Last month, Eric Jordahl, Managing Director of Kaufman Hall’s Treasury and Capital Markets practice, blogged about the dangers of nonprofit healthcare providers’ extremely conservative risk management in today’s uncertain economy.
Healthcare public debt issuance in the first quarter of 2023 was down almost 70 percent compared to the first quarter of 2022. While not the only funding channel for not-for-profit healthcare organizations,
the level of public debt issuance is a bellwether for the ambition of the sector’s capital formation strategies.
While health systems have plenty of reasons to be cautious about credit management right now, it’s important not to underrate the dangers of being too risk averse. As Jordahl puts it: “Retrenchment might be the right risk management choice in times of crisis, but once that crisis moderates that same strategy can quickly become a risk driver.”
The Gist: Given current market conditions, there are a host of good reasons why caution reigns among nonprofit health systems, but this current holding pattern for capital spending endangers their future competitiveness and potentially even their survival.
Nonprofit systems aren’t just at risk of losing a competitive edge to vertically integrated payers, whom the pandemic market treated far more kindly in financial terms, but also to for-profit national systems, like HCA and Tenet, who have been flywheeling strong quarterly results into revamped growth and expansion plans.
Health systems should be wary of becoming stuck on defense while the competition is running up the score.
New Hyde Park, N.Y.-based Northwell Health began 2023 with a low, but positive operating margin, but labor costs are expected to increase again this year on the back of recent union activity in the state.
To offset such increases that were not anticipated in the 2023 budget, Northwell is evaluating opportunities to reduce expenses and increase revenue across the health system, which includes 21 hospitals and about 83,000 employees.
Michael Dowling, CEO of Northwell, spoke to Becker’s Hospital Review about the health system’s biggest challenge this year, how it approaches cost-cutting and why outpatient care is its biggest growth area.
Editor’s note: Responses are lightly edited for length and clarity.
Question: Many health systems saw margins dip last year amid rising inflation, increased labor costs and declining patient volumes. How have you led Northwell through the challenges of last year?
Michael Dowling: We ended 2022 with a low, but positive margin. We’ve been coming back from COVID quite successfully, and we’re back pretty much in all areas to where we were prior to the pandemic. Volumes have returned and we’re very busy. We came into 2023 with a positive budget and a positive margin. We anticipate that you’re always going to have challenges and disturbances, but it’s important to stay focused and deal with it. We have a very detailed strategic plan, which outlines our various goals, and we stick to it.
Q: What is your top priority today?
MD: The biggest issue for us today is labor costs. We have lots of union activity in New York at the moment. There were various nurse strikes in New York City at the beginning of the year. None of our hospitals were involved in those deliberations, but some of those hospitals agreed to contracts that have increases that were not anticipated in anybody’s 2023 budget. That’s going to have an effect on us. We have negotiations ongoing with the nurses’ union, and have 10 unions overall. About 90 percent of Northwell’s facilities have unions, so the bottom line is we are going to have expenses as a result of these contracts that were not anticipated in the budget. I don’t know the final number on these contracts yet, but it’s definitely going to be more than what we anticipated.
The unions in New York get a lot of government support and have become very empowered and quite aggressive. The bottom line is there’s more expense than we anticipated in our budget, so we need to figure out how to address that. We’re looking at everything across our health system to find expense reductions or revenue enhancements to be able to make up for the increased labor costs and be optimistic about ending the year with a positive margin. But we’re in a good place and are not like some other health systems that are struggling financially.
Q: Where are the biggest opportunities to reduce expenses or increase revenue to offset the increased labor costs?
MD: It’s a combination of a lot of things. We have a detailed capital plan that we may slow down. We hire about 300 people a week, so maybe we’ll target that hiring into specific areas and not be as broad based as we thought we could be. We will examine if we have specific programs or initiatives we can curtail without doing any damage to our core mission. It will end up being a portfolio of items; it won’t be one big thing. On the revenue side, we’re working very hard to increase our neurosurgery, cardiac, cancer and orthopedic businesses. Over the next couple of months, all of those things will be taken into consideration. The bottom line is we are going to come out of this winning.
Q: Looking three or four years down the line, where do you see the biggest growth opportunities for Northwell?
MD: Our biggest growth is in outpatient care. A lot of surgeries are moving outpatient, so we have to get ahead of that. Some think we are only a hospital system, but only about 46 percent of our business is from our hospital sector today. Home care is going to grow phenomenally, especially given the new technology that’s available. Digital health will also dramatically expand.
