Hospital labor expenses up 37% from pre-pandemic levels in March

Dive Brief:

  • Hospitals’ labor costs rose by more than a third from pre-pandemic levels by March 2022, according to a report out Wednesday from Kaufman Hall.
  • Heightened temporary and traveling labor costs were a main contributor, with contract labor accounting for 11% of hospitals’ total labor expenses in 2022 compared to 2% in 2019, the report found.
  • Contract nurses’ median hourly wages rose 106% over the period, from $64 an hour to $132 an hour, while employed nurse wages increased 11%, from $35 an hour to $39 an hour, the report found.

Dive Insight:

The new data from Kaufman Hall supports concerns hospital executives expressed while releasing first quarter earnings results, as higher-than expected labor costs spurred some operators, like HCA, to lower their financial full-year guidance.

The ongoing use of contract labor amid shortages driven by heightened turnover was a key factor executives cited for higher costs, and follows the findings from Kaufman Hall’s latest report.

More than a third of nurses surveyed by staffing firm Incredible Health said they plan to leave their current jobs by the end of this year, according to a March report. While burnout is driving them to leave, higher salaries are the top motivating factor for taking other positions, that report found.

Kaufman Hall’s report, which analyzes data from more than 900 hospitals across the country, found hospitals spent $5,494 in labor expenses per adjusted discharge in March compared to $4,009 roughly three years ago.

Costs rose for hospitals in every region, though the South and West experienced the largest increases from pre-pandemic levels as those expenses rose 43% and 42%, respectively.

The West and Northeast/Mid-Atlantic regions saw the highest expenses consistently from 2019 to 2022, according to the report.

“The pandemic made longstanding labor challenges in the healthcare sector much worse, making it far more expensive to care for hospitalized patients over the past two years,” said Erik Swanson, senior vice president of data and analytics at Kaufman Hall.

“Hospitals now face a number of pressures to attract and retain affordable clinical staff, maintain patient safety, deliver quality services and increase their efficiency,” Swanson said.

The report also notes that hospitals are competing with non-hospital employers also pursuing hourly staff, though those companies can pass along wage increases to consumers through higher prices “in a way healthcare organizations cannot,” the report said.

Some hospitals, like HCA Healthcare and Universal Health Services, are looking to raise prices for health plans amid rising nurse salaries, according to reporting from The Wall Street Journal.

Another recent report from group purchasing organization Premier found the CMS underestimated hospital labor spending when making payment adjustments for the 2022 fiscal year, resulting in hospitals receiving only a 2.4% rate increase compared to a 6.5% increase in hospital labor rates.

To match the rates hospitals are now paying staff, an adequate inpatient payment update for fiscal 2023 is needed, that report said.

The CMS proposed its IPPS rule for FY 2023 on April 18 that includes a 3.2% hike to inpatient hospital payments, which provider groups like the American Hospital Association rebuked as “simply unacceptable” considering inflation and rising hospital labor costs.

More Americans are quitting — and job openings hit record high

Across industries, 4.54 million Americans quit or changed jobs in March, the highest level since December 2000, according to seasonally adjusted data released May 3 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The count is up from 4.38 million in February. In the healthcare and social assistance sector, 542,000 Americans left their jobs in March, compared to 561,000 the previous month, according to the bureau.

The number of job openings in the U.S. also hit a record high of 11.55 million in March, up from 11.34 million in February, according to the bureau. Job openings in the healthcare and social assistance sector remained similar in February and March, at around 2 million.

During the pandemic, hospital CEOs are among those who have joined the list of workers quitting. Additionally, older, tenured employees in America are part of the trend.

Although there continues to be churn in the labor market, Fitch Ratings projects the U.S. labor market will recover jobs lost during the pandemic by the end of August.

