‘A triple whammy’: Why hospitals are struggling financially amid the delta surge

Hospitals were struggling before the pandemic. Now they face financial  disaster (opinion) - CNN

n addition to treating an influx of Covid-19 patients, many hospitals are struggling with what one administrator calls a “triple whammy” of financial burdens—stemming from plummeting revenue, higher labor costs, and reduced relief funds, Christopher Rowland reports for the Washington Post.

Hospitals in less-vaccinated areas face spiking labor costs

In areas with low vaccination rates, particularly in southern and rural communities, hospitals have been overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients, exacerbating labor shortages as workers burn out or leave for more lucrative positions, Rowland reports.

“The workforce issue is just dire,” Stacey Hughes, EVP of government relations and policy for the American Hospital Association (AHA), said. “The delta variant has wreaked significant havoc on hospitals and health systems.”

In Louisiana, Mary Ellen Pratt, CEO of St. James Parish Hospital, said many nurses quit due to the grueling conditions as Covid-19 cases spiked. “I didn’t have any extra money to incentivize my staff to pick up additional shifts,” she said. “This is coming out of bottom-line money I don’t have.”

Separately, Lisa Smithgall, SVP and chief nursing executive at Ballad Health, said the health system—which has 21 hospitals in eastern Tennessee and southwestern Virginia—has faced similar problems retaining staff amid Covid-19 surges.

“We knew we were at risk in our region because of where we live and because of our vaccination rate being so poor,” Smithgall said. “At one point, we were seeing four or five nurse resignations per week. They couldn’t do it again; they emotionally didn’t have it. They were so upset with our community.”

To fill in these growing gaps in their workforce, many hospitals have had to turn to costly contract workers, Rowland reports—a significant financial burden that further strains hospitals’ resources.

For example, Ballad Health went from hiring fewer than 75 contract nurses before the pandemic to 150 in August 2020 and 450 in August 2021. Moreover, according to Smithgall, contract nurses previously made double or triple what permanent staff nurses made, but now Ballad sometimes has to pay up to seven times as much for contract nurses as hospitals compete for workers to fill shifts.

Delayed elective surgeries deepen hospitals’ financial struggles

Many hospitals, including those in areas with high vaccination rates, have delayed elective surgeries, a crucial source of revenue, amid nationwide surges in Covid-19 cases, Rowland reports—further compounding financial struggles for many organizations.

On Aug. 26, Ballad Health postponed a long list of elective surgeries—including hernia repair, cardiac and interventional radiology procedures, joint replacements, and nonessential spine surgery—to preserve space in its hospitals and conserve workers. Ballad is now allowing elective surgeries again, but only for a limited number of procedures that do not require overnight stays.

Similarly, St. Charles Health System in Oregon postponed elective surgeries in August “while we responded to a surge that was significantly greater and much more sudden than the surge in 2020,” Matt Swafford, the health system’s VP and CFO, said.

According to Swafford, the health system lost $5 million a week through August and September, around $1 million of which was repayment of emergency advances on Medicare reimbursements from last year.

“I don’t think anybody saw this level of surge coming in 2021 after what we saw in 2020,” he said. “We’re just not equipped to be able to simultaneously respond to the urgent needs of the community [for more typical surgeries and care] at the same time that a third of our beds are occupied by highly infective Covid patients.”

Many hospitals likely to end the year at a deficit

Further compounding the issue, according to Moody’s Investors Service, is that the provider relief funds that previously made up 43% of operating cash flow at nonprofit and government-run hospitals in the United States are now dwindling down.

In addition, the latest portion of provider relief funds to be distributed must be based on expenses incurred by hospitals before March 31, 2021, which don’t account for months of the delta surge, Rowland reports.

Premier, a group purchasing and technology company serving more than 4,000 hospitals and health systems, analyzed payroll data of 650 hospitals and found that U.S. hospitals have spent a total of $24 billion a year during the pandemic to cover excess labor costs, primarily for overtime and contract nurses. This was an increase of 63% from October 2019 to July 2021, Rowland reports, with hospitals in the Upper Midwest and across the South seeing the largest increases.

“It’s going to leave them huge deficits that they are going to have to work out of for years to come,” Michael Alkire, Premier’s CEO, said.

