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Home Health and Hospice: Strategic Movement in an Evolving Market

Last year 2017, was a bit of a “downer” in terms of mergers/acquisitions in the home health and hospice industry.  Though 2017 was fluid for hospital and health system activity, the home health and hospice sectors lagged a bit.  Some of the lag was due to capacity concerns in so much that health system mergers, if they involve home health as part of the “roll-up”, take a bit of sorting out time to adjust to market capacity changes (in markets impacted by the consolidations).  The additional drag was attributable to CMS proposing to change the home health payment from a per visit function to a process driven by patient characteristics – after implementation, a net $950 million revenue cut to the industry.  CMS has since scrapped this proposed payment revision however, the future foreshadows payment revisions nonetheless including changing to some format of a shorter episode window for payment (ala 30 days).

Hospice has always been a bit of niche in terms of the post-acute industry.  Where consolidation and merger/acquisition activity occurs, it is most often fueled by a companion home health transaction.  De Novo hospice “only” activity of any scale has been steady and unremarkable, save regional and local movement.  From a reimbursement and policy implication standpoint, hospice has been far less volatile than home health.  Minor changes in terms of scaling payment levels by length of stay have only marginally impacted the revenue profile of the industry.  What continues to impact hospice patient flow is the medical/health care culture within the U.S. that continues to be in steep denial regarding the role of palliative medicine/care and end-of-life care, particularly for advanced age seniors.  Sadly, too many seniors still pass daily in expensive, inpatient settings such as hospitals and nursing homes (hospitals more so), racking up bills for (basically) futile healthcare services.  If and when this culture shifts, hospice will see expansion in the form of referrals and post-acute market share.

Despite somewhat (of) a tepid M&A climate in 2017, the tail-end of the year and early 2018 provided some fireworks.  Early 2018 is off to the races with some fairly large-scale consolidations.  In late 2017, LHC group and Almost Family announced their merger, recently completed.  Preceding this transaction in August, Christus Health in Texas formed a joint venture with LHC, encompassing its home health and hospice business (LTAcH too).  Tenet sold its home health business to Amedysis (though not a major transaction by any means).  And, Humana stepped forward to acquire Kindred’s Home Health business.

In the first months of 2018, Jordan, a regional home health and hospice business in Texas,  Oklahoma, Missouri and Arkansas, announced a merger with fellow regional providers Great Lakes and National Home Health Care.  The combined company will span 15 states with over 200 locations.  In other regions, The Ensign Group, primarily a nursing home and assisted living provider continues to expand into home health and hospice via acquisitions; primarily underperforming outlets that have market depth and need restructuring.  Former home health giant Amedysis continues to redefine its role in the industry via additions of agencies/outlets in states like Kentucky.  Amedysis, once the largest home health provider in the nation, fell prey to congressional inquiries and regulatory oversight regarding suspected over-payments and billing improprieties.  Having worked through these issues and shrinking its agency/outlet platform to a leaner, more core and manageable level, Amedysis is now growing again, though less for “bigger” sake, more for strategy sake.

Given the preceding news, some trends are emerging for home health in particular and a bit (quite a bit) less so for hospice.  Interestingly, one of the trends apparent for home health has been present for hospitals, health systems, and now starting, skilled nursing: there is too much capacity, somewhat misaligned with where the market needs exist.  I believe this issue also exists for Seniors Housing (see related post at https://wp.me/ptUlY-nA ) but the drivers are different as limited regulation and payment dynamics are at play for Seniors Housing.  While home health is no doubt, an industry with continued growth potential as more post-acute payment and policy drivers favor home care and outpatient over institutional options, capacity problems still exist.  By capacity I mean too many providers wrongly positioned within certain markets and not enough providers properly positioned to deliver more integrated elements of acute and post-acute, transitional services in expanding markets (e.g., Washington D.C., Denver, Dallas, etc.).

Prior to their final consolidation with Humana, Kindred provided an investor presentation explaining their rationale for exiting the home health business (somewhat analogous to their exit rationale from skilled nursing).  The salient pages are available at this link: Kindred Investor Pres 2 18 . Fundamentally, I think the underpinnings of the argument beginning with the public policy and reimbursement dynamics which are extrapolated against a “worse-case” backdrop (MedPac recommendations don’t equate to Congressional action directly nor do tax cuts equate directly to Medicare reimbursement cuts) get lost to the real reason Kindred exited: excess leverage.  Kindred was overly leveraged and as we have seen with all too many like/analogous scenarios, excessive overhead and fixed costs in a tight and competitive market with sticky reimbursement dynamics and risk concentration on Medicare beget few strategic options other than shrink or exit.

With the backdrop set, the home health environment is at an evolutionary pass – the fork-in-the-road applies for many providers: bigger in scale or focused regionally with more network alignment required (aka strategic partnerships).  I think the following is safe to conclude, at least for this first half of 2018.

  • The M&A driver today is strategy and market, less financial.  While financial concerns remain due to some funky (technical term) policy dynamics and reimbursement unknowns, the same are more tame than 12-18 months ago.  To be certain, financial gain expectations are part of every transaction, just less impactful in terms of motivation.
  • The dominant strategic driver is network alignment: being where the referrals are.  The next driver is “positioning” as a player managing population health dynamics.  Disease management focus is key here.
  • Medicare Advantage penetration is re-balancing patient flow in many markets.  As the penetration escalates above 50% (half or better of all Med A days coming from Med Advantage), the referral flows are shaping to more demand for in-home care (away from institutional settings), shorter lengths of stay across all post-acute segments, increasing complexity and acuity on transition, and pay-for-performance dynamics on outcomes (particularly, re-hospitalization).
  • Market locations are key and very, very strategic.  With home health, being able to channel productivity, especially in a low labor supply/high demand environment, is imperative.  Being proximal to referrals, being tight with geographic boundaries, being able to lever staff resources, and being able to deploy technology to enhance efficiency is operationally, imperative.
  • Partnerships are synergistic today and in-flux.  It used to be that a key partner was an acute hospital.  Today, the acute hospital remains important but not necessarily, primary.  With physicians starting to embrace ACOs and Bundled Payment models, the referral relationship most preferred may be direct agency to doctor.  In fact, the hospital partner may not be anywhere near as valuable as the surgical center partner, owned and controlled by physicians.
  • Capacity and capability to bear risk from a population management perspective and to accept patients with higher acuity needs (in-home) and broader chronic conditions.  Effectively, home health agencies are going to continue to feel pressure to take patients with multiple chronic needs and comorbidities and to coordinate these care needs across perhaps, two to three provider spectrums (outpatient, specialty physicians, hospice if required, etc.).

 

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May 23, 2018 Posted by | Home Health, Hospice | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Is a Paradigm Shift Starting in Senior Living?

A number of years ago, post-acute/senior living analysts, etc. started warning of a coming paradigm shift for skilled nursing and home health.  I started writing and advising about this shift well over a decade ago.  The signs were obvious.

  • Rapid expenditure growth as a percentage of Medicare/Medicaid outlays.
  • MedPac warnings to Congress of rising profit margins in these industry segments.
  • Increasing reports from the OIG and other agencies substantiating billing abuse and likely, widespread fraud.
  • Rapid agency and outlet growth.
  • Rising per unit prices and cap rates.
  • For SNFs REIT deals and rental rates that were clearly, unsustainable given the market conditions and policy trends.
  • Overall reimbursement dynamics including passage of the Affordable Care Act that foretold stable to shrinking Medicare reimbursement.
  • Increasing Medicare Advantage penetration.
  • Increasing Medicaid funding problems at the state level and increasing conversions of state programs to Managed Medicaid platforms.

The handwriting was on the wall and even without a clear crystal ball, I began warning those that would listen (from clients to students to industry watchers) that the post-acute provider segments of SNF and Home Health would face stiff headwinds and the unprepared and unimaginative, suffer losses and operating struggles unlike any in recent times.  As much as I loathe the “I told you so” speeches or references, the proof today is in the news constantly.  One need (only) reference Genesis, HCR/ManorCare, Skyline, Signature, Kindred, Amedysis, Gentiva, etc. (I could go on) now versus ten years ago (or less) for validation.  The paradigm of ratchet-up fee for service Medicare encounters, particularly therapy related, increase outlet span, more is better, bigger is better, don’t worry about quality metrics, and find ways to minimize top line operating costs, etc. ended with a resounding THUD (you (and I) knew it would).

To the question posed as the title: Is Seniors Housing/Living starting a similar paradigm shift?  Because such shifts start gradual and pick up momentum as the “trend” winds strengthen, its easy to claim “no” or to ignore the bits and pieces that are the harbingers; a nod to a point-in-time. Lately, I have had an increasing number of conversations with learned folks and those heavily invested in the “housing” elements (independent and assisted) of senior living.  To a one, they all remained bullish for principally ONE reason – demographics.  Each points forward to a rising or swelling tide of senior citizens; byproduct of the great Baby Boom. With confidence, I hear an argument for a demand proposition that current and even near term supply, won’t meet.  This is in spite of the current reality that supply is greater than demand and occupancy is declining consistently, not increasing.  The Brookdale argument is thus: Give it time, the residents are coming and occupancy will improve.  I am skeptical.

The economist in me is uncertain that other factors aren’t more in-play than accounted for or buffered by the “demographics” justification.  For example, the notion that this Baby Boomer customer is the same customer that has been consuming and driving the current seniors housing paradigm is I’ll argue, a false premise.  Their sheer numbers alone won’t guarantee supply consumption.  Students of economics and history will find lessons aplenty such as the death of steam locomotion, coal power generation (though not fully dead), wired television, cassette format video and audio, etc.  The customer bases for these products or industries never shrunk and in fact, they grew in number and purchasing power.  Other dynamics shifted the demand curve ever so slightly for alternatives initially, then rapidly as the same came to the market and price points shifted. The fallacy is that demographics by number alone mean a sustainable market.

