California Is Overriding Its Limits on Nurse Workloads as Covid Surges


This story is from a reporting partnership that includes KQED, NPR and KHN. It can be republished for free.

California’s telemetry nurses, who specialize in the electronic monitoring of critically ill patients, normally take care of four patients at once. But ever since the state relaxed California’s mandatory nurse-to-patient ratios in mid-December, Nerissa Black has had to keep track of six.

And these six patients are really sick: Many of them are being treated simultaneously for a stroke and covid-19, or a heart attack and covid. With more patients than usual needing more complex care, Black said she’s worried she’ll miss something or make a mistake.

“We are given 50% more patients and we’re expected to do 50% more things with the same amount of time,” said Black, who has worked at the Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital in Valencia, California, for seven years. “I go home and I feel like I could have done more. I don’t feel like I’m giving the care to my patients like a human being deserves.”

As covid patients continue to flood California emergency rooms, hospitals are increasingly desperate to find enough staffers to care for them all. The state is asking nurses to tend to more patients simultaneously than they typically would, watering down what many nurses and their unions consider their most sacrosanct job protection: a law existing only in California that puts legal restrictions on the nurse-to-patient ratio.

“We need to temporarily — very short-term, temporarily — look a little bit differently in terms of our staffing needs,” said Gov. Gavin Newsom, after he quietly allowed hospitals to adjust their nurse-to-patient ratios on Dec. 11. Usually, California law requires a hospital to first get approval from the state before tinkering with those ratios; Newsom’s move gave hospitals presumptive approval to work outside the ratio rules immediately.

Since then, 188 hospitals, mainly in Southern California, have been operating under the new pandemic ratios: They can require ICU nurses to care for three patients instead of two. Emergency room and telemetry nurses may now be asked to care for six patients instead of four. Medical-surgical nurses are looking after seven patients instead of five.

Nurses have taken to the streets in protest, holding physically distanced demonstrations across the state, shouting and carrying posters that read: “Ratios Save Lives.” The union, the California Nurses Association, says the staffing shortage is a result of bad hospital management, of taking a reactive approach to staffing rather than proactive — laying nurses off over the summer, then not hiring or training enough for winter.

“What we’re seeing in these hospitals is their just-in-time response to a pandemic that they never prepared for — just-in-time staffing, just-in-time resources, not staffing up, calling nurses in on a shift at the very last minute — to boost profits,” said Stephanie Roberson, government relations director for the California Nurses Association. “And we’re seeing how nurses are being stretched even thinner.”

But hospitals say this is an unprecedented crisis that has spiraled beyond their control. In the current surge, four times as many Californians are testing positive for the coronavirus compared with the summer’s peak. As many as 7,000 new patients could soon be coming to California hospitals every day, according to Carmela Coyle, who heads the California Hospital Association.

“This is catastrophic and we cannot dodge this math,” she said. “We are simply out of nurses, out of doctors, out of respiratory therapists.”

The state has asked the federal government for staff, including 200 medical personnel from the Department of Defense, and it’s tried to reactivate the California Health Corps, an initiative to recruit retired health workers to come back to work. But that has yielded few people with the qualifications needed to care for hospitalized covid patients.

Hiring contract nurses from temporary staffing agencies or other states is all but impossible right now, Coyle said.

“Because California surged early during the summer and other parts of the United States then surged afterward,” she said, “those travel nurses are taken.

The next step for hospitals is to try “team nursing,” Coyle said — pulling nurses from other departments, like the operating room, for example, and partnering them with experienced critical care nurses to help care for covid patients.

Joanne Spetz, an economics professor who studies health care workforce issues at the University of California-San Francisco, said hospitals should have started training nurses for team care over the summer, in anticipation of a winter surge, but they didn’t, either because of costs — hospitals lost a lot of revenue from canceled elective surgeries that could have paid for that training — or because of excessive optimism.

California was doing so well,” she said. “It was easy for all of us to believe that we kind of got it under control, and I think there was a lot of belief that we would be able to maintain that.”

The California Nurses Association has good reason to be defensive regarding the integrity of the patient-ratio law, Spetz said. It took 10 years of lobbying and activism before the bill passed the state legislature in 1999, then several more years to overcome multiple court challenges, including one from then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“I’m always kicking their butt, that’s why they don’t like me,” Schwarzenegger famously said of nurses, drawing broad ire from the nurses union and its allies.

Nurses prevailed in the court of public opinion and in law; rules that put a legal cap on the number of patients per nurse finally took effect in 2004. But the long battle made nurses fiercely protective of their win. They’ve even accused hospitals of using the pandemic to try to roll back ratios for good.

“This is the exercise of disaster capitalism at its finest, where [hospital administrators] are completely maximizing their opportunity to take advantage of this crisis,” Roberson said.

Hospitals deny they want to change the ratio law permanently, and Spetz said it’s unlikely they’d succeed if they tried. The public can see that nurses are overworked and burned out by the pandemic, she said, so there would be little support for cutting back their job protections once it’s over.

“To go in and say, ‘Oh, you clearly did so well without ratios when we let you waive them, so let’s just eliminate them entirely,’ I think, would be just adding insult to moral injury,” Spetz said.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Patients Fend for Themselves to Access Highly Touted Covid Antibody Treatments

By the time he tested positive for covid-19 on Jan. 12, Gary Herritz was feeling pretty sick. He suspects he was infected a week earlier, during a medical appointment in which he saw health workers who were wearing masks beneath their noses or who had removed them entirely.

His scratchy throat had turned to a dry cough, headache, joint pain and fever — all warning signs to Herritz, who underwent liver transplant surgery in 2012, followed by a rejection scare in 2018. He knew his compromised immune system left him especially vulnerable to a potentially deadly case of covid.

“The thing with transplant patients is we can crash in a heartbeat,” said Herritz, 39. “The outcome for transplant patients [with covid] is not good.”

On Twitter, Herritz had read about monoclonal antibody therapy, the treatment famously given to President Donald Trump and other high-profile politicians and authorized by the Food and Drug Administration for emergency use in high-risk covid patients. But as his symptoms worsened, Herritz found himself very much on his own as he scrambled for access.

His primary care doctor wasn’t sure he qualified for treatment. His transplant team in Wisconsin, where he’d had the liver surgery, wasn’t calling back. No one was sure exactly where he should go to get it. From bed in Pascagoula, Mississippi, he spent two days punching in phone numbers, reaching out to health officials in four states, before he finally landed an appointment to receive a treatment aimed at keeping patients like him out of the hospital — and, perhaps, the morgue.

“I am not rich, I am not special, I am not a political figure,” Herritz, a former community service officer, wrote on Twitter. “I just called until someone would listen.”

Months after Trump emphatically credited an experimental antibody therapy for his quick recovery from covid and even as drugmakers ramp up supplies, only a trickle of the product has found its way into regular people. While hundreds of thousands of vials sit unused, sick patients who, research indicates, could benefit from early treatment — available for free — have largely been fending for themselves.

Federal officials have allocated more than 785,000 doses of two antibody treatments authorized for emergency use during the pandemic, and more than 550,000 doses have been delivered to sites across the nation. The federal government has contracted for nearly 2.5 million doses of the products from drugmakers Eli Lilly and Co. and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals at a cost of more than $4.4 billion.

So far, however, only about 30% of the available doses have been administered to patients, federal Department of Health and Human Services officials said.

Scores of high-risk covid patients who are eligible remain unaware or have not been offered the option. Research has shown the therapy is most effective if given early in the illness, within 10 days of a positive covid test. But many would-be recipients have missed this crucial window because of a patchwork system in the U.S. that can delay testing and diagnosis.

“The bottleneck here in the funnel is administration, not availability of the product,” said Dr. Janet Woodcock, a veteran FDA official in charge of therapeutics for the federal Operation Warp Speed effort.

Among the daunting hurdles: Until this week, there has been no nationwide system to tell people where they could obtain the drugs, which are delivered through IV infusions that require hours to administer and monitor. Finding space to keep covid-infected patients separate from others has been difficult in some health centers slammed by the pandemic.

“The health care system is crashing,” Woodcock told reporters. “What we’ve heard around the country is the No. 1 barrier is staffing.”

At the same time, many hospitals have refused to offer the therapy because doctors were unimpressed with the research federal officials used to justify its use.

Monoclonal antibodies are lab-produced molecules that act as substitutes for the body’s own antibodies that fight infection. The covid treatments are designed to block the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes infection from attaching to and entering human cells. Such treatments are usually prohibitively expensive, but for the time being the federal government is footing the bulk of the bill, though patients likely will be charged administrative fees.

Nationwide, nearly 4,000 sites offer the infusion therapies. But for patients and families of people most at risk — those 65 and older or with underlying health conditions — finding the sites and gaining access has been almost impossible, said Brian Nyquist, chief executive officer of the National Infusion Center Association, which is tracking supplies of the antibody products. Like Herritz, many seeking information about monoclonals find themselves on a lone crusade.

“If they’re not hammering the phones and advocating for access for their loved ones, others often won’t,” he said. “Tenacity is critical.”

Regeneron officials said they’re fielding calls about covid treatments daily to the company’s medical information line. More than 3,500 people have flooded Eli Lilly’s covid hotline with questions about access.

As of this week, all states are required to list on a federal locator map sites that have received the monoclonal antibody products, HHS officials said. The updated map shows wide distribution, but a listing doesn’t guarantee availability or access; patients still need to check. It’s best to confer with a primary care provider before reaching out to the centers. For best results, treatment should occur as soon as possible after a positive covid test.

Some health systems have refused to offer the monoclonal antibody therapies because of doubts about the data used to authorize them. Early studies suggested that Lilly’s therapy, bamlanivimab, reduced the need for hospitalization or emergency treatment in outpatient covid cases by about 70%, while Regeneron’s antibody cocktail of casirivimab plus imdevimab reduced the need by about 50%.

But those studies were small, just a few hundred subjects, and the results were limited. “A lot of doctors, actually, they’re not impressed with the data,” said Dr. Daniel Griffin, an infectious disease expert at Columbia University who co-hosts the podcast “This Week in Virology.” “There really is still that question of, ‘Does this stuff really work?’”

As more patients are treated, however, there’s growing evidence that the therapies can keep high-risk patients out of the hospital, not only easing their recovery but also decreasing the burden on health systems struggling with record numbers of patients.

Dr. Raymund Razonable, an infectious disease expert at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, said he has treated more than 2,500 covid patients with monoclonal antibody therapy with promising results. “It’s looking good,” he said, declining to provide details because they’re embargoed for publication. “We are seeing reductions in hospitalizations; we’re seeing reductions in ICU care; we’re also seeing reductions in mortality.”

Banking on observations from Mayo experts and others, federal officials have been pushing for wider use of antibody therapies. HHS officials have partnered with hospitals in three hard-hit states — California, Arizona and Nevada — to set up infusion centers that are treating dozens of covid patients each day.

One of those sites went up in late December at El Centro Regional Medical Center in California’s Imperial County, an impoverished farming region on the state’s southern border that has recorded among the highest covid infection rates in the state. For months, the medical center strained to absorb the overwhelming influx of patients, but chief executive Dr. Adolphe Edward said a new walk-up infusion site has already put a dent in the covid load.

More than 130 people have been treated, all patients who were able to get the two-hour infusions and then recuperate at home. “If those folks would not have had the treatment, they would have come through the emergency department and we would have had to admit the lion’s share of them,” he said.

It’s important to make sure people in high-risk groups know to seek out the therapy and to get it early, Edward said. He and his staff have been working with area doctors’ offices and nonprofit groups and relying on word-of-mouth.

“On multiple levels, we’re saying, ‘If you’ve tested positive for the virus, come and let us see if you are eligible,’” Edward said.

Greater awareness is a goal of the HHS effort, said Dr. John Redd, chief medical officer for the assistant secretary for preparedness and response. “These antibodies are meant for everyone,” he said. “Everyone across the country should have equal access to these products.”

For now, patients like Herritz, the Mississippi liver transplant recipient, say reality is falling well short of that goal. If he hadn’t continued to call in search of a referral, he wouldn’t have been treated. And without the therapy, Herritz believes, he was just days away from hospitalization.

“I think it’s horrible that if I didn’t have Twitter, I wouldn’t know anything about this,” he said. “I think about all the people who have died not knowing this was an option for high-risk individuals.”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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KHN’s ‘What the Health?’: On Capitol Hill, Actions Have Consequences

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The reverberations from the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol by supporters of President Donald Trump continue. A broad array of business groups, including many from the health industry, are halting contributions to Republicans in the House and Senate who voted against certifying the victory of President-elect Joe Biden. Meanwhile, Republicans in the House who have refused to wear masks or insisted on carrying weapons are being subjected to greater enforcement, including significant fines.

Away from the Capitol, the Trump administration has granted a first-in-the-nation waiver to Tennessee to turn its Medicaid program into a block grant, which would give the state potentially less federal money but more flexibility to structure the federal-state health program for those with low incomes. And in its waning days, the administration is moving to make its last-minute policies harder for Biden to undo.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of KHN, Joanne Kenen of Politico, Margot Sanger-Katz of The New York Times and Kimberly Leonard of Business Insider.

Among the takeaways from this week’s podcast:

  • The decision by industry groups to cut their political contributions to some Republican lawmakers could reshape businesses’ relationships on Capitol Hill. But it’s still not clear if this announcement will affect the vast sums of political contributions that come through PACs and other unnamed sources, as well as individual contributions from corporate officials.
  • The slow start of the covid vaccination campaign points to the tension between the need to steer the vaccine to people at high risk of contracting the disease and the concerns about wasting the precious medicine. Because the vaccines that have been approved for emergency use have a relatively short shelf life, some doses may go to waste if they are reserved for specific populations.
  • The response to the vaccine among health care workers varies widely. In some areas, staffers are eager to get the shots, while in other places, some workers have been hesitant and the shots are going unused. And the federal government has not provided a strong public messaging campaign about the vaccines.
  • The Trump administration’s announcement last week that it would move to convert Tennessee’s Medicaid program to a block grant program is raising concerns among advocates for the poor, who fear that the flexibility the state is gaining could lead to enrollees getting less care, especially since the state will get a hefty portion of any savings it finds in running the program.
  • It may not be easy for the Biden administration to change this decision. Federal officials in recent weeks have been sending states, including Tennessee, letters to sign that could protect the Medicaid waivers they have received from the Trump administration and could serve as a legal guarantee that would require a long, difficult process to unwind.
  • Mental health care may be a casualty of the coronavirus pandemic. As states look to balance their budgets after a year in which revenues were slashed, they may turn to cutting mental health care services provided through Medicaid and other programs.

Also this week, Rovner interviews KHN’s Victoria Knight, who wrote the latest KHN-NPR “Bill of the Month” feature — about an unusually large bill for in-network care. If you have an outrageous medical bill you’d like to share with us, you can do that here.

Plus, for extra credit, the panelists recommend their favorite health policy stories of the week that they think you should read too:

Julie Rovner: The Washington Post’s “Young ER doctors Risk Their Lives on the Pandemic’s Front Line. But They Struggle to Find Jobs,” by Ben Guarino

Margot Sanger-Katz: The New York Times’ “Why You’re Probably Not So Great at Risk Assessment,” by AC Shilton

Joanne Kenen: The Atlantic’s “Why Aren’t We Wearing Better Masks?” by Zeynep Tufekci and Jeremy Howard

Kimberly Leonard: Business Insider’s “I Was Offered a Covid Vaccine Even Though I’m Young and Healthy. Here’s How I Did It,” by Kimberly Leonard

To hear all our podcasts, click here.

And subscribe to What the Health? on iTunesStitcherGoogle PlaySpotify, or Pocket Casts.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Feeling Left Out: Private Practice Doctors, Patients Wonder When It’s Their Turn for Vaccine

Dr. Andrew Carroll — a family doctor in Chandler, Arizona — wants to help his patients get immunized against covid, so he paid more than $4,000 to buy an ultra-low-temperature freezer from eBay needed to store the Pfizer vaccine.

But he’s not sure he’ll get a chance to use it, given health officials have so far not said when private doctor’s offices will get vaccine.

“I’m really angry,” said Carroll.

Not only are doctors having trouble getting vaccine for patients, but many of the community-based physicians and medical staff that aren’t employed by hospitals or health systems also report mixed results in getting inoculated. Some have had their shots, yet others are still waiting, even though health workers providing direct care to patients are in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s top-priority group.

Many of these doctors say they don’t know when — or if — they will get doses for their patients, which will soon become a bigger issue as states attempt to vaccinate more people.

“The reason that’s important is patients trust their doctors when it comes to the vaccine,” said Carroll, who has complained on social media that his county hasn’t yet released plans on how primary care doctors will be brought into the loop.

Collectively, physicians in the county could vaccinate thousands of patients a day, he said, and might draw some who would otherwise be hesitant if they had to go to a large hospital, a fairground or another central site.

His concern comes as, nationally, the rollout of the vaccine is off to a slower start than expected, lagging far behind the initial goal of giving 20 million doses before the new year.

But Dr. Jen Brull, a family practice doctor in Plainville, Kansas, said her rural area has made good progress on the first phase of vaccinations, crediting close working relationships formed well before the pandemic.

This fall, before any doses became available, the local hospital, the health department and physician offices coordinated a sign-up list for medical workers who wanted the vaccine. So, when their county, with a population of 5,000, got its first 70 doses, they were ready to go. Another 80 doses came a week later.

“We’ll be able to vaccinate almost all the health care-associated folks who wanted it in the county” Brull said recently

Gaps in the Rollout

But that’s not the case everywhere.

Dr. Jason Goldman, a family doctor in Coral Gables, Florida, said he was able to get vaccinated at a local hospital that received the bulk of vaccines in his county and oversaw distribution.

In the weeks since, however, he said several of his front-line staff members still “don’t have access to the vaccine.”

Additionally, “a tremendous number” of patients are calling his office because Florida has relaxed distribution guidelines to include anyone over age 65, Goldman said, asking when they can get the vaccine. He’s applied to officials about distributing the vaccines through his practice but has heard nothing back.

Patients “are frustrated that they do not have clear answers and that I am not being given clear answers to provide them,” he said. “We have no choice but to direct them to the health department and some of the hospital systems.”

Another troubling point for Goldman, who served as a liaison between the American Academy of Family Physicians and the expert panel drawing up the CDC distribution guidelines, is the tremendous variation in how those recommendations are being implemented in the states.

The CDC recommends several phases, with front-line health care workers and nursing home residents and staff in the initial group. Then, in the second part of that phase, come people over 75 and non-health care front-line workers, which could include first responders, teachers and other designated essential workers.

States have the flexibility to design their own rollout schedule and priority groups. Florida, for example, is offering doses to anyone 65 and up. In some counties, older folks were told vaccines were available on a first-come, first-served basis, a move that has resulted in long lines.

“To say right now, 65-plus, when you haven’t even appropriately vaccinated all the health care workers, is negating the phasing,” said Goldman. “There needs to be a national standard. We have those guidelines. We need to come up with some oversight.”

On Thursday, the American Hospital Association echoed that concern in a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. Hospitals — along with health departments and large pharmacy chains — are doing the bulk of the vaccinations.

Calling for additional coordination by federal officials, the letter outlined what it would take to reach the goal of vaccinating 75% of Americans by the end of May: 1.8 million vaccinations every day. Noting there are 64 different rollout plans from states, cities and other jurisdictions, the letter asked whether HHS has “assessed whether these plans, taken as a whole, are capable of achieving this level of vaccination?”

Making It Work

Lack of direct national support or strategy means each county is essentially on its own, with success or failure affected by available resources and the experience of local officials. Most state and local health departments are underfunded and are under intense pressure because of the surging pandemic.

Still, the success of vaccination efforts depends on planning, preparation and clear communication.

In Lorain County, Ohio, population 310,000, local officials started practicing in October, said Mark Adams, deputy health commissioner. They set up mass vaccination clinics for influenza to study what would be needed for a covid vaccination effort. How many staff? What would the traffic flow be like? Could patients be kept 6 feet apart?

“That gave us an idea of what is good, what is bad and what needs to change,” said Adams, who has had previous experience coordinating mass vaccination efforts at a county level.

So, when the county got its first shipment of 500 doses Dec. 21, Adams had his plan ready. He called the fire chiefs to invite all emergency medical technicians and affiliated personnel to an ad hoc vaccination center set up at a large entertainment venue staffed by his health department. Upon arrival, people were greeted at the door and directed to spaced-apart “lanes” where they would get their shots, then to a monitoring area where they could wait for 15 minutes to make sure they didn’t have a reaction.

Right after Christmas, another 400 doses arrived — and the makeshift clinic opened again. This time, doses went to community-based physicians, dentists and other hands-on medical practitioners, 600 of whom had previously signed up. (Hospital workers and nursing home staff and residents are getting their vaccinations through their own institutions.)

As they move into the next phase — recipients include residents over 80, people with developmental disorders and school staff — the challenges will grow, he said. The county plans a multipronged approach to notify people when it’s their turn, including use of a website, the local media, churches, other organizations and word-of-mouth.

Adams shares the concerns of medical providers nationwide: He gets only two days’ notice of how many doses he’s going to receive and, at the current pace of 400 or 500 doses a week, it’s going to take a while before most residents in the county have a chance to get a shot, including the estimated 33,000 people 65 and older.

With 10 nurses, his clinic can inject about 1,200 people a day. But many other health professionals have volunteered to administer the shots if he gets more doses.

“If I were to run three clinics, five days a week, I could do 15,000 vaccinations a week,” Adams said. “With all the volunteers, I could do almost six clinics, or 30,000 a week.”

Still, for those in the last public group, those age 18 and up without underlying medical conditions, “it could be summer,” Adams said.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Health Workers Unions See Surge in Interest Amid Covid


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The nurses at Mission Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, declared on March 6 — by filing the official paperwork — that they were ready to vote on the prospect of joining a national union. At the time, they were motivated by the desire for more nurses and support staff, and to have a voice in hospital decisions.

A week later, as the covid-19 pandemic bore down on the state, the effort was put on hold, and everyone scrambled to respond to the coronavirus. But the nurses’ long-standing concerns only became heightened during the crisis, and new issues they’d never considered suddenly became urgent problems.

Staffers struggled to find masks and other protective equipment, said nurses interviewed for this story. The hospital discouraged them from wearing masks one day and required masks 10 days later. The staff wasn’t consistently tested for covid and often not even notified when exposed to covid-positive patients. According to the nurses and a review of safety complaints made to federal regulators, the concerns persisted for months. And some nurses said the situation fueled doubts about whether hospital executives were prioritizing staff and patients, or the bottom line.

By the time the nurses held their election in September — six months after they had filed paperwork to do so — 70% voted to unionize. In a historically anti-union state with right-to-work laws and the second-least unionized workforce in the country, that margin of victory is a significant feat, said academic experts who study labor movements.

That it occurred during the pandemic is no coincidence.

For months now, front-line health workers across the country have faced a perpetual lack of personal protective equipment, or PPE, and inconsistent safety measures. Studies show they’re more likely to be infected by the coronavirus than the general population, and hundreds have died, according to reporting by KHN and The Guardian.

Many workers say employers and government systems that are meant to protect them have failed.

Research shows that health facilities with unions have better patient outcomes and are more likely to have inspections that can find and correct workplace hazards. One study found New York nursing homes with unionized workers had lower covid mortality rates, as well as better access to PPE and stronger infection control measures, than nonunion facilities.

Recognizing that, some workers — like the nurses at Mission Hospital — are forming new unions or thinking about organizing for the first time. Others, who already belong to a union, are taking more active leadership roles, voting to strike, launching public information campaigns and filing lawsuits against employers.

“The urgency and desperation we’ve heard from workers is at a pitch I haven’t experienced before in 20 years of this work,” said Cass Gualvez, organizing director for Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West in California. “We’ve talked to workers who said, ‘I was dead set against a union five years ago, but covid has changed that.’”

In response to union actions, many hospitals across the country have said worker safety is already their top priority, and unions are taking advantage of a difficult situation to divide staff and management, rather than working together.

Labor experts say it’s too soon to know if the outrage over working conditions will translate into an increase in union membership, but early indications suggest a small uptick. Of the approximately 1,500 petitions for union representation posted on the National Labor Relations Board website in 2020, 16% appear related to the health care field, up from 14% the previous year.

In Colorado, SEIU Local 105 health care organizing director Stephanie Felix-Sowy said her team is fielding dozens of calls a month from nonunion workers interested in joining. Not only are nurses and respiratory therapists reaching out, but dietary workers and cleaning staff are as well, including several from rural parts of the state where union representation has traditionally been low.

“The pandemic didn’t create most of the root problems they’re concerned about,” she said. “But it amplified them and the need to address them.”

A nurse for 30 years, Amy Waters had always been aware of a mostly unspoken but widespread sentiment that talking about unions could endanger her job. But after HCA Healthcare took over Mission Health in 2019, she saw nurses and support staff members being cut and she worried about the effect on patient care. Joining National Nurses United could help, she thought. During the pandemic, her fears only worsened. At times, nurses cared for seven patients at once, despite research indicating four is a reasonable number.

In a statement, Mission Health said it has adequate staffing and is aggressively recruiting nurses. “We have the beds, staffing, PPE supplies and equipment we need at this time and we are well-equipped to handle any potential surge,” spokesperson Nancy Lindell wrote. The hospital has required universal masking since March and requires staff members who test positive to stay home, she added.

Although the nurses didn’t vote to unionize until September, Waters said, they began acting collectively from the early days of the pandemic. They drafted a petition and sent a letter to administrators together. When the hospital agreed to provide advanced training on how to use PPE to protect against covid transmission, it was a small but significant victory, Waters said.

“Seeing that change brought a fair number of nurses who had still been undecided about the union to feel like, ‘Yeah, if we work together, we can make change,’” she said.

Old Concerns Heightened, New Issues Arise

Even as union membership in most industries has declined in recent years, health workers unions have remained relatively stable. Experts say it’s partly because of the focus on patient care issues, like safe staffing ratios, which resonate widely and have only grown during the pandemic.

At St. Mary Medical Center outside Philadelphia, short staffing led nurses to strike in November. Donna Halpern, a nurse on the cardiovascular and critical care unit, said staffing had been a point of negotiation with the hospital since the nurses joined the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals in 2019. But with another surge of covid cases approaching, the nurses decided not to wait any longer to take action, she said.

A month later, officials with Trinity Health Mid-Atlantic, which owns the hospital, announced a tentative labor agreement with the union. The contract “gives nurses a voice in discussions on staffing while preserving the hospital’s right and authority to make all staffing decisions,” the hospital said in a statement.

In Colorado, where state inspection reports show understaffing led to a patient death at a suburban Denver hospital, SEIU Local 105 has launched a media campaign about unsafe practices by the hospital’s parent company, HealthOne. The union doesn’t represent HealthOne employees, but union leaders said they felt compelled to act after repeatedly hearing concerns.

In a statement, HealthOne said staffing levels are appropriate across its hospitals and it is continuing to recruit and hire staff members.

Covid is also raising entirely new issues for workers to organize around. At the forefront is the lack of PPE, which was noted in one-third of the health worker deaths catalogued by KHN and The Guardian.

Nurses at Albany Medical Center in New York picketed on Dec. 1 with signs demanding PPE and spoke about having to reuse N95 masks up to 20 times.

The hospital told KHN it follows federal guidelines for reprocessing masks, but intensive care nurse Jennifer Bejo said it feels unsafe.

At MultiCare Indigo Urgent Care clinics in Washington state, staff members were provided only surgical masks and face shields for months, even when performing covid tests and seeing covid patients, said Dr. Brian Fox, who works at the clinics and is a member of the Union of American Physicians and Dentists. The company agreed to provide N95 masks after staffers went on a two-day strike in November.

MultiCare said it found another vendor for N95s in early December and is in the process of distributing them.

PPE has also become a rallying point for nonunion workers. At a November event handing out PPE in El Paso, Texas, more than 60 workers showed up in the first hour, said SEIU Texas President Elsa Caballero. Many were not union members, she said, but by the end of the day, dozens had signed membership cards to join.

Small Successes, Gradual Movement

Organized labor is not a panacea, union officials admit. Their members have faced PPE shortages and high infection rates throughout the pandemic, too. But collective action can help workers push for and achieve change, they said.

National Nurses United and the National Union of Healthcare Workers said they’ve each seen an influx in calls from nonmembers, but whether that results in more union elections is yet to be seen.

David Zonderman, an expert in labor history at North Carolina State University, said safety concerns like factory fires and mine collapses have often galvanized collective action in the past, as workers felt their lives were endangered. But labor laws can make it difficult to organize, he said, and many efforts to unionize are unsuccessful.

Health care employers, in particular, are known to launch aggressive and well-funded anti-union campaigns, said Rebecca Givan, a labor studies expert at Rutgers university. Still, workers might be more motivated by what they witnessed during the pandemic, she said.

“An experience like treating patients in this pandemic will change a health care worker forever,” Givan said, “and will have an impact on their willingness to speak out, to go on strike and to unionize if needed.”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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An Urban Hospital on the Brink Vs. the Officials Sworn to Save It

Illinois and Chicago officials are trying to figure out how to stop a private company from closing a money-losing urban hospital in a poor, underserved Chicago neighborhood.

Trinity Health, a national Catholic tax-exempt chain, wants to close Mercy Hospital and Medical Center on Chicago’s Near South Side by May 31. Last month, in an unusual move, the Illinois Health Facilities & Services Review Board unanimously denied Trinity permission to close the 412-bed facility, which predominantly serves Black and other minority patients on Medicaid.

The board members said they feared the closure would limit access to care for nearly 60,000 South Side residents, forcing them to travel nearly 7 miles to the closest facility with an emergency room, intensive care unit and birthing center. It also would cost the community about 2,000 hospital jobs.

Urban hospitals in low-income areas of Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and other cities and suburbs face similar financial squeezes. Inner-city facilities like Mercy struggle to survive on lean payment rates from Medicaid and to compete with financially robust hospitals that mostly serve well-paying, privately insured patients.

So far, no one has come up with a politically and financially viable solution for strengthening safety-net health providers in low-income urban communities. “The sad fact is market location is everything,” said Lawton Robert Burns, a professor of health care management at the University of Pennsylvania, who studied the controversial closure of Hahnemann University Hospital in Philadelphia in 2019. “No offense to poor people, but there are economic factors that hospitals can’t control.”

But it is far from clear that a government board can stop a hospital from going out of business. “It’s really difficult in a capitalist country to tell a private company you have to continue to lose money,” said Dr. Linda Rae Murray, a member of the health facilities board and former Trinity Health board member who teaches health policy at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Trinity, which operates 92 hospitals in 22 states, seems determined to push forward with its plans to close the hospital. It has deep pockets, with $31.9 billion in total assets. It reported revenue of $18.8 billion last year, and a profit of 2.3% in the most recent quarter. Trinity executives told the health facilities board in December that Mercy loses nearly $39 million a year and that they could not find any buyers for the hospital — Chicago’s oldest, chartered in 1852. They also reminded the board that state lawmakers rejected Mercy’s 2019 $1 billion proposal to merge with three other South Side hospitals and build a new hospital facility and several new clinics with $520 million in state aid.

Trinity declined to make anyone available for an interview for this article.

Trinity has said it will try again to get approval to shut Mercy at the facilities review board’s Jan. 26 meeting. It has offered to replace the hospital with a $13 million clinic offering just diagnostic and urgent care — but no primary care physician services. Critics of that proposal say the clinic, while helpful, would not be an adequate replacement for the hospital because it would not provide access to the full range of needed services.

“We can’t have these mega-hospital companies that are getting a property tax exemption for providing charity care closing a safety-net hospital in the middle of a pandemic,” said former Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat who spearheaded a 2013 deal to save Roseland Hospital, another embattled facility on Chicago’s South Side. “I’d tell the Trinity executives, ‘You’re not doing this to Chicago. We’ll work with you to put together a bigger deal.’”

The obvious long-term solution is richer Medicaid funding for safety-net hospitals, effective partnerships between public and private providers and firm commitments by financially strong hospital companies, including academic medical centers, to expand services in low-income communities. For instance, some say state and local officials should prod Trinity to use the resources of its Loyola University Medical Center in west suburban Chicago to bolster Mercy.

Hospitals are required to get a certificate of need for closure from the facilities review board, according to a new state law. But state officials’ actions are limited when seeking to enforce a decision to keep a facility open.

The state could levy a fine of up to $10,000 for not complying with the board’s decision, plus an additional $10,000 a month while the hospital continues to operate. But that’s a trivial amount for a big company like Trinity.

The state also could halt Medicaid and other public payments to Mercy. But that would be counterproductive, hastening the hospital’s demise since nearly half of Mercy’s inpatient revenue and 35% of its outpatient revenue comes from Medicaid, according to state data.

A final source of leverage is in Trinity’s ownership of three other hospitals in the Chicago area: Loyola, Gottlieb Memorial Hospital and MacNeal Hospital. The state could threaten Trinity’s property-tax exemption as a charitable organization. That’s an approach favored by Quinn, who cited a previous legal challenge to the tax-exempt status of the Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana, Illinois.

No matter what the state does, Trinity can find ways to shut down Mercy. It could argue that even as Mercy is meeting the state requirement to continue to treat patients, it must close critical services like the emergency department or the birthing center because it lacks funding or staff to maintain adequate quality of care, said Juan Morado Jr., a Chicago health care lawyer who formerly served as general counsel for the facilities review board. The new law permits closing only one hospital department every six months.

While the state presses to keep the hospital open, Mercy also could suffer from attrition. When there’s talk of closing a hospital, physicians, nurses and other staffers may start leaving for other jobs. Whether Trinity seeks to refill positions is critical.

“There are things the owner can do to trickle the hospital down to nothing,” said Dr. David Ansell, senior vice president for community health equity at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, who opposes shuttering Mercy. “There is a drip, drip, drip of negativity, and at some point people vote with their feet.”

The Chicago area has been through a similar battle recently. Pipeline Health, a private-equity investment firm, bought Westlake Hospital in suburban Melrose Park and two other local hospitals from hospital chain Tenet Healthcare in 2019. Pipeline quickly announced it was closing Westlake, a 230-bed hospital — even though it had promised the state it would keep it open for at least two years.

That controversial move prompted the Illinois legislature to give the facilities review board new authority to deny permission for future hospital closures, which the board lacked for Westlake.

Yet, the Westlake saga may point to a better solution for Mercy. In early 2020, the state and federal governments renovated the Westlake facility so it could be used as an overflow site for covid-19 patients. It wasn’t needed, but the updates led to strong interest from companies in purchasing and reopening the hospital, particularly for behavioral health inpatient services.

State Rep. Kathleen Willis, a Democrat who co-sponsored the 2019 bill to let the facilities review board say no to hospital closures, said a deal to buy and reopen Westlake likely will be announced within the next few weeks.

Any deal to save Mercy likely will require more money from Trinity, more commitment from other providers to offer a full range of hospital and medical services in the area, and significant increases in state and federal funding.

“Every hospital CEO has to worry about the bottom line of their business,” Ansell said. “But big organizations like Trinity need to come up with a better solution than the wholesale shutdown of an anchor institution that will leave communities bereft.”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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‘An Arm And a Leg’: How a Former Health Care Executive Became a Health Care Whistleblower

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Former health care executive Wendell Potter spent part of 2020 publishing high-profile apologies for the work he used to do — the lies he said he told the American people for his old employers. These days, he said, he’s also trying to debunk myths he once sold.

“What I used to do for a living was mislead people into thinking that we had the best health care system in the world,” Potter said.

In this episode, Potter talks about his transformation from health care executive to health care whistleblower. His is also a story about the long, messy process of change — whether that’s changing your own life or trying to change a bigger system.

Here’s a transcript of the episode.

“An Arm and a Leg” is a co-production of Kaiser Health News and Public Road Productions.

To keep in touch with “An Arm and a Leg,” subscribe to the newsletter. You can also follow the show on Facebook and Twitter. And if you’ve got stories to tell about the health care system, the producers would love to hear from you.

To hear all Kaiser Health News podcasts, click here.

And subscribe to “An Arm and a Leg” on iTunesPocket CastsGoogle Play or Spotify.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Is Your Covid Vaccine Venue Prepared to Handle Rare, Life-Threatening Reactions?

As the rollout of covid-19 vaccines picks up across the U.S., moving from hospital distribution to pharmacies, pop-up sites and drive-thru clinics, health experts say it’s vital that these expanded venues be prepared to handle rare but potentially life-threatening allergic reactions.

“You want to be able to treat anaphylaxis,” said Dr. Mitchell Grayson, an allergist-immunologist with Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. “I hope they’re in a place where an ambulance can arrive within five to 10 minutes.”

Of the more than 6 million people in the U.S. who have received shots of the two new covid vaccines, at least 29 have suffered anaphylaxis, a severe and dangerous reaction that can constrict airways and send the body into shock, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Such incidents have been rare — about 5.5 cases for every million doses of vaccine administered in the U.S. between mid-December and early January — and the patients recovered. For most people, the risk of getting the coronavirus is far higher than the risk of a vaccine reaction and is not a reason to avoid the shots, Grayson said.

Still, the rate of anaphylaxis so far is about five times higher for the covid vaccines than for flu shots, and some of those stricken had no history of allergic reactions. In this early phase of the vaccine rollout, all the patients were treated in hospitals and health centers that could offer immediate access to full-service emergency care.

As states look to scale up distribution, the shots will be administered by a varied assortment of professionals at venues including drugstores, dental offices and temporary sites attended by National Guard troops, among others. Health officials say every site involved in the wider community rollout must be able to recognize problems and have the training and equipment to respond swiftly if something goes wrong.

“We are really pushing to make sure that anybody administering vaccines needs not just to have the EpiPen available but, frankly, to know how to use it,” said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, in a call with reporters. She was referring to a common epinephrine injector that many people with severe allergies carry with them. Those health care workers must also know the warning signs of the need for advanced care, she added.

Anaphylaxis typically occurs within minutes and can cause hives, nausea, vomiting, dizziness or fainting, and life-threatening problems such as low blood pressure and constricted airways. Initial treatment is an injection of epinephrine, or adrenalin, to reduce the body’s allergic response. However, severely affected patients can require intensive treatments including oxygen, IV antihistamines and steroids such as cortisone to save their lives. Community sites are unlikely to have these treatments on hand and would need quick access to emergency responders.

Anybody administering vaccines needs not just to have the EpiPen available, but, frankly, to know how to use it.

Dr. Nancy Messonnier, CDC

Scientists are still investigating what’s triggering the severe reactions to the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna mRNA vaccines. They suspect the culprit may be polyethylene glycol, or PEG, a component present in both vaccines that has been associated with allergic reactions.

Even as they call for education and support for providers, experts are urging the more than 50 million Americans with allergies — whether to foods, insect venom, medications or other vaccines — to be proactive about finding a venue that’s properly prepared. Before scheduling a vaccine, contact the site and ask pointed questions about its emergency precautions, said Dr. Kimberly Blumenthal, quality and safety officer for allergy at Massachusetts General Hospital.

“Ask the question: Do they have an anaphylaxis kit? Can they take vital signs?” she said. People who routinely carry EpiPens should remember to bring them when they are vaccinated, she added.

A CDC website details a list of equipment and medications that sites should have on hand and urges that all patients be observed for 15 minutes after vaccination or 30 minutes if they’re at higher risk for reactions. The list recommends — but does not require — that sites stock the more intensive treatments, such as IV fluids. People who experience severe reactions shouldn’t get the recommended second dose of the vaccine, the agency said.

“Appropriate medical treatment for severe allergic reactions must be immediately available in the event that an acute anaphylactic reaction occurs following administration of an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine,” the site says.

Still, that’s a tall order, given the scope of the vaccination effort. The federal government is sending vaccines to more than 40,000 pharmacy locations involving 19 chains, including CVS, Walgreens, Costco and Rite Aid. At the same time, dozens of pop-up inoculation sites are ramping up in New York City, and drive-thru clinics have been set up in Ohio, Florida and other states.

Drive-thru sites, in particular, worry allergists like Blumenthal, who said it’s crucial to recognize symptoms of anaphylaxis quickly. “If you’re in a car, are you going to have your windows open? Where are the medicines? Are you in a parking lot?” she said. “It just sounds logistically more challenging.”

Ask the question: Do they have an anaphylaxis kit? Can they take vital signs?

Dr. Kimberly Blumenthal, Massachusetts General Hospital

In Columbus, more than 2,400 people had been vaccinated by Jan. 6 at a drive-thru clinic set up at the Ohio Expo Center. No allergic reactions have been reported, according to Kelli Newman, a spokesperson for Columbus Public Health. But if they occur, she said, health officials are prepared.

“We have a partnership with our EMS and they are observing those being vaccinated for 15 minutes to make sure there are no adverse reactions,” Newman said in an email. “They have two EMS trucks available with emergency equipment and epinephrine, if needed.”

Similarly, representatives for CVS Health and Walgreens said they have the staff and supplies to handle “rare but severe” reactions.

“We have emergency management protocols in place that are required for all vaccine providers, which, following a clinical assessment, may include administering epinephrine, calling 911 and administering CPR, if needed,” Rebekah Pajak, a spokesperson for Walgreens, said in an email.

If the vaccine sites have appropriately trained staffers, plus adequate supplies and equipment, the vast majority of people should opt for the shot, especially as the pandemic continues to surge, said Dr. David Lang, immediate past president of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology and chairman of the department of immunology at the Cleveland Clinic.

“The overwhelming likelihood is that you won’t have anaphylaxis and the overwhelming benefit far exceeds the risk for harm,” Lang said.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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In Los Angeles and Beyond, Oxygen Is the Latest Covid Bottleneck

As Los Angeles hospitals give record numbers of covid patients oxygen, the systems and equipment needed to deliver the life-sustaining gas are faltering.

It’s gotten so bad that Los Angeles County officials are warning paramedics to conserve it. Some hospitals are having to delay releasing patients as they don’t have enough oxygen equipment to send home with them.

“Everybody is worried about what’s going to happen in the next week or so,” said Cathy Chidester, director of the L.A. County Emergency Medical Services Agency.

Oxygen, which makes up 21% of the Earth’s air, isn’t running short. But covid damages the lungs, and the crush of patients in hot spots such as Los Angeles, the Navajo Nation, El Paso, Texas, and in New York last spring have needed high concentrations of it. That has stressed the infrastructure for delivering the gas to hospitals and their patients.

The strain in those areas is caused by multiple weak links in the pandemic supply chain. In some hospitals that pipe oxygen to patients’ rooms, the massive volume of cold liquid oxygen is freezing the equipment needed to deliver it, which can block the system.

“You can completely — literally, completely — shut down the entire hospital supply if that happens,” said Rich Branson, a respiratory therapist with the University of Cincinnati and editor-in-chief of the journal Respiratory Care.

There is also pressure on the availability of both the portable cylinders that hold oxygen and the concentrators that pull oxygen from the air. And in some cases, vendors that supply the oxygen have struggled to get enough of the gas to hospitals. Even nasal cannulas, the tubing used to deliver oxygen, are now running low.

“It’s been nuts, absolutely nuts,” said Esteban Trejo, general manager of Syoxsa, an industrial and medical gas distributor based in El Paso. He provides oxygen to several temporary hospitals set up specifically to treat people with covid.

In November, he said, he was answering calls in the middle of the night from contractors worried about oxygen supplies. At one point, when the company’s usual supplier fell through, they were hauling oxygen from Houston, which is a more than 10-hour drive each way.

Branson has been sounding the alarm about logistical limitations on critical care since the SARS pandemic nearly 20 years ago, when he and others surveyed experts about the specific equipment and infrastructure needed during a future pandemic. Oxygen was near the top of the list.

Oxygen as Cold as Neptune

Last spring, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut faced a challenge similar to what is now unfolding in Los Angeles, said Robert Karcher, a vice president of contract services for Acurity, a group purchasing organization that worked with many hospitals during that surge.

To take up less space, oxygen is often stored as a liquid around minus 300 degrees Fahrenheit, about as cold as the surface of Neptune. But as covid patients filling ICUs were given oxygen through ventilators or nasal tubes, some hospitals began to see ice form over the equipment that converts liquid oxygen into a gas.

When a hospital draws more and more liquid oxygen from those tanks, the super-cold liquid can seep further into the vaporizing coils where liquid oxygen turns to gas.

Branson said some ice is normal, but a lot of ice can cause valves on the device to freeze in place. And the ice can restrict airflow in the pipes sending the oxygen into patients’ rooms, Karcher said. To combat this, hospitals could switch to a backup vaporizer if they had one, hose down iced vaporizers or move patients to cylinder-delivered oxygen. But that puts additional strain on the hospitals’ cylinder oxygen supply, as well as the medical gas supplier, Karcher said.

Hospitals in New York began to panic in the spring because the icing of the vaporizer was much greater than they had seen before, he added. It got so bad, he said, that some hospitals worried they’d have to close their ICUs.

“They thought they were in imminent danger of their tank piping shutting down,” he said. “We came pretty close in a couple of our hospitals. It was a rough few weeks.”

The strain on Los Angeles health care infrastructure could be worse given the now-common treatment of putting patients on oxygen using high-flow nasal cannulas. That requires more of the gas pumped at a higher rate than with ventilators.

“I don’t know of any system that is really set to triple patient volumes — or 10 times the oxygen delivery,” Chidester said of the L.A. County hospitals. “They’re having a hard time keeping up.”

The Oxygen Shortage Doom Loop

In and around Los Angeles, the Army Corps of Engineers has so far surveyed 11 hospitals for freezing oxygen pipe issues. The hospitals are a mix of older facilities and smaller suburban hospitals seeing such high demand amid skyrocketing cases in the area, said Mike Petersen, a Corps spokesperson.

One of the worst examples he saw included pipes that looked like a home freezer that had not been defrosted in some time.

The problem gets worse for hospitals that have had to convert regular hospital rooms to intensive care units. ICU pipes are bigger than those leading to other parts of a hospital. When rooms get repurposed as pop-up ICUs, the pipes can simply be too narrow to deliver the oxygen that covid patients need. And so, Chidester said, the hospitals switch to large cylinders of oxygen. But vendors are having a hard time refilling those quickly enough.

Even smaller cylinders and oxygen concentrators are in short supply amid the surge, she said. Those patients who could be sent home with an oxygen cylinder are left stuck in a hospital waiting for one, taking up a much-needed bed.

‘Extreme Rurality’

In early December, doctors serving the Navajo Nation said they needed more of everything: the oxygen itself and the equipment to get oxygen to patients both in the hospital and recovering at home.

“We’ve never reached capacity before — until now,” said Dr. Loretta Christensen, chief medical officer for the Navajo Area Indian Health Service, in mid-December. Its hospitals serve a patient population in the southwestern U.S. that’s spread across an area bigger than West Virginia.

The buildings are aging, and they aren’t built to house a large number of critical patients, said Christensen. As the number of patients on high-flow oxygen climbed, several facilities started to notice their oxygen flow weaken. They thought something was broken, but when engineers took a look, Christensen said, it became clear the system was just not able to provide the amount of high-flow oxygen patients needed.

She said a hospital in Gallup, New Mexico, put in new filters to maximize oxygen flow. After delays from snowy weather, a hospital serving the northern part of the Navajo Nation managed to hook up a second oxygen tank to boost capacity.

But medical facilities in the area are always a little on edge.

“Honestly, we worry about supply a lot out here because — and I call it extreme rurality — you just can’t get something tomorrow,” said Christensen. “It’s not like being in an urban area where you can say, ‘Oh, I need this right now.’”

Because of the small size of certain hospitals and the difficulty of getting to some of them, Christensen said, Navajo facilities aren’t attractive to big vendors, so they rely on local vendors, which may prove more vulnerable to supply chain hiccups.

Tséhootsooí Medical Center in Fort Defiance, Arizona, has at times had to keep patients in the hospital and transfer incoming patients to other facilities because it couldn’t get the oxygen cylinders needed to send recovering patients home.

Tina James-Tafoya, covid incident commander at Fort Defiance Indian Hospital Board, which runs the center, said at-home oxygen is out of the question for some patients. Oxygen concentrators require electricity, which some patients don’t have. And for patients who live in hogans, homes often heated with a wood stove, the use of oxygen cylinders is a hazard.

“It’s really interesting and eye-opening for me to see that something that seems so simple like oxygen has so many different things tied to it that will hinder it getting to the patient,” she said.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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‘An Arm and a Leg’: A Look Back at 2020 — What We Learned and Where We’re Headed

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This episode turns the tables: Host Dan Weissmann gets interviewed about what he learned in 2020 and what’s ahead for the show — with T.K. Dutes, a radio host and podcast-maker who is also a former nurse, so she knows a thing or two about the health care system. She chronicled her career transition in an episode of NPR’s “Life Kit.”

During their conversation, Dutes shared stories about life before and after health insurance. She coins what could be a new tagline for “An Arm and a Leg”: “Where there’s money, there’ll be scams.”

Here’s a transcript of the episode.

For more of Dutes’ work, check out “Open World,” a podcast she published recently with Rose Eveleth. The first episode features a reading by and discussion with the writer N.K. Jemisin, who won a MacArthur “genius” award the day after the show came out. (Clearly, the MacArthur folks were listening.)

“An Arm and a Leg” is a co-production of Kaiser Health News and Public Road Productions.

To keep in touch with “An Arm and a Leg,” subscribe to the newsletter. You can also follow the show on Facebook and Twitter. And if you’ve got stories to tell about the health care system, the producers would love to hear from you.

To hear all Kaiser Health News podcasts, click here.

And subscribe to “An Arm and a Leg” on iTunesPocket CastsGoogle Play or Spotify.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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La pandemia de covid-19 está devastando a los profesionales de salud de color

La primavera pasada, Maritza Beniquez, enfermera de una sala de emergencias de Nueva Jersey, fue testigo de “una oleada tras otra” de pacientes enfermos, cada uno con una mirada aterrada que se volvió familiar a medida que pasaban las semanas.

Pronto, fueron sus colegas del Hospital Universitario de Newark, enfermeras, técnicos y médicos con los que había estado trabajando codo con codo, quienes se presentaban en la emergencia luchando por respirar. “Muchos de nuestros propios compañeros de trabajo se enfermaron, especialmente al principio; literalmente diezmó a nuestro personal”, contó.

A fines de junio, 11 de los colegas de Beniquez habían muerto. Como los pacientes que habían estado tratando, la mayoría eran de raza negra y latinos (que pueden ser de cualquier raza).

“Nos vimos afectados de manera desproporcionada por la forma en que nuestras comunidades se han visto afectadas de manera desproporcionada en cada [parte de] nuestras vidas, desde las escuelas hasta los trabajos y los hogares”, dijo.

El 14 de diciembre, Beniquez se convirtió en la primera persona en Nueva Jersey en recibir la vacuna contra el coronavirus, y fue una de los muchos trabajadores médicos de color destacados en los titulares.

Fue una ocasión alegre, que reavivó la posibilidad de volver a ver a sus padres y a su abuela de 96 años, quienes viven en Puerto Rico. Pero esas imágenes transmitidas a nivel nacional también fueron un recordatorio de aquéllos para quienes la vacuna llegó demasiado tarde.

Covid-19 se ha cobrado un precio enorme entre los afroamericanos y los hispanounidenses. Y esas disparidades se extienden a los trabajadores médicos que los intubaron, limpiaron sus sábanas y tomaron sus manos en sus últimos días, halló una investigación de KHN/The Guardian.

Las personas de color representan aproximadamente el 65% de las muertes en los casos en los que hay datos de raza y etnia.

Un estudio reciente encontró que los trabajadores de salud de color tienen más del doble de probabilidades que sus contrapartes caucásicas de dar positivo para el virus. Son más propensos a tratar a pacientes diagnosticados con covid, y a trabajar en hogares de adultos mayores, los principales focos de coronavirus; y también a reportar un suministro inadecuado de equipo de protección personal, según el informe.

En una muestra nacional de 100 casos recopilados por KHN/The Guardian en los que un trabajador de salud expresó su preocupación por la insuficiencia de EPP antes de morir por covid, tres cuartas partes de las víctimas fueron identificadas como negras, hispanas, nativas americanas o asiáticas.

“Es más probable que los trabajadores de salud de raza negra quieran ir a atenderse al sector público donde saben que tratarán de manera desproporcionada a las comunidades de color”, dijo Adia Wingfield, socióloga de la Universidad de Washington en St. Louis, quien ha estudiado la desigualdad racial en el industria del cuidado de salud. “Pero también es más probable que estén en sintonía con las necesidades y desafíos particulares que puedan tener las comunidades de color”, dijo.

Wingfield agregó que muchos miembros del personal de atención médica afroamericanos no solo trabajan en centros de salud de bajos recursos, sino que también son más propensos a sufrir muchas de las mismas comorbilidades que se encuentran en la población negra en general, un legado de décadas de inequidades sistémicas.

Y pueden ser víctimas de estándares de atención más bajos, agregó la doctora Susan Moore, pediatra de raza negra de 52 años de Indiana, quien fue hospitalizada con covid en noviembre y, según un video publicado en su cuenta de Facebook, tuvo que pedir repetidamente pruebas, remdesivir y analgésicos. Dijo que su médico (caucásico) desestimó sus quejas de dolor y fue dada de alta, solo para ser internada en otro hospital 12 horas después.

Numerosos estudios han encontrado que los afroamericanos a menudo reciben peor atención médica que sus contrapartes blancas: en marzo, una empresa de biotecnología de Boston publicó un análisis que mostraba que era menos probable que los médicos remitieran a pacientes negros sintomáticos para pruebas de coronavirus que a los blancos sintomáticos.

