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The Plight of Rural Hospitals (Part 1)

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic hit Iowa and the U.S., rural hospitals were confronted with their own pandemic of sorts – a financial crunch that could determine business survival. As we know, all rural communities rely on having viable access to a broad spectrum of essential health care services. Iowa is no exception.

Critical Access Hospitals (CAHs)

For decades, rural hospitals in the U.S. have experienced poor financials due to a number of reasons. One large reason is the gradual exodus of people leaving rural communities for urban areas, primarily for seeking more promising career opportunities. Over time, this migration resulted in an older, lower-income population remaining in rural communities, heavily relying on Medicare and Medicaid for their health coverage. On top of this, rising patient deductibles have contributed to the overall rise in bad hospital debt.

Unfortunately for rural providers, specifically hospitals, government reimbursement levels are often below the cost of providing these services. To help offset this revenue shortage, private payments through commercial insurance carriers and self-insured employers, largely due to cost-shifting, are considerably higher than government reimbursements.

To rescue rural hospitals from the ‘death spiral’ during the 1980s and early 1990s, Congress created the Critical Access Hospital (CAH) designation (Balanced Budget of 1997 – Public Law 105-33). The CAH designation was designed to reduce the financial vulnerability of rural hospitals and improve access to healthcare, thereby keeping essential services in our rural communities. CAHs receive certain benefits, such as cost-based reimbursement for Medicare services.

Over the years, additional legislation has been amended to the CAH designation and related program requirements. As of July 19, 2019, there were 1,350 CAHs located in the U.S. According to the American Hospital Association, there are 5,198 community hospitals. Iowa has 119 community hospitals, with 82 being CAHs.  A July 2020 map shows the locations of each Iowa CAH.

In 2019, the Iowa Hospital Association (IHA) developed a proposal to reform rural health care to help address the growing financial challenges of rural hospitals using a three-pronged approach. The outcome of this initiative is unknown at present.

Arrival of the Covid-19 Pandemic

Just before the pandemic arrived in mid-March, the Cedar Rapids Gazette published an article reporting that rural Iowa hospitals are at risk of closing. The article cites a 2019 national report by Navigant, a Chicago-based consulting company, that found nearly 18 percent of Iowa’s rural facilities (about 17 hospitals) “are at high risk of closing unless their financial situations improve.” Navigant also reported that 21 percent of all U.S. hospitals (430 total) are facing a similar fate.

When the pandemic tsunami arrived, the financial hit to hospitals, specifically small, rural hospitals, became even more acute. The primary reason – due mostly to the suspension of elective procedures in clinics and hospitals, including ambulatory surgeries, inpatient surgeries and inpatient discharges.

In June, the IHA reported that audit firm, CliftonLarsonAllen, through financial modeling, projected a potential ten-figure loss for hospitals statewide due to the pandemic, jeopardizing several rural hospitals. The modeling showed that 89 Iowa hospitals may lose more than $1.4 billion by the end of September, and possibly a worst-case scenario showing more than a $2 billion loss by the end of 2020.

A new analysis by Epic Health Research Network and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that, if recent pandemic trends continue through the 2020 calendar year, total hospital admissions will be down by at least 10.5 percent of predicted levels for the entire year. If this prognostication comes close to reality, loss of revenue will adversely impact many rural hospitals that were merely holding on during the pre-pandemic era. According to an October 16 article from Becker’s Hospital CFO Report, at least 47 U.S. hospitals have closed or entered into bankruptcy in 2020.

Kirk Norris, the CEO of IHA, commented that Iowa hospitals have received millions in federal support from stimulus bills, CARES act and Paycheck Protection Program, but not enough to cover predicted losses.

According to IowaWatch, 77 Iowa hospitals collected $928.3 million in accelerated and advance Medicare payments as a government stimulus to cover expenses in the Covid-19 pandemic’s early days last spring. These funds, however, allowed health care providers to receive, in advance, three months of anticipated Medicare billings that must be paid back to Medicare and Medicaid Services. This program was separate from the CARES Act and other Covid-19-related emergency plans – such as a 20 percent add-on payment by Medicare for inpatient hospital Covid-19 patients. All told, 77 Iowa hospitals applied and received accelerated Medicare payments, including 44 critical access hospitals, who could seek ahead-of-time up to 125% of their anticipated Medicare payments for a six-month period. CMS suspended the accelerated program on April 24 to re-evaluate the other revenue sources being made available to healthcare providers.

Nationally, stimulus efforts included $175 billion in two initial rounds of CARES Act funding, with another $10 billion for rural hospitals and other distributions based on high Covid-19 admissions, etc.

Public Health Plan Option Under Biden

Another storm that could potentially hit rural Iowa hospitals will first depend on the upcoming election results. Joe Biden and the Democrats are proposing to create a public option to compete with private insurance companies. This public option would allow individuals to purchase a public option plan from marketplaces in addition to allowing employees to elect a public option plan through their employers. This would mean the payment mix received by Iowa hospitals would further erode because more Iowans would now have health coverage that reimburses hospital care at a lower rate than private insurance.

The key question, however, is just how much different will the public option reimburse healthcare providers when compared to the current Medicare arrangement? If Biden is elected and the Democrats control Congress, this will be a critical piece to watch when the public option is debated.

The process of culling out the eventual mayhem of rural hospitals under a public option approach began last year. In August 2019, Navigant released an analysis finding that Iowa’s rural hospitals could lose more than $476 million dollars under a public option, putting dozens of rural hospitals at risk for closure. Using three different scenarios, the study suggests that between 25 and 52 of Iowa’s rural hospitals would be at high financial risk for closure due to a loss of revenue.

It must be noted, however, the Navigant study was funded by an industry coalition, Partnership For America’s Health Care Future, an alliance consisting of pharmaceutical, insurance and hospital lobbyists whose desire is to fight off the expansion of Medicare and any government-driven payment system. According to IHA CEO Norris, Medicare is a low payer in Iowa relative to other parts of the country. Again, the big unknown is the reimbursement level a public option would have if passed by Congress and signed by the President. The devil will be in the details.

Transparency in Hospital Financial Reporting

In the U.S., hospitals account for the largest expenditure of healthcare dollars, comprising about 33 cents of each dollar spent. It is imperative, therefore, that to effectively address rising healthcare costs and assure financial viability of all types of hospitals serving Iowa communities, state policymakers and the public will need appropriate financial information necessary to assess and understand the financial health of hospitals.

Each state has disparate reporting requirements for hospitals to report audited financial information – with some states being more comprehensive than others. In addition to the IHA providing some hospital data on their website, Iowa does ‘require’ hospitals and healthcare facilities to report a balance sheet detailing assets, liabilities, net worth, income and expenses and “other reports of the costs incurred in rendering services as the department (of Public Health) may prescribe.” This requirement comes from Iowa Code, Section 135.75.

But is this information adequate?

According to my contact at the Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH), Iowa hospitals submit their yearly balance sheets and capital expenditures to the IDPH, but not every hospital participates, and the IDPH does “not have the time to track down the ones that do not (report).” This statute does not have a template for hospitals to use when reporting, nor is the information collated when received by IDPH. Hospital financial information is not shared outside IDPH unless it is requested. On an as-needed basis, the financial data is reviewed for “future projects that may trigger a Certificate of Need (process)” In short, “We do not have the staff to do much more with the information and have not had for many years.”

If the fate of each rural hospital is truly critical to our communities and state – and it is – how can Iowa and other states successfully address the needs of each hospital and the communities being served?

Next week’s post will discuss an interesting initiative that a national organization has designed to help state officials assess the financial viability and transparent practices of hospitals.

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