As hospitals and health system leaders continue to grapple with persistently high nursing vacancy rates and severe staffing challenges, and face growing pressure to cut costs, we’re beginning to hear serious—if paradoxical—consideration being given to sharpening the axe, with an eye on a long-standing sacred cow: “Magnet” status.
For years, leading systems have invested significant time and resources to earn Magnet status, a designation of nursing quality granted by the American Nursing Association through its American Nurses’ Credentialing Center. Applying for—and then renewing—the designation can cost millions of dollars and involve significant process changes and staff time. In return, participants can market themselves as “Magnet hospitals”, presumably garnering additional patient business and giving them a leg up in recruiting high-quality nurses. At a time of severe nursing shortage, you might expect interest in earning or maintaining Magnet status to be spiking.
But that’s not what we’re hearing. “It’s just too expensive,” shared one system CEO recently. “We haven’t really seen it move the needle on volume, and our Magnet-designated facilities are just as stretched as the non-Magnet ones, with equally low morale.” Plus, at a time when the ability to pursue flexible staffing models is at a premium, keeping up with Magnet standards is increasingly handcuffing some hospitals looking to evaluate alternative staffing solutions.
“We can achieve all of the benefits of Magnet without having to jump through their hoops on process and data collection,” a system chief nursing officer told us. “We’re working on our own, internally-branded alternative to Magnet—something our own staff comes up with, rather than something artificially imposed from an outside organization.”
Ironically, this may be another area—like the battle against contract labor—in which systems now find themselves aligned with nursing unions, which have long opposed the Magnet program as just a marketing gimmick. There’s no question that programs like Magnet have helped increase the visibility of nursing as a driver of quality care. But given the current economic environment, it’ll be interesting to see how much hospitals are willing to continue to invest to maintain the designation.
Rachel Woods:When I talk about hospitals of the future, I think it’s very easy for folks to think about something that feels very futuristic, the Jetsons, Star Trek, pick your example here. But you have a very different take when it comes to the hospital, the future, and it’s one that’s perhaps a lot more streamlined than even the hospitals that we have today. Why is that your take?
Jim Bonnette: My concern about hospital future is that when people think about the technology side of it, they forget that there’s no technology that I can name that has lowered health care costs that’s been implemented in a hospital. Everything I can think of has increased costs and I don’t think that’s sustainable for the future.
And so looking at how hospitals have to function, I think the things that hospitals do that should no longer be in the hospital need to move out and they need to move out now. I think that there are a large number of procedures that could safely and easily be done in a lower cost setting, in an ASC for example, that is still done in hospitals because we still pay for them that way. I’m not sure that’s going to continue.
Woods: And to be honest, we’ve talked about that shift, I think about the outpatient shift. We’ve been talking about that for several years but you just said the change needs to happen now. Why is the impetus for this change very different today than maybe it was two, three, four, five years ago? Why is this change going to be frankly forced upon hospitals in the very near future, if not already?
Bonnette: Part of the explanation is regarding the issues that have been pushed regarding price transparency. So if employers can see the difference between the charges for an ASC and an HOPD department, which are often quite dramatic, they’re going to be looking to say to their brokers, “Well, what’s the network that involves ASCs and not hospitals?” And that data hasn’t been so easily available in the past, and I think economic times are different now.
We’re not in a hyper growth phase, we’re not where the economy’s performing super at the moment and if interest rates keep going up, things are going to slow down more. So I think employers are going to become more sensitized to prices that they haven’t been in the past. Regardless of the requirements under the Consolidated Appropriations Act, which require employers to know the costs, which they didn’t have to know before. They’re just going to more sensitive to price.
Woods: I completely agree with you by the way, that employers are a key catalyst here and we’ve certainly seen a few very active employers and some that are very passive and I too am interested to see what role they play or do they all take much more of an active role.
And I think some people would be surprised that it’s not necessarily consumers themselves that are the big catalyst for change on where they’re going to get care, how they want to receive care. It’s the employers that are going to be making those decisions as purchasers themselves.
Bonnette: I agree and they’re the ultimate payers. For most commercial insurance employers are the ultimate payers, not the insurance companies. And it’s a cost of care share for patients, but the majority of the money comes from the employers. So it’s basically cutting into their profits.
Woods: We are on the same page, but I’m going to be honest, I’m not sure that all of our listeners are right. We’re talking about why these changes could happen soon, but when I have conversations with folks, they still think about a future of a more consolidated hospital, a more outpatient focused practice is something that is coming but is still far enough in the future that there’s some time to prepare for.
I guess my question is what do you say to that pushback? And are there any inflection points that you’re watching for that would really need to hit for this kind of change to hit all hospitals, to be something that we see across the industry?
Bonnette: So when I look at hospitals in general, I don’t see them as much different than they were 20 years ago. We have talked about this movement for a long time, but hospitals are dragging their feet and realistically it’s because they still get paid the same way until we start thinking about how we pay differently or refuse to pay for certain kinds of things in a hospital setting, the inertia is such that they’re going to keep doing it.
