5 trillion-dollar questions hanging over hospitals

Big questions tend to have no easy answers. Fortunately, few people would say they went into healthcare for its ease.

The following questions about hospitals’ culture, leadership, survival and opportunity come with a trillion-dollar price tag given the importance of hospitals and health systems in the $4.3 trillion U.S. healthcare industry. 

1. How will leaders insist on quality first in a world where it’s increasingly harder to keep trains on time? 

Hospitals and health systems have had no shortage of operational challenges since the COVID-19 pandemic began. These organizations at any given time have been or still are short professionals, personal protective equipment, beds, cribs, blood, helium, contrast dye, infant formula, IV tubing, amoxicillin and more than 100 other drugs. After years of working in these conditions, it is understandable why healthcare professionals may think with a scarcity mindset

This is something strong leaders recognize and will work to shake in 2023, given the known-knowns about the psychology of scarcity. When people feel they lack something, they lose cognitive abilities elsewhere and tend to overvalue immediate benefits at the expense of future ones. Should supply problems persist for two to three more years, hospitals and health systems may near a dangerous intersection where scarcity mindset becomes scarcity culture, hurting patient safety and experience, care quality and outcomes, and employee morale and well-being as a result. 

The year ahead will be a great test and an opportunity for leaders to unapologetically prioritize quality within every meeting, rounding session, budgetary decision, huddle and town hall, and then follow through with actions aligned with quality-first thinking and commentary. Working toward a long-term vision and upholding excellence in the quality of healthcare delivery can be difficult when short-term solutions are available. But leaders who prioritize quality throughout 2023 will shape and improve culture.

2. Who or what will bring medicine past the scope-of-practice fights and turf wars that have persisted for decades? 

It is naive to think these tensions will dissolve completely, but it would be encouraging if in 2023 the industry could begin moving past the all-too-familiar stalemates and fears of “scope creep,” in which physicians oppose expanded scope of practice for non-physician medical professionals. 

Many professions have political squabbles and sticking points that are less palpable to outsiders. Scope-of-practice discord may fall in that category — unless you are in medicine or close to people in the field, it can easily go undetected. But just as it is naive to think physicians and advanced practice providers will reach immediate harmony, so too is it naive to think that aware Americans who watch nightly news segments about healthcare’s labor crisis and face an average wait of 26 days for a medical appointment will have much sympathy for physicians’ staunch resistance to change. 

The U.S. could see an estimated shortage of between 37,800 and 124,000 physicians by 2034, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. Ideally, 2023 is the year in which stakeholders begin to move past the usual tactics, arguments and protectionist thinking and move toward pragmaticism about physician-led care teams that empower advanced practice providers to care for patients to the extent of the education and training they have. The leaders or organizations who move the needle on this stand to make a name for themselves and earn a chapter or two in the story of American healthcare. 

3. Which employers will win and which will lose in lowering the cost of healthcare? 

Employers have long been incentivized to do two things: keep their workers healthy and spend less money doing it. News of companies’ healthcare ventures can be seen as cutting edge, making it easy to forget the origins of integrated health systems like Oakland, Calif.-based Kaiser Permanente, which dates back to one young surgeon establishing a 12-bed hospital in the height of the Great Depression to treat sick and injured workers building the Colorado River Aqueduct. 

Many large companies have tried and failed, quite publicly, to improve healthcare outcomes while lowering costs. Will 2023 be the year in which at least one Fortune 500 company does not only announce intent to transform workforce healthcare, but instead point to proven results that could make for a scalable strategy? 

Walmart is doing interesting things. JPMorgan seems to have learned a good deal from the demise of Haven, with Morgan Health now making some important moves. And just as important are the large companies paying attention on the sidelines to learn from others’ mistakes. Health systems with high-performing care teams and little variation in care stand to gain a competitive advantage if they draw employers’ attention for the right reasons. 

4. Who or what will stabilize at-risk hospitals? 

More than 600 rural hospitals — nearly 30 percent of all rural hospitals in the country — are at risk of closing in the near future. Just as concerning is the growing number of inner-city hospitals at increased risk of closure. Both can leave millions in less-affluent communities with reduced access to nearby emergency and critical care facilities. Although hospital closures are not a new problem, 2022 further crystalized a problem no one is eager to confront. 

