More than two years after the pandemic’s onset, some types of hospital volume still haven’t returned to pre-pandemic levels. The graphic above uses recent data from analytics firm Strata Decision Technology to track monthly hospital volume across various care settings.
While outpatient volume continues to exceed pre-COVID levels, inpatient, emergency department (ED), and observation volume is still below the 2019 baseline.The unpredictability of volume trends is likely to continue, as COVID continues to ebb and flow regionally, and care continues to shift outpatient.
By contrast, the volume of virtual care visits has remained consistent, even as consumers return to in-person outpatient visits, driving up the overall level above the pre-pandemic baseline. Some of this increase in outpatient visit volume has been driven by consumers turning to urgent care clinics or doctors’ offices—either in-person or virtually—for their lower-acuity care needs.
While temporary reimbursement and licensing policies for telehealth have been the main stumbling blocks for many organizations’ longer-term planning for virtual visits, about half of states have now implemented permanent payment parity for telemedicine. As such, provider organizations that are still taking a “wait and see approach” must develop an economically sustainable virtual care model to reduce costs and meet evolving consumer demands.
Medicare Advantage (MA) focused companies, like Oak Street Health (14x revenues), Cano Health (11x revenues), and Iora Health (announced sale to One Medical at 7x revenues), reflect valuation multiples that appear irrational to many market observers. Multiples may be exuberant, but they are not necessarily irrational.
One reason for high valuations across the healthcare sector is the large pools of capital from institutional public investors, retail investors and private equity that are seeking returns higher than the low single digit bond yields currently available. Private equity alone has hundreds of billions in investable funds seeking opportunities in healthcare. As a result of this abundance of capital chasing deals, there is a premium attached to the scarcity of available companies with proven business models and strong growth prospects.
Valuations of companies that rely on Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement have traditionally been discounted for the risk associated with a change in government reimbursement policy. This “bop the mole” risk reflects the market’s assessment that when a particular healthcare sector becomes “too profitable,” the risk increases that CMS will adjust policy and reimbursement rates in that sector to drive down profitability.
However, there appears to be consensus among both political parties that MA is the right policy to help manage the rise in overall Medicare costs and, thus, incentives for MA growth can be expected to continue. This factor combined with strong demographic growth in the overall senior population means investors apply premiums to companies in the MA space compared to traditional providers.
Large pools of available capital, scarcity value, lower perceived sector risk and overall growth in the senior population are all factors that drive higher valuations for the MA disrupters.However, these factors pale in comparison the underlying economic driver for these companies. Taking full risk for MA enrollees and dramatically reducing hospital utilization, while improving health status, is core to their business model. These companies target and often achieve reduced hospital utilization by 30% or more for their assigned MA enrollees.
In 2019, the average Medicare days per 1,000 in the U.S. was 1,190. With about $14,700 per Medicare discharge and a 4.5 ALOS, the average cost per Medicare day is approximately $3,200. At the U.S. average 1,190 Medicare hospital days per thousand, if MA hospital utilization is decreased by 25%, the net hospital revenue per 1,000 MA
enrollees is reduced by about $960,000. If one of the MA disrupters has, for example, 50,000 MA lives in a market, the decrease in hospital revenues for that MA population would be about $48 million. This does not include the associated physician fees and other costs in the care continuum. That same $48 million + in the coffers of the risk-taking MA disrupters allows them deliver comprehensive array of supportive services including addressing social determinants of health. These services then further reduce utilization and improves overall health status, creating a virtuous circle. This is very profitable.
MA is only the beginning. When successful MA businesses expand beyond MA, and they will, disruption across the healthcare economy will be profound and painful for the incumbents. The market is rationally exuberant about that prospect.
As we shared recently, post-pandemic healthcare volume is not returning evenly. While outpatient volume is rebounding quickly, other settings remain sluggish, especially the emergency department. We partnered with healthcare data analytics company Stratasan to take a closer look at ED volume decline. As shown in the graphic above, nationally, ED visits were down 27 percent in 2020, compared to 2019. ED-only volume (cases that started and ended in the ED) took a large hit across last year, down nearly a third from 2019. We expect that a portion of this ED-only volume will never fully recover to pre-COVID levels, with patient demand permanently shifting to lower-acuity care settings, including virtual, and some patients avoiding care altogether for minor ailments as they learn to “live with” problems like back pain.
