The U.S. will “without a doubt” have more coronavirus infections and deaths in the fall and winter if effective testing, contact tracing and social distancing measures are not scaled up to adequate levels, NIAID director Anthony Fauci testified on Tuesday.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) criticized the Trump administration’s coronavirus testing coordinator Adm. Brett Giroir at a Senate hearing Tuesday, accusing him of framing U.S. testing data in a politically positive light: “I find our testing record nothing to celebrate whatsoever.”
Millions of Americans are risking their lives to feed us and bring meals, toiletries and new clothes to our doorsteps — but their pay, benefits and working conditions do not reflect the dangers they face at work, Axios’ Erica Pandey reports.
House Democrats released Tuesday their phase 4 $3 trillion coronavirus relief proposal that would provide billions of additional aid to state and local governments, hospitals and other Democratic priorities.
The American Federation of Teachers launched several capstone lesson plans Tuesday to help K-12 teachers measure student progress during school closures and overcome the challenges of a remote learning setting.
A new study by economists at the University of Illinois, Harvard Business School, Harvard University and the University of Chicago projects that more than 100,000 small businesses have permanently closed since the coronavirus pandemic was declared in March, the Washington Post reports.
The president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis said Sunday that the “worst is yet to come” after a record of 20 million people lost their jobs amid furloughs and layoffs sparked by the coronavirus pandemic in April.
“I mean the worst is yet to come on the job front, unfortunately,” Neel Kashkari said on ABC’s “This Week.”
“We may be in an environment of gradual relaxing and then having to clamp back down again around the country as the virus continues to spread,” he added. “To solve the economy, we must solve the virus. Let’s never lose sight of that fact.”
“You know, I wish it were,” he responded. “What I’ve learned in the last few months, unfortunately, this is more likely to be a slow, more gradual recovery.”
The Minneapolis Fed president said a “robust economy” would require a breakthrough in vaccines, testing and therapies.
“I don’t know when we’re going to have that confidence,” he said, adding, “and ultimately, the American people are going to decide how long the shutdown is.”
The Department of Labor reported last week that the unemployment rate had reached 14.7 percent, which is the highest since the U.S. began tracking in 1948. More than 33 million people have applied for unemployment claims since mid-March.
Speaking earlier Sunday on “This Week,” Kudlow acknowledged that “very difficult” unemployment numbers could likely be reported in May. But he added that there is a “glimmer of hope” within the unemployment data, with 80 percent of the claims involving those who were furloughed or going through temporary layoffs.
As visits plummet because of the coronavirus, small physician practices are struggling to survive.
Autumn Road in Little Rock, Ark., is the type of doctor’s practice that has been around long enough to be treating the grandchildren of its eldest patients.
For 50 years, the group has been seeing families like Kelli Rutledge’s. A technician for a nearby ophthalmology practice, she has been going to Autumn Road for two decades.
The group’s four doctors and two nurse practitioners quickly adapted to the coronavirus pandemic, sharply cutting back clinic hours and switching to virtual visits to keep patients and staff safe.
When Kelli, 54, and her husband, Travis, 56, developed symptoms of Covid-19, the couple drove to the group’s office and spoke to the nurse practitioner over the phone. “She documented all of our symptoms,” Ms. Rutledge said. They were swabbed from their car.
While the practice was never a big moneymaker, its revenues have plummeted. The number of patients seen daily by providers has dropped to half its average of 120. The practice’s payments from March and April are down about $150,000, or roughly 40 percent.
“That won’t pay the light bill or the rent,” said Tabitha Childers, the administrator of the practice, which recently laid off 12 people.
While there are no hard numbers, there are signs that many small groups are barely hanging on. Across the country, only half of primary care doctor practices say they have enough cash to stay open for the next four weeks, according to one study, and many are already laying off or furloughing workers.
“The situation facing front-line physicians is dire,” three physician associations representing more than 260,000 doctors, wrote to the secretary of health and human services, Alex M. Azar II, at the end of April. “Obstetrician-gynecologists, pediatricians, and family physicians are facing dramatic financial challenges leading to substantial layoffs and even practice closures.”
By another estimate, as many as 60,000 physicians in family medicine may no longer be working in their practices by June because of the pandemic.
The faltering doctors’ groups reflect part of a broader decline in health care alongside the nation’s economic downturn. As people put off medical appointments and everything from hip replacements to routine mammograms, health spending dropped an annualized rate of 18 percent in the first three months of the year, according to recent federal data.
