Possible strike looms for 28,000 Kaiser workers in Southern California

80,000 Kaiser Permanente workers to strike nationwide in October | Fox  Business

Nurses and other healthcare workers have voted to authorize a strike at Kaiser Permanente in Southern California, according to a union news release.

The vote covers 21,000 registered nurses, pharmacists, midwives, physical therapists and other healthcare professionals represented by the United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals, as well as 7,000 members of United Steelworkers. It does not mean a strike is scheduled. However, it gives bargaining teams the option of calling a strike. Unions representing the workers would have to provide a 10-day notice before striking.

The vote comes as Oakland, Calif.-based Kaiser is negotiating for a national contract with UNAC/UHCP, along with about 20 other unions in the Alliance of Health Care Unions. The alliance, which has been in negotiations with Kaiser since April, covers more than 50,000 Kaiser workers nationwide.

UNAC/UHCP said union members are facing “protracted understaffing” amid record levels of burnout during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“While healthcare workers are facing record levels of burnout after 18 months of the COVID pandemic, they continue to deal with protracted understaffing. Talks at the table center on how to recruit to fill open positions that impact patient care and service,” the union said in a news release. “Kaiser Permanente … wants to slash wages for new nurses and healthcare workers and depress wages for current workers trying to keep up with rising costs for food, housing and other essentials.”

Kaiser has defended its pay amid a challenging pandemic, saying its proposal includes wage increases for current employees “on top of the already market-leading pay and benefits,” as well as a market-based compensation structure for those hired in 2023 and beyond.

In a statement shared with Becker’s Oct. 11, the system also emphasized its continued focus on high-quality, safe care.

“In the event of any kind of work stoppage, our facilities will be staffed by our physicians along with trained and experienced managers and contingency staff,” the system said. 

This strike would affect Kaiser hospitals and medical centers in Anaheim, Bakersfield, Baldwin Park, Downey, Fontana, Irvine, Los Angeles, Ontario Vineyard, Panorama City, Riverside, San Diego, West Los Angeles and Woodland Hills, as well as various clinics and medical office buildings in Southern California.

Hospitals still spending more on PPE, labor as result of COVID-19

Dive Brief:

  • Hospitals across the country have spent more than $3 billion on personal protective equipment since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, though costs have steadily declined since the worst shortages experienced during the second quarter of 2020, according to an analysis from Premier, a group purchasing organization.
  • Before the pandemic, hospitals normally spent about $7 on PPE costs per patient per day. That figure shot to $20.40 during the second quarter of last year, and during the first quarter of this year was around $12.45 per patient per day, according to Premier.
  • Hospitals are also still paying more for qualified clinical labor — roughly $24 billion more in total per year compared to before the pandemic, according to another Premier analysis out last week.

Dive Insight:

PPE was in short supply early in the pandemic, spurring bidding wars and financially straining hospitals as they suffered from the budgetary fallout of canceled elective surgeries and other lucrative services.

While supply chain challenges have since eased and costs are down since their peak, hospitals are still spending more on PPE than before the pandemic, and consumption and demand remains strong in light of the delta variant, according to the report.

Premier used a database representing 30% of U.S. hospitals across all regions from September 2019 through last month to track spending trends, looking at costs for eye protection, surgical gowns, N95 respirators, face masks, exam gloves and swabs. It then calculated total costs measuring quantities used per patient, per day, multiplied by the percent change in pricing for the quarter.

Ultimately, hospitals are still using far more N95 respirators than they were prior to the pandemic.

Demand is still up for eye protection, surgical gowns and face masks, though pricing is close to pre-pandemic levels for those items. Costs for surgical gloves and N95 respirators are still above pre-pandemic levels, according to the analysis.

While most PPE costs have steadily declined for hospitals, other expenses have not, namely labor costs.

Contract labor costs have fluctuated, though they reached record highs amid COVID-19 surges, commanding record rates from providers. And nursing shortages, especially, have been so dire that hospitals are spending more on recruiting and retaining for the positions, boosting benefits and offering steep sign on bonuses.

Clinical labor costs are up 8% on average per patient, per day compared to before the pandemic, according to the earlier Premier analysis. That translates to about $17 million in additional annual labor expenses for the average 500-bed facility.

As of last month, overtime hours are up 52% since before the pandemic. The use of agency and temporary labor is up 132% for full-time employees and 131% for part-time employees.

