Practice Management

Hospitalists confront administrative, financial challenges of COVID-19 crisis


 

Hospitalists nationwide have put in longer hours, played new clinical roles, and stretched beyond their medical specialty and comfort level to meet their hospital’s COVID-19 care demands. Can they expect some kind of financial recognition – perhaps in the form of “hazard pay” for going above and beyond – even though their institutions are experiencing negative financial fallout from the crisis?

Dr. Ron Greeno

Hospitals in regions experiencing a COVID-19 surge have limited elective procedures, discouraged non–COVID-19 admissions, and essentially entered crisis management mode. Other facilities in less hard-hit communities are also standing by, with reduced hospital census, smaller caseloads and less work to do, while trying to prepare their bottom lines for lower demand.

“This crisis has put most hospitals in financial jeopardy and that is likely to trickle down to all employees – including hospitalists,” said Ron Greeno, MD, FCCP, MHM, a past president of SHM and the society’s current senior advisor for government affairs. “But it’s not like hospitals could or would forgo an effective hospitalist program today. Hospitalists will be important players in defining the hospital’s future direction post crisis.”

That doesn’t mean tighter financials, caps on annual salary increases, or higher productivity expectations won’t be part of future conversations between hospital administrators and their hospitalists, Dr. Greeno said. Administrators are starting to look ahead to the post–COVID-19 era even as numbers of cases and rates of growth continue to rise in various regions, and Dr. Greeno sees a lot of uncertainty ahead.

Even prior to the crisis, he noted, hospital margins had been falling, while the cost of labor, including hospitalist labor, was going up. That was pointing toward an inevitable collision, which has only intensified with the new financial crisis facing hospitals – created by SARS-CoV-2 and by policies such as shutting down elective surgeries in anticipation of a COVID-19 patient surge that, for some institutions, may never come.

Dr. Brian Harte, past president of SHM and president of Cleveland Clinic Akron General and Southern Region

Dr. Brian Harte

Brian Harte, MD, MHM, president of Cleveland Clinic Akron General and a past president of SHM, said that the Cleveland Clinic system has been planning since January its response to the coming crisis. “Governor Mike DeWine and the state Department of Health led the way in flattening the curve in Ohio. We engaged our hospitalists in brainstorming solutions. They have been excellent partners,” he said.

Approaching the crisis with a sense of urgency from the outset, the Cleveland Clinic built a COVID-19 surge team and incident command structure, with nursing, infectious diseases, critical care and hospital medicine represented. “We used that time to get ready for what was coming. We worked on streamlining consultant work flows.”

But utilization numbers are off in almost every service line, Dr. Harte said. “It has forced us to look at things we’ve always talked about, including greater use of telemedicine and exploring other ways of caring for patients, such as increased use of evening hours.”

Cleveland Clinic contracts with Sound Physicians of Tacoma, Wash., for its hospitalist coverage. “We have an excellent working relationship with Sound at the local, regional, and national levels, with common goals for quality and utilization. We tried to involve our hospitalists as early as possible in planning. We needed them to step in and role model and lead the way,” Dr. Harte said, for everybody’s anxiety levels.

“We’re still in the process of understanding the long-term financial impact of the epidemic,” Dr. Harte added. “But at this point I see no reason to think our relationship with our hospitalists needs to change. We’re the stewards of long-term finances. We’ll need to keep a close eye on this. But we’re committed to working through this together.”

Hazard pay for frontline health care workers was included in the COVID-19 relief package assembled in mid-May by Democrats in the House of Representatives. The $3 trillion HEROES Act includes $200 billion to award hazard pay to essential workers, including those in the health field, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declared the legislation “dead on arrival” in the Senate.

Supplementary hazard payments made by hospitals to their hospitalists as a reward for sacrifices they made in the crisis is an interesting question, Dr. Greeno noted, and it’s definitely on the table at some hospitals. “But I think it is going to be a tough ask in these times.”

Dr. Harte said he has not offered nor been asked about hazard pay for hospitalists. Cleveland Clinic Akron General made a strategic decision that hazard pay was not going to be part of its response to the pandemic. Other hospital administrators interviewed for this article concur.

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