The hospital had already transferred out most of its patients and lost half its staff when the CEO called a meeting to take inventory of what was left. Employees crammed into Tina Steele’s office at Fairfax Community Hospital, where the air conditioning was no longer working and the computer software had just been shut off for nonpayment.
“I want to start with good news,” Steele said, and she told them a food bank would make deliveries to the hospital and Dollar General would donate office supplies.
“So how desperate are we?” one employee asked. “How much money do we have in the bank?”
“Somewhere around $12,000,” Steele said.
“And how long will that last us?”
“Under normal circumstances?” Steele asked. She looked down at a chart on her desk and ran calculations in her head. “Probably a few hours,” she said. “Maybe a day at most.”
The staff had been fending off closure hour by hour for the past several months, ever since debt for the 15-bed hospital surpassed $1 million and its outside ownership group entered into bankruptcy, beginning a crisis in Fairfax that is becoming familiar across much of rural America. More than 100 of the country’s remote hospitals have gone broke and then closed in the past decade, turning some of the most impoverished parts of the United States into what experts now call “health-hazard zones,” and Fairfax was on the verge of becoming the latest. The emergency room was down to its final four tanks of oxygen. The nursing staff was out of basic supplies such as snakebite antivenin and strep tests. Hospital employees had not received paychecks for the past 11 weeks and counting.
The only reason the hospital had been able to stay open at all was that about 30 employees continued showing up to work without pay, increasing their hours to fill empty shifts and essentially donating time to the hospital, understanding what was at stake. Some of them had been born or had given birth at Fairfax Community. Several others had been stabilized and treated in the emergency room after heart attacks or accidents. There was no other hospital within 30 miles of two-lane roads and prairie in sprawling Osage County, which meant Fairfax Community was the only lifeline in a part of the country that increasingly needed rescuing.
“If we aren’t open, where do these people go?” asked a physician assistant, thinking about the dozens of patients he treated each month in the ER, including some in critical condition after drug overdoses, falls from horses, oil field disasters or car crashes.
“They’ll go to the cemetery,” another employee said. “If we’re not here, these people don’t have time. They’ll die along with this hospital.”
“We have no supplies,” Steele said. “We have nothing. How much longer can we provide quality care?”
As emergencies rise across rural America, a hospital fights for its lifeAs emergencies rise across rural America, a hospital fights for its life
From reimbursement landscape challenges to dwindling patient volumes, many factors lead hospitals to file for bankruptcy.
Here are 12 hospitals that filed for bankruptcy since Jan. 1, beginning with the most recent:
1. De Queen (Ark.) Medical Center filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on April 3. The hospital, owned by an affiliate of Kansas City, Mo.-based EmpowerHMS, entered bankruptcy after facing financial challenges for months. Electricity was temporarily shut off in some parts of the hospital in February due to nonpayment, and the hospital subsequently stopped providing patient care.
2. Prague (Okla.) Community Hospital, owned by an affiliate of EmpowerHMS, entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy on March 21. A judge allowed a new company to take over management of Prague Community Hospital in early March after the hospital experienced payroll issues and lacked funds for supplies.
3. I-70 Community Hospital in Sweet Springs, Mo., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on March 21. The bankruptcy filing came after CMS ended its provider agreement with the hospital, which voluntarily suspended its license for 90 days on Feb. 15. I-70 Community Hospital is owned by an affiliate of EmpowerHMS.
4. Haskell County Community Hospital in Stigler, Okla., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on March 17. The hospital, owned by an affiliate of EmpowerHMS, entered bankruptcy with less than $50,000 in assets and at least $1 million in liabilities.
5. Drumright (Okla.) Regional Hospital, owned by an affiliate of EmpowerHMS, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on March 17. The hospital entered bankruptcy with less than $50,000 in assets and upward of $10 million in estimated liabilities.
6. Oswego (Kan.) Community Hospital entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy on March 17. The bankruptcy filing came after the hospital, owned by an affiliate of EmpowerHMS, abruptly closed Feb. 14.
7. Fairfax (Okla.) Community Hospital, owned by an affiliate of EmpowerHMS, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy March 17. The hospital entered bankruptcy with less than $50,000 in assets and at least $1 million in liabilities.
8. Horton (Kan.) Community Hospital entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy March 14, just two days after it closed. In its bankruptcy petition, the hospital said it has less than $50,000 in assets and liabilities of between $1 million and $10 million. Horton Community Hospital is owned by an affiliate of EmpowerHMS.