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

https://www.aha.org/costsofcaring

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I. Workforce and Contract Labor Expenses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II. Drug Expenses

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

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

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

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

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

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

III. Medical Supply and PPE Expenses

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

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

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

IV. Impact of Rising Inflation

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

Stanford Health Care to nurses: No pay for those who strike

Stanford Health Care and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital administrators have notified union leaders that its nurse members who strike later in April risk losing pay and health benefits, according to Palo Alto Weekly.

The Committee for Recognition of Nursing Achievement, a union at Stanford Health Care and Stanford Children’s Health that represents about 5,000 nurses, has scheduled a strike to begin April 25. The nurses’ contract expired March 31.

If the strike moves forward, Stanford Health Care and the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, both based in Palo Alto, Calif., are prepared to continue to provide safe, quality healthcare, according to a statement from Dale Beatty, DNP, RN, chief nurse executive and vice president of patient care services for Stanford Health Care, and Jesus Cepero, PhD, RN, senior vice president of patient care and chief nursing officer for Stanford Children’s Health.

But the statement, which was shared with Becker’s, said nurses who choose to strike will not be paid for shifts they miss.

“In addition, employer-paid health benefits will cease on May 1 for nurses who go out on strike and remain out through the end of the month in which the strike begins,” Drs. Beatty and Cepero said.

The leaders quoted from Committee for Recognition of Nursing Achievement’s “contingency manual” that the union provided to nurses: “If a strike lasts beyond the end of the month in which it begins and the hospitals discontinue medical coverage, you will have the option to pay for continued coverage.”

Drs. Beatty and Cepero said nurses who strike may pay to continue their health coverage through the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act.

In a separate statement shared with Becker’s, Committee for Recognition of Nursing Achievement President Colleen Borges called Stanford and Packard management’s move regarding nurses’ health benefits “cruel” and “immoral.”

“Health benefits should not be used against workers, especially against the very healthcare professionals who have made Stanford a world-class health system,” said Ms. Borges, who is also a pediatric oncology nurse at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital. “We have spent our careers caring for others and putting others first — now more than ever we need solutions that will ensure sustainability, safe staffing and strong benefits to retain nurses. But instead of taking our proposals seriously, hospitals are spending their time and energy weaponizing our medical benefits. We refuse to be intimidated from standing up for the fair contracts that we need in order to continue delivering world-class patient care.”

The union has organized a petition to tell Stanford not to cut off medical benefits for nurses and their families during the strike. As of April 19, the petition had more than 25,150 signatures.

Why don’t hospitals just pay full-time nurses more?

Hospitals’ reliance on travel workers is nothing new. The pandemic intensified it and highlighted the gap between full-time workers’ pay and lucrative temporary contracts. 

While the average salary for a travel nurse can vary based on location, regional demand, hospital type and specialty, the compensation for a travel nurse has increased significantly compared to pre-pandemic, Bill Morgan, president of the Orlando, Fla.-based travel nurse staffing firm Jackson Nurse Professionals, told Becker’s in September. 

Meanwhile, hospitals and health systems have offered bonuses, increased wages and made other investments in employee retention for their staff workers. Still, the compensation gap between hospital employed nurses and travel or agency nurses remains stark. 

The gap poses the seemingly simple question: Why aren’t hospitals paying full-time staff more instead of paying higher prices for travel workers? 

Travel nursing’s start 

Taking a look back at the history of why hospitals started using travel nurses in the first place helps answer that question, said Kathy Sanford, DBA, RN, chief nursing officer at Chicago-based CommonSpirit Health. 

Dr. Sanford recalls first using local agencies and travel nurses in the 1980s as a cost-effective staffing strategy for periods when the patient census fluctuates, such as during flu epidemics. 

“When you have those fluctuations, you need to have a staffing strategy of what you want to do when the census goes up higher than we are staffed for, but it’s only going to last maybe a month, or a little longer,” she told Becker’s. “Because of the fluctuations, our nursing strategy for staffing was to use these non-employed nurses to fill in when there were gaps.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has created a situation where volumes are consistently higher than normal. And while rates for a travel or agency nurse have traditionally been higher than those of a hospital staff nurse, the current demand has pushed travel rates to record highs. 

