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Readers Call on Congress to Bolster Medicare and Fix Loopholes in Health Policy

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Thu, 29 Feb 2024 10:00:00 +0000

Letters to the Editor is a periodic feature. We welcome all comments and will publish a selection. We edit for length and clarity and require full names.

Occupational Therapists Change Lives. CMS Must Better Support Them.

Occupational therapists are critical in helping patients adjust to new circumstances, empowering them with the tools they need to overcome barriers and regain control over their lives. Whether you're transitioning from homelessness into a home (“In Los Angeles, Occupational Therapists Tapped to Help Homeless Stay Housed,” Jan. 24) or relearning how to do everyday tasks a stroke, OTs are key to patients' care plan.

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But the critical care provided by OTs is being threatened by another year of payment cuts imposed by Medicare, our nation's health care program for people age 65 and up. Many older patients treated by OTs access insurance coverage through Medicare, which typically reimburses providers at a lower rate than private insurers. And now, with payment cuts that went into effect on Jan. 1 — despite warnings and backlash from lawmakers, patients, and providers — OTs are struggling to deliver care with lower Medicare payment.

Investing in occupational therapy improves health outcomes for patients, has the potential to reduce the burden on hospitals and other health care clinicians, and keeps individuals healthy and independent. Medicare's payment cuts only compromise the ability of providers to deliver comprehensive, compassionate care. Medicare must recognize the long-term patient occupational therapy has to offer.

Luckily, is considering a bill that would reverse these harmful payment cuts. The Preserving Seniors' Access to Physicians Act of 2023 (HR 6683), would reverse the cuts that went into effect on Jan. 1, alleviating financial stress for occupational therapists and preserving patient access. I strongly urge lawmakers to prioritize and protect occupational therapy services and immediately pass HR 6683 for America's Medicare patients.

— Doug Fosco, an occupational therapist practicing at Two Trees Physical Therapy in Ventura, California

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An assistant professor at Ontario's Western weighed in on X.

Great to see the role of #occupationaltherapy with persons who experience #homelessness profiled in @latimes. Thanks #deborahpitts for your work in LA with @USC and #skidrowhousingtrust . Check it out @CAOT_ACE @OSOTvoice ! @CAEHomelessness https://t.co/S5s9jhgoxI

— Carrie Anne Marshall, PhD (@cannemarshall) January 24, 2024

— Carrie Anne Marshall, Sydenham, Ontario

Congress Must Finish the Job on Site-Neutral Payments

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There's an obvious solution to rein in spending and patient out-of-pocket costs: Pay identical prices for identical care (“In Fight Over Medicare Payments, the Hospital Lobby Shows Its Strength,” Feb. 13).

As a community oncologist, it is clear to me how Medicare favors hospitals by paying more for services provided in hospital outpatient departments (HOPDs) than the same care delivered in community-based facilities. For example, last year, Medicare paid over 2.5 times as much in an HOPD as in a free-standing office for drug administration services. It's not just Medicare paying too much; patients also face higher out-of-pocket costs for care provided in HOPDs. If the Lower Costs, More Transparency Act is signed into law, cancer patients would immediately pay less for treatments like chemotherapy.

One unintended consequence of current payment disparities is consolidation. To leverage higher reimbursements, health scoop up independent practices — a growing problem that is particularly pronounced in oncology. From 2008 to 2020, 435 community cancer clinics closed, while 722 contracted with or were acquired by hospitals. This consolidation is reducing patient access, particularly in rural areas, where many independent clinics operate small satellite sites that tend to be the first to close when hospitals acquire a community-based practice.

It's time for Congress to finish the job through bills like the Lower Costs, More Transparency Act and the SITE Act, which would help level the playing field once and for all.

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— Scott Rushing, Vancouver, Washington

The chief marketing officer of SKYGEN cut to the chase on X.

In the battle to control costs, hospitals are deploying their political power to protect their bottom lines. https://t.co/97r502KrpM

— Donald H. Polite (@DonaldPolite) February 15, 2024

— Donald H. Polite, Milwaukee

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The ‘Gold Card' Shuffle

Prior authorization, by definition, creates delays in care and bureaucratic barriers for physicians — which is why it is so troubling that many insurers now require prior authorization for large categories of procedures with no evidence of overuse or inappropriate use. With health insurers increasingly implementing questionable prior authorization policies, state and federal lawmakers are racing to erect safeguards that ensure patients' access to timely care (“States Target Health Insurers' ‘Prior Authorization' Red Tape,” Feb. 12).

