When Congress passed the “No Surprises Act” in 2021, credit rating agencies like Moody’s warned that the bill would hurt physician staffing firms, especially those that provide emergency department (ED) services, which result in a surprise bill in roughly one in five visits. A piece from investigative outlet The Lever highlights how one private equity-backed physician staffing firm, Nashville-based American Physician Partners, is responding to the resultant cash flow challenges by cutting ED physician pay, after already reducing staffing levels. As the article describes, this is possible in an otherwise tight labor market because, unlike many other specialties, there’s an oversupply of ED physicians, due to the rapid growth in emergency medicine residency programs over the last decade.
The Gist: With two-thirds of hospitals outsourcing at least some ED physician labor, the potential insolvency of large physician staffing firms could bring a crisis in access and coverage.
In addition to revenue cuts tied to the surprise billing ban, rising interest rates also mean that PE firms may soon find it more difficult to fund their aggressive growth strategies.
Health systems should proactively evaluate their partnerships with PE-backed physician staffing groups, with an eye toward anticipating potential staffing problems and service quality shortfalls.
The American Hospital Association, the American Medical Association and the American Nurses Association teamed up to release a new “Forever Grateful” TV and digital ad campaign on Monday to thank health care workers.
Operating cash flow margins for nonprofit hospitals fell to a median 7% in 2020.
A shortage of nurses and other workers will continue to erode hospital financial performance into 2022, according to a new Healthcare Quarterly report from Moody’s.
A rise in COVID-19 cases in various regions of the United States has contributed to a wave of nurses, often burned out, resigning to take care of family, to work in less acute healthcare settings such as ambulatory care or to pursue higher-paying contract opportunities, such as becoming a travel nurse.
Hospitals are also having difficulty finding other types of healthcare workers, such as respiratory therapists and imaging technicians, as well as nonclinical workers in areas such as dietary, housekeeping and environmental services.
WHY THIS MATTERS
The report holds no surprises for hospital executives, who already know the financial affect labor shortages are having on revenue. But Moody’s confirms projections that rising costs will make it difficult for hospitals to rebuild margins to pre-COVID-19 levels.
Labor shortages are driving up costs and also may be limiting the number of lucrative elective procedures, resulting in lost revenue. Not-for-profit hospitals saw operating cash flow margins fall to a median 7% in 2020, from 8.3% in the three prior years, according to Moody’s median data.
Hospitals using contract nurses report that hourly wages are very high, in some cases higher now with the Delta variant than during earlier COVID-19 surges. Many hospitals and health systems have also increased minimum wages for nonclinical workers and are finding they must compete with other service sectors, such as the food industry, to attract nonclinical staff.
Given their substantial reliance on government reimbursement from Medicare and Medicaid, most healthcare providers maintain limited pricing flexibility to offset the costs of higher wages. While there are opportunities for more lucrative commercial insurance contracts, rates are the subject of intense negotiations, limiting providers’ pricing power, Moody’s said.
Providers with strong liquidity and diversified cash flow will remain better positioned to manage stress from cost constraints. Hospitals are taking steps to retain nurses, including developing “float pools” of nurses who can work in multiple departments, increasing retention and merit pay, and expanding healthcare benefits such as mental health and child care services.
LifeBridge Health, a not-for-profit health system operating in Baltimore and Carroll County, Maryland, paid its nursing staff retention bonuses in December 2020 as the labor market tightened. To recruit nurses, many systems are offering signing bonuses in exchange for multi-year work commitments as well as scholarship and loan forgiveness programs with local nursing schools.
While these strategies will ease the effect of labor shortages over the long term, they will cause hospitals’ costs to increase in 2022 as salaries and benefits typically represent at least half of a hospital’s expenses. Labor shortages will also likely spark an increase in unionization efforts or lead to more difficult negotiations between unions and providers, potentially increasing costs via new contracts.
THE LARGER TREND
The quarterly report focused on the impact of labor shortages and cost pressures for various sectors, including hospitals, insurers, pharmaceuticals, healthcare services such as staffing firms and health insurers.
Health insurers are less affected by labor shortages, wage pressure and potentially burgeoning inflation than many other healthcare sectors, Moody’s said. Insurers reset premiums each year, which helps them to offset inflation. But if the government does not keep up with payment, providers will look to insurers to make up the shortfall.
Large physician staffing companies, such as Envision Healthcare Corporation and Team Health Holdings, will experience pressure on their profitability as it becomes harder and more expensive to fill open positions as burnout and retirements decrease the number of doctors available to work.
Travel nurse staffing has higher profit margin resilience compared to physician staffing, the report said.
For real estate investment trusts, worker shortages are slowing net operating income growth for REITs to invest in senior housing and skilled nursing facilities.
