turning a profit on a small rural hospital with mostly older or low-income patients can be challenging. Some operators who take over rural hospitals have gotten in trouble with insurers and even law enforcement for shady billing practices.

“You can make it profitable,” Topchik said. “But it takes an awful lot to get there.”

Dr. Beau Braden, who runs Braden Health, used his savings and some inherited wealth to get into the hospital-buying business in 2020. An emergency room doctor and addiction specialist, he previously tried to build a hospital in southwestern Florida, where he owns the large rural clinic in Ave Maria. After running into regulatory roadblocks, he saw more opportunity in reopening hospitals — which brought him to Tennessee.

“A lot of people aren’t willing to put in the time, effort, energy, and work for a small hospital with less than 25 beds. But it needs just as much time, energy, and effort as a hospital with 300 beds,” Braden said. “I just see there’s a huge need in rural hospitals and not a lot of people who can focus their time doing it.”

Braden Health’s corporate headquarters has 40 employees, according to Kopec, who is Braden’s second in command as the company’s chief compliance officer. He had limited work experience in hospitals before helping lead a hospital-buying spree at Braden Health.

Braden Health is a limited liability company and privately held, so it doesn’t have to publicly share much about its financial figures. But in filings for a certificate of need that outlines why a health care facility should be allowed to operate, Braden revealed $2 million in monthly revenue from the one hospital it ran in Lexington, Tennessee, and its balance sheet showed more than $7.5 million cash on hand.

Dr. Beau Braden (left) and Kyle Kopec talk to staffers gathered at the nurse’s station inside Houston County Community Hospital in Erin, Tennessee. Braden Health bought the facility for $20,000 ― a price that is mostly paying for the one piece of medical equipment deemed to have any value, a 2016 ambulance with 180,000 miles.

Since buying that Lexington hospital in 2020, Braden Health has signed deals for three other failing or failed hospitals and has looked at acquiring at least 10 others, mostly in Tennessee and North Carolina. Braden Health’s strategy is to build mini-networks to share staff and supplies.

At the hospital in Erin, much of the facility’s equipment is older than Kopec. And he said using outdated technology has caused Medicare to penalize the hospital with reduced payments.

The attic houses a ham radio system that seemingly never got much use, Kopec said on his way out to the roof. He wanted to show how the giant HVAC system can be controlled only from a rusty side panel accessible by a ladder. Down below, an emergency room has never been used. During a recent renovation that predated Braden Health’s ownership, its doors were built too narrow for a gurney, among other design flaws.

An old operating room is temporarily housing the ER while Braden Health starts work on new renovations. The Tennessee attorney general, who must approve any sale of a public hospital to private investors, signed off in July.

To prevent this hospital’s closure in 2013, Houston County bought it for $2.4 million and raised taxes locally to subsidize operations. “We had no business being in the hospital business,” Mayor James Bridges said. “The majority of county governments do not have the expertise and the education and knowledge that it takes to run health care facilities in 2022.”

Those with the most experience, like big corporate hospital chains based in Nashville, have been getting out of the small hospital business, too.

Communities have seen unqualified managers come and go. In Decatur County, where Braden Health is also taking over the local hospital, the previous CEO was indicted on theft charges that remain pending. And the Tennessee comptroller determined the hospital helped endanger the finances of the entire county.

“You’re looking to someone who supposedly knows what to do, who can supposedly solve the issue. And you trust them, then you’re disappointed,” said Lori Brasher, a member of Decatur County’s economic development board. “And not disappointed once, but disappointed multiple times.”

Brasher expressed much more confidence in Braden Health, which she said has concrete plans to reopen, though the timing has been delayed by an unresolved insurance claim from a burst water line that flooded a wing of the hospital.

Local residents still have trouble stomaching the sticker price: $100 for a property valued at $1.4 million by the local tax assessor. In addition to that low price, Braden Health won tax breaks for committing to invest $2 million into the building.

The Houston County hospital is valued at $4.1 million by the property assessor. But the final sale price was just $20,000 — and that wasn’t for the land or the building. Kopec said the amount was for a 2016 ambulance with 180,000 miles — deemed the only equipment with any remaining value.

