In a vote of 384-38, the House on Tuesday passed a bill that eliminates the 2% cut to Medicare payments until the end of 2021. However, the bill proposes to offset the change by increasing the sequester cuts in 2030.
WHY THIS MATTERS
The cuts were triggered by a federal budget sequestration.
Hospitals, physicians and other providers protested the 2% cuts as coming at a time when they were struggling financially and clinically to handle the COVID-19 pandemic.
The bill also makes several technical changes to the rural health clinic provisions that were included in the Consolidated Appropriations Act. Specifically, the CAA required that the payment rate for RHCs, including provider-based RHCs certified after Dec. 31, 2019, to be capped at $100 per visit, starting from April 1, 2021.
This rate will increase over time based on the Medicare Economic Index, but will remain well below typical provider-based RHC rates. The bill would correct the Dec. 31, 2019, date to Dec. 31, 2020, and include both Medicare-enrolled RHCs located in a hospital with less than 50 beds and RHCs that have submitted an application for Medicare enrollment as of this date, according to the AHA.
THE LARGER TREND
Last year, Congress paused the 2% Medicare cuts, but they were to resume on April 1.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services instructed Medicare administrative contractors to hold all claims with dates of service on or after April 1 for a short period until potential legislation was enacted.
In March, the House passed the bill to delay the cuts, and the Senate approved it later that month, but with an amendment to delay through December 31 and ensure that the cost of the delay is paid for.
Providers have reacted positively to the news.
American Hospital Association president and CEO Rick Pollack said, “Even though our country is making great progress by vaccinating millions of people a day, it is clear that this pandemic is far from over and that there is an urgent need to keep hospitals, health systems and our heroic caregivers strong.”
American Medical Association president Dr. Susan R. Bailey said, “The Senate and House, Democrats and Republicans, have overwhelmingly acknowledged that cutting Medicare payments during a pandemic is ill-conceived policy. Physician practices are already distressed, and arbitrary 2% across-the-board Medicare cuts would have been devastating.”
America’s Essential Hospitals SVP of policy and advocacy Beth Feldpush said, “Extending the moratorium through the end of this year provides much-needed relief for essential hospitals, which continue to face heavy financial pressure from their frontline response to COVID-19. The sequester would weaken the ability of our hospitals to care for the communities of color that have suffered disproportionately from the pandemic.”
In early 2013, Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Orange County, California, joined with St. Joseph Health, a local Catholic hospital chain, amid enthusiastic promises that their affiliation would broaden access to care and improve the health of residents across the community.
Eight years later, Hoag says this vision of achieving “population health” is dead, and it wants out. It is embroiled in a legal battle for independence from Providence, a Catholic health system with 51 hospitals across seven states, which absorbed St. Joseph in 2016, bringing Hoag along with it.
In a lawsuit filed in Orange County Superior Court last May, Hoag argues that remaining a “captive affiliate” of the nation’s 10th-largest health system, headquartered nearly 1,200 miles away in Washington state, constrains its ability to meet the needs of the local population.
Hoag doctors say that Providence’s drive to standardize treatment decisions across its chain — largely through a shared Epic electronic records system — often conflicts with their own judgment of best medical practices. And they recoil against restrictions on reproductive care they say Providence illegally imposes on them through its adherence to the Catholic health directives established by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“Their large widespread system is very different than the laser focus Hoag has on taking care of its community,” said Hoag CEO Robert Braithwaite. “When Hoag needed speed and agility, we got inadequate responses or policies that were just wrong for us. We found ourselves frustrated with a big health system that had a generic approach to health care.”
Providence insists it wants to stay with Hoag, a financial powerhouse — even as the two sides engage in secret settlement talks that could end the marriage.
“We believe we are better together,” said Erik Wexler, president of Providence South, which includes the group’s operations in California, Texas and New Mexico. “The best way to do that is to collaborate.” He cited joint investments in Hoag Orthopedic Institute and in Be Well OC, a kind of mental health collaborative, as fruits of the affiliation.
“If we are separate,” Wexler added, “there is a chance we may begin to cannibalize each other and drive the cost of care up.”
Research over the past several years, however, has shown that it is the consolidation of hospitals into fewer and larger groups, with greater bargaining clout, that tends to raise medical prices — often with little improvement in the quality of care.
“Mergers are a self-centered pursuit of stability by hospitals and hospital systems that hope to get so big that they can survive the anarchy of U.S. health care,” said Alan Sager, a professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health.
