Several healthcare organizations recently closed medical units or terminated services to shore up finances, focus on more in-demand services or prevent patient care lapses. Here are eight that have announced or completed closures in the last three weeks:
1. As part of a systemwide strategy, Cleveland-based University Hospitals plans to consolidate its birthing services and its cardiac surgery program. University Hospitals Elyria (Ohio) Medical Center will end labor and delivery services in the next few months. University Hospitals St. John Medical Center in Westlake, Ohio, will end its heart surgery program.
2. St. Albans, Vt.-based Northwestern Medical Center will stop providing addiction treatment services by the end of the month in a cost-saving move. The hospital said that it will close the department because it was spending more on addiction treatment than it was making.
3. Kansas City, Mo.-based Saint Luke’s Health System ended inpatient care at Saint Luke’s Cushing Hospital in Leavenworth, Kan., on July 17.
4. In an effort to consolidate services and cut costs, Jersey City, N.J.-based Christ Hospital said it will close its OB-GYN department by July 31.
5. WellSpan Waynesboro (Pa.) Hospital plans to close its birthing unit and end inpatient pediatric services on Sept. 18, the organization announced in July.
6. New York City-based Montefiore Health System is scaling back services at Mount Vernon (N.Y.) Hospital. In early July, Montefiore shut down the intensive care unit at the hospital and laid off 18 nurses. The ICU closure comes after the 121-bed hospital ended obstetrics, pediatrics, cardiology and oncology services.
7. In a cost-cutting move, Seattle Children’s said it will shut down its day care center that employees use for their kids.
8. Ashtabula (Ohio) County Medical Center plans to close its birthing unit by Aug. 1, according to the Star Beacon. The Ohio Nurses Association has filed a lawsuit to prevent the shutdown.
Experts say a sustained state of emergency is likely until there is a cure or vaccine for COVID-19.
The first U.S. hospital to knowingly treat a COVID-19 patient was Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, Washington, on Jan. 20. Since then, every aspect of healthcare has been upended, and it’s becoming increasingly clear all parts of society will have to adapt to a new baseline for the foreseeable future.
For hospitals and doctors’ offices, that means building on a major shift to telemedicine, new workflows to allow for more infection control and revamping the supply chain for pharmaceuticals, personal protective equipment and other supplies. That’s on top of ongoing challenges of burned out workers and staff shortages further exacerbated by the pandemic.
Looking out even further, the industry will have to figure out how to treat potential chronic conditions in COVID-19 survivors and, until an effective vaccine is developed, how to manage new outbreaks of the disease.
Experts say U.S. hospitals are generally in a much better position for dealing with COVID-19 now than they were in March, and providers are learning more every week about the best treatments and care practices.
A June survey of healthcare executives conducted by consultancy firm Advis found that 65% of respondents said the industry is prepared for a fall or winter surge, about the inverse of what an earlier survey with that question showed.
“We’ve evolved. We’re in a much better state now than we were in the beginning of the pandemic,” Michael Calderwood, associate chief quality officer at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, told Healthcare Dive. “There’s been a lot of learning.”
But the number of positively identified cases has now topped 4 million, and little political will exists to reinstitute widespread shutdowns even in areas where surges have filled ICUs to capacity. No treatment or vaccine for the disease exists or appears imminent. Testing and contract tracing efforts are too few and remain scattered and uncoordinated.
Whether there is a clear nationwide second wave or smaller surges in various parts of the country at different times, hospitals will need to remain in an effective state of emergency that requires constant vigilance until there is a cure or vaccine.
“Until we’re armed with that, we’re always going to have to be working like this. I don’t see any other way,” Diane Alonso, director of Intermountain Healthcare’s abdominal transplant program, told Healthcare Dive.
The fall will bring additional challenges. Flu season usually begins to ramp up in October, and if the strains in wide circulation this year are severe, that will further stress the health system. While some schools have announced they will be virtual-only for the rest of 2020, others are committed to in-person classes. That could mean increased community spread, especially in college towns. Colder weather that forces people indoors — where the novel coronavirus is far more likely to spread — will also be a complicating factor.
So far, hospitals have been reluctant to once again halt elective procedures, though some have had to, arguing that the care is still necessary and can be done safely when the proper protections are in place. But that doesn’t mean volume will rebound to pre-pandemic levels.
“While we think demand will come back, we’ve seen some flattening on demand in certain aspects that may be the new indicator of the new norm in terms of how people seek care,” Dion Sheidy, a partner and healthcare advisory leader at advisory firm KPMG, told Healthcare Dive.
When the number of COVID-19 cases first surged in the U.S. and stay-at-home orders were implemented nationwide, telehealth became a necessary way for urgent care to continue.
