2022 Was Hospitals’ Worst Financial Year in Decades, But 2023 Won’t Be Much Better

https://medcitynews.com/2023/01/2022

Financial analysts have said that 2022 may have been the worst year for hospital finances in decades. This year looks like it will be yet another year of financial underperformance, with rural providers in especially dire circumstances. 

What’s driving this bleak financial reality? It’s “primarily an expense story,” said Erik Swanson, a senior vice president at Kaufman Hall‘s data analytics practice.

“Growth in expenses has vastly outpaced growth in revenues — since pre-pandemic levels since last year, and even the year prior — such that margins are ultimately being pushed downward. And hospitals’ median operating margin is still below zero on a cumulative basis,” he declared, referring to 2021 and 2020. 

Here’s some context about how dismal this situation is: Even in 2020, a year in which hospitals saw extraordinary losses during the first few months of the pandemic, they still reported operating margins of 2%.

What’s even more disconcerting is that hospitals are underperforming financially pretty much across the board, Swanson said.

For example, the financial reports for the country’s three largest nonprofit health systems — AscensionCommonSpirit Health and Trinity Health — revealed they are all struggling. Ascension reported a $118.6 million loss in the third quarter of 2022, CommonSpirit posted a $227 million loss, and Trinity posted a $550.9 million loss.

Even Kaiser Permanente, one of the country’s largest health systems with an integrated delivery model, reported a $1.5 billion loss for the third quarter of 2022.

Rural hospitals are in even worse shape, but more on that below.

Other hospitals have been forced to shutter service lines to offset these financial losses. Some are also turning to integration and consolidation.

For example, Hermann Area District Hospital in Missouri said last month that it is seeking a “deeper affiliation” with Mercy Health or another provider. This announcement came after the hospital eliminated its home health agency as a cost-cutting measure. In December, the hospital projected a loss of $2 million for 2022.

We can also look at the mega-merger between Atrium Health and Advocate Aurora Health, which was completed last month. The deal, which is designed for cost synergy, creates the fifth-largest nonprofit integrated health system in the U.S. 

The merger was finalized one day after North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein expressed concern about how the deal could impact rural communities. He said that while he didn’t have a legal basis within his office’s limited statutory authority to block the deal, he was worried that it could further restrict access to healthcare in rural and underserved communities.

Stein brings up an extremely valid concern. Rural hospitals’ dismal financial circumstances are becoming more and more worrisome — in fact, about 30% of all rural hospitals are at risk of closing in the near future, according to a recent report from the Center for Healthcare Quality and Payment Reform (CHQPR).

A crucial reason for this is that it is more expensive to deliver healthcare in rural areas — usually because of smaller patient volumes and higher costs for attracting staff. Another factor is that payments rural hospitals receive from commercial health plans isn’t enough to cover the cost of delivering care to patients in rural areas, said Harold Miller, CEO of CHQPR. 

“Many people assume that private commercial insurance plans pay more than Medicare and Medicaid. But for small rural hospitals, the exact opposite is true,” he said. “In many cases, Medicare is their best payer. And private health plans actually pay them well below their costs — well below what they pay their larger hospitals. One of the biggest drivers of rural hospital losses is the payments they receive from private health plans.”

In Miller’s view, rural hospitals perform two main functions: taking care of sick people in the hospital and being there for people in case they need to go to the hospital. 

To fulfill the latter job, rural hospitals must operate 24/7 emergency rooms. These hospitals get paid when there’s an emergency, but not when there isn’t — even though the hospital is incurring costs by operating and staffing these units.

“Rural hospitals have a physician on duty 24/7 to be available for emergencies. But they don’t get paid for that by most payers. Medicare does pay them for that, but other payers don’t. If the hospital is doing two different things, we should be paying them for both of those things. Hospitals should be paid for what I refer to as ‘standby capacity,’” Miller said.

He bolstered his argument by pointing to these analogies: Do we only pay firefighters when there’s a fire? Do we only pay police officers when there’s a crime?