The most expensive labor choices for hospitals are contract labor and overtime, typically adding 50% or more to an employee’s hourly rate, according to Premier.

For that report, Premier used a database with daily data from about 250 hospitals, bi-weekly data from 650 hospitals and quarterly data for 500 hospitals from October 2019 through August to analyze workforce trends among employees in emergency departments, intensive care units or nursing areas.

Labor shortages will strain hospital budgets through 2022, Moody’s says

https://www.healthcaredive.com/news/labor-shortages-pressure-hospital-budgets-expenses/607759/

Dive Brief:

  • The delta variant of the coronavirus continues to pile on staffing challenges for hospitals as they spend more resources on recruiting and retaining employees, jack up benefit options and offer steep sign-on bonuses, according to a Tuesday report from Moody’s Investors Service.
  • Those expenses will strain hospital profitability at a time when lucrative non-emergency procedures are on hold in some areas to handle incoming COVID-19 inpatients. Moody’s expects the weight on hospital budgets to continue through next year.
  • Although demand for temporary nursing staff dipped last week, it is still well beyond pre-pandemic levels, according to data gathered by Jefferies analysts. Crisis jobs — those that are rapid response or bill more than $100 an hour — represent more than three quarters of staffing firm Aya Healthcare’s openings, the third highest percentage Jefferies has recorded.

Dive Insight:

The highly contagious delta variant is wreaking havoc on the U.S. healthcare system as mostly unvaccinated people are filling ICUs more than a year and half into the pandemic. Clinicians who have throughout that time been stressed working long and difficult hours are reporting intense burnout as some mull leaving the profession altogether.

Meanwhile, vaccine mandates have gone into effect for many hospitals. Although they report that the vast majority of employees are complying, even the small losses of those who refuse can take a hit to staffing resources.
This need has driven increases to the salaries nurses can command, as well as to benefit packages, sign-on bonuses and the offer of services like child care, Moody’s said.

The report also noted that the current shortage — unlike previous ones — also includes nonclinical staff such as dietary and environmental services workers.

While Moody’s focuses on nonprofit operators, expense challenges will be an important metric to watch during the upcoming earnings season. Although all major for-profit hospital operators beat Wall Street expectations on earnings and revenue in Q2 and most posted profit increases, expenses were a rising line item.

Hospital labor expenses rise

For-profit health systems’ labor costs year over yearhttps://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/G7DCw/2/

And consultancy Kaufman Hall has warned U.S. hospitals will lose about $54 billion in net income this year, while an earlier Moody’s report predicted impacts to the country’s health system from COVID-19 will last for decades.

As the Biden administration works to encourage more vaccinations through a combination of carrots and sticks, it remains unclear when delta may peak and what future variants could bring. Even after hospitals are on more stable ground in terms of capacity, further challenges will remain as patients return for care they deferred earlier.

And there are more long-term concerns as well. “Even after the pandemic, competition for labor is likely to continue as the population ages — a key social risk — and demand for services increases,” according to the Moody’s report.

Jefferies analysts agreed, saying the demand for temp nurses will go down but remain elevated. “Additionally, the fundamental demand drivers for nurses that existed even before COVID (i.e., nurse population demographics) have been boosted by the lingering effects of the pandemic on the profession and are likely to boost demand for temp staffing post-2022,” they wrote in the Wednesday note.

‘A triple whammy’: Why hospitals are struggling financially amid the delta surge

Hospitals were struggling before the pandemic. Now they face financial  disaster (opinion) - CNN

n addition to treating an influx of Covid-19 patients, many hospitals are struggling with what one administrator calls a “triple whammy” of financial burdens—stemming from plummeting revenue, higher labor costs, and reduced relief funds, Christopher Rowland reports for the Washington Post.

Hospitals in less-vaccinated areas face spiking labor costs

In areas with low vaccination rates, particularly in southern and rural communities, hospitals have been overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients, exacerbating labor shortages as workers burn out or leave for more lucrative positions, Rowland reports.

“The workforce issue is just dire,” Stacey Hughes, EVP of government relations and policy for the American Hospital Association (AHA), said. “The delta variant has wreaked significant havoc on hospitals and health systems.”

In Louisiana, Mary Ellen Pratt, CEO of St. James Parish Hospital, said many nurses quit due to the grueling conditions as Covid-19 cases spiked. “I didn’t have any extra money to incentivize my staff to pick up additional shifts,” she said. “This is coming out of bottom-line money I don’t have.”