One way for at-risk hospitals to survive is via mergers and acquisitions, but the Federal Trade Commission is making buying a tougher hurdle to clear for health systems. The COVID-19 public health emergency began to seem like a makeshift hospital subsidy when it was extended after President Joe Biden declared the pandemic over, inviting questions about the need for permanent aid, reimbursement models and flexibilities from the government to hospitals. Recently, a group of lawmakers turned to an agency not usually seen as a watchdog for hospital solvency — HHS — to ask if anything was being done in response to hospital closures or to thwart them. 

Maintaining hospital access in rural and urban settings is a top priority, and the lack of interest and creativity to maintain it is strikingly stark. As a realistic expectation for 2023, it would be encouraging to at least have an injection of energy, innovation and mission-first thinking toward a problem that grows like a snowball, seemingly bigger, faster and more insurmountable year after year.

Look at what Mark Cuban was able to accomplish within one year to democratize prescription drug pricing. Remember how humble and small the origins of that effort were. Recall how he — albeit being a billionaire — has put profit secondary to social mission. There’s no one savior that will curb hospital closures in the U.S., but it would be a good thing if 2023 brought more leadership in problem-solving and matching a big problem with big energy and ideas. 

5. Which hospital and health system CEOs will successfully redefine the role? 

Many of the largest and most prominent health systems in the country saw CEO turnover over the past two years. With that, health systems lost decades of collective industry and institutional knowledge. Their tenure spanned across numerous milestones and headwinds, including input and compliance with the Affordable Care Act, the move from paper to digital records, and major mergers and labor strikes. The retiring CEOs had been top decision-makers as their organizations met the demands of COVID-19 and its consequences. They set the tone and had final say in how forcefully their institutions condemned racism and what actions they took to address health inequities. 

To assume the role of health system CEO now comes with a different job description than it did when outgoing leaders assumed their posts. Many Americans may carry on daily life with little awareness as to who is at the top of their local hospital or health system. The pandemic challenged that status quo, throwing hospital leaders into the limelight as many Americans sought leadership, expertise and local voices to make sense of what could easily feel unsensible. The public saw hospital CEOs’ faces, heard their voices and read their words more within the past two years than ever. 

In 2023, newly named CEOs and incoming leaders will assume greater responsibility in addition to a fragile workforce that may be more susceptible to any slight change in communication, transparency or security. They will need to avoid white-collar ivory towers, and earn reputations as leaders who show up for their people in real, meaningful ways. Healthcare leaders who distance themselves from their workforce will only let the realistic, genuine servant leaders outshine them. In 2023, watch for the latter, emulate them and help up-and-comers get as much exposure to them as possible. 

2022 Was Hospitals’ Worst Financial Year in Decades, But 2023 Won’t Be Much Better

https://medcitynews.com/2023/01/2022

Financial analysts have said that 2022 may have been the worst year for hospital finances in decades. This year looks like it will be yet another year of financial underperformance, with rural providers in especially dire circumstances. 

What’s driving this bleak financial reality? It’s “primarily an expense story,” said Erik Swanson, a senior vice president at Kaufman Hall‘s data analytics practice.

“Growth in expenses has vastly outpaced growth in revenues — since pre-pandemic levels since last year, and even the year prior — such that margins are ultimately being pushed downward. And hospitals’ median operating margin is still below zero on a cumulative basis,” he declared, referring to 2021 and 2020. 

Here’s some context about how dismal this situation is: Even in 2020, a year in which hospitals saw extraordinary losses during the first few months of the pandemic, they still reported operating margins of 2%.

What’s even more disconcerting is that hospitals are underperforming financially pretty much across the board, Swanson said.

For example, the financial reports for the country’s three largest nonprofit health systems — AscensionCommonSpirit Health and Trinity Health — revealed they are all struggling. Ascension reported a $118.6 million loss in the third quarter of 2022, CommonSpirit posted a $227 million loss, and Trinity posted a $550.9 million loss.

Even Kaiser Permanente, one of the country’s largest health systems with an integrated delivery model, reported a $1.5 billion loss for the third quarter of 2022.