Rising rates

Pittsburgh-based UPMC, for example, paid an estimated $85 an hour for a traveling nurse or a nurse from an agency before the pandemic. The health system is now experiencing rates between $225 and $250 an hour. Such rates have made nurses who may not have considered traveling before take the leap. 

“And the nurses are making more, and we don’t fault the nurses for taking advantage of that opportunity. But … now not only are nurses making more, but the agencies have taken the opportunity to triple their profits … and it shouldn’t be permitted during a pandemic, just like we don’t permit building companies to triple the price of lumber after a hurricane. It just shouldn’t be allowed,” said John Galley, chief human resource officer at UPMC. 

“Hospitals are all trying to fill the positions that need to be filled to help us get through this crisis with travel nurses, but because there aren’t enough, it becomes a cycle of bidding of who will pay me the most to travel,” Dr. Sanford said. Because of that, many nurses who may have never considered traveling before are now choosing to do so and leaving hospitals in areas of the country with a lower wage index, she said. 

Pay for travel nurses has always been higher for the same reasons hospitals pay float pool nurses more, Dr. Sanford explained. 

“Nurses are specialists and they work on a particular type of unit, and sometimes one unit’s census will be down and another unit’s census will be up,” she said. Float pool nurses are willing to shift to different units that need help “and it’s not a favorite thing for nurses to do,” Dr. Sanford said. “You have to pay them a little extra to be willing to learn different types of nursing and be willing to float.” 

The same line of thinking applies to agency or travel nurses. Travelers don’t have the perks that come with a full-time job, like job security and benefits. That coupled with the burden of travel itself and short-term assignments was the initial justification for why travel nurses had higher rates. 

Simply put, hospitals can’t afford to pay full-time staff wages that were meant for temporary assignments. 

“The bottom line is it would not be sustainable for hospitals to pay the kind of dollars that they’re paying right now for travel nurses in the long run. Because nurses are our backbone … they’re our heart, but they’re also our backbone. They’re the majority of our staff.” Dr. Sanford said. 

Mr. Galley of UPMC echoed that sentiment, noting that salaries and benefits make up about 50 percent of a health system’s entire expenses. “If you were to double a good portion of that — the nursing salaries — you’d completely wipe out any operating margin. Then you wouldn’t be able to invest in anything to keep the hospitals going,” he said. 

And healthcare has a lot of costly demands that would go unaddressed if such rates became the expectation for staff nurses. 

“There are a lot of needs that healthcare has in technology, and making sure that we have the equipment to take care of patients, and that we can do programs for the poor and vulnerable that we wouldn’t be able to afford if we pay these non-sustainable prices forever,” Dr. Sanford of CommonSpirit said. 

The value of in-house agencies

To combat skyrocketing travel nursing costs, some health systems have introduced their own travel agencies, including CommonSpirit and UPMC, where travel nurses work within the system.

Mr. Galley said UPMC started the agency for its 40-hospital system not only to combat the nursing shortage — and attract back nurses the health system has lost to outside travel agencies — but also to address increased rates from outside travel agencies. 

Nurses and surgical techs who qualify for UPMC’s in-house agency will earn $85 an hour and $63 an hour, respectively, in addition to a $2,880 stipend at the beginning of each six-week assignment.

Compensation for travel nurses at UPMC is still higher than full-time employees because the job comes with its own set of challenges. While full-time nurses get to know their facilities and have a more regular schedule, travel nurses are constantly on the move.

“They’re going to have assignments for a few weeks at a time at a particular location, then we’re going to pick them up and move them somewhere else, so they’re going to be constantly traveling, living out of a suitcase, and that’s what external travelers do, so we want to be just like the market, create roles like that and pay like that,” Mr. Galley said. “I think our employees understand the difference between that kind of a lifestyle that goes along with the higher salary.”

