We’re hearing from health systems across the country that physician office, surgery and diagnostic volumes have mostly returned to pre-pandemic levels. Consumers appear to feel comfortable coming back to scheduled appointments as long as social distancing and capacity can be managed. But they’re more reticent to return to “unscheduled” care settings that may involve a long wait, like urgent care clinics and emergency departments, where visits have stabilized at 75 to 85 percent of pre-pandemic levels.
The latter in particular has proved concerning to hospitals leaders, who have begun to ask, what if ED volumes never fully come back? (Around 15 percent of ED visits convert to inpatient stays, on average, making the ED an important source of downstream revenue for hospitals.) We spoke recently with a health system COO who realistically thinks that 10 percent of the volume could be gone for good, and recognizes that “from a public health perspective, that’s probably a good thing”, given that lower-acuity, non-emergent patients account for a portion of the “lost” volume.
But concerns about patients delaying much-needed care persist—amplifying the need for alternate channels, both virtual and in-person, for patients to access care and quickly connect to more intensive services if needed. Hospital leaders would be wise to prepare for a “90 percent future”, and adjust revenue models and cost structures to be less dependent on admissions and procedures that come through the emergency department.
The good news is that they aren’t partisan, and they’re fixable.
In our response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the United States has all too often been caught flat-footed. Our public officials have tried to avoid or deny problems until they have been right on top of us, and legislative measures have tended to react to major challenges rather than avert them.
That has left policymakers with a lot to react to. And the relief and assistance bill now being worked out in the Senate will need to do that on several fronts. But to do better in the future, that bill should also take on several predictable problems that will face our country over the remainder of the year and which could benefit enormously from some advance attention and action.
Three sets of such predictable problems stand out above all, and in all three cases there are measures that can be taken now that should be able to attract bipartisan support.
First, states are going to face a monumental fiscal crisis.
The pandemic and the ensuing shutdowns of economic activity have left state governments with immense revenue shortages. Balanced-budget amendments in all but one state severely restrict their capacity to run deficits, in many cases even in major emergencies. That means states will have to either find other ways to raise revenue quickly or make major cuts to basic services. Such cuts in spending, jobs and public assistance would exacerbate the deep recession we are in and leave millions who need help in the lurch.
Most state fiscal years begin in July, so in many cases budgets designed or enacted before the severity of the crisis was clear are now starting to take effect, leaving states facing gaps they can easily predict but haven’t formally accounted for. In fact, 16 states are now starting the second year of biennial budgets enacted in 2019, before anyone could have imagined the sort of crisis we now face. Over the coming months, there will be no avoiding the fiscal crunch.
The states have already begun pleading with Congress for help, and sooner or later Congress will need to provide it. Taking steps sooner rather than later would make an enormous difference. The federal government has often been called on to serve as a fiscal backstop for states in extreme emergencies, since its borrowing power vastly exceeds that of the states. And that role is particularly appropriate in a truly national—indeed global—crisis of this magnitude.
But to provide such help responsibly, Congress will need to clearly delineate what kinds of assistance it can offer and on what terms. Congressional Republicans are not wrong to be wary of state efforts to use the emergency to fill fiscal holes dug over decades of irresponsible state policies. Yet that can’t mean that they deny state governments the help they need to contend with this crisis. Rather, it means they must draw some distinctions.
As I’ve argued elsewhere, Congress would do well to divide state needs into three tranches: direct pandemic spending (which should be covered by federal dollars), lost state revenue (which states should be given the opportunity to make up with federally guaranteed loans on favorable terms), and longstanding obligations like pension and retiree health costs made untenable by the recession (for which affected states should be given options only for strictly conditional support, like a new state bankruptcy code or federal support conditioned on major pension reforms).
To be effective, that sort of response would need to take shape now, before states have truly hit the wall. It should be part of the bill the parties are now beginning to negotiate.
Second, this fall’s election is going to be seriously complicated by the pandemic.
There is pretty much no way around that. We’ll be voting while the virus is still spreading, which means that far more people than usual will vote by mail. Only a few states have real experience with voting by mail in large numbers, and the logistics involved are not simple. Primary elections in many states have already made the challenge clear.
To take just one example among many, mailed ballots require signature verification. In states that haven’t spent years building the required infrastructure, such verification will probably need to be done by hand, creating huge risks of confusion and error. States will need to develop new processes to handle this, to train election workers to use unfamiliar equipment, and to take on problems in real time. Signature verification also requires a process for notifying voters whose handwriting is challenged and giving them time to respond. All that, and similar challenges on other election administration fronts, makes it easy to imagine that many races will be impossible to call on election night, and perhaps for quite some time afterward.