While Congress has rushed to send tens of billions of dollars to the hospitals reporting large losses and passed legislation to send even more, small physician practices in medicine’s least profitable fields like primary care and pediatrics are struggling to stay afloat. “They don’t have any wiggle room,” said Dr. Lisa Bielamowicz, a co-founder of Gist Healthcare, a consulting firm.
None of the money allocated by lawmakers has been specifically targeted to the nation’s doctors, although the latest bill set aside funds for community health centers. Some funds were also set aside for small businesses, which would include many doctors’ practices, but many have faced the same frustration as other owners in finding themselves shut out of much of the funding available.
Federal officials have taken some steps to help small practices, including advancing Medicare payments and reimbursing doctors for virtual visits. But most of the relief has gone to the big hospital and physician groups. “We have to pay special attention to these independent primary care practices, and we’re not paying special attention to them,” said Dr. Farzad Mostashari, a former health official in the Obama administration, whose company, Aledade, works with practices like Autumn Road.
“The hospitals are getting massive bailouts,” said Dr. Christopher Crow, the president of Catalyst Health Network in Texas. “They’ve really left out primary care, really all the independent physicians,” he said.
“Here’s the scary thing — as these practices start to break down and go bankrupt, we could have more consolidation among the health care systems,” Dr. Crow said. That concerns health economists, who say the steady rise in costs is linked to the clout these big hospital networks wield with private insurers to charge high prices.
While the pandemic has wreaked widespread havoc across the economy, shuttering restaurants and department stores and throwing tens of millions of Americans out of work, doctors play an essential role in the health of the public. In addition to treating coronavirus patients who would otherwise show up at the hospital, they are caring for people with chronic diseases like diabetes and asthma.
Keeping these practices open is not about protecting the doctors’ livelihoods, said Michael Chernew, a health policy professor at Harvard Medical School. “I worry about how well these practices will be able to shoulder the financial burden to be able to meet the health care needs people have,” he said.
“If practices close down, you lose access to a point of care,” said Dr. Chernew, who was one of the authors of a new analysis published by the Commonwealth Fund that found doctor’s visits dropped by about 60 percent from mid-March to mid-April. The researchers used visit data from clients of a technology firm, Phreesia.
Nearly 30 percent of the visits were virtual as doctors rushed to offer telemedicine as the safest alternative for their staff and patients. “It’s remarkable how quickly it was embraced,” said Dr. Ateev Mehrotra, a hospitalist and associate professor of health policy at Harvard Medical School, who was also involved in the study. But even with virtual visits, patient interaction was significantly lower.
Almost half of primary care practices have laid off or furloughed employees, said Rebecca Etz, an associate professor of family medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University and co-director of the Larry A. Green Center, which is surveying doctors with the Primary Care Collaborative, a nonprofit group. Many practices said they did not know if they had enough cash to stay open for the next month.
Pediatricians, which are among the lowest paid of the medical specialties, could be among the hardest hit. Federal officials used last year’s payments under the Medicare program to determine which groups should get the initial $30 billion in funds. Because pediatricians don’t generally treat Medicare patients, they were not compensated for the decline in visits as parents chose not to take their children to the doctor and skipped their regular checkups.
“This virus has the potential to essentially put pediatricians out of business across the country,” said Dr. Susan Sirota, a pediatrician in Chicago who leads a network of a dozen pediatric practices in the area. “Our waiting rooms are like ghost towns,” she said.
Pediatricians have also ordered tens of thousands of dollars on vaccines for their patients at a time when vaccine rates have plunged because of the pandemic, and they are now working with the manufacturers to delay payments for at least a time. “We don’t have the cash flow to pay them,” said Dr. Susan Kressly, a pediatrician in Warrington, Pa.
Even those practices that quickly ramped up their use of telemedicine are troubled. In Albany, Ga., a community that was an unexpected hot spot for the virus, Dr. Charles Gebhardt, a doctor who is treating some infected patients, rapidly converted his practice to doing nearly everything virtually. Dr. Gebhardt also works with Aledade to care for Medicare patients.
But the telemedicine visits are about twice as long as a typical office visit, Dr. Gebhardt said. Instead of seeing 25 patients a day, he may see eight. “We will quickly go broke at this rate,” he said.