An agreement with Braden Health to take over the shuttered hospital in Haywood County, Tennessee, valued at $4.6 million, was a similarly symbolic payment. All told, Braden Health is getting more than $10 million worth of real estate for less than the price of an appendectomy.

Kopec contends the value for each property is essentially negative given that the hospitals require so much investment to comply with health care standards and — according to the company’s purchase agreements — must be run as hospitals. If not, the hospitals revert to the counties.

Most of the funding for restoring these facilities comes directly from Braden, who thinks people overestimate the value of hospitals his company is taking over.

“If you look honestly at a lot of transactions that take place with rural hospitals and how many liabilities are tied up with them, there’s really not a lot of value there,” he said. Braden recently paid off a $2.3 million debt with Medicare for the Houston County hospital.

He said there’s no secret sauce, in his mind, except that small hospitals require just as much diligence as big medical centers — especially since their profit margins are so thin and patient volume so low. He wants to improve technology in ways that health plans reward hospitals, limit nurse staffing when business is slow, and watch medical supply inventories to cut waste.

It’s a tall order. Braden said he can understand any skepticism, even from the hospitals’ employees. They’ve heard turnaround promises before, and even they can be wary of the care they’d get at such run-down facilities.

Still, as Kopec bounced through the Erin hospital’s halls, he greeted nurses and clerical staff by name with a confidence that belies his age and experience. He tells anyone who will listen that rural hospitals require specialized knowledge.

“They’re not the most complicated things in the world,” Kopec said. “But if you don’t know exactly how to run them, you’re just going to run them straight into the ground.”

Inpatient payment increase not enough, AHA says

https://www.healthcarefinancenews.com/news/inpatient-payment-increase-not-enough-aha-says?mkt_tok=NDIwLVlOQS0yOTIAAAGGA2hNPoWk8cdzEHcBC5xk1t_79ltx5DUnzCdiUWpAvrtC-_vON29agi9pNZf0kUGl9cKeinq1FXBXdCEr_RCHDNPIsIG9WjhKw1KLwH8

Hospitals are forced to absorb inflationary expenses, particularly related to supporting their workforce, AHA says.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ increase in the inpatient payment rate for 2023 is welcome but not enough to offset expenses, according to the American Hospital Association.

CMS set a 4.1% market basket update for 2023 in its final rule released Monday, calling it the highest in the last 25 years. The increase was due to the higher cost in compensation for hospital workers.

The final rule gave inpatient hospitals a 4.3% increase for 2023, as opposed to the 3.2% increase in April’s proposed rule.

WHY THIS MATTERS

CMS used more recent data to calculate the market basket and disproportionate share hospital payments, a move that better reflects inflation and labor and supply cost pressures on hospitals, the AHA said.

“That said, this update still falls short of what hospitals and health systems need to continue to overcome the many challenges that threaten their ability to care for patients and provide essential services for their communities,” said AHA Executive Vice President Stacey Hughes. “This includes the extraordinary inflationary expenses in the cost of caring hospitals are being forced to absorb, particularly related to supporting their workforce while experiencing severe staff shortages.”

The AHA would continue to urge Congress to take action to support the hospital field, including by extending the low-volume adjustment and Medicare-dependent hospital programs, Hughes said.

In late July, Senate and House members urged CMS to increase the inpatient hospital payment.

Premier, which works with hospitals, also said the 4.3% payment update falls short of reflecting the rising labor costs that hospitals have experienced since the onset of the pandemic. 

“Coupled with record high inflation, this inadequate payment bump will only exacerbate the intense financial pressure on American hospitals,” said Soumi Saha, senior vice president of Government Affairs for Premier.

THE LARGER TREND

Recent studies show hospitals remain financially challenged since the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on revenue and supply chain and labor expenses. Piled onto that has been inflation that has added to soaring expenses.

Hospital margins were up slightly from May to June, but are still significantly lower than pre-pandemic levels, according to a Flash Report from Kaufman Hall.

The effects of the pandemic on the healthcare industry have been profound, resulting in the creation of new business models, according to a report from McKinsey.

