- Nonprofit hospitals are reporting thinner margins this year, stretched by rising labor, supply and capital costs, and will be pressed to make big changes to their business models or risk negative rating actions, Fitch Ratings said in a report out Tuesday.
- Warning that it could take years for provider margins to recover to pre-pandemic levels, Fitch outlined a series of steps necessary to manage the inflationary pressures. Those moves include steeper rate increases in the short term and "relentless, ongoing cost-cutting and productivity improvements" over the medium term, the ratings agency said.
- Further out on the horizon, "improvement in operating margins from reduced levels will require hospitals to make transformational changes to the business model," Fitch cautioned.
It has been a rough year so far for U.S. hospitals, which are navigating labor shortages, rising operating costs and a rebound in healthcare utilization that has followed the suppressed demand of the early pandemic.
The strain on operations has resulted in five straight months of negative margins for health systems, according to Kaufman Hall's latest hospital performance report.
Fitch said the majority of the hospitals it follows have strong balance sheets that will provide a cushion for a period of time. But with cost inflation at levels not seen since the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the potential for additional coronavirus surges this fall and winter, more substantial changes to hospitals' business models could be necessary to avoid negative rating actions, the agency said.
Providers will look to secure much higher rate increases from commercial payers. However, insurers are under similar pressures as hospitals and will push back, using leverage gained through the sector’s consolidation, the report said.
As a result, commercial insurers’ rate increases are likely to exceed those of recent years, but remain below the rate of inflation in the short term, Fitch said. Further, federal budget deficits make Medicare or Medicaid rate adjustments to offset inflation unlikely.
An early look at state regulatory filings this summer suggests insurers who offer plans on the Affordable Care Act exchanges will seek substantial premium hikes in 2023, according to an analysis from the Kaiser Family Foundation. The median rate increase requested by 72 ACA insurers was 10% in the KFF study.
Inflation is pushing more providers to consider mergers and acquisitions to create economies of scale, Fitch said. But regulators are scrutinizing deals more strenuously due to concerns that consolidation will push prices even higher. With increased capital costs, rising interest rates and ongoing supply chain disruptions, hospitals’ plans for expansion or renovations will cost more or may be postponed, the report said.