Particularly in an era already overflowing with cynical mistrust and conspiracy mongering, such problems raise the prospect of a legitimacy crisis around the election. And policymakers need to take steps now to reduce the risk of such a crisis.
The first step must be to prepare the public. Elected officials, candidates, journalists and others must start speaking plainly about the likelihood of logistical challenges around the election so that voters are not shocked if things don’t go smoothly. People must know in advance that we should not expect every race to be called straight away and that results which take days or even weeks to determine are not therefore illegitimate.
But beyond setting voter expectations, policymakers should also be looking for ways to reduce the strain on the system and to deal with predictable problems. One simple step Congress could take now is to push back the deadlines involved in the work of the Electoral College, to give the states more time to count votes in the presidential race if they need it. A simple change in the federal law governing these dates, which wouldn’t give either party an advantage, could give every state about three more weeks to count. Such a change would be essentially impossible after the election—when partisans looking at partial results would argue over which side it would advantage. But it could easily be done today, it would just take a few sentences of legislative language, and it too should be part of the relief bill now being worked out.
Finally, if we’re lucky, we’re going to need to figure out how to distribute a Covid-19 vaccine early next year. That would be a good problem to have, of course, but a huge problem nonetheless. And getting it wrong could catastrophically undermine the effort to defeat the virus.
Vaccine development itself is one area where our country has not been behind the curve: The federal government has invested heavily in the effort, the National Institutes of Health has played a key coordinating role, and the administration is prepared to pay for “at risk” manufacturing of millions of doses of any vaccine that makes it into Phase III trials, so that if a vaccine is found to be safe and effective there will immediately be doses to provide to high-risk individuals. But who will be first in line to get these early doses? And who will decide?
Here, too, there is an enormous danger of a legitimacy crisis. Both public fear about the safety of a vaccine (building on decades of anti-vaccine conspiracy theories on the right and left alike) and the danger of corruption, or at least perceived corruption, in the distribution of doses could undermine the potential of effective vaccination to end the nightmare of this pandemic.
Widespread uptake is essential to the effectiveness of any vaccine. It is not so much by protecting each vaccinated individual as by vaccinating enough Americans to achieve broad-based communal (or “herd”) immunity that a vaccine could truly change the game. That means public trust in the process and wholesale vaccination across our society will be crucial.
To achieve that, it is essential that both the safety of the vaccine-development process and the basic fairness of the ultimate distribution formula be established in advance, and in a very public way. Congress has a crucial role to play here, too. Hearings should begin very soon to put before the public all available information about the efforts taken by the Food and Drug Administration to ensure the safety of the vaccine-development process, even as that process proceeds with unprecedented speed. And Congress should establish, ideally in this next relief bill, a public commission to develop a formula for equitable distribution of early vaccine doses: setting out tiers of priority (for front-line health workers, vulnerable populations, the elderly, and those with particular preexisting conditions), and seeking out ways to make sure that economic and other disadvantages do not translate into lesser or later access to vaccination.
The work of such a group should be reasonably transparent and would need to begin very soon if it is to bear fruit in time to be useful. Policymakers must not underestimate the danger of a loss of public confidence in a Covid-19 vaccine, and must take steps now to avoid such a foreseeable disaster.
The same is true on all three of these fronts. These may not be the greatest problems we confront in the remainder of this dark and difficult year, but they share some features that ought to make them high priorities: All three are predictable and serious, each would amount to a disaster if left unchecked, but each could be made much easier to handle with some straightforward preparation. The relief bill being negotiated this summer could easily, without sparking a partisan war, take concrete steps on all three fronts.
Leadership in a crisis demands a combination of planning for foreseeable difficulties and responding to the unexpected. Getting the former right can make the latter far more doable. To make the rest of this year less disastrous, our leaders need to look ahead.
Nationwide, state and local government leaders are warning of major budget cuts as a result of the pandemic. One state – New York – even referred to the magnitude of its cuts as having “no precedent in modern times.”
Declining revenue combined with unexpected expenditures and requirements to balance budgets means state and local governments need to cut spending and possibly raise taxes or dip into reserve funds to cover the hundreds of billions of dollars lost by state and local government over the next two to three years because of the pandemic.
Without more federal aid or access to other sources of money (like reserve funds or borrowing), government officials have made it clear: Budget cuts will be happening in the coming years.
And while specifics are not yet available in all cases, those cuts have already included reducing the number of state and local jobs – from firefighters to garbage collectors to librarians – and slashing spending for education, social services and roads and bridges.
In some states, agencies have been directed to cut their budget as much as 15% or 20% – a tough challenge as most states prepared budgets for a new fiscal year that began July 1.
