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S&P: Hospitals vulnerable to recession as healthcare sector stays defensive

The healthcare sector remains defensive but has become increasingly vulnerable to an economic downturn because of deteriorating ratings, comparatively higher leverage and greater industry disruption, analysts at S&P Global Ratings said in a new report.

Healthcare companies' issuer credit ratings are becoming more vulnerable to a cyclical downturn in comparison to prior recessions, according to the rating agency, which also said that proposals from the U.S. government are threatening the sector's creditworthiness.

Credit quality has fallen considerably since the last recession in the healthcare sector — where products and services continue to show a largely inelastic demand — with 66% of healthcare companies carrying B ratings, according to the April 29 analysis.

Ratings estimates that about 20% of for-profit healthcare companies have investment-grade issuer credit ratings, in comparison to 54% in 2005. The rating agency believes this transition shows an increase in smaller and mainly private equity-owned healthcare issuers.

Hospitals among subsectors most vulnerable to economic slowdown

The subsectors most vulnerable to an economic downturn are hospitals, healthcare service providers and hospital staffing services, based on leverage metrics and relatively higher disruption in comparison to other subsectors, the rating agency added.

Ratings analysts said companies like Tenet Healthcare Corp., Prospect Medical Holdings Inc. and HCA Healthcare Inc. would be affected by a potential rise in uncompensated care — with patients opting for lower cost options — since insurance coverage tends to decline as unemployment rates increase during a recession. In addition, healthcare companies such as Acadia Healthcare Co. Inc. and WP CityMD Bidco LLC would be highly exposed to reimbursement rates based on Medicaid and Medicare plans.

The healthcare segment at highest risk in an economic downturn is temporary nurse staffing, which is highly sensitive to cyclicality, more so than part-time physician staffing and full-time employment.

Pharmacy benefit managers, often called the drug middlemen or PBMs, such as CVS Health Corp. and Aetna Health Holdings LLC, which are responsible for negotiating drug prices between drug companies and insurers are also at risk of exposure to a downturn.

The Trump administration wants to end the safe harbor protections, which permit PBMs to collect rebates, by Jan. 1, 2020, and move the U.S. to a fixed-fee discount model.

Ratings analysts believe healthcare companies with a portfolio of research and development, medical devices, pharmaceuticals and biologics manufacturing will be more insulated and can expect steady demand during a recession, which will help achieve a strong revenue base.

Companies like Pfizer Inc., Amgen Inc. and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. may be at the receiving end of a slight shift in the sector, which will see customers increasingly preferring lower-cost generic and biosimilar alternatives. In addition, increased usage of high-deductible insurance plans will bolster switches to lower-cost options.

Life sciences companies like Danaher Corp., Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. and PerkinElmer Inc. mostly see repeat sales of their products, and since there is an increase in the use of diagnostic tests, the life sciences subsector would be more resilient in an economic downturn.

Medical devices companies Baxter International Inc., Abbott Laboratories, Becton Dickinson and Co. and Hologic Inc. should expect consistent demand though there is some exposure to patient and hospital admission volumes.

However, Ratings analysts believe the medical devices subsector "does not have a large target on its back, in terms of cost control, versus the pharmaceutical industry."

Given the mostly inelastic demand in the healthcare sector, McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health Inc., Owens & Minor Inc. and other such companies in the drugs and medical products' distribution segment will be largely insulated from the economic downturn, Ratings analysts added.

This S&P Global Market Intelligence news article may contain information about credit ratings issued by S&P Global Ratings. Descriptions in this news article were not prepared by S&P Global Ratings.