Written by Peter H. Lewis, Asheville Watchdog.
Nashville-based HCA Healthcare, which operates Asheville’s Mission Hospital and five other hospitals in Western North Carolina, recently reported that it made $2.27 billion in profits in the three-month period that ended Sept. 30, triple the amount in the same period last year.
The record earnings coincided with the summer surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations caused by the Delta variant. HCA said COVID patients accounted for 13 percent of all admissions to the chain’s 183 hospitals during the period.
Shares of HCA’s stock have also tripled in price since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic more than 20 months ago, creating a financial bonanza for investors and company executives.
Samuel N. Hazen, HCA’s chief executive officer, credited the company’s record profit margins to a “disciplined operating culture.” He said HCA was on track to use its cash to buy back $8 billion in company stock in 2021. He also announced a 48-cent per share dividend to shareholders.
“During the third quarter we experienced the most intense surge yet of the pandemic, and our colleagues and physicians delivered record levels of patient care to meet the demand caused by the Delta variant,” Hazen said. “Once again, the disciplined operating culture and strong execution by our teams were on display.”
The earnings report came a day after dozens of nurses gathered outside Mission Hospital Oct. 21 to protest what they called unsafe staffing levels at the hospital, which HCA acquired when it took over the nonprofit Mission Health System in 2019. Registered nurses at Mission last year voted to join a labor union, National Nurses United, after complaining about HCA’s policies.
Earlier this year HCA’s board of directors rejected an attempt by shareholders to make quality of patient care more important than financial earnings in setting executive compensation. Hazen will be paid more than $30 million this year, company filings show.
William B. Rutherford, HCA’s chief financial officer, said the chain used contract labor, overtime, bonuses, and “whatever it took to staff to the patient load that we had,” resulting in about 10 percent to 12 percent of full-time staff being placed in premium pay categories. “And as COVID does subside, we expect those premium programs that we implemented during the quarter to subside,” Rutherford said.
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Peter H. Lewis is a former senior writer and editor at The New York Times. He can be reached at [email protected]