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

Dive Brief:

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

Dive Insight:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One-third of hospitals operating with negative margins & 6 other things to know

Hospitals and health systems have lost billions over the last two years, leaving more than 33 percent of them with negative margins, according to an April 25 report by the American Hospital Association.

Six findings:

1. Employment is down by 100,000 jobs compared to pre-pandemic levels, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found. But at a time when hospitals are desperately trying to fill positions, labor expenses per patient were 19.1 percent higher in 2021 than in 2019. Labor expenses are more than 50 percent of hospitals’ total expenses, meaning a small increase in labor costs can have a major effect on hospital’s total expenses and operating margins. 

2. The report attributed the increase in labor expenses to hospitals’ dependence on contract staff, specifically nurses. In 2019, travel nurses accounted for a median of 4.7 percent of hospitals’ total nurse labor expenses, compared to a median of 38.6 percent in January.

3. Hourly billing rates for contract employees rose 213 percent compared to pre-pandemic levels. This created a 62 percent profit margin for staff agencies.

4. Drug expenses soared by 36.9 percent per patient compared to pre-pandemic levels. 

5. Medical supply expenses also rose through 2021, by 20.6 percent, compared to pre-pandemic levels. For intensive care units and respiratory care departments — which were most involved in COVID-19 care — medical supply expenses grew 31.5 percent and 22.3 percent, respectively.

6. Economywide, the consumer price index saw major increases, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found. Meanwhile, hospital prices rose modestly, by an average of 2.1 percent per year in the last decade, about half the average annual increase in health insurance premiums. 

Investment gains masking health system operating margin difficulties 

The combination of the Omicron surge, lackluster volume recovery, and rising expenses have contributed to a poor financial start of the year for most health systems. The graphic above shows that, after a healthier-than-expected 2021, the average hospital’s operating margin fell back into the red in early 2022, clocking in more than four percent lower than pre-pandemic levels. 

Despite operational challenges, however, many of the largest health systems continue to garner headlines for their sizable profits, thanks to significant returns on their investment portfolios in 2021.

While CommonSpirit and Providence each posted negative operating margins for the second half of 2021, and Ascension managed a small operating profit, all three were able to use investment income to cushion their performance.

A growing number of health systems are doubling down on investment strategies in an effort to diversify revenue streams, and capture the kind of returns from investments generated by venture capital firms. However, it is unlikely that revenue diversification will be a sustainable long-term strategy.

To succeed, health systems must look to reconfigure elements of the legacy business model that are proving financially unsustainable amid rising expenses, shifts of care to lower-cost settings, and an evolving, consumer-centric landscape.    

Saying farewell (for now) to a terrible financial quarter

Judging from our recent conversations with health system executives, we’d guess CEOs across the industry woke up this morning glad to see the first quarter in the rearview mirror.

Almost everyone we’ve spoken to has told us that the past three months have been miserable from an operating margin perspective—skyrocketing labor costs, rising drug and supply prices, and stubbornly long length of stay, particularly among Medicare patients.

In the words of one CFO, “I’ve never seen anything like this. For the first time, we budgeted for a negative margin, and still didn’t hit our target. I’m not sure how long our board will let us stay on this trajectory before things change.”

Yet few of the drivers of poor financial performance appear to be temporary. Perhaps the over-reliance on agency nursing staff will wane as COVID volumes bottom out (for how long remains unknown), but overall labor costs will remain high, there’s no immediate relief for supply chain issues, and COVID-related delays in care have left many patients sicker—and thus in need of more costly care. Plus, the lifeline of federal relief funds is rapidly dwindling, if not already gone.

Expect the next three quarters (and beyond) to bring a greater focus on cost cutting, especially as not-for-profit systems struggle to defend their bond ratings in the face of rising interest rates.

Buckle up, it’s going to be a bumpy landing.

Hospital margins ‘well below sustainable levels’: Kaufman Hall

Hospitals across the U.S. saw their operating margins remain negative for the second consecutive month in February as they continued to feel the repercussions of the winter omicron surge, according to Kaufman Hall’s “National Hospital Flash Report: March 2022” posted March 28.

The median operating margin in February was -3.45 percent, up from -4.52 percent in January, but “still well below sustainable levels,” Kaufman Hall said. 

Kaufman Hall said the improvement in hospital margin was driven by disproportionate increases among several hospitals that saw margin gains, but most hospitals reported margin declines in February. Specifically, the median operating margin was down 11.8 percent month over month.

“The second month of 2022 brought further challenges for the nation’s hospitals and health systems,” Kaufman Hall said. “Overall, the year is off to a difficult start.”

Kaufman Hall noted that patient days were down 13.3 percent month over month, and fewer severely ill COVID-19 patients also contributed to shorter hospital stays as the average length of stay dropped 5.3 percent month over month. 

Hospitals’ gross operating revenue also decreased 7.4 percent compared to January 2022, with outpatient revenue falling 5 percent and inpatient revenue declining 19.3 percent.

Kaufman Hall noted that hospitals saw some improvement month over month in terms of expenses. Total expenses per adjusted discharge fell 4.5 percent compared to January, labor expense per adjusted discharge fell 6.1 percent and non-labor expenses per adjusted discharge was down 3.6 percent. However, Kaufman Hall noted that year over year, expenses are still up significantly, with total adjusted expense per adjusted discharge rising 10.4 percent compared to February 2021.

Even the largest health systems dwarfed by industry giants

https://mailchi.mp/f6328d2acfe2/the-weekly-gist-the-grizzly-bear-conflict-manager-edition?e=d1e747d2d8

Insurers, retailers, and other healthcare companies vastly exceed health system scale, dwarfing even the largest hospital systems. The graphic above illustrates how the largest “mega-systems” lag other healthcare industry giants, in terms of gross annual revenue. 