9. Hillsboro (Kan.) Community Hospital, owned by an affiliate of EmpowerHMS, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on March 13. According to documents filed in the bankruptcy case, the hospital has at least $10 million in assets and at least $10 million in liabilities. The hospital owes more than $334,000 in real estate taxes, making the Marion County (Kan.) Treasurer the unsecured creditor with the largest claim against the hospital.
10. Lauderdale Community Hospital in Ripley, Tenn., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on March 8. The hospital, owned by an affiliate of EmpowerHMS, has faced financial challenges for months, and a federal judge appointed a receiver to oversee the hospital’s finances in February.
11. Washington County Hospital in Plymouth, N.C., entered bankruptcy in February after creditors filed an involuntary Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition. The hospital, owned by an affiliate of EmpowerHMS, missed payroll Feb. 8 and suspended all medical services Feb. 14.
12. Penobscot Valley Hospital, a 25-bed critical access hospital in Lincoln, Maine, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy Jan. 29. “We have made tremendous strides over the last three years in bringing our operational costs in line with revenue,” Hospital CEO Crystal Landry said in a press release. “Legacy debt is the issue here, and Chapter 11 allows us to restructure that debt so we can keep our doors open and ensure that our community continues to have a hospital close to home.”
It’s staggering to think of the challenges that CAHs face. Now OIG is calling for a re-examination of a program that it says has overpaid CAHs billions of dollars to provide skilled nursing services using hospital swing beds.
They’re called “Critical Access Hospitals” for a reason. These tiny healthcare outposts provide “critical access” to people who live in remote areas.
That was the intent of the legislation that created CAHs in 1997 at a time when rural hospitals were shuttering at an alarming rate. Congress understood that rural America needed extra Medicare dollars to keep the doors open at hospitals that serve an older, sicker and poorer patient mix.
It’s staggering to think of the challenges that CAHs face:
Because of their location and size, CAHs have few economies of scale, little leverage with vendors or payers, or a sufficiently large patient mix or volume of commercial payers to help cover costs.
CAHs are often limited in their ability to provide some of the more lucrative services that are cash cows for larger hospitals in urban areas.
Recruiting clinicians to rural areas is a slog.
And because of all those challenges, it’s also more difficult to merge or collaborate with other healthcare providers from such an isolated perch. It’s surprising to learn that only 40% of CAHs operate in the red.
Unfortunately, some people in Washington, DC have short institutional memories.
In its latest shot across the bow, OIG this week called for a re-examination of the swing bed program that allows CAHs to provide long-term care. The OIG audit claimed that the federal government has overpaid CAHs $4.1 billion over the past six years for services that could have cost less in relatively nearby skilled nursing and long-term care facilities.
Tavenner Pushes Back
Rural healthcare advocates rallied around the reply to the OIG recommendations from former Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Administrator Marilyn Tavenner, who challenged the OIG findings and recommendations in her formal response, and suggested that auditors don’t understand healthcare delivery in rural areas.
In that same response to OIG, however, Tavenner said the Obama 2016 budget has called for reducing the Medicare reimbursement that CAHs receive from 101% to 100% of allowable costs, and reassessing and eliminating CAH status for hospitals that are within 10 miles each other.
Highlighting a key implication of the rise in high-deductible health plans, both on the ACA exchanges and in employer-sponsored insurance, the article describes a question now commonly faced by doctors and hospitals—how best to collect their patients’ portion of the fees they charge? As one Texas doctor tells Bloomberg, reflecting the experience of the Maldonados from the other side of the equation, “If [patients] have to decide if they’re going to pay their rent or the rest of our bill, they’re definitely paying their rent.” He reports that the number of people dodging his calls to discuss payment has increased “tremendously” since the passage of the ACA. Another Texas doctor reports that his small practice had to add an additional full-time staff member just to collect money owed by patients, adding further overhead to his practice’s costs and making it more likely that he, like many other doctors, will eventually seek shelter by being employed by a larger delivery organization. That trend, as has been repeatedly shown, further increases the cost of care, exacerbating the increase in insurance costs for families like the Maldonados. This Gordian knot of increasing costs, rising deductibles, and growing premiums has left us with a healthcare system that’s forcing difficult decisions at every turn, for patients and providers.
Physicians, hospitals and medical labs are grappling with the rise in high-deductible insurance.