Wexler argued that price increases linked to consolidation are less of a worry in Orange County, geographically small but densely populated with 3.2 million residents and 28 acute care hospitals. Given the proximity of so many hospitals, Wexler said, counterproductive duplication of medical services is more of a concern.
Unlike many local community hospitals that seek larger partners to survive, Hoag, one of Orange County’s premier medical institutions, is financially robust and perfectly able to stand on its own. It has the advantage of operating in one of Orange County’s most affluent areas, with two acute care hospitals and an orthopedic specialty hospital in Newport Beach and Irvine. It is the beneficiary of numerous wealthy donors, including bond market billionaire Bill Gross and thriller novelist Dean Koontz.
In 2020, Hoag’s net assets, essentially its net worth, stood at about $3.3 billion — nearly 20% of the total for all Providence-affiliated facilities, even though Hoag has only three of the group’s 51 hospitals. Hoag generated operating income of $38 million last year, while Providence posted a $306 million operating loss.
But Providence is hardly a financial weakling. It is sitting on a mountain of unrestricted cash and investments worth $15.3 billion as of Dec. 31. And despite its hefty reserves, it received $1.1 billion in coronavirus relief grants last year under the federal CARES Act, and millions more from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Providence does not own Hoag, since no money changed hands and their assets were not commingled. But Providence is able to keep Hoag from walking away because it has a majority on the governing body that was set up to oversee the original affiliation with St. Joseph.
Hoag executives also express frustration at what they describe as efforts by Providence to interfere with their financial, labor and supply decisions.
Providence, in turn, worries that “if Hoag disaffiliates with Providence, it has the potential to impact our credit rating,”Wexler said.
Despite its insistence on the value of the affiliation, Providence officials are said to be willing to end the affiliation in exchange for payment of an undisclosed amount that Hoag considers unwarranted. Wexler and Hoag executives declined to comment on their discussions. A trial start date has not been set, but on April 26 the court will hear a motion from Hoag to expedite it.
While its financial fortitude distinguishes it from many other community hospitals tied to larger partners, Hoag’s experience with Providence is hardly uncommon amid widespread consolidation in the hospital industry and the growing influence of Catholic health care in the U.S.
“The bigger your parent organization becomes, the smaller your voice is within the system, and that’s part of what Hoag has been complaining about,” said Lois Uttley, director of the women’s health program at Community Catalyst, a Boston-based patient advocacy group that monitors hospital mergers.
“Compounding the problem is the fact that the system in this case is Catholic-run, because then, in addition to having an out-of-town system headquarters calling the shots, you also have to contend with governance from Catholic bishops,” Uttley said. “So you have two bosses, in a sense.”
Hoag is not the only hospital seeking to flee this dynamic. Last year, for example, Virginia Mason Memorial hospital in Yakima, Washington, said it would separate from its parent, Seattle-based Virginia Mason Health System, to avoid a pending merger with CHI Franciscan, part of the Catholic hospital giant CommonSpirit Health.
Mergers and acquisitions have led to the increasing dominance of mega hospital chains in U.S. health care over the past several years. From 2013 to 2018, the revenue of the 10 largest health systems grew 82%, compared with 45% for all other hospital groups, according to a recent study by Deloitte, the consulting and auditing firm.
Researchers expect the trend to accelerate as large health systems swallow smaller facilities economically weakened by the pandemic, and a growing trend toward outpatient care reduces demand for hospital beds.
Four of the 10 largest U.S. hospital systems are Catholic, including Chicago-based CommonSpirit Health, St. Louis-based Ascension, Livonia, Michigan-based Trinity Health and Providence. A study by Community Catalyst found that 1 in 6 acute care hospital beds are in Catholic facilities, and that 52 hospitals operating under Catholic restrictions were the sole acute care facilities in their regions last year, up from 30 in 2013.
“We need to make this a national conversation,” said Dr. Jeffrey Illeck, a Hoag OB-GYN.
He was among a group of Hoag OB-GYNs who signed a letter to then-California Attorney General Xavier Becerra in October, alleging that Providence frequently declined to authorize contraceptive treatments, such as intrauterine devices and tubal ligations — in breach of the conditions imposed by Becerra’s predecessor, Kamala Harris, when she approved the original affiliation with St. Joseph in 2013.
Wexler said he is confident the attorney general’s probe will provide “clarity that Providence has done nothing wrong.”
