(Bloomberg) — The two gleaming operating rooms in this Kingston, New York, hospital still look brand-new seven years after being built for $5 million: They’ve never seen one patient, and never will.
With an occupancy rate of just over 50 percent, the 150-bed hospital, its surgery center and an emergency department renovated in 2011 for $6 million will be closed and retrofitted into what its new owner calls a “medical village” of outpatient services such as physical therapy and behavioral health services.
The story of the 123-year-old facility, located in a small town about 100 miles north of New York City, is repeating itself nationwide. Hospitals have been disappearing as government pressure to drive down costs moved care to standalone units, doctors’ offices and even patients’ homes. Now, with the election of Donald Trump and his promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, they find themselves more vulnerable than any other health care providers to the major disruptions ahead, as they could lose government funds and face an increase of uninsured or less-profitable patients.
“It’s been a very tough environment for hospitals,” said Jason McGorman, a Bloomberg Intelligence analyst. “They have to get into other areas and businesses to free up cash and generate better margins than inpatient care, which has become a slow-growth business.”
All kinds of services are moving outside hospitals: hip and knee replacements, heart valve repairs, even child birth. Mt. Sinai Health System in New York City, which is closing an 856-bed hospital to reopen at the same site as a 70-bed facility, has a program that provides hospital-level care in patients’ homes for conditions such as congestive heart failure and cellulitis infections.
Adapt or die
The timing of a possible undoing of the ACA, President Barack Obama’s signature health care law, is highly uncertain, with Republicans disagreeing on how to tackle the effort and what would replace the program. But regardless of Obamacare’s fate, the move toward cheaper outpatient services is forcing hospitals to adapt or die.
The driving forces behind the change are the payers of hospital bills — insurers and the government — seeking to cut costly hospital admissions through a mix of reimbursement restrictions and incentives. The Medicare program for the elderly is the biggest payer for medical services in the country, but lowering the costs of the Medicaid program for the poor, which is jointly funded by the federal government and states, is also a major focus. Some states — including New York, Texas and California — are so eager to reduce their Medicaid bills that they grant hospital systems millions of dollars to redesign care in ways that cut the need for beds.
One of the beneficiaries is Westchester Medical Center Health Network, which bought the former Kingston hospital in March. The nonprofit system is eligible for more than $360 million from New York state’s $8 billion program to reduce Medicaid admissions 25 percent over five years. About $89 million will be used to transform the Kingston facility and transfer some of its current services into another nearby affiliate.
Large for-profit chains such as HCA Holdings Inc. and Tenet Healthcare Corp. have taken measures to adapt. HCA has focused its operations in urban areas, where populations are higher and demand for high-margin services is greater, while Tenet has aggressively moved into outpatient care while expanding Conifer, its health management services unit.
Still, their shares fell sharply after Trump’s election as investors worried a repeal of Obamacare — which brought coverage to 20 million people since it was passed in 2010 — without a quick replacement would hurt profits. Hospital valuations are now near five-year lows on concerns that funding for the law’s public exchanges may be revoked, increasing bad debt expense and cutting earnings, according to Bloomberg Intelligence. Tenet and HCA declined to comment.
In the so-called medical village planned inside the former Kingston hospital, Westchester Medical has already mapped out areas for patient education and occupational and physical therapy. Behavioral and nutritional services, senior services such as respite care, perhaps even art therapy may be added in the future — anything that could help keep patients, especially with low income, from ending up in the emergency room.