Separately, Lisa Smithgall, SVP and chief nursing executive at Ballad Health, said the health system—which has 21 hospitals in eastern Tennessee and southwestern Virginia—has faced similar problems retaining staff amid Covid-19 surges.

“We knew we were at risk in our region because of where we live and because of our vaccination rate being so poor,” Smithgall said. “At one point, we were seeing four or five nurse resignations per week. They couldn’t do it again; they emotionally didn’t have it. They were so upset with our community.”

To fill in these growing gaps in their workforce, many hospitals have had to turn to costly contract workers, Rowland reports—a significant financial burden that further strains hospitals’ resources.

For example, Ballad Health went from hiring fewer than 75 contract nurses before the pandemic to 150 in August 2020 and 450 in August 2021. Moreover, according to Smithgall, contract nurses previously made double or triple what permanent staff nurses made, but now Ballad sometimes has to pay up to seven times as much for contract nurses as hospitals compete for workers to fill shifts.

Delayed elective surgeries deepen hospitals’ financial struggles

Many hospitals, including those in areas with high vaccination rates, have delayed elective surgeries, a crucial source of revenue, amid nationwide surges in Covid-19 cases, Rowland reports—further compounding financial struggles for many organizations.

On Aug. 26, Ballad Health postponed a long list of elective surgeries—including hernia repair, cardiac and interventional radiology procedures, joint replacements, and nonessential spine surgery—to preserve space in its hospitals and conserve workers. Ballad is now allowing elective surgeries again, but only for a limited number of procedures that do not require overnight stays.

Similarly, St. Charles Health System in Oregon postponed elective surgeries in August “while we responded to a surge that was significantly greater and much more sudden than the surge in 2020,” Matt Swafford, the health system’s VP and CFO, said.

According to Swafford, the health system lost $5 million a week through August and September, around $1 million of which was repayment of emergency advances on Medicare reimbursements from last year.

“I don’t think anybody saw this level of surge coming in 2021 after what we saw in 2020,” he said. “We’re just not equipped to be able to simultaneously respond to the urgent needs of the community [for more typical surgeries and care] at the same time that a third of our beds are occupied by highly infective Covid patients.”

Many hospitals likely to end the year at a deficit

Further compounding the issue, according to Moody’s Investors Service, is that the provider relief funds that previously made up 43% of operating cash flow at nonprofit and government-run hospitals in the United States are now dwindling down.

In addition, the latest portion of provider relief funds to be distributed must be based on expenses incurred by hospitals before March 31, 2021, which don’t account for months of the delta surge, Rowland reports.

Premier, a group purchasing and technology company serving more than 4,000 hospitals and health systems, analyzed payroll data of 650 hospitals and found that U.S. hospitals have spent a total of $24 billion a year during the pandemic to cover excess labor costs, primarily for overtime and contract nurses. This was an increase of 63% from October 2019 to July 2021, Rowland reports, with hospitals in the Upper Midwest and across the South seeing the largest increases.

“It’s going to leave them huge deficits that they are going to have to work out of for years to come,” Michael Alkire, Premier’s CEO, said.

The who’s who of funders: 3 key relationships to watch

https://www.advisory.com/blog/2021/09/physician-group-funders

We recently shared an updated perspective on the independent physician landscape. Notably absent from this map, but an important player in this space, are entities, like health plans, private equity, and health systems, who partially or wholly fund some independent physician groups.

We intentionally left these funders off the map because they don’t work in a uniform way with all physician groups. The reality is that funders have their handprints all over this map—and just knowing what type of funder you’re working with doesn’t necessarily tell you how they work with physician groups.

Funders work across the physician landscape because they recognize two things:

  • First, in order to play in today’s physician market, funders need to be flexible in how they work with physicians in order to appeal to the wide variety of groups and build a bigger market presence.
  • Second, building or buying these physician group archetypes outright is not the only way to work with them. Many funders instead opt to invest in them—either through dollars or resources.

Key funders to watch

There are three key funders we track the closest: private equity, health plans, and health systems. Below are brief overviews of how they commonly work with independent groups and our predictions for where you might see them go next.

