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Credit downgrades aren't attributable to COVID-19, but cash flow will be a challenge

The coronavirus is mainly affecting the credit outlook for the rest of the year and beyond as hospitals adapt to new financial realities.

Jeff Lagasse, Associate Editor

While the COVID-19 coronavirus is likely to cause cash flow and liquidity issues for hospitals through the end of the year and into 2021, the credit outlook for the healthcare industry isn't as dire as some had feared. While there have been some downgrades this year, most of those are attributable to healthcare financial performance at the end of 2019.

At a virtual session of the Healthcare Financial Management Association on Wednesday, Lisa Goldstein, associate managing director at Moody's Investors Service, said the agency is taking a measured approach to issuing credit ratings and will "triage" these ratings based on factors such as liquidity and cash flow.

"Changes are happening daily, and sometimes hourly with funding coming from the federal government," said Goldstein, "so we're taking a very measured approach."

Healthcare is among the most volatile industries being affected by the coronavirus due to the fact that it operates like a business, with a general lack of government support to pay off debt.

Credit downgrades are on the rise, but there's historical precedent at play. Looking at data beginning with the 2008 financial crisis, there were consistently more downgrades than upgrades in the healthcare industry, owing to its inherent volatility. It was and has generally been subject to public policy and competitive forces. In any given year, downgrades exceed upgrades.

After passage of the Affordable Care Act, however, the number of uninsured Americans hit an all-time low. Hospitals grew in occupancy and revenues improved. The situation started to worsen once more when it became clear that there was a national nursing shortage, as well as top-line revenue pressure from government and commercial payers lowering their rates, but credit downgrades didn't truly explode until this year. There have been 24 downgrades so far this year, already exceeding the 13 downgrades in all of 2019.

The rub is that it's not the coronavirus's fault.

"Most downgrades were in the first quarter of the year," said Goldstein. "We did have a lot of downgrades in March, which is when the pandemic really started – when it became a pandemic – but even though there were 11 downgrades in March, it was based on what we'd seen through the end of 2019. There were problems that were appearing that had nothing to do with the pandemic."

Basic fundamental operating challenges were becoming more pronounced during that time. A decline in inpatient cases, a rapid rise in observation stays, a decline in outpatient cases to competing clinics and health centers, and staffing and productivity challenges all contributed to material increases in debt.

COVID-19's effects on hospital credit ratings are in the outlook for the rest of the year and beyond. Interestingly, in March, Moody's changed its outlook from negative to stable.

"We haven't seen anything like this," said Goldstein. "The industry has been through shocks, but something this long in duration has been something we think will have an impact on financial performance going forward."

Moody's anticipates cash flow will remain low into 2021, mostly from the suspension of elective surgeries, rising staffing expenses and uncertainty around securing enough personal protective equipment. Liquidity is still a concern, but is more of a side issue due to Medicare funding providing a Band-Aid of sorts. The CARES act will help to fill some of that gap, but not all of it, said Goldstein.

She added that the $175 billion in stimulus funding is favorable, but modestly so, since it is estimated to cover only about two months' worth of spending. The good news is that the opportunity to apply for grant money, which doesn't have to be repaid, can help to fill some of the gap.

Some hospital leaders are concerned that if they violate covenants – also known as a technical default – their credit outlook will be downgraded. Goldstein sought to assuage those concerns.

"Debt service covenants are expected to rise, but an expected covenant breach or violation won't have an impact on credit quality because it's driven by an unusual event happening," she said. "It doesn't speak to your fundamental history as an operating entity."

Twitter: @JELagasse
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