Again, I think the push from employers and most likely the brokers are going to force this change sooner rather than later, but that’s still probably between three and five years because there’s so much inertia in health care.
On the other hand, we are hitting sort of an unsustainable phase of cost. The other thing that people don’t talk about very much that I think is important is there’s only so many dollars that are going to health care.
And if you look at the last 10 years, the growth in pharmaceutical spend has to eat into the dollars available for everybody else. So a pharmaceutical spend is growing much faster than anything else, the dollars are going to come out of somebody’s hide and then next logical target is the hospital.
Woods: And we talked last week about how slim hospital margins are, how many of them are actually negative. And what we didn’t mention that is top of mind for me after we just come out of this election is that there’s actually not a lot of appetite for the government to step in and shore up hospitals.
There’s a lot of feeling that they’ve done their due diligence, they stepped in when they needed to at the beginning of the Covid crisis and they shouldn’t need to again. That kind of savior is probably not their outside of very specific circumstances.
Bonnette: I agree. I think it’s highly unlikely that the government is going to step in to rescue hospitals. And part of that comes from the perception about pricing, which I’m sure Congress gets lots of complaints about the prices from hospitals.
And in addition, you’ll notice that the for-profit hospitals don’t have negative margins. They may not be quite as good as they were before, but they’re not negative, which tells me there’s an operational inefficiency in the not for-profit hospitals that doesn’t exist in the for-profits.
Woods: This is where I wanted to go next. So let’s say that a hospital, a health system decides the new path forward is to become smaller, to become cheaper, to become more streamlined, and to decide what specifically needs to happen in the hospital versus elsewhere in our organization.
Maybe I know where you’re going next, but do you have an example of an organization who has had this success already that we can learn from?
Bonnette: Not in the not-for-profit section, no. In the for-profits, yes, because they have already started moving into ambulatory surgery centers. So Tenet has a huge practice of ambulatory surgery centers. It generates high margins.
So, I used to run ambulatory surgery centers in a for-profit system. And so think about ASCs get paid half as much as a hospital for a procedure, and my margin on that business in those ASCs was 40% to 50%. Whereas in the hospital the margin was about 7% and so even though the total dollars were less, my margin was higher because it’s so much more efficient. And the for-profits already recognize this.
Woods: And I’m guessing you’re going to tell me you want to see not-for-profit hospitals make these moves too? Or is there a different move that they should be making?
Bonnette: No, I think they have to. I think there are things beyond just ASCs though, for example, medical patients who can be treated at home should not be in the hospital. Most not-for-profits lose money on every medical admission.
Now, when I worked for a for-profit, I didn’t lose money on every Medicare patient that was a medical patient. We had a 7% margin so it’s doable. Again, it’s efficiency of care delivery and it’s attention to detail, which sometimes in a not-for-profit friends, that just doesn’t happen.
There’s an old trope among human resources leaders that people don’t quit companies, they quit managers. There’s certainly truth to it. If an employee has a difficult or inattentive boss, they are at much greater risk of leaving for another opportunity. But a “bad” manager is not always someone lacking in the skills necessary to engage employees; sometimes the problem is that their own roles are structured in ways that make it nearly impossible to succeed.
We’ve recently heard stories from leaders at several health systems describing the untenable management scope for many of their mid-level nursing leaders. It’s common to hear that nurse managers have dozens of direct reports, and a few systems reported that some of their managers have well over a hundred individuals reporting to them. With that scope, it’s impossible to develop relationships with everyone on the team, much less be able to customize roles, or provide tailored feedback and support.
For younger workers, the manager relationship is critical for engagement, skill development, and building loyalty.
Given today’s intense margin pressures, it’s tempting to cut clinical managers and increase the span of control for those who remain—but underinvestment here is short-sighted, and will surely exacerbate challenges maintaining critical capacity in the near-term, as well as building the foundation for future growth.
A Massachusetts nurse has pleaded guilty in federal court in Boston in connection with a $100 million healthcare fraud scheme, the Justice Department announced Sept. 13.
Winnie Waruru, a licensed practical nurse, pleaded guilty Sept. 8 to conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud, healthcare fraud – aiding and abetting, conspiracy to pay and receive kickbacks, making false statements and making a false statement in a healthcare matter.
Ms. Waruru was employed by Chelmsford, Mass.-based Arbor Homecare Service. She was charged in February 2021 alongside Faith Newton, who was part owner and operator of the home healthcare company from 2013 to 2017. Ms. Newton has pleaded not guilty, according to the Justice Department.
Prosecutors allege that the duo used Arbor to defraud MassHealth and Medicare of at least $100 million by committing fraud and paying kickbacks to get referrals. Specifically, prosecutors allege that Arbor billed payers for home health services that were never provided or weren’t medically necessary. Arbor billed MassHealth for Waruru’s skilled nursing visits, many of which she did not perform, according to the Justice Department.
