On Skilled Nursing Headwinds & Tailwinds


If you invest in skilled nursing operators or real estate, you’ve seen the almost automatic drop in stock prices with every new “headwind” headline.  And, they come frequently.  Most recently: RAC Audits, CJR, Bundled Payments, DOJ Investigations.  I gotta admit, it’s frustrating to see the stocks move as soon as the weathervane moves.  Frustrating, because the best post-acute companies are able to adapt and thrive, or to put int terms of headwinds, they change tack…”

A keel enables a sailboat to sail diagonally into the wind. As the sail moves into the wind, it “feels” a faster wind on its face. This is called the relative velocity of the wind with respect to the sail. A wind of larger relative velocity exerts a larger force on the sail, which accelerates the boat. The boat moves faster, which increases the relative speed of the wind, which increases the wind-force, which accelerates the boat, and on and on. However, the resistance of the water slows down the motion of the boat. Eventually, a balance is reached between the force of the wind and the force of the water, and the boat moves at a constant velocity, diagonally into the wind. That final constant velocity may be greater than the wind velocity with respect to the water. Whether a boat could reach such final velocity will depend on the characteristics of the boat. [source]

Can a sailboat sail forward against the wind?  Yes.  You need a great captain and crew who know how to adapt, “change tack,” and move forward.  In a boat race, is there a huge difference in the boats themselves?  Not so much.  It’s the captain and crew you’re betting on.  Not just the collection of their individual talents but their chemistry.  Headwinds in skilled nursing provide more opportunity for the best SNF crews to differentiate themselves from the also-rans .

Because of the risks (headlines, stroke of the pen, state budgets), investing in skilled nursing facilities commands a higher, risk-adjusted return than almost any other real estate investment.  It’s not for the faint of heart.  The security of the rents produced by skilled nursing is more a function of the culture, engagement, and sophistication of the operator than of the latest wind of change.

Does the size of the boat matter? Not as much as you might think. When there was a  seismic shift to the industry in 1999 with the move from a cost plus basis to a prospective payment system (PPS)  several of the very large, “more sophisticated” operators failed to move quickly. It appears that their size,  bureaucracy may have prevented them from changing tack quickly enough. On the other hand, often times smaller operators  lack the resources and sophistications to change tack as well. So, it is less about the size of the company and more about the management teams and the culture/structure of their companies that will predict their ability to move forward.

There are two headlines I saw today that would suggest some tailwinds are in store for a change.

Possible delay two of joint replacement bundle

Pilot program to pay skilled nursing more (site neutral)

No doubt stock prices will tack up, right?  Riiiiiiiiiiiiiight.


Jim Rome, John Wooden, Skilled Nursing “Success”

When I was in High School, my buddies and I listened to a new, up-and-coming, cocky sports talk radio guy, Jim Rome.  He constantly played his verbal trump card against people critiquing successful players/teams.  He would simply respond by saying, “Scoreboard!

Does anyone have a better scoreboard than John Wooden?  The best coach in sport.  Scoreboard? 10 national championships at UCLA.  But, why do I love and respect and listen to the man?  Because of how he won.  Coach Wooden came to mind today because of a conversation with another guy who’s the “best” at his sport, my friend David Howell, a facility CEO for The Ensign Group in southern California. In my opinion, Howell’s one of the best SNF EDs in the country.   It’s almost unbelievable to see what he’s built out of his small SNF in a very blue-collar neighborhood.  His facility won Ensign’s highest total quality award today and he shared with me what he was planning on saying at the ceremony … Wooden, “C.S. Wooden” 😉


I want to share these two thoughts from a talk Coach Wooden gave and that Howell shared today as well.  But, you really ought to watch the whole talk below.

  1. Winning is not in the definition of success.  Here’s what C.S. Wooden said success is: Peace of mind attained only through self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you’re capable. I believe that’s true. If you make the effort to do the best of which you’re capable, trying to improve the situation that exists for you, I think that’s success, and I don’t think others can judge that; it’s like character and reputation — your reputation is what you’re perceived to be; your character is what you really are. And I think that character is much more important than what you are perceived to be. You’d hope they’d both be good, but they won’t necessarily be the same. Well, that was my idea that I was going to try to get across to the youngsters.”

  2. This.  Poem by George Moriarty, called The Road Ahead, Or The Road Behind.”
    “Sometimes I think the Fates must grin as we denounce them and insist the only reason we can’t win, is the Fates themselves have missed.

    Yet there lives on the ancient claim: we win or lose within ourselves. The shining trophies on our shelves can never win tomorrow’s game.

