The third quarter brought little relief to hospitals in what is shaping up to be one of their worst financial years.
Kaufman Hall’s October National Hospital Flash Report— based on data from more than 900 hospitals — found slightly lower hospital expenses in September did not outweigh lower revenue across the board, with decreases in discharges, inpatient minutes and operating minutes.
The median year-to-date operating margin index for hospitals was -0.1 percent in September, marking a ninth straight month of negative operating margins and a dimmer outlook for their climb back into the black by year’s end.
Kaufman Hall noted that expense pressures and volume and revenue declines could force hospitals to make “difficult decisions” about service reductions and cuts.
“Health systems are starting to get a clear picture of what service lines have a positive effect on their margins and which ones are weighing them down,” said Matthew Bates, managing director and Physician Enterprise service line lead with Kaufman Hall. “Without a positive margin there is no mission. Health systems must think carefully and strategically about what areas of care they invest in for the future.”
COVID-19 hospitalizations increased slightly this week after nearly two months of decline, while omicron subvariants BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 — dubbed ‘escape variants’ for their immune evasiveness — continued to gain prevalence nationwide, according to the CDC’s COVID-19 data tracker weekly review published Oct. 28.
1. The seven-day hospitalization average for Oct. 19-25 was 3,249, a 1 percent increase from the previous week’s average. New hospital admissions had been falling since early August, CDC data shows.
2. As of Oct. 26, the nation’s seven-day case average was 37,683, a 25.1 percent decrease from the previous week’s average. This marks the 14th week of decline and the lowest daily case rate seen since late April, CDC data shows.
3. Based on projections for the week ending Oct. 29, the CDC estimates that BQ.1 accounts for 14 percent of cases, while BQ.1.1 accounts for 13.1 percent.
4. BA. 5 remains the nation’s dominant strain, accounting for 49.6 percent of infections. BF.7, another omicron subvariant experts are closely monitoring, makes up 7.5 percent of cases. Other omicron subvariants make up the rest.
5. As of Oct. 27, 2.3 percent of counties, districts or territories had high COVID-19 community levels, 21.9 percent had medium community levels and 75.8 percent had low community levels.
6. The current seven-day death average is 373, down 13.7 percent from the previous week’s average. Some historical deaths have been excluded from these counts, the CDC said.
7. As of Oct. 26, about 266 million people — 80.1 percent of the U.S. population — have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and more than 226.9 million people, or 68.4 percent of the population, have received both doses.
8. About 111.8 million people have received a booster dose, and more than 22.9 million people have received an updated omicron booster. However, 49.3 percent of people eligible for a booster dose have not yet gotten one, the CDC said.
9. About 34 percent of the U.S. is reporting moderate to high virus levels in wastewater. Of these surveillance sites, 10 percent are seeing some of the highest levels since Dec. 1, 2021.
10. About 50 percent of sites are reporting an increase in virus levels, and 44 percent of sites are seeing a decrease.
Adult inpatient volumes will recover to pre-pandemic numbers but grow only 2 percent over the next decade, a new report from Sg2 forecasts.
At the same time, adult inpatient days are expected to increase 8 percent and tertiary inpatient days are poised to increase 17 percent, fueled by an increase in chronic conditions.
“While case mix varies by hospital, it is likely this combination of increased inpatient volume, patient complexity and length of stay may require healthcare organizations to rethink service line prioritization, service distribution and investment in care at-home initiatives,” Maddie McDowell, MD, senior principal and medical director of quality and strategy for Sg2, said in a June 7 news release for the report.
Five other key takeaways from Sg2’s forecasts:
1. Outpatient volumes are projected to return to pre-pandemic levels in 2022 and then grow 16 percent through 2032, three percentage points above estimated population growth.
2. Surgical volumes are projected to grow 25 percent at ambulatory surgery centers and 18 percent at hospital outpatient departments and physician offices over the next decade.
3. The pandemic-driven decline in emergency department visits is expected to plateau with a decline in demand projected at -2 percent over the next 10 years.
4. Over the next five years, home care is expected to gain traction, with home evaluation and management visits seeing 19 percent growth, home hospice at 13 percent growth and home physical and occupational therapy at 10 percent growth.
5. Telehealth is expected to resume its climb and by 2032 account for 27 percent of all evaluation and management visits.
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.