Private equity (PE): Consistent approach with still to be proven outcomes

The goal of PE firms is to make money on their investments. To do this, these firms buy shares of practices in order to have partial ownership. In return, physician groups get the capital they need to make investments—investments that in theory drive profits for both the physician shareholders and the PE investors. Unlike other funders, PE is rarely associated with full acquisition.

Two of the places we’ve seen the most private equity investment are in consolidation of specialty practices (usually at the national level) or value-based care investments in primary care practices (across all archetypes).

Private equity is gaining traction as a physician group partner because they often try to preserve some degree of physician autonomy and they’ve learned to nuance their investments and pitches based on the group they’re seeking to work with.

We predict: PE will continue to back the full range of archetypes on this map—investing in both independent groups directly and the national archetypes.

What we’ll be watching:

  • What will happen to the handful of major PE investments in the independent physician group space that will be reaching their 5-7 year mark
  • What level of physician autonomy will PE firms continue to preserve as PE gains stronger footholds in the physician landscape

Health plans: The most eager to transform (incrementally)

Health plans are often predominantly associated with a single physician archetype for a given plan. For example, when you think about UnitedHealthcare, you might think of their sister company, OptumCare, and an aggregation strategy. Or, you might think of Blues plans most commonly as service partners.

However, when you dig deeper, the story is much more nuanced. Plans and their parent companies like UnitedHealth Group do often aggregate practices, but they also sell and integrate services via service partner models. And several Blues plans are now building practices from the ground up. To top it off, some plans are even adopting an investment strategy like Anthem with Privia.

Perhaps more than any other funder, health plans often adopt a range of strategies to develop their physician strategy and maintain their existing networks. And even cases where plans aren’t funding entities themselves, they’re thinking of new ways to work with the growing range of physician groups.

We predict: Health plans will move away from a uniform approach to physician practice partnership and towards more multifaceted approaches to appeal to a wide range of providers.

What we’ll be watching:

  • Will health plans diversify their suite of approaches based on the groups they’re pursuing
  • Will health plans tailor their value proposition for each partnership approach

Health systems: Playing catch up to evolve

We often tend to think about health systems as aggregators—they buy independent physician groups and add them to their employed medical groups. But we’re seeing two physician market shifts that are causing health systems to move away from a one-size-fits-all approach.

One, the remaining independent groups are growing in size and, two, they are less willing to be acquired. On top of that, as private equity firms and payers continue to diversify their strategies, health systems must adapt to keep pace—or risk being seen as the least attractive partner.

As a result, more health systems are telling us about their new approaches to physician partnerships, like starting an MSO to act as a service partner or convening coalitions between themselves and independent groups.

We predict: Health systems will face increasing pressure to diversify how they are operating with physician groups. Similar to health plans, we expect to see a pivot away from an aggregation-only approach. To learn more, read our take on how health systems and independent groups should think about partnership.

What we’ll be watching:

  • How quickly will health systems stand up additional partnership approaches
  • Will health systems in markets where they’re the dominant partner proactively adjust their partnership approach versus wait for the market to shift first

Your checklist to work successfully with today’s physician groups

As you evaluate your partnership strategy, here’s our starter list of questions to ask yourself:

  1. Clarify your partnership goals:
    • What are my organization’s goals for physician partnership broadly?
    • What are the archetypes I currently fund or partner with?
    • Do these archetypes serve my organization’s stated goals? 
  2. Identify the right partnership approaches for your organization
    • What new archetypes should I build or work with to advance my organization’s goals and target new physician groups?
    • Do I need to build this archetype myself or is it better to fund one that exists?
    • If funding, should I wholly own or invest in the archetype? 
  3. Define your value proposition to physicians
    • Have I adjusted my value proposition for each of the archetypes I fund or partner with?
    • Am I clearly articulating my value proposition in a way that speaks to physicians’ needs and wants?
    • Does my value proposition align with what I’m actually delivering? For example, if I say I’m preserving autonomy, how am I doing that?
    • How does my value proposition compare and compete with others in the market? 
  4. Map out the power dynamics of the archetypes you want to work with
    • Who has the ultimate decision-making power in the organization? (Hint: Decision-making power gets more diffuse as you move from right to left, national chain to service partner.)
    • Who are the key stakeholders who influence decision-making?

We’ve been defining the independent physician landscape wrong—here’s a new approach

Physician groups and their funders—you've been thinking about their  relationship wrong

We’ve historically divided the physician landscape in two parts: hospital-employed or independent. But over time, the “independent” segment has become more complex and inclusive of more types of groups who don’t fit the traditional definition of shareholder-owned and shareholder-governed. Even true independent groups don’t look like they once did, adapting in ways like receiving funding from a range of investors or adding more employed physicians.

