- The delta variant of the coronavirus continues to pile on staffing challenges for hospitals as they spend more resources on recruiting and retaining employees, jack up benefit options and offer steep sign-on bonuses, according to a Tuesday report from Moody's Investors Service.
- Those expenses will strain hospital profitability at a time when lucrative non-emergency procedures are on hold in some areas to handle incoming COVID-19 inpatients. Moody's expects the weight on hospital budgets to continue through next year.
- Although demand for temporary nursing staff dipped last week, it is still well beyond pre-pandemic levels, according to data gathered by Jefferies analysts. Crisis jobs — those that are rapid response or bill more than $100 an hour — represent more than three quarters of staffing firm Aya Healthcare's openings, the third highest percentage Jefferies has recorded.
The highly contagious delta variant is wreaking havoc on the U.S. healthcare system as mostly unvaccinated people are filling ICUs more than a year and half into the pandemic. Clinicians who have throughout that time been stressed working long and difficult hours are reporting intense burnout as some mull leaving the profession altogether.
Meanwhile, vaccine mandates have gone into effect for many hospitals. Although they report that the vast majority of employees are complying, even the small losses of those who refuse can take a hit to staffing resources.
This need has driven increases to the salaries nurses can command, as well as to benefit packages, sign-on bonuses and the offer of services like child care, Moody's said.
The report also noted that the current shortage — unlike previous ones — also includes nonclinical staff such as dietary and environmental services workers.
While Moody's focuses on nonprofit operators, expense challenges will be an important metric to watch during the upcoming earnings season. Although all major for-profit hospital operators beat Wall Street expectations on earnings and revenue in Q2 and most posted profit increases, expenses were a rising line item.
Hospital labor expenses rise
And consultancy Kaufman Hall has warned U.S. hospitals will lose about $54 billion in net income this year, while an earlier Moody's report predicted impacts to the country's health system from COVID-19 will last for decades.
As the Biden administration works to encourage more vaccinations through a combination of carrots and sticks, it remains unclear when delta may peak and what future variants could bring. Even after hospitals are on more stable ground in terms of capacity, further challenges will remain as patients return for care they deferred earlier.
And there are more long-term concerns as well. "Even after the pandemic, competition for labor is likely to continue as the population ages — a key social risk — and demand for services increases," according to the Moody's report.
Jefferies analysts agreed, saying the demand for temp nurses will go down but remain elevated. "Additionally, the fundamental demand drivers for nurses that existed even before COVID (i.e., nurse population demographics) have been boosted by the lingering effects of the pandemic on the profession and are likely to boost demand for temp staffing post-2022," they wrote in the Wednesday note.