Thirteen people involved in a $27 million healthcare fraud scheme have been sentenced to a combined 84 years in federal prison, the Justice Department announced Aug. 31.
The defendants allegedly participated in a fraud scheme that involved Novus Health Services, a Dallas-based hospice agency. The defendants allegedly defrauded Medicare by submitting false claims for hospice services, providing kickbacks for referrals and violating HIPAA to recruit beneficiaries. Novus employees also dispensed controlled substances to patients without the guidance of medical professionals, according to the Justice Department.
Novus CEO Bradley Harris admitted to the fraud and testified against two physicians who elected to go to trial. Mr. Harris pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud and one count of healthcare fraud and aiding and abetting. He was sentenced to 159 months in federal prison in January.
The 12 others convicted in the scheme include three physicians, four nurses and several executives.
A nurse was charged with murder Aug. 23 for allegedly causing the death of a 97-year-old patient at Baptist Health Lexington (Ky.), the Lexington Police Department said in a statement.
Eyvette Hunter, RN, was indicted in the death of James Morris. Ms. Hunter “intentionally performed actions of medical maltreatment” to Mr. Morris on April 30, and he died as a result of those actions on May 5, police said.
Ms. Hunter’s nursing license was also suspended this week, according to the Kentucky Board of Nursing.
The order suspending her license said Ms. Hunter administered lorazepam, a sedative, to Mr. Morris without a physician’s order, according to WKYT. Another nurse found the patient a short time later with labored breathing, and he died May 5. His cause of death was listed as aspirational pneumonia.
Ms. Hunter admitted to administering the drug to Mr. Morris without an order, according to WKYT.
“We have learned that a former nurse at our hospital has been arrested on criminal charges. The nurse has not worked here since April 30,” Baptist Health said in an Aug. 23 statement, according to WKYT. “The nurse was terminated and was reported to the Kentucky Board of Nursing. The hospital has fully cooperated with the police investigation. Patient care and safety are always our top priorities. Out of respect for the family and because this is a criminal matter, we are not able to talk about the investigation.”
Members of the Michigan Nurses Association are accusing the University of Michigan of unlawfully refusing to negotiate over nurses’ workloads in its bargaining with the University of Michigan Professional Nurse Council.
The union, an affiliate of National Nurses United and AFL-CIO, represents about 13,000 registered nurses and healthcare professionals in Michigan, including workers employed by the University of Michigan. The University of Michigan regents hold the contract with the University of Michigan Professional Nurse Council, the largest bargaining unit of the Michigan Nurses Association.
A total of 6,200 University of Michigan Health nurses have been working without a new contract since July 1, and they are working under the terms of the expired agreement, according to hospital and union statements. The University of Michigan Health, the clinical division of Ann Arbor-based Michigan Medicine, told Becker’s in a statement that during negotiations, it has offered a 21 percent base pay increase for nurses over the life of the contract, as well as a new salary step program for nurse practitioners and the safe elimination of mandatory overtime.
The union contends the University of Michigan has refused to bargain over safe workloads regarding the number of patients assigned per nurse, which it says is tied directly to nurses’ patient safety concerns. As a result, it filed a lawsuit Aug. 15 in the Michigan Court of Claims.
“When nurses are forced to take care of too many people at once, patient care gets compromised and nurses are put in danger of injury or burnout, and that’s happening far too often at our hospital,” said Renee Curtis, RN, president of the University of Michigan Professional Nurse Council, said in a news release.
“University of Michigan Health makes staffing determinations with patient safety at the forefront of its decisions, and this has produced outstanding safety results,” the health system said in its statement. “The health system continuously receives recognition as Michigan’s safest hospital with recent recognitions by top agencies.”
University of Michigan Health also said it “plans to vigorously defend itself” against the union lawsuit.
The prevailing opinion earlier this year was that the hospital registered nurse (RN) shortage was being driven by older nurses retiring early or leaving hospital employment for less-demanding care settings during the pandemic. However, recent data shown in the graphic below paint a different picture.
Hospital RNs with over ten years of tenure actually turned over at lower rates in 2021, compared to 2019. Meanwhile, the turnover rate for nurses with less tenure (who are typically younger) increased in 2021. While less-tenured nurses have always turned over at higher rates, we are seeing a new uptick in younger RNs leaving the profession.
The size of the total RN workforce decreased by 1.8 percent between 2019 and 2021—and the decline was twice as steep for hospital-employed RNs. Younger RNs disproportionately drove this decline: nurses under age 35 left the nursing workforce at four times the rate of those over age 50.
A recent survey suggestsyounger RNs are less likely to feel their well-being is supported by their organization, and more likely to define themselves as “emotionally unhealthy.” To keep younger nurses in the profession, hospitals must increase the support available to them. Investments might include expanding preceptorship and mentorship programs, many of which were cut during the pandemic, and increasing behavioral health support and job flexibility.