Bear Market for recent Digital Health IPOs cautions investors

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COVID fueled a record year for digital healthcare venture funding in 2021, which included 85 digital health startups achieving “unicorn” status with $1B+ valuations. But 2022 has been marked by cooling expectations amid inflation concerns and recession fears. 

In the graphic above, we’ve tracked the stock market performances of six recent healthcare IPOs across their opening, peak, and latest months. While not all of them are pure digital health plays, each of these companies promotes its digital solutions or tech-enabled patient platforms as key parts of their value propositions. 

Since going public, each company has lost between 50 and 90 percent of its initial value, more than double the S&P 500’s roughly 20 percent drop from its January 2022 peak to today’s level. The bear market has influenced the venture funding world as well, as H1 2022 fundraising totals for digital health have dropped from last year’s record-setting pace, though they may still surpass 2020 levels by year end. 

After the initial fervor, this market correction among “healthtech” companies is not surprising, and acquisitions—like Amazon’s purchase of One Medical—are likely to continue, as long as these market trends hold. 

The questions every investor should now be asking: does this start-up have a viable path to profitability in the US healthcare market, and does it deliver meaningful value to consumers? 

CFOs need to prep for healthcare’s lagging inflation

Healthcare costs are expected to jump 6.0% next year. CFOs must prepare accordingly, advises WTW’s Tim Stawicki.

CFOs need to be prepared for a “higher tail” of medical inflation — even if general inflation eases in the near future, Tim Stawicki, chief actuary, North America health & benefits of Willis Towers Watson (WTW) told CFO Dive.

With the Consumer Price Index (CPI)  rising to 8.5% in July and the recent rise in the core Producer Price Index (PPI), the Federal Reserve will probably look to hike interest rates even farther. 

“CFOS need to be prepared for the case that if general inflation eases, there may be two or three more years where they need to think about how they are managing the costs of health care plans,” he said in an interview. 

Inflation, which can more immediately impact consumer prices, works somewhat differently when it comes to costs of medical care. “Employers are paying healthcare costs based on contracts that their insurer has with providers, which are multiple years in length. So if a deal with the hospital or contract does not come up until 2023, then that provider has the opportunity to renegotiate higher prices for three years,” said Stawicki. 

The recent Best Practices in Healthcare Survey by WTW consisting of 455 U.S. employers found that employers project their healthcare costs will jump 6.0% next year compared with an average 5.0% increase expected by the end of this year.

Further, employers see little relief in sight — seven in 10 (71%) expect moderate to significant increases in costs over the next three years. Additionally, over half of respondents (54%) expect their costs will be over budget this year.

Balancing talent retention and healthcare costs

Talent retention has also remained an entrenched challenge for CFOs over recent months and continues to be top of mind. 

Given inflationary pressures and a potential looming recession, employers are having trouble finding the workers they need to run their businesses. A rise in healthcare benefit costs will make this all the more challenging, said Stawicki. “Employers are looking around and saying ‘I need to find talent to help me run my business and I can’t do that if I have an ineffective program in healthcare benefits,’” he said. 

There is a direct link between business outcomes and in particular employee productivity and employees’ ability to manage their health and financial environment, according to WTW’s Global Benefits Attitude Survey. “Losing the ability to offer programs and benefits that meet employee needs is impacting business,” said Stawicki.

It comes down to finding the balance between cost management in an environment where talent is hard to come by, he said. In order for CFOs to be successful in financing benefit programs they need to look at finding ways to partner with their counterparts in human resources, said Stawicki. 

Sixty-seven percent of employers said that managing company costs was a top priority in the company’s August Best Practices in Healthcare Survey, versus the 42% who said that achieving affordability for employees was a top priority. In the near future, CFOs need to establish a relationship with HR counterparts that can facilitate “ways to manage company costs without shifting it to employees,” said Stawicki. 

Ultimately, company costs remain paramount for employers but running a successful business will also require keeping employee affordability top of mind.

U.S. adds solid 315,000 jobs in August

America had another month of solid job gains: The economy added 315,000 jobs in August, while the unemployment rate ticked up to 3.7% as more workers entered the labor force, the government said on Friday.

Why it matters: Employers continue to hire workers at a robust pace, even as the Federal Reserve raises interest rates swiftly to crush inflation.

  • Job growth eased from July’s breakneck pace, which were revised a tick higher to 528,000 jobs. Job growth in June was weaker than initially thought, downwardly revised by 100,000 to 293,000.
  • The August figures are roughly in line with economists’ expectations.

Details: Perhaps the most welcoming piece of news in the report is the influx of workers who entered the labor force last month. The labor force participation rate — the share of people working or looking for work — rose by 0.3 percentage points, after a string of monthly declines.

  • Average hourly earnings rose by 0.3%, a slowdown from the 0.5% rate in July.