CommonSpirit’s internal agency plans to start traveling in the early spring and is in the process of hiring a national director for the program. The system’s goal is to have 500 nurses.

Dr. Sanford said the program will be beneficial because it will bring down competition, and people who want to travel can still be employees within the health system.

“It gives nurses who are our employees a choice if they want to be travelers or if they want to do it part time and then come back to a job within one of our hospitals or in one of our clinics. … They won’t lose their benefits, they won’t lose their seniority. They’ll be our employees,” Dr. Sanford said.

Other systems are exploring similar programs, such as Charlotte, N.C.-based Atrium Health, which recently ran a pilot in-house traveler program. The health system has also used outside agencies, which cost about triple compared to pre-pandemic.

This program was very successful, less expensive than using an external travel agency and worked really well across our large health system that covers multiple states,” said Patricia Mook, MSN, RN, vice president of nursing operations at Atrium Health.

But internal travel programs may not be easy for other health systems to mimic, especially smaller ones. Hospitals have to be of a certain size for an internal travel program to work, meaning an individual hospital wouldn’t be able to have one, Mr. Galley said.

More than that, it’s a complex undertaking, he said. 

“It’s not without its challenges,” Mr. Galley said. “I just think it’s something that takes the resources and thought leadership to be able to do. But you’re not going to find independent hospitals being able to mirror this.”

Dr. Sanford also recommends having a few different strategies in place to combat nurse shortages.

“Don’t make it your only strategy because there are so many issues that we could do better with our nursing staff. … You need to be looking at all of the different things that give nurses voice in your organization,” Dr. Sanford said.

Retail wages are rising. Can hospital pay keep up?

While healthcare workers battle burnout, hospitals have been ramping up wages and other benefits to recruit and retain workers. It has created a culture of competition among health systems as well as travel agencies that offer considerably higher pay.

But other healthcare organizations are not hospitals’ only competitors. Some hospitals, particularly those in rural areas, are struggling to match rising employee pay among nonindustry employers such as Target and Walmart.

“We monitor and we’ve been looking and we ask around in the community and we can ask who’s paying what,” Troy Bruntz, CEO of Community Hospital in McCook, Neb., told Becker’s. “So we know where Walmart is on different things, and we’re OK. But if Walmart tried to match what Target’s doing, that would not be good.”

At Target, the hourly starting wage now ranges from $15-$24. The organization is making a $300 million investment total to boost wages and benefits, including health plans. Starting pay is dependent on the job, the market and local wage data, according to NPR.

Walmart raised the hourly wages for 565,000 workers in 2021 by at least $1 an hour, The New York Times reported. The company’s average hourly wage is $16.40, with the lowest being $12 and the highest being $17.

Meanwhile, Costco raised its minimum wage to $17 an hour, according to NPR. The federal minimum wage is $7.25.

Estimated employment for healthcare practitioners and technical occupations is 8.8 million, according to the latest data released March 31 by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This includes nurse practitioners, physicians, registered nurses, physician assistants and respiratory therapists, among others. 

In sales and related occupations, estimated employment is 13.3 million, according to the bureau. This includes retail salespersons, cashiers and first-line supervisors of retail salespersons, among others.  

While retail companies up their wages, at least one hospital CEO is monitoring the issue.

Healthcare leaders weigh their options

Mr. Bruntz said rising wages among retailers is an issue his organization monitors. Although Target does not have a store in McCook, there is a Walmart, where pay is increasing.

“I was quoted a few months ago saying Walmart was approaching $15 an hour, and we can handle that,” Mr. Bruntz said. “But when it gets to $20 or $25, it’s going to be an issue.”

He also said he cannot solely increase the wages of the people making less than $15 or less than $25 because he has to be fair in terms of wages for different types of roles.

Specifically, he said he is concerned about what matching rising wages at retailers would mean for labor expenses, which make up about half of the hospital’s cost structure.

