Last week, California’s legislature passed a bill establishing the Distressed Hospital Loan Program, which will dole out $150M in interest-free emergency loans to struggling nonprofit hospitals in the state which meet specific eligibility criteria, including operating in an underserved area and serving a large share of Medicaid beneficiaries. A combination of state agencies will establish a specific methodology for selection, but hospitals that are part of a health system with more than two separately licensed hospital facilities will be ineligible.
Hospitals receiving loans must provide a plan for how they will use the loans to achieve financial sustainability, and must pay back the money within six years.
The Gist: With twenty percent of the state’s hospitals at risk of shuttering, California lawmakers are hoping to provide the most vulnerable hospitals an alternative to either closure or consolidation, an example other states may follow. But unlike the Paycheck Protection Program loans that shored up businesses through the pandemic’s initial disruption, the outlook for small, struggling, independent hospitals isn’t expected to improve in coming years, even if the economy recovers.
Whether these loans provide lifelines or merely serve as Band-Aids on an untenable situation will depend on whether recipient hospitals can use them to restructure their operating models to absorb increased labor costs amid stagnating volumes and commercial reimbursement.
If these loans aren’t used for transformation, they will only delay the inevitable: more closures, and more mergers to find shelter in scale.
Published this week in the New York Times, this article describes the decaying state of Greenwood Leflore Hospital, a 117 year-old facility in the Mississippi Delta that may be within months of closure. While rural hospitals across the country are struggling, Mississippi’s firm opposition to Medicaid expansion has exacerbated the problem in that state, by depriving providers of an additional $1.4B per year in federal funds. Instead, only a few of the state’s 100-plus hospitals actually turn an annual profit, and uncompensated care costs are almost 10 percent of the average hospital’s operating costs.
Despite a dozen or more hospitals at imminent risk of closure, Mississippi officials would rather use the state’s $3.9B budget surplus to lower or eliminate the state income tax.
The Gist:Expanding Medicaid doesn’t just reduce rates of uncompensated care provided by hospitals, it changes the volume and type of care they provide.
Ensuring that low-income residents in Mississippi and other non-expansion states have access to Medicaid would allow providers to administer more preventive care and manage chronic diseases more effectively, before costly exacerbations require hospitalization.
Since its opening in a converted wood-frame mansion 117 years ago, Greenwood Leflore Hospital had become a medical hub for this part of Mississippi’s fertile but impoverished Delta, with 208 beds, an intensive-care unit, a string of walk-in clinics and a modern brick-and-glass building.
But on a recent weekday, it counted just 13 inpatients clustered in a single ward. The I.C.U. and maternity ward were closed for lack of staffing and the rest of the building was eerily silent, all signs of a hospital savaged by too many poor patients.
Greenwood Leflore lost $17 million last year alone and is down to a few million in cash reserves, said Gary Marchand, the hospital’s interim chief executive. “We’re going away,” he said. “It’s happening.”
Rural hospitals are struggling all over the nation because of population declines, soaring labor costs and a long-term shift toward outpatient care. But those problems have been magnified by a political choice in Mississippi and nine other states, all with Republican-controlled legislatures.
They have spurned the federal government’s offer to shoulder almost all the cost of expanding Medicaid coverage for the poor. And that has heaped added costs on hospitals because they cannot legally turn away patients, insured or not.
Opponents of expansion, who have prevailed in Texas, Florida and much of the Southeast, typically say they want to keep government spending in check. States are required to put up 10 percent of the cost in order for the federal government to release the other 90 percent.
But the number of holdouts is dwindling. On Monday, North Carolina became the 40th state to expand Medicaidsince the option to cover all adults with incomes below 138 percent of the poverty line opened up in 2014 under the terms of the 2010 Affordable Care Act. The law, a major victory for President Barack Obama, has continued to defy Republican efforts to kill or limit it.
“This argument about rural hospital closures has been an incredibly compelling argument to voters,” said Kelly Hall, the executive director of the Fairness Project, a national nonprofit that has successfully pushed ballot measures to expand Medicaid in seven states.