Transformational change is necessary as hospitals have been hit hard by eroding margins due to cost inflation and expenses, Fitch found.

Massive Growth in Expenses and Rising Inflation Fuel Continued Financial Challenges for America’s Hospitals and Health Systems

https://www.aha.org/costsofcaring

Hospitals are experiencing significant increases in expenses for workforce, drugs and medical supplies

Introduction

For over two years since the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, America’s hospitals and health systems have been on the front lines caring for patients, comforting families and protecting communities.

With over 80 million cases1, nearly 1 million deaths2, and over 4.6 million hospitalizations3, the pandemic has taken a significant toll on hospitals and health systems and placed enormous strain on the nation’s health care workforce. During this unprecedented public health crisis, hospitals and health systems have confronted many challenges, including historic volume and revenue losses, as well as skyrocketing expenses (See Figure #1).

Hospitals and health systems have been nimble in responding to surges in COVID-19 cases throughout the pandemic by expanding treatment capacity, hiring staff to meet demand, acquiring and maintaining adequate supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect patients and staff and ensuring that critical services and programs remain available to the patients and communities they serve. However, these and other factors have led to billions of dollars in losses over the last two years for hospitals, and over 33% of hospitals are operating on negative margins.

The most recent surges triggered by the delta and omicron variants have added even more pressure to hospitals. During these surges, hospitals saw the number of COVID-19 infected patients rise while other patient volumes fell, and patient acuity increased. This drove up expenses and added significant financial pressure for hospitals. Moreover, hospitals did not receive any government assistance through the COVID-19 Provider Relief Fund (PRF) to help mitigate rising expenses and lost revenues during the delta and omicron surges. This is despite the fact that more than half of COVID-19 hospitalizations have occurred since July 1, 2021, during these two most recent COVID-19 surges.

At the same time, patient acuity has increased, as measured by how long patients need to stay in the hospital. The increase in acuity is a result of the complexity of COVID-19 care, as well as treatment for patients who may have put off care during the pandemic. The average length of a patient stay increased 9.9% by the end of 2021 compared to pre-pandemic levels in 2019.4

As hospitals treat sicker patients requiring more intensive treatment, they also must ensure that sufficient staffing levels are available to care for these patients, and must acquire the necessary expensive drugs and medical supplies to provide high-quality care. As a result, overall hospital expenses have experienced considerable growth.

Data from Kaufman Hall, a consulting firm that tracks hospital financial metrics, shows that by the end of 2021, total hospital expenses were up 11% compared to pre-pandemic levels in 2019. Even after accounting for changes in volume that occurred during the pandemic, hospital expenses per patient increased significantly from pre-pandemic levels across every category. (See Figure #1)

The pandemic has strained hospitals’ and health systems’ finances. Many hospitals operate on razorthin margins, so even slight increases in expenses can have dramatic negative effects on operating margins, which can jeopardize their ability to care for patients. These expense increases have been more challenging to withstand in light of rising inflation and growth in input prices. In fact, despite modest growth in revenues compared to pre-pandemic levels, median hospital operating margins were down 3.8% by the end of 2021 compared to pre-pandemic levels, according to Kaufman Hall. Further exacerbating the problem for hospitals are Medicare sequestration cuts and payment increases that are well below increases in costs. For example, an analysis by PINC found that for fiscal year 2022, hospitals received a 2.4% increase in their Medicare inpatient payment rate, while hospital labor rates increased 6.5%.5

These levels of increased expenses and declines in operating margins are not sustainable. This report highlights key pressures currently facing hospitals and health systems, including:

  1. Workforce and contract labor expenses
  2. Drug expenses
  3. Medical supply and PPE expenses
  4. Rising economy-wide inflation

Each of these issues separately presents significant challenges to the hospital field. Taken together, they represent conditions that would be potentially catastrophic for most organizations, institutions and industries. However, the fact that the nation’s hospitals and health systems continue to serve on the front lines of the ongoing pandemic is a testament to their resiliency and steadfast commitment to their mission to serve patients and communities around the country.