Rural hospitals are in even worse shape, but more on that below.

Other hospitals have been forced to shutter service lines to offset these financial losses. Some are also turning to integration and consolidation.

For example, Hermann Area District Hospital in Missouri said last month that it is seeking a “deeper affiliation” with Mercy Health or another provider. This announcement came after the hospital eliminated its home health agency as a cost-cutting measure. In December, the hospital projected a loss of $2 million for 2022.

We can also look at the mega-merger between Atrium Health and Advocate Aurora Health, which was completed last month. The deal, which is designed for cost synergy, creates the fifth-largest nonprofit integrated health system in the U.S. 

The merger was finalized one day after North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein expressed concern about how the deal could impact rural communities. He said that while he didn’t have a legal basis within his office’s limited statutory authority to block the deal, he was worried that it could further restrict access to healthcare in rural and underserved communities.

Stein brings up an extremely valid concern. Rural hospitals’ dismal financial circumstances are becoming more and more worrisome — in fact, about 30% of all rural hospitals are at risk of closing in the near future, according to a recent report from the Center for Healthcare Quality and Payment Reform (CHQPR).

A crucial reason for this is that it is more expensive to deliver healthcare in rural areas — usually because of smaller patient volumes and higher costs for attracting staff. Another factor is that payments rural hospitals receive from commercial health plans isn’t enough to cover the cost of delivering care to patients in rural areas, said Harold Miller, CEO of CHQPR. 

“Many people assume that private commercial insurance plans pay more than Medicare and Medicaid. But for small rural hospitals, the exact opposite is true,” he said. “In many cases, Medicare is their best payer. And private health plans actually pay them well below their costs — well below what they pay their larger hospitals. One of the biggest drivers of rural hospital losses is the payments they receive from private health plans.”

In Miller’s view, rural hospitals perform two main functions: taking care of sick people in the hospital and being there for people in case they need to go to the hospital. 

To fulfill the latter job, rural hospitals must operate 24/7 emergency rooms. These hospitals get paid when there’s an emergency, but not when there isn’t — even though the hospital is incurring costs by operating and staffing these units.

“Rural hospitals have a physician on duty 24/7 to be available for emergencies. But they don’t get paid for that by most payers. Medicare does pay them for that, but other payers don’t. If the hospital is doing two different things, we should be paying them for both of those things. Hospitals should be paid for what I refer to as ‘standby capacity,’” Miller said.

He bolstered his argument by pointing to these analogies: Do we only pay firefighters when there’s a fire? Do we only pay police officers when there’s a crime?

It’s also important to remember that rural hospitals are in the midst of transitioning to a post-pandemic environment, now without the pandemic-era financial assistance they received from the government, said Brock Slabach, chief operations officer at the National Rural Health Association

“Rural providers are looking to move into the future without the benefit of those extra payments. And they’re in an environment of really high inflation. It’s over 8%, and for some goods and services in the healthcare sector, that’s going to be over 20% in terms of increased prices. Wages and salaries have also gone up significantly. But patient volumes have maintained below average or average. That all presents a huge challenge,” Slabach said.

Rural providers across the country are dealing with the stressors Slabach described and clamoring for more government help. For example, the Michigan Health & Hospital Association sought more money from the state last month after having to take 1,700 beds offline.

Many rural hospitals can’t escape their fate. From 2010 to 2021, there were 136 rural hospital closures. There were only two closures in 2021, and Slabach said 2022 produced a similarly low number. But these low totals are due to government relief, he explained. Slabach said he’s expecting an increase in rural hospital closures in 2023.

When a rural hospital closes, it means community members have to travel far distances for emergency or inpatient care. Miller pointed out another problem: in many rural communities, the hospital is the only place people can go to get laboratory or imaging work done. The hospital might also be the only source of primary care for the community. Shuttering these hospitals would be a massive blow to rural Americans’ healthcare access.

In the face of these potentially devastating blows to patient access, financial analysts’ outlook is bleak. 

Higher inflation and costly labor expenses will continue to have negative effects on hospitals — both rural and urban — in 2023, according to an analysis from Moody’s. Expenses will also continue to increase due to supply chain bottlenecks, the need for more robust cybersecurity investments and longer hospital stays due to higher levels of patient acuity.

