Municipal bonds sold by hospitals and health-care systems have been the market’s biggest losers in the past three months. Debt from facilities in the 21 states that aren’t expanding Medicaid is poised to fare even worse.
A key provision of President Barack Obama’s health-care plan is extending care under the health program for the poor, which is financed by states and the federal government. Where politicians don’t go along, millions would be left uncovered, costing hospitals more in uncompensated care.
Health-care related bonds are already posting the biggest losses among revenue debt in the $3.7 trillion municipal market, losing about 6 percent over the past three months, Standard & Poor’s data show. In states that have rebuffed extending Medicaid, securities of hospital systems have less appeal, said Todd Sisson, a senior analyst at Wells Capital Management in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“We’re going to see spread widening on hospitals in states that are not expanding versus states that are expanding,” said Sisson, whose company oversees about $31 billion in munis. “States that aren’t expanding Medicaid are still going to have a high percentage of the uninsured. The hospitals are going to lose a lot of money.”
Republicans in Congress have sought to defund the Democratic president’s health-care law, most recently this week. Some governors from their party, including New Jersey’s Chris Christie and Arizona’s Jan Brewer, have still opted to expand Medicaid. As online health-insurance exchanges are set to open for enrollment on Oct. 1, investors are favoring systems in states planning to extend coverage.
In South Carolina, where the Republican House majority rejected the move, an agency in August issued about $139 million of tax-exempt bonds for Palmetto Health. The system has facilities in Columbia, South Carolina’s capital, and a hospital in Easley, about 115 miles (185 kilometers) northwest.
A portion due in August 2030 yielded 1.6 percentage points more than AAA munis on Aug. 9, data compiled by Bloomberg show. The spread on the debt, rated BBB+ by S&P, three levels above junk, has since narrowed about 15 percent.
Meanwhile in Arizona, where Brewer signed a law expanding the program, two hospitals that issued bonds within the past two months saw the yield penalty on debt with similar ratings and maturities drop as much as 37 percent in the same period.
Tax-free bonds issued for the Yavapai Regional Medical Center, north of Phoenix, and maturing in August 2033 traded Sept. 5 with a spread of 1.19 percentage points. That was down from about 1.88 percentage points on July 31, data compiled by Bloomberg show.
South Carolina’s decision to not extend Medicaid shouldn’t “have any quantifiable impact” on Palmetto Health bonds, Tammie Epps, a spokeswoman, said in an interview. She cited rating companies’ confirmation of the system’s grade.
The states’ decisions on Medicaid will determine the fate of a part of Obama’s law that would make the program available to those earning less than 133 percent of the poverty line, which is $30,657 for a family of four.
The federal government would pay 100 percent of costs for those newly enrolled until 2017, when its share would begin to drop to 90 percent. States may be leery of adding enrollees as pressure on federal spending may put those funds at risk.
To offset the cost of insuring more people under Medicaid, Obama’s proposal would curb a program that assists health systems that treat low-income patients.
“States that are opposed to the ACA won’t see as much of an increase in insured patients, and yet hospitals are going to be whacked with reimbursement cuts,” said George Huang, a senior analyst at Wells Fargo Securities LLC. “The hospitals are still going to treat the same patients, and are going to get even less than they did before.”
Hospital debt is among the lowest-rated in the muni market because the facilities don’t have natural monopolies like water, sewer and utility systems. The segment has an average grade of four or five levels below the top, according to Barclays Plc. Among 10 revenue-bond groups, only industrial-development debt, which is backed by companies, has a lower mark.
The health bonds had beat the broad market the past four years as investors sought higher-yielding debt with interest rates at the lowest in a generation, Bank of America Merrill Lynch data show. Lower-rated munis have declined in the past four months on speculation the Federal Reserve will curb its bond buying.
“If investors look to add spread, health care is the No. 1 sector,” said Chris Alwine, head of munis at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania-based Vanguard Group Inc., which oversees about $125 billion in local debt. “Our approach is raising our credit ratings or looking to reduce weight to entities that may be weaker for their rating.”
For the first time since fiscal 2008, not-for-profit hospital expense growth surpassed revenue increases, a trend Moody’s Investors Service called “unsustainable” in a report last month.
To combat rising costs, health providers have increasingly turned to mergers. There were 145 deals in the three months through June, up from 125 the previous quarter, according to Irving Levin Associates Inc. That included a deal combining health insurer Highmark Inc. and West Penn Allegheny Health System, which defaulted on its debt and was on the brink of bankruptcy.
Systems are combining in part to keep up with changes ahead of the health-care law’s implementation. The administration has said about 7 million people may enroll next year and it needs to get millions of young, healthy customers to sign up to keep the markets financially stable.
“It’s going to be the system of the haves and have-nots, and that starts with which states are expanding Medicaid and which are not,” Sisson said. “We favor the larger systems with efficiencies that can get their cost structure down. Smaller names are the ones that are going to struggle.”
Municipalities are set to sell $7.7 billion in long-term debt this week, the most since July.
The ratio of the yields, a gauge of relative value, is about 107 percent, compared with an average of 93 percent since 2001. The higher the figure, the cheaper munis are compared with federal securities.
Following is a pending sale:
Richmond, capital of Virginia, plans to sell about $143 million of general obligations as soon as today to refinance notes sold last year, preliminary sale documents show. The competitive deal, which matures over 20 years, will finance work such as school projects, according to the city. Moody’s grades the securities Aa2, third highest. Income from about $131.5 million of the bonds is tax exempt, while federal levies apply to $11.3 million.
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