Los médicos también son menos propensos a recetar analgésicos a pacientes negros.

“Si fuera blanca, no tendría que pasar por eso”, dijo Moore en el video publicado desde su cama de hospital. “Así es como matan a los negros, cuando los envías a casa, y no saben cómo luchar por sí mismos”. Moore murió el 20 de diciembre por complicaciones de covid, dijo su hijo Henry Muhammad a los medios de comunicación.

Junto con las personas de color, los trabajadores de salud inmigrantes han sufrido pérdidas desproporcionadas a causa de covid-19. Más de un tercio de los trabajadores de salud que mueren por covid en el país nacieron en el extranjero, desde Filipinas y Haití, hasta Nigeria y México, según un análisis de KHN/The Guardian de casos registrados. Representan el 20% del total de trabajadores de salud de los Estados Unidos.

El doctor Ramon Tallaj, médico y presidente de Somos, una red sin fines de lucro de proveedores de atención médica en Nueva York, dijo que los médicos y enfermeras inmigrantes a menudo ven a pacientes de sus propias comunidades, y muchas comunidades inmigrantes de clase trabajadora han sido devastadas por covid.

“Nuestra comunidad son trabajadores esenciales. Tuvieron que ir a trabajar al comienzo de la pandemia, y cuando se enfermaban, iban a ver al médico de la comunidad”, dijo. Doce médicos y enfermeras de la red Somos han muerto por covid, dijo.

El doctor Eriberto Lozada era médico de familia de 83 años en Long Island, Nueva York. Todavía estaba viendo pacientes fuera de su consulta cuando los casos comenzaron a aumentar la primavera pasada. Originario de Filipinas, un país con un historial de envío de trabajadores médicos calificados a los Estados Unidos, estaba orgulloso de ser médico y “de haber sido un inmigrante próspero”, dijo su hijo James Lozada.

Los miembros de la familia de Lozada lo recuerdan como estricto y de voluntad fuerte; lo llamaban cariñosamente “el rey”. Inculcó a sus hijos la importancia de una buena educación. Murió en abril.

Dos de sus cuatro hijos, John y James Lozada, son médicos. Ambos fueron vacunados el mes pasado. Considerando todo lo que habían pasado, dijo John, fue una ocasión “agridulce”. Pero pensó que era importante por otra razón: ser un ejemplo para sus pacientes.

Las desigualdades en las infecciones, y las muertes, por covid podrían alimentar la desconfianza en la vacuna. En un estudio reciente del Pew Research Center, alrededor del 42% de los encuestados de raza negra dijeron que “definitivamente o probablemente” recibirían la vacuna en comparación con el 60% de la población general.

Esto tiene sentido para Patricia Gardner, enfermera nacida en Jamaica y gerenta en el Centro Médico de la Universidad de Hackensack, en Nueva Jersey, quien contrajo el coronavirus junto con familiares y colegas. “Mucho de lo que escucho es, ‘¿Cómo es que no fuimos los primeros en recibir atención, pero ahora somos los primeros en vacunarnos?’”, dijo.

Al igual que Beniquez, se vacunó el 14 de diciembre. “Para mí, dar un paso al frente y decir: ‘Quiero estar en el primer grupo’, espero que eso envíe un mensaje”, dijo.

Beniquez dijo que sintió el peso de esa responsabilidad cuando se inscribió para ser la primera persona en su estado en recibir la vacuna. Muchos de sus pacientes han expresado escepticismo, impulsado, opinó, por un sistema de salud que les ha fallado durante años.

“Recordamos los juicios de Tuskegee. Recordamos las ‘apendicectomías’ ”: informes de mujeres que fueron esterilizadas a la fuerza en un centro de detención del Servicio de Inmigración y Control de Aduanas de Georgia. “Estas son cosas que le han sucedido a esta comunidad, a las comunidades negras y latinas durante el último siglo. Como trabajadora de salud, tengo que reconocer que sus temores son legítimos y explicarles ‘Esto no es lo mismo’”, dijo.

Beniquez dijo que su alegría y alivio por recibir la vacuna se ven atenuados por la realidad del aumento de casos en la sala de emergencias. La adrenalina que ella y sus colegas sintieron la primavera pasada se ha ido, reemplazada por la fatiga y la cautela de los meses venideros.

Su hospital colocó 11 árboles en el vestíbulo, uno por cada empleado que murió de covid; han sido adornados con recuerdos y obsequios de sus colegas.

Hay uno para Kim King-Smith, de 53 años, el amable técnico de EKG, que visitaba a amigos de amigos, o a familiares cada vez que terminaba en el hospital.

Uno para Danilo Bolima, 54, el enfermero de Filipinas que se convirtió en profesor y era el jefe de servicios de atención al paciente.

Otro para Obinna Chibueze Eke, de 42 años, asistente de enfermería nigeriano, que pidió a sus amigos y familiares que oraran cuando estuvo hospitalizado con covid.

“Cada día, recordamos a nuestros colegas y amigos caídos como los héroes que nos ayudaron a seguir adelante durante esta pandemia y más allá”, dijo el doctor Shereef Elnahal presidente y director ejecutivo del hospital, en un comunicado. “Nunca olvidaremos sus contribuciones y su pasión colectiva por esta comunidad y por los demás”.

Justo afuera del edificio, está el árbol número 12. “Será para otro u otra que perdamos en esta batalla”, dijo Beniquez.

Esta historia es parte de “Lost on the Frontline”, un proyecto en curso de The Guardian y Kaiser Health News que tiene como objetivo documentar las vidas de los trabajadores de  salud de los Estados Unidos que mueren a causa de COVID-19, e investigar por qué tantos son víctimas de la enfermedad. Si tienes un colega o un ser querido que deberíamos incluir, por favor comparte su historia.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Covid ‘Decimated Our Staff’ as the Pandemic Ravages Health Workers of Color in US


This story also ran on The Guardian. It can be republished for free.

Last spring, New Jersey emergency room nurse Maritza Beniquez saw “wave after wave” of sick patients, each wearing a look of fear that grew increasingly familiar as the weeks wore on.

Soon, it was her colleagues at Newark’s University Hospital — the nurses, techs and doctors with whom she had been working side by side — who turned up in the ER, themselves struggling to breathe. “So many of our own co-workers got sick, especially toward the beginning; it literally decimated our staff,” she said.

By the end of June, 11 of Beniquez’s colleagues were dead. Like the patients they had been treating, most were Black and Latino.

“We were disproportionately affected because of the way that Blacks and Latinos in this country have been disproportionately affected across every [part of] our lives — from schools to jobs to homes,” she said.

Now Beniquez feels like a vanguard of another kind. On Dec. 14, she became the first person in New Jersey to receive the coronavirus vaccine — and was one of many medical workers of color featured prominently next to headlines heralding the vaccine’s arrival at U.S. hospitals.

It was a joyous occasion, one that kindled the possibility of again seeing her parents and her 96-year-old grandmother, who live in Puerto Rico. But those nationally broadcast images were also a reminder of those for whom the vaccine came too late.

Covid-19 has taken an outsize toll on Black and Hispanic Americans. And those disparities extend to the medical workers who have intubated them, cleaned their bedsheets and held their hands in their final days, a KHN/Guardian investigation has found. People of color account for about 65% of fatalities in cases in which there is race and ethnicity data.

One recent study found health care workers of color were more than twice as likely as their white counterparts to test positive for the virus. They were more likely to treat patients diagnosed with covid, more likely to work in nursing homes — major coronavirus hotbeds — and more likely to cite an inadequate supply of personal protective equipment, according to the report.

In a national sample of 100 cases gathered by KHN/The Guardian in which a health care worker expressed concerns over insufficient PPE before they died of covid, three-quarters of the victims were identified as Black, Hispanic, Native American or Asian.

“Black health care workers are more likely to want to go into public-sector care where they know that they will disproportionately treat communities of color,” said Adia Wingfield, a sociologist at Washington University in St. Louis who has studied racial inequality in the health care industry. “But they also are more likely to be attuned to the particular needs and challenges that communities of color may have,” she said.

Not only do many Black health care staffers work in lower-resourced health centers, she said, they are also more likely to suffer from many of the same co-morbidities found in the general Black population, a legacy of systemic inequities.

And they may fall victim to lower standards of care. Dr. Susan Moore, a 52-year-old Black pediatrician in Indiana, was hospitalized with covid in November and, according to a video posted to her Facebook account, had to ask repeatedly for tests, remdesivir and pain medication. She said her white doctor dismissed her complaints of pain and she was discharged, only to be admitted to another hospital 12 hours later.

Numerous studies have found Black Americans often receive worse medical care than their white counterparts: In March, a Boston biotech firm published an analysis showing physicians were less likely to refer symptomatic Black patients for coronavirus tests than symptomatic whites. Doctors are also less likely to prescribe painkillers to Black patients.

“If I was white, I wouldn’t have to go through that,” Moore said in the video posted from her hospital bed. “This is how Black people get killed, when you send them home, and they don’t know how to fight for themselves.” She died on Dec. 20 of covid complications, her son Henry Muhammad told news outlets.

Along with people of color, immigrant health workers have suffered disproportionate losses to covid-19. More than one-third of health care workers to die of covid in the U.S. were born abroad, from the Philippines to Haiti, Nigeria and Mexico, according to a KHN/Guardian analysis of cases for which there is data. They account for 20% of health care workers in the U.S. overall.

Dr. Ramon Tallaj, a physician and chairman of Somos, a nonprofit network of health care providers in New York, said immigrant doctors and nurses often see patients from their own communities — and many working-class, immigrant communities have been devastated by covid.

“Our community is essential workers. They had to go to work at the beginning of the pandemic, and when they got sick, they would come and see the doctor in the community,” he said. Twelve doctors and nurses in the Somos network have died of covid, he said.

Dr. Eriberto Lozada was an 83-year-old family physician in Long Island, New York. He was still seeing patients out of his practice when cases began to climb last spring. Originally from the Philippines, a country with a history of sending skilled medical workers to the United States, he was proud to be a doctor and “proud to have been an immigrant who made good,” his son James Lozada said.

Lozada’s family members remember him as strict and strong-willed — they affectionately called him “the king.” He instilled in his children the importance of a good education. He died in April.

Two of his four sons, John and James Lozada, are doctors. Both were vaccinated last month. Considering all they had been through, John said, it was a “bittersweet” occasion. But he thought it was important for another reason — to set an example for his patients.

The inequities in covid infections and deaths risk fueling distrust in the vaccine. In a recent Pew study, around 42% of Black respondents said they would “definitely or probably” get the vaccine compared with 60% of the general population.

This makes sense to Patricia Gardner, a Black, Jamaican-born nursing manager at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey who has been infected with the coronavirus along with family members and colleagues. “A lot of what I hear is, ‘How is it that we weren’t the first to get the care, but now we’re the first to get vaccinated?’” she said.

Like Beniquez, the nurse in Newark, she was vaccinated on Dec. 14. “For me to step up to say, ‘I want to be in the first group’ — I’m hoping that sends a message,” she said.

Beniquez said she felt the weight of that responsibility when she signed on to be the first person in her state to receive the vaccine. Many of her patients have expressed skepticism over the vaccine, fueled, she said, by a health system that has failed them for years.

“We remember the Tuskegee trials. We remember the ‘appendectomies’” — reports that women were forcibly sterilized in a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Georgia. “These are things that have happened to this community to the Black and Latino communities over the last century. As a health care worker, I have to recognize that their fears are legitimate and explain ‘This is not that,’” she said.

Beniquez said her joy and relief over receiving the vaccine are tempered by the reality of rising cases in the ER. The adrenaline she and her colleagues felt last spring is gone, replaced by fatigue and wariness of the months ahead.

Her hospital placed 11 trees in the lobby, one for each employee who has died of covid; they have been adorned with remembrances and gifts from their colleagues.

There is one for Kim King-Smith, 53, the friendly EKG technician, who visited friends of friends or family whenever they ended up in the hospital.

One for Danilo Bolima, 54, the nurse from the Philippines who became a professor and was the head of patient care services.

One for Obinna Chibueze Eke, 42, the Nigerian nursing assistant, who asked friends and family to pray for him when he was hospitalized with covid.

“Each day, we remember our fallen colleagues and friends as the heroes who helped keep us going throughout this pandemic and beyond,” hospital president and CEO Dr. Shereef Elnahal said in a statement. “We can never forget their contributions and their collective passion for this community, and each other.”

Just outside the building, stands a 12th tree. “It’s going to be for whoever else we lose in this battle,” Beniquez said.

This story is part of “Lost on the Frontline,” an ongoing project from The Guardian and Kaiser Health News that aims to document the lives of health care workers in the U.S. who die from COVID-19, and to investigate why so many are victims of the disease. If you have a colleague or loved one we should include, please share their story.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Video: The Healthy Nurse Who Died at 40 on the COVID Frontline: ‘She Was the Best Mom I Ever Had’

Yolanda Coar was 40 when she died of COVID-19 in August 2020 in Augusta, Georgia. She was also a nurse manager, and one of nearly 3,000 frontline workers who have died in the U.S. fighting this virus, according to an exclusive investigation by The Guardian and KHN.

Read more of the health workers’ stories behind the statistics — their personalities, passions and quirks. “Lost on the Frontline” examines: Did they have to die?

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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This story can be republished for free (details).

As the Terror of COVID Struck, Health Care Workers Struggled to Survive. Thousands Lost the Fight.


This story also ran on The Guardian. It can be republished for free.

Workers at Garfield Medical Center in suburban Los Angeles were on edge as the pandemic ramped up in March and April. Staffers in a 30-patient unit were rationing a single tub of sanitizing wipes all day. A May memo from the CEO said N95 masks could be cleaned up to 20 times before replacement.

Patients showed up COVID-negative but some still developed symptoms a few days later. Contact tracing took the form of texts and whispers about exposures.

By summer, frustration gave way to fear. At least 60 staff members at the 210-bed community hospital caught COVID-19, according to records obtained by KHN and interviews with eight staff members and others familiar with hospital operations.

The first to die was Dawei Liang, 60, a quiet radiology technician who never said no when a colleague needed help. A cardiology technician became infected and changed his final wishes — agreeing to intubation — hoping for more years to dote on his grandchildren.

Few felt safe.

Ten months into the pandemic, it has become far clearer why tens of thousands of health care workers have been infected by the virus and why so many have died: dire PPE shortages. Limited COVID tests. Sparse tracking of viral spread. Layers of flawed policies handed down by health care executives and politicians, and lax enforcement by government regulators.

All of those breakdowns, across cities and states, have contributed to the deaths of more than 2,900 health care workers, a nine-month investigation by over 70 reporters at KHN and The Guardian has found. This number is far higher than that reported by the U.S. government, which does not have a comprehensive national count of health care workers who’ve died of COVID-19.

The fatalities have skewed young, with the majority of victims under age 60 in the cases for which there is age data. People of color have been disproportionately affected, accounting for about 65% of deaths in cases in which there is race and ethnicity data. After conducting interviews with relatives and friends of around 300 victims, KHN and The Guardian learned that one-third of the fatalities involved concerns over inadequate personal protective equipment.

Many of the deaths occurred in New York and New Jersey, and significant numbers also died in Southern and Western states as the pandemic wore on.

Workers at well-funded academic medical centers — hubs of policymaking clout and prestigious research — were largely spared. Those who died tended to work in less prestigious community hospitals like Garfield, nursing homes and other health centers in roles in which access to critical information was low and patient contact was high.

Garfield Medical Center and its parent company, AHMC Healthcare, did not respond to multiple calls or emails regarding workers’ concerns and circumstances leading to the worker deaths.

So as 2020 draws to a close, we ask: Did so many of the nation’s health care workers have to die?

New York’s Warning for the Nation

The seeds of the crisis can be found in New York and the surrounding cities and suburbs. It was the region where the profound risks facing medical staff became clear. And it was here where the most died.

As the pandemic began its U.S. surge, city paramedics were out in force, their sirens cutting through eerily empty streets as they rushed patients to hospitals. Carlos Lizcano, a blunt Queens native who had been with the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) for two decades, was one of them.

He was answering four to five cardiac arrest calls every shift. Normally he would have fielded that many in a month. He remembered being stretched so thin he had to enlist a dying man’s son to help with CPR. On another call, he did chest compressions on a 33-year-old woman as her two small children stood in the doorway of a small apartment.

“I just have this memory of those kids looking at us like, ‘What’s going on?’”

After the young woman died, Lizcano went outside and punched the ambulance in frustration and grief.

The personal risks paramedics faced were also grave.

More than 40% of emergency medical service workers in the FDNY went on leave for confirmed or suspected coronavirus during the first three months of the pandemic, according to a study by the department’s chief medical officer and others.

In fact, health care workers were three times more likely than the general public to get COVID-19, other researchers found. And the risks were not equally spread among medical professions. Initially, CDC guidelines were written to afford the highest protection to workers in a hospital’s COVID-19 unit.

Yet months later, it was clear that the doctors initially thought to be at most risk — anesthesiologists and those working in the intensive care unit — were among the least likely to die. This could be due to better personal protective equipment or patients being less infectious by the time they reach the ICU.

Instead, scientists discovered that “front door” health workers like paramedics and those in acute-care “receiving” roles — such as in the emergency room — were twice as likely as other health care workers to be hospitalized with COVID-19.

For FDNY’s first responders, part of the problem was having to ration and reuse masks. Workers were blind to an invisible threat that would be recognized months later: The virus spread rapidly from pre-symptomatic people and among those with no symptoms at all.

In mid-March, Lizcano was one of thousands of FDNY first responders infected with COVID-19.

At least four of them died, city records show. They were among the 679 health care workers who have died in New York and New Jersey to date, most at the height of the terrible first wave of the virus.

“Initially, we didn’t think it was this bad,” Lizcano said, recalling the confusion and chaos of the early pandemic. “This city wasn’t prepared.”

Neither was the rest of the country.

An Elusive Enemy

The virus continued to spread like a ghost through the nation and proved deadly to workers who were among the first to encounter sick patients in their hospital or nursing home. One government agency had a unique vantage point into the problem but did little to use its power to cite employers — or speak out about the hazards.

Health employers had a mandate to report worker deaths and hospitalizations to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

When they did so, the report went to an agency headed by Eugene Scalia, son of conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia who died in 2016. The younger Scalia had spent part of his career as a corporate lawyer fighting the very agency he was charged with leading.

Its inspectors have documented instances in which some of the most vulnerable workers — those with low information and high patient contact — faced incredible hazards, but OSHA’s staff did little to hold employers to account.

Beaumont, Texas, a town near the Louisiana border, was largely untouched by the pandemic in early April.

That’s when a 56-year-old physical therapy assistant at Christus Health’s St. Elizabeth Hospital named Danny Marks called in sick with a fever and body aches, federal OSHA records show.

He told a human resources employee that he’d been in the room of a patient who was receiving a breathing treatment — the type known as the most hazardous to health workers. The CDC advises that N95 respirators be used by all in the room for the so-called aerosol-generating procedures. (A facility spokesperson said the patient was not known or suspected to have COVID at the time Marks entered the room.)

Marks went home to self-isolate. By April 17, he was dead.

The patient whose room Marks entered later tested positive for COVID-19. And an OSHA investigation into Marks’ death found there was no sign on the door to warn him that a potentially infected patient was inside, nor was there a cart outside the room where he could grab protective gear.

The facility did not have a universal masking policy in effect when Marks went in the room, and it was more than likely that he was not wearing any respiratory protection, according to a copy of the report obtained through a public records request. Twenty-one more employees contracted COVID by the time he died.

“He was a beloved gentleman and friend and he is missed very much,” Katy Kiser, Christus’ public relations director, told KHN.

OSHA did not issue a citation to the facility, instead recommending safety changes.

The agency logged nearly 8,700 complaints from health care workers in 2020. Yet Harvard researchers found that some of those desperate pleas for help, often decrying shortages of PPE, did little to forestall harm. In fact, they concluded that surges in those complaints preceded increases in deaths among working-age adults 16 days later.

One report author, Peg Seminario, blasted OSHA for failing to use its power to get employers’ attention about the danger facing health workers. She said issuing big fines in high-profile cases can have a broad impact — except OSHA has not done so.

“There’s no accountability for failing to protect workers from exposure to this deadly virus,” said Seminario, a former union health and safety official.

More ‘Lost on the Frontline’ Stories

Desperate for Safety Gear

There was little outward sign this summer that Garfield Medical Center was struggling to contain COVID-19. While Medicare has forced nursing homes to report staff infections and deaths, no such requirement applies to hospitals.

Yet as the focus of the pandemic moved from the East Coast in the spring to Southern and Western states, health care worker deaths climbed. And behind the scenes at Garfield, workers were dealing with a lack of equipment meant to keep them safe.

Complaints to state worker-safety officials filed in March and April said Garfield Medical Center workers were asked to reuse the same N95 respirator for a week. Another complaint said workers ran out of medical gowns and were directed to use less-protective gowns typically provided to patients.

Staffers were shaken by the death of Dawei Liang. And only after his death and a rash of infections did Garfield provide N95 masks to more workers and put up plastic tarps to block a COVID unit from an adjacent ward. Yet this may have been too late.

The coronavirus can easily spread to every corner of a hospital. Researchers in South Africa traced a single ER patient to 119 cases in a hospital — 80 among staff members. Those included 62 nurses from neurology, surgical and general medical units that typically would not have housed COVID patients.

By late July, Garfield cardiac and respiratory technician Thong Nguyen, 73, learned he was COVID-positive days after he collapsed at work. Nguyen loved his job and was typically not one to complain, said his youngest daughter, Dinh Kozuki. A 34-year veteran at the hospital, he was known for conducting medical tests in multiple languages. His colleagues teased him, saying he was never going to retire.

Kozuki said her father spoke up in March about the rationing of protective gear, but his concerns were not allayed.

The PPE problems at Garfield were a symptom of a broader problem. As the virus spread around the nation, chronic shortages of protective gear left many workers in community-based settings fatally exposed. Nearly 1 in 3 family members or friends of around 300 health care workers interviewed by KHN or The Guardian expressed concerns about a fallen workers’ PPE.

Health care workers’ labor unions asked for the more-protective N95 respirators when the pandemic began. But Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines said the unfitted surgical masks worn by workers who feed, bathe and lift COVID patients were adequate amid supply shortages.

Mary Turner, an ICU nurse and president of the Minnesota Nurses Association, said she protested alongside nurses all summer demanding better protective gear, which she said was often kept from workers because of supply-chain shortages and the lack of political will to address them.

“It shouldn’t have to be that way,” Turner said. “We shouldn’t have to beg on the streets for protection during a pandemic.”

At Garfield, it was even hard to get tested. Critical care technician Tony Ramirez said he started feeling ill on July 12. He had an idea of how he might have been exposed: He’d cleaned up urine and feces of a patient suspected of having COVID-19 and worked alongside two staffers who also turned out to be COVID-positive. At the time, he’d been wearing a surgical mask and was worried it didn’t protect him.

Yet he was denied a free test at the hospital, and went on his own time to Dodger Stadium to get one. His positive result came back a few days later.

As Ramirez rested at home, he texted Alex Palomo, 44, a Garfield medical secretary who was also at home with COVID-19, to see how he was doing. Palomo was the kind of man who came to many family parties but would often slip away unseen. A cousin finally asked him about it: Palomo said he just hated to say goodbye.

Palomo would wear only a surgical mask when he would go into the rooms of patients with flashing call lights, chat with them and maybe bring them a refill of water, Ramirez said.

Ramirez said Palomo had no access to patient charts, so he would not have known which patients had COVID-19: “In essence, he was helping blindly.”

Palomo never answered the text. He died of COVID-19 on Aug. 14.

And Thong Nguyen had fared no better. His daughter, a hospital pharmacist in Fresno, had pressed him to go on a ventilator after seeing other patients survive with the treatment. It might mean he could retire and watch his grandkids grow up. But it made no difference.

“He definitely should not have passed [away],” Kozuki said.

Nursing Homes Devastated

During the summer, as nursing homes recovered from their spring surge, Heather Pagano got a new assignment. The Doctors Without Borders adviser on humanitarianism had been working in cholera clinics in Nigeria. In May, she arrived in southeastern Michigan to train nursing home staffers on optimal infection-control techniques.

Federal officials required worker death reports from nursing homes, which by December tallied more than 1,100 fatalities. Researchers in Minnesota found particular hazards for these health workers, concluding they were the ones most at risk of getting COVID-19.

Pagano learned that staffers were repurposing trash bin liners and going to the local Sherwin-Williams store for painting coveralls to backfill shortages of medical gowns. The least-trained clinical workers — nursing assistants — were doing the most hazardous jobs, turning and cleaning patients, and brushing their teeth.

She said nursing home leaders were shuffling reams of federal, state and local guidelines yet had little understanding of how to stop the virus from spreading.

“No one sent trainers to show people what to do, practically speaking,” she said.

As the pandemic wore on, nursing homes reported staff shortages getting worse by the week: Few wanted to put their lives on the line for $13 an hour, the wage for nursing assistants in many parts of the U.S.

The organization GetusPPE, formed by doctors to address shortages, saw almost all requests for help were coming from nursing homes, doctors’ offices and other non-hospital facilities. Only 12% of the requests could be fulfilled, its October report said.

And a pandemic-weary and science-wary public has fueled the virus’s spread. In fact, whether or not a nursing home was properly staffed played only a small role in determining its susceptibility to a lethal outbreak, University of Chicago public health professor Tamara Konetzka found. The crucial factor was whether there was widespread viral transmission in the surrounding community.

“In the end, the story has pretty much stayed the same,” Konetzka said. “Nursing homes in virus hot spots are at high risk and there’s very little they can do to keep the virus out.”

The Vaccine Arrives

From March through November, 40 complaints were filed about the Garfield Medical Center with the California Department of Public Health, nearly three times the statewide average for the time. State officials substantiated 11 complaints and said they are part of an ongoing inspection.

For Thanksgiving, AHMC Healthcare Chairman Jonathan Wu sent hospital staffers a letter thanking “frontline healthcare workers who continue to serve, selflessly exposing themselves to the virus so that others may cope, recover and survive.”

The letter made no mention of the workers who had died. “A lot of people were upset by that,” said critical care technician Melissa Ennis. “I was upset.”

By December, all workers were required to wear an N95 respirator in every corner of the hospital, she said. Ennis said she felt unnerved taking it off. She took breaks to eat and drink in her car.

Garfield said on its website that it is screening patients for the virus and will “implement infection prevention and control practices to protect our patients, visitors, and staff.”

On Dec. 9, Ennis received notice that the vaccine was on its way to Garfield. Nationwide, the vaccine brought health workers relief from months of tension. Nurses and doctors posted photos of themselves weeping and holding their small children.

At the same time, it proved too late for some. A new surge of deaths drove the toll among health workers to more than 2,900.

And before Ennis could get the shot, she learned she would have to wait at least a few more days, until she could get a COVID test.

She found out she’d been exposed to the virus by a colleague.

Shoshana Dubnow and Anna Sirianni contributed to this report.Video by Hannah NormanWeb production by Lydia Zuraw

This story is part of “Lost on the Frontline,” an ongoing project from The Guardian and Kaiser Health News that aims to document the lives of health care workers in the U.S. who die from COVID-19, and to investigate why so many are victims of the disease. If you have a colleague or loved one we should include, please share their story.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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This story can be republished for free (details).

Retiree Living the RV Dream Fights $12,387 Nightmare Lab Fee

Lorraine Rogge and her husband, Michael Rogge, travel the country in a recreational vehicle, a well-earned adventure in retirement. This spring found them parked in Artesia, New Mexico, for several months.


This story also ran on NPR. It can be republished for free.

In May, Rogge, 60, began to feel pelvic pain and cramping. But she had had a total hysterectomy in 2006, so the pain seemed unusual, especially because it lasted for days. She looked for a local gynecologist and found one who took her insurance at the Carlsbad Medical Center in Carlsbad, New Mexico, about a 20-mile drive from the RV lot.

The doctor asked if Rogge was sexually active, and she responded yes and that she had been married to Michael for 26 years. Rogge felt she made it clear that she is in a monogamous relationship. The doctor then did a gynecological examination and took a vaginal swab sample for laboratory testing.

The only lab test Rogge remembered discussing with the doctor was to see whether she had a yeast infection. She wasn’t given any medication to treat the pelvic pain and eventually it disappeared after a few days.

Then the bill came.

The Patient: Lorraine Rogge, 60. Her insurance coverage was an Anthem Blue Cross retiree plan through her husband’s former employer, with a deductible of $2,000 and out-of-pocket maximum of $6,750 for in-network providers.

Total Bill: Carlsbad Medical Center billed $12,386.93 to Anthem Blue Cross for a vaginosis, vaginitis and sexually transmitted infections (STI) testing panel. The insurer paid $4,161.58 on a negotiated rate of $7,172.05. That left Rogge responsible for $1,970 of her deductible and $1,040.36 coinsurance. Her total owed for the lab bill was $3,010.47. Rogge also paid $93.85 for the visit to the doctor.

Service Provider: Carlsbad Medical Center in Carlsbad, New Mexico. It is owned by Community Health Systems, a large for-profit chain of hospital systems based in Franklin, Tennessee, outside Nashville. The doctor Rogge saw works for Carlsbad Medical Center and its lab processed her test.

Medical Service: A bundled testing panel that looked for bacterial and yeast infections as well as common STIs, including chlamydia, gonorrhea and trichomoniasis.

What Gives: There were two things Rogge didn’t know as she sought care. First, Carlsbad Medical Center is notorious for its high prices and aggressive billing practices and, second, she wasn’t aware she would be tested for a wide range of sexually transmitted infections.

The latter bothered her a lot since she has been sexually active only with her husband. She doesn’t remember being advised about the STI testing at all. Nor was she questioned about whether she or her husband might have been sexually active with other people, which could have justified broader testing. They have been on the road together for five years.

“I was incensed that they ran these tests, when they just said they were going to run a yeast infection test,” said Rogge. “They ran all these tests that one would run on a very young person who had a lot of boyfriends, not a 60-year-old grandmother that’s been married for 26 years.”

Although a doctor doesn’t need a patient’s authorization to run tests, it’s not good practice to do so without informing the patient, said Dr. Ina Park, an associate professor of family community medicine at the University of California-San Francisco School of Medicine. That is particularly true with tests of a sensitive nature, like STIs. It is doubly true when the tests are going to costs thousands of dollars.

Park, an expert in sexually transmitted infections, also questioned the necessity of the full panel of tests for a patient who had a hysterectomy.

Beyond that, the pricing for these tests was extremely high. “It should not cost $12,000 to get an evaluation for vaginitis,” said Park.

Charles Root, an expert in lab billing, agreed.

“Quite frankly, the retail prices on [the bill] are ridiculous, they make no sense at all,” said Root. “Those are tests that cost about $10 to run.”

In fall 2019, The New York Times and CNN investigated Carlsbad Medical Center and found the facility had taken thousands of patients to court for unpaid hospital bills. Carlsbad Medical Center also has higher prices than many other facilities — a 2019 Rand Corp. study found that private insurance companies paid Carlsbad Medical Center 505% of what Medicare would pay for the same procedures.

The bundled testing panel run on Rogge’s sample was a Quest Diagnostics SureSwab Vaginosis Panel Plus. It included six types of tests. Quest Diagnostics didn’t provide the cost for the bundled tests, but Kim Gorode, a company spokesperson, said if the tests had been ordered directly through Quest rather than through the hospital, it was likely “the patient responsibility would have been substantially less.”

According to Medicare’s Clinical Laboratory Fee Schedule, Medicare would have reimbursed labs only about $40 for each test run on Rogge’s sample. And Medicaid would reimburse hospitals in New Mexico similarly, according to figures provided by Russell Toal, superintendent of New Mexico’s insurance department.

But hospitals and clinics can — and do — add substantial markups to clinical tests sent out to commercial labs.

Although private health insurance doesn’t typically reimburse hospitals at Medicare or Medicaid rates, Root said, private insurance reimbursement rates are rarely much more than 200% to 300% of Medicare’s rates. Assuming a 300% reimbursement rate, the total private insurance would have reimbursed for the six tests would have been $720.

That $720 is less than what Carlsbad Medical Center charged Rogge for her chlamydia test alone: $1,045. And for several of the tests, the medical center charged multiple quantities — presumably corresponding to how many species were tested for — elevating the cost of the yeast infection test to over $4,000.

Toal, who reviewed Rogge’s bill, called the prices “outrageous.”

Resolution: Rogge contacted Anthem Blue Cross and talked to a customer service representative, who submitted a fraud-and-waste claim and an appeal contending the charges were excessive.

The appeal was denied. Anthem Blue Cross told Rogge that under her plan the insurance company had paid the amount it was responsible for, and that based on her deductible and coinsurance amounts, she was responsible for the remainder.

Anthem Blue Cross said in a statement to KHN all the tests run on Rogge were approved and “paid for in accordance with Anthem’s pre-determined contracted rate with Carlsbad Medical Center.”

By the time Rogge’s appeal was denied, she had researched Carlsbad Medical Center and read the stories of patients being brought to court for medical bills they couldn’t pay. She had also gotten a notice from the hospital that her account would be sent to a collection agency if she didn’t pay the $3,000 balance.

Fearing the possibility of getting sued or ruining her credit, Rogge agreed to a plan to pay the bill over three years. She made three payments of $83.63 each in September, October and November, totaling $250.89.

After a Nov. 18 call and email from KHN, Carlsbad Medical Center called Rogge on Nov. 20 and said the remainder of her account balance would be waived.

Rogge was thrilled. We “aren’t the kind of people who have payment plans hanging over our heads,” she said, adding: “This is a relief.”

“I’m going to go on a bike ride now” to celebrate, she said.

The Takeaway: Particularly when visiting a doctor with whom you don’t have a long-standing trusted relationship, don’t be afraid to ask: How much is this test going to cost? Also ask for what, exactly, are you being tested? Do not be comforted by the facility’s in-network status. With coinsurance and deductibles, you can still be out a lot.

If it’s a blood test that will be sent out to a commercial lab like Quest Diagnostics anyway, ask the physician to just give you a requisition to have the blood drawn at the commercial lab. That way you avoid the markup. This advice is obviously not possible for a vaginal swab gathered in a doctor’s office.

Patients should always fight bills they believe are excessively high and escalate the matter if necessary.

Rogge started with her insurer and the provider, as should most patients with a billing question. But, as she learned: In American medicine, what’s legal and in accordance with an insurance contract can seem logically absurd. Still, if you get no satisfaction from your initial inquiries, be aware of options for taking your complaints further.

Every state and U.S. territory has a department that regulates the insurance industry. In New Mexico, that’s the Office of the Superintendent of Insurance. Consumers can look up their state’s department on the National Association of Insurance Commissioners website.

Toal, the insurance superintendent in New Mexico, said his office doesn’t (and no office in the state does that he’s aware of) have the authority to tell a hospital its prices are too high. But he can look into a bill like Rogge’s if a complaint is filed with his office.

“If the patient wants, they can request an independent review, so the bill would go to an independent organization that could see if it was medically necessary,” Toal said.

That wasn’t needed in this case because Rogge’s bill was waived. And after being contacted by KHN, Melissa Suggs, a spokesperson with Carlsbad Medical Center, said the facility is revising their lab charges.

“Pricing for these services will be lower in the future,” Suggs said in a statement.

Bill of the Month is a crowdsourced investigation by KHN and NPR that dissects and explains medical bills. Do you have an interesting medical bill you want to share with us? Tell us about it!

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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‘Nine Months Into It, the Adrenaline Is Gone and It’s Just Exhausting’

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In March, during the first week of the San Francisco Bay Area’s first-in-the-nation stay-at-home order, KHN spoke with emergency department physicians working on the front lines of the burgeoning COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, these doctors reported dire shortages of personal protective equipment and testing supplies. Health officials had no idea how widespread the virus was, and some experts warned hospitals would be overwhelmed by critically ill patients.

In the end, due to both the early sweeping shutdown order and a state-sponsored effort to bolster the supply chain, Bay Area hospitals were able to avert that catastrophe. The region so far has fared much better than most other U.S. metro regions when it comes to rates of COVID infection and death. Even so, with intensive care unit capacity dwindling to critical levels statewide, San Francisco on Thursday issued another drastic order, announcing a mandatory 10-day quarantine for anyone returning to the city who has spent time outside the region.

Amid this fierce second surge, we circled back last week to check in with Dr. Jeanne Noble, director of the COVID response at the University of California-San Francisco medical center emergency department, to get her reflections on the Bay Area’s experience. She explained how even as her hospital has made so many improvements, including recently launching universal testing so that everyone who comes to the emergency room is tested for COVID-19, the lockdown and burnout are wearing on her and her colleagues. The conversation has been edited for length.

Q: How are you doing at UCSF right now? 

We’re OK in terms of our numbers. We have our ICU capacity; today’s numbers are 74% occupied. Acute care is a little bit tighter; the emergency department is seeing an increase in patients. [Editor’s note: As of Sunday, ICU capacity had dropped to 13%.]

We did have a period of time before this last surge where we often had a few days with no COVID patients. That was great. That ended in late September. This morning we have 11 patients on ventilators in the ICU.

I think we’re the first hospital in the state for universal testing. Everyone who comes to the ER gets tested. I’ve been working on this for months, but it’s new this week. Now we have testing, so we don’t have to do so much guesswork.

Q: When we spoke during the week of the first stay-at-home order, back in March, you were very worried. How do things compare now?

The supply [of masks] is just much better than it was back in March. In March, we had furloughed engineers from our local museum, the Exploratorium, making us face shields, and we started a makers lab in the library across the street to make supplies. It doesn’t feel like that this time around. We have a longer horizon.

I think in terms of our COVID care and our hospital capacity, we are fine. But my own sort of perspective on all of this is: When are we going to be done with this? Because even though things are smoother — we have PPE, we have testing — it’s a tremendous amount of work and stress. Frankly, the fact that my children have not been in school since March is one of my major sources of stress.

We’re all working way more than we ever have before. And nine months into it, the adrenaline is gone and it’s just purely exhausting.

Q: Can you tell me more about that, the physical and emotional toll on the hospital staff?

We don’t allow eating in the ED anymore, so we don’t have break rooms. Especially if you’re the supervising doctor, you need to do this elaborate handoff to another doctor if you need to eat. You know, it’s 10 hours into your shift and you want a cup of coffee.

The hassles and the discomforts. Wearing an N95 day after day is really uncomfortable. A lot of us have ulcers on our noses. They become painful.

And the lack of being able to socialize with colleagues is hard. The ED has always been a pretty intense environment. That’s offset by this closeness and being a team. All of this emotional intensity, treating people day after day at these incredible junctures in their lives — a lot of the camaraderie and morale comes from being able to debrief together. When you’re not supposed to be closer than a few feet from one another and you don’t take off your masks, it’s a lot of strain.

People are much less worried about coming home to their families. It hasn’t been the fomite disease we were all worried about initially, worried we’d give our kids COVID from our shoes. But there’s still the concern. Every time you get a runny nose or a sore throat you need to get tested, and you worry about what if you infected your family.

Q: So will you and your colleagues be able to take a break over the holidays?

We’ll see what happens. We’re just now starting to feel like we’re seeing the post-Thanksgiving numbers. But I think that even without having to do extra shifts in the ED, certainly for someone like me doing COVID response, there’s always a huge number of issues to work through. We just got the monoclonal antibodies, which is great, but that’s a whole new workflow.

I think what is going to bother people the most is that we are in lockdown. Kind of longing for that relaxation and time with family that we’re all kind of craving.

Q: It sounds like things are hard, but the hospital is in a relatively good place.

I was deployed to the Navajo Nation and helped with their surge in May in Gallup, New Mexico, and that is much, much harder than what we’ve faced in the Bay Area. In Gallup, at Indian Health Service, they were incredible in just the can-do attitude with way fewer resources than we have here. As of this summer, they had had the worst per capita surge in the country. They redesigned their ED essentially by cutting every room in half, hanging plastic on hooks you would use to hang your bicycle wheel. They hung thick plastic and right there doubled their capacity of patients they could see.

Our tents at UCSF are these blue medical tents with HVAC systems, heaters, negative pressure. They are really nice. There they had what looked like beach cabanas — open walls with just a tent overhead. In March and April they were taking care of patients in the snow. In the summer, it was hot and windy. When I was there, almost every single one of my patients had COVID.

That level of intensity was not something we had to go through in the Bay Area. Not to say that it’s easy [here]; I just told you all the ways it’s hard. But everything is relative. In terms of the COVID landscape, we have been very lucky.

Q: The Bay Area was early to close and has had stricter regulations than many parts of the country. As someone directly affected, what do you think of the response?

I think that we have benefited from early closures, unquestionably, when we did our shelter-in-place in March and probably saved 80,000 lives. It was really a tremendous and a bold move.

We’ve done some things well and other things not so well. We were very late to implement closures in a targeted fashion. Restaurants and dining reopened this summer, and a lot of us couldn’t figure out why indoor dining was open. Why is indoor dining something we need to even be considering when we’ve just barely flattened our curve? It was very predictable that cases would go up when dining happened. And they did.

We need to evaluate what is more important for our society and well-being, and to say what is the risk associated with that activity. Schools are of high social value. And [the closures are] really hard for kids. We’re seeing a lot of adolescents with suicidal ideation brought to the emergency department, which is related to school closure. I would put dining and restaurants as being of minimal social importance and very high risk.

We could have done this better. Closing [down society] when numbers go up is reasonable and that saves lives. But I think we know enough that it should not be an across-the-board closing. I mean, with this latest order, they temporarily closed parks. And we’ve been telling people to go outside. It’s like, what? Are you kidding?

This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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With Few Takers for COVID Vaccine, DC Hospital CEO Takes ‘One for the Team’


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Administrators at Howard University Hospital in Washington, D.C., were thrilled to be among the city’s first hospitals to get a COVID-19 vaccine, but they knew it could be a tough sell to get staffers to take the shot.

They were right.

The hospital, located on the campus of one the nation’s oldest historically Black colleges, received 725 doses of the vaccine made by Pfizer and BioNTech on Dec. 14 and expects 1,000 more vaccine doses this week to immunize its workers.

Yet, as of Friday afternoon, about 600 employees had signed up for the shots, touted as about 95% effective in preventing the deadly disease. Howard has about 1,900 employees, not counting hundreds of independent contractors it also hoped to vaccinate.

“There is a high level of mistrust and I get it,” said Anita Jenkins, the hospital’s chief executive officer who received the shot Tuesday in hopes of inspiring her staff to follow her lead. “People are genuinely afraid of the vaccine.”

Studies showed few serious side effects in more than 40,000 people before the vaccine was authorized for emergency use in the U.S. A few people worldwide have had allergic reactions in the past week.

In late November, a hospital survey of 350 workers found 70% either did not want to take a COVID vaccine or did not want it as soon as it became available.

So, officials are not dismayed at the turnout so far, saying it shows their educational campaign is beginning to work.

“This is a significant win,” said Jenkins, who added she was happy to “take one for the team” when she and other health care personnel got the first shots. About 380 Howard employees or affiliated staff had been vaccinated by Friday afternoon.

Although hesitancy toward the vaccine is a challenge nationally, it’s a significant problem among Black adults because of their generations-long distrust of the medical community and racial inequities in health care.

When Jenkins posted a picture of herself getting vaccinated on her Facebook page, she received many thumbs up but also pointed criticism. “One called me a sellout and asked why I would do that to my people,” she said.

Before being vaccinated, Jenkins said, she read about the clinical trials and was glad to learn the first vaccines in development were unlike some that use weakened or inactivated viruses to stimulate the body’s immune defense. The COVID vaccine by Pfizer and BioNTech does not contain the actual virus.

And one factor driving her to take the shot was that some employees said they would be more willing to do it if she did.

The hesitancy among her staff members has its roots in the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, said Jenkins, who started at Howard in February.

The 40-year study, which was run by the U.S. Public Health Service until 1972, followed 600 Black men infected with syphilis in rural Alabama over the course of their lives. The researchers refused to tell patients their diagnosis or treat them for the debilitating disease. Many men died of the disease and several wives contracted it.

Jenkins said she was not surprised that many Howard employees — including doctors — are questioning whether to take a vaccine, even though Black patients are twice as likely to die of COVID-19.

While African Americans make up 45% of the population in the District of Columbia, they account for 74% of the 734 COVID deaths. Nationally, Blacks are nearly four times more likely to be hospitalized due to COVID compared with whites and nearly three times more likely to die.

Howard, which has treated hundreds of COVID patients, was one of six hospitals in the city to get the first batch of nearly 7,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine Monday. About one-third of those doses were administered by Friday morning, said Justin Palmer, a vice president of the District of Columbia Hospital Association.

Federal officials Friday authorized a second vaccine, made by Moderna, for emergency use. That vaccine is expected to be distributed starting this week.

The political bickering over the COVID response has also hurt efforts to instill confidence in the vaccine, Jenkins said.

Other than a sore arm, Jenkins said, she’s had no side effects from the vaccine, which can also commonly cause fatigue and headache. “Today I am walking the halls,” she explained, “and I got the shot two days ago.”

Part of the challenge for Jenkins and other hospital officials will be persuading employees not just to take a vaccine now but to return for the booster shot three weeks later. One dose offers only partial protection.

Jenkins said the hospital plans to make reminder calls to get people to follow up. She said efforts to increase participation at the hospital will also continue.

“It was important for me to be a standard-bearer to show the team I am in there with them,” she said.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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No More ICU Beds at the Main Public Hospital in the Nation’s Largest County as COVID Surges

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She lay behind a glass barrier, heavily sedated, kept alive by a machine that blew oxygen into her lungs through a tube taped to her mouth and lodged at the back of her throat. She had deteriorated rapidly since arriving a short time earlier.

“Her respiratory system is failing, and her cardiovascular system is failing,” said Dr. Luis Huerta, a critical care expert in the intensive care unit. The odds of survival for the patient, who could not be identified for privacy reasons, were poor, Huerta said.

The woman, in her 60s, was among 50 patients so ill with COVID-19 that they required constant medical attention this week in ICUs at Los Angeles County+USC Medical Center, a 600-bed public hospital on L.A.’s Eastside. A large majority of them had diabetes, obesity or hypertension.

An additional 100 COVID patients, less ill at least for the moment, were in other parts of the hospital, and the numbers were growing. In the five days that ended Wednesday, eight COVID patients at the hospital died — double the number from the preceding five days.

As COVID patients have flooded into LAC+USC in recent weeks, they’ve put an immense strain on its ICU capacity and staff — especially since non-COVID patients, with gunshot wounds, drug overdoses, heart attacks and strokes, also need intensive care.

No more ICU beds were available, said Dr. Brad Spellberg, the hospital’s chief medical officer.

Similar scenes — packed wards, overworked medical staffers, harried administrators and grieving families — are playing out in hospitals across the state and the nation.

In California, only 4.1% of ICU beds were available as of Wednesday. In the 11-county Southern California region, just 0.5 % of ICU beds were open, and in the San Joaquin Valley, none were.

The county of Los Angeles, the nation’s largest, was perilously close to zero capacity.

County health officials reported Wednesday that the number of daily new COVID cases, deaths and hospitalizations had all soared beyond their previous highs for the entire pandemic.

LAC+USC has had a heavy COVID burden since the beginning of the pandemic, largely because the low-income, predominantly Latino community it serves has been hit so hard. Latinos represent about 39% of California’s population but have accounted for nearly 57% of the state’s COVID cases and 48% of its COVID deaths, according to data updated this week.

Many people who live near the hospital have essential jobs and “are not able to work from home. They are going out there and exposing themselves because they have to make a living,” Spellberg said. And, he said, “they don’t live in giant houses where they can isolate themselves in a room.”

The worst cases end up lying amid a tangle of tubes and bags, in ICU rooms designed to prevent air and viral particles from flowing out into the hall. The sickest among them, like the woman described above, need machines to breathe for them. They are fed through nose tubes, their bladders draining into catheter bags, while intravenous lines deliver fluids and medications to relieve pain, keep them sedated and raise their blood pressure to a level necessary for life.

To take some pressure off the ICUs, the hospital this week opened a new “step-down” unit, for patients who are still very sick but can be managed with a slightly lower level of care. Spellberg said he hopes the unit will accommodate up to 10 patients.

Hospital staff members have also been scouring the insurance plans of patients to see if they can be transferred to other hospitals. “But at this point, it’s become almost impossible, because they’re all filling up,” Spellberg said.

Two weeks ago, a smaller percentage of COVID patients in the ER were showing signs of severe disease, which meant fewer needed to be admitted to the hospital or the ICU than during the July surge. That was helping, as Spellberg put it, to keep the water below the top of the levee.

But not anymore.

“Over the last 10 days, it is my distinct impression that the severity has worsened again, and that’s why our ICU has filled up quickly,” Spellberg said Monday.

The total number of COVID patients in the hospital, and the number in its ICUs, are now well above the peak of July — and both are nearly six times as high as in late October. “This is the worst it’s been,” Spellberg said. And it will only get worse over the coming weeks, he added, if people travel and gather with their extended families over Christmas and New Year’s as they did for Thanksgiving.

“Think New York in April. Think Italy in March,” Spellberg said. “That’s how bad things could get.”

They are already bad enough. Nurses and other medical staffers are exhausted from long months of extremely laborious patient care that is only getting more intense, said Lea Salinas, a nurse manager in one of the hospital’s ICU units. To avoid being short-staffed, she’s been asking her nurses to work overtime.

Normally, ICU nurses are assigned to two patients each shift. But one really sick COVID patient can take up virtually the entire shift — even with help from other nurses. Jonathan Magdaleno, a registered nurse in the ICU, said he might have to spend 10 hours during a 12-hour shift at the bedside of an extremely ill patient.

Even in the best case, he said, he typically has to enter a patient’s room every 30 minutes, because the bags delivering medications and fluids empty at different rates. Every time nurses or other care providers enter a patient’s room, they must put on cumbersome protective gear — then take it off when they leave.

One of the most delicate and difficult tasks is a maneuver known as “proning,” in which a patient in acute respiratory distress is flipped onto his or her stomach to improve lung function. Salinas said it can take a half-hour and require up to six nurses and a respiratory therapist, because tubes and wires have to be disconnected, then reconnected — not to mention the risks involved in moving an extremely fragile person. And they must do it twice, because every proned patient needs to be flipped back later in the day.

For some nurses, working on the COVID ward at LAC+USC feels very personal. That’s the case for Magdaleno, a native Spanish speaker who was born in Mexico City. “I grew up in this community,” he said. “Even if you don’t want to, you see your parents, you see your grandparents, you see your mom in these patients, because they speak the language.”

He planned to spend Christmas only with members of his own household and urged everyone else to do the same. “If you lose any member of your family, then what’s the purpose of Christmas?” he asked. “Is it worth it going to the mall right now? Is it worth even getting a gift for somebody who’s probably going to die?”

That the darkest hour of the pandemic should come precisely at the moment when COVID vaccines are beginning to arrive is especially poignant, said Dr. Paul Holtom, chief epidemiologist at LAC+USC.

“The tragic irony of this is that the light is at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “The vaccine is rolling out as we speak, and people just need to keep themselves alive until they can get the vaccine.”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Behind Each of More Than 300,000 Lives Lost: A Name, a Caregiver, a Family, a Story

More than 300,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the United States.

It is the latest sign of a generational tragedy — one still unfolding in every corner of the country — that leaves in its wake an expanse of grief that cannot be captured in a string of statistics.

“The numbers do not reflect that these were people,” said Brian Walter, of New York City, whose 80-year-old father, John, died from COVID-19. “Everyone lost was a father or a mother, they had kids, they had family, they left people behind.”

There is no analogue in recent U.S history to the scale of death brought on by the coronavirus, which now runs unchecked in countless towns, cities and states.

“We’re seeing some of the most deadly days in American history,” said Dr. Craig Spencer, director of Global Health in Emergency Medicine at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center.

During the past two weeks, COVID-19 was the leading cause of death in the U.S., outpacing even heart disease and cancer.

“That should be absolutely stunning,” Spencer said. And yet the most deadly days of the pandemic may be to come, epidemiologists predict.

Even with a rapid rollout of vaccines, the U.S. may reach a total of more than half a million deaths by spring, said Ali Mokdad of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.

Some of those deaths could still be averted. If everyone simply began wearing face masks, more than 50,000 lives could be saved, IHME’s model shows. And physical distancing could make a difference too.

No other country has come close to the calamitous death toll in the U.S. And the disease has amplified entrenched inequalities. Blacks and Hispanics/Latinos are nearly three times more likely to die from COVID-19 than whites.

“I’m really amazed at how we have this sense of apathy,” said Dr. Gbenga Ogedegbe, a professor of medicine and population health at New York University Grossman School of Medicine. He said there’s evidence that socioeconomic factors, not underlying health problems, explain the disproportionate share of deaths.

The disease, he said, reveals “the chronic neglect of Black and brown communities” in this country.

Though the numbers are numbing, for bereaved families and for front-line workers who care for people in their dying moments, every life is precious.

Here are reflections from people who’ve witnessed this loss — how they are processing the grief and what they wish the rest of America understood.

‘There Are Things We Can Do to Still Make a Difference’

Darrell Owens, a doctor of nursing practice in Seattle, was startled to learn recently that he had signed more death certificates for COVID-19 than anyone else in Washington.

Owens runs the palliative care program at the University of Washington Medical Center-Northwest, where he has treated COVID patients since the early spring.

