Are you ready for price transparency?

https://interimcfo.wordpress.com/2020/10/22/are-you-ready-for-price-transparency/

Exploring the Fundamentals of Medical Billing and Coding

Abstract:  This article focuses on the correct strategic response to the impending implementation of price transparency on New Year’s Day of next year.

I have stated before that I have multiple articles in process at any given time.  Some of them have been ‘in process’ for years because newer topics sometimes rise to the queue’s top.  Price transparency is an example of such a case.  I have a friend who is developing AI-enabled solutions to help organizations respond to price transparency government diktats.  Few people beyond healthcare CFOs, healthcare financial consultants, and accountants have any useful understanding of how convoluted hospital pricing has become due to decades of ill-conceived government policy for the most part.

Another problem is endless confusion over terms.  People frequently interchange the terms ‘price’, ‘cost’, ‘payment’, and ‘reimbursement’ in situations where the polar opposite is true on the other side of the issue.  In other words, ‘cost’ to a payor is price or reimbursement to a provider.

Anyway, my friend’s questions finally inspired me to go to the Federal Register, acquire the final rule, and begin the process of learning where government is headed with these regulations.  There are probably at least fifty diatribe angles I could launch into over the final rule, but I will confine my rant to only a couple of points.  

First, the final draft of the rule is ‘only’ 331 pages long. The three-column final rule in the Federal Register is ‘only’ 83 pages long.  That pales compared to Obamacare that is over 1,200 pages long, so by government standards, this is but a trifle of regulation.  

Secondly, some parts of the final rule are actually funny.  For example, CMS estimates that the average hospital will spend only 150 staff hours in the first and 46 staff hours in subsequent years complying with price transparency requirements.  Is it constitutional for government to compel private enterprises to disclose the terms of what they thought were private contracts?  Apparently so.  Once government breaks this ice, will any agreement of any type ever be private?

As I have discussed price transparency with healthcare leaders, I sense that leaders are currently focused on technical compliance with the regulations.  With COVID on their plate simultaneously, they have little capacity to take on strategic financial planning.

The final rule lays out in excruciating detail what providers face complying with the regulation.  Reading the comments and responses is equally entertaining.  CMS repeatedly says something to the effect; we heard your concern, and we’re proceeding as planned anyway.  Litigation brought by the AHA and others has to date been unsuccessful in slowing stopping the price transparency snowball that is now most of the way down the mountain.

So, what are you supposed to do?  The CFO and CIO will work, possibly with consultants’ assistance, to prepare the organization’s data release.  Soon after the release occurs, expect the defecation to hit the rotary oscillator.  The press will call out organizations with high prices, and the rancor over learning what some systems have been able to get from third-party payors will be entertaining, to say the least.  Many people believe that one of the primary motivators of the massive consolidation occurring in the healthcare industry is the market leverage exerted by growing systems on third-party payors to obtain otherwise unachievable reimbursement rates.

Regardless of the course of action following price releases in January, the intended and most likely result of this initiative is to drive prices to a lower common denominator.  A lot of people think Medicare rates will become that benchmark.  There are two significant issues that I did not see addressed in the pricing rule that will have the effect of transferring substantial risk to providers.  

The first is that there will be little if any provision for recognition of complications, comorbidities, and hospital-acquired conditions that can dramatically impact the cost of care in a given diagnosis.  

The second is the elephant in the room. The current pricing system has developed over time to facilitate cross-subsidization among payors.  There is a reason that commercial rates are so high that has nothing to do with the cost of providing care.  I have stated before that, government has turned the entire healthcare industry into a taxing authority to extract tax from commercial payors for the benefit of government payors that routinely reimburse providers below the cost of providing care.  It has been entertaining to watch the reaction of Boards of Directors when they first realize that the healthcare system has been forced by government into a wealth redistribution mechanism.