    You and I know deeper down, there’s always a chance to win the crown. But when we fail to give our best, we simply haven’t met the test, of giving all and saving none until the game is really won;

    of showing what is meant by grit; of playing through when others quit; of playing through, not letting up. It’s bearing down that wins the cup.

    Of dreaming there’s a goal ahead; of hoping when our dreams are dead; of praying when our hopes have fled; yet losing, not afraid to fall, if, bravely, we have given all.

    For who can ask more of a man than giving all within his span. Giving all, it seems to me, is not so far from victory. And so the Fates are seldom wrong, no matter how they twist and wind.

    It’s you and I who make our fates — we open up or close the gates on the road ahead or the road behind.”

Congratulations to David, Lito, and the entire Brookfield team.  You’ve been a stunning SUCCESS for many years before winning the Flag today.

Investing in Skilled Nursing – The Basics

I just finished a two-day non-deal roadshow.  Princeton, Philly, and Boston.  Now headed south for a property tour of a couple buildings we have under contract.  As usual, the insititional investors we met with were impressive.  Everyone has their investment “box” that they’re trying to see if we fit in.  This trip, we spent a fair amount of time educating analysts and portfolio managers on the some of the fundamentals of the skilled nursing business.  That got me thinking it would be helpful to provide a high-level intro to the business for investors wanting to get up to speed on the basics.

20 Years of History in 175 words

Skilled nursing facilities exist to provide 2 types of healthcare:

  1. Custodial” (worst term ever), long-term care for “residents” who live in the facility and
  2. Short-term rehabilitative care for patients who are transitioning from hospital to home.

Historically (20 years ago), a “nursing home” or skilled nursing facility (SNF) was where grandma went to live the rest of her life if she needed more assistance with activities of daily living (ADL) than she could get living alone or with family.  For the last 20 years there has been a massive shift in the purpose of SNFs.  With every passing year, they have focused more on caring for higher acuity (clinically complex), short-term rehab patients.  The patients in the SNFs’ rehab units today were treated in acute hospitals 20-30 years ago.

Hospitals and health plans (HMOs) are incentivized to lower the cost of healthcare by reducing the time of inpatient care, thus hospitals have been pushing higher and higher acuity patients out faster and the stronger SNF operators have equipped themselves to meet that demand.

Who Are You?

To understand why SNFs have been willing to adapt to meet the demand of sicker, more clinically complex post acute care (PAC) patients, let’s take a look at the universe of possible patients a SNF cares for …

Medicaid is healthcare for the poor.  In a SNF, Medicaid pays room & board and medications for long-term residents.  Generally speaking, these are NOT the “patients” in the facilty receiving physical therapy (PT), occupational therapy (OT), or Speech therapy (ST).  Rather, they live there.  It’s their home.  Medicaid reimbursement varies by state.  Some pay a fixed rate.  Others pay based on a case mix index (CMI).  The CMI states recognize that the amount and cost of care for all Medicaid residents is not equal.  The more assistance a resident requires, the higher the CMI, and therefore, the higher the reimbursement.  Medicaid reimbursement is the lowest of any type within a SNF.

Medicare is healthcare for seniors (65+).  In a SNF, Medicare pays for short-term rehab for patients who had to be in the hospital for at least 3 nights.  These patients are usually receiving “Skilled Services” from therapists (PT, OT, ST), and/or from nurses (IVs, tracheotomy care, wound care).  The length of stay (LOS) could be anywhere from less than a week to 100 days (Medicare covers 100 days of a SNF stay) depending on the the patient’s needs and prognosis for improvement.

Managed Care or HMO, like Medicare, pays for the same short-term rehab skilled services.  These patients are Medicare eligible people who have signed over their Medicare benefits for a Medicare-replacement type of insurance product offered by health plans like Aetna, Kaiser, etc.  The reimubursement is lower than Medicare (though in some cases the HMO rates pegs to Medicare rates).  And, because it’s “managed” care, case managers at the HMO push on SNFs to care for these patients faster.  HMOs make more money if the length of stay is shorter since inpatient care costs more than care provided in the home (home health, HH).

There are also Private Pay residents.  Expect this to be a shrinking piece of the census pie as assisted living facilities have continue to adapt to provide more assistance today than 20 years ago as well.

The Numbers

Now, let’s take a look at a hypothetical facility through financial eyes.