Growth in salaries and benefits has exceeded hospitals’ expense growth, a trend likely to continue for the remainder of 2021 andinto 2022, Moody’s said in an earlier October report.
In one bright spot in the earlier report, Moody’s noted recent rises in nursing school enrollment indicating a more robust long-term staffing pipeline. However, the aging population, combined with a healthcare workforce that may be retiring from their jobs or quitting due to burnout, represent long-term healthcare staffing challenges nationwide.
There’s been a lot of hand wringing over the ongoing feeding frenzy among private equity (PE) firms for physician practice acquisition, which has caused health system executives everywhere to worry about the displacement effect on physician engagement strategies (not to mention the inflationary impact on practice valuations).
While we’ve long believed that PE firms are not long-term owners of practices, instead playing a roll-up function that will ultimately end in broader aggregation by vertically-integrated insurance companies, a recent conversation with one system CEO reframed the phenomenon in a way we hadn’t thought of before. It’s all about ademographic shift, she argued.
There’s a generation of Boomer-aged doctors who followed their entrepreneurial calling and started their own practices, and are now nearing retirement age without an obvious path to exit the business. Many didn’t plan for retirement—rather than a 401(k), what they have is equity in the practice they built.
What the PE industry is doing now is basically helping those docs transition out of practice by monetizing their next ten years of income in the form of a lump-sum cash payout. You could have predicted this phenomenon decades ago.
The real question is what happens to the younger generations of doctors left behind, who have another 20 or 30 years of practice ahead of them? Will they want to work in a PE-owned (or insurer-owned) setting, or would they prefer health system employment—or something else entirely?
The answer to that question will determine the shape of physician practice for decades to come…at least until the Millennials start pondering their own retirement.
We’ve been hearing a growing number of stories from patients about difficulties scheduling appointments for specialist consults.
A friend’s 8-year-old son experienced a new-onset seizure and was told that the earliest she could schedule a new patient appointment with a pediatric neurologist at the local children’s hospital was the end of November. Concerned about a five-month wait time after the scary episode, she asked what she should do in the meantime: “They told me if I want him to be seen sooner, bring him to the ED at the hospital if it happens again.”
A colleague shared his frustration after his PCP advised him to see a gastroenterologist. Calling six practices on the recommended referral list, the earliest appointment he could find was nine weeks out; the scheduler at one practice noted that with everyone now scheduling colonoscopies and other procedures postponed during the pandemic, they are busier than they’ve been in years. Recent conversations with medical group leaders confirm a specialist access crunch.
Patients who delayed care last year are reemerging, and ones who were seen by telemedicine now want to come in person. “We are booked solid in almost every specialty, with wait times double what they were before COVID,” one medical group president shared. The spike in demand is compounded by staffing challenges: “I pray every day that another one of our nurses doesn’t quit, because it will take us months to replace them.”
Doctors and hospitals are now seeing a rise in acuity—cancers diagnosed at a more advanced stage, chronic disease patients presenting with more severe complications—due to care delayed by the pandemic. If patients can’t schedule needed appointments and procedures, this spike in severity could be prolonged, or even made worse.
For medical groups who can find ways to open additional access, it’s also an opportunity to capture new business and engender greater patient loyalty.
Lown Institute berates greedy pricing, ethical lapses, wallet biopsies, and avoidable shortages.
Greedy corporations, uncaring hospitals, individual miscreants, and a task force led by Jared Kushner were dinged Tuesday in the Lown Institute‘s annual Shkreli awards, a list of the top 10 worst offenders for 2020.
Named after Martin Shkreli, the entrepreneur who unapologetically raised the price of an anti-parasitic drug by a factor of 56 in 2015 (now serving a federal prison term for unrelated crimes), the list of shame calls out what Vikas Saini, the institute’s CEO, called “pandemic profiteers.” (Lown bills itself as “a nonpartisan think tank advocating bold ideas for a just and caring system for health.”)
Topping the listwas the federal government itself and Jared Kushner, President’s Trump’s son-in-law, who led a personal protective equipment (PPE) procurement task force. The effort, called Project Airbridge, was to “airlift PPE from overseas and bring it to the U.S. quickly,” which it did.
“But rather than distribute the PPE to the states, FEMA gave these supplies to six private medical supply companies to sell to the highest bidder, creating a bidding war among the states,” Saini said. Though these supplies were supposed to go to designated pandemic hotspots, “no officials from the 10 hardest hit counties” said they received PPE from Project Airbridge. In fact, federal agencies outbid states or seized supplies that states had purchased, “making it much harder and more expensive” for states to get supplies, he said.