Much of the legislation to address this growing problem centers around the use of “Gold Cards” that exempt providers whose previous requests for prior authorization have been approved for a certain period. In general, these laws are important for patients who can't afford to wait for care — especially in the field of gastroenterology where severe abdominal pain or blood in the stool could indicate a serious condition like cancer.

However, some insurance companies are co-opting the “Gold Card” term to justify new prior authorization requirements instead of streamlining existing ones. Consider the case of UnitedHealthcare, which announced it would roll out a “Gold Card” prior authorization program this year for most colonoscopies and endoscopies. No other insurer has levied such a policy, nor does the research suggest there is an overutilization of these vital services. Despite nearly a year of good faith efforts to seek transparency and guidance from UHC, the company has failed to release any data or justification that these services are improperly utilized.

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If anything, diagnostic and surveillance colonoscopies and endoscopies may be underutilized. New research from the American Cancer Society shows an alarming spike in the number of younger Americans being diagnosed with and dying from colorectal cancer. Since symptoms of colorectal cancer don't often appear until the disease is at a more advanced stage, early detection is key. Any disruption to surveillance colonoscopies (which follow removal of a precancerous polyp and are part of the screening continuum) caused by UHC's forthcoming prior authorization policy would be dangerous for the company's 27 million commercial beneficiaries.

The American Gastroenterological Association strongly urges UHC to rescind its “Gold Card” prior authorization policy. Policymakers must monitor how insurers are co-opting concepts meant to protect patients, in particular UHC's faux “Gold Card,” which threatens patient access to a procedure proven to save lives.

— Barbara Jung, president of the American Gastroenterological Association, Seattle

In an X post, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute pointed out the value in requiring prior authorization.

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Case-by-case prior authorization is never fun, but surely preferable to most other methods of eliminating needless spending (ex post denials of reimbursement, higher cost-sharing, capped global budgets, etc…) https://t.co/nYijeiAUtP

— Chris Pope (@CPopeHC) February 12, 2024

— Chris Pope, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, New York City

Hospice in Prison: A Transformative View

I was so impressed with Markian Hawryluk's exceptionally well-written article “Death and Redemption in an American Prison” (Feb. 21). I was privileged to serve as an inaugural member of the American Hospital Association's Circle of Life Award committee, from 1999 to 2004. The awards were established to recognize the most outstanding hospice and palliative care programs in the U.S. The very first year, we received an application from the country's largest maximum-security prison in Angola, Louisiana, the subject of Mr. Hawryluk's wonderful article. The prison was one of the five finalists chosen for a site visit in 2000. I volunteered to be on team to visit and evaluate the prison's hospice services.

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Twenty-four years later, I still remember my conversation with one of the inmate volunteers who had just returned from bathing and feeding a dying prisoner. He told me the inmate said, “I love you.” Then the inmate volunteer stated, “I never heard those words before — not from my father, who I never met, nor from my mother.” In 2000, if one were sentenced to life at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, there was no chance for parole. When we met with the warden, he mentioned there was a waiting list of prisoners who wanted to be hospice volunteers.

Please convey my deep appreciation to Mr. Hawryluk for his outstanding article.

— Paul Hofmann, president of the Hofmann Healthcare Group, Moraga, California

A digital storyteller shared the article on X.

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Your one, long read for today – it's beautifully and thoughtfully written and reported”Sometimes when you're in a dark place, you find out who you really are and what you wish you could be,” Steven Garner said. “Even in darkness, I could be a light.”https://t.co/57asjh11ZV

— Ameera B. ا ميرة بت 🪬 (@meerabee) February 19, 2024

— Ameera Butt, Los Angeles

Feeling Insecure Because of Social Security Tactics

When will you continue your series on the overpayments to the Social Security Administration (“Overpayment Outrage”)? People are still suffering without benefits because the agency says people were overpaid and wants the money back. Why is nobody else asking more questions?

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People in this country worked hard and paid taxes. And when it is time to retire, the Social Security Administration refuses to pay if, all of a sudden, it discovers you have been overpaid. They have told me I owe them $30,000 from over 20 years ago, and I do not know what they are talking about, but they want to take my retirement money until it's paid off. Or they want you to say it is OK to take a percentage out. Doing that would say you're guilty and you owe the money — to me, that's blackmail.