Seniors housing has a very elastic demand curve.  The crux of price elasticity is that the greater or higher the price, the smaller the number of buyers.  For the demographics of the coming wave of future seniors to be a demand boon for seniors housing, they (the seniors) must have purchasing power to consume the supply of product at the price levels current and future.  This group must also have limited or no more than present, alternatives to the product (a fixed base residence).  As their power to consume is measured by wealth, wealthier folks demand more alternatives and have more options.  For example, a woman with a million dollar net worth and a $200,000 annual income can arguably buy 90% of the new automobile models (personal use) produced in a given year. She may buy a Rolls Royce or a Honda Fit.  A woman with a ten thousand dollar net worth and a $20,000 annual income probably can’t buy any of the new automobile models and will need to use public transportation or acquire a very, very used car. As is the economic constant, shifts in wealth and substitution products across the price spectrum will influence supply or products and the prices thereof.  Today, there is a bit of a supply inequity in seniors housing and as such, occupancy has trended down.

The supply inequity is seen via the homogeneity of the product, especially product that has come on the market within the last decade.  Where occupancy is consistently high, the product is market or less than market, priced.  Value-based products with or without services are more occupied than their above market competitors today.  Fewer in number, their supply is consumed plus and in constant demand.  I know today of no market or below market (subsidized or rent controlled) seniors housing that is good condition, in a good location (not crime ridden, etc.) that isn’t full or close to full – constantly.

To be clear, I am not anti or even really too bearish (yet) about seniors housing, assisted or independent.  I was never totally bearish about the SNF and Home Health sector, just the paradigm that was operative.  I believe that strategically aligned, market-sensitive product and providers will always do well.  Unfortunately however, I also believe that too many seniors housing units and operators are “me too” driven, emphasizing a “same-same” approach.  I find it hard to believe that the look-alike, feel alike, same amenities, different location or even similar location can be justified by “coming” demographics when similar providers, at similar price-points are at five-year occupancy lows.  All too often, I am reminded of conversations I had with SNF operators telling me their justification for acquisition and the price per bed paid was: “We are different.  We’re going to drive Medicare census to 40 plus percent, raise acuity and RUG levels, utilize technology to be superefficient, etc.”  And when I would say “how” and show me where “you” had done this before and maintained high-quality, etc. and negotiated far better rates with the growing Medicare Advantage market, I got the typical ‘ignore’ response.  Suffice to say, I was never proven wrong.

Because I will be asked, here’s what I am seeing that suggests the beginning of a paradigm shift for seniors housing – biggest for Assisted Living but still palpable and impactful for Independent Living.

  • While the demographics are good, the economics of the demographics are not as good.  Baby Boomers will simply not have the same economic wealth and thus purchasing power of their parents and grandparents.  While some will have done well, the decades of their work and maturation cycle did not see the same kind of wealth and economic expansion that occurred for their parents.  One simple measure very much tied to seniors housing is worth review – residential real estate.  Most Boomers will have had multiple homes and have consumed large portions of their equity to “buy-up” or to adjust lifestyle.  Their parents did not (home equity loans didn’t exist).  Most Boomers also will have started with a more expensive home basis than their parents and thus, will not see the value appreciation.  For example, I know many seniors that bought their home for $40K and sold it for $400K – appreciation of ten-fold.  For a $100,000 Boomer investment to reap the same, the appreciation would need to be $1,000,000.  This is just price.  If I factored in life-cycle cost, the net is far worse (higher interest rates, taxes, etc. over the ownership period).
  • Seniors housing is not getting cheaper.  In many regards, driven by market forces to be more opulent, bigger, better, more amenities, etc., it is getting more price inefficient (cost per square foot needed to sustain).  As the price rises, the product demand becomes more elastic and the number of consumers economically capable of consuming, fewer.
  • Alternative products are increasing and ala carte service providers, expanding. Where staying “at-home” was not much of an option a decade or so ago, it is becoming easier with technology and  service availability that suppports, aging in-place.
  • Planned development communities that are geared toward active, younger seniors are consuming a market segment between 65 and 80.  These communities have club houses, maintenance services, etc., and are typified by private homes, developed to accommodate early level disabilities (no stairs, grab bars in bathrooms, etc.).
  • Because of the point prior, the migration age to seniors housing is increasing accompanied by additional disability.  The more frail and disabled this cohort becomes, the more difficult it is for the provider to keep costs low as operations must support the true needs of the resident.  This is a real problem for Assisted Living as occupancy today is often predicated on catering to a much more frail and debilitated client, many who as little as five years prior, would have resided in a nursing facility.
  • Lastly, the market trends and information are illustrative of the harbingers of a paradigm shift.
    • Weakening cap rates and per unit values
    • Over-built markets with product, still coming into a market already below 90% occupied and trending lower.
    • Brookdale  (enough said)
    • Chinese investors pulling back from the sector – more cautious investing
    • Period over period occupancy declines in the industry – Assisted now at just over 85%!
    • Per NIC 22 of the top 31 markets saw occupancy decline, quarter over quarter
    • Rising cost of capital and fewer starts (finally).  This may actually be a good thing as the sector needs some leveling forces.
    • Rising labor costs.  Again, this may be a good thing.
    • Federal and state-to-state pressure for Assisted Living regulatory actions.  Again, this may be a good thing as too many ALFs are over their-skis in terms of capability to take care of their resident populations.
    • For providers reliant on Medicaid-waiver clients to bolster occupancy, we are seeing rate “reductions” consistently in these programs and know of more to come (no increases yet).

In an upcoming article, I’ll offer some thought on what is working and why and where the market will be for seniors housing and why over the next decade or two.

 

April 26, 2018 Posted by | Assisted Living, Senior Housing | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

SNFs and the Medicaid Conundrum

What do Morningside Ministries in San Antonio, Genesis Healthcare, Signature Healthcare, HCR ManorCare, and Syverson Health and Rehab in Wisconsin have in common?  Answer: A terminal relationship with Medicaid. While Genesis isn’t “dead” yet, it is fundamentally on life support with a stock price of $1.50 per share and a Medicaid payer mix averaging 73%.  HCR ManorCare is in bankruptcy. Morningside Ministries closed a facility in San Antonio as it simply could not survive on the Texas Medicaid payment at its Chandler Estate facility.  Syverson in Wisconsin is among a slow growing list of SNFs that cannot financially exist under Wisconsin’s Medicaid system – the poorest payer in relation to cost in the nation.

For the vast majority of SNFs nationwide, Medicaid is a conundrum; a Catch 22 of epic proportion.  It is by far, the dominant payer source for LTC among the elderly and thus, the largest payment source for SNF residents when they enter an SNF or fall back on, shortly (typically within 6 months) after their admission.  For the average SNF (and majority of the universe), an unwillingness to openly accept a Medicaid resident equates to an empty bed and no (zero) revenue.  This phenomenon is the Medicaid conundrum – damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario.

Few SNFs have the reputational excellence, the referral base, capacity limitation and payer source alternatives to minimize or limit, their Medicaid admissions.  Those that do typically are less than 75 beds in capacity and all private rooms, located within an affluent or fairly affluent community, are attached or part of a referral source such as a retirement community or a hospital system, have high star ratings and a good survey/compliance history, and have strong amenity features and equally strong customer reviews/experiences to market.  In such rare or atypical circumstances, the facility is able to control its Medicaid exposure to less than a third of its payer mix.

At greater than a third or so of its payer mix, the SNF is forced to undertake operational strategies and approaches anathema to resident interests and thus, business stability.  First, the SNF must minimize its fixed expenses if possible.  In organizations/facilities where rent payments and debt payments were high comparatively and no opportunity to reduce these payments available, the SNF was vulnerable to any vacancy and to any substantive changes in other payer sources.  This is the demise scenario for HCR ManorCare, Signature and Genesis. Too much of their revenue component was allocated to fixed rent/occupancy costs.

Second, with high Medicaid census, the SNF is forced to be vigilant on variable expenses, predominantly staffing hours and staff mix (professional licensed to unlicensed).  While expense vigilance is good in any business, SNF staff to resident ratios (gross) and by acuity adjusted, are corollary to good care results.  Too few staff, care suffers.  Too few licensed staff and care really suffers.  Today, the regulatory/compliance environment is keenly focused on staff numbers, compliments by license, and competency levels.  In fact, the Phase II implementation of the new(er) COPs for SNFs (new since fall 2016) require facilities to conduct an assessment of resident care needs and conditions and to assure that the same are matched with staff adequate in number and competence to provide care for identified needs and conditions.  Citations today, classified as jeopardy or actual harm, come with instant fines/forfeitures attached, starting at the date of the violation.  It does not take long for an Immediate Jeopardy citation to accumulate a fine of tens of thousands of dollars.

Third, higher Medicaid census requires revenue offsets via other payers such as private insurance, private pay (resident funds), and/or Medicare and Medicare replacement.  The Catch 22 is that the higher the Medicaid census, the greater the reliance the facility has on these other payers.  A facility thus, experiencing any kind of quality or reputation problems, will experience difficulty attracting these higher payers, in sufficient number, to offset the Medicaid “payment effect”.  Vacancies increase and feeling pressure that any occupant is better than none, Medicaid census slowly increases.  Depending on the fixed cost level for the facility, coverage of rent or debt may become problematic (Signature, Genesis, etc.) whereby the attainable EBITDAR is less than the rent or occupancy payment due (coverage below 1).

For the large majority of the industry, the Medicaid Conundrum is worsening as the overall revenue perspective/outlook tightens while operating costs are slowly but steadily increasing, due to:

  • Wage inflation.  An improving economy and employment outlook at the $15 an hour and under labor strata has place wage pressure on SNFs.  The lower to middle end of the SNF workforce is in high demand in many markets meaning that employers are competing for the same basic labor hours across multiple industries.  A typical SNF CNA may find today, equal or better wage opportunities at a Costco or Wal-Mart with “better” working conditions (no customer fannies to wipe, drool to manage, etc.), less physical demanding and more “fun” in terms of atmosphere.  Given the 24 hour/365 labor demands of a SNF, a $.50 increase in hourly compensation can quickly equate to     in a 100 occupied bed facility.  If the facility is in Missouri or Kansas, this increase in operating cost is juxtaposed with a Medicaid rate cut.
  • New Conditions of Participation for SNFs (federal regulations) are phasing in and the cost of compliance is increasing.  Regulatory requirements for facility assessments that drive staff hours and mix plus more emphasis on documentation, training, physician and pharmacy engagement, etc. are adding to operating cost.  Again, this is occurring while rates are flat or in some states, decreasing.

And, while operating costs are slowly increasing, revenue make-up/alternatives to Medicaid are eroding.