It’s also important to remember that rural hospitals are in the midst of transitioning to a post-pandemic environment, now without the pandemic-era financial assistance they received from the government, said Brock Slabach, chief operations officer at the National Rural Health Association

“Rural providers are looking to move into the future without the benefit of those extra payments. And they’re in an environment of really high inflation. It’s over 8%, and for some goods and services in the healthcare sector, that’s going to be over 20% in terms of increased prices. Wages and salaries have also gone up significantly. But patient volumes have maintained below average or average. That all presents a huge challenge,” Slabach said.

Rural providers across the country are dealing with the stressors Slabach described and clamoring for more government help. For example, the Michigan Health & Hospital Association sought more money from the state last month after having to take 1,700 beds offline.

Many rural hospitals can’t escape their fate. From 2010 to 2021, there were 136 rural hospital closures. There were only two closures in 2021, and Slabach said 2022 produced a similarly low number. But these low totals are due to government relief, he explained. Slabach said he’s expecting an increase in rural hospital closures in 2023.

When a rural hospital closes, it means community members have to travel far distances for emergency or inpatient care. Miller pointed out another problem: in many rural communities, the hospital is the only place people can go to get laboratory or imaging work done. The hospital might also be the only source of primary care for the community. Shuttering these hospitals would be a massive blow to rural Americans’ healthcare access.

In the face of these potentially devastating blows to patient access, financial analysts’ outlook is bleak. 

Higher inflation and costly labor expenses will continue to have negative effects on hospitals — both rural and urban — in 2023, according to an analysis from Moody’s. Expenses will also continue to increase due to supply chain bottlenecks, the need for more robust cybersecurity investments and longer hospital stays due to higher levels of patient acuity.

All of this doom and gloom begs the question — are any hospitals doing well financially?

The answer is yes, a select few. Let’s look at the three largest for-profit health systems in the nation — Community Health SystemsHCA Healthcare and Tenet Healthcare. As of 2020, these three public health systems accounted for about 8% of hospital beds in the U.S. 

These three systems all had positive operating margins for the majority of the pandemic, including most recently in the third quarter of 2022.

Large public health systems have shareholders to report to and stock prices to worry about. Does this mean they’re more likely to deny care to patients who can’t afford it while other hospitals pick up the slack?

Slabach said it’s tough to say.

“Obviously, hospitals try to mitigate their exposure to risk when it comes to taking care of patients. Most hospitals do a really good job of providing services and care to people who don’t have insurance or don’t have the means to pay. But that gets stressed in this current financial environment. So indeed, there may be instances where what you suggested might happen, but it’s not because they want to deny services or deny care. It’s because they have a bigger picture they have to maintain,” Slabach said.

And the big picture involving dollar signs for hospitals looks pretty bleak in 2023.

6 health systems hit with credit downgrades

A number of health systems experienced downgrades to their financial ratings in recent weeks amid ongoing operating losses, declines in investment values and challenging work environments.

Here is a summary of recent ratings since Becker’s last roundup Nov. 15:

The following systems experienced downgrades:

Adventist Health (Roseville, Calif.): Saw a downgraded long-term credit rating on bonds it holds, declining from “A” (negative) to “A-” (stable) by S&P Global Ratings.

The December downgrade follows a 2021 downgrade from Fitch Ratings from “A+” to “A.” That downgrade reflected “a series of one-time events and the lingering deleterious impact from the novel coronavirus” which “resulted in lower than anticipated operating EBITDA margins,” Fitch said. In November, Fitch added to this assessment by downgrading Adventist’s outlook from stable to negative, reflecting “continued negative operational pressure.” 

The group, which operates 23 hospitals in California, Hawaii and Oregon, was also assigned an “A” rating by Fitch to 2022 bonds and other outstanding debt.

Catholic Health (Buffalo, N.Y.): The group was downgraded on debt from “B1” to “Caa2” by Moody’s and is in danger of defaulting on its covenants.

The nonprofit health system, which serves residents in Western New York with four acute care hospitals and several other facilities, saw its rating drop in November on approximately $364 million of debt.

Duke University Health System (Durham, N.C.): Downgraded to an “AA-” credit rating by Fitch Ratings.