In Mississippi, one of the nation’s poorest states, the missing federal health care dollars have helped drive what is now a full-blown hospital crisis. Statewide, experts say that no more than a few of Mississippi’s 100-plus hospitals are operating at a profit. Free care is costing them about $600 million a year, the equivalent of 8 percent to 10 percent of their operating costs — a higher share than almost anywhere else in the nation, according to the state hospital association.
Expanding Medicaid would uncork a spigot of about $1.35 billion a year in federal funds to hospitals and health care providers, according to a 2021 report by the office of the state economist.
And it would guarantee medical coverage to some 100,000 uninsured adults making less than $20,120 a year in a state whose death rates are at or near the nation’s highest for heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, kidney disease and pneumonia. Infant mortality is also sky-high, and the Delta has the nation’s highest rate of foot and leg amputations because of diabetes or hypertension.
Health officials blame those numbers in part on the high rate of uninsured residents who miss out on preventive care.
“I can tell you I have a number of patients who are on dialysis with renal failure for the rest of their life because they couldn’t afford the medication for their blood pressure, and that caused their kidneys to go bad,” said Dr. John Lucas, a Greenwood Leflore surgeon.
Among Mississippi adults, only disabled people and parents with extremely low incomes, along with most pregnant women, are eligible for Medicaid. Many of the ineligible are also too poor to qualify for the tax credits for insurance under the Affordable Care Act, leaving them without affordable options.
The same is true for close to two million other Americans who live in the states that have not expanded Medicaid. Three in five are adults of color, according to a 2021 study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonprofit research group. In Mississippi, more than half are Black.
Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, and key G.O.P. state lawmakers argue that a bigger Mississippi program is not in taxpayers’ best interest. The governor says the state’s $3.9 billion surplus would be best used to help eliminate Mississippi’s income tax.
“Don’t simply cave under the pressure of Democrats and their allies in the media who are pushing for the expansion of Obamacare, welfare and socialized medicine,” Mr. Reeves said in his annual State of the State address in January.
Opponents also argue that the newly insured would become dependent on Medicaid and therefore be less likely to work. “I believe we should be working to get people off Medicaid as opposed to adding more people to it,” said Philip Gunn, the powerful Republican House speaker.
Yet in Mississippi’s Delta, a flat swath of fields of corn, soybeans and other crops nearly as big as Delaware, access to any kind of medical care is drying up for lack of money. More than 300,000 people live here, nearly 35 percent of them Black. About the same percentage live in poverty, a rate three times the national average.
Dr. Daniel P. Edney, the state’s top health officer, said he did not set Medicaid policy, and he has been careful not to take sides. But he predicted emerging health care deserts where women would have to travel long distances to deliver babies and more sick people would die because they could not gain access to care.
Of the state’s hospitals, “I have maybe heard of two that are generating any profit,” he said. When he asks hospital executives if Medicaid expansion would help their balance sheets, he said, “they say it’s a game changer.”
He predicted that five hospitals would soon downgrade into mere emergency rooms, where doctors work to stabilize patients, then transfer them to the nearest hospital.
If that happens, some of the sickest will not make it, said Dr. Jeff Moses, an emergency room physician at Greenwood Leflore.
“Where are they going? Davy Jones’s locker,” he said. “It is very dark, and I’m not exaggerating this. I just can’t imagine what will happen to this community if this hospital closes.”
Nine years after states began expanding Medicaid, evidence is growing that broader coverage saves lives. In a 2021 analysis, researchers for the National Bureau of Economic Research estimated that in one four-year period, 19,200 more adults aged 55 to 64 survived because of expanded coverage, and nearly 16,000 more would have lived if that coverage was nationwide.
Other studies suggest why: Making medical care more affordable led to increases in regular checkups, cancer screenings, diagnoses of chronic diseases and prescriptions for needed medicines.
Especially during the first six years of the Medicaid expansion, when the federal government picked up 95 to 100 percent of the cost, many states found that the program was a net fiscal gain. Some states have imposed taxes on hospitals or health care providers to cover their share of the expense, the same strategy used to help fund other Medicaid costs.
Now the federal government is offering a new incentive for the holdouts: As part of a 2021 pandemic relief measure, it agreed to temporarily pay a higher proportion of costs for some existing Medicaid patients if states broadened eligibility.
