When the cycle turns: Healthcare Subsectors Ranked by Vulnerability to Economic Downturn

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S&P: Hospitals vulnerable to recession as healthcare sector stays defensive

The healthcare sector remains defensive but has become increasingly vulnerable to an economic downturn because of deteriorating ratings, comparatively higher leverage and greater industry disruption, analysts at S&P Global Ratings said in a new report.

Healthcare companies’ issuer credit ratings are becoming more vulnerable to a cyclical downturn in comparison to prior recessions, according to the rating agency, which also said that proposals from the U.S. government are threatening the sector’s creditworthiness.

Credit quality has fallen considerably since the last recession in the healthcare sector — where products and services continue to show a largely inelastic demand — with 66% of healthcare companies carrying B ratings, according to the April 29 analysis.

Ratings estimates that about 20% of for-profit healthcare companies have investment-grade issuer credit ratings, in comparison to 54% in 2005. The rating agency believes this transition shows an increase in smaller and mainly private equity-owned healthcare issuers.

Hospitals among subsectors most vulnerable to economic slowdown

The subsectors most vulnerable to an economic downturn are hospitals, healthcare service providers and hospital staffing services, based on leverage metrics and relatively higher disruption in comparison to other subsectors, the rating agency added.

Ratings analysts said companies like Tenet Healthcare Corp., Prospect Medical Holdings Inc. and HCA Healthcare Inc. would be affected by a potential rise in uncompensated care — with patients opting for lower cost options — since insurance coverage tends to decline as unemployment rates increase during a recession. In addition, healthcare companies such as Acadia Healthcare Co. Inc. and WP CityMD Bidco LLC would be highly exposed to reimbursement rates based on Medicaid and Medicare plans.

The healthcare segment at highest risk in an economic downturn is temporary nurse staffing, which is highly sensitive to cyclicality, more so than part-time physician staffing and full-time employment.

Pharmacy benefit managers, often called the drug middlemen or PBMs, such as CVS Health Corp. and Aetna Health Holdings LLC, which are responsible for negotiating drug prices between drug companies and insurers are also at risk of exposure to a downturn.

The Trump administration wants to end the safe harbor protections, which permit PBMs to collect rebates, by Jan. 1, 2020, and move the U.S. to a fixed-fee discount model.

Ratings analysts believe healthcare companies with a portfolio of research and development, medical devices, pharmaceuticals and biologics manufacturing will be more insulated and can expect steady demand during a recession, which will help achieve astrong revenue base.

Companies like Pfizer Inc., Amgen Inc. and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. may be at the receiving end of a slight shift in the sector, which will see customers increasingly preferring lower-cost generic and biosimilar alternatives. In addition, increased usage of high-deductible insurance plans will bolster switches to lower-cost options.

Life sciences companies like Danaher Corp., Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. and PerkinElmer Inc. mostly see repeat sales of their products, and since there is an increase in the use of diagnostic tests, the life sciences subsector would be more resilient in an economic downturn.

Medical devices companies Baxter International Inc., Abbott Laboratories, Becton Dickinson and Co. and Hologic Inc. should expect consistent demand though there is some exposure to patient and hospital admission volumes.

However, Ratings analysts believe the medical devices subsector “does not have a large target on its back, in terms of cost control, versus the pharmaceutical industry.”

Given the mostly inelastic demand in the healthcare sector, McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health Inc., Owens & Minor Inc. and other such companies in the drugs and medical products’ distribution segment will be largely insulated from the economic downturn, Ratings analysts added.

 

 

 

 

THEY’RE CALLED ‘CRITICAL ACCESS HOSPITALS’ FOR A REASON

https://www.healthleadersmedia.com/strategy/theyre-called-critical-access-hospitals-reason

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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.

For the past couple of years, reports from the Office of the Inspector General at the Department of Health and Human Services have made it clear that they believe the CAH designation and funding scheme should be overhauled.

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.

 

 

38 hospitals sue HHS over site-neutral payment rule

https://www.healthcarefinancenews.com/news/38-hospitals-sue-hhs-over-site-neutral-payment-rule?mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiT0RrNVpXSmpZV1UzTTJVdyIsInQiOiJNNFh6MElhd0lmVE5Zc09kZTl5d3BPc1h3ZkRpZGNIbWhHSE9RNVp5NkN1MFwvXC9kK3h6WHh5KzRHTWdsQTlWZ203aitRRnhUYWZ5QTVScVZcL01HaTkyUm5LNDRvanVuY0NUdVN4Y0czMzRkMzdNZzMrdVp6WjlmV2N5WHYxMEkrNCJ9

Hospitals named in the suit include Vanderbilt Medical Center, Atrium Health, Rush University Medical Center, Ochsner Clinic Foundation, Montefiore.

A month and a half after several hospital advocacy groups joined together to sue the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services over it’s finalized site-neutral payment policy, 38 hospitals have followed, filing suit against HHS Secretary Alex Azar for a policy they say will deprive hospitals of hundreds of millions of dollars and could compel them to cut patient services due to loss of reimbursement.

The complaint argues that medical services provided in hospital outpatient departments are more “resource-intensive”–and therefore more costly–than those performed in an independent physician’s office. It also sharply criticized Secretary Azar, saying he “has blatantly disregarded a specific and unambiguous statutory directive, acted well beyond his authority and nullified that statutory exemption” that would have had hospital outpatient centers reimbursed for services at the higher grandfathered rate previously legislated.

The hospitals suing include Vanderbilt Medical Center, Atrium Health hospitals, Rush University Medical Center, Ochsner Clinic Foundation, Montefiore Health System and many others.

THE IMPACT

The outpatient prospective payment system seeks to equalize what physician offices and hospital outpatient departments are paid for certain clinical visits, a change that will be phased in over two years. The new rule cuts payments for hospital outpatient clinic visits at off-campus provider- based facilities in order to level them out against what is paid to physician offices. Half of the total reduction, $380 million, will take effect in 2019 and the remaining cuts will be phased the next year.

THE TREND

The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 amended the Social Security Act such that Medicare pays the same rates for medical services regardless of whether they are provided in a physician’s office or in an “off campus” hospital department. At the time, Congress provided an exemption from the rule for all off-campus hospital outpatient departments that were providing services before the enactment.

The AHA, in the suit they are part of, said the Azar’s reversal on the grandfathered exemption exceeds the administration’s legal authority. The AHA previously called the OPPS final rule  “unsupportable analyses and erroneous policy rationales,” and said it will have “negative consequences” for patients, with those in rural and vulnerable communities getting hit especially hard. The AHA and other hospital associations are already challenging the 340B policy included in the current outpatient rule.

ON THE RECORD

“The Secretary’s unlawful rate cut directly contravenes clear congressional directives and will impose significant harm on affected off-campus hospital outpatient departments and the patients they serve. Accordingly, this Court should declare the Secretary’s Final Rule to be ultra vires and enjoin the agency from implementing any payment methodology other than OPPS rates for all E/M services provided by excepted off-campus PBDs,” the complaint states.

Mark Polston, a partner with King & Spalding, the firm representing the plaintiffs: “Our clients’ mission is to provide high-quality healthcare. They have relied for years upon their off-campus departments to expand access to care and bring hospital services directly to their communities, many of which are underserved by other providers. Congress preserved their ability to do that work when it excepted them from the changes contained in Section 603 of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015. But the Secretary overstepped his bounds when he took that away. We are asking the court to reinstate the decision Congress made to preserve our clients’ ability to bring the best possible care to their patients.” Mark Polston, a partner with King & Spalding, the firm representing the plaintiffs:

 

 

 

AHA: Medicare underpaid hospitals by $53.9B in 2017

https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/finance/aha-medicare-underpaid-hospitals-by-53-9b-in-2017.html

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Medicare underpaid hospitals by $53.9 billion in 2017, and Medicaid underpaid hospitals by $22.9 billion, according to the latest data from the American Hospital Association’s Annual Survey of Hospitals.

Underpayment occurs when the reimbursement hospitals receive is less than the amount paid for personnel, technology, and other goods and services required to provide care.

In 2017, hospitals received payment of 87 cents for every dollar they spent caring for Medicare and Medicaid patients, according to the AHA.

Access the AHA underpayment by Medicare and Medicaid fact sheet here.

 

Hospital Operating Income Falls for Two-Thirds of Health Systems

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Hospital operating income and health systems

Hospital expenses are rising faster than revenue growth for health systems, resulting in declining operating income.

Health system operating income is deteriorating as hospital expenses continue to grow, according to a recent Navigant analysis.

In the three-year analysis of the financial disclosures for 104 prominent health systems that operate almost one-half of US hospitals, the healthcare consulting firm found that two-thirds of the organization saw operating income fall from FY 2015 to FY 2017. Twenty-two of these health systems had three-year operating income reductions of over $100 million each.

Furthermore, 27 percent of the health systems analyzes lost revenue on operations in at least one of the three years analyzed and 11 percent reported negative margins all three years.

In total, health systems facing operating earnings reductions lost $6.8 billion during the period, representing a 44 percent reduction.

Rapidly growing hospital expenses as the primary driver of declining operating margins, Navigant reported. Hospital expenses increased three percentage points faster hospital revenue from 2015 to 2017. Top-line operating revenue growth decreased from seven percent in 2015 to 5.5 percent by 2017.

Hospital revenue growth slowed during the period because demand went down for key hospital services, like surgery and inpatient admissions, Navigant explained.

Many of the revenue-generating services hospitals rely on are under the microscope. Policymakers and healthcare leaders are particularly looking to decrease the number of hospital admissions and safely shift inpatient surgeries to less expensive outpatient settings.

In exchange, Medicare and other leading payers are reimbursing hospitals for decreasing admissions or readmissions and their performance on other value-based metrics.

The shift to value-based reimbursement, however, is slow and steady, with just over one-third of healthcare payments currently linked to an alternative payment model. Hospitals and health systems are still learning to navigate the new payment landscape while keeping their revenue growing.

Value-based contracts also failed to deliver sufficient patient volume to counteract the discounts given to payers, Navigant added.

According to the firm, other factors contributing to a slowdown in hospital revenue growth included a decline in collection rates for private accounts and reductions in Medicare reimbursement updates because of the Affordable Care Act and the 2012 federal budget sequester.

“Because of reductions in Medicare updates from ACA and the sequester, hospital losses in treating Medicare patients rose from $20.1 billion in 2010 to $48.8 billion in 2016, according to American Hospital Association analyses,” the report stated. “The sharp $7.2 billion deterioration in Medicare margins that occurred from 2015 to 2016 surely contributed to the reduction in hospital operating margins in the same year of this analysis.”

While hospital revenue growth slowed, hospital expenses sharply rose as healthcare organizations invested in new technologies. Value-based reimbursement, federal requirements, and other components of the Affordable Care Act prompted hospitals to make strategic investments in EHRs, physicians, and population health management, causing expenses to increase, Navigant stated.

Key strategic investments made by hospitals and health systems included:

  • Compliance with the 2009 Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act, which requires certified EHR implementation in hospitals and affiliated physician practices
  • Compliance with Medicare payment reform initiatives, such as accountable care organizations (ACOs) or pay-for-performance programs
  • Participation in new value-based contracts with payers
  • Establishment of employed physician groups or clinically integrated networks to develop the capabilities needed for compliance with performance- or value-based initiatives

“In addition to these strategic investments, other factors drove up routine patient care expenses, including a nursing shortage that increased nursing wages and agency expenses; specialty drug costs, particularly for chemotherapeutic agents; and, for some systems, recalibration of retirement fund costs,” the report stated.

The shift to value-based reimbursement and all of its accompanying policies will be the “new normal,” and hospitals should expect the low rate of revenue growth to persist, Navigant stated.

But hospitals and health systems can withstand the economic downturn by achieving strategic discipline and operational excellence, the firm advised.

“Systems must be disciplined to invest their growth capital in areas of actual reachable demand; that is, matched to the growth potential in the specific local markets the system serves,” the report stated. For example, creating a Kaiser-like closed panel capitated health offering in markets where there is no employer or health plan interest in buying such a product is a waste of scarce capital and management bandwidth.”

In line with strategic discipline, organizations will need to “prune” their owned assets portfolio by improving the utilization of their clinical capacity and growing patient throughput. Health systems can achieve this by focusing on scheduling and staffing, ensuring adherence to clinical pathways, streamlining discharges and care transitions, and adjusting physical capacity to actual demand.

The tools used to succeed in value-based contracts should also be applied to Medicare lines of business to reduce Medicare operating losses.

Additionally, vertical alignment will be key to weathering falling operating earnings, Navigant explained.

“Revenue growth is more likely to occur around the edges of the hospital’s core services — inpatient care, surgery, and imaging — rather than from those services themselves,” the report stated. “Creatively repackaging services like care management that is presently imbedded in every aspect of clinical operations, and finding retail demand for services presently bundled as part of the hospital’s traditional service offerings, represent such edge opportunities.”

Reducing patient leakage in multi-specialty groups and systems through improved referral patterns, scheduling, or care coordination will help to grow revenue and keep it within the system.

“To achieve better performance, health system management and boards must take a fresh look at their strategy considering local market realities. They need to look closely at the markets they serve, and size and target their offerings to actual market demand,” the report concluded. “They must re-examine and rationalize their portfolio of assets and demand marked improvements in efficiency and effectiveness, and measurable value creation for those who pay for care, particularly their patients. Since much of this should have been done five years ago, time is of the essence.”

What the 2018 Midterm Elections Means for Health Care

https://www.healthaffairs.org/do/%2010.1377/hblog20181107.185087/full/?utm_source=Newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_content=What+the+Midterms+Mean+For+Health+Care%3B+%22Stairway+To+Hell%22+Of+Health+Care+Costs%3B+Patient+Safety+In+Inpatient+Psychiatry&utm_campaign=HAT%3A+11-07-18

Whatever you want to call the 2018 midterm elections – blue wave, rainbow wave, or purple puddle – one thing is clear: Democrats will control the House.

That fundamental shift in the balance of power in Washington will have substantial implications for health care policymaking over the next two years. Based on a variety of signals they have been sending heading into Tuesday, we can make some safe assumptions about where congressional Democrats will focus in the 116th Congress. As importantly, there were a slew of health care-related decisions made at the state level, perhaps most notably four referenda on Medicaid expansion.

In this post, I’ll take a look at which health care issues will come to the fore of the Federal agenda due to the outcome Tuesday, as well as state expansion decisions. And it should of course be noted that, in addition to positive changes Democrats are likely to pursue over the next two years, House control will allow them to block legislation they oppose, notably further GOP efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Drug Pricing

Democrats have long signaled they consider pharmaceutical pricing to be one of their highest priorities, even after then-candidate Trump adopted the issue as part of his campaign platform and maintained his focus there through his tenure as President.

While aiming to use the issue to drive a wedge between President Trump and congressional Republicans, who have historically opposed government action to set or influence prices, Democrats will also strive to distinguish themselves by going further on issues like direct government negotiation of Medicare Part D drug reimbursement.

Relevant House committee chairs, perhaps especially likely Oversight and Investigations chair Elijah Cummings (D-MD), will also take a more aggressive tack in investigating manufacturers and other sector stakeholders for pricing increases and other practices. Democratic leaders believe it will be easier to achieve consensus on this issue than on more contentious issues like single payer (more detail below) among their diverse caucus, which will include dozens more members from “purple” districts as well as members on the left flank of the party

Preexisting Condition Protections

If you live in a contested state or district, you have probably seen political ads relating to protecting patients with preexisting conditions. As long as a Republican-supported lawsuit seeking to repeal the ACA continues, Democrats believe they can leverage this issue to demonstrate the importance of the ACA and their broader health care platform.

A three-legged stool serves under current law to protect patients with chronic conditions: (1) the ban on preexisting condition exclusions; (2) guaranteed issue; and (3) community rating. Democrats will likely seek to bolster these protections with measures to shore up the ACA exchange markets. In the same vein, they will likely strive to rescind Trump Administration proposals to expand association-based and short-term health plans, which put patients with higher medical costs at risk by disaggregating the market.

Opioids

Congressional Democrats believe that there were some stones left unturned in this year’s opioid-related legislation, especially regarding funding for many of the programs it authorized. This is a priority for likely Ways & Means Committee Chair Richie Neal (D-MA) and could potentially be a source of bipartisan compromise.

Medicare for All

While this issue could become a bugaboo for old guard party leaders, the Democratic base will likely escalate its calls for action on Medicare for All now that the party has taken the House. Because the details of what various camps intend by this term are still vague (some believe it is tantamount to single payer, others view it as a gap-fill for existing uninsured, etc.), we will likely see a variety of competing proposals arise in the coming two years. Expect less bona fide committee action and more of a public debate aired via the presidential primary season that will kick off about, oh, right now.

Surprise Bills

The drug industry is not the only health care sector that can expect heightened scrutiny of their pricing practices now that Democrats control the people’s chamber. Most notably, the phenomenon of surprise bills (unexpected charges often stemming from a hospital visit) has risen as a salient issue for the public and thus a political winner for the party. Republicans have shown interest in this issue as well, so it could be another source of bipartisanship next year.

Regulatory Oversight

Democrats believe they are scoring well with the public, and certainly their base, every time they take on President Trump. The wide range of aggressive regulation (and deregulation) the Administration has pursued will be thoroughly investigated and challenged by Democratic committee leaders, especially administration efforts to dismantle the ACA and to test the legal bounds of the hospital site neutrality policy enacted in the Bipartisan Budget Act (BBA) of 2015.

Extenders

While it instituted permanent policies for Medicare physician payments and some other oft-renewed ‘extenders’, the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA) of 2015 left a variety of policies in the perennial legislative limbo of needing to be repeatedly extended. While the policies in the Medicare space have dwindled to subterranean, though not necessarily cheap, affairs like the floor on geographic adjustments to physician payments, a slew of Medicaid-related and other policies are up for renewal in 2019.

For example, Medicaid Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) payments face a (previously delayed) cliff next year. That and the most expensive extender, ACA-initiated funding for community health centers, alone spring the cost of this package into the high single digit billions at least, driving a need for offsetting payment cuts and creating a vehicle for additional policy priorities.

A likely addition to this discussion will be the fact that Medicare physician payments, per MACRA, are scheduled to flatline for 2020-2025 before beginning to increase again, albeit in divergent ways for doctors participating in the Merit-Based Incentive Payment Program (MIPs – 0.25 percent/year) and Advanced Alternative Payment Models (APMs – 0.75 percent/year). The AMA assuredly noticed this little wrinkle in the celebrated legislation but hundreds of thousands of doctors probably did not.

Medicaid Expansion

Of the variety of state-level health policy decisions voters made on Tuesday, perhaps the most significant related to Medicaid expansion. In there states where Republican leaders have blocked expansion under the ACA – Nebraska, Idaho, and Utah – voters endorsed it via public referenda. Increasing the Medicaid eligibility level in those three states to the ACA standard will bring coverage to approximately 300,000 people.

Notably, voters in Montana rejected a proposal to continue funding the Medicaid expansion the state enacted temporarily in 2015 by an increase to the state’s tobacco tax. Their expansion is now scheduled to lapse in July 2019 if the legislature doesn’t act to maintain it. If they do not act, about 129,000 Montanans will lose Medicaid coverage.

Finally, Democratic gubernatorial wins in Maine, Kansas, and Wisconsin will make Medicaid expansion more likely in those states.

As they say, elections have consequences. While the Republican-controlled Senate and White House can block any Democratic priorities they oppose, the 2018 midterm elections assure a busy two years for health care stakeholders.

 

 

11 headwinds facing hospitals and health systems

https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/hospital-management-administration/11-headwinds-facing-hospitals-and-health-systems.html

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It’s not all bleak and this is part of a larger talk on healthcare as a zero sum game. But here are 11 headwinds facing systems.

1. Pharmaceutical costs particularly non-generic.

2. Payers expanding into providers and combining with providers.

3. Payer market share.

4. Health IT and cybersecurity costs.

5. Labor costs and a labor intensive business.

6. High costs of bricks and mortar.

7. Medicare as a larger percentage of health system revenue and Medicare reimbursement softening now and over time as federal deficits rise.

8. Slowing overall healthcare inflation as hospital costs rise.

9. Siphoning off of better paying commercial patients.

10. Siphoning off of profitable ancillaries.

11. Entry of big technology firms into healthcare.