We’re also looking at expanding into new geographic areas and markets. It’s about positioning your offerings in places close to where people live, so you reduce the inconvenience of people having to travel long distances for care when it should be available to them closer to home. When you do that, you increase market share. We’re constantly increasing our market share by being very aggressive about going to where the customer is and providing the highest quality care that we can. Part of that is also being able to recruit top-line, quality physicians. When you do that, you attract new business because you have competencies that you didn’t have before. It’s a combination of all of these things, but there’s certainly no limit to the opportunities in front of us. We’re not in a world of challenges; we’re in a world of opportunity. The question is are we aggressive enough and do we have enough tolerance for some risk? We need to be as aggressive as we possibly can to take advantage of some of those opportunities.
Q: What is the biggest challenge on the horizon for Northwell?
MD: The biggest challenge is the huge growth in government payer business — Medicare and Medicaid. The problem with Medicaid — especially in a union environment — is it doesn’t cover your costs. The government is a big part of a potential future issue there. By increasing Medicaid, the more of your business becomes Medicaid and the worse you end up doing, unless you can increase your commercial payer business to continue to cross-subsidize. We also have a lot of union negotiations over the next couple of months, which will put a strain on our 2023 budget, but we will resolve it.
Q: How do you see hospitals and health systems evolving as CMS, commercial payers and patients continue to push more services to outpatient settings, where they can arguably be performed at a higher quality and lower cost?
MD: I think it’s going to continue to grow. For example, Northwell has 23 hospitals — 21 of which it owns — yet it has 890 outpatient facilities. We’ve been ahead of this curve a long time. Our primary expansion is in ambulatory care, not in-hospital care. Like I said, only 46 percent of Northwell’s total business is its hospital business. If you’re relying on the hospital to be the core provider of the future, you’re going to lose. You’ve got to take a little bit of a hit by going out and expanding your ambulatory presence. But the more you expand ambulatory and grow in the right locations, the more you increase market share, which brings more of the necessary inpatient care back to your hospitals. Our hospitals are growing and getting busier in addition to our outpatient centers because we are growing market share. If we enter a new community and see 100 people, five of them will need to be hospitalized. That’s a new market. Ambulatory cannot be disassociated from its connection to the inpatient market.
Q: Many financial experts are projecting a recession this year. How might that affect hospitals and health systems, and how can they best prepare?
MD: Even if we do have a recession, it doesn’t mean that people don’t get sick. In fact, people’s problems increase. Our business does not slow down if we have a recession; our business will probably increase. On the revenue side, it won’t necessarily affect our government reimbursement, which we don’t do well on anyway. The things you worry about during a recession is if employers give up the coverage of their staff. Then those employees with no insurance may go on a state Medicaid program, and that might affect hospitals.
In the healthcare sector, even in a recession, the need for hospital services actually increases. No recession could be as bad as what we experienced during COVID, yet we managed it. We had a problem that we didn’t even understand, and we worked through it. I think healthcare deserves an extraordinary credit for what was done during COVID. If there is a recession, we will deal with it. It’s just one of those things that happens, and we will respond to it in as comprehensive a way as we can. I can’t control it, but I can control our response. Leadership to me is about having a positive disposition; basically saying that whatever happens to you, you’re going to win.
This week, a health system CFO referenced the thoughts we shared last week about many hospitals rethinking physician employment models, and looking to pull back on employing more doctors, given current financial challenges. He said, “We’ve employed more and more doctors in the hope that we’re building a group that will allow us to pivot to total cost management.
But we can’t get risk, so we’ve justified the ‘losses’ on physician practices by thinking we’re making it up with the downstream volume the medical group delivers.
But the reality now is that we’re losing money on most of that downstream business. If we just keep adding doctors that refer us services that don’t make a margin, it’s not helping us.”
While his comment has myriad implications for the physician organization, it also highlights a broader challenge we’ve heard from many health system executives: a smaller and smaller portion of the business is responsible for the overall system margin.
While the services that comprise the still-profitable book vary by organization (NICU, cardiac procedures, some cancer management, complex orthopedics, and neurosurgery are often noted), executives have been surprised how quickly some highly profitable service lines have shifted. One executive shared, “Orthopedics used to be our most profitable service line. But with rising labor costs and most of the commercial surgeries shifting outpatient, we’re losing money on at least half of it.”
These conversations highlight the flaws in the current cross-subsidy based business model. Rising costs, new competitors, and a challenging contracting environment have accelerated the need to find new and sustainable models to deliver care, plan for growth and footprint—and find a way to get paid that aligns with that future vision.