Hospitals and health systems are the cornerstones of their communities. Their patients depend on them for access to care 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Hospitals are often the largest employers in their community, and large purchasers of local services and goods. Additional support is needed to help ensure hospitals have the adequate resources to care for their communities.

I. Workforce and Contract Labor Expenses

The hospital workforce is central to the care process and often the largest expense for hospitals. It is no surprise then that even before the pandemic, labor costs — which include costs associated with recruiting and retaining employed staff, benefits and incentives — accounted for more than 50% of hospitals’ total expenses. Therefore, even a slight increase in these costs can have significant impacts on a hospital’s total expenses and operating margins.

As the pandemic has persisted for over two years, the toll on the health care workforce has been immense. A recent survey of health care workers found that approximately half of respondents felt “burned out” and nearly a quarter of respondents said they anticipated leaving the health care field.6

This has been mirrored by a significant and sustained decline in hospital employment, down approximately 100,000 employees from pre-pandemic levels.7 At the height of the omicron surge, approximately 1,400 hospitals or 30% of all U.S. hospitals reporting data to the government, indicated that they anticipated a critical staffing shortage within the week.8 This high percentage of hospitals reporting a critical staffing shortage stayed relatively consistent throughout the delta and omicron surges.

The combination of employee burnout, fewer available staff, increased patient acuity and higher demand for care especially during the delta and omicron surges, has forced hospitals to turn to contract staffing firms to help address staffing shortages.

Though hospitals have long worked with contract staffing firms to bridge temporary gaps in staffing, the pandemic-driven-staffing-shortage has created an expanded reliance on contract staff, especially contract or travel registered nurses. Travel nurses are in particularly high demand because they serve a critical role in delivering care for both COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients and allow the hospital to meet the demand for care, especially during pandemic surges.

According to a survey by AMN Healthcare, one of the nation’s largest health care staffing agencies, 95% of health care facilities reported hiring nurse staff from contract labor firms during the pandemic.9 Staffing firms have increased their recruitment of contract or travel nurses, illustrating the significant growth in their demand. According to data from EMSI/Burning Glass, there has been a nearly 120% increase in job postings for contract or travel nurses from pre-pandemic levels in January 2019 to January 2022. (See Figure #2)

Similarly, the hours worked by contract or travel nurses as a percentage of total hours worked by nurses in hospitals has grown from 3.9% in January 2019 to 23.4% in January 2022, according to data from Syntellis Performance Solutions. (See Figure #3) In fact, a quarter of hospitals have experienced nearly a third of their total nurse hours accounted for by contract or travel nurses.

As the share of contract travel nurse hours has grown significantly compared to before the pandemic, so too have the costs of employing travel nurses compared to pre-pandemic levels. In 2019, hospitals spent a median of 4.7% of their total nurse labor expenses for contract travel nurses, which skyrocketed to a median of 38.6% in January 2022. (See Figure #3) A quarter of hospitals — those who have had to rely disproportionately on contract travel nurses — saw their costs for contract travel nurses account for over 50% of their total nurse labor expenses. In fact, while contract travel nurses accounted for 23.4% of total nurse hours in January 2022, they accounted for nearly 40% of the labor expenses for nurses. (See Figure #3) This difference has grown considerably compared to pre-pandemic levels in 2019, suggesting that the exorbitant prices charged by staffing companies are a primary driver of higher labor expenses for hospitals.

Data from Syntellis Performance Solutions show a 213% increase in hourly rates charged to hospitals by staffing companies for travel nurses in January 2022 compared to pre-pandemic levels in January 2019. This is because staffing agencies have exploited the situation by increasing the hourly rates billed to hospitals for contract travel nurses more than the hourly rates they pay to travel nurses. This is effectively the “margin” retained by the staffing agencies. During pre-pandemic levels in 2019, the average “margin” retained by staffing agencies for travel nurses was about 15%. As of January 2022, the average “margin” has grown to an astounding 62%. (See Figure #4)

These high “margins” have fueled massive growth in the revenues and profits of health care staffing companies. Several staffing firms have reported significant growth in their revenues to as high as $1.1 billion in just the fourth quarter of 202110, tripling their revenues and net income compared to 2020 levels.11

