Nearly 3.4 million people have signed up for 2023 Affordable Care Act insurance coverage since the start of open enrollment on Nov. 1, a record-setting pace that is a 17% boost over last year, new federal data shows.
The signup data released Tuesday by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services shows a major hike in new signups on HealthCare.gov.
“We are off to a strong start — and we will not rest until we can connect everyone possible to healthcare coverage this enrollment season,” Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement Tuesday.
The nearly 3.4 million in signups represents activity through Nov. 19 on HealthCare.gov, which is used by residents in 33 states to pick an ACA plan, and through Nov. 12 for the 16 states and District of Columbia that run their own marketplaces.
There are 655,000 people who are new to the exchanges that picked a plan already, making up 19% of the total plan signups so far. CMS added that 2.7 million people who already have 2022 coverage renewed or selected a new plan for 2023.
“These plan selection numbers represent a 17% increase in total plan selections over last year,” CMS said in a release.
There is especially major growth on HealthCare.gov, which has seen 493,216 new enrollees compared to 354,137 for the same time period last year.
“Providing quality, affordable health care options remains a top priority,” said CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure in a statement. “The numbers prove that our focus is in the right place.”
The new signups come as the Biden administration made new investments in expansions for marketing and outreach, including record-setting funding for the ACA navigator program. Administration officials are hoping for another robust period of signups thanks to enhanced subsidies to lower insurance costs.
“Four out of five people will be able to find a plan for $10 or less after tax credits,” CMS said.
The boosted tax credits were supposed to expire after this year but have been extended into 2025 by the Inflation Reduction Act.
The 2022 coverage year saw a record 14.5 million signups. The latest open enrollment for HealthCare.gov for 2023 coverage will run through Jan. 15.
Patients at North Carolina-based Atrium Health get what looks like an enticing pitch when they go to the nonprofit hospital system’s website: a payment plan from lender AccessOne. The plans offer “easy ways to make monthly payments” on medical bills, the website says. You don’t need good credit to get a loan. Everyone is approved. Nothing is reported to credit agencies.
In Minnesota, Allina Health encourages its patients to sign up for an account with MedCredit Financial Services to “consolidate your health expenses.” In Southern California, Chino Valley Medical Center, part of the Prime Healthcare chain, touts “promotional financing options with the CareCredit credit card to help you get the care you need, when you need it.”
As Americans are overwhelmed with medical bills, patient financing is now a multibillion-dollar business, with private equity and big banks lined up to cash in when patients and their families can’t pay for care. By one estimate from research firm IBISWorld, profit margins top 29% in the patient financing industry, seven times what is considered a solid hospital margin.
Hospitals and other providers, which historically put their patients in interest-free payment plans, have welcomed the financing, signing contracts with lenders and enrolling patients in financing plans with rosy promises about convenient bills and easy payments.
For patients, the payment plans often mean something more ominous: yet more debt.
Millions of people are paying interest on these plans, on top of what they owe for medical or dental care, an investigation by KHN and NPR shows. Even with lower rates than a traditional credit card, the interest can add hundreds, even thousands of dollars to medical bills and ratchet up financial strains when patients are most vulnerable.
Robin Milcowitz, a Florida woman who found herself enrolled in an AccessOne loan at a Tampa hospital in 2018 after having a hysterectomy for ovarian cancer, said she was appalled by the financing arrangements.
“Hospitals have found yet another way to monetize our illnesses and our need for medical help,” said Milcowitz, a graphic designer. She was charged 11.5% interest — almost three times what she paid for a separate bank loan. “It’s immoral,” she said.
MedCredit’s loans to Allina patients come with 8% interest. Patients enrolled in a CareCredit card from Synchrony, the nation’s leading medical lender, face a nearly 27% interest rate if they fail to pay off their loan during a zero-interest promotional period. The high rate hits about 1 in 5 borrowers, according to the company.
For many patients, financing arrangements can be confusing, resulting in missed payments or higher interest rates than they anticipated. The loans can also deepen inequalities. Lower-income patients without the means to make large monthly payments can face higher interest rates, while wealthier patients able to shoulder bigger monthly bills can secure lower rates.
