State’s new program helps ensure local communities have access to a community hospital and its physicians and clinical laboratories
Like phoenixes rising from ashes, a number of bankrupt and shuttered California hospitals have new life due in part to a state-run program offering the healthcare providers interest-free loans. The medical staff in these hospitals—including the clinical laboratories—will be happy to learn that their local communities refused to let their preferred healthcare providers shut down and disappear.
“The program, established through Assembly Bill 112, offers interest-free, working capital loans to nonprofit and publicly operated financially-distressed hospitals, including facilities that belong to integrated healthcare systems with less than three separately licensed hospital facilities,” according to the news release.
This clearly demonstrates that even as both physicians and patient are increasingly comfortable with telehealth consultations—and having their healthcare conditions managed in ambulatory settings—the concept of the community hospital as an essential medical resource continues to motivate local governments and citizens to invest money in money-losing hospitals.
“Today we have provided much needed assistance to community hospitals across the state that desperately need financial help to provide the care their communities need,” said HCAI Director Elizabeth Landsberg (above). “I’m grateful to the legislature for spearheading this effort to help make sure these vital healthcare institutions are fiscally stable so they can continue to provide quality, affordable healthcare for all Californians.” Thanks to these loans, clinical laboratories in these hospitals will continue to perform critical testing for their communities. (Photo copyright: Gilbert Perez/HCAI.)
Providers Get Support with Conditions
Among the 17 healthcare providers receiving loans is Madera Community Hospital, a 106-bed hospital that served a rural area in California’s Central Valley. Madera, which closed in December and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy earlier this year, is one of 17 “troubled hospitals” in California getting a “lifeline,” KFF Health News reported.
Madera will receive a $2 million bridge loan earmarked toward operational costs. It is also eligible for a $50 million loan once Adventist Health, Madera’s intended new administrator, offers up a “comprehensive hospital turnaround plan,” HCAI noted.
“California hospitals face many financial challenges, and for independent rural hospitals, these challenges can sometimes be almost insurmountable,” said Kerry Heinrich, JD, President and CEO of Adventist Health, in a blog post leading up to the state’s announcement of loan awards. “If Madera succeeds in getting the financial resources it needs, Adventist Health will provide Madera Community Hospital with the expertise of a large healthcare system, helping to secure a sustainable future for healthcare in Madera County.”
It’s interesting to note that potential “operators” are watching to see if the hospital or State of California can arrange tens of millions of dollars in loans or other financing before they agree to come in and manage the hospital.
The Distressed Hospital Loan Program aims to provide “loans (repayable over six years) to not-for-profit hospitals and public hospitals, as defined, in significant financial distress or to governmental entities representing a closed hospital to prevent the closure or facilitate the reopening of a closed hospital,” according to California Assembly Bill 112.
“The hospitals approved for this program have shown a detailed plan for financial recovery, and these funds will help them keep the doors open so they can keep serving their communities,” Fiona Ma, CPA, California State Treasurer, told Cal Matters.
One in five California hospitals is at risk of closure due to “an unsustainable combination of negative margins, decreasing cash positions, and increasing debt.”
Hospital expenses in 2022 were $23.4 billion over pre-pandemic levels, outpacing revenue increases.
Operating income in 2022 was $8.5 billion less than in 2019.
Will Consumer Demand Affect California’s Success?
California’s commitment to its financially struggling hospitals comes amid national trends suggesting physicians and patients—especially younger healthcare consumers—are becoming increasingly comfortable with remote healthcare monitoring and receiving primary care in non-traditional environments, such as retail pharmacies and clinics.
Will younger Californian’s demand for low-cost, convenient healthcare render the state’s attempt to rehabilitee its failing hospitals moot? Time will tell. The ongoing financial woes of California hospitals will be watched by hospital-based clinical lab managers and pathologists in other states. That’s because California has a reputation for being first in the nation in attempts to address problems or regulate activity.
Regardless, it’s clear that—at this moment—the state is willing to invest in hospitals with a history of deteriorating financial performance as a way of ensuring access to healthcare for all of its citizens.
The implication from these findings is that hospital-based clinical laboratories saw a drop in test volume and any lab revenue associated with inpatient testing.
