A year of COVID: New Hampshire hospitals are struggling financially

  • Concord Hospital medical personnel wave to passing emergency vehicles in front of the hospital on Friday afternoon, April 10, 2020. Local emergency and police vehicles had a parade to thank all the medical personell at the hospital for their service during the COVID-19 outbreak. GEOFF FORESTER

  • Concord Hospital medical personnel wave to passing emergency vehicles in front of the hospital on Friday afternoon, April 10, 2020.

Monitor staff
Published: 3/10/2021 6:09:39 PM

New Hampshire hospitals have been bleeding millions of dollars a month as they fight to care for the casualties of the pandemic. The impacts on the state’s healthcare system may last for years. 

Between March and the end of 2020, hospitals have lost close to $500 million in revenue, said Steve Ahnen, the president of the New Hampshire Hospital Association. Even with financial assistance from the CARES Act, many hospitals are in precarious financial standing. 

Most of the revenue loss can be attributed to a decline in elective procedures. As COVID-19 spread through the United States, New Hampshire hospitals closed nonessential units almost overnight. Some of the most profitable services for hospitals, like nonessential surgeries and cardiac care, were paused for months. 

Even as hospitals began offering their most lucrative procedures again, Ahnen said patients have been hesitant to reschedule their appointments while COVID-19 remains a concern. This creates problems not just for hospital finances but patient health, he said. 

In addition to losing income, New Hampshire hospitals have also had to spend hefty amounts to provide care for COVID-19 patients – treating a coronavirus patient can cost a hospital between $20,000 and $88,000, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation – along with the ancillary costs of personal protective equipment and virus testing.

Scott Sloane, the chief financial officer of Concord Hospital, said during the winter months his hospital has spent about half a million dollars more a month than they would typically spent on personal protection equipment.

Recently, hospitals have also invested time and money into vaccination efforts. At the vaccine supersite in Loudon last weekend, Ahnen said many facilities volunteered their staff for hundreds of shifts, which can trigger overtime to fill in gaps at the hospital.

“We’re happy to continue to partner and work to do all of these things, because it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “We’ve just got to figure out a way to make sure that we can make ends meet.”

Ahnen said the state’s community hospitals have some of the narrowest profit margins in the country. The 24 not-for-profit hospitals in the state had an average of margin of 1.2% in 2019, he said.

Millions of dollars in lost revenue can have a significant impact when margins are so slim. Some hospitals have had to make sacrifices.

In April, Catholic Medical Center furloughed hundreds of staff members later laid off 71 employees. They also reduced hours for 40 positions and froze hiring for all nonessential positions.

Alex Walker, the chief operating officer at CMC, said his hospital’s finances have gradually improved over the course of the year — the hospital even ended the first quarter of the new fiscal year with a small surplus.

Still, he said, there’s a long way to go.

“This has been a long, hard year,” he said. “We’ve all aged in dog years and we’re not by any means fully on the other side of it, but I think everybody can see a little light at the end of the tunnel.”

Concord Hospital has been lucky enough to avoid furloughs or dramatic personnel cuts. However, they’ve had to take a hard look at staffing schedules to make sure they’re not spending more than absolutely necessary.

“Organizations always look at schedules and, shifts,” he said. “But you’re no longer looking at it once a week. You’re looking at it every day. We are basically tightening our belts.”

On a national level, the American Hospital Association estimates that the industry lost $323 billion between March and December 2020. The study found that the loss could be primarily attributed to canceled surgeries, the additional cost of personal protective equipment, and providing hospital workers with support like child care and medical screening.

It still isn’t clear how or when hospitals will financially rebound. Ahnen said it’s going to be difficult to start the recovery process until the pandemic ends which, with more contagious variants circulating, is unknown.

“If you could tell me when the pandemic is going to end, I could probably tell you give you a better answer,” Ahnen said. “It’s just unheard of that we would have those kinds of losses statewide.”

Teddy Rosenbluth bio photo

Teddy Rosenbluth is a Report for America corps member covering health care issues for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. She has covered science and health care for Los Angeles Magazine, the Santa Monica Daily Press and UCLA's Daily Bruin, where she was a health editor and later magazine director. Her investigative reporting has brought her everywhere from the streets of Los Angeles to the hospitals of New Delhi. Her work garnered first place for Best Enterprise News Story from the California Journalism Awards, and she was a national finalist for the Society of Professional Journalists Best Magazine Article. She graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in psychobiology.

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