More fundamentally, pushing people into loans that threaten their financial health runs against medical providers’ first obligation to not harm their patients, said patient advocate Mark Rukavina, program director at the nonprofit Community Catalyst.
“We’re dealing with sick people, scared people, vulnerable people,” Rukavina said. “Dangling a financial services product in front of them when they’re concerned about their care doesn’t seem appropriate.”
Debt upon debt for patients, as finance firms get a cut of payments
Nationwide, about 50 million people — or 1 in 5 adults — are on a financing plan to pay off a medical or dental bill, according to a KFF poll conducted for this project. About a quarter of those borrowers are paying interest, the poll found.
Increasingly, those interest payments are going to financing companies that promise hospitals they will collect more of their medical bills in exchange for a cut.
Hospital officials defend these arrangements, citing the need to offset the cost of offering financing options to patients. Alan Wolf, a spokesperson for the University of North Carolina’s hospital system, said that the system, which reported $5.8 billion in patient revenue last year, had a “responsibility to remain financially stable to assure we can provide care to all regardless of ability to pay.” UNC Health, as it is known, has contracted since 2019 with AccessOne, a private equity-backed company that finances loans for scores of hospital systems across the country.
This partnership has had a substantial impact on patient debt, according to a KHN analysis of billing and contracting records obtained through public records requests.
Most patients in 2019 were in no-interest payment plans
UNC Health, which as a public university system touts its commitment “to serve the people of North Carolina,” had long offered payment plans without interest. And when AccessOne took over the loans in September 2019, most patients were in no-interest plans.
That has steadily shifted as new patients enrolled in one of AccessOne’s plans, several of which have variable interest rates that now charge 13%.
In February 2020, records show, just 9% of UNC patients in an AccessOne plan were in a loan with the highest interest rate. Two years later, 46% were in such a plan. Overall, at any given time more than 100,000 UNC Health patients finance through AccessOne.
The interest can pile on debt. Someone with a $7,000 hospital bill, for example, who enrolls in a five-year financing plan at 13% interest will pay at least $2,500 more to settle that debt.
How a short-term solution ‘leads to longer-term problems’
Rukavina, the patient advocate, said adding this burden on patients makes little sense when medical debt is already creating so much hardship. “It may seem like a short-term solution, but it leads to longer-term problems,” he said. Health care debt has forced millions of Americans to cut back on food, give up their homes, and make other sacrifices, KHN found.
UNC Health disavowed responsibility for the additional debt, saying patients signed up for the higher-interest loans. “Any payment plans above zero-interest terms/conditions in place with AccessOne are in place at the request of the patient,” Wolf said in an email. UNC Health would only provide answers to written questions.
UNC Health’s patients aren’t the only ones getting routed into financing plans that require substantial interest payments.
At Atrium Health, a nonprofit system with roots as Charlotte’s public hospital that reported more than $7.5 billion in revenues last year, as many as half of patients enrolled in an AccessOne loan were in one of the company’s highest-interest plans, according to 2021 billing records analyzed by KHN.
At AU Health, Georgia’s main public university hospital system, billing records obtained by KHN show that two-thirds of patients on an AccessOne plan were paying the highest interest rate as of January.
A finance firm calls such loans ’empathetic patient financing’
AccessOne chief executive Mark Spinner, who in an interview called his firm a “compassionate, empathetic patient financing company,” said the range of interest rates gives patients and medical systems valuable options. “By offering AccessOne, you’re creating a much safer, more mission-aligned way for consumers to pay and help them stay out of medical debt,” he said. “It’s an alternative to lawsuits, legal action, and things like that.”
AccessOne, which doesn’t buy patient debt from hospitals, doesn’t run credit checks on patients to qualify them for loans. Nor will the company report patients who default to credit bureaus. The company also frequently markets the availability of zero-interest loans.
Some patients do qualify for no-interest plans, particularly if they have very low incomes. But the loans aren’t always as generous as company and hospital officials say.