  • Other payment sources, particularly Medicare, are not increasing fast enough (if at all), to soak-up the expense increase or Medicaid rate reduction.  In the case of Medicare, an increasing number of SNF days are paid for by Medicare Advantage (replacement) plans.  These plans do not operate EXACTLY like fee-for-service Medicare in so much that they may pay less per diem (and do) and may manage utilization (length of stay) to minimize overall expenditure risk of the plan.  In some markets, the Medicare Advantage beneficiaries are equal to or greater in number for an SNF than the fee-for-service beneficiaries.
  • Shifting care and referral pattern trends have reduced the overall need for a utilization thereto, of SNF beds.  Simply, there is less overall demand for SNF beds than total supply.  Occupancy levels nationally have shrunk year over year for the past decade and additional shrinkage is forecasted until closures reduce supply closer to demand.  In certain areas, the supply may be as much as one-third greater than the demand/need.  Medicaid waiver programs that now pay for community based housing alternatives (Assisted Living and support services) have dented demand along with a shift in post-acute referral to outpatient and home health for non-complicated, orthopedic rehabilitation post surgery.

For the SNF industry, Medicaid has become an addiction no different from nicotine.  Facilities simply cannot survive without it yet it is ruining their health (operationally).  The alternatives to Medicaid are to close shop.  The facilities most reliant, cannot break the cycle as the steps necessary to rebase and retool an SNF revenue and quality model are expensive and long.  Genesis will not get there.  HCR ManorCare couldn’t and didn’t.  The damage of too high of fixed costs and too much reliance on government reimbursement, particularly Medicaid and then an increasing Medicare rate to offset the loss, was a Fools Paradox after all.

Ending this cyclical nightmare is going to require forces and changes to the current paradigm that are yet, on the drawing board.

  • Wholesale changes to the Medicaid funding process are required.  Either more money must flow into the system from the Federal side or the State side (less likely) or the product cost must reduce (see next point).
  • The biggest driver of product cost for an SNF is regulation.  Without wholesale regulatory reform, it is unlikely the system (Medicaid) can find enough funding to adequately compensate an SNF for the cost of care.  The net will be poorer care (calling for thus, more regulation) or more closures leaving service gaps for the most vulnerable older adults.
  • Increasing advances in different product/service options and designs that are cheaper alternatives to institutional care can and will, continue.  Again, speeding the implementation of alternatives requires incentive and regulatory reform but there is no question, certain home and community based options are cheaper than SNF options.
  • Closure of poor performing facilities and constriction on supply is needed.  The industry must shrink and government needs to take an active role to reduce the overall supply and particularly, the supply tied to poor performing facilities.  Fewer beds equal higher occupancy, more efficiencies and enhance funding options (easier to derive funding models tied to actual, organic demand vs. tied to bed capacity and “forecasts” based on flawed assumptions of days of care).

Until these steps are taken, the conundrum will remain entrenched and most facilities, will continue to wrestle with Medicaid addiction problems.  Cold turkey is not an option for nearly all and when no hope remains, facility demise will continue to be the final resort.  Watchers of my home state of Wisconsin will see the most tragic examples as the state has a thriving economy, low unemployment and the worst Medicaid system in the nation.  With paltry additions of funding like 2%, when costs are climbing by double, more closures are certain.

March 30, 2018 Posted by | Policy and Politics - Federal, Skilled Nursing | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

SNF Outlook: 2018/2019

As 2017 closed, a number of projects kept me busy right up to the Christmas holiday.  Among these projects was a focus on the SNF industry current and its fortunes going forward, principally driven by clients in the investment industry.  With REIT troubles, portfolio defaults on the part of HCR and Consulate, Sabra divesting Genesis facilities and Genesis completely exiting Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska and Kansas plus nervousness over rising debt levels and increasing operating expenses (before interest/debt and rent) at Ensign, there is growing concern about “blood in the water”….and when (do) the sharks arrive, particularly for REITs which hold a large number of the physical SNF assets. Back in May of 2017 I wrote a post on the Kindred, HCR, REITs and where the SNF industry was headed.  Readers can refresh here: https://wp.me/ptUlY-m7 . For this post, its time to re-examine the industry economically and structurally and the policy and industry dynamics at-play that will affect the fortunes of the SNFs and the firms that invest in them or the industry.

First, its important to understand the general health policy and reimbursement dynamics at-play in the SNF industry.

  • Phase II Transition of  New SNF Conditions of Participation: Starting in December of 2017, the Phase II survey requirements began corollary to the new SNF Conditions of Participation.  Given a fairly aggressive industry lobbying push to CMS and the Trump Administration with respect to “regulatory overreach and burden”, CMS eased compliance requirements but did not abate any survey or compliance requirements related to Phase II.  In easing compliance requirements, CMS agreed to not impose remedies for Phase II non-compliance and not to impact Star Ratings under the Inspections component for one year.  Given how many SNFs are struggling already with compliance issues and the cost of implementation and compliance, a one-year hiatus for remedies isn’t much of a reprieve.
  • Value-Based Purchasing: Beginning in October of 2018 (FY 2019), SNFs with poor performance (below the target) on the 30 day readmission elements measured under VBR will see their Medicare reimbursement reduced by 2%.  Conversely, high-performing facilities will see a modest incentive, up to 2%, added to their reimbursement.
  • Medicare: In addition to a reimbursement outlook that is flat, a new looming specter has appeared known as RCS-1.  RCS-1 is the proposed new resident classification system for reimbursement for SNFs.  If CMS pushes forward on the time table noted in the proposed rule, the first phase of changes could begin as early as October of 2018 (FY 2019).  For SNFs that rely heavily on the rehabilitation RUGs in the present PPS system, the transition could be expensive and painful as therapy in the new system is UNDER rewarded in terms of “more equaling more payment” and a premium is placed on the overall case-mix including nursing, of the SNF’s Medicare population.  Further, lengths of stays are targeted for shortening as the reimbursement model under RCS-1 reduces payment by 1% per day as the resident’s stay progresses beyond the 15th day.  While the proposed model is “expenditure neutral” per CMS, there will be clear winners and losers.  Winners are facilities that have a balanced Medicare “book” or case-mix (nursing and therapy).  Losers are the facilities that have parlayed the “more minute, longer length of stay system”, focused on the highest therapy paying RUG categories.  These categories evaporate and the payment mechanics with them.
  • Medicaid: This payment source continues to be a revenue center nightmare for most SNFs in most states.  Medicaid underpays as a general rule, an SNF, compared to its daily cost of care for an average resident. As a result, the net loss an SNF will achieve for each Medicaid resident day can be minimal to jaw dropping (depending on the State).  For example, in Wisconsin, the average loss per Medicaid day exceeds $55.00.  This means that for every day of care reimbursed by Medicaid, an SNF must make-up via other payers, the $55.00 loss that comes from Medicaid.  An average SNF has fifty percent of its resident days paid for by Medicaid.  In a 100 bed facility in Wisconsin (assuming 100% occupancy), the facility loses daily, $2,750.  For a month, the loss total expands to $82,500 and for a year, just below one million dollars ($990K). Neighboring states such as Iowa (loss of $12 per day) and Illinois (loss of $25 per day) have better reimbursement ratios per daily cost but present other challenges. For example, Illinois has such overall budgetary problems that annually,  facilities must accept IOUs in lieu of payment as the State runs short of funds.  Kansas and Missouri had rate cuts this past year.  Only two states in the nation in 2016 has surplus rates under Medicaid – North Dakota and Virginia (Virginia is basically break-even).

Adding to this picture are the market and economic forces that provide additional headwinds for many (SNFs).

  • Medicare Advantage: 2018 will mark the year where 50% of all Medicare days for SNFs are paid by non-fee for service sources/plans; the dominant being Medicare Advantage.  In some metro regions, Medicare Advantage days already eclipse the 50% mark (Chicago for example).  Because there remains a surplus of SNFs beds in most if not nearly all markets, the Medicare Advantage plans have been able to set price points/ reimbursement rates below the Fee for Service rate; in most case, minus 10% to 15% lower.  Similarly, these plans focus on utilization and length of stay so rates are not only lower but stays, universally shorter.
  • Bundled Payments and ACOs: While CMS axed the core of the evolving mandatory bundled payments (hip, knee and cardiac), various  voluntary programs/projects are active, fertile and expanding in many markets.  The same is true, though less so, with ACOs.  As with Medicare Advantage but on a more focused basis, these initiatives seek to shorten length of stays, pay less for inpatient care, and focus on quality providers versus generic market locations.  In other words, the incentives for upstream providers (hospitals) under bundled payments  and ACOs is to cherry-pick the post-acute world for high quality, highly rated providers and to work to make the overall post-acute utilization as efficient and non-inpatient related as possible.
  • Care and Point of Service Advances: As technology and innovation in health care and direct surgical and medical care expand, the need for certain types of care services shifts.  Inpatient, post-acute care is seeing its share of “location of care” impact.  Patients once commonly referred to Inpatient Rehabilitation Facilities now hit the SNF.  Patients that may have gone to the SNF post a knee replacement or even a hip replacement, now go home with home health.  With the very real possibility of an equalized post-acute payment forthcoming, the post-acute transformation from a focus on “setting of care determinants” will all but erode.  What this means is that occupancy dynamics will continue to change and building environments that can’t be shifted to a new occupancy demand and patient type, will be obsolete.

Given the above forces, policy dynamics, etc., the overall outlook skews a bit negative for the SNF sector in general.  And while I may be a bit “bearish”, there are some unique opportunities present for properly positioned, properly capitalized providers.  Unfortunately for most investors, these providers and provider organizations are generally private, regional, perhaps non-profit and in nearly all (if not all) cases, not part of a REIT.  Some general facts that bear understanding and reinforcing.

  • By nearly all quantitative measures and expert reviews, the industry is over-bedded (too much capacity) by minimally 25% up to 33%.  This is not to say that any one facility in any one location typifies the stigma but as a whole, a solid 25% of the bed capacity could evaporate and patients would still have ample beds to access.  Remember, the average industry occupancy has shrunk to 80% of beds available.
  • Average revenue due to reimbursement changes and the impact of Medicare Advantage and “stuck to declining” Medicaid rates, has shrunk on a per day basis and a Year over Year basis; down from $259 per day in January 2015 to $244 per day in July 2016 (negative 2%).

