ACA signups top 3M since start of open enrollment, a 17% bump compared to last year

https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/payers/aca-signups-top-3m-start-open-enrollment-17-bump-compared-last-year

Nearly 3.4 million people have signed up for 2023 Affordable Care Act insurance coverage since the start of open enrollment on Nov. 1, a record-setting pace that is a 17% boost over last year, new federal data shows. 

The signup data released Tuesday by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services shows a major hike in new signups on HealthCare.gov. 

“We are off to a strong start — and we will not rest until we can connect everyone possible to healthcare coverage this enrollment season,” Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement Tuesday.

The nearly 3.4 million in signups represents activity through Nov. 19 on HealthCare.gov, which is used by residents in 33 states to pick an ACA plan, and through Nov. 12 for the 16 states and District of Columbia that run their own marketplaces.

There are 655,000 people who are new to the exchanges that picked a plan already, making up 19% of the total plan signups so far. CMS added that 2.7 million people who already have 2022 coverage renewed or selected a new plan for 2023. 

“These plan selection numbers represent a 17% increase in total plan selections over last year,” CMS said in a release. 

There is especially major growth on HealthCare.gov, which has seen 493,216 new enrollees compared to 354,137 for the same time period last year.

“Providing quality, affordable health care options remains a top priority,” said CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure in a statement. “The numbers prove that our focus is in the right place.”

The new signups come as the Biden administration made new investments in expansions for marketing and outreach, including record-setting funding for the ACA navigator program. Administration officials are hoping for another robust period of signups thanks to enhanced subsidies to lower insurance costs. 

“Four out of five people will be able to find a plan for $10 or less after tax credits,” CMS said. 

The boosted tax credits were supposed to expire after this year but have been extended into 2025 by the Inflation Reduction Act.

The 2022 coverage year saw a record 14.5 million signups. The latest open enrollment for HealthCare.gov for 2023 coverage will run through Jan. 15.

How banks and hospitals are cashing in when patients can’t pay for health care

https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2022/11/17/1136201685/medical-debt-high-interest-credit-cards-hospitals-profit

Patients at North Carolina-based Atrium Health get what looks like an enticing pitch when they go to the nonprofit hospital system’s website: a payment plan from lender AccessOne. The plans offer “easy ways to make monthly payments” on medical bills, the website says. You don’t need good credit to get a loan. Everyone is approved. Nothing is reported to credit agencies.

In Minnesota, Allina Health encourages its patients to sign up for an account with MedCredit Financial Services to “consolidate your health expenses.” In Southern California, Chino Valley Medical Center, part of the Prime Healthcare chain, touts “promotional financing options with the CareCredit credit card to help you get the care you need, when you need it.”

As Americans are overwhelmed with medical bills, patient financing is now a multibillion-dollar business, with private equity and big banks lined up to cash in when patients and their families can’t pay for care. By one estimate from research firm IBISWorld, profit margins top 29% in the patient financing industry, seven times what is considered a solid hospital margin.

Hospitals and other providers, which historically put their patients in interest-free payment plans, have welcomed the financing, signing contracts with lenders and enrolling patients in financing plans with rosy promises about convenient bills and easy payments.

For patients, the payment plans often mean something more ominous: yet more debt.

Millions of people are paying interest on these plans, on top of what they owe for medical or dental care, an investigation by KHN and NPR shows. Even with lower rates than a traditional credit card, the interest can add hundreds, even thousands of dollars to medical bills and ratchet up financial strains when patients are most vulnerable.

Robin Milcowitz, a Florida woman who found herself enrolled in an AccessOne loan at a Tampa hospital in 2018 after having a hysterectomy for ovarian cancer, said she was appalled by the financing arrangements.

“Hospitals have found yet another way to monetize our illnesses and our need for medical help,” said Milcowitz, a graphic designer. She was charged 11.5% interest — almost three times what she paid for a separate bank loan. “It’s immoral,” she said.

MedCredit’s loans to Allina patients come with 8% interest. Patients enrolled in a CareCredit card from Synchrony, the nation’s leading medical lender, face a nearly 27% interest rate if they fail to pay off their loan during a zero-interest promotional period. The high rate hits about 1 in 5 borrowers, according to the company.

For many patients, financing arrangements can be confusing, resulting in missed payments or higher interest rates than they anticipated. The loans can also deepen inequalities. Lower-income patients without the means to make large monthly payments can face higher interest rates, while wealthier patients able to shoulder bigger monthly bills can secure lower rates.