Virtual visits skyrocketed in March and April as CMS and private payers relaxed regulations and expanded coverage. Some of that will be rolled back, but much may persist as patients and providers grow more used to using telehealth and platforms become smoother.
Virtual care can’t replace in-person care, of course, and some patients and doctors will prefer face-to-face visits. The middle- to long-term result is likely to be that telehealth thrives for some specialties like psychiatry, but drops substantially from the highest levels during shutdowns throughout the country.
Other care settings outside of the hospital may see upticks as well, including at-home and retail-based primary and urgent care.
Renee Dua, the CMO of home healthcare and telemedicine startup Heal, said the company has seen virtual visits increase eight fold since the pandemic began in the U.S. and a 33% increase in home visits as people seek to continue care while reducing their risk of exposure to the coronavirus.
“The idea that you do not use an office building to get care — that’s why we started Heal — we bet on the fact that the best doctors come to you,” Dua told Healthcare Dive.
And care does need to continue, particularly vital services like vaccinations and pediatric checkups.
“You cannot ignore preventive screenings and primary care because you can get sick with cancer or with infectious diseases that are treatable and preventable,” Dua said.
Movements toward non-traditional settings existed before anyone had heard of COVID-19, but the realities of the pandemic have shifted resources and spurred investment that will have lasting effects, Ross Nelson, healthcare strategy leader at KPMG, told Healthcare Dive.
“What we’re going to see is there going to be an acceleration of the underlying trends toward home and away from the hospital,” he said.
Some of this was already underway. Multiple large health systems have established programs to provide hospital-level care at home and major employers have inked contracts to have primary care delivered to employees at on-site clinics.
A key problem for hospitals in the first COVID-19 hotspots, such as Washington state and New York City, was a lack of necessary personal protective equipment, including N95 masks, gowns, face shields and gloves.
Also running low were supplies like ventilators and some drugs necessary for putting people on those machines.
While advances have certainly been made, the country did not have enough time to build up those supply stores before new surges in the South and West. The result has been renewed worries that not enough PPE is available to keep healthcare workers safe.
Chaun Powell, group vice president of strategic supplier engagement at group purchasing organization Premier, said “conservation practices continue to be the key to this” as COVID-19 surges roll through the country. The longer those dire situations continue, the more stress is put on the supply chain before it has a chance to recover.
Premier’s most recent hospital survey found that more than half of respondents said N95s were heavily backordered. Almost half reported the same for isolation gowns and shoe covers.
Calderwood said there has been improvement, however. “We have a much longer days-on-hand PPE supply at this point and the other thing is, we’ve begun to manufacture some of our own PPE,” he said. “That’s something a number of hospitals have done in working with local companies.”
But the ability to manufacture new PPE in the U.S. also depends on the availability of raw materials, which are limited. That means significant advancements in domestic production are likely several months away, Powell said.
Health systems have stepped up the ability to coordinate and attempt to get equipment where it’s needed most, especially for big-ticket items like ventilators. Providers are more hesitant, however, to let go of PPE without the virus being better contained.
The backstop supposed to help hospitals during a crisis is the national stockpile, which the federal government is attempting to resupply. It doesn’t appear to be enough, though, at least not yet, Calderwood said.
“One thing that concerns me is we did have a national stockpile of PPE, and I get the sense that we’ve kind of burned through that supply,” he said. “And now we’re relying on private industry to meet the need.”
Another problem hospitals face as the pandemic drags on is maintaining adequate staffing levels. Doctors, nurses and other front-line employees are in incredibly stressful work environments. The great potential for burnout will exacerbate existing shortages, just as medical schools are still trying to figure out how to continue with training and education.
“Those areas are concerning to our hospitals because our hospitals depend on a whole myriad of medical staff,” Advis CEO Lyndean Brick said. “Whether it’s physicians, nurses, technicians, housekeepers — that whole staff complement is what’s at the core of healthcare. You can have all the technology in the world but if you don’t have somebody to run it that whole system falls apart.”
On top of that is the increase in labor strife as working conditions have deteriorated in some cases. Nurses have reported fearing for their safety among PPE shortages and alleged lapses in protocol. Brick said she expects strike threats and other actions to continue.
When COVID-19 cases started ramping up for the first time in the U.S., hospitals throughout the country, acting on CMS advice, shut down elective procedures to prepare their facilities for a potential influx of critical patients with the disease. In some areas, hospitals did have to activate surge plans at that time. Others have done so more recently as the result of increases in the South and West.
But few have resorted to once again halting electives. Brick told Healthcare Dive she doesn’t expect that to change, mostly because hospitals have by and large figured out how to properly continue that care.