  • The average age of physical plant across the sector is greater than 25 years (depreciated life).  The average gross age since put into use is older than 30 years.  This means that the typical SNF is larger in scope, very institutional, and expensive to retrofit or modernize.  In many cases, modernization to private rooms, smaller footprints, more common space, etc. comes at a cost greater than any potential Return on Investment scenario.  The winning facility profile today is under 100 beds, all private rooms, moderately to highly amenitized and flexible in design scope and use (smaller allocations of corridor or single use spaces).
  • Quality ratings and performance matters today.  SNFs that rate 3 stars or lower on the Medicare Star system will have trouble garnering referrals, especially for patients with quality payment sources.  It is not easy to raise star levels if the drag is caused by poor survey performance.  In a recent review I did for a project, analyzing the Consulate holdings of a REIT (SNF assets leased by the REIT to Consulate for management and operations), the average Star rating of the SNFs was below 3 stars and the 80th percentile, just above 2 stars).

The general conclusion?  Watch for another rocky year for the SNF sector and particularly, the large public chains and the REITs that hold their assets.  The sector has significant pressures across the board and those pressures are not decreasing or abating.  Still, there will be winners and I look for strong regional players, private localized operators and certain non-profits (health system affiliated and not) to continue to do well and see their fortunes rise.  A change in Medicare payment to RCS-1 will benefit this group but at the expense of the other SNFs in the industry that have not focused on quality, have a disproportionately high Medicaid census and have used Medicare fee for service/therapy/RUG dynamics to create a margin.

January 18, 2018 Posted by | Policy and Politics - Federal, Skilled Nursing | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Medicaid Reform: Hope for Taming the Gorilla?

A few weeks back, I wrote a piece regarding Medicaid and its ties to the fortunes (lack thereof ) of some the largest SNF provider groups. Today a high percentage of resident census connected to Medicaid as a payer source is the largest contributor to the flagging financial condition of Genesis, HCR/ManorCare, Signature, and others.  With large losses stemming from inadequate Medicaid payments and shrinking sources of offset via Medicare (for a number of reasons), these organizations are perilously close to bankruptcy (or are fundamentally there as is the case with HCR/ManorCare).  For reference, see the previous post at  http://wp.me/ptUlY-mC

As I talk with investors across the nation (and internationally in some cases) interested in the fortunes of the REITs that hold a ton of the Genesis, HCR/ManorCare, et.al., assets (buildings) and or the fortunes of the companies themselves (Genesis is publicly traded with a stock value current, hovering just above $1 per share), I field the same question(s) repeatedly.  How did we get here and what needs to change for these companies to survive, or can they?  Quickly, allow me to recap where the SNF industry and particularly the groups aforementioned and others like them, is at.

  • First and most crippling, their dominant payer source is Medicaid. In the case of Genesis and HCR/ManorCare, above 66% on average in each SNF.
  • Medicare Advantage is a growing piece of the Medicare payer equation. In some markets, Medicare Advantage plans account for more than 50% of the Medicare patient days in a SNF referral stream.  These payers (the Advantage plans) are paying at Medicare MINUS levels.  Medicare minus 10% is phenomenal, if attainable. In most markets the discount is greater.
  • Most markets have a surplus of available SNF beds (nationally too).  Competition among providers is fierce for quality mix (better payers).  Because of this, the Advantage plans do not (yet) need to negotiate favorable terms as someone, somewhere will accept the discount; preferable to the vacant bed.
  • The policy landscape is adjusting to a new reality in which Stars matter.  Higher rated (Five Star) providers are now favored by payers, providers and consumers alike.  The steerage has started and it won’t subside.   Hospitals to physicians to consumer groups and payers preference is toward providers rated 4 Stars or higher.  While this pressure is yet overt, its subtle and growing and I hear it constantly as hospitals for example, won’t abide readmission risk and if they are in bundled or other at-risk payment projects (physicians too), they seek better partners (quality ratings) to handle their referrals.
  • There is a distinct preference shift among physicians, consumers and payers (bundled for example as well Medicare Advantage) to minimize inpatient stays both by length or by necessity.  Certain orthopedic profiles that once were a SNF staple (joint replacements) good for a 20 plus day Part A stay at high therapy RUGs either don’t last 20 days or don’t get referred at all.  I am seeing a wholesale shift of these patients to home health and outpatient primarily, followed by short (demanded) stays, 40 to 50% fewer in days, on an inpatient basis.  This volume change has demonstrably hurt certain SNF provides formerly reliant on it to offset Medicaid losses.
  • The physical plant assets are old, oversized, and dated.  The new, successful SNF model is smaller buildings, all private rooms, nicely appointed.  Genesis, et.al., represent some of the largest and oldest plant assets in the industry.  They are inefficient, institutional, and in many cases, burdened by high rent payments and comparably, high levels of deferred upkeep and maintenance (particularly interiors and movable equipment). Wholesale renovation is impractical as the investment is greater than the return on assets attainable now and across the near-horizon.
  • The regulations, especially the newly updated Federal Conditions of Participation for SNFs, phasing in as I write, are crippling to these providers.  These new regulations are coming with increasing cost while reimbursement options are flat to decreasing (Missouri and Kansas just had Medicaid rate cuts).  The Medicare increase for FY 2018 is 1%.  These new regulations require in some cases, wholesale changes to how SNFs operate when it comes to analyzing staffing needs, resident preferences, food and cultural issues, etc., all concurrent to REDUCTIONS in Medicaid rates.

So, to the point of this piece and the question that bears: What needs to change with respect to Medicaid to abate the problems present?  Secondarily, is there a survival/revival scenario for Genesis, Signature, HCR, et.al.?  I’ll answer the second question first as the first, is harder to sort through.

  • The business model of Genesis, Signature, etc. today is misaligned to the industry revenue/payer and market incentives.  There simply is no quick fix to repurpose the assets and to change the quality ratings and payer-mix, to make many of the facilities viable.
  • Their fixed costs are too high in terms of rent payments.  The REITs have a valuation problem as their books hold an asset today at a value that is by all definitions, impaired.  The valuation is based on cash flow which simply, in terms of rent payments, is no longer attainable.  Think about it: Rent coverage levels below 1 aren’t sufficient today to keep payments current.   A few articles back on this site, I wrote a piece regarding “Stranded Assets”.  This covers these concepts in-depth: http://wp.me/ptUlY-ms
  • Supply exceeds demand in many markets in terms of bed capacity.  Current SNF occupancy runs in the 85 to 88% range in most markets.  This today, is net of beds removed from service in many states to avoid paying (additional) bed tax or getting hit with Medicaid rate reductions and a loss of bed-hold payments for failure to meet occupancy levels (typically 90 plus percent).

The answer: Survival as is not likely and the industry needs to re-base again in terms of valuations, operators and capacity.  The underlying forces that took us to this current paradigm will not shift soon enough or demonstrably favorable (revenue/income), to alter the course for these providers.  I offer that this period is analogous in the incentive changes to the arrival of PPS for the industry in the early 90s.  Rebasing occurred as cost-rate payments disappeared and the rewards tied to “spending” more changed.  During this time, seven of the top 10 SNF organizations went bankrupt, some never to return to publicly traded status.

Turning to the 800 pound gorilla or Medicaid.  Medicaid reform is a significant challenge and without something changing from its present course for SNFs, the fortune for the SNF industry and this payer source is below bleak or grim.  For Medicaid as a payer, SNF care is a small portion of the overall outlay and actually shrinking as other programmatic expansions have consumed growing amounts of resources (Medicaid expansion).  The program drivers are primary physician and hospital care. The primary users of Medicaid today are working poor and their ranks are growing – rural and urban.   As applicable to seniors, Medicaid-waiver benefits have expanded at a far greater rate than SNF care utilization (which has continued to decrease).  Waiver programs, popular for keeping seniors out of institutional settings, have expanded as the needs of an aging society have expanded.

Medicaid is funded principally, by States attaining various levels of revenue, allocating the same toward a Federal funding approach that matches the revenue, and then forwards the Federal share to the state.  As the Feds choose to incent certain Medicaid programmatic initiatives, the Feds may sweeten the pot with enhanced matching dollars or a full (initial ) funding approach such as under Medicaid Expansion.  The flaw in any of these approaches is the temporary nature of the Federal cash subsidy and the limitations imposed to the State that prohibit the State from cutting the outlays conditioned on the Federal incentive.  In other words, the Vegas slot machine effect (just enough payoff to keep you seated and pumping-in dollars anticipating a bigger payoff).  States get hooked and the resort they have to curtailing or balancing their piece of the Medicaid pie (once the Federal piece shrinks) are raising revenue (typically very tough through income taxes hence the bed tax games, tobacco tax games, and the inter-fund related robbery that goes on state to state among schools, highways, gasoline taxes, casino funds, etc.) or cutting provider payments.  It is the latter that has hurt the SNF industry by reference, in this article.

Medicaid in its current form is a broken system and one that was bastardized to break with the ACA.  Expansion hastened its demise, though it was on life support when the ACA was passed and implemented.  It has become a catch-all basket of anything entitlement, non-Medicare and as a result, it is a mess.  The sad reality is every policy analyst with any cred knows it as does all of the House, the Senate, and everyone at DHHS.  The difficulty is how does something like this get fixed.  The prevailing answer: Punt it back to the states and give them flexibility to “innovate” otherwise known as, the Block Grant approach.  Instead, as I conclude this piece with others sure to follow, consider the following.