All of this doom and gloom begs the question — are any hospitals doing well financially?

The answer is yes, a select few. Let’s look at the three largest for-profit health systems in the nation — Community Health SystemsHCA Healthcare and Tenet Healthcare. As of 2020, these three public health systems accounted for about 8% of hospital beds in the U.S. 

These three systems all had positive operating margins for the majority of the pandemic, including most recently in the third quarter of 2022.

Large public health systems have shareholders to report to and stock prices to worry about. Does this mean they’re more likely to deny care to patients who can’t afford it while other hospitals pick up the slack?

Slabach said it’s tough to say.

“Obviously, hospitals try to mitigate their exposure to risk when it comes to taking care of patients. Most hospitals do a really good job of providing services and care to people who don’t have insurance or don’t have the means to pay. But that gets stressed in this current financial environment. So indeed, there may be instances where what you suggested might happen, but it’s not because they want to deny services or deny care. It’s because they have a bigger picture they have to maintain,” Slabach said.

And the big picture involving dollar signs for hospitals looks pretty bleak in 2023.

Here’s how hospitals can chart a path to a sustainable financial future (Part 2: Hospital of the Future series)

Radio Advisory’s Rachel Woods sat down with Optum EVP Dr. Jim Bonnette to discuss the sustainability of modern-day hospitals and why scaling down might be the best strategy for a stable future.

Read a lightly edited excerpt from the interview below and download the episode for the full conversation.https://player.fireside.fm/v2/HO0EUJAe+Rv1LmkWo?theme=dark

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.

Midwest nonprofits Sanford Health, Fairview Health Services target a 58-hospital merger for 2023

https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/providers/midwest-nonprofits-sanford-health-fairview-health-services-target-58-hospital-merger-2023

South Dakota-based Sanford Health and Minnesota-based Fairview Health Services unveiled plans Tuesday to merge and form a 58-hospital juggernaut serving rural and urban patients across the Midwest.

The nonprofits have signed a nonbinding letter of intent as they proceed with due diligence and regulatory antitrust reviews, they said in a press release. Each would maintain their own regional presence, leadership and regional boards but operate as a single integrated system under Sanford Health’s banner.

The organizations said they anticipate closing their deal sometime next year.

“Our organizations are united by a shared commitment to advance the health and well-being of our communities,” Sanford Health President and CEO Bill Gassen said in the release. “As a combined system, we can do more to expand access to complex and highly specialized care, utilize innovative technology and provide a broader range of virtual services, unlock greater research capabilities and transform the care delivery experience to ensure every patient receives the best care no matter where they live.”

Gassen is teed up to serve as the president and CEO of the new entity should the merger go through, while Fairview CEO James Hereford would serve as co-CEO for one year following the deal’s close.

Headquarted in Sioux Falls, Sanford Health describes itself as the country’s largest rural health system with nearly 48,000 employees, 47 medical centers, 224 clinics and hundreds of other facilities. It serves over 1 million patients and 220,000 health plan members, according to its website, and each year logs 5.2 million outpatient or clinic visits, nearly 83,000 admissions, about 128,000 surgeries and procedures and roughly 195,000 emergency department visits.

Minneapolis-based Fairview Health Services employs 31,000 people across 11 hospitals as well as dozens of clinics, pharmacies and other facilities. It boasts a network of over 5,000 doctors after merging a few years back with fellow Twin Cities system HealthEast and due to partnerships with University of Minnesota Health specialists.

The two systems said their planned merger will improve care quality, outcomes, patient experience and health equity across their patient populations. New efficiencies will also help the systems offer more affordable care, they noted, while their workforces will benefit from stronger recruitment and advancement opportunities.

“With Sanford Health, Fairview Health Services has found a partner that shares our Midwestern values and our commitment to affordable, accessible and equitable care delivery,” Hereford said in the release. “Our complementary capabilities mean that together, we are uniquely positioned to improve clinical outcomes, develop new care delivery models, expand opportunities for employees and clinicians across our broader operational footprint, and apply our combined resources to positively impact the well-being of our patients and communities today and for decades to come.”