So our standard way of thinking—hospital-employed or independent—has become obsolete. It’s time for a more nuanced approach to a diversified market.

When the pace of investment and aggregation in the independent space picked up, we conceptualized the changes primarily in terms of funder: private equity, a health plan, a health system, or another independent group.

That made sense at the time because each type of funder was using similar methods to partner with groups—health systems acquired, private equity invested directly in the independent group, and so forth.

But the market has shifted such that remaining independent groups are both stronger and more committed to independence. So organizations who want to partner with these groups have had to refine and diversify their value propositions—and often times are doing so without all-out acquisition. For more information on themes within these funder organizations, see our companion blog.

We set out to make sense of an ever-changing independent physician landscape in a way that would make it easier to understand for both independent groups and for those who work with them. Instead of dividing the landscape by funder, we assessed organizations based on their level of autonomy vs. integration, their growth model, and their geographic reach.

The map above has five physician practice archetypes and is oriented around two axes: local to national and autonomy to integration. The four archetypes on the top are larger in scale than a traditional independent medical group, often moving regionally and then nationally.

The archetypes are also ordered based on the degree of physician and practice autonomy, with organizations on the right using more of an integrated and standardized model for care delivery and sharing a brand identity.

So far, we’ve tracked two types of trends within this landscape. First, independent groups partner with national archetypes in one of two ways. Either the groups continue to exist as both independent groups and as part of the corporate identity OR they get integrated into the corporate entity. The exception is that we have not seen national chains integrate existing medical groups—though they may in the future.

The other trend we have seen is the evolution of some of these archetypes. We currently see service partners in the market shift to look more like coalitions. We assume we may see coalitions that start to look more like aggregators, and we know many aggregators have ambitions to function more like national chains. 

Below you will find a brief description of each archetype as well as a more robust table of key characteristics.

Definitions of physician archetypes

Independent medical group

Independent medical groups are traditional shareholder-owned, shareholder-governed practices. They are governed by a board of physician shareholders, and shareholders derive direct profits from the group.

Service partner

A service partner is an organization whose primary ambition is to make profits through providing a service, such as technology, data, or billing infrastructure, to physician groups. This type of partner may create some sort of alignment between practices since it sells to like-minded practices (e.g., those deep in value-based care, within the same specialty), but that alignment is more of a byproduct than the primary goal.

Coalition

Coalitions are formed from physician practices who want to get benefits of scale without giving up any individual autonomy. They join a national organization to share resources, data, and/or knowledge, but each practice also retains its individual local identity and branding. Common coalition models include IPAs, ACOs, and membership models.

Aggregator

Aggregators are the most traditional approach to getting scale from independent medical groups. They acquire practices and usually employ their physicians. The range of aggregators is very diverse. It includes health plans, health systems, private equity investors, and independent medical groups who have shifted to become aggregators themselves.

National chain

We have historically referred to national chains as disruptors, but that name is inclusive of many organizations who are not physician practices and what qualifies as “disruptive” is ever-changing—so we needed a new name that better suited these groups. National chains are corporate organizations who develop a model (e.g., consumerism, value-based care, virtual health) and bring that model to scale, usually by building new practices or hiring new providers. These are highly integrated organizations, with each new location using the same care delivery model and infrastructure.

As the independent physician landscape evolves, it has implications not only for independent groups but for those who work with them. We hope that a shared terminology helps bridge some of the gaps in understanding this complex landscape.

For those who partner with independent groups, we’d suggest reading our companion blog for our take on the three biggest funders and questions to ask yourself to work successful with today’s physician groups.

A $200 surcharge for unvaccinated spouses? It’s coming to one Louisiana health system.

Louisiana Health System to Charge Fee to Employees with Unvaccinated Spouses  - The New York Times

As more companies consider implementing insurance surcharges for their unvaccinated employees, Ochsner Health plans to add a $200 monthly surcharge for employees with unvaccinated spouses and domestic partners covered by the organization’s health plan.

Unvaccinated employees face potential insurance surcharges

While many companies have relied on incentives to encourage employee Covid-19 vaccination, some have recently opted to implement penalties, such as premium surcharges, for those who remain unvaccinated instead.