Mississippi’s office of the state economist has estimated that for at least the first decade, those savings and others would fully cover the roughly $200 million a year that Medicaid expansion would cost the state government.
Tim Moore, the president of the Mississippi Hospital Association, said expansion was “a no-brainer.” The state is so poor, he said, that for every dollar it spends on Medicaid, the federal government pumps four back in.
Polls, including by Mississippi Today and Siena College, appear to show Mississippians support Medicaid expansion, regardless of their political affiliation. Brandon Presley, the Democratic candidate for governor, is highlighting hospital closures as a reason to deny Mr. Reeves a second term in elections this November.
In a possible sign of political nervousness, the governor and the legislature recently agreed to extend Medicaid coverage to pregnant women for 12 months after they give birth, prolonging a federal pandemic-era policy.
The legislators are also trying to prop up the hospitals with a one-time infusion of $83 million or more. But that is a pittance compared with what the state has given up in Medicaid payments.
The state has lost four hospitals since 2008, according to the hospital association, and Dr. Edney, the state health officer, said that it would inevitably lose more. He said he worried most about health care access in the Delta, where he grew up, the child of working-class parents with no health insurance.
On Saturday, Representative Bennie Thompson, Democrat of Mississippi, said victims of a tornado that struck the Delta last week had to be ferried 50 miles away for medical treatment because the local hospital had no power. More Medicaid dollars, he said, would have equipped it with an emergency generator.
An hour due west from Greenwood Leflore, another major hospital, run by Delta Health System, is also in serious trouble. Licensed for more than 300 beds, the hospital one day last month held just 72 inpatients.
Thirty-two of them were kept in the emergency department, partly because of nursing cuts. One upshot is that patients seeking emergency care now wait an average of two hours, four times as long as they should, according to Amy Walker, the chief nursing officer. Some simply walk out.
The neonatal intensive care unit closed last July. Now babies in trouble must be ferried by ambulance or helicopter 125 miles south to Jackson.
Iris Stacker, the chief executive, said the hospital could remain open through the end of the year; after that, she makes no promises. She is hoping federal grants will help keep the doors open, despite the state’s failure to expand Medicaid.
But she said, “It’s very hard to ask the federal government for more money when you have this pot of money sitting here that we won’t touch.”
A top message on Greenwood Leflore’s website is now a request for donations. So far, the hospital has raised less than $12,000.
Mike Hardin, a 70-year-old retiree, was one of a handful of inpatients one recent day. He had come to the emergency room two days before with slurred speech. Doctors quickly diagnosed a stroke and now were sending him home with revised medications.
“They have to do something to keep this hospital open,” he said as he was wheeled out of his room. “The people around this area wouldn’t have any place else to go.”
The hospital’s outpatient clinics are largely still in business, and doctors there say their caseloads are full of impoverished patients who should have been treated earlier.
Dr. Abhash Thakur, a cardiologist, said he routinely saw patients in the late stages of congestive heart failure who had never seen a cardiologist or been prescribed heart medication. Some have as little as 10 percent of their heart function left.
“They are not the exception,” he said, before examining a 52-year-old man who uses a wheelchair because of his heart disease. “Every day, probably, I will see a few of them.”
Dr. Raymond Girnys, a general surgeon, had just treated a man in his late 50s. He said that a week earlier, the man had punctured his foot on a sharp stick while walking in his tennis shoes in a field.
The man did not seek medical attention until the foot became infected because he was poor and uninsured. Dr. Girnys pointed out the irony: If his patient lost his foot, he would become eligible for Medicaid because then he would be disabled.
“If they had insurance, they wouldn’t be afraid to seek care,” he said.
Experts say that no more than a few of Mississippi’s 100-plus hospitals are operating at a profit.
A report from the Center for Healthcare Quality and Payment Reform (CHQPR) found that over 600 rural hospitals are at risk of closing in 2023, citing persistent financial challenges related to patient services or depleted financial resources.
More than 600 rural hospitals are at risk of closing in 2023
In the report, which was released in January, CHQPR identified 631 rural hospitals — over 29% nationwide — at risk of closing in 2023. However, compared to pre-pandemic levels, fewer rural hospitals are at immediate risk of closing because of the federal relief they received during the pandemic.