Sanford and Fairview’s news lands about six months after Advocate Aurora Health and Atrium Health announced their own nonprofit megamerger. That deal continues to move through the necessary regulatory hurdles and, if closed, would yield a 67-hospital with strong presences in the nearby Chicago and Milwaukee markets.

Additionally, 2022 has seen the close of Intermountain Healthcare and SCL Health’s 33-hospital system in the Rocky Mountain region and Beaumont Health and Spectrum Health’s 22-hospital system in Michigan.

Buy a rural hospital for $100? Investors pick up struggling institutions for pennies

Rural communities with struggling hospitals often turn to outside investors willing to take over their health care centers. Some are willing to sell the hospitals for next to nothing to companies that promise to keep them running.

ERIN, Tenn. — Kyle Kopec gets a kick out of leading tours through the run-down hospitals his boss is buying, pointing out what he calls relics of poor management left by a revolving door of operators.

For instance, at a hospital in this town of 1,700 about a 90-minute drive northwest from Nashville, the X-ray machine is beyond repair.

“This system is so old, it’s been using a floppy disk,” said Kopec, 23, marveling at the bendy black square that hardly has enough memory to hold a single digital photo. “I’ve never actually seen a floppy disk in use. I’ve seen them in the Smithsonian.”

There’s a point to exposing these rural hospitals’ state of disrepair — the company Kopec works for, Braden Health, is buying buildings worth millions of dollars for next to nothing with a promise to keep running them as health centers serving their communities. Braden for its part, thinks it can run them more effectively than the previous owners and turn a profit.

The hospitals Braden Health is taking over sit in one of the worst spots in one of the worst states for rural hospital closures. Tennessee has experienced 16 closures since 2010 — second only to the far more populous state of Texas, which has had at least 21 closures.

The local governments that own these facilities are finding that remarkably few companies — with any level of experience — are interested in buying them. And those that are willing don’t want to pay much, if anything.

Braden Health’s Kyle Kopec holds up a sample of diagnostic images left behind at an abandoned hospital they’re taking over. They have to figure out what to do with old medical records stacked in boxes.

“When you’re on the ropes or even got your head under water, it’s really difficult to negotiate with any terms of strength,” said Michael Topchik, director of the Chartis Center for Rural Health, which tracks distressed rural hospitals closely. “And so you, oftentimes, are choosing whoever is willing to choose you.”

At this point, large health systems have already acquired or affiliated with the hospitals that have the fewest problems, Topchik said. The hospitals that are left are those that other potential buyers passed on. Turning a profit on a small rural hospital with mostly older or low-income patients can be challenging. Some operators who take over rural hospitals have gotten in trouble with insurers and even law enforcement for shady billing practices.

“You can make it profitable,” Topchik said. “But it takes an awful lot to get there.”

Dr. Beau Braden, who runs Braden Health, used his savings and some inherited wealth to get into the hospital-buying business in 2020. An emergency room doctor and addiction specialist, he previously tried to build a hospital in southwestern Florida, where he owns the large rural clinic in Ave Maria. After running into regulatory roadblocks, he saw more opportunity in reopening hospitals — which brought him to Tennessee.

“A lot of people aren’t willing to put in the time, effort, energy, and work for a small hospital with less than 25 beds. But it needs just as much time, energy, and effort as a hospital with 300 beds,” Braden said. “I just see there’s a huge need in rural hospitals and not a lot of people who can focus their time doing it.”

Braden Health’s corporate headquarters has 40 employees, according to Kopec, who is Braden’s second in command as the company’s chief compliance officer. He had limited work experience in hospitals before helping lead a hospital-buying spree at Braden Health.

Braden Health is a limited liability company and privately held, so it doesn’t have to publicly share much about its financial figures. But in filings for a certificate of need that outlines why a health care facility should be allowed to operate, Braden revealed $2 million in monthly revenue from the one hospital it ran in Lexington, Tennessee, and its balance sheet showed more than $7.5 million cash on hand.

Dr. Beau Braden (left) and Kyle Kopec talk to staffers gathered at the nurse’s station inside Houston County Community Hospital in Erin, Tennessee. Braden Health bought the facility for $20,000 ― a price that is mostly paying for the one piece of medical equipment deemed to have any value, a 2016 ambulance with 180,000 miles.