Although he said the small-business loans and advance Medicare payments are “a Godsend, and they will help us survive the next few months,” he also said practices like his need to go back to seeing patients in person if they are to remain viable. Medicare will no longer be advancing payments to providers, and many of the small-business funding represents a short-term fix.
While Medicare and some private insurers are covering virtual visits, which would include telephone calls, doctors say the payments do not make up for the lost revenue from tests and procedures that help them stay in business. “Telehealth is not the panacea and does not make up for all the financial losses,” said Dr. Patrice Harris, the president of the American Medical Association.
To keep the practices open, Dr. Mostashari and others propose doctors who treat Medicare and Medicaid patients receive a flat fee per person.
Even more worrisome, doctors’ groups may not be delivering care to those who need it, said Dr. Mehrotra, the Harvard researcher, because the practices are relying on patients to get in touch rather than reaching out.
Some doctors are already voicing concerns about patients who do not have access to a cellphone or computer or may not be adept at working with telemedicine apps. “Not every family has access to the technology to connect with us the right way,” said Dr. Kressly, who said the transition to virtual care “is making disparities worse.”
Some patients may also still prefer traditional office visits. While the Rutledges appreciated the need for virtual visits, Kelli said there was less time to “talk about other things.”
“Telehealth is more inclined to be about strictly what you are there for,” she said.
Private equity firms and large hospital systems are already eying many of these practices in hopes of buying them, said Paul D. Vanchiere, a consultant who advises pediatric practices.
“The vultures are circling here,” he said. “They know these practices are going to have financial hardship.”
Small hospitals going through bankruptcy are suing the Small Business Administration, arguing it is unlawful for the federal government to deny them loans under the Paycheck Protection Program, Axios’ Bob Herman reports.
Why it matters: Allowing bankrupt hospitals access to PPP loans could keep their doors open, and could force the federal government to reverse its stance and allow other bankrupt firms to get PPP loans.
Driving the news: Faith Community Health System, a small rural hospital in Texas that filed for bankruptcy in February, sued the SBA Thursday.
The big picture: Courts are starting to take hospitals’ side.
The bottom line: Rural hospitals have been in dire straits for years, and for those that are on the precipice of or are going through bankruptcy, they may be eligible for this bailout funding despite SBA exclusions.
National physician staffing firm Envision Healthcare is considering filing for bankruptcy, according a report from Bloomberg. Sources say the company, backed by private equity (PE) firm KKR, which acquired Envision for $9.9B in June 2018, has hired restructuring advisors and is working with an investment bank. The abrupt halt to elective surgeries and reduction in emergency room volumes due to COVID-19 has caused Envision’s business to shrink by 65 to 75 percent in just two weeks at its 168 open ambulatory surgery centers (ASCs), compared to the same time period last year.
The Nashville-based company, which employs over 25,000 physicians and advanced practitioners, has already been reducing pay for providers and executives, in addition to implementing temporary furloughs. Envision is also struggling with a debt load of more than $7B, resulting from its 2018 leveraged buyout, and has been unable to convince its bondholders to approve a debt swap.
It remains to be seen whether Envision will be a bellwether for how other PE-backed physician groups will weather the ongoing COVID crisis. While Envision’s composition of mainly hospital- and ASC-based providers, coupled with its huge debt load, leave it on especially shaky financial footing, many PE-backed physician groups will struggle this year to achieve anything close to the 20 percent annual rate of return often promised to investors.
If high-profile PE-backed groups like Envision end up declaring bankruptcy, it will likely impact the calculus of the many independent practices which may have previously looked to PE firms for acquisition, and temper the enthusiasm of investors, who might see physician staffing and practice roll-ups as less attractive as volumes continue to fluctuate.
Today the House of Representatives passed a new $484 billion coronavirus relief bill by a vote of 388-5. The Senate passed it Tuesday. $381 billion is for small businesses left out in the cold when the money from the previous coronavirus relief package quickly ran dry. Republicans wanted to stop there, but Democrats demanded $75 billion for hospitals, and $25 billion for coronavirus testing, as well as a requirement that the administration figure out a strategy to get tests to states.
The relief bill comes as more than 26 million Americans are out of work and almost 50,000 Americans have died of Covid-19. The representatives had to drive to Washington, D.C., or fly unusual routes because regular flights are canceled. They arrived for the vote in the Capitol building in alphabetical groups of 50 to 60 so they could keep their distance from each other. A number of Republicans refused to wear masks during the vote, while all but one Democrat wore one.
