Razor-thin hospital margins become the new normal

Hospital finances are starting to stabilize as razor-thin margins become the new normal, according to Kaufman Hall's latest "National Flash Hospital Report," which is based on data from more than 900 hospitals.

External economic factors including labor shortages, higher material expenses and patients increasingly seeking care outside of inpatient settings are affecting hospital finances, with the high level of fluctuation that margins experienced since 2020 beginning to subside.

Hospitals' median year-to-date operating margin was -1.1 percent in February, down from -0.8 percent in January, according to the report. Despite the slight dip, February marked the eight month in which the variation in month-to-month margins decreased relative to the last three years. 

"After years of erratic fluctuations, over the last several months we are beginning to see trends emerge in the factors that affect hospital finances like labor costs, goods and services expenses and patient care preferences," Erik Swanson, senior vice president of data and analytics with Kaufman Hall, said. "In this new normal of razor thin margins, hospitals now have more reliable information to help make the necessary strategic decisions to chart a path toward financial security."

High expenses continued to eat into hospitals' bottom lines, with February signaling a shift from labor to goods and services as the main cost driver behind hospital expenses. Inflationary pressures increased non-labor expenses by 6 percent year over year, but labor expenses appear to be holding steady, suggesting less dependence on contract labor, according to Kaufman Hall. 

"Hospital leaders face an existential crisis as the new reality of financial performance begins to set in," Mr. Swanson said. "2023 may turn out to be the year hospitals redefine their goals, mission, and idea of success in response to expense and revenue challenges that appear to be here for the long haul."

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