New immigrants get free phones, medical care, debit cards, food assistance, schooling … that comes to more than my little amount of retirement money. It seems the government can afford to take care of them, but not their own. Everyone who has had their Social Security taken away should be entitled to the free services they get, as we are in the same position — now we have nothing either.

Troy, New York City

Lifelong Minnesotan and epidemiologist Eric Weinhandl chimed in on X.

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Relatively severe incompetency. Social Security Chief Apologizes to Congress for Misleading Testimony on Overpaymentshttps://t.co/HYPcTU5tVW

— Eric Weinhandl (@eric_weinhandl) December 27, 2023

— Eric Weinhandl, Victoria, Minnesota

A Balanced View of the Law Curbing Surprise Bills

KFF Health News' Elisabeth Rosenthal has long advocated for quality, patient-centric medical care. However, her recent article, “The No Surprises Act Comes with Some Surprises” (Feb. 14), falls short in its analysis of surprise medical billing and the federal No Surprises Act (NSA). While she places blame on physicians, the reality is more complicated.

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Patients with health insurance should not be burdened with paying more than their normal in-network cost-sharing amount for unexpected out-of-network care. This is not controversial. The legislative debate was never about whether to act on surprise billing, but rather how to act. While insurers favored policies that would allow them to calculate the payment rate medical providers receive, with the NSA, Congress instead chose an approach intended to protect sustainable payment rates that would preserve patients' access to care. The NSA removes patients from payment disputes between insurers and providers and is intended to encourage negotiations between insurers and providers, with an option for neutral arbitration.

Rosenthal's article implies a “greedy doctor” narrative, omitting discussion of insurers as contributing to the problems with the NSA's implementation. While the article notes that many requests for arbitration came from private equity-associated provider organizations, it neglected to note that a single insurance company (UnitedHealthcare) was involved in almost 40% of arbitration disputes. That is more than the rest of the top five insurance organizations combined. The article also quotes and references papers by Zack Cooper, whose undisclosed connections with UnitedHealthcare came to light through litigation. As reported, UnitedHealthcare not only provided data to Cooper, but helped frame the narrative of the work.

NSA rulemaking has financially incentivized insurers to leverage the NSA to unilaterally reduce existing contracted rates and push physicians out-of-network. As for the projected number of requests for arbitration in 2022 (which underestimated “providers' ire by an order of magnitude”), that projection ignored existing data. In just the first six months of 2021, Texas alone had more than twice as many arbitration submissions for its state law as the federal government projected for the nation for a full year. More importantly, the article ignores the issue of why doctors request arbitration. Since arbitration is -style and “loser pays,” there is a strong disincentive to request it without a solid reason. In the second quarter of 2023, providers won nearly 80% of disputes, reflecting the fact that doctors are going to arbitration when insurers' actions are unreasonable.

Further, while it is true that before the NSA too many patients were receiving bills for unexpected out-of-network care, a report from the Department of Health and Human Services noted that out-of-network billing was actually declining prior to the NSA. Physician survey data suggests that post-NSA out-of-network care is now increasing due to some insurers' actions.

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The bipartisan NSA is a balanced solution to a complicated problem. Difficulties with the law's implementation, including the volume of dispute submissions and backlog of cases, are due to unintended consequences from rulemaking. Addressing these challenges requires an honest conversation about their cause. Going forward, rulemaking is needed to promote fair network contracting, limit the need for arbitration, and, most importantly, protect patients' access to care.

— Rich Heller, a pediatric radiologist and the associate chief medical officer for health policy, Radiology Partners, Chicago

Anesthetist-emergency physician-family doctor David Moniz, in an X post, warned of the “unseen consequences” of the No Surprises Act.

Check out the surprising outcomes of the No Surprises Act, designed to protect patients from unexpected medical bills. While it's successfully shielded many patients, there are unseen consequences. Read the full article here: https://t.co/YFa0xweRe7#health, #healthpolicy, #he

— David Moniz (@DavidMoniz15) February 14, 2024

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— David Moniz, Chilliwack, British Columbia

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Title: Call on Congress to Bolster Medicare and Fix Loopholes in Health Policy
Sourced From: kffhealthnews.org/news/article/reader-response-congress-medicare-health-policy-loopholes-letters-to-editor/
Published Date: Thu, 29 Feb 2024 10:00:00 +0000

Kaiser Health News

Medical Providers Still Grappling With UnitedHealth Cyberattack: ‘More Devastating Than Covid’

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Samantha Liss
Fri, 19 Apr 2024 16:45:00 +0000

Two months after a cyberattack on a UnitedHealth Group subsidiary halted payments to some , medical providers say they're still grappling with the fallout, even though UnitedHealth told shareholders on Tuesday that business is largely back to normal.