So, what happens as providers lose the ability to cross-subsidize the cost of care?  Very few hospitals (<10%) are profitable on Medicare, and it is doubtful that any hospital is breaking even on services provided to Medicaid patients.  In my experience, hospital reimbursement for self-pay patients is less than 5% of charges.  If the prices hospitals realize for services start falling and they lose the current ability to cross-subsidize the cost of care . . . . . well, you don’t need an MBA to understand the likely outcome.

What to do?  If (when) prices start falling and providers lose pricing leverage, the only place to turn is operating expense.  Hospitals that have failed to undertake serious, highly focused, and robust operating cost reduction programs that yield quantifiable results may not have a very bright future.  If your organization is not in the bottom quartile of operating cost compared to its peer group and part of your mission is to remain independent, you must be losing sleep.  In a recent article related to COVID Response, I argued that the time has come to get after clinical process variance that is the source of most of the high cost, waste, and abuse in the healthcare system. For most organizations, the days of sourcing cheaper supplies and sending nurses home early are, for the most part, over as there is little if any juice remaining in that lemon.

If, as a leader, you do not have a plan that gets you to break-even on Medicare within the next 12-18 months, you had better have a plan B, something like tuning up your CV.  I can help you with your response to price transparency, working on your CV, or helping manage your next career transition as the case may turn out.  I am as close as your phone.  Best of luck.

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Jefferson Health to cut 500 jobs, reduce executive pay

https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/finance/jefferson-health-to-cut-500-jobs-reduce-executive-pay.html?utm_medium=email

Jefferson Aims to Acquire Aria Health

Philadelphia-based Jefferson Health is taking steps to reduce costs to help offset losses tied to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The 14-hospital system plans to eliminate between 500 and 600 positions through attrition and will cut pay for its “most senior executives,” according to the Philadelphia Business Journal

Jefferson Health is making cuts after reporting a net loss of $298.7 million in the fiscal year ended June 30. The system posted a loss after receiving $320 million in grants made available under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act to help cover lost revenue and expenses linked to the pandemic, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.

“As one of the health systems in the United States with the largest amount of Covid patients during the surge, and one of the lowest employee infectivity rates, we took a ‘no expense is too much to protect our employees’ approach with PPE and other measures that drove up short-term expenses,” Stephen Klasko, MD, president of Thomas Jefferson University and CEO of Jefferson Health, told the Philadelphia Business Journal. 

Dr. Klasko said patient volumes are beginning to rebound, and the health system is ahead of budget for fiscal year 2021. 

“We made a conscious decision, as the region’s second-largest employer, to do no furloughs and only very few pre-planned layoffs during the pandemic surge,” Dr. Klasko told the Philadelphia Business Journal. “Due to our financial stewardship and growth over the past five years, our balance sheet was very stable and remains very stable despite the pandemic tsunami.”

In addition to cutting unfilled positions and reducing executive pay, the health system is taking a few other steps to achieve savings, including a pay freeze and a one-year suspension of employer contributions to employee retirements plans beginning Jan. 1. 

Moody’s: Hospital financial outlook worse as COVID-19 relief funds start to dwindle

https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/hospitals/moody-s-hospital-financial-outlook-worse-as-covid-19-relief-funds-start-to-dwindle?mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiWTJZek56Z3lNV1E0TW1NMyIsInQiOiJKdUtkZE5DVGphdkNFanpjMHlSMzR4dEE4M29tZ24zek5lM3k3amtUYSt3VTBoMmtMUnpIblRuS2lYUWozZk11UE5cL25sQ1RzbFpzdExcL3JvalBod3Z6U3BZK3FBNjZ1Rk1LQ2pvT3A5Witkc0FmVkJocnVRM0dPbFJHZTlnRGJUIn0%3D&mrkid=959610

For-profit hospitals are expected to see a financial decline over the next 12 to 18 months as federal relief funds that shored up revenue losses due to COVID-19 start to wane, a recent analysis from Moody’s said.

