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August 29, 2022

How hospitals are cutting back to reduce costs

Daily Briefing

    Despite efforts to curtail high expenses, rising inflation and declining federal aid have led many hospitals to begin laying off workers and cutting certain services, Katheryn Houghton writes for Kaiser Health News.

    Hospital costs have skyrocketed during the pandemic

    At the beginning of the pandemic, hospitals' financial challenges were largely related to the costs of responding to Covid-19 and missed revenue due to delayed care. However, hospital leaders now say their financial situations are a result of the omicron surge, rising inflation, and growing staffing challenges.

    Many hospitals received millions of dollars in federal aid during the pandemic, but much of that money has since dwindled. For example, Bozeman Health said it received $20 million in aid in 2020, but this decreased to $2.5 million in 2021 and around $100,000 in 2022.

    Many health systems say low surgery volumes, high supply costs, higher acuity patients, and languishing investments have all contributed to their declining revenues and growing expenses. In particular, labor costs have increased significantly during the pandemic, particularly as staffing shortages pushed hospitals to use more contract workers.

    "If you talk with just about any hospital leader across the country, they would put workforce as their top one, two, and three priorities," said Akin Demehin, senior director of quality and patient safety policy for the American Hospital Association.

    According to Brad Ludford, CFO at Bozeman Health, the system spent less than $100,000 a month on contract workers before the pandemic, but that has now increased to roughly $1.4 million a week. Overall, the health system's labor costs have increased around 12% from the same time last year, reaching around $20 million a month, during the first half of the year.

    John Romley, a health economist and senior fellow at the Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics at the University of Southern California, said some hospitals are likely now losing money, particularly with less federal aid coming in and growing inflation on top of their already high expenses.

    For example, Bozeman Health president and CEO John Hill said the health system spent $15 million more than it earned in the first six months of the year. Several other health systems, including Providence, have also reported net operating losses this year.

    Hospitals lay off workers, cut services to help reduce expenses

    To reduce expenses, many hospitals are beginning to lay off workers and cut certain services, which has forced some patients to travel farther to receive care.

    For example, Bay Area Hospital in Oregon recently ended 56 contracts with travel nurses and cut its inpatient behavioral health services due to the high costs of quickly filling vacant positions. Hospitals in California, Mississippi, New York, Oregon, and other states have also had to reduce the sizes of their workforces.

    St. Charles Health System, headquartered in Bend, Oregon, laid off 105 workers and eliminated 76 vacant positions in May. The system's CEO at the time, Joe Sluka, said, "It has taken us two pandemic years to get us into this situation, and it will take at least two years for us to recover."

    Similarly, Bozeman Health has laid off 28 workers in leadership positions and has not been able to provide inpatient dialysis at its largest hospital for months.

    According to Hill, Bozeman took several other measures before deciding to cut jobs, including stopping out-of-state business travel, readjusting workloads, and reducing executive compensation. At the same time, it worked to transition contract workers to full-time employees and offered existing staffers a minimum-wage increase.

    However, "[i]t still has not been enough," Hill said. The health system currently has 487 open positions for essential workers.

    According to Vicky Byrd, an RN and CEO of the Montana Nurses Association, hospitals should be offering longtime employees the same incentives they use to recruit new workers, such as bonuses for longevity and premium pay for taking extra shifts, to increase retention.

    "It's not just about recruiting — you can get anybody in the door for $20,000 bonuses," Byrd said. "But how are you going to keep them there for 10 or 20 years?"

    Going forward, some hospitals are considering automating more of their services, such as allowing patients to order food through an iPad instead of an employee, and are trying to adjust workloads, including having more flexible schedules, to retain their current workers.

    "Now that we've adapted to life with covid in many regards in the clinical setting, we are dealing with the repercussions of how the pandemic impacted our staff and our communities as a whole," said Wade Johnson, CEO of St. Peter's Health. (Houghton, Kaiser Health News, 8/26)

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