Democrats inserted into the bill a new committee to oversee the administration’s “preparedness for and response to the coronavirus crisis,” chaired by Jim Clyburn (D-SC). The committee has the power to subpoena witnesses and documents. Republicans and Trump objected.
But the Democrats did not get any more aid to states, crippled by the crisis, than the $150 billion previously provided. The bipartisan National Governors Association, headed by Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, a Republican, has asked for $500 billion to help the states replace lost tax revenues. Democrats wanted such aid, but Republicans refused.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) went on talk radio host Hugh Hewitt’s show on Wednesday and tried to make the question of state aid partisan. He said that he opposed granting money to states whose problems, he said, stemmed from their underfunded state pension plans. Instead, the states should consider bankruptcy. A document put out by McConnell’s office called aid to the states a “blue state bailout.”
In fact, Michael Leachman, the senior director of state fiscal research at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said that McConnell has it wrong. States have not been overspending; their expenses for education and infrastructure are actually significantly below what they were in 2008, despite more inhabitants, and they have put about 7.6% of their budgets into rainy day funds, a historic high, up from the previous high of 5% they held in reserve in 2006 before the Great Recession.
The problem is that states have to balance their budgets annually, and they depend on sales and income taxes for 70% of their revenue. The shutdowns have decimated tax revenues as shopping ends and people lose their jobs. At the same time, unemployment claims are climbing dramatically. States are looking at a $500 billion loss between now and 2022.
States need money to avoid massive layoffs and deep spending cuts, actions that would make the economic crisis continue much longer than it would if they do not have to make them. They would not use bailout money on pensions, Leachman writes, but put it in state general funds, which are collapsing. Pensions come out of a separate trust fund (although the general fund does put money toward future pensions, that’s less than 5% spending from the general fund). Federal bankruptcy law currently does not allow states to declare bankruptcy, but in any case, Leachman writes, there is no need for it. Bankruptcy relieves high debt levels, but state debt is not high, and once the pandemic passes, the states should be financially sound again.
If Leachman’s explanation was scholarly, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was blunt. “New York puts into that federal pot $116B more than we take out. Kentucky takes out $148B more than they put in,” he said at a press conference. “Senator McConnell, who’s getting bailed out here? It’s your state that’s living on the money that we generate.” A recent study by the Rockefeller Institute of Government shows that New Yorkers as a group pay in to the federal government $1,792 per capita more than they take out, while for every dollar Kentucky puts in, it gets $2.61 back.
Cuomo called McConnell out for trying to turn the crisis into a political fight: “That’s not what this country is all about,” Cuomo said. “It’s not red and blue, it’s red, white and blue.”
Today’s other big news was Trump’s suggestion at his coronavirus briefing that it would be worth studying whether injecting disinfectant into patients would kill the novel coronavirus. “And then I see the disinfectant where it knocks it out in a minute. One minute. And is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning?” he said. “Because, you see, it gets on the lungs, and it does a tremendous number on the lungs. So it’d be interesting to check that. So that you’re going to have to use medical doctors, but it sounds — it sounds interesting to me.” He also suggested using heat and light to kill the virus.
Doctors were horrified at his comment, calling it irresponsible and dangerous. Disinfectants are poisonous and are deadly if they are used inappropriately. “To be clear:” emergency medicine physician Dara Kass tweeted, “Intracavitary UV light and swallowing bleach or isopropyl alcohol can kill you. Don’t do it.”
Trump’s emphasis on dramatic cures for Covid-19 reinforces his disagreement with health experts that we must dramatically increase our testing for the disease so we can identify hot spots and isolate them before they spread. At today’s briefing, Trump disagreed with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and one of the administration’s top medical advisors about the pandemic, who recently said “We absolutely need to significantly ramp up, not only the number of tests but the capacity to actually perform them.” Today, Trump said: “I don’t agree with him on that, no, I think we’re doing a great job on testing.”
In fact, the U.S. lags behind other nations in per capita tests, and Trump’s continuing reluctance to support getting them seems to me mystifying. It is this odd gap Congress is trying to address with its requirement in the new coronavirus package that the administration must figure out a strategy to get tests to states. The bill now heads to the Oval Office for Trump’s signature.
For all the dark nitty-gritty of politics today, it is also a day that begins a joyous month, and that seems to me a far better way to leave you all tonight than with the day’s troubles. For those who celebrate, Ramadan Mubarak.