“We are still desperately struggling,” said Emily Benson, a therapist in Edina, Minnesota, who runs her own practice, Beginnings & Beyond. “This was way more devastating than covid ever was.”

Change , a business unit of the Minnesota-based insurance giant UnitedHealth Group, controls a digital network so vast it processes nearly 1 in 3 U.S. patient each year. The network is a critical conduit for shuttling information between most of the nation's insurance companies and medical providers, who submit claims through it to get paid for treating patients.

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For Benson, the cyberattack continues to significantly disrupt her business and her ability to pay her seven other clinicians.

Before the hack brought down the system, an insurance company would process a provider's claim, then send a type of receipt known as an “electronic remittance,” which details the amount the provider was paid and whether the claim was denied. Without it, providers don't know if they were paid correctly or how much to bill patients. 

Now, instead of automatically handling those receipts digitally, some insurers must send forms in the mail. The forms require manual entry, which Benson said is a time-consuming process because it requires her to match up service dates and details to divvy up pay among her clinicians. And from at least one insurer, she said, she has yet to any remittances.  

“I'm holding on to my sanity by a thread,” Benson said.

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The situation is so dire, Alex Shteynshlyuger, a urologist who owns a practice in New York , said he had to transfer money from his personal accounts to pay his office bills.  

“Look, I am freaking out,” Shteynshlyuger said. “Everyone is freaking out. We are like monkeys in a cage. We can't really do anything about it.”

Roughly 30% of his claims were routed through Change's platform. Except for Medicare and certain Blue Cross plans, he said, he has been unable to submit claims or receive payment from any insurers.

The company is encouraging struggling providers to reach out to the company directly via its website, said Tyler Mason, vice president of communications for UnitedHealth Group.

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“I don't think we've had a single provider that hasn't been helped that's contacted us.” As part of that help, Mason said, UnitedHealth has sent providers $7 billion so far.

Ever since the February cyberattack forced UnitedHealth to disconnect its Change platform, the company has been working “day and night to restore services” and has made “substantial progress,” UnitedHealth CEO Andrew Witty told shareholders April 16. 

“We see a fairly normal claims receipts and payments flow going on at this point,” Chief Financial Officer John Rex said during the shareholder call. “But we'll really want to be careful on that because we know there are certain care providers out there that may have been left out of it.”

Rex said the company expects full operations to resume next year.

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The company reported that the hacking has already cost it $870 million and that expect the final tally to total at least $1 billion this year. To put that in perspective, the company reported $99.8 billion in revenue for the first quarter of 2024, an 8.6% increase over that period last year.

Meanwhile, the House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee held a hearing April 16 seeking answers on the severity and the cyberattack caused to the nation's health system.

Subcommittee chair Brett Guthrie (R-Ky.) said a provider in his hometown is still grappling with the fallout from the attack and losing staff because they can't make payroll. Providers “still haven't been made whole,” Guthrie said.

Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) voiced concern that a “single point of failure” reverberated around the country, disrupting patients' access and providers' financial stability.

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Lawmakers expressed frustration that UnitedHealth failed to send a representative to the Capitol to answer their questions. The committee had sent Witty a list of detailed questions ahead of the hearing but was still awaiting answers.

As providers wait, too, they are to the gaps. To pay her practice's bills, Benson said, she had to take out a nearly $40,000 loan — from a division of UnitedHealth.

——————————
By: Samantha Liss
Title: Medical Providers Still Grappling With UnitedHealth Cyberattack: ‘More Devastating Than Covid'
Sourced From: kffhealthnews.org//article/cyberattack-fallout-unitedhealth-change-healthcare-medical-providers-financial-instability/
Published Date: Fri, 19 Apr 2024 16:45:00 +0000

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He Thinks His Wife Died in an Understaffed Hospital. Now He’s Trying to Change the Industry.

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Kate Wells, Michigan Public
Fri, 19 Apr 2024 09:00:00 +0000

For the past year, Detective Tim Lillard has spent most of his waking hours unofficially investigating his wife's .

