12 health systems with strong finances


Here are 12 health systems with strong operational metrics and solid financial positions, according to recent reports from Moody’s Investors Service, Fitch Ratings and S&P Global Ratings.

Note: This is not an exhaustive list. Health system names were compiled from recent credit rating reports and are listed in alphabetical order.

1. St. Louis-based Ascension has an “Aa2” senior debt rating and stable outlook with Moody’s. The health system has a large diversified portfolio of sizable hospitals and strong liquidity. Moody’s expects Ascension’s margins to improve in fiscal year 2019.

2. Wausau, Wis.-based Aspirus has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with S&P. The health system has solid debt and liquidity metrics, according to S&P.

3. Morristown, N.J.-based Atlantic Health System has an “Aa3” rating and stable outlook with Moody’s. The system has a strong market position, favorable balance sheet ratios and strong operating performance, according to Moody’s.

4. Charlotte, N.C.-based Atrium Health has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with S&P. The health system has a strong operating profile, favorable payer mix, healthy financial performance and sustained volume growth, according to S&P.

5. Durham, N.C.-based Duke University Health System has an “Aa2” rating and stable outlook with Moody’s. The health system is a leading provider of tertiary and quaternary services and has solid margins and cash levels, according to Moody’s.

6. Inova Health System has an “Aa2” rating and stable outlook with Moody’s. The Falls Church, Va.-based health system has consistently strong cash-flow margins, a leading market position and a good investment position, according to Moody’s.

7. Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins Health System has an “Aa2” rating and stable outlook with Moody’s. The health system has favorable liquidity metrics, strong fundraising capabilities, a healthy market position and regional brand recognition, according to Moody’s.

8. St. Louis-based Mercy Health has an “Aa3” rating and stable outlook with Moody’s. The health system has favorable cash-flow metrics, a solid strategic growth plan, a broad service area and improving operating margins, according to Moody’s.

9. Traverse City, Mich.-based Munson Healthcare has an “AA-” rating and positive outlook with Fitch. The health system has a leading market share in a favorable demographic area and a healthy net leverage position, according to Fitch.

10. Vancouver, Wash.-based PeaceHealth has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The health system has a leading market position, robust reserves and strong cash flow, according to Fitch.

11. St. Louis-based SSM Health Care has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. SSM has a strong financial profile, and Fitch expects the system to continue growing unrestricted liquidity and to maintain improved operational performance.

12. Appleton, Wis.-based ThedaCare has an “AA-” rating and stable outlook with Fitch. The health system has a leading market share in a stable service area and strong operating performance, according to Fitch.



Partners HealthCare’s annual operating income soars 489%


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Boston-based Partners HealthCare saw its operating income rise in fiscal year 2018 despite a decline in revenues, according to financial documents released Dec. 7.

Partners saw operating revenues dip 0.5 percent year over year to $13.31 billion in fiscal year 2018, which ended Sept. 30. The health system’s significant growth in provider revenues was partially offset by a decline in insurance revenue. Partners said the decrease in insurance revenue was attributable to the transition of members from Medicaid managed care programs into the new MassHealth ACO program in March.

After accounting for a 2.4 percent decrease in expenses, Partners ended fiscal 2018 with operating income of $309.9 million. That’s up 489 percent from a year earlier, when the health system posted operating income of $52.57 million.

Partners reported a 2.3 percent operating margin for fiscal 2018, up from a 0.4 percent operating margin in the year prior.

“While a 2-3 percent margin is slim compared to our peers across the nation, it enables us to reinvest in patient care and provide for the future capital needs of our hospitals and facilities,” said Peter K. Markell, treasurer and CFO of Partners.

After factoring in nonoperating income, Partners ended fiscal 2018 with net income of $826.6 million, up from $659.1 million in fiscal 2017.



Outlook is negative for nonprofit hospital sector, Moody’s says


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Moody’s Investors Service has issued a negative outlook on the nonprofit healthcare and hospital sector for 2019. The outlook reflects Moody’s expectation that operating cash flow in the sector will be flat or decline and bad debt will rise next year.

Moody’s said operating cash flow will either remain flat or decline by up to 1 percent in 2019. Performance will largely depend on how well hospitals manage expense growth, according to the credit rating agency.

Moody’s expects cost-cutting measures and lower increases in drug prices to cause expense growth to slow next year. However, the credit rating agency said expenses will still outpace revenues due to several factors, including the ongoing need for temporary nurses and continued recruitment of employed physicians.

Hospital bad debt is expected to grow 8 to 9 percent next year as health plans place greater financial burden on patients. An aging population will increase hospital reliance on Medicare, which will also constrain revenue growth, Moody’s said.


Kaufman Hall: Hospitals saw profitability bump in October, boosted by rise in volume


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Hospitals saw a profitable October, spurred by a boost in volume and length of stays, according to a new report. 

Kaufman Hall’s latest flash report, based on financial data from 600 hospitals in October, showed improved performance in both operating margin and EBITDA compared to September and to October 2017.

Year-over-year EBITDA margin improvements were reported across the country, aside from the Northeast and mid-Atlantic, with the greatest gains reported in the Midwest. Midsized hospitals with between 200 and 300 beds made the greatest profitability gains, while large hospitals with 500 or more beds struggled to manage costs as effectively, according to the report.

“For Halloween, October delivered a treat rather than a trick for hospitals,” Jim Blake, managing director and publisher at Kaufman Hall, wrote in the report.

A major source of the improvement, according to the report, was a 15.8% month-over-month increase in operating room minutes. Kaufman Hall’s team found a 5.2% increase in discharges and a 3.6% increase in emergency department visits. 

Though October’s results were positive, the analysts say it’s hard to determine whether one month of gains portends a longer-term rebound. But in the short term, Kaufman Hall does predict a strong December compared to the year before, though it could trail October and November’s figures.

As increased volume also means increased labor and supply costs, the report additionally spotlights the role the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Service’s expansion of cuts to 340B discounts could play in the profitability discussion for 2019.  

In late 2017, the agency finalized changes to the drug discount program’s payment rate, cutting it to 22.5% less than the average sales price for a drug. For 2019, CMS will expand those changes from hospitals to off-campus provider facilities, which will naturally tighten belts further, according to the report. 

The decrease in payments is likely to be less than the $1.6 billion culled from the program in 2018, according to the report, but it does mean hospitals should be paying close attention to how their outpatient and ambulatory facilities prescribe 340B drugs. 

It’s especially crucial to be vigilant, according to the report, as it’s likely CMS is considering other changes in this vein, and commercial payers follow the feds’ lead.

“The new CMS rule on 340B drugs is a sign of things to come, and healthcare leaders should be alert to such changes,” according to the report. “The federal government is likely to challenge any lines of business in which hospitals and health systems make significant margins.” 




14 recent hospital, health system outlook and credit rating actions


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The following hospital and health system credit rating and outlook changes or affirmations occurred in the last week, beginning with the most recent:

1. Fitch affirms ‘AA-‘ rating for SSM Health

Fitch Ratings affirmed St. Louis-based SSM Health’s “AA-” issuer default rating and “AA-“/”F1+” rating where applicable on outstanding rated bonds.

2. Moody’s affirms Cook Children’s Medical Center’s ‘Aa2’ rating

Moody’s Investors Service affirmed its “Aa2” and “Aa2/VMIG 1” ratings for Fort Worth, Texas-based Cook Children’s Medical Center, affecting $356 million of outstanding revenue bonds.

3. Moody’s affirms ‘Baa2’ rating for Children’s Hospital Los Angeles

Moody’s Investors Service affirmed its “Baa2” rating for Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, affecting $438 million of rated debt.

4. Moody’s affirms ‘A1’ rating for Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital

Moody’s Investors Service affirmed its “A1” revenue bond rating for Palo Alto, Calif.-based Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital.

5. Moody’s affirms ‘A2’ rating for Mary Greeley Medical Center

Moody’s Investors Service affirmed its “A2” rating for Ames, Ia.-based Mary Greeley Medical Center, affecting $64 million of outstanding revenue bonds.

6. Moody’s downgrades Marion County Health and Hospital to ‘Aa2’

Moody’s Investors Service downgraded Marion County (Ind.) Health and Hospital Corp.’s rating from “Aa1” to “Aa2.”

7. Moody’s assigns ‘A2’ rating to HonorHealth

Moody’s Investors Service assigned an “A2” rating to Scottsdale, Ariz.-based HonorHealth’s revenue bonds and affirmed its “A2” rating for the system’s outstanding parity debt.

8. Moody’s upgrades Gainesville Hospital District rating to ‘Ba1’

Moody’s Investors Service upgraded Gainesville (Texas) Hospital District issuer and general obligation limited tax debt ratings from “Ba2” to “Ba1.”

9. Moody’s downgrades Monroe County Health Care Authority rating to ‘Ba1’

Moody’s Investors Service downgraded Monroe County (Ala.) Health Care Authority’s rating from “A3” to “Ba1,” affecting $3.6 million in general obligation limited tax bonds.

10. Moody’s affirms ‘A2’ rating for MedStar Health

Moody’s Investors Service affirmed its “A2” rating on Columbia, Md.-based MedStar Health, affecting $1.4 billion of debt.

11. Moody’s assigns ‘A2’ rating to Mercy Health

Moody’s Investors Service assigned an “A2” rating to Cincinnati-based Mercy Health’s proposed taxable bond and also affirmed its “A2” and “A2/VMIG 1” ratings on the system’s outstanding bonds.

12. S&P revises Spartanburg Regional Health’s outlook to negative

S&P Global Ratings revised its outlook for Spartanburg (S.C.) Regional Healthcare System from stable to negative.

13. S&P affirms ‘A+’ rating for Rush University Medical Center

S&P Global Ratings affirmed its “A+” long-term rating for Chicago-based Rush University Medical Center’s outstanding revenue bonds.

14. S&P raises rating for Columbus Regional Healthcare to ‘A+’

S&P Global Ratings raised its rating for Whiteville, N.C.-based Columbus Regional Healthcare System from “BBB-” to “A+.”




Hospital Operating Income Falls for Two-Thirds of Health Systems


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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.”

Kaiser’s net income dips 23% in first 9 months of 2018


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Oakland, Calif.-based Kaiser Permanente reported higher revenue for its nonprofit hospital and health plan units in the first nine months of this year, but the system ended the period with lower net income.

Here are four things to know:

1. Kaiser’s operating revenue climbed to $59.7 billion in the first nine months of 2018, according to recently released bondholder documents. That’s up 9.6 percent from revenue of $54.5 billion in the same period of 2017.

2. Kaiser’s health plan membership increased from 11.8 million members in December 2017 to 12.2 million members as of Sept. 30, 2018.

3. During the first nine months of this year, Kaiser’s operating expenses totaled $57.7 billion. That’s up from $52.2 billion in the first nine months of 2017. In the third quarter of 2018 alone, Kaiser’s expenditures included capital spending of $760 million, which includes investments in upgrading and opening new facilities, as well as in technology.

4. Kaiser ended the first nine months of 2018 with net income of $2.9 billion, down 23 percent from net income of $3.8 billion in the same period of 2017.