“I double that half, that’s 25 percent more expenses instantly,” Mr. Bruntz said. “And how is that going to ratchet to a bottom line anything less than a massive negative number? So it’s a huge problem.”

Clinical positions are not the only ones hospitals and health systems are struggling to fill; they are encountering similar difficulties with technicians and food service workers. Regarding these roles, competition from industries outside healthcare is particularly challenging.

This is an issue Patrice Weiss, MD, executive vice president and chief medical officer of Roanoke, Va.-based Carilion Clinic, addressed during a Becker’s panel discussion April 4. The organization saw workforce issues not just in its clinical staff, but among environmental services staff.

“When you look at what … even fast food restaurants were offering to pay per hour, well gosh, those hours are a whole lot better,” she said during the panel discussion. “There’s no exposure. You’re not walking into a building where there’s an infectious disease or patients with pandemics are being admitted.” 

Amid workforce challenges, Community Hospital is elevating its recruitment and retention efforts.

Mr. Bruntz touted the hospital as a hard place to leave because of the culture while acknowledging the monetary efforts his organization is making to keep staff.

He said the hospital has a retention program where full-time employees get a bonus amount if they are at the employer on Dec. 31 and have been there at least since April 15. Part-time workers are also eligible for a bonus, though a lesser amount.

“It also encourages staff [who work on an as-needed basis] to go part-time or full-time, and [those who are] part-time to go full-time,” Mr. Bruntz said. “That’s another thing we’re doing is higher amounts for higher status to encourage that trend.” 

Additionally, Community Hospital, which has 330 employees, offers a referral bonus to staff to encourage people they know to come work with them. 

“We want staff to bring people they like. [We are] encouraging staff to be their own ambassadors for filling positions,” Mr. Bruntz said.  

He said the hospital also will offer employees a sizable market wage adjustment not because of competition from Walmart but because of inflation.

Graham County Hospital in Hill City, Kan., is also affected by the tight labor market, although it has not experienced much competition with retail companies, CEO Melissa Atkins told Becker’s. However, the hospital is struggling with competition from other healthcare organizations, particularly when it comes to patient care departments and nursing. While many hospitals have struggled to retain employees from travel agencies, Graham County Hospital has mostly been able to avoid it.

“As the demand increases, so does the wage,” Ms. Atkins said. “In addition to other hospitals offering sign-on bonuses and increased wages, nurse agency companies are offering higher wages for traveling nurse aides and nurses. We are extremely fortunate in that we have not had to use agency nurses. Our current staff has stepped up and filled in the shortages [with additional incentive pay].”

To combat this trend, the hospital has increased hourly wages and shift differentials, as many healthcare organizations have done. It has also provided bonuses using COVID-19 relief funds.

Overall, Mr. Bruntz said he prefers “not to get into an arms race with wages” among nonindustry competitors. 

“It’s not going to end well for anybody. We prefer not to use that,” he said. “At the same time, we’re trying to do as much as possible without being in a full arms race. But if Walmart started paying $25 for a door greeter and cashier, we would have to reassess.”

Rising turnover, agency costs compound hospital labor problems

Even as COVID admissions continue to wane, hospitals report that workforce shortages persist. The impact on hospital finances is stark: as shown in the graphic above, there has been an eight percent increase in clinical labor costs per patient day since the start of the pandemic, amounting to an additional $17M annually for an average 500-bed hospital. 

Two of the primary factors driving this increase—higher turnover among clinical staff and a continued reliance on travel nurses—are mutually reinforcing. 

Quarterly turnover rates for some nursing positions doubled from Q4 2019 to Q2 2021, as hospitals turned to expensive agency labor to fill resulting vacancies. Spiking demand for travel nurses, still running nearly three times higher than the pre-pandemic baseline, fueled more turnover, as more nurses left for these lucrative roles. 