The backdrop: The Fed has been bracing for some heat to come out of the labor market. It has raised interest rates at a historically rapid pace in a bid to squash elevated inflation. This report offers some good news as wage growth slowed — and more workers entered the workforce, helping ease the tightness in the labor market.

  • Higher rates work to slow demand by making it pricier for consumers and companies to borrow money, causing slower economic growth and, in turn, less price pressure.
  • “While higher in­ter­est rates, slower growth, and softer la­bor mar­ket con­di­tions will bring down in­fla­tion, they will also bring some pain to house­holds and busi­nesses,” chair Jerome Powell said last week.

Inflation drops to zero in July due to falling gas prices

Consumer prices were unchanged in July, as plunging prices for gasoline dragged the Consumer Price Index down to zero. Core inflation, which excludes energy and food, rose only 0.3%, below what analysts expected.

Driving the news: The Labor Department reported that overall consumer prices rose 0% last month, and are up 8.5% over the past year. That compares to a 9.1% year-over-year reported in June.

Why it matters: Falling gasoline prices are clearly giving American consumers some inflation relief, and the broader inflation picture was more favorable in July than economists had expected.

By the numbers: Gasoline prices fell 7.7% in July, dragging down headline inflation. Other items with falling prices included used cars and trucks (-0.4%) and airfares (down 7.8%).

  • But rents kept rising, a major factor in stubbornly high underlying inflation. Renters faced a 0.7% rise in costs.

What’s next: The Federal Reserve has indicated it intends to keep raising interest rates until there is clear evidence inflation is waning. After two straight months of extremely hot inflation readings, this report will be welcome news.

U.S. adds whopping 528,000 jobs in July as labor market booms

Employers added a stunning 528,000 jobs in July, while the unemployment rate ticked down to 3.5%, the lowest level in nearly 50 years, the Labor Department said on Friday.

Why it matters: It’s the fastest pace of jobs growth since February as the labor market continues to defy fears that the economy is heading into a recession.

  • Economists expected the economy to add roughly 260,000 jobs in July.
  • Job gains in May and June were a combined 28,000 higher than initially estimated.

The backdrop: The data comes at a delicate time for the U.S. economy. Growth has slowed as the Federal Reserve raises interest rates swiftly in an attempt to contain soaring inflation.

  • Many economists and Fed officials alike are pointing to the ongoing strength of the labor market as a sign the economy has not entered a recession.
  • Policymakers want to see some heat come off the labor market. They are hoping to see more moderate job growth as the economy cools, in order to ease inflation pressures.

6 WAYS TO REDUCE FINANCIAL DISTRESS IN HEALTHCARE

Welcome to the second installment of Pulse on Healthcare. This month’s issue takes a look at the issues causing financial distress for healthcare organizations, and how CFOs can take action to relieve it.

According to the 2022 BDO Healthcare CFO Outlook Survey, 63% of healthcare organizations are thriving, but 34% are just surviving. And while healthcare CFOs have an optimistic outlook—82% expect to be thriving in one year—they’ll need to make changes this year if they’re going to reach their revenue goals. To prevent and solve for financial distress, CFOs need to review and address the underlying causes. Otherwise, they might find themselves falling short of expectations in the year ahead.

Here are six ways for CFOs to address financial distress:

1.      Staffing shortages: 40% of healthcare CFOs say retaining key talent will be a top workforce challenge in 2022.

How can you avoid a labor shortage? Think about increasing wages for your frontline staff, especially your nurses. You could also reconsider the benefits you’re offering and ask yourself what offerings would be attractive for your frontline staff. For example, whether you offer free childcare could mean the difference between your staff staying and walking out for another employment opportunity. Additionally, consider enhancing or simplifying processes through technology to relieve some strain from day-to-day tasks.

2.      Budget forecasting: Almost half (45%) of healthcare organizations will undergo a strategic cost reduction exercise in 2022 to meet their profitability goals.

 How else can you cut costs? One option is to adopt a zero-based approach to budgeting this year. This allows you to build your budget from the ground up and find new areas to adjust costs to free up resources. Consider some non-traditional cost reduction areas, like telecommunication or select janitorial expenses, which are overlooked year after year. Cost savings in these areas can be substantial and quick to implement.    

3.      Bond covenant violations: 42% of healthcare CFOs have defaulted on their bond or loan covenants in the past 12 months. Interestingly, 25% say they have not defaulted but are concerned they will default in the next year.

 How can you avoid violations? The first step to take is to meet with your financial advisors, especially if you are worried you’re going to default on your bond or loan covenants. You want to get their counsel before you default so you can prepare your organization and mitigate the damage. Ideally, they can help you avoid a default altogether.