As a scholar of public administration who researches how governments spend money, here are the ways state and local governments have reduced spending to close the budget gap.
State and local governments laid off or furloughed 1.5 million workers in April and May.
They are also reducing spending on employees. According to surveys, government workers are feeling personal financial strain as many state and local governments have cut merit raises and regular salary increases, frozen hiring, reduced salaries and cut seasonal employees.
Washington state, for example, cut both merit raises and instituted furloughs.
A survey from the National League of Cities shows 32% of cities will have to furlough or lay off employees and 41% have hiring freezes in place or planned as a result of the pandemic.
Employment reductions have met some resistance. In Nevada, for example, a state worker union filed a complaint against the governor to the state’s labor relations board for violating a collective bargaining statute by not negotiating on furloughs and salary freezes.
Most of the employee cuts have been made in education. Teachers, classroom aids, administrators, staff, maintenance crews, bus drivers and other school employees have seen salary cuts and layoffs.
The job loss has hurt public employees beyond education, too: librarians, garbage collectors, counselors, social workers, police officers, firefighters, doctors, nurses, health aides, park rangers, maintenance crews, administrative assistants and others have been affected.
Residents also face the consequences of these cuts: They can’t get ahold of staff in the city’s water and sewer departments to talk about their bill; they can’t use the internet at the library to look for jobs; their children can’t get needed services in school.
Most of these cuts have been labeled temporary, but with the extensions to stay-at-home orders and a mostly closed economy, it will be some time before these employees are back to work.
Suspending road, bridges, building and water system projects
As another way to reduce costs quickly, a National League of Cities survey shows 65% of the municipalities surveyed are stopping temporarily, or completely, capital expenditure and infrastructure projects like roads, bridges, buildings, water systems or parking garages.
In New York City, there is a US$2.3 billion proposed cut to the capital budget, a fund that supports large, multiyear investments from sidewalk and road maintenance, school buildings, senior centers, fire trucks, sewers, playgrounds, to park upkeep. There are potentially serious consequences for residents. For example, New York housing advocates are concerned that these cuts will hurt plans for 21,000 affordable homes.
Suspending these big money projects will save the government money in the short term. But it will potentially harm the struggling economy, since both public and private sectors benefit from better roads, bridges, schools and water systems and the jobs these projects create.
Delaying maintenance also has consequences for the deteriorating infrastructure in the U.S. The costs of unaddressed repairs could increase future costs. It can cost more to replace a crumbling building than it does to fix one in better repair.
Cities and towns hit
In many states, the new budgets severely cut their aid to local governments, which will lead to large local cuts in education – both K-12 and higher education – as well as social programs, transportation, health care and other areas.
New York state’s budget proposes that part of its fiscal year 2021 budget shortfall will be balanced by $8.2 billion in reductions in aid to localities. This is the state where the cuts were referred to in the budget as “not seen in modern times.” This money is normally spent on many important services that residents need everyday –mass transit, adult and elderly care, mental health support, substance abuse programs, school programs like special education, children’s health insurance and more. Lacking any of these support services can be devastating to a person, especially in this difficult time.
Fewer workers, less money
As teachers and administrators figure out how to teach both online and in person, they and their schools will need more money – not less – to meet students’ needs.
Libraries, which provide services to many communities, from free computer use to after-school programs for children, will have to cut back. They may have fewer workers, be open for fewer hours and not offer as many programs to the public.
Parks may not be maintained, broken playground equipment may stay that way, and workers may not repave paths and mow lawns. Completely separate from activists’ calls to shift police funding to other priorities, police departments’ budgets may be slashed just for lack of cash to pay the officers. Similar cuts to firefighters and ambulance workers may mean poorly equipped responders take longer to arrive on a scene and have less training to deal with the emergency.
To keep with developing public safety standards, more maintenance staff and materials will be needed to clean and sanitize schools, courtrooms, auditoriums, correctional facilities, metro stations, buses and other public spaces. Strained budgets and employees will make it harder to complete these new essential tasks throughout the day.
To avoid deeper cuts, state and local government officials are trying a host of strategies including borrowing money, using rainy day funds, increasing revenue by raising tax rates or creating new taxes or fees, ending tax exemptions and using federal aid as legally allowed.
Colorado was able to hold its budget to only a 3% reduction, relying largely on one-time emergency reserve funds. Delaware managed to maintain its budget and avoided layoffs largely through using money set aside in a reserve account.
Nobody knows how long the pandemic, or its economic effects, will last.
In the worst-case scenario, budget officials are prepared to make steeper cuts in the coming months if more assistance does not come from the federal government or the economy does not recover quickly enough to restore the flow of money that governments need to operate.