The December downgrade comes amid concern over Duke’s planned integration of the Private Diagnostic Clinic, a for-profit medical group with more than 1,800 physicians.

The rating, reduced from “AA,” applies both to specific bonds the group holds and to its overall issuer default rating. In addition to the integration of the Private Diagnostic Clinic, Fitch also cited concern over macro issues such as labor and inflationary pressures, which have helped to drag down operating results for the health group.

Main Line Health (Radnor Township, Pa.): – Had its bond rating downgraded to “A1” from “Aa3” by Moody’s.

The December downgrade reflects a multiyear trend of weak operating performance and expectations of tepid progress into 2023, Moody’s said.

In addition to Main Line’s revenue bond rating declining, its outlook has been revised to stable from negative at the lower rating. The hospital group has approximately $651 million in outstanding debt, Moody’s said.

Prime Healthcare (Ontario, Calif.): The group was downgraded on probability of default rating to “B2-PD” from “B1-PD” as well as its ratings of the system’s senior secured notes to “B3” from “B2” by Moody’s.

Moody’s also revised the outlook in November to negative from stable because it projects operating expenses will continue to pressure the 45-hospital system’s profitability in the near term, presenting challenges for “the company’s pace of deleveraging,” according to a Nov. 18 news release.

Westchester County Health Care Corp. and Charity Health System (Valhalla, N.Y): The group was downgraded from “Baa2” to “Baa3” by Moody’s.

The December downgrade for CHS is based on WCHCC’s legal guarantee to pay debt service on CHS’ Series 2015 bonds, if CHS is unable. The outlook for both systems remains negative with WCHCC and CHS having $773 million and $127 million of debt, respectively, at the end of fiscal year 2021, Moody’s said.

10 health systems with strong finances

Here are 10 health systems with strong operational metrics and solid financial positions, according to reports from credit rating agencies Fitch Ratings and Moody’s Investors Service.

1. Allina Health System has an “AA-” rating and a stable outlook with Fitch. The Minneapolis-based system is the inpatient market share leader in a highly competitive market and has a strong relation with payers in the market, Fitch said.

2. Bryan Health has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The Lincoln, Neb.-based health system has a leading and growing market position, very strong cash flow and a strong financial position, Fitch said. The credit rating agency said Bryan Health has been resilient through the COVID-19 pandemic and is well-positioned to accommodate additional strategic investments. 

3. CaroMont Health has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The Gastonia, N.C.-based system has a leading market position in a growing services area and a track record of good cash flow, Fitch said.  

4. Christiana Care Health System has an “Aa2” rating and stable outlook with Moody’s.  The Newark, Del.-based system has a unique position as the state’s largest teaching hospital and extensive clinical depth that affords strong regional and statewide market capture, and is expected to return to near pre-pandemic level margins over the medium-term, Moody’s said. 

5. Intermountain Healthcare has an “Aa1” rating and stable outlook with Moody’s. The Salt Lake City-based health system has exceptional credit quality, which will continue to benefit from its leading market position in Utah, Moody’s said. The credit rating agency said the health system’s merger with Broomfield, Colo.-based SCL Health will also give Intermountain greater geographic reach.

6. OhioHealth has a “AA+” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The Columbus, Ohio-based system has an exceptionally strong credit profile, broad regional operating platform and leading market position in both its competitive two-county primary service area and broader 47-county total service area, Fitch said. 

7. Parkview Health has an “Aa3” rating and stable outlook with Moody’s. The Fort Wayne, Ind.-based system has a leading market position with expansive tertiary and quaternary clinical services in northeastern Indiana and northwestern Ohio, Moody’s said. 

8. Rady Children’s Hospital has an “AA” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The San Diego based hospital has a very strong balance sheet position and operating performance, and is also a leading provider of pediatric services in the growing city and tri-county service area, Fitch said. 

9. ThedaCare has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The Neenah, Wis.-based system has a focused strategy, strong financial profile and robust market share, Fitch said. 

