The End of the Pandemic Health Emergency is Ill-timed and Short-sighted: The Impact will further Destabilize the Health Industry


The national spotlight this week will be on the debt ceiling stand-off in Congress, the end of Title 42 that enables immigrants’ legal access to the U.S., the April CPI report from the Department of Labor and the aftermath of the nation’s 199th mass shooting this year in Allen TX.

The official end of the Pandemic Health Emergency (PHE) Thursday will also be noted but its impact on the health industry will be immediate and under-estimated.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) logged more than 104 million COVID-19 cases in the US as of late April and more than 11% of adults who had COVID-19 currently have symptoms of long COVID. It comes as the CDC say there’s a 20% chance of a Pandemic 2.0 in the next 2-5 years and the current death toll tops 1000/day in the U.S.

The Immediate impact:

The official end of the PHE means much of the cost for treating Covid will shift to private insurers; access to testing, vaccines and treatments with no out-of-pocket costs for the uninsured will continue through 2024. But enrollees in commercial plans, Medicare, Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program can expect more cost-sharing for tests and antivirals. 

That means higher revenues for insurers, increased out of pocket costs for consumers and more bad debt for hospitals and physicians.

At the state level, Medicaid disenrollment efforts will intensify to alleviate state financial obligations for Covid-related health costs. In tandem, state allocations for SNAP benefits used by 1 in 4 long-covid victims will shrink as budget-belts tighten lending to hunger cliff.  

That means less access to health programs in many states and more disruption in low-income households seeking care.

The Under-estimated Impact:

The end of the PHE enables politicians to shift “good will” toward direct care workers, home and Veteran’s health services and away from hospitals and specialty medicine who face reimbursement cuts and hostile negotiations with insurers. The April 18, 2023 White House Executive Order which enables increased funding for direct care workers called for prioritization across all federal agencies. Notably, in the PHE, hospitals received emergency funding to treat the Covid-19 patients while utilization and funding for non-urgent services was curtailed. Though the Covid-19 population is still significant, funding for hospitals is unlikely in lieu of in-home and social services programs for at risk populations.

A second unknown is this: As the ranks of the uninsured and under-insured swell, and as affordability looms as a primary concern among voters and employers, provider unpaid medical bills and “bad debt” increases are likely to follow.

Hostility over declining reimbursement between health insurers and local hospitals and medical groups will intensify while the biggest drug manufacturers, hospital systems and health insurers launch fresh social media campaigns and advocacy efforts to advance their interests and demonize their foes. 

Loss of confidence in the system and a desire for something better may be sparked by the official end of the PHE. And it’s certain to widen antipathy between insurers and hospitals.

My take:

In this month’s Health Affairs, DePaul University health researchers reported results of their analysis of the association between hospital reimbursement rates and insurer consolidation:

“Our results confirm this prior work and suggest that greater insurer market power is associated with lower prices paid for services nationally. A critical question for policy makers and consumers is whether savings obtained from lower prices are passed on in the form of lower premiums. The relationship to premiums is theoretically ambiguous. It is possible that insurers simply retain the savings in the form of higher profits.”

What’s clear is health insurers are winners and providers—especially hospitals and physicians—are likely losers as the PHE ends. What’s also clear is policymakers are in no mood to provide financial rescue to either.

In the weeks ahead as the debt ceiling is debated, the Federal FY 2024 budget finalized and campaign 2024 launches, the societal value of the entire health system and speculation about its preparedness for the next pandemic will be top of mind.

For some—especially not-for-profit hospitals and insurers who benefit from tax exemptions in favor of community health obligations– it requires rethinking of long-term strategies to serve the public good. And it necessitates their Boards to alter capital and operating priorities toward a more sustainnable future.

The pandemic exposed the disconnect between local health and human services programs and inadequacy of local, state and federal preparedness Given what’s ahead, the end of the Pandemic Health Emergency seems ill-timed and short-sighted: the impact will further destabilize the health industry.

Paul

PS: Saturday, the Allen Premium Outlets, (Allen, TX) was the site of America’s 199th mass shooting this year:

this time, 8 innocents died and 7 remain hospitalized, 4 in critical condition. Sadly, it’s becoming a new normal, marked by public officials who offer “thoughts and prayers” followed by calls for mental health and gun controls. Local law enforcement is deified if prompt or demonized if not. But because it’s a “new normal,” the heroics of EMS, ED and hospitals escapes mention. Medical City Healthcare is where 2 of the 8 drew their last breaths while staff labored to save the other 7. At a time when hospitals are battered by bad press, they deserve recognition for work done like this every day.

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