Since buying that Lexington hospital in 2020, Braden Health has signed deals for three other failing or failed hospitals and has looked at acquiring at least 10 others, mostly in Tennessee and North Carolina. Braden Health’s strategy is to build mini-networks to share staff and supplies.

At the hospital in Erin, much of the facility’s equipment is older than Kopec. And he said using outdated technology has caused Medicare to penalize the hospital with reduced payments.

The attic houses a ham radio system that seemingly never got much use, Kopec said on his way out to the roof. He wanted to show how the giant HVAC system can be controlled only from a rusty side panel accessible by a ladder. Down below, an emergency room has never been used. During a recent renovation that predated Braden Health’s ownership, its doors were built too narrow for a gurney, among other design flaws.

An old operating room is temporarily housing the ER while Braden Health starts work on new renovations. The Tennessee attorney general, who must approve any sale of a public hospital to private investors, signed off in July.

To prevent this hospital’s closure in 2013, Houston County bought it for $2.4 million and raised taxes locally to subsidize operations. “We had no business being in the hospital business,” Mayor James Bridges said. “The majority of county governments do not have the expertise and the education and knowledge that it takes to run health care facilities in 2022.”

Those with the most experience, like big corporate hospital chains based in Nashville, have been getting out of the small hospital business, too.

Communities have seen unqualified managers come and go. In Decatur County, where Braden Health is also taking over the local hospital, the previous CEO was indicted on theft charges that remain pending. And the Tennessee comptroller determined the hospital helped endanger the finances of the entire county.

“You’re looking to someone who supposedly knows what to do, who can supposedly solve the issue. And you trust them, then you’re disappointed,” said Lori Brasher, a member of Decatur County’s economic development board. “And not disappointed once, but disappointed multiple times.”

Brasher expressed much more confidence in Braden Health, which she said has concrete plans to reopen, though the timing has been delayed by an unresolved insurance claim from a burst water line that flooded a wing of the hospital.

Local residents still have trouble stomaching the sticker price: $100 for a property valued at $1.4 million by the local tax assessor. In addition to that low price, Braden Health won tax breaks for committing to invest $2 million into the building.

The Houston County hospital is valued at $4.1 million by the property assessor. But the final sale price was just $20,000 — and that wasn’t for the land or the building. Kopec said the amount was for a 2016 ambulance with 180,000 miles — deemed the only equipment with any remaining value.

An agreement with Braden Health to take over the shuttered hospital in Haywood County, Tennessee, valued at $4.6 million, was a similarly symbolic payment. All told, Braden Health is getting more than $10 million worth of real estate for less than the price of an appendectomy.

Kopec contends the value for each property is essentially negative given that the hospitals require so much investment to comply with health care standards and — according to the company’s purchase agreements — must be run as hospitals. If not, the hospitals revert to the counties.

Most of the funding for restoring these facilities comes directly from Braden, who thinks people overestimate the value of hospitals his company is taking over.

“If you look honestly at a lot of transactions that take place with rural hospitals and how many liabilities are tied up with them, there’s really not a lot of value there,” he said. Braden recently paid off a $2.3 million debt with Medicare for the Houston County hospital.

He said there’s no secret sauce, in his mind, except that small hospitals require just as much diligence as big medical centers — especially since their profit margins are so thin and patient volume so low. He wants to improve technology in ways that health plans reward hospitals, limit nurse staffing when business is slow, and watch medical supply inventories to cut waste.

It’s a tall order. Braden said he can understand any skepticism, even from the hospitals’ employees. They’ve heard turnaround promises before, and even they can be wary of the care they’d get at such run-down facilities.

Still, as Kopec bounced through the Erin hospital’s halls, he greeted nurses and clerical staff by name with a confidence that belies his age and experience. He tells anyone who will listen that rural hospitals require specialized knowledge.

“They’re not the most complicated things in the world,” Kopec said. “But if you don’t know exactly how to run them, you’re just going to run them straight into the ground.”