“I’m feeling much more anger and frustration than I did before because much of what we’re dealing with now was preventable,” Owens said.

“We’re all in this great big storm, but some people are in a yacht and some people are on a cruise ship and some people are on a raft,” he added. “We’re not all in this together.”

Owens still finds moments of grace and meaning as he cares for the dying.

“The other day, there was a lady I was taking care of who’d come from a local nursing home and it was very clear that she was nearing the end,” Owens said. “I just picked up her hand. I sat there. I held her hand for about 25 minutes until she took her last breath.”

He stepped out of the room and called the patient’s daughter.

“It made such a difference for her that her mom was not alone,” he said. “What an incredible gift that she gave me and that I was able to give her daughter. So there are things that we can do to still make a difference.”

‘It’s Not a Joke. It’s Not a Hoax.’

Since his father died of COVID-19 in the spring, Brian Walter of Queens, New York, has helped run a support group on Facebook for people who’ve lost family and friends to COVID-19.

It’s helped him grieve his father John, whom he describes as a very loving man dedicated to his autistic grandson and to running a youth program for teenagers.

“It’s been lifesaving in a lot of ways,” Walter said. “Together, we face a lot of issues since we are grieving in isolation. But at the same time, we’re also dealing with people that openly tell us that this is not a real condition, that this is not a real issue.”

Some in their group admit they denied the severity of the virus and shunned precautions until it was too late.

“It’s not a joke. It’s not a hoax, and you will not understand how horrible this is until it enters your family and takes away someone,” he said.

All of this complicates the grief, but it has also led Walter and others in his group to speak out and share their stories, so that numbers don’t obscure the actual people who were leading full lives before dying from COVID-19.

“I know what it’s like to have to say goodbye to somebody over a Zoom call and to not have a funeral,” Walter said.

‘300,000 Stories That Got Shut Down Too Quickly’

Martha Phillips, an ER nurse who took assignments in New York and Texas in the spring and summer, said there is one patient who has become almost a stand-in for the grief of the many whose deaths she witnessed.

It was the very last COVID patient she cared for in Houston.

“I reached down to just adjust her oxygen tubing just a little bit,” Phillips recalled. “And she looks up at me and she sees me through my goggles and my mask and my shield and meets my eyes and she goes, ‘Do you think I’m going to get better?’”

“What do you say to someone who’s not ready to die? Who has so much to live for, but got this and now they’re trapped?”

Two months later, Phillips discovered the woman’s obituary online.

“That one was the hardest,” she said. “But there’s 300,000 people who had time left that was stolen from them; 300,000 stories that got shut down too quickly.”

‘This Is Worse Than Being in War’

ER physician Dr. Cleavon Gilman, a veteran of the Iraq War, said it’s still hard to communicate the brutality of a disease that kills people in the privacy of a hospital wing.

When Gilman was in New York City during the spring surge, he never imagined the U.S. would be losing thousands of people each day to COVID-19 so many months later.

“That 300,000 Americans would be dead and life would go on and people would not have empathy for their fellow Americans,” he said. “I can tell you this is worse than being in war.”

The enemy is invisible, he said, the war zone is everywhere, and many refuse to take the most simple actions to combat the virus, even as morgues fill up in their own community.

Throughout the pandemic, Gilman, who is now working in Yuma, Arizona, has shared photos and stories of people who’ve died from COVID-19 each day on social media.  “It’s really important to honor them,” he said.

This story is from a reporting partnership with NPR and KHN

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Desafío en hospitales: a qué trabajadores de salud vacunar primero contra COVID

Si existe una cita con el destino, está escrita en el calendario del doctor Taison Bell.

Al mediodía del martes 15 de diciembre, Bell, especialista en cuidados intensivos del Sistema de Salud de la Universidad de Virginia será uno de los primeros en arremangarse para recibir la vacuna que lo protegerá del coronavirus.

Bell, de 37 años, se inscribió la semana pasada a través del correo electrónico del hospital para recibir la vacuna. “La historia de esta crisis es que cada semana se siente como un año. Esta es realmente la primera vez que hay una esperanza genuina de que podemos revertir esta situación”.

Por ahora, esa esperanza se limita a unos pocos elegidos. Bell atiende a algunos de los pacientes con COVID-19 más enfermos en el hospital UVA Health en Charlottesville, Virginia.

Bell es uno de los 12,000 trabajadores del hospital “que trabajan directo con estos pacientes”, que podrían ser elegibles para unas 3,000 primeras dosis de vacunas, dijo el doctor Costi Sifri, director de epidemiología del hospital.

“Estamos tratando de encontrar las categorías de mayor riesgo, aquellas que realmente pasan una cantidad significativa de tiempo cuidando a los pacientes”, dijo Sifri. “No se tiene en cuenta a todo el mundo”.

Incluso cuando la Administración de Alimentos y Medicamentos (FDA) participaba en intensas deliberaciones antes de la autorización del viernes de la vacuna contra COVID de Pfizer y BioNTech, y días antes de que se liberaran las 6.4 millones de dosis iniciales, los hospitales de todo el país ya estaban planeando cómo distribuir la primeras, y escasas, dosis.

Un comité asesor de los Centros para el Control y Prevención de Enfermedades (CDC) recomendó que la máxima prioridad sea para los hogares de adultos mayores de atención a largo plazo y para los trabajadores de atención médica de primera línea.

Pero se sabía que la primera tanda de vacunas no iba a cubrir toda la necesidad y que se iba a tener que hacer un proceso más selectivo, incluso entre los trabajadores críticos del hospital.

En general, se aconseja a los hospitales que cubran a los miembros de su fuerza laboral con mayor riesgo, pero las instituciones deben decidir exactamente quiénes serán, dijo Colin Milligan, vocero de la Asociación Estadounidense de Hospitales, en un correo electrónico.

“Está claro que los hospitales no recibirán lo suficiente en las primeras semanas para vacunar a todos los miembros de su personal, por lo que hubo que tomar decisiones”, escribió Milligan.

En Intermountain Healthcare, en Salt Lake City, Utah, las primeras inyecciones serán para los miembros del personal “con el mayor riesgo de contacto con pacientes COVID positivos o sus desechos”, dijo la doctora Kristin Dascomb, directora médica de prevención de infecciones y salud del personal. Dentro de ese grupo, los gerentes determinarán qué cuidadores son los primeros en la fila.

En la UW Medicine, en Seattle, Washington, que incluye el Harborview Medical Center, un plan temprano requería que el personal de alto riesgo fuera seleccionado al azar para recibir las primeras dosis, dijo la doctora Shireesha Dhanireddy, directora médica de la clínica de enfermedades infecciosas.

Pero el sistema hospitalario de la Universidad de Washington espera recibir dosis suficientes para vacunar a todas las personas en ese nivel de alto riesgo dentro de dos semanas, por lo que la selección aleatoria no ha sido necesaria por ahora.

“Permitimos que las mismas personas programen la cita”, dijo Dhanireddy, y alentamos al personal a vacunarse cerca del final de sus semanas laborales en caso de que tengan reacciones a la nueva vacuna.

Los resultados de los ensayos han demostrado que las inyecciones con frecuencia producen efectos secundarios que, aunque no debilitantes, podrían causar síntomas como fiebre, dolores musculares o fatiga que podrían mantener a alguien en casa por uno o dos días.

“Queremos asegurarnos de que no todo el mundo reciba la vacuna el mismo día para que, si hay algunos efectos secundarios, no acabemos quedando cortos de personal”, dijo Sifri, de UVA Health, y señaló que las directrices exigen que no más del 25% de cualquier unidad se vacune a la vez.

En UVA Health, una vez que se distribuyan las 3,000 dosis iniciales, el hospital planea confiar en lo que Sifri describió como “un código de honor muy estricto” para permitir que los miembros del personal decidan qué lugar ocupar en la fila. Se les ha pedido que consideren factores profesionales, como el tipo de trabajo que realizan, así como riesgos personales: la edad o afecciones subyacentes como la diabetes.

“Vamos a pedirles a los miembros del equipo, utilizando el código de honor, que determinen cuál es su riesgo de COVID y si necesitan tener una cita temprana para la vacuna o una fecha posterior”, explicó.

Se elaboró este plan después que el personal de atención médica rechazara rotundamente otras opciones. Por ejemplo, pocos favorecieron una propuesta para asignar dosis a través de una lotería, como el caótico sistema basado en la fecha de cumpleaños de la película “Contagion”, sobre una horrible pandemia.

Funcionarios del hospital también enfatizaron que están tratando de diseñar planes de distribución que garanticen que las vacunas se asignen de manera equitativa entre los trabajadores de salud, incluidos los grupos sociales, raciales y étnicos que han sido perjudicados de manera desproporcionada por COVID-19. Eso requiere pensar más allá de los médicos y enfermeras de primera línea.

Por ejemplo, en UVA Health, uno de los primeros grupos invitados a vacunarse será el de 17 trabajadores cuya tarea es limpiar cuartos en la unidad de patógenos especiales donde se tratan los casos graves de COVID.

“Reconocemos que todo el mundo está en riesgo de contraer COVID, todo el mundo merece una vacuna”, dijo Sifri.

En muchos casos, quedará claro quién debe ir primero. Por ejemplo, aunque Dhanireddy es doctora especialista en enfermedades infecciosas que consulta sobre casos de COVID, está feliz de esperar. “No me pondría en el primer grupo en absoluto”, dijo. “Creo que tenemos que proteger a nuestro personal que realmente está ahí con ellos la mayor parte del día, y esa no soy yo”.

Para algunos trabajadores de salud, no ser el primero en la fila para la vacunación está bien. Debido a que la vacuna inicialmente fue autorizada solo para uso de emergencia, los hospitales no requerirán que los empleados sean vacunados como parte de esta primera ronda. Entre el 70% y el 75% del personal de atención médica de UVA Health e Intermountain Health aceptaría una vacuna COVID, mostraron encuestas internas. El resto no está seguro o no está dispuesto.

“Hay algunos que aceptarán de inmediato y otros querrán observar y esperar”, dijo Dascomb.

Aún así, autoridades del hospital dicen que confían en que aquellos que quieran la vacuna no tengan que esperar mucho. Dosis suficientes para aproximadamente 21 millones del personal de atención médica deberían estar disponibles a principios de enero, según funcionarios de los CDC.

Bell, el médico de cuidados intensivos, dijo que está agradecido de estar entre los primeros en recibir la vacuna, especialmente después que sus padres, que viven en Boston, contrajeran COVID-19. Publicó sobre su próxima cita en Twitter y dijo que otros trabajadores de salud que se encuentran entre los primeros en la fila deberían hacer público el proceso.

“Serviremos como ejemplo de que esta es una vacuna segura y eficaz”, dijo. “La estamos dejando entrar en nuestros cuerpos. Deberías dejar que entre en el tuyo también”.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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This Health Care Magnate Wants to Fix Democracy, Starting in Colorado

In the final weeks before the Nov. 3 election, supporters of a down-in-the-weeds effort to overturn a tax law in Colorado received a cascade of big checks, for a grand total of more than $2 million.

All came from Kent Thiry, the former CEO of DaVita, one of the largest kidney care companies in the country. This was not the first time he donated big to a ballot initiative aimed at tweaking the nitty-gritty details of how Colorado functions. Nor will it be the last.

Thiry has given at least $5.9 million to Colorado ballot measures since 2011 — and all of them won, according to a KHN review of Colorado campaign finance data. According to data from the National Institute on Money in Politics, Thiry’s donations to ballot measures in that state are second only to those of billionaire Pat Stryker. Campaign finance records show that before that, he gave to ballot issue committees in California, where he used to live, dating to at least 2007.

It’s the same playbook his former company has successfully used in California. As KHN has reported, in 2018 DaVita was among several companies to break an industry record in campaign spending for a ballot measure by any one side in California. This year, the industry came close to breaking that record to defeat a measure that would have further regulated dialysis clinics and that DaVita said would have limited access to care.

Ballot initiatives, which are allowed in about half the states, enable individuals and groups to circumvent legislatures and ask voters to decide on a law. And in many states, the campaigns for and against them are bankrolled by the rich: either corporations fighting to preserve their profits or multimillionaires with a political shopping list.

“Wealthy individuals have been pouring money into ballot measures, even seemingly unrelated to their industry, for over a century,” Daniel Smith, a political scientist studying direct democracy at the University of Florida, wrote in an email to KHN.

Given that health care is a $3.6 trillion industry, its top executives are among the ranks of those who can have an enormous impact in ballot measure politics. This year, Kent Thiry and Mike Fernandez, chairman and CEO of private equity firm MBF Healthcare Partners, were among the 19 individuals or couples who spent $1 million or more on ballot issue campaigns this year, according to Bloomberg. In previous elections, medical equipment company owner Loren Parks has also given big money to ballot initiatives.

Overall, those in the health industry have spent more on ballot measures in Colorado than in any other state except Missouri and California, according to data from the National Institute on Money in Politics, and that’s largely due to Thiry.

“He really has become the 800-pound gorilla of the ballot initiative process in Colorado,” said Josh Penry, a Republican campaign strategist in Denver who has worked with Thiry, including on a ballot measure campaign Thiry helped fund. “He wields more power in an informal way than virtually all the elected officials, if you look at the impact he’s had.”

Even though Thiry and his wife, Denise O’Leary, a former venture capitalist on the board of directors of medical device company Medtronic, have made hefty earnings from health care, Thiry’s ballot initiative donations as an individual have nothing to do with the industry.

“I prefer things that have systemic impact,” said Thiry. Measures he has bankrolled have eliminated the caucus system for presidential primaries, brought unaffiliated voters into the primaries and created a system intended to eliminate gerrymandering.

“Democracy is not a spectator sport,” he said.

Thiry previously donated to ballot measure committees in California, to prevent changes to term limits and to create a system for redistricting led jointly by Democrats, Republicans and citizens unaffiliated with a political party.

After moving his company’s headquarters from Los Angeles to Denver in 2010, he began backing ballot measures in his new state, too, with equal success and bigger sums, jumping from the tens of thousands to the millions. He spent more than $2 million backing a pair of measures to allow unaffiliated voters to participate in primaries.

In 2018, while his company was helping break an election spending record to defeat a California measure that would have capped the industry’s profits, Thiry was putting more than $1.2 million toward redistricting efforts in Colorado very similar to the one he backed in his previous home state to help reduce gerrymandering.

His latest donations went to a measure that successfully overturned a tax law from the 1980s that may have helped Colorado homeowners, but which critics said left public services like education and fire districts underfunded in some rural areas.

Thiry doesn’t just shell out cash. As the online newspaper The Colorado Independent has pointed out, Thiry’s offices played a large role in bringing two warring groups with different ideas about redistricting to the same table. His efforts tend to revolve around raising the power of unaffiliated voters, who make up about 40% of Colorado’s active voters, according to state data.

Fernandez, the private equity billionaire, said he has similar motivations. He donated $7.3 million to a Florida initiative to change how primaries work in that state and bring unaffiliated voters like himself into the fold.

“I’ve never spent so much money [on] something that I have no business reason to be in at all,” he said.

The effort was, he said, nearly “a one-man show” in terms of financing. But it still failed, garnering 57% of votes when it needed 60% to pass. Fernandez said he’ll try again in 2022.

“I come from a country where you can see that control of a government by a single party is deadly,” said Fernandez, who was born in Cuba. “Florida has been controlled by the Republican Party for the last three decades. And when I was a Republican, that was great.”

But, he said, it quickly became clear that bringing the issue to legislators was a dead end. That’s expected, according to John Matsusaka, executive director of the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California. Ballot initiatives are a natural route to tweak electoral machinery, he said, because legislators have a conflict of interest on issues like gerrymandering and term limits.

In fact, Matsusaka thinks the U.S. could use national ballot initiatives, which other democracies have, as a route to restoring confidence in the federal government.

“I don’t look at ballot propositions as a way to drive a progressive agenda or conservative agenda or any sort of agenda,” he said. “I view it as a way to put the people in control. And they can go where they want to go.”

Even if that means eroding their own power a little. One of the first initiatives Thiry donated to in Colorado is something Matsusaka considers “anti-democracy” — an effort called Raise the Bar, a ballot initiative about ballot initiatives. It required petitioners to get signatures from every corner of the state to put an initiative on the ballot. Some view this as problematic.

“You have to now collect signatures in every senate district of Colorado,” said Corrine Rivera Fowler, director of policy and legal advocacy with the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a national organization that supports progressive ballot initiatives. “That’s a tremendous undertaking for grassroots communities.”

Thiry, meanwhile, intends to take what he’s learned in Colorado and apply it elsewhere. He said he’s getting more involved in several national democracy reform groups, including Unite America, an effort to break what’s been called the “doom loop” of partisanship. Thiry said he hopes to help create “a tidal tsunami of political momentum.”

“One of my goals is to have this democracy reform energy in places like Colorado — or elsewhere — move from being an ad hoc collection of activist projects to a true movement,” he said. “Kind of like the civil rights movement, kind of like the gay marriage movement, and like the #MeToo movement or Black Lives Matter.”

He no longer works for DaVita, after stepping down as executive chairman earlier this year.

“I have no title anymore. Just ‘citizen.’ It’s a title I wear with great pride and energy,” he said.

As for the next measure Thiry will back, he’s open to recommendations.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Hospitals Scramble to Prioritize Which Workers Are First for COVID Shots


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If there’s such a thing as a date with destiny, it’s marked on Dr. Taison Bell’s calendar.

At noon Tuesday, Bell, a critical care physician, is scheduled to be one of the first health care workers at the University of Virginia Health System to roll up his sleeve for a shot to ward off the coronavirus.

“This is a long time coming,” said Bell, 37, who signed up via hospital email last week. “The story of this crisis is that each week feels like a year. This is really the first time that there’s genuine hope that we can turn the corner on this.”

For now, that hope is limited to a chosen few. Bell provides direct care to some of the sickest COVID-19 patients at the UVA Health hospital in Charlottesville, Virginia. But he is among some 12,000 “patient-facing” workers at his hospital who could be eligible for about 3,000 early doses of vaccine, said Dr. Costi Sifri, director of hospital epidemiology.

“We’re trying to come up with the highest-risk categories, those who really spend a significant amount of time taking care of patients,” Sifri said. “It doesn’t account for everybody.”

Even as the federal Food and Drug Administration engaged in intense deliberations ahead of Friday’s authorization of the Pfizer and BioNTech COVID vaccine, and days before the initial 6.4 million doses were to be released, hospitals across the country have been grappling with how to distribute the first scarce shots.

An advisory committee of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that top priority go to long-term care facilities and front-line health care workers, but the early allocation was always expected to fall far short of the need and require selective screening even among critical hospital workers.

Hospitals in general are advised to target the members of their workforce at highest risk, but the institutions are left on their own to decide exactly who that will be, Colin Milligan, a spokesperson for the American Hospital Association, said in an email.

“It is clear that the hospitals will not receive enough in the first weeks to vaccinate everyone on their staff, so decisions had to be made,” Milligan wrote.

At Intermountain Healthcare in Salt Lake City, the first shots will go to staff members “with the highest risk of contact with COVID-positive patients or their waste,” said Dr. Kristin Dascomb, medical director of infection prevention and employee health. Within that group, managers will determine which caregivers are first in line.

At UW Medicine in Seattle, which includes Harborview Medical Center, one early plan called for high-risk staff to be selected randomly to receive first doses, said Dr. Shireesha Dhanireddy, medical director of the infectious disease clinic. But the University of Washington hospital system expects to receive enough doses to vaccinate everyone in that high-risk tier within two weeks, so randomization isn’t necessary — for now.

“We are allowing people to schedule themselves,” Dhanireddy said, and encouraging staffers to be vaccinated near the end of their workweeks in case they have reactions to the new vaccine.

Trial results have shown the shots frequently produce side effects that, while not debilitating, could cause symptoms such as fever, muscle aches or fatigue that might keep someone home for a day or two.

“We want to make sure that not everybody has the vaccine on the same day so that if there are some side effects, we don’t end up being short-staffed,” said Sifri, of UVA Health, noting that guidelines call for no more than 25% of any unit to be vaccinated at once.

At UVA Health, once the initial 3,000 doses are distributed, the hospital plans to rely on what Sifri described as “a very strong honor code” to allow staff members to decide where they should be in line. They’ve been asked to consider professional factors, like the type of work they do, as well as personal risks, such as age or underlying conditions like diabetes.

“We’re going to ask team members, using the honor code, to determine what their risk is for COVID and to determine whether they need to have an early vaccine sign-up time or a later vaccine sign-up time,” he said.

That plan was chosen after health care staff members soundly rejected other options. For instance, few favored a proposal to allocate dosages via a lottery, like the chaotic birthday-based system depicted in the 2011 pandemic horror film “Contagion.” “That was the biggest loser,” he said.

Hospital officials also stressed they are trying to devise distribution plans that ensure vaccines are allocated equitably among health care workers, including the social, racial and ethnic groups that have been disproportionately harmed by COVID-19 infections. That requires thinking beyond front-line doctors and nurses.

At UVA Health, for example, one of the first groups invited to get shots will be 17 workers whose job is to clean rooms in the special pathogens unit where severe COVID cases are treated.

“We acknowledge that everybody is at risk for COVID, everybody is deserving of a vaccine,” Sifri said.

In many cases, it will be clear who should go first. For instance, although Dhanireddy is an infectious disease doctor who consults on COVID cases, she is happy to wait to be vaccinated. “I wouldn’t put myself in the first group at all,” she said. “I think that we need to protect our staff that are really right there with them most of the day — and that’s not me.”

But hospitals must remain vigilant about relying on workers to prioritize their own access, Dhanireddy cautioned. “Sometimes, self-selection works more for self-advocacy,” she said. “It’s great that some individuals say they would defer to others, but sometimes that’s not actually the case.”

For some health care workers, not being first in line for vaccination is fine. Because the vaccine initially has been authorized only for emergency use, hospitals won’t require employees to be inoculated as part of this first round. Between 70% and 75% of health care staff at UVA Health and Intermountain Health would accept a COVID vaccine, internal surveys showed. The rest are unsure — or unwilling.

“There are some that will be immediate acceptors and some who will want to watch and wait,” Dascomb said.

Still, hospital officials say they’re confident that those who want the vaccine won’t have to wait long. Enough doses for roughly 21 million health care personnel should be available by early January, according to CDC officials.

Bell, the critical care doctor, said he’s grateful to be among the first to receive the vaccine, especially after his parents, who live in Boston, both contracted COVID-19. He has posted about his upcoming appointment on Twitter and said he and other health care workers who are among the first in line should be public about the process.

“We’ll serve as an example that this is a safe and effective vaccine,” he said. “We’re letting it go into our bodies. You should let it go into yours, too.”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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A Battle-Weary Seattle Hospital Fights the Latest COVID Surge

As hospitals across the country weather a surge of COVID-19 patients, in Seattle — an early epicenter of the outbreak — nurses, respiratory therapists and physicians are staring down a startling resurgence of the coronavirus that’s expected to test even one of the best-prepared hospitals on the pandemic’s front lines.

After nine months, the staff at Harborview Medical Center, the large public hospital run by the University of Washington, has the benefit of experience.

In March, the Harborview staff was already encountering the realities of COVID-19 that are now familiar to so many communities: patients dying alone, fears of getting infected at work and upheaval inside the hospital.

This forced the hospital to adapt quickly to the pressures of the coronavirus and how to manage a surge, but all these months later it has left staff members exhausted.

“This is a crisis that’s been going on for almost a year — that’s not the way humans are built to work,” said Dr. John Lynch, an associate medical director at Harborview and associate professor of medicine at the University of Washington.

“Our health workers are definitely feeling that strain in a way that we’ve never experienced before,” he said.

Until the late fall, the Seattle area had mostly kept the virus in check. But now cases are rising faster than ever, and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has warned a “catastrophic loss of medical care” could be on the horizon.

“This is the very beginning, to be honest, so thinking about what that looks like in December and January has got me very concerned,” Lynch said.

Lessons Learned From Spring Surge

When the outbreak first swept through western Washington, hospitals were in the dark on many fronts. It was unclear how contagious the virus was, how widely it had spread and how many intensive care beds would be needed.

Intensive care unit nurse Whisty Taylor remembers the moment she learned one of her colleagues — a young, active nurse — was hospitalized on their floor and intubated.

“That’s really when it hit — that could be any of us,” Taylor said.

Concerns over infection control and conserving personal protective equipment meant nurses were delegated all sorts of unusual tasks.

“The nurses were the phlebotomists and physical therapists,” said nurse Stacy Van Essen. “We mopped the floors and we took the laundry out and made the beds, plus taking care of people who are extremely, extremely sick.”

A lot has changed since those early days.

Staff members besides just nurses are now trained to go into COVID rooms and be near patients, and the hospital has ironed out the thorny logistics of caring for these highly contagious patients, said Vanessa Makarewicz, Harborview’s manager of infection control and prevention.

How to clean the rooms? Who’s going to draw the blood? What’s the safest way to move people around?

“We’ve grown our entire operation around it,” Makarewicz said.

The physical layout of the hospital has changed to accommodate COVID patients, too.

“It’s still busy and chaotic, but it’s a lot more controlled,” said Roseate Scott, a respiratory therapist in the ICU.

Harborview has also learned how to stretch its supplies of PPE safely. And as cases started to rise significantly last month, the hospital quickly reimposed visitor restrictions.

“In the past, we’ve had visitors who then call us two days later and say, ‘Oh, my gosh, I just came up positive,’” said nurse Mindy Boyle.

Boyle said months of caring for COVID patients — and all the steps the hospital has taken, including having health care workers observed as they don and doff their PPE — has tamped down the fears of catching the virus at work.

“It still scares me somewhat, but I do feel safe, and I would rather be here than out in the community, where we don’t know what’s going on,” said Boyle.

‘We’re All Tired of This’

Preparation can go only so far, though. The hospital still runs the risk of running low on PPE and staff, just like so much of the country.

During the spring, the hospital cleared out beds and recruited nurses from all over the nation, but that is unlikely to happen this time, with so many hospitals under pressure at once.

“All things point to what could be an onslaught of patients on top of a very tired workforce and less staff to go around,” said Nate Rozeboom, a nurse manager on one of the COVID units. “We’re all tired of this, tired of taking care of COVID patients, tired of the uncertainty.”

Already, COVID’s footprint at Harborview is expanding and bringing the hospital close to where it was at its previous peak.

“The fear I have personally is overwhelming the resources, using up all the staff — and the numbers are still going to go up,” said Scott.

And she said the realities of caring for these desperately ill patients have not changed.

“When they’re on their belly, laying down with all the tubes and drains and all these extra lines hanging off of them, it takes about four to five people to manually flip them over,” Scott said. “It feels intense every time. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve done it.”

Hospitalized patients are faring better than in the spring, but there are still no major breakthroughs, said Dr. Randall Curtis, an attending physician in the COVID ICU and a professor of medicine at the University of Washington.

“The biggest difference is that we have a better sense of what to expect,” Curtis said.

The few treatments that have shown promise, including the steroid dexamethasone and the antiviral remdesivir, have “important but marginal effects,” he said.

“They’re not magic bullets. … People are not jumping out of bed and saying, ‘I feel great. I’d like to go home now,’” Curtis said.

Taylor said nursing has never quite felt the same since she started in the COVID ICU.

“These people are in the rooms for months. Their families can only see them through Zoom. The only interaction they have is with us through our mask, eyewear, plastic,” Taylor said. “We’re just giving their body a runaround trying to keep them alive.”

This story is from a reporting partnership that includes NPR and KHN

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Dialysis Industry Spends Millions, Emerges as Power Player in California Politics

SACRAMENTO — The nation’s dialysis industry has poured $233 million into California campaigns over the past four years, establishing its leading companies as a formidable political force eager to protect their bottom line and influence state policy.


This story also ran on Los Angeles Times. It can be republished for free.

Most of the money the industry spent from Jan. 1, 2017, through Nov. 30, 2020, funded the defeat of two union-backed ballot measures that would have regulated dialysis clinics — and eaten into their profits. But the companies and their trade association also stepped up their offense, dedicating about $16.4 million to lobbying and political contributions during the same period, a California Healthline analysis of state campaign finance records shows.

Nearly every member of the legislature, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom and his predecessor, former Gov. Jerry Brown, the Democratic and Republican parties, and dozens of political campaigns — including some local school board and city council races — received a contribution from a dialysis company.

“These are very large, very profitable companies,” said Mark Stephens, founder of Prima Health Analytics, a health economics research and consulting firm. “They have a lot to lose. The fear would be that if some of this stuff passed in California, the union would certainly try to get similar measures on the ballot or in the legislatures in other states. The stakes are higher than just California for them.”

Staking Ground in Sacramento

California has about 600 dialysis clinics, which are visited by an estimated 80,000 patients each month, typically three times a week. At the clinics, patients are hooked up to machines that filter toxins and remove excess fluid from their blood because their kidneys can no longer do the job.

Medicare, which covers most dialysis patients, pays a base rate of $239.33 for each dialysis treatment.

DaVita and Fresenius Medical Care North America are the largest dialysis providers in the state and country, operating roughly 80% of clinics nationwide. Last year, DaVita reported $811 million in net income, on revenue of $11.4 billion. Fresenius posted $2 billion in operating income on revenue of $13.6 billion.

DaVita was responsible for about $143 million — or more than three-fifths — of the political spending in the past four years, and Fresenius gave about $68 million.

Until four years ago, the dialysis industry’s political spending was relatively modest compared with that of the hospital, physician and other health care associations so well known in Sacramento. In those days, dialysis lobbyists focused on regulatory issues and health care reimbursement rates, and companies gave minimal campaign contributions.

The industry’s transformation into one of the biggest spenders in California politics began in 2017, the first of four years in which it faced ballot or legislative threats. In 2017, a Democratic lawmaker introduced a bill that would have set strict staff ratios at dialysis clinics. The bill, SB-349, which failed, had faced opposition from the California Hospital Association, the California Chamber of Commerce and the dialysis industry.

The SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West union (SEIU-UHW) followed the next year with Proposition 8, a ballot initiative that would have capped industry profits.

DaVita and Fresenius were forced to defend their huge profits and allegations of subpar patient care, turning the competitors into allies — at least in politics.

The industry spent $111 million to successfully defeat the measure, breaking the record for spending by one side on an initiative.

“I think it’s very natural for these private chains to spend millions to make billions of profits,” said Ryan McDevitt, associate professor of economics at Duke University. “They’re lobbying to protect their profits.”

Last year, the industry fought AB-290, a bill that aimed to stop a billing practice dialysis companies use to get higher insurance reimbursements for some low-income patients. But the legislature wasn’t swayed, and Newsom signed the bill into law, which is now tied up in federal court.

And this year, the industry spent $105 million to block Proposition 23, which would have required every clinic have a physician on site and institute other patient safety protocols.

Kent Thiry, the former chairman and CEO of DaVita, said the industry had no choice but to spend heavily to defeat the ballot measures, which he said would have increased costs and harmed patient care.

“When someone does that, you have to use some of your money to defend yourself, your patients and your teammates,” Thiry said in an interview with KHN, which publishes California Healthline. “It forces companies to allocate precious resources to do something that never should have been brought up to start with.”

In an emailed statement, DaVita said it would continue to work to “educate lawmakers and defend against policy measures that are harmful to our patients.” Fresenius also defended its advocacy, saying the company needs to protect itself against special interests intent on abusing the political system. The company will “continue to support legislation that improves access to quality care and improves patient outcomes,” said Brad Puffer, a company spokesperson.

By comparison, SEIU-UHW, which sponsored the ballot measures, spent about $25 million to advocate for the initiatives, and $7.8 million on lobbying and political contributions. The union lobbies lawmakers on a wide array of health care issues

“They’ve got tons of money. We understand that,” said Dave Regan, the union’s president. “We’ve seen them spend a quarter of a billion dollars in a very short period of time. I hope they’re prepared to spend another quarter of a billion dollars, because we’re not going to go away until there’s legitimate commonsense reforms to this industry.”

From Defense to Offense

While most of dialysis companies’ political spending in California has been used to defeat ballot measures, several of the largest companies also dedicated about $16.4 million to lobbying and political contributions over the past four years.

The companies and their trade association, the California Dialysis Council, put almost three-fourths of that — nearly $12 million — into hiring veteran lobbyists to advocate for dialysis companies when lawmakers consider legislation that could affect the industry.

For instance, when Newsom took office in 2019, both DaVita and Fresenius added Axiom Advisors to their lobbying teams, paying it $737,500 since then. One of the firm’s partners is Newsom’s longtime friend Jason Kinney, whose close relationship with the governor was highlighted by the recent French Laundry dinner fiasco. Newsom came under intense criticism for attending the early November dinner at the exclusive restaurant, held to celebrate Kinney’s birthday, because he and his administration were asking Californians not to gather.

The industry has also given at least $4.6 million in contributions to political candidates and committees, both directly and to entities on behalf of a lawmaker or candidate.

All but five state senators and Assembly members who served during the 2019-20 legislative session received a direct contribution from at least one of the companies or the California Dialysis Council.

Most of the donations to individuals went to state lawmakers, but DaVita dipped into local races, too. For instance, it contributed $10,000 to a Glendale city council candidate in February, $7,700 to an El Monte school board candidate in October and $3,500 to a Signal Hill city council candidate last year.

Dialysis companies also gave to the state Democratic and Republican parties.

“They’re spreading it out. They’re doing the full gambit,” said Bob Stern, former general counsel for the California Fair Political Practices Commission, which enforces state political campaign and lobbying laws.

Legal Loopholes

State law limits how much a company or person can give to a political candidate in an election, but there are legal loopholes that allow individuals and corporate interests to give more. The dialysis industry has taken advantage of them.

Under state campaign finance rules, lawmakers can accept only $4,700 from any one person or company per election.

But some lawmakers operate “ballot measure committees” so they can accept unlimited contributions. These committees are supposed to advocate for a ballot measure, but lawmakers often use them to pay for political consultants and marketing, and to contribute to state and local initiatives they support. Candidates can also get unlimited help from donors who independently pay for campaign costs, such as mailings and digital campaign ads.

For instance, DaVita chipped in $93,505 to help pay for a direct mail campaign on behalf of state Sen. Steve Glazer (D-Orinda) in this year’s primary election. Glazer also received $55,600 from DaVita, Fresenius and the California Dialysis Council in contributions to himself and his ballot committee, Citizens for a Better California.

In some cases, lawmakers such as Glazer who netted some of the biggest contributions from dialysis companies voted with the industry. That was the case last year when the legislature approved AB-290, the bill limiting the dialysis billing practice.

Glazer voted no, as did Assembly member Adam Gray (D-Merced), whose Valley Solutions ballot measure committee had received $112,500 from DaVita and Fresenius since 2017. Gray also received $36,900 in direct contributions from Fresenius, DaVita and U.S. Renal Care.

Gray issued a statement saying campaign contributions play “zero role” in how he represents his district. Glazer did not respond to a request for comment.

Targeting Legislative Adversaries

Assembly member Reggie Jones-Sawyer’s 84-year-old mother is on dialysis. The Los Angeles Democrat and SEIU-UHW member has called for improved staffing ratios at dialysis clinics and has voted repeatedly to regulate them.

DaVita wrote a $249,000 check in October to a political committee supporting Jones-Sawyer’s opponent, Efren Martinez, another Democrat, but one the industry considered more friendly. DaVita followed up with a $15,000 check the week before the election.

Jones-Sawyer, who won the race, said he’s frustrated dialysis companies aren’t willing to make changes to improve patient safety on their own, saying it would cost them far less than the nearly quarter-billion dollars they have spent on political contributions. So for now, he said, he will continue to push to improve conditions at dialysis clinics from the Capitol, despite the industry’s growing political clout.

“I think dialysis is saying, ‘Look, we can be the 800-pound gorilla now,’” Sawyer said. “It’s not just influence for a day; it’s longevity.”

Rae Ellen Bichell and Elizabeth Lucas of KHN contributed to this report.

Methodology

How California Healthline compiled data about dialysis companies’ political spending

Among the ways dialysis companies exert influence on the political process is by contributing money to campaigns; hiring lobbyists; and paying for advertising and marketing on behalf of candidates.

Opposition to ballot measures: Using the California secretary of state’s website, California Healthline downloaded the contributions made by DaVita, Fresenius Medical Care North America, U.S. Renal Care, Satellite Healthcare, Dialysis Clinic Inc. and American Renal Management to the campaign committees formed to defeat Propositions 8 and 23. This includes some non-monetary contributions.

Lobbying: We created a spreadsheet of expenses reported on lobbying disclosure forms, also available on the secretary of state’s website, by DaVita, Fresenius, U.S. Renal Care, Satellite Healthcare and the California Dialysis Council. We found details about how much the industry paid lobbying firms, what agencies it lobbied and which bills it tracked.

Political contributions: DaVita, Fresenius, U.S. Renal Care and the California Dialysis Council made direct contributions to more than 100 candidates, which we compiled from the secretary of state’s website. DaVita and Fresenius made other contributions, often large, to Democratic and Republican committees, and ballot measure committees led by lawmakers. The two companies also made contributions known as “independent expenditures” that benefited candidates’ campaigns and “behested payments,” which are donations to nonprofit organizations and charities in lawmakers’ names. Behested payments are disclosed on the California Fair Political Practices Commission website.

The SEIU-United Health Care West union uses two political committees for its giving. Its PAC contributes mostly to lawmakers and county and state Democratic parties while its Issues Committee gives to local hospital ballot measures. We did not tally spending for local hospital ballot measures for this story, but we did include contributions made by the Issues Committee to the California Democratic Party, which helps state lawmakers.

This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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It’s Time to Scare People About COVID

I still remember exactly where I was sitting decades ago, during the short film shown in class: For a few painful minutes, we watched a woman talking mechanically, raspily through a hole in her throat, pausing occasionally to gasp for air.


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The public service message: This is what can happen if you smoke.

I had nightmares about that ad, which today would most likely be tagged with a trigger warning or deemed unsuitable for children. But it was supremely effective: I never started smoking and doubt that few if any of my horrified classmates did either.

When the government required television and radio stations to give $75 million in free airtime for antismoking ads between 1967 and 1970 — many of them terrifyingly graphic — smoking rates plummeted. Since then, numerous smoking “scare” campaigns have proved successful. Some even featured celebrities, like Yul Brynner’s posthumous offering with a warning after he died from lung cancer: “Now that I’m gone, don’t smoke, whatever you do, just don’t smoke.”

As the United States faces out-of-control spikes from COVID-19, with people refusing to take recommended, often even mandated, precautions, our public health announcements from governments, medical groups and health care companies feel lame compared with the urgency of the moment. A mix of clever catchphrases, scientific information and calls to civic duty, they are virtuous and profoundly dull.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges people to wear masks in videos that feature scientists and doctors talking about wanting to send kids safely to school or protecting freedom.

Quest Diagnostics made a video featuring people washing their hands, talking on the phone, playing checkers. The message: “Come together by spending time apart.”

As cases were mounting in September, the Michigan government produced videos with the exhortation, “Spread Hope, Not Covid,” urging Michiganders to put on a mask “for your community and country.”

Forget that. Mister Rogers-type nice isn’t working in many parts of the country. It’s time to make people scared and uncomfortable. It’s time for some sharp, focused, terrifying realism.

“Fear appeals can be very effective,” said Jay Van Bavel, associate professor of psychology at New York University, who co-authored a paper in Nature about how social science could support COVID response efforts. (They may not be needed as much in places like New York, he noted, where people experienced the constant sirens and the makeshift hospitals.)

I’m not talking fear-mongering, but showing in a straightforward and graphic way what can happen with the virus.

From what I could find, the state of California came close to showing the urgency: a soft-focus video of a person on a ventilator, featuring the sound of a breathing machine, but not a face. It exhorted people to wear a mask for their friends, moms and grandpas.

But maybe we need a PSA featuring someone actually on a ventilator in the hospital. You might see that person “bucking the vent” — bodies naturally rebel against the machine forcing pressurized oxygen into the lungs, which is why patients are typically sedated.

(Because I had witnessed this suffering as a practicing doctor, I was always upfront about the trauma with loved ones of terminally ill patients when they were trying to decide whether to consent to a relative being put on a ventilator. It sounds as easy as hooking someone to an IV. It’s not.)

Another message could feature a patient lying in an ICU bed, immobile, tubes in the groin, with a mask delivering 100% oxygen over the mouth and nose — eyes wide with fear, watching the saturation numbers rise and dip on the monitor over the bed.

Maybe some PSAs should feature a so-called COVID long hauler, the 5% to 10% of people for whom recovery takes months. Perhaps a professional athlete like the National Football League’s Ryquell Armstead, 24, who has been in and out of the hospital with serious lung issues and missed the season.

These PSAs might sound harsh, but they might overcome our natural denial. “One consistent research finding is that even when people see and understand risks, they underestimate the risks to themselves,” Van Bavel said. Graphs, statistics and reasonable explanations don’t do it. They haven’t done it.

Only after Chris Christie, an adviser to President Donald Trump, experienced COVID, did he start preaching about mask-wearing: “When you have seven days in isolation in an ICU, though, you have time to do a lot of thinking,” Christie said, suggesting that people, “follow CDC guidelines in public no matter where you are and wear a mask to protect yourself and others.”

We hear from many who resist taking precautions. They say, “I know someone who had it and it’s not so bad.” Or, “It’s just like the flu.”

Sure, most longtime smokers don’t end up with lung cancer — or tethered to an oxygen tank — either. (That, in fact, was the justification of smokers like my father, whose two-pack-a-day habit contributed to his death at 47 of a heart attack.)

These new ads will seem hard to watch. “We live in a Pixar era,” Van Bavel reflected, with traditional fairy tales now stripped of their gore and violence.

But studies have shown that emotional ads featuring personal stories about the effects of smoking were the most effective at persuading folks to quit. And quitting smoking is much harder than maintaining physical distance and mask-wearing.

Once a vaccine has proved successful and enough people are vaccinated, the pandemic may well be in the rearview mirror. In the meantime, the creators of public health messaging should stop favoring the cute, warm and dull. And — at least sometimes — scare you.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Becerra, un candidato para el HHS con habilidad política pero sin experiencia en salud

Xavier Becerra, elegido por el presidente electo Joe Biden para dirigir el Departamento de Salud y Servicios Humanos (HHS), será un secretario de la era pandémica, sin experiencia en salud pública. Si eso importa o no, depende de quién conteste.

Becerra construyó su carrera en la Cámara de Representantes de los Estados Unidos antes de convertirse en fiscal general de California. Algunos se preguntan si sus habilidades políticas y legales serían las adecuadas para conducir al HHS a través de una catástrofe de salud que está matando a miles de estadounidenses cada día.

Aunque aportará al cargo años de trabajo en legislacones y políticas de salud, nada de esto proviene de la experiencia de primera línea como ejecutivo o administrador dirigiendo programas de salud pública, gerenciando la atención de pacientes o controlando la propagación de enfermedades.

Sin embargo, más allá de la crisis inmediata de COVID-19, muchos demócratas ven a Becerra como un aliado importante para deshacer el daño que causaron los esfuerzos de la administración Trump para socavar la Ley de Cuidado de Salud a Bajo Precio (ACA); el Medicaid, que brinda cobertura a más de 70 millones de estadounidenses; la salud reproductiva; y más.

Como fiscal general de California desde 2017, Becerra ha sido una molestia para la administración Trump, presentando 107 demandas para revocar la acción federal sobre ACA, la anticoncepción, inmigración, derechos de los trabajadores, derechos LGBT, educación, protección del consumidor,  violencia con armas de fuego, y medio ambiente.

“COVID es el mayor problema sobre la mesa, pero no es el único”, dijo el doctor Georges Benjamin, director ejecutivo de la Asociación Estadounidense de Salud Pública. “Si miras su trabajo, no es tu abogado tradicional. Su trabajo en el área de la salud es sustancial. Y creo que eso cuenta”.

El martes 8 de diciembre, Biden está presentando formalmente a Becerra junto con otros candidatos para los principales puestos de salud, muchos con una profunda experiencia en salud pública.

Entre ellos se encuentra la doctora Rochelle Walensky, experta en enfermedades infecciosas de la Escuela de Medicina de Harvard, quien ejerce en el Hospital General de Massachusetts, en Boston, como próxima directora de los Centros para el Control y Prevención de Enfermedades (CDC).

Como “zar” de COVID, la elección de Biden es Jeffrey Zients, un ejecutivo de inversiones y ex funcionario de la administración Obama que dirigirá la respuesta a la pandemia desde la Casa Blanca. El doctor Vivek Murthy es el nominado a cirujano general de los Estados Unidos, cargo que ocupó en los últimos años de Obama.

Biden ha dicho que permitirá que los científicos veteranos del gobierno federal guíen su respuesta a la pandemia, en particular los de los CDC, a los que supervisa el HHS. El presidente Donald Trump marginó a la agencia, dañando su reputación como la institución de salud pública más confiable del mundo.

El hecho de que la experiencia más profunda de Becerra sea política hace que algunos observadores desconfíen.

“Creo que siempre existe el peligro de dejar que eso enturbie el juicio científico y médico sobre la mejor manera de hacer las cosas. Espero que puedan manejar eso bien”, dijo Jeffrey Morris, profesor de bioestadística en la Universidad de Pennsylvania, quien ha trabajado en temas de COVID.

Morris agregó que tuvo sentimientos encontrados sobre la elección de Becerra. “¿Cuál es el estilo de liderazgo? ¿Habrá una microgestión? Para mí, ese es el aspecto clave”.

Garry South, estratega demócrata con sede en Los Ángeles, calificó el nombramiento de Becerra de “curioso”.

“Mucha gente está levantando las cejas, incluso aquellos que están complacidos y orgullosos de que Biden eligiera a otro californiano para unirse a su administración”, dijo South. “Si los republicanos buscan apuntar a algunos de los nombrados, para rechazarlos, pueden plantear que no existe un nexo lógico entre un fiscal general estatal y el cargo de secretario de Salud y Servicios Humanos”.

Aún así, Becerra, quien como miembro del Congreso trabajó con el liderazgo demócrata de la Cámara y fue miembro del poderoso Comité de Medios y Arbitrajes, tiene más experiencia en políticas de salud y más conocimiento de los sistemas financieros y de prestación de servicios de salud del país que sus predecesores en el HHS, que tiene más de 80,000 empleados y un presupuesto de $1.3 mil millones.

Durante tres años, Becerra ha administrado el Departamento de Justicia de California, con un presupuesto de $1.1 mil millones y 4,800 empleados. Como fiscal general, ha estado profundamente involucrado en la elaboración de políticas de salud. Su oficina ha perseguido el comportamiento anticompetitivo de los hospitales. Y ha patrocinado una legislación para enfrentar a los fabricantes de medicamentos y los esquemas de pago por demora.

“Ha perseguido a intereses poderosos en la atención de salud”, dijo Anthony Wright, director ejecutivo de Health Access California, una organización sin fines de lucro.

El Departamento de Juticia de los Estados Unidos y la Comisión Federal de Comercio son las entidades que vigilan la aplicación de las leyes antimonopolio. Pero Becerra lo convirtió en una prioridad como principal fiscal de California. En mayo de 2018, presentó un caso antimonopolio contra el gigante de la atención médica sin fines de lucro Sutter Health, acusando al sistema de prácticas monopólicas que elevaban el costo de la atención médica en el norte de California.

“Este es un gran acuerdo”, dijo Becerra en una conferencia de prensa. El caso, que llevó años de trabajo del departamento y sus predecesores y millones de páginas de documentos, alegó que Sutter había comprado agresivamente hospitales y consultorios médicos en toda la región y había explotado ilegalmente ese poder de mercado con fines de lucro.

Los costos de la atención médica en el norte de California, donde Sutter domina con sus 24 hospitales, son entre un 20% y un 30% más altos que en el sur de California, incluso después de ajustar por el mayor costo de vida del norte del estado, según un estudio de 2018 del Nicholas C. Petris Center de la Universidad de California-Berkeley, que se citó en la demanda.

En diciembre de 2019, Sutter acordó pagar $575 millones para resolver el caso y prometió poner fin a una serie de prácticas que, Becerra alegó, sofocaban a la competencia.

Becerra canalizó las lecciones aprendidas del caso Sutter en un proyecto de ley antimonopolio en la Legislatura de California. En última instancia, la legislación fracasó, pero le habría dado al fiscal general el poder de revisar las fusiones o adquisiciones de un sistema de atención médica o un hospital lideradas por fondos de inversión o fondos de cobertura.

“El caso Sutter es un modelo para una política nacional que podría comenzar a restaurar la competencia por el sistema de atención médica y ahorrar a los consumidores miles de millones de dólares de inmediato”, dijo Glenn Melnick, economista de salud de la Universidad del Sur de California.

Melnick ve a Becerra como “un verdadero experto en algunos de los problemas más importantes que enfrenta nuestro sistema de atención médica, no solo en California sino a nivel nacional”.

Si el Senado lo confirma, los partidarios de Becerra dicen que aportará al trabajo una perspicacia política de sus más de dos décadas en el Capitolio, que probablemente será una ventaja para la administración Biden, mientras negocia proyectos de ley de ayuda para enfrentar la pandemia, y otras leyes de salud con un Congreso políticamente dividido.

Henry Waxman, ex miembro demócrata del Congreso de California, trabajó con casi una docena de secretarios del HHS durante su tiempo en el Comité de Energía y Comercio de la Cámara de Representantes. Dijo que no le preocupa que Becerra no tenga experiencia en el liderazgo de una vasta burocracia sanitaria. Para ser secretario del HHS, “se necesitan habilidades políticas para ver hasta dónde se puede llegar con otras personas en un contexto político”. Es por eso que la mayoría de los secretarios del HHS, republicanos y demócratas, han tenido antecedentes políticos.

Becerra “comprende las políticas y tiene un profundo compromiso con ellas”, dijo. “Creo que le irá bien”.

Los funcionarios de salud pública dicen que el trabajo que enfrenta Becerra es gigantesco.

El doctor Gary Pace, oficial de salud en la zona rural del condado de Lake, en California, dijo que Becerra tendría la tarea de reconstruir un sistema de salud pública que no funciona.

“Queremos un aliado federal que pueda brindarnos una buena orientación; algo que no hemos tenido”, dijo Pace. “Lo primero que necesitamos es que los CDC vuelvan a desempeñar un papel emblemático en la salud pública, con una guía confiable y oportuna basada en evidencia”.

Nacido en Sacramento de padres inmigrantes mexicanos, Becerra sería el primer secretario latino del HHS. Fue elegido para el Congreso a los 30 años y ha estado involucrado en la legislación nacional de salud durante las últimas dos décadas, aunque es más conocido por su participación en temas de inmigración e impuestos.

Se unió al poderoso Comité de Medios y Arbitrajes de la Cámara, que supervisa la legislación fiscal y sanitaria, en la década de 1990. El comité jugó un papel central en la redacción de lo que se convertiría en la Ley de Cuidado de Salud a Bajo Precio, en 2010.

Si bien el HHS supervisa las principales agencias de salud federales, incluidos los CDC, los Centros de Servicios de Medicare y Medicaid, la Administración de Alimentos y Medicamentos y los Institutos Nacionales de Salud, también tiene una amplia cartera de servicios sociales, incluida la supervisión del cuidado y el bienestar infantil, programas de beneficiencia, Head Start, programas para personas mayores y reasentamiento de refugiados.

Dan Mendelson, ex funcionario de salud de la administración Clinton, dijo que Becerra era una “elección inspiradora”. “Creo que el punto más importante es que este es el líder de un equipo”.

Las redactoras de California Healthline, Rachel Bluth y Samantha Young, colaboraron con esta historia.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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In Becerra, an HHS Nominee With Political Skill But No Front-Line Health Experience

Xavier Becerra, President-elect Joe Biden’s choice to head the Department of Health and Human Services, is set to be a pandemic-era secretary with no public health experience. Whether that matters depends on whom you ask.

Becerra built his career in the U.S. House of Representatives before becoming California’s attorney general, and some wonder whether his political and legal skills would be the right fit to steer HHS through a health catastrophe that’s killing thousands of Americans every day.

Although he would bring years of health politics and policy work to the role, none of it comes from front-line experience as an executive or administrator running public health programs, managing patient care or controlling the spread of disease.

Yet beyond the immediate COVID-19 crisis, many Democrats see Becerra as an important ally to undo what they view as years of damage from the Trump administration’s efforts to undermine the Affordable Care Act; the Medicaid program, which provides coverage for more than 70 million Americans; reproductive health; and more.

As California’s attorney general since 2017, Becerra has been a thorn in the side of the Trump administration, filing 107 lawsuits to overturn federal action on the Affordable Care Act, contraception, immigration, workers’ rights, LGBT rights, education, consumer protection, gun violence and the environment.

“COVID is the biggest issue on the table, but it is not the only issue on the table,” said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. “If you look at his body of work, he is not your traditional attorney. His body of work in the health area is substantial. And I think that counts.”

On Tuesday, Biden will formally introduce Becerra along with other candidates for top health jobs, many with deep public health experience.

They include Dr. Rochelle Walensky, an infectious disease expert at Harvard Medical School who practices at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, as the next director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Biden’s choice for COVID “czar” is Jeffrey Zients, a private equity executive and former Obama administration official who will steer the pandemic response from the White House. Dr. Vivek Murthy is the nominee for U.S. surgeon general, a position he held in the final Obama years.