A particularly bitter disagreement between the two sides concerns a rupture last year within St. Joseph Heritage Healthcare, a physician group belonging to Providence that included both St. Joseph and Hoag doctors. In November, the group notified thousands of patients that their Hoag specialists were no longer part of the network and that they needed to choose new doctors.
Wexler said that was the inevitable result of a decision by the Hoag physicians to negotiate separate HMO contracts, an assertion Braithwaite contested. The move disrupted patient care just as the winter covid surge was gaining momentum, he said.
Perhaps the biggest frustration for most Hoag administrators and physicians is Providence’s desire to standardize care across all 51 hospitals through their shared Epic electronic records system.
Hoag doctors say Providence controls the contents of the Epic system and that the care protocols in it, often driven by cost considerations, frequently collide with their own clinical decisions. Any changes must be debated among all the hospitals in the system and adopted by consensus — a laborious undertaking.
Dr. Richard Haskell, a cardiologist at Hoag, recalled a dispute over intravenous Tylenol, which Hoag’s orthopedists prefer because they say it works well and furthered a concerted effort to reduce opioid addiction. Providence took IV Tylenol off its list of accepted drugs, and the Hoag orthopedists “were very upset,” Haskell said.
They eventually got it back on that list, but with the condition that they could order it only one dose at a time. That meant nurses had to call the doctor every four hours for a new order. “Doctors probably felt, ‘Screw it, I don’t want to get woken up every four hours,’ so they probably just gave them narcotics,’” Haskell said.
He said that before agreeing to adopt Providence’s Epic system, Hoag had received written assurances it could make changes that included its preferred treatment choices for various conditions. But it quickly became clear that was not going to happen, he said.
“We couldn’t make any changes at all, so we were stuck with their system,” Haskell said. “I don’t want to be in a system bogged down by bureaucracy that requires 51 hospitals to vote on it.”
Wexler said Hoag understood exactly what it had signed up for. “They knew full well that there would be a collaborative approach across all of Providence, including Hoag, to make decisions on what standardizations would happen across the entire system,” he said. “It is not easy if one hospital wants to create its own specific pathway.”
Despite Hoag’s concerns about lesser standards of care, Braithwaite could not cite an example of an adverse outcome that had resulted from it. And Hoag’s strong reputation seems untarnished, as reflected in the high rankings and awards it continues to garner — and tout on its website.
Still, the affiliation’s days seem numbered. Hoag is no longer on the Providence website or in its marketing materials, and in many cases — such as the St. Joseph Heritage schism — the two groups are already going their separate ways.
“They are certainly acting like we are competitors, and I assume that means they know the disaffiliation is imminent,” Braithwaite said.
Wexler, while reiterating that Providence wants to maintain the current arrangement, was nonetheless able to imagine a different outcome: “What we would do post-affiliation,” he said, “is to continue to look for opportunities to collaborate.”
Although urgent care centers deter some lower-acuity patients from a costly emergency department visit, they are not associated with a drop in total healthcare spending, according to a study published in Health Affairsin April.
For the study, researchers used insurance claims and enrollment data from 2008 to 2019 from a managed care plan to understand if the presence of an urgent care center substantially decreased lower-acuity ED visits.
The authors found that the entry of an urgent care center into a ZIP code deterred lower-acuity ED visits, but the effect was small.
The study found that the reduction of just one lower-acuity ED visit was associated with 37 additional urgent care visits. In other words, the number of urgent care visits per enrollee required to reduce one ER visit is 37.
The study authors found that the prevention of each $1,646 lower-acuity ED visit was offset by an increase of $6,237 in urgent care center costs.
As a result, the study authors said that despite ED visits costing more per visit, the use of urgent care centers increased net overall spending on lower-acuity care.
“This study documents for the first time that urgent care centers are associated with increased overall costs for lower-acuity visits across the ED and urgent care settings,” the study authors concluded.
The financial challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic forced hundreds of hospitals across the nation to furlough, lay off or reduce pay for workers, and others have had to scale back services or close.
Lower patient volume, canceled elective procedures and higher expenses tied to the pandemic have created a cash crunch for hospitals, and hospitals are taking a number of steps to offset financial damage. Executives, clinicians and other staff are taking pay cuts, capital projects are being put on hold, and some employees are losing their jobs. More than 260 hospitals and health systems furloughed workers in the last year, and dozens of others have implemented layoffs.
Below are nine hospitals and health systems that are laying off employees. Some of the layoffs were attributed to financial strain caused by the pandemic.