More fundamentally, pushing people into loans that threaten their financial health runs against medical providers’ first obligation to not harm their patients, said patient advocate Mark Rukavina, program director at the nonprofit Community Catalyst.

“We’re dealing with sick people, scared people, vulnerable people,” Rukavina said. “Dangling a financial services product in front of them when they’re concerned about their care doesn’t seem appropriate.”

Debt upon debt for patients, as finance firms get a cut of payments

Nationwide, about 50 million people — or 1 in 5 adults — are on a financing plan to pay off a medical or dental bill, according to a KFF poll conducted for this project. About a quarter of those borrowers are paying interest, the poll found.

Increasingly, those interest payments are going to financing companies that promise hospitals they will collect more of their medical bills in exchange for a cut.

Hospital officials defend these arrangements, citing the need to offset the cost of offering financing options to patients. Alan Wolf, a spokesperson for the University of North Carolina’s hospital system, said that the system, which reported $5.8 billion in patient revenue last year, had a “responsibility to remain financially stable to assure we can provide care to all regardless of ability to pay.” UNC Health, as it is known, has contracted since 2019 with AccessOne, a private equity-backed company that finances loans for scores of hospital systems across the country.

This partnership has had a substantial impact on patient debt, according to a KHN analysis of billing and contracting records obtained through public records requests.

Most patients in 2019 were in no-interest payment plans

UNC Health, which as a public university system touts its commitment “to serve the people of North Carolina,” had long offered payment plans without interest. And when AccessOne took over the loans in September 2019, most patients were in no-interest plans.

That has steadily shifted as new patients enrolled in one of AccessOne’s plans, several of which have variable interest rates that now charge 13%.

In February 2020, records show, just 9% of UNC patients in an AccessOne plan were in a loan with the highest interest rate. Two years later, 46% were in such a plan. Overall, at any given time more than 100,000 UNC Health patients finance through AccessOne.

The interest can pile on debt. Someone with a $7,000 hospital bill, for example, who enrolls in a five-year financing plan at 13% interest will pay at least $2,500 more to settle that debt.

How a short-term solution ‘leads to longer-term problems’

Rukavina, the patient advocate, said adding this burden on patients makes little sense when medical debt is already creating so much hardship. “It may seem like a short-term solution, but it leads to longer-term problems,” he said. Health care debt has forced millions of Americans to cut back on food, give up their homes, and make other sacrifices, KHN found.

UNC Health disavowed responsibility for the additional debt, saying patients signed up for the higher-interest loans. “Any payment plans above zero-interest terms/conditions in place with AccessOne are in place at the request of the patient,” Wolf said in an email. UNC Health would only provide answers to written questions.

UNC Health’s patients aren’t the only ones getting routed into financing plans that require substantial interest payments.

At Atrium Health, a nonprofit system with roots as Charlotte’s public hospital that reported more than $7.5 billion in revenues last year, as many as half of patients enrolled in an AccessOne loan were in one of the company’s highest-interest plans, according to 2021 billing records analyzed by KHN.

At AU Health, Georgia’s main public university hospital system, billing records obtained by KHN show that two-thirds of patients on an AccessOne plan were paying the highest interest rate as of January.

A finance firm calls such loans ’empathetic patient financing’

AccessOne chief executive Mark Spinner, who in an interview called his firm a “compassionate, empathetic patient financing company,” said the range of interest rates gives patients and medical systems valuable options. “By offering AccessOne, you’re creating a much safer, more mission-aligned way for consumers to pay and help them stay out of medical debt,” he said. “It’s an alternative to lawsuits, legal action, and things like that.”

AccessOne, which doesn’t buy patient debt from hospitals, doesn’t run credit checks on patients to qualify them for loans. Nor will the company report patients who default to credit bureaus. The company also frequently markets the availability of zero-interest loans.

Some patients do qualify for no-interest plans, particularly if they have very low incomes. But the loans aren’t always as generous as company and hospital officials say.

AccessOne borrowers who miss payments can have their accounts returned to the hospital, which can sue them, report them to credit bureaus, or subject them to other collection actions. UNC Health refers unpaid bills to the state revenue department, which can garnish patients’ tax refunds. Atrium’s collections policy allows the hospital system to sue patients.

Because AccessOne borrowers can get low interest rates by making larger monthly payments, this financing system can also deepen inequalities. Someone who can pay $292 a month on a $7,000 hospital bill, for example, could qualify for a two-year, interest-free plan. But a patient who can pay only $159 a month would have to take a five-year plan with 13% interest, according to AccessOne.

“I see wealthier families benefiting,” said one former AccessOne employee, who asked not to be identified because she still works in the financing industry. “Lower-income families that have hardship are likely to end up with a higher overall balance due to the interest.”