The data indicate that the growth in labor expenses for hospitals and health systems was in large part due to the exorbitant rates charged by contract staffing firms. By the end of 2021, hospital labor expenses per patient were 36.9% higher than pre-pandemic levels, and increased to 57% at the height of the omicron surge in January 2022.12 A study looking at hospitals in New Jersey found that the increased labor expenses for contract staff amounted to $670 million in 2021 alone, which was more than triple what their hospitals spent in 2020.13 High reliance on contract or travel staff prevents hospitals and health systems from investing those costs into their existing employees, leading to low morale and high turnover, which further exacerbates the challenges hospitals and health systems have been facing.

II. Drug Expenses

Prescription drug spending in the U.S. has grown significantly since the pandemic. In 2021, drug spending (including spending in both retail and non-retail settings) increased 7.7%14, which was on top of an increase of 4.9%15 in 2020. While some of this growth can be attributed to increased utilization as patient acuity increased during the pandemic, a significant driver has been the continued increase in prices of existing drugs as well as the introduction of new products at very high prices. A study by GoodRx found that in January 2022 alone, drug companies increased the price of about 810 brand and generic drugs that they reviewed by an average of 5.1%.16 These price increases followed massive price hikes for certain drugs often used in the hospital such as Hydromorphone (107%), Mitomycin (99%), and Vasopressin (97%).17 For another example, the drug manufacturer of Humira, one of the most popular brand drugs used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, increased the price of the drug by 21% between 2019 and 2021.18 A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that in Medicare Part B and D markets, half of all drugs in each market experienced price increases above the rate of inflation between 2019 and 2020 – in fact, a third of these drugs experienced price increases of greater than 7.5%.19 At the same time, according to a report by the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review (ICER), eight drugs with unsupported U.S. drug price increases between 2019 and 2020 alone accounted for an additional $1.67 billion in drug spending, further illustrating that drug companies’ decisions to raise the prices of their drugs are simply an unsustainable practice.20

As hospitals have worked to treat sicker patients during the pandemic, they have been forced to contend with sky-high prices for drugs, many of which are critical and lifesaving for their patients. For example, in 2020, 16 of the top 25 drugs by spending in Medicare Part B (hospital outpatient settings) had price increases greater than inflation — two of the top three drugs, Keytruda and Prolia — experienced price increases of 3.3% and 4.1%, respectively.21

As a result of these price increases, hospital drug expenses have skyrocketed. By the end of 2021, total drug expenses were 28.2% higher than pre-pandemic levels.22 When taken as a share of all non-labor expenses, drug expenses have grown from approximately 8.2% in January 2019, to 9.3% in January 2021, and to 10.6% in January 2022. (See Figure #5) Even when considering changes in volume during the pandemic, drug expenses per patient compared to pre-pandemic levels in 2019 saw significant increases, with a 36.9% increase through 2021.

While continued drug price increases by drug companies have been a major driver of the growth in overall hospital drug expenses, there also are other important driving factors to consider:

  • Drug Treatments for COVID-19 Patients: Remdesivir, one of the primary drugs used to treat COVID-19 patients in the hospital, has become the top spend drug for most hospitals since the pandemic. This drug alone accounted for over $1 billion in sales in the fourth quarter of 2021.23 Priced at an average of $3,12024Remdesivir’s cost was initially covered by the federal government. However, hospitals must now purchase the drug directly.
  • Limitation of 340B Contract Pharmacies: The 340B program allows eligible providers, including hospitals that treat many low-income patients or treat certain patient populations like children and cancer patients, to buy certain outpatient drugs at discounted prices and use those savings to provide more comprehensive services to the patients and communities they serve. Since July 2020, several of the largest drug manufacturers have denied 340B pricing to eligible hospitals through pharmacies with whom they contract, despite calls from the Department of Health and Human Services that such actions are illegal. Because of these actions, many 340B hospitals, especially rural hospitals who disproportionately rely on contract pharmacies to ensure access to drugs for their patients, have lost millions in 340B drug savings.25 In addition, these manufacturers have required claim-level data submissions as a condition of receiving 340B discounts, which has increased costs to deliver the data as well as staff time and expense to manage that process. The loss of 340B savings coupled with increased burden of providing detailed data to drug companies have contributed to increasing drug expenses.
  • Health Plans’/Pharmacy Benefit Managers’ (PBMs’) “White Bagging” Policies: Health plans and PBMs have engaged in a tactic that steers hospital patients to third-party specialty pharmacies to acquire medication necessary for clinician-administered treatments, known as “white-bagging.” This practice disallows the hospital from procuring and managing the handling of a drug — typically drugs that are infused or injected requiring a clinician to administer in a hospital or clinic setting — used in patient care. These policies not only create serious patient safety concerns, but create delays and risks in patient care; add to administration, storage and handling costs; and create important liability issues for hospitals.