It’s unclear how long increased labor costs will persist

Some HR tactics, like signing and retention bonuses, are one-time expenditures. But total hospital employment is still down two percent from pre-pandemic levels, pointing to a diminished healthcare labor supply. 

Permanent wage increases may end up being unavoidable, especially for lower-wage jobs, where a new compensation baseline for talent is being set by the market, both inside and outside the healthcare industry. 

Hospitals are bolstering wages. Is it sustainable?

As the workforce shortages worsened and the pandemic caused widespread burnout, many hospitals and health systems saw their labor expenses significantly rise as they were forced to pay more to attract and retain workers.

Hospitals and health systems ramped up wages, provided hiring bonuses and offered new benefits to ensure they could staff beds. However, it left us with one question: Are these rising labor expenses sustainable?

The answer to the question appears to be multifaceted and dependent on an organization’s vantage point. For example, unions say hospitals can afford wage increases and bonuses, while CFOs argue that there needs to be more sustainable methods. 

Northwell Health CFO Michele Cusack lays it out very clearly: “Growth in wages more than revenue trends is not sustainable.”

Moving to a more sustainable method

At the start of the workforce shortage, hospitals and health systems turned to more immediate retention and recruitment efforts: bonuses and pay increases, according to Kaufman Hall’s Senior Vice President Therese Fitzpatrick, PhD, RN, and Managing Director Dawn Samaris. However, now that the staffing shortage has stabilized in some parts of the country — though not all — hospitals are turning to more strategic, long-term strategies to ease the labor shortage, they said.

“Initially, there was a scramble to find bonus structures and increase everybody’s pay,” Ms. Samaris said. “Now, folks are stepping back and saying, ‘Well, that can’t be the only tool. We’ve got to have other options available.”

New Hyde Park, N.Y.-based Northwell Health, for example, has been focused on bending this unsustainable cost curve of rising labor expenses “by focusing on culture, our mission and ensuring that the employees know and recognize their contribution to their communities and that they are special and are making a difference,” Ms. Cusack told Becker’s Hospital Review.  

For Andrew Gaasch, CFO of Centennial, Colo.-based Centura Health, a health system with about 21,000 employees, recruitment and retention is about remaining competitive with the market when it comes to pay, while also keeping the sustainability of the organization in mind.

“That’s paramount for us to be able to deliver high-quality, whole-person care across all of our flourishing communities in Colorado and western Kansas,” Mr. Gaasch said. “At the same time, we have to maintain a healthy margin to be able to continue to invest in our communities, both from a human capital and physical capital perspective. It really is a tightrope between the two.”

He said his health system’s motto around this is, “Save where we can to spend where we should.”

“We need to be able to spend and should be able to spend on employees and in our communities,” Mr. Gaasch said.  

Are hiring bonuses in healthcare here to stay?

In the fall, Centura Health offered a market bonus for bedside registered nurses. The $15,000 one-time payment, which was tied to a certain time commitment to the health system, helped reduce RN turnover from 41 percent last October to 28 percent currently. 

“We took a moment and took a step back and said, ‘We have to do something more creative than just adding more dollars just to the average hourly rate. We need to do something different.’ So that’s why we approached the market bonus for bedside caregivers,” Mr. Gaasch said.

About 2,500 employees accepted the market bonus and of those, only 19 have left Centura Health. About 850 employees turned down the market bonus and of those, 137 have left Centura Health.  

One thing that is staying at Centura Health: sign-on bonuses for hard-to-fill positions.

Mr. Gaasch said there are different tiers of eligibility around the sign-on bonuses, which are based on factors such as market conditions and vacancy rates. The range for sign-on bonuses at Centura Health is $7,500 to $20,000. 

Over the last 14 months, Centura Health has invested more than $200 million in additional employee compensation and benefits. Additionally, the health system recently announced another $31 million investment in employees through market adjustments and benefits including student loan assistance and child care assistance. 

“We’re really trying to listen to the needs of our incredible people because it’s not just about base wages, it’s about the total package and it’s about benefits,” Mr. Gaasch said.