Biden has said he will let the federal government’s longtime scientists guide his pandemic response, in particular those at the CDC, which is overseen by HHS. President Donald Trump sidelined the agency, damaging its reputation as the world’s most trusted public health institution.

That Becerra’s deepest experience is political makes some observers wary.

“I think there’s always a danger of letting that sort of cloud the scientific and medical judgment of how best to do things. I hope they can manage that well,” said Jeffrey Morris, a biostatistics professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has worked on COVID issues. He said he had mixed feelings about the Becerra selection. “What is the leadership style, and is there going to be micromanaging from the top down into these organizations? To me, that’s the key aspect.”

Garry South, a Los Angeles-based Democratic strategist, called Becerra’s appointment “curious.”

“A lot of people are raising eyebrows — even those who are pleased and proud that Biden picked another Californian to join his administration,” South said. “If Republicans are looking to target a few Biden appointees for rejection, you can expect them to make the case that there is no logical nexus between a state attorney general and serving as secretary of Health and Human Services.”

Still, Becerra, who as a member of Congress worked in the House Democratic leadership and was a member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, has more health policy background and knowledge of U.S. health care finance and delivery systems than many previous heads of the sprawling HHS, which employs more than 80,000 people and has a $1.3 trillion budget.

For three years, Becerra has managed California’s Justice Department, with a $1.1 billion budget and 4,800 employees. As attorney general, he’s been deeply involved in crafting health policy. His office has gone after anti-competitive behavior from hospitals. And he’s sponsored legislation to take on drugmakers and pay-for-delay schemes.

“He’s gone after powerful health care interests,” said Anthony Wright, executive director of the nonprofit Health Access California.

Antitrust enforcement is more commonly handled by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission. But Becerra made it a priority as California’s top cop. In May 2018, he brought an antitrust case against nonprofit health care giant Sutter Health, accusing the system of monopolistic practices that drove up the cost of medical care in Northern California.

“This is a big ‘F’ deal,” Becerra said at a news conference unveiling the lawsuit. The case — which encompassed years of work by the department and his predecessors and millions of pages of documents — alleged that Sutter had aggressively bought up hospitals and physician practices across the region and illegally exploited that market power for profit. Health care costs in Northern California, where Sutter dominates with its 24 hospitals, are 20% to 30% higher than in Southern California, even after adjusting for Northern California’s higher cost of living, according to a 2018 study from the Nicholas C. Petris Center at the University of California-Berkeley that was cited in the complaint.

In December 2019, Sutter agreed to pay $575 million to settle the case and promised to end a host of practices that Becerra alleged stifled competition.

Becerra channeled lessons learned from the Sutter case into an antitrust bill in the California legislature. The legislation ultimately failed, but it would have given the attorney general power to review private equity- or hedge fund-led mergers or acquisitions of a health care system or hospital.

“The Sutter case is a blueprint for a national policy that could start to restore competition for the health care system and save American health care consumers billions of dollars right away,” said Glenn Melnick, a health care economist at the University of Southern California. He views Becerra as “a real expert in some of the most important issues facing our health care system, not just in California but nationally.”

If confirmed by the Senate, Becerra supporters say, he will bring to the job a political acumen from his two decades-plus on Capitol Hill that’s likely to be an asset for the Biden administration as it negotiates pandemic relief bills and other health legislation with a politically divided Congress.

Former California Democratic member of Congress Henry Waxman worked with nearly a dozen HHS secretaries during his time on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He said he’s not worried that Becerra lacks experience leading a vast health care bureaucracy. The HHS secretary job, he said, is one “where you need political skills to see how far you can get with other people in a political context.” That’s why most HHS secretaries, Republicans and Democrats, have had political backgrounds.

Becerra “understands the policies and has a deep commitment to them,” he said. “I think he’ll do well.”

Public health officials say the job before Becerra is gigantic.

Dr. Gary Pace, the health officer in rural Lake County, California, said Becerra would be tasked with rebuilding a broken public health system.

“We want a federal partner who can give us good guidance — we haven’t had that,” Pace said. “For him, I’d say what we need first is starting to get the CDC back into a flagship public health role, with trusted and timely evidence-based guidance.”

Born in Sacramento to Mexican immigrant parents, Becerra would be the first Latino HHS secretary. He was elected to Congress in his 30s and has been involved in national health legislation during the past two decades, even though he is more widely known for his involvement in immigration and tax issues. He joined the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees tax and health legislation, in the 1990s. The committee played a central role in the drafting of what would become the Affordable Care Act in 2010.

While HHS oversees major federal health agencies, including the CDC, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health, it also has a wide-ranging human services portfolio, including oversight of child care and welfare programs, Head Start, programs for seniors and refugee resettlement.

“It’s not like any one person is going to have everything,” said Dan Mendelson, a former Clinton administration health official, who called Becerra an “inspired choice.” “I think that the most important point is that this is a leader of a team and not the be-all and end-all.”

KHN staff writers Rachel Bluth and Samantha Young contributed to this story.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Think Your Health Care Is Covered? Beware of the ‘Junk’ Insurance Plan

Looking back, Sam Bloechl knows that when the health insurance broker who was helping him find a plan asked whether he’d ever been diagnosed with a major illness, that should have been a red flag. Preexisting medical conditions don’t matter when you buy a comprehensive individual plan that complies with the Affordable Care Act. Insurers can’t turn people down or charge them more based on their medical history.

But Bloechl, now 31, didn’t know much about health insurance. So when the broker told him a UnitedHealthcare Golden Rule plan would cover him for a year for less than his marketplace plan — “Unless you like throwing money away, this is the plan you should buy,” he recalls the agent saying — he signed up.

That was December 2016. A month later Bloechl was diagnosed with stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma after an MRI showed tumors on his spine.

To Bloechl’s dismay, he soon learned that none of the expensive care he needed would be covered by his health plan. Instead of a comprehensive plan that complied with the ACA, he had purchased a bundle of four short-term plans with three-month terms that provided only limited benefits and didn’t cover preexisting conditions.

Because they tend to be less expensive, short-term plans continue to find buyers, and they have been championed by the Trump administration, which has loosened restrictions on them, as an alternative for consumers.

With this year’s open enrollment period well underway, millions of people are looking for coverage on the federal and state marketplaces. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between comprehensive plans sold there and “junk” plans with limited benefits and coverage restrictions.

“These plans continue to proliferate,” said Cheryl Fish-Parcham, director of access initiatives at Families USA, a consumer health care advocacy organization. “People need to be careful, whether they’re buying by phone or on a website.”

Bloechl assumed he was buying a comprehensive plan that would cover him for a life-threatening illness, although at the time he had no inkling he was sick. But when doctors said Bloechl needed a stem cell transplant, Golden Rule denied the request.

The reason: He had visited a chiropractor for back pain before he bought the plan. Bloechl had blamed the pain on the heavy lifting that came with running his Chicago landscaping business. But Golden Rule argued that he had sought medical treatment for a preexisting condition — cancer — so the plan didn’t have to cover it. It didn’t matter that he hadn’t been diagnosed when he purchased it.

The insurer didn’t cover any of his other bills for chemo and radiation either. Bloechl appealed the decision, but his appeals failed. He had more than $800,000 in bills for care — and that’s before the stem cell transplant he desperately needed.

“It’s just disgusting that these companies expect Joe Schmo or a guy like me to interpret [these policies] and then get screwed in the end,” Bloechl said.

UnitedHealthcare refused to discuss this case with KHN unless Bloechl signed a statement waiving his right to privacy. But he told KHN he did not feel comfortable signing a legal document provided by the insurer.

“Our agents work with individuals to help them understand their health insurance options and select a plan that best meets their needs,” said UnitedHealthcare’s communications director, Maria Gordon Shydlo, in an email. “We inform each individual of their coverage options, including associated costs, network size and if the selected plan covers pre-existing conditions. We adhere to a stringent application process that helps ensure consumers understand the plan they are purchasing before they make a final decision.”

Consumer advocates have long sounded alarm bells about short-term and other plans that don’t comply with the Affordable Care Act rules that require plans to provide comprehensive benefits to all comers, regardless of their health, and prohibit placing annual or lifetime dollar limits on coverage. ACA-compliant plans can also be purchased outside the marketplace, however, and that’s where shoppers may run into trouble, thinking they’re buying comprehensive coverage when they’re actually buying something much more limited.

“It’s a little bit of the Wild West out there,” said Sabrina Corlette, a research professor at Georgetown University’s Center on Health Insurance Reforms. “We often get calls about these products, and sometimes it can be challenging to figure out what they even are.”

Short-term plans have garnered much attention in recent years. In 2017, the Obama administration limited their duration to less than three months to discourage people from relying on these limited plans for primary coverage rather than as a temporary coverage bridge for people switching plans, as intended. But these plans were championed by the Trump administration as a cheaper option for consumers, and it issued a rule in 2018 that permitted short-term plans with terms of up to 364 days, with an option to renew for up to 36 months. The rule requires short-term plan materials to explain that the plans are not comprehensive insurance and may not cover some medical costs.

Such plans can be appealing to healthy people who don’t expect to need medical care. But as Bloechl’s experience shows, life can throw curveballs.

“Our patients are often young and healthy,” said Ryan Holeywell, senior director of advocacy communications at the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

Some states restrict or even prohibit the sale of short-term plans on the individual market.

But these short-term plans are just the tip of the iceberg.

There are fixed indemnity plans that pay out a certain amount — $100 a day for a limited hospital stay or $150 for an OB-GYN visit, for example — that may not come close to covering the actual costs.

Accident and critical illness plans provide lump-sum cash benefits when people experience medical emergencies like a heart attack or stroke under certain circumstances.

Cancer-only plans may provide hospitalization coverage but not cover other services. “You may be treated with chemo and radiation but never go to the hospital,” said Anna Howard, a policy principal at the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network. “So, the policy may never pay out.”

Then there are bundled plans that combine options, such as a short-term plan along with a prescription drug discount card and cancer coverage.

Unfortunately, consumers can’t always rely on insurance brokers to give them accurate information or steer them to comprehensive coverage, as Sam Bloechl discovered.

In August, the federal Government Accountability Office published a report about the experiences of “secret shoppers” who called 31 health insurance sales representatives and asked about plans, saying they had preexisting conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. In more than a quarter of cases, the sales reps “engaged in potentially deceptive marketing practices,” the report found, including falsely claiming that drugs such as insulin were covered, or offering a plan that didn’t cover preexisting conditions.

One reason brokers might encourage consumers to buy non-ACA plans: higher commissions.

“In our survey of brokers, they do report they pay higher commissions than ACA plans,” Corlette said. Some brokers reported they avoid noncompliant plans, however, because they pose risks for consumers.

The National Association of Health Underwriters, an organization for health insurance and employee benefits professionals, did not respond to a request for information and comment.

Consumers can be sure they’re getting a comprehensive, ACA-compliant plan if they buy it from marketplaces set up by that health law, Howard said.

Brokers can help people understand their options and buy a plan, including plans that comply with the ACA, but picking a broker can be challenging.

“Ideally go to someone in a brick-and-mortar building who has to bump into you in the grocery store,” Corlette said.

After his experience with Golden Rule, Sam Bloechl decided his best option was to offer a group plan to workers at his small landscaping company that he could also enroll in. He worked with a different broker, and he had lawyers look over the policies he was considering. He wanted to be sure that whatever plan he bought would cover his stem cell transplant.

The new plan did cover it. And by the time he went to work out payment on his $800,000-plus bill, his income had declined so much because of his illness that he qualified for charity care. The hospital wrote off his bill.

His cancer is in remission.

But the experience with the short-term policy still rankles. “Charity care picked up the one bill and [UnitedHealthcare Golden Rule’s] competitor paid for the transplant,” he said. “They got off the hook without paying a dime.”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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What Happened When the Only ER Doctor in a Rural Town Got COVID

Kurt Papenfus, a doctor in Cheyenne Wells, Colorado, started to feel sick around Halloween. He developed a scary cough, intestinal symptoms and a headache. In the midst of a pandemic, the news that he had COVID-19 wasn’t surprising, but Papenfus’ illness would have repercussions far beyond his own health.

Papenfus is the lone full-time emergency room doctor in the town of 900, not far from the Kansas line.

“I’m chief of staff and medical director of everything at Keefe Memorial Hospital currently in Cheyenne County, Colorado,” he said.

With Papenfus sick, the hospital scrambled to find a replacement. As coronavirus cases in rural Colorado, and the state’s Eastern Plains especially, surge to unprecedented levels, Papenfus’ illness is a test case for how the pandemic affects the fragile rural health care system.

“He is the main guy. And it is a very large challenge,” said Stella Worley, CEO of the hospital.

If she couldn’t find someone to fill in while he was sick, Worley might have to divert trauma and emergency patients nearly 40 miles north to Burlington.

“Time is life sometimes,” she said. “And that is not something you ever want to do.”

‘The ‘Rona Beast Is a Very Nasty Beast’

As deaths from the coronavirus have surpassed 250,000 in the U.S., new data show the pandemic has been particularly lethal in rural areas — it’s taking lives in those areas at a rate reportedly nearly 3.5 times higher than in metropolitan communities.

About 63 people in Cheyenne County have been diagnosed with COVID-19, most of them in the past three weeks.

Papenfus, a lively 63-year-old, was discharged after a nine-day stay at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Denver, and he was eager to sound the alarm about the disease he calls the ‘rona.

“The ‘rona beast is a very nasty beast, and it is not fun. It has a very mean temper. It loves a fight, and it loves to keep coming after you,” Papenfus said.

He isn’t sure where he picked it up but thinks it might have been on a trip east in October. He said he was meticulous on the plane, sitting in the front, last on, first off. But on landing at Denver International Airport, Papenfus boarded the crowded train to the terminal, and soon alarm bells went off in his head.

“There are people literally like inches from me, and we’re all crammed like sardines in this train,” Papenfus said. “And I’m going, ‘Oh, my God, I am in a superspreader event right now.’”

An airport spokeswoman declined to comment about Papenfus’ experience.

A week later, the symptoms hit. He tested positive and decided to drive himself the three hours to the hospital in Denver. “I’m not going to let anybody get in this car with me and get COVID, because I don’t want to give anybody the ‘rona,” he said. County sheriff’s deputies followed his car to ensure he made it.

Once in the hospital, chest X-rays revealed he’d developed pneumonia.

“Dude, I didn’t get a tap on the shoulder by ‘rona, I got a big viral load,” he texted a reporter, sending images of his chest scans that show large, opaque, white areas of his lung. Just a week earlier, his chest X-ray was normal, he said.

Back in Cheyenne Wells, Dr. Christine Connolly picked up some of Papenfus’ shifts, although she had to drive 10 hours each way from Fort Worth, Texas, to do it. She said the hospital staff is spread thin already.

“It’s not just the doctors; it’s the nurses, you know. It’s hard to get spare nurses,” she said. “There’s not a lot of spares of anything out that far.”

Besides himself, six other employees — out of a staff of 62 at Keefe Memorial — also recently got a positive test, Papenfus said.

Hospitals on the Plains often send their sickest patients to bigger hospitals in Denver and Colorado Springs. But with so many people around the region getting sick, Connolly is getting worried hospitals could be overwhelmed. Health care leaders created a new command system to transfer patients around the state to make more room, but Connolly said there is a limit.

“It’s dangerous when the hospitals in the cities fill up, and when it becomes a problem for us to send out,” she said.

‘Bank Robbers Wear Masks Out There’

The impact of Papenfus’ absence stretches across Colorado’s Eastern Plains. He usually worked shifts an hour to the northwest, at Lincoln Community Hospital in Hugo. Its CEO, Kevin Stansbury, said the town mostly dodged the spring surge and his facility could take in recovering COVID patients from Colorado’s cities. Now, Stansbury said, the virus is reaching places such as Lincoln County, population 5,700. It has had 144 cases, according to state data, and neighboring Kit Carson has had 301. Crowley County to the south, home to a privately managed state prison, has had 1,239 cases. It is far and away the No. 1 most affected county per capita in the state.

“So those numbers are huge,” Stansbury said. He said that as of mid-November about a half-dozen hospital staffers had tested positive for the virus; they think that outbreak is unrelated to Papenfus’ case.

Lincoln Community Hospital is ready once again to take recovering patients. Finances in rural health care are always tight, and accepting new patients would help.

“We have the staff to do that, so long as my staff doesn’t get ravaged with the disease,” Stansbury said.

Rural communities are particularly vulnerable. Residents tend to suffer from underlying health conditions that can make COVID-19 more severe, including high rates of cigarette smoking, high blood pressure and obesity. And Brock Slabach of the National Rural Health Association said 61% of rural hospitals do not have an intensive care unit.

“This is an unprecedented situation that we find ourselves in right now,” Slabach said. “I don’t think that in our lifetimes we’ve seen anything like what is developing in terms of surge capacity.”

A couple of hours east of Cheyenne Wells, COVID-19 recently hit Gove County, Kansas, hard.

The county’s emergency management director, the local hospital CEO and more than 50 medical staff members tested positive. In a nursing home, most of the more than 30 residents caught the virus; six have died since late September, according to The Associated Press. A county sheriff ended up in a hospital more than an hour from home, fighting to breathe, because of the lack of space at the local medical center.

Papenfus fretted about his home county and its odds of fighting off the virus.

“The western prairie isn’t mask country,” he said. “People don’t wear masks out there; bank robbers wear masks out there.” He is urging Coloradans to stay vigilant, calling the virus an existential threat. “It’s a huge wake-up call.”

Since being released from the hospital, Papenfus has had a rocky recovery. His wife, Joanne, drove him back to Cheyenne Wells, wearing an N95 mask and gloves, while he rode in the back on oxygen, coughing through the three-hour drive.

Once back at home after that initial nine-day stay, Papenfus hunkered down, with the occasional trip outside to hang out with his pet falcon.

But a week after going home, he started having nightly fevers. He had a CT scan done at Keefe Memorial, the hospital where he works. It revealed pneumonia in his lungs, so he went back to Denver, getting readmitted at St. Joseph’s Hospital. This time, Papenfus arrived via ambulance.

Finding a replacement for Papenfus at Keefe has been hard. The hospital is working with services that provide substitute physicians, but these days, with the coronavirus roaring across the country, the competition is fierce.

“They’re really scrambling to get coverage,” Papenfus texted from his hospital bed. “Whole county can’t wait for my return but this illness has really taken me down.”

He said he was now at Day 35 from his first symptoms, lying in his hospital bed in Denver, “wondering when I’ll ever get back.” Papenfus noted that COVID-19 has affected his critical thinking and that he will need to be cleared cognitively to return to work. He said he knows he won’t have the physical stamina to get back to full duty “for a while, if ever.”

This story is from a reporting partnership that includes Colorado Public RadioNPR and KHN.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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After a Deadly COVID Outbreak, Maryland County Takes Steps to Protect Health Workers


This story also ran on The Associated Press. It can be republished for free.

A Maryland health department is taking new steps to protect its workers six months after a COVID-19 outbreak killed a veteran employee who was twice denied permission to work from home.

Chantee Mack, 44, died in May. More than 20 colleagues also caught the coronavirus, and some are suffering lasting problems.

Now, after a KHN and Associated Press story in July spurred an investigation, Prince George’s County officials say they have added an appeals process to their work-at-home policy and hired a consultant to identify “operational and management needs for improvement” in the department. Union officials say the county has also made personal protective equipment, such as masks and gloves, more available in recent months and put a greater emphasis on social distancing.

“We’re getting somewhere,” said Rhonda Wallace, leader of a local branch of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “But we’re not there yet.”

In an email to KHN, health department spokesperson George Lettis said officials can’t release results of the county investigation because of personnel and medical information. But a county official’s letter to Wallace shares the inquiry’s main conclusions: that the health department tried to get PPE in early March and advised employees about social distancing and proper hygiene via a newsletter.

“It must not be overlooked that this was a rapidly evolving situation,” said the letter from Dr. George Askew, deputy chief administrative officer for health, human services and education. “Best efforts were made to keep the community and Health Department employees safe and informed during this unprecedented time.” The letter does not acknowledge any lapses made by the county.

Some employees argue the investigation didn’t delve into the circumstances around Mack’s death and say the county should publicly acknowledge its role in what happened. At a news conference in July, County Executive Angela Alsobrooks said Mack’s death “deserves an investigation” and the county would “spare no time or expense.”

Mack, who worked in the department’s sexually transmitted diseases program, was denied permission to work from home in March even though she had health problems that put her at high risk for COVID-19 complications.

At least three other employees whose requests to work from home were denied around that time also got sick. Revonda Watts, a nurse and program manager, said she was allowed to work from home for one day before being called back to the office. Some of these employees worked face-to-face with the public at least part of the time.

A union document obtained by KHN detailed a conference call by department managers in which Diane Young, an associate director, laid out criteria for working from home, such as being 65 or older or having small children. She said decisions would be made case by case.

Meanwhile, protective masks, gowns and other safety equipment were in short supply nationally and at the health department, which distributed them only to certain workers. In early April, when Young asked Watts about PPE needs, Watts wrote in an email obtained by KHN: “N-95 masks are needed for all staff. We were given 1 mask to reuse. We have no face shields for the clinicians nor do we have gowns.”

Young responded that even though goggles were available, “face shields and gowns are in limited supply and will be used for those who are testing patients for COVID-19.”

Several employees described meetings and “morning huddles” in the office in March and April held without social distancing and during which few, if any, participants wore masks.

One employee after another got sick.

Watts, who is 58 and has asthma, developed bronchitis on top of COVID-19, then chest pain from spasms in her blood vessels. She spread the virus to her adult daughter.

Administrative aide Natania Bowen also spread the virus to her family, including her husband and 7-year-old daughter, who have since recovered. Bowen, a 47-year-old with asthma, experienced a bacterial lung infection along with COVID-19.

Receptionist Yolanda Potter, 53, had severe headaches for a month from her coronavirus infection. She developed a blood clot in her right leg and had to inject blood thinners into her stomach for 45 days to prevent it from breaking off and traveling to her lungs or brain. She and Carolyn Ferguson, an X-ray tech now on desk duty, suffer ongoing memory problems, while Bowen continues to have lung issues.

While Bowen now works from home, Watts, Potter and Ferguson are back at the office. As of mid-November, Lettis said, 141 health department employees were working fully on-site, 68 partly on-site and 196 at home.

Employees said they are pleased that social distancing is now the norm in the health department, that more places to sanitize hands exist and that PPE is easier to get. They’re also hopeful about the new policy on remote work.

The countywide rules include two levels of review for work-at-home requests: one by a supervisor and another by a higher-up boss who must give a reason if a worker’s request is denied. The employee can then ask the Office for Human Resource Management to review the denial.

Despite such measures, some employees still worry about contracting COVID-19 at work, especially as the state’s COVID dashboard puts the county’s cumulative caseload over 42,000.

Several employees are seeking long-term disability leave or talking to lawyers about getting workers’ compensation. Watts said she is awaiting a workers’ comp hearing and has asked again for permission to work from home as she deals with crushing fatigue and numbness in her legs and hands. Since returning to the office, she said, she has had to bring her own mask from home.

“I get frustrated with not being able to just bounce back,” she said. The health department officials “really let us down and didn’t do their due diligence to make sure the staff was protected.”

This story is a collaboration between The Associated Press and KHN.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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NYC Hospital Workers, Knowing How Bad It Can Get, Brace for COVID 2nd Wave

No single municipality in the country suffered more in the first wave of the pandemic than New York City, which saw more than 24,000 deaths, mainly in the spring. Medical staff in New York know precisely how difficult and dangerous overwhelmed hospitals can be and are braced warily as infections begin to rise again. 

Around the New York metropolitan area, public health leaders and health care workers say they’re watching the trend lines, as intensive care units fill up in other parts of the United States and around the world. They say it gives them flashbacks to last spring, when ambulance sirens were omnipresent and the region was the country’s coronavirus epicenter.

There is wide agreement that hospitals and care providers are in much better shape now than then, because there is much more knowledge about the disease and how to handle it; much larger stockpiles of personal protective equipment; and much, much more widespread testing.

But at the same time, many front-line workers are nervous about hospital preparedness, and many observers are less bullish about the effectiveness of the coronavirus testing and tracing infrastructure.

“I think there’s a lot of anxiety about doing this a second time,” said Dr. Laura Iavicoli, head of emergency preparedness for NYC Health + Hospitals, the country’s largest municipal hospital system. Iavicoli is also an active emergency room physician at Elmhurst Hospital, in Queens, which came to be called “the epicenter of the epicenter” back in April. Still, she has enormous confidence in the staff of the municipal hospital system.

“They will rally, because I know them,” she said. “I’ve worked with them for 20 years, and they’re the most amazing people I can possibly speak of, but there’s anxiety and there’s COVID fatigue.”

Iavicoli said some of the city’s hospitals are at capacity, but she hastened to add that she’s not talking about “COVID capacity” — meaning not all the beds and recently reconfigured spillover spaces for COVID patients are full. Rather, she said, two of the network’s 11 hospitals have had to transfer ICU patients to others to make room for incoming patients.

“We are doing a little bit of redistributing around the system to give them COVID capacity, but it’s very manageable within the system,” Iavicoli said. “The increase is definitely typical in flu season, but knowing that we have just entered upon the second wave [of COVID-19] and predicting what is to come, we’re a little even more cognizant than normal to make sure we leave capacity in all of our facilities.”

Many nurses, however, say hospital administrators have not learned enough from the experience in March and April.

“We’re scared because we’re afraid we’re going to have to go through this again,” said Michelle Gonzalez, a critical care nurse at Montefiore Medical Center, in the Bronx, and a union representative for NYSNA, the New York State Nurses Association.

She said that in her unit nurses typically handle one or two intensive care unit patients at a time — but now have to handle three, with the number of COVID patients creeping up once again. Tending to four patients or more was common at the peak of the pandemic surge. Gonzalez said that’s overwhelming. If one patient crashes, several nurses need to converge at once, leaving other patients unmonitored.   

“When we start to get triples with the frequency we’re seeing right now, we know it’s because we’re short-staffed, and they’re not getting ICU nurses into the building,” she said at a demonstration that featured a phalanx of nurses marching from Montefiore to a nearby cemetery, bearing floral wreaths for fallen comrades, while a band and bagpiper played “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “Amazing Grace.”

A spokesperson for the union said Montefiore, by its own reckoning, has 476 vacant nursing positions — a number that has climbed by nearly 100 since 2019.

“Management is not living up to their promise to fill vacancies and hire nurses,” said Kristi Barnes, from NYSNA. “As of last week, they have 188 full-time nursing jobs they have not even posted, so there is no way they can be filled.” 

The Montefiore administration disagrees.

“We have a contractual agreement with the union, and we meet the contractual obligations of that agreement,” said Peter Semczuk, senior vice president of operations. “We tailor our staffing in such a flexible way to meet the needs of the patient.”

Like many hospital systems, Montefiore relied heavily on temporary staffing agencies for “traveling nurses” from around the country earlier this year. Hospitals are preparing to do so again — but there is demand all over the country

“They got us travelers in April, but that was four or six weeks in, and until that we were on our own,” said Kathy Santoiemma, who’s been a nurse at Montefiore New Rochelle for 43 years. “I don’t even know where they’re going to get travelers now — everyone around the whole country needs travelers.”

NYSNA led a two-day strike at Montifiore New Rochelle on Tuesday, after contract negotiations in the works for two years stalled on Monday.

Iavicoli said each of her network’s facilities has submitted requests, so that NYC Health + Hospitals could place a preliminary order now.

Health planners are hoping New Yorkers won’t flood into emergency rooms this time. They point to the modest climb in COVID hospitalizations over the past two months compared with other areas, including New Jersey and Connecticut. One thing they hope will keep the curve relatively flat is testing, which is more pervasive in New York than almost anywhere else in the country. About 200,000 people across New York state are getting tested each day, roughly one-third of them in New York City.

“It’s the first step to actually interrupting further spread,” said Dr. Dave Chokshi, the city health commissioner.

He said mass testing works on two levels — by highlighting which areas are hot zones, so health workers can target residents with “hyper-local” messages about COVID-19 spread, to get them to change their behavior, and also by allowing contact tracers to communicate individually with newly infected people.

“Once someone tests positive, we very quickly help them isolate,” Chokshi said. “We do an interview with them to know who their close contacts are, and then we call those contacts and make sure they’re quarantining as well.”

However, the city’s contact-tracing program has had a mixed record. The people it reaches say they’re staying put — but fewer than half of them share names of people they might have exposed. Denis Nash, an epidemiologist who previously worked for the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the city hasn’t successfully drilled down into how the coronavirus actually spreads, because contact tracers aren’t asking people enough questions about their behaviors and possible exposures.

“During the summer and early fall, when things were slowly ramping up, there were missed opportunities to use contact tracing to talk to 80 or 90% of all newly diagnosed people, to understand what their risk factors were and what kinds of things … were they exposed to that could have potentially resulted in them getting the virus,” he said. “You can never know with 100% certainty [where they contracted the virus], but if you ask these questions, you could begin to understand what some likely patterns were — for example, of public transportation use, or working in office buildings that didn’t have rigorous safety protocols, or indoor dining.”

This knowledge, though imperfect, could lead to better informed public policy decisions, Nash said, about whether to close indoor restaurants, beauty salons or fitness centers. Without that data, leaders are just making guesses.

Others fault the city’s testing and tracing program for not reaching out enough to poor communities of color — which suffered disproportionately during the first COVID wave. Chokshi, the health commissioner, said getting testing sites to these neighborhoods has been a priority — but a recent analysis suggested it’s not working as well as the city intended.

“There’s clearly a disparity in providing widespread testing across New York City,” said Wil Lieberman-Cribbin, a graduate student and environmental health researcher at Columbia University.

He looked at how many people are getting tested, by neighborhood, and correlated those figures with race, income level and COVID positivity. In wealthier areas, people are getting many more tests and have much less illness. In poorer ones, people are getting many fewer tests and are much sicker. More testing in those areas would pick up cases sooner, before people develop symptoms.

“Testing is really, really needed, not only to protect the most vulnerable, but to collectively try and get a handle on COVID and reopen New York City,” Lieberman-Cribbin said.

Personal protective equipment, or PPE, is also much more ample than it was last spring but, similarly, remains a source of contention.

New York state health authorities are requiring hospitals to stockpile a 90-day supply of PPE; for nursing homes, it’s 60 days’ worth. Many facilities have complied with September and October deadlines, but others have not.

Montefiore, NYC Health + Hospitals, and other large hospital networks say they have at least that much, if not more.       

Nurses, though, say they should be able to get fresh N95 masks each time they see a new patient, to limit the risk of contamination. Many administrators counter that isn’t feasible, given the precariousness of the supply chain. They note that CDC guidelines permit “extended use” of some PPE.

“[Nurses and other caregivers] change their gloves between every patient, but they might wear the same N95 mask for one shift and put a surgical mask over it just to preserve it and only switch it out if there’s some integrity issue or it gets contaminated,” said Iavicoli, of the city hospital system. “But definitely at the next shift, they’re getting a new one.”

Iavicoli acknowledged the challenges as the pandemic rolls on and said there are four kinds of days: “blue skies, or normal,” “busier than normal,” “a little stretched” and “extremely stretched.” 

“I think we’re at the top end of ‘busy normal’ bordering on ‘a little more than overstretched,’” said Iavicoli.

This story is from a reporting partnership that includes WNYC, NPR and KHN. 

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Come for Your Eye Exam, Leave With a Band-Aid on Your Arm

With multiple COVID-19 vaccines rapidly heading toward approval, optometrists and dentists are pushing for the authority to immunize patients during routine eye exams and dental cleanings.

Across the country, these medical professionals say their help will be needed to distribute the vaccines to millions of Americans — and they already have the know-how.

“When you look at what dentists do, and how many injections they give day in and day out, I think they’re more than qualified,” said Jim Wood, a California state assembly member and dentist. “It’s kind of a no-brainer.”

In California, the professional organizations representing dentists and optometrists are in talks with state officials to expand their job descriptions to include administering vaccines. Oregon has already begun training and certifying dentists to give vaccines. And at least half the states have considered allowing dentists to administer COVID vaccines once they’re available, according to the American Association of Dental Boards.

That list is likely to grow, because the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services recommended in October that states consider expanding their list of vaccine providers.

The dentists and optometrists seeking permission to vaccinate patients against COVID-19 and other diseases argue that their help will take some of the pressure off hospitals and doctors’ offices. It could also bring some extra money into their practices.

“Everyone in our specialized health care system should also play a preventive role,” said Dr. William Sage, a professor of law and medicine at the University of Texas-Austin. “Pandemic or not, being alert to preventive health in any setting is a good thing.”

In November, Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca announced that their COVID vaccine candidates delivered promising results in clinical trials, and that millions of doses could be ready before the end of the year. Pfizer’s has to be stored at ultracold temperatures, while Moderna’s and AstraZeneca’s can be kept at standard refrigerator temperatures.

This wouldn’t be the first time health professionals other than doctors administered vaccines during a pandemic. Nursing students, EMTs and midwives in a handful of states were granted temporary and limited authority to administer flu vaccines during the H1N1 swine flu pandemic of 2009-10. Dentists in Massachusetts, Illinois, New York and Minnesota also were temporarily deputized as vaccinators.

Since then, Minnesota and Illinois have adopted laws to allow dentists to give flu shots to adults. And last year, Oregon became the first state to allow dentists to give any vaccine to any patient, whether a child or an adult.

So far, more than 200 dentists and dental students in Oregon have completed the training course offered by the Oregon Health & Science University’s School of Dentistry, with 60 others expected to finish by the end of December, said Mary Pat Califano, an instructor who helped develop the hands-on part of the training.

Students spend around 10 hours in online classes. They then undergo hands-on training during which they practice injections on a shoulder pad before practicing injecting a partner with saline. They’re taught how to counsel patients about vaccines and avoid injuring patients’ shoulders when giving the shots.

Once dentists pass an exam, they can register with the Oregon Health Authority and begin getting their staff trained to handle vaccines and procuring a fridge to store them.

The goal, Califano said, is not to replace family doctors or primary care physicians, but to supplement them. The federal Agency for Health Research and Quality found that, in 2017, 31.1 million Americans saw a dentist but not a physician.

“We just need as many people as possible to give flu shots and COVID-19 vaccines when they’re available,” Califano said. “If it happens that they’re in a dental office, and that provider is educated and capable of giving a vaccine, why not?”

In California, the state dental association is exploring options for gaining vaccine authority, which would likely require the legislature to step in. This year, California passed a law allowing pharmacists to administer COVID vaccines approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Wood, who carried that measure, hasn’t yet committed to sponsoring a bill that would let dentists give vaccines, but says he supports the idea.

“We give injections in the mouth all day long, and these are very precise kinds of injections,” Wood said. “I think the learning curve for a dentist would be small.”

Dr. Bill Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and infectious disease at Vanderbilt University, said these proposals for expanding the vaccine workforce are promising. Flu vaccines, which are relatively low-risk and simple to administer, would be the perfect candidate to stock in dental and optometric fridges to start.

But Schaffner doesn’t believe dentists and optometrists will play a major role in the COVID immunization effort. It would take too long to pass legislation to expand the scope of practice for every professional who wants it in every state, he said. And since some COVID vaccines have specific shipping and subzero storing requirements, they will probably be distributed only to specially trained personnel at a small number of locations, he said.

There’s also the question of payment. It’s hard — but not impossible — to make a profit administering vaccines, Schaffner said.

Providers have to decide each season how many doses to buy, and any that go bad or remain in the fridge at the end of their shelf life equal monetary losses.

“Unless you’re very assiduous about moving the vaccine from the fridge into arms, you’re not going to make money,” Schaffner said. “People who do that can augment their income, but nobody is going to drive a Porsche because of vaccines.”

Jeff McCombs, an associate professor of health economics at the University of Southern California School of Pharmacy, agreed it might not make business sense for most dentists to start vaccinating. He said it would be hard to keep a well-stocked vaccine fridge with enough variety to meet patients’ needs without wasting doses. Generally, adults who choose not to get vaccinated do so because they’re uneducated about vaccines or afraid, he said, not because they can’t access them.

“I don’t think it’s going to harm people,” McCombs said. “I just don’t think they’ll make any money at it.”

While the California Department of Public Health said the state’s current vaccine infrastructure is sufficient for flu shots and routine immunizations, it is “carefully considering the need to include additional types of immunizers” to get Californians vaccinated against COVID-19, according to a statement from the department.

The California Optometric Association said it is in talks with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s vaccine task force about how to get optometrists into the mix, and is exploring legislative options as well.

“We can serve the dual role of assisting with vision needs and protecting from COVID,” said David Ardaya, an optometrist in Whittier who chairs an association committee that is looking into the issue. “Our whole hope is to assist our nation in regaining its health and in returning to a sense of normal.”

But three years after AB-443 was signed, the regulations implementing it have yet to be finalized.

That didn’t stop Frank Giardina, an optometrist in Nipomo, from going through a certification program anyway.

The 20-hour course, which includes online lectures, hands-on lessons and an exam, is the same course pharmacists take when learning how to give all vaccines to people of all ages.

Giardina pointed to the shingles, or herpes zoster, virus as an example of why optometrists are well suited to give vaccines. The virus can infect the eyes, and even though he’s allowed to treat shingles, he can’t give a vaccine to prevent it.

For now, he’s holding out hope he will get permission to administer vaccines, including for COVID-19. He envisions a world in which a patient comes in for contact lenses and he can offer them a flu or COVID vaccine while they’re there.

“We’re another member of the health care team. It’s a waste of manpower not to,” Giardina said. “If you’re trying to vaccinate all these people, especially in rural areas, you need whoever you can find.”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Con récord de internaciones por COVID, la crisis ahora es la falta de personal médico

Los hospitales en gran parte del país están tratando de hacer frente a un número sin precedentes de pacientes con COVID-19.

El lunes 30 de noviembre hubo 96,039 internaciones a lo largo del país, un récord alarmante que supera con creces los dos picos anteriores en abril y julio de poco menos de 60,000 pacientes hospitalizados.

Pero las camas y el espacio no son la principal preocupación. Es la fuerza laboral. A los hospitales les preocupa que los niveles de personal no puedan satisfacer la demanda, ya que los médicos, enfermeras y especialistas, como los terapeutas respiratorios, se agotan o, peor aún, se infectan y enferman.

La solución típica para la escasez de personal (contratar médicos de afuera) ya no es la solución, a pesar de que ayudó a aliviar la tensión al principio de la pandemia, cuando el primer aumento de casos se concentró en un puñado de “puntos calientes” como Nueva York, Detroit, Seattle y Nueva Orleans.

Reclutar esos refuerzos temporales también fue más fácil en la primavera porque los hospitales fuera de esas primeras ciudades afectadas estaban atendiendo a menos pacientes de lo normal, lo que llevó a despidos masivos.

Eso hizo que muchas enfermeras cesantes no dudaran en viajar a otra ciudad y ayudar en otro frente de batalla.

En muchos casos, los hospitales compitieron por las enfermeras itinerantes y las tasas de pago de las enfermeras temporales se dispararon. En abril, el Centro Médico de la Universidad de Vanderbilt en Nashville, Tennessee, tuvo que aumentar el salario de algunas enfermeras del personal, que ganaban menos que las temporales recién llegadas.

En la primavera, estas enfermeras que viajaron a las “zonas calientes” no solo recibieron mejores salarios. Muchas contaron lo gratificante que fue salvar vidas en una pandemia histórica, estar cerca de pacientes que morían lejos de su familia.

“Era realmente una zona caliente, no nos sacábamos el equipo de protección y todos los que ingresaban eran COVID positivos”, contó Laura Williams, de Knoxville, Tennessee, quien ayudó a inaugurar el Ryan Larkin Field Hospital en la ciudad de Nueva York.

“Trabajaba seis o siete días a la semana, pero me sentí muy realizada”.

Después de dos meses agotadores, Williams regresó en junio a su trabajo de enfermería en el Centro Médico de la Universidad de Tennessee. Durante un tiempo, el frente de COVID se mantuvo relativamente tranquilo en Knoxville.

Pero luego golpeó la segunda ola. Y ha habido hospitalizaciones récord en Tennessee casi todos los días: aumentaron un 60% en el último mes.

Los funcionarios de salud informan que es mucho más difícil encontrar médicos suplentes.

Tennessee ha construido sus propios hospitales de campaña para manejar el desborde de pacientes: uno se encuentra dentro de las antiguas oficinas del periódico Commercial Appeal en Memphis y otro ocupa dos pisos sin usar en el Nashville General Hospital.

Pero si fueran necesarios en este momento, el estado tendría problemas para encontrar médicos y enfermeras para administrarlos porque los hospitales ya están luchando para cubrir las camas que tienen.

“La capacidad hospitalaria depende casi exclusivamente de la dotación de personal”, explicó la doctora Lisa Piercey, quien dirige el Departamento de Salud de Tennessee. “Las camas no son el problema”.

Cuando se trata de dotación de personal, el coronavirus crea un desafío extremo.

A medida que el número de casos alcanza nuevos picos, un número récord de empleados del hospital tienen COVID-19 o se ven obligados a dejar de trabajar porque tienen que ponerse en cuarentena después de una posible exposición.

“Pero aquí está la trampa”, dijo el doctor Alex Jahangir, que preside el grupo de trabajo sobre el coronavirus de Nashville. “No se infectan en los hospitales. De hecho, los hospitales en su mayor parte son bastante seguros. Se están infectando en la comunidad”.

Algunos estados, como Dakota del Norte, ya han decidido permitir que las enfermeras con COVID positivo sigan trabajando mientras se sientan bien, una medida que ha generado una reacción violenta.

La escasez de enfermeras es tan aguda que algunos puestos de enfermeras itinerantes pagan un salario de $8,000 a la semana. A algunas enfermeras y médicos jubilados se les pidió que consideraran regresar a la fuerza laboral al comienzo de la pandemia, y al menos 338 de 65 años o más murieron de COVID-19.

En Tennessee, el gobernador Bill Lee emitió una orden de emergencia que flexibiliza algunas restricciones regulatorias sobre quién puede hacer qué dentro de un hospital, dándoles más flexibilidad al personal.

La doctora Jessica Rosen es médica de emergencias en St. Thomas Health en Nashville, donde tener que derivar pacientes a otros hospitales era algo raro. Dijo que ahora es algo común.

“Tratamos de enviar ambulancias a otros hospitales porque no tenemos camas disponibles”, expresó.

Incluso los hospitales más grandes de la región se están llenando. La primera semana de diciembre, el Centro Médico de la Universidad de Vanderbilt abrió espacio en su hospital infantil para pacientes que no tenían COVID. Su hospital de adultos tiene más de 700 camas. Y como muchos otros hospitales, ha enfrentado el desafío de dotar de personal a dos unidades de cuidados intensivos, una exclusivamente para pacientes con COVID y otra para todos los demás.

Y los pacientes vienen de lugares tan lejanos como Arkansas y el suroeste de Virginia.

“La gran mayoría de nuestros pacientes que ahora están en la unidad de cuidados intensivos no ingresan a través de nuestro departamento de emergencias”, dijo el doctor Matthew Semler, neumonólogo en VUMC que trabaja con pacientes con COVID.

“Los transfieren a este centro, que está a horas de distancia, porque no hay capacidad en ningún otro”.

Semler dijo que su hospital normalmente traía enfermeras de fuera de la ciudad para ayudar. Pero ya no hay.

Los grupos de proveedores nacionales todavía están enviando personal, aunque cada vez más significa dejar a otro lugar con menos trabajadores. El doctor James Johnson, de la empresa de servicios médicos Envision, con sede en Nashville, ha desplegado refuerzos en Lubbock y El Paso, Texas.

Con esta crisis, la limitación no serán los ventiladores o el equipo de protección, dijo. En la mayoría de los casos, será la fuerza laboral médica. El poder de la gente.

Johnson, veterano de la Fuerza Aérea que trató a soldados heridos en Afganistán, dijo que está más concentrado que nunca en tratar de levantar la moral de los médicos y evitar el agotamiento. En general, es optimista, especialmente después de servir cuatro semanas en la ciudad de Nueva York al comienzo de la pandemia.

“Lo que experimentamos en Nueva York, y desde entonces, muestra que la humanidad está a la altura de las circunstancias”, dijo.

Pero Johnson agregó que los sacrificios no deberían provenir solo de los trabajadores de salud. Todos son responsables de tratar de evitar que los demás, y ellos mismos, se enfermen en primer lugar, dijo.

Esta historia es parte de una colaboración que incluye Nashville Public Radio, NPR y Kaiser Health News.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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As Hospitals Fill With COVID Patients, Medical Reinforcements Are Hard to Find

Hospitals in much of the country are trying to cope with unprecedented numbers of COVID-19 patients. As of Monday, 96,039 were hospitalized, an alarming record that far exceeds the two previous peaks in April and July of just under 60,000 inpatients.

But beds and space aren’t the main concern. It’s the workforce. Hospitals are worried staffing levels won’t be able to keep up with demand as doctors, nurses and specialists such as respiratory therapists become exhausted or, worse, infected and sick themselves.

The typical workaround for staffing shortages — hiring clinicians from out of town — isn’t the solution anymore, even though it helped ease the strain early in the pandemic, when the first surge of cases was concentrated in a handful of “hot spot” cities such as New York, Detroit, Seattle and New Orleans.

Recruiting those temporary reinforcements was also easier in the spring because hospitals outside of the initial hot spots were seeing fewer patients than normal, which led to mass layoffs. That meant many nurses were able — and excited — to catch a flight to another city and help with treatment on the front lines.

In many cases, hospitals competed for traveling nurses, and the payment rates for temporary nurses spiked. In April, Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, had to increase the pay of some staff nurses, who were making less than newly arrived temporary nurses.

In the spring, nurses who answered the call from beleaguered “hot spot” hospitals weren’t merely able to command higher pay. Some also spoke about how meaningful and gratifying the work felt, trying to save lives in a historic pandemic, or the importance of being present for family members who could not visit loved ones who were sick or dying.

“It was really a hot zone, and we were always in full PPE and everyone who was admitted was COVID-positive,” said Laura Williams of Knoxville, Tennessee, who helped launch the Ryan Larkin Field Hospital in New York City.

“I was working six or seven days a week, but I felt very invigorated.”

After two taxing months, Williams returned in June to her nursing job at the University of Tennessee Medical Center. For a while, the COVID front remained relatively quiet in Knoxville. Then the fall surge hit. There have been record hospitalizations in Tennessee nearly every day, increasing by 60% in the past month.

Health officials report that backup clinicians are becoming much harder to find.

Tennessee has built its own field hospitals to handle patient overflows — one is inside the old Commercial Appeal newspaper offices in Memphis, and another occupies two unused floors in Nashville General Hospital. But if they were needed right now, the state would have trouble finding the doctors and nurses to run them because hospitals are already struggling to staff the beds they have.

“Hospital capacity is almost exclusively about staffing,” said Dr. Lisa Piercey, who heads the Tennessee Department of Health. “Physical space, physical beds, not the issue.”

When it comes to staffing, the coronavirus creates a compounding challenge.

As patient caseloads reach new highs, record numbers of hospital employees are themselves out sick with COVID-19 or temporarily forced to stop working because they have to quarantine after a possible exposure.

“But here’s the kicker,” said Dr. Alex Jahangir, who chairs Nashville’s coronavirus task force. “They’re not getting infected in the hospitals. In fact, hospitals for the most part are fairly safe. They’re getting infected in the community.”

Some states, like North Dakota, have already decided to allow COVID-positive nurses to keep working as long as they feel OK, a move that has generated backlash. The nursing shortage is so acute there that some traveling nurse positions posted pay of $8,000 a week. Some retired nurses and doctors were asked to consider returning to the workforce early in the pandemic, and at least 338 who were 65 or older have died of COVID-19.

In Tennessee, Gov. Bill Lee issued an emergency order loosening some regulatory restrictions on who can do what within a hospital, giving them more staffing flexibility.

For months, staffing in much of the country had been a concern behind the scenes. But it’s becoming palpable to any patient.

Dr. Jessica Rosen is an emergency physician at St. Thomas Health in Nashville, where having to divert patients to other hospitals has been rare over the past decade. She said it’s a common occurrence now.

“We have been frequently on diversion, meaning we don’t take transfers from other hospitals,” she said. “We try to send ambulances to other hospitals because we have no beds available.”

Even the region’s largest hospitals are filling up. This week, Vanderbilt University Medical Center made space in its children’s hospital for non-COVID patients. Its adult hospital has more than 700 beds. And like many other hospitals, it has had the challenge of staffing two intensive care units — one exclusively for COVID patients and another for everyone else.

And patients are coming from as far away as Arkansas and southwestern Virginia.

“The vast majority of our patients now in the intensive care unit are not coming in through our emergency department,” said Dr. Matthew Semler, a pulmonary specialist at VUMC who works with COVID patients.

“They’re being sent hours away to be at our hospital because all of the hospitals between here and where they present to the emergency department are on diversion.”

Semler said his hospital would typically bring in nurses from out of town to help. But there is nowhere to pull them from right now.

National provider groups are still moving personnel around, though increasingly it means leaving somewhere else short-staffed. Dr. James Johnson with the Nashville-based physician services company Envision has deployed reinforcements to Lubbock and El Paso, Texas, this month.

He said the country hasn’t hit it yet, but there’s a limit to hospital capacity.

“I honestly don’t know where that limit is,” he said.

At this point, the limitation won’t be ventilators or protective gear, he said. In most cases, it will be the medical workforce. People power.

Johnson, an Air Force veteran who treated wounded soldiers in Afghanistan, said he’s more focused than ever on trying to boost doctors’ morale and stave off burnout. He’s generally optimistic, especially after serving four weeks in New York City early in the pandemic.

“What we experienced in New York and happened in every episode since is that humanity rises to the occasion,” he said.

But Johnson said the sacrifices shouldn’t come just from the country’s health care workers. Everyone bears a responsibility, he said, to try to keep themselves and others from getting sick in the first place.

This story is from a reporting partnership that includes Nashville Public Radio, NPR and Kaiser Health News.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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OSHA Let Employers Decide Whether to Report Health Care Worker Deaths. Many Didn’t.

As Walter Veal cared for residents at the Ludeman Developmental Center in suburban Chicago, he saw the potential future of his grandson, who has autism.


This story also ran on The Guardian. It can be republished for free.

So he took it on himself not just to bathe and feed the residents, which was part of the job, but also to cut their hair, run to the store to buy their favorite body wash and barbecue for them on holidays.

“They were his second family,” said his wife, Carlene Veal.

Even after COVID-19 struck in mid-March and cases began spreading through the government-run facility, which serves nearly 350 adults with developmental disabilities, Walter was determined to go to work, Carlene said.

Staff members were struggling to acquire masks and other personal protective equipment at the time, many asking family members for donations and wearing rain ponchos sent by professional baseball teams.

All Walter had was a pair of gloves, Carlene said.

By mid-May, rumors of some sick residents and staffers had turned into 274 confirmed positive COVID tests, according to the Illinois Department of Human Services COVID tracking site. On May 16, Walter, 53, died of the virus. Three of his colleagues had already passed, according to interviews with Ludeman workers, the deceased employees’ families and union officials.

State and federal laws say facilities like Ludeman are required to alert Occupational Safety and Health Administration officials about work-related employee deaths within eight hours. But facility officials did not deem the first staff death on April 13 work-related, so they did not report it. They made the same decision about the second and third deaths. And Walter’s.

It’s a pattern that’s emerged across the nation, according to a KHN review of hundreds of worker deaths detailed by family members, colleagues and local, state and federal records.

Workplace safety regulators have taken a lenient stance toward employers during the pandemic, giving them broad discretion to decide internally whether to report worker deaths. As a result, scores of deaths were not reported to occupational safety officials from the earliest days of the pandemic through late October.

KHN examined more than 240 deaths of health care workers profiled for the Lost on the Frontline project and found that employers did not report more than one-third of them to a state or federal OSHA office, many based on internal decisions that the deaths were not work-related — conclusions that were not independently reviewed.

Work-safety advocates say OSHA investigations into staff deaths can help officials pinpoint problems before they endanger other employees as well as patients or residents. Yet, throughout the pandemic, health care staff deaths have steadily climbed. Thorough reviews could have also prompted the Department of Labor, which oversees OSHA, to urge the White House to address chronic protective gear shortages or sharpen guidance to help keep workers safe.

Since no public agency releases the names of health care workers who die of COVID-19, a team of reporters building the Lost on the Frontline database has scoured local news stories, GoFundMe campaigns, and obituary and social media sites to identify nearly 1,400 possible cases. More than 260 fatalities have been vetted with families, employers and public records.

For this investigation, journalists examined worker deaths at more than 100 health care facilities where OSHA records showed no fatality investigation was underway.

At Ludeman, the circumstances surrounding the April 13 worker death might have shed light on the hazards facing Veal. But no state work safety officials showed up to inspect — because the Department of Human Services, which operates Ludeman and employs the staff, said it did not report any of the four deaths there to Illinois OSHA.

The department said “it could not determine the employees contracted COVID-19 at the workplace” — despite its being the site of one of the largest U.S. outbreaks. Since Veal’s death in May, dozens more workers have tested positive for COVID-19, according to DHS’ COVID tracking site.

OSHA inspectors monitor local news media and sometimes will open investigations even without an employer’s fatality report. Through Nov. 5, federal OSHA offices issued 63 citations to facilities for failing to report a death. And when inspectors do show up, they often force improvements — requiring more protective equipment for workers and better training on how to use it, files reviewed by KHN show.

