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

Dive Brief:

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

Dive Insight:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A bidding war for critical nursing talent

https://mailchi.mp/60a059924012/the-weekly-gist-september-10-2021?e=d1e747d2d8https://mailchi.mp/60a059924012/the-weekly-gist-september-10-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

As the pandemic rages on, hospitals across the country are experiencing significant labor shortages for critical clinical roles. In the graphic above, we highlight the shortage of nursing talent, perhaps the most sought-after role for which health systems are struggling to hire.

Even before the current COVID surge, many nurses reported feeling dissatisfied or feeling burned out. In a May 2021 survey, more than one in five nurses said they were considering leaving their current jobs, citing insufficient staffing, workload, and the emotional toll of the work. Many health systems are offering lucrative incentives, such as five-figure signing bonuses, to fill immediate critical care needs, and to address the growing backlog of patients returning for delayed care.

As more nurses quit or retire from their permanent positions, health systems are being forced to fill workforce gaps by luring temporary talent at much higher costs (now cresting $8K a week to fund a single travel nurse in some parts of the country). Travel nurse demand reached an all-time high in August, up almost 40 percent from the previous peak in December 2020. As they struggle to fill essential openings, hospital leaders must also focus on keeping the current nursing staff engaged—a challenge that only gets harder as staff nurses compare their salaries to those paid to the temporary colleagues working alongside them.

Shortage of healthcare workers amid high demand for jobs

https://mailchi.mp/13ef4dd36d77/the-weekly-gist-august-27-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

The US now has more job openings than any time in history—and the mismatch in workforce supply and demand in the broader economy is even more acute in the healthcare sector. While the industry saw significant job losses in April 2020, employment in many healthcare subsectors quickly rebounded to slightly below pre-pandemic levels, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

While ambulatory and hospital employment has mostly recovered, employment in nursing and residential care facilities has continued to decline. 

Healthcare’s sluggish return to pre-pandemic employment levels is not for lack of demand. The number of job listings has grown nearly 30 percent since the second quarter of 2020, to nearly 4.5M openings, while new hires have flatlined, resulting in over half of healthcare job listings remaining unfilled as of Q2 2021. 

In a recent McKinsey & Company survey of over 100 large US hospitals, health system executives ranked workforce shortages among nurses and clinical staff as their greatest barrier to increasing capacity.

Amid the current COVID surge, many systems are offering sizeable bonuses to attract new employees. These strategies will be critical across the next year, as systems look to reduce spending on costly travel nurses, manage COVID surges while continuing to offer elective care, and forestall further burnout.

But longer term, rethinking job functions, integrating new technology and finding ways to educate and upskill critical clinical talent will be key to winning the war for talent.

RN hourly wage in 10 US metro areas

RN Salary -Registered Nurse wages and employment information

The hourly mean wage for registered nurses in the U.S. is $38.47, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ latest occupational employment and wage statistics survey.

Among 10 metropolitan areas with the highest employment level in registered nurses, registered nurses have the highest hourly mean wage in the Los Angeles area and the lowest in the Miami area.

Ten hourly mean wages for RNs by metropolitan area, in descending order:

1. Los Angeles: $54.38

2. Boston: $47.79

3. New York City: $45.63

4. Houston: $40.85

5. Washington, D.C.: $40.14

6. Philadelphia: $38.45

7. Dallas: $37.50

8. Chicago: $37.48

9. Detroit: $36.64

10. Miami: $34.76 

Vaccination shortfall making it harder to fully staff hospitals

https://mailchi.mp/ef14a7cfd8ed/the-weekly-gist-august-6-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

Your Messages of Support | Emerson Hospital

With vaccine mandates on the rise among healthcare organizations, including many of the health systems we work with, we’ve begun to hear a new argument in favor of getting staff vaccinated—one that weighs against the worry that mandates will drive scarce clinical workers away.

With staffing already stretched, some systems have been concerned that implementing mandates could worsen shortages and force an increase in the use of costly agency labor. But, some executives are now telling us, so could not vaccinating staff. As the highly contagious Delta variant continues to sweep through unvaccinated populations, clinical workers who haven’t gotten their shots are especially susceptible to contracting the virus.

That’s driven a sharp increase in unvaccinated nurses and other workers calling out sick with COVID symptoms, which has made a difficult staffing situation even worse.

Some of the high-profile reports of hospitals running out of beds in the face of the Delta variant are actually driven by running out of staff to keep those beds in use—making it even more critical to ensure that frontline workers are protected against the virus.

As a growing number of hospitals and other care facilities mandate that their workers get vaccinated, we’d hope this unwelcome pressure on an already stretched workforce begins to wane.