She trusts any that can’t do so safely, won’t try.
“For the majority of our providers, except in the occasional state where they’re having a real problem right now, I think that we’re going to see elective surgeries still continue,” Brick said. “Because most of our hospitals have capacity right now. They’re able to do this successfully and securely, and it’s really detrimental to patients to not get the care that they need.”
Hospitals rely on elective procedures to drive their revenue, an added motivation to find ways to keep them running even when COVID-19 is detected at greater levels in the community.
Intermountain, based in Salt Lake City, recently performed its 100th organ transplant of the year, ahead of last year’s pace despite the disruption of the COVID-19 crisis.
Alonso, the program director for abdominal transplants, said that while transplants are considered essential services, staff did pause some procedures when electives were halted and have re-evaluated workflow to be as safe as possible to patients, who are at higher risk after surgery because they are immunocompromised.
The hospital developed a triage system to help evaluate what services are necessary based on what level of COVID-19 spread is present in the community and how many beds and staffers are available to treat them.
The system’s main hospital has certain floors and employees designated for COVID-19 treatment. Staff have been reallocated for certain needs like testing and there are plans available if doctors and surgeons need to be deployed to the ICU.
As many outpatient visits as possible are being changed to virtual, but in the building, patients are screened for symptoms and required to wear masks and follow distancing protocols.
At the transplant center, doctors were at one point divided into teams in case someone got sick and coworkers had to self-isolate.
“We went through a dry run where, at the beginning, we shut down incredibly hard to see how we could do it operationally,” Alonso said. Intermountain hasn’t had to do that again, but is ready if such measures become necessary, she said.
Brick and others said that despite the genuinely frightening circumstance brought by the pandemic, hospitals’ responses have been admirable and providers have been quick to adapt. Slow or nonexistent leadership at the federal level, especially in sourcing and obtaining PPE, has been the bigger roadblock.
“Across the board, the whole healthcare industry has responded beautifully to this,” Brick said. “Where our country has fallen down is we don’t have a master plan to deal with this. Our federal leadership is reactionary, and we are not coordinating a master plan to deal with this in the long term. That’s where my concerns are at. My concerns are not at our local hospitals. They have their acts together.”
Elective procedures are in a strange place at the moment. When the COVID-19 pandemic started to ramp up in the U.S., many of the nation’s hospitals decided to temporarily cancel elective surgeries and procedures, instead dedicating the majority of their resources to treating coronavirus patients. Some hospitals have resumed these surgeries; others resumed them and re-cancelled them; and still others are wondering when they can resume them at all.
In a recent HIMSS20 digital presentation, Reenita Das, a senior vice president and partner at Frost and Sullivan, said that during the pandemic, plastic surgery activity declined by 100%, ENT surgeries declined by 79%, cardiovascular surgeries declined by 53% and neurosurgery surgeries declined by 57%.
It’s hard to overstate the financial impact this is likely to have on hospitals’ bottom lines. Just this week, American Hospital Association President and CEO Rick Pollack, pulling from Kaufman Hall data, said the cancellation of elective surgeries is among the factors contributing to a likely industry-wide loss of $120 billion from July to December alone. When including data from earlier in the pandemic, the losses are expected to be in the vicinity of $323 billion, and half of the nation’s hospitals are expected to be in the red by the end of the year.
Doug Wolfe, cofounder and managing partner of Miami-based law firm Wolfe Pincavage, said this has amounted to a “double-whammy” for hospitals, because on top of elective procedures being cancelled, the money healthcare facilities received from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act was an advance on future Medicare payments – which is coming due. While hospitals perform fewer procedures, they will now have to start paying that money back.
All hospitals are hurting, but some are in a more precarious position than others.
“Some hospital systems have had more cash on hand and more liquidity to withstand some of the financial pressure some systems are facing,” said Wolfe. “Traditionally, the smaller hospital systems in the healthcare climate we face today have faced a lot more financial pressure. They’re not able to control costs the same way as a big system. The smaller hospitals and systems were hurting to begin with.”
LOWER REVENUE, HIGHER COSTS
Some hospitals, especially ones in hot spots, are seeing a surge in COVID-19 patients. While this has kept frontline healthcare workers scrambling to care for scores of sick Americans, COVID-19 treatments are not reimbursed at the same level as surgeries. Hospital capacity is being stretched with less lucrative services.
“Some hospitals may be filling up right now, but they’re filling up with lower-reimbursing volume,” said Wolfe. “Inpatient stuff is lower reimbursement. It’s really the perfect storm for hospitals.”
John Haupert, CEO of Grady Health in Atlanta, Georgia, said this week that COVID-19 has had about a $115 million negative impact on Grady’s bottom line. Some $70 million of that is related to the reduction in the number of elective surgeries performed, as well as dips in emergency department and ambulatory visits.