Andy Talford, who oversees patient financial services at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, said the hospital contracted with AccessOne to make it easier for patients to manage their medical bills. “Someone out there is helping them keep track of it,” he said.

But patients can get tripped up by the complexities of managing these plans, consumer advocates say. That’s what happened to Milcowitz, the graphic designer in Florida.

Milcowitz, 51, had set up a no-interest payment plan with Moffitt to pay off $3,000 she owed for her hysterectomy in 2017. When the medical center switched her account to AccessOne, however, she began receiving late notices, even as she kept making payments.

Only later did she figure out that AccessOne had set up two accounts, one for the cancer surgery and another for medical appointments. Her payments had been applied only to the surgery account, leaving the other past-due. She then got hit with higher interest rates. “It’s crazy,” she said.

Lenders see a growing business opportunity

While financing plans may mean more headaches and more debt for patients, they’re proving profitable for lenders.

That’s drawn the interest of private equity firms, which have bought several patient financing companies in recent years. Since 2017, AccessOne’s majority owner has been private equity investor Frontier Capital.

Synchrony, which historically marketed its CareCredit cards in patient waiting rooms, is now also inking deals with medical systems to enroll patients in loans when they go online to pay bills.

“They’re like pilot fish eating off the back of the shark,” said Jonathan Bush, a founder of Athenahealth, a health technology company that has developed electronic medical records and billing systems.

As patient bills skyrocket, hospitals face mounting pressure to collect more, which can make financing arrangements seem appealing, industry experts say. But as health systems go into business with lenders, many are reluctant to share details. Only a handful of hospitals contacted by KHN agreed to be interviewed about their contracts and what they mean for patients.

Several public systems, including Atrium and UNC Health, disclosed information only after KHN submitted public records requests. Even then, the two systems redacted key details, including how much they pay AccessOne.

AU Health, which did not redact its contract, pays AccessOne a 6% “servicing fee” on each patient loan the company administers. But like Atrium and UNC Health, AU Health refused to provide any on-the-record interviews.

Other hospital systems were even less transparent. Mercyhealth, a nonprofit with hospitals and clinics in Illinois and Wisconsin that routes its patients to CareCredit, would not discuss its lending practices. “We do not have anyone available for this,” spokesperson Therese Michels said. Allina Health and Prime Healthcare also wouldn’t talk about their patient financing deals.

Bush said there’s a reason so few hospitals want to discuss their financing deals: They’re embarrassed. “It’s like they quietly write someone’s name on a piece of paper and slide it across the table,” he said. “They don’t want to be a part of it because they have in their institutional memory that they are supposed to look after patients’ best interests.”

Some hospitals and banks still offer interest-free help

Not all hospitals expose their patients to extra costs to finance medical bills.

Lake Region Healthcare, a small nonprofit with hospitals and clinics in rural Minnesota that contracts with Missouri-based Commerce Bank, charges no interest or fees on payment plans. That’s a decision that spokesperson Katie Johnson said was made “for the benefit of our patients.”

Even some AccessOne clients such as the University of Kansas Health System shield patients from interest. But as providers look to boost their bottom lines, it’s unclear how long these protections will last. Colette Lasack, who oversees financing for the Kansas system, noted: “There’s a cost associated with that.”

Meanwhile, large national lenders such as Discover Financial Services are looking at the patient financing business.

“I’ve had to become more of a health care marketer,” said Matt Lattman, vice president for personal loans at Discover, which is pitching the loans to people with unexpected medical bills. “In a world where many people are ill prepared to cover their health care costs, the personal loan can provide an opportunity.”

COVID public health emergency (PHE) likely to extend past January

https://mailchi.mp/4b683d764cf3/the-weekly-gist-november-18-2022?e=d1e747d2d8

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) appears set to extend the federal COVID PHE past its current expiration date of January 11, 2023, as HHS had promised to give stakeholders at least 60 days’ notice before ending it, and that deadline came and went on November 11th. Days later the Senate voted to end the PHE, a bill which Biden has promised to veto should it reach his desk. Measures set to expire with the PHE, or on a several month delay after it ends, include Medicare telehealth flexibilities, continuous enrollment guarantees in Medicaid, and boosted payments to hospitals treating COVID patients. 

The Gist: Despite growing calls to end the PHE declaration, and even as White House COVID coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha has said another severe COVID surge this winter is unlikely, the White House is likely trying to buy time to resolve the complicated issues tied to the PHE, some of which must be dealt with legislatively. 