ED-to-observation volume saw the greatest decline in 2020, likely as a result both of patients avoiding the ED, and presenting in the ED sicker, meeting the criteria for inpatient admission. However,ED-to-inpatient volume, which fell only seven percent in 2020, has been returning. In the second half of 2020, the ED-to-inpatient admission rate was 20 to 30 percent higher than the pre-COVID baseline. Across all three categories of ED volume, pediatrics saw steeper declines compared to adult cases. While some further ED volume rebound is anticipated, health systems should expect that fewer, but sicker, patients will be the new normal for hospital emergency departments.
Fewer low-acuity patients utilizing high-cost emergency care is good news from a public health perspective, but health systems must bolster other access channels like urgent care and telemedicine to ensure patients have convenient access for emergent care needs.
Though consumers say they’re increasingly confident in returning to healthcare settings, hospital volume is not returning with the same momentum across the board. Using the most recent data from analytics firm Strata Decision Technology, covering the first quarter of this year, the graphic above shows that observation, inpatient, and emergency department volumes all remain below pre-COVID levels.
Consumers are still most wary about returning to the emergency department, with volume down nearly 20 percent across the past year. Meanwhile, hospital outpatient visits rebounded quickly, and have been growing steadily month over month, finishing March 2021 at 36 percent above the 2019 level.
Meanwhile, a recent report from the Commonwealth Fund shows that no ambulatory specialty fully made up for the COVID volume hit by the end of last year. But some areas, including rheumatology, urology, and adult primary care, have bounced back faster than others.
With continued success in rolling out vaccines and reducing COVID cases, we’d expect a continued recovery of most hospital visit volume. It may be, however, that some areas, such as the emergency department, will never fully recover to pre-COVID levels. To the extent those visits are now being replaced by more appropriate telemedicine and urgent care utilization, that’s welcome news.
But the continued lag of inpatient admissions indicates that some of the loss of emergency volume is more worrisome—warranting continued efforts on the part of providers to reassure patients it’s safe to use healthcare services. Stay tuned as our team continues to dig into this data.
After a rollercoaster year of living with COVID-19, consumer confidence has returned—and remained largely stable during the winter surge of the pandemic, according to the latest data from a Healthgrades’ consumer attitudes and behavior survey.
The graphic above depicts Healthgrades’ “Consumer Comfort Index”, a measure based on survey questions that assess comfort in specific healthcare settings (e.g., visiting your primary care doctor) and “everyday activities” (e.g., going grocery shopping or dining inside a restaurant). The index reveals that consumers continue to feel more comfortable with in-person medical-related activities than most everyday activities, with 65 percent now feeling comfortable in healthcare settings—up from 40 percent last April. There are, however, some obvious “everyday” outliers: for example, people still feel more comfortable going to the grocery store than getting an in-office medical procedure.
A second survey, by Jarrard Phillips Cate & Hancock and Public Opinion Strategies, findsconsumers are much more willing to seek in-person medical care in the next six months as compared to last summer. Health systems and physicians should leverage this return of consumer confidence to reach out to patients who have delayed or missed screenings and other important care across the past year.
Providence Health posted a $306 million operating loss for 2020 as the system’s patient service revenue declined by nearly $1 billion due to COVID-19.
Providence struggled with a major decline in patient volumes, which were down 9% compared to 2019 and led to a 5% decline in net patient service revenue.
While volumes have recovered since an initial decline at the onset of the pandemic, “operational recovery continues to be variable and market-specific as the pandemic continues across our footprint,” the 51-hospital system said in its earnings report released late Monday.
Providence generated $25.6 billion in operating revenue in 2020, slightly above the $25 billion that it generated the year before. However, Providence’s expenses shot up to $25.9 billion, a major spike from the $24.8 billion it paid for in 2019. This led to an operating deficit of $306 million.
A major reason was the system’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which Providence got a jump start on as it was the first U.S. hospital system to treat a patient with the virus.
“The impact included a significant reduction in revenue, coupled with an increase in costs incurred for [personal protective equipment] and pharmaceuticals, and increases in labor costs for staffing to serve those impacted by the virus,” Providence’s report said.
Net patient service revenue was $19 billion for 2020, down by nearly $1 billion from the $19.9 billion it posted in 2019.
Providence’s non-operating income totaled $1 billion in 2020 compared to $1.1 billion the previous year. The non-operating income, which is made up of investment gains, helped to “recoup operating losses resulting from the pandemic and offset reimbursement shortfalls from Medicaid and Medicare coverage, allowing us to serve vulnerable populations while balancing our financial standing,” the report said.
