For-profit hospital operators strained by physician fees, payer relations in Q3
The nation’s largest for-profit hospital systems by revenue — HCA Healthcare, Community Health Systems, Tenet Healthcare and Universal Health Services — reported mixed results during the third quarter of 2023, despite announcing strong demand for patient services.
With the exception of HCA, each operator reported lower profits in the third quarter compared with the same period last year. Health systems CHS and HCA reported earnings that fell short of Wall Street expectations for revenue.
Admissions rose across the board compared to the same period last year: Same facility equivalent admissions rose 4.1% at HCA , 3.7% at CHS and 0.6% at Tenet, and adjusted admissions at acute hospitals rose 6.8% at UHS.
Although the for-profit operators began cost containment strategies earlier this year — recognizing that rising expenses, including costs of salary and wages, were pressuring hospital profitability post-pandemic — expenses also rose, with growth in salaries and benefit costs once again pressuring most operators’ revenue.
Hospital operators faced new challenges this quarter, executives said, including increased physician staffing fees and what hospital executives characterized as aggressive behavior from payers.
Hospitals highlight rising physician fees
Rising physician fees were a topic of concern on earnings calls this quarter, with executives reporting fees that were 15% to 40% higher compared with the same period last year.
Third-party staffing firms charge hospitals physician fees, a percentage of physicians’ salaries, on top of the salaries themselves. Physician fees are separate but related to contract labor costs, which plagued hospitals during the COVID-19 pandemic as they attempted to stem staffing shortages.
Hospitals typically contract specialty hospitalist roles — like anesthesiologists, radiologists and emergency department physicians — and incur associated staffing costs.
Physician fees at HCA, the country’s largest hospital chain, grew 20% year over year in the third quarter, according to CFO Bill Rutherford.
Physician fees were up by as much as 40% at UHS — making up 7.6% of total operating expenses this quarter and surpassing the company’s initial projections for the year, CEO Marc Miller said during an earnings call. Historically, physician fees accounted for about 6% of UHS’ total expenses.
Likewise, Franklin, Tennessee-based CHS attributed some of its third-quarter losses to "increased rates for outsourced medical specialists," according to a release on the operator’s earnings.
Tenet CEO Saum Sutaria noted that physician fee expenses were up 15% year over year, but said on an earnings call that the operator had spied rising physician fees during the pandemic, and had begun efforts to contain costs — including restructuring staffing contracts and in-sourcing critical physician services.
As a result, physician fee costs at Tenet had remained “relatively flat” from the second quarter to the third quarter this year, according to the Sutaria.
Physician fee increases may be a delayed consequence of the No Surprises Act, which went into effect in January of last year, experts say.
On an earnings call, UHS CFO Steve Filton said “the industry has largely had to reset itself” in wake of the law. Tenet and CHS executives echoed the sentiment, noting that the law had disrupted staffing firms’ business models and complicated payment processes.
The No Surprises Act prevents patients who unknowingly receive out-of-network care at an in-network facility from being stuck with unexpected bills. However, the act has had unintended ripple effects, experts say.
Staffing firms and hospitals allege that the arbitration process created to resolve disputes between providers and insurers is unbalanced and incentivizes insurers to withhold reimbursement for care. In an August survey, over half of doctors reported insurers have either ignored decisions made by arbitrators or declined to pay claims in full.
In other cases, a backlog prevents claims from being adjudicated at all. Last year, the CMS found the federal arbitration process had only reached a payment determination in 15% of cases. Federal regulators have been forced to pause and restart the arbitration process multiple times in the wake of federal court decisions challenging arbitration methodology.
Although the act went into effect more than a year ago, many hospitals are just now feeling the strain, said Loren Adler, associate director at the Brookings Institute's Schaeffer Initiative on Health Policy.
That’s because most insurers, hospitals and medical groups operate on three-year contracts, according to Adler. Staffing firms, which have struggled since the No Surprises Act was enacted, have passed on costs to hospitals as contracts come up for negotiation and insurers charge firms higher rates.
In the face of rising costs, some hospitals may opt to follow Tenet and CHS and in-source physicians — either to retain contracts with physicians who worked with firms that have folded or because the passing of the No Surprises Act makes outsourcing less attractive.
CHS hired 500 physicians from staffing firm American Physician Partners after the company collapsed in July. CFO Kevin Hammons said on an earnings call that hiring the physicians had saved CHS “approximately $4 million sequentially compared to the subsidy payments previously paid” to the staffing firm.
However, in-sourcing may not be an effective cost containment strategy for all operators. HCA reported it was hemorrhaging money following its first-quarter majority stake purchase of staffing firm Valesco, which brought about 5,000 physicians onto its payroll. HCA CEO Sam Hazen said the system expects to lose $50 million per quarter on the venture through 2024, citing low payments as the primary issue.
Hospital executives also tied quarterly losses to aggressive behavior from insurers during third-quarter earnings calls.
UHS executives said payers were improperly denying high volumes of claims and disrupting payments to its hospitals, with UHS’ Miller characterizing insurers as “increasingly aggressive” during the third quarter. Though insurers had reduced their number of claims audits, denials and patient status changes during the early stages of the pandemic, payers were increasing denials and reviews, according to UHS’ Filton.
Tenet’s Sutaria said that claims denials were “excessive and inappropriate” during a third-quarter earnings call, adding that the hospital system was working to push back on the volume of claims denials.
Their number one strategy is to provide “excellent documentation” to refute denials quickly, Sutaria said.
Still, excessive claims denials can drive up administrative costs for hospitals, according to Matthew Bates, managing director at Kaufman Hall.
“That denial creates a lot more work, because now I have to deal with that bill two, three, four times to get through the denial process,” Bates said. “It starts to rapidly eat into the operating margins… [becoming] both a cashflow problem and an administrative costs burden.”
Executives across the four for-profit operators said they planned to negotiate with insurers to receive more favorable rates and limit the number of denials in subsequent quarters.
HCA’s Hazen said that it was important for HCA to maintain its in-network status with insurers “to avoid the surprise billing and that [independent dispute resolution] process,” but that it would work with its payers to get “reasonable rates” going forward.
Read more from Healthcare Dive’s coverage of third-quarter earnings:
Illustration: Xavier Lalanne-Tauzia for Industry Dive