CommonSpirit’s net income jumps to $5.5B in 2021, reversing major COVID-19 loss

Dive Brief:

  • Nonprofit hospital giant CommonSpirit Health reported a better operating performance in its 2021 fiscal year than in 2020, but said in financial results released Friday it expects COVID-19 to continue to pressure its operations in the coming year.
  • The Chicago-based Catholic system reported operating income of $998 million for its fiscal year ended June 30, compared to an operating loss of $550 million the year prior.
  • However, excluding federal relief funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act passed last March and a sale of part of its stake in an unnamed joint venture, the system would be posting an operating loss of $215 million.

Dive Insight:

It’s CommonSpirit’s second full fiscal year as a a combined organization after the merger of Dignity Health and CHI was completed in February 2019. The marriage resulted in the largest nonprofit system in the U.S., with 140 hospitals and roughly 1,500 sites across 21 states.

However, that scale didn’t protect CommonSpirit from being slammed by the pandemic’s financial effects in 2020, as lower admissions, badly performing investments and higher charity and uncompensated care expenses severely depressed its bottom line.

Though many COVID-19 headwinds continued into its 2021 fiscal year, returning patients, stronger investment performance and cost reduction initiatives helped CommonSpirit to net income of $5.5 billion for the year, compared to its steep loss of $524 million in 2020.

CommonSpirit’s revenues rose more than 12% compared to the 2020 fiscal year, mostly due to recovering patient volume and the addition of new care sites, including Virginia Mason Health System in the Pacific Northwest and Yavapai Regional Medical Center in Arizona, and expanded ambulatory surgical center relationships in several states.

Expenses were also up by 7% year over year mostly due to “significant” pandemic-related expenses, CommonSpirit said in its release on the results.

However, the higher costs were offset by cost management, including more than $400 million in cost reductions in the fiscal year. And, due to stronger financial markets, the system’s balance sheet was also boosted by $3.4 billion in investment income.

But despite the turnaround, CommonSpirit management warned COVID-19 is still likely to dog the system’s performance as it enters its third fiscal year as a combined entity.

The recent surge in patients due to the rise of the highly infectious delta variant caused the system’s COVID-19 inpatient census to jump to almost 2,900 in early September. That’s up from a low of 340 in June, though still significantly lower than CommonSpirit’s previous peak of more than 4,100 COVID-19 inpatients recorded in early January.

Amid the rising cases, the system said it’s emphasizing employee retention as staffing shortages, especially acute among nurses, continue to stress providers nationwide.

CommonSpirit noted it doesn’t expect personal protective equipment or ventilator availability to be a problem, despite increasingly taxed capacity and rising need in the U.S.

Like other providers, the nonprofit operator reported it saw patients begin to return for preventative and delayed care throughout the fiscal year, though that return decelerated in tandem with escalating COVID-19 cases.

Same-facility adjusted admissions dropped 2.7% year over year, while outpatient visits rose 5.1% overall.

Additionally, demand for virtual visits has remained strong even as in-office volumes have recovered. Telehealth use has stabilized at roughly 13% of overall volumes, CommonSpirit said, though that’s down from a high of more than 37% notched in April of last year.

Net patient and premium revenues jumped more than 10% year over year due to higher patient acuity, the YRMC and VMHS affliliations and stable payer mix, CommonSpirit said. Those tailwinds were partly offset by volume shortfalls due to the pandemic.

CommonSpirit, which said it was still on track to achieve the cost-savings goals outlined in CHI and Dignity’s 2019 merger plans, expects to release a new five-year strategic roadmap in the fall.

Sutter Health to lay off 400 workers

Sutter Health fined again over not notifying nurses about COVID-19 exposure

As part of a financial restructuring plan, Sacramento, Calif.-based Sutter Health will issue another round of layoffs this year, according to the Sacramento Business Journal.  

The health system said it plans to lay off 400 more employees. These newly announced layoffs are in addition to 277 information technology jobs that were cut April 2. 

Sutter said most of the new layoffs affect employees in administrative positions in benefits, human resources, data services and accounting. The layoff notice said many of these employees were working remotely or in the field. 

Sutter told the Business Journal that it’s working to evaluate every aspect of its business model.

“Moving forward, we will continue to work to minimize staff reductions and their impact on our dedicated employees as we look for ways to eliminate variation, streamline resources and more efficiently manage our indirect costs,” Sutter told the Business Journal.

Sutter ended 2020 with a $321 million operating loss, including $800M in funding from the Coronavirus, Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. Without the funding, Sutter’s operating loss would have been $1.1 billion. As a result, Sutter initiated a sweeping review of its finances in March 2021. 

Sutter Health also gave voluntary severance packages to 800 workers in 2020.