Recent polling suggests that these surcharges could spur a significant portion of unvaccinated employees to get the Covid-19 vaccine. According to an Affordable Health Insurance poll of 1,000  unvaccinated individuals with employer-based health plans, nearly 75% said a health insurance surcharge could motivate them to get vaccinated, with 43% saying a surcharge would definitely motivate them to get vaccinated.

“As they say, the vaccine is not mandatory, but if people have extra charges with their insurance due to not being vaccinated, people will surely push themselves to be vaccinated,” Nick Schrader, insurance agent at Texas General Insurance, said.

So far, Delta Airlines is the largest employer to implement an insurance surcharge for unvaccinated employees, and it has already seen significant increases in employee vaccination.

In August, Delta announced unvaccinated employees would have to pay a $200 monthly health insurance surcharge to remain on the company’s health insurance plan beginning Nov. 1.

According to Delta, the surcharge will protect the company from lost revenue due to unvaccinated employees being hospitalized with Covid-19—which costs the company an average of $50,000 for each case.

Henry Ting, Delta’s chief health officer, said almost 20% of the company’s unvaccinated employees received the Covid-19 vaccine in the two weeks after the surcharge was announced. In addition, the company did not see any employee turnover or resignation due to the announcement, Ting said.

Ochsner Health’s ‘spousal Covid vaccine fee’

Ochsner Health, Louisiana’s largest health system with nearly 32,000 employees and more than 4,500 physicians, plans to implement a $200 monthly surcharge for employees with unvaccinated domestic partners and spouses on the organization’s health insurance plan, the Associated Press reports.

Ochsner is the first health system to apply insurance surcharges to unvaccinated family members, not just employees. Other Louisiana health care organizations, such as Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center and LCMC Health, said they would ask families of employees to be vaccinated, but did not plan on implementing a surcharge for unvaccinated spouses or partners, the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate reports.

According to a letter sent from Ochsner leaders to employees, the surcharge, called the “spousal Covid vaccine fee,” will begin in 2022 and could deduct up to $2,400 a year from an employee’s paycheck. The surcharge will only apply to domestic partners or spouses, not other dependents covered by an employee’s health plan like children.

Warner Thomas, Ochsner’s president and CEO, said the surcharge for unvaccinated spouses and partners is similar to a surcharge for tobacco users and will be used to help keep health premiums low for employees. As a self-insured organization, Ochsner is responsible for the cost of Covid-19 treatment for patients on its health insurance plan, the Associated Press reports.

The reality is the cost of treating Covid-19, particularly for patients requiring intensive inpatient care, is expensive, and we spent more than $9 million on Covid care for those who are covered on our health plans over the last year,” Thomas said.

“We know that Covid-19 vaccination dramatically reduces transmission, severity of symptoms, hospitalizations, and death. Approximately 90% of those hospitalized with Covid in our facilities have been unvaccinated since vaccines were approved in December 2020,” he added. “Widespread vaccination is critical to stopping the spread of Covid-19, and we hope this change will encourage even more community members to get vaccinated.”

Thomas also clarified that unvaccinated spouses and partners are not required to be vaccinated because of the surcharge. “This is not a mandate as non-employed spouses and domestic partners can choose to select a health plan outside of Ochsner Health offerings,” he said.

Unvaccinated spouses and partners can also apply for medical or religious exemptions for the Covid-19 vaccine, Thomas said. Currently, around 300 Ochsner employees have applied for medical or religious exemptions, the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate reports.

Map: See the 2,500 hospitals that face readmission penalties this year

Which States Had the Most Hospitals Penalized for Readmissions 2020

A recent CMS analysis of its Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program (HRRP) found that 2,500 hospitals will face HRRP penalty reductions and around 18% of hospitals will face penalties of at least 1% of their Medicare reimbursements for fiscal year (FY) 2022, Modern Healthcare reports.

Cheat sheet: Hospital readmissions reduction program

How HRRP works

Under the HRRP, CMS withholds up to 3% of regular reimbursements for hospitals if they have a higher-than-expected number of 30-day readmissions for any of six conditions:
Toolkit: CV medical readmissions reduction

  • Chronic lung disease
  • Coronary artery bypass graft surgery
  • Heart attacks
  • Heart failure
  • Hip and knee replacements
  • Pneumonia

Historically, hospitals received a penalty if their observed readmissions for any one of these conditions exceeded a national standard. However, in response to criticism, CMS in 2019 scrapped the national standard comparison standard. It now compares hospitals’ performance with that of other hospitals serving a similar population of low-income patients.