Still, many deaths receive little or no scrutiny from work-safety authorities. In California, public health officials have documented about 200 health care worker deaths. Yet the state’s OSHA office received only 75 fatality reports at health care facilities through Oct. 26, Cal/OSHA records show.

Nursing homes, which are under strict Medicare requirements, reported more than 1,000 staff deaths through mid-October, but only about 350 deaths of long-term care facility workers appear to have been reported to OSHA, agency records show.

Workers whose deaths went unreported include some who took painstaking precautions to avoid getting sick and passing the virus to family members: One California lab technician stayed in a hotel during the workweek. An Arizona nursing home worker wore a mask for family movie nights. A Nevada nurse told his brother he didn’t have adequate PPE. Nevada OSHA confirmed to KHN that his death was not reported to the agency and that officials would investigate.

KHN asked health care employers why they chose not to report fatalities. Some cited the lack of proof that a worker was exposed on-site, even in workplaces that reported a COVID outbreak. Others cited privacy concerns and gave no explanation. Still others ignored requests for comment or simply said they had followed government policies.

“It is so disrespectful of the agencies and the employers to shunt these cases aside and not do everything possible to investigate the exposures,” said Peg Seminario, a retired union health and safety director who co-authored a study on OSHA oversight with scholars from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

A Department of Labor spokesperson said in a statement that an employer must report a fatality within eight hours of knowing the employee died and after determining the cause of death was a work-related case of COVID-19.

The department said employers also are bound to report a COVID death if it comes within 30 days of a workplace incident — meaning exposure to COVID-19.

Yet pinpointing exposure to an invisible virus can be difficult, with high rates of pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic transmission and spread of the virus just as prevalent inside a hospital COVID unit as out.

Those challenges, plus May guidance from OSHA, gave employers latitude to decide behind closed doors whether to report a case. So it’s no surprise that cases are going unreported, said Eric Frumin, who has testified to Congress on worker safety and is health and safety director for Change to Win, a partnership of seven unions.

“Why would an employer report unless they feel for some reason they’re socially responsible?” Frumin said. “Nobody’s holding them to account.”

Downside of Discretion

OSHA’s guidance to employers offered pointers on how to decide whether a COVID death is work-related. It would be if a cluster of infections arose at one site where employees work closely together “and there is no alternative explanation.” If a worker had close contact with someone outside of work infected with the virus, it might not have been work-related, the guidance says.

Ultimately, the memo says, if an employer can’t determine that a worker “more likely than not” got sick on the job, “the employer does not need to record that.”

In mid-March, the union that represented Paul Odighizuwa, a food service worker at Oregon Health & Science University, raised concerns with university management about the virus possibly spreading through the Food and Nutrition Services Department.

Workers there — those taking meal orders, preparing food, picking up trays for patient rooms and washing dishes — were unable to keep their distance from one another, said Michael Stewart, vice president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 328, which represents about 7,000 workers at OHSU. Stewart said the union warned administrators they were endangering people’s lives.

Soon the virus tore through the department, Stewart said. At least 11 workers in food service got the virus, the union said. Odighizuwa, 61, a pillar of the local Nigerian community, died on May 12.

OHSU did not report the death to the state’s OSHA and defended the decision, saying it “was determined not to be work-related,” according to a statement from Tamara Hargens-Bradley, OHSU’s interim senior director of strategic communications.

She said the determination was made “[b]ased on the information gathered by OHSU’s Occupational Health team,” but she declined to provide details, citing privacy issues.

Stewart blasted OHSU’s response. When there’s an outbreak in a department, he said, it should be presumed that’s where a worker caught the virus.

“We have to do better going forward,” Stewart said. “We have to learn from this.” Without an investigation from an outside regulator like OSHA, he doubts that will happen.

Stacy Daugherty heard that Oasis Pavilion Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Casa Grande, Arizona, was taking strict precautions as COVID-19 surged in the facility and in Pinal County, almost halfway between Phoenix and Tucson.

Her father, a certified nursing assistant there, was also extra cautious: He believed that if he got the virus, “he wouldn’t make it,” Daugherty said.

Mark Daugherty, a father of five, confided in his youngest son when he fell ill in May that he believed he contracted the coronavirus at work, his daughter said in a message to KHN.

Early in June, the facility filed its first public report on COVID cases to Medicare authorities: Twenty-three residents and eight staff members had fallen ill. It was one of the largest outbreaks in the state. (Medicare requires nursing homes to report staff deaths each week in a process unrelated to OSHA.)

By then, Daugherty, 60, was fighting for his life, his absence felt by the residents who enjoyed his banjo, accordion and piano performances. But the country’s occupational safety watchdog wasn’t called in to figure out whether Daugherty, who died June 19, was exposed to the virus at work. His employer did not report his death to OSHA.

“We don’t know where Mark might have contracted COVID 19 from, since the virus was widespread throughout the community at that time. Therefore there was no need to report to OSHA or any other regulatory agencies,” Oasis Pavilion’s administrator, Kenneth Opara, wrote in an email to KHN.

Since then, 15 additional staffers have tested positive and the facility suspects a dozen more have had the virus, according to Medicare records.

Gaps in the Law

If Oasis Pavilion needed another reason not to report Daugherty’s death, it might have had one. OSHA requires notice of a death only within 30 days of a work-related incident. Daugherty, like many others, clung to life for weeks before he died.

That is one loophole — among others — in work-safety laws that experts say could use a second look in the time of COVID-19.

In addition, federal OSHA rules don’t apply to about 8 million public employees. Only government workers in states with their own state OSHA agency are covered. In other words, in about half the country if a government employee dies on the job — such as a nurse at a public hospital in Florida, or a paramedic at a fire department in Texas — there’s no requirement to report it and no one to look into it.

So there was little chance anyone from OSHA would investigate the deaths of two health workers early this year at Central State Hospital in Georgia — a state-run psychiatric facility in a state without its own worker-safety agency.

On March 24, a manager at the facility had warned staff they “must not wear articles of clothing, including Personal Protective Equipment” that violate the dress code, according to an email KHN obtained through a public records request.

Three days later, what had started as a low-grade illness for Mark DeLong, a licensed practical nurse at the facility, got serious. His cough was so severe late on March 27 that he called 911 — and handed the phone to his wife, Jan, because he could barely speak, she said.

She went to visit him in the hospital the next day, fully expecting a pleasant visit with her karaoke partner. “By the time I got there it was too late,” she said. DeLong, 53 “had passed.”

She learned after his death that he’d had COVID-19.

Back at the hospital, workers had been frustrated with the early directive that employees should not wear their own PPE.

Bruce Davis had asked his supervisors if he could wear his own mask but was told no because it wasn’t part of the approved uniform, according to his wife, Gwendolyn Davis. “He told me ‘They don’t care,’” she said.

Two days after DeLong’s death, the directive was walked back and employees and contractors were informed they could “continue and are authorized to wear Personal Protective Gear,” according to a March 30 email from administrators. But Davis, a Pentecostal pastor and nursing assistant supervisor, was already sick. Davis worked at the hospital for 27 years and saw little distinction between the love he preached at the altar and his service to the patients he bathed, fed and cared for, his wife said.

Sick with the virus, Davis died April 11.

At the time, 24 of Central State’s staffers had tested positive, according to the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, which runs the facility. To date, nearly 100 staffers and 33 patients at Central State have gotten the virus, according to figures from the state agency.

“I don’t think they knew what was going on either,” Jan DeLong said. “Somebody needs to check into it.”

In response to questions from KHN, a spokesperson for the department provided a prepared statement: “There was never a ban on commercially available personal protective equipment, even if the situation did not call for its use according to guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Georgia Department of Public Health at the time.”

KHN reviewed more than a dozen other health worker deaths at state or local government workplaces in states like Texas, Florida and Missouri that went unreported to OSHA for the same reason — the facilities were run by government agencies in a state without its own worker safety agency.

Inside Ludeman

In mid-March, staff members at the Ludeman Developmental Center were desperate for PPE. The facility was running low on everything from gloves and gowns to hand sanitizer, according to interviews with current and former workers, families of deceased workers, and union officials.

Due to a national shortage at the time, surgical masks went only to staffers working with known positive cases, said Anne Irving, regional director for AFSCME Council 31, the union that represents Ludeman employees.

Residents in the Village of Park Forest, Illinois, where the facility is located, tried to help by sewing masks or pivoting their businesses to produce face shields and hand sanitizer, said Mayor Jonathan Vanderbilt. But providing enough supplies for more than 900 Ludeman employees proved difficult.

Michelle Abernathy, 52, a newly appointed unit director, bought her own gloves at Costco. In late March, a resident on Abernathy’s unit showed symptoms, said Torrence Jones, her fiancé who also works at the facility. Then Abernathy developed a fever.

When she died on April 13 — the first known Ludeman staff member lost to the pandemic — the Illinois Department of Human Services, which runs Ludeman, made no report to safety regulators. After seeing media reports, Illinois OSHA sent the agency questions about Abernathy’s daily duties and working conditions. Based on DHS’ responses and subsequent phone calls, state OSHA officials determined Abernathy’s death was “not work-related.”

Barbara Abernathy, Michelle’s mom, doesn’t buy it. “Michelle was basically a hermit,” she said, going only from work to home. She couldn’t have gotten the virus anywhere else, she said. In response to OSHA’s inquiry for evidence that the exposure was not related to her workplace, her employer wrote “N/A,” according to documents reviewed by KHN.

Two weeks after Abernathy’s passing, two more employees died: Cephus Lee, 59, and Jose Veloz III, 52. Both worked in support services, boxing food and delivering it to the 40 buildings on campus. Their deaths were not reported to Illinois OSHA.

Veloz was meticulous at home, having groceries delivered and wiping down each item before bringing it inside, said his son, Joseph Ricketts.

But work was another story. Maintaining social distance in the food prep area was difficult, and there was little information on who had been infected or exposed to the virus, according to his son.

“No matter what my dad did, he was screwed,” Ricketts said. Adding, he thought Ludeman did not do what it should have done to protect his dad on the job.

A March 27 complaint to Illinois OSHA said it took a week for staff to be notified about multiple employees who tested positive, according to documents obtained by the Documenting COVID-19 project at the Brown Institute for Media Innovation and shared with KHN. An early April complaint was more frank: “Lives are endangered,” it said.

That’s how Rose Banks felt when managers insisted she go to work, even though she was sick and awaiting a test result, she said. Her husband, also a Ludeman employee, had already tested positive a week earlier.

Banks said she was angry about coming in sick, worried she might infect co-workers and residents. After spending a full day at the facility, she said, she came home to a phone call saying her test was positive. She’s currently on medical leave.

With some Ludeman staff assigned to different homes each shift, the virus quickly traveled across campus. By mid-May, 76 staff and 198 residents had tested positive, according to DHS’ COVID tracking site.

Carlene Veal said her husband, Walter, was tested at the facility in late April. But by the time he got the results weeks later, she said, he was already dying.

Carlene can still picture the last time she saw Walter, her high school sweetheart and a man she called her “superhero” for 35 years of marriage and raising four kids together. He was lying on a gurney in their driveway with an oxygen mask on his face, she said. He pulled the mask down to say “I love you” one last time before the ambulance pulled away.

The Illinois Department of Human Services said that, since the beginning of the pandemic, it has implemented many new protocols to mitigate the outbreak at Ludeman, working as quickly as possible based on what was known about the virus at the time. It has created an emergency staffing plan, identified negative-airflow spaces to isolate sick individuals and made “extensive efforts” to procure more PPE, and it is testing all staffers and residents regularly.

“We were deeply saddened to lose four colleagues who worked at Ludeman Developmental Center and succumbed to the virus,” the agency said in a statement. “We are committed to complying with and following all health and safety guidelines for COVID-19.”

The number of new cases at Ludeman has remained low for several months now, according to DHS’ COVID tracking site.

But that does little to console the families of those who have died.

When a Ludeman supervisor called Barbara Abernathy in June to express condolences and ask if there was anything they could do, Abernathy didn’t know how to respond.

“There was nothing they could do for me now,” she said. “They hadn’t done what they needed to do before.”

Shoshana Dubnow, Anna Sirianni, Melissa Bailey and Hannah Foote contributed to this report.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Thousands of Doctors’ Offices Buckle Under Financial Stress of COVID

Cormay Caine misses a full day of work and drives more than 130 miles round trip to take five of her children to their pediatrician. The Sartell, Minnesota, clinic where their doctor used to work closed in August.

Caine is one of several parents who followed Dr. Heather Decker to her new location on the outskirts of Minneapolis, an hour and a half away. Many couldn’t get appointments for months with swamped nearby doctors.

“I was kind of devastated that she was leaving because I don’t like switching providers, and my kids were used to her. She’s just an awesome doctor,” said Caine, a postal worker who recently piled the kids into her car for back-to-back appointments. “I just wish she didn’t have to go that far away.”

So does Decker, who had hoped to settle in the Sartell area. She recently bought her four-bedroom “dream home” there.

The HealthPartners Central Minnesota Clinic where Decker worked is part of a wave of COVID-related closures starting to wash across America, reducing access to care in areas already short on primary care doctors.

Although no one tracks medical closures, recent research suggests they number in the thousands. A survey by the Physicians Foundation estimated that 8% of all physician practices nationally — around 16,000 — have closed under the stress of the pandemic. That survey didn’t break them down by type, but another from the Virginia-based Larry A. Green Center and the Primary Care Collaborative found in late September that 7% of primary care practices were unsure they could stay open past December without financial assistance.

And many more teeter on the economic brink, experts say.

“The last few years have been difficult for primary care practices, especially independent ones,” said Dr. Karen Joynt Maddox, co-director of the Center for Health Economics and Policy at Washington University in St. Louis. “Putting on top of that COVID, that’s in many cases the proverbial straw. These practices are not operating with huge margins. They’re just getting by.”

When offices close, experts said, the biggest losers are patients, who may skip preventive care or regular appointments that help keep chronic diseases such as diabetes under control.

“This is especially poignant in the rural areas. There aren’t any good choices. What happens is people end up getting care in the emergency room,” said Dr. Michael LeFevre, head of the family and community medicine department at the University of Missouri and a practicing physician in Columbia. “If anything, what this pandemic has done is put a big spotlight on what was already a big crack in our health care system.”

Federal data shows that 82 million Americans live in primary care “health professional shortage areas,” and the nation needed more than 15,000 more primary care practitioners even before the pandemic began.

Once the coronavirus struck, some practices buckled when patients stayed away in droves for fear of catching it, said Dr. Gary Price, president of the Physicians Foundation, a nonprofit grant-making and research organization. Its survey, based on 3,513 responses from emails to half a million doctors, found that 4 in 10 practices saw patient volumes drop by more than a quarter.

On the West Coast, a survey released in October by the California Medical Association found that one-quarter of practices in that state saw revenues drop by at least half. One respondent wrote: “We are closing next month.”

Decker’s experience at HealthPartners is typical. Before the pandemic, she saw about 18 patients a day. That quickly dropped to six or eight, “if that,” she said. “There were no well checks, which is the bread-and-butter of pediatrics.”

In an emailed statement, officials at HealthPartners, which has more than 50 primary care clinics around the Twin Cities and western Wisconsin, said closing the one in Sartell “was not an easy decision,” but the pandemic caused an immediate, significant drop in revenue. While continuing to provide dental care in Sartell, northwest of Minneapolis, the company encouraged employees to apply for open positions elsewhere in the organization. Decker got one of them. Officials also posted online information for patients on where more than 20 clinicians were moving.

The pandemic’s financial ripples rocked practices of all sizes, said LeFevre, the Missouri doctor. Before the pandemic, he said, the 10 clinics in his group saw a total of 3,500 patients a week. COVID-19 temporarily cut that number in half.

“We had fiscal reserves to weather the storm. Small practices don’t often have that. But it’s not like we went unscathed,” he said. “All staff had a one-week furlough without pay. All providers took a 10% pay cut for three months.”

Federal figures show pediatricians earn an average of $184,400 a year, and doctors of general internal medicine $201,400, making primary care doctors among the lowest-paid physicians.

As revenues dropped in medical practices, overhead costs stayed the same. And practices faced new costs such as personal protective equipment, which grew more expensive as demand exceeded supply, especially for small practices without the bulk buying power of large ones.

Doctors also lost money in other ways, said Rebecca Etz, co-director of the Green Center research group. For example, she said, pediatricians paid for vaccines upfront, “then when no one came in, they expired.”

Some doctors took out loans or applied for Provider Relief Fund money under the federal CARES Act. Dr. Joseph Provenzano, who practices in Modesto, California, said his group of more than 300 physicians received $8.7 million in relief in the early days of the pandemic.

“We were about ready to go under,” he said. “That came in the nick of time.”

While the group’s patient loads have largely bounced back, it still had to permanently close three of 11 clinics.

“We’ve got to keep practice doors open so that we don’t lose access, especially now that people need it most,” said Dr. Ada Stewart, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians.

Caine, the Minnesota mom, said her own health care has suffered because she also saw providers at the now-closed Sartell clinic. While searching for new ones, she’s had to seek treatment in urgent care offices and the emergency room.

“I’m fortunate because I’m able to make it. I’m able to improvise. But what about the families that don’t have transportation?” she said. “Older people and the more sickly people really need these services, and they’ve been stripped away.”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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After Kid’s Minor Bike Accident, Major Bill Sets Legal Wheels in Motion

Adam Woodrum was out for a bike ride with his wife and kids on July 19 when his then 9-year-old son, Robert, crashed.

“He cut himself pretty bad, and I could tell right away he needed stitches,” said Woodrum.


This story also ran on NPR. It can be republished for free.

Because they were on bikes, he called the fire department in Carson City, Nevada.

“They were great,” said Woodrum. “They took him on a stretcher to the ER.”

Robert received stitches and anesthesia at Carson Tahoe Regional Medical Center. He’s since recovered nicely.

Then the denial letter came.

The Patient: Robert Woodrum, covered under his mother’s health insurance plan from the Nevada Public Employees’ Benefits Program

Total Bill: $18,933.44, billed by the hospital

Service Provider: Carson Tahoe Regional Medical Center, part of not-for-profit Carson Tahoe Health

Medical Service: Stitches and anesthesia during an emergency department visit

What Gives: The Aug. 4 explanation of benefits (EOB) document said the Woodrum’s claim had been rejected and their patient responsibility would be the entire sum of $18,933.44.

This case involves an all-too-frequent dance between different types of insurers about which one should pay a patient’s bill if an accident is involved. All sides do their best to avoid paying. And, no surprise to Bill of the Month followers: When insurers can’t agree, who gets a scary bill? The patient.

The legal name for the process of determining which type of insurance is primarily responsible is subrogation.

Could another policy — say, auto or home coverage or workers’ compensation — be obligated to pay if someone was at fault for the accident?

Subrogation is an area of law that allows an insurer to recoup expenses should a third party be found responsible for the injury or damage in question.

Health insurers say subrogation helps hold down premiums by reimbursing them for their medical costs.

About two weeks after the accident, Robert’s parents — both lawyers — got the EOB informing them of the insurer’s decision.

The note also directed questions to Luper Neidenthal & Logan, a law firm in Columbus, Ohio, that specializes in helping insurers recover medical costs from “third parties,” meaning people found at fault for causing injuries.

The firm’s website boasts that “we collect over 98% of recoverable dollars for the State of Nevada.”

Another letter also dated Aug. 4 soon arrived from HealthScope Benefits, a large administrative firm that processes claims for health plans.

The claim, it said, included billing codes for care “commonly used to treat injuries” related to vehicle crashes, slip-and-fall accidents or workplace hazards. Underlined for emphasis, one sentence warned that the denied claim would not be reconsidered until an enclosed accident questionnaire was filled out.

Adam Woodrum, who happens to be a personal injury attorney, runs into subrogation all the time representing his clients, many of whom have been in car accidents. But it still came as a shock, he said, to have his health insurer deny payment because there was no third party responsible for their son’s ordinary bike accident. And the denial came before the insurer got information about whether someone else was at fault.

“It’s like deny now and pay later,” he said. “You have insurance and pay for years, then they say, ‘This is denied across the board. Here’s your $18,000 bill.’”

When contacted, the Public Employees’ Benefits Program in Nevada would not comment specifically on Woodrum’s situation, but a spokesperson sent information from its health plan documents. She referred questions to HealthScope Benefits about whether the program’s policy is to deny claims first, then seek more information. The Little Rock, Arkansas-based firm did not return emails asking for comment.

The Nevada health plan’s documents say state legislation allows the program to recover “any and all payments made by the Plan” for the injury “from the other person or from any judgment, verdict or settlement obtained by the participant in relation to the injury.”

Attorney Matthew Anderson at the law firm that handles subrogation for the Nevada health plan said he could not speak on behalf of the state of Nevada, nor could he comment directly on Woodrum’s situation. However, he said his insurance industry clients use subrogation to recoup payments from other insurers “as a cost-saving measure,” because “they don’t want to pass on high premiums to members.”

Despite consumers’ unfamiliarity with the term, subrogation is common in the health insurance industry, said Leslie Wiernik, CEO of the National Association of Subrogation Professionals, the industry’s trade association.

“Let’s say a young person falls off a bike,” she said, “but the insurer was thinking, ‘Did someone run him off the road, or did he hit a pothole the city didn’t fill?’”

Statistics on how much money health insurers recover through passing the buck to other insurers are hard to find. A 2013 Deloitte consulting firm study, commissioned by the Department of Labor, estimated that subrogation helped private health plans recover between $1.7 billion and $2.5 billion in 2010 — a tiny slice of the $849 billion they spent that year.

Medical providers may have reason to hope that bills will be sent through auto or homeowner’s coverage, rather than health insurance, as they’re likely to get paid more.

That’s because auto insurers “are going to pay billed charges, which are highly inflated,” said attorney Ryan Woody, who specializes in subrogation. Health insurers, by contrast, have networks of doctors and hospitals with whom they negotiate lower payment rates.

Resolution: Because of his experience as an attorney, Woodrum felt confident it would eventually all work out. But the average patient wouldn’t understand the legal quagmire and might not know how to fight back.

“I hear the horror stories every day from people who don’t know what it is, are confused by it and don’t take appropriate action,” Woodrum said. “Then they’re a year out with no payment on their bills.” Or, fearing for their credit, they pay the bills.

After receiving the accident questionnaire, Woodrum filled it out and sent it back. There was no liable third party, he said. No driver was at fault.

His child just fell off his bicycle.

HealthScope Benefits reconsidered the claim. It was paid in September, two months after the accident. The hospital received less than half of what it originally billed, based on rates negotiated through his health plan.

The insurer paid $7,414.76 of the cost, and the Woodrums owed $1,853.45, which represented their share of the deductibles and copays.

The Takeaway: The mantra of Bill of the Month is don’t just write the check. But also don’t ignore scary bills from insurers or hospitals.

It’s not uncommon for insured patients to be questioned on whether their injury or medical condition might have been related to an accident. On some claim forms, there is even a box for the patient to check if it was an accident.

But in the Woodrums’ case, as in others, it was an automatic process. The insurer denied the claim based solely on the medical code indicating a possible accident.

If an insurer denies all payment for all medical care related to an injury, suspect that some type of subrogation is at work.

Don’t panic.

If you get an accident questionnaire, “fill it out, be honest about what happened,” said Sean Domnick, secretary of the American Association for Justice, an organization of plaintiffs lawyers. Inform your insurer and all other parties of the actual circumstances of the injury.

And do so promptly.

That’s because the clock starts ticking the day the medical care is provided and policyholders may face a statutory or contractual requirement that medical bills be submitted within a specific time frame, which can vary.

“Do not ignore it,” said Domnick. “Time and delay can be your enemy.”

Bill of the Month is a crowdsourced investigation by KHN and NPR that dissects and explains medical bills. Do you have an interesting medical bill you want to share with us? Tell us about it!

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Rural Areas Send Their Sickest Patients to Cities, Straining Hospitals

Registered nurse Pascaline Muhindura has spent the past eight months treating COVID patients at Research Medical Center in Kansas City, Missouri.

But when she returns home to her small town of Spring Hill, Kansas, she’s often stunned by what she sees, like on a recent stop for carryout food.

“No one in the entire restaurant was wearing a mask,” Muhindura said. “And there’s no social distancing. I had to get out, because I almost had a panic attack. I was like, ‘What is going on with people? Why are we still doing this?’”

Many rural communities across the U.S. have resisted masks and calls for social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic, but now rural counties are experiencing record-high infection and death rates.

Critically ill rural patients are often sent to city hospitals for high-level treatment and, as their numbers grow, some urban hospitals are buckling under the added strain.

Kansas City has a mask mandate, but in many smaller communities nearby, masks aren’t required — or masking orders are routinely ignored. In the past few months, rural counties in both Kansas and Missouri have seen some of the highest rates of COVID-19 in the country.

At the same time, according to an analysis by KHN, about 3 in 4 counties in Kansas and Missouri don’t have a single intensive care unit bed, so when people from these places get critically ill, they’re sent to city hospitals.

A recent patient count at St. Luke’s Health System in Kansas City showed a quarter of COVID patients had come from outside the metro area.

Two-thirds of the patients coming from rural areas need intensive care and stay in the hospital for an average of two weeks, said Dr. Marc Larsen, who leads COVID-19 treatment at St. Luke’s.

“Not only are we seeing an uptick in those patients in our hospital from the rural community, they are sicker when we get them because [doctors in smaller communities] are able to handle the less sick patients,” said Larsen. “We get the sickest of the sick.”

Dr. Rex Archer, head of Kansas City’s health department, warns that capacity at the city’s 33 hospitals is being put at risk by the influx of rural patients.

“We’ve had this huge swing that’s occurred because they’re not wearing masks, and yes, that’s putting pressure on our hospitals, which is unfair to our residents that might be denied an ICU bed,” Archer said.

study newly released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that Kansas counties that mandated masks in early July saw decreases in new COVID cases, while counties without mask mandates recorded increases.

Hospital leaders have continued to plead with Missouri Republican Gov. Mike Parson, and with Kansas’ conservative legislature, to implement stringent, statewide mask requirements but without success.

Parson won the Missouri gubernatorial election on Nov. 3 by nearly 17 percentage points. Two days later at a COVID briefing, he accused critics of “making the mask a political issue.” He said county leaders should decide whether to close businesses or mandate masks.

“We’re going to encourage them to take some sort of action,” Parson said Thursday. “The holidays are coming and I, as governor of the state of Missouri, am not going to mandate who goes in your front door.”

In an email, Dave Dillon, a spokesperson for the Missouri Hospital Association, agreed that rural patients might be contributing to hospital crowding in cities but argued that the strain on hospitals is a statewide problem.

The reasons for the rural COVID crisis involve far more than the refusal to mandate or wear masks, according to health care experts.

Both Kansas and Missouri have seen rural hospitals close year after year, and public health spending in both states, as in many largely rural states, is far below national averages.

Rural populations also tend to be older and to suffer from higher rates of chronic health conditions, including heart disease, obesity and diabetes. Those conditions can make them more susceptible to severe illness when they contract COVID-19.

Rural areas have been grappling with health problems for a long time, but the coronavirus has been a sort of tipping point, and those rural health issues are now spilling over into cities, explained Shannon Monnat, a rural health researcher at Syracuse University.

“It’s not just the rural health care infrastructure that becomes overwhelmed when there aren’t enough hospital beds, it’s also the surrounding neighborhoods, the suburbs, the urban hospital infrastructure starts to become overwhelmed as well,” Monnat said.

Unlike many parts of the U.S., where COVID trend lines have risen and fallen over the course of the year, Kansas, Missouri and several other Midwestern states never significantly bent their statewide curve.

Individual cities, such as Kansas City and St. Louis, have managed to slow cases, but the continual emergence of rural hot spots across Missouri has driven a slow and steady increase in overall new case numbers — and put an unrelenting strain on the states’ hospital systems.

The months of slow but continuous growth in cases created a high baseline of cases as autumn began, which then set the stage for the sudden escalation of numbers in the recent surge.

“It’s sort of the nature of epidemics that things often look like they’re relatively under control, and then very quickly ramp up to seem that they are out of hand,” said Justin Lessler, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Now, a recent local case spike in the Kansas City metro area is adding to the statewide surge in Missouri, with an average of 190 COVID patients per day being admitted to the metro region’s hospitals. The number of people hospitalized throughout Missouri increased by more than 50% in the past two weeks.

Some Kansas City hospitals have had to divert patients for periods of time, and some are now delaying elective procedures, according to the University of Kansas Health system’s chief medical officer, Dr. Steven Stites.

But bed space isn’t the only hospital resource that’s running out. Half of the hospitals in the Kansas City area are now reporting “critical” staffing shortages. Pascaline Muhindura, the nurse who works in Kansas City, said that hospital workers are struggling with anxiety and depression.

“The hospitals are not fine, because people taking care of patients are on the brink,” Muhindura said. “We are tired.”

This story is from a reporting partnership that includes KCUR, NPR and KHN.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Need a COVID-19 Nurse? That’ll Be $8,000 a Week

DENVER — In March, Claire Tripeny was watching her dream job fall apart. She’d been working as an intensive care nurse at St. Anthony Hospital in Lakewood, Colorado, and loved it, despite the mediocre pay typical for the region. But when COVID-19 hit, that calculation changed.

She remembers her employers telling her and her colleagues to “suck it up” as they struggled to care for six patients each and patched their protective gear with tape until it fully fell apart. The $800 or so a week she took home no longer felt worth it.

“I was not sleeping and having the most anxiety in my life,” said Tripeny. “I’m like, ‘I’m gonna go where my skills are needed and I can be guaranteed that I have the protection I need.’”

In April, she packed her bags for a two-month contract in then-COVID hot spot New Jersey, as part of what she called a “mass exodus” of nurses leaving the suburban Denver hospital to become traveling nurses. Her new pay? About $5,200 a week, and with a contract that required adequate protective gear.

Months later, the offerings — and the stakes — are even higher for nurses willing to move. In Sioux Falls, South Dakota, nurses can make more than $6,200 a week. A recent posting for a job in Fargo, North Dakota, offered more than $8,000 a week. Some can get as much as $10,000.

Early in the pandemic, hospitals were competing for ventilators, COVID tests and personal protective equipment. Now, sites across the country are competing for nurses. The fall surge in COVID cases has turned hospital staffing into a sort of national bidding war, with hospitals willing to pay exorbitant wages to secure the nurses they need. That threatens to shift the supply of nurses toward more affluent areas, leaving rural and urban public hospitals short-staffed as the pandemic worsens, and some hospitals unable to care for critically ill patients.

“That is a huge threat,” said Angelina Salazar, CEO of the Western Healthcare Alliance, a consortium of 29 small hospitals in rural Colorado and Utah. “There’s no way rural hospitals can afford to pay that kind of salary.”

Surge Capacity

Hospitals have long relied on traveling nurses to fill gaps in staffing without committing to long-term hiring. Early in the pandemic, doctors and nurses traveled from unaffected areas to hot spots like California, Washington state and New York to help with regional surges. But now, with virtually every part of the country experiencing a surge — infecting medical professionals in the process — the competition for the finite number of available nurses is becoming more intense.

“We all thought, ‘Well, when it’s Colorado’s turn, we’ll draw on the same resources; we’ll call our surrounding states and they’ll send help,’” said Julie Lonborg, a spokesperson for the Colorado Hospital Association. “Now it’s a national outbreak. It’s not just one or two spots, as it was in the spring. It’s really significant across the country, which means everybody is looking for those resources.”

In North Dakota, Tessa Johnson said she’s getting multiple messages a day on LinkedIn from headhunters. Johnson, president of the North Dakota Nurses Association, said the pandemic appears to be hastening a brain drain of nurses there. She suspects more nurses may choose to leave or retire early after North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum told health care workers to stay on the job even if they’ve tested positive for COVID-19.

All four of Utah’s major health care systems have seen nurses leave for traveling nurse positions, said Jordan Sorenson, a project manager for the Utah Hospital Association.

“Nurses quit, join traveling nursing companies and go work for a different hospital down the street, making two to three times the rate,” he said. “So, it’s really a kind of a rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul staffing situation.”

Hospitals not only pay the higher salaries offered to traveling nurses but also pay a commission to the traveling nurse agency, Sorenson said. Utah hospitals are trying to avoid hiring away nurses from other hospitals within the state. Hiring from a neighboring state like Colorado, though, could mean Colorado hospitals would poach from Utah.

“In the wake of the current spike in COVID hospitalizations, calling the labor market for registered nurses ‘cutthroat’ is an understatement,” said Adam Seth Litwin, an associate professor of industrial and labor relations at Cornell University. “Even if the health care sector can somehow find more beds, it cannot just go out and buy more front-line caregivers.”

Litwin said he’s glad to see the labor market rewarding essential workers — disproportionately women and people of color — with higher wages. Under normal circumstances, allowing markets to determine where people will work and for what pay is ideal.

“On the other hand, we are not operating under normal circumstances,” he said. “In the midst of a severe public health crisis, I worry that the individual incentives facing hospitals on the one side and individual RNs on the other conflict sharply with the needs of society as whole.”

Some hospitals are exploring ways to overcome staffing challenges without blowing the budget. That could include changing nurse-to-patient ratios, although that would likely affect patient care. In Utah, the hospital association has talked with the state nursing board about allowing nursing students in their final year of training to be certified early.

Growth Industry

Meanwhile business is booming for companies centered on health care staffing such as Wanderly and Krucial Staffing.

“When COVID first started and New York was an epicenter, we at Wanderly kind of looked at it and said, ‘OK, this is our time to shine,’” said David Deane, senior vice president of Wanderly, a website that allows health care professionals to compare offers from various agencies. “‘This is our time to help nurses get to these destinations as fast as possible. And help recruiters get those nurses.’”

Deane said the company has doubled its staff since the pandemic started. Demand is surging — with Rocky Mountain states appearing in up to 20 times as many job postings on the site as in January. And more people are meeting that demand.

In 2018, according to data from a national survey, about 31,000 traveling nurses worked nationwide. Now, Deane estimated, there are at least 50,000 travel nurses. Deane, who calls travel nurses “superheroes,” suspects a lot of them are postoperative nurses who were laid off when their hospitals stopped doing elective surgeries during the first lockdowns.

Competition for nurses, especially those with ICU experience, is stiff. After all, a hospital in South Dakota isn’t competing just with facilities in other states.

“We’ve sent nurses to Aruba, the Bahamas and Curacao because they’ve needed help with COVID,” said Deane. “You’re going down there, you’re making $5,000 a week and all your expenses are paid, right? Who’s not gonna say yes?”

Krucial Staffing specializes in sending health care workers to disaster locations, using military-style logistics. It filled hotels and rented dozens of buses to get nurses to hot spots in New York and Texas. CEO Brian Cleary said that, since the pandemic started, the company has grown its administrative staff from 12 to more than 200.

“Right now we’re at our highest volume we’ve been,” said Cleary, who added that over Halloween weekend alone about 1,000 nurses joined the roster of “reservists.”

With a base rate of $95 an hour, he said, some nurses working overtime end up coming away with $10,000 a week, though there are downsides, like the fact that the gig doesn’t come with health insurance and it’s an unstable, boom-and-bust market.

Hidden Costs

Amber Hazard, who lives in Texas, started as a traveling ICU nurse before the pandemic and said eye-catching sums like that come with a hidden fee, paid in sanity.

“How your soul is affected by this is nothing you can put a price on,” she said.

At a high-paying job caring for COVID patients during New York’s first wave, she remembers walking into the break room in a hospital in the Bronx and seeing a sign on the wall about how the usual staff nurses were on strike.

“It said, you know, ‘We’re not doing this. This is not safe,’” said Hazard. “And it wasn’t safe. But somebody had to do it.”

The highlight of her stint there was placing a wedding ring back on the finger of a recovered patient. But Hazard said she secured far more body bags than rings on patients.

Tripeny, the traveling nurse who left Colorado, is now working in Kentucky with heart surgery patients. When that contract wraps up, she said, she might dive back into COVID care.

Earlier, in New Jersey, she was scarred by the times she couldn’t give people the care they needed, not to mention the times she would take a deceased patient off a ventilator, staring down the damage the virus can do as she removed tubes filled with blackened blood from the lungs.

She has to pay for mental health therapy out-of-pocket now, unlike when she was on staff at a hospital. But as a so-called traveler, she knows each gig will be over in a matter of weeks.

At the end of each week in New Jersey, she said, “I would just look at my paycheck and be like, ‘OK. This is OK. I can do this.’”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Florida’s New Hospital Industry Head Ran Medicaid in State and Fought Expansion

With its choice of a new leader, the Florida Hospital Association has signaled that seeking legislative approval to expand Medicaid to nearly 850,000 uninsured adults won’t be among its top priorities.

In October, Mary Mayhew became the association’s CEO. Mayhew, who led the state’s Medicaid agency since 2019, has been a vocal critic of the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion adopted by 38 other states. She has argued that expansion puts states in a difficult position because the federal government is unlikely to keep its financial commitment to pay its share of the costs.

Had Medicaid been expanded in Florida, hospitals there would have gained thousands of paying patients. But the institutions have done little in recent years to persuade the Republican-led legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis, also Republican, who oppose such a move.

Mayhew acknowledged in an interview with KHN that expanding Medicaid to cover more uninsured patients could help hospitals financially, especially at a time when facilities have seen demand for services decline as people avoid care for fear of contracting COVID-19.

With that in mind, she said, she is now open to the idea of expanding Medicaid. “We need to look at all options on the table,” she said. “Is it doable? Yes.”

Still, she was quick to point out concerns about whether Florida can afford to expand.

Under the ACA, the federal government pays 90% of the costs for newly enrolled Medicaid recipients. In the traditional Medicaid program — which covers children, people who are disabled and pregnant women — the federal government pays nearly two-thirds of Florida’s Medicaid costs.

“It will be financially challenging in our state budget as revenues have dropped,” Mayhew said, echoing comments of state officials. “That 10% cost has to come from somewhere.”

Mayhew’s hire worries advocates who have spent more than seven years lobbying lawmakers to expand Medicaid. Without strong support from the hospital industry, they fear they’re unlikely to change many votes.

“It may make it harder,” said Karen Woodall, executive director of Florida People’s Advocacy Center, a group that lobbies for policies to help low-income citizens. Marshaling hospital support is important, she said, because of the industry’s money and political clout.

In many state capitals, hospitals have led the fight for Medicaid expansion either by lobbying lawmakers or bankrolling ballot initiatives. The latest example was in Missouri, which this summer expanded Medicaid via a voter initiative. The campaign for the measure was partly funded by hospitals.

But in Florida, hospitals appear to have made a calculated decision to avoid pushing an initiative that Republican leaders have said they don’t want. Among the dozen states that have not expanded Medicaid, Florida is second only to Texas in the number of residents who could gain coverage.

Aurelio Fernandez, CEO of Memorial Healthcare System in Hollywood, Florida, who was chair of the hospital association board when it hired Mayhew, said her opposition to Medicaid expansion never came up in the process. The association hired Mayhew because of the “phenomenal job” she did guiding hospitals amid the COVID pandemic, he said.

“There is no appetite at this juncture [for the legislature] to expand the Medicaid program with Obamacare,” said Fernandez, despite his belief that expansion would help hospitals and patients.

Mayhew, sounding more like a state official than a hospital industry spokesperson, said the ultimate decision on expansion will be up to lawmakers, who must review spending priorities. When states face a financial crunch, lawmakers look to reduce spending in education and Medicaid, which are the biggest parts of the budget, she said.

“The last thing we want to see is the state budget balanced on the backs of hospitals with deep Medicaid reimbursement cuts,” Mayhew said.

Mayhew said her previous opposition to expanding Medicaid occurred when she was responsible for balancing the state budget and managing the programs in Florida and, before that, in Maine. When she ran Maine’s program, she said she opposed expanding Medicaid to allow nondisabled adults into the program while there were disabled enrollees already on waiting lists to get care.

The Florida Hospital Association, which represents more than 200 hospitals, spent years lobbying state lawmakers to expand Medicaid. But since DeSantis was elected in 2018, the group has focused on other issues because the governor and Republican lawmakers made clear they would not expand the program.

Asked what the association’s current position is on Medicaid expansion, Mayhew noted she has been in her job less than a month and “we have not had that policy decision by the board for me to answer that.”

Miriam Harmatz, executive director of the Florida Health Justice Project, an advocacy group, said Mayhew’s hire suggests that hospitals are unlikely to get behind a fledgling effort to put the expansion question to voters in 2022.

Others advocating for Medicaid expansion agree.

“It does not look like they [Florida’s hospitals] are on board with helping us expand Medicaid at the moment,” said Louisa McQueeney, program director of Florida Voices for Health, a consumer group helping with the ballot initiative.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Government-Funded Scientists Laid the Groundwork for Billion-Dollar Vaccines

When he started researching a troublesome childhood infection nearly four decades ago, virologist Dr. Barney Graham, then at Vanderbilt University, had no inkling his federally funded work might be key to deliverance from a global pandemic.

Yet nearly all the vaccines advancing toward possible FDA approval this fall or winter are based on a design developed by Graham and his colleagues, a concept that emerged from a scientific quest to understand a disastrous 1966 vaccine trial.

Basic research conducted by Graham and others at the National Institutes of Health, Defense Department and federally funded academic laboratories has been the essential ingredient in the rapid development of vaccines in response to COVID-19. The government has poured an additional $10.5 billion into vaccine companies since the pandemic began to accelerate the delivery of their products.

The Moderna vaccine, whose remarkable effectiveness in a late-stage trial was announced Monday morning, emerged directly out of a partnership between Moderna and Graham’s NIH laboratory.

Coronavirus vaccines are likely to be worth billions to the drug industry if they prove safe and effective. As many as 14 billion vaccines would be required to immunize everyone in the world against COVID-19. If, as many scientists anticipate, vaccine-produced immunity wanes, billions more doses could be sold as booster shots in years to come. And the technology and production laboratories seeded with the help of all this federal largesse could give rise to other profitable vaccines and drugs.

The vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna, which are likely to be the first to win FDA approval, in particular rely heavily on two fundamental discoveries that emerged from federally funded research: the viral protein designed by Graham and his colleagues, and the concept of RNA modification, first developed by Drew Weissman and Katalin Karikó at the University of Pennsylvania. In fact, Moderna’s founders in 2010 named the company after this concept: “Modified” + “RNA” = Moderna, according to co-founder Robert Langer.

“This is the people’s vaccine,” said corporate critic Peter Maybarduk, director of Public Citizen’s Access to Medicines program. “Federal scientists helped invent it and taxpayers are funding its development. … It should belong to humanity.”

Moderna, through spokesperson Ray Jordan, acknowledged its partnership with NIH throughout the COVID-19 development process and earlier. Pfizer spokesperson Jerica Pitts noted the company had not received development and manufacturing support from the U.S. government, unlike Moderna and other companies.

The idea of creating a vaccine with messenger RNA, or mRNA — the substance that converts DNA into proteins — goes back decades. Early efforts to create mRNA vaccines failed, however, because the raw RNA was destroyed before it could generate the desired response. Our innate immune systems evolved to kill RNA strands because that’s what many viruses are.

Karikó came up with the idea of modifying the elements of RNA to enable it to slip past the immune system undetected. The modifications she and Weissman developed allowed RNA to become a promising delivery system for both vaccines and drugs. To be sure, their work was enhanced by scientists at Moderna, BioNTech and other laboratories over the past decade.

Another key element in the mRNA vaccine is the lipid nanoparticle — a tiny, ingeniously designed bit of fat that encloses the RNA in a sort of invisibility cloak, ferrying it safely through the blood and into cells and then dissolving, thereby allowing the RNA to do its work of coding a protein that will serve as the vaccine’s main active ingredient. The idea of enclosing drugs or vaccines in lipid nanoparticles arose first in the 1960s and was developed by Langer and others at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and various academic and industry laboratories.

Karikó began investigating RNA in 1978 in her native Hungary and wrote her first NIH grant proposal to use mRNA as a therapeutic in 1989. She and Weissman achieved successes starting in 2004, but the path to recognition was often discouraging.

“I keep writing and doing experiments, things are getting better and better, but I never get any money for the work,” she recalled in an interview. “The critics said it will never be a drug. When I did these discoveries, my salary was lower than the technicians working next to me.”

Eventually, the University of Pennsylvania sublicensed the patent to Cellscript, a biotech company in Wisconsin, much to the dismay of Weissman and Karikó, who had started their own company to try to commercialize the discovery. Moderna and BioNTech later would each pay $75 million to Cellscript for the RNA modification patent, Karikó said. Though unhappy with her treatment at Penn, she remained there until 2013 — partly because her daughter, Susan Francia, was making a name for herself on the school’s rowing team. Francia would go on to win two Olympic gold medals in the sport. Karikó is now a senior officer at BioNTech.

In addition to RNA modification and the lipid nanoparticle, the third key contribution to the mRNA vaccines — as well as those made by Novavax, Sanofi and Johnson & Johnson —- is the bioengineered protein developed by Graham and his collaborators. It has proved in tests so far to elicit an immune response that could prevent the virus from causing infections and disease.

The protein design was based on the observation that so-called fusion proteins — the pieces of the virus that enable it to invade a cell — are shape-shifters, presenting different surfaces to the immune system after the virus fuses with and infects cells. Graham and his colleagues learned that antibodies against the post-fusion protein are far less effective at stopping an infection.

The discovery arose in part through Graham’s studies of a 54-year-old tragedy — the failed 1966 trial of an NIH vaccine against respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV. In a clinical trial, not only did that vaccine fail to protect against the common childhood disease, but most of the 21 children who received it were hospitalized with acute allergic reactions, and two died.

About a decade ago, Graham, now deputy director of NIH’s Vaccine Research Center, took a new stab at the RSV problem with a postdoctoral fellow, Jason McLellan. After isolating and obtaining three-dimensional models of the RSV’s fusion protein, they worked with Chinese scientists to identify an appropriate neutralizing antibody against it.

“We were sitting in Xiamen, China, when Jason got the first image up on his laptop, and I was like, oh my God, it’s coming together,” Graham recalled. The prefusion antibodies they discovered were 16 times more potent than the post-fusion form contained in the faulty 1960s vaccine.

Two 2013 papers the team published in Science earned them a runner-up prize in the prestigious journal’s Breakthrough of the Year award. Their papers, which showed it was possible to plan and create a vaccine at the microscopic structural level, set the NIH’s Vaccine Research Center on a path toward creating a generalizable, rapid way to design vaccines against emerging pandemic viruses, Graham said.

In 2016, Graham, McLellan and other scientists, including Andrew Ward at the Scripps Research Institute, advanced their concept further by publishing the prefusion structure of a coronavirus that causes the common cold and a patent was filed for its design by NIH, Scripps and Dartmouth — where McLellan had set up his own lab. NIH and the University of Texas — where McLellan now works — filed an additional patent this year for a similar design change in the virus that causes COVID-19.

Graham’s NIH lab, meanwhile, had started working with Moderna in 2017 to design a rapid manufacturing system for vaccines. In January, they were preparing a demonstration project, a clinical trial to test whether Graham’s protein design and Moderna’s mRNA platform could be used to create a vaccine against Nipah, a deadly virus spread by bats in Asia.

Their plans changed rapidly when they learned on Jan. 7 that the epidemic of respiratory disease in China was being caused by a coronavirus.

“We agreed immediately that the demonstration project would focus on this virus” instead of Nipah, Graham said. Moderna produced a vaccine within six weeks. The first patient was vaccinated in an NIH-led clinical study on March 16; early results from Moderna’s 30,000-volunteer late-stage trial showed it was nearly 95% effective at preventing COVID-19.

Although other scientists have advanced proposals for what may be even more potent vaccine antigens, Graham is confident that carefully designed vaccines using nucleic acids like RNA reflect the future of new vaccines. Already, two major drug companies are doing advanced clinical trials for RSV vaccines based on the designs his lab discovered, he said.

In a larger sense, the pandemic could be the event that paves the way for better, perhaps cheaper and more plentiful vaccines.

“It’s a silver lining, but I think we are definitely pushing forward the way everyone is thinking about vaccines,” said Michael Farzan, chair of the department of immunology and microbiology at Scripps Research’s Florida campus. “Certain techniques that have been waiting in the wings, under development but never achieving the kind of funding they needed for major tests, will finally get their chance to shine.”

Under a 1980 law, the NIH will obtain no money from the coronavirus vaccine patent. How much money will eventually go to the discoverers or their institutions isn’t clear. Any existing licensing agreements haven’t been publicized; patent disputes among some of the companies will likely last years. HHS’ big contracts with the vaccine companies are not transparent, and Freedom of Information Act requests have been slow-walked and heavily redacted, said Duke University law professor Arti Rai.

Some basic scientists involved in the enterprise seem to accept the potentially lopsided financial rewards.

“Having public-private partnerships is how things get done,” Graham said. “During this crisis, everything is focused on how can we do the best we can as fast as we can for the public health. All this other stuff is going to have to be figured out later.”

“It’s not a good look to become extremely wealthy off a pandemic,” McLellan said, noting the big stock sales by some vaccine company executives after they received hundreds of millions of dollars in government assistance. Still, “the companies should be able to make some money.”

For Graham, the lesson of the coronavirus vaccine response is that a few billion dollars a year spent on additional basic research could prevent a thousand times as much loss in death, illness and economic destruction.

“Basic research informs what we do, and planning and preparedness can make such a difference in how we get ahead of these epidemics,” he said.



This KHN story first published on California Healthline, a service of the California Health Care Foundation.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Long-Term Care Workers, Grieving and Under Siege, Brace for COVID’s Next Round

In the middle of the night, Stefania Silvestri lies in bed remembering her elderly patients’ cries.

“Help me.”

“Please don’t leave me.”

“I need my family.”

Months of caring for older adults in a Rhode Island nursing home ravaged by COVID-19 have taken a steep toll on Silvestri, 37, a registered nurse.

She can’t sleep, as she replays memories of residents who became ill and died. She’s gained 45 pounds. “I have anxiety. Some days I don’t want to get out of bed,” she said.

Now, as the coronavirus surges around the country, Silvestri and hundreds of thousands of workers in nursing homes and assisted living centers are watching cases rise in long-term care facilities with a sense of dread.

Many of these workers struggle with grief over the suffering they’ve witnessed, both at work and in their communities. Some, like Silvestri, have been infected with the coronavirus and recovered physically — but not emotionally.

Since the start of the pandemic, more than 616,000 residents and employees at long-term care facilities have been struck by COVID-19, according to the latest data from KFF. Just over 91,000 have died as the coronavirus has invaded nearly 23,000 facilities. (KHN is an editorially independent program of KFF.)

At least 1,000 of those deaths represent certified nursing assistants, nurses and other people who work in institutions that care for older adults, according to a recent analysis of government data by Harold Pollack, a professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. This is almost certainly an undercount, he said, because of incomplete data reporting.

How are long-term care workers affected by the losses they’re experiencing, including the deaths of colleagues and residents they’ve cared for, often for many years?

Edwina Gobewoe, a certified nursing assistant who has worked at Charlesgate Nursing Center in Providence, Rhode Island, for nearly 20 years, acknowledged “it’s been overwhelming for me, personally.”

At least 15 residents died of COVID-19 at Charlesgate from April to June, many of them suddenly. “One day, we hear our resident has breathing problems, needs oxygen, and then a few days later they pass,” she said. “Families couldn’t come in. We were the only people with them, holding their hands. It made me very, very sad.”

Every morning, Gobewoe would pray with a close friend at work. “We asked the Lord to give us strength so we could take care of these people who needed us so much.” When that colleague was struck by COVID-19 in the spring, Gobewoe prayed for her recovery and was glad when she returned to work several weeks later.

But sorrow followed in early September: Gobewoe’s friend collapsed and died at home while complaining of unusual chest pain. Gobewoe was told that her death was caused by blood clots, which can be a dangerous complication of COVID-19.

She would “do anything for any resident,” Gobewoe remembered, sobbing. “It’s too much, something you can’t even talk about,” describing her grief.

I first spoke to Kim Sangrey, 52, of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in July. She was distraught over the deaths of 36 residents in March and April at the nursing home where she’s worked for several decades — most of them due to COVID-19 and related complications. Sangrey, a recreational therapist, asked me not to name the home, where she continues to be employed.

“You know residents like family — their likes and dislikes, the food they prefer, their families, their grandchildren,” she explained. “They depend on us for everything.”

When COVID-19 hit, “it was horrible,” she said. “You’d go into residents’ rooms and they couldn’t breathe. Their families wanted to see them, and we’d set up Zoom wearing full gear, head to toe. Tears are flowing under your mask as you watch this person that you loved dying — and the family mourning their death through a tablet.”

“It was completely devastating. It runs through your memory — you think about it all the time.”

Mostly, Sangrey said, she felt empty and exhausted. “You feel like this is never going to end — you feel defeated. But you have to continue moving forward,” she told me.

Three months later, when we spoke again, COVID-19 cases were rising in Pennsylvania but Sangrey sounded resolute. She’d had six sessions with a grief counselor and said it had become clear that “my purpose at this point is to take every ounce of strength I have and move through this second wave of COVID.”

“As human beings, it is our duty to be there for each other,” she continued. “You say to yourself, OK, I got through this last time, I can get through it again.”

That doesn’t mean that fear is absent. “All of us know COVID-19 is coming. Every day we say, ‘Is today the day it will come back? Is today the day I’ll find out I have it?’ It never leaves you.”

To this day, Silvestri feels horrified when she thinks about the end of March and early April at Greenville Center in Rhode Island, where up to 79 residents became ill with COVID-19 and at least 20 have died.