Doctors, hospitals and medical labs used to be concerned about patients who didn’t have insurance not paying their bills. Now they’re scrambling to get paid by the ones who do have insurance.
For more than a decade, insurers and employers have been shifting the cost of care onto their workers and customers, tamping down premiums by raising patients’ out-of-pocket costs. Last year, almost half of privately insured Americans under age 65 had annual deductibles ranging from $1,300 to as high as $6,550, government data show.
Now, instead of getting paid by insurance companies on a predictable schedule, health-care providers have to engage in an awkward dance. One moment they’re removing a pre-cancerous skin mole. The next, they’re haranguing patients to pay what’s become a growing portion of the total medical bill.
“It’s harder to collect from the patient than it is from the insurance,” said Amy Derick, a doctor who heads a dermatology practice outside Chicago. “If the plans change to a higher deductible, it’s harder to get the patients to pay.”
Independent physicians cited reimbursement pressures as their biggest concern for staying in business, according to a report by Accenture Plc in 2015.
“If they have to decide if they’re going to pay their rent or the rest of our bill, they’re definitely paying their rent,” said Gerald “Ray” Callas, president of the Texas Society of Anesthesiologists, whose Beaumont, Texas, practice treats about 40,000 people annually. “We try to work with the patient, but on the other hand, we can’t do it for free because we still maintain a small business.”
In 2016, Callas introduced payment options that allow patients with expensive plans to pay a portion of the bill upfront or on a monthly basis over several years. Even so, Callas said the number of people avoiding his calls after surgery has increased “tremendously” each year since the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010.
Derick instituted a “time-out” option a few years back that gives patients the billing codes before a procedure, allowing them to call their insurance companies for estimates. Even with the program, collection rates are slower, especially at the beginning of the year when insurance plan deductibles reset.
Even large medical companies with national operations are facing the problem. Quest Diagnostics Inc., the lab-testing giant, said 20 percent of services billed to patients in the third quarter of this year went unpaid, costing the company about $80 million in lost revenue.
“We certainly have a high bad-debt rate for the uninsured,” Chief Financial Officer Mark Guinan said in a telephone interview. “But really the biggest driver is people with insurance. It’s their coinsurance and their high deductibles, and they don’t always pay their bills.”
Another testing company, Laboratory Corp. of America Holdings, reported its first year-over-year uptick in unpaid bills in the first quarter of 2016. At the time, Chief Executive Officer David King said high-deductible plans, higher copays and greater incidences of non-covered services led to more dollars being shifted to patients. LabCorp declined requests for comment.
Northwell Healthcare Inc., a network of more than 700 hospitals and outpatient facilities, lost $106.9 million to unpaid services in 2015. Others have reported the same: Acute-care and critical-access hospitals reported$55.9 billion in bad debt for 2015, according to data compiled by the American Hospital Directory Inc.
“High-deductible plans have had a very big impact,” said Richard Miller, Northwell’s chief business strategy officer.
When it comes to reimbursement, a common denominator across the health-care industry is the archaic process through which bills are processed — a web of medical records, billing systems, health insurers and contractors.
High deductibles only add to the red tape. Providers don’t have real-time, fully accurate information on patient deductibles, which fluctuate based on how much has already been paid. That forces providers to constantly reach out to insurance companies for estimates.
Tarek Fakhouri, a Texas surgeon specializing in skin cancer, had to hire an additional staff member just to reason through bills with patients and their insurers, a big expense for an office of six or seven employees. About 10 percent of Fakhouri’s patients need payment plans, delay their skin-cancer surgeries until they’ve met their deductibles, or have to choose an alternative treatment.
According to a study earlier this year by the Journal of American Medical Association, primary-care physicians at academic health-care systems lose about 15 percent of their revenue to billing activities like calling insurance companies for estimates.
“It’s an unnecessary added cost to the health-care system to have to hire staff just to sit there on hold with insurance companies to find out what a patient’s deductible status is,” said Fakhouri.
Callas, Derick, and Fakhouri said they all know physicians who have left private practice altogether, some for the sole purpose of ending their dual roles as bill collectors. According to a study by the American Medical Association, less than half of doctors were self-employed as of 2016 — the lowest total ever. Many left their own practices in favor of hospitals and large physician groups with more resources.
To cope with the challenge, labs and hospitals are investing millions in programs designed to help patients understand what they owe at the point of care. Northwell has been implementing call centers and facilities where patients can ask questions about their bills.
“There’s a burden on both sides,” said Callas. “But health-care providers get caught in the middle.”
Hospitals across the U.S. are being battered by financial headwinds, and rural hospitals are vulnerable because they don’t have capital or diversified services to fall back on when the going gets rough. Between 2013 and 2017, 64 rural hospitals closed due to financial distress and changing healthcare dynamics, more than twice the number in the previous five years, a new Government Accountability Office analysis shows.
Rural hospital closures disproportionately occurred in the South, among for-profit hospitals and among organizations with a Medicare-dependent hospital payment designation.
One potential lifeline was Medicaid expansion. According to GAO, just 17% of rural hospital closures occurred in states that had expanded Medicaid as of April 2018.
Declining inpatient admissions and reimbursement cuts have taken a toll on rural hospitals. Since 2010, 86 rural hospitals have closed, and 44% of those remaining are operating at a loss — up from 40% in 2017.
CMS Administrator Seema Verma released a rural health strategy in May aimed at improving access and quality of care in rural communities. Among its objectives are expanding telemedicine, empowering patients in rural areas to take responsibility for their health and leveraging partnerships to advance rural health goals.
Such initiatives can be helpful, but if a hospital can’t make ends meet on its Medicare and Medicaid businesses and has only a modicum of privately insured patients, “that’s just not a balance that works financially,” Diane Calmus, government affairs and policy manager at the National Rural Health Association, told Healthcare Dive recently.
In all, 49 rural hospitals closed in the South, or 77% of rural hospital closures from 2013 through 2017, according to GAO. Texas had the most closures with 14, followed by Tennessee with eight and Georgia and Mississippi, each with five. By contrast, there were eight rural hospital closures in the Midwest and four each in the West and Northeast.
GAO also looked at closures by Medicare rural hospital payment designation. Critical access hospitals made up 36% of rural hospital closures, 30% were hospitals receiving Medicare standard inpatient payment, 25% had Medicare-dependent hospital designation and 9% were sole community hospitals.
To aid rural hospitals and ensure access for patients, NRHA has urged CMS to adopt a common sense approach to the “exclusive use” standard and lobbied lawmakers to pass legislation eliminating the 96-hour condition of payment requirement, two policies that are particularly hard on rural providers.
Another bill, theSave Rural Hospitals Act, would reverse reimbursement cuts to rural hospitals, provide other regulatory relief and establish the community outpatient hospital, a new provider type offering 24/7 emergency services plus outpatient and primary care.
From reimbursement landscape challenges to dwindling inpatient volumes, many factors lead hospitals to file for bankruptcy.
Here are six hospitals that have filed for bankruptcy protection since Jan. 1:
1. Rockdale, Texas-based Little River Healthcare, its parent company and several of its affiliated entities entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy July 24. One of the hospitals included in the bankruptcy filing, Crockett, Texas-based Timberlands Hospital, closed in 2017.
2. Florence (Ariz.) Hospital at Anthementered Chapter 11 bankruptcy in late May after it failed to contest an involuntary bankruptcy petition from creditors within the required 21-day timeline.
CMS ended its provider agreement with Blackfoot-based Idaho Doctors’ Hospital July 20.
Under rules enacted last September, a healthcare facility must average at least two inpatients per day and an at least two-night average length of stay to be considered an inpatient hospital for Medicare reimbursement. In April, CMS determined Doctors’ Hospital is not primarily engaged in providing care to inpatients and does not meet the new federal requirements for Medicare participation. The agency subsequently sent Doctors’ Hospital a Medicare termination notice.
“To go from being OK just 18 months ago, when we had our last survey, to now being told that we don’t meet the CMS conditions of participation because of new interpretations of the regulations is just difficult to comprehend,” Dave Lowry, administrative manager at Idaho Doctors’ Hospital, told KIFI earlier this month. “Like any business that is regulated by government agencies, we fully expect there to be changes to rules and their interpretations, but this drastic level of change just goes to show how much uncertainty there is in healthcare right now.”
After receiving the termination notice from CMS, Doctors’ Hospital sent letters to all patients affected by the contract termination, a spokesperson told Becker’s Hospital Review.
“We have worked with other area hospitals who provide the same services, and our staff provides this information for any patients who call with questions on where to go for care,” the Doctors’ Hospital spokesperson said.