And with a divided Congress ahead, it remains to be seen how these issues, especially Medicare telehealth flexibilities—a topic of bipartisan agreement—are sorted out. Meanwhile the continuation of the PHE prevents states from beginning Medicaid re-determinations, allowing millions of Americans to avoid being disenrolled.

Congressional control still undecided, but voters protect and expand state-level healthcare access in midterms

https://mailchi.mp/cfd0577540a3/the-weekly-gist-november-11-2022?e=d1e747d2d8

While the final balance of the House and Senate are still unknown after Tuesday’s midterm elections, both chambers are expected to be narrowly divided. 

Ballot initiatives on reproductive health produced more unambiguous results, with three states—California, Michigan, and Vermont—amending their constitutions to affirm reproductive rights, and two states—Kentucky and Montana—voting down proposals that would have imposed greater legal barriers to abortion access. South Dakota became the seventh, and likely final, state to expand Medicaid via ballot initiativemaking an additional 28K South Dakotans eligible for coverage, and reducing the number of states that have yet to expand Medicaid to 11.

The Gist: Democrats beat expectations, bucking historical trends in which midterm voters swing strongly against the President’s party. But healthcare did not feature prominently in voters’ choices, with this being the first election in over a decade where the state of the Affordable Care Act and protecting individuals’ access to care and coverage was not a significant choice driver. 

The fallout from the Supreme Court’s decision in June to overturn Roe v. Wade had a clear impact on voter turnout, with abortion tying inflation for voters’ top concern in exit polls. At the state level, South Dakota voters approved Medicaid expansion, where over 40 percent of the state’s uninsured adults could now gain access to coverage—another clear sign that voters, regardless of party affiliation, are behind the ACA’s expanded vision for the safety net program. 

Moving forward, a closely divided Congress is unlikely to take on significant healthcare legislation, regardless of who ultimately holds the House and Senate.

Tenth year of Affordable Care Act (ACA) marketplace enrollment begins

https://mailchi.mp/46ca38d3d25e/the-weekly-gist-november-4-2022?e=d1e747d2d8

Tuesday marked the start of the tenth season of open enrollment in the ACA’s health insurance exchanges. Last year, a record 14.5M Americans obtained coverage through the exchanges, and this year’s total is expected to surpass that. That’s thanks to the extended subsidies included in the Inflation Reduction Act, a fix to the “family glitch” that prevented up to 1M low-income families from accessing premium assistance, and expanded offerings by most major insurers, who have been enticed by the exchanges’ recent stability. The average unsubsidized premium for benchmark silver plans in 2023 is expected to rise by about four percent, but the enhanced financial assistance will lower net premiums for most enrollees. 

The Gist: ACA marketplace enrollment has grown nearly 80 percent since opening in 2014, and exchange plans now cover 4.5 percent of Americans. After enrollment lagged during the Trump administration, the combination of policy fixes and improved risk pools are attracting insurers back into the exchanges, where enrollees are finding more affordable plans than ever before. 

We consider this a commendable first decade, but the success of the exchanges over the next ten years remains subject to political winds. Congress must revisit the extended subsidies by 2025, and a different administration might deprioritize marketplace advertising and navigation support, policies have which proven crucial to the exchanges’ recent growth. 

A mother’s harrowing RSV story ends with a simple lesson

I began to wonder if this trip to a pediatric urgent care with my son was even necessary.  

Sure, he had been diagnosed with pneumonia a week ago and didn’t seem to be getting better. His cough sounded uglier. But here Ethan was in classic two-and-a-half-year-old mode: running in big circles around the waiting room chairs and causing the kind of ruckus only a toddler can.  

He’d stuff some Pirate’s Booty I had hastily thrown into my purse in his mouth, before returning to his wild banshee ways and dashing around in circles again. 

Our pediatrician said their office was too swamped with sick kids to see us, and referred us to this place. We had been told the wait to see a doctor would be a minimum of an hour. We struggled to find a seat in the packed waiting room as far as possible from other coughing kids. 

We finally graduated from the waiting room to the doctor’s office, only for Ethan to continue his marathon by scooting a rolling chair back and forth, roaring with laughter every time it hit the examining table. When the physician walked in, I felt like I needed to defend wasting her time with this visit with my seemingly A-OK, albeit destructive, son. 

But Ethan wasn’t OK.  

The doctor listened to his chest with her stethoscope and didn’t like what she heard: wheezing, some crackling.

She showed me how Ethan’s Pirate’s Booty-stuffed stomach moved heavily each time he inhaled and exhaled. 