In an analysis of data from more than 1,300 hospitals, Kaufman Hall noted a dip in hospitals’ median calendar year-to-date operating margin from 1.4% in June down to 1.3% in July. The data also showed “a greater pullback in volume on the outpatient side, which may be attributed to patients choosing not to pursue elective procedures during the summer,” a Kaufman Hall news release stated.
Kaufman Hall’s National Hospital Flash Report by Erik Swanson, Senior Vice President, Data and Analytics, and Brian Pisarsky, Senior Vice President, Strategic and Financial Planning, is an analysis of actual and budget data—sampled from Syntellis Performance Solutions—which is representative of hospitals of various sizes and areas in the US.
“It’s clear that today’s challenging financial environment is here to stay, and hospital leaders must be proactive in seeking out opportunities to refine their operations and remain competitive,” said Erik Swanson, Senior Vice President, Data and Analytics, Kaufman Hall, in a news release. Clinical laboratory leaders would be wise to follow the same advice. (Photo copyright: Kaufman Hall.)
Expenses Declined, Bad Debt and Charity Care Rose
Here are other national data Kaufman Hall reported for July 2023 as compared to June 2023:
Adjusted discharges per calendar day dropped 7%.
Operating room minutes per calendar day declined 13%.
Emergency department visits per calendar day fell 1%.
Bad debt and charity care as a percentage of hospitals’ gross operating revenue was up 7%.
Purchased service expense per adjusted discharge was down 3%.
Labor expense per adjusted discharge also fell 3%.
Even though expenses slightly declined during July, patient volume decreases “pulled down” the margins, Healthcare Innovation reported, which called the report “a gloomy one.”
Also, the uptick in bad debt and charity care while volumes decreased created a “difficult situation for hospitals,” Medical Economics observed.
Here are the report’s “key takeaways,” according to Kaufman Hall:
All volume indicators were down, but operating margins were still better than 2022.
Outpatient volume decreased more than inpatient, possibly due to patients choosing not to have elective procedures during the summer.
The decline in expenses was “not enough to offset revenue losses,” and inflation will continue to take its toll on labor expenses.
Medicaid has been “disenrolling” members in 30 states during June and July, and bad debt and charity care have increased.
The report also called out need for improvement in providers’ discharge of patients to skilled nursing facilities. “Hospitals that prioritize care transitions to skilled nursing facilities are performing better than institutions [that] do not,” Swanson said in the news release.
“Identifying steps that can ensure a smooth transition, such as obtaining pre-authorizations and planning discharge early, will help organizations reduce expenses and improve patients’ experience,” he continued.
For Hospitals, 2023 Not as Bad as 2022
MedCity News pointed out that though July’s operating margin index decline followed four months of growth, hospitals are still way ahead of 2022 performance when median operating margins were -0.98% in July 2022.
Still, it appears hospitals are struggling to secure financial footing after 2022, an overall bad financial year for the hospital industry.
More recently, a 2023 Becker’s Hospital CFO Report compiled a list of 81 hospitals that had cut jobs since the start of the year in response to “financial and operational challenges.”
Included was Tufts Medicine in Burlington, Massachusetts. In August, the hospital “eliminated hundreds of jobs” in an outsourcing of lab outreach services to Labcorp. The Becker’s report noted that “[Tufts] said it will work with Labcorp to have the majority of affected employees transition to a similar position with Labcorp.”
Tips for Clinical Lab Financial Viability
Medical laboratory leaders need to help ensure financial health of their labs as well as quality and efficiency of services. Advice from Kaufman Hall may be applicable.
The report writers advised providers to secure payer authorizations before a “patient comes in the door.” For clinical labs, this is comparable to the need to secure insurance company authorizations for expensive genetic tests before samples are taken and tests performed.
Another tip from Kaufman Hall is to “collect and use data to inform process improvement” and “make change.” Along those lines, medical laboratories could leverage patient data to guide launch of new services, entry to markets, workflow improvement, and costs reduction.
Clinical laboratory managers and pathology group leaders may want to pay closer attention to shrinking hospital margins and whether this may put pressure on hospital laboratory budgets
Financial performance of the nation’s hospitals and health systems continues to disappoint hospital leaders. For the fourth consecutive month this year, hospital operating margins have remained in the red. This will, of course, affect the clinical laboratories and pathology departments at these institutions.