Under the current methodology, CMS has categorized all participating hospitals into quintiles according to the proportion of dual-eligible patients (patients eligible for Medicare and Medicaid) each hospital serves. Now, each hospital is compared with the median readmissions performance of its cohort, and hospitals with higher-than-cohort-median performance are penalized.

The program does not apply to veterans hospitals, children’s hospitals, psychiatric hospitals, or hospitals in Maryland, which has a federal waiver for how it distributes Medicare funding. In addition, hospitals are not evaluated under the program if they do not treat enough cases of the conditions evaluated.

Fewer hospitals are facing high HRRP penalties

In a recent analysis, CMS looked at HRRP data from July 2017 to December 2019. It found that 2,500 hospitals will face HRRP penalty reductions for FY 2022, and around 18% of hospitals will be penalized more than 1% of their reimbursements, down from 20% from July 2016 through June 2019.
The financial value of readmissions reduction

The analysis also found that 80% of hospitals with the highest proportion of Medicare-Medicaid dual-eligible patients will pay penalties, while nearly 72% of hospitals with the lowest proportion of dual-eligible patients will receive penalties.

This likely will be the last set of readmissions data unaffected by the Covid-19 pandemic. Under ordinary circumstances, CMS reviews three years of data in calculating HRRP penalties, so the agency ordinarily would have considered data from July 2017 to June 2020 in calculating the fiscal year 2022 penalties. However, CMS elected to stop its analysis in December 2019 to exclude data gathered during the Covid-19 pandemic.

CMS has not yet said how it will handle readmissions data from the pandemic, Modern Healthcare reports.

Reaction

Akin Demehin, director of policy for the American Hospital Association (AHA), said the drop in hospitals paying high HRRP penalties is a success.

“America’s hospitals and health systems have made substantial progress in reducing unnecessary readmissions, which has improved quality and enhanced care coordination,” Demehin said.

Demehin also praised CMS for excluding data from the Covid-19 pandemic from its analysis.

“We are pleased that CMS heard our concerns and excluded data from the first six months of 2020 to account for the pandemic when calculating performance,” he said. “We will continue to ask CMS to use its discretion to exclude pandemic-affected data in calculating performance in its hospital quality and value programs going forward.”

Demehin also added that CMS should expand its peer-grouping of hospitals by incorporating other social risk factors beyond a hospital’s control.

Peer grouping provides relief to many hospitals serving the poorest and most vulnerable communities,” he said. “Congress gave CMS the ability to refine its social risk factor adjustment approach over time, and because the research and science on this issue continues to evolve, the AHA has encouraged CMS to consider ongoing refinements.” (Gillespie, Modern Healthcare, 10/1)

Jefferson Health, Einstein Healthcare finalize merger, create 18-hospital system

Jefferson Health New Jersey |

More than three years after signing a letter of intent to merge, Jefferson Health and Einstein Healthcare Network have finalized the deal. 

The combination of the Philadelphia-based organizations brings together two academic medical centers and creates an integrated 18-hospital system with more than 50 outpatient and urgent care locations.

“The culmination of the multiyear process of bringing two great organizations with more than 300 combined years of service, clinical excellence and academic expertise is not just a merger,” said Stephen Klasko, MD, president of Thomas Jefferson University and CEO of Jefferson Health. “Einstein and the new Jefferson together represent an opportunity for the Philadelphia region to creatively construct a reimagining of healthcare, education, discovery, equity and innovation that will have national and international reverberations.”

The merger had previously faced antitrust scrutiny and delays from legal challenges. In particular, both the Federal Trade Commission and Pennsylvania’s attorney general sued the health systems in attempts to block the deal.

The FTC sued in February 2020, arguing that the combination of the two systems would reduce competition in both Philadelphia and Montgomery counties “to the detriment of patients.” An appellate court denied the FTC’s attempt to block the merger in December 2020, and the FTC officially dropped its challenge to the transaction in February 2021. 

The Pennsylvania attorney general also dropped his opposition to the merger in January 2021 after the FTC lost its case. 

Ken Levitan will continue serving as president and CEO of Einstein and add the role of executive vice president at Jefferson Health. In his new role, he will help guide the integration efforts. 