They had Ethan complete a nebulizer treatment in the office, which meant slipping a device on his face that resembled an oxygen mask, while medicated air meant to open up his lungs flowed through a frightfully loud machine. I held him in my lap while the nebulizer was on, scrambling to find 100 different versions of “Wheels on the Bus” videos on YouTube to try to distract him from the vacuum-like whirring of the machine. 

The doctor listened to his lungs again. His breathing still didn’t sound great, but she said the hospitals were too inundated right now.  

I knew all too well what she meant. A few days before our urgent care visit, I had flagged a report for editors at The Hill that said children’s hospitals in the Washington area were at capacity, flooded with young kids suffering from RSV, a potentially life-threatening respiratory illness that has no vaccine. 

After a three-hour visit, she gave Ethan a steroid and told us to follow up with his pediatrician the next day. 

By the time we got to the pediatrician’s office the following morning, my happy-go-lucky, playful little guy was anything but. He curled up in my lap, as we went through a similar routine that the urgent care doctor had done just the night before. His oxygen levels were too low, and our pediatrician had him do another nebulizer treatment. 

“Our goal is to keep you from going to the hospital,” our pediatrician told us.

It seemed like an unusual “goal” from a doctor, but I understood her reasoning. But after Ethan’s oxygen levels dipped lower still after the nebulizer, she said we should rush him straight to the hospital after all. 

My “Blue’s Clues” and vehicle-obsessed son, usually the epitome of toddler “I can do it myself!” independence, wouldn’t let me put him down for even a moment as we waited in the emergency room lobby. Surprisingly, a separate waiting area in the ER just for children wasn’t completely full, and I wondered if maybe news reports of endless waits were overblown.  

Not so. 

“He’s so cute,” a young mother in the waiting room told me, as she motioned to Ethan’s head of curls. She cradled her two-month-old in her arms, patiently rocking the baby after telling me she had waited three hours so far. 

I held Ethan as my husband rushed from work to the hospital, meeting us there and with us as we were brought to an ER triage area. They ran more oxygen tests on Ethan, got some of his history, and then sent us back to the waiting room. 

Finally, they called Ethan’s name and we were in the ER. My vibrant, otherwise-healthy kid was lethargic, laying on me with a glazed look in his eyes. We struggled to fit the two of us on an exam table meant for a single adult. They draped a lead apron over me and Ethan as they took X-rays of his tiny lungs. The nurse placed a cannula in Ethan’s nose for supplemental oxygen and put an IV in his arm to give him fluids, before wrapping it with a diaper so he wouldn’t try to take out the tube.  

My husband and I, loopy from what was happening, laughed at the sight of a diaper being used MacGyver-style. “Hey, it works!” the nurse said, explaining that he’d done the maneuver with kid after kid in recent weeks. 

The ER doctor finally came in our room and delivered a crash course in what might be to come. “Everywhere is full. The entire Eastern seaboard,” he said of hospitals. 

“We’ve been airlifting kids to Pittsburgh, sometimes to Richmond,” he added. This hospital had a pediatric unit, but not an intensive care geared towards kids. So if Ethan’s condition became even more dire, they wouldn’t be able to treat him there. Our only hope was that the pediatric unit, which had just a few remaining beds, accepted him. 

It was a gut punch. As the doctor left, my husband looked at Ethan, who had fallen asleep with a mask on as the nebulizer loudly buzzed away for another treatment. 

“He’s just a baby. He’s not supposed to be here,” my husband said, defeated. 

The pediatric unit doctor finally came into our room. She examined Ethan, and briefed us on how they’ve been dealing with case after case of the same thing: RSV.  

But she offered us hope: he could head to the pediatric unit at the hospital. We wouldn’t need to travel for his care, as long as he didn’t worsen. Ten hours after we first entered the hospital, we had a bed for Ethan. 

We’re among the lucky ones. We were told beyond airlifting, plenty of families had been spending multiple nights in the ER because there were no beds.  

In Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) announced last week that that hospitals would receive $25 million in additional funding from the state to prioritize pediatric intensive care unit staffing. Children from birth to age two comprised 57 percent of hospitalizations last week, according to Hogan’s office. 

Next to the ghost decorations for Halloween adorning the doors of the pediatric unit, room after room had the same notice taped up: isolation guidelines. The rooms were all filled with kids facing the exact same thing as Ethan. RSV was everywhere. 

There’s no cure for RSV. Every two hours on the dot, the nurses would give Ethan the nebulizer treatment.

A monitor affixed to his foot would alert nurses if his oxygen dipped dangerously low, which it did several times throughout the first night. I thought at one point to ask what happens if Ethan stopped responding to the treatments, but then didn’t ask because I didn’t want to know the answer.  