During one week in March, Grady saw a 50% reduction in surgeries and a 38% reduction in ER visits. The system is almost back to even in terms of elective and essential surgeries, but due to a COVID-19 surge currently taking place in Georgia, it has had to suspend those services once again. ER visits have only come back about halfway from that initial 38% dip, and the system is currently operating at 105% occupancy.
“Part of what we’re seeing there is reluctance from patients to come to hospitals or seek services,” said Haupert. “Many have significantly exacerbated chronic disease conditions.”
Patient hesitation has been an ongoing problem, as has the associated cost of treating coronavirus patients, said Wolfe.
“When they were ramping up to resume the elective stuff, there was a problem getting patients comfortable,” he said. “And the other thing was that the cost of treating patients in this environment has gone up. They’ve put up plexiglass everywhere, they have more wiping-down procedures, and all of these things add cost and time. They need to add more time between procedures so they can clean everything … so they’re able to do less, and it costs more to do less. Even when elective procedures do resume, it’s not going back to the way it was.”
Most hospitals have adjusted their costs to mitigate some of the financial hit. Even some larger systems, such as 92-hospital nonprofit Trinity Health in Michigan, have taken to measures such as laying off and furloughing workers and scaling back working hours for some of its staff. At the top of the month, Trinity announced another round of layoffs and furloughs – in addition to the 2,500 furloughs it announced in April – citing a projected $2 billion in revenue losses in fiscal year 2021, which began on June 1.
Hospitals are at the mercy of the market at the moment, and Wolfe anticipates there could be an uptick in mergers and consolidation as organizations look to partner with less cash-strapped entities.
“Whether reorganization will work remains to be seen, but there will definitely be a fallout from this,” he said.
This perfect storm of a shift in payer mix, the impending insolvency of Medicare and the inability of states to absorb the growing costs of Medicaid represent a tsunami of challenges.
With COVID-19 there has been unprecedented stress placed upon the healthcare system. The human and financial toll of the current crisis has been extraordinary. Yet, little attention has been focused on the impact of this virus on the viability of our healthcare financing system.
Three significant shifts in healthcare financing are occurring as a result of the pandemic’s economic impact. First, as a result of job losses, there will be a shift in commercial insurance to government-funded insurance programs. Second, revenue for funding Medicare, based on payroll taxes, will be significantly decreased. Finally, states will have less tax revenue to pay for Medicaid, threatening the viability of this program as well.
More than 30 million Americans have filed for unemployment since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a recent report, about 27 million people may lose their employer-sponsored insurance.
This will result in millions of people seeking coverage through Medicaid programs, the individual marketplace or simply becoming uninsured. Healthcare providers have relied upon margins from commercial insurance to offset costs from poorer reimbursing government funded programs and uncompensated care.
With more than 156 million Americans receiving employer sponsored insurance at the start of this year, and given recent projected job losses, providers may see a 17% shift in payer mix. The reliance on commercial insurance and cost shifting has become a necessary way for providers to financially sustain operations.
With a 35% margin with commercial insurance compared to Medicare, a 17% shift in payer mix on a trillion dollar spend would result in a substantial reduction in financial resources available to hospitals.
Almost half of healthcare expenditures already come from government programs. Medicare, the largest of these programs, is principally supported by taxes on payroll and social security benefits. With COVID-related job losses there will be a corresponding reduction in payroll tax revenues to the Medicare system. Reports from the Congressional Research Service submitted to Congress in May, with data used prior to COVID-19, projected that Medicare would become insolvent in 2026.
Analyses performed show that there will be a gap in Medicare revenues during the next three years (from the pre-COVID projections) of close to $150 billion. The result is that Medicare will become insolvent as early as 2022. Even by applying more conservative projections, such as recovering all job losses by the end of 2020 and payroll tax revenue holding steady at pre-COVID levels, Medicare still becomes insolvent in 2023.
State revenues, too, will be under real pressure with reduced tax revenues resulting from the current economic downturn. Medicaid programs are supported in part by federal funds, but also from general funds from the state.
On average, states are projecting about a 10% reduction in revenues in 2020, rising to almost a 25% reduction in 2021. Even without considering the growth in Medicaid enrollment hitting states, this reduced tax revenue will make sustaining current Medicaid program funding increasingly difficult.
This perfect storm of a shift in payer mix, the impending insolvency of Medicare by 2022 and the inability of states to absorb the growing costs of Medicaid represent a tsunami of challenges for the health system. Looking at this new reality, it is clear that our system for financing healthcare is severely broken and we must identify solutions to sustain access to medical care for our citizens.
