Urgent care centers boost spending on low-acuity visits, study finds

Where Should I go? Emergency Room vs. Urgent Care - Black Hills Parent

Although urgent care centers deter some lower-acuity patients from a costly emergency department visit, they are not associated with a drop in total healthcare spending, according to a study published in Health Affairs in April.

For the study, researchers used insurance claims and enrollment data from 2008 to 2019 from a managed care plan to understand if the presence of an urgent care center substantially decreased lower-acuity ED visits. 

The authors found that the entry of an urgent care center into a ZIP code deterred lower-acuity ED visits, but the effect was small.

The study found that the reduction of just one lower-acuity ED visit was associated with 37 additional urgent care visits. In other words, the number of urgent care visits per enrollee required to reduce one ER visit is 37. 

The study authors found that the prevention of each $1,646 lower-acuity ED visit was offset by an increase of $6,237 in urgent care center costs. 

As a result, the study authors said that despite ED visits costing more per visit, the use of urgent care centers increased net overall spending on lower-acuity care. 

“This study documents for the first time that urgent care centers are associated with increased overall costs for lower-acuity visits across the ED and urgent care settings,” the study authors concluded. 

The pandemic brought a “double whammy” to pediatric volumes

https://mailchi.mp/05e4ff455445/the-weekly-gist-february-26-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

Sick Little Girl In Hospital Bed Stock Photo, Picture And Royalty Free  Image. Image 30227571.

Even as surgery and office visit volume rebounds, hospitals across the country continue to report that emergency department volume remains persistently depressed, down 10 to 20 percent compared to before the pandemic. The shift is even more drastic in pediatrics, with some pediatric hospitals and programs reporting that emergency care volume is seeing double the rate of decline.

Pediatric volume has been hit with a “double whammy”with many schools and day cares still closed, contagious illnesses have plummeted. Fewer kids in youth sports means fewer injuries. And unlike adult hospitals, pediatric facilities haven’t filled their beds with COVID patients. “Of all our services, pediatric hospitalists have taken the greatest hit,” one children’s hospital physician leader shared. “Their service is usually full this time of the year with flu and RSV [respiratory syncytial virus]. But with kids not interacting with each other, general pediatric admissions have cratered.” Empty EDs have led some pediatric hospitals to shutter adjacent urgent care clinics: “It doesn’t make sense to operate an empty ED and an empty after-hours clinic”.

For patients, however, this can bring unexpected financial consequences, as they’ll now get an ED bill for services they would formerly have received in urgent care. But while pediatric hospitals have taken a greater volume hit, they’re also likely to see a faster rebound. Once kids are back to school and sports, the usual illnesses and injuries will likely return, and we’d guess parents won’t hesitate to seek care.

How can hospitals weather the financial storms of 2021?

Patient volumes were uneven in 2020, and a new report shows volumes will likely remain below pre-pandemic levels in 2021. This indicates challenges for hospitals looking to stabilize their finances — but there are some key strategies that can help.

Though hospital finances recovered to some extent by the end of 2020, the industry is not out of the woods yet. However, with strategic investments, especially in outpatient care and technology, hospitals and health systems can help buoy their finances in this challenging time, industry observers said.

Patient volumes have fluctuated wildly after the Covid-19 pandemic hit as Covid-19 patients flocked to hospitals and those needing or seeking elective surgery and other care staying away. Not surprisingly, this has had a significant impact on health systems’ financial health.

But outpatient settings and digital solutions offer some revenue-generating opportunities for hospitals.

“A number of the major players and some of the bigger regional systems in the country now are in a place where they get more of their revenue from the outpatient side as opposed to the inpatient side,” said Dr. Sanjay Saxena, global healthcare leader, Payers, Providers, Health Care Systems & Services and managing director at Boston Consulting Group, in a phone interview.

In fact, outpatient care was the only healthcare setting that saw an increase in patient volumes in 2020. Though emergency department visits and inpatient volumes were down from July to December last year compared to the same period in 2019, outpatient volumes actually increased by 5%, according to a report by consumer credit reporting agency TransUnion.

Healthcare providers that have well-established and expansive outpatient and ambulatory care businesses will be able to weather patient volume trends better in 2021 than those who do not, said Saxena.

Take HCA Healthcare, for example. The Nashville, Tennessee-based healthcare giant’s revenues jumped to $14.2 billion in the fourth quarter of last year, up from $13.5 billion in the same period in 2019. HCA’s ability to move care outside of the inpatient setting to the ambulatory environment really helped their financial performance, said Saxena.

On the other hand, smaller and more rural hospitals, which depend heavily on ED and inpatient care, may face a challenging year, he added.

Another key investment for hospitals will be in digital solutions to help them manage the ups and downs of patient volume.

Resilience as a broad topic for provider executives is absolutely top of mind,” said Gurpreet Singh, health services leader at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, in a phone interview. “And resiliency can be achieved in a number of different ways. One way is [figuring out] — can you predict demand a little bit better?”

Patient demand forecasting solutions will be popular, with 74% of health executives recently surveyed by PwC’s Health Research Institute saying their organizations would invest more in predictive modeling in 2021.

Further, hospitals will see savings in some unexpected places. For example, with an increasingly remote and mobile healthcare workforce, hospitals may see cost savings on real estate and facility leases, said Singh.

They can use these savings to invest further in telehealth and at-home care programs to expand care outside of the four walls of the hospital, he added.

The industry has to come to terms with changes brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, including the shifts in care delivery and patient preferences.

“Some of these things are structurally significant changes,” said Saxena. “Organizations ignore these things…at their peril. Some leading organizations and systems will find a way to embrace [these changes] and leapfrog others in the market coming out of 2021.”

Now the U.S. Has Lots of Ventilators, but Too Few Specialists to Operate Them

A patient was placed on a ventilator in a hospital in Yonkers, N.Y., in April.

As record numbers of coronavirus cases overwhelm hospitals across the United States, there is something strikingly different from the surge that inundated cities in the spring: No one is clamoring for ventilators.

The sophisticated breathing machines, used to sustain the most critically ill patients, are far more plentiful than they were eight months ago, when New York, New Jersey and other hard-hit states were desperate to obtain more of the devices, and hospitals were reviewing triage protocols for rationing care. Now, many hot spots face a different problem: They have enough ventilators, but not nearly enough respiratory therapists, pulmonologists and critical care doctors who have the training to operate the machines and provide round-the-clock care for patients who cannot breathe on their own.

Since the spring, American medical device makers have radically ramped up the country’s ventilator capacity by producing more than 200,000 critical care ventilators, with 155,000 of them going to the Strategic National Stockpile. At the same time, doctors have figured out other ways to deliver oxygen to some patients struggling to breathe — including using inexpensive sleep apnea machines or simple nasal cannulas that force air into the lungs through plastic tubes.

But with new cases approaching 200,000 per day and a flood of patients straining hospitals across the country, public health experts warn that the ample supply of available ventilators may not be enough to save many critically ill patients.

“We’re now at a dangerous precipice,” said Dr. Lewis Kaplan, president of the Society of Critical Care Medicine. Ventilators, he said, are exceptionally complex machines that require expertise and constant monitoring for the weeks or even months that patients are tethered to them. The explosion of cases in rural parts of Idaho, Ohio, South Dakota and other states has prompted local hospitals that lack such experts on staff to send patients to cities and regional medical centers, but those intensive care beds are quickly filling up.

Public health experts have long warned about a shortage of critical care doctors, known as intensivists, a specialty that generally requires an additional two years of medical training. There are 37,400 intensivists in the United States, according to the American Hospital Association, but nearly half of the country’s acute care hospitals do not have any on staff, and many of those hospitals are in rural areas increasingly overwhelmed by the coronavirus.

“We can’t manufacture doctors and nurses in the same way we can manufacture ventilators,” said Dr. Eric Toner, an emergency room doctor and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “And you can’t teach someone overnight the right settings and buttons to push on a ventilator for patients who have a disease they’ve never seen before. The most realistic thing we can do in the short run is to reduce the impact on hospitals, and that means wearing masks and avoiding crowded spaces so we can flatten the curve of new infections.”

Medical association message boards in states like Iowa, Oklahoma and North Dakota are awash in desperate calls for intensivists and respiratory therapists willing to temporarily relocate and help out. When New York City and hospitals in the Northeast issued a similar call for help this past spring, specialists from the South and the Midwest rushed there. But because cases are now surging nationwide, hospital officials say that most of their pleas for help are going unanswered.

Dr. Thomas E. Dobbs, the top health official in Mississippi, said that more than half the state’s 1,048 ventilators were still available, but that he was more concerned with having enough staff members to take care of the sickest patients.

“If we want to make sure that someone who’s hospitalized in the I.C.U. with the coronavirus has the best chance to get well, they need to have highly trained personnel, and that cannot be flexed up rapidly,” he said in a news briefing on Tuesday.

Dr. Matthew Trump, a critical care specialist at UnityPoint Health in Des Moines, said that the health chain’s 21 hospitals had an adequate supply of ventilators for now, but that out-of-state staff reinforcements might be unlikely to materialize as colleagues fall ill and the hospital’s I.C.U. beds reach capacity.

“People here are exhausted and burned out from the past few months,” he said. “I’m really concerned.”

The domestic boom in ventilator production has been a rare bright spot in the country’s pandemic response, which has been marred by shortages of personal protective equipment, haphazard testing efforts and President Trump’s mixed messaging on the importance of masks, social distancing and other measures that can dent the spread of new infections.

Although the White House has sought to take credit for the increase in new ventilators, medical device executives say the accelerated production was largely a market-driven response turbocharged by the national sense of crisis. Mr. Trump invoked the wartime Defense Production Act in late March, but federal health officials have relied on government contracts rather than their authority under the act to compel companies to increase the production of ventilators.

Scott Whitaker, president of AdvaMed, a trade association that represents many of the country’s ventilator manufacturers, said the grave situation had prompted a “historic mobilization” by the industry. “We’re confident that our companies are well positioned to mobilize as needed to meet demand,” he said in an email.

Public health officials in Minnesota, Mississippi, Utah and other states with some of the highest per capita rates of infection and hospitalization have said they are comfortable with the number of ventilators currently in their hospitals and their stockpiles.

Mr. Whitaker said AdvaMed’s member companies were making roughly 700 ventilators a week before the pandemic; by the summer, weekly output had reached 10,000. The juggernaut was in part fueled by unconventional partnerships between ventilator companies and auto giants like Ford and General Motors.

Chris Brooks, chief strategy officer at Ventec Life Systems, which collaborated with G.M. to fill a $490 million contract for the Department of Health and Human Services, said the shared sense of urgency enabled both companies to overcome a thicket of supply-chain and logistical challenges to produce 30,000 ventilators over four months at an idled car parts plant in Indiana. Before the pandemic, Ventec’s average monthly output was 100 to 200 machines.

“When you’re focused with one team and one mission, you get things done in hours that would otherwise take months,” he said. “You just find a way to push through any and all obstacles.”

Despite an overall increase in the number of ventilators, some researchers say many of the new machines may be inadequate for the current crisis. Dr. Richard Branson, an expert on mechanical ventilation at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and an author of a recent study in the journal Chest, said that half of the new devices acquired by the Strategic National Stockpile were not sophisticated enough for Covid-19 patients in severe respiratory distress. He also expressed concern about the long-term viability of machines that require frequent maintenance.

“These devices were not built to be stockpiled,” he said.

The Department of Health and Human Services, which has acknowledged the limitations of its newly acquired ventilators, said the stockpile — nine times as large as it was in March — was well suited for most respiratory pandemics. “These stockpiled devices can be used as a short-term, stopgap buffer when the immediate commercial supply is not sufficient or available,” the agency said in a statement.

Projecting how many people will end up requiring mechanical breathing assistance is an inexact science, and many early assumptions about how the coronavirus affects respiratory function have evolved.

During the chaotic days of March and April, emergency room doctors were quick to intubate patients with dangerously low oxygen levels. They subsequently discovered other ways to improve outcomes, including placing patients on their stomachs, a protocol known as proning that helps improve lung function. The doctors also learned to embrace the use of pressurized oxygen delivered through the nose, or via BiPAP and CPAP machines, portable devices that force oxygen into a patient’s airways.

Many health care providers initially hesitated to use such interventions for fear the pressurized air would aerosolize the virus and endanger health care workers. The risks, it turned out, could be mitigated through the use of respirator masks and other personal protective gear, said Dr. Greg Martin, the chief of pulmonary and critical care at Grady Health Systems in Atlanta.

“The familiarity of taking care of so many Covid patients, combined with good data, has just made everything we do 100 times easier,” he said.

Some of the earliest data about the perils of intubating coronavirus patients turned out to be incomplete and misleading. Dr. Susan Wilcox, a critical care specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital, said many providers were spooked by data that suggested an 80 percent mortality rate among ventilated coronavirus patients, but the actual death rate turned out to be much lower. The mortality rate at her hospital, she said, was about 25 to 30 percent.

“Some people were saying that we should intubate almost immediately because we were worried patients would crash and have untoward consequences if we waited,” she said. “But we’ve learned to just go back to the principles of good critical care.”

Survival rates have increased significantly at many hospitals, a shift brought about by the introduction of therapeutics like dexamethasone, a powerful steroid that Mr. Trump took when he was hospitalized with the coronavirus. The changing demographics of the pandemic — a growing proportion of younger patients with fewer health risks — have also played a role in the improving survival rates.

Dr. Nikhil Jagan, a critical care pulmonologist at CHI Health, a hospital chain that serves Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska, said many of the coronavirus patients who were arriving at his emergency room now were less sick than the patients he treated in the spring.

“There’s a lot more awareness about the symptoms of Covid-19,” he said. “The first go-around, when people came in, they were very sick right off the bat and in respiratory distress or at the point of respiratory failure and had to be intubated.”

But the promising new treatments and enhanced knowledge can go only so far should the current surge in cases continue unabated. The country passed 250,000 deaths from the coronavirus last week, a reminder that many critically ill patients do not survive. The daily death toll has been rising steadily and is approaching 2,000.

“Ventilators are important in critical care but they don’t save people’s lives,” said Dr. Branson of the University of Cincinnati. “They just keep people alive while the people caring for them can figure out what’s wrong and fix the problem. And at the moment, we just don’t have enough of those people.”

For now, he said there was only one way out the crisis: “It’s not that hard,” he said. “Wear a mask.”

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.

 

 

 

 

Revenues and volumes have fallen ‘off a cliff’ hospital executives tell American Hospital Association

https://www.healthcarefinancenews.com/news/aha-releases-case-studies-us-hospitals-and-health-systems-highlighting-financial-challenges

Revenues and volumes have fallen 'off a cliff' hospital executives ...

Eight health systems in AHA case study are asking Congress for more relief funding.

The American Hospital Association has released eight case studies from hospitals and health systems across the country that highlight how systems of different shapes and sizes are reacting to the financial challenges posed by COVID-19.

The case studies include Kindred Healthcare and TIRR Memorial Hermann in Houston; AdventHealth Central Florida Division in Orlando, Florida; the Loretto Hospital in Chicago; Kittitas Valley Healthcare in Ellensburg, Washington; Washington Regional Medical Center in Fayetteville, Arkansas; Banner Health in Phoenix; UR Medicine Thompson Health in Canandaigua, New York; and the Queen’s Health Systems and the Queen’s Medical Center in Honolulu.

Across the board, every case study revealed that hospitals and health systems are asking Congress for more relief funding.

“We are begging for more assistance and more help because we can’t keep moving forward,” said Michael Stapleton, the president and CEO of UR Medicine Thompson Health in New York.

WHAT’S THE IMPACT?

In Texas, the state with the third most COVID-19 cases, Kindred Healthcare and TIRR Memorial Hermann have begun to rely on inpatient rehabilitation facilities and long-term acute care hospitals to treat COVID-19-positive and medically complex recovering COVID-19 patients.

“In particular, as communities and hospitals struggled to meet ICU capacity needs, these hospitals stepped forward to take care of COVID-19-positive patients and others to help provide beds for more COVID-19-positive patients,” the case study said.

However, even with assistance from local facilities, post-acute care providers have incurred increased costs to prepare for and treat COVID-19-positive patients and complex post-COVID-19 patients.

“When you look at lost revenue and volumes, and the additional costs of ramping up to prepare for COVID-19, whether it’s personal protective equipment, respiratory systems, medications or facility infrastructure changes, there are significant dollars associated with that,” said Jerry Ashworth, the senior vice president and CEO at TIRR Memorial Hermann.

AdventHealth in Florida has taken financial hits from declining elective procedures and purchasing personal protective equipment. The company says it has lost $263 million since the start of the pandemic and has spent $254 million sourcing PPE.

“Florida is in the middle of the crisis,” said Todd Goodman, division chief financial officer of AdventHealth. “Our current COVID numbers are four times higher than the peak that we had back in April. We are bringing in higher-priced nurses and staff from other parts of the nation, because of a rapid increase in inpatient census. We are in a different place today than we were even six weeks ago.”

COVID-19 has disproportionately affected communities of color across the country, but especially in Chicago, where 30% of the population is Black. Forty-six percent of all COVID-19 cases and 57% of all deaths are Black people.

Despite having 70% of its admissions being related to COVID-19, the Loretto Hospital in Chicago has not received any funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act hot spot distribution.

“Our COVID-19 unit is full and has been for the last three months; we’re now at 296 COVID-19 patients [on July 16] and yet we’ve not received any of the COVID-19 high impact ‘hot spot’ payments,” said George Miller, the president and CEO of the Loretto Hospital. “We got the Small Business Administration loan to help keep our team members employed.”

Kittitas Valley Healthcare in Washington was among the first in the country to feel the impact of COVID-19. The rural delivery system and its critical access hospital postponed elective surgeries and many other nonessential services in response.

“Our revenues and volumes fell off a cliff,” said Julie Petersen, the CEO of Kittitas Valley Healthcare. “Our orthopedics programs, our GI [gastrointestinal] programs and cataract surgeries evaporated.”

Now, the hospital is off its original 2020 net revenue projections by $8.4 million.

After seeing a 12% rise in COVID-19 cases over a two-week period in Fayetteville, Arkansas, the Washington Regional Medical Center had 96% of its 40 intensive care unit beds occupied, a 20-bed COVID-19 ICU was completely full, and 298 of the facility’s 315 adult beds were occupied.

Taking care of these patients put the health system in a financial crisis. Its net patient revenue declined by $14 million in April. It furloughed 350 of its 3,300 employees and reduced the hours of 360 full-time workers, according to Larry Shackelford, the president and CEO of Washington Regional Medical Center.

On July 12, Banner Health in Arizona had more than 1,500 inpatients who either tested COVID-positive or are suspected of having COVID-19, representing 45% of the COVID-19 inpatient hospitalizations in the state, according to Dr. Marjorie Bessel, the chief clinical officer at Banner Health.

Banner expects operating losses of $500 million for 2020, compared to its initial expectations, with expected revenue losses approaching $1 billion for the year, according to the case study.

By mid-March, New York had 15 times more COVID-19 cases than any other state, according to the case study. Like the rest of the state, UR Medicine Thompson Health shut down many of its services, resulting in “insurmountable” financial losses and staff furloughs.

“Our first projection was a $17 million loss through the year-end,” Stapleton said. “We lost half of March, all of April and half of May. The hospital has received only $3.1 million from the CARES Act tranche payments.”

Although the Queen’s Health Systems and the Queen’s Medical Center in Hawaii are starting to reschedule appointments, surgeries and procedures that had been delayed by COVID-19, patients aren’t coming back as anticipated.

Even with the pent-up demand for elective procedures, minimally invasive and even short-stay procedures are still down by about 18%. We are seeing our in-person clinic visits down by about 14%, and the emergency department (ED) is the one that surprised us the most – down by 38%,” said Jason Chang, president of the Queen’s Medical Center and chief operating officer of the Queen’s Health Systems and the Queen’s Medical Center.

The systems lost $127 million between March and May, according to Chang. He says the projected losses are about $60 million for 2021, but could reach $300 million if Hawaii experiences a second wave of COVID-19.

THE LARGER TREND

The AHA has cited $323 billion in losses industry-wide due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, with U.S. hospitals anticipating about $120 billion in losses from July to December alone.

It was joined by the American Nurses Association and the American Medical Association to ask Congress to provide additional funding to the original $100 billion from the CARES Act. In a letter sent in July, the organizations asked for “at least an additional $100 billion to the emergency relief fund to provide direct funding to front line health care personnel and providers, including nurses, doctors, hospitals and health systems, to continue to respond to this pandemic.”

 

 

 

 

Houston, Miami, other cities face mounting health care worker shortages as infections climb

https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/houston-miami-and-other-cities-face-mounting-health-care-worker-shortages-as-infections-climb/2020/07/25/45fd720c-ccf8-11ea-b0e3-d55bda07d66a_story.html?utm_campaign=wp_main&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook&fbclid=IwAR14P9OGxTOPU8pMgjsVof7YlOAPv-vfxq2MBm9RlpYFVVa3qvpmvyIjFyA

Shortages of health care workers are worsening in Houston, Miami, Baton Rouge and other cities battling sustained covid-19 outbreaks, exhausting staffers and straining hospitals’ ability to cope with spiking cases.

That need is especially dire for front-line nurses, respiratory therapists and others who play hands-on, bedside roles where one nurse is often required for each critically ill patient.

While many hospitals have devised ways to stretch material resources — converting surgery wards into specialized covid units and recycling masks and gowns — it is far more difficult to stretch the human workers needed to make the system function.

“At the end of the day, the capacity for critical care is a balance between the space, staff and stuff. And if you have a bottleneck in one, you can’t take additional patients,” said Mahshid Abir, a senior physician policy researcher at the RAND Corporation and director of the Acute Care Research Unit (ACRU) at the University of Michigan. “You have to have all three … You can’t have a ventilator, but not a respiratory therapist.”

“What this is going to do is it’s going to cost lives, not just for covid patients, but for everyone else in the hospital,” she warned.

The increasingly fraught situation reflects packed hospitals across large swaths of the country: More than 8,800 covid patients are hospitalized in Texas; Florida has more than 9,400; and at least 13 other states also have thousands of hospitalizations, according to data compiled by The Washington Post.

Facilities in several states, including Texas, South Carolina and Indiana, have in recent weeks reported shortages of such workers, according to federal planning documents viewed by The Post, pitting states and hospitals against one another to recruit staff.

On Thursday, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) said he asked the federal government to send in 700 health-care workers to assist besieged hospitals.

“Even if for some strange reason … you don’t care about covid-19, you should care about that hospital capacity when you have an automobile accident or when you have your heart attack or your stroke, or your mother or grandmother has that stroke,” Edwards said at a news conference.

In Florida, 39 hospitals have requested help from the state for respiratory therapists, nurses and nursing assistants. In South Carolina, the National Guard is sending 40 medical professionals to five hospitals in response to rising cases.

Many medical facilities anticipate their staffing problems will deteriorate, according to the planning documents: Texas is hardest hit, with South Carolina close behind. Needs range from pharmacists to physicians.

Hot spots stretch across the country, from Miami and Atlanta to Southern California and the Rio Grande Valley, and the demands for help are as diffuse as the suffering.

“What we have right now are essentially three New Yorks with these three major states,” White House coronavirus task force coordinator Deborah Birx said Friday during an appearance on NBC’s “Today” show.

But today’s diffuse transmission requires innovative thinking and a different response from months ago in New York, say experts. While some doctors have been able to share expertise online and nurses have teamed up to relieve pressures, the overall strains are growing.

“We missed the boat,” said Serena Bumpus, a leader of multiple Texas nursing organizations and regional director of nursing for the Austin Round Rock Region of Baylor Scott and White Health.

Bumpus blames a lack of coordination at national and state officials. “It feels like this free-for-all,” she said, “and each organization is just kind of left up to their own devices to try to figure this out.”

In a disaster, a hospital or local health system typically brings in help from neighboring communities. But that standard emergency protocol, which comes into play following a hurricane or tornado, “is predicated on the notion that you’ll have a concentrated area of impact,” said Christopher Nelson, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation and a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School.

That is how Texas has functioned in the past, said Jennifer Banda, vice president of advocacy and public policy at the Texas Hospital Association, recalling the influx of temporary help after Hurricane Harvey deluged Houston three years ago.

It is how the response took shape early in the outbreak, when health-care workers headed to hard-hit New York.

But the sustained and far-flung nature of the pandemic has made that approach unworkable. “The challenge right now,” Banda said, “is we are taxing the system all across the country.”

Theresa Q. Tran, an emergency medicine physician and assistant professor of emergency medicine at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine, began to feel the crunch in June. Only a few weeks before, she had texted a friend to say how disheartening it was to see crowds of people reveling outdoors without masks on Memorial Day weekend.

Her fears were borne out when she found herself making call after call after call from her ER, unable to admit a critically ill patient because her hospital had run out of ICU space, but unable to find a hospital able to take them.

Under normal circumstances, the transfer of such patients — “where you’re afraid to look away, or to blink, because they may just crash on you,” as Tran describes them — happens quickly to ensure the close monitoring the ICU affords.

Those critical patients begin to stall in the ER, stretching the abilities of the nurses and doctors attending to them. “A lot of people, they come in, and they need attention immediately,” Tran said, noting that emergency physicians are constantly racing against time. “Time is brain, or time is heart.”

By mid-July, an influx of “surge” staff brought relief, Tran said. But that was short-lived as the crisis jumped from one locality to the next, with the emergency procedures to bring in more staff never quite keeping up with the rising infections.

An ER physician in the Rio Grande Valley said all three of the major trauma hospitals in the area have long since run out of the ability to absorb new ICU patients.

“We’ve been full for weeks,” said the physician, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared retaliation for speaking out about the conditions.

“The truth is, the majority of our work now in the emergency department is ICU work,” he said. “Some of our patients down here, we’re now holding them for days.” And each one of those critically ill patients needs a nurse to stay with them.

When ICU space has opened up — maybe two, three, four beds — it never feels like relief, he said, because in the time it takes to move those patients out, 20 new ones arrive.

Even with help his hospital has received — masks and gowns were procured, and the staff more than doubled in the past few weeks with relief nurses and other health-care workers from outside — it still is not enough.

The local nurses are exhausted. Some quit. Even the relief nurses who helped out in New York in the spring seem horrified by the scale of the disaster in South Texas, he said.

“If no one comes and helps us out and gives us the ammo we need to fight this thing, we are not going to win,” the doctor said.

One of the root causes of the problem in the United States is that emergency departments and ICUs are often operating at or near capacity, Abir and Nelson said, putting them dangerously close to shortages before a crisis even hits.

Texas, along with 32 other states, has joined a licensure compact, allowing nurses to practice across state borders, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to recruit from other parts of the country.

Texas medical facilities can apply to the Department of State Health Services for staffers to fill a critical shortage, typically for a two-week period. But two weeks, which would allow time to respond to most disasters, hardly registers in a pandemic, so facilities have to ask for extensions or make new applications.

South Carolina last week issued an order that allows nursing graduates who have not yet completed their licensing exams to begin working under supervision. Prisma Health, the state’s biggest hospital system, said this week that the number of patients admitted to its hospitals has more than tripled in the past three weeks and is approaching 300 new patients a day.

“As the capacity increases, so does the need for additional staff,” Scott Sasser, the incident commander for Prisma Health’s covid-19 response said in a statement. Prisma has so far shifted nurses from one area to another, brought back furloughed nurses, hired more physicians and brought in temporary nurse hires, among other measures, Sasser said.

Bumpus has fielded calls from nurses all over the country — some as far afield as the United Kingdom — wanting to know how they can help. But Bumpus says she does not have an easy answer.

“I’ve had to kind of just do my own digging and use my connections,” she said. At first, she said, interested nurses were asked to register through the Texas Disaster Volunteer Registry; but then the system never seemed to be put to use.

Later she learned — “by happenstance … literally by social media” — that the state had contracted with private agencies to find nurses. So now she directs callers to those agencies.

Even rural parts of Texas that were spared initially are being ravaged by the virus, according to John Henderson, CEO of the Texas Organization of Rural and Community Hospitals.

“Unless things start getting better in short order, we don’t have enough staff,” he acknowledged. As for filling critical staffing gaps by moving people around, “even the state admits that they can’t continue to do that,” Henderson said.

The situation has become so dire in some rural parts of the state that Judge Eloy Vera implored people to stay home on the Starr County Facebook page, warning, “Unfortunately, Starr County Memorial Hospital has limited resources and our doctors are going to have to decide who receives treatment, and who is sent home to die.”

Steven Gularte, CEO of Chambers Health in Anahuac, Tex., 45 miles from Houston, said he had to bring in 10 nurses to help staff his 14-bed hospital after Houston facilities started appealing for help to care for patients who no longer needed intensive care but were not ready to go home.

“Normally, we are referring to them,” Gularte said. “Now, they are referring to us.”

Donald M. Yealy, chair of emergency medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, said rather than sending staff to other states, his hospital has helped others virtually, particularly to support pulmonary and intensive care physicians.

“Covid has been catalytic in how we think about health care,” Yealy said, providing lessons that will outlast the pandemic.

But telehealth can do little to relieve the fatigue and fear that goes with front-line work in a prolonged pandemic. Donning and doffing masks, gowns and gloves is time consuming. Nurses worry about taking the virus home to their families.

“It is high energy work with a constant grind that is hard on people,” said Michael Sweat, director of the Center for Global Health at the Medical University of South Carolina.

Coronavirus has turned the regular staffing challenge at Harris Health in Houston into a daily life-or-death juggle for Pamela Russell, associate administrator of nursing operations, who helps provide supplemental workers for the system’s two public hospitals and 46 outpatient clinics.

Now, 162 staff members — including more than 50 nurses — are quarantined, either because they tested positive or are awaiting results. Many others need flexible schedules to accommodate child care, she said. Some cannot work in coronavirus units because of their own medical conditions. A few contract nurses left abruptly after learning their units would soon be taking covid-positive patients.

Russell has turned to the state and the international nonprofit Project Hope for resources, even as she acts as a morale booster, encouraging restaurants to send meals and supporting the hospital CEO in his cheerleading rounds.

“It’s hard to say how long we can do this. I just don’t know” said Russell, who praised the commitment of the nurses. “Like I said, it’s a calling. But I don’t see it being sustainable.”

 

 

 

 

Canceled elective procedures putting pressure on nation’s hospitals

https://www.healthcarefinancenews.com/news/canceled-elective-procedures-putting-pressure-nations-hospitals

U.S. Hospitals Brace for 'Tremendous Strain' from New Virus - JEMS

Even upticks in COVID-19 patients haven’t made up for the revenue losses, since reimbursement for those services is comparatively slim.

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.