Unions: Hiring bonuses are great, but more long-term change is needed 

One of the health systems that has recently offered major sign-on incentives is Providence in Renton, Wash. In September, the health system announced $1,000 bonuses for all caregivers, referral bonuses of up to $7,500 and sign-on bonuses for 17,000 positions. 

The Providence perks were designed “to reward, retain and recruit,” amid a lack of staff and rising numbers of COVID-19 patients. Though the perks may be successful at attracting more workers, Tyler Kissinger with the National Union of Healthcare Workers says those workers won’t stay for long unless underlying issues are addressed.

“Hospitals were chronically understaffed before the pandemic. Short-term bonus programs might help get more workers hired, but they won’t stay if the hospital is chronically understaffed and their patients aren’t getting the care they need,” Mr. Kissinger said.

Mr. Kissinger is an organizing coordinator with the NUHW in Northern California, focused on Providence hospitals located in Sonoma and Napa counties. He believes incentives like sign-on and referral bonuses only go so far, and improving the workplace itself is key to attracting and retaining employees.

“The only way to sustainably attract and retain workers is to increase staffing to sustainable levels so healthcare workers don’t burn out trying to do everything they can to care for their patients,” Mr. Kissinger said. “Healthcare workers get into this field because they want to help people get better. When they see hospitals skimp on staffing, while paying their CEOs millions of dollars, it’s disheartening, and it results in people leaving.”

The same week Providence announced their incentive programs, a Gallagher survey reported a 75 percent increase in average hourly rates for agency RNs nationwide, rising from $75 pre-pandemic to more than $130 in September 2021. Despite the major increase in pay, the national RN vacancy rate stood at 19 percent, more than double pre-pandemic levels. To find enough nurses, 75 percent of healthcare organizations are turning to agency and travel RN companies.

“We’re seeing major healthcare chains like Providence rely more heavily on travelers and hiring bonuses. That’s not a sustainable solution,” Mr. Kissinger said. “The sustainable solution for hospital chains like Providence is to change their business model to focus less on profit and more on providing care, and that starts with hiring more caregivers and making the work more manageable so more people will enter and stay in the field.”

Other healthcare unions such as the Illinois Nurses Association signaled their full support for sign-on bonuses to boost critical staffing levels, but say these types of incentives may be sustainable for health systems because they aren’t necessarily spending more to fund them. 

“INA understands and supports hospitals that offer signing bonuses to attract nurses if these are used as part of a comprehensive and fair compensation strategy that treats nurses with respect and dignity,” an INA spokesperson said. “All too often, we have found that these bonuses replace compensation and benefits that could be used for senior nurses who have worked several years for institutions that have not treated them well, especially during the last two years.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Mr. Kissinger, who says nurses and physicians may be offered major sign-on bonuses, increased pay and benefits like child care subsidies, but support positions won’t be offered nearly as much, if at all.

“At Providence hospitals, we’ve secured better wages for many workers in certified and licensed positions, but Providence has so far refused our proposals to increase pay for lower-paid workers such as housekeepers, nursing assistants, transporters and kitchen staff,” Mr. Kissinger said. 

Reducing or sunsetting other expenses

Dr. Fitzpatrick of Kaufman Hall said the focus is now on creating a robust pipeline of staff, whether it’s professional staff, technical staff or entry-level staff. One example of how organizations are doing this is through partnerships with higher education to train students and then move them to employment. Ms. Samaris said some places are also creating simulation labs that imitate a real hospital setting for community colleges to train their students.

Another example is through “shadow traveler” programs, or internal travel nursing, Ms. Samaris said. This gives nurses the opportunity to travel within the system for slightly higher pay, rather than forcing them to move to an external agency. Pittsburgh-based UPMC is among the organizations using this approach.