The coronavirus moved through the facility like wildfire. “You’re putting one patient on oxygen and the patient in the next room is on the floor but you can’t go to them yet,” Silvestri remembered. “And the patient down the hall has a fever of 103 and they’re screaming, ‘Help me, help me.’ But you can’t go to him either.”

“I left work every day crying. It was heartbreaking — and I felt I couldn’t do enough to save them.”

Then, there were the body bags. “You put this person who feels like family in a plastic body bag and wheel them out on a frame with wheels through the facility, by other residents’ rooms,” said Silvestri, who can’t smell certain kinds of plastic without reliving these memories. “Thinking back on it makes me feel physically ill.”

Silvestri, who has three children, developed a relatively mild case of COVID-19 in late April and returned to work several weeks later. Her husband, Michael, also became ill and lost his job as a truck driver. After several months of being unemployed, he’s now working at a construction site.

Since July 1, the family has gone without health insurance, “so I’m not able to get counseling to deal with the emotional side of what’s happened,” Silvestri said.

Although her nursing home set up a hotline number that employees could call, that doesn’t appeal to her. “Being on the phone with someone you don’t know, that doesn’t do it for me,” she said. “We definitely need more emotional support for health care workers.”

What does help is family. “I’ve leaned on my husband a lot and he’s been there for me,” Silvestri said. “And the children are OK. I’m grateful for what I have — but I’m really worried about what lies ahead.”

The Navigating Aging column last week focused on how nursing homes respond to grief sweeping through their facilities.

Join Judith Graham for a Facebook Live event on grief and bereavement during the coronavirus pandemic on Monday, Nov. 16, at 1 p.m. ET. You can watch the conversation here and submit questions in advance here.

We’re eager to hear from readers about questions you’d like answered, problems you’ve been having with your care and advice you need in dealing with the health care system. Visit khn.org/columnists to submit your requests or tips.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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¿Es hora de discutir los potenciales efectos secundarios de las vacunas para COVID? Científicos dicen que sí

Se espera que la farmacéutica Pfizer solicite permiso federal para lanzar su vacuna para COVID-19 a fines de noviembre. Una medida que promete acorralar la pandemia, pero que no ofrece mucho tiempo para asegurarse de que los consumidores estén bien informados.

Esta vacuna, y probablemente las otras, requerirá de dos dosis para funcionar, inyecciones que deben administrarse con semanas de diferencia, según muestran los protocolos de la compañía.

Los científicos anticipan que las vacunas causarán efectos secundarios parecidos a los de la gripe, que incluyen dolor en los brazos, dolores musculares y fiebre, que podrían durar días e impedir trabajar o estudiar.

E incluso si una vacuna demuestra una efectividad del 90%, la tasa que Pfizer promociona para su producto, uno de cada 10 receptores seguiría siendo vulnerable. Eso significa que, al menos a corto plazo, a medida que aumenta la inmunidad a nivel de la población, las personas no pueden dejar de usar máscaras y respetar el distanciamiento social.

Por el impulso de tener una vacuna lo antes posible, se ha dejado de lado un plan a gran escala para comunicar de manera efectiva sobre esos temas con anticipación, dijo el doctor Saad Omer, director del Instituto Yale para la Salud Global.

“Necesitas estar listo”, dijo. “No puedes buscar tus materiales de comunicación el día después que se autorice la vacuna”.

Omer, quien no quiso comentar sobre informes que indican que está siendo considerado para un puesto en la nueva administración del presidente electo Joe Biden, pidió el lanzamiento de una sólida campaña de mensajes basada en la mejor evidencia científica sobre las dudas, y la aceptación, de la vacuna.

Los Centros para el Control y Prevención de Enfermedades (CDC) han creado una estrategia llamada “Vacunar con confianza”, pero carece de los recursos necesarios, dijo Omer.

“Necesitamos comunicarnos, y necesitamos comunicarnos de manera efectiva, y debemos comenzar a planificar esto ahora”, dijo.

Este alcance amplio será necesario en un país donde, a mediados de octubre, solo la mitad de los estadounidenses dijeron que estarían dispuestos a recibir una vacuna para COVID-19.

Al principio, las dosis iniciales de cualquier vacuna serían limitadas, pero expertos predicen que pueden estar disponibles de manera amplia a mediados del próximo año. Discutir los posibles efectos secundarios temprano podría contrarrestar la información errónea que exagera o distorsiona el riesgo.

“La mayor tragedia sería si tuviéramos una vacuna segura y eficaz que la gente no se atreva a recibir”, dijo la doctora Preeti Malani, directora de salud y profesora de medicina de la Universidad de Michigan en Ann Arbor.

Pfizer y su socio, la firma alemana BioNTech, dijeron el lunes 9 de noviembre que su vacuna parece proteger a nueve de cada 10 personas de contraer el coronavirus que causa COVID-19, aunque no revelaron datos subyacentes. Es la primera de cuatro vacunas para COVID en la etapa de pruebas de eficacia a gran escala en los Estados Unidos en publicar resultados.

Los datos de los primeros ensayos de varias vacunas contra COVID-19 sugieren que los consumidores deberán estar preparados para los efectos secundarios que, aunque técnicamente leves, podrían alterar la vida diaria.

Un alto ejecutivo de Pfizer dijo al sitio de noticias Stat que los efectos secundarios parecen ser comparables al de las vacunas estándar para adultos, pero peores que la vacuna contra la neumonía de la compañía, Prevnar, o las vacunas típicas contra la gripe.

Por ejemplo, la vacuna Shingrix, de dos dosis, que protege a los adultos mayores contra el virus que causa el doloroso herpes zóster o culebrilla, provoca dolor en los brazos en el 78% de los receptores y dolor muscular y fatiga en más del 40% de los que la reciben.

Las vacunas contra la gripe común, y Prevnar, pueden causar dolor en el área de la inyección, molestias y fiebre.

“Les pedimos a las personas que se pongan una vacuna que va a doler”, dijo el doctor William Schaffner, profesor de medicina preventiva y políticas de salud en el Centro Médico de la Universidad de Vanderbilt. “Hay muchos brazos adoloridos y un número considerable de personas que se sienten mal, con dolores de cabeza y dolores musculares, durante uno o dos días”.

Persuadir a las personas que experimentan estos síntomas para que regresen en tres o cuatro semanas para una segunda dosis, y una segunda ronda de síntomas similares a los de la gripe, podría ser difícil de lograr, dijo Schaffner.

La forma en que expertos en salud pública expliquen estos efectos es importante, dijo Omer. “Hay evidencia que sugiere que si se enmarca el dolor como un indicador de la efectividad, es útil”, dijo. “Si te duele un poco, está funcionando”.

Al mismo tiempo, una buena comunicación ayudará a los consumidores a planificar en base a estos potenciales efectos. Se espera que una vacuna para COVID-19 se distribuya primero al personal de atención médica y a otros trabajadores esenciales, que es posible que no puedan trabajar si se sienten enfermos, dijo el doctor Eli Perencevich, profesor de medicina interna y epidemiología en la Universidad de Atención de Salud de Iowa.

“Mucha gente no tiene licencia por enfermedad. Muchos de nuestros trabajadores esenciales no tienen seguro médico”, dijo, y sugirió que a estos empleados se les debería otorgar tres días de licencia paga después de recibir la vacuna. “Estas son las cosas que debería proporcionar un gobierno que funciona bien, para que nuestra economía vuelva a funcionar”.

También es crucial asegurarse de que los consumidores sepan que una vacuna para COVID-19 probablemente requerirá dos dosis, y que podría tomar un mes para que se active la efectividad total.

El ensayo de fase 3 de Pfizer, que ha inscrito a casi 44,000 personas, comenzó a finales de julio. Los participantes recibieron una segunda dosis 21 días después de la primera. La eficacia informada del 90% se midió siete días después de la segunda dosis.

La comunicación eficaz será vital para garantizar que los consumidores se coloquen la segunda dosis y, suponiendo que se aprueben varias vacunas, que la primera y segunda dosis sean del mismo fabricante.

Omer dijo que, hasta que se active la protección total, las personas deben seguir tomando medidas para protegerse: usar máscaras, lavarse las manos, respetar el distanciamiento social. Es importante que las personas sepan que tomar las medidas adecuadas ahora brindará frutos más adelante.

“Si solo les mostramos el túnel, no la luz, entonces eso da como resultado esta negación masiva”, dijo. “Necesitamos decir, ‘tendrás que continuar haciendo esto a mediano plazo, pero el panorama futuro es bueno”.

Puede haber una mejor comunicación una vez que se presenten los datos completos del ensayo de Pfizer y otros, señaló el doctor Paul Offit, experto en vacunas del Hospital Infantil de Philadelphia, que forma parte del consejo asesor de la Administración de Alimentos y Medicamentos (FDA), que evalúa las vacunas para COVID-19.

“Cuando observas esos datos, puedes definir con mayor precisión qué grupos de personas tienen más probabilidades de tener efectos secundarios, cuál es la eficacia, qué sabemos sobre cuánto dura esa eficacia, por cuánto tiempo se ha analizado la seguridad”, dijo. “Creo que tienes que prepararte para comunicar eso. Y puedes empezar a prepararte ahora”.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Time to Discuss Potentially Unpleasant Side Effects of COVID Shots? Scientists Say Yes.

Drugmaker Pfizer is expected to seek federal permission to release its COVID-19 vaccine by the end of November, a move that holds promise for quelling the pandemic, but also sets up a tight time frame for making sure consumers understand what it will mean to actually get the shots.


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This vaccine, and likely most others, will require two doses to work, injections that must be given weeks apart, company protocols show. Scientists anticipate the shots will cause enervating flu-like side effects — including sore arms, muscle aches and fever — that could last days and temporarily sideline some people from work or school. And even if a vaccine proves 90% effective, the rate Pfizer touted for its product, 1 in 10 recipients would still be vulnerable. That means, at least in the short term, as population-level immunity grows, people can’t stop social distancing and throw away their masks.

Left out so far in the push to develop vaccines with unprecedented speed has been a large-scale plan to communicate effectively about those issues in advance, said Dr. Saad Omer, director of the Yale Institute for Global Health.

“You need to be ready,” he said. “You can’t look for your communication materials the day after the vaccine is authorized.”

Omer, who declined to comment on reports he’s being considered for a post in the new administration of President-elect Joe Biden, called for the rollout of a robust messaging campaign based on the best scientific evidence about vaccine hesitancy and acceptance. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has created a strategy called “Vaccinate with Confidence,” but it lacks the necessary resources, Omer said.

“We need to communicate, and we need to communicate effectively, and we need to start planning for this now,” he said.

Such broad-based outreach will be necessary in a country where, as of mid-October, only half of Americans said they’d be willing to get a COVID-19 vaccine. Initial doses of any vaccine would be limited at first, but experts predict they may be widely available by the middle of next year. Discussing potential side effects early could counter misinformation that overstates or distorts the risk.

“The biggest tragedy would be if we have a safe and effective vaccine that people are hesitant to get,” said Dr. Preeti Malani, chief health officer and a professor of medicine at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Pfizer and its partner, the German firm BioNTech, on Monday said their vaccine appears to protect 9 in 10 people from getting COVID-19, although they didn’t release underlying data. It’s the first of four COVID-19 vaccines in large-scale efficacy tests in the U.S. to post results.

Data from early trials of several COVID-19 vaccines suggests that consumers will need to be prepared for side effects that, while technically mild, could disrupt daily life. A senior Pfizer executive told the news outlet Stat that side effects from the company’s COVID-19 vaccine appear to be comparable to standard adult vaccines but worse than the company’s pneumonia vaccine, Prevnar, or typical flu shots.

The two-dose Shingrix vaccine, for instance, which protects older adults against the virus that causes painful shingles, results in sore arms in 78% of recipients and muscle pain and fatigue in more than 40% of those who take it. Prevnar and common flu shots can cause injection-site pain, aches and fever.

“We are asking people to take a vaccine that is going to hurt,” said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and health policy at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “There are lots of sore arms and substantial numbers of people who feel crummy, with headaches and muscle pain, for a day or two.”

Persuading people who experience these symptoms to return in three to four weeks for a second dose — and a second round of flu-like symptoms — could be a tough sell, Schaffner said.

How public health experts explain such effects is important, Omer said. “There’s evidence that suggests that if you frame pain as a proxy of effectiveness, it’s helpful,” he said. “If it’s hurting a little, it’s working.”

At the same time, good communication will help consumers plan for such effects. A COVID-19 vaccine is expected to be distributed first to health care staffers and other essential workers, who may not be able to work if they feel sick, said Dr. Eli Perencevich, a professor of internal medicine and epidemiology at the University of Iowa Health Care.

“A lot of folks don’t have sick leave. A lot of our essential workers don’t have health insurance,” he said, suggesting that essential workers should be granted three days of paid leave after they’re vaccinated. “These are the things a well-functioning government should provide for to get our economy going again.”

Making sure consumers know that a COVID-19 vaccine likely will require two doses — and that it could take a month for full effectiveness to kick in — is also crucial. The Pfizer phase 3 trial, which has enrolled nearly 44,000 people, started in late July. Participants received a second dose 21 days after the first. The reported 90% efficacy was measured seven days after the second dose.

Communicating effectively will be vital to ensuring that consumers follow through with the shots and — assuming several vaccines are approved — that their first and second doses are from the same maker. Until full protection kicks in, Omer said, people should continue to take measures to protect themselves: wearing masks, washing hands, social distancing. It’s important to let people know that taking appropriate action now will pay off later.

“If we just show them the tunnel, not the light, then that results in this mass denial,” he said. “We need to say, ‘You’ll have to continue to do this in the medium term, but the long term looks good.”

The best communication can occur once full data from the Pfizer trial and others are presented, noted Dr. Paul Offit, a vaccinologist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia who sits on the federal Food and Drug Administration’s advisory board considering COVID-19 vaccines.

“When you look at those data, you can more accurately define what groups of people are most likely to have side effects, what the efficacy is, what we know about how long the efficacy lasts, what we know about how long the safety data have been tested,” he said. “I think you have to get ready to communicate that. You can start getting ready now.”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Cinco preguntas críticas sobre la vacuna contra COVID-19 de Pfizer

El anuncio de Pfizer de que su vacuna contra COVID-19 prevendría que nueve de cada 10 personas contraigan la enfermedad hizo que el precio de sus acciones se disparara. Muchos titulares describieron a la vacuna como si fuera la liberación de la pandemia, aunque se dieron pocos detalles.

Ciertamente hay para presumir: la vacuna de Pfizer consiste en material genético llamado ARNm encerrado en partículas diminutas que lo transportan a las células. Desde allí, estimula al sistema inmune para que produzca anticuerpos que protejan contra el virus.

Se emplea una estrategia similar en otras potenciales vacunas contra COVID-19 que lideran esta carrera. Si las vacunas de ARNm pueden proteger contra el virus y, presumiblemente, otras enfermedades infecciosas, será una noticia trascendental.

“Esta es una novedad verdaderamente histórica”, dijo el doctor Michael Watson, ex presidente de Valera, una subsidiaria de Moderna que actualmente está realizando ensayos avanzados de su propia vacuna de ARNm contra COVID-19. “Tenemos una nueva clase de vacunas en nuestras manos”.

Pero históricamente, los anuncios científicos importantes sobre vacunas se realizan a través de artículos de investigación médica revisados ​​por colegas, que han sido objeto de un escrutinio exhaustivo desde el diseño del estudio hasta sus resultados, no a través de comunicados de prensa de la farmacéutica.

Entonces, ¿merecían las acciones de Pfizer su aumento porcentual de dos dígitos? Las respuestas a las siguientes cinco preguntas nos ayudarán a saberlo.

  1. ¿Cuánto tiempo protegerá la vacuna a los pacientes?

Pfizer dice que, hasta la semana del 2 de noviembre, 94 personas de las aproximadamente 40,000 en el ensayo habían desarrollado COVID-19. Si bien no dijeron exactamente cuántos de los enfermos se habían vacunado, la cifra de eficacia del 90% sugiere que fue un número muy pequeño.

El anuncio de Pfizer cubre a las personas que recibieron dos vacunas entre julio y octubre. Pero no indica cuánto tiempo durará la protección o con qué frecuencia se pueden necesitar refuerzos.

“Es una apuesta razonable, pero sigue siendo una apuesta decir que la protección durante dos o tres meses es similar a seis meses o un año”, dijo el doctor Paul Offit, miembro del panel de la Administración de Alimentos y Medicamentos (FDA) que probablemente revisará la vacuna para su aprobación en diciembre.

Normalmente, las vacunas no reciben una licencia hasta que demuestran que pueden proteger por uno o dos años.

La empresa no dio a conocer ninguna información de seguridad. Hasta la fecha, no se han revelado efectos secundarios graves, y la mayoría tiende a ocurrir dentro de las seis semanas posteriores a la vacunación.

Pero los científicos deberán estar atentos a efectos raros como una reacción adversa del sistema inmune o alguna enfermedad grave en personas vacunadas, dijo el doctor Walt Orenstein, profesor de medicina en la Universidad Emory y ex director del programa de inmunización de los Centros para el Control y Prevención de Enfermedades (CDC).

  1. ¿Protegerá a los más vulnerables?

Pfizer no reveló qué porcentaje de los voluntarios del ensayo representan a los grupos con más probabilidades de ser hospitalizados o de morir por COVID-19, incluidas las personas de 65 años o más y las que padecen diabetes u obesidad.

Este es un punto clave porque muchas vacunas, particularmente las de la influenza, pueden no proteger a los adultos mayores, pero sí a los más jóvenes. “¿Cuán representativas son esas 94 personas de la población general, especialmente las que están en mayor riesgo?”, se preguntó Orenstein.

Tanto la Academia Nacional de Medicina como los CDC han instado a que las personas mayores estén entre los primeros grupos en recibir la vacuna. Es probable que las que están desarrollando Novavax y Sanofi, que probablemente comiencen los ensayos clínicos de fase 3 a finales de este año, sean mejores para los mayores, apuntó Offit. Esas vacunas contienen partículas inmunoestimulantes como las que tiene la vacuna Shingrix, que es muy eficaz para proteger a las personas mayores contra el herpes zóster o culebrilla.

  1. ¿Se puede implementar con eficacia?

La vacuna de Pfizer, a diferencia de otras que están en la última fase de pruebas, debe mantenerse muy bien enfriada, en hielo seco a unos 100 grados bajo cero, desde el momento en que se produce hasta unos días antes de que se inyecte. El ARNm se autodestruye rápidamente a temperaturas más altas.

Pfizer pondrá en marcha un elaborado sistema para transportar la vacuna a los sitios de vacunación en camiones y cajas especialmente diseñadas. Ya se está capacitando a trabajadores de salud para manejar la vacuna, pero no se sabe con certeza qué tan bien funcionará si los frascos con las dosis se dejan bajo el sol de Arizona por mucho tiempo.

Un mal manejo de la vacuna en el camino de la fábrica al paciente la volvería ineficaz, por lo que las personas que la reciban podrían pensar que están protegidas cuando no lo están, explicó Offit.

  1. ¿Un anuncio prematuro podría dañar las futuras vacunas?

Actualmente no hay forma de saber si la vacuna de Pfizer será la mejor en general, o para grupos de edad específicos. Pero si la FDA la aprueba rápidamente, eso podría dificultar que los fabricantes de otras vacunas realicen sus estudios. Si las personas saben que existe una vacuna eficaz, es posible que no quieran participar en ensayos clínicos, en parte debido a la preocupación de que puedan recibir un placebo y no estar protegidas. De hecho, puede ser poco ético usar un placebo en tales ensayos.

Pero se necesitarán muchas vacunas para satisfacer la demanda mundial de protección contra COVID-19, por lo que es crucial continuar con estudios adicionales.

  1. ¿Podría el estudio de Pfizer acelerar futuras vacunas?

Los científicos están sumamente interesados ​​en saber si el pequeño número que recibió la vacuna real pero que se enfermó produjo niveles más bajos de anticuerpos que los individuos vacunados que se mantuvieron sanos. Los estudios de sangre de esas personas ayudarían a los científicos a saber si existe un “correlato de protección” para COVID-19, un nivel de anticuerpos que puede predecir si alguien está protegido contra la enfermedad.

Si tuvieran ese conocimiento, los funcionarios de salud pública podrían determinar si otras vacunas en producción serían efectivas sin tener que probarlas necesariamente en decenas de miles de personas.

Pero es algo difícil de hacer. Los científicos nunca han establecido correlaciones de inmunidad para la tos ferina, por ejemplo, aunque se han usado vacunas contra esas bacterias durante casi un siglo.

Aún así, ésta es una buena noticia, dijo el doctor Joshua Sharfstein, vicedecano de la Escuela de Salud Pública Bloomber de Johns Hopkins y ex comisionado adjunto de la FDA. “Espero que esto haga que la gente se dé cuenta de que no estamos atrapados en esta situación para siempre. Hay esperanza, ya sea con esta vacuna o con otra”, dijo.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Five Important Questions About Pfizer’s COVID-19 Vaccine

Pfizer’s announcement on Monday that its COVID-19 shot appears to keep nine in 10 people from getting the disease sent its stock price rocketing. Many news reports described the vaccine as if it were our deliverance from the pandemic, even though few details were released.

There was certainly something to crow about: Pfizer’s vaccine consists of genetic material called mRNA encased in tiny particles that shuttle it into our cells. From there, it stimulates the immune system to make antibodies that protect against the virus. A similar strategy is employed in other leading COVID-19 vaccine candidates. If mRNA vaccines can protect against COVID-19 and, presumably, other infectious diseases, it will be a momentous piece of news.

“This is a truly historic first,” said Dr. Michael Watson, the former president of Valera, a subsidiary of Moderna, which is currently running advanced trials of its own mRNA vaccine against COVID-19. “We now have a whole new class of vaccines in our hands.”

But historically, important scientific announcements about vaccines are made through peer-reviewed medical research papers that have undergone extensive scrutiny about study design, results and assumptions, not through company press releases.

So did Pfizer’s stock deserve its double-digit percentage bump? The answers to the following five questions will help us know.

1. How long will the vaccine protect patients?

Pfizer says that, as of last week, 94 people out of about 40,000 in the trial had gotten ill with COVID-19. While it didn’t say exactly how many of the sick had been vaccinated, the 90% efficacy figure suggests it was a very small number. The Pfizer announcement covers people who got two shots between July and October. But it doesn’t indicate how long protection will last or how often people might need boosters.

“It’s a reasonable bet, but still a gamble that protection for two or three months is similar to six months or a year,” said Dr. Paul Offit, a member of the Food and Drug Administration panel that is likely to review the vaccine for approval in December. Normally, vaccines aren’t licensed until they show they can protect for a year or two.

The company did not release any safety information. To date, no serious side effects have been revealed, and most tend to occur within six weeks of vaccination. But scientists will have to keep an eye out for rare effects such as immune enhancement, a severe illness brought on by a virus’s interaction with immune particles in some vaccinated persons, said Dr. Walt Orenstein, a professor of medicine at Emory University and former director of the immunization program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

2. Will it protect the most vulnerable?

Pfizer did not disclose what percentage of its trial volunteers are in the groups most likely to be hospitalized or to die of COVID-19 — including people 65 and older and those with diabetes or obesity. This is a key point because many vaccines, particularly for influenza, may fail to protect the elderly though they protect younger people. “How representative are those 94 people of the overall population, especially those most at risk?” asked Orenstein.

Both the National Academy of Medicine and the CDC have urged that older people be among the first groups to receive vaccines. It’s possible that vaccines under development by Novavax and Sanofi, which are likely to begin late-phase clinical trials later this year, may be better for the elderly, Offit noted. Those vaccines contain immune-stimulating particles like the ones contained in the Shingrix vaccine, which is highly effective in protecting older people against shingles disease.

3. Can it be rolled out effectively?

The Pfizer vaccine, unlike others in late-stage testing, must be kept supercooled, on dry ice around 100 degrees below zero, from the time it is produced until a few days before it is injected. The mRNA quickly self-destructs at higher temperatures. Pfizer has devised an elaborate system to transport the vaccine by truck and specially designed cases to vaccination sites. Public health workers are being trained to handle the vaccine as we speak, but we don’t know for sure how well it will do if containers are left out in the Arizona sun too long. Mishandling the vaccine along the way from factory to patient would render it ineffective, so people who received it could think they were protected when they were not, Offit said.

4. Could a premature announcement hurt future vaccines?

There’s presently no way to know whether the Pfizer vaccine will be the best overall or for specific age groups. But if the FDA approves it quickly, that could make it harder for manufacturers of other vaccines to carry out their studies. If people are aware that an effective vaccine exists, they may decline to enter clinical trials, partly out of concern they could get a placebo and remain unprotected. Indeed, it may be unethical to use a placebo in such trials. Many vaccines will be needed in order to meet global demand for protection against COVID-19, so it’s crucial to continue additional studies.

5. Could the Pfizer study expedite future vaccines?

Scientists are vitally interested in whether the small number who received the real vaccine but still got sick produced lower levels of antibodies than the vaccinated individuals who remained well. Blood studies of those people would help scientists learn whether there is a “correlate of protection” for COVID-19 — a level of antibodies that can predict whether someone is protected from the disease. If they had that knowledge, public health officials could determine whether other vaccines under production were effective without necessarily having to test them on tens of thousands of people.

But it’s difficult to build such road maps. Scientists have never established correlates of immunity for pertussis, for example, although vaccines have been used against those bacteria for nearly a century.

Still, this is good news, said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, a vice dean at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a former FDA deputy commissioner. He said: “I hope this makes people realize that we’re not stuck in this situation forever. There’s hope coming, whether it’s this vaccine or another.”



This KHN story first published on California Healthline, a service of the California Health Care Foundation.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Biden Plan to Lower Medicare Eligibility Age to 60 Faces Hostility From Hospitals

Of his many plans to expand insurance coverage, President-elect Joe Biden’s simplest strategy is lowering the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 60.

But the plan is sure to face long odds, even if the Democrats can snag control of the Senate in January by winning two runoff elections in Georgia.

Republicans, who fought the creation of Medicare in the 1960s and typically oppose expanding government entitlement programs, are not the biggest obstacle. Instead, the nation’s hospitals, a powerful political force, are poised to derail any effort. Hospitals fear adding millions of people to Medicare will cost them billions of dollars in revenue.

“Hospitals certainly are not going to be happy with it,” said Jonathan Oberlander, professor of health policy and management at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Medicare reimbursement rates for patients admitted to hospitals average half what commercial or employer-sponsored insurance plans pay.

“It will be a huge lift [in Congress] as the realities of lower Medicare reimbursement rates will activate some powerful interests against this,” said Josh Archambault, a senior fellow with the conservative Foundation for Government Accountability.

Biden, who turns 78 this month, said his plan will help Americans who retire early and those who are unemployed or can’t find jobs with health benefits.

“It reflects the reality that, even after the current crisis ends, older Americans are likely to find it difficult to secure jobs,” Biden wrote in April.

Lowering the Medicare eligibility age is popular. About 85% of Democrats and 69% of Republicans favor allowing those as young as 50 to buy into Medicare, according to a KFF tracking poll from January 2019. (KHN is an editorially independent program of KFF.)

Although opposition from the hospital industry is expected to be fierce, that is not the only obstacle to Biden’s plan.

Critics, especially Republicans on Capitol Hill, will point to the nation’s $3 trillion budget deficit as well as the dim outlook for the Medicare Hospital Insurance Trust Fund. That fund is on track to reach insolvency in 2024. That means there won’t be enough money to fully pay hospitals and nursing homes for inpatient care for Medicare beneficiaries.

Moreover, it’s unclear whether expanding Medicare will fit on the Democrats’ crowded health agenda, which also includes dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, possibly rescuing the Affordable Care Act if the Supreme Court strikes down part or all of the law in a current case, expanding Obamacare subsidies and lowering drug costs.

Biden’s proposal is a nod to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, which has advocated for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) government-run “Medicare for All” health system that would provide universal coverage. Biden opposed that effort, saying the nation could not afford it. He wanted to retain the private health insurance system, which covers 180 million people.

To expand coverage, Biden has proposed two major initiatives. In addition to the Medicare eligibility change, he wants Congress to approve a government-run health plan that people could buy into instead of purchasing coverage from insurance companies on their own or through the Obamacare marketplaces. Insurers helped beat back this “public option” initiative in 2009 during the congressional debate over the ACA.

The appeal of lowering Medicare eligibility to help those without insurance lies with leveraging a popular government program that has low administrative costs.

“It is hard to find a reform idea that is more popular than opening up Medicare” to people as young as 60, Oberlander said. He said early retirees would like the concept, as would employers, who could save on their health costs as workers gravitate to Medicare.

The eligibility age has been set at 65 since Medicare was created in 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society reform package. It was designed to coincide with the age when people at that time qualified for Social Security. Today, people generally qualify for early, reduced Social Security benefits at age 62, though they have to wait until age 66 for full benefits.

While people can qualify on the basis of other criteria, such as having a disability or end-stage renal disease, 85% of the 57 million Medicare enrollees are in the program simply because they’re old enough.

Lowering the age to 60 could add as many as 23 million people to Medicare, according to an analysis by the consulting firm Avalere Health. It’s unclear, however, if everyone who would be eligible would sign up or if Biden would limit the expansion to the 1.7 million people in that age range who are uninsured and the 3.2 million who buy coverage on their own.

Avalere says 3.2 million people in that age group buy coverage on the individual market.

While the 60-to-65 group has the lowest uninsured rate (8%) among adults, it has the highest health costs and pays the highest rates for individual coverage, said Cristina Boccuti, director of health policy at West Health, a nonpartisan research group.

About 13 million of those between 60 and 65 have coverage through their employer, according to Avalere. While they would not have to drop coverage to join Medicare, they could possibly opt to also pay to join the federal program and use it as a wraparound for their existing coverage. Medicare might then pick up costs for some services that the consumers would have to shoulder out-of-pocket.

Some 4 million people between 60 and 65 are enrolled in Medicaid, the state-federal health insurance program for low-income people. Shifting them to Medicare would make that their primary health insurer, a move that would save states money since they split Medicaid costs with the federal government.

Chris Pope, a senior fellow with the conservative Manhattan Institute, said getting health industry support, particularly from hospitals, will be vital for any health coverage expansion. “Hospitals are very aware about generous commercial rates being replaced by lower Medicare rates,” he said.

“Members of Congress, a lot of them are close to their hospitals and do not want to see them with a revenue hole,” he said.

President Barack Obama made a deal with the industry on the way to passing the ACA. In exchange for gaining millions of paying customers and lowering their uncompensated care by billions of dollars, the hospital industry agreed to give up future Medicare funds designed to help them cope with the uninsured. Showing the industry’s prowess on Capitol Hill, Congress has delayed those funding cuts for more than six years.

Jacob Hacker, a Yale University political scientist, noted that expanding Medicare would reduce the number of Americans who rely on employer-sponsored coverage. The pitfalls of the employer system were highlighted in 2020 as millions lost their jobs and workplace health coverage.

Even if they can win the two Georgia seats and take control of the Senate with the vice president breaking any ties, Democrats would be unlikely to pass major legislation without GOP support — unless they are willing to jettison the long-standing filibuster rule so they can pass most legislation with a simple 51-vote majority instead of 60 votes.

Hacker said that slim margin would make it difficult for Democrats to deal with many health issues all at once.

“Congress is not good at parallel processing,” Hacker said, referring to handling multiple priorities at the same time. “And the window is relatively short.”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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‘Is This Worth My Life?’: Traveling Health Workers Decry COVID Care Conditions


This story also ran on The Guardian. It can be republished for free.

David Joel Perea called from Maine, Vermont, Minnesota and, ultimately, Nevada, always with the same request: “Mom, can you send tamales?” Dominga Perea would ship them overnight.

That’s how she knew where her 35-year-old son was.

The traveling nurse had “a tremendous work ethic,” routinely putting in 80 hours a week, said his brother, Daniel.

But when Perea took a job at Lakeside Health & Wellness Suites — a Reno nursing home that has received dozens of safety citations since 2017 from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services — Dominga was “scared silly.”

During Perea’s stint, nearly one-fifth of Lakeside’s residents were infected with COVID-19, according to state health records. Lakeside’s “top priority is the safety of those who live and work in our facility,” a spokesperson said.

When her son didn’t respond to her text on April 6, Dominga knew something was wrong. Perea had COVID-19. He died days later.

As COVID-19 surges across the country, health care systems continue to suffer critical shortages, especially among non-physician staff such as nurses, X-ray technicians and respiratory therapists.

To replenish their ranks, facilities have relied on “travelers” like Perea. Staff agencies have deployed tens of thousands nationally since March outbreaks in the Northeast.

Now the virus is tearing through rural areas — particularly in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain states — stressing the limited medical infrastructure.

Rural hospitals have relied largely on traveling nurses to fill staffing shortages that existed even before the pandemic, said Tim Blasl, president of the North Dakota Hospital Association. “They find staff for you, but it’s really expensive labor,” he said. “Our hospitals are willing to invest so the people of North Dakota get care.”

The arrangement presents risks for travelers and their patients. Personnel ping-ponging between overwhelmed cities and underserved towns could introduce infections. As contractors, travelers sometimes feel tensions their full-time colleagues do not. Frequently employed by staffing agencies based thousands of miles away, they can find themselves working in crisis without advocates or adequate safety equipment.

In 2020, the upsides of their jobs — freedom and flexibility — have been dwarfed by treacherous conditions. Now the ranks of travelers are thinning: The work is exhausting, bruising and dangerous. Thousands of front-line health workers have gotten the virus and hundreds have died, according to reporting by KHN and The Guardian.

On April 17, Lois Twum, a 23-year-old traveling nurse from New Orleans, was one of four passengers on a flight to New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport.

When the self-described “adventure-seeking adrenaline junkie” arrived for her first shift at Columbia University’s Irving Medical Center, she said, she was assigned four patients on a COVID-19 unit. (Intensive care nurses typically care for two or three patients.) As these “constantly crashing” patients required resuscitations and intubations, “there was practically no one to help,” Twum said, because “everyone’s patient was critical.” The hospital did not respond to requests for comment on the workplace conditions and treatment of travelers.

Meanwhile, as hospital employees got sick, quit or were furloughed amid budget cuts, travelers picked up the slack. They were redeployed, Twum said, assigned more patients as well as the sickest ones.

“It was like we were airdropped into Iraq,” Twum said. “Travelers, we got the worst of it.”

On social media and in email groups, recruiters for travelers circulate photos of sun-splashed skylines or coastlines emblazoned with dollar signs, boasting salaries two or three times those of staff nurses. They promise signing bonuses, relocation bonuses and referral bonuses. They make small talk, ask about travelers’ families and suggest restaurants in new cities.

But when it comes to navigating workplace issues, “these people can just disappear on you,” said Anna Skinner, a respiratory therapist who has traveled for over a decade. “They are not your friends.”

Caught between the hospitals where they report for duty and remote staffing agencies, their worker protections are blurred.

For instance, under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, providing protective equipment is the agency’s responsibility — but the travelers who spoke with KHN said agencies rarely distribute any.

Perea’s family said they believe David did not have adequate PPE. His employer said it was the nursing home’s responsibility to provide it. “It is up to each of our clients to provide PPE to our staff while they are working assignments through MAS,” said Sara Moore, a spokesperson for Perea’s agency, MAS Medical Staffing.

Sometimes travelers are assigned to emergency rooms or intensive care units with which they have little experience. Skinner, a pediatric specialist, said she landed in adult ICUs when deployed to the University of Miami Health System in April. She received an hour of orientation, she said, but “nothing could have prepared me for what I had to deal with.”

Over five weeks, she said, she intubated one patient after another; suctioned the blood pouring into patients’ lungs and out of their noses and mouths; and dealt with families who were aghast, angry and afraid. Under the stress, Skinner said, she couldn’t sleep and lost weight. The hospital did not respond to requests for comment on workplace conditions for travelers.

Travelers often face “incredibly onerous” hurdles to the overtime, sick leave or workers’ compensation they are entitled to under the Fair Labor Standards Act, said Nathan Piller, a lawyer at Schneider Wallace Cottrell Konecky, an employment and business litigation firm.

Even the number of hours they can count on working is out of their control, Skinner said. Contracts reviewed by KHN authorize travelers to work a set number of hours, but only a fraction of those hours are guaranteed, and must be approved by on-site managers. The guaranteed hours may be compensated at rates hovering around minimum wage, and may require working holidays, which are not uniformly recognized.

The terms can be “modified from time to time during employment,” according to the contracts.

In 2018, AMN Healthcare, one of the country’s largest travel nursing agencies, agreed to a $20 million settlement for wage violations involving nearly 9,000 travelers. Violations “appear fairly commonplace across the industry,” said Piller, who worked on the settlement.

Travelers, Skinner said, are left to advocate for themselves to managers they might have just met — and “complaining just isn’t an option.”

KHN reviewed travel nursing contracts issued by Aya Healthcare, a large staffing agency, and found that any disputes — wrongful termination claims; claims of discrimination, harassment or retaliation; wage claims; and claims for violation of federal, state or other laws or regulations — must be settled out of court, in arbitration.

Officials at the Service Employees International Union, the American Nurses Association and National Nurses United said their constituents have been suspended or fired from traveling worker agencies for speaking to the news media, posting on social media or otherwise voicing concerns about unfair practices.

Matthew Wall, a longtime traveling nurse, knows this all too well. In July, two days into his assignment at Piedmont Henry Hospital in Stockbridge, Georgia, Wall said, he reported to hospital administrators “undeniably unsafe” conditions for himself and patients, including inadequate PPE, long hours and high patient-to-staff ratios.

Instead of addressing his concerns, Wall said, the hospital — which is under investigation by the federal government for workplace safety issues after another traveling nurse died of COVID-19 in mid-March — canceled his contract. “Travelers are treated like dog chow,” Wall said. “The second you become a liability, they dispose of you.”

“We continue to closely follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines paired with our best practices in patient care and safety for all,” said John Manasso, a hospital spokesperson, who declined to comment on Wall’s case.

Some see an impossible choice. “We all know, if not for us, these patients would have no one,” Twum said, “but watching each other get sick left and right, it makes you wonder, is this worth my life?”

Skinner, for her part, took a job as a staff nurse in Aspen, Colorado. After his current contract in New Orleans ends, Wall is planning a break from nursing.

It was like we were airdropped into Iraq.

Lois Twum

Dominga Perea finally received a text back the night of April 6: “Don’t panic, Mama, I have the COVID.

“Pray for me.”

She saw David over FaceTime on Easter. “He struggled even eating mashed potatoes” she said, “because he couldn’t breathe.” The next morning he went on a ventilator and never woke up.

Months later, Lakeside hadn’t filled Perea’s position. “Ideal candidate must be a caring individual dedicated to providing high quality care,” the job listing read, and “able to react to emergency situations appropriately when required.”

KHN Mountain States editor Matt Volz contributed to this report.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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¿Estás internado? Todavía puedes votar en gran parte del país

Johnathon Talamantes se rompió la cadera en un accidente de auto el 22 de octubre y se sometió a una cirugía cinco días después en un hospital público cerca del centro de Los Angeles.

Talamantes tendrá que estar en el hospital del condado de LA USC Medical Center hasta pasadas las elecciones, algo que le preocupaba antes de la cirugía.

“Una de las primeras cosas que le pregunté a mi enfermera esa mañana fue: ‘Oh, ¿cómo voy a votar?’”, contó Talamantes, de 30 años, el día antes de la operación.

Primero le pidió a su mamá que buscara la boleta electoral que había recibido tiempo antes, como todos los votantes registrados de California para esta elección.

Pero el personal de LAC + USC le dio otra opción: podían ayudarlo a obtener una boleta de emergencia y emitir su voto sin tener que levantarse de la cama. Entonces Talamantes le dijo a su mamá que no se molestara.

“No quiero que ella venga aquí, por las restricciones de COVID”, dijo.

La ley de California protege los derechos de los votantes que se encuentran en el hospital u otras instalaciones de atención, o confinados en sus hogares. Les permite obtener ayuda de cualquier persona que elijan, que no sea un empleador o un representante sindical, y emitir un voto de emergencia.

Al menos otros 37 estados permiten la votación de emergencia por razones médicas, según la Conferencia Nacional de Legislaturas Estatales. Pero las prácticas varían.

En algunos, solo los miembros de la familia pueden ayudar a los pacientes hospitalizados a votar desde el hospital.

En California, Nueva York y varios otros estados, los empleados y voluntarios del hospital pueden ayudar a un paciente a completar una solicitud de boleta de emergencia. Pueden recoger la boleta del paciente y enviarla a la oficina electoral o depositarla en un buzón oficial.

Por el contrario, en Carolina del Norte, que un trabajador de salud ayude a un paciente a votar es un delito.

En 18 estados, la ley permite que las juntas electorales locales envíen representantes directamente a las cabeceras de los pacientes, aunque seis de esos estados cancelaron ese servicio este otoño debido a la pandemia de COVID-19, dijo el doctor Kelly Wong, fundadora de Patient Voting, un organización no partidista dedicada a aumentar la participación entre los votantes registrados hospitalizados inesperadamente durante la época de las elecciones.

El sitio web del grupo tiene un mapa interactivo de los Estados Unidos con información estado por estado sobre la votación en el hospital. También permite a los pacientes verificar si están registrados para votar.

Wong, residente de la sala de emergencias del Hospital de Rhode Island en Providence, recordó que cuando era estudiante de medicina y trabajaba en una sala de emergencias, los pacientes que estaban a punto de ser ingresados ​​en el hospital le decían: “No puedo estar internado, tengo que cuidar a mi perro o atender a mi abuela”. Luego, durante las elecciones de 2016, escuchó: “No puedo quedarme. Tengo que ir a votar”.

“Eso realmente me llamó la atención”, dijo Wong. Investigó y descubrió que los pacientes podían votar en el hospital mediante una boleta de emergencia, algo que ninguno de sus compañeros de trabajo sabía. “Nuestros pacientes no saben esto. Debería ser nuestro trabajo decírselo”, dijo.

Algunos hospitales han estado ayudando a los pacientes a votar en las elecciones principales durante dos décadas o más, como parte de una tendencia en la industria de la atención médica hacia el compromiso cívico.

Las clínicas comunitarias registran a los votantes en sus salas de espera o en campañas de registro público. En un número cada vez mayor de salas de emergencia, los pacientes y sus familias tienen la oportunidad de registrarse. Muchos hospitales, incluido LAC + USC, tendrán unidades de votación móviles este año, abiertas a los miembros del personal, a los pacientes que están lo suficientemente bien para caminar y a sus familias.

Estos esfuerzos tienen como telón de fondo el papel protagónico de la atención médica en el acalorado drama político de la nación: COVID-19 se ha convertido en un tema principal de la campaña presidencial, mientras que la Corte Suprema de los Estados Unidos, más conservadora desde esta semana, se prepara para escuchar un caso, una semana después de las elecciones, que podría ser la sentencia de muerte para la Ley del Cuidado de Salud a Bajo Precio (ACA).

La pandemia ha hecho que la votación para los pacientes internados sea un desafío debido a las estrictas restricciones en los hospitales y a los muchos empleados que han sido despedidos, cesanteados o que trabajan desde la casa. Y un aumento significativo en la votación adelatanda y el uso de boletas por correo en muchos estados puede reducir la cantidad de pacientes que necesitan ayuda.

“La mayoría de nuestros pacientes, espero, ya habrán votado, porque eso aliviará el estrés; para ellos, es una cosa menos de qué preocuparse”, dijo Camille Camello, directora asociada de servicios de voluntariado en las casi 900 camas del Cedars-Sinai Medical Center en Los Angeles, que tiene un programa para ayudar a los pacientes hospitalizados a votar. Dijo que, en elecciones pasadas, más de 200 pacientes solicitaron boletas.

En LAC + USC, los administradores han intentado asegurarse de que los pacientes sepan que pueden obtener ayuda para votar. Hay carteles en los espacios comunes y el personal está repartiendo volantes con información sobre las votaciones a cada paciente que ingresa, dijo Gabriela Hernández, directora de servicios voluntarios del hospital.

Hernández dijo que ella y unos 25 voluntarios han estado visitando las distintas unidades durante el último mes, preguntando a los pacientes si quieren ayuda para votar.

Los pacientes que dicen que sí reciben solicitudes de boleta de emergencia, que el hospital ha estado enviando al área de registro de votos condado del condado de Los Ángeles para verificación. Las solicitudes de boleta seguirán estando disponibles para los pacientes hasta la mañana del día de las elecciones.

Hernández y su equipo recogerán las boletas y las distribuirán a los pacientes, luego las devolverán al registro antes de las 8 pm, fecha límite el día de las elecciones.

Otros hospitales tienen una agenda más apretada.

En St. Jude Medical Center en Fullerton, California, el personal del hospital está preguntando a los pacientes el lunes 2 de noviembre si quieren asistencia para votar y les traerán boletas el día de las elecciones, dijo Gian Santos, gerente de servicios voluntarios en el hospital. En las elecciones de 2016, solo unos siete u ocho pacientes votaron de esa manera, agregó Santos.

El Hospital St. Joseph en Orange, California, planea hacer todo -solicitudes y boletas- el mismo día de las elecciones.

Para los grandes hospitales, la votación de pacientes hospitalizados puede ser una tarea enorme. Las personas a menudo necesitan asistencia en varios idiomas y los hospitales suelen contratar servicios de traducción.

Muchos hospitales reciben pacientes de numerosos condados y de otros estados.

El Hospital Lenox Hill en Manhattan planea ayudar hasta a 200 pacientes de nueve condados en el estado de Nueva York y tres en Nueva Jersey, dijo Erin Smith, enfermera especializada en obstetricia que, junto con su colega Lisa Schavrien, está liderando el esfuerzo.

El hospital asignará uno o dos “corredores” a cada una de las 12 juntas electorales del condado, dijo Smith. Para ella, hacer que los pacientes vulnerables puedan ejercer su derecho al voto merece el esfuerzo.

“Si no los ayudamos, ¿cuántas miles de personas no van a votar en las elecciones porque sufrieron un accidente automovilístico, tuvieron apendicitis, o una cirugía cerebral inesperada?”, se preguntó Smith.

“Si no lo hacemos en el hospital, es como negarles el voto a los votantes”.

Esta historia de KHN fue publicada primero en California Healthline, un servicio de la California Health Care Foundation.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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‘His Lies are Killing my Neighbors’: Swing-state Health Workers Try to Defeat Trump

Dr. Chris Kapsner intubated his first COVID-19 patient — a 47-year-old man who arrived short of breath at an emergency room in Minnesota’s Twin Cities — back in April.

Now, seven months later, Kapsner, who lives across the border in Wisconsin, is weary and exhausted from the steady stream of patients arriving with a virus that is spreading across this part of the Midwest. Hospital beds and personal protective equipment are in short supply, and his colleagues are getting sick. “Even if we put up all the field tents in the world, we don’t have the staff for this,” he said.

Kapsner believes political disfunction at the state level and a “disastrous” federal response are responsible for Wisconsin’s spike in cases. It’s part of the reason he’s running for office.

Kapsner is one of at least four health care workers running for Democratic seats in the Wisconsin state assembly, and one of many in his field speaking out against President Donald Trump and the GOP’s response to COVID-19.

Wisconsin is in the throes of one of the country’s worst COVID outbreaks. On Oct. 27, the state reported more than 5,000 new cases and a test positivity rate of over 27%. Nearly 2,000 people have died, and only the Dakotas are currently reporting more cases per capita.

Despite this, Trump has been holding large rallies across the state where crowds gather by the thousands, often without masks. Another Trump rally was planned for Monday evening in Kenosha, the site of unrest last summer after Jacob Blake was shot in the back by police. Wisconsin is a crucial swing state in Tuesday’s election; Trump carried the state by just 27,000 votes in 2016 and is currently trailing Joe Biden in the polls.

Last month, a group of 20 doctors sent an open letter to Trump asking him to stop holding rallies in the state. Thursday, the night before Trump was scheduled to appear in Green Bay, hospitals released a joint statement urging locals to avoid large crowds. Earlier in October, the Trump campaign scuttled plans for a rally in La Crosse, in western Wisconsin, after the city’s mayor asked him not to come amid a spike in cases there.

Dr. Kristin Lyerly, an OB-GYN in Appleton, in eastern Wisconsin, said she struggles to find the right words to describe her anger over the rallies, which have been linked to subsequent coronavirus outbreaks. On Oct. 24, at a rally in Waukesha, about 100 miles south of Appleton, Trump falsely accused health care workers of inflating the number of COVID cases for financial gain.

“His lies are killing my neighbors,” she said.

Lyerly, who is also running for state assembly, said she spends her days trying to reassure terrified pregnant patients, while fearing she might contract the virus herself. She and her colleagues are overwhelmed. She keeps her PPE in her car to ensure she never goes without it. “We’ve completely forgotten about the human impact on our health care workers. Our health care workers are exhausted, they’re burned out and they feel entirely disrespected,” she said.

Lyerly said she decided to run for office in April, after the Republican-controlled assembly refused to postpone a statewide election, in which the Democratic presidential primary and a key state Supreme Court seat were on the ballot. The state GOP also stymied efforts to make it easier for Wisconsinites to vote by mail.

“As a physician, I think many of us were shocked that our legislature would put us in danger, and make us decide between our vote and our health,” she said. She’s running in a district that typically leans conservative but said her campaign’s latest polls put her within the margin of error of her opponent, an incumbent.

Dr. Robert Freedland, an ophthalmologist in southwestern Wisconsin and state lead for the Committee to Protect Medicare, signed the letter asking Trump to stop holding rallies in Wisconsin. He wanted to go on the record as having spoken out in the name of public health.

Freedland, who is 65 and has Type 2 diabetes, said he fears for his health when he goes to work.

Dr. Jeff Kushner, a cardiologist who also signed the letter, said he hasn’t been able to work since March because of the pandemic. Kushner, 65, has non-Hodgkins lymphoma and is on immunosuppressants. “If I got COVID, I wouldn’t survive,” he said.

Though he follows politics closely, Kushner said that he’s not “politically involved” and that he tends to keep his politics to himself and a close inner circle. But he said he doesn’t consider signing the letter to Trump a political act. “It’s a statement of what I believe about our society’s health and not a political statement,” he said. “It wasn’t an anti-Trump letter. We were just saying, ‘Please don’t have these superspreader events in our state.’”

Kapsner, the emergency room doctor, said he still speaks with patients and voters who doubt the severity of COVID-19. “My job isn’t to shame them,” he said. “There are many people out here who have had the good fortune of not being personally affected by COVID. Their friends or families haven’t had it yet. I fear their luck is going to run out.”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Medicare Fines Half of Hospitals for Readmitting Too Many Patients

Nearly half the nation’s hospitals, many of which are still wrestling with the financial fallout of the unexpected coronavirus, will get lower payments for all Medicare patients because of their history of readmitting patients, federal records show.

The penalties are the ninth annual round of the Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program created as part of the Affordable Care Act’s broader effort to improve quality and lower costs. The latest penalties are calculated using each hospital case history between July 2016 and June 2019, so the flood of coronavirus patients that have swamped hospitals this year were not included.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services announced in September it may suspend the penalty program in the future if the chaos surrounding the pandemic, including the spring’s moratorium on elective surgeries, makes it too difficult to assess hospital performance.

For this year, the penalties remain in effect. Retroactive to the federal fiscal year that began Oct. 1, Medicare will lower a year’s worth of payments to 2,545 hospitals, the data show. The average reduction is 0.69%, with 613 hospitals receiving a penalty of 1% or more.

Out of 5,267 hospitals in the country, Congress has exempted 2,176 from the threat of penalties, either because they are critical access hospitals — defined as the only inpatient facility in an area — or hospitals that specialize in psychiatric patients, children, veterans, rehabilitation or long-term care. Of the 3,080 hospitals CMS evaluated, 83% received a penalty.

The number and severity of penalties were comparable to those of recent years, although the number of hospitals receiving the maximum penalty of 3% dropped from 56 to 39. Because the penalties are applied to new admission payments, the total dollar amount each hospital will lose will not be known until after the fiscal year ends on July 30.

“It’s unfortunate that hospitals will face readmission penalties in fiscal year 2021,” said Akin Demehin, director of policy at the American Hospital Association. “Given the financial strain that hospitals are under, every dollar counts, and the impact of any penalty is significant.”

The penalties are based on readmissions of Medicare patients who initially came to the hospital with diagnoses of congestive heart failure, heart attack, pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, hip or knee replacement or coronary artery bypass graft surgery. Medicare counts as a readmission any of those patients who ended up back in any hospital within 30 days of discharge, except for planned returns like a second phase of surgery.

A hospital will be penalized if its readmission rate is higher than expected given the national trends in any one of those categories.

The industry has disapproved of the program since its inception, complaining the measures aren’t precise and it unfairly punishes hospitals that treat low-income patients, who often don’t have the resources to ensure their recoveries are successful.

Michael Millenson, a health quality consultant who focuses on patient safety, said the penalties are a useful but imperfect mechanism to push hospitals to improve their care. The designers of the penalty system envisioned it as a way to neutralize the economic benefit hospitals get from readmitted patients under Medicare’s fee-for-service payment model, as they are otherwise paid for two stays instead of just one.

“Every industry complains the penalties are too harsh,” he said. “if you’re going to tell me we don’t need any economic incentives to do the right thing because we’re always doing the right thing — that’s not true.”