Among rural hospitals at risk of closing, CHQPR found two common contributing factors. First, these hospitals reported persistent financial losses of patient services over a multi-year period, excluding the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Second, these hospitals reported low financial reserves, with insufficient net assets to counter losses on patient services over a period of more than six years.
In most states, at least 25% of the rural hospitals are at risk of closing, and in 12 states, 40% or more are at risk.
Meanwhile, more than 200 of these rural hospitals are facing an immediate risk of closing. According to CHQPR, these hospitals have inadequate revenues to cover expenses and very low financial reserves.
“Costs have been increasing significantly and payments, particularly from commercial insurance plans, have not increased correspondingly with that,” said Harold Miller, president and CEO of CHQPR. “And the small hospitals don’t have the kinds of financial reserves to be able to cover the losses.”
How rural hospital closures impact communities
In many cases, the closure of a rural hospital leads to a loss of access to comprehensive medical care in a community. Most of the at-risk hospitals are in areas where closure would result in community residents being forced to travel a long distance for emergency or inpatient care.
“In many of the smallest rural communities, the only thing there is the hospital,” Miller said. “The hospital is the only source. Not only is it the only emergency department and the only source of inpatient care, it’s the only source of laboratory services, the only place to get an X-ray or radiology. It may even be the only place where there is primary care.”
Many small hospitals also run health clinics. “There literally wouldn’t be any physicians in the community at all if it wasn’t for the rural hospital running that rural health clinic,” Miller said. “So if the hospital closes, you’re literally eliminating all health care services in the community.”
According to Miller, there has to be a fundamental change in the way hospitals are paid. “The problem that hospitals have faced though, is that they do two fundamentally different things — but they are only paid for one of them,” Miller said.
“Hospitals deliver services to patients when they are sick, and they are paid for that. But the other thing that hospitals do, which is essential for a community, is that they are available when somebody needs them — that standby capacity is critical for a community. But hospitals aren’t paid for that,” he added. (Higgs, Cleveland.com, 3/16; CHQPR report, accessed 3/20)
Advisory Board’s take
Why it is ‘not enough’ to simply stave off hospital closures
Hospital closures are a big deal — for all the reasons outlined above (and more) — but we cannot understate the importance of monitoring hospitals that are in or moving into the “at risk” category.
When hospitals fall into the “at risk” category, they are more likely to cut services to reduce costs. While this may help preserve hospital survival, it can have a devastating effect on patient access. For instance, a 2019 Health Affairsstudy found that rural hospital closures are associated with an 8% annual decrease in the supply of general surgeons in the years preceding closure.
While dangerous trends persist in maternal mortality, especially among Black women, obstetrics (OB) care is often placed on the chopping block for hospitals looking to rationalize services and stave off closure. According to the American Hospital Association (AHA), nearly 90 rural community hospitals closed OB units between 2015-2019. As of 2020, only 53% of rural community hospitals offered OB services, AHA reports.
Ultimately, these service closures carry massive implications for patient access and outcomes. As care delays result in higher-acuity downstream presentation, they can also increase the strain on the rest of the healthcare system.
So, yes, we need to stave off hospital closures. But to say “that’s not enough” is a massive understatement. In fact, many of the strategies hospitals deploy to stave off closure can create gaps that stakeholders must work together to fill.
This is especially true as we near the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency. As Medicaid redeterminations start ramping up, rural hospitals may see an increase in bad debt, especially among states that have not expanded Medicaid.
For example, the Alabama Rural Health Association reported that 55 of 67 counties in Alabama are considered rural, and CHQPR reported that 48% of rural hospitals in the state are at risk of closing. Meanwhile, the Wyoming Department of Health reported that 17 of 23 counties in the state are considered “Frontier,” which means there are fewer than six residents per square mile, and CHQPR reported that 29% of the state’s rural hospitals are at risk of closure.
When rural hospitals close their doors, the surrounding communities are left without access to timely, quality health care.
There is no silver bullet here — but Advisory Board researchers have created several resources to help stakeholders understand how to support rural hospitals:
Rural providers aren’t providing “rural healthcare” — they’re providing healthcare in a rural setting. While niche policies can help in pockets, rural providers need federal policymakers to consider rural needs in overall health policy to meet the magnitude of the crisis.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.