CommonSpirit posts $1.7B net income in Q3

CommonSpirit aims to cut cost after merger, HQ move

After posting a $1.4 billion net loss in the third quarter of fiscal year 2020, CommonSpirit, a 140-hospital system based in Chicago, saw improved finances in the third quarter of fiscal year 2021, according to financial documents released May 14. 

CommonSpirit, formed in 2019 through the merger of San Francisco-based Dignity Health and Englewood, Colo.-based Catholic Health Initiatives, reported revenues of $8.8 billion in the third quarter of fiscal 2021, up from $7.8 billion recorded in the same quarter one year prior. The health system said the third quarter of fiscal 2021 was the first period to fully include results from Virginia Mason Fransican Health, an 11-hospital system that was formed in January and joined the CommonSpirit network. 

The health system’s operating expenses also increased year over year. It reported total expenses of $8.3 billion in the third quarter of fiscal 2021, compared to about $8 billion recorded in the same period last year. 

CommonSpirit ended the third quarter of fiscal 2021 with an operating income of $539 million, a figure that included federal relief aid and a pre-tax gain on the sale of joint venture shares. CommonSpirit said without the aid and pre-tax gain, the health system would have posted an operating loss of $117 million in the quarter ended March 31, “highlighting the continuing concerns around overall patient volumes and the ongoing impact of the pandemic.”

After factoring in $1.2 billion in non-operating income, including $636 million in investment income, CommonSpirit posted a net income of $1.7 billion in the quarter ending March 31. In the same quarter one year prior, CommonSpirit recorded a net loss of $1.5 billion. 

“In many ways this quarter was similar to what we experienced over the last year, with a very challenging period followed by a robust recovery,” said CommonSpirit CFO Dan Morissette in a May 14 news release. “With vaccination rates rising and many people returning to their pre-pandemic routines, we expect to continue a strong path to recovery, while also recognizing that we will likely see operational impacts from the pandemic for quite some time.”

CommonSpirit said it also is working to strengthen its financial foundation by realizing operational synergies this year. The goal is to realize $350 million to $400 million in savings during fiscal 2021, and it is on track to meet or surpass that goal. 

Private equity acquisitions targeted large, high-margin hospitals over 15-year period

Private-Equity Cash Piles Up as Takeover Targets Get Pricier - WSJ

From 2003 to 2017, private equity firms focused their acquisition crosshairs on larger hospitals with higher operating margins and greater patient charge-to-cost ratios, according to a new review of healthcare investments published in Health Affairs.

These private equity (PE)-owned hospitals also saw greater increases to their operating margins and charge-to-cost ratios over the course of the 15-year study period than their non-PE-owned counterparts.

Combined with a decrease in all-personnel staffing ratios, the study’s researchers said these data make a case for further investigation into how PE investment may be influencing operational decisions to boost profits and secure favorable exits.

“[Short-term acute care] hospitals’ large size, stable cashflow environment and prevalence of valuable fixed assets (that is, properties) make them highly desirable targets for acquisition, researchers wrote in Health Affairs. “Broadly speaking, PE acquisition of hospitals invites questions about the alignment of the financial incentives necessary to achieve high-quality clinical outcomes.”

To inform that discussion, the researchers reviewed PE deal data collected by Pitchbook, CB Insights and Zephyr. They also collected information on hospital characteristics and financials from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ (CMS) Healthcare Provider Cost Reporting Information System database and the American Hospital Association’s Annual Survey.

Their efforts yielded 42 PE acquisitions involving 282 different hospitals during the 15-year time period. These deals were most frequent among hospitals in Mid-Atlantic and Southern states.

Of note, 161 of the acquired hospitals were tied to a single deal: Bain Capital, Kohlberg Kravis & Roberts and Merrill Lynch Global Private Equity’s roughly $33 billion (more than $21 billion cash, $11.7 billion debt) acquisition of HCA Healthcare in 2007.

The study outlined differences between the PE-acquired hospitals and others that were not acquired before any of the deals (in 2003) and after (in 2017).

Nearly three-quarters of hospitals acquired by PE were for-profit in 2003, versus about a quarter of those that were not acquired, the researchers wrote. By 2017, those respective proportions had increased to 92.3% and 25.3%.

Acquired hospitals were significantly larger in terms of beds and total discharges both in 2003 and in 2017. In fact, while acquired hospitals increased in size during the 15-year window, other hospitals decreased in beds and discharges by 2017.