Let’s call it Dave’s Rockin’ Rehab Facility (anything other than Dave’s Gardens, Village, or Manor, please!). The vital statistics are these:

  • 100 bed facility with the following mix of residents and patients
    • 50 Medicaid residents
    • 20 Medicare patients
    • 10 HMO patients

Now, let’s do some simple math.

50 Medicaid residents x $180/day x 365 days/year = $3,285,000

20 Medicare patients x $525/day x 365 days/year = $3,832,500

10 HMO patients x $420/day x 365 dats/ year = $1,533,000

Total Annual Revenue: $8,650,000

What does is take to run Dave’s Rockin’ Rehab?

Labor is, by far, the biggest expense.

  • Nursing (Registered Nurses, Licensed Vocational Nurses, Certified Nurses Aides)
  • Rehabilitation (PT, OT, ST)
  • Dietary (Cooks, Dietary Aides)
  • Housekeeping (Housekeepers, Janitors)
  • Laundry (Laundry workers)
  • Maintenance (Manager, assistants)
  • Social Services (Social Workers)
  • Activities (Activities Director, assistants)
  • Business Office (Biller, Accounting)
  • Human Resources (HR/Payroll rep)
  • Marketing/Admissions (Admissions coordinator, external marketer)
  • Medical Records (dept. head)

Other primary expenses include:

  • Medications
  • Food
  • Medical Supplies
  • Paper & Plastics
  • Insurance
  • Chemicals
  • Linens
  • Electronic medical record system
  • Marketing
  • Oxygen
  • Labs
  • X-Rays

Let’s put it down on a simplified P&L:


Medicaid       3,285,000

Medicare       3,832,500

HMO              1,533,000

Total               8,650,000

Operating Expenses

Labor             6,000,000

Supplies         700,000

Ancillary        500,000

Food               200,000

Other              200,000

Total               7,600,000

EBITDAR:     1,050,000


Rent:                 750,000

EBITDA:          300,000

So, we see the financial levers are

  • Census (overall occupancy)
  • Skilled mix (percent of patients on “skilled services” aka short-term rehab patients aka Medicare + HMO divided by total census)
  • Daily rates (Medicare RUGs/ADLs — we’ll cover this another time; private pay — again, a shrinking % of the SNF census and so less of a lever than in assisted/independent living/memory care)
  • Labor — staffing efficiently
  • Medication management
  • Expense controls for purchasing

Investors New to Skilled Nursing

Needless to say, there’s a lot that goes into efficiently operating a high skilled mix, profitable facility. This isn’t your grandma’s nursing home.  Or Buick.  And, there’s a huge difference between the blue-chip operators like The Ensign Group and folks still clinging to maintain the status quo from 20 years ago.  I frequently see small owner/operators deciding to sell their facilities because they realize they haven’t kept up with the constant changes and it’s too late (or they’re too tired) to re-tool.

  • There are over 15,000 skilled nursing facilities in the country.
  • Somewhere around 25% of those are owned by large chains.
  • And, somewhere around only 20% are owned by REITs.

It’s a very fragmented industry that has been under pressures to provide better, faster, and cheaper care to sicker and sicker patients.  That trend has been accelerating over the last couple years with bundled payments (I’ll write about that soon).  The only thing that hasn’t changed is that the operators (of all sizes) who are sophisticated, engaged, and committed to quality care are able to adapt to the changes and win and those operators (of all sizes) who don’t adapt, lose.

Why Don’t He Write?

I just thought of a scene from Dances With Wolves.  Not because it takes place at “Fort Sedgwick” — though can there be a better reason?  Not, because it inspired me to write this.  But, because it’s been too long since I’ve written here.

“Why don’t he write?”

As a facility executive director and chief human capital officer at The Ensign Group for 13 years, there seemed to be endless material to write about.  Since moving to the investing/financing side of Seniors Housing/Healthcare, I haven’t taken the time to write as often as before.  But, I think that’s going to change.

I get asked regularly by analysts, investors, bankers, and other industry observers what I think about the constant breaking waves of news and changes in the skilled nursing business. Candidly, I’m frequently disappointed to see the over-reaction to those headlines by the market (and even by other REITs).  Industry observers are quick to declare the death of the skilled nursing operators.  It seems like there’s been some headline to that effect every year for the last 15 that I’ve been in the business.  I add my voice to Mark Twain’s off-misquoted correction …


I remain as bullish as ever on skilled nursing because the best operators always find a way to adapt and thrive while the weaker ones fall.  And, not that it takes one to know one, but it certainly helps.

Topics on the table right now include: Changes to the 5 star program, CJR (Comprehensive Care for Joint Replacements), Bundled Payments, ACOs, etc.