Providence’s operating earnings before interest, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) was $1.1 billion, or 4.4% of its operating revenues. This was a decline from the $1.6 billion (6.2%) in EBITDA for 2019.
The system also got $957 million in relief funding under the CARES Act, which partly offset the losses from lower volumes, the report said.
Providence is an outlier among other larger for and not-for-profit systems that ended 2020 in the black. For instance, Mayo Clinic posted a net operating income of $728 million, helped by $587 million in donations and a massive increase in business from its lab division to help provide COVID-19 tests.
University of Pittsburgh Medical Center also posted a $1 billion profit for 2020 thanks to a boost of enrollment in its insurance business.
Even as surgery and office visit volume rebounds, hospitals across the country continue to report that emergency department volume remains persistently depressed, down 10 to 20 percent compared to before the pandemic. The shift is even more drastic in pediatrics, with some pediatric hospitals and programs reporting that emergency care volume is seeing double the rate of decline.
Pediatric volume has been hit with a “double whammy”: with many schools and day cares still closed, contagious illnesses have plummeted. Fewer kids in youth sports means fewer injuries. And unlike adult hospitals, pediatric facilities haven’t filled their beds with COVID patients.“Of all our services, pediatric hospitalists have taken the greatest hit,” one children’s hospital physician leader shared. “Their service is usually full this time of the year with flu and RSV [respiratory syncytial virus]. But with kids not interacting with each other, general pediatric admissions have cratered.” Empty EDs have led some pediatric hospitals to shutter adjacent urgent care clinics: “It doesn’t make sense to operate an empty ED and an empty after-hours clinic”.
For patients, however, this can bring unexpected financial consequences, as they’ll now get an ED bill for services they would formerly have received in urgent care. But while pediatric hospitals have taken a greater volume hit, they’re also likely to see a faster rebound. Once kids are back to school and sports, the usual illnesses and injuries will likely return, and we’d guess parents won’t hesitate to seek care.
As COVID-19 cases surged last fall, non-COVID-19 hospital admissions fell substantially, particularly in the Midwest and West, according to a new analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation of 2020 inpatient admission data from electronic medical records through Dec. 5.
The analysis also highlights admission trends by age and sex, and found that patients 65 and over — those most at risk of complications from the novel coronavirus — delayed care at greater rates than those under 65 again in the fall. Still, the discrepancy between visits based on age was more pronounced in the spring.
On average, males and females had almost identical admission patterns throughout the entire year. Though looking at the raw numbers, women’s total admissions trended above their male counterparts, which researchers attributed to childbirth.
The latest analysis from the think tank provides a fuller picture of how the COVID-19 pandemic influenced admission trends throughout 2020.
Overall, total admissions bottomed out in April and March but have remained near normal, or above 90% of expected admissions since June, according to electronic medical record data from the Epic Health Research Network, which pools information from 20 million patients across 97 hospitals in the U.S.
However, while total admissions — which includes those sick with COVID-19 — remained near normal, the pattern differed when zeroing in on non-COVID-19 admissions, or those admitted who did not have the virus.
Non-COVID-19 admissions started to fall againin November and by Dec. 5 they fell to 80% of expected volume, which is likely to put financial pressure on hospitals, particularly those with smaller reserves of cash on hand, Kaiser noted.
The decline was steepest in the Midwest and West, dropping to about 76% of expected volume between early November and December.
Researchers fear the drop in non-COVD-19 admissions may have long-term consequences.
“The levels of non-COVID-19 admissions seen in the fall of 2020 suggest that people may be delaying care in ways that could be harmful to their long-term health,” according to the study.
Insurers observed similar patterns of depressed volume in the fourth quarter.
Humana, which largely covers seniors in Medicare plans, noted non-COVID-19 volume dropped the last two months of the quarter after previously returning to near normal. It led Humana to report a loss in the fourth quarter as COVID-19 testing and treatment accelerated. Centene, which reported a Q4 loss, echoed a similar pattern.
About 36% of nonelderly adults and 29% of children in the U.S. have delayed or foregone care because of concerns of being exposed to COVID-19 or providers limiting services due to the pandemic, according to new reports from the Urban Institute and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Of those who put off care, more than three-quarters had one or more chronic health conditions and one in three said the result of not getting treatment was worsening health or limiting their ability to work and perform regular daily activities, the research based on polling in September showed.
However, the types of care being delayed are fairly routine. Among those surveyed, 25% put off dental care, while 21% put off checkups and 16% put off screenings or medical tests.
The early days of the pandemic saw widespread halts in non-emergency care, with big hits to provider finances.