The question has never been exactly how Ann Picha-Lillard died on Nov. 19, 2022: She succumbed to respiratory failure after an infection put too much strain on her weakened lungs. She was 65.

For Tim Lillard, the question has been why.

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Lillard had been in the hospital with his wife every day for a month. Nurses in the intensive care unit had told him they were short-staffed, and were constantly rushing from one patient to the next.

Lillard tried to pitch in where he could: brushing Ann's shoulder-length blonde hair or flagging down help when her tracheostomy tube gurgled — a sign of possible respiratory distress.

So the day he walked into the ICU and saw staff members huddled in Ann's room, he knew it was serious. He called the couple's adult children: “It's Mom,” he told them. “Come now.”

All he could do then was sit on Ann's bed and hold her hand, watching as staff members performed chest compressions, desperately to save her life.

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A minute ticked by. Then another. Lillard's not sure how long the CPR continued — long enough for the couple's son to arrive and take a seat on the other side of Ann's bed, holding her other hand.

Finally, the intensive care doctor called it and the team stopped CPR. Time of death: 12:37 p.m.

Lillard didn't know what to do in a world without Ann. They had been married almost 25 years. “We were best friends,” he said.

Just days before her death, nurses had told Lillard that Ann could be discharged to a rehabilitation center as soon as the end of the week. Then, suddenly, she was gone. Lillard didn't understand what had happened.

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Lillard said he now believes that overwhelmed, understaffed nurses hadn't been able to respond in time as Ann's condition deteriorated. And he has made it his mission to fight for change, joining some nursing unions in a push for mandatory ratios that would limit the number of in a nurse's care. “I without a doubt believe 100% Ann would still be here if they had staffing levels, mandatory staffing levels, especially in ICU,” Lillard said.

Last year, Oregon became the second state after California to pass hospital-wide nurse ratios that limit the number of patients in a nurse's care. Michigan, Maine, and Pennsylvania are now weighing similar legislation.

But supporters of mandatory ratios are going up against a powerful hospital industry spending millions of dollars to kill those efforts. And hospitals and say any staffing ratio regulations, however well-intentioned, would only put patients in greater danger.

Putting Patients at Risk

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By next year, the United States could have as many as 450,000 fewer nurses than it needs, according to one estimate. The hospital industry blames covid-19 burnout, an aging workforce, a large patient population, and an insufficient pipeline of new nurses entering the field.

But nursing unions say that's not the full story. There are now 4.7 million registered nurses in the country, more than ever before, with an estimated 130,000 nurses having entered the field from 2020 to 2022.

The problem, the unions say, is a hospital industry that's been intentionally understaffing their units for years in order to cut costs and bolster profits. The unions say there isn't a shortage of nurses but a shortage of nurses willing to work in those conditions.

The nurse staffing crisis is now affecting patient care. The number of Michigan nurses who say they know of a patient who has died because of understaffing has nearly doubled in recent years, according to a Michigan Nurses Association survey last year.

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Just months before Ann Picha-Lillard's death, nurses and at the health system where she died had asked the Michigan attorney general to investigate staffing cuts they believed were leading to dangerous conditions, patient deaths, according to The Detroit News.

But Lillard didn't know any of that when he drove his wife to the hospital in October 2022. She had been feeling short of breath for a few weeks after she and Lillard had mild covid infections. They were both vaccinated, but Ann was immunocompromised. She suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, a condition that had also caused scarring in her lungs.

To be safe, doctors at DMC Huron Valley-Sinai Hospital wanted to keep Ann for observation. After a few days in the facility, she developed pneumonia. Doctors told the couple that Ann needed to be intubated. Ann was terrified but Lillard begged her to listen to the doctors. Tearfully, she agreed.

With Ann on a ventilator in the ICU, it seemed clear to Lillard that nurses were understaffed and overwhelmed. One nurse told him they had been especially short-staffed lately, Lillard said.

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“The alarms would go off for the medications, they'd come into the room, shut off the alarm when they get low, run to the medication room, come back, set them down, go to the next room, shut off alarms,” Lillard recalled. “And that was going on all the time.”

Lillard felt bad for the nurses, he said. “But obviously, also for my wife. That's why I tried doing as much as I could when I was there. I would comb her hair, clean her, just keep an eye on things. But I had no idea what was really going on.”

