If you are a surgeon looking for more control, block time, revenue and more efficiency, or a hospital in need of a "for-profit" arm and a strategy for keeping your surgeons in the fold, an ambulatory surgery center may be a wonderful investment, as thousands of happy ASC owners will tell you. Then again, it may be one of the worst moves you ever made. Surgeons tend to hear a lot more about successes than failures. But we know of a Northeastern center that was built but never opened, an ASC in the Southeast that was open for only a year before closing, and a gorgeous 30,000 square foot center that's sitting empty to this day. Some experts estimate that as many as a third of all ASCs lose money.
What separates the winners from the losers is the same thing that separates good students from not-so-good ones. The winners did their homework. They carefully and conservatively analyzed their own potential for supporting an ASC before ever signing on the dotted line. As a result, some went forward with their projects with all guns blazing, and some pulled in their horns and saved themselves countless dollars and heartache.
In this brief article, we'll provide an overview of what you need to do before proceeding with an ASC.
Get a true estimate of cases
Step No. 1 is to ask all involved physicians for the
number of surgical procedures they performed in the past year, by CPT code. Most physicians can perform this analysis with their office software, provided that they have a thorough knowledge of CPT codes.
It is critical to also analyze which of these procedures were primary and which were secondary. Just as with professional fees, primary procedures get reimbursed at the full APC facility fee rate in an ASC, but secondary procedures done in the same sitting are usually reimbursed at a discount.
Once you have the number of cases, consider carefully how many of those could actually be done in an ambulatory surgery center.
Again, you can do the first portion of this analysis. First, print out of all the surgical cases you billed last year. Subtract all the cases that required an overnight stay, those that would not be appropriate for an ambulatory surgery center, and those that require very expensive equipment that probably wouldn't be available in an ASC.
A note here: Be conservative. Physicians often think big about the number of cases they can bring. It almost always turns out to be less than they think. You may start with the best intentions, but practice patterns are often difficult to change. It's not uncommon for a physician to find that the ASC's location is not as convenient as he thought, or to not get the block time he thinks he deserves, or to be bothered by the center's politics. Drifting back to the hospital is a lot less common when the operating physicians are members of just one group, or when all have significant investment in the center.
The second step of your analysis involves determining how many of the remaining cases could command a reasonable facility fee at an ASC. For this part of the analysis you really need someone with significant expertise in alternate site billing. Facility fee billing is an extraordinarily arcane discipline; it doesn't follow logic. Here are a couple of examples:
- Laparoscopic cholecystectomies, which are almost always done on an outpatient basis in the hospital, are not currently reimbursed by Medicare when done in an ASC. This may change shortly.
- You can remove a malignant skin lesion under 3 cm in diameter and the hospital will command a facility fee for it. Do the same thing in an ambulatory surgery center and the ASC will not receive a facility fee. Hospital reimbursement notwithstanding, Medicare considers this an office procedure.
Do a payor analysis
Once you've isolated the cases you did last year, sort them by payor. You'll need to know what your top payors pay for the various procedures. When we do feasibility studies, we determine ASC facility fees for the top procedures from the top 10 payors. Most payors base their reimbursements on Medicare; the facility fee may be "Medicare plus 10 percent" or "Medicare plus 15 percent."
A note here: Do not, repeat, do not, use a national managed care rate for your estimates. Reimbursement rates frequently vary widely even in markets that are very close together. Here in Ft. Myers, the market is heavily managed, whereas in nearby Naples, there is very little managed care. In some markets, such as Miami, the typical reimbursement is actually lower than that of Medicare. In these cases, of course, many more cases are required for profitability.
It's important to also determine whether there may be problems with getting paid. Sometimes the panel is closed or a health plan has an exclusivity clause with a local hospital.
Calculate your costs
Once you have a revenues estimate, create a pro-forma budget with a cash-flow analysis. The more expertise you can marshal for this task, the better. We recommend involving an operations person and a certifed public accountant. Preferably both should be experienced with surgery centers.
Probably the largest fixed cost will be debt service from the loans you took for the build-out, equipment and working capital. To estimate the bricks and mortar cost, we typically work with an ASC-experienced architecture firm; they estimate the cost of build-out and adjust it for local building costs. To determine the equipment costs-typically 30 to 40 percent of the project cost-we use an equipment planner. Again, this results in only a rough estimate of what will be needed, as early in the project physicians will not have identified their equipment preferences.
A third piece is the consulting and legal fees. The latter can vary widely depending on your state's legal and regulatory environment. If your state requires a certificate of need, attorneys' fees may range from $30,000 to $100,000.
The final part of this debt service is your operational capital. You will need from three to six months of expenses in the bank prior to starting your project.
Other fixed costs include your lease and utilities.
Variable costs include payroll and supply costs.
To estimate staff costs, it's necessary to estimate the overall man-hours you will need. We like to break these into clinical hours and administrative hours. For the former, you will be able to use a mix of RNs and scrub techs. To find out their hourly rate, talk to nurses in your local hospital and examine national averages. We also use the Federated Ambulatory Surgery Association ASC Employee and Benefits and Salary Survey, which is broken down by state.
As for supplies, collect or create preference cards for the most common cases for all surgeons, then calculate the costs. We use an ASC management software program to do this. Multiply the costs per case by the number of cases you expect to do each month.
It's important to do a realistic cash-flow analysis along with the study. This is simply an estimate of how much money you will have in your bank account at any given time. It is very possible for a profitable ASC to go bankrupt. First, you must achieve accreditation before some insurance companies will reimburse you at all, a three- to six-month process. Second, at start-up, under the best of circumstances collections will take 75 days. More typically, they take 120 days. Most experts recommend having no less than three and preferably six months' worth of operating capital on hand when you open.
At the end of the process you can construct a reasonably accurate pro-forma income statement (See Statement on page 10), complete with cash flow. What's acceptable varies from person to person, but at a minimum the center should do well enough to pay off the start-up costs within five years.
A note here: It pays to think not just about the first year, but the "out" years as well. It is difficult to impossible to predict what will happen to health care in general, but you should definitely think about what will happen with the partners in your ASC. For example, if key members of the group plan to retire in the near future, you need to think about how you will replace those cases.
One final note: Doing this feasibility study is not free. Expect to invest a minimum of $10,000 and usually more.
We wish you the best of luck with your exploration. Be optimistic, but temper your outlook with the knowledge that not every ASC is meant to be. If you base your decision on the facts, you will have won in the long run.