The goal was to get him going without the need for additional oxygen, and breathing well for at least four hours between treatments, two times in a row. 

That seemingly simple goal proved elusive for two full days. I originally thought it would be a nightmare trying to get a two-year-old to stay in a hospital bed for more than five minutes, but Ethan was in such bad shape that he barely made a fuss. Then, after midnight on our second night in the hospital, Ethan suddenly perked up. 

He sat up and rolled over in the hospital bed. Then, he rolled onto my head, spreading his arms and legs out as far as he could stretch, and giggled. 

“Should I sleep here?” he said, cracking himself up. 

It was like someone hit the power button on my kid, and suddenly he snapped back to himself. I didn’t care that it was midnight and we needed to get some extremely interrupted sleep before the next nebulizer treatment. My son was back. 

A nurse later told me that she enjoyed working with kids because for as quickly as their health can deteriorate, they can just as speedily bounce back. 

After that, the doctor advised us to try stretching out his time between treatments. Finally, we were told he was stable enough to go home. I somehow hadn’t shed a tear the entire time we were at the hospital, but when the doctor signed off on us leaving, I bawled.  

As nightmarish an experience as it was, I realize how incredibly fortunate my family is.  

My husband and I have jobs that allowed us to drop everything when our son needed help, we have health insurance policies, and resources to get through spending days at the hospital.  

Perhaps most importantly, we had access to an incredible team of doctors and nurses and the sheer fortune of being able to get a bed for our son during an unprecedented and unthinkable time for hospitals. 

At the risk of repeating one of those parenting cliches that I would’ve rolled my eyes at a week ago, I’m thankful that I trusted my gut. Even when Ethan was being a wild child at urgent care, I knew something just wasn’t right. What I didn’t know was how much he had been struggling to breathe. 

At the hospital after being discharged, Ethan and I waited in the lobby as my husband went to get our car from the parking lot to pick us up. Ethan spotted some empty wheelchairs in the corner of the lobby, and immediately ran over to them. He giggled as he tried to roll one of the chairs into the automatic opening and closing doors. As I looked on as he laughed and laughed at the pint-sized commotion he created, I breathed a sigh of relief. 

The next health care wars are about costs

All signs point to a crushing surge in health care costs for patients and employers next year — and that means health care industry groups are about to brawl over who pays the price.

Why it matters: The surge could build pressure on Congress to stop ignoring the underlying costs that make care increasingly unaffordable for everyday Americans — and make billions for health care companies.

[This special report kicks off a series to introduce our new, Congress-focused Axios Pro: Health Care, coming Nov. 14.]

  • This year’s Democratic legislation allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices was a rare case of addressing costs amid intense drug industry lobbying against it. Even so, it was a watered down version of the original proposal.
  • But the drug industry isn’t alone in its willingness to fight to maintain the status quo, and that fight frequently pits one industry group against another.

Where it stands: Even insured Americans are struggling to afford their care, the inevitable result of years of cost-shifting by employers and insurers onto patients through higher premiums, deductibles and other out-of-pocket costs.

  • But employers are now struggling to attract and retain workers, and forcing their employees to shoulder even more costs seems like a less viable option.
  • Tougher economic times make patients more cost-sensitive, putting families in a bind if they get sick.
  • Rising medical debt, increased price transparency and questionable debt collection practices have rubbed some of the good-guy sheen off of hospitals and providers.
  • All of this is coming to a boiling point. The question isn’t whether, but when.

Yes, but: Don’t underestimate Washington’s ability to have a completely underwhelming response to the problem, or one that just kicks the can down the road — or to just not respond at all.

Between the lines: If you look closely, the usual partisan battle lines are changing.

  • The GOP’s criticism of Democrats’ drug pricing law is nothing like the party’s outcry over the Affordable Care Act, and no one seriously thinks the party will make a real attempt to repeal it.
  • One of the most meaningful health reforms passed in recent years was a bipartisan ban on surprise billing, which may provide a more modern template for health care policy fights.
  • Surprise medical bills divided lawmakers into two teams, but it wasn’t Democrats vs. Republicans; it was those who supported the insurer-backed reform plan vs. the hospital and provider-backed one. This fight continues today — in court.

The bottom line: Someone is going to have to pay for the coming cost surge, whether that’s patients, taxpayers, employers or the health care companies profiting off of the system. Each industry group is fighting like hell to make sure it isn’t them.