Finally, Ann's health seemed to be stabilizing. A nurse told Lillard they'd be able to discharge Ann, possibly by the end of that week.

By Nov. 17, Ann was no longer sedated and she cried when she saw Lillard and her daughter. Still unable to speak, she tried to mouth words to her husband “but we couldn't understand what she was saying,” Lillard said.

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The next day, Lillard went home feeling hopeful, counting down the days until Ann could leave the hospital.

Less than 24 hours later, Ann died.

Lillard couldn't wrap his head around how things went downhill so fast. Ann's underlying lung condition, the infection, and her weakened state could have proved fatal in the best of circumstances. But Lillard wanted to understand how Ann had gone from nearly discharged to dying, seemingly overnight.

He turned his dining room table into a makeshift office and started with what he knew. The day Ann died, he remembered her medical team telling him that her heart rate had spiked and she had developed another infection the night before. Lillard said he interviewed two DMC Huron Valley-Sinai nurse administrators, and had his own doctor look through Ann's charts and test results from the hospital. “Everybody kept telling me: sepsis, sepsis, sepsis,” he said.

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Sepsis is when an infection triggers an extreme reaction in the body that can cause rapid organ failure. It's one of the leading causes of death in U.S. hospitals. Some experts say up to 80% of sepsis deaths are preventable, while others say the percentage is far lower.

Lives can be saved when sepsis is caught and treated fast, which requires careful attention to small changes in vital signs. One study found that for every additional patient a nurse had to care for, the mortality rate from sepsis increased by 12%.

Lillard became convinced that had there been more nurses working in the ICU, someone could have caught what was happening to Ann.

“They just didn't have the time,” he said.

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DMC Huron Valley-Sinai's director of communications and media relations, Brian Taylor, declined a request for comment about the 2022 staffing complaint to the Michigan attorney general.

Following the Money

When Lillard asked the hospital for copies of Ann's medical records, DMC Huron Valley-Sinai told him he'd have to request them from its parent company in Texas.

Like so many hospitals in recent years, the Lillards' local health system had been absorbed by a series of other corporations. In 2011, the Detroit Medical Center health system was bought for $1.5 billion by Vanguard Health Systems, which was backed by the private equity company Blackstone Group.

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Two years after that, in 2013, Vanguard itself was acquired by Tenet Healthcare, a for-profit company based in Dallas that, according to its website, operates 480 ambulatory surgery centers and surgical hospitals, 52 hospitals, and approximately 160 additional outpatient centers.

As health care executives face increasing pressure from investors, nursing unions say hospitals have been intentionally understaffing nurses to reduce labor costs and increase revenue. Also, insurance reimbursements incentivize keeping nurse staffing levels low. “Hospitals are not directly reimbursed for nursing services in the same way that a physician bills for their services,” said Karen Lasater, an associate professor of nursing in the Center for Health Outcomes and Policy Research at the University of Pennsylvania. “And because hospitals don't perceive nursing as a service line, but rather a cost center, they think about nursing as: How can we reduce this to the lowest denominator possible?” she said.

Lasater is a proponent of mandatory nurse ratios. “The nursing shortage is not a pipeline problem, but a leaky bucket problem,” she said. “And the to this crisis need to address the root cause of the issue, which is why nurses are saying they're leaving employment. And it's rooted in unsafe staffing. It's not safe for the patients, but it's also not safe for nurses.”

A Battle Between Hospitals and Unions

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In November, almost one year after Ann's death, Lillard told a room of lawmakers at the Michigan State Capitol that he believes the Safe Patient Care Act could save lives. The health policy committee in the Michigan House was holding a hearing on the proposed act, which would limit the amount of mandatory overtime a nurse can be forced to work, and require hospitals to make their staffing levels available to the public.

Most significantly, the bills would require hospitals to have mandatory, minimum nurse-to-patient ratios. For example: one nurse for every patient in the ICU; one for every three patients in the emergency room; a nurse for triage; and one nurse for every four postpartum birthing patients and well-baby care.

Efforts to pass mandatory ratio laws failed in Washington and Minnesota last year after facing opposition from the hospital industry. In Minnesota, the Minnesota Nurses Association accused the Mayo Clinic of using “blackmail tactics”: Mayo had told lawmakers it would pull billions of dollars in investment from the state if mandatory ratio legislation passed. Soon afterward, lawmakers removed nurse ratios from the legislation.