AccessOne borrowers who miss payments can have their accounts returned to the hospital, which can sue them, report them to credit bureaus, or subject them to other collection actions. UNC Health refers unpaid bills to the state revenue department, which can garnish patients’ tax refunds. Atrium’s collections policy allows the hospital system to sue patients.
Because AccessOne borrowers can get low interest rates by making larger monthly payments, this financing system can also deepen inequalities. Someone who can pay $292 a month on a $7,000 hospital bill, for example, could qualify for a two-year, interest-free plan. But a patient who can pay only $159 a month would have to take a five-year plan with 13% interest, according to AccessOne.
“I see wealthier families benefiting,” said one former AccessOne employee, who asked not to be identified because she still works in the financing industry. “Lower-income families that have hardship are likely to end up with a higher overall balance due to the interest.”
Andy Talford, who oversees patient financial services at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, said the hospital contracted with AccessOne to make it easier for patients to manage their medical bills. “Someone out there is helping them keep track of it,” he said.
But patients can get tripped up by the complexities of managing these plans, consumer advocates say. That’s what happened to Milcowitz, the graphic designer in Florida.
Milcowitz, 51, had set up a no-interest payment plan with Moffitt to pay off $3,000 she owed for her hysterectomy in 2017. When the medical center switched her account to AccessOne, however, she began receiving late notices, even as she kept making payments.
Only later did she figure out that AccessOne had set up two accounts, one for the cancer surgery and another for medical appointments. Her payments had been applied only to the surgery account, leaving the other past-due. She then got hit with higher interest rates. “It’s crazy,” she said.
Lenders see a growing business opportunity
While financing plans may mean more headaches and more debt for patients, they’re proving profitable for lenders.
That’s drawn the interest of private equity firms, which have bought several patient financing companies in recent years. Since 2017, AccessOne’s majority owner has been private equity investor Frontier Capital.
Synchrony, which historically marketed its CareCredit cards in patient waiting rooms, is now also inking deals with medical systems to enroll patients in loans when they go online to pay bills.
“They’re like pilot fish eating off the back of the shark,” said Jonathan Bush, a founder of Athenahealth, a health technology company that has developed electronic medical records and billing systems.
As patient bills skyrocket, hospitals face mounting pressure to collect more, which can make financing arrangements seem appealing, industry experts say. But as health systems go into business with lenders, many are reluctant to share details. Only a handful of hospitals contacted by KHN agreed to be interviewed about their contracts and what they mean for patients.
Several public systems, including Atrium and UNC Health, disclosed information only after KHN submitted public records requests. Even then, the two systems redacted key details, including how much they pay AccessOne.
AU Health, which did not redact its contract, pays AccessOne a 6% “servicing fee” on each patient loan the company administers. But like Atrium and UNC Health, AU Health refused to provide any on-the-record interviews.
Other hospital systems were even less transparent. Mercyhealth, a nonprofit with hospitals and clinics in Illinois and Wisconsin that routes its patients to CareCredit, would not discuss its lending practices. “We do not have anyone available for this,” spokesperson Therese Michels said. Allina Health and Prime Healthcare also wouldn’t talk about their patient financing deals.
Bush said there’s a reason so few hospitals want to discuss their financing deals: They’re embarrassed. “It’s like they quietly write someone’s name on a piece of paper and slide it across the table,” he said. “They don’t want to be a part of it because they have in their institutional memory that they are supposed to look after patients’ best interests.”
Some hospitals and banks still offer interest-free help
Not all hospitals expose their patients to extra costs to finance medical bills.
Lake Region Healthcare, a small nonprofit with hospitals and clinics in rural Minnesota that contracts with Missouri-based Commerce Bank, charges no interest or fees on payment plans. That’s a decision that spokesperson Katie Johnson said was made “for the benefit of our patients.”
Even some AccessOne clients such as the University of Kansas Health System shield patients from interest. But as providers look to boost their bottom lines, it’s unclear how long these protections will last. Colette Lasack, who oversees financing for the Kansas system, noted: “There’s a cost associated with that.”
Meanwhile, large national lenders such as Discover Financial Services are looking at the patient financing business.