Are recent labor actions getting nursing unions what they want?

While nurses in Cook County, Illinois, struck a deal in recent days, those on a three-month-plus strike against a Tenet hospital in Massachusetts plan a protest at the chain’s Dallas headquarters.

Thousands of healthcare workers have waged strikes this summer to demand better staffing levels as the pandemic brought greater attention to what happens when a nurse must take care of more patients than they can reasonably handle.

In New York, a report from the attorney general that found nursing homes with low staffing ratings had higher fatality rates during the worst COVID-19 surges last spring helped spur legislators to pass a safe staffing law long-advocated for by the New York State Nurses Association.

While unions elsewhere face a steeper climb to win the success found in New York, through strikes and other actions, they’re attempting to get new staffing rules outlined in their employment contracts.

Most nursing strikes include demands for ratios, or limits on the number of patients a nurse can be required to care for, Rebecca Givan, associate professor in the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers University, said.

“And employers are very anxious about that because it threatens their bottom line, so often when a compromise is found, it’s something that approaches a ratio but maybe has a bit more flexibility,” Givan said.

Some have been successful, like the 1,000 Chicago-area nurses at Stroger Hospital, Provident Hospital and Cook County Jail who waged a one-day strike on June 24 after negotiating with the county over a new contract for nearly eight months.

They reached a tentative agreement shortly after the strike, stipulating the hiring of 300 nurses, including 125 newly added positions throughout the system within the next 18 months.

The deal also includes wage increases to help retain staff, ranging from 12% to 31% over the contract’s four-year term, according to National Nurses United.

Meanwhile, 700 nurses at Tenet’s St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts, have been on strike for over 100 days over staffing levels. Nurses represented by the Massachusetts Nurses Association have been trying to get an actual nurse-to-patient ratio outlined for specific units in their next contract.

The two sides haven’t come close to reaching a deal yet, and some nurses will travel to Tenet’s headquarters in Dallas on Wednesday in an attempt to appeal to corporate executives, according to MNA.

At the same time, federal lawmakers wrote to Tenet CEO Ron Rittenmeyer seeking details on the chain’s use of federal coronavirus relief funds amid the strike and alongside record profits it turned last year.

The hospital denied lawmakers’ claims in the letter that Tenet used federal funds to enrich executives and shareholders rather than meet patient and staff needs, saying in a statement it strongly objects to the “mischaracterization of the facts and false allegations of noncompliance with any federal program.”

The strike is currently the longest among nurses nationally in a decade, according to the union.

A number of other major hospital chains have contracts covering their nurses expiring this summer, including for-profit HCA Healthcare and nonprofit Sutter Health.

Unionized nurses at 10 HCA hospitals in Florida have reached a deal on a new collective bargaining agreement, though members still need to ratify it, according to National Nurses United. The details are still unclear.

And after joining NNU just last year, 2,000 nurses at HCA’s Mission Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, ratified their first contract Saturday, which includes wage increases and the formation of a nurse-led staffing committee.

Newly-formed unions take an average of 409 days to win a first contract, according to an analysis from Bloomberg Law. In the healthcare industry, new unions take an average of 528 days to win a first contract, the longest among all sectors examined.

Across the country at Sutter’s California hospitals, disputes haven’t been so easily resolved. Healthcare workers at eight Sutter hospitals planned protests throughout July “to expose the threat to workers and patients caused by understaffing, long patient wait times and worker safety issues at Sutter facilities,” according to Service Employees International Union United Healthcare Workers West, which represents the workers.

Similar to the ongoing Tenet hospital strike, SEIU is highlighting Sutter’s profits so far this year and the federal relief funds it received.

CommonSpirit and Essentia call off 14-hospital deal following nurse complaints

Dive Brief:

  • CommonSpirit Health and Essentia Health have called off a deal for Essentia to acquire 14 CommonSpirit facilities in North Dakota and Minnesota, the two Catholic systems announced Tuesday.
  • The deal, nixed just four months after being announced, would have doubled the size of Duluth, Minn.-based Essentia’s hospital network. One of the facilities up for grabs, CHI St. Alexius Medical Center, is a tertiary hospital and the other 13 are critical access hospitals. The deal would also have included associated clinics and living communities.
  • The systems did not provide details as to why they scrapped the deal in their release, and an Essentia representative did not respond to a request for comment by time of publication.

Dive Insight:

CommonSpirit and Essentia signed a letter of intent in January to explore the sale, but talks have now fizzled following months of deliberation.

“While we share a similar mission, vision, values and strong commitment to sustainable rural healthcare, CommonSpirit and Essentia were unable to come to an agreement that would serve the best interests of both organizations, the people we employ and the patients we serve,” a joint statement from the two systems said.

