Cover: Changes in US Hospital Financial Performance During the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency

Changes in US Hospital Financial Performance During the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency

Published in: JAMA Health Forum, Volume 4, No. 7 (July 2023). doi: 10.1001/jamahealthforum.2023.1928

Posted on Jul 21, 2023

by Risha Gidwani, Cheryl L. Damberg


The COVID-19 public health emergency (PHE) caused substantial changes in hospital operations. The net effect of these changes on hospital financial performance is unclear.


To evaluate changes in hospital financial performance before and during the COVID-19 PHE.

Design, Setting, and Participants

This longitudinal within-hospital cohort analysis from 2017 to 2021 used national RAND hospital data merged with American Community Survey data. A total of 4223 short-term acute care or critical access hospitals in the US with financial data spanning 2017 to 2021 were evaluated.


Financial performance during the first 2 years of the PHE.

Main Outcomes and Measures

The main outcome was PHE financial distress calculated based on net operating income (operating revenue minus operating expenses). Within-hospital changes in net operating income over time were evaluated with and without COVID-19 relief funding. From henceforth, 2020/2021 means the weighted average financial performance for both calendar year 2020 and 2021. Hospitals were characterized as having new financial distress if (1) their average 2020/2021 net operating income was negative and (2) the average 2020/2021 net operating income was less than that hospital's pre-2020 net operating income. Predictors of new financial distress were evaluated using logistic regression and predictors of COVID-19 relief using 2-part models.


In this sample of 4423 hospitals, 3529 (80.0%) received PHE funds during 2020/2021. A total of 846 (19.1%) were located in a census tract with more than 20% Hispanic residents. Of the total number of hospitals, 720 (16.3%) of hospitals had PHE financial distress, whereas 2047 (46.3%) had PHE financial distress after excluding COVID-19 relief funding from net operating income. The majority of hospitals (n=3337; 74.8%) had a positive net operating income across 2020/2021, with 785 (17.8%) hospitals moving from a negative pre-2020 to a positive 2020/2021 net operating income. In adjusted analyses, hospitals treating a higher proportion of Hispanic populations were more likely to have PHE distress (adjusted odds ratio, 1.3; 95% CI, 1.1-1.6; P=.02). Median (IQR) operating margins from 2020/2021 were at an all-time high of 6.5% (0.2%-13.3%) compared with pre-2020 operating margins of 2.8% (-2.8% to 9.3%).

Conclusions and Relevance

In this cohort study of US hospitals, the large majority had positive financial performance during 2020/2021, partly due to COVID-19 relief funds. However, hospitals serving Hispanic populations had substantially worsened financial performance during 2020/2021, even after accounting for COVID-19 relief. That COVID-19 relief funding aided in operating margins reaching all-time highs indicates funding amounts may have been larger than was necessary for many hospitals. With COVID-19 relief funding ending yet COVID-19 related continuing to affect hospital expenses, ongoing monitoring of hospital financial performance is vital to ensure patients retain access to care.

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