Inflation Is Squeezing Hospital Margins—What Happens Next?

https://www.healthaffairs.org/content/forefront/inflation-squeezing-hospital-margins-happens-next

Hospitals in the United States are on track for their worst financial year in decades. According to a recent report, median hospital operating margins were cumulatively negative through the first eight months of 2022. For context, in 2020, despite unprecedented losses during the initial months of COVID-19, hospitals still reported median eight-month operating margins of 2 percent—although these were in large part buoyed by federal aid from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

The recent, historically poor financial performance is the result of significant pressures on multiple fronts. Labor shortages and supply-chain disruptions have fueled a dramatic rise in expenses, which, due to the annually fixed nature of payment rates, hospitals have thus far been unable to pass through to payers. At the same time, diminished patient volumes—especially in more profitable service lines—have constrained revenues, and declining markets have generated substantial investment losses.

While it’s tempting to view these challenges as transient shocks, a rapid recovery seems unlikely for a number of reasons. Thus, hospitals will be forced to take aggressive cost-cutting measures to stabilize balance sheets. For some, this will include department or service line closures; for others, closing altogether. As these scenarios unfold, ultimately, the costs will be borne by patients, in one form or another.

Hospitals Face A Difficult Road To Financial Recovery

There are several factors that suggest hospital margins will face continued headwinds in the coming years. First, the primary driver of rising hospital expenses is a shortage of labor—in particular, nursing labor—which will likely worsen in the future. Since the start of the pandemic, hospitals have lost a total of 105,000 employees, and nursing vacancies have more than doubled. In response, hospitals have relied on expensive contract nurses and extended overtime hours, resulting in surging wage costs. While this issue was exacerbated by the pandemic, the national nursing shortage is a decades-old problem that—with a substantial portion of the labor force approaching retirement and an insufficient supply of new nurses to replace them—is projected to reach 450,000 by 2025.

Second, while payment rates will eventually adjust to rising costs, this is likely to occur slowly and unevenly. Medicare rates, which are adjusted annually based on an inflation projection, are already set to undershoot hospital costs. Given that Medicare doesn’t issue retrospective corrections, this underadjustment will become baked into Medicare prices for the foreseeable future, widening the gap between costs and payments.

This leaves commercial payers to make up the difference. Commercial rates are typically negotiated in three- to five-year contract cycles, so hospitals on the early side of a new contract may be forced to wait until renegotiation for more substantial pricing adjustments. “Negotiation is also the operative term here, as payers are under no obligation to offset rising costs. Instead, it is likely that the speed and degree of price adjustments will be dictated by provider market share, leaving smaller hospitals at a further disadvantage. This trend was exemplified during the 2008 financial crisis, in which only the most prestigious hospitals were able to significantly adjust pricing in response to historic investment losses.

Finally, economic uncertainty and the threat of recession will create continued disruptions in patient volumes, particularly with elective procedures. Although health care has historically been referred to as “recession-proof,” the growing prevalence of high-deductible health plans (HDHPs) and more aggressive cost-sharing mechanisms have left patients more exposed to health care costs and more likely to weigh these costs against other household expenditures when budgets get tight. While this consumerist response is not new—research on previous recessions has identified direct correlations between economic strength and surgical volumes—the degree of cost exposure for patients is historically high. Since 2008, enrollment in HDHPs has increased nearly four-fold, now representing 28 percent of all employer-sponsored enrollments. There’s evidence that this exposure is already impacting patient decisions. Recently, one in five adults reported delaying or forgoing treatment in response to general inflation.

Taken together, these factors suggest that the current financial pressures are unlikely to resolve in the short term. As losses mount and cash reserves dwindle, hospitals will ultimately need to cut costs to stem the bleeding—which presents both challenges and opportunities.

Direct And Indirect Consequences For Cost, Quality, And Access To Care

Inevitably, as rising costs become baked into commercial pricing, patients will face dramatic premium hikes. As discussed above, this process is likely to occur slowly over the next few years. In the meantime, the current challenges and the manner in which hospitals respond will have lasting implications on quality and access to care, particularly among the most vulnerable populations.

Likely Effects On Patient Experience And Quality Of Care

Insufficient staffing has already created substantial bottlenecks in outpatient and acute-care facilities, resulting in increased wait times, delayed procedures, and, in extreme cases, hospitals diverting patients altogether. During the Omicron surge, 52 of 62 hospitals in Los Angeles, California, were reportedly diverting patients due to insufficient beds and staffing.