Nurse staffing ratios were similar on both ends of the study period for both categories of hospitals. However, all-staff ratios were lower among the soon-to-be-acquired hospitals in 2003 and saw a slight decrease over the years, whereas hospitals that had not been acquired instead recorded an increase over time.

In terms of financials, the researchers reviewed measures including net patient revenue per discharge, total operating expenses per discharge and the percentage of discharges paid out by Medicaid. Differences among these three areas were not significant with the exception of a larger 15-year increase in total operating expenses per discharge among non-PE hospitals.

The primary financial differences between the PE and non-PE hospitals were instead found among the organizations’ percent operating margins and charge-to-cost ratio, the researcher wrote.

In 2003, both measures were higher among the soon-to-be acquired hospitals. By 2017, the percent operating margin and charge-to-cost ratio increased 66.5% and 105% among the PE-acquired hospitals, respectively, versus changes of -3.8% and 54.2% for the non-PE hospitals.

These and the study’s other findings outline the playbook an investor could follow to identify a profitable hospital and increase its margins, the researchers wrote.

“Post-acquisition, these hospitals appeared to continue to boost profits by restraining growth in cost per patient, in part by limiting staffing growth,” they wrote.

The trends affirm findings published in a 2020 JAMA Internal Medicine study, which similarly tied PE acquisition to moderate income and charge-to-cost ratio increases over the same time period, the researchers wrote.

The data also contrast “the prevailing narrative” that PE investors target distressed businesses to extract value for a quick turnaround sale, they wrote. Outside of a few outlier acquisitions, the researchers said that PE’s goal for short-term acute care hospitals appears to be the opposite—operations refinement and further profit improvements among potential top performers.

Still, the differing structure of PE investments warrants questions as to whether these groups are promoting high-quality outcomes alongside their high margins, Anaeze Offodile II, M.D., an assistant professor at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and the study’s lead author, said during an accompanying Health Affairs podcast.

In contrast to the public market, PE investments often lean on leveraged buyouts that are higher risk and higher reward, he said. Partners are targeting a three-to-seven-year exit window for their investments and often need to hit 20% to 30% annualized returns.

More investigation is needed to determine whether these economic incentives come in tandem with better care or are instead hindering patient outcomes, he said.

“The question becomes ‘Are there unintended consequences or tradeoffs invited due to pursuit of profitability?’” Offodile said during the podcast. “I think someone could make the same argument that if there is a value enhancement strategy by PE firms, then it behooves them to actually raise the level of care delivery up because that enhances the value and engineers a better sale.

“In seeing that sort of exploratory result and how it challenged the prevailing narrative, we’re glad that we took this sort of [setting the] stage approach, and I look [forward] to seeing what we find—which we’re doing now—with respect to quality, spending, access domains,” he said.

Sutter launches ‘sweeping review’ of finances after $321M operating loss

https://www.healthcaredive.com/news/sutter-launches-sweeping-review-of-finances-after-321m-operating-loss/596221/

Digital assistant uses AI to ease medical documentation at Sutter | Health  Data Management

Dive Brief:

  • Sutter Health is launching a “sweeping review” of its finances and operations due to the pandemic’s squeeze on the system in 2020, which led to a $321 million operational loss, the system said Thursday. 
  • The giant hospital provider in Northern California said it will take “several years to fully recover,” adding that it plans to restructure and even close some programs and services that attract fewer patients, and will reassign those employees to busier parts of its network. 
  • Sutter, which spent $431 million to modernize its facilities last year, is also reassessing its future capital investments due to its current financial situation. 

Dive Insight:

The pandemic “exacerbated” existing challenges for the provider, including labor costs, Sutter said. 

Expenses again outpaced revenue in 2020 and Sutter fears the trajectory is “unsustainable.” 

In 2020, Sutter generated revenue of $13.2 billion which was eclipsed by $13.5 billion in expenses, which was actually lower than its total expenses reported in 2019. 

Last year, the system invested heavily to prepare for the pandemic, buying up personal protective equipment and other supplies all while volumes declined. Sutter estimates it spent at least $121 million on COVID-19 supplies, which does not include outside staffing costs. 

Sutter said labor costs represented 60% of its total operating expenses, blaming high hospital wage indexes in Northern California, which it said are among the priciest in the country.

Still, Sutter was able to post net income of $134 million thanks in part to investment income, which was also deflated compared to the year prior. 

Volume has not rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, the system said. 

Admissions, emergency room visits and outpatient revenues all fell year over year, according to figures in Sutter’s audited financial statements. 

