In his second annual State of the Union address to Congress on Tuesday, President Biden pointed to his accomplishments in shoring up the Affordable Care Act, and presented a fairly modest healthcare agenda that could garner bipartisan support.
Though the back-and-forth with Republican lawmakers over Medicare cuts made headlines, his prepared remarks focused primarily on drug costs, as he touted Medicare’s new drug negotiation powers and called for Medicare’s $35 monthly insulin cap to be extended to commercial health plans.
The Gist: The fate of the President’s drug cost proposals, along with his calls for more COVID funding, mental health treatment, and cancer research, rest in the hands of a Republican House unlikely to work with him.
It brings us no joy to acknowledge that the 2024 Presidential race has already begun, meaning that substantive legislative action will likely take a back seat for the next two years. Looking ahead, we’d expect Biden’s reelection pitch to sound a lot like Tuesday’s speech, shored up by whatever he can deliver via rulemaking and executive orders.
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.
At a recent health system retreat, the CFO shared data describing a trend we’ve observed at a number of systems: for the past few months, emergency department (ED) volumes have been up, but the percentage of patients admitted through the ED is precipitously down.
The CFO walked to through a run of data to diagnose possible causes of this “uncoupling” of ED visits and inpatient admissions. Overall, the severity of patients coming to the ED was higher compared to 2019, so it didn’t appear that the ED was being flooded with low-level cases that didn’t merit admission. Apart from the recent spike in respiratory illness brought on by the “tripledemic” of flu, COVID and RSV, there wasn’t a noteworthy change in case mix, or the types of patients and conditions being evaluated in the emergency room. (Fewer COVID patients were admitted compared to 2021, but that wasn’t enough to account for the decline.) The physicians staffing the ED hadn’t changed, so a shift in practice patterns was also unlikely.
A physician leader attending the retreat spoke up from the audience: “I can diagnose this for you. I work in the ED, and the problem is we can’t move them. Patients are sitting in the ED, in hallways, in observation, sometimes for days, because we can’t get a bed on the floor. The whole time we are treating them, and many of them get better, and we’re able to discharge them before a bed frees up.”
With nursing shortages and other staffing challenges, many hospitals have been unable to run at full capacity even if the demand for beds is there. So total admissions may be down, even if the hospital feels like it’s bursting at the seams.
The current staffing crisis not only presents a business challenge, but also adversely impacts patient experience, and makes it more difficult to deliver the highest quality care. A good reminder of the complexity of hospital operations, where strain in one part of the system will quickly impact the performance of other parts of the care delivery continuum.
The majority of hospitals are predicted to have negative margins in 2022, marking the worst year financially for hospitals since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In Part 1 of Radio Advisory’s Hospital of the Future series, host Rachel (Rae) Woods invites Advisory Board experts Monica Westhead, Colin Gelbaugh, and Aaron Mauck to discuss why factors like workforce shortages, post-acute financial instability, and growing competition are contributing to this troubling financial landscape and how hospitals are tackling these problems.
As we emerge from the global pandemic, health care is restructuring. What decisions should you be making, and what do you need to know to make them? Explore the state of the health care industry and its outlook for next year by visiting advisory.com/HealthCare2023.
The report comes on the heels of negative GDP growth during the first half of the year. In the January through March period, the economy contracted at a 1.6% annual rate. In the second quarter, the economy shrank at a 0.6% annualized pace.
Between the lines: The latest GDP report is among the final major economic data releases before the midterm elections, where voters have ranked the economy as a critical issue.
The labor market is solid, with the unemployment rate at the lowest level in over 50 years. But soaring inflation has eaten away at Americans’ wage gains.
The backdrop: The Federal Reserve is trying to engineer an economic slowdown in a bid to crush high inflation. It has swiftly raised borrowing costs five times this year, with another big increase likely ahead at its upcoming policy meeting next week.
What they’re saying: “For months, doomsayers have been arguing that the US economy is in a recession and Congressional Republicans have been rooting for a downturn,” President Biden said in a statement. “But today we got further evidence that our economic recovery is continuing to power forward.”
A recent conversation with a health system CFO made us realize that a long-standing nugget of received healthcare wisdom might no longer be true. For as long as we can remember, economic observers have said that healthcare is “recession-proof”—one of those sectors of the economy that suffers least during a downturn. The idea was that people still get sick, and still need care, no matter how bad the economy gets. But this CFO shared that her system was beginning to see a slowdown in demand for non-emergent surgeries, and more sluggish outpatient volume generally.
Her hypothesis: rising inflation is putting increased pressure on household budgets, and is beginning to force consumers into tougher tradeoffs between paying for daily necessities and seeking care for health concerns. This is having a more pronounced effect than during past recessions, because we’ve shifted so much financial risk onto individuals via high deductibles and cost-sharing over the past decade.
There’s a double whammy for providers: because the current inflation problems are happening in the first half of year, most consumers are nowhere near hitting their deductibles, leading this CFO to forecast softer volumes for at least the next several months, until the usual “post-deductible spending spree” kicks in.
Combined with the tight labor market, which has increased operating costs between 15 and 20 percent, this inflation-driven drop in demand may have hospitals and health systems experiencing their own dose of recession—contrary to the old chestnut.