Earlier this month, more than 700 nurses and medical workers filed a petition noting their concern over the deal. In the petition, the Minnesota Nurses Association and employees at Essentia and CommonSpirit said they feared layoffs and restricted access to patient care resulting from the acquisition.

Nurses cited Essentia’s partnership with Mercy Hospital in Moose Lake, Minn., last summer, which they claimed hurt the quality of patient care.

“Ever since the takeover, we’ve lost numerous staff, causing shortages in how we care for patients,” a nurse wrote in a news release about the petition May 4. “We don’t want CHI’s hospitals and clinics to lay off workers, cut the services they offer or close entirely.”

Essentia did not respond to a request for comment about whether workers’ concerns affected the decision to call off the deal.

Hospitals maintain consolidation betters the patient experience and improves care quality, but numerous studies have suggested that’s not the case. One from early last year published in the New England Journal of Medicine found acquired hospitals actually saw moderately worse patient experience, along with no change in 30-day mortality or readmission rates, while another from 2019 found mergers and acquisitions drive up prices for consumers.

Despite that, provider mergers and acquisitions have continued at a rapid clip even during COVID-19, as hospitals look to divest underperforming assets and bulk up market share in more lucrative geographies. The letter of intent CommonSpirit signed with Essentia suggests the roughly 140-hospital system is taking stock of its smaller rural facilities.

Chicago-based CommonSpirit was formed in 2019 by the merger of nonprofit giants Catholic Health Initiatives and Dignity Health. The nonprofit giant was hit hard by the pandemic, losing $550 million in the 2020 fiscal year.

Striking Tenet nurses, hospital CEO trade jabs with no end in sight for standoff

About 800 nurses at a Tenet hospital are on the third week of a strike that’s shaping up to be one of the longest among healthcare workers in recent years.

At the hospital chain’s St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts, nurses represented by the Massachusetts Nurses Association have been on strike since March 8 following a breakdown in negotiations over a new contract they’ve been bargaining for since November 2019.

Nurses have been active on the labor organization front in wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and share a common issue at stake — staffing levels, and more specifically the nurse to patient ratio.

At St. Vincent, unionized nurses say their staffing has been worsened by the pandemic, affecting their ability to adequately care for patients. They point to hundreds of unsafe staffing reports filed by nurses over the past year, and the departure of more than 100 St. Vincent nurses over the past 10 months.

The hospital rejects those claims, and said only two citations have been issued by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health since 2019, according to a release.

The changes MNA is asking for are “excessive,” St. Vincent Hospital CEO Carolyn Jackson contended in an interview with Healthcare Dive, and the hospital cannot agree to the “aggressive” levels the union is proposing.

The two sides haven’t met again since the strike began, and do not have a timeline to get back to the table.

Right now, St. Vincent operates on staffing guidelines brokered after its nurses waged a 49-day strike over their first union contract in 2000Under those terms, one nurse in its medical surgical units can be assigned to either four or five patients.

The terms proposed by MNA stipulate that one nurse in those units would be assigned to four patients at a maximum. MNA is also asking for a five-nurse critical care float pool, and for the hospital to double its emergency department staff from 71 employees to 157, Jackson said.

California is currently the only state with mandated ratios of one nurse to five patients in medical surgical units.

“It has been our request for them to remove some of those unreasonable, or preferably all of those unreasonable staffing requests, and come back to the table and really work on getting a reasonable deal done,” Jackson said.

During the first week of the strike, the hospital paid over $5 million to hire replacement nurses, according to a release. When asked directly about how much the hospital has spent so far, Jackson declined to answer.

“It is definitely an added expense to the hospital, and that is challenging,” she said.

The strike in 2000 ended when both parties reached a deal brokered by former Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., that resulted in provisions to limit mandatory overtime and the staffing guidelines currently in place.

But this time it seems “there is no point at which anybody’s going to step in and settle this for the two parties,” Paul Clark, professor and director of Penn State’s school of labor and employment relations said.

The union has garnered support from Massachusetts lawmakers including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Rep. James McGovern and former Rep. Joe Kennedy, who visited the picket line on March 12, along with state Attorney General Maura Healey, who visited Wednesday.

The Worcester City Council also approved a resolution in support of the striking nurses at St. Vincent on March 16.

But those moves wield little power to break the strike, although the political pressure could hurt the hospital.

“The increased cost is, perhaps, public opinion beginning to coalesce behind the union,” Clark said.

Strikes have costs for both sides, as nurses on the picket line have gone without pay for almost three weeks now.

“Until the cost becomes too great to one or the other sides, they’re going to continue down this road,” Clark said.