Healthcare employment is growing at a record pace, but wages remain stagnant, which some experts say likely results in part from the trend of consolidating health systems.
The latest Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers show the industry gained 49,000 jobs in March and 398,000 over the past 12 months. Analysts at Jefferies say the month-to-month growth is the second largest increase on record for the sector. Healthcare job growth has surpassed non-healthcare job growth and nudging the share of total jobs to an all time high, according to consulting firm Altarum.
Hospital employment grew by 14,000 jobs in March, adding up to a total of 120,000 for the combined first quarter of 2019. BLS tallied ambulatory jobs at 27,000 and home health and skilled nursing jobs at 9,000.
At the same time, real average weekly earnings for production and non-supervisory employees across sectors grew 0.1% over the month according to BLS. That growth in earnings is due to an increase in average weekly hours.
For nurses and pharmacists working in hospitals in heavily concentrated markets, annual wage growth has been lagging behind national rates by as much as 1.7 times. That's according to researchers Elana Prager and Matt Schmitt, of Kellogg and UCLA, respectively, whose working paper compares wage growth rates in markets where mergers have occurred.
The paper drew the ire of the American Hospital Association this week.
"Among the many serious concerns about the study are its lack of rigor in the definitions and assumptions it used, and absence of data on total compensation and the recognition of other obvious factors that could affect wage growth," an AHA spokesperson said in a statement criticizing media coverage of the research.
Academics researching the impacts of consolidation have asked the Federal Trade Commission to look at the impact horizontal mergers have on labor and consumers before they become difficult to challenge. FTC green-lit hundreds of horizontal hospital mergers over the past decade, maxing out at 115 in 2017, according to the National Institute for Health Care Management. In 2009, there were 50 such deals.
A Penn Law paper on mergers and labor markets published last year found employer consolidation has had a direct impact on wages and productivity in concentrated labor markets in the past. Wages, the authors write, tend to dilute when competition is scarce and labor concentration is "very high, as high or higher overall than product market concentration."
Jason Plagman, a healthcare analyst at Jefferies, agreed, telling Healthcare Dive it becomes an "oligopsony situation where there are only a handful of buyers of a product" — in this case, labor — "you tend to see [employers] exert more control."
As AHA noted, hospital and health systems tend to offer non-wage benefits, "such as employer-sponsored insurance, time off and education benefits" rather than increase wages. That's an important caveat, said Dennis Shea, a health policy professor at Penn State.
The debate comes as nurses unions have been pushing hard for additional staff and higher wages for hospital workers in consolidated states like California, New York, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. Hospital consolidation has raised prices as much as 20% to 40% when they occur in the same market, according to National Institute for Health Care Management, with some prices reaching as much as 55%.
Unions argue hospitals can afford to pay extra to hire more nurses. Jefferies analyst Plagman said it's not that easy. About 50% of hospital revenue goes to salary, wages and benefits, he said, and half of that chunk of revenue goes to nurses. "If they give a 3% raise to all nurses, that's a big impact on their overall expense line," Plagman said.
The lack of competition bars labor from seeking work elsewhere. A nurse in a concentrated labor market can't quit their job to work for the hospital down the street, because it's probably owned by the same health system, Shea said.
Shea and Plagman agreed that movement of labor away from concentrated markets is one way to break the wage slump. But lack of mobility was one of the consequences of concentration found in a National Bureau of Economic Research published in February 2018. The paper suggests a negative relationship between consolidated markets and wages that becomes more pronounced with higher levels of concentration and only increases over time.
Pay raises have historically been pushed by labor unions, and though some hospitals have already raised wages, few have been inclined to raise staffing levels as well.
"Strikes are picking up," Shea said. "That's always an indicator that wage and salary growth will pick up a little bit."
While labor disruption has been on the rise over the past year, Plagman said he expects employment and wage growth to continue at the current pace. At some point, he said the market will have to resolve itself.
"What we're seeing is hospitals and healthcare providers are hiring, but they've been very disciplined over the past few years giving raises to nurses and therapists," Plagman said.
In testimony to the FTC in October, economist Alan Kreuger alleged employers in concentrated markets "collude to hold wages to a fixed, below-market rate," even when the economy is booming. Union membership has plummeted 25% since 1980, and without a counterweight to balance the power of a monopsony, he argued, employers are free to set wages at will — even if they lag behind inflation rates.
Pressures to contain costs and move from volume to value is forcing health system executives to be extra delicate with their labor expenses. When nurses strike, hospitals have temps at the ready. That's a boon for staffing agencies like AMN Healthcare Services and Cross Country Healthcare.
Cost control in healthcare is a bit like "pushing on a balloon," Shea said.
Slow growth or declines in one sector means business is booming for another. In this case, ambulatory added 27,000 jobs month-to-month in March, up from 22,000 in February, and Jefferies analysts are looking favorably at temporary staffing agencies.
While "all indicators" say healthcare wages should be pushed up, Shea said, he wouldn't be surprised if the growth rate continued to limp along for a little while longer.