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Hospitalized? You Can Still Vote in Most Parts of the Country

Johnathon Talamantes, of South-Central Los Angeles, broke his hip in a car accident on Oct. 22 and underwent surgery five days later at a public hospital near downtown.

His post-op recovery will keep him in the hospital, L.A. County+USC Medical Center, beyond Election Day, and as he prepared himself for the surgery, he wondered what that would mean.

“One of the first things I asked my nurse this morning was, ‘Oh, how am I going to vote?’” Talamantes, 30, said from his hospital bed the day before the operation.

He initially thought of asking his mom to rummage through a pile of papers at the home he shares with her and bring him the mail-in ballot that he, like all registered California voters, received for this election.

But then staffers at LAC+USC told him about another option: They could help him get an emergency ballot and cast his vote without having to get out of bed. So Talamantes told his mom not to bother.

“I don’t want her coming down here, because of the COVID restrictions,” he said.

California law protects the rights of voters who are in the hospital or other care facilities, or confined at home. It allows them to get help from anyone they choose — other than an employer or a union representative — and to cast an emergency ballot.

At least 37 other states allow emergency voting for medical reasons, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But practices vary.

In some states, only family members can assist hospitalized patients with voting from the hospital.

In California, New York and several other states, hospital employees and volunteers can help a patient complete an emergency ballot application. They can pick up the ballot for the patient and deliver the finished ballot back to the election office or deposit it in an official drop box.

In North Carolina, by contrast, it is a felony for a health care worker to assist a patient with voting.

In 18 states, the law allows local election boards to send representatives directly to patients’ bedsides, though six of those states have canceled that service this fall because of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Dr. Kelly Wong, founder of Patient Voting, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to increasing turnout among registered voters unexpectedly hospitalized around election time.

The group’s website features an interactive map of the United States with state-by-state information on voting while in the hospital. It also allows patients to check whether they are registered to vote.

Wong, an emergency room resident at Rhode Island Hospital in Providence, recalled that when she was a medical student working in an ER, patients who were about to be admitted to the hospital would tell her, “‘I can’t be admitted; I have let the dogs out, or I’m the sole caretaker of my grandmother.’” Then during the election of 2016, she heard, “‘I can’t stay. I have to go vote.’”

“That really caught my attention,” Wong said. She did research and learned patients could vote in the hospital using an emergency ballot — something none of her co-workers knew. “Our patients don’t know this, she said. “It should be our job to tell them.”

Some U.S. hospitals have been assisting patients with voting in major elections for two decades or more, part of a broader tendency in the health care industry toward civic engagement.

Community clinics register voters in their waiting rooms or at public registration drives. In an increasing number of ERs, patients and their families are offered the chance to register. Many hospitals, including LAC+USC, this year will have mobile voting units on-site, open to staff members, patients who are well enough to walk, and their families.

These efforts come against the backdrop of health care’s starring role in the nation’s heated political drama: COVID-19 has become a top presidential campaign issue, while the U.S. Supreme Court, its conservative majority fortified this week, prepares to hear a case — one week after the election — that could be the death knell for the Affordable Care Act.

The pandemic has made inpatient voting a challenge because of tight restrictions at hospitals and the many employees furloughed, laid off or working at home. And a significant increase in early voting and the use of mail-in ballots in many states may reduce the number of patients who need help.

“The majority of our patients, I am hoping, will have voted already, because that will alleviate the stress — for them, it’s one less thing to worry about,” said Camille Camello, associate director of volunteer services at the nearly 900-bed Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, which has a program to help inpatients vote. In past elections, she said, over 200 patients have requested ballots.

At LAC+USC, administrators have been trying to ensure patients know they can get help voting. Posters line the walls of common spaces and staffers are handing out flyers with voting information to every patient who is admitted, said Gabriela Hernandez, the hospital’s director of volunteer services.

Hernandez said she and about 25 volunteers have been walking the halls in the inpatient units of the hospital for the past month, asking patients if they want help voting.

Patients who say yes get emergency ballot applications, which the hospital has been sending to the L.A. County Registrar-Recorder for verification. The ballot applications will continue to be made available to patients up to the morning of Election Day.

Hernandez and her team will collect the ballots and distribute them to patients, then return them to the registrar before the 8 p.m. deadline on Election Day.

Other hospitals have a more collapsed timeline.

At St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton, California, hospital staffers will start asking patients Monday if they want voting assistance and bring them ballots on Election Day, said Gian Santos, manager of volunteer services at the hospital. In the 2016 election, only about seven or eight patients voted that way, Santos said.

St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, California, plans to do everything — applications and ballots — on Election Day.

For big hospitals, inpatient voting can be a massive undertaking. People often require assistance in multiple languages, and the hospitals frequently contract with translation services to accommodate them.

Many hospitals receive patients from numerous counties — and across state lines.

Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan plans to assist as many as 200 patients from nine counties in New York state and three in New Jersey, said Erin Smith, an obstetrical nurse navigator who, along with fellow OB nurse navigator Lisa Schavrien, is leading the effort.

The hospital will assign one or two “runners” to each of the 12 county election boards, Smith said. For her, enabling vulnerable patients to exercise their right to vote is worth the effort.

“If we’re not helping them do it, how many thousands of people are not voting in elections because they were in a car accident, because they had appendicitis, because they had unexpected brain surgery?” Smith asked.

“If we’re not making it happen in the hospital, it kind of feels to me like voter suppression.”



This KHN story first published on California Healthline, a service of the California Health Care Foundation.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Readers and Tweeters Shed Light on Vaccine Trials and Bias in Health Care

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.

On the ‘Subject’ of Vaccine Trial Participants

In the piece about the AstraZeneca vaccine trial subject who suffered severe spinal cord inflammation, that person was repeatedly referred to as a “patient” (“NIH ‘Very Concerned’ About Serious Side Effect in Coronavirus Vaccine Trial,” Sept. 14). Once someone is enrolled in a trial, everything that happens to them is because they are a “subject,” not a patient. A patient is someone getting health care; a subject is willingly participating to be exposed to something that has nothing to do with their health or wellness. Please use the right term so that the reader can be reminded that the person was participating in this trial. Nice piece.

— Robin Chalmers, Atlanta

Don’t worry about Trump rushing a #vaccine. Worry about pharma companies hiding data from the FDA and NIH.https://t.co/BoxSZILoyx

— Mike’s Hard Left Turn🏴 🏴‍☠️ (@ozofperception) September 17, 2020

— Michael Berger, Canton, Ohio

Just read the story by Arthur Allen and Liz Szabo on risk/benefit of vaccine trials where a serious illness occurs. It hit home. I took Proscar for seven years in a prostate cancer prevention trial. I was in the third cohort. At some point short of the planned 10 cohorts, the test was aborted: Benefits were so great that the placebo would be unethical. I was lucky. My little blue pill was the real thing. That earned me a spot in the selenium/vitamin E trial to see if that combo prevented prostate cancer. That trial was aborted when serious health effects were diagnosed and there was a causal link. Good. I didn’t get both but I don’t know whether I got selenium or vitamin E. No problems. I know I did not get the placebo.

Now I’m doing the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine trial at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital/Gamble Institute. So far, two shots, no immediate problems. Ask me in two years.

It’s important to say: A trial can stop because benefits wildly outweigh risks or because harms become obvious. I’ve had every vaccine relevant to my life and work for 82 years. I’ve seen smallpox and measles in southern Africa and polio in my hometown, Minneapolis. I got a typhus jab before going out to Africa from London almost 60 years ago. I’m a believer. Thanks for your clear-headed and well-written and -edited reporting. We need it more than ever.

Ben Kaufman, Cincinnati

Regardless of widespread distrust caused by @realDonaldTrump ‘too many cooks’ syndrome on vaccine vetting has scientists saying such plans by individual states could backfire, confusing public & eroding confidence in any eventual #coronavirus vaccine. https://t.co/gCufRJ2FjJ

— Lindsay Resnick (@ResnickLR) October 7, 2020

— Lindsay Resnick, Chicago

Racial sensitivity training is essential. The healthcare system is not made to support people of color. Providers should not be another obstacle to receiving equitable healthcare #MedTwitter

Unconscious Bias Crops Up In Health Care, Even During A Pandemic https://t.co/tDwkCOO6qH

— Taylor Ross (@taycraye) October 21, 2020

— Taylor Ross, Columbia, Missouri

A Universal Problem

I want to let Karla Monterroso from the April Dembosky piece on unconscious bias in health care (“‘All You Want Is to Be Believed’: The Impacts of Unconscious Bias in Health Care,” Oct. 21) know that I have no doubt her experience was horrific, and I do not want to, in any way, disagree or diminish that it is related to unconscious bias. However, I am a skinny, white woman (and a nurse and nurse practitioner, by the way, and therefore better able to advocate for myself), and my interface with emergency, primary care and a few specialty practices in the “health care” system during the time of COVID-19 has also been most unfortunately and horrifically similar.

I, too, am utilizing my resources to speak up and speak out, knowing that for everyone who speaks up there are hundreds if not thousands who don’t. So please convey my gratitude to her, and to KHN for publishing her story. I hope that it and Kaiser Permanente’s research shed some light, not only on unconscious bias, but also the realities of today’s medical-industrial complex.

— Christine Fasching Maphis, Harrisonburg, Virginia

The Need for Trust Between Physician and Patient

Throughout history, there has been an extreme level of mistrust between health care providers and African American communities. So in 2020, when being asked to enter a trial for a coronavirus vaccine, the answer is easily no, without hesitation (“COVID Vaccine Trials Move at Warp Speed, But Recruiting Black Volunteers Takes Time,” Sept. 16).

Misconduct and mistreatment of patients presently and in the past, such as Henrietta Lacks and the many lives lost during the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, have forever been etched in the minds of many individuals, and trust is not easily given. When strengthening the relationship between patient and provider, trust must first be built before Black communities would even consider being test subjects.

What Dr. Vladimir Berthaud has been able to provide Robert Smith and the rest of his patients with is comfort, which is developed when the care is patient-centered. Effectively communicating with patients to ensure they understand what’s going on and what’s at stake, listening to their concerns, and respecting their preferences when it comes to receiving care can affect the decision patients decide to make in this very difficult time.

With over 8 million cases of COVID-19 in the United States, Black people make up 17.6% of reported cases from states who provided data on race/ethnicity, according to the CDC. With little to no volunteers willing to enter the trial, the likelihood of finding a vaccine to build the immune systems of all citizens is becoming further from achievable and even more difficult. Representation for people of color is needed, and providers need to take the extra step to encourage the Black community to participate in the trial that affects them, just as much as any other race.

— Tre’Jenae Mack, Baltimore

(Today is day 1 for me. An hour until vaccine or placebo) As COVID-19 Vaccine Trials Move At Warp Speed, Recruiting Black Volunteers Takes Time https://t.co/T4zkkUJ7qZ

— Ty Russell (@TRussellCBS4) September 29, 2020

— Ty Russell, Miami

Ghosting Your Friends This Year

Regarding your story about Halloween safety (“How Families Are Keeping Halloween From Turning Into a COVID Nightmare,” Sept. 23), a mother is quoted as saying she will host a small sleepover with relatives instead of trick-or-treating. Isn’t having non-household members over to spend the night considered a high-risk thing to do? I’m confused.

— Sarah Kishler, San Jose, California

Editor’s note: Indeed. With COVID cases on the rise in at least 36 states, especially in the Midwest, CDC Director Robert Redfield said recently: “What we’re seeing as the increasing threat right now is actually acquisition of infection through small household gatherings.”

Such a good way to put it: We pay farmers not to plant. Shouldn’t we pay bars to stay closed? via @NYTOpinion https://t.co/vQWww4B6r0

— leslie ehrlich (@leslieehrlich) October 22, 2020

— Leslie Ehrlich, New York City

A Eureka Moment on Bar Closings

I am a professor at the School of Social Work at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. I teach courses in policy management, leadership and community organization. I am in the “wholesale” branch of social work, not the “retail” (clinical) side.

I want to congratulate you on your recent piece on closing the bars (“Analysis: Winter Is Coming for Bars. Here’s How to Save Them. And Us,” Oct. 22). More specifically, your linking the farm program of paying farmers not to grow to paying bars not to open. Reading that I had a eureka moment — stupendous! An idea with broad applications. I have taught about “policy borrowing,” but that idea never crossed my mind — brilliant — one of those once-in-a-lifetime inspirations. The potential application of farm subsidies to other policy arenas opens a door (as in “The Secret Garden”).

I just had to find a way to tell you how intellectually exciting that is.

— John Tropman, Ann Arbor, Michigan

@RosenthalHealth⁩ It’s not just bars that are a central problem in creating “heterogenous” explosive outbreaks. It is bar owners, banded together fiercely opposing reasonable temporary controls. Witness the tavern league in Wisconsin. https://t.co/QQd8qoWVHM

— Steve Morrison (@MorrisonCSIS) October 22, 2020

— Steve Morrison, Washington, D.C.

Plagued by Misinformation

Should you wear a mask? Should you stay home? Is it worse than the flu? Don’t ask the United States government because you won’t get a consistent answer (“Signs of an ‘October Vaccine Surprise’ Alarm Career Scientists,” Sept. 21). Since COVID-19 began to afflict the U.S. in early March, the Trump administration has consistently disseminated unreliable messages leading to surges in cases, mass personal protective equipment shortages and over 220,000 deaths. Inconsistent statements that contradict evidence-based recommendations from well-regarded government agencies have plagued the government’s response to the novel coronavirus.

The administration is, again, pushing controversial treatments and contradicting experts in the premature release of the COVID-19 vaccination, making it one of its most dangerous maneuvers yet. A politically charged release of a vaccine that has not been fully tested will result in low trust levels. While this cutting-corners approach may appear to increase the chance of reelection, it puts the scientific community’s reputation in jeopardy, possibly destroying confidence in vaccination, a topic scientists have been battling for decades. The U.S. is currently leading the world in cases and deaths, proving that an unclear and decentralized approach to the crisis is ineffective. It’s imperative that elected officials begin to work together and take America’s health seriously.

— Amelia Flocchini, Madison, Wisconsin

This is a terrifying scenario. If it comes to this, I promise to actually (gulp) speak up against vaccines. I hope and pray we don’t go down this road.

(In the meantime: existing, approved #VaccinesWork… Go get your flu shot!) https://t.co/ypIl3LojjP

— Megan Ranney MD MPH 🗽 (@meganranney) September 21, 2020

— Dr. Megan Ranney, Providence, Rhode Island

Buckling Down on Analogies

In Elisabeth Rosenthal’s “Analysis: We Follow Laws on Seat Belts and Smoking. Why Not on Masks? (Oct. 1), the seat belt analogy doesn’t quite fit. Seat belts primarily help the user. You should instead use speed limits or laws against driving drunk. Those help others primarily, like masks.

— Thomas Kahn, St. Louis

@gavin4annapolis Useful article given the large number of non-mask wearing scofflaws I routinely see down at the harbor. There is police “presence” but no obvious enforcement efforts. https://t.co/bneoV3WHzN

— Phelim Kine “老 康“ (@PhelimKine) September 30, 2020

— Phelim Kine, Annapolis, Maryland

The Crisis of 911 Mental Health Calls

Reading your story about Daniel Prude, I assume this interests KHN because of the failures in mental health care (“You’re Going to Release Him When He Was Hurting Himself?” Sept. 29). The narrative seems to be that this sort of thing happens only to people of color and not that the proportion of officer-involved use-of-force incidents are far greater among those in mental health crisis than solely because of race. Take this story, for example, in which a Minnesota crisis unit was called twice, refusing first to assist, then a second time not arriving before the child was gassed out of a home where he was alone and shot 11 times on a sunny Friday morning in his own front yard. Then the district attorney used protected health information (PHI) to make a case to justify the killing.

— Don Amorosi, Wayzata, Minnesota

As we focus more on the intersection of the justice system & racial equity, how we approach mental healthcare is – & should be – part of the discussion. The tragic circumstances of Daniel Prude’s death in Rochester shines a spotlight on this. https://t.co/CIt9AGCgxB

— Kody H. Kinsley 😷 (@KodyKinsley) October 2, 2020

— Kody H. Kinsley, Raleigh, North Carolina

This story brought light to the serious problem of lack of access to inpatient psychiatric care. State laws are too restrictive, and hospitals are legally aware and wary. Strong Memorial Hospital clearly did not take into account the patient’s behavior that caused his family and police to act to have him hospitalized. Nevertheless, while I highly appreciate the facts this article brings to light, I am somewhat dismayed that the highlighted topic is race rather than the risk of all mentally ill patients of being denied access to inpatient care. There appears to be a trend of viewing events and news primarily through these identity lenses. My father was Hispanic and also had problems getting access to care before he committed suicide. Thank you for covering this story.

— Christina Nuñez Daw, Greenbelt, Maryland

Heartbreaking Bills, Lawsuit and Bankruptcy — Even With Insurance https://t.co/Ws6dNPfMsJ via @khnews In any other developed country in the world, he would have been taken care of. #Medicare4All now

— Kathy Staub (@mrsstaub) September 25, 2020

— Kathy Staub, Manchester, New Hampshire

When Illness Leaves a Patient Little Choice

I write to expand on Laura Ungar’s Sept. 25 article, “Bill of the Month: Heartbreaking Bills, Lawsuit and Bankruptcy — Even With Insurance.” The article follows the story of a man diagnosed with a rare condition — flu-induced heart disease — who received surprise medical bills, which led to a lawsuit and his filing for bankruptcy. Ungar notes that “a hospital representative suggested [the patient] apply for financial assistance. She followed up by sending him a form, but it went to the wrong address because [the patient] was in the process of moving.”

Though nonprofit hospitals are required to provide some sort of financial aid for indigent patients — according to 26 C.F.R. §1.501(r) of the Internal Revenue Code — the statute does not define exactly how a hospital must provide that aid. For example, a hospital can offer financial assistance but require patients complete extensive documentation to discourage patients from using it. Though it is unclear in Ungar’s article whether the hospital attempted to resend the form or to contact the patient after the form went to the wrong address, it is unlikely. If the hospital was willing to pursue legal action — leading to the patient’s bankruptcy — it is possible the hospital did not attempt to contact the patient again as a tactic to avoid providing financial assistance, a tactic allowed under the IRC.

Ungar failed to mention how patients with chronic conditions would fare in similar circumstances. As someone with a chronic condition, I know firsthand that those with chronic conditions do not pick and choose when they have expensive surgeries or procedures; often, the condition makes that choice. A patient with ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease does not choose when he has a flare that might require an emergency colonoscopy or surgery to remove part of their intestines. A flare, by definition, occurs randomly and violently. Often, procedures and surgeries to quell such flares require expensive treatment options. Scheduling such procedures is desirable but unrealistic. Even the patient in the article — who suffered a rare acute condition — did not choose when he needed care; his health made the choice. The article should address chronic conditions but as another example to emphasize her point about how debilitating medical bills can be.

— Daniel Klapper, Pittsburgh

1. Why the “Breaking Bad” plot line (cooking meth to cover cancer treatment costs) is an “only in America” story; 2. Why patient investment in high-connection wellness/care solutions has an ROI given US healthcare system costs. https://t.co/TxWjpYUGqe

— Jim Eischen (@JimEischenEsq) September 25, 2020

— Jim Eischen, San Diego

Oh, Canada Health Care!

Regardless of the platitudinous praises our health care system typically receives, Canada is the only country with a universal plan (theoretically, anyway) that doesn’t also fully cover medications (“New Laws Keep Pandemic-Weary California at Forefront of Health Policy Innovation,” Oct. 1). The bitter pill is: Many low-income outpatients cannot afford to fill their prescriptions and resultantly end up back in the hospital system, thus burdening the system far more than if those patients’ generic-brand medication was also covered. This lesson was learned and implemented by enlightened European nations with genuinely universal all-inclusive health care systems that also cover necessary medication.

Within our system are important treatments that seem to be either universally nonexistent or, more to the point, universally inaccessible, except to those with relatively high incomes and/or generous employer health insurance coverage. The only two health professions’ appointments for which I’m fully covered by the public health plan are the readily pharmaceutical-prescribing psychiatry and general practitioner health professions. Such non-pharmaceutical-prescribing mental health specialists as psychotherapists and counselors (etcetera) are not at all covered.

Logic says we cannot afford to maintain such an absurdity that costs Canada billions extra annually. It’s not coincidental that the absence of universal medication coverage also keeps the pharmaceutical industry’s profits soaring.

— Frank Sterle Jr., White Rock, British Columbia

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Telemedicine or In-Person Visit? Pros and Cons

As COVID-19 took hold in March, U.S. doctors limited in-person appointments — and many patients avoided them — for fear of infection. The result was a huge increase in the volume of remote medical and behavioral health visits.

Doctors, hospitals and mental health providers across the country reported a 50- to 175-fold rise in the number of virtual visits, according to a report released in May by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co.

The COVID-fueled surge has tapered off as patients venture back to doctors’ offices. But medical professionals and health experts predict that when the pandemic is over, telehealth will still play a much larger role than before.

Studies show patient satisfaction with telehealth is high. And for physicians who previously were skeptical of remote care, necessity has been the mother of invention.

“There are still a few doubting Thomases, but now that we’ve run our practices this way for three months, people have learned that it’s pretty useful,” says Dr. Joseph Kvedar, president of the American Telemedicine Association and a practicing dermatologist who teaches at Harvard Medical School in Boston.

For patients, the advantages of telemedicine are clear: You typically can get an appointment sooner, in the safety of your own home or workplace, saving time and money on gas and parking — in some cases, even avoiding a loss in wages for missing work.

James Wolfrom, a 69-year-old retired postal executive in San Francisco, has had mostly virtual health care appointments since the pandemic started. He particularly appreciates the video visits.

“It’s just like I’m in the room with the doctor, with all of the benefits and none of the disadvantages of having to haul my body over to the facility,” says Wolfrom, who has Type 2 diabetes. “Even after the pandemic, I’m going to prefer doing the video conferencing over having to go there.”

Telemedicine also provides care for people in rural areas who live far from medical facilities.

The growth of virtual care has been facilitated by Medicare rule changes for the COVID-19 emergency, including one that reimburses doctors for telemedicine at the same rate as in-person care for an expanded list of services. State regulators and commercial health plans also loosened their telehealth policies.

In California, the Department of Managed Health Care, which regulates health plans covering the vast majority of the state’s insured residents, requires commercial plans and most Medi-Cal managed care plans during the pandemic to pay providers for telehealth at parity with regular appointments and limit cost sharing by patients to no more than what they would pay for in-person visits. Starting Jan. 1, a state law — AB-744 — will make that permanent for commercial plans.

Five other states — Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Minnesota and New Mexico — have pay-parity laws already in effect, according to Mei Wa Kwong, executive director of the Center for Connected Health Policy. Washington state has one that also will begin Jan. 1.

If you are planning a telehealth appointment, be sure to ask your health plan if it is covered and how much the copay or coinsurance will be. The appointment may be through your in-network provider or a telehealth company your insurer contracts with, such as Teladoc, Doctor On Demand or MD Live.

You can also contact one of those companies directly for a medical consultation if you don’t have insurance, and pay between $75 and $82 for a regular doctor visit.

If you are one of the 13 million Californians enrolled in Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program, you can get telehealth services at little to no cost.

Large medical offices and health systems usually have their own telemedicine platforms. In other cases, your provider may use a publicly available platform such as FaceTime, Skype or Zoom. Either way, you will need access to a laptop, tablet or smartphone — though, for a phone conversation, a landline or simple cellphone will suffice.

Smartphones with good cameras can be particularly useful in telemedicine because high-resolution photos can help doctors see certain medical problems more clearly. For example, a photo from a good smartphone camera usually provides enough detail for a dermatologist to determine whether a mole requires further attention, Kvedar said.

Relatively inexpensive apps and at-home tools enable you to measure your own blood pressure, pulse rate, oxygen saturation level and blood sugar. It’s a good idea to monitor your vitals and have the numbers ready before you start a virtual visit.

Be aware that a remote visit is not right for every situation. In the case of serious injury, severe chest pain or a drug overdose, for example, you should call 911 or get to the ER as quickly as possible.

Virtual visits also are not recommended in other cases for which the doctor needs to lay hands on you.

Wolfrom has had only a few in-person health visits this year, one of them with a podiatrist who checks his feet every six to 12 months for diabetes-related neuropathy. “That can only be done when you are in the room and the podiatrist is touching and feeling your feet,” Wolfrom says.

Face-to-face visits are generally better for young children. Kids often require vaccinations, and it’s easier for doctors to monitor their growth and development in person, says Dr. Dan Vostrejs, a pediatrician at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose.

In general, telemedicine is effective in cases that would typically send you to an urgent care clinic, such as minor injuries or flu-like symptoms, including fever, cough and sore throat.

It is also increasingly used for post-surgical follow-ups. Telemedicine can be a godsend for geriatric or disabled patients with reduced mobility. And it’s a no-brainer for mental health care, which is mostly talking anyway.

Among the top telehealth adopters are medical specialists who treat chronic illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and asthma, says Dr. Peter Alperin, a San Francisco internist and vice president of product at Doximity, a kind of LinkedIn for medical professionals.

Providers can monitor patients’ vitals remotely and discuss lab results, diet, medications and any symptoms in a video chat or a phone conversation. “If you happen to see something that’s awry, you can bring them into your office,” Alperin says, adding it’s “a better form of triage.”

But telemedicine has some serious disadvantages. For one thing, the less formal setting can allow some routine medical practices to slip through the cracks.

In the second quarter of this year, blood pressure was recorded in 70% of doctor office visits compared with about 10% of telemedicine visits, according to a study published early this month.

Elsa Pearson, a resident of Dedham, Massachusetts, had a medical appointment scheduled in March, which was switched to a telephone call because of the pandemic-induced lockdown.

“It was honestly the most efficient appointment I’ve had in my life,” says Pearson, 30. But, “I must admit, without the push of having the labs right there when you leave the appointment, I’ve yet to get them done.”

Perhaps the biggest pitfall in telehealth is the loss of a more intimate and valuable doctor-patient relationship.

In a recent essay, Dr. Paul Hyman, a Maine physician, reflected on the times when an unexpected discovery during an in-person examination had possibly saved a patient’s life: “A discovery of an irregular mole, a soft tissue mass, or a new murmur — I do not forget these cases, and I do not think the patients do either.”



This KHN story first published on California Healthline, a service of the California Health Care Foundation.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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North Carolina Treasurer Took On the Hospitals. Now He’s Paying Political Price.

Cartel is a term frequently associated with illegal narcotics syndicates. In North Carolina, it has become the favored word of State Treasurer Dale Folwell to describe the state’s hospital industry, the antagonist in his quest to lower health care prices for state employees.

The treasurer manages the state employees’ health plan, which insures about 727,000 teachers, police officers, current and retired state workers and dependents. Folwell, a Republican, has tried to persuade hospitals to accept lower payments, but he has struggled to discover the existing rates the plan pays each hospital.

“These organizations’ business model is secrecy,” Folwell said, “from the billing all the way up to the way these hospitals’ organizations receive their tax-exempt status.”

Now, as Folwell, 62, seeks a second four-year term, the state’s hospitals are coming after him.

The North Carolina Healthcare Association, the hospital trade group, has endorsed Folwell’s Democratic challenger. It is a rare instance of a health care lobby seeking to topple an incumbent. Over 26 years, North Carolina’s hospital association donated $2.1 million to sitting officeholders but bestowed just $29,700 to challengers, according to a tally from the National Institute on Money in Politics, a Montana-based nonprofit. All donations made this year will not be fully disclosed until after the election.

In many states, hospital associations are political powerhouses, with stables of lobbyists and the influence that comes with often being the largest employer in many legislative districts. In the previous election cycle of 2018, the hospital industry across the country donated $71 million to local and state candidates, political parties and ballot initiatives, according to the Money in Politics data. That amounted to a fifth of all spending by the health care industry and nearly three times that spent by pharmaceuticals and health products companies.

“The hospitals have very strong political clout in North Carolina, and increasingly so as they get bigger,” said Aaron McKethan, a resident scholar at the Margolis Center for Health Policy at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. “They are huge sources of employment. If anything, COVID has reinforced and strengthened them — the job of wagging your finger at hospitals over their prices has gotten harder.”

Nationally, hospitals account for a third of health care spending. The prices hospitals charge private insurers including the state health plan are driving much of the increase in health care premiums. In North Carolina, hospital inpatient prices for private insurers rose by 10% from 2014 to 2018, according to the Health Care Cost Institute.

Folwell’s critics complain that, despite his verbal provocations about hospital power, his efforts to transform health care pricing have mostly fizzled. They also lament that he has made no effort to try to persuade the legislature to expand Medicaid, which would help shore up hospital finances.

“The treasurer has, for some reason, insisted on taking a ‘my way or the highway’ approach, rather than engage in honest conversations and negotiations,” Cynthia Charles, the hospital association’s spokesperson, said in an email. “As we have repeatedly said, we are willing to work together to redesign the plan in a manner to advance goals for cost reductions, price transparency and provider inclusion.”

Folwell’s Democratic challenger, Ronnie Chatterji, and the hospital industry insist a better way to bring health costs under control would be to tie payments to the quality of care, an approach Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina has begun experimenting with. With blunt cuts, “you’re just going to put people’s health care access in jeopardy,” said Chatterji, an economist at the Fuqua School who served on former President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers.

The bad blood between Folwell and North Carolina hospitals primarily traces back to 2018, when the treasurer told hospitals, doctors and other medical providers that to avoid having to ask the legislature for more money or raise employee contributions, he wanted to reduce by $300 million the amount the $3.3 billion health plan paid medical providers each year.

Folwell proposed to base prices on Medicare rates, an approach known as reference pricing. His plan offered to pay most hospitals 175% of what Medicare reimbursed them for inpatient services and 225% for outpatient services, on average. Rural hospitals, which tend to be in worse financial shape, would have received more, but their rates would also have been pegged to Medicare.

The plan would have amounted to a pay cut for most hospitals. A recent Rand Corp. study of hospital prices found that North Carolina hospitals in 2018 were paid on average 221% of Medicare rates for inpatient services and 334% of Medicare rates for outpatient services — well above what the treasurer was proposing.

The state’s two big nonprofit systems, Atrium Health and Novant Health, earned substantially more, according to the Rand data. For example, Atrium Health Mercy hospital in Charlotte collected 423% of Medicare outpatient prices. Forsyth Medical Center in Winston-Salem, owned by Novant, collected 377% of what Medicare paid for outpatient services.

In its newsletter, the hospital association told its members that it tried to negotiate with the treasurer but that “Folwell has responded with disinterest and hostility towards these overtures and is instead engaging in a public campaign to malign hospitals.”

The hospitals warned customers that if no agreement could be reached with the state plan, the hospitals would be classified as out-of-network providers and state employees would end up having to pay far more for their services.

Those arguments about financial penury obscured the fact that North Carolina’s major hospital systems run huge surpluses in most years. Financial disclosure documents show that Atrium, which owns 36 hospitals in the state, ended 2019 with a $370 million surplus, a 6% margin. Novant, which owns 12 hospitals in North Carolina, that year earned $155 million, a 3% margin.

UNC Health, which amassed $271 million — a 6.4% margin — in its 2019 fiscal year, said in a statement that the treasurer’s plan would have cost it $47 million in its 2020 fiscal year and “jeopardized the financial viability of some of our rural hospitals.”

“We’re overpaying for no reason but to build multimillion reserves for these hospital corporations,” said Ardis Watkins, executive director of the State Employees Association of North Carolina.

Ultimately, the hospitals maintained a solid wall of opposition. Only three of North Carolina’s 108 hospitals signed on to the treasurer’s plan.

Duke’s McKethan said it was “predictable” that the hospitals would refuse to give up the negotiating advantages they held. “On the diagnosis of the problem — we’ve got these opaque prices that vary — he’s on solid ground,” he said about Folwell. “But when a good idea runs into the disadvantageous structure of the health care market, it doesn’t go anywhere.”

Apart from hospitals, the treasurer had some success in persuading about 25,000 of the state’s 60,000 doctors, therapists and other medical providers to accept the new payment system, which he named the Clear Pricing Project. Dr. Dale Owen, CEO of Tryon Medical Partners, a large independent physicians’ group based in Charlotte, said his group’s reimbursements will come out about the same under the plan.

“Quite honestly, even if it had been a tiny loss, no big deal because it was the right thing to do for everybody,” said Owen, who formed his group with fellow physicians who seceded from Atrium. “What he’s doing is, he’s opening a sore and a problem that people have not been willing to deal with and pushed under the rug.”

The Clear Pricing Project has yet to demonstrate the ability to save the state money. In fact, the effort may be costing the state more because many of the providers that signed on — such as primary care doctors and behavioral health specialists — are getting higher reimbursements than they had been while those that would have lost money, like hospitals, have stayed away.

Asked why he thought the hospitals would volunteer to forgo higher payments, Folwell said he had hoped they would realize that their long-term survival is endangered by the unsustainable increase in health care costs.

“I thought they would want to be partnering with a solution instead of the same old way,” he said in an interview. “I don’t think they accept the notion that they’re going to be on the wrong side of history.”

The hospital industry has been taking steps to try to make Folwell and his proposal history. During his attempt to get hospitals to agree to the pricing plan, the industry’s allies in the legislature introduced a bill that would have blocked the state health plan from instituting any reference pricing plan through 2021. That effort ultimately died.

Folwell has continued to rankle the hospitals with his opposition to further concentration of hospital ownership. He has opposed the pending sale of a county-owned hospital based in Wilmington, which Novant is purchasing. That followed his 2018 attempt to challenge an ultimately unsuccessful merger of Atrium and UNC Health by requesting a $1 billion performance bond if the deal ultimately raised prices for the state health plan.

Last month, the hospital association gave Chatterji its endorsement with a clear swipe at Folwell. The association’s president, Steve Lawler, said in the statement that “it is apparent that Mr. Chatterji genuinely wants to collaborate.”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Déjà Vu for California Voters on Dialysis

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The survival of California’s dialysis clinics is in the hands of its voters this November.

Sound familiar?

Voters heard the same dire campaign claim two years ago, when the dialysis industry spent a record $111 million to defeat a statewide ballot measure that would have limited clinic revenues.

Industry giants DaVita and Fresenius Medical Care are back on the defense again this year with their checkbooks open, flooding voters’ mailboxes and screens with political ads highlighted by heartfelt testimonials from patients against Proposition 23. With just a week left before Election Day, the industry is on track to break its own spending record.

This time, the measure’s sponsor, the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West, which represents more than 95,000 health care workers in California, focused the ballot measure less on dialysis clinic profits and more on patient safety.

The union, which has tried but failed to organize dialysis clinic workers, has been the driving force behind both ballot measures, putting voters squarely in the middle of a long-running brawl — and forcing them to make decisions that could affect the health of tens of thousands of Californians.

“There’s no reasonable evidence that this would improve patient health,” said Erin Trish, associate director of the University of Southern California’s Leonard D. Schaeffer Center for Health Policy & Economics. “It seems largely to be driven by retaliation by SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West, who are mad the dialysis facilities wouldn’t let their workers unionize.”

Proposition 23 would require dialysis clinics to have a licensed physician on-site during all dialysis treatments, but that doctor wouldn’t need to be a nephrologist, a kidney specialist. Clinics would have to report infection data every three months to the California Department of Public Health, and those that plan to close would need state approval.

About 80,000 patients visit the state’s 600 licensed chronic dialysis clinics, three-quarters of which are owned or operated by DaVita or Fresenius, the largest dialysis companies in the country, according to a report by the nonpartisan state Legislative Analyst’s Office.

Patients with kidney failure often need a dialysis machine to filter toxins and remove excess fluid from their blood when their kidneys can no longer do the job. The treatment is arduous, taking roughly four hours at least three times a week.

Dialysis patients are susceptible to infection for a variety of reasons: Their immune systems are already compromised by their kidney failure, they are around other sick patients while receiving treatment, they require catheters to access their veins, and their blood is cycled through a machine.

Even though mortality rates have dropped among outpatient dialysis patients nationwide, infections remain a leading cause of death. In California, about one-third of outpatient clinics have fallen short of federal performance standards so far this year, resulting in lower Medicare payments to those clinics, according to federal payment records.

“With this initiative, we’ll make sure that they put more of those huge profits back into the clinics to improve safety and improve care,” said Steve Trossman, spokesperson for the union.

Dialysis clinics are once again threatening to close if the measure passes and they’re faced with higher operating costs.

Shama Aslam, 50, spoke at the behest of the union. Aslam, who visits a dialysis clinic in Stockton three times a week, described swatting fruit flies off her face and arms for hours while hooked up to a dialysis machine. She has polycystic kidney disease and has been waiting three years for a kidney transplant.

“It was really bad today,” Aslam said on a recent October afternoon. “It’s very uncomfortable. And because we’re dealing with blood all the time, we don’t want any infection. That’s a huge thing, at least for me.”

Aslam wishes she could see a doctor more than once a month. Nephrologists oversee their patients’ dialysis care, but clinic staff members administer the treatments. Federal regulations require a medical director, who is a board-certified physician, to oversee every dialysis clinic in the country. But there is no requirement that those directors remain physically present at the clinic when it is open. That’s what the California ballot measure would mandate.

Rick Barnett, chief executive officer and president of Satellite Healthcare, which operates 80 dialysis clinics in Texas, Tennessee, New Jersey and California, including Aslam’s clinic, said he had not heard of fruit flies at that Stockton facility. Medicare has not penalized that clinic this year, according to the payment database.

Many nonprofits like San Jose-based Satellite Healthcare could not afford to hire on-site doctors if Proposition 23 passes, Barnett said. Currently, medical directors often oversee multiple clinics in addition to their other job responsibilities.

The Legislative Analyst’s Office estimated it would cost each clinic several hundred thousand dollars a year, while the industry says $600,000 a year. Each clinic likely would have to hire more than one doctor to cover all hours.

Barnett estimates Satellite would close up to 40% of its 67 clinics in California should the ballot measure pass.

“It comes down to an attack on the industry,” he said. “This is one of the few sectors of health care they haven’t organized.”

Trossman vehemently disagreed that the union is trying to punish the dialysis companies over its failed unionization effort, saying the union invests in improving people’s lives.

“In terms of the idea that we would spend millions of dollars because essentially we’re ticked off is just ludicrous,” he said. “We don’t spend money that way.”

The California Medical Association, which represents physicians, opposes the measure, saying it would exacerbate the state’s doctor shortage by diverting physicians into dialysis clinics.

“This will bring physicians who are not trained in kidney disease or dialysis to just be present without any role or purpose, or even a clear path to any intervention because they won’t know what to do,” said Dr. Edgard Vera, a nephrologist and the medical director of DaVita dialysis clinics in Southern California’s High Desert towns of Hesperia and Victorville.

Critical emergencies, such as wild swings in blood pressure, already are handled by technicians and nurses certified in dialysis care, Vera said. Should a patient go into cardiac arrest, “if a physician is there, they are going to call the ambulance anyway,” he said.

DaVita alone had given nearly $67 million to the “No on 23” campaign as of Wednesday, more than half of the $105 million raised so far by the industry, according to campaign finance reports filed with the California secretary of state. The campaign’s other contributors include Fresenius, Satellite Healthcare, U.S. Renal Care and Dialysis Clinic Inc.

The “Yes on 23” campaign has reported just a fraction of that, with nearly $9 million in contributions. SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West gave the bulk of the money, with the rest — about $40,000 — coming from non-monetary donations from the California Democratic Party.

Proposition 23 follows an uneven record of wins and losses for the union on dialysis issues in California. The union tried but failed to organize dialysis workers three years ago, arguing that they needed safer working conditions and job protection. It also lost its 2018 ballot initiative that would have capped dialysis clinic profits.

But, last year, the union helped persuade state lawmakers to adopt a bill that aimed to stop a billing practice dialysis companies use to get higher insurance reimbursements for some low-income patients. A federal judge in January temporarily blocked the law from taking effect while the court considers its constitutionality.

“It’s not unusual for us to be voting on similar issues over and over again if they’re backed by powerful enough interests,” said Danielle Joesten Martin, associate professor of political science at California State University-Sacramento, pointing to other repeat ballot measures on the November ballot, such as the Realtor-backed Proposition 19. That measure would give Californians over 55 years old a property tax break when buying a new home.

They’re “powerful interest groups who didn’t get what they wanted the last time around.”



This KHN story first published on California Healthline, a service of the California Health Care Foundation.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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UVA Health Still Squeezing Money From Patients — By Seizing Their Home Equity

Doris Hutchinson wanted to use money from the sale of her late mother’s house to help her grandchildren go to college.

Then she learned the University of Virginia Health System was taking $38,000 of the proceeds because a 13-year-old medical bill owed by her deceased brother had somehow turned into a lien on the property.

“It was a mess,” she said. “There are bills I could pay with that money. I could pay off my car, for one thing.”

Property liens are the hidden icebergs of patient medical debt, legal experts say, lying unseen, often for decades, before they surface to claim hard-won family savings or inheritance proceeds.

An ongoing examination by KHN into hospital billing and collections in Virginia shows just how widespread and destructive they can be. KHN reported a year ago that UVA Health had sued patients 36,000 times over six years for more than $100 million, often for amounts far higher than what an insurer would have paid for their care. In response to the articles, the system temporarily suspended patient lawsuits and wage garnishments, increased discounts for the uninsured and broadened financial assistance, including for cases dating to 2017.

Those changes were “a first step” in reforming billing and collection practices, university officials said at the time.

However, UVA Health continues to rely on thousands of property liens to collect old bills, in contrast to VCU Health, another huge, state-owned medical system examined by KHN. VCU Health pledged in March to stop seizing patients’ wages over unpaid bills and to remove all property liens, which are created after a creditor wins a court judgment.

Working courthouse-by-courthouse, VCU Health now says it has discovered and released 45,000 property liens filed against patients just in Richmond, its home city, some dating to the 1990s. There are an estimated 35,000 more in other parts of the state. Fifteen thousand of those have been canceled and they are working on the rest, officials said. These figures have not been previously reported. The system is part of Virginia Commonwealth University.

VCU Health’s total caseload is “a huge number” but perhaps not astonishing given the energy with which many hospital systems sue their patients, said Carolyn Carter, deputy director of the National Consumer Law Center.

Despite having suspended patient lawsuits, UVA Health has continued to create property liens based on older court cases, court records show. The number of new liens is “small,” said UVA Health spokesperson Eric Swensen.

An advisory council of UVA Health officials and community leaders is expected to deliver new recommendations by the end of October, Swensen said. The council, whose schedule has been slowed by the coronavirus crisis, has discussed property liens, Don Gathers, an activist and council member, said in an interview this summer.

Nobody knows how many old or new UVA Health liens are scattered through scores of Virginia courthouses. The health system, which has sued patients in almost every county and city in the state, has failed to respond to repeated requests over two years to disclose the number and value of its property liens.

But in Albemarle County alone, which surrounds the university’s Charlottesville home, “there are thousands” of UVA Health judgments filed in the land records, which creates a lien, said Circuit Court Clerk Jon Zug.

Not just Virginia homes are at risk. UVA Health lawyers search the nation for property or other assets owned by patients with outstanding bills and have filed liens in Maryland, West Virginia, Ohio and Florida, court records show.

The system put a lien on a Nevada vacation condo owned by Veronica Musie’s family a decade ago over a $30,600 hospital bill, said Musie, who lives in northern Virginia. The family has since paid the debt.

Virginia property liens expire after 20 years. But UVA Health often renews them. Since 2017, just in Albemarle County, it has renewed more than three dozen liens. That means the medical system could seize families’ home equity until 2039 for bills dating to the last century.

UVA Health and other medical systems rarely force the sale of a home to claim money. Instead, they wait for families to refinance or sell, taking their cut at the settlement table. But with 6% simple interest accumulating year after year after the court judgment, as allowed by Virginia law, the final amount owed can be much more than the original charges.

UVA Health treated Hutchinson’s brother for heart disease in the early 2000s. The unpaid bill was $24,868. The system laid claim to their mother’s home because he was one of her heirs. The claim is up to $38,000 now, she said, because of interest charges. Hutchinson has been disputing it for more than a year.

VCU Health and its MCV Physicians affiliate estimate that eliminating two decades of property liens in courthouses across the state, which they began to do last year after KHN published its reports, won’t be finished until spring.

Richmond was especially problematic. Because releasing 40,000 Richmond liens by hand would have been impractical, VCU Health got a judge’s permission to do it with computer code.

Creditors such as UVA and VCU don’t need addresses to create liens. All they have to do is file a judgment in county or city land records. If debtors own any property there, title companies won’t approve a sale until the debt is paid, often with home equity.

Often owners don’t know debts exist until paralegals unearth them when homes are sold, property pros say. Old debts can create liens on newly acquired real estate.

“It could be your grandmother’s house, and as soon as you’ve inherited it, and you’ve got judgments, those [liens] are now attached,” said Richmond Court Clerk Edward Jewett.

Frequently debtors own no property, so judgments in the land records expire without hospitals or other creditors getting anything.

VCU and MCV had no idea how many liens they had placed across the state until they began investigating last year after KHN’s inquiries, officials said.

“It’s an incredibly manual process” to cancel the claims, partly because computer systems at many courthouses prohibit an easy tech solution, said Melinda Hancock, VCU Health’s chief administrative and financial officer. But it’s worth it to remove a burden on patients, she said, adding, “This is an outdated collections practice whose time has come and gone.”

But many medical systems still do it, consumer debt experts say, noting that obtaining a complete picture of hospital property liens is impossible.

Land and judgment records are held by thousands of local court clerks, often using separate computer systems. Records are difficult or impossible to obtain in bulk.

“There is not a good nationwide study that I know of that looks at how widespread this is, how many consumers are affected, what’s the average size of a lien,” said Erin Fuse Brown, a law professor at Georgia State University who studies hospital billing.

Mike Miller and Kitt Klein are among those hoping UVA Health follows VCU Health in canceling thousands of property liens. They fear a $129,000 judgment won by UVA in 2017 against Miller will cost them the equity in their home in Quicksburg, Virginia.

They make about $25,000 a year. Miller, a house painter, was insured but received out-of-network radiation at UVA that doctors said was necessary to treat his lung cancer.

After KHN wrote about his case a year ago, benefits firm WellRithms analyzed his UVA bill and found that a commercial insurer would have paid a little more than $13,000, not $129,000, for the treatment.

“We know all [health care] providers bill a lot, but usually ‘a lot’ is three to six times what reasonable prices would be,” said Jordan Weintraub, vice president of claims for WellRithms. Trying to collect 10 times as much, she said, “is really out there.”

UVA Health does not comment on individual patient cases, Swensen said.

KHN found last year that UVA frequently sued patients for far more than what the system could have collected from insurance.

Early this year Miller and Klein emailed UVA President James Ryan, asking for help in reducing or eliminating the judgment. His office phoned in February, saying it would review the case.

“I became very emotional, filled with gratitude,” Klein said. “I couldn’t talk.”

Months went by with no contact. Recently a lawyer from the office of Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring offered to settle the case for $120,000, Klein said, reducing the bill by only $9,000. They don’t have the money. Miller’s cancer has returned. Interest is mounting at 6%.

University officials do not comment on legal matters or individual cases, a Ryan spokesperson said. Herring’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Most Home Health Aides ‘Can’t Afford Not to Work’ — Even When Lacking PPE

In March, Sue Williams-Ward took a new job, with a $1-an-hour raise.

The employer, a home health care agency called Together We Can, was paying a premium — $13 an hour — after it started losing aides when COVID-19 safety concerns mounted.

Williams-Ward, a 68-year-old Indianapolis native, was a devoted caregiver who bathed, dressed and fed clients as if they were family. She was known to entertain clients with some of her own 26 grandchildren, even inviting her clients along on charitable deliveries of Thanksgiving turkeys and Christmas hams.

Without her, the city’s most vulnerable would have been “lost, alone or mistreated,” said her husband, Royal Davis.

Despite her husband’s fears for her health, Williams-Ward reported to work on March 16 at an apartment with three elderly women. One was blind, one was wheelchair-bound, and the third had a severe mental illness. None had been diagnosed with COVID-19 but, Williams-Ward confided in Davis, at least one had symptoms of fatigue and shortness of breath, now associated with the virus.

Even after a colleague on the night shift developed pneumonia, Williams-Ward tended to her patients — without protective equipment, which she told her husband she’d repeatedly requested from the agency. Together We Can did not respond to multiple phone and email requests for comment about the PPE available to its workers.

Still, Davis said, “Sue did all the little, unseen, everyday things that allowed them to maintain their liberty, dignity and freedom.”

He said that within three days Williams-Ward was coughing, too. After six weeks in a hospital and weeks on a ventilator, she died of COVID-19. Hers is one of more than 1,200 health worker COVID deaths that KHN and The Guardian are investigating, including those of dozens of home health aides.

During the pandemic, home health aides have buttressed the U.S. health care system by keeping the most vulnerable patients — seniors, the disabled, the infirm — out of hospitals. Yet even as they’ve put themselves at risk, this workforce of 2.3 million — of whom 9 in 10 are women, nearly two-thirds are minorities and almost one-third are foreign-born — has largely been overlooked.

Home health providers scavenged for their own face masks and other protective equipment, blended disinfectant and fabricated sanitizing wipes amid widespread shortages. They’ve often done it all on poverty wages, without overtime pay, hazard pay, sick leave and health insurance. And they’ve gotten sick and died — leaving little to their survivors.

Speaking out about their work conditions during the pandemic has triggered retaliation by employers, according to representatives of the Service Employees International Union in Massachusetts, California and Virginia. “It’s been shocking, egregious and unethical,” said David Broder, president of SEIU Virginia 512.

The pandemic has laid bare deeply ingrained inequities among health workers, as Broder puts it: “This is exactly what structural racism looks like today in our health care system.”

Every worker who spoke with KHN for this article said they felt intimidated by the prospect of voicing their concerns. All have seen colleagues fired for doing so. They agreed to talk candidly about their work environments on the condition their full names not be used.

***

Tina, a home health provider, said she has faced these challenges in Springfield, Massachusetts, one of the nation’s poorest cities.

Like many of her colleagues — 82%, according to a survey by the National Domestic Workers Alliance — Tina has lacked protective equipment throughout the pandemic. Her employer is a family-owned company that gave her one surgical mask and two pairs of latex gloves a week to clean body fluids, change wound dressings and administer medications to incontinent or bedridden clients.

When Tina received the company’s do-it-yourself blueprints — to make masks from hole-punched sheets of paper towel reinforced with tongue depressors and gloves from garbage bags looped with rubber bands — she balked. “It felt like I was in a Third World country,” she said.

The home health agencies that Tina and others in this article work for declined to comment on work conditions during the pandemic.

In other workplaces — hospitals, mines, factories — employers are responsible for the conditions in which their employees operate. Understanding the plight of home health providers begins with American labor law.

The Fair Labor Standards Act, which forms the basis of protections in the American workplace, was passed in an era dually marked by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal changes and marred by the barriers of the Jim Crow era. The act excluded domestic care workers — including maids, butlers and home health providers — from protections such as overtime pay, sick leave, hazard pay and insurance. Likewise, standards set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration three decades later carved out “domestic household employment activities in private residences.”

“A deliberate decision was made to discriminate against colored people — mostly women — to unburden distinguished elderly white folks from the responsibility of employment,” said Ruqaiijah Yearby, a law professor at St. Louis University.

In 2015, several of these exceptions were eliminated, and protections for home health providers became “very well regulated on paper,” said Nina Kohn, a professor specializing in civil rights law at Syracuse University. “But the reality is, noncompliance is a norm and the penalties for noncompliance are toothless.”

Burkett McInturff, a civil rights lawyer working on behalf of home health workers, said, “The law itself is very clear. The problem lies in the ability to hold these companies accountable.”

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has “abdicated its responsibility for protecting workers” in the pandemic, said Debbie Berkowitz, director of the National Employment Law Project. Berkowitz is also a former OSHA chief. In her view, political and financial decisions in recent years have hollowed out the agency: It now has the fewest inspectors and conducts the fewest inspections per year in its history.

Furthermore, some home health care agencies have classified home health providers as contractors, akin to gig workers such as Uber drivers. This loophole protects them from the responsibilities of employers, said Seema Mohapatra, an Indiana University associate professor of law. Furthermore, she said, “these workers are rarely in a position to question, or advocate or lobby for themselves.”

Should workers contract COVID-19, they are unlikely to receive remuneration or damages.

Demonstrating causality — that a person caught the coronavirus on the job — for workers’ compensation has been extremely difficult, Berkowitz said. As with other health care jobs, employers have been quick to point out that workers might have caught the virus at the gas station, grocery store or home.

Many home health providers care for multiple patients, who also bear the consequences of their work conditions. “If you think about perfect vectors for transmission, unprotected individuals going from house to house have to rank at the top of list,” Kohn said. “Even if someone didn’t care at all about these workers, we need to fix this to keep Grandma and Grandpa safe.”

Nonetheless, caregivers like Samira, in Richmond, Virginia, have little choice but to work. Samira — who makes $8.25 an hour with one client and $9.44 an hour with another, and owes tens of thousands of dollars in hospital bills from previous work injuries — has no other option but to risk getting sick.

“I can’t afford not to work. And my clients, they don’t have anybody but me,” she said. “So I just pray every day I don’t get it.”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Stigma Against D.O.s Had Been Dissipating Until Trump’s Doctor Took the Spotlight

Dr. Katherine Pannel was initially thrilled to see President Donald Trump’s physician is a doctor of osteopathic medicine. A practicing D.O. herself, she loved seeing another glass ceiling broken for the type of doctor representing 11% of practicing physicians in the U.S. and now 1 in 4 medical students in the country.

