Last March, the United States declared a national emergency related to the coronavirus (“COVID-19”) pandemic. At the time and throughout the beginning of the pandemic, meaningful economic factors were unknown including the evolution of the disease, the extent of its economic impact, and the results of steps taken and yet to be taken by the federal government, financial institutions, and market participants. As a result, many healthcare operators suspended the disclosure of earnings guidance. Now, after a year of experience with the COVID-19 pandemic, operators have resumed sharing their expectations of future financial performance. VMG Health analyzed select guidance figures from the four main public hospital operators to better understand the industry’s perspective on operations in a post-COVID world.
Please see below for a list of the public hospital operators examined, as well as further detail regarding the various metrics considered.
Except for CYH, initially and most recently, the hospital operators expect CY 2021 revenue levels at or above those estimated at the beginning of CY 2020, and well above their CY 2019 performance. Please note, CYH completed a planned divestiture program towards the end of 2020, making it difficult to compare CY 2019 performance to the forward guidance figures.
At the end of 2020, when the hospital operators were once again comfortable providing guidance figures, the management teams anticipated continued COVID volumes during the first half of the year, with a return to more normal levels by the second half of the year. HCA noted that they expected 2021 volumes to grow above 2020 levels but trend slightly below 2019 levels, while THC believed their 2021 volumes would improve on 2019.
A few months later, during the Q1 2021 earnings calls, the operators noted strong first quarter results and tailwinds from the extension of sequestration through the end of the year. As a result, HCA tightened their CY 2021 revenue guidance and THC increased their CY 2021 revenue guidance. Although UHS kept their CY 2021 guidance figures flat, they noted that they “remained comfortable” in their ability to achieve the projected revenue levels and viewed sequestration as a “cushion” not currently factored into their guidance figures.
Except for UHS, initially and most recently, the hospital operators expect CY 2021 adjusted EBITDA levels near or above those estimated at the beginning of CY 2020 and their CY 2019 performance.
As mentioned previously, the operators pointed towards a strong first quarter performance as rationale for tightening or raising their CY 2021 EBITDA guidance ranges. Additionally, HCA, CHS, and THC discussed the continued focus on cost saving initiatives throughout 2021 to combat expense pressures related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
During the Q4 2020 and Q1 2021 earnings calls, UHS management cited similar expense pressures, primarily related to labor, associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Generally, the UHS team expects the labor pressures to ease as the volume of COVID patients declines, but at a slower pace.
Although uncertainty remains, with a full year of COVID-19 operations under their belts, hospital operators have become more comfortable discussing go-forward performance. As Daniel Cancelmi, CFO and Executive VP at THC said during the Q4 2020 earnings call, “Although there are various uncertainties as to how the pandemic will impact us this year, we believe we have sufficient visibility and confidence as to how our business will perform during the ebbs and flows of the pandemic to enable us to provide investors an outlook of our projected results this year.” Additionally, Kevin Hammons, Executive VP and CFO at CYH, noted that although uncertainty remains, there are multiple ways to achieve the guidance figures. After a hard year for the healthcare industry, it is encouraging to see the hospital operators look forward again and provide a generally positive outlook related to the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.