New data released Thursday revealed the scale of the economic devastation wrought by the coronavirus crisis — and experts say there is no end in sight.
More than 6.6 million new unemployment claims were filed during the week ending March 28, according to the Department of Labor. The figure was double that of the previous week, which had itself been by far the highest since records began.
The stark reality is that roughly 10 million people have been dumped from their jobs in two weeks. A previously robust economy has been scythed down by the virus. A nation that had been enjoying its lowest unemployment rate for decades is now virtually certain to see jobless totals surpass those of the Great Recession a decade ago.
“The present economic situation is awful,” said Jason Furman, a Harvard University professor who served as chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers. “The data is just telling us what we can see with our own eyes — there is very little business happening.”
Economists who had already been deeply worried about the immediate outlook are now wondering if their earlier projections were in fact too rosy.
“In our earlier scenario, we had expected 6.5 million job losses by May,” said Beth Ann Bovino, the chief U.S. economist at Standard & Poor’s. That figure will be exceeded, she now believes, given that there were “more lockdowns, more business closures and more businesses just trying to keep themselves alive” by laying off workers.
Heidi Shierholz, senior economist and director of policy at the Economic Policy Institute, said that even the 10 million figure for new unemployment claims was “likely a massive undercount” of actual losses because, during that period, self-employed people and workers in the so-called “gig economy” were generally not eligible to apply. This is changing as a consequence of the package recently passed by Congress that extends eligibility for unemployment benefits, as well as providing other aid for businesses and individuals.
“Our estimate is that by the end of June, 20 million people will have lost their jobs — and I am wondering if even that is optimistic,” Shierholz said.
The political ramifications of such a huge economic shock are unknowable.
President Trump had been looking forward to using the economy as his strongest card as he seeks a second term in November. That card has been shredded.
Trump has promised repeatedly during his White House briefings on the crisis that the nation can bounce back very fast once the public health dangers have receded.
Trump’s approval ratings have also ticked up modestly since the crisis began in many polls. He may be benefitting from the traditional “rallying around the flag” effect that has occurred in previous moments of crisis.
President George W. Bush, for example, hit 90 percent approval in a Gallup poll — the highest result for any president in the polling organization’s history — right after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
In a statement on Thursday, probable Democratic nominee Joe Biden hit Trump for “failing to prepare our nation” for the ramifications of the coronavirus crisis. Biden called on Trump to allow open enrollment in the Affordable Care Act and also jabbed at Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin for having referred to previous unemployment figures as “not relevant.”
In response, Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh blasted back at Biden for “ineffectively sniping from the sidelines, stumbling through television interviews, and hoping for relevance and political gain.”
Economic experts caution that Trump’s promises of a v-shaped recovery, in which the nation jolts itself back into strong economic shape quickly, are almost certainly unrealistic. It will not be a matter of the nation simply rolling the shutters back up and returning to business as usual.
“The economy is not symmetrical,” said Furman. “It is easier to separate someone from a job than to connect someone to a job. In recessions, the unemployment rate can go up very quickly and it comes down very slowly. The worry is that this will be like that.”
Several economic experts who spoke with The Hill made similar points, unprompted, as to the ways the federal government could ease the crisis.
One refrain was that huge assistance needs to be made available to states. States are generally required to balance their budgets. In a situation like the current one, where their tax revenue is cratering, this means they are obligated to severely cut spending — something that most economists believe would deepen and prolong the recession.
Another theme was the need to tie together financial assistance for businesses and the retention of employees.
The recently passed stimulus package makes some effort to do that, particularly in the case of small businesses. The Paycheck Protection Program extends loans to small businesses based upon eight weeks of payroll costs plus an additional 25 percent of the total.
The payroll portion of the loans would be forgiven — rendering them in effect a grant, not a loan — so long as the workforce was maintained at existing levels.
Economic experts praise the principle but worry that the total amount of money in the pot for these loans — $349 billion — may not be enough.
“The small business subsidies will be critical,” said Steven Hamilton, an assistant professor of economics at The George Washington University. “The government needs to get the word out on those, and Congress will likely need to pass an expansion both to adequately fund the existing scheme and to make the scheme more generous to businesses to keep them from laying off workers.”
The public seems to share the view that the aid package, which also includes checks of up to $1,200 for individuals, is a move in the right direction — but unlikely to suffice.
A CBS News poll released late Thursday afternoon indicated 81 percent of Americans support the recent legislation but 57 percent also say it likely won’t be enough.
The same trepidation is shared by the experts, given the unprecedented nature of the coronavirus and the economic crisis it has created.
“It’s like nothing we have ever seen before,” said Shierholz.