4.      Supply chain strains: 84% of healthcare CFOs say supply chain disruption is a risk in 2022.

How can you mitigate these risks? Supply chain shortages are a ubiquitous problem across industries right now, but not all of the issues are within your control. Focus on what is, including assessing your supply chain costs and seeing where you can find the same or similar products for lower prices. Identifying alternative suppliers may end up saving you a lot of frustration, especially if your regular suppliers run into disruptions.

5.      Increased cost of resources: 39% of healthcare CFOs are concerned about rising material costs and expect it will pose a significant threat to their supply chain.

How can you alleviate these concerns? Price increases for the resources you purchase — including medical supplies, drugs, technology and more — could deplete your financial reserves and strain your liquidity, exacerbating your financial difficulties. You may be able to switch from physician-preferred products to other, most cost-effective products for the time being. Switching medical suppliers may even save you money in the long run. Involving clinical leadership in the process can keep physicians informed of the choices you are making and the motivation behind them.

6.      Patient volume: 39% of healthcare CFOs are making investments to improve the patient experience.

How can you satisfy your patient stakeholders? As hospitals and physician practices get closer to the new normal of care, patients are returning to procedures and check-ins they put off at the height of the pandemic. Patients want a comfortable experience that will keep them coming back, including a safe and clean atmosphere at in-person offices.

They also want access to frictionless telehealth and patient portals for those who don’t want to or can’t travel to receive care. Revisit your “Digital Front Door Strategy” and consider ways to improve and streamline it. These investments can also go toward improving health equity strategies to ensure everyone across communities is receiving the same level of care.

Is healthcare still recession-proof?

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A recent conversation with a health system CFO made us realize that a long-standing nugget of received healthcare wisdom might no longer be true. For as long as we can remember, economic observers have said that healthcare is “recession-proof”—one of those sectors of the economy that suffers least during a downturn. The idea was that people still get sick, and still need care, no matter how bad the economy gets. But this CFO shared that her system was beginning to see a slowdown in demand for non-emergent surgeries, and more sluggish outpatient volume generally.

Her hypothesis: rising inflation is putting increased pressure on household budgets, and is beginning to force consumers into tougher tradeoffs between paying for daily necessities and seeking care for health concerns. This is having a more pronounced effect than during past recessions, because we’ve shifted so much financial risk onto individuals via high deductibles and cost-sharing over the past decade.

There’s a double whammy for providers: because the current inflation problems are happening in the first half of year, most consumers are nowhere near hitting their deductibles, leading this CFO to forecast softer volumes for at least the next several months, until the usual “post-deductible spending spree” kicks in.

Combined with the tight labor market, which has increased operating costs between 15 and 20 percent, this inflation-driven drop in demand may have hospitals and health systems experiencing their own dose of recession—contrary to the old chestnut.

The Fed’s big mistake

The Federal Reserve just raised interest rates by three-quarters of a percentage point, the biggest single increase in interest rates since 1994. It’s another move in the Fed’s effort to tackle the fastest inflation in four decades.

I understand the Fed’s urgency, but it has entered dangerous territory. If the Fed continues down this path – as it has signaled it will – the economy will be plunged into a recession. Every time over the last half century the Fed has raised interest rates this much and this quickly, it has caused a recession.

Besides, interest rate increases will not remedy the major causes of the current inflation – huge pent-up worldwide demand from two years of pandemic, shortages of goods and services responding to that demand, Putin’s war in Ukraine, and big profitable corporations with enough pricing power to use inflation as a cover for pushing up prices even further.

The Fed assumes that price increases are being driven by wage increases — so-called “wage-price inflation.” That’s incorrect. Wages are lagging behind inflation. A more accurate description of what we’re now seeing might be called “profit-price inflation” — prices driven upward by corporations seeking increased profits. (See chart below, from the Economic Policy Institute.)

A recession will be especially harmful to people who are most vulnerable to downturns in the economy — who are the first to be fired (and last to be hired again when the economy turns upward): lower-wage workers, disproportionately women and people of color.  

The Fed is making a big mistake.

CEO resignations hit record high

Dozens of hospital CEOs have resigned this year as a record number of chiefs across all industries have exited their roles, according to a May 18 Challenger, Gray & Christmas report. 

Nearly 520 CEOs left their posts between Jan. 1 and the end of April, the highest total since the executive outplacement and coaching firm began tracking CEO changes in 2002. The total is up 18 percent from the 440 CEO exits announced in the same period of 2021. 

Thirty-six hospital CEOs exited their roles in the first four months of this year. That’s up from the 20 hospital chiefs who resigned in the same period last year, according to the report. 

CEOs are leaving their positions and businesses are making changes at the top for several reasons, Challenger, Gray & Christmas Senior Vice President Andrew Challenger said. 

“Inflation, staffing shortages, and possible recession concerns are giving more cause for companies to reevaluate leadership,” Mr. Challenger said. “This, after years of companies trying to figure out the right formula to attract and retain talent and create a culture of inclusion, issues that often start at the top.”