Financial toll of 340B discount restrictions magnifies for hospitals: 4 findings

Hospitals’ estimated annual financial losses due to 340B discount restrictions have doubled since December 2021, according to a report from the advocacy group 340B Health.

A growing number of drugmakers have imposed limits on 340B discounts to safety net hospitals for drugs dispensed at community-based pharmacies. Between December and March, six more drugmakers imposed restrictions. 

340B Health surveyed more than 500 hospitals from November to December 2021 and again in March to assess how these increasing restrictions are affecting patients and hospitals. 

Four findings:

1. The median annual financial effect on disproportionate share hospitals, rural referral centers and standalone community hospitals went from $1 million in December to $2.2 million in March. 

2. Among these hospitals, 10 percent of leaders said they expect annual losses of $21 million or more.

3. Leaders from rural critical access hospitals said they also expect the median annual financial effect of 340B discount restrictions to double from $220,000 to $448,000. 

4. Eighty percent of hospitals surveyed anticipated having to cut some patient care services if the restrictions become permanent.  

View the full report here.

Affiliation improves rural hospital sustainability

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

In 2020, a record-breaking 19 rural hospitals closed their doors due to a combination of worsening economic conditions, changing payer mix, and declining patient volumes. But many more are looking to affiliate with larger health systems to remain open and maintain access to care in their communities. The graphic above illustrates how rural hospital affiliations (including acquisitions and other contractual partnerships) have increased over time, and the resulting effects of partnerships.

Affiliation rose nearly 20 percent from 2007 to 2016; today nearly half of rural hospitals are affiliated with a larger health system.

Economic stability is a primary benefit: the average rural hospital becomes profitable post-affiliation, boosting its operating margin roughly three percent in five years. But despite improved margins, many affiliated rural hospitals cut some services, often low-volume obstetrics programs, in the years following affiliation. 

Overall, the relationship likely improves quality: a recent JAMA study found that rural hospital mergers are linked to better patient mortality outcomes for certain conditions, like acute myocardial infarction. Still, the ongoing tide of rural hospital closures is concerning, leaving many rural consumers without adequate access to care. Late last month, the Department of Health and Human Services announced it would distribute another $7.5B in American Rescue Plan Act funds to rural providers. 

While this cash infusion may forestall some closures, longer-term economic pressures, combined with changing consumer demands, will likely push a growing number of rural hospitals to seek closer ties with larger health systems.

Senate bill would make telehealth reimbursement permanent for certain services

https://www.healthcarefinancenews.com/news/senate-bill-would-make-telehealth-reimbursement-permanent-certain-services

A bipartisan group of senators have introduced a bill to make telehealth reimbursement permanent for certain services such as those provided by physical therapists, audiologists, occupational therapists and speech language pathologists.

Sens. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) introduced the “Expanded Telehealth Access Act” on Thursday, according to The Hill.

If passed, the legislation would extend telehealth reimbursement policies that were temporarily added during the COVID-19 public health emergency.

WHY THIS MATTERS

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has long said that Congressional action is needed to make emergency telehealth measures permanent.

But on Tuesday, CMS released new actions that will allow Medicare to pay for mental health virtual visits furnished by Rural Health Clinics and Federally-Qualified Health Centers. This is through telecommunications technology such as audio-only telehealth calls.

Telehealth is particularly important for rural areas where patients may have to travel long distances for care.

The Senate bill has the support of the American Telehealth Association, the American Physical Therapy Association, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association and the American Occupational Therapy Association, among others, according to the report.

The biggest issue in telehealth reimbursement remains. This is whether providers will be continued to be paid at in-person parity for a telehealth visit. 

THE LARGER TREND

The Senate Bill is a companion to a House bill introduced in March by Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ) called the Expanded Telehealth Access Act.

In May, Senator Daines, one of the sponsors of Thursday’s legislation, with Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), proposed the “Telehealth Expansion Act of 2021” to permanently allow first-dollar coverage of virtual care under high-deductible health plans.