Amazon and Walmart, retail behemoths that continue to elbow into the healthcare space, posted 2021 revenue that more than quintuples that of the largest health system, Kaiser Permanente. The largest health systems reported increased year-over-year revenue in 2021, largely driven by higher volumes, as elective procedures recovered from the previous year’s dip.

However, according to a recent Kaufman Hall report, while health systems, on average, grew topline revenue by 15 percent year-over-year, they face rising expenses, and have yet to return to pre-pandemic operating margins. 

Meanwhile, the larger companies depicted above, including Walmart, Amazon, CVS Health, and UnitedHealth Group, are emerging from the pandemic in a position of financial strength, and continue to double down on vertical integration strategies, configuring an array of healthcare assets into platform businesses focused on delivering value directly to consumers.

Facing a “new normal” of higher labor costs

https://mailchi.mp/161df0ae5149/the-weekly-gist-december-10-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

The price of higher labor costs in the consumer discretionary sector -  AlphaSense

Attending a recent executive retreat with one of our member health systems, we heard the CEO make a statement that really resonated with us. Referring to the current workforce crisis—pervasive shortages, pressure to increase compensation, outsized reliance on contract labor to fill critical gaps—the CEO made the assertion that this situation isn’t temporary. Rather, it’s the “new normal”, at least for the next several years.

The Great Resignation that’s swept across the American economy in the wake of COVID has not spared healthcare; every system we talk to is facing alarmingly high vacancy rates as nurses, technicians, and other staff head for the exits. The CEO made a compelling case that the labor cost structure of the system has reset at a level between 20 and 30 percent more expensive than before the pandemic, and executives should begin to turn attention away from stop-gap measures (retention bonuses and the like) to more permanent solutions (rethinking care models, adjusting staffing ratios upward, implementing process automation).

That seemed like an important insight to us. It’s increasingly clear as we approach a third year of the pandemic: there is no “post-COVID world” in which things will go back to normal. Rather, we’ll have to learn to live in the “new normal,” revisiting basic assumptions about how, where, and by whom care is delivered.

If hospital labor costs have indeed permanently reset at a higher level, that implies the need for a radical restructuring of the fundamental economic model of the health systemrazor-thin margins won’t allow for business to continue as usual. Long overdue, perhaps, and a painful evolution for sure—but one that could bring the industry closer to the vision of “right care, right place, right time” promised by population health advocates for over a decade.

Hospitals brace for omicron as margins weaken further, Kaufman Hall reports

Dive Brief:

  • Hospitals saw operating margins continue to erode in October, declining 12% from September under the weight of rising labor costs, according to a national median of more than 900 health systems calculated by Kaufman Hall. It was the second consecutive monthly drop and comes as facilities are preparing for the fast-spreading omicron variant of the coronavirus.
  • Although expenses remained highly elevated, patient days and average length of stay fell for the first time in months in October, likely reflecting lower hospitalization rates as the pressure of treating large numbers of COVID cases began to ease, Kaufman Hall said in its latest report.
  • At the same time, operating room minutes rose 6.8% from September, pointing to renewed patient interest in elective procedures.

Dive Insight:

Doctors and nurses have barely caught a breath from the most recent surge in inpatient volumes driven by the delta variant. Now, hospitals face the possibility of a fresh wave of cases led by omicron.

“Performance could continue to suffer in the coming months as hospitals face sustained labor increases and the uncertainties of the emerging omicron variant,” according to the Kaufman Hall report.

The new variant has not been detected in the U.S. as of Wednesday morning, but Canada is among the 20 countries that have confirmed cases.

Scientists are scrambling to understand the characteristics of the omicron variant. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told a White House press briefing Tuesday that omicron’s mutation profile points to “increased transmissibility and immune evasion.” But it is too soon to tell whether omicron will cause more severe disease than other COVID-19 variants, or how well current vaccines and treatments work against it, Fauci said.

Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel told the Financial Times he thought existing vaccines would be less effective against omicron than earlier variants. Moderna, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and other manufacturers are already working to adapt their vaccines to combat the new threat, first reported by South African scientists on Nov. 24.

Regeneron also said its COVID-19 antibody drug, the top-selling treatment in the U.S., might be less effective against omicron. The company said it is now conducting tests to determine how the variant affects its drug.

As the focus shifts to preparing for omicron, labor costs are squeezing hospital margins. Leading hospital systems including Kaiser Permanente and Advocate Aurora Health were among those reporting pressure on margins from rising labor expenses in the third quarter.

The median hospital operating margin, not including federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding, was down 31.5% in October, compared to pre-pandemic levels in the same month of 2019, according to Kaufman Hall’s snapshot. Hospitals in the West, South and Midwest that were hardest hit by the delta variant saw year-over-year margin declines.

Total labor expenses rose nearly 3% from September to October, 12.6% compared to October 2020 and 14.8% compared to October 2019, Kaufman Hall said. Full-time equivalents per adjusted occupied bed decreased 4.5% versus 2020 and 4% versus 2019, suggesting higher salaries due to nationwide labor shortages, rather than increased staffing levels, are driving up labor expenses.

Total non-labor expenses, however, decreased 1% in October from September for supplies, drugs and purchased services, following months of increases.

Broader economic trends such as U.S. labor shortages are adding to the extreme pressures of the pandemic. Hospitals face greater uncertainties in the coming months as a result, as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations appear to once again be on the upswing before many have even had a chance to recover from the last surge,” Erik Swanson, a senior vice president of data and analytics at Kaufman Hall said.

‘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.