  • For an SNF, Medicaid is a rate drag – a loser producing daily revenue shortfalls to cost.  It’s not that the rate may be inadequate its that the costs are too high.  The point here is that without wholesale federal regulatory relief from rules and requirements that haven’t shown any evidence of producing better care outcomes, their is no opportunity to reform Medicaid as a payer adequate enough in rate, for a SNF to survive with a majority Medicaid census.  Simple economics apply: Either rate rises to offset cost increases or costs decrease to allow rate to be adequate to produce and sustain, product quality.  The gap between regulatory increases and overreach and rate inadequacy (Medicaid and to a lesser extent, Medicare) is widening.
  • Block grants won’t work as the whole pie is the reference point rather than the programmatic pieces.  Trust me, the parts of Medicaid have considerably different contextual differences and economic and social drivers.  Funding must be de-aggregated and reimagined at the different levels, separately.  The needs of children, families, etc. are so markedly different from the SNF and waiver needs of the elderly as are the economic and social drivers.  Market strategies can and likely will work with the younger groups whereas the elderly, need a social construct (ala Pace approach) model to achieve investment and outcome balance.
  • The benefits need review and re-think.  This is true however, of all federal entitlements.  Here, states given latitude may have some significant advantage in revamping Medicaid.  The Feds, in a Block Grant approach must be the “bank” or the “capital” not also the architect, general contractor, and job-site superintendent.
  • The Medicaid incentives need reversing and a growing emphasis on private initiatives and insurance needs to occur.  The Feds can play an active role by creating avenues for private investment for retirement, accumulation of capital, use of estate and wealth transfer resources, etc. such that over time, the obligations of government to fund large pieces of the social fabric and needs of old age care, shift more in-balance, to each citizen.  The return on investment of tax advantaged, flexible investing for private insurance, private wealth accumulation used for care and service needs after 65, etc. is far greater (positive) than the loss of or revenue offset of the tax advantage.  We know this to be true via HSAs and 401(k)s and IRAs.
  • Finally, reforming health care will reform (significant step forward) Medicaid and the drivers of cost.  Fixing Medicaid is not a stand-alone issue, so to speak.  The challenge in the U.S. today is to REFORM health care, not reform how it is paid for or who has coverage and how does one access the same.  Spending on health care in the U.S. is disproportionately higher than all other world nations and our return in terms of life expectancy and QUALYs, substandard.  We are investing a $1 and losing 20 or so cents on our investment.  We need to focus on “bending the cost-curve” and not the insurance and welfare/entitlement pieces.  Regulatory reform and streamlining payment and program participation would be a great, simple first-step.

 

 

September 14, 2017 Posted by | Policy and Politics - Federal, Skilled Nursing | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

SNFs and Stranded Assets

Lately I’ve written rather extensively on what is occurring in the SNF sector to (rather) dramatically shift the fortunes for companies such as HCR/ManorCare, Kindred, Genesis, Signature, et.al. and a series of REITs that hold SNF assets (physical).  In addition to my writings, I’ve consulted/conversed with numerous investment firms concerned and interested in this shift.  Underlying all of my written thoughts and my discussions is a harsh reality check: A solid third of the industry today (SNF) has assets that I and other industry-watchers would consider/define as stranded.

I have embedded a link to a great article that covers the concept of “stranded assets”.  It is from the HFMA and the focus is on hospitals but the issues are directly analogous to SNF physical plants.  The link is here: http://www.hfma.org/Content.aspx?id=54453

The underlying issues that created this unique asset status are as follows.

  • An SNF physical plant has value if the corresponding cash flow generated from the operations attached to the asset is positive with a margin.  The HFMA hospital reference point is an EBITDA margin of 6% or higher.  Depending on the age of physical plant, deferred maintenance and interest and tax costs, 6% is likely a “non-coverage” situation.  For SNFs owned by REITs, we are seeing EBITDAR equal to a coverage ratio of 1 or less (cash to pay or cover rent costs).  I contend that in this scenario, the asset (SNF) plant is now stranded.
  • Stranded effectively means that the asset (the SNF) has no strategic or business value in the current state (with an EBITDAR coverage equal to 1 or less).  Without significant changes to operations to increase the cash coverage margin, the value of the asset is impaired and by GAAP, should be written down.  NOTE: I am not an accountant/CPA so I will leave any further reasoning or discussion on GAAP requirements, asset impairment and write-downs to the accountancy profession.
  • Important to note about assets/SNFs that are stranded is that short-term advances/improvements in their cash flow may change this status by definition but the same is only temporary.  The market, health policy and other  business shifts away from certain types of institutional care and lower-rated providers is permanent.  SNFs not properly positioned from an asset and operating perspective for these market changes will return to stranded status again and rather quickly.  The point here is this: An asset that is stranded is characterized by,
    • An aged physical plant with deferred maintenance
    • A plant that is not current in terms of market expectations (private rooms, open dining, bistro areas, coffee bars, exercise and therapy gyms, etc.)
    • A plant that is inefficient from a staff and resource perspective (too many units, too spread out, etc.)
    • An asset with operations that have a poor history of compliance, rated below 3 stars, and with marginal to sub-par quality measures.

Today, the strategic value of the asset is tied directly to its ability, along with paired operations, to generate positive cash margins sufficient to cover debt payments or lease payments plus required capital improvements (funded or sequentially incurred period over period). If an asset is truly stranded, changing that position is a strategic and long-term endeavor: An approach that requires wholesale repositioning.  For many SNFs, this approach may not be feasible.

  • The dollars required to reposition the asset from a physical plant perspective are greater in total than the remaining Undepreciated Replacement Value of the plant.  In other words, the cost to reposition is greater than the value of the asset.
  • The return generated from the repositioning is insufficient from an ROI perspective (less than the cost of capital plus the imputed life-cycle cost of depreciation of the improvements).
  • The operations of the asset are also impaired such that the compliance history and Star ratings, etc. are poor (historically) and changing the same would/will require a long-term horizon whereby, the same does not net cash flow improvement during the process.  Referrals and permanent cash-flow improvements are the result of revenue model changes and the same can not occur overnight when Star ratings and compliance improvements are required.  Changing Star ratings from a 3 to 4 for example, can take twelve months or longer.

The take-away points for the industry are simple.  The industry has an abundance of buildings/assets that fit the stranded definition today and a good number reside in REIT portfolios.  These assets/buildings, because of the points above, literally and figuratively, cannot be repositioned.  Their value has shrunk precipitously and there is nothing regarding the circumstances that caused this shift that will change.  Repositioning to avoid or change the stranded status is improbable due to the facts at-hand;

  • The asset is old by current business-need standards, has moderate to significant deferred maintenance issues and improvement to the current standard will cost in-excess of the undepreciated replacement value of the asset.
  • The operations tied to the asset are not highly rated, with strong compliance history and exceptional quality measure performance.
  • The operations and asset together, are incorrectly matched within a market that has higher rated competitors with better outcomes and newer, better positioned physical plants.  The preferred referrals for quality payers has moved to these competitors and the drivers such as bundled payments, value-based purchasing, Medicare Advantage plans, etc., plus a movement away from institutional care (to shorter stays, fewer stays) has altered the demand factors within the market.

In all probability, the above foreshadows a shrinking scenario combined with a valuation-shift (negative) for the SNF industry.

 

June 21, 2017 Posted by | Skilled Nursing | , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

SNF Fortunes, HCR/Manor Care and Salient Lessons in Health Care

Long title – actually shortened.  In honesty, I clipped it back from: SNF Fortunes, HCR/Manor Care, Five Star, Value-Based Payment, Hospitals Impacted Too, Home Health and Hospice Fortunes Rise, and all Other Salient Lessons for/in Health Care Today. Suffice to say, lots going on but almost all in the category of “should have seen it coming”.  For readers and followers of my site and my articles and presentations/speeches, etc., this theme of what is changing and why as well as the implications for the post-acute and general healthcare industry has been discussed in-depth.  Below is a short list (not exhaustive) of other articles I have written, etc. that might provide a good preface/background for this post.

Maybe a better title for this post is the question (abbreviated) that I am fielding daily (sometimes thrice): “What the Heck is Going On?” The answer that I give to investors, operators, analysts, policy folks, trade association folks, industry watchers, etc. is as follows (in no particular order) HCR/Manor Care: This could just as easily be Kindred or Signature or Genesis or Skilled Healthcare Group…and may very well be in the not too distant future.  It is, any group of facilities, regardless of affiliation, that have been/are reliant on a significant Medicare (fee for service) census, typified by a large Rehab RUG percentage at the Ultra High or Very High level with stable to longer lengths of stay to counterbalance a Medicaid census component that is around 50% of total occupancy.  The Medicaid component of census of course, generates negative margins offset by the Medicare margins.  For this group or sub-set of facilities in the SNF industry, a number of factors have piled-on, changing their fortune.

  • Medicaid rates have stayed stable or shrunk or state to state conversions to Managed Medicaid have slowed payments, added bureaucracy, impacted cash flows, etc.  This latter element in some states, has been cataclysmic (Kansas for example).
  • Managed Medicare has (aka Medicare Advantage plans) increased in terms of market share, shrinking the fee-for-service numbers.  These plans flat-out pay less and dictate which facilities patients use via network contracts.  They also dictate length of stay.  In some markets such as the Milwaukee (WI) metro market, almost 50% of the Medicare volume SNFs get is patients in a Medicare Advantage plan.
  • Value-Based Care/Impact Act/Care Coordination has descended along with bundled payments in and across every major metropolitan market in the U.S. (location of 80 plus percent of all SNFs).  This phenomenon/policy reality is dictating the referral markets, requiring hospitals to shift their volumes to SNFs that rate 4 Stars or higher. The risk of losing funds due to readmissions, etc. is too great and thus, hospitals are referring their volumes to preferred environments – those with the best ratings.  The typical HCR/Manor Care facility is 3 stars or less in most markets.
  •  Overall, institutional use of inpatient stays is declining, particularly for post-acute stays.  Non-complicated surgical procedures or straight-forward procedures (hip and knee replacements, certain cardiac procedures, other orthopedic, etc.) are being done either outpatient or with short inpatient hospital stays and then sent home – with home health or with continuing care scheduled in an outpatient setting.  Medicare Advantage has driven this trend somewhat but in general, the trend is also part of an ongoing cultural and expectation shift.  Patients simply prefer to be at home and the Home Health industry has upped its game accordingly.

Adding all of these factors together the picture is complete.  Summed up: Too much Medicaid, an overall reduction in Medicare volume, an overall reduction in length of stay, and a shift in the referral dynamics due to market forces and policy trends that are rewarding only the facilities with high Star ratings.  That is/will be the epitaph for Manor Care, Signature, etc.