Radio Advisory’s Rachel Woods sat down with Advisory Board‘s Aaron Mauck and Natalie Trebes to talk about where leaders need to focus their attention on longer-term industry challenges—like growing competition, behavioral health infrastructure, and finding success in value-based care.
Rachel Woods: So I’ve been thinking about the last conversation that we had about what executives need to know to be prepared to be successful in 2023, and I feel like my big takeaway is that the present feels aggressively urgent. The business climate today is extraordinarily tough, there are all these disruptive forces that are changing the competitive landscape, right? That’s where we focused most of our last conversation.
But we also agreed that those were still kind of near-term problems. My question is why, if things feel like they are in such a crisis, do we need to also focus our attention on longer term challenges?
Aaron Mauck: It’s pretty clear that the business environment really isn’t sustainable as it currently stands, and there’s a tendency, of course, for all businesses to focus on the urgent and important items at the expense of the non-urgent and important items. And we have a lot of non-urgent important things that are coming on the horizon that we have to address.
Obviously, you think about the aging population. We have the baby boom reaching an age where they’re going to have multiple care needs that have to be addressed that constitute pretty significant challenges. That aging population is a central concern for all of us.
Costly specialty therapeutics that are coming down the pipeline that are going to yield great results for certain patient segments, but are going to be very expensive. Unmanaged behavioral needs, disagreements around appropriate spending. So we have lots of challenges, myriad of challenges we’re going to have to address simultaneously.
Natalie Trebes: Yeah, that’s right. And I would add that all of those things are at threshold moments where they are pivoting into becoming our real big problems that are very soon going to be the near term problems. And the environment that we talked about last time, it’s competitive chaos that’s happening right now, is actually the perfect time to be making some changes because all the challenges we’re going to talk about require really significant restructuring of how we do business. That’s hard to do when things are stable.
Woods: Yes. But I still think you’re going to get some people who disagree. And let me tell you why. I think there’s two reasons why people are going to disagree. The first reason is, again, they are dealing with not just one massive fire in front of them, but what feels like countless massive fires in front of them that’s just demanding all of their strategic attention. That was the first thing you said every executive needs to know going into this year, and maybe not know, but accept, if I’m thinking about the stages of grief.
But the second reason why I think people are going to push back is the laundry list of things that Aaron just spoke of are areas where, I’m not saying the healthcare industry shouldn’t be focused on them, but we haven’t actually made meaningful progress so far.
Is 2023 actually the year where we should start chipping away at some of those huge industry challenges? That’s where I think you’re going to get disagreement. What do you say to that?
Trebes: I think that’s fair. I think it’s partly that we have to start transforming today and organizations are going to diverge from here in terms of how they are affected. So far, we’ve been really kind of sharing the pain of a lot of these challenges, it’s bits and pieces here. We’re all having to eat a little slice of this.
I think different organizations right now, if they are careful about understanding their vulnerabilities and thinking about where they’re exposed, are going to be setting themselves up to pass along some of that to other organizations. And so this is the moment to really understand how do we collectively want to address these challenges rather than continue to try to touch as little of it as we possibly can and scrape by?
Woods: That’s interesting because it’s also probably not just preparing for where you have vulnerabilities that are going to be exposed sooner rather than later, but also where might you have a first mover advantage? That gets back to what you were talking about when it comes to the kind of competitive landscape, and there’s probably people who can use these as an opportunity for the future.
Mauck: Crises are always opportunities and even for those players across the healthcare system who have really felt like they’re boxers in the later rounds covering up under a lot of blows, there’s opportunities for them to come back and devise strategies for the long term that really yield growth.
We shouldn’t treat this as a time just of contraction. There are major opportunities even for some of the traditional incumbents if they’re approaching these challenges in the right fashion. When we think about that in terms of things like labor or care delivery models, there’s huge opportunities and when I talk with C-suites from across the sector, they recognize those opportunities. They’re thinking in the long term, they need to think in the long term if they’re going to sustain themselves. It is a time of existential crisis, but also a time for existential opportunity.
Trebes: Yeah, let’s be real, there is a big risk of being a first mover, but there is a really big opportunity in being on the forefront of designing the infrastructure and setting the table of where we want to go and designing this to work for you. Because changes have to happen, you really want to be involved in that kind of decision making.
Woods: And in the vein of acceptance, we should all accept that this isn’t going to be easy. The challenges that I think we want to focus on for the rest of this conversation are challenges that up to this point have seemed unsolvable. What are the specific areas that you think should really demand executive attention in 2023?