This will be a challenge of a generation and we will need strength, courage and bold ideas to get through this. Pandemics have a way of changing a society’s political, economic and sociologic outlooks, and COVID-19 will be no different.
Hospital price transparency is a distraction from policies that could reduce costs without burdening patients, say Jamie Daw and Adam Sacarny.
The prices that hospitals charge privately insured patients in the US have long been shrouded in secrecy. These prices—which are negotiated between hospitals and private insurers—vary widely: the price for the same blood test could vary 39-fold within Tampa, Florida and the cost of a cesarean delivery varies by up to $24 000 in San Francisco, California.
A recent federal court decision stands to shine a light on opaque hospital pricing in the US. In a lawsuit brought forward by the American Hospital Association, a federal judge upheld a regulation issued by the Trump administration that will soon require hospitals to post a wealth of information on payment rates online.
This policy seems intuitive: in other sectors of the economy, consumers usually know the price of a service or product before they purchase it. By comparing prices, consumers can shop around and save money. In turn, sellers anticipate that behavior and are incentivized to keep prices low. Who wouldn’t want a virtuous circle like that in healthcare?
The Trump administration argues that hospital price transparency will encourage value in healthcare by helping patients and employers find lower prices, while pressuring hospitals to cut them further. However, the potential effects—and who stands to benefit—are not so straightforward.
Firstly, giving consumers information on prices doesn’t necessarily mean that they will respond by seeking lower cost services. Studies have consistently found that patients tend not to use price transparency tools, and their effects on healthcare spending are small or nonexistent. Why? Shopping for healthcare services is often complicated or impossible.
Many of the most expensive services are for emergencies where there is little scope for patients to shop.
Even when a patient has time to compare prices for non-urgent procedures or tests, the complexity of healthcare payment systems and insurance products makes it next to impossible for a patient to preemptively calculate what they would personally pay for an encounter. Establishing that amount requires patients to know the cost-sharing parameters of their insurance plan, the set of services they will use during the encounter, and how aggressively the hospital will bill for those services.
Insurance also obscures patients’ incentives to shop by insulating them from healthcare prices.
While patients can be given strong incentives to shop—and an increasing number of American workers are enrolled in high deductible health plans with this aim—these incentives are created by hoisting financial risk on patients. This financially burdens American families and can result in patients forgoing appropriate care.
Beyond the challenges posed by patient shopping, the empirical evidence supporting price transparency is weak.
It could even backfire. Economists have pointed out that in sectors with low competition, price transparency can facilitate collusion and lead to higher prices. This fear was borne out in Denmark when authorities began publishing the prices of ready-mixed cement. Prices proceeded to converge and rise, and the authorities eventually abandoned the idea. The most hopeful evidence in the US healthcare system comes from New Hampshire, where prices for medical imaging fell by 3% after the state established a price transparency website. But even effects of this magnitude, while beneficial, would only make a tiny dent in lowering US healthcare costs.
Price transparency efforts reflect a broad trend for American policy makers to turn to consumer-driven strategies to reduce healthcare costs.
These strategies are built on the assumption that patients ought to be responsible for navigating their way to high quality, low cost healthcare. However, the challenges faced by patients in assessing the complex cost-quality tradeoffs in healthcare limit the potential for price transparency to have the impact that the administration advertises.
Perhaps more troubling is that these efforts could distract policy makers from addressing the main drivers of US healthcare prices, such as rapid and ongoing consolidation. Concentrated hospital markets are becoming the norm in the US and are strongly associated with higher prices. Antitrust actions, such as preventing hospital mergers, could reduce and reverse consolidation, likely leading to lower prices.
Another option for policy makers is to assume a greater regulatory role over healthcare prices, including introducing price caps and an all-payer rate setting. A Supreme Court decision made it much more difficult for state governments to collect the data that would undergird these efforts. As a result, the information released under the transparency rule may end up being more useful for states considering new price regulations than for patients shopping for healthcare services.
If we want to reduce prices without burdening patients with financial risk, then policy makers need to address the emerging causes of rising healthcare costs directly. Efforts to control costs are most likely to succeed when policy makers tackle the structural drivers behind the most expensive health system in the world.
Nursing homes account for 81 percent of Covid-19 deaths in the country. How did this happen?
But there has been one glaring failure in Canada’s fight against the pandemic: its inability to protect the health of its senior citizens in nursing homes and long-term care facilities.
The situation for these seniors is so dire that the police — and even the military — have been called in to investigate why so many are dying.
In Quebec, some residents have been left for days in soiled diapers, going hungry and thirsty, and 31 residents were found dead at one home in less than a month, leading to accusations of gross negligence. In Ontario, the military found shocking conditions in five homes: cockroaches and rotten food, blatant disregard for infection control measures, and treatment of residents that was deemed “borderline abusive, if not abusive.”