Five Star/Value-Based Care Models, Etc.: While many operators and trade associations will say that the Five Star system is flawed (it is because it is government), doesn’t tell the full story, etc., it is the system that is out there.  And while it is flawed in many ways, it is still uniformly objective and its measures apply uniformly to all providers in the industry (flaws and all).  Today, it is being used to differentiate the players in any industry segment and in ways, many providers fail to realize.  For example, consumers are becoming more savvy and consumer based web-sites are referencing the Five Star ratings as a means for comparison.  Similarly, these same consumer sites are using QM (quality measure) data to illustrate decision-making options for prospective residents.  Medicare Advantage plans are using the Five Star system.  Hospitals and their discharge functions use them.  Narrow networks of providers such as ACOs are using them during and after formation.  Banks and lenders use the system today and I am now seeing insurance companies start to use the ratings as part of underwriting for risk pricing (premiums).  Summed up: Ratings are the harbinger of the future (and the present to a large extent) as a direct result of pay-for-performance and an ongoing shift to payments based on episodes of care and via or connected to, value-based care models (bundled payments, etc.).  Providers that are not rated 4 and 5 stars will see (or are seeing) their referrals change “negatively”.

Home Health and Hospice: The same set of policy and market dynamics that are adversely (for the most part) impacting institutional providers such as SNFs and hospitals is giving rise to the value of home health and hospice.  Both are cheaper and both fit the emerging paradigm of patients wanting options and the same being “home” options.  Hospice may be the most interesting player going forward.  I am starting to see a gentle trend toward hospices becoming extremely creative in their approach to developing non-hospice specific, delivery alternatives.  For example, disease management programs evolving within the home health realm focused on palliative models, including pain and symptom management.  Shifts away for payment specific to providers ala fee-for-service will/should be a boon for hospices.  The more payment systems switch to episode payments, bundled or other, the more opportunity there is for hospices to play in a broader environment, one that embraces their expertise, if they choose to become creative.  Without question, the move toward less institutional care, shorter stays, etc. will give rise to the home care (HHA and hospice) and outpatient segments of the industry.  As fee-for-service slowly dies and payments are less specific (post-acute) to place of care (institutional biased and located), these segments will flourish.

Hospitals Too: The shift to quality providers receiving the best payer mix and volume and payments based on episodes of care, etc. is impacting hospitals too.  This recent Modern Healthcare article highlights a Dallas hospital that is closing as a result of these market and policy dynamics: http://www.modernhealthcare.com/article/20170605/NEWS/170609952?utm_source=modernhealthcare&utm_medium=email&utm_content=20170605-NEWS-170609952&utm_campaign=dose

REITs, Valuations, M&A, and the Investment World: As we have seen with HCR/Manor Care and Signature (likely others soon), REITs that hold significant numbers of these SNF assets have a problem.  These companies (SNF) can no longer make their lease payments.  Renegotiation is an option but in the case of Signature, the coverage levels are already at 1 (EBITDAR is 1 to the lease obligation).  IF and I should say when, the cash pressure mounts just a bit more, the coverage levels will need to fall below 1.  This significantly impacts the REITs earnings AND changes the valuation profile of the assets held.  What is occurring is their portfolio values are being “crammed” down and the Return on Assets negatively impacted.  And for the more troubling news: there is no fluid market today to offload underperforming SNF assets.  Most of the Manor Care portfolio, like the Genesis and Skilled Healthcare and Kindred portfolios, is facilities that are;

  • Older assets – average age of plant greater than 20 years and facilities that were built, 40 years or more ago.  These assets are very institutional, large buildings, some with three and four bed wards, not enough private rooms and even when converted to all private rooms, with occupancy greater than 80 or so beds with still, very inefficient environments.  Because so few of these assets have had major investments over the years and the cash flow from them is nearing negative, their value is negligible.  There are not buyers for these assets or operators today that wish to take over leases within troubled buildings with high Medicaid, low and shrinking Medicare, compliance (negative) history, etc.  Finally, the cost to retrofit these buildings to the new paradigm is so heavy that the Return on Investment (improved cash earnings) is negative.
  • Three Star rated or less with fairly significant compliance challenges in terms of survey history.  Star ratings are not easy to raise especially if the drag is due to survey/compliance history.  This Star (survey) is based on a three-year history.  Raising it just one Star level may take two to three survey cycles (today that is 24 to 36 months).  In that time, the market has settled again and referral patterns concretized – away from the lower rated providers.
  • In the case of Manor Care, too many remain or are embroiled or subject to Federal Fraud investigations.  While no one building is typically (or at all) the center of the issue, the overhang of a Federal investigation based on billing or care impropriety negatively impacts all facilities in terms of reputation, position, etc.

As “deal” volumes have shrunk, valuations on SNF assets are getting funky (very technical term).  The deals that are being done today are for high quality assets with good cash flow, newer buildings or even speculative deals on buildings with no cash flow (developer built) but brand-new buildings in good market locations.  These deals are purchase and operations (lease to operators and/or purchased for owner operation).  Cap rates on these deals are solid and range in the 10 to 12 area.  Virtually all other deals for lesser assets, etc. have dried up.

Final Words/Lessons Learned (or for some, Learning the Hard Way): As I have written and said ad nausea, the fee-for-service world is ending and won’t return.  Maximizing revenue via a focal opportunity to expand census by a payer source, disconnected from quality or services required, is a defunct, extinct strategy. That writing was on the wall years ago.  Today is all about efficient, shorter inpatient stay, care coordination, management of outcomes and resources and quality.  The only value provider assets have is if they can or are, corollary to these metrics.  By this I mean, an SNF that is Five Stars with modern assets and a good location within a strong market has value as does the operator of the asset.  An SNF that is Two Stars with an older building, a history of compliance problems, regardless of location, 50 percent Medicaid occupied has virtually no value today…or in the future.  Providers that can network or have an integrated continuum (all of the post-acute pieces) are winning and will win, especially if the pieces are highly rated.  Moreover, providers that can demonstrate high degrees of patient satisfaction, low readmission rates, great outcomes and shorter lengths of stay are and will be prized.  The world today is about tangible, measurable outcomes tied to cost and quality.  There is no point of return or going back.  And here’s the biggest lesson: The train has already left the station so for many, getting on is nearly impossible.

June 14, 2017 Posted by | Home Health, Hospice, Policy and Politics - Federal, Skilled Nursing | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Health Systems, Hospitals and Post-Acute Providers: Making Integration Work

Early into the Trump presidency and health care/health policy is front and center.  The first “Obamacare repeal and replace” attempt crashed and burned.  The upcoming roll-out of the next round of bundled payments (cardiac and femur fracture) is delayed to October from the end-of-March target date.  Logically, one can question is a landscape shift forming? Doubtful.  Too many current realities such as the need to slow spending growth plus find new and innovative population health and payment models are still looming. These policy realities beget other realities. One such reality is that hospitals and health systems must find ways to partner with and integrate with, the post-acute provider industry.

In late 2016, Premier, Inc. (the national health care improvement organization) released the results of a study indicating that 85% of health system leaders were interested in creating expanded affiliations with post-acute providers.  Interestingly, 90% of the same group said they believed challenges to do so would exist (Premier conducted the survey in summer of 2016 via 52 C-suite, health system executives).  Most of the challenges?  The gaps that exist “known and unknown” between both provider segments (acute and post-acute) and the lack of efficient communication interfaces (software) between the segments.

On the surface, bundled payments notwithstanding, the push for enhanced integration is driven by a number of subtle but tactile market and economic shifts.

  1. Inpatient hospital lengths of stay are dropping, driven by an increasing number of patients covered by managed care.  Today, the largest payer source contributor of inpatient days, Medicare, is 30.6% “managed”…and growing.  Medicaid is 62.7% and commercial, nearly 100% (99%). Source: http://www.mcol.com/managed_care_penetration
  2. Payment at the hospital end is increasingly tied to discharge experience – what happens after the inpatient stay.  The onus today is on the hospital (and growing) for increasing numbers of patient types (DRG correlated) to discharge the patient properly such that the same does not beget a readmission to the hospital.  Too many readmissions equal payment reductions.
  3. Population health, focused-care models such as ACOs are evolving.  Their evolution is all about finding the lowest cost, highest quality centers of care.  Other BPCI (bundled payment) initiative projects such as Model 3, focus directly on the post-acute segment of care.  Unlike CJR (and the recently delayed cardiac bundles), the BPCI demonstration that began in 2013 covers 48 episodes of care (DRG based) and has participating providers (voluntarily) operating programs in all four model phases, nationwide.
  4. Patient preference continues to demand more care opportunities at-home.  Never mind the increased risk of complication with longer inpatient hospital stays (the risk of infection, pressure injuries, weight loss, delirium, etc. increases as stays increase), it is patient preference to discharge quickly and preferably, to home with services (aka home care).

Regardless the fate of Obamacare now or in the near future, these trends are unlikely to change as they have been moving separate from Obamacare.  Arguably, the ACA/Obamacare accelerated some of them.  Nonetheless, the baked-in market forces that have emanated from ACOs and care episode payments illustrate that even in infancy, these different models produce (generally) more efficient care, lower costs and improved patient satisfaction and outcomes.

As with any integration approach such as a merger for example, cultural differences are key.  The culture of post-acute care is markedly different from that of acute/hospital care.  For hospitals to appreciate this difference, look no farther than the two key determinants of post-acute culture: regulation and payment.  The depth and breadth plus the scope of survey and enforcement activity is substantially greater on the post-acute side than the acute side.  As an example, observe the SNF industry and how enforcement occurs.  Hospitals are surveyed for re-accreditation once every three years.  The typical SNF is visited no less than four times annually: annual certification and three complaint surveys.

In terms of payment, the scope is drastically different.  While hospitals struggle to manage far more payers than a post-acute provider, the amount that is paid to a hospital is substantially larger than that paid to a post-acute provider.  At one point years back, the differences were substantiated largely by acuity differences across patients.  While a gap still exists, it has narrowed substantially with the post-acute provider world seeing an increase in acuity yet lacking a concomitant payment that matches this increase.

Given this cultural framework, post-acute providers can struggle with translating hospital expectations and of course, vice-versa.  Point-of-fact, there is no real regulatory framework in an SNF under federal law for “post-acute” patients.  The rules are identical for a patient admitted for a short-stay or for the rest of his/her life.  Despite the fact that the bulk of SNF admissions today are of the post-acute variety, the regulations create conformity for residency, presumptively for the long-term.  Taking the following into consideration, a challenge such as minimizing a post-acute SNF stay to eight days for a knee replacement (given by a hospital to an SNF) is logical but potentially fraught with the peril presented by the federal SNF Conditions of Participation.  The SNF cannot dictate discharge.  A patient/resident that wishes to remain has rights under the law and a series of appeal opportunities, etc. that can slow the process to a crawl.  At minimum, a dozen or more such landmines exist in analogous scenarios.