“I’ve had to become more of a health care marketer,” said Matt Lattman, vice president for personal loans at Discover, which is pitching the loans to people with unexpected medical bills. “In a world where many people are ill prepared to cover their health care costs, the personal loan can provide an opportunity.”
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) appears set to extend the federal COVID PHE past its current expiration date of January 11, 2023, as HHS had promised to give stakeholders at least 60 days’ notice before ending it, and that deadline came and went on November 11th. Days later the Senate voted to end the PHE, a bill which Biden has promised to veto should it reach his desk. Measures set to expire with the PHE, or on a several month delay after it ends, include Medicare telehealth flexibilities, continuous enrollment guarantees in Medicaid, and boosted payments to hospitals treating COVID patients.
The Gist: Despite growing calls to end the PHE declaration, and even as White House COVID coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha has said another severe COVID surge this winter is unlikely, the White House is likely trying to buy time to resolve the complicated issues tied to the PHE, some of which must be dealt with legislatively.
And with a divided Congress ahead, it remains to be seen how these issues, especially Medicare telehealth flexibilities—a topic of bipartisan agreement—are sorted out. Meanwhile the continuation of the PHE prevents states from beginning Medicaid re-determinations, allowing millions of Americans to avoid being disenrolled.
While the final balance of the House and Senate are still unknown after Tuesday’s midterm elections, both chambers are expected to be narrowly divided.
Ballot initiatives on reproductive health produced more unambiguous results, with three states—California, Michigan, and Vermont—amending their constitutions to affirm reproductive rights, and two states—Kentucky and Montana—voting down proposals that would have imposed greater legal barriers to abortion access. South Dakota became the seventh, and likely final, state to expand Medicaid via ballot initiative, making an additional 28K South Dakotans eligible for coverage, and reducing the number of states that have yet to expand Medicaid to 11.
The Gist: Democrats beat expectations, bucking historical trends in which midterm voters swing strongly against the President’s party. But healthcare did not feature prominently in voters’ choices, with this being the first election in over a decade where the state of the Affordable Care Act and protecting individuals’ access to care and coverage was not a significant choice driver.
The fallout from the Supreme Court’s decision in June to overturn Roe v. Wade had a clear impact on voter turnout, with abortion tying inflation for voters’ top concern in exit polls. At the state level, South Dakota voters approved Medicaid expansion, where over 40 percent of the state’s uninsured adults could now gain access to coverage—another clear sign that voters, regardless of party affiliation, are behind the ACA’s expanded vision for the safety net program.
Moving forward, a closely divided Congress is unlikely to take on significant healthcare legislation, regardless of who ultimately holds the House and Senate.
Tuesday marked the start of the tenth season of open enrollment in the ACA’s health insurance exchanges. Last year, a record 14.5M Americans obtained coverage through the exchanges, and this year’s total is expected to surpass that. That’s thanks to the extended subsidies included in the Inflation Reduction Act, a fix to the “family glitch” that prevented up to 1M low-income families from accessing premium assistance, and expanded offerings by most major insurers, who have been enticed by the exchanges’ recent stability. The average unsubsidized premium for benchmark silver plans in 2023 is expected to rise by about four percent, but the enhanced financial assistance will lower net premiums for most enrollees.
The Gist: ACA marketplace enrollment has grown nearly 80 percent since opening in 2014, and exchange plans now cover 4.5 percent of Americans. After enrollment lagged during the Trump administration,the combination of policy fixes and improved risk pools are attracting insurers back into the exchanges, where enrollees are finding more affordable plans than ever before.
We consider this a commendable first decade, but the success of the exchanges over the next ten years remains subject to political winds. Congress must revisit the extended subsidies by 2025, and a different administration might deprioritize marketplace advertising and navigation support, policies have which proven crucial to the exchanges’ recent growth.
