UPDATE: May 15, 2020: This article has been updated to include information from a Moody's Investors Service report.
From the Mayo Clinic to Kaiser Permanente, nonprofit hospitals are posting massive losses as the coronavirus pandemic upends their traditional way of doing business.
Fitch Ratings analysts predict a grimmer second quarter: "the worst on record for most," Kevin Holloran, senior director for Fitch, said during a Tuesday webinar.
Over the past month, Fitch has revised its nonprofit hospital sector outlook from stable to negative. It has yet to change its ratings outlook to negative, though the possibility wasn't ruled out.
Some have already seen the effects. Mayo estimates up to $3 billion in revenue losses from the onset of the pandemic until late April — given the system is operating "well below" normal capacity. It also announced employee furloughs and pay cuts, as several other hospitals have done.
Data released Tuesday from health cost nonprofit FAIR Health show how steep declines have been for larger hospitals in particular. The report looked at process claims for private insurance plans submitted by more than 60 payers for both nonprofit and for-profit hospitals.
Facilities with more than 250 beds saw average per-facility revenues based on estimated in-network amounts decline from $4.5 million in the first quarter of 2019 to $4.2 million in the first quarter of 2020. The gap was less pronounced in hospitals with 101 to 250 beds and not evident at all in those with 100 beds or fewer.
Funding from federal relief packages has helped offset losses at those larger hospitals to some degree.
Analysts from the ratings agency said those grants could help fill in around 30% to 50% of lost revenues, but won't solve the issue on their own.
They also warned another surge of COVID-19 cases could happen as hospitals attempt to recover from the steep losses they felt during the first half of the year.
Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, warned lawmakers this week that the U.S. doesn't have the necessary testing and surveillance infrastructure in place to prep for a fall resurgence of the coronavirus, a second wave that's "entirely conceivable and possible."
"If some areas, cities, states or what have you, jump over these various checkpoints and prematurely open up ... we will start to see little spikes that may turn into outbreaks," he told a Senate panel.
That could again overwhelm the healthcare system and financially devastate some on the way to recovery.
"Another extended time period without elective procedures would be very difficult for the sector to absorb," Holloran said, suggesting if another wave occurs, such procedures should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, not a state-by-state basis.
Hospitals in certain states and markets are better positioned to return to somewhat normal volumes later this year, analysts said, such as those with high growth and other wealth or income indicators. College towns and state capitols will fare best, they said.
Early reports of patients rescheduling postponed elective procedures provide some hope for returning to normal volumes.
"Initial expectations in reopened states have been a bit more positive than expected due to pent up demand," Holloran said. But he cautioned there's still a "real, honest fear about returning to a hospital."
Moody's Investors Service said this week nonprofit hospitals should expect the see the financial effects of the pandemic into next year and assistance from the federal government is unlikely to fully compensate them.
How quickly facilities are able to ramp up elective procedures will depend on geography, access to rapid testing, supply chains and patient fears about returning to a hospital, among other factors, the ratings agency said.
"There is considerable uncertainty regarding the willingness of patients — especially older patients and those considered high risk — to return to the health system for elective services," according to the report. "Testing could also play an important role in establishing trust that it is safe to seek medical care, especially for nonemergency and elective services, before a vaccine is widely available."
Hospitals have avoided major cash flow difficulties thanks to financial aid from the federal government, but will begin to face those issues as they repay Medicare advances. And the overall U.S. economy will be a key factor for hospitals as well, as job losses weaken the payer mix and drive down patient volumes and increase bad debt, Moody's said.
Like other businesses, hospitals will have to adapt new safety protocols that will further strain resources and slow productivity, according to the report.
Another trend brought by the pandemic is a drop in ER volumes. Patients are still going to emergency rooms, FAIR Health data show, but most often for respiratory illnesses. Admissions for pelvic pain and head injuries, among others declined in March.
"Hospitals may also be losing revenue from a widespread decrease in the number of patients visiting emergency rooms for non-COVID-19 care," according to the report. "Many patients who would have otherwise gone to the ER have stayed away, presumably out of fear of catching COVID-19."