The challenges with nursing labor will have direct consequences for clinical quality. Persistent nursing shortages will force hospitals to increase patient loads and expand overtime hours, measures that have been repeatedly linked to longer hospital stays, more clinical errors, and worse patient outcomes. Additionally, the wave of experienced nurses exiting the workforce will accelerate an already growing divide between average nursing experience and the complexity of care they are asked to provide. This trend, referred to as the “Experience-Complexity Gap,” will only worsen in the coming years as a significant portion of the nursing workforce reaches retirement age. In addition to the clinical quality implications, the exodus of experienced nurses—many of whom serve in crucial nurse educator and mentorship roles—also has feedback effects on the training and supply of new nurses.

Staffing impacts on quality of care are not limited to clinical staff. During the initial months of the pandemic, hospitals laid off or furloughed hundreds of thousands of nonclinical staff, a common target for short-term payroll reductions. While these staff do not directly impact patient care (or billed charges), they can have a significant impact on patient experience and satisfaction. Additionally, downsizing support staff can negatively impact physician productivity and time spent with patients, which can have downstream effects on cost and quality of care.

Disproportionate Impacts On Underserved Communities

Reduced access to care will be felt most acutely in rural regions. recent report found that more than 30 percent of rural hospitals were at risk of closure within the next six years, placing the affected communities—statistically older, sicker, and poorer than average—at higher risk for adverse health outcomes. When rural hospitals close, local residents are forced to travel more than 20 miles further to access inpatient or emergency care. For patients with life-threatening conditions, this increased travel has been linked to a 5–10 percent increase in risk of mortality.

Rural closures also have downstream effects that further deteriorate patient use and access to care. Rural hospitals often employ the majority of local physicians, many of whom leave the community when these facilities close. Access to complex specialty care and diagnostic testing is also diminished, as many of these services are provided by vendors or provider groups within hospital facilities. Thus, when rural hospitals close, the surrounding communities lose access to the entire care continuum. As a result, individuals within these communities are more likely to forgo treatment, testing, or routine preventive services, further exacerbating existing health disparities.

In areas not affected by hospital closures, access will be more selectively impacted. After the 2008 financial crisis, the most common cost-shifting response from hospitals was to reduce unprofitable service offerings. Historically, these measures have disproportionately impacted minority and low-income patients, as they tend to include services with high Medicaid populations (for example, psychiatric and addiction care) and crucial services such as obstetrics and trauma care, which are already underprovided in these communities. Since 2020, dozens of hospitals, both urban and rural, have closed or suspended maternity care. Similar to closure of rural hospitals, these closures have downstream effects on local access to physicians or other health services.

Potential For Productive Cost Reduction And The Need For A Measured Policy Response

Despite the doom-and-gloom scenario presented above, the focus on hospital costs is not entirely negative. Cost-cutting measures will inevitably yield efficiencies in a notoriously inefficient industry. Additionally, not all facility closures negatively impact care. While rural facility closures can have dire consequences in health emergencies, studies have found that outcomes for non-urgent conditions remained similar or actually improved.

Historically, attempts to rein in health care spending have focused on the demand side (that is, use) or on negotiated prices. These measures ignore the impact of hospital costs, which have historically outpaced inflation and contributed directly to rising prices. Thus, the current situation presents a brief window of opportunity in which hospital incentives are aligned with the broader policy goals of lowering costs. Capitalizing on this opportunity will require a careful balancing act from policy makers.

In response to the current challenges, the American Hospital Association has already appealed to Congress to extend federal aid programs created in the CARES Act. While this would help to mitigate losses in the short term, it would also undermine any positive gains in cost efficiency. Instead of a broad-spectrum bailout, policy makers should consider a more targeted approach that supports crucial community and rural services without continuing to fund broader health system inefficiencies.

The establishment of Rural Emergency Hospitals beginning in 2023 represents one such approach to eliminating excess costs while preventing negative patient consequences. This rule provides financial incentives for struggling critical access and rural hospitals to convert to standalone emergency departments instead of outright closing. If effective, this policy would ensure that affected communities maintain crucial access to emergency care while reducing overall costs attributed to low-volume, financially unviable services.

Policies can also help promote efficiencies by improving coverage for digital and telehealth services—long touted as potential solutions to rural health care deserts—or easing regulations to encourage more effective use of mid-level providers.

Conclusion

The financial challenges facing hospitals are substantial and likely to persist in the coming years. As a result, health systems will be forced to take drastic measures to reduce costs and stabilize profit margins. The existing challenges and the manner in which hospitals respond will have long-term implications for cost, quality, and access to care, especially within historically underserved communities. As with any crisis, though, they also present an opportunity to address industrywide inefficiencies. By relying on targeted, evidence-based policies, policy makers can mitigate the negative consequences and allow for a more efficient and effective system to emerge.