“It’s a national shame,” said Nathan Stall, a geriatrician at Toronto’s Sinai Health System. “I don’t think we’ve done a good job at all in Canada.”
A whopping 81 percent of the country’s coronavirus deaths are linked to nursing homes and long-term care facilities. That means roughly 7,050 out of 8,700 deaths to date have been among residents and workers in these facilities.
In terms of raw numbers, that may not seem like very much. (For comparison, more than 40,000 US coronavirus deaths have been linked to nursing homes.) And, to be clear, Canada is hardly alone in watching tragedy unfold in these facilities. The US and Europe have seen startling numbers of fatalities among nursing home staffers and residents.
But 81 percent is a staggering statistic, especially for Canada, a country that prides itself on its progressive health policies. And it’s higher than the rate in any other country for which we have good data. In European countries, roughly 50 percent of coronavirus deaths are linked to these facilities. In the US, it’s 40 percent.
Experts say a number of factors are probably involved in Canada’s collapse on the nursing home front, like the fact that Canada has done well at controlling community spread outside these facilities (making nursing home deaths account for a greater share of overall deaths) and that residents in Canadian homes tend to be older and frailer than those in US homes (and thus more vulnerable to severe cases of Covid-19). But they say the high death rate in the homes is due, in large part, to egregious problems with the homes themselves.
“I think we have serious issues with long-term care,” said Vivian Stamatopoulos, a professor at Ontario Tech University who specializes in family caregiving. Experts have been warning political leaders about this for years, but, she said, “they’ve all been playing the game of pass the long-term care hot potato.”
Furious over how their elders are being treated, some Canadians have started petitions, protests, lawsuits, and even hunger strikes outside the homes. They say the government’s failure to respond reveals a deeper failure to care about seniors and people with disabilities, and to make that care concrete by sending facilities what they urgently need: more tests, more personal protective equipment (PPE), and more funding to pay staff members so they don’t have to work multiple jobs at different facilities.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has acknowledged that the situation in the facilities is “deeply disturbing.” He’s sent hundreds of military troops to help feed and care for the seniors in certain homes, where burnout and fear have prompted some staff members to flee their charges. But to some extent, Trudeau’s hands are tied because the facilities fall under provincial jurisdiction.
That leaves families terrified for their loved ones. They’re asking: Why have things gone so terribly wrong? How could this happen in Canada?
The first thing to understand is that Canada’s universal health care system does not cover nursing homes and long-term care facilities. That means these institutions are not insured by the federal system. Different provinces offer different levels of cost coverage, and even within a given province, you’ll find that some homes are publicly run, others are run by nonprofits, and still others are run by for-profit entities.
“This is the main problem — they don’t fall under the Canada Health Act,” said Stamatopoulos, adding that the same is not true of hospitals. “That’s why you see that the hospitals did so well. They had the resources.”
From the standpoint of someone in the US, where more than 132,000 people have died of Covid-19, Canada may seem to be doing well overall: The death toll there is around 8,700. Per capita, Canada’s coronavirus death rate is roughly half that of America’s. It’s clear that the northern neighbor has been doing better at keeping case numbers down, partly because it’s giving safer advice on easing social distancing.
Which makes the dire situation in nursing homes stand out even more. Longstanding problems with Canada’s nursing homes have clearly fueled the tragic situation unfolding there.
These homes are chronically understaffed. They tend to hire part-time workers, underpay them, and not offer them sick leave benefits. That means the workers have to take multiple jobs at different facilities, potentially spreading the virus between them. Many are immigrants or asylum seekers, and they fear putting their precarious employment at risk by, say, taking a sick day when they need it. (These problems aren’t unique to Canada, but as in other countries, they’ve been thrown into stark relief by the pandemic.)
A lot of Canadian homes also have poor infrastructure, built to the outdated design standards of the 1970s. Residents often live four to a room, share a bathroom, and congregate in crowded common spaces. That makes it very difficult to isolate those who get sick.
These problems are even worse in Canada’s for-profit nursing homes. Research shows that these private facilities provide inferior care for seniors compared to the public facilities, in large part because they hire fewer staff members and put fewer resources into upgrading or redesigning their buildings. The for-profit model incentivizes cost-cutting. (Similarly problematic profit motives and poor living conditions persist in US nursing homes, too.)
Canadian experts have been raising the alarm about these issues for more than a decade. So why haven’t they been addressed?
