Legally and morally, hospitals cannot discharge patients if they have no safe place to go. So patients who are homeless, frail or live alone, or have unstable housing, can occupy hospital beds for weeks or months — long after their acute medical problem is resolved. For hospitals, it means losing money because a patient lingering in a bed without medical problems doesn’t generate much, if any, income. Meanwhile, acutely ill patients may wait days in the ER to be moved to a floor because a hospital’s beds are full.
To address the problem, hospitals from Baltimore to St. Louis to Sacramento, Calif., are exploring ways to help patients find a home. With recent federal policy changes that encourage hospitals to allocate charity dollars for housing, many hospitals realize it’s cheaper to provide a month of housing than to keep patients for a single night.
A recent report from the Urban Institute found that while most hospital officials are well aware of how poor housing affects a patient’s recovery, they were stymied about how to address the issue.
“It’s on the radar of almost all hospitals,” said Kathryn Reynolds, who co-authored the report. “But it seemed like actually making investments in housing, providing some type of financing or an investment in land or something that has a good amount of value seems to be less widespread.”
The report found housing investment has been more likely among hospitals with their own health plans or other types of arrangements in which they were receiving a fixed amount of money to care for a group of patients. Getting patients into housing could lower their costs and increase their operating margins. Others, particularly religiously affiliated and children’s hospitals, sought housing solutions as part of their charitable mission.
Some hospitals, she said, may use their cash reserves to invest in housing projects that generate a lower return than other investment options because it furthers their mission, not just their profits. In other cases, hospital systems play a facilitator role — using their access to cheap credit or serving as an anchor tenant in a larger development — to help get a project off the ground.