10. Trinity Health has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The Livonia, Mich.-based system’s large size and market presence in multiple states disperses and the long-term ratings incorporate the expectation that Trinity will return to sustained stronger operating EBITDA margins.  

Ascension vs. CommonSpirit vs. Trinity: How the 3 largest nonprofit systems’ finances compare

The largest nonprofit health systems, Ascension, CommonSpirit Health and Trinity Health, reported net losses in the three months ended Sept. 30 compared to net incomes in the same period a year earlier.

Here’s how the three systems’ finances fared in the third quarter, according to financial documents:

1. St. Louis-based Ascension, a 144-hospital system, reported an operating loss of $118.6 million in the third quarter compared to an operating gain of $24.9 million in the same period last year. Third-quarter operating revenue hit $7.2 billion and operating expenses were $7.3 billion, both increasing from about $6.9 billion in the third quarter of last year. However, for the same period, it posted a $790.4 million loss on investments, down from a gain of $79.7 million in 2021. After factoring in nonoperating items, Ascension posted a net loss of $811 billion for the three months ended Sept. 30. A year earlier, it posted a net income of $80.4 million. 

2. CommonSpirit Health, a 140-hospital system based in Chicago, posted $23 million income for the three months ending Sept. 30, down from $34 million over the same period in 2021. However, CommonSpirit received $325 million as part of the California provider fee program under the CMS-approved state plan amendment; after normalizing for the program, it reported a $227 million loss for the quarter. CommonSpirit’s quarterly operating revenue hit $8.53 billion. Salaries and benefits expenses increased 5.1 percent to $4.5 billion for the quarter due to high registry and contract labor as well as overtime, premium pay and inflation.

3. Livonia, Mich.-based Trinity Health, an 89-hospital systemreported $550.9 million net loss for the three months ending Sept. 30, compared to $398.4 million net income in the same period last year. Revenue for the period increased slightly to $5 billion after Trinity acquired the remaining stake in Iowa-based MercyOne from CommonSpirit. The transaction closed on Sept. 1 and added $126.2 million operating revenue to the quarter. Excluding MercyOne, Trinity’s revenue dropped $89.9 million compared to the same period last year. Third-quarter operating expenses rose almost 6 percent year over year to $5.2 billion, including a 5.8 percent increase in salary rates. Contract labor decreased $1 million during the quarter due to the MercyOne acquisition.

More pain, no gain for hospitals’ operating margins

Hospitals are nearing the end of an exceptionally difficult year for finances with a slight downturn to their operating margins and smaller likelihood of ending the year in the black. 

Kaufman Hall’s November “National Hospital Flash Report” — based on data from more than 900 hospitals — found hospitals’ median operating margin was -0.5 percent through October. Operating margins dropped 2 percent from September and 13 percent from October 2021.

High expenses continued to outpace revenues, particularly labor expenses. Total labor expenses are up 10 percent year to date and up 3 percent from September to October alone. Total non-labor expenses are up 5 percent year to date and held flat from September to October. 

Hospitals saw a 3 percent boost in emergency department visits and 2 percent boost in operating room minutes in October, with a 2 percent increase in gross operating revenue from the month prior. 

At the same time, hospitals struggled to discharge patients in October due to shortages of labor both internally and in post-acute settings, which resulted in a 3 percent increase in length of stay that did not translate to additional revenue. 

Increased ED traffic could strain hospitals’ workers if staff shortages complicate or prevent patient admissions, leading to ED boarding. A dozen medical groups recently alerted President Joe Biden to ED boarding reaching a “crisis point” and becoming a public health emergency.

“Every aspect of patient care — from being admitted, to treatment, to discharge — is affected by the labor shortage and as we head into the virus season and potential new waves of COVID-19 the pressures on hospitals and their staff could mount,” Erik Swanson, senior vice president of data and analytics with Kaufman Hall, said. 

In September, Kaufman Hall noted that expense pressures and volume and revenue declines could force hospitals to make “difficult decisions” about service reductions and cuts. 