“Frankly, overall, it really reflects ageism in society. We choose not to invest in frail older adults,” Stall said. He added that early on in the pandemic, the public imagination latched onto stories of relatively young people on ventilators in hospitals. The hospitals and their staff got resources, free food, nightly applause. Homes for older people didn’t get the same attention.
“Nursing homes are not something we’re proud of societally. There’s a lot of shame around even having someone in a nursing home,” Stall said.
Stamatopoulos noted there are other forces at play, too. “I’d say it’s a trifecta of ageism, racism, and sexism,” she said. “When you look at this industry, it’s majority female older residents being cared for by majority racialized women.”
Ronnie Cahana, a 66-year-old rabbi who lives with paralysis at the Maimonides Geriatric Centre in Montreal, recently wrote a letter to Quebec’s premier. “I am not a statistic. I am a fully sentient, confident human being, who needs to have my humanity honored,” he wrote, adding that the premier should help the workers who take care of people like him. “Many of them are immigrants, newly beginning their lives in Quebec. … Please give them all the resources they require. Listen to their voices.”
If you want to keep nursing homes from becoming coronavirus hot spots, look to the strategies that have proven effective elsewhere. For months now, Canadian public health experts and advocates have been begging leaders to do just that.
All residents and workers in nursing homes should be tested regularly, whether they show symptoms or not. Anyone who gets sick should be isolated in a separate part of the building or taken to the hospital. Workers should be given adequate PPE, and universal masking among them should be mandatory. Working at multiple homes during the pandemic should be disallowed.
“Look at South Korea. They’ve had no deaths in long-term care because they treated it like SARS right from the get-go,” Stamatopoulos said. “They did aggressive testing. They were strict in terms of quarantining any infected residents and were quick to move them to hospitals. We’ve done the opposite.” Earlier in the pandemic, some Canadian hospitals sent recovering Covid-19 patients back to their nursing homes too soon; they inadvertently infected others.
“And look at New York state,” Stamatopoulos continued. “Gov. Cuomo signed an executive order on May 10 requiring all staff and residents to be tested twice a week. That aggressive testing helped halt the outbreaks in the homes.” Quebec and Ontario have yet to do this.
British Columbia, a Canadian standout at preventing deaths in nursing homes, adopted several wise measures early on. Way back on March 27, the western province made it illegal to work in more than one home — and topped up workers’ wages so they wouldn’t have to. It gave them full-time jobs and sick leave benefits.
It’s clear that so long as long-term care falls under provincial jurisdiction, nursing home residents will be better off in some provinces than in others. So some Canadian experts, including Stamatopoulos, are arguing that these facilities should be nationalized under the Canada Health Act. Others are not sure that’s the answer; Stall thinks it may make sense to target only for-profit homes, compelling them to improve their poor infrastructure. In the long term, any homes that do not meet modern standards should be redesigned.
Another lesson for the long term comes from Hong Kong, which has managed to totally avoid deaths in its nursing homes. Even before the coronavirus came along, all homes had a trained infection controller who put precautions in place to prevent the spread of infections. (US homes saw a similar system enacted under President Obama, but President Trump has proposed that it be rolled back.) Four times a year, Hong Kong’s homes underwent pandemic preparedness drills so that if an outbreak occurred, they’d be ready with best practices. It did, and they were.
Preparedness clearly saves lives. Hopefully, Canada and other countries will learn that lesson going forward so that no more lives are needlessly lost.
As Cahana, the resident in the Montreal home, said, “Each of us is crying to be heard. We say: More life! Please! We are not afraid of the future. We are afraid that society is forgetting us.”
To address the financial fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, hospitals across the nation are looking to cut costs by implementing furloughs, layoffs or pay cuts.
U.S. hospitals are expected to lose $323.1 billion this year due to the pandemic, according to a recent report from the American Hospital Association. The total includes $120.5 billion in financial losses that hospitals are projected to see from July through December, as well as $202.6 billion in losses that were projected between March and June. The losses were largely due to a lower patient volume after canceling elective procedures.
Although Congress allocated $175 billion to help hospitals offset some of the revenue losses and expense increases to prepare for the pandemic, hospitals have said it is not enough.
Nearly 270 hospitals and health systems have furloughed workers in response to the pandemic and several others have implemented layoffs.
Below are 12 hospitals and health systems that have announced layoffs since June 1:
1. Trinity Health furloughs, lays off another 1,000 workers
Trinity Health, a 92-hospital system based in Livonia, Mich., will lay off and reduce work schedules of 1,000 employees.