Trebes: Well, I think they break into a few different categories. We are having real debates about how do we decide what are appropriate outcomes in healthcare? And so the concept of measuring value and paying for value. We have to make some decisions about what trade-offs we want to make there, and how do we build in health equity into our business model and do we want to make that a reality for everyone?
Another category is all of the expensive care that we have to figure out how to deliver and finance over the coming years. So we’re talking about the already inadequate behavioral health infrastructure that’s seen a huge influx in demand.
We’re talking about what Aaron mentioned, the growing senior population, especially with boomers getting older and requiring a lot more care, and the pipeline of high-cost therapies. All of this is not what we are ready as the healthcare system as it exists today to manage appropriately in a financially sustainable way. And that’s going to be really hard for purchasers who are financing all of this.
Running a health system recently has proven to be a very hard job. Mounting losses in the face of higher operating expenses, softer than expected volumes, deferred capex, and strained C-suite succession planning are just a few of the immediate issues with which CEOs and boards must deal.
But frankly, none of those are the biggest strategic issue facing health systems. The biggest strategic issue is the reorganization of the American healthcare landscape into an ambulatory care business that emphasizes competing for covered lives at scale in lower cost and convenient settings of care. This shift in business model has significant ramifications, if you own and operate acute care hospitals.
Village MD and Optum are two of the organizations driving the business model shift. They are owned by large publicly traded companies (Walgreens and UnitedHealth Group, respectively). Both Optum and Village MD have had a string of announced major patient care acquisitions over the past few years, none of which is in the acute care space.
The future of American healthcare will likely be dominated by large well-organized and well-run multi-specialty physician groups with a very strong primary care component. These physician service companies will be payer agnostic and focused on value-based care, though will still be prepared to operate in markets where fee-for-service dominates. They will deliver highly coordinated care in lower cost settings than hospital outpatient departments. And these companies will be armed with tools and analytics that permit them to manage the care for populations of patients, in order to deliver both better health outcomes and lower costs.
At the same time this is happening, we are experiencing steady growth in Medicare Advantage. And along with it, a stream of primary care groups who operate purpose-built clinics to take full risk on Medicare Advantage populations. These companies include ChenMed, Cano Health and Oak Street, among others. These organizations use strong culture, training, and analytics to better manage care, significantly reduce utilization, and produce better health outcomes and lower costs.
Public and private equity capital are pouring into the non-acute care sectors, fueling this growth. As of the start of 2022, nearly three quarters of all physicians in the US were employed by either corporate entities (such as private equity, insurance companies, and pharmacy companies), or employed by health systems. And this employment trend has accelerated since the start of the pandemic. The corporate entities, rather than health systems, are driving this increasing trend. Corporate purchases of physician practices increased by 86% from 2019 to 2021.
What can health systems do? To succeed in the future, you must be the nexus of care for the covered lives in your community. But that does not mean the health system must own all the healthcare assets or employ all of the physicians. The health system can be the platform to convene these assets and services in the community. In some respects, it is similar to an Apple iPhone. They are the platform that convenes the apps. Some of those apps are developed and owned by Apple. But many more apps are developed by people outside of Apple, and the iPhone is simply the platform to provide access.
Creating this platform requires a change in mindset. And it requires capital. There are many opportunities for health systems to partner with outside capital providers, such as private equity, to position for the future – from both a capital and a mindset point of view.
The change in mindset, and the access to flexible capital, is necessary as the future becomes more and more about reorganizing into an ambulatory care business that emphasizes competing for covered lives at scale in lower cost and convenient settings of care.
Nonprofit hospitals are reporting thinner margins this year, stretched by rising labor, supply and capital costs, and will be pressed to make big changes to their business models or risk negative rating actions, Fitch Ratings said in a report out Tuesday.
Warning that it could take years for provider margins to recover to pre-pandemic levels, Fitch outlined a series of steps necessary to manage the inflationary pressures. Those moves include steeper rate increases in the short term and “relentless, ongoing cost-cutting and productivity improvements” over the medium term, the ratings agency said.
Further out on the horizon, “improvement in operating margins from reduced levels will require hospitals to make transformational changes to the business model,” Fitch cautioned.
It has been a rough year so far for U.S. hospitals, which are navigating labor shortages, rising operating costs and a rebound in healthcare utilization that has followed the suppressed demand of the early pandemic.
Fitch said the majority of the hospitals it follows have strong balance sheets that will provide a cushion for a period of time. But with cost inflation at levels not seen since the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the potential for additional coronavirus surges this fall and winter, more substantial changes to hospitals’ business models could be necessary to avoid negative rating actions, the agency said.