Number twoon the institute’s list: vaccine maker Moderna, which received nearly $1 billion in federal funds to develop its mRNA COVID-19 preventive. It set a price of between $32 and $37 per dose, more than the U.S. agreed to pay for other COVID vaccines. “Although the U.S. has placed an order for $1.5 billion worth of doses at a discount, a price of $15 per dose, given the upfront investment by the U.S. government, we are essentially paying for the vaccine twice,” said Lown Institute Senior Vice President Shannon Brownlee.
Webcast panelist Don Berwick, MD, former acting administrator for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, noted that a lot of work went into producing the vaccine at an impressive pace, “and if there’s not an immune breakout, we’re going to be very grateful that this happened.” But, he added, “I mean, how much money is enough? Maybe there needs to be some real sense of discipline and public spirit here that goes way beyond what any of these companies are doing.”
In third place: four California hospital systems that refused to take COVID-19 patients or delayed transfers from hospitals that were out of beds.A Wall Street Journal investigation found that these refusals or delays were based on the patients’ ability to pay; many were on Medicaid or were uninsured.
“In the midst of such a pandemic, to continue that sort of behavior is mind boggling,” said Saini. “This is more than the proverbial wallet biopsy.”
The remaining seven offenders:
4. Poor nursing homes decisions, especially one by Soldiers’ Home for Veterans in western Massachusetts, that worsened an already terrible situation. At Soldiers’ Home, management decided to combine the COVID-19 unit with a dementia unit because they were low on staff, said Brownlee. That allowed the virus to spread rapidly, killing 76 residents and staff as of November. Roughly one-third of all COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. have been in long-term care facilities.
5. Pharmaceutical giants AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson,which refused to share intellectual property on COVID-19, instead deciding to “compete for their profits instead,” Saini said. The envisioned technology access pool would have made participants’ discoveries openly available “to more easily develop and distribute coronavirus treatments, vaccines, and diagnostics.”
Saini added that he was was most struck by such an attitude of “historical blindness or tone deafness” at a time when the pandemic is roiling every single country.
Berwick asked rhetorically, “What would it be like if we were a world in which a company like Pfizer or Moderna, or the next company that develops a really great breakthrough, says on behalf of the well-being of the human race, we will make this intellectual property available to anyone who wants it?”
6. Elizabeth Nabel, MD, CEO of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, because she defended high drug prices as a necessity for innovation in an op-ed, without disclosing that she sat on Moderna’s board. In that capacity, she received $487,500 in stock options and other payments in 2019. The value of those options quadrupled on the news of Moderna’s successful vaccine. She sold $8.5 million worth of stock last year, after its value nearly quadrupled. She resigned from Moderna’s board in July and, it was announced Tuesday, is leaving her CEO position to join a biotech company founded by her husband.
7. Hospitals that punished clinicians for “scaring the public,” suspending or firing them, because they “insisted on wearing N95 masks and other protective equipment in the hospital,” said Saini. Hospitals also fired or threatened to fire clinicians for speaking out on COVID-19 safety issues, such as the lack of PPE and long test turnaround times.
Webcast panelist Mona Hanna-Attisha, MD, the Flint, Michigan, pediatrician who exposed the city’s water contamination, said that healthcare workers “have really been abandoned in this administration” and that the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration “has pretty much fallen asleep at the wheel.” She added that workers in many industries such as meatpacking and poultry processing “have suffered tremendously from not having the protections or regulations in place to protect [them].”
8. Connecticut internist Steven Murphy, MD, who ran COVID-19 testing sites for several towns, but conducted allegedly unnecessary add-ons such as screening for 20 other respiratory pathogens. He also charged insurers $480 to provide results over the phone, leading to total bills of up to $2,000 per person.
“As far as I know, having an MD is not a license to steal, and this guy seemed to think that it was,” said Brownlee.
“Colloidal silver has no known health benefits and can cause seizures and organ damage. Oleandrin is a biological extract from the oleander plant and known for its toxicity and ingesting it can be deadly,” said Saini.
Others named by the Lown Institute include Jennings Ryan Staley, MD — now under indictment — who ran the “Skinny Beach Med Spa” in San Diego which sold so-called COVID treatment packs containing hydroxychloroquine, antibiotics, Xanax, and Viagra, all for $4,000.
Berwick commented that such schemes indicate a crisis of confidence in science, adding that without facts and science to guide care, “patients get hurt, costs rise without any benefit, and confusion reigns, and COVID has made that worse right now.”
Brownlee mentioned the “huge play” that hydroxychloroquine received and the FDA’s recent record as examples of why confidence in science has eroded.
10. Two private equity-owned companies that provide physician staffing for hospitals, Team Health and Envision, that cut doctors’ pay during the first COVID-19 wave while simultaneously spending millions on political ads to protect surprise billing practices. And the same companies also received millions in COVID relief funds under the CARES Act.