2. Ohio children’s hospital cuts jobs
Dayton (Ohio) Children’s Hospital said it has cut jobs to help offset financial losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
3. Munson Healthcare to cut 25 leadership positions
Traverse City, Mich.-based Munson Healthcare cut 25 leadership positions to help offset financial losses amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
4. Erlanger lays off 93 nonclinical employees
Chattanooga, Tenn.-based Erlanger Health System has cut 93 nonclinical positions to help offset financial damage from the COVID-19 pandemic. The layoffs come after the health system cut 11 leadership positions June 12, including the CEO of Erlanger Western Carolina Hospital in Murphy, N.C., and made staff and pay cuts in March.
5. Michigan Medicine to lay off 738 employees by end of June
Ann Arbor-based Michigan Medicine planned to eliminate 738 positions by the end of June amid financial challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic.
6. Pennsylvania health system cuts 10% of workforce amid pandemic losses
As part of a restructuring effort to cut pandemic-related losses, State College, Pa.-based Mount Nittany Health System plans to lay off 10 percent of its workforce, or about 250 employees.
7. TriHealth eliminates 440 positions to cut costs
Cincinnati-based TriHealth cut 440 positions as part of a plan to trim at least $140 million in expenditures this year.
8. Layoffs hit U of Kansas Health System
The University of Kansas Health System St. Francis Campus in Topeka laid off employees after previously implementing furloughs.
9. Tower Health to cut 1,000 jobs
Citing a $212 million loss in revenue through May due to the COVID-19 pandemic, West Reading, Pa.-based Tower Health plans to cut 1,000 jobs.
10. Colorado hospital cuts 22 positions
Parkview Medical Center in Pueblo, Colo., eliminated 22 positions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
11. Arkansas Children’s cuts 42 positions
Little Rock-based Arkansas Children’s Hospital said it is eliminating 42 jobs as part of cost-savings measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
12. North Carolina health system cuts 10% of workforce, closes clinics
Citing a financial hit from the COVID-19 pandemic, Lumberton, N.C.-based Southeastern Health will permanently close several clinics, cut 10 percent of its workforce and reduce executive pay.
As the Covid-19 pandemic and resulting economic slowdown strain company budgets, employers are trying to calculate how much they will spend on healthcare next year. Soon, they will be picking health plans for 2021, and the pandemic will certainly go into that calculus.
A new report by PricewaterhouseCoopers attempts to forecast healthcare costs for next year. But there are still lots of unknowns. According to the report, the medical cost trend could increase between 4% and 10% in 2021.
Researchers with PwC’s Health Research Institute interviewed health plan actuaries from 12 national and regional payers over the past three months. The consensus? They were still unsure about the pandemic’s effect on spending now and what it will mean for 2021.
PwC considered three potential scenarios:
Employers are already considering measures to reduce their costs next year. For instance, a growing number are looking at narrow-network plans as a way of negotiating down prices.
“As the pandemic continues and the economic pressures increase, the shift towards narrow network will likely continue and accelerate,” PwC Health Research Institute Leader Ben Isgur wrote in an email.
In particular, large companies with more than 5,000 employees are more likely to consider this strategy, with 25% offering narrow-network plans, according to a 2019 survey by PwC.
Walmart is a recent example. The company began offering “curated physician networks” in Arkansas, Florida and Texas in 2020. In March, the company indicated it would expand on its network strategies.
More companies are also expanding their telehealth services, in part a direct result of the pandemic. While this may not save them money in the short-term — most insurers are currently reimbursing the same for telehealth visits as in-office visits — in the long term, it is expected to reduce costs.
“Employers understand the benefits of telehealth including lower costs, easier access, less time away from work and a good consumer experience,” Isgur wrote. “89 percent of employers surveyed by PwC in spring 2019 offered telemedicine either through their medical vendor or a carve-out vendor, up from 56 percent in 2016. Over the past few months, we have seen telehealth accelerate even faster.”
A couple of ongoing factors could increase spending next year. Employers are adding mental health services to their health plans, and have seen increased demand for those services, especially in light of the pandemic. According to a recent survey by the Health Research Institute, 12% of individuals on employer plans said they had sought mental health services, and another 18% planned to do so.
Specialty drug spending is also expected to drive up costs, as the majority of pharmaceuticals planned for release next year are specialty drugs. This is not a new trend; of companies’ total drug spending, specialty drugs grew from 21% of the total in 2010 to 58% in 2017.
Many patients have delayed care as a result of the pandemic. Even as medical offices begin to offer in-person visits again, volumes are still down. It’s still too early to tell whether that will lead to a surge in spending next year due to postponed — but needed — procedures.
According to PwC, 22% of patients with employer-sponsored insurance have delayed care since March.
“We could see the population risk increase for 2021 if members with chronic conditions are not able to manage their health as effectively in 2020 due to Covid-19,” Amy Yao, senior vice president and chief actuary at Blue Shield of California, told PwC’s Health Research Institute.