A recently released National Hospital Flash Report from healthcare management consulting firm Kaufman Hall indicates that 2022 has started off poorly for most healthcare organizations. The information in Kaufman’s report is based on data gathered from more than 900 hospitals and healthcare systems across the country.
The key takeaways outlined in the report for the month of April that are negatively affecting hospitals’ bottom lines include:
More patients are utilizing urgent care facilities, telemedicine options, and primary care providers instead of seeking care at hospital emergency departments.
Patients tend to be sicker, more expensive to treat, and require longer hospital stays compared to April of 2021.
Expenses remain high due to labor shortages, specialty supplies, supply chain issues, and costly pharmaceuticals.
According to the report, the operating margins for the hospitals were down nearly 40% compared to March 2022 and declined 76% when compared to April 2021. The calculated median operating margin index was -3.09% throughout April 2022. In addition, operating earnings declined almost 27% from March to April of this year and 51.5% when contrasted with April of last year.
The report also found that patient volumes, average lengths of stays, and surgeries performed had declined overall during the month of April—but that hospital expenses rose during that period—thus decreasing profit margins. Total expenditures increased by 8.3% over April 2021, and 9.6% between March and April of this year.
Inflation, COVID-19 Key Factors in Hospitals’ First Quarter Losses
The report noted that the historic rise in inflation during the month of April is fueling negative revenues for healthcare systems and hospitals. Several for-profit and nonprofit hospital systems reported losses for the first quarter of 2022.
Kaufman’s report for the month of March was slightly more positive as the healthcare organizations surveyed reported an incremental rise in patient volumes and minor expense relief, resulting in gains in volumes and revenues. March also saw an increase in outpatient and surgery volumes and lower numbers of high-acuity patients. However, that slight upward trend did not last through April.
Another reason for the year-to-date unsatisfactory revenue margins for hospitals across the country was the surge of patients seeking care for the SARS-CoV-2 omicron variant of the COVID-19 infection earlier in the year.
“The first few months of this year were decimated by the impact of the omicron wave, but as the omicron wave subsided, we had a bit of a rebound in those volumes, and that’s what you saw in March,” Erik Swanson, Senior Vice President of Data and Analytics for Kaufman Hall told HealthLeaders. “However, it wasn’t a rebound to the full historical volumes, and that is again because of that wave.”
Healthcare Organizations are Advised to Look at Expenses
The National Hospital Flash Report is published monthly by Kaufman Hall and provides vital analyses and observations on the fiscal performance of hospitals and healthcare systems. The information contained in the report includes data on margins, volumes, revenues, and expenses.
“The revenue side is a bit more challenging for organizations to control. Many are looking at their internal revenue cycle, understanding where there can be improvements in their own process, improving just the performance of the revenue cycle that improves the collections rates,” Swanson said. “Many are also trying to renegotiate with payers and negotiate perhaps as aggressively as possible to get the best rates. But I think where you see much of the levers that organizations can pull is on the expense side.”
Fluctuations in revenue mean that organizations—including clinical laboratories—will have to establish new strategies to diminish their financial shortfalls.
“Finally, because a lot of these challenges are due to these ebbs and flows in volumes, many organizations are also looking to see how they can embrace more data-driven predictive type models to look at volumes and think about how they can optimize their workforce to better handle these ebbs and flows of volume,” Swanson added. “This very often includes thinking about the appropriate size of float pools, the number of times that you need to pay overtime versus hiring new individuals, so many organizations are taking those approaches to bend the cost curve. There are quite a few levers that organizations are pulling to bend this cost curve down to ultimately improve their margins overall.”
The most recent report concluded that the first four months of 2022 have been extremely challenging for hospitals and health systems with extended negative margins taking their toll. The report also projected that the overall picture does not look favorable for these organizations for the remainder of the year and that many healthcare facilities may finish out 2022 with substantially depressed margins.
Clinical laboratory managers and pathology group leaders serving hospital and integrated delivery networks (IDNs) may want to consider how these depressed hospital margins will affect their own laboratories. It may be timely to anticipate how this fall’s budget-planning cycle might require their labs to specify how costs can be cut in the coming budget year.