Hospitals in the United States are on track for their worst financial year in decades. According to a recent report, median hospital operating margins were cumulatively negative through the first eight months of 2022. For context, in 2020, despite unprecedented losses during the initial months of COVID-19, hospitals still reported median eight-month operating margins of 2 percent—although these were in large part buoyed by federal aid from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
The recent, historically poor financial performance is the result of significant pressures on multiple fronts. Labor shortages and supply-chain disruptions have fueled a dramatic rise in expenses, which, due to the annually fixed nature of payment rates, hospitals have thus far been unable to pass through to payers. At the same time, diminished patient volumes—especially in more profitable service lines—have constrained revenues, and declining markets have generated substantial investment losses.
While it’s tempting to view these challenges as transient shocks, a rapid recovery seems unlikely for a number of reasons. Thus, hospitals will be forced to take aggressive cost-cutting measures to stabilize balance sheets. For some, this will include department or service line closures; for others, closing altogether. As these scenarios unfold, ultimately, the costs will be borne by patients, in one form or another.
Hospitals Face A Difficult Road To Financial Recovery
There are several factors that suggest hospital margins will face continued headwinds in the coming years. First, the primary driver of rising hospital expenses is a shortage of labor—in particular, nursing labor—which will likely worsen in the future. Since the start of the pandemic, hospitals have lost a total of 105,000 employees, and nursing vacancieshave more than doubled. In response, hospitals have relied on expensive contract nurses and extended overtime hours, resulting in surging wage costs. While this issue was exacerbated by the pandemic, the national nursing shortage is a decades-old problem that—with a substantial portion of the labor force approaching retirement and an insufficient supply of new nurses to replace them—is projected to reach 450,000 by 2025.
Second, while payment rates will eventually adjust to rising costs, this is likely to occur slowly and unevenly. Medicare rates, which are adjusted annually based on an inflation projection, are already set to undershoot hospital costs. Given that Medicare doesn’t issue retrospective corrections, this underadjustment will become baked into Medicare prices for the foreseeable future, widening the gap between costs and payments.
This leaves commercial payers to make up the difference. Commercial rates are typically negotiated in three- to five-year contract cycles, so hospitals on the early side of a new contract may be forced to wait until renegotiation for more substantial pricing adjustments. “Negotiation” is also the operative term here, as payers are under no obligation to offset rising costs. Instead, it is likely that the speed and degree of price adjustments will be dictated by provider market share, leaving smaller hospitals at a further disadvantage. This trend was exemplified during the 2008 financial crisis, in which only the most prestigious hospitals were able to significantly adjust pricing in response to historic investment losses.
Finally, economic uncertainty and the threat of recession will create continued disruptions in patient volumes, particularly with elective procedures. Although health care has historically been referred to as “recession-proof,” the growing prevalence of high-deductible health plans (HDHPs) and more aggressive cost-sharing mechanisms have left patients more exposed to health care costs and more likely to weigh these costs against other household expenditures when budgets get tight. While this consumerist response is not new—research on previous recessions has identified direct correlations between economic strength and surgical volumes—the degree of cost exposure for patients is historically high. Since 2008, enrollment in HDHPs has increased nearly four-fold, now representing 28 percent of all employer-sponsored enrollments. There’s evidence that this exposure is already impacting patient decisions. Recently, one in five adults reported delaying or forgoing treatment in response to general inflation.
Taken together, these factors suggest that the current financial pressures are unlikely to resolve in the short term. As losses mount and cash reserves dwindle, hospitals will ultimately need to cut costs to stem the bleeding—which presents both challenges and opportunities.
Direct And Indirect Consequences For Cost, Quality, And Access To Care
Inevitably, as rising costs become baked into commercial pricing, patients will face dramatic premium hikes. As discussed above, this process is likely to occur slowly over the next few years. In the meantime, the current challenges and the manner in which hospitals respond will have lasting implications on quality and access to care, particularly among the most vulnerable populations.
Likely Effects On Patient Experience And Quality Of Care
Insufficient staffing has already created substantial bottlenecks in outpatient and acute-care facilities, resulting in increased wait times, delayed procedures, and, in extreme cases, hospitals diverting patients altogether. During the Omicron surge, 52 of 62 hospitals in Los Angeles, California, were reportedly diverting patients due to insufficient beds and staffing.
