- The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the U.S. healthcare system will be felt for decades, and "the magnitude and costs are inestimable," according to a report from Fitch Ratings out Wednesday. The analysts predict, however, that the industry will adapt.
- It's unclear whether the country is out of the acute phase of the pandemic, as the delta variant is pushing case counts up again and sending hospitals in areas with low vaccination rates scrambling. Also, the costs of long-haul COVID-19 and avoided preventive care are likely to be massive, according to the paper.
- In addition, hospitals will face increased pressure from tight labor and wage markets, especially for experienced staff, as well as rising pharmaceutical and supply chain costs, Fitch said.
In recent weeks, the surge of the highly contagious delta variant has pushed back on hopes of quickly finding a post-pandemic normal for the U.S., and those studying the long-term effects for healthcare are faced with an ever-growing mountain of data as they attempt to quantify the impact.
While Fitch analysts ultimately conclude that the system will be able to handle the stress of what's to come, they note the changes required and financial impacts will linger for decades and will be substantial.
Case rates and hospitalizations have been rising, with some hospitals again putting off elective procedures and reporting full ICUs. While vaccines currently protect well against the coronavirus variants spreading in the U.S., the ramifications of future mutations are unknown.
Also, efforts to continue ramping up vaccination rates have stalled as some outright refuse to get the shot and others have trouble getting access to and education on the process.
This could add up to another wave of COVID-19 in the fall and winter. And, Fitch notes, there would be "no reasonable expectation" of further federal relief funding from Congress similar to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.
Major for-profit systems have largely weathered COVID-19 challenges financially so far. And the three hospital operators reporting second-quarter earnings for this year have posted profits — two of which are year-over-year increases.
Smaller systems and hospitals, however, will have a far more difficult time with the continued financial burden of the coronavirus.
Also, labor costs are a major concern. More waves hitting hospitals, despite the availability of vaccines, have hit many healthcare workers with despair. Multiple studies show burnout among providers is sky high, and some report leaving the profession or considering doing so.
"The concern is with the resurgence of COVID that turnover rates could increase because we've seen turnover rates increase every time that COVID volumes increase," Universal Health Services CEO Marc Miller told investors on an earnings call.
Fitch noted that some of those with long-haul COVID-19 will have to treat resulting chronic conditions for the rest of their lives, and the "increase in utilization, resulting directly from the pandemic, will require elevated healthcare system capacity and will result in higher costs over the coming decades."