July data shows some volume gains for providers since June; however, analysts say current predictions depends on progress of the COVID-19 pandemic
Clinical laboratory managers preparing strategic plans for 2020 and 2021 face a basic and key question: when and if they can expect patient volumes and associated lab test referrals to return to pre-COVID-19 pandemic levels.
Some insights into how to answer that question can be found in two separate reports. Separately, healthcare analysts from Advisory Board and Kaufman Hall explored possible COVID-19 case scenarios and implications for providers’ volumes and operating margins for the remaining months of 2020.
The Advisory Board analysts do not see a snap back to pre-pandemic volume levels happening this year. However, they do envision a gradual volume increase that has already started, they reported in “Projecting Volume Recovery through 2020.”
Patient Volumes Depend on COVID-19 Cases
With 200 experts and more than 4,500 member organizations, the Advisory Board, according to its website, “helps leaders and future leaders in the healthcare industry work smarter and faster by providing provocative insights, actionable strategies, and practical tools to support execution.”
In a Radio Advisory broadcast concerning volume outlook for 2020, Anna Yakovenko, Advisory Board Practice Manager, said there are two likely scenarios for patient volumes, each based on COVID-19 having:
An overall plateau of cases;
A potential of a second wave in advance of influenza season.
What If There’s a Second Wave of COVID-19?
The Advisory Board predicts that, even if a COVID-19 second wave occurs earlier than the traditional mid-autumn influenza outbreak, a gradual recovery for providers will still happen. “But then we think we’ll see a dip in volumes—not remotely the level of dip that we saw in March and April—but a dip nonetheless,” Yakovenko said.
In a blog post, Yakovenko cited a Moody’s Investors Service report showing healthcare systems with more patient encounters in May. She wrote that providers need to overcome three pandemic-related issues to get volumes back on track in 2020:
Patients cancelling care because they are anxious;
Loss of jobs and insurance coverage resulting in decreased care demand;
Need for safety precautions, which could result in lower efficiency.
Kaufman Hall Report: Margins Could Go as Low as -11% in Q4 2020
The second report looked at hospital finances and patient volumes. It was done by Kaufman Hall, a Chicago firm providing management consulting services and software. The analysis by Kaufman Hall, released by the American Hospital Association (AHA) titled, “The Effect of COVID-19 on Hospital Financial Health,” predicted median hospital operating margin of -3% in the second quarter (Q2) of 2020, and a possible year-end range of -1% and -11% due to COVID-19. The report noted that—even before COVID-19—hospitals had a modest median margin (money made from operations) of 3.5%.
An AHA news release describes two COVID-19 case scenarios that could affect providers’ margins:
A steady decrease in cases could see median margin of -1% by the fourth quarter of 2020.
However, Kaufman Hall’s analysts spotted signs of recovery that were evidenced in data for June to July, when operating margins improved 24% due to pent-up demand for patient services, Healthcare Dive reported.
Their analysis also showed that providers in July had boosts in discharges and surgeries due to resumption of elective procedures. Other data for the seven months ending July 31, and for the month-to-month period June to July, showed:
Operating margins fell 5% year-over-year, but rose 12% month-over-month.
Discharges were down 7% year-over-year, but up 6% month-over-month.
Emergency Department visits fell 17% compared to first seven months in 2019 and were up 10% month-over-month.
Operating Room minutes were down 15% year-to-date and up 3% month-over-month.
Inpatient and outpatient revenues (without CARES funding) are down 5% and 11%, respectively, year-to-date. Inpatient and outpatient revenues June to July increased 6% and 5%, respectively.
“Hospitals saw flat year-over-year gross operating revenue performance, continued high-per-patient expenses, and a fifth consecutive month of volumes falling below 2019 performance and below budget across most metrics. Emergency Department volumes have been hardest hit. Even, so July volumes continued to show some signs of recovery month-over-month,” the Kaufman Hall analysts wrote.
One Provider’s Financial Tale
Allina Health System in Minneapolis, Minn., experienced financial struggles but is reportedly experiencing the type of turnaround the Advisory Board and Kaufman Hall analysts predicted. Allina had an $85 million operating loss in Q2 2020, compared to $14.4 million loss in Q2 2019. But it had positive income for June, according to the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal.