Making integration work between post-acute and acute providers is a process of identifying the “gaps” between the two worlds and then developing systems and education that bridge such gaps. Below is my list (experiential) of the gaps and some brief notes/comments on what to do bridge the same.  NOTE: This list is generally applicable regardless of provider type (e.g., SNF, HHA, etc.).

  • Information Tech/Compatibility: True interoperability does not yet exist.  Sharing information can be daunting, especially at the level required between the provider segments for good care coordination.  The simple facts are that the two worlds are quite different in terms of paper work, billing requirements, documentation, etc.  Focus on the stuff that truly matters such as assessments, diagnoses, physician notes, plans of care, treatment records, medications, diagnostics, patient advance directives and demographics.  Most critical is to tie information for treating physicians so that duplication is avoided, if possible.
  • Regulatory Frameworks: This is most critical, hospital/physician side to the post-acute side, less so the other way.  Earlier I mentioned just one element regarding an SNF and discharge.  There are literally, dozens more.  I often hear hospitals frustrated by HHAs and SNFs regarding the “rules” for accepting patients and what can/cannot be done in terms of physician orders, how fast, etc. For example, it might be OK in the hospital to provide “Seroquel for sleep or inpatient delirium” but it is not OK in the SNF.  HHAs need physician face-to-face encounters just to begin to get care moving, including orders for DME, etc.  There is no short-cut.  Creating a pathway for the discharging hospital and the physician components to and through the post-acute realm is critical to keep stays short and outcomes high… as well as minimize delays in care and readmissions.
  • Resource Differences: Understanding the resource capacities of post-acute, including payment, is necessary for smooth integration.  What this means is that the acute and physician world needs to recognize that stay minimization is important but so is overall care minimization or better, simplification.  Unnecessary care via duplicative or unnecessary medications, tests, etc. can easily eat away at the meager margins that are operative for SNFs and HHAs.  For example, I have seen all too many times where a patient has an infection and is discharged to an SNF on a Vancomycin IV with orders for continued treatment for four more days.  Those four days are likely negative margin for the SNF.  A better alternative?  If possible, a less expensive antibiotic or send the remaining Vancomycin doses to the SNF.  Too many tests, too many medications, too much redundancy erodes post-acute margin quickly.  Finding common ground between providers with shared resource opportunities is important for both segments to achieve efficiency and still provide optimal care.
  • Language Differences: In this case, I don’t mean dialect.  Industry jargon and references are different.  I often recommend cheat-sheets between providers just to make sure that everyone can have a “hospital to SNF to HHA” dictionary.  Trust me, there is enough difference to make a simple working dictionary worth the effort.
  • Education/Knowledge: The gap between staff working in different environments can be wide, particularly as the same relates to how and why things are done the way they are.  For example, therapy.  Physical therapy in a hospital for the acute stay is markedly different than the physical therapy in a home health setting or a SNF setting.  Care planning is different, treatments similar but session length and documentation requirements are vastly different.  The clinical elements are surprisingly similar but the implementation elements, markedly different.  The notion that one staff level is clinically superior to another is long dispelled.  SNF nurses can face as many clinical challenges and perhaps more due to no/minimal immediate physician coverage, as a hospital nurse.  True, there are specialty differences (CCU, Neuro ICU, Trauma, etc.) but at the level where patients flow through acute to post-acute, the clinical elements are very similar.  The aspect of care differences and the how and why certain things are done in certain settings is where interpretation and education is required.
  • System and Care Delivery: While the diagnosis may follow, assuring proper integration among the various levels or elements of care requires systematic care delivery. The best language: clinical pathways and algorithms.  Developing these across settings for an episode of care creates a recipe or roadmap that minimizes redundancy, misinterpretation, and lack of preparation (all of which create bad outcomes).  With these in-place, common acute admissions that beget post-acute discharges, places every care aspect within the same “playbook”.

 

March 28, 2017 Posted by | Home Health, Policy and Politics - Federal, Skilled Nursing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Seniors Housing/CCRC Outlook plus Lessons from Brookdale

Now that the real estate dynamics have shifted on-balance to par or better (majority of markets can liquidate inventory at stable or rising prices with constant or modestly increasing demand), the outlook for Seniors Housing (IL, AL and CCRC) is less murky. The recessionary of the last 7 to 8 years has lifted.  What is visible, while still fairly complex market to market, is a picture that is illustrative for the next ten or so years – ample to adequate supply and average to slightly soft overall demand.  Perhaps, this is the Brookdale lesson?

Amplifying the above; what we know statistically is that demand has globally peaked and now, flattened.  Recall that Seniors Housing is very much local and regionally biased/impacted so some markets may be hotter in terms of demand than others.  By example, in 2010 (full recession impact), occupancy in the sector was 86.7%.  By the end of 2014 and since, occupancy has recovered but only to an average of 90% (per the National Investment Center).  During this same later period, new unit production has increased to an average of 3,200 per quarter (trailing seven quarters since end of 2016).  This is a 50% increase over the prior eight quarters.  The cause? Less about occupancy reality, more about a growing optimistic economic outlook, improving real estate dynamics (the leading cause) and more accessible capital, particularly as nontraditional sources have entered the sector with vigor (private equity).  A quick translation is for an increase of approximately 5,000 additional units in the top 31 MSAs (could be as much as 6,000 depending on where the units are in the development cycle).  This additional inventory is entering a market that is showing signs of over-supply (again, is there a Brookdale lesson here?).

occupancy-web

In multiple articles, I have written about phantom or perhaps more accurate, misunderstood economic and demographic trends.  Seniors housing global demand is very elastic, particularly for IL and CCRC projects that are at or above market (where the bulk of the industry is).  Demand elasticity exists where and when, price directly impacts the number of and the willingness of, consumers to consume a particular good or service. As price rises, the number decreases.  As price falls, the number increases.  For seniors housing, the elasticity wanes and trends toward inelastic demand when the price mirrors “rent controlled or modest income” housing.  In this case, demand is constant and actually inverse proportionately (more demand than supply). Better real estate economic conditions and improved investment market conditions (stock market, investment returns, etc.) influence to a lesser extent, the demand outlook as stronger or stable wealth profiles for consumers reduces the anxiety of purchase, especially where entrance fee models are concerned.

From a demographic perspective, the issue at bear is the actual or real number of seniors in the target age range with an economic wherewithal to consume (have the financial capacity).  Only (approximately) ten percent of all seniors 75 and above reside in seniors housing specifically (IL or CCRC) and a slightly larger (aggregate)number now reside in quasi-seniors housing projects (age limited housing developments ala Del Webb).  Between 2010 and 2016, the 75 plus population grew at an anemic rate of 1.8%.  The expected rate of growth for this cohort over the next five years increases to 3.8%.  More telling, for this same period, the subset of 75-79 grows at a rate of 5.7%.  These numbers present a bit of optimism but in real terms, the demand change (within the demographic) doesn’t create sufficient opportunities for absorption of the inventory growth, if the same remains at its present pace.  The demographic fortune doesn’t really begin to change dramatically until 2021 and beyond.  At 2021, the group turning 75 represent the start of the baby boomers (2021 -75 = 1946).  Prior to this point, the demographics of seniors 75 and above still reflect the World War II trend of birth suppression.

To Brookdale. The operative lesson is that Brookdale has far too much supply for the real organic demand that exists for plus market rate, congregate seniors housing. In my outlook comments below, readers will note how the demand around seniors housing and the congregate model is actually shifting slightly which has negatively impacted Brookdale. The acquisition of Emeritus has since offered proof of some age-old adages regarding Seniors Housing: local, not conforming to retail outlet strategies, very elastic demand, tough to price inflate for earnings and margin, asset intense and thus capital re-investment sensitive, and of course, full of me-too projects that are difficult to brand differentiate.  In the Emeritus acquisition, economies of scale and cultural assimilation proved difficult but frankly, such is always the case. The real crux is that the retail outlets (the Emeritus properties) were not accretive -seniors housing doesn’t quite work that way.  While the asset value of Brookdale skyrocketed, the earnings on those assets retrenched.  With soft demand and a lot of congregate projects highly similar and no room at the ceiling for price elevation, a fate accompli occurred.  The lesson?  Certain types of Seniors Housing is about played out (vanilla, above market projects) and a heavy concentration of this in a portfolio will evidence occupancy challenges and rental income return challenges (no price inflation).  Demand is also soft for reasons mentioned above, primarily demographic but also still, economic in some instances.  Similarly, as I mentioned above, seniors housing is very local.  A retail brand strategy simply (the Wal-Mart concept) won’t work.  Residents identify brand to local or at best regional – national means nothing.  If the market isn’t supportive regardless of who or what it is, the project will be challenged.  Emeritus brought too many of these projects into the Brookdale portfolio.

Below are my key outlook points for 2017 and the next five or so years for IL and CCRCs (non-affordable housing).