The challenges with nursing labor will have direct consequences for clinical quality. Persistent nursing shortages will force hospitals to increase patient loads and expand overtime hours, measures that have been repeatedly linked to longer hospital stays, more clinical errors, and worse patient outcomes. Additionally, the wave of experienced nurses exiting the workforce will accelerate an already growing divide between average nursing experience and the complexity of care they are asked to provide. This trend, referred to as the “Experience-Complexity Gap,” will only worsen in the coming years as a significant portion of the nursing workforce reaches retirement age. In addition to the clinical quality implications, the exodus of experienced nurses—many of whom serve in crucial nurse educator and mentorship roles—also has feedback effects on the training and supply of new nurses.
Staffing impacts on quality of care are not limited to clinical staff. During the initial months of the pandemic, hospitals laid off or furloughed hundreds of thousands of nonclinical staff, a common target for short-term payroll reductions. While these staff do not directly impact patient care (or billed charges), they can have a significant impact on patient experience and satisfaction. Additionally, downsizing support staff can negatively impact physician productivity and time spent with patients, which can have downstream effects on cost and quality of care.
Disproportionate Impacts On Underserved Communities
Reduced access to care will be felt most acutely in rural regions. A recent report found that more than 30 percent of rural hospitals were at risk of closure within the next six years, placing the affected communities—statistically older, sicker, and poorer than average—at higher risk for adverse health outcomes. When rural hospitals close, local residents are forced to travel more than 20 miles further to access inpatient or emergency care. For patients with life-threatening conditions, this increased travel has been linked to a 5–10 percent increase in risk of mortality.
Rural closures also have downstream effects that further deteriorate patient use and access to care. Rural hospitals often employ the majority of local physicians, many of whom leave the community when these facilities close. Access to complex specialty care and diagnostic testing is also diminished, as many of these services are provided by vendors or provider groups within hospital facilities. Thus, when rural hospitals close, the surrounding communities lose access to the entire care continuum. As a result, individuals within these communities are more likely to forgo treatment, testing, or routine preventive services, further exacerbating existing health disparities.
In areas not affected by hospital closures, access will be more selectively impacted. After the 2008 financial crisis, the most common cost-shifting response from hospitals was to reduce unprofitable service offerings. Historically, these measures have disproportionately impacted minority and low-income patients, as they tend to include services with high Medicaid populations (for example, psychiatric and addiction care) and crucial services such as obstetrics and trauma care, which are already underprovided in these communities. Since 2020, dozens of hospitals, both urban and rural, have closed or suspended maternity care. Similar to closure of rural hospitals, these closures have downstream effects on local access to physicians or other health services.
Potential For Productive Cost Reduction And The Need For A Measured Policy Response
Despite the doom-and-gloom scenario presented above, the focus on hospital costs is not entirely negative. Cost-cutting measures will inevitably yield efficiencies in a notoriously inefficient industry. Additionally, not all facility closures negatively impact care. While rural facility closures can have dire consequences in health emergencies, studies have found that outcomes for non-urgent conditions remained similar or actually improved.
Historically, attempts to rein in health care spending have focused on the demand side (that is, use) or on negotiated prices. These measures ignore the impact of hospital costs, which have historically outpaced inflation and contributed directly to rising prices. Thus, the current situation presents a brief window of opportunity in which hospital incentives are aligned with the broader policy goals of lowering costs. Capitalizing on this opportunity will require a careful balancing act from policy makers.
In response to the current challenges, the American Hospital Association has already appealed to Congress to extend federal aid programs created in the CARES Act. While this would help to mitigate losses in the short term, it would also undermine any positive gains in cost efficiency. Instead of a broad-spectrum bailout, policy makers should consider a more targeted approach that supports crucial community and rural services without continuing to fund broader health system inefficiencies.
The establishment of Rural Emergency Hospitals beginning in 2023 represents one such approach to eliminating excess costs while preventing negative patient consequences. This rule provides financial incentives for struggling critical access and rural hospitals to convert to standalone emergency departments instead of outright closing. If effective, this policy would ensure that affected communities maintain crucial access to emergency care while reducing overall costs attributed to low-volume, financially unviable services.
Policies can also help promote efficiencies by improving coverage for digital and telehealth services—long touted as potential solutions to rural health care deserts—or easing regulations to encourage more effective use of mid-level providers.
The financial challenges facing hospitals are substantial and likely to persist in the coming years. As a result, health systems will be forced to take drastic measures to reduce costs and stabilize profit margins. The existing challenges and the manner in which hospitals respond will have long-term implications for cost, quality, and access to care, especially within historically underserved communities. As with any crisis, though, they also present an opportunity to address industrywide inefficiencies. By relying on targeted, evidence-based policies, policy makers can mitigate the negative consequences and allow for a more efficient and effective system to emerge.
Drawing on a report published by the North Carolina State Health Plan for Teachers and State Employees, a recent Kaiser Health News article shines a light on the lack of transparency in financial reporting of not-for-profit hospitals’ community benefit obligations.
The report claims many North Carolina hospitals—including the state’s largest system, Atrium Health—show profits on Medicare patients in their cost report filings, while at the same time claiming sizable unrecouped losses on Medicare patients as a part of their overall community benefit analyses.
The Gist: These kind of reporting discrepancies draw attention to the controversial issue of whether not-for-profit hospitals provide sufficient community benefit to compensate for their tax-exempt status, which was worth nearly $2 billion in 2020 for North Carolina hospitals alone.
Greater transparency around charity care, community benefit, and losses sustained from public payerscould go a long way toward shoring up stakeholder support for not-for-profit institutions at a time when their political goodwill has deteriorated. Hospitals should be proactive on this front, as political leaders increasingly train their sites on high hospital spending in the current tight economic environment.
Revenue cycle challenges “seem to have intensified over the past year,” according to Kaufman Hall’s “2022 State of Healthcare Performance Improvement” report, released Oct. 18.
The consulting firm said that in 2021, 25 percent of survey respondents said they had not seen any pandemic-related effects on their respective revenue cycles. This year, only 7 percent said they saw no effects.
The findings in Kaufman Hall’s report are based on survey responses from 86 hospital and health system leaders across the U.S.
Here are the top five ways leaders said the pandemic affected the revenue cycle in 2022:
1. Increased rate claim denials — 67 percent
2. Change in payer mix: Lower percentage of commercially insured patients — 51 percent
3. Increase in bad debt/uncompensated care — 41 percent
4. Change in payer mix: Higher percentage of Medicaid patients — 35 percent
5. Change in payer mix: Higher percentage of self-pay or uninsured patients — 31 percent
Earlier this month, the Biden administration officially extended the federal public health emergency (PHE) declaration it had set in place for COVID-19. That means the PHE provisions will stay in effect for another 90 days — until mid-January at least.
When the PHE does end, a number of rules developed in response to the pandemic will sunset. One of those is a provision that temporarily requires states to let all Medicaid beneficiaries remain enrolled in the program — even if they have become ineligible during the pandemic.
Estimates suggest that millions could lose Medicaid coverage when this emergency provision ends. Among those who would lose coverage because they are no longer eligible for the program, about one-third are expected to qualify for subsidized coverage on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) marketplaces. Most others are expected to get coverage through an employer. It remains an open question, though, how many people will successfully transition to these other plans.
A recent paper by health economics researcher Laura Dague and colleagues in the Journal of Health Politics, Policy, and Law sheds light on these dynamics. The authors used a prior change in eligibility in Wisconsin’s Medicaid program to estimate how many people successfully transitioned to a private plan when their Medicaid eligibility ended.
Wisconsin’s Medicaid program is unique. Back in 2008 — before the ACA passed — Wisconsin broadly expanded Medicaid eligibility for non-elderly adults. After the ACA came into effect, Wisconsin reworked its Medicaid program in a way that made about 44,000 adults (mostly parents) with incomes above the federal poverty line ineligible for the program. To remain insured, they would have to switch to private coverage (via Obamacare or an employer).
Only about one-third of those 44,000 people had definitely enrolled in private coverage within two months of exiting the Medicaid program.
The remaining two-thirds of people were uninsured or their insurance status couldn’t be determined.