Berwick said surprise billing by itself should receive a deputy Shkreli award, “as out-of-pocket costs to patients have risen dramatically and even worse during the COVID pandemic… and Congress has failed to act. It’s time to fix this one.”
National physician staffing firm Mednax announced the sale of its radiology practice—which includes teleradiology company Virtual Radiologic, known as vRad—to venture-backed Radiology Partners for $885M.
Publicly-traded Mednax has been hit hard by both contracting disputes with UnitedHealthcare, as well as pandemic-related volume declines. Both its anesthesiology and radiology businesses suffered big losses with the halt of elective procedures in the spring, and saw volumes decline between 50-70 percent compared to the prior year.
The company began divesting in May with the sale of its anesthesiology division to investor-backed North American Partners in Anesthesia. Mednax leaders say these decisions to sell were made independent of the pandemic, and that they have been planning to return to the company’s roots of focusing exclusively on obstetrics and pediatric subspecialty care, including changing its name back to Pediatrix.
Acquiring firm Radiology Partners is the largest radiology practice in the country, working with 1,300 hospitals and healthcare facilities. With this acquisition, it will have 2,400 radiologists practicing in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
Hospital-based physician staffing firms have been especially hard hit by COVID-induced volume declines. This has created a softening in valuations and opened the door for investment firms to accelerate practice purchases.
We expect the pace of deals to quicken as independent practices experience continued financial strain—with large national groups leading the way, taking advantage of lower practice prices to build large-scale specialty enterprises.
National physician staffing firm Envision Healthcare is considering filing for bankruptcy, according a report from Bloomberg. Sources say the company, backed by private equity (PE) firm KKR, which acquired Envision for $9.9B in June 2018, has hired restructuring advisors and is working with an investment bank. The abrupt halt to elective surgeries and reduction in emergency room volumes due to COVID-19 has caused Envision’s business to shrink by 65 to 75 percent in just two weeks at its 168 open ambulatory surgery centers (ASCs), compared to the same time period last year.
The Nashville-based company, which employs over 25,000 physicians and advanced practitioners, has already been reducing pay for providers and executives, in addition to implementing temporary furloughs. Envision is also struggling with a debt load of more than $7B, resulting from its 2018 leveraged buyout, and has been unable to convince its bondholders to approve a debt swap.
It remains to be seen whether Envision will be a bellwether for how other PE-backed physician groups will weather the ongoing COVID crisis. While Envision’s composition of mainly hospital- and ASC-based providers, coupled with its huge debt load, leave it on especially shaky financial footing, many PE-backed physician groups will struggle this year to achieve anything close to the 20 percent annual rate of return often promised to investors.
If high-profile PE-backed groups like Envision end up declaring bankruptcy, it will likely impact the calculus of the many independent practices which may have previously looked to PE firms for acquisition, andtemper the enthusiasm of investors, who might see physician staffing and practice roll-ups as less attractive as volumes continue to fluctuate.
Envision Healthcare, a Nashville, Tenn.-based physician staffing company owned by private equity firm KKR, is struggling to manage its $7 billion debt load and recently hired lawyers and an investment bank to advise on its restructuring options, sources told Bloomberg.
The company is looking at restructuring options, including a potential Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing, as it faces financial pressure from the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Bloomberg. Envision has seen a significant decline in patient volume across its practices and specialties during the pandemic.
No decision has been made on a course of action for Envision, and the company is still seeking to ease its debt burden by swapping $1.2 billion of unsecured notes for a new term loan. Creditors have until the end of the month to decide whether to participate in the deal.
The company is exploring its restructuring options after taking several steps to improve its financial position, including holding back pay for physicians, reducing salaries of senior leadership and furloughing nonclinical staff. The company said clinical pay will be reduced in services with low patient volumes, and performance-based bonuses and clinician profit-sharing will be delayed until the fall. Additionally, Envision temporarily suspended retirement contributions, merit increases and promotions for all employees.
About a week after Envision implemented many of the changes, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and U.S. Rep. Katie Porter of California sent a letter to Envision and other healthcare staffing companies backed by private equity regarding pay and benefits.
The letter, which Ms. Porter posted on Twitter, said Envision is cutting its physicians’ pay and benefits, “all while our doctors face new financial strains of their own” amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The nation’s healthcare system has experienced a drastic drop in patient volume since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis,” wrote Envision, which has more than 40,000 team members, 27,000 of whom are physicians and clinicians. “Even as COVID-19 fills emergency departments in hot spots around the country, Envision’s overall emergency volume is actually down 45 percent.”
Hospital and physician groups are trying to secure funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act and get additional aid. Though the private equity industry is lobbying Washington to gain access to the funds, it remains unclear whether private equity-backed companies like Envision will receive the emergency government funds.