Clearly, the researchers studying patient volumes recognize that it is possible for patient volumes to return to pre-pandemic levels. However, a surge in the number of COVID-19 cases would obviously discourage patients from returning to get routine care and schedule elective procedures with their local hospitals. In turn, that would restrict the volume of clinical laboratory test referrals flowing into the nation’s medical laboratories.
Pathologists and medical laboratory managers should take into account these expert predictions and the supporting data in these two research reports as they plan staffing schedules and consider major purchasing of instruments and test supplies.
In another example of giving consumers more direct access to medical laboratory tests, Walmart believes that convenience and lower prices can help it capture market share
Retail giants continue to add healthcare services—including medical laboratory testing—to their wares. It’s a trend that pressures hospital systems, clinical laboratories, pathology groups, and primary care providers to compete for customers. And, while in most instances competition is good, many local and rural healthcare providers cannot reduce their costs enough to be competitive and stay in business.
This is true at Walmart (NYSE:WMT), which recently opened its second “Health Center” in Georgia and announced prices for general healthcare services 30% to 50% below what medical providers typically charge, reported Modern Healthcare.
The services offered at the new Walmart Health Center in Calhoun, a suburb of Atlanta, include:
Clinical laboratory testing
Fitness and nutrition
Health insurance education and enrollment
A Walmart news release states, “This state-of-the-art facility provides quality, affordable and accessible healthcare for members of the Calhoun community so they can get the right care at the right time … in one facility at affordable, transparent pricing regardless of a patient’s insurance status.”
The fact that Walmart posts “Labs” on the Health Center’s outdoor sign may indicate the retail giant considers easy access to clinical laboratory testing a selling point that will draw customers.
“By offering clinical laboratory testing in support of primary care and urgent care, Walmart may be able to lower prices for lab tests in any market that it enters,” said Robert Michel, Editor-in-Chief of Dark Daily and its sister publication The Dark Report, and President of The Dark Intelligence Group.
Healthcare Transparency and Lower Prices
The 1,500 square-foot free-standing Walmart Health Centers offer more services than the in-store Care Clinics installed in other Walmarts throughout Georgia, South Carolina, and Texas. For its healthcare services, Walmart established partnerships with “on-the-ground” health providers to offer affordable services.
“We have taken advantage of every lever that we can to bring the price of doing all of this down more than any hospital or group practice could humanly do. Our goal, just like in the stores, is to get the prices as low as we can,” Sean Slovenski, Senior Vice President and President of Walmart Health and Wellness, told Bloomberg Businessweek.
Some of the clinical laboratory prices prominently posted in the building and noted on the Health Center online price list include:
Meanwhile, the average cost to visit a primary care doctor is $106, according to Health Care Cost Institute data cited by Business Insider, which noted that Walmart’s rates “could be a steep mountain for traditional providers to climb.”
However, Rob Schreiner, Executive Vice President of WellStar Health System in Northern Georgia told Modern Healthcare that “Walmart will offer a cheaper alternative for working-class families who may not have health insurance and may not have an established relationship with a primary care provider.”
Convenient Access to Quality Healthcare Services a Major Draw
At a freestanding Walmart Health Center, people can park near the entrance and walk a few steps to the entrance, rather than traversing aisles to a Care Clinic inside a Walmart Supercenter. And for many customers, finding a Walmart Health Center may not be as complicated or stressful as visiting doctors’ offices.
That seems to be Walmart’s goal—not simply using the Health Centers to increase traffic in its stores, Slovenski said. “We are trying to solve problems for our customers. We already have the volume,” he told Forbes. “We have the locations and the right people. We are creating a supercenter for basic healthcare services.”
Walmart’s arrangement with local healthcare providers differs from traditional primary care clinics staffed by doctors who are practice owners, or who are employed by nearby hospitals and health systems.
“The whole design of the clinic is curious to most of the doctors here [in Dallas, Ga.],” Jeffrey Tharp, MD, Chief Medicine Division Officer, WellStar Medical Group, told Modern Healthcare. “We are advocating integration into our network, for instance with patients who need a cardiologist coming from Walmart to WellStar.”
Clinical laboratory leaders may want to explore partnerships with Walmart and other retailers that are developing healthcare centers to deliver primary care services in places where masses of people shop for everyday items. Especially given that these big-box retailers remain open during healthcare crises like the COVID-19 pandemic.