A confluence of issues have put strains on health care systems amid the ongoing pandemic, and they could lead to increased costs in 2022, according to Moody's.
In a new report, the firm highlighted how ongoing pressures in the health care labor market — which began well before the pandemic but have been exacerbated by it — are creating a costly shift for employers.
"After a short reprieve, the use of expensive contract labor for nursing has increased as COVID-19 cases have risen with the Delta variant. Many hospitals report that hourly wages for contract labor are up again, and in some cases, to a higher level than during the surge seen in mid-2020," the report noted.
It's why Moody's associate managing director Lisa Goldstein said the country is facing a "very pronounced national labor shortage."
But one thing different from the pre-COVID-19 shortage is the addition of experienced nurses burning out and retiring as a result of the intense workplace demand amid the pandemic, according to Goldstein.
In addition, other health care workers — non-clinical workers, in particular —are also in short supply. That includes those in the environmental, housekeeping and cybersecurity sectors.
"So the labor shortage is much broader and much deeper now than in the past," Goldstein said.
There are several factors compounding the shortage — including worker pay. It's far more financially rewarding for clinical workers to work as contractors rather than for hospitals, which is one reason hospitals are seeing increased costs, Goldstein said.
Another key factor in staffing shortages is the highly demanding and difficult work caused by COVID-19 and its surges. Vaccine mandates are another factor in the worker shortage.
"It is a real problem, financially, that will lead to lower margins over the near-term," Goldstein said.
"It will undoubtedly lead to higher costs for everyone seeking health care. So we may see a rise in premiums, in our hospital health care bills," she added.
The one silver lining is that the pandemic spurred interest in the health sector, as evidenced by the increase in enrollment in nursing schools in 2020. But that doesn't help with today's staffing shortages.
"Hospitals ... will have to throw a lot of resources to not only recruit and be competitive in their salaries," but also to retain employees, which will lead to wage inflation, Goldstein said.
The needs of the aging U.S. population will keep pressure on labor needs, and, as a result Goldstein said, hospital margins.
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