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In Need of Repair: Not-for-Profit Hospitals’ Finances

By Ken Perez, VP of healthcare policy, Omnicell, Inc.

Ken Perez
Ken Perez

Decreasing inpatient admission volumes, shifts in the re-imbursement mix from higher-margin commercial payers to lower-margin public payers, and pressures resulting from value-based care have been solid trends during the past several years. Thus, it was not surprising that a Moody’s Investors Service report released in August portrayed the current condition of finances for not-for-profit hospitals as troubling.

According to Moody’s, the median annual expense growth rate slowed from 7.1 percent in 2016 to 5.7 percent in 2017 because of hospitals’ continued control of labor and supply costs. But annual revenue growth fell faster, from 6.1 percent in 2016 to 4.6 percent in 2017, the second straight year that expense growth exceeded revenue growth, a trend that is expected to continue through 2019. Moody’s concluded that not-for-profit hospitals are on an “unsustainable path.”

Consequently, median operating margins dropped to an all-time low of 1.6 percent in 2017. More than 28 percent of hospitals posted operating losses last year, up from 16.5 percent in 2016. Of course, operating losses cannot be sustained forever. If they are sustained for multiple years, closure of the hospital frequently results. Earlier this year, Morgan Stanley concluded that 18 percent of U.S. hospitals are at risk of closure or are weak financially, with approximately 8 percent of hospitals (roughly 450 facilities) presently at risk of closing. To put that figure in perspective, during the past five years, only 2.5 percent (150 hospitals) have closed. Also, Morgan Stanley found that 10 percent of hospitals suffer from weak finances.

Various factors account for not-for-profit hospitals’ financial difficulties.

Because the vast majority of net patient revenue came from fee-for-service based payment models—such as DRG payment, fee schedule, percentage of the chargemaster, or list price—overall reduced payment rates adversely impacted revenue in 2017. To be clear, nominal payment rates did not decline—e.g., Medicare’s Inpatient Prospective Payment System and Outpatient Prospective Payment System both incorporated nominal year-to-year increases in 2017—but the revenue mix for hospitals did shift from higher-margin commercial payers to lower-margin public payers. Median Medicare and Medicaid payments as a percentage of gross revenue rose to 45.6 percent and 15.5 percent, respectively, in 2017. Furthermore, continuing a five-year trend, public payers’ share of hospital revenue is projected to increase for the foreseeable future, as more of the baby boomers—an obviously large demographic group—reach retirement age and an increasing number of them incur the sizable costs of the last year of life.

In addition, hospital finances were adversely impacted by the continued shift from inpatient to outpatient care, a trend driven by greater competition from ambulatory facilities, such as physician offices and ambulatory surgery centers. Moody’s reported that median outpatient growth rates exceeded inpatient growth rates for the fifth straight year. In her July 25 address to the Commonwealth Club, Seema Verma, administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, supported the inpatient-to-outpatient shift, stating that Medicare is seeking to avoid “downstream” expenses, such as emergency department (ED) visits and hospital admissions.

Faced with these financial challenges, not-for-profit hospitals have pursued a number of approaches.

Most commonly, they have tried to improve their management of labor and supply costs. However, this strategy—while certainly logical—may be reaching a point of diminishing returns. Lyndean Brick, president and CEO of the Advis Group, a healthcare consulting firm, has concluded: “This is no longer solely about expense reduction. If not-for-profits just focus on that, they will be out of business in the next few years” (Modern Healthcare, Aug. 29, 2018).

Another strategic response has been consolidation—in which small hospitals join a larger health system—to gain more leverage with payers, to accomplish greater economies of scale, to get access to lower-cost capital, and to enhance access to talent.

Hospitals could also embrace the outpatient trend by opening or acquiring urgent care facilities—which often lead to appropriate ED visits and hospital admissions—and by adding physician-led ambulatory surgery centers, which are increasingly popular as well as profitable, perhaps in areas located far from hospital campuses.

Last, specialty pharmacies also have proven to be financially lucrative for many hospitals and health systems, producing both revenue and healthy profits.

Given the difficult state of their finances as well as the challenging prospects for the future, not-for-profit hospitals would be wise to consider these and other strategies.

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