In recent months, health systems have emphasized the services can be provided in hospitals and doctors offices safely as long as certain protocols are followed, and at least some research has backed them up. Groups like the American Hospital Association have launched ad campaigns urging people to return for preventive and routine care as well as emergencies.
But patients are apparently still wary, according to the findings based on surveys of about 4,000 adults conducted in September.
The research shows another facet of the systemic inequities harshly spotlighted by the pandemic. People of color are more likely to put off care than other groups. While 34% of Whites said they put off care, that percentage rose to 40% among Blacks and 36% among Latinos.
Income also played a role, as 37% of those with household incomes at or below 250% of the poverty level put off care, compared to 25% of those with incomes above that threshold.
Putting off care has had an impact industrywide, as the normally robust healthcare sector lost 30,000 jobs in January. Molina Healthcare warned last week that utilization will remain depressed for the foreseeable future.
Younger Americans were also impacted, with nearly 30% of parents saying they delayed at least one type of care for their children, while 16% delayed multiple types of care. As with adults, dental care was the most common procedure that was put off, followed by checkups or other preventative healthcare screenings.
The researchers recommended improving communications among providers and patients.
“Patients must be reassured that providers’ safety precautions follow public health guidelines, and that these precautions effectively prevent transmission in offices, clinics, and hospitals,” they wrote. “More data showing healthcare settings are not common sources of transmission and better communication with the public to promote the importance of seeking needed and routine care are also needed.”
Molina’s net income fell sharply in the fourth quarter as the insurer was forced to refund rates to some of its state partners as COVID-19 continues to depress normal care utilization, CEO Joe Zubretsky told investors Thursday.
Although utilization remained curtailed, COVID-19 costs were higher in the fourth quarter than any other quarter in 2020, Zubretsky said. As such, Molina’s medical care ratio for the quarter increased to 90.8% from 86% the prior-year period.
Still, Molina remained in the black for the full year of 2020. Looking ahead, the company expects utilization to improve, though does not expect it to rebound entirely. At the same time, the company expects direct COVID-19 costs to come in lower than last year.
Insurers have largely remained unbruised from the pandemic, unlike some providers, but the fourth quarter was a different story.
The pandemic took a bite out of Molina’s net income in the fourth quarter as the company reported that figure fell to $34 million from $168 million in Q4 2019.
The biggest contributor to the impact on the bottom line was Medicaid refunds to states, including California, Michigan and Ohio. States have clawed back some of the money they pay insurers like Molina as members continue to defer care, which is a benefit to insurers as they then pay out less.
Molina painted a clearer picture of this scenario during Thursday’s conference call with investors.
For the full year, Molina estimated that medical cost suppression amounted to $620 million while direct COVID-19 costs amounted to $200 million. In other words, curbed utilization continued to outweigh direct COVID-19 costs, resulting in a $420 million benefit from the pandemic, which the company characterized as a surplus.
But states took back a total of $565 million through rate refunds. Overall, the net impact of COVID-19 was a $180 million hit to Molina for 2020 when factoring in other costs.
Looking ahead, executives seemed cautiously optimistic for 2021 but noted headwinds from the pandemic will persist. While the forecast reflects future growth, Zubretsky said, “it is a constrained picture” of the company’s potential earnings.
Some of those headwinds include Medicare risk scores that don’t fully capture the acuity of their Medicare members. As seniors put off care in 2020, companies like Molina were unable to capture diagnosis codes to help them determine how sick members are and the ultimate risk they pose.
Still, there are some bright spots. As the public health emergency is likely to be continued throughout the remainder of the year, it means that redeterminations will remain halted, or, in other words, Medicaid members will not be kicked off coverage.
This was a boon for Molina in 2020, as it allowed them to pick up a significant number of new members. Overall, it was a major catalyst for Medicaid membership growth in 2020, Zubretsky said.
Molina expects care utilization to improve this year but not fully return to normal. Instead, it expects utilization suppression to be about one third of 2020 levels.
Molina, which solely focuses its portfolio on government sponsored and marketplace plans, said it expects to pick up as many as 30,000 additional members during the Affordable Care Act special enrollment period.
Opening up a special enrollment period was one of the first moves made by the new administration in the White House. Zubretsky seems enthused by the recent moves through executive orders and the unfolding bill developments in Congress that are looking to raise premium subsidies on the exchanges.
Those early actions “just couldn’t be better for government sponsored managed care, and we’re pleased to see that progress already being made,” Zubretsky said.