Hospitals are struggling and the future is grim

A strange thing happened last year in some the nation’s most established hospitals and health systems. Hundreds of millions of dollars in income suddenly disappeared.

This article, part two of a series that began with a look at primary care disruption, examines the economic struggles of inpatient facilities, the even harsher realities in front of them, and why hospitals are likely to aggravate, not address, health care’s rising cost issues.

According to the Harvard Business Review, several big-name hospitals reported significant declines and, in some cases, net losses to their FY 2016 operating margins. Among them, Partners HealthCare, New England’s largest hospital network, lost $108 million; the Cleveland Clinic witnessed a 71 percent decline in operating income; and MD Anderson, the nation’s largest cancer center, dropped $266 million.

How did some of the biggest brands in care delivery lose this much money? The problem isn’t declining revenue. Since 2009, hospitals have accounted for half of the $240 billion spending increase among private U.S. insurers. It’s not that increased competition is driving price wars, either. On the contrary, 1,412 hospitals have merged since 1998, primarily to increase their clout with insurers and raise prices. Nor is it a consequence of people needing less medical care. The prevalence chronic illness continues to escalate, accounting for 75 percent of U.S. health care costs, according to the CDC.

Part of the problem is rooted in the past

From the late 19th century to the early 20th, hospitals were places the sick went to die. For practically everyone else, health care was delivered by house call. With the introduction of general anesthesia and the discovery of powerful antibiotics, medical care began moving from people’s homes to inpatient facilities. And by the 1950s, some 6,000 hospitals had sprouted throughout the country. For all that expansion, hospital costs remained relatively low. By the time Medicare rolled out in 1965, health care consumed just 5 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP). Today, that number is 18 percent.

Hospitals have contributed to the cost hike in recent decades by: (1) purchasing redundant, expensive medical equipment and generating excess demand, (2) hiring highly paid specialists to perform ever-more complex procedures with diminishing value, rather than right-sizing their work forces, and (3) tolerating massive inefficiencies in care delivery (see “the weekend effect”).

How hospital CEOs see it

Most hospital leaders acknowledge the need to course correct, but very few have been able to deliver care that’s significantly more efficient or cost-effective than before. Instead, hospitals in most communities have focused on reducing and eliminating competition. As a result, a recent study found that 90 percent of large U.S. cities were “highly concentrated for hospitals,” allowing those that remain to increase their market power and prices.

Historically, such consolidation (and price escalation) has enabled hospitals to offset higher expenses. As of late, however, this strategy is proving difficult. Here’s how some leaders explain their recent financial struggles:

“Our expenses continue to rise, while constraints by government and payers are keeping our revenues flat.”

Brigham Health president Dr. Betsy Nabel offered this explanation in a letter to employees this May, adding that the hospital will “need to work differently in order to sustain our mission for the future.”

A founding member of Partners HealthCare in Boston, Brigham & Women’s Hospital (BWH) is the second-largest research hospital in the nation, with over $640 million in funding. Its storied history dates back more than a century. But after a difficult FY 2016, BWH offered retirement buyouts to 1,600 employees, nearly 10 percent of its workforce.

Three factors contributed to the need for layoffs: (1) reduced reimbursements from payers, including the Massachusetts government, which limits annual growth in health care spending to 3.6 percent, a number that will drop to 3.1 percent next year, (2) high capital costs, both for new buildings and for the hospital’s electronic health record (EHR) system, and (3) high labor expenses among its largely unionized workforce.

“The patients are older, they’re sicker … and it’s more expensive to look after them.”

That, along with higher labor and drug costs, explained the Cleveland Clinic’s economic headwinds, according to outgoing CEO Dr. Toby Cosgrove. And though he did not specifically reference Medicare, years of flat reimbursement levels have resulted in the program paying only 90 percent of hospital costs for the “older,” “sicker” and “more expensive” patients.

Of note, these operating losses occurred despite the Clinic’s increase in year-over-year revenue. Operating income is on the upswing in 2017, but it remains to be seen whether the health system’s new CEO can continue to make the same assurances to employees as his predecessor that, “We have no plans for workforce reduction.”

“Salaries and wages and … and increased consulting expenses primarily related to the Epic EHR project.”

Leaders at MD Anderson, the largest of three comprehensive cancer centers in the United States, blamed these three factors for the institution’s operational losses. In a statement, executives attributed a 77 percent drop in adjusted income last August to “a decrease in patient revenues as a result of the implementation of the new Epic Electronic Health Record system.”

Following a reduction of nearly 1,000 jobs (5 percent of its workforce) in January 2017, and the resignation of MD Anderson’s president this March, a glimmer of hope emerged. The institution’s operating margins were in the black in the first quarter of 2017, according to the Houston Chronicle.

Making dense of hospital struggles

The challenges confronting these hospital giants mirror the difficulties nearly all community hospitals face. Relatively flat Medicare payments are constraining revenues. The payer mix is shifting to lower-priced patients, including those on Medicaid. Many once-profitable services are moving to outpatient venues, including physician-owned “surgicenters” and diagnostic facilities. And as one of the most unionized industries, hospitals continue to increase wages while drug companies continue raising prices – at three times the rate of health care inflation.

Though these factors should inspire hospital leaders to exercise caution when investing, many are spending millions in capital to expand their buildings and infrastructure with hopes of attracting more business from competitors. And despite a $44,000 federal nudge to install EHRs, hospitals are finding it difficult to justify the investment. Digital records are proven to improve patient outcomes, but they also slow down doctors and nurses. According to the annual Deloitte “Survey of US Physicians,” 7 out of 10 physicians report that EHRs reduce productivity, thereby raising costs.

Harsh realities ahead for hospitals

Although nearly every hospital talks about becoming leaner and more efficient, few are fulfilling that vision. Given the opportunity to start over, our nation would build fewer hospitals, eliminate the redundancy of high-priced machines, and consolidate operating volume to achieve superior quality and lower costs.

Instead, hospitals are pursuing strategies of market concentration. As part of that approach, they’re purchasing physician practices at record rates, hoping to ensure continued referral volume, regardless of the cost.

Today, commercial payers bear the financial brunt of hospital inefficiencies and high costs but, at some point, large purchasers will say “no more.” These insurers may soon get help from the nation’s largest purchaser, the federal government. Last month, President Donald Trump issued an executive order with language suggesting the administration and federal agencies may seek to limit provider consolidation, lower barriers to entry and prevent “abuses of market power.”

With pressure mounting, hospital administrators find themselves wedged deeper between a rock and a hard place. They know doctors, nurses, and staff will fight the changes required to boost efficiency, especially those that involve increasing productivity or lowering headcount. But at their same time, their bargaining power is diminishing as health-plan consolidation continues. The four largest insurance companies now own 83 percent of the national market.

What’s more, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) announced last week a $1.6 billion cut to certain Medicare Part B drug payments along with reduced reimbursements for off-campus hospital outpatient departments in 2018. CMS said these moves will “provide a more level playing field for competition between hospitals and physician practices by promoting greater payment alignment.”

The American health care system is stuck with investments that made sense decades ago, but that now result in hundreds of billions of dollars wasted each year. Hospitals are a prime example. That’s why we shouldn’t count on hospital administrators to solve America’s cost challenges.

Robert Pearl is a physician and CEO, Permanente Medical Groups. This article originally appeared in Forbes.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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