While Lillard waited for his turn to speak to Michigan lawmakers about the Safe Patient Care Act in November, members of the Michigan Nurses Association, which says it represents some 13,000 nurses, told lawmakers that its units were dangerously understaffed. They said critical care nurses were sometimes caring for up to 11 patients at a time.

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“Last year I coded someone in an ICU for 10 minutes, all alone, because there was no one to help me,” said the nurses association president and registered nurse Jamie Brown, reading from another nurse's letter.

“I have been left as the only specially trained nurse to take care of eight babies on the unit: eight fragile newborns,” said Carolyn Clemens, a registered nurse from the Grand Blanc area of Michigan.

Nikia Parker said she has left full-time emergency room nursing, a job she believes is her calling. After her friend died in the hospital where she worked, she was left wondering whether understaffing may have contributed to his death.

“If the Safe Patient Care Act passed, and we have ratios, I'm one of those nurses who would return to the bedside full time,” Parker told lawmakers. “And so many of my co-workers who have left would join me.”

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But not all nurses agree that mandatory ratios are a good idea. 

While the American Nurses Association supports enforceable ratios as an “essential approach,” that organization's Michigan chapter does not, saying there may not be enough nurses in the state to satisfy the requirements of the Safe Patient Care Act.

For some lawmakers, the risk of collateral damage seems too high. State Rep. Graham Filler said he worries that mandating ratios could backfire.

“We're going to severely hamper health care in the state of Michigan. I'm talking closed wards because you can't meet the ratio in a bill. The inability for a hospital to treat an emergent patient. So it feels kind of to me like a gamble we're taking,” said Filler, a Republican.

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Michigan hospitals are already struggling to fill some 8,400 open positions, according to the Michigan Health & Hospital Association. That association says that complying with the Safe Patient Care Act would require hiring 13,000 nurses.

Every major health system in the state signed a letter opposing mandatory ratios, saying it would force them to close as many as 5,100 beds.

Lillard watched the debate play out in the hearing. “That's a scare tactic, in my opinion, where the hospitals say we're going to have to start closing stuff down,” he said.

He doesn't think legislation on mandatory ratios — which are still awaiting a vote in the Michigan House's health policy committee — are a “magic bullet” for such a complex, national problem. But he believes they could help.

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“The only way these hospitals and the administrations are gonna make any changes, and even start moving towards making it better, is if they're forced to,” Lillard said.

Seated in the center of the hearing room in Lansing, next to a framed photo of Ann, Lillard's hands shook as he recounted those final minutes in the ICU.

“Please take action so that no other person or other family endures this loss,” he said. “You can make a difference in saving lives.”

Grief is one thing, Lillard said, but it's another thing to be haunted by doubts, to worry that your loved one's care was compromised before they ever walked through the hospital doors. What he wants most, he said, is to prevent any other family from having to wonder, “What if?”

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This article is from a partnership that includes Michigan Public, NPR, and KFF Health News.

——————————
By: Kate Wells, Michigan Public
Title: He Thinks His Wife Died in an Understaffed Hospital. Now He's Trying to Change the Industry.
Sourced From: kffhealthnews.org/news/article/nurse-ratios-understaffed-hospitals-michigan-legislation-detective-wife/
Published Date: Fri, 19 Apr 2024 09:00:00 +0000

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Kaiser Health News

In San Francisco’s Chinatown, a CEO Works With the Community To Bolster Hospital

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Bernard J. Wolfson
Fri, 19 Apr 2024 09:00:00 +0000

SAN FRANCISCO — Chinese Hospital, located in the heart of this 's legendary Chinatown, struggles with many of the same financial and demographic challenges that plague small independent hospitals in underserved areas across the country.

Many of its patients are aging Chinese speakers with limited incomes who are reliant on Medicare and Medi-Cal, which pay less than commercial insurance and often don't fully cover provider costs. And due to an arcane federal rule, Chinese Hospital receives a lower rate of reimbursement than many other hospitals that treat a large number of low-income patients. Add the high cost of labor and supplies in this post-pandemic world, and it's not hard to see why the hospital lost $20 million over the past two years and tapped a nearly $10.4 million loan from the 's distressed hospital loan fund.

Yet the 88-bed hospital has strong ties to the University of California-San Francisco and the city's public department. And it gets from businesses, charities, and the surrounding community. For Jian Zhang, 58, the hospital's CEO since 2017, fundraising is like breathing.

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“I feel like it's a full-time job for me,” said Zhang, who arrived in San Francisco from Guangzhou, China, as an international student in 1990, earned a nursing doctorate from the University of San Francisco, and has remained in the Bay Area.

Revenue from fundraising and other services have provided a big boost, helping the hospital significantly offset what it lost on patient care in 2022, according to the hospital and state data. By contrast, Madera Community Hospital and Beverly Hospital were far less able to do so. Those hospitals, which also serve low-income populations with many patients on health care programs, filed for bankruptcy last year.

Chinese Hospital has its roots in a medicinal dispensary, founded in 1899 to health care for Chinese immigrants who were effectively excluded from mainstream medical facilities. The hospital itself opened in 1925, and a second building was added next door in 1979. In 2016, a new building replaced the original hospital.

Today, Chinese Hospital includes those two buildings plus five outpatient clinics offering Eastern and Western medicine, spread out across San Francisco and neighboring San Mateo County. Through partnerships, Chinese Hospital has been able to offer specialty services to its patients, eye surgery, palliative care, and a stroke center. And $10 million in grants it received from the state last year will help build a subacute unit, which is for fragile patients who still need nursing and monitoring a hospital stay.

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In an interview with KFF Health News senior correspondent Bernard J. Wolfson, Zhang discussed the challenges facing small independent hospitals, including Chinese Hospital, and offered her vision for its future. The following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity:

Q: What are some of the main challenges your hospital faces?

We are facing all the challenges other hospitals are facing, especially the covid pandemic and its associated negative impact — the physician shortage and workforce shortage, the labor cost increases. But as a small community hospital, we don't have a lot of reserve money. It's hard to make ends meet.

That is a huge because of the low reimbursement rate. We serve more than 80% Medicare and Medi-Cal patients.

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Q: What are some specific challenges of serving a largely Chinese population?

In this market, with the workforce shortage, and especially after the pandemic, it's even harder to recruit bilingual physicians, and other bilingual staff.

And culturally, Chinese patients, when they are sick, need to drink soup for healing or eat certain other foods for healing. You can't be providing sandwiches and salads. They won't eat that. So our kitchen has to provide Chinese food, has to boil soup, and then we have to cook different food for our patients who are non-Chinese.

Q: Are you concerned about the state's budget shortfall?

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Absolutely. We all were expecting that Medi-Cal would increase rates. We have been pushing that for many years. But if it's not going to happen, a lot of our programs we probably won't be able to do. I am very concerned about it.

Q: Chinese Hospital has its own health plan, and you said 40% to 50% of your patients are members of it. How has that helped?

It's like Kaiser Permanente. You have your own members, and you manage them. You want your patients to be in outpatient. So you take care of them, keep them healthy, so they don't need to to the hospital for acute care. That's how you save money.

Q: And I imagine that getting fixed monthly payments — capitation payments — for a large proportion of your patients also helps?

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Definitely, capitation payments help. Especially during the pandemic. Think about it. If you didn't have capitation payments, when procedures were canceled, you didn't have income.

Q: What else has helped you weather the storm?

We have partnerships with San Francisco's Department of Public Health and UCSF. During the pandemic, we took overflow patients from the city, so we didn't have to lay off a lot of people. We signed a contract with the city to open up the second floor of our hospital to take overflow patients from Zuckerberg San Francisco General hospital.

Q: You also have strong fundraising activity.

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We do have strong community support. The hospital is not just a hospital to me. It's really part of our history. In the past, it was the only place [Chinese people] could go. Wherever I went, to a conference, for example, somebody would raise their hand and say, “Oh, I was born at Chinese Hospital” or “My grandfather was born at Chinese Hospital.” It is really, really deeply rooted in the community.

Q: What's your vision for the future of the hospital?

Chinese Hospital is very important to the community, and I want to see it survive and thrive. But it definitely needs support from the government and from the community. Moving forward, we will continue to build on collaborations and partnerships.

This article was produced by KFF Health News, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation. 

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——————————
By: Bernard J. Wolfson
Title: In San Francisco's Chinatown, a CEO Works With the Community To Bolster Hospital
Sourced From: kffhealthnews.org/news/article/san-francisco-chinatown-chinese-hospital-ceo-jian-zhang-interview/
Published Date: Fri, 19 Apr 2024 09:00:00 +0000

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