Thought Leadership

What the presidential election year means for hospitals and health systems

Evan Harris
By Evan Harris
posted Feb 16, 2024

2024 is two months in and health systems across the country need to be ready for a contentious election year. A spicy presidential election, 33 U.S. Senate and 11 gubernatorial elections, as well as the regular House Congressional and state legislative contents means it will be a busy year. Health systems should prepare for additional political, reputation and media attention throughout the year along with the normal business of public policy like lawmaker leadership changes, new committee chairs, more legislative bills, and regulatory scrutiny.

A Contentious Election Year

The countdown to the presidential election in November will be even more contentious than four years ago. Contentious congressional, governor, and state legislative races will be on docket for voters, too. Healthcare affordability, coverage and access to care may be common rhetoric among elected office hopefuls. That will include outlandish campaign promises. Candidates will gloss over the reality of how health care works and attempt to sway voters with vague stump speeches and talking points.

Candidates may pair prickly health care issues like merger and acquisition activity, layoffs, executive compensation, organizing activity or service line closures with criticisms and promises of reform, too.

How to Prepare: Health systems should have messages and answers ready for common misconceptions and misinformation about their operations and the challenges. Anticipating negative or incorrect comments from a political campaign could give health systems a strong platform to share the real challenges impacting health care services. Remember that most election cycles will have at least two build-ups in the run up to primary and general elections.

Latching onto Bad News

We all know the phrase, “If it bleeds, it leads.” Bad news is fuel for political campaigns, too. Negative media coverage may continue with additional attention from lawmakers or challengers running for office. Reporters covering a campaign may ask candidates about negative health care news coverage – giving issues additional exposure than in non-election years. These types of comments should be expected from political campaigns.

How to Prepare: Now is the time for hospitals and health systems to be prepared to respond about questions around reputation and operations. If your messages or reputational responses are outdated or haven’t been used recently, it may be time to revisit your strategic communications and crisis response statements. Crisis communications prep will play a strong role here. Both what you will say and how your organization responds in real time to the stress and unpredictability of negative news.

Health Sects

Contentious presidential, congressional, and local elections will breathe new life into “health sects.” Revive CEO Chris Bevolo explained “the rise of health sects” in Joe Public 2030. These sects connect medical thinking to their worldview, create their own reality through alternative research, diagnosis and treatment approaches, and models for the delivery of care. Health sects may connect with a specific candidate to embrace their view on health care and amplify it on social media or on their own channels.

How to Prepare: Health systems should be prepared to address misinformation with a careful understanding about how they should (or should not) weigh into any social media or online discourse.

Bills, Bills, Bills

Last year, state legislatures introduced more than 23,000 bills related to health policy. There is little reason to think that number will not be reached again, if not surpassed in 2024. Medicaid costs, mental and behavioral health coverage, health care worker shortages and how states can regulate long-term care will be likely topics. Add in new arrivals like California’s health care worker minimum wage law, Medicaid expansion and mainstays like staff-patient ratios and certificate-of-need reform, and we are likely to see another busy year in health care policy. That doesn’t include any federal legislation or hearings from Congress, either.

How to Prepare: Health system government relations professionals and hospital association public affairs teams can expect another busy 2024 legislative calendar as the election season picks up momentum.

Lies, Damn Lies, And Campaign Rhetoric

Political campaigns will make lofty promises about changing everything from the cost of health care to the delivery of care. Those looking to score easy political points with voters may attack the reputation and operations of health systems. Few, if any, campaign changes will be possible or even address the core challenges of health care. And as we wrote about last month, new merger and acquisition guidelines from the FTC and DOJ means regulators may be more critical of mergers, audits and the application of standing health care rules and laws, too.

How to Prepare: Prepare for these claims similar to misinformation or other incorrect information with messaging about the true challenges and realities of health care operations, finances, and what it takes to care for patients.

Want to talk more about our learnings and work in health care public affairs? Reach out to our team to learn more.