1. Boca Raton, Fla.-based Cancer Treatment Centers of America is selling its hospital in Philadelphia and will lay off the facility’s 365 employees, according to a closure notice filed with the state. Cancer Treatment Centers of America said it anticipates the layoffs in Philadelphia will begin after May 30, according to the Philadelphia Business Journal.
2.Providence Queen of the Valley Medical Center in Napa, Calif., will lay off 10 employees, The Napa Valley Register reported April 11. The layoffs will affect six emergency department technicians and four cooks. The COVID-19 pandemic had a “profound effect” on the hospital system, including volume and revenue reductions, a Providence spokesperson told The Napa Valley Register. As a result of volume declines in its ED, the health system is reducing staffing.
3. Olympia Medical Center in Los Angeles closed March 31. The closure resulted in the layoffs of 451 employees.
4. The outgoing owners ofProvidence Behavioral Health Hospital in Holyoke, Mass., are laying off the hospital’s 151 employees, effective April 20, according to MassLive. Trinity Health of New England, part of Livonia, Mich.-based Trinity Health, is selling the hospital to Health Partners New England, which plans to take over the hospital April 20.
6. Plattsburgh, N.Y.-based Champlain Valley Physicians Hospitalplans to cut 60 jobs. The hospital, which is facing a $6.5 million deficit in fiscal year 2021, said the cuts include 10 people who were laid off or had permanent hour reductions, 12 people who are planning retirement, and the rest are open positions that will not be filled, according to a March 9 NBC 5 report.
7. Buffalo, N.Y.-based Catholic Healthannounced March 19 that it plans to end inpatient services and close the intensive care unit at its St. Joseph campus in Cheektowaga, N.Y. The changes will result in some positions being eliminated. Catholic Health said it will try to find affected employees comparable positions within the system.
8. Upper Allegheny Health System, a two-hospital system based in Olean, N.Y., plans to reduce acute care and surgical services at Bradford (Pa.) Regional Medical Center. Under the plan, the acute care and surgical services will be moved to the health system’s other hospital, Olean General Hospital, effective May 1. There will be a minimal number of layoffs resulting from the consolidation of services, a spokesperson told WHYY.
9. Philadelphia-based Tower Health laid off 15 workers at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children, including four physicians, in March, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. Tower Health ended the second half of last year with an operating loss of $31 million, according to the report.
Cancer Treatment Centers of America is selling its hospital in Philadelphia and will lay off the facility’s 365 employees, according to a closure notice filed with the state.
Boca Raton, Fla.-based Cancer Treatment Centers of America signed an agreement in March to sell the hospital to Philadelphia-based Temple University Hospital. The deal requires approval from the Pennsylvania Department of Health.
In the notice filed with the state, Cancer Treatment Centers of America said some displaced Philadelphia workers may be offered jobs at affiliated entities outside of Pennsylvania, according to the Philadelphia Business Journal. The company’s other hospitals are in Chicago, Atlanta, Phoenix and Tulsa, Okla. In March, the company announced it will close its hospital in Tulsa June 1.
Cancer Treatment Centers of America said it anticipates the layoffs in Philadelphia will begin after May 30, according to the Philadelphia Business Journal.
Temple Health CEO Michael Young told the Philadelphia Business Journal that the system wants to hire as many CTCA workers as possible if the deal is finalized.
Houston Methodist will make the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory for employees, with the first phase including managers and new hires, the health system said March 31.
In an email, Marc Boom, MD, president and CEO, told managers new hires are already required to be vaccinated as a condition to joining Houston Methodist, and management is now also required to do the same.
“When we choose to be vaccinated against COVID-19, we are prioritizing safety by helping stop the spread of this deadly virus and keeping our patients, visitors and colleagues safe,” Dr. Boom wrote to managers. “As we move closer to announcing mandatory vaccinations for all employees, we need you to go first — to lead by example and show our employees how important getting vaccinated is.”
At Houston Methodist, 95 percent of management and all executives have already received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Dr. Boom said managers who have not done this have until April 15 to receive at least one dose or get an approved exemption. Those who do not comply would first have a discussion with their supervisor, then could face suspension then termination.
All 26,000 Houston Methodist employees and employed physicians soon will be required to receive at least one shot.
Overall, about 83 percent of the health system’s employees have been vaccinated.
Though the COVID-19 pandemic hampered Providence’s operational performance in 2020, the regional nonprofit powerhouse still ended the year in the black with net income of $1 billion, down about 9% from 2019.