Taken together, these factors increase both drug expenses and overall hospital expenses.

III. Medical Supply and PPE Expenses

The U.S., like most countries in the world, relies on global supply chains for goods and services. This is especially true for medical supplies used at hospitals and other health care settings. Everything from the masks and gloves worn by staff to medical devices used in patient care come from a large network of global suppliers. Prior to the global pandemic, hospitals had established relationships with distributors and other vendors in the global health care supply chain to deliver goods as necessitated by demand. After the pandemic hit, many factories, distributors and other vendors shut down their operations, leaving hospitals, which were on the front lines facing surging demand, to fend for themselves. In fact, supply chain disruptions across industries, including health care, increased by 67% in 2020 alone.26

As a result, hospitals turned to local suppliers and non-traditional suppliers, often paying significantly higher rates than they did prior to the pandemic. Between fall 2020 and early 2022 costs for energy, resins, cotton and most metals surged in excess of 30%; these all are critical elements in the manufacturing of medical supplies and devices used every day in hospitals.27 As COVID-19 cases surged, demand for hospital PPE, such as N95 masks, gloves, eye protection and surgical gowns, increased dramatically causing hospitals to invest in acquiring and maintaining reserves of these supplies. Further, downstream effects from other global events such as the war in Ukraine and the energy crisis in China, as well as domestic issues, such as labor shortages and rising fuel and transportation costs, have all contributed to drive up even higher overall medical supply expenses for hospitals in the U.S.28 For instance, according to the Health Industry Distributors Association, transportation times for medical supplies are 440% longer than pre-pandemic times resulting in massive delays.29

Compared to 2019 levels, supply expenses for hospitals were up 15.9%30 through the end of 2021. When focusing on hospital departments involved most directly in care for COVID-19 patients − primarily hospital intensive care units (ICUs) and respiratory care departments − the increase in expenses is significantly higher. Medical supply expenses in ICUs and respiratory care departments increased 31.5% and 22.3%, respectively. Further, accounting for changes in volume during surge and non-surge periods of the pandemic, medical supply expenses per patient in ICUs and respiratory care departments were 31.8% and 25.9% higher, respectively. (See Figure #6) These numbers help illustrate the magnitude of the impact that increases in supply costs have had on hospital finances during the pandemic.

IV. Impact of Rising Inflation

Higher economy-wide costs have serious implications for hospitals and health systems, increasing the pressures of higher labor, supply, and acquisition costs; and potentially lower consumer demand. Inflation is defined as the general increase in prices and the decrease in purchasing power. It is measured by the Consumer Price Index (CPI-U). In April 2021, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that the CPI-U had the largest 12-month increase since September 2008. The CPI-U hit 40-year highs in February 2022.31 Overall, consumer prices rose by a historic 8.5% on an annualized basis in March 2022 alone.32

As inflation measured by consumer prices is at record highs, below are key considerations on the potential impact of higher general inflation on hospital prices:

  • Labor Costs and Retention: Labor costs represent a significant portion of hospital costs (typically more than 50% of hospital expenses are related to labor costs). As the cost-of-living increases, employees generally demand higher wages/total compensation packages to offset those costs. This is especially true in the health care sector, where labor demands are already high, and labor supply is low.
  • Supply Chain Costs: Medical supplies account for approximately 20% of hospital expenses, on average. As input/raw good costs increase due to general inflation, hospital supplies and medical device costs increase as well. Furthermore, shortages of raw materials, including those used to manufacture drugs, could stress supply chains (i.e., medical supply shortages), which may result in changes in care patterns and add further burden on staff to implement work arounds.
  • Capital Investment Costs: Capital investments also may be strained, especially as hospitals have already invested heavily in expanding capacity to treat patients during the pandemic (e.g., constructing spaces for testing and isolation of COVID-19 patients). One of the areas that has seen the largest increase in prices/shortages is building materials (e.g., lumber). Additionally, a historically large increase in inflation has resulted in increases in interest rates, which may hamper borrowing options and add to overall costs.
  • Consumer Demand: Higher inflation also may result in decreases in demand for health care services, specifically if inflation exceeds wage growth. Specifically, higher costs for necessities (food, transportation, etc.) could push down demand for health care services and, in turn, dampen hospital volumes and revenues in the long run.

Health care and hospital prices are not driving recent overall inflation increases. The BLS has cited increases in the indices for gasoline, shelter and food as the largest contributors to the seasonally adjusted all items increase. The CPI-U increased 0.8% in February on a seasonally adjusted basis, whereas the medical care index rose 0.2% in February. The index for prescription drugs rose 0.3%, but the hospital index for hospital services declined 0.1%.33

This is consistent with pre-pandemic trends. Despite persistent cost pressures, hospital prices have seen consistently modest growth in recent years. According to BLS data, hospital prices have grown an average 2.1% per year over the last decade, about half the average annual increase in health insurance premiums. (See Figure #7) More recently, hospital prices have grown much more slowly than the overall rate of inflation. In the 12 months ending in February 2022, hospital prices increased 2.1%. In fact, even when excluding the artificially low rates paid to hospitals by Medicare and Medicaid, average annual price growth has still been below 3% in recent years.34

Conclusion

While we hope that our nation is rounding the corner in the battle against COVID-19, it is clear that the pandemic is not over. During the week of April 11, there have been an average of over 33,000 cases per day35 and reports suggest that a new subvariant of the virus (Omicron BA.2) is now the dominant strain in the U.S.36 As a result, the challenges hospitals and health systems are currently facing are bound to last much longer.

As COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations are decreasing in some parts of the U.S. and increasing in others, hospitals and health systems continue to care for COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients. With additional surges potentially on the horizon, the massive growth in expenses is unsustainable. Most of the nation’s hospitals were operating on razor thin margins prior to the pandemic; and now, many of these hospitals are in an even more precarious financial situation. Regardless of potential new surges of COVID-19, hospitals and health systems continue to face workforce retention and recruitment challenges, supply chain disruptions and exorbitant expenses as outlined in this report.

Hospitals appreciate the support and resources that Congress has provided throughout the pandemic; however, additional support is needed now to keep hospitals strong so they can continue to provide care to patients and communities.

Saying farewell (for now) to a terrible financial quarter

Judging from our recent conversations with health system executives, we’d guess CEOs across the industry woke up this morning glad to see the first quarter in the rearview mirror.

Almost everyone we’ve spoken to has told us that the past three months have been miserable from an operating margin perspective—skyrocketing labor costs, rising drug and supply prices, and stubbornly long length of stay, particularly among Medicare patients.

In the words of one CFO, “I’ve never seen anything like this. For the first time, we budgeted for a negative margin, and still didn’t hit our target. I’m not sure how long our board will let us stay on this trajectory before things change.”

Yet few of the drivers of poor financial performance appear to be temporary. Perhaps the over-reliance on agency nursing staff will wane as COVID volumes bottom out (for how long remains unknown), but overall labor costs will remain high, there’s no immediate relief for supply chain issues, and COVID-related delays in care have left many patients sicker—and thus in need of more costly care. Plus, the lifeline of federal relief funds is rapidly dwindling, if not already gone.

Expect the next three quarters (and beyond) to bring a greater focus on cost cutting, especially as not-for-profit systems struggle to defend their bond ratings in the face of rising interest rates.

Buckle up, it’s going to be a bumpy landing.