Ms. Samaris added that hospitals are enacting strategies to lower costs in other areas. This includes optimizing staffing in the areas that need it most, analyzing where there is a duplication of services and creating partnerships with other organizations to offer services, like behavioral health or home health.

At Northwell Health, Ms. Cusack said that in response to wage pressures and other COVID-19 costs, the health system has reduced discretionary spending and placed a great focus on increasing product standardization and other operating efficiencies. Northwell is also reducing costs through the remote-work shift. 

“With the growth of the hybrid work environment, we can reduce our administrative real estate portfolio to further counterbalance the expense pressure from wage growth,” Ms. Cusack said. 

Mr. Gaasch cited examples of where the health system is using its motto to save costs to offset this labor pressure, such as leveraging Centura Health’s size and scale where possible; automating processes where possible; considering centralization of services as appropriate; ensuring overhead functions operate as efficiently as possible; and reviewing work-from-home policies and corresponding real estate costs. 

He said Centura Health is also reducing premium pay categories that the health system has been heavily reliant on through the pandemic.

“The pandemic has slowed as far as the number of COVID-19 patients we’re treating, so we’re starting to look at premium pay categories that we instituted and how can we start to ratchet those down, in a corresponding timeline with the number of COVID patients decreasing and regaining our footing on staffing,” he explained.

He said Centura Health is also considering its supply chain and is trying to standardize where possible on products and use across the health system.

Is there a hard stop for how high labor expenses can grow?

Overall, Mr. Gaasch said he doesn’t have a set ceiling on how high labor costs can grow, because paying clinicians is vital to remain competitive.  

Ms. Cusack agreed that there’s not a “hard stop” on how high labor expenses rise, saying that the health system must “ensure we have the appropriate staffing levels in the various clinical functional areas in response to the volume of patients that we care for every day.”

Dr. Fitzpatrick agreed, saying: “There really is no hard stop. … This is a continually evolving situation. … I think the solutions will continue to evolve as well.”

Hospitals seek government help on staffing costs

The American Hospital Association (AHA) is asking Congress for an additional $25B to help hospitals offset high labor costs, largely incurred by the need to rely on travel nurse staffing firms that charge two to three times pre-pandemic rates. The AHA, along with 200 members of Congress, is urging the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the staffing agencies for anti-competitive activity, although the agency has previously declined to do so. 

The Gist: The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is now releasing $2B in of provider relief dollars from the CARES Act. Beyond that, after nearly two years and $178B of federal support, hospitals shouldn’t count on additional funds from the government, even as costs of labor and supplies continue to rise. 

Instead, we’d expect more scrutiny over how the remaining relief dollars are spent. Federal support during the pandemic has masked structural economic flaws in provider economics, and we expect 2022 will be a year of financial reckoning for many hospitals and health systems

Looking ahead to a year of belt-tightening

Looking ahead to a year of belt-tightening

https://mailchi.mp/92a96980a92f/the-weekly-gist-january-14-2022?e=d1e747d2d8

We’ve been having “year ahead” discussions with our health system members over the past few weeks, although it’s been difficult for some to carve out time for planning in the midst of the Omicron surge.

One common theme is that, from a financial perspective, 2022 is expected to be a more difficult year. For many systems, despite the trying COVID situation, the past two years have been financial record-setters. In 2020, systems benefited from a massive infusion of COVID relief funding from the government, and in 2021, they continued to enjoy enhanced reimbursement due to COVID, plus had a resurgence of volume as patients sought care that was previously postponed.

2022 looks to be a more “normal” year—meaning a return to the financial pressures of pre-pandemic times. Those include mounting price compression from payers, an accelerating shift of care from inpatient to outpatient settings, and increasing competition for patients from disruptors and others. At the same time, patient acuity will continue to rise, with patients presenting sicker and with more comorbidities. The cost of caring for those patients will escalate, as the workforce shortage drives labor costs higher and supply chain woes persist.

We’d anticipate a year or more of belt-tightening among many health systems, as they adjust to the post-pandemic environment.