Lots of chatter in the hospital world this week following a recent Washington Post article that said wealthy hospitals were benefiting from COVID-19 provider relief funds. Some of the data coming out of the larger health systems has been pretty stunning, although hospitals claim they are still struggling. The Post published a letter to the editor from American Hospital Association President and CEO Rick Pollack, who alleged that the Post was cherry-picking data and that the original piece didn’t truly reflect the challenges that hospitals are facing.
I don’t disagree that the pandemic wreaked havoc on many healthcare organizations. For others, the availability of relief funds (including those from the Paycheck Protection Program) may have spurred spending in ways not exactly intended by the programs that provided them. Specific to the Paycheck Protection Program, whose funds came in the form of a potentially forgivable loan, there is certainly room to use the funds for things other than paychecks, since the forgiveness terms only require that 60% of the proceeds must be spent on payroll costs. The terms do require that “employee and compensation levels are maintained,” which certainly didn’t happen at my soon-to-be-former employer, who received $5.5 million in PPP funds but furloughed a good portion of the physicians and cut support staff shifts throughout the month of April 2020.
I was personally furloughed for almost two months with zero compensation, which led to some surprise when the local paper reported the company had taken that amount of PPP funding. Business has been booming since May 2020 with COVID-19 testing and an uptick in sick visits, and it didn’t stop the organization from opening additional locations even before it took on investors. Having personally experienced this type of accounting shenanigans (not to mention the absence of a paycheck for a while), I’m not that sympathetic when I see healthcare organizations posting sizable profits, yet crying poor when they’re called out on it. None of the employed nurses I know received raises during the pandemic, even though travel nurses were paid two to three times the typical nursing salary to provide coverage when times were tough. Organizations in my area weren’t generous with hazard pay or overtime, either.
I also find it somewhat questionable that certain health systems are charging administration fees for COVID-19 vaccines they are delivering, despite using mostly volunteer labor to perform the services. Even in the absence of labor and supply costs (since many of the supplies are provided with the vaccines) some of them can’t claim real estate or utility costs since they are using space donated by local businesses and community organizations. I could see some incremental technology costs if they’re needing computers to run the process, and I certainly support charging a fee if they’re paying people to administer the vaccines, but there are just so many elements of the process that feel a little off as the situation unfolds.
The pandemic has brought into focus many of the more unsavory aspects of our profit-driven healthcare non-system in the US. However, I don’t see a lot of forces aligning to try to change things in the short term. We’re still struggling with disparities in accessibility of in-person care, and even with telehealth we’re seeing that the greatest utilization was among patients in affluent or urban areas. A recent study looked at insurance claims for more than six million patients in the US who received coverage through employer-sponsored health plans. The data was drawn from January 2019 through July 2020 and represented nearly 200 employers across all 50 states. Where in-person patient visits declined at the onset of the pandemic, there was a significant (nearly 20 times) increase in telehealth services. Although telehealth didn’t fully offset the missed patient visits, it certainly helped many patients through the worst months.
The study found that the most notable increases in telehealth visits were in counties with low levels of poverty – 48 visits per 10,000 people. In comparison, counties with high levels of poverty averaged 15 visits per 10,000 people. There was also a difference comparing urban to rural areas – 50 versus 31 visits per 10,000 people, respectively. Pediatric virtual visits were also lower than adult visits (50 versus 65 visits per 10,000 people). The US government is trying to mitigate some of these factors, providing funding for increased broadband services to enable telehealth, including the Telehealth Broadband Pilot, which promises $8 million in improve connectivity in Alaska, Michigan, Texas, and West Virginia.
The authors conclude that there is much to be done to better understand the forces impacting telehealth utilization and to assess what the rates and disparities look like in the future. They call for greater reimbursement for telehealth services and updates to clinical guidelines to encourage telehealth practice.
I agree wholeheartedly, and additionally, I’d like to see more focus on how to make physicians successful with telehealth. Prior to the pandemic, the majority of our experience with telehealth was either with relatively minor acute problems, delivered either by large telehealth-specific vendors or through smaller health system pilots, or through facilitated subspecialty consultations where a patient and their “host” provider would consult remotely with a subspecialist, often at a tertiary center. As the pandemic unfolded, we saw the urgent care services delivering more primary care services, such as medication refills, while brick-and-mortar providers began to scale up their telehealth offerings.
Even as the pandemic eased last summer, a number of my colleagues continued to do more telehealth visits than in person, citing lack of personal protective equipment and the risk of infection. Even now that they’re vaccinated, they still haven’t returned to the office, and are delivering more and more primary care services remotely. That’s a dynamic that certainly needs exploration since the compensation models being used for those visits vary dramatically across organizations. I enjoy delivering telehealth care and am about to add virtual primary care to my bag of tricks, so we’ll see how that goes. I plan to offer some pretty non-traditional hours for my visits, so I’m curious to see what kind of patient demographic I attract. I have just about 80 hours of in-person care left on my schedule and am definitely ready for the next adventure.
What does your hospital or health system have to say about its profitability and acceptance of COVID-19 relief funds? Leave a comment or email me.
Email Dr. Jayne.