Months of inching performance gains were upended in July as the nation’s hospitals logged “some of the worst margins since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Kaufman Hall wrote in its latest industry report.
Decreasing outpatient revenues paired with pricier inpatient stays were chief among the culprits and outpaced minor improvements in expenses, the group wrote in its monthly sector update for July.
What’s more, seven straight months of negative margins “reversed any gains hospitals saw this year” and has the advisory group forecasting a brutal year for the industry.
"July was a disappointing month for hospitals and put 2022 on pace to be the worst financial year hospitals have experienced in a long time," Erik Swanson, senior vice president of data and analytics with Kaufman Hall, said in a statement. "Over the past few years, hospitals and health systems have been able to offset some financial hardship with federal support, but those funding sources have dried up, and hospitals' bottom lines remain in the red."
Kaufman Hall placed its median year-to-date operating margin index at -0.98% through July, compared to the -0.09% from January to June the group had reported during last month’s report. Hospitals’ median percent change in operating margin from June to July was -63.9%, according to the report, and -73.6% from July 2021.
The month’s volume trends hinted at the larger shift toward scheduling procedures for ambulatory settings, Kaufman Hall wrote. For instance, operating room minutes declined 10.3% from June to July and 7.7% year over year, according to the report.
Patients who did come into the hospital tended to be sicker, the firm continued. Average length of stay increased 2% from last month and 3.4% year over year. Patient days increased 2.8% from the previous month but were down 2.6% from the prior year, while adjusted discharges dipped 2.8% from June and 4.2% from July 2021.
These trends came together as a brake check on 2022’s to-date revenue gains. Gross operating revenue fell 3.6% from June but remains up 5.5% year to date. Outpatient revenue was down 4.8% from June and maintains a 7.1% year-to-date increase. Inpatient revenue declined 0.7% from June but is still up 3.6% year to date.
The silver lining in Kaufman Hall’s report were total expenses that, although up 7.6% from July 2021, saw a modest 0.4% decline since June. Those savings came squarely among supply and drug expenses as total labor costs and labor expense per adjusted discharge still grew 0.8% and 3.5%, respectively, since June. Increases in full-time employees per adjusted occupied bed “possibly” suggest increased hiring, the group wrote in the report.
Kaufman Hall acknowledged the “urgency of day-to-day pressures” driving the month’s sudden performance dips but urged hospital leaders to prioritize long-term operational improvements as they work to keep the organization afloat.
“2022 has been, and will likely continue to be, a challenging year for hospitals and health systems, but it would not be prudent to focus on short-term solutions at the expense of long-term planning,” Swanson said. “Hospitals and health systems must think strategically and make investments to strengthen performance toward long-term institutional goals despite the day-to-day financial challenges they experience.”
Kaufman Hall’s monthly reports are based on a sample of more than 900 nationally representative hospitals.
The group isn't alone in its doom-and-gloom warnings for providers. Fitch Ratings recently wrote that high expenses, jilted volume gains and other challenges are unlikely to resolve before the end of the year. As such, the agency downgraded its outlook for the nonprofit hospital industry from “neutral” to “deteriorating.”