Providence ended 2020 with an operating loss of $306 million, compared to an operating income of $214 million in 2019. However, healthy non-operating income recouped operating losses and offset reimbursement shortfalls from Medicaid and Medicare coverage, Providence said in full-year financial results released Monday.
The system, which operates 51 hospitals spanning seven states, posted drastic net losses in the first half of 2020 due to the pandemic, but seems to have closed out the year on more stable financial footing though volumes remain down.
Like other major systems, the pandemic railroaded Providence’s operational performance in 2020, as state and local lockdowns and orders to pause non-emergency procedures contributed to an unprecedented drop in patient volumes starting in March. As a result, the West Coast system reported a significant dip in patient revenue, along with skyrocketing expenses for personal protective equipment, pharmaceuticals and labor.
Volumes as measured by adjusted admissions were down 9% for the fiscal year ended Dec. 31, Providence said. Despite the lower volume, operating revenues were actually up 3% year over year to $25.7 billion, driven by growth in capitation, premium and diversified revenue streams — and supported by the recognition of $957 million in federal COVID-19 grants to providers from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act passed a year ago.
However, operating expenses climbed 5% year over year to $26 billion, resulting in operating earnings before interest, depreciation and amortization of $1.1 billion, compared with $1.6 billion in 2019.
Overall, Providence’s financial results suggest the system was able to sidestep the worst of the pandemic’s financial effects, and mirrors 2020 reports from other major nonprofits.
Kaiser Permanente,which reported in early February, was also able to stay in the black despite COVID-19 deflating operating and net income, which fell about 19% and 15% respectively from 2019. Similarly, nonprofit Mayo Clinic reported a shrinking bottom line, with net income down almost 24% from 2019 though it remained profitable.
California-based nonprofit Sutter Health also squeaked to overall profitability in 2020 despite a operational loss of $321 million. The system, which said it expected to take several years to fully recover from COVID-19, launched a systemwide operational and financial review as a result of its weak operational performance.
A number of hospital executives have called out CARES grants and other federal aid as a key help in turning their finances around in 2020. However, despite the pandemic’s financial pressures, numerous major operators, including Kaiser Permanante, Mayo Clinic and HCA said they would return all or a portion of congressional aid, even as powerful hospital lobbies call on Washington for additional funds.
A recent Kaufman Hall report suggests providers could be overwhelmed by ongoing COVID-19 expenses following a surge in cases over the winter. Researchers estimate hospitals could lose anywhere from $53 billion to $122 billion in revenue in 2021 if pandemic pressures don’t abate, despite the glimmer of hope brought by ongoing vaccination efforts.
Despite increasing distribution of coronavirus vaccines, Moody’s Investors Service has placed a negative outlook on nonprofit hospitals in 2021.
Providence came together in 2016 with the merger of Washington-based Providence Health & Services and California-based St. Joseph Health to create the nation’s fourth-biggest Catholic hospital chain. Its full-year earnings come a week after California Attorney General and Biden nominee for HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra disclosed his office is investigating whether Providence violated legal commitments in applying religious restrictions to medical care at a hospital in Orange County.
Sutter Health is launching a “sweeping review” of its finances and operations due to the pandemic’s squeeze on the system in 2020, which led to a $321 million operational loss, the system said Thursday.
The giant hospital provider in Northern California said it will take “several years to fully recover,” adding that it plans to restructure and even close some programs and services that attract fewer patients, and will reassign those employees to busier parts of its network.
Sutter, which spent $431 million to modernize its facilities last year, is also reassessing its future capital investments due to its current financial situation.
The pandemic “exacerbated” existing challenges for the provider, including labor costs, Sutter said.
Expenses again outpaced revenue in 2020 and Sutter fears the trajectory is “unsustainable.”
In 2020, Sutter generated revenue of $13.2 billion which was eclipsed by $13.5 billion in expenses, which was actually lower than its total expenses reported in 2019.
Last year, the system invested heavily to prepare for the pandemic, buying up personal protective equipment and other supplies all while volumes declined. Sutter estimates it spent at least $121 million on COVID-19 supplies, which does not include outside staffing costs.
Sutter said labor costs represented 60% of its total operating expenses, blaming high hospital wage indexes in Northern California, which it said are among the priciest in the country.
Still, Sutter was able to post net income of $134 million thanks in part to investment income, which was also deflated compared to the year prior.
Volume has not rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, the system said.
Admissions, emergency room visits and outpatient revenues all fell year over year, according to figures in Sutter’s audited financial statements.
Other major health systems were pinched by the pandemic but were able to post a profit, including Kaiser Permanente.