  • Demand across most property types will remain soft to stagnant.  This means 90% occupied is a good target or number.  Of course, rent controlled projects will continue to experience high demand, particularly if the projects are well located and well-managed.  Regional and local demand can and will vary significantly.  The projects that will experience the softest demand are above market, congregate, non-full continuum (non-CCRC).  Projects with the best demand profile contain mix-use, mix-style accommodations with free-standing and villa style properties.  While highly amenitized projects will attract traffic, demand isn’t necessarily better due to price elasticity in the segment.
  • Improving economic conditions/outlook will undergird and help bolster demand, though the demographics still trump (no pun intended). Some notes to consider.
    • The real estate economy can benefit, even with a slightly higher interest rate trend, if employment and wages continue to strengthen and de-regulation of some current lending constraints occur.  I think the latter two points offset any interest rate increases in the near to moderate term.
    • Rising interest rate fortunes help seniors more than stock market returns, though this trend is changing as seniors have been forced to equities to bolster return.  Still, most seniors are highly exposed to fixed income investments and a somewhat improving interest rate market will improve income outlooks.  Better or improved income does psychologically impact the consumption equation, “positively”.
    • Capital access will remain favorable/positive and banking de-regulation to a certain extent, may push banks back to the sector (they have been shy to seniors housing for the last 5 to 8 years).
    • Even with improved economic conditions, the mismatch between demand and supply (discussed earlier) will restrain rent increases in the near term.  This could present some modest operating challenges for the sector as price inflation on wages, etc. will occur before any opportunity to raise fees/rent.  The net effect is a modest erosion in margin.  I don’t see much opportunity to fight this effect with increased occupancy.
  • Increasing occupancy or in some cases, staying at current occupancy levels will continue to require incentives.  Incentives negatively impact revenue in the short-run.
  • The average age for residency on admission and across the product profile will continue to move up as a general rule.  In addition, the resident profile will continue to slide toward additional infirmity and debility.  Providers will continue to work to find ways to keep projects occupied by offering aging-in-place services.  While this is a good strategy to a certain extent, the same does harm or impact negatively, the ability to market and sales-convert, units to a more independent resident profile.  I liken this to a “rob Peter to pay Paul” approach.  It works but not without side-effects and perhaps, unintended consequences that can be very deleterious “down-the-road”.
  • The additional inventory that is coming into the sector won’t slow down for another two or so years.  This is in-spite of a weak to stagnant demand.  Some investors and developers are willing to be somewhat ahead of the baby-boomer curve even though I believe this is unwise (see next point).
  • The reason I believe the baby-boomer impact for the sector will be modest and actually, disheartening is that the demographic shift doesn’t equate to product demand directly.  Boomers have an increasingly different view of the world and a different set of housing and lifestyle expectations plus economic capacity.
    • The first group of Boomers was hurt the hardest by the most recent recession.  They lost a great deal of wealth and income profile as many were the first displaced as jobs eroded (oldest employees, highest paid). They also have less employment time to recoup any income/savings losses.
    • Generationally, their savings rate is significantly less than their parents.  These folks, while still more modest in comparison to Boomers born five to ten years later, didn’t delay gratification or extravagance the way their recession-influenced parents did.  Less overall wealth negatively impacts their ability to afford higher-end seniors housing.
    • Congregate living (apartments) is less their style.  They are the first age group (Boomers) used to a more expansive living arrangement.  While they’ll move eventually, they will not see 1,200 sq. feet at $4,000 a month as attractive (not even at $3,000). They will have unfortunately, mismatched expectations in terms of “size” versus cost.  They’ll want larger but for less rent than realistic.
    • They are generally healthier with a different view of age related to retirement and retirement residency.  Don’t look for 75 year older Boomers to be horribly interested in a CCRC or Seniors Housing development, particularly if their health is good.  They’ll wait until 80 or older to trigger a move.
    • Boomers are more mobile and more detached than their parents.  This means in-market moves and the traditional radius markets/math will be less applicable year-over-year with Boomers.  They will be willing to shop broader and do so more for value and price – more for less or at least, a perception of the same.  They are nowhere near as homogeneous by social construct as their parents.
  • Greater pricing flexibility will continue to evolve.  This means different entry-fee options, monthly service options with/without amenities, more ala carte, etc.  Service infrastructure for certain communities may suffer as residents will continue to want more choice but less bundle (won’t pay inflated fees for what they perceive as things they don’t use or want).
  • Because the sector is highly influenced and trended local, some markets will continue to thrive while others will continue to struggle, regardless of national trends.

 

March 3, 2017 Posted by | Senior Housing | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Getting CCRC Feasibility Studies Correct … and Other Studies as Well

In my consulting career, I’ve done a fair amount of feasibility work (market, economic, etc.).  Similarly, I’ve done a fair amount of similar analyses, primarily related to M&A activity and/or where financing is involved (debt covenant reviews, etc.). Heck, I’ve even done some bankruptcy related work!  I’m also queried fairly often about feasibility, demand, market studies, etc. such that I’m surprised (often enough) that a gap still exists between “proper” analysis and simplified “demographic” analysis.  Suffice to say, feasibility work is not a “one size” fits all relationship.

I’ve titled this post “CCRC feasibility” principally because the unique nature of a true CCRC project provides a framework to discuss a multitude of related industry segments simultaneously (e.g., seniors housing, health care, assisted living, etc.).  Starting with the CCRC concept, a set of basic assumptions about the feasibility process is required.

  • Demographics aren’t the arbiter of success or failure – feasibility or lack thereof.
  • Demand isn’t solely correlated to like unit occupancy, demographics (now or projected), or for that matter, how many units are projected to be built (following the Jones’ as a qualifier).
  • Capital accessibility isn’t relevant nor should it be.
  • National trends for the most part, are immaterial.  Local, regional and state are, however.
  • Projects pre-supposed are projects with inherent risk attached.  This isn’t an “if you build it, they will come” type exercise.  The results shouldn’t be thought of as a justification for a “specific” project already planned.

The last point typically generates  a “heresy” cry from folks and certain industry segments. Regardless, I am adamant here in so much that true feasibility analyses determines “what makes sense” rather or as opposed to, justifying that which is planned (or the implication that the client is paying for a study to justify his/her project).  Remember, I am a fan of the fabled quote from Mark Twain attributed to Benjamin Disraeli (the former Prime Minister of Great Britain): “There are three types of lies….lies, damn lies and statistics”.  As an economist, I have deep appreciation for this as all too often, I see analyses that smack of this latter type of lie.

(Note: The source of the actual “lies, damn lies” quote is still a mystery…thought initially to be said by Lord Courtney in 1895 but since, proven invalid.)

Carrying this feasibility discussion just a bit further, the approach that I recommend (and use) incorporates the following key assumptions about seniors housing (CCRCs) and to a lesser extent, specialized care facilities (Assisted Living, SNFs, etc.).

  • The demand for seniors housing, true housing, is very price elastic.  Given the elasticity, all demand work must be sensitized by price. The more specialized or unique the project might or may be, the more sensitive the demand elasticity becomes (greater or lesser).
  • Local economic conditions matter – tremendously.  This is particularly true for CCRCs and higher-end seniors housing projects, especially real estate conditions.
  • Regional and state trends matter particularly the migration patterns, policy issues, job issues, etc.  Doubt me?  Let’s have a discussion about the great State of Illinois (for disclosure, I have a home and office in Illinois).
  • Location(s) matter.  I incorporate location/central place theory elements in all of my feasibility work and analyses.
  • Demographics are important but not in the normative sense.  Yes, age and income qualified numbers are important but education and real estate ownership, location and years residency in the market area(s) can be as impactful.
  • Competition is important but in all forms.  Given the demand elasticity of seniors housing, the higher the price, the greater the wealth status required of the potential consumer, the greater the options available to that same consumer.
  • Ratios matter.  The demographics are important but the ratio within the demographic correlated to the project, within various locations, etc. is “money”.  (Sales folks love this stuff).  How many seniors does it take to fill a CCRC?

Because no one project is equal to another, feasibility work and like analysis is both (an) art and a science.  I liken the process to cooking.  Recipes are key but taste and flair and creativity are important as well.  Honestly, knowing the industry well from an overall perspective is ideal – like being a chef trained by the masters!  When I see flawed analysis, it typically comes from a source that follows a recipe; a recipe for market analysis, etc.  Knowing the industry, having operated organizations or facilities, being trained in quantitative analysis, etc. separates good or great from average.  Remember Twain/Disraeli.

So to the title of this post; the correct or proper methodology for feasibility studies and similar analysis (sans some detail for brevity and not in any particular order)….

New Facility/New Location

  • Location Analysis – in economic parlance, the application of elements of Central Place Theory.  This includes a review of the site in relationship to key ranked variables such as market/demographics, accessibility, staff/employment access, proximity to other healthcare, other services, etc.
  • Pricing – what is/are the core pricing assumption(s)….I’ve written on strategic pricing models on this site.  If I am doing the pricing work, I apply the concepts in the Strategic Pricing presentations and worksheets found on the Reports and Other Documents page on this site.
  • Demographics – I’ll use my pricing data and my location analysis to frame my demographic analysis.  Aside from age and income, I’ll look at migration patterns, education, career history, etc. plus I’ll review the information on a geocoded basis to refine market relationships between customers and other competitors.
  • Demand Analysis – From the demographic data and tested against the pricing, I’ll build a demand analysis and a penetration analysis that provides a range of likely target customers, within the market areas, give the pricing information, for a particular product.  Historic migration and market area occupancy of like accommodations is used to sensitize the demand analysis.
  • Economic Analysis – This is a review of current market conditions and trends that can impact the project’s feasibility, positively or negatively.  Real estate, income, employment, business investment, economic outlooks, policy implications such as tax policy, etc. are all key elements reviewed.
  • Competitive Analysis – What is going on within the area/regional competition of like or quasi-comparable projects is important as a buffer or moreover, a stability (or lack thereof) check.  I like to look at all potential or as many as practical, comparable living accommodations – not just seniors housing (condos, apartments, etc.).

Expansion Projects

I will complete a major portion of the above with less time spent on location analysis and pricing work (though pricing is still key for accurate demand).  I have watched organizations cannibalize their own market share and occupancy levels with expansion projects so accurate gauging of current and pent-up demand is critical along with conditional trends (economic, competitive analysis, etc.).

M&A, Financing, Etc. Projects

Again, all of the above work is relevant but depending on the circumstances, I will incorporate benchmark data from industry sub-sets.  For example, for SNFs I look at compliance information, CMS star ratings, staffing numbers, payer mix/quality mix and of course, federal and state reimbursement and policy trends.  When I review covenant defaults and provide reports, I narrow the analysis based on the core nature of the default but most often, the issues of late are occupancy, pricing, and revenue models versus fixed and variable cost levels.  Pricing work is often key along with a review of marketing strategies.

Is there more to this topic area?  Of course and this post isn’t meant to be exhaustive nor a text-book supplement.  It is however, a ready framework that can provide guidance to those looking at conducting or contracting for, a feasibility, financing or market analysis.  My advice: Getting it done right the first time saves money, prevents future problems, and assists with positive outcomes for any project or purpose.

February 23, 2016 Posted by | Assisted Living, Senior Housing, Skilled Nursing | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment