Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed a law designed to prevent “doxxing” of healthcare workers.
Doxxing refers to an act that reveals private or identifying information about an individual on the internet, opening them up to harassment or intimidation.
The state Senate passed House Bill 1041 on March 4, after the House passed it Feb. 14. Mr. Polis signed the bill into law March 24.
“(The protected workers) do have a public-facing job, but just because you have a public-facing job doesn’t mean you should have threats against your family or yourself for doing the work you’ve been tasked with doing,” bill sponsor and state Rep. Andrew Boesenecker, said, according toThe Denver Post.
In 2021, Colorado banned doxxing of public health workers. That law, in part, allowed public health workers to seek redaction of their personal information from publicly available government databases, according to the Post.
The new law expands protections to include child representatives, code enforcement officers, healthcare workers, mortgage servicers, and office of the respondent parents’ counsel staff members and contractors.
Under the new law, these individuals are people “whose personal information may be withheld from the internet if the protected person believes dissemination of such information poses an imminent and serious threat to the protected person or the safety of the protected person’s immediate family.”
Personal information includes the protected person’s full name and home address.
Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers signed a bill Wednesday that makes it a felony to threaten a healthcare worker in the state, similar to laws covering police officers and other government workers.
The state already has a law making it a felony to commit battery against nurses, emergency care providers or those working in an emergency department.
“With significant workforce challenges in Wisconsin hospitals, we cannot afford to lose providers because they fear threats in the workplace,” Eric Borgerding, president of the state’s hospital association, said in a release. “Today’s new law will send a strong message to the public that threats against health care workers are taken seriously and not tolerated in Wisconsin.”
Healthcare workers have long been accustomed to both verbal and physical attacks in the workplace, often coming from distraught patients or family members.
In fact, workers in the healthcare and social service industries experience the highest rates of injuries caused by workplace violence and are five times as likely to get injured at work than workers overall, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
A recent survey from staffing firm Incredible Health found nurses believe attacks are on the rise, partially due to ongoing COVID-19 guidelines. Some 65% of nurses said they had been verbally or physically attacked by a patient or patient’s family member in the past year, the survey found.
While 52% attributed that uptick to pandemic restrictions, 47% said it’s a result of longer wait times and other issues caused by a lack of staffing.
Hospitals across the country are grappling with dire staffing shortages as burned out healthcare workers quit, retire or leave for higher-paying traveling nurse positions two years into the COVID-19 pandemic.
A recent report from the Wisconsin Hospital Association found 13 out of the 17 positions it surveyed had higher hospital vacancy rates in 2021 than the year prior, and seven of those positions had vacancy rates exceeding 10%.
“Threats against healthcare workers cause hospital staff to choose between caring for patients in the hospital or leaving the hospital altogether,” Borgerding said.
There are no federal laws that directly address violence against healthcare workers, though the Occupational Safety and Health Administration offers guidance for employers, and a handful of states have rules for employers or laws penalizing offenders.
Last April, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act, which would make healthcare employers develop and implement comprehensive workplace violence prevention plans, provide employees with annual training, keep detailed records of violent incidents and submit annual summaries to the federal labor department. The bill has yet to pass the Senate.
Labor unions representing healthcare workers, like National Nurses United, support that legislation and say a consistent and enforceable rule is necessary.
However, NNU opposes laws like Wisconsin’s that criminalize perpetrators of violence against healthcare workers, as those who do so are often vulnerable patients, the union said in an emailed statement.
Hospitals across the U.S. are feeling the wrath of the omicron variant and getting thrown into disarray that is different from earlier COVID-19 surges.
This time, they are dealing with serious staff shortages because so many health care workers are getting sick with the fast-spreading variant. People are showing up at emergency rooms in large numbers in hopes of getting tested for COVID-19, putting more strain on the system. And a surprising share of patients — two-thirds in some places — are testing positive while in the hospital for other reasons.
At the same time, hospitals say the patients aren’t as sick as those who came in during the last surge. Intensive care units aren’t as full, and ventilators aren’t needed as much as they were before.
The pressures are nevertheless prompting hospitals to scale back non-emergency surgeries and close wards, while National Guard troops have been sent in in several states to help at medical centers and testing sites.
Nearly two years into the pandemic, frustration and exhaustion are running high among health care workers.
“This is getting very tiring, and I’m being very polite in saying that,” said Dr. Robert Glasgow of University of Utah Health, which has hundreds of workers out sick or in isolation.
About 85,000 Americans are in the hospital with COVID-19, just short of the delta-surge peak of about 94,000 in early September, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The all-time high during the pandemic was about 125,000 in January of last year.
But the hospitalization numbers do not tell the whole story. Some cases in the official count involve COVID-19 infections that weren’t what put the patients in the hospital in the first place.
Dr. Fritz François, chief of hospital operations at NYU Langone Health in New York City, said about 65% of patients admitted to that system with COVID-19 recently were primarily hospitalized for something else and were incidentally found to have the virus.
At two large Seattle hospitals over the past two weeks, three-quarters of the 64 patients testing positive for the coronavirus were admitted with a primary diagnosis other than COVID-19.
Joanne Spetz, associate director of research at the Healthforce Center at the University of California, San Francisco, said the rising number of cases like that is both good and bad.
The lack of symptoms shows vaccines, boosters and natural immunity from prior infections are working, she said. The bad news is that the numbers mean the coronavirus is spreading rapidly, and some percentage of those people will wind up needing hospitalization.
This week, 36% of California hospitals reported critical staffing shortages. And 40% are expecting such shortages.
Some hospitals are reporting as much as one quarter of their staff out for virus-related reasons, said Kiyomi Burchill, the California Hospital Association’s vice president for policy and leader on pandemic matters.
In response, hospitals are turning to temporary staffing agencies or transferring patients out.
University of Utah Health plans to keep more than 50 beds open because it doesn’t have enough nurses. It is also rescheduling surgeries that aren’t urgent. In Florida, a hospital temporarily closed its maternity ward because of staff shortages.
In Alabama, where most of the population is unvaccinated, UAB Health in Birmingham put out an urgent request for people to go elsewhere for COVID-19 tests or minor symptoms and stay home for all but true emergencies. Treatment rooms were so crowded that some patients had to be evaluated in hallways and closets.
As of Monday, New York state had just over 10,000 people in the hospital with COVID-19, including 5,500 in New York City. That’s the most in either the city or state since the disastrous spring of 2020.
New York City hospital officials, though, reported that things haven’t become dire. Generally, the patients aren’t as sick as they were back then. Of the patients hospitalized in New York City, around 600 were in ICU beds.
“We’re not even halfway to what we were in April 2020,” said Dr. David Battinelli, the physician-in-chief for Northwell Health, New York state’s largest hospital system.
Similarly, in Washington state, the number of COVID-19-infected people on ventilators increased over the past two weeks, but the share of patients needing such equipment dropped.
In South Carolina, which is seeing unprecedented numbers of new cases and a sharp rise in hospitalizations, Gov. Henry McMaster took note of the seemingly less-serious variant and said: “There’s no need to panic. Be calm. Be happy.”
Amid the omicron-triggered surge in demand for COVID-19 testing across the U.S., New York City’s Fire Department is asking people not to call for ambulance just because they are having trouble finding a test.
In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine announced new or expanded testing sites in nine cities to steer test-seekers away from ERs. About 300 National Guard members are being sent to help out at those centers.
In Connecticut, many ER patients are in beds in hallways, and nurses are often working double shifts because of staffing shortages, said Sherri Dayton, a nurse at the Backus Plainfield Emergency Care Center. Many emergency rooms have hours-long waiting times, she said.
“We are drowning. We are exhausted,” Dayton said.
Doctors and nurses are complaining about burnout and a sense their neighbors are no longer treating the pandemic as a crisis, despite day after day of record COVID-19 cases.
“In the past, we didn’t have the vaccine, so it was us all hands together, all the support. But that support has kind of dwindled from the community, and people seem to be moving on without us,” said Rachel Chamberlin, a nurse at New Hampshire’s Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.
Edward Merrens, chief clinical officer at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health, said more than 85% of the hospitalized COVID-19 patients were unvaccinated.
Several patients in the hospital’s COVID-19 ICU unit were on ventilators, a breathing tube down their throats. In one room, staff members made preparations for what they feared would be the final family visit for a dying patient.
One of the unvaccinated was Fred Rutherford, a 55-year-old from Claremont, New Hampshire. His son carried him out of the house when he became sick and took him to the hospital, where he needed a breathing tube for a while and feared he might die.
If he returns home, he said, he promises to get vaccinated and tell others to do so too.
“I probably thought I was immortal, that I was tough,” Rutherford said, speaking from his hospital bed behind a window, his voice weak and shaky.
But he added: “I will do anything I can to be the voice of people that don’t understand you’ve got to get vaccinated. You’ve got to get it done to protect each other.”
The American Hospital Association, the American Medical Association and the American Nurses Association teamed up to release a new “Forever Grateful” TV and digital ad campaign on Monday to thank health care workers.
The typical media coverage of the healthcare workforce crisis often focuses on the acute shortage of hospital-based nurses. For instance, the hospital forced to close a unit as nurses, burned out after 18 months of extra shifts taking care of COVID patients, leave for lower-stress, more predictable jobs in outpatient facilities or doctors’ offices.
But we’re hearing about a reverse trend in recent conversations with health system leaders. Instead of outpatient settings benefiting from an influx of nursing talent, ambulatory leaders report that nurses are now leaving for hospital or travel nursing positions that offer higher salaries and large sign-on bonuses. That’s forcing non-hospital settings to reduce operating room and endoscopy capacity.
Nor are shortages just in the nursing workforce. One system executive lamented that they had to cancel several non-emergent cardiac surgeries, not due to nurse staffing challenges; rather, they were short on surgical technicians. “Surgical techs aren’t leaving because of COVID,” the executive shared, “they’re leaving because the labor market is so strong, and they can make the same money doing something entirely different.”
For lower-wage workers in particular, the old value proposition of working for a health system, centered around good benefits, continuing education, and a long-term career path, isn’t providing the boost it used to. Workers are willing to trade those for improved work-life balance, predictability, and the perception of a “safer” workplace.
Stabilizing the healthcare workforce will ultimately require providers to rethink job design, the allocation of talent across settings of care, and the integration of technology in workflow. And it will require re-anchoring the work in the mission of serving the community.
But in the short term, many health systems will find themselves having to pay more to retain key workers, including but not limited to hospital nurses, to maintain patient access to care.
A Cleveland Clinic-owned hospital system in Akron, Ohio, is paying the federal government $21.3 million to settle claims it illegally billed the Medicare program.
Akron General Health System allegedly overpaid physicians well above market value for referring physicians to the system, violating the Anti-Kickback Statute and Physician Self-Referral Law, and then billed Medicare for the improperly referred business, violating the False Claims Act, between August 2010 and March 2016.
Along with an AGHS whistleblower,the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, which acquired the system at the end of 2015, voluntarily disclosed to the federal government its concerns with the compensation arrangements, which were enacted by AGHS’ prior leadership, the Department of Justice said Friday.
The Anti-Kickback Statute forbids providers from paying for or otherwise soliciting other parties to get them to refer patients covered by federal programs like Medicare, while the Physician Self-Referral Law, otherwise known as the Stark Law, prohibits a hospital from billing for those services.Despite the laws and a bevy of other regulations resulting in a barrage of DOJ lawsuits and been a thorn in the side of providers for decades, fraud is still rampant in healthcare.
“Physicians must make referrals and other medical decisions based on what is best for patients, not to serve profit-boosting business arrangements,” HHS Office of Inspector General Special Agent in Charge Lamont Pugh said in a statement on the AGHS settlement.
Cleveland Clinic struck a deal with AGHS in 2014, agreeing to pay $100 million for minority ownership in the system. The agreement gave the clinic the option to fully acquire AGHS after a year, which it exercised as soon as that period expired in August 2015.
The settlement stems from a whistleblower suit brought by AGHS’s former Director of Internal Audit Beverly Brouse, who will receive a portion of the settlement, the DOJ said. The False Claims Act allows whistleblowers to share in the proceeds of a suit.
As fraud has increased in healthcare over the past decade — the DOJ reported 247 new matters for potential investigation in 2000, 427 in 2010 and 505 in 2019 — the federal government has renewed its efforts to crack down on illegal schemes. That’s resulted in the formation of groups like the Medicare Fraud Strike Force in 2007 and the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit in 2017, which has in turn resulted in the DOJ recovering huge sums in stings, settlements and guilty verdicts.
Some of the biggest settlements reach into the hundreds of millions, and involve billions in false claims.
In 2018, DOJ charged more than 600 people for falsely billing federal programs more than $2 billion; last year federal agencies charged almost 350 people for submitting more than $6 billion in false claims. That last case led to creation of a rapid response strike force to investigate fraud involving major providers in multiple geographies.
Other large settlements include Walgreens’ $270 million fine in 2019 to settle lawsuits accusing the pharmacy giant of improperly billing Medicare and Medicaid for drug reimbursements; hospital operator UHS’ $122 million settlement last summer finalizing a fraudulent billing case with the DOJ after being accused of fraudulently billing Medicare and Medicaid for services at its behavioral healthcare facilities; and West Virginia’s oldest hospital, nonprofit Wheeling Hospital, agreeing in September to pay $50 million to settle allegations it systematically violated the laws against physician kickbacks, improper referrals and false billing.
EHR vendor eClinicalWorks paid $155 million to settle False Claims Act allegations around misrepresentation of software capabilities in 2017, while Florida-based EHR vendor Greenway Health was hit with a $57.3 million fine in 2019 to to settle allegations the vendor caused users to submit false claims to the EHR Incentives Program.
Soon after the COVID-19 pandemic began last spring, Christine Choi, DO, a second-year medical resident at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, volunteered to enter COVID-19 patient rooms. Since then, she has worked countless nights in the intensive care unit in full protective gear, often tasked with giving the sickest patients and their families the grim choice between intubation or near-certain death.
“I’m offering this guy two terrible options, and that’s how I feel about work: I can’t fix this for you and it sucks, and I’m sorry that the choices I’m giving you are both terrible,” Choi told the Los Angeles Times’ Soumya Karlamangla about one patient encounter.
While Choi exhibits an “almost startlingly positive attitude” in her work, it’s no match for the psychological burdens placed on her shoulders by the global pandemic, Karlamangla wrote. When an older female COVID-19 patient died in the hospital recently, her husband — in the same hospital with the same diagnosis — soon began struggling to breathe. Sensing that he had little time left, Choi held a mobile phone at his bedside so that each of his children could come on screen to tell him they loved him. “I was just bawling in my [personal protective equipment],” Choi said. “The sound of the family members crying — I probably will never forget that,” she said.
It was not the first time the young doctor helped family members say goodbye to a loved one, and it would not be the last. Health care providers like Choi have had to work through unimaginable tragedies and unprecedented circumstances because of COVID-19, with little time to dedicate to their own mental health or well-being.
It has been nearly a year since the US reported what was believed at the time to be its first coronavirus death in Washington State. Since then, the pandemic death toll has mushroomed to nearly 500,000 nationwide, including 49,000 Californians. These numbers are shocking, and yet they do not capture the immeasurable emotional weight that falls on the health care providers with the most intimate view of COVID-19’s deadly progression.“The horror of the pandemic has unfolded largely outside public view and inside hospitals, piling a disproportionate share of the trauma on the people whose work takes them inside their walls,” Karlamangla wrote.
Experts are deeply concerned about the psychological and physical burdens that providers must bear, and the fact that there is still no end in sight. “At least with a natural disaster, it happens, people get scattered all over the place, property gets damaged or flooded, but then we begin to rebuild,” Lawrence Palinkas, PhD, MA, a medical anthropologist at USC, told Karlamangla. “We’re not there yet, and we don’t know when that will actually occur.”
Sixty-eight percent of providers said they feel emotionally drained from their work, 59% feel burned out, 57% feel overworked, and 50% feel frustrated. The poll asked providers who say they feel burned out what contributes most to that viewpoint. One doctor from the Central Valley wrote:
“Short staffed due to people out with COVID. I’m seeing three times as many patients, with no time to chart or catch up. Little appreciation or contact from my bosses. I have never had an N95 [mask]. The emotional toll this pandemic is taking. Being sick myself and spreading it to my wife and young kids. Still not fully recovered but needing to be at work due to physician shortages. Lack of professional growth, and a sense of lack of appreciation at work and feeling overworked. The sadness of the COVID-related deaths and the stories that go along with the disease. That’s a lot of stuff to unpack.”
For one female doctor from the Bay Area who responded to the CHCF survey, the extra burdens of the pandemic have been unrelenting: “Having to work more, lack of safe, affordable, available childcare while I’m working. As a single mother, working 15 hours straight, then having to care for my daughter when I get home. Just exhausted with no days off. So many Zoom meetings all day long. Miss my family and friends.”
It is unclear how the pandemic will affect the health care workforce in the long term. For now, the damage “can be measured in part by a surge of early retirements and the desperation of community hospitals struggling to hire enough workers to keep their emergency rooms running,” Andrew Jacobs reported in the New York Times.
One of the early retirements Jacobs cited was Sheetal Khedkar Rao, MD, a 42-year-old internist in suburban Chicago. Last October, she decided to stop practicing medicineafter “the emotional burden and moral injury became too much to bear,” she said. Two of the main factors driving her decision were a 30% pay cut to compensate for the decline in revenue from primary care visits and the need to spend more time at home after her two preteen children switched to remote learning.
“Everyone says doctors are heroes and they put us on a pedestal, but we also have kids and aging parents to worry about,” Rao said.
Working Through Unremitting Sickness and Death
In addition to the psychological burden, health care providers must cope with a harsh physical toll. People of color account for most COVID-19 cases and deaths among health care workers, according to a KFF issue brief. Some studies show that health care workers of color “are more likely to report reuse of or inadequate access to [personal protective equipment] and to work in clinical settings with greater exposure to patients with COVID-19.”
“Lost on the Frontline” provides the most comprehensive picture available of health care worker deaths, because the US still lacks a uniform system to collect COVID-19 morbidity and mortality data among health care workers. A year into the project, the federal government has decided to take action. Officials at the US Department of Health and Human Services cited the project when asking the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine for a rapid expert consultation to understand the causes of deaths among health care workers during the pandemic.
The National Academies’ report, published December 10, recommends the “adoption and use of a uniform national framework for collecting, recording, and reporting mortality and morbidity data” along with the development of national reporting standards for a core set of morbidity impacts, including mental well-being and psychological effects related to working through public health crises. Some health care experts said the data gathering could be modeled on the federal government’s World Trade Center Health Program, which provides no-cost medical monitoring and treatment for workers who responded to the 9/11 terrorist attacks 20 years ago.
“We have a great obligation to people who put their lives on the line for the nation,” Victor J. Dzau, MD, president of the National Academy of Medicine, told Jacobs.
Although only 17 states are currently reporting data on the racial and ethnic breakdown of vaccine recipients, the early data indicate that there are significant disparities in who is getting vaccinated, with the share of Black and Latino people among vaccinees lower than their share of the total population in those states.
Alarmingly, in our recent conversations with health system executives,those same disparities seem to be present among healthcare workers employed by hospitals and health systems. Anecdotally, across a half-dozen health systems we’ve spoken with in the past week, most report that they’ve had about 70 percent of their workers agree to get the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
However, that number looks significantly different when broken down by race and ethnicity:on average, the uptake rate among White, Asian, and Pacific Islander workers has been closer to 90-95 percent, while among Black and Latino workers, it’s been closer to 30-40 percent. Bear in mind these are employees of health systems—in many cases they’re frontline caregivers—and given their work environments you might expect them to be less hesitant to get the vaccine.
That 30-40 percent uptake rate is very worrisome, in two ways:caregivers outside of hospital settings, especially home care and nursing home workers, likely include a larger number of workers hesitant to get vaccinated. And in the general population, among whom health literacy is presumably much lower than among healthcare workers,it’s precisely those populations who are at highest risk of COVID infection, hospitalization, and death. (A further complication: health systems made it easy for their employees to get the shot. With vaccines for the general population still scarce, at-risk populations will inevitably have the most difficult time getting signed up, even if they want the vaccine.)
If health systems are the canary in the coal mine for vaccine hesitancy rates, we’re in for a tough challenge in getting the most vulnerable populations vaccinated in the months to come.