Even using the most optimistic assumptions to fill in that missing insurance status data, the authors estimated only up to 42% of people might have had private coverage within three months.
Nearly 1 in 10 enrollees had re-entered Medicaid coverage within six months, possibly due to fluctuations in household income.
This paper has several limitations. Health insurers are not required to participate in Wisconsin’s APCD, so the authors may not be capturing all successful transitions from Medicaid to private insurance. The paper also does not distinguish between different types of private insurance: Some coverage gains may have resulted from employer-based insurance rather than the ACA marketplace.
Still, the findings suggest that when a large number of Wisconsin residents lost Medicaid eligibility in 2014, many were not able to transition from Medicaid to private coverage. Wisconsin’s experience can help us understand what might happen when the national public health emergency ends and Medicaid programs resume removing people from their rolls.
A lawsuit filed last week accuses RWJBarnabas Health of “a years-long systemic effort” to hamper competition and monopolize acute care hospital services in northern New Jersey.
The case brought by CarePoint Health to a U.S. District Court accuses the state’s largest integrated healthcare delivery system of “aiming to destroy the three hospitals operated by CarePoint as independent competitors” with the support of healthcare real estate investors and Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, the state’s largest health insurer.
CarePoint Health includes the 349-bed Christ Hospital, 224-bed Bayonne Medical and 348-bed Hoboken University Medical Center (HUMC).
The group said RWJBarnabas intended to force the first two hospitals to shut down but acquire the third due to its more profitable payer mix.
“RWJBarnabas Health’s] goal explicitly disregarded the needs of the poor, underinsured and charity care patients which CarePoint serves in its role as the safety net hospital system in Jersey City and surrounding areas,” CarePoint wrote in the lawsuit.
The slew of alleged tactics listed in the lawsuit largely surround RWJBarnabas Health’s “serial acquisitions” of hospitals, providers and real estate that “has gone unchecked by the state and [New Jersey Department of Health],” CarePoint wrote.
This included an alleged bad faith proposal to acquire Christ Hospital and HUMC, the true intent of which CarePoint said was to “gain market knowledge and gather competitive intelligence, and use this newly-acquired information to freeze programmatic growth and any significant hiring or construction at Christ Hospital.” The process had a negative impact on CarePoint’s employee retention and staffing, according to the suit.
The plaintiff also alleged that RWJBarnabas used its political connections to influence whether state departments granted CarePoint Certificates of Need for multiple revenue-generating projects as well as COVID-19 relief funding.
Further, CarePoint accused RWJBarnabas of strategically adjusting its service offerings in competitive markets to drive uninsured or underinsured patients to CarePoint facilities while using its relationships with Horizon and ambulance operators to drive emergency room traffic and well-insured patients, respectively, to competing locations.
These collective actions constitute violations of the Sherman Antitrust Act as well as the New Jersey Antitrust Act, CarePoint wrote.
“The idea that [RWJBarnabas Health] would use its influence to jeopardize the health of that community and the care providers of a competing hospital not only directly contradicts its own vision, but clearly demonstrates that [RWJBarnabas Health] is far more interested in anti-competitive and predatory business activities than serving the New Jersey community,” CarePoint wrote.
RWJBarnabas Health discounted the allegations in an email statement.
“This is yet another in a series of baseless complaints filed by CarePoint, an organization whose leadership apparently prefers to assign blame to others rather than accept responsibility for the unsatisfactory results of their own poor business decisions and actions over the years,” a spokesperson for the system told Fierce Healthcare. “RWJBarnabas Health has a longstanding commitment to serve the residents of Hudson County, and is proud of the significant investments we have made in technology, facilities and clinical teams as we advance our mission.”
RWJBarnabas Health treats over 3 million patients per year and employs 37,000 people. The academic healthcare system runs 12 acute care hospitals and four specialty hospitals alongside other locations and services. It disclosed more than $6.6 billion in total operating revenues across 2021.
The system’s merger and acquisition activity placed it in the federal spotlight this past year after the Federal Trade Commission moved to block its planned integration of New Brunswick-based Saint Peter’s Healthcare System. The deal was called off in June.