Nonprofit health systems’ Q3 earnings: Baylor Scott & White, Sutter Health’s operations stand tall among the pack

https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/providers/q3-2022-nonprofit-health-system-earnings

Motley earnings numbers from more than a dozen major nonprofit health systems show third-quarter operating incomes landing on both sides of zero, though issues such as labor shortages, limited volume recovery and worsening payer mix look to be a constant across much of the sector.

Baylor Scott & White led the pack with a $257 million operating income for the period ended Sept. 30, 2022, though it was closely followed by Sutter Health’s $244 million.

Baylor is among the outlier systems whose financials have been holding strong through the last few years, and the quarter’s 7.7% operating margin represents a slight improvement over the 7.4% of its 2022 fiscal year (ended June 30). It attributed the quarter’s 5.6% year-over-year (YoY) increase in consolidated total operating revenue to a blend of premium revenue increases, higher surgical volumes and favorable service mix that “returned to and/or exceeded pre-COVID levels.”

Sutter’s operations have been back and forth this year with a $91 million Q1 gain and a $51 million Q2 loss before the most recent quarter’s $244 million. Though it’s still well behind its numbers from last year, the organization’s leadership highlighted the quarter’s relatively flat salaries and progress toward long-term financial resiliency.

“Significant challenges remain, including inflationary pressures, supply chain uncertainties, increased labor costs and staffing shortages, and rising drug prices,” a spokesperson said regarding the numbers. “Our priorities include preparing for seismic infrastructure updates, reinvesting in our communities and supporting our clinicians in service to our mission.”

Topping the other end of the spectrum was Bon Secours Mercy Health and Providence’s respective $141 million and $164 million operating losses—though the latter’s could be viewed as an improvement in light of the $934 million it was down during the prior two quarters.

Both of those systems highlighted a continuation of the inflationary and labor trends that had increased their expenses during the year’s earlier quarters.

Providence, for instance, noted an additional $526 million of agency and overtime expenses during the past nine months in comparison to 2021. Bon Secours Mercy said in its filing that the economic pressures offset improvements to patient volumes that had “approached historical pre-pandemic levels.”

Other operating results of note included: UPMC, whose health services division logged a $103 million operating loss but was buoyed by the integrated system’s insurance services division; Intermountain Healthcare, which is fresh off a merger that helped boost its revenue by 28% and its expenses by 35%; and Advocate Aurora Health, which inched closer to its own pending merger with a narrow 0.2% operating margin.

Regardless of how they stuck the landing, virtually every system reported feeling the continued impact of labor shortages. Banner Health was among that list, reporting a 7% Year after Year increase in year-to-date contract labor costs and noting that understaffing in certain locations negatively impacted capacity and patient volumes.

The reports also suggest some heterogeneity across the patient volume metrics of different markets as demand for non-COVID care continued to recover. Several systems noted their surgical or elective volumes have yet to return to pre-pandemic levels, and some highlighted worsened case mixes that limited year-over-year revenue growth.

Similar to earlier quarters, across-the-board non-operating losses weighed heavily on the organizations’ bottom lines. Nearly every system posted a nine-figure investment loss during the quarter, though a nearly $1.7 billion net investment loss at Kaiser Permanente easily took the cake.

The investment losses led to 11 of the 13 nonprofits to notch a negative net income during the three months ended Sept. 30. See below for a breakdown of the numbers (and note that for systems reporting year-to-date results, third quarter numbers represent the difference between nine-month and six-month totals).

 Total Operating RevenuesTotal Operating ExpensesOperating IncomeNet Income
Kaiser Permanente24,25324,328-75-1,550
CommonSpirit Health9,0118,98823-397
Providence6,8667,031-164-612
UPMC6,3766,449114-260
Mayo Clinic4,1173,960157-312
Sutter Health3,9853,741244103
AdventHealth3,9713,91060-305
Intermountain Healthcare3,6853,6850-582
Advocate Aurora Health3,6573,6498-311
Baylor Scott & White3,3353,078257135
Banner Health3,0693,096-26-198
Bon Secours Mercy Health2,7682,909-141-328
SSM Health2,3302,403-73-93
Nonprofit Health Systems’ Q3 Earnings ($ millions)

Inflation slowing as Wall Street looks bullish on healthcare sector

Wall Street’s roil has stabilized somewhat in recent days, with the S&P 500 brushing up against its 200-day moving average and rising more than 10 percent since its October lows, as of publication time.