The analysis, released Monday, finds that cost management is going to be challenging for hospital systems as more surgical procedures are expected to migrate away from the hospital and people lose higher-paying commercial plans and go to lower-paying government programs such as Medicaid.

“The number of surgical procedures done outside of the hospital setting will continue to increase, which will weaken hospital earnings, particularly for companies that lack sizeable outpatient service lines (including ambulatory surgery centers),” the analysis said.

A $175 billion provider relief fund passed by Congress as part of the CARES Act helped keep hospital systems afloat in March and April as volumes plummeted due to the cancellation of elective procedures and reticence among patients to go to the hospitals.

Some for-profit systems such as HCA and Tenet pointed to relief funding to help generate profits in the second quarter of the year. The benefits are likely to dwindle as Congress has stalled over talks on replenishing the fund.

“Hospitals will continue to recognize grant aid as earnings in Q3 2020, but this tailwind will significantly moderate after that,” Moody’s said.

Cost cutting challenges

Compounding problems for hospitals is how to handle major costs.

Some hospital systems cut some costs such as staff thanks to furloughs and other measures.

“Some hospitals have said that for every lost dollar of revenue, they were able to cut about 50 cents in costs,” the analysis said. “However, we believe that these levels of cost cuts are not sustainable.”

Hospitals can’t cut costs indefinitely, but the costs for handling the pandemic (more money for personal protective equipment and safety measures) are going to continue for some time, Moody’s added.

“As a result, hospitals will operate less efficiently in the wake of the pandemic, although their early experiences in treating COVID-19 patients will enable them to provide care more efficiently than in the early days of the pandemic,” the analysis found. “This will help hospitals free up bed capacity more rapidly and avoid the need for widespread shutdowns of elective surgeries.”

But will that capacity be put to use?

The number of surgical procedures done outside of the hospital is likely to increase and will further weaken earnings, Moody’s said.

“Outpatient procedures typically result in lower costs for both consumers and payers and will likely be preferred by more patients who are reluctant to check-in to a hospital due to COVID-19,” the analysis said.

The payer mix will also shift, and not in hospitals’ favor. Mounting job losses due to the pandemic will force more patients with commercial plans toward programs such as Medicaid.

“This will hinder hospitals’ earnings growth over the next 12-18 months,” Moody’s said. “Employer-provided health insurance pays significantly higher reimbursement rates than government-based programs.”

Bright spots

There are some bright spots for hospitals, including that not all of the $175 billion has been dispersed yet. The CARES Act continues to provide hospitals with a 20% add-on payment for treating Medicare patients that have COVID-19, and it suspends a 2% payment cut for Medicare payments that was installed as part of sequestration.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services also proposed increasing outpatient payment rates for the 2021 fiscal year by 2.6% and in-patient rates by 2.9%. The fiscal year is set to start next month.

Patient volumes could also return to normal in 2021. Moody’s expects that patient volumes will return to about 90% of pre-pandemic levels on average in the fourth quarter of the year.

“The remaining 10% is likely to come back more slowly in 2021, but faster if a vaccine becomes widely available,” the analysis found.

 

 

 

 

Will ED volumes ever bounce back?

https://mailchi.mp/f5713fcae702/the-weekly-gist-september-18-2020?e=d1e747d2d8

Hospitals' ED volumes rebounding slower than other areas

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.

 

 

 

 

2020 Hospital Operating Margins Down 96% Through July

https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/2020-hospital-operating-margins-down-96-through-july-301116888.html

Ship in a Storm | ICOExaminer

Hospital Operating Margins have plunged 96% since the start of 2020 in comparison with the first seven months of 2019, according to a new Kaufman Hall report, as uncertainty and volatility continue in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Those results do not include federal funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Even with that aid, however, Operating Margins are down 28% year-to-date compared to January-July 2019.

Operating Margins fell 2% year-over-year in July without the CARES Act relief, according to the latest edition of Kaufman Hall’s National Hospital Flash Report. Hospitals also saw flat year-over-year gross revenue performance in July, continued high per-patient expenses, and a fifth consecutive month of volumes falling below 2019 performance and below budget.

From June to July, however, hospital Operating Margins were up 24%, likely due to a backlog in demand resulting from the shutdown of many non-urgent services in the early months of the pandemic.

“COVID-19 has created a highly volatile operating environment for our nation’s hospitals and health systems,” said Jim Blake, managing director, Kaufman Hall. “Hospitals have shown some incremental signs of potential financial recovery in recent months. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee these trends will continue, and hospitals still have a long way to go to recover from devastating losses in the early months of the pandemic.”

July volumes continued to fall year-over-year, but showed some signs of potential recovery month-over-month. Adjusted Discharges were down 7% compared to July 2019, but up 6% compared to June 2020. Adjusted Patient Days were down 4% year-over-year, but up 7% month-over-month. Adjusted Discharges are down 13% and Adjusted Patient Days are down 11% since the start of 2020, compared to the first seven months of 2019.

Hospital Emergency Department (ED) volumes have been hardest hit, falling 17% year-to-date compared to the same period in 2019, down 17% year-over-year, and 13% below budget in July. Surgery volumes saw some gains with the continued resumption of non-urgent procedures pushing Operating Room Minutes up 3% month-over-month and 4% above budget in July, but they remain down 15% year-to-date.

Not including CARES Act relief, Gross Operating Revenues were essentially flat year-over-year and 2% below budget for the month, but have fallen 8% year-to-date compared to the same period in 2019. Inpatient Revenue is down 5% year-to-date and fell 3% below budget in July, but increased 1% year-over-year. Outpatient Revenue is down 11% year-to-date, 1% year-over-year, and 2% below budget.

Hospitals nationwide also continued to see higher per-patient expenses despite having fewer patients. Total Expense per Adjusted Discharge has jumped 16% year-to-date compared to the same seven-month period in 2019, and rose 9% year-over-year and 5% above budget in July. Labor Expense per Adjusted Discharge is up 18% year-to-date and rose 9% year-over-year and 5% above budget in July. Non-Labor Expense per Adjusted Discharge has increased 15% during the first seven months of 2020 and jumped 11% year-over-year and was 5% above budget for the month.

The National Hospital Flash Report draws on data from more than 800 hospitals.

 

 

 

 

Providence posts $538M loss, lays out 3-part strategic plan

https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/finance/providence-posts-538m-loss-lays-out-3-part-strategic-plan.html?utm_medium=email

Providence St. Joseph Health Consolidates 14 Hospitals in SoCal ...

Providence, a 51-hospital system based in Renton Wash., received $651 million in federal grants in the first half of this year, but it wasn’t enough to offset the system’s losses tied to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The health system reported revenues of $12.5 billion in the first six months of this year, down from $12.6 billion in the same period a year earlier, according to financial documents released Aug. 17. Though the health system reported a rebound in patient volumes after the suspension of non-emergency procedures in March and April, net patient service revenue was down 10 percent year over year.

Providence’s expenses also increased. For the first two quarters of this year, the health system reported operating expenses of $12.7 billion, up 3 percent year over year. The increase was attributed to higher labor costs and increased personal protective equipment and pharmaceutical spend.

Reduced patient volumes combined with increased costs drove an operating loss of $221 million in the first half of this year. In the first half of 2019, Providence reported operating income of $250 million.

After factoring in nonoperating items, Providence ended the first six months of 2020 with a net loss of $538 million, compared to net income of $985 million in the same period of 2019.

To help offset financial damage, Providence received $651 million in federal grants made available under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. 

“We knew we were in for a marathon the moment we admitted our first patient with COVID-19 seven months ago,” Providence President and CEO Rod Hochman, MD, said in an earnings release. “Our caregivers have been on the front lines ever since, and we are incredibly proud and grateful for all they are doing to serve our communities during the greatest crisis of our lifetime.”

In its earnings release, Providence mapped out a three-part plan for the future. As part of that plan, the system said it is focused on improving testing capacity and turnaround times and advancing clinical research and best practices in the treatment of COVID-19. The system is also revising its operating model and cost structure. 

 

 

Industry Voices—6 ways the pandemic will remake health systems

https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/hospitals/industry-voices-6-ways-pandemic-will-remake-health-systems?mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiTURoaU9HTTRZMkV3TlRReSIsInQiOiJwcCtIb3VSd1ppXC9XT21XZCtoVUd4ekVqSytvK1wvNXgyQk9tMVwvYXcyNkFHXC9BRko2c1NQRHdXK1Z5UXVGbVpsTG5TYml5Z1FlTVJuZERqSEtEcFhrd0hpV1Y2Y0sxZFNBMXJDRkVnU1hmbHpQT0pXckwzRVZ4SUVWMGZsQlpzVkcifQ%3D%3D&mrkid=959610

Industry Voices—6 ways the pandemic will remake health systems ...

Provider executives already know America’s hospitals and health systems are seeing rapidly deteriorating finances as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. They’re just not yet sure of the extent of the damage.

By the end of June, COVID-19 will have delivered an estimated $200 billion blow to these institutions with the bulk of losses stemming from cancelled elective and nonelective surgeries, according to the American Hospital Association

A recent Healthcare Financial Management Association (HFMA)/Guidehouse COVID-19 survey suggests these patient volumes will be slow to return, with half of provider executive respondents anticipating it will take through the end of the year or longer to return to pre-COVID levels. Moreover, one-in-three provider executives expect to close the year with revenues at 15 percent or more below pre-pandemic levels. One-in-five of them believe those decreases will soar to 30 percent or beyond. 

Available cash is also in short supply. A Guidehouse analysis of 350 hospitals nationwide found that cash on hand is projected to drop by 50 days on average by the end of the year — a 26% plunge — assuming that hospitals must repay accelerated and/or advanced Medicare payments.

While the government is providing much needed aid, just 11% of the COVID survey respondents expect emergency funding to cover their COVID-related costs.

The figures illustrate how the virus has hurled American medicine into unparalleled volatility. No one knows how long patients will continue to avoid getting elective care, or how state restrictions and climbing unemployment will affect their decision making once they have the option.

All of which leaves one thing for certain: Healthcare’s delivery, operations, and competitive dynamics are poised to undergo a fundamental and likely sustained transformation. 

Here are six changes coming sooner rather than later.

 

1. Payer-provider complexity on the rise; patients will struggle.

The pandemic has been a painful reminder that margins are driven by elective services. While insurers show strong earnings — with some offering rebates due to lower reimbursements — the same cannot be said for patients. As businesses struggle, insured patients will labor under higher deductibles, leaving them reluctant to embrace elective procedures. Such reluctance will be further exacerbated by the resurgence of case prevalence, government responses, reopening rollbacks, and inconsistencies in how the newly uninsured receive coverage.

Furthermore, the upholding of the hospital price transparency ruling will add additional scrutiny and significance for how services are priced and where providers are able to make positive margins. The end result: The payer-provider relationship is about to get even more complicated. 

 

2. Best-in-class technology will be a necessity, not a luxury. 

COVID has been a boon for telehealth and digital health usage and investments. Two-thirds of survey respondents anticipate using telehealth five times more than they did pre-pandemic. Yet, only one-third believe their organizations are fully equipped to handle the hike.

If healthcare is to meet the shift from in-person appointments to video, it will require rapid investment in things like speech recognition software, patient information pop-up screens, increased automation, and infrastructure to smooth workflows.

Historically, digital technology was viewed as a disruption that increased costs but didn’t always make life easier for providers. Now, caregiver technologies are focused on just that.

The new necessities of the digital world will require investments that are patient-centered and improve access and ease of use, all the while giving providers the platform to better engage, manage, and deliver quality care.

After all, the competition at the door already holds a distinct technological advantage.

 

3. The tech giants are coming.

Some of America’s biggest companies are indicating they believe they can offer more convenient, more affordable care than traditional payers and providers. 

Begin with Amazon, which has launched clinics for its Seattle employees, created the PillPack online pharmacy, and is entering the insurance market with Haven Healthcare, a partnership that includes Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase. Walmart, which already operates pharmacies and retail clinics, is now opening Walmart Health Centers, and just recently announced it is getting into the Medicare Advantage business.

Meanwhile, Walgreens has announced it is partnering with VillageMD to provide primary care within its stores.

The intent of these organizations clear: Large employees see real business opportunities, which represents new competition to the traditional provider models.

It isn’t just the magnitude of these companies that poses a threat. They also have much more experience in providing integrated, digitally advanced services. 

 

4. Work locations changes mean construction cost reductions. 

If there’s one thing COVID has taught American industry – and healthcare in particular – it’s the importance of being nimble.

Many back-office corporate functions have moved to a virtual environment as a result of the pandemic, leaving executives wondering whether they need as much real estate. According to the survey, just one-in-five executives expect to return to the same onsite work arrangements they had before the pandemic. 

Not surprisingly, capital expenditures, including new and existing construction, leads the list of targets for cost reductions.

Such savings will be critical now that investment income can no longer be relied upon to sustain organizations — or even buy a little time. Though previous disruptions spawned only marginal change, the unprecedented nature of COVID will lead to some uncomfortable decisions, including the need for a quicker return on investments. 

 

5. Consolidation is coming.

Consolidation can be interpreted as a negative concept, particularly as healthcare is mostly delivered at a local level. But the pandemic has only magnified the differences between the “resilients” and the “non-resilients.” 

All will be focused on rebuilding patient volume, reducing expenses, and addressing new payment models within a tumultuous economy. Yet with near-term cash pressures and liquidity concerns varying by system, the winners and losers will quickly emerge. Those with at least a 6% to 8% operating margin to innovate with delivery and reimagine healthcare post-COVID will be the strongest. Those who face an eroding financial position and market share will struggle to stay independent..

 

6. Policy will get more thoughtful and data-driven.

The initial coronavirus outbreak and ensuing responses by both the private and public sectors created negative economic repercussions in an accelerated timeframe. A major component of that response was the mandated suspension of elective procedures.

While essential, the impact on states’ economies, people’s health, and the employment market have been severe. For example, many states are currently facing inverse financial pressures with the combination of reductions in tax revenue and the expansion of Medicaid due to increases in unemployment. What’s more, providers will be subject to the ongoing reckonings of outbreak volatility, underscoring the importance of agile policy that engages stakeholders at all levels.

As states have implemented reopening plans, public leaders agree that alternative responses must be developed. Policymakers are in search of more thoughtful, data-driven approaches, which will likely require coordination with health system leaders to develop flexible preparation plans that facilitate scalable responses. The coordination will be difficult, yet necessary to implement resource and operational responses that keeps healthcare open and functioning while managing various levels of COVID outbreaks, as well as future pandemics.

Healthcare has largely been insulated from previous economic disruptions, with capital spending more acutely affected than operations. But the COVID-19 pandemic will very likely be different. Through the pandemic, providers are facing a long-term decrease in commercial payment, coupled with a need to boost caregiver- and consumer-facing engagement, all during a significant economic downturn.

While situations may differ by market, it’s clear that the pre-pandemic status quo won’t work for most hospitals or health systems.

 

 

 

8 hospitals closing departments, ending services

https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/patient-flow/8-hospitals-closing-departments-ending-services.html?utm_medium=email

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.

 

 

 

 

6 months in: What will the new normal look like for hospitals?

https://www.healthcaredive.com/news/6-months-in-new-normal-hospitals-covid/581524/

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.

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.

Accelerating trends to provide care outside hospitals

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.

PPE, staff shortages lingering

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.

Changing workflows

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.”