Other major health systems were pinched by the pandemic but were able to post a profit, including Kaiser Permanente.  

11 health systems with strong finances

11 health systems with strong finances

Hospital Mergers, Acquisitions, and Affiliations | Case Study – RMS

Here are 11 health systems and hospitals with strong operational metrics and solid financial positions, according to reports from Fitch Ratings, Moody’s Investors Service and S&P Global Ratings.

1. Morristown, N.J.-based Atlantic Health System has an “Aa3” rating and stable outlook with Moody’s. The credit rating agency expects the health system to continue to generate favorable operating performance and to maintain double-digit operating cash flow margins and solid debt coverage. 

2. Charlotte, N.C.-based Atrium Health has an “Aa3” rating and stable outlook with Moody’s and an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with S&P. Atrium and Winston-Salem, N.C.-based Wake Forest Baptist Health merged in October. The addition of the Winston-Salem service area and Wake Forest Baptist’s academic and research programs enhances Atrium’s position within the highly competitive North Carolina healthcare market, S&P said. 

3. Dallas-based Baylor Scott & White Health has an “Aa3” rating and stable outlook with Moody’s. The system has strong liquidity and is the largest nonprofit health system in Texas, Moody’s said. The credit rating agency expects Baylor Scott & White Health to continue to benefit from its centralized operating model, proven ability to execute complex strategies and well-developed planning abilities. 

4. Pittsfield, Mass.-based Berkshire Health System has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The health system has improved its liquidity while investing in facilities without increasing its debt load, Fitch said. The credit rating agency expects the system to maintain a strong financial profile. 

5. Mishawaka, Ind.-based Franciscan Alliance has an “Aa3” rating and stable outlook with Moody’s. The system has leading positions in key markets and a strong cash position, Moody’s said. The credit rating agency expects the system to sustain double-digit operating cash flow margins. 

6. Falls Church, Va.-based Inova Health System has an “Aa2” rating and stable outlook with Moody’s. The system has a strong financial profile, and Moody’s expects Inova’s balance sheet to remain exceptionally strong. 

7. Palo Alto, Calif.-based Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The hospital is nationally known, has a strong market position and is one of two key clinical partners of Stanford University, Fitch said. 

8. Grand Blanc, Mich.-based McLaren Health Care has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The health system has a strong financial profile and a leading market position over a broad service area that covers much of Michigan, Fitch said. 

9. Winston-Salem, N.C.-based Novant Health has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The system has strong margins, and each of its markets has met or exceeded budgeted expectations over the past four years, Fitch said. 

10. Renton, Wash.-based Providence has an “Aa3” rating and stable outlook with Moody’s. Providence has a large revenue base and a leading market share in most of its markets, according to Moody’s. The credit rating agency expects the system’s operations to improve this year. 

11. Livonia, Mich.-based Trinity Health has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The rating is driven by Trinity’s national size and scale, with significant market presence in several states, Fitch said. The credit rating agency expects the system’s operating margins to improve in the long term. 

Chicago’s Mercy Hospital files for bankruptcy

Image result for Chicago's Mercy Hospital files for bankruptcy

Mercy Hospital & Medical Center in Chicago filed for bankruptcy protection Feb. 10, amid its plan to close that has been contested in the community.

The Chapter 11 plan includes the discontinuation of inpatient acute care services, Mercy’s owner, Livonia, Mich.-based Trinity Health, said in a bankruptcy filing

Mercy said it plans to cease operations of all departments, except for basic emergency services, on May 31. 

“There have been many steps that preceded the difficult decision to file for Chapter 11,” Trinity said. 

In a news release announcing the bankruptcy, Mercy said it was losing staff and “experiencing mounting financial losses” that are challenging its ability to provide safe patient care. 

Mercy said its losses have averaged about $5 million per month and reached $30.2 million for the first six months of fiscal year 2021. Further, the hospital has accumulated debt of more than $303.2 million over the last seven years, and the hospital needs more than $100 million in upgrades and modernizations.

The Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing comes just weeks after the Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board rejected Trinity’s plan to build an outpatient center in the neighborhood where it is closing the 170-year-old inpatient hospital. The same board unanimously rejected Trinity’s plan to close the hospital in December.

The December vote from the review board came after months of protests from physicians, healthcare advocates and community organizers, who say that closing the hospital would create a healthcare desert on Chicago’s South Side. 

The state review board has a meeting to discuss the closure March 16.