The pandemic weighed heavily on the financial performance of not-for-profit hospitals in 2020, but some of the larger health systems remained profitable despite the upheaval — in large part thanks to substantial federal funding earmarked to prop up providers during the global health crisis.
Industry observers have been closely watching to see how health systems ultimately fared in 2020. Now, with the fiscal-year ended and accounted for, analysts say the $175 billion in federal funds was crucial for providers' bottom lines.
"Without the stimulus funding, it is very likely we would have seen more issuers [hospitals/health] systems experience either lower profitable margins, or outright losses from operations," Kevin Holloran, senior director of U.S. public finance for Fitch Ratings, said.
Still, the pandemic put a squeeze on nonprofit hospital margins last year, according to a recent Moody's report that showed the median operating margin was 0.5% in 2020 compared to 2.4% in 2019.
The first half of the year hit providers especially hard as volumes fell drastically, seemingly overnight. Revenue plummeted alongside the volume declines as the nation paused lucrative elective procedures to preserve medical resources.
One estimate showed hospitals lost more than $20 billion as they halted surgeries in the early months of the outbreak in the U.S.
But as the year wore on, the outlook improved as some volumes returned closer to pre-pandemic levels. At the same time, health systems worked to cut expenses to mitigate the financial strain.
Still, some health systems did post operational losses even with the federal funds meant to help them. Moody's found that 42% of 130 hospitals surveyed posted an operating loss, an increase from 23% the year prior. Yet, the 2019 survey included more hospitals, a total of 282.
Sutter Health, the Northern California giant, reported an operating loss for 2020 and said it was launching a "sweeping review" of its finances as the pandemic exacerbated existing challenges for the provider. Washington-based Providence also reported an operating loss for 2020. However, both Sutter and Providence were able to post positive net income thanks in large part to investment gains.
Investment income can aid nonprofit operators even when core operations are stunted like during 2020. Though, initially, the pandemic put stress on the stock market as uncertainty around the virus and its duration ballooned. The stock market took a dive and it was reflected in some six-month financials as both operations and investments took a hit.
"COVID and the stimulus is (hopefully) a once in a lifetime disruption of operations," Holloran said, who noted analysts have been trying to assess whether the top line losses can be placed squarely on COVID-19. If that's the case, analysts are typically more apt to keep the provider's existing rating.
"For the most part providers were dependent on that CARES funding. I think they would have been in the red or break even without it," Suzie Desai, a senior director at S&P Global Ratings, said.
For example, Arizona's Banner Health would have posted an operating loss without federal relief, according to their financial reports. Banner Health was able to work its way back to black after it reported a loss through the first six months of the year. The same was true for Midwest behemoth Advocate Aurora.
The providers that were able to weather the storm of the pandemic tended to be integrated systems that had a health plan under their umbrella.
Kaiser Permanente ended the year with both positive operating and net income and returned relief funds it received.
"The integrated providers, yeah, were one group that just had a natural hedge with the insurance premiums still coming in," Desai said.
Still, the hospital lobby is hoping to secure more funding for its members as the threat of the virus is still present even amid large scale efforts to vaccinate a majority of Americans to reach a blanket of protection from the novel coronavirus and its variants.