Providers will look to secure much higher rate increases from commercial payers. However, insurers are under similar pressures as hospitals and will push back, using leverage gained through the sector’s consolidation, the report said.
As a result, commercial insurers’ rate increases are likely to exceed those of recent years, but remain below the rate of inflation in the short term, Fitch said. Further, federal budget deficits make Medicare or Medicaid rate adjustments to offset inflation unlikely.
Inflation is pushing more providers to consider mergers and acquisitions to create economies of scale, Fitch said. But regulators are scrutinizing deals more strenuously due to concerns that consolidation will push prices even higher. With increased capital costs, rising interest rates and ongoing supply chain disruptions, hospitals’ plans for expansion or renovations will cost more or may be postponed, the report said.
As the economic situation has worsened over the past few months, we’ve been working with several health systems to recalibrate strategy. For many, the anticipated “post-COVID recovery” period has turned into a struggle to reverse declining (often negative) margins, while still scrambling to address mounting workforce shortages. All this amid continued pressure from disruptive competitors and ever-rising consumer expectations.
In the graphic above, we’ve pulled together some of the most important changes we believe health systems need to make. These range from improvements to the operating model (shifting to a team-based approach to staffing, greater use of automation where appropriate, and moving to asset-light capital strategies) to transformations of the clinical model (moving care into lower-cost outpatient and community settings, integrating virtual care into clinical delivery, and creating tighter alignment with key physicians).
In general, the goal is to deliver lower-cost care in less expensive settings, using less expensive staff.
But those cost-saving strategies will need to be coupled with a new go-to-market approach, including new payment models that reward systems for shifting away from high-cost (and highly reimbursed) care models.
Employers and consumers will expect more solution-based offerings, which integrate care across the continuum into coherent bundles of service. This will require a more deliberate focus on service line strategies, moving away from a fragmented, inpatient-centric model.
Contracting approaches must align payment with this shift, changing incentives to reward coordinated, cost-effective, outcomes-driven care.
A key insight from our discussions with health system leaders: short-term cost-cutting initiatives to “stop the bleed” won’t suffice—instead, more permanent solutions will be required that address not only the core operating model, but also the approach to revenue generation.
The post-COVID environment is turning out to be a lot tougher than many had expected, to say the least.
A consultant colleague recently recounted a call from a health system looking for support in physician alignment. He mused, “It’s never a good sign when I hear that the medical group reports to the system CFO [chief financial officer].” We agree. It’s not that CFOs are necessarily bad managers of physician networks, or aren’t collaborative with doctors—as you’d expect from any group of leaders, there are CFOs who excel at these capabilities, and ones that don’t.
The reporting relationship reveals less about the individual executive, and more about how the system views its medical group: less as a strategic partner, and more as “an asset to feed the [hospital] mothership.” Or worse, as a high-cost asset that is underperforming, with the CFO brought in as a “fixer”, taking over management of the physician group to “stop the bleed.”
Ideally the medical group would be led by a senior physician leader, often with the title of chief clinical officer or chief physician executive, who has oversight of all of the system’s physician network relationships, and can coordinate work across all these entities, sitting at the highest level of the executive team, reporting to the CEO. Of course, these kinds of physician leaders—with executive presence, management acumen, respected by physician and executive peers—can be difficult to find.
Having a respected physician leader at the helm is even more important in a time of crisis, whether they lead alone or are paired with the CFO or another executive. Systems should have a plan to build the leadership talent needed to guide doctors through the coming clinical, generational, and strategic shifts in practice.
Insurers, retailers, and other healthcare companies vastly exceed health system scale, dwarfing even the largest hospital systems. The graphic above illustrates how the largest “mega-systems” lag other healthcare industry giants, in terms of gross annual revenue.
Amazon and Walmart, retail behemoths that continue to elbow into the healthcare space, posted 2021 revenue that more than quintuples that of the largest health system, Kaiser Permanente. The largest health systems reported increased year-over-year revenue in 2021, largely driven by higher volumes, as elective procedures recovered from the previous year’s dip.
However, according to a recent Kaufman Hall report, while health systems, on average, grew topline revenue by 15 percent year-over-year, they face rising expenses, and have yet to return to pre-pandemic operating margins.
Meanwhile, the larger companies depicted above, including Walmart, Amazon, CVS Health, and UnitedHealth Group, are emerging from the pandemic in a position of financial strength, and continue to double down on vertical integration strategies, configuring an array of healthcare assets into platform businesses focused on delivering value directly to consumers.