Read more here.

14 health systems with strong finances

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Here are 14 health systems with strong operational metrics and solid financial positions, according to reports from Fitch Ratings, Moody’s Investors Service and S&P Global Ratings.

1. Advocate Aurora Health has an “Aa3” rating and positive outlook with Moody’s. The health system, which has dual headquarters in Milwaukee and Downers Grove, Ill., has a leading market share in two regions and strong financial discipline, Moody’s said. The credit rating agency said it expects Advocate Aurora Health’s operating cash flow margins to return to pre-pandemic levels. 

2. Pinehurst, N.C.-based FirstHealth of the Carolinas has an “AA” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The health system has a strong financial profile and stable operating performance, despite disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic, Fitch said. The health system’s revenue in the first quarter of fiscal 2021 rebounded to levels close to historical trends, according to the credit rating agency. 

3. Indianapolis-based Indiana University Health has an “Aa2” rating and stable outlook with Moody’s and an “AA” rating and positive outlook with Fitch. Cost controls and patient volume will help the system sustain strong margins and liquidity, Moody’s said. 

4. Rapid City, S.D.-based Monument Health has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The health system has solid operating margins that Fitch expects to remain stable over the near term. Monument Health’s operating margins will continue to support liquidity growth and capital spending levels, the credit rating agency said. 

5. Chicago-based Northwestern Medicine has an “Aa2” rating and stable outlook with Moody’s, and an “AA+” rating and stable outlook with S&P. The system’s consolidated operating model will allow it to maintain a strong financial position while effectively executing strategies, Moody’s said. The credit rating agency expects Northwestern Medicine to expand its prominent market position in the broader Chicago region because of its strong brand and affiliation with Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. 

6. Renton, Wash.-based Providence has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch and an “Aa3” rating and stable outlook with Moody’s. Fitch said Providence has a long-term strategic advantage over most of its peers because it has invested heavily in developing technology in recent years, and the system’s plan to transform healthcare delivery through the use of data and technology has been undeterred through the COVID-19 pandemic. Fitch said it expects Providence’s cash flow margins to be close to 7 percent in the coming years. 

7. Livingston, N.J.-based RWJBarnabas Health has an “Aa3” rating and stable outlook with Moody’s. Moody’s said it expects RWJBarnabas, the largest integrated academic health system in New Jersey, to see near-term revenue growth and to execute on several strategic fronts while achieving targeted financial performance.  

8. Broomfield, Colo.-based SCL Health has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch and an “Aa3” rating and stable outlook with Moody’s. The health system has consistently improved its liquidity levels and has a long track record of exceptional operations, Fitch said. SCL Health is well positioned for change in the healthcare sector because it has built up cash reserves over time, according to the credit rating agency. 

9. San Diego-based Scripps Health has an “Aa3” rating and stable outlook with Moody’s. The health system has ample liquidity coverage, an extensive footprint and strong brand and market share within San Diego County, Moody’s said. The credit rating agency said it expects Scripps to weather current operating challenges and to grow operating cash flow over the long term. 

10. Norfolk, Va.-based Sentara Healthcare has an “Aa2” rating and stable outlook with Moody’s. The health system has strong margins, and Moody’s said it expects the system to maintain a strong financial position and balance sheet. 

11. Arlington-based Texas Health Resources has an “Aa2” rating and stable outlook with Moody’s. The health system has a strong cash position, which will be boosted by favorable investment gains and bond proceeds, Moody’s said. Based on performance in the second quarter of this year, Moody’s expects Texas Health Resources’ patient volume and operating cash flow margins to recover to pre-COVID-19 levels. 

12. Iowa City-based University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics has an “Aa2” rating and stable outlook with Moody’s. The credit rating agency said it expects the system to maintain strong operating performance and cash flow. The system benefits as the only academic medical center in Iowa, according to Moody’s. 

13. Des Moines, Iowa-based UnityPoint Health has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The system has strong leverage metrics, and it benefited from strong market returns during the pandemic. The system’s days with cash on-hand increased to 285 days at the end of 2020, up from 231 days at the end of 2019, according to the credit rating agency. 

14. Kansas City-based University of Kansas Health System has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The health system has solid operating results and has sustained significant revenue growth, Fitch said. The system’s profitability dipped in fiscal year 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but its profitability rebounded in fiscal year 2021, according to the credit rating agency.