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Canceled elective procedures putting pressure on nation's hospitals

Even upticks in COVID-19 patients haven't made up for the revenue losses, since reimbursement for those services is comparatively slim.

Jeff Lagasse, Associate Editor

Elective procedures are in a strange place at the moment. When the COVID-19 pandemic started to ramp up in the U.S., many of the nation's hospitals decided to temporarily cancel elective surgeries and procedures, instead dedicating the majority of their resources to treating coronavirus patients. Some hospitals have resumed these surgeries; others resumed them and re-cancelled them; and still others are wondering when they can resume them at all.

In a recent HIMSS20 digital presentation, Reenita Das, a senior vice president and partner at Frost and Sullivan, said that during the pandemic, plastic surgery activity declined by 100%, ENT surgeries declined by 79%, cardiovascular surgeries declined by 53% and neurosurgery surgeries declined by 57%.

It's hard to overstate the financial impact this is likely to have on hospitals' bottom lines. Just this week, American Hospital Association President and CEO Rick Pollack, pulling from Kaufman Hall data, said the cancellation of elective surgeries is among the factors contributing to a likely industry-wide loss of $120 billion from July to December alone. When including data from earlier in the pandemic, the losses are expected to be in the vicinity of $323 billion, and half of the nation's hospitals are expected to be in the red by the end of the year.

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Doug Wolfe, cofounder and managing partner of Miami-based law firm Wolfe Pincavage, said this has amounted to a "double-whammy" for hospitals, because on top of elective procedures being cancelled, the money healthcare facilities received from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act was an advance on future Medicare payments – which is coming due. While hospitals perform fewer procedures, they will now have to start paying that money back.

All hospitals are hurting, but some are in a more precarious position than others.

"Some hospital systems have had more cash on hand and more liquidity to withstand some of the financial pressure some systems are facing," said Wolfe. "Traditionally, the smaller hospital systems in the healthcare climate we face today have faced a lot more financial pressure. They're not able to control costs the same way as a big system. The smaller hospitals and systems were hurting to begin with."

LOWER REVENUE, HIGHER COSTS

Some hospitals, especially ones in hot spots, are seeing a surge in COVID-19 patients. While this has kept frontline healthcare workers scrambling to care for scores of sick Americans, COVID-19 treatments are not reimbursed at the same level as surgeries. Hospital capacity is being stretched with less lucrative services.

"Some hospitals may be filling up right now, but they're filling up with lower-reimbursing volume," said Wolfe. "Inpatient stuff is lower reimbursement. It's really the perfect storm for hospitals."

John Haupert, CEO of Grady Health in Atlanta, Georgia, said this week that COVID-19 has had about a $115 million negative impact on Grady's bottom line. Some $70 million of that is related to the reduction in the number of elective surgeries performed, as well as dips in emergency department and ambulatory visits. 

During one week in March, Grady saw a 50% reduction in surgeries and a 38% reduction in ER visits. The system is almost back to even in terms of elective and essential surgeries, but due to a COVID-19 surge currently taking place in Georgia, it has had to suspend those services once again. ER visits have only come back about halfway from that initial 38% dip, and the system is currently operating at 105% occupancy.

"Part of what we're seeing there is reluctance from patients to come to hospitals or seek services," said Haupert. "Many have significantly exacerbated chronic disease conditions."

Patient hesitation has been an ongoing problem, as has the associated cost of treating coronavirus patients, said Wolfe.

"When they were ramping up to resume the elective stuff, there was a problem getting patients comfortable," he said. "And the other thing was that the cost of treating patients in this environment has gone up. They've put up plexiglass everywhere, they have more wiping-down procedures, and all of these things add cost and time. They need to add more time between procedures so they can clean everything … so they're able to do less, and it costs more to do less. Even when elective procedures do resume, it's not going back to the way it was."

Most hospitals have adjusted their costs to mitigate some of the financial hit. Even some larger systems, such as 92-hospital nonprofit Trinity Health in Michigan, have taken to measures such as laying off and furloughing workers and scaling back working hours for some of its staff. At the top of the month, Trinity announced another round of layoffs and furloughs – in addition to the 2,500 furloughs it announced in April – citing a projected $2 billion in revenue losses in fiscal year 2021, which began on June 1.

Hospitals are at the mercy of the market at the moment, and Wolfe anticipates there could be an uptick in mergers and consolidation as organizations look to partner with less cash-strapped entities. 

"Whether reorganization will work remains to be seen, but there will definitely be a fallout from this," he said.
 

Twitter: @JELagasse
Email the writer: jeff.lagasse@himssmedia.com