System starts to break down
The current wave of COVID-19, however, is beginning to change the definition of necessary care, he said. “Hospitals are reaching the breaking point between staff exhaustion and hospital capacity reaching its limit. In Texas, hospitals are starting to shut down certain essential non-COVID care. They’re turning away some nonurgent cases – the electives that were starting to come back.”
How about nonurgent COVID cases? Mr. Lefar said there’s evidence that some of those patients are also being diverted. “Some experts speculate that the turn-away rate of people with confirmed COVID is starting to go up, and hospitals are sending them home with oxygen or an oxygen meter and saying, ‘If it gets worse, come back.’ They just don’t have the critical care capacity – and that should scare the heck out of everybody.”
Strata doesn’t yet have the data to confirm this, he said, “but it appears that some people are being sent home. This may be partly because providers are better at telling which patients are acute, and there are better things they can send them home with. It’s not necessarily worse care, but we don’t know. But we’re definitely seeing a higher send-home rate of patients showing up with COVID.”
Hospital profit margins are cratering again, because the COVID-19 cases aren’t generating nearly as much profit as the lucrative procedures that, in many cases, have been put off, Mr. Lefar said. “Even though CMS is paying 20% more for verified COVID-19 patients, we know that the costs on these patients are much higher than expected, so they’re not making much money on these cases.”
For about a third of hospitals, margins are currently negative, he said. That is about the same percentage as in September. In April, 60% of health systems were losing money, he added. “The CARES Act saved some of them,” he noted.
A version of this article first appeared on Medscape.com.