But then, as Dr. Sean Conley issued public updates on his treatment of Trump’s COVID-19, the questions and the insults about his qualifications rolled in.

“How many times will Trump’s doctor, who is actually not an MD, have to change his statements?” MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell tweeted.

“It all came falling down when we had people questioning why the president was being seen by someone that wasn’t even a doctor,” Pannel said.

The osteopathic medical field has had high-profile doctors before, good and bad. Dr. Murray Goldstein was the first D.O. to serve as a director of an institute at the National Institutes of Health, and Dr. Ronald R. Blanck was the surgeon general of the U.S. Army. Former Vice President Joe Biden, challenging Trump for the presidency, also sees a doctor who is a D.O. But another now former D.O., Larry Nassar, who was the doctor for USA Gymnastics, was convicted of serial sexual assault.

Still, with this latest example, Dr. Kevin Klauer, CEO of the American Osteopathic Association, said he’s heard from many fellow osteopathic physicians outraged that Conley — and by extension, they, too — are not considered real doctors.

“You may or may not like that physician, but you don’t have the right to completely disqualify an entire profession,” Klauer said.

For years, doctors of osteopathic medicine have been growing in number alongside the better-known doctors of medicine, who are sometimes called allopathic doctors and use the M.D. after their names.

According to the American Osteopathic Association, the number of osteopathic doctors grew 63% in the past decade and nearly 300% over the past three decades. Still, many Americans don’t know much about osteopathic doctors, if they know the term at all.

“There are probably a lot of people who have D.O.s as their primary [care doctor] and never realized it,” said Brian Castrucci, president and CEO of the de Beaumont Foundation, a philanthropic group focused on community health.

So What Is the Difference?

Both types of physicians can prescribe medicine and treat patients in similar ways.

Although osteopathic doctors take a different licensing exam, the curriculum for their medical training — four years of osteopathic medical school — is converging with M.D. training as holistic and preventive medicine becomes more mainstream. And starting this year, both M.D.s and D.O.s were placed into one accreditation pool to compete for the same residency training slots.

But two major principles guiding osteopathic medical curriculum distinguish it from the more well-known medical school route: the 200-plus hours of training on the musculoskeletal system and the holistic look at medicine as a discipline that serves the mind, body and spirit.

The roots of the profession date to the 19th century and musculoskeletal manipulation. Pannel was quick to point out the common misconception that their manipulation of the musculoskeletal system makes them chiropractors. It’s much more involved than that, she said. Dr. Ryan Seals, who has a D.O. degree and serves as a senior associate dean at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth, said that osteopathic physicians have a deeper understanding than allopathic doctors of the range of motion and what a muscle and bone feel like through touch.

That said, many osteopathic doctors don’t use that part of their training at all: A 2003 Ohio study said approximately 75% of them did not or rarely practiced osteopathic manipulative treatments.

The osteopathic focus on preventive medicine also means such physicians were considering a patient’s whole life and how social factors affect health outcomes long before the pandemic began, Klauer said. This may explain why 57% of osteopathic doctors pursue primary care fields, as opposed to nearly a third of those with doctorates of medicine, according to the American Medical Association.

Pannel pointed out that she’s proud that 42% of actively practicing osteopathic doctors are women, as opposed to 36% of doctors overall. She chose the profession as she felt it better embraced the whole person, and emphasized the importance of care for the underserved, including rural areas. She and her husband, also a doctor of osteopathic medicine, treat rural Mississippi patients in general and child psychiatry.

Given osteopathic doctors’ likelihood of practicing in rural communities and of pursuing careers in primary care, Health Affairs reported in 2017, they are on track to play an increasingly important role in ensuring access to care nationwide, including for the most vulnerable populations.

Stigma Remains

To be sure, even though the physicians end up with similar training and compete for the same residencies, some residency programs have often preferred M.D.s, Seals said.

Traditional medical schools have held more esteem than schools of osteopathic medicine because of their longevity and name recognition. Most D.O. schools have been around for only decades and often are in Midwestern and rural areas.

While admission to the nation’s 37 osteopathic medical schools is competitive amid a surge of applicants, the grade-point average and Medical College Admission Test scores are slightly higher for the 155 U.S. allopathic medical schools: The average MCAT was 506.1 out of 528 for allopathic medical school applicants over a three-year period, compared with 503.8 for osteopathic applicants for 2018.

Seals said prospective medical students ask the most questions about which path is better, worrying they may be at a disadvantage if they choose the D.O. route.

“I’ve never felt that my career has been hindered in any way by the degree,” Seals said, noting that he had the opportunity to attend either type of medical school, and osteopathic medicine aligned better with the philosophy, beliefs and type of doctor he wanted to be.

Many medical doctors came to the defense of Conley and their osteopathic colleagues, including Dr. John Morrison, an M.D. practicing primary care outside of Seattle. He was disturbed by the elitism on display on social media, citing the skills of the many doctors of osteopathic medicine he’d worked with over the years.

“There are plenty of things you can criticize him for, but being a D.O. isn’t one of them,” Morrison said.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Does the Federal Health Information Privacy Law Protect President Trump?

Within one day, President Donald Trump announced his COVID diagnosis and was admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for treatment. The flurry of events was stunning, confusing and triggered many questions. What was his prognosis? When was he last tested for COVID-19? What is his viral load?

The answers were elusive.

Picture the scene on Oct. 5. White House physician Dr. Sean Conley, flanked by other members of Trump’s medical team, met with reporters outside the hospital. But Conley would not disclose the results of the president’s lung scans and other vital information, invoking a federal law he said allows him to selectively provide intel on the president’s health.

“There are HIPAA rules and regulations that restrict me in sharing certain things for his safety and his own health,” he told the reporters.

The law he’s referring to, HIPAA, is the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, which includes privacy protections designed to shield personal health information from disclosure without a patient’s consent.

Because this is likely to remain an issue, we decided to take a look. In what cases does HIPAA restrict the sharing of information — and is the president covered by it?

Experts agreed that he is, but several noted there are exceptions to its protections — stirring debate over the airwaves and on Twitter regarding what information about the president’s health should be released.

Explaining the Protections

HIPAA and the rules for its implementation apply to medical providers — such as doctors, dentists, pharmacists, hospitals — and most health plans that either provide or pay for medical care.

In some cases, the law permits the sharing of medical information without specific consent, such as when needed for treatment purposes or billing. Examples include doctors or hospitals sharing information with other physicians or facilities involved in the patient’s care, or information shared about tests, drugs or other medical care so bills can be sent to patients.

Other than that, without specific patient consent, the law is clear.

“The default rule under HIPAA is that health care providers may not disclose a patient’s health information. Period,” said Joy Pritts, a consultant in Washington, D.C., and a former privacy official in the Obama administration.

The experts we consulted all agreed that Trump’s doctors are bound by HIPAA. Since he is their patient, they cannot share his medical information without his consent.

Patients can allow some information to be released while demanding that other bits be withheld.

That may be why the public has been given only select details about Trump’s COVID-19 status, such as when Conley discussed the president’s blood pressure reading but not the results of his lung scans.

Trump “can pick and choose what he wants to disclose,” Pritts said.

So it is up to Trump to give his doctors the green light to report to the public on his condition.

“HIPAA does not prevent the president of the United States from authorizing the disclosure of all publicly relevant information,” said Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University. “He can share it if he wanted to and he can tell his doctors to share it.”

Elizabeth Gray, a teaching assistant professor of health policy and management at George Washington University, said that because Conley shared some medically private information with the American public, there must have been a conversation between the president and his doctors about what was OK to include in their press briefings.

“He would have had to have given his authorization,” said Gray. In other words, Trump OK’d the details his doctors mentioned, but when follow-up questions were asked, she said, HIPAA was “a shield” because “the president hadn’t authorized the release of anything else.”

Still, beyond HIPAA, other factors could lead to less-than-complete disclosure of the president’s health.

For starters, Trump is the commander in chief, and his personal physician is a member of the military.

“If your commander in chief says, ‘I’m giving you a command — forget about HIPAA,’” said Thomas Miller, a resident fellow with the American Enterprise Institute.

Pritts and others also said the president’s physician may not be covered by HIPAA if his care is provided by the White House medical unit, which does not bill for its services or involve health insurance.

But, “whether covered by HIPAA or not, a physician has an ethical obligation to maintain patient confidentiality,” Pritts said.

And Leaks?

It’s also important to note that HIPAA applies only to health care professionals and related entities working within that sphere.

So, when Sean Spicer, former White House press secretary, tweeted on Oct. 5 that a journalist had violated HIPAA (he misspelled it as “HIPPA”) by reporting that a member of the White House press shop had COVID-19, he was wrong, said the experts.

“Journalists are not bound by HIPAA,” said Gostin.

Gray likened HIPAA in that way to a door.

“Behind that door is health care information. Hypothetically, only doctors have access to that information, and HIPAA prevents health care providers from unlocking that door,” she said. “But, once the info gets out of that door, then HIPAA no longer applies.”

And the information is likely to come out — sooner or later, said Miller. “Leaking will take care of most reporting and disclosure” about the president’s health, he said.

The Exceptions

Within HIPAA are a couple of exceptions identifying when health information can be disclosed without the authorization of the patient.

For example, the law does allow for disclosure if it “is necessary to prevent or lessen a serious and imminent threat to the health or safety of a person or the public.”

Might that apply here, given that Trump took a ride around Walter Reed in a government SUV with Secret Service agents, or returned to a White House filled with other employees?

Jonathan Turley, a professor of public interest law at George Washington University Law School, said he doesn’t think the public health exemption would apply in this case.

“If a patient is contagious and noncompliant, doctors can make disclosure in the interest of public health,” Turley wrote in an email. “However, the team of doctors stated that they felt that it was appropriate to send President Trump back to the White House to continue to recover.”

Moreover, Turley noted that nothing was withheld that would have qualified for this exception. “The world knows that the president is COVID-positive and still likely contagious,” he wrote. “It is unclear what further information would do in order to put the world on notice.”

Some experts, however, expressed a different view. They argued that the details of when the president last tested positive would provide insight into who may have been exposed and how long he should be considered infectious and asked to isolate. Even so, the law’s public health exemption is usually interpreted to mean such information would be shared only with state and local health officials.

There are two HIPAA exceptions that apply specifically to the president, said Gray.

“They could make that disclosure to people who need to know, to the Secret Service or the vice president, but it is essentially only to protect [the president],” said Gray. “There is also an armed forces exception, but disclosures are in regards to carrying out a military mission, which doesn’t apply here.”

What about national security?

Miller, at AEI, said concerns about national security could be among the reasons for more disclosure, such as questioning a president’s ability to carry out duties. But HIPAA wasn’t designed to address this point.

Some argue that because the president is not just an average citizen, he should waive his right to medical privacy.

“The president is not just an individual; the president is the chief executive,” said Charles Stevenson, an adjunct lecturer on American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University. “The president loses a lot of privacy because our political system, our governmental system demands it. The president always has to be available to the military and that means the state of his health is a matter of national security.”

Historical precedent

Trump is one in a long line of presidents who have not been completely transparent in sharing their medical information.

“There’s a pretty strong tradition of these things being obscured,” said John Barry, an adjunct faculty member at the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. And no federal law requires a president to provide this information.

One of the most notable examples is President Woodrow Wilson, said Barry.

Wilson likely caught the so-called Spanish influenza in 1919, which was kept secret. Later that year, he had a severe stroke that disabled him, the gravity of which was also hidden from the public.

President John F. Kennedy used painkillers and other medications while in office, which wasn’t made public until years after his death.

And when President Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981, he was much closer to death than his White House spokesperson described to the public. There were also questions about Reagan’s mental acuity while in his final years in office. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease five years after his final term.

Why would White Houses want to obscure health information of presidents?

“Every White House wants the public to think the president is healthy, strong and capable of leading the country,” said Barry. “That’s consistent across parties and presidencies.”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Republican Convention, Day 4: Fireworks … and Shining a Light on Trump’s Claims

President Donald Trump accepted the Republican Party’s nomination for president in a 70-minute speech from the South Lawn of the White House on Thursday night.

Speaking to a friendly crowd that didn’t appear to be observing social distancing conventions, and with few participants wearing masks, he touched on a range of topics, including many related to the COVID pandemic and health care in general.

Throughout, the partisan crowd applauded and chanted “Four more years!” And, even as the nation’s COVID-19 death toll exceeded 180,000, Trump was upbeat. “In recent months, our nation and the entire planet has been struck by a new and powerful invisible enemy,” he said. “Like those brave Americans before us, we are meeting this challenge.”

At the end of the event, there were fireworks.

Our partners at PolitiFact did an in-depth fact check on Trump’s entire acceptance speech. Here are the highlights related to the administration’s COVID-19 response and other health policy issues:

“We developed, from scratch, the largest and most advanced testing system in the world.” 

This is partially right, but it needs context.

It’s accurate that the U.S. developed its COVID-19 testing system from scratch, because the government didn’t accept the World Health Organization’s testing recipe. But whether the system is the “largest” or “most advanced” is subject to debate.

The U.S. has tested more individuals than any other country. But experts told us a more meaningful metric would be the percentage of positive tests out of all tests, indicating that not only sick people were getting tested. Another useful metric would be the percentage of the population that has been tested. The U.S. is one of the most populous countries but has tested a lower percentage of its population than other countries.

The U.S. was also slower than other countries in rolling out tests and amping up testing capacity. Even now, many states are experiencing delays in reporting test results to positive individuals.

As for “the most advanced,” Trump may be referring to new testing investments and systems, like Abbott’s recently announced $5, 15-minute rapid antigen test, which the company says will be about the size of a credit card, needs no instrumentation and comes with a phone app through which people can view their results. But Trump’s comment makes it sound as if these testing systems are already in place when they haven’t been distributed to the public.

“The United States has among the lowest [COVID-19] case fatality rates of any major country in the world. The European Union’s case fatality rate is nearly three times higher than ours.”

The case fatality rate measures the known number of cases against the known number of deaths. The European Union has a rate that’s about 2½ times greater than the United States.

But the source of that data, Oxford University’s Our World in Data project, reports that “during an outbreak of a pandemic, the case fatality rate is a poor measure of the mortality risk of the disease.”

A better way to measure the threat of the virus, experts say, is to look at the number of deaths per 100,000 residents. Viewed that way, the U.S. has the 10th-highest death rate in the world.

“We will produce a vaccine before the end of the year, or maybe even sooner.”

It’s far from guaranteed that a coronavirus vaccine will be ready before the end of the year.

While researchers are making rapid strides, it’s not yet known precisely when the vaccine will be available to the public, which is what’s most important. Six vaccines are in the third phase of testing, which involves thousands of patients. Like earlier phases, this one looks at the safety of a vaccine but also examines its effectiveness and collects more data on side effects. Results of the third phase will be submitted to the Food and Drug Administration for approval.

The government website Operation Warp Speed seems less optimistic than Trump, announcing it “aims to deliver 300 million doses of a safe, effective vaccine for COVID-19 by January 2021.”

And federal health officials and other experts have generally predicted a vaccine will be available in early 2021. Federal committees are working on recommendations for vaccine distribution, including which groups should get it first. “From everything we’ve seen now — in the animal data, as well as the human data — we feel cautiously optimistic that we will have a vaccine by the end of this year and as we go into 2021,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious diseases expert. “I don’t think it’s dreaming.”

“Last month, I took on Big Pharma. You think that is easy? I signed orders that would massively lower the cost of your prescription drugs.”

Quite misleading. Trump signed four executive orders on July 24 aimed at lowering prescription drug prices. But those orders haven’t taken effect yet — the text of one hasn’t even been made publicly available — and experts told us that, if implemented, the measures would be unlikely to result in significant drug price reductions for the majority of Americans.

“We will always and very strongly protect patients with preexisting conditions, and that is a pledge from the entire Republican Party.”

Trump’s pledge is undermined by his efforts to overturn the Affordable Care Act, the only law that guarantees people with preexisting conditions both receive health coverage and do not have to pay more for it than others do. In 2017, Trump supported congressional efforts to repeal the ACA. The Trump administration is now backing GOP-led efforts to overturn the ACA through a court case. And Trump has also expanded short-term health plans that don’t have to comply with the ACA.

“Joe Biden recently raised his hand on the debate stage and promised he was going to give it away, your health care dollars to illegal immigrants, which is going to bring a massive number of immigrants into our country.”

This is misleading. During a June 2019 Democratic primary debate, candidates were asked: “Raise your hand if your government plan would provide coverage for undocumented immigrants.” All candidates on stage, including Biden, raised their hands. They were not asked if that coverage would be free or subsidized.

Biden supports extending health care access to all immigrants, regardless of immigration status. A task force recommended that he allow immigrants who are in the country illegally to buy health insurance, without federal subsidies.

“Joe Biden claims he has empathy for the vulnerable, yet the party he leads supports the extreme late-term abortion of defenseless babies right up to the moment of birth.”

This mischaracterizes the Democratic Party’s stance on abortion and Biden’s position.

Biden has said he would codify the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade and related precedents. This would generally limit abortions to the first 20 to 24 weeks of gestation. States are allowed under court rulings to ban abortion after the point at which a fetus can sustain life, usually considered to be between 24 and 28 weeks from the mother’s last menstrual period — and 43 states do. But the rulings require states to make exceptions “to preserve the life or health of the mother.” Late-term abortions are very rare, about 1%.

The Democratic Party platform holds that “every woman should have access to quality reproductive health care services, including safe and legal abortion — regardless of where she lives, how much money she makes, or how she is insured.” It does not address late-term abortion.

PolitiFact’s Daniel Funke, Jon Greenberg, Louis Jacobson, Noah Y. Kim, Bill McCarthy, Samantha Putterman, Amy Sherman, Miriam Valverde and KHN reporter Victoria Knight contributed to this report.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Trump Again Claims He’s Bringing Down Drug Prices, But Details of How Are Skimpy

President Donald Trump has long considered lowering the high cost of prescription drugs to be one of his signature issues, and it is likely to be a talking point he relies on throughout the upcoming campaign.

During his afternoon speech Monday ― delivered on the first day of the Repubublican National Convention after delegates had unanimously renominated him to seek reelection ― he returned to this theme.

“Now, I’m really doing it,” he said, referring to a series of four executive orders he issued in July. These orders touched on a range of issues, including insulin prices and drug importation. He focused on two specifically.

“But the fact is that we signed a favored nations clause and a rebate clause, and your numbers are going to come down 60, 70%,” he said.

However, those executive orders are far from being implemented, and multiple experts told us it’s unlikely the measures would pass along drug-pricing discounts to a majority of Americans. And the text of one, the favored nation executive order, has not yet been made public ― making it hard to know how exactly the initiative would work.

“Details are a bit murky,” Matthew Fiedler, a health care fellow with the Brookings Institution, wrote in an email.

We checked in with the White House to find out more details about the favored nation order and when the text might be released. However, we did not get a response. Still, we decided to dig in.

What We Know

The favored nation executive order was supposed to match U.S. prices for a certain class of drugs with the lower amount paid in certain European countries, which negotiate drug prices. It reportedly would have applied only to drugs covered by Medicare Part B ― those that patients receive at their doctors’ offices, such as infused cancer drugs ― but not those purchased at the pharmacy counter. Drug companies criticized the executive order, and the Trump administration offered to consider an alternative plan if the firms offered it by Aug. 24. So far, the industry has not made a counter offer.

A spokesperson for PhRMA, the lobbying group that represents major drugmakers, said in a statement that “the most favored nation executive order is an irresponsible and unworkable policy that will give foreign politicians a say in how America provides access to treatments and cures for seniors and people struggling with devastating diseases.” The group did not confirm on the record whether an alternative drug-pricing plan had been discussed with the White House.

The Trump administration floated a similar idea in 2018, which met with swift criticism from some of its usual supporters, such as Americans for Tax Reform, a right-leaning advocacy group that opposes tax increases. The criticism was marked by TV ads warning that this approach to drug costs was a step toward socialism. We found that claim to be Mostly False. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services estimated at that time the resulting savings from such a plan would be 30%, but it was never enacted.

Multiple experts questioned Trump’s claims about how much costs would come down as a result of the more recent proposal.

That’s in part because the full text of the executive order has not been published, and so classifying the president’s statement as true “requires a leap of faith,” said Benedic Ippolito, a resident scholar who studies health care costs at the American Enterprise Institute.

Ippolito allowed that because some drug prices in other countries are far below those in the U.S., a reduction of 60% or 70% could be plausible for an individual product. But, in order for that to happen, the policy would have to be implemented.

Seeing this 60% to 70% decrease “relies on the idea that this policy ever happens. And I think there is reason to be very skeptical there,” Ippolito wrote in an email.

Rachel Sachs, an associate professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis, who has analyzed the drug-pricing executive orders, agreed there’s no solid foundation to support those percentages.

“I don’t know about the 60 or 70%,” she said. “I don’t know what he’s talking about.”

Another executive order attempted to address the rebates paid to pharmacy benefit managers within Medicare by directing that these payments instead be used as discounts for beneficiaries within the Part D program, the plans that pay for prescription medications.

However, experts pointed out that those discounts usually go toward lowering insurance premiums for seniors. Without applying the discount there, premiums would likely go up. And, in order to keep premiums down, the federal government would need to spend more on subsidies.

Analyses from the Congressional Budget Office and other groups predicted that Trump’s rebate proposal would lower drug prices for some seniors, but would also increase federal spending and increase seniors’ premiums.

There is also a stipulation in the text of the order, which says the order cannot be implemented if it leads to increased government spending or higher premiums for beneficiaries. Thus, it’s unclear how such a proposal would be implemented.

“The executive order on the rebate is internally contradictory, which makes you wonder how they can do this,” said Sachs.

Why It Matters

Trump is likely to continue saying he has reduced drug prices, not only during the Republican National Convention but for the remainder of the 2020 campaign.

Trump likes to present proposals in the works as having been implemented, and we’ve fact-checked him twice before on similar drug-pricing statements.

In May 2019, he claimed he brought down drug prices for the first time in 51 years, which we found to be Mostly False. And in early August of that year, we fact-checked a claim about another of his drug-pricing executive orders that inflated his efforts to reduce insulin prices, which we also found to be Mostly False.

This time, Trump referenced two different drug-pricing executive orders. While it is true that he signed both of them (though the text of only one is publicly available), experts have expressed skepticism about whether these proposals will be implemented, as well as whether they would lower drug prices significantly for Americans.

And this isn’t the first time Trump has made this promise to the American people.

“He promised to lower drug prices as part of his campaign in 2016 and has done absolutely nothing of substance about drug prices at all while he’s been in office,” Aaron Kesselheim, a professor of medicine at Harvard, wrote in an email.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Prognosis for Rural Hospitals Worsens With Pandemic

Jerome Antone said he is one of the lucky ones.

After becoming ill with COVID-19, Antone was hospitalized only 65 miles away from his small Alabama town. He is the mayor of Georgiana — population 1,700.

“It hit our rural community so rabid,” Antone said. The town’s hospital closed last year. If hospitals in nearby communities don’t have beds available, “you may have to go four or five hours away.”

As COVID-19 continues to spread, an increasing number of rural communities find themselves without their hospital or on the brink of losing already cash-strapped facilities.

Eighteen rural hospitals closed last year and the first three months of 2020 were “really big months,” said Mark Holmes, director of the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Many of the losses are in Southern states like Florida and Texas. More than 170 rural hospitals have closed nationwide since 2005, according to data collected by the Sheps Center.

It’s a dangerous scenario. “We know that a closure leads to higher mortality pretty quickly” among the populations served, said Holmes, who is also a professor at UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. “That’s pretty clear.”

One 2019 study found that death rates in the surrounding communities increase nearly 6% after a rural hospital closes — and that’s when there’s not a pandemic.

Add to that what is known about the coronavirus: People who are obese or live with diabetes, hypertension, asthma and other underlying health issues are more susceptible to COVID-19. Rural areas tend to have higher rates of these conditions. And rural residents are more likely to be older, sicker and poorer than those in urban areas. All this leaves rural communities particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus.

Congress approved billions in federal relief funds for health care providers. Initially, federal officials based what a hospital would get on its Medicare payments, but by late April they heeded criticism and carved out funds for rural hospitals and COVID-19 hot spots. Rural hospitals leapt at the chance to shore up already-negative budgets and prepare for the pandemic.

The funds “helped rural hospitals with the immediate storm,” said Dr. Don Williamson, president of the Alabama Hospital Association. Nearly 80% of Alabama’s rural hospitals began the year with negative balance sheets and about eight days’ worth of cash on hand.

Before the pandemic hit this year, hundreds of rural hospitals “were just trying to keep their doors open,” said Maggie Elehwany, vice president of government affairs with the National Rural Health Association. Then, an estimated 70% of their income stopped as patients avoided the emergency room, doctor’s appointments and elective surgeries.

“It was devastating,” Elehwany said.

Paul Taylor, chief executive of a 25-bed critical access hospital and outpatient clinics in northwestern Arkansas, accepted millions in grants and loan money Congress approved this spring, largely through the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act.

“For us, this was survival money and we spent it already,” Taylor said. With those funds, Ozarks Community Hospital increased surge capacity, expanding from 25 beds to 50 beds, adding negative pressure rooms and buying six ventilators. Taylor also ramped up COVID-19 testing at his hospital and clinics, located near some meat-processing plants.

Throughout June and July, Ozarks tested 1,000 patients a day and reported a 20% positive rate. The rate dropped to 16.9% in late July. But patients continue to avoid routine care.

Taylor said revenue is still constrained and he does not know how he will pay back $8 million that he borrowed from Medicare. The program allowed hospitals to borrow against future payments from the federal government, but stipulated that repayment would begin within 120 days.

For Taylor, this seems impossible. Medicare makes up 40% of Ozarks’ income. And he has to pay the loan back before he gets any more payments from Medicare. He’s hoping to refinance the hospital’s mortgage.

“If I get no relief and they take the money … we won’t still be open,” Taylor said. Ozarks provides 625 jobs and serves an area with a population of about 75,000.

There are 1,300 small critical access hospitals like Ozarks in rural America and, of those, 859 took advantage of the Medicare loans, sending about $3.1 billion into the local communities. But many rural communities have not yet experienced a surge in coronavirus cases — national leaders fear it will come as part of a new phase.

“There are pockets of rural America who say, ‘We haven’t seen a single COVID patient yet and we do not believe it’s real,’” Taylor said. “They will get hit sooner or later.”

Across the country, the loss of patients and increased spending required to fight and prepare for the coronavirus was “like a knife cutting into a hospital’s blood supply,” said Ge Bai, associate professor of health policy and management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.

Bai said the way the federal government reimbursed small rural hospitals through federal programs like Medicare before the pandemic was faulty and inefficient. “They are too weak to survive,” she said.

In rural Texas about two hours from Dallas, Titus Regional Medical Center chief executive Terry Scoggin cut staff and furloughed workers even as his rural hospital faced down the pandemic. Titus Regional lost about $4 million last fiscal year and broke even each of the three years before that.

Scoggin said he did not cut from his clinical staff, though. Titus is now facing its second surge of the virus in the community. “The last seven days, we’ve been testing 30% positive,” he said, including the case of his father, who contracted it at a nursing home and survived.

“It’s personal and this is real,” Scoggin said. “You know the people who are infected. You know the people who are passing away.”

Of his roughly 700 employees, 48 have tested positive for the virus and one has died. They are short on testing kits, medication and supplies.

“Right now the staff is strained,” Scoggin said. “I’ve been blown away by their selflessness and unbelievable spirit. We’re resilient, we’re nimble, and we will make it. We don’t have a choice.”

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LA Hospital Seeks Vaccine Trial Participants Among Its Own High-Risk Patients

The patients at Dr. Eric Daar’s hospital are at high risk for serious illness from COVID-19, and he’s determined to make sure they’re part of the effort to fight the disease.

He also hopes they can protect themselves in the process.

When Daar and his colleagues at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center on Wednesday announce the start of enrollment for a trial to test a COVID-19 vaccine produced by AstraZeneca, they will also unveil the hospital’s community-based recruitment strategy.

Harbor-UCLA wants to recruit most, if not all, of the trial’s 500 participants from among the high-risk patients it already treats: people over 65, those with chronic illnesses and members of underserved racial and ethnic groups. Hospital officials also expect that the recruitment task will not be easy.

“It’s a priority and obligation to make sure our community is well represented in these trials,” said Daar, chief of HIV medicine at Harbor-UCLA and a researcher at the UCLA-affiliated Lundquist Institute, who dropped his other research projects last spring to focus on a COVID-19 vaccine.

The safety-net hospital in Torrance, California, serves patients in the South Bay area of Los Angeles County who are predominantly Black, Latino and Pacific Islander. Many live in crowded homes and do “essential” work that requires them to expose themselves to the virus to make a living: They’re orderlies and cooks and house cleaners, day laborers and bus drivers and sanitation workers.

The area has high rates of heart disease and stroke.

“If you don’t have a community represented in the trial, it’s hard to extrapolate your results to the community,” said Dr. Katya Corado, one of Daar’s colleagues. “We want to find something to protect our patients and loved ones.”

Latinos and Blacks in the United States are nearly three times more likely than non-Hispanic whites to be diagnosed with COVID-19 and nearly five times more likely to be hospitalized with the disease. In Los Angeles County, Latinos in particular have been disproportionately stricken by the virus.

Eight of 10 COVID-19 deaths nationwide occur among people 65 and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Historically, Blacks and Latinos have been less likely to be included in clinical trials for disease treatment, despite federal guidelines that urge minority and elder participation.

The National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration have urged infectious disease researchers to focus on these vulnerable populations in the large phase 3 trials that will test how well vaccines prevent COVID-19.

Harbor-UCLA, a public teaching hospital owned and operated by Los Angeles County, is one of roughly 100 sites nationwide testing the AstraZeneca vaccine candidate, which was developed in collaboration with Oxford University in Britain. Phase 3 trials of about the same size for vaccine candidates produced by Moderna and Pfizer are already underway. Each of the three companies seeks to recruit 30,000 people, 20,000 of whom will get the vaccine and 10,000 a placebo, or harmless saline solution, to test whether the vaccine prevents coronavirus disease.

Recruitment at Harbor-UCLA will include patients with well-controlled chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension, and people with HIV who’ve kept the virus under control with medication, Daar said.

According to the AstraZeneca trial protocol, patients will get up to $100 for each of 15 to 20 visits during the two-year trial. The Harbor-UCLA team will also offer car services to bring people to the hospital through L.A. traffic.

To reach its targeted recruits, the hospital will distribute leaflets to clinics and community organizations and create targeted social media campaigns, in addition to taking any free publicity it can get, Daar said.

Recruitment of high-risk patients in other COVID-19 trials so far has been mixed. Moderna, which began the first phase 3 trial of the experimental vaccines on July 27, announced Friday that 18% of its 13,000-plus enrollees so far were Black, Latino or Native American — a high percentage as clinical trials go, but only about one-third of the goal set by NIH officials.

Other AstraZeneca trial sites have also publicized their efforts to reach those most at risk from the virus. The University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine placed one of its AstraZeneca recruitment sites in Vernon, south of downtown Los Angeles in an area with many factories and meatpacking plants, which have experienced high COVID-19 infection rates.

Clinicians suspect that the higher rates of disease and hospitalization in minority groups are due both to health conditions — such as undertreated diabetes and heart disease — and to higher exposure to the virus in workplaces and crowded housing. Environmental factors like polluted neighborhoods may also have an impact.

While there’s little evidence that vaccines affect Blacks or Latinos differently than white people, the subject hasn’t really been studied, said Dr. Akilah Jefferson Shah, an allergist/immunologist and bioethicist at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. That’s another reason for making sure these groups are well represented in trials, she said.

“We know now there are subgroup responses to drugs by sex, but no one figured it out until they started including women in these studies,” Jefferson Shah said. “Race is not genetic. It’s a social construct. But there are genetic variants more prevalent in certain populations. We won’t know until we look.”

Perhaps most important, diversity in the research will be needed to build trust and uptake of the vaccine, Corado said. In a May poll from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, just 25% of Blacks and 37% of Hispanics said they would definitely seek vaccination against the coronavirus, compared with 56% of whites.

In July, the Harbor-UCLA vaccine team began holding weekly Zoom meetings with about 25 activists and clergy members to learn what their communities were saying about the vaccine and get tips on how to design educational materials for the trial.

What they’ve heard suggests they’ll have an uphill recruitment battle.

One member of the community council, HIV activist Dontá Morrison, noted that people frequently say on social media that the vaccine is designed to give them COVID-19 as part of a plot to get rid of Black voters. (None of the vaccines contains infectious COVID virus.)

“It may seem far-fetched, but those are the conversations because we have an administration that has not shown itself to be trustworthy,” Morrison said.

He noted that the first challenge UCLA researchers face is to convince community leaders, particularly clergy members, of the vaccine’s safety. Church leaders worry they’ll be blamed for supporting the trial if the vaccine ends up making their congregants sick, he said.

If done right, the trial could build trust in medical science while helping minorities help themselves — and the rest of us — find a way out of the current mess, Morrison said.

Dr. Raphael Landovitz, another UCLA scientist working on the trial, agreed.

“We’re hoping that people understand this is a chance — if we succeed — to take back some power and control in this situation that has made so many of us feel so powerless,” he said.


This KHN story first published on California Healthline, a service of the California Health Care Foundation.

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‘An Arm and a Leg’: How to Fight Bogus Medical Bills Like a Bulldog

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After Izzy Benasso had knee surgery, she and her dad received a letter from a surgical assistant giving notice that he “had been present” at the procedure.

The surgical assistant was out-of-network and seemed to be laying the groundwork to get the Benassos to pay his fee.

Steve Benasso wrote a letter right back, basically telling the guy to buzz off: He had no intention of paying the surgical assistant. Because the bill was a surprise, Benasso suggested that the surgical assistant try to get the money from the insurance company, or negotiate for some part of the knee surgeon’s payment.

Benasso first shared his story with KHN and NPR for the Bill of the Month series.

There are two explanations for Benasso’s chutzpah.

One: “Steve is the kind of person to check every receipt twice and argue over any discrepancies he finds,” his daughter said.

Two: He had lots of experience haggling over medical bills in particular. As a human resources director, he specializes in defending his colleagues against bogus bills and unfair insurance denials.

“I am a bulldog on this stuff,” he said. “I do it every month.”

In this episode, learn how Steve became such a bulldog, and the tips he has for the rest of us.

“An Arm and a Leg” is a co-production of KHN and Public Road Productions.

To keep in touch with “An Arm and a Leg,” subscribe to the newsletter. You can also follow the show on Facebook and Twitter. And if you’ve got stories to tell about the health care system, the producers would love to hear from you.

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Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Inside the Race to Build a Better $500 Emergency Ventilator

As the coronavirus crisis lit up this spring, headlines about how the U.S. could innovate its way out of a pending ventilator shortage landed almost as hard and fast as the pandemic itself.

The New Yorker featured “The MacGyvers Taking on the Ventilator Shortage,” an effort initiated not by a doctor or engineer but a blockchain activist. The University of Minnesota created a cheap ventilator called the Coventor; MIT had the MIT Emergency Ventilator; Rice University, the ApolloBVM. NASA created the VITAL, and a fitness monitor company got in the game with Fitbit Flow. The price tags varied from $150 for the Coventor to $10,000 for the Fitbit Flow — all significantly less than premium commercially available hospital ventilators, which can run $50,000 apiece.

Around the same time, C. Nataraj, a Villanova College of Engineering professor, was hearing from front-line doctors at Philadelphia hospitals fearful of running out of ventilators for COVID-19 patients. Compelled to help, Nataraj put together a volunteer SWAT team of engineering and medical talent to invent the ideal emergency ventilator. The goal: build something that could operate with at least 80% of the function of a typical hospital ventilator, but at 20% or less of the cost.

For decades, Nataraj has worked on medical projects — like finding a better way to diagnose a potentially deadly brain injury in premature infants — primarily with doctors at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the Geisinger Health system in rural Pennsylvania, so key clinical players came together swiftly. By March 23, he had approached engineering faculty about collaborating on a monthslong effort to build the NovaVent, a basic, low-cost ventilator with parts that cost about $500. The schematics would be open-sourced, so others could use them free of charge to mass-manufacture the device.

The New Yorker wasn’t alone in referencing the ’80s TV series “MacGyver,” whose protagonist was a Swiss Army knife-carrying secret agent who got the job done with wits and whatever was at hand. The suggestion was that these ventilators were simple enough to throw together with parts from a medical supply closet or your neighborhood hardware store. “Everybody can make it,” one headline read, enticingly. These miracle machines, the thinking went, could be helpful in U.S. hospitals facing critical shortages, perhaps in cities surging with sick patients.

To understand the potential utility and true costs of these emergency ventilators, KHN followed Villanova’s team for three months as it developed, tested and prepared to submit the NovaVent for Food and Drug Administration approval.

The team tapped a maker of car parts, along with roboticists. It gathered input from anesthesiologists as well as electrical, mechanical, fluid systems and computer engineers. It tapped nurses to help ensure that users would immediately know how to operate the ventilator. Local manufacturers 3D-printed pieces of the machine.

Nataraj and his team realized that some of the other ultra-bare-bones machines wouldn’t meet the standards of the modern U.S. health care system. But they also believed there was a lot of room for Villanova’s team to innovate between those and the high-end, expensive devices from corporations like Philips or Medtronic.

One thing is clear: The $500 ventilator is something of a unicorn.

While the parts for the NovaVent cost about that much, the brainpower and people hours added uncounted value. In the early phases, the core group — all volunteers — worked 20 to 25 hours a week, Nataraj said, mainly via Zoom calls from home on top of their day jobs.

Teams of two or three were allowed into the lab to work — virtually the only people on campus. The effort, after all, was in line with the university’s Augustinian mission, which values the pursuit of knowledge, stewardship and community over the individual.

By the time they realized what they could achieve with the $500 model, the first wave of crisis had passed. Yet in those weeks, an alarm resounded across the land about the dismal state of America’s public health system.

So the NovaVent mission pivoted: build better low-cost vents for hospitals in poor and rural U.S. communities that have few, if any, ventilators.

One immediate legacy of the innovation happening at Villanova and elsewhere is the public-spirited nature of the effort, said Dr. Julian Goldman, an anesthesiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital who helps set standards for medical devices: “People from different walks of life in terms of their skills — engineers, clinicians, pure scientists — all thinking and working to try to figure out how to move very quickly to solve a national emergency with many dimensions: How do we make the patient safer? How do we make the caregiver safer? How do we deal with supply chain limitations?”

From other ventures, new designs have already been used as a jumping-off point to build emergency ventilators overseas. They’ve also bolstered New York City’s stockpile and could add to state and national reserves as well.

The early, urgent concerns about a looming ventilator shortage were well founded: On March 13, the U.S. had about 200,000 ventilators, according to the Society of Critical Care Medicine. But because of the surge of COVID patients, it was predicted the country could soon need as many as 960,000.

In early April, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the state would run out of ventilators in six days, leaving doctors with the sort of grim calculation they’d heard about from hard-hit northern Italy: “If a person comes in and needs a ventilator and you don’t have a ventilator, the person dies.”

In Philadelphia, 12 miles east of Villanova, hospital administrators braced for shortages and reported short supplies of the drugs required to sedate patients on ventilators.

President Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to get major manufacturers to make ventilators, though GM was already working on it. When GM signed a $500 million contract to deliver 30,000 ventilators to the U.S. government by August, the NovaVent team wondered whether its own efforts would be futile.

“We said, ‘Well, GM is making it. Why are we making it?’” Nataraj said. “But there was a lot of uncertainty with the epidemiological models. We didn’t know how bad it was going to get. Or [the curve] could completely collapse and there’d be no need at all.”

And for a few weeks, it did seem the worst was over. The rate of new cases began to slow in the nation’s early epicenters. Hot spots flared in nearly every pocket of the country, but those too were mostly contained.

People spilled back into normal life, gathering in backyards, beaches and bars. In June, news coverage moved on to the calls for racial justice and mass protests after the videotaped killing of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police.

In the background, the highly contagious coronavirus tore across the South, through Florida, Georgia, Texas and Arizona, and surged in California. Some states reported ICU beds were quickly at or above capacity. This mercurial virus had proved uncontrollable, and the prospect of ventilator shortages had bubbled up once again.

***

Past pandemics have been mothers of innovation. Progress in mechanical ventilation began in earnest after a 1952 polio outbreak in Copenhagen, Denmark. According to the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, 50 patients a day arrived at the Blegdams Infectious Disease Hospital. Many had paralyzed respiratory muscles; nearly 90% died.

An anesthesiologist at the hospital realized patients were dying from respiratory failure rather than renal failure, as was previously believed, and recommended forcing oxygen into the lungs of patients. This worked — mortality dropped to 40%. But one big problem remained: Patients had to be “hand-bagged,” with more than 1,500 medical students squeezing resuscitator bags for 165,000 total hours.

“They’d recruit nurses and medical students to stand there and squeeze a bag,” says Dr. S. Mark Poler, a Geisinger Health system anesthesiologist on the NovaVent team. “Sometimes they were just so exhausted that they would fall asleep and stop ventilating. It was obviously a catastrophe, so that was the motivation for creating mechanical ventilators.”

The first ones were simple machines, much like the basic emergency-use ventilators created during the COVID crisis. But those came with hazards such as damaging the lungs by forcing in too much air. More sophisticated machines would deliver better control. These engineering marvels — the monitors, the different modes of ventilation, the slick touch-screen controls designed to minimize the risk of injury or error — improved patient treatment but also drove costs sky-high.

The emergency ventilators of 2020 focused on models that, typically, used an Ambu bag and some sort of mechanical “arm” to squeeze it. Most people are familiar with Ambu bags from scenes in TV programs like “ER” where paramedics compress the manual resuscitator bags to help patients breathe as they’re rushed inside from an ambulance. The bags are already widely available in hospitals, cost $30 to $40 and are FDA-approved.

But making machines that are that simple could render them effectively useless (or, worse, dangerous). Medical experts watching university and hospital teams coalesce across the country this spring to develop low-cost emergency ventilators took notice — and worried.

***

Goldman, the Massachusetts General anesthesiologist, was among the medical experts nervous about all the slapped-together ventilators.

“We had the maker community being stood up very quickly, but they don’t know what they don’t know,” said Goldman, chair of the COVID-19 working group for the Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation, the primary source of standards for the medical device industry. “There were videos of harebrained ideas for building ventilators online by people who don’t know any better, and we were very concerned about that.”

The general public doesn’t really understand the nuances required to build a safe medical device, Goldman said.

“They look at something and think, well, this can’t be that hard to build. It just blows air,” he said. “‘I’ll take a vacuum cleaner and turn it on reverse. … It’s a ventilator!’”

AAMI wanted to encourage innovation, but also safety. So Goldman assembled a meeting of 38 engineers, regulators and clinicians to quickly write boiled-down guidelines for emergency-use ventilators.

The simplest ventilators were based on the idea of a piston in a car engine, Poler said: Put a piston on a crankshaft, hook it up to a motor and use a paddle or “arm” to compress the Ambu bag.

“It’s better than no ventilator at all, but it goes at one speed. It doesn’t really have any controls,” Poler said — not ideal when patients need to be monitored for changes in how their lungs are responding, or not, to treatment.

Villanova’s team of engineers, doctors and nurses realized that the simplest ventilators, the ones that AAMI was concerned about, seemed to ignore some basic, practical considerations: What sort of hospitals would these be used in, and under what conditions? What sorts of patients would be put on these ventilators? For how long? Would they be used as backups for higher-end ventilators? What about error alarms?

All good questions, Poler said, but the answer to all of them essentially is “we hope to never use these.”

Their best use? “A surge situation where you simply don’t have enough of the sophisticated ventilators.”

***

Rather than go totally bare-bones, the Villanova team designed the devices as though they would one day be deployed in modern health care.

Flow sensors, which monitor patient ventilation, cost several hundred dollars, so the team designed its own in the lab and 3D-printed it at a cost of 50 cents, Nataraj said, enabled by strides in 3D-printing technology that have vastly cut the price of so many devices. Southco, a Pennsylvania-based global manufacturer that makes parts like the latch on your car’s glove box, was tapped to use its 3D printers to make airflow tubes and couplings for the ventilator.

Garrett Clayton, director of Villanova’s Center for Nonlinear Dynamics and Control, was the day-to-day keeper of the prototype. He was particularly excited about the addition of a handle, which made it easier for him, and eventually others, to lug the 20-pound device from the lab to home and back.

Clayton’s computerized control system measures the flow rate of air going into the patient and converts it into volume, much as commercial ventilators do. That controls how hard and fast the Ambu bag is squeezed; it’s made of a hobby-grade Arduino microcontroller board. A direct-current motor attached to a linear actuator with a fist-shaped piece of PVC on the end pushes the bag in and out. The operator of the ventilator can control the respiratory rate (the number of breaths per minute), as well as the ratio between inspiration and expiration and the volume of air going in.

While traditional ventilators have many control methods, Clayton’s team focused on just one: how much volume is forced into the airway. “We have a set point so we don’t damage the lung,” he said.

Polly Tremoulet, a research psychologist and human factors consultant for ECRI and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, was pulled in to focus on error messages and make sure the ventilators’ buttons and displays “spoke the user’s language,” whether that user was an anesthesiologist in New Jersey or a nurse in India pulled into an ICU COVID ward.

Graduate student Emily Hylton and other nursing students were brought in to provide feedback about using the NovaVent and ask questions such as: Would all the controls and monitors look familiar to nurses at the bedside?

The very prospect of these low-cost devices is relatively new, Nataraj said, because of the price of microcontrollers with any real capacity: “Twenty years ago, they cost, oh gosh, $20,000 — and now they’re $20.”

By May 30, the first NovaVent prototype was complete. It was successfully tested on an artificial lung at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia on June 12. Villanova has applied for a patent for the NovaVent, to help ensure it won’t be commercialized by others.

“If you make it free without having a patent, other people can take it and charge for it,” Clayton said. “A patent protects the open-source nature of it.”

Once a provisional patent is received, the team will submit the ventilator for Emergency Use Authorization from the FDA — hewing to the guidelines set up by AAMI.

***

Within weeks of kicking off the NovaVent project, the curve in the East Coast had indeed flattened, and states had enough standard ventilators to treat every patient. The life-threatening ventilator shortage had not materialized. Some of the emergency-use ventilators based on designs by other teams, like the one at MIT, did go into production — but even those didn’t end up in hospitals, and instead went into city stockpiles meant to reduce potential future reliance on the federal government. So the Villanova team seized on a new, global mission.

“We thought if it wasn’t useful in the U.S. market,” Nataraj said, “we know the developing world, especially sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and Central America, they don’t have the same kind of facilities that we do here.”

Where the ventilators might end up remains to be seen. Early on, Pennsylvania showed interest in helping Villanova find manufacturing partners. The team has spoken with engineers in India, Cambodia and Sudan (which reportedly has only 80 ventilators in the entire country) who are interested in possibly finding a way to manufacture the NovaVent.

Six thousand emergency ventilators based on the design by the University of Minnesota have been manufactured in the U.S., according to Dr. Stephen Richardson, a cardiac anesthesiologist who worked on that project. Three thousand were made by North Dakota aviation and agricultural manufacturer Appareo for state emergency stockpiles in North Dakota and South Dakota. UnitedHealth Group provided $3 million in funding to manufacture another 3,000 units made by Boston Scientific, which were donated to countries like Peru and Honduras through U.S. organizations; others were sent to the U.S. government.

Like the Villanova team, Richardson said he thinks the most promising potential for these ventilators is in developing countries.

“When we were arranging to get these donated to Honduras, we were speaking with a physician who was telling me that [at] his hospital right now, the med students are just hand-ventilating patients. For everything, and for COVID specifically,” Richardson said. “Right now, in Pakistan or in any low-resource country, a family member is hand-ventilating a toddler. Before COVID and after COVID, this is a problem.”

For Poler, the project was a reminder that the country needs to tend to its stockpiles. “People were thinking about [ventilator reserves] in the ’90s, and then they basically quit thinking about it,” he said. “COVID is a shocking reminder that we shouldn’t have stopped thinking about it.”

Goldman said the national efforts may not result in a flood of cheap ventilators in U.S. hospitals. International use could also be tricky. In countries with few resources, even very low-cost ventilators may not be feasible because of lack of electricity or compressed oxygen, though there is “potentially a sweet spot of need and capability where these things could be deployed.”

On the upside, he said, the pandemic kicked off a nearly unprecedented global engineering effort to share information and solve the problem.

“If there’s going to be a magic bullet to come out of this, it’s going to be the capability of our communities and our infrastructure,” he said. “People stood up, put in the appropriate processes and spirit, worked hard, made it happen. We’ve added resilience to the health care sector. That’s the outcome here.”

As for the NovaVent, team members were relieved they didn’t have to rush it into manufacturing as COVID-19 was ripping through the Northeast this spring, thanks to aggressive efforts to flatten the curve. “We ended up without a ventilator shortage, which is excellent,” Clayton said. “But with the increase in cases now, it’s very possible some of them may get used.”

To build on the project, Villanova is raising money for a laboratory for affordable medical technologies called NovaMed. The lab formalizes the process of making inexpensive medical equipment that follows the 80-20 function-to-cost rule. The university says the lab is “motivated by the belief that income should not determine who has access to lifesaving care.”

The effort to prevent a ventilator shortage, Nataraj said, made him think more critically about the American health care system overall.

“How come we haven’t built the technology, the economic and social systems that are able to handle a situation like this — especially when something like this was predicted?” he said. “It’s absolute nonsense. Why should a single person die because we weren’t prepared?”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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As Georgia Reopened, Officials Knew of Severe Shortage of PPE for Health Workers

As the coronavirus crisis deepened in April, Georgia officials circulated documents showing that to get through the next month, the state would need millions more masks, gowns and other supplies than it had on hand.

The projections, obtained by KHN and other organizations in response to public records requests, provide one of the clearest pictures of the severe PPE deficits states confronted while thousands fell ill from rising COVID-19 cases, putting health workers at risk.

Georgia on April 19 had 932,620 N95 respirator masks — one of the best protections for health workers against infection — and expected to burn through nearly 7 million within a month. It urgently needed to buy 1.4 million more, according to documents obtained by the Brown Institute for Media Innovation and shared with KHN. For gowns, officials expected to go through 16.1 million in 30 days, a staggering amount compared with the 21,810 the state had at the time.

“Making progress with PPE needs. Biggest challenge now is gowns and we are working it,” Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency Director Homer Bryson wrote on April 19 to two of Gov. Brian Kemp’s senior-most aides.

Even so, one day later, the first-term Republican governor announced he would begin to reopen the state’s economy, including gyms, restaurants, hair salons, theaters and a host of other businesses.

“We have relied on data, science and the advice of health care professionals to guide our approach and decision-making,” he said at a news conference, “putting the health and well-being of our citizens first and doing our best to protect lives and livelihoods.”

“Our state agencies and the governor felt confident in the state’s ability to meet daily PPE requests from our local emergency preparedness partners and medical facilities when Georgia began implementing its measured reopening plan,” Cody Hall, the governor’s spokesperson, said in response to questions. “We have continued to meet those needs since April.” He noted the state is now building a PPE stockpile.

A Matter of Life or Death

After Georgia eased its lockdown, COVID cases spiked. Requests for PPE from health workers in the Atlanta area escalated through April and May, according to numbers provided by the nonprofit Atlanta Beats COVID-19, which makes face shields for health workers and other residents.

According to public data on the Georgia Department of Public Health’s website, at least 80 Georgia health care workers have died from COVID-19, including after the state reopened its economy.

One was John “Derrick” Couch, a nurse practitioner who worked in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. Shortly after graduating with his master’s degree in nursing on May 10, the worker at Med First Immediate Care Medical Center grew sick with COVID-19. His wife, Karol, cared for him at home for a time before he was hospitalized. He died after 36 days on a ventilator, according to a GoFundMe page set up to help his family cover his health care expenses.

“Karol wants everyone to know that Covid-19 doesn’t care or discriminate. She says John would want all of his colleagues and friends in healthcare and community to demand proper equipment and protection,” it said. Med First Immediate Care did not respond to a request for comment.

Between March 16 and Aug. 9, 48 COVID-19-related complaints regarding inadequate PPE in Georgia health care facilities were closed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency responsible for workplace safety. The PPE complaints accounted for the majority — roughly 6 in 10 — of Georgia’s COVID-19 complaints submitted to OSHA during the four-month period.

In April and May, “we received thousands of requests for N95 masks, but we couldn’t get our hands on the right materials to even make an N95 mask,” said Caroline Dunn, Atlanta Beats COVID-19’s communications coordinator.

Nationally, health workers continue to express alarm about protective equipment supplies as COVID-19 hot spots reemerge across the country. A National Nurses United survey in July found 87% of nurses working in hospitals reported reusing at least one piece of single-use PPE. Only a quarter of nurses surveyed felt their employers were providing a safe workplace.

“There’s really been this normalization and this acceptance that some people are going to be expendable. And that’s completely unacceptable,” said Dabney Evans, director of the Center for Humanitarian Emergencies at Emory University in Atlanta.

Another document projecting PPE supplies, dated April 10 and developed by Georgia health and emergency management officials, relied on a calculator from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