The index’s 50-day moving average is trending up, according to financial data firm Refinitiv. But it still must climb another 7.4 percent to form a “golden cross,” which is when a stock or index’s short-term moving average rises above one of its longer-term moving averages. The S&P 500’s 20-day and 100-day moving averages are closer to the milestone, only needing increases of 5 percent and 1.2 percent, respectively.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average has already formed a small golden cross: its 20-day moving average is 1.2 percent higher than its 200-day moving average.

Investors Optimistic about Healthcare Sector

 Investors are most optimistic about the Healthcare sector, which is trading close to its 3-year average “price to earnings-per-share” ratio of 48.1x, according to Simply Wall Street.

 Analysts are expecting an annual earnings growth of 13.4 percent, higher than the sector’s past year earnings growth of 5 percent.

 Merck and Johnson & Johnson were among last week’s top gainers driving the market.

Inflation Appears to be Slowing

 The recent lower-than-expected inflation figures could indicate it is slowing.

 The Fed may continue raising rates, considering the strength in recent labor market and retail sales data.

Thomas Jefferson University reports $83.5M Q3 loss, health system patient volumes up

Philadelphia-based Thomas Jefferson University, including Jefferson Health, reported a multimillion-dollar loss in the third quarter ending Sept. 30.

Five things to know:

1. Thomas Jefferson University reported an $83.5 million loss for the quarter, down significantly from a $12.8 million gain in the same period last year.

2. Thomas Jefferson University reported $29.9 million in operating revenue. Clinical operations reported an $87.3 million loss from operations, and the insurance operations reported a $7.1 million gain for the quarter.

3. The organization reported a -3.7 percent operating margin, compared to 0.9 percent for the third quarter last year.

4. Hospital inpatient admissions grew 30.4 percent year over year to 39,463 cases for the quarter. Outpatient observations were also up 21.6 percent to 11,744 cases. Outpatient visits were up 36 percent year over year to 524,200 visits.

5. Days cash on hand for clinical operations dropped by nearly 11 days since the start of the fiscal year to 158.5 days due to nonoperating investment losses and repaying Medicare advance payments.

Providence’s operating loss grows to $1.1B for 2022

Providence, a 51-hospital system headquartered in Renton, Wash., ended the first nine months of 2022 with an operating loss of $1.1 billion, according to financial documents released Nov. 14. 

The system said in a Nov. 11 news release that its third quarter financial results showed the “ongoing impact of inflation, the national healthcare labor shortage, delayed reimbursement from payers, global supply chain disruptions and financial market weakness.”

For the nine months ended Sept. 30, Providence’s operating revenues were $19.6 billion on a pro forma basis, up from $18.8 billion during the same period last year, according to the report. The pro forma results exclude the operations of Newport Beach, Calif.-based Hoag Hospital. Providence and Hoag ended their affiliation in January. 

Operating expenses over the first nine months of the year were $20.7 billion, a 7 percent increase over the same period in 2021 on a pro forma basis. This includes a 9 percent increase in salary and benefits due to the cost of agency staff, overtime and wage increases, according to the release. It also includes a 6 percent increase in supply costs, driven by an 8 percent increase in pharmaceutical spending. 

Providence said financial market weakness and volatility drove investment losses of $1.4 billion for the first nine months of 2022, bringing the system’s unrestricted cash and investments to $9.1 billion. 

“Healthcare delivery systems across the country face unprecedented challenges, and Providence has not been immune,” Providence President and CEO Rod Hochman, MD, said in the release. “However, just as we have for more than 165 years, we will continue to be here to meet the health care needs of our communities. While we still have a journey ahead of us, we are moving in the right direction and are beginning to see signs of renewal this quarter. My deepest gratitude to the caregivers of Providence for continuing to focus on the Mission and serving those in need, especially those who are most vulnerable, with excellence and compassion.”