Health system consolidation as a “safety net”

https://mailchi.mp/26f8e4c5cc02/the-weekly-gist-july-16-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

Might health care consolidation be slowing and if so, why and what might it  mean? A perspective on where we are, how we got here and what is next. —  CASTLING PARTNERS

One of the underappreciated ways in which health systems create value in our healthcare economy, as was recently the topic of discussion with the CEO of an organization we work with, is their role as a “safety net”. We weren’t talking about safety-net providers in the traditional sense—those which serve low-income populations. Rather, we were talking about the ability of larger health systems to acquire and invest in smaller hospitals that might otherwise risk going out of business entirely due to economic pressures.

When economic shocks hit, as was recently the case with COVID, we often see firms close; think of all the restaurant and hospitality businesses forced to shut down over the past year. As the economy rebounds, new business spring up to take their places—that kind of “creative destruction” is commonplace in the larger economy. But when a hospital is forced to shut its doors, it’s a different story, one that could be potentially disastrous for the community. 

Often the most economically vulnerable hospitals are sole providers for their communities; without them, critical medical services could be much less accessible for patients. Enter multi-hospital health systems, which have often stepped in to acquire hospitals in jeopardy. 

By providing access to capital, technology, and management infrastructure, systems have probably kept hundreds of such smaller hospitals in business over the past several decades. Policy analysts are quick to criticize health systems for value destruction: leveraging scale to raise prices, and so forth.

Often valid criticism, but it would be myopic to overlook the fact that systems have also allowed many vulnerable communities to retain access to a viable local hospital. The pushback is often to posit that we simply have too many hospitals to begin with—but try telling that to patients and communities who have lost access to their local source of care.

House extends moratorium on 2% Medicare sequester cuts through 2021

https://www.healthcarefinancenews.com/news/house-extends-moratorium-2-medicare-sequester-cuts-through-2021

APR 14MORE ON REIMBURSEMENT

House extends moratorium on 2% Medicare sequester cuts through 2021

President Biden is expected to sign the bill into law.

Susan Morse, Managing Editor

(Photo courtesy joe daniel price/Getty Images)

In a vote of 384-38, the House on Tuesday passed a bill that eliminates the 2% cut to Medicare payments until the end of 2021. However, the bill proposes to offset the change by increasing the sequester cuts in 2030.

WHY THIS MATTERS

The cuts were triggered by a federal budget sequestration.

Hospitals, physicians and other providers protested the 2% cuts as coming at a time when they were struggling financially and clinically to handle the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bill also makes several technical changes to the rural health clinic provisions that were included in the Consolidated Appropriations Act. Specifically, the CAA required that the payment rate for RHCs, including provider-based RHCs certified after Dec. 31, 2019, to be capped at $100 per visit, starting from April 1, 2021. 

This rate will increase over time based on the Medicare Economic Index, but will remain well below typical provider-based RHC rates. The bill would correct the Dec. 31, 2019, date to Dec. 31, 2020, and include both Medicare-enrolled RHCs located in a hospital with less than 50 beds and RHCs that have submitted an application for Medicare enrollment as of this date, according to the AHA.

THE LARGER TREND

Last year, Congress paused the 2% Medicare cuts, but they were to resume on April 1.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services instructed Medicare administrative contractors to hold all claims with dates of service on or after April 1 for a short period until potential legislation was enacted.

In March, the House passed the bill to delay the cuts, and the Senate approved it later that month, but with an amendment to delay through December 31 and ensure that the cost of the delay is paid for. 

PROVIDER REACTION

Providers have reacted positively to the news.

American Hospital Association president and CEO Rick Pollack said, “Even though our country is making great progress by vaccinating millions of people a day, it is clear that this pandemic is far from over and that there is an urgent need to keep hospitals, health systems and our heroic caregivers strong.”

American Medical Association president Dr. Susan R. Bailey said, “The Senate and House, Democrats and Republicans, have overwhelmingly acknowledged that cutting Medicare payments during a pandemic is ill-conceived policy. Physician practices are already distressed, and arbitrary 2% across-the-board Medicare cuts would have been devastating.”

America’s Essential Hospitals SVP of policy and advocacy Beth Feldpush said, “Extending the moratorium through the end of this year provides much-needed relief for essential hospitals, which continue to face heavy financial pressure from their frontline response to COVID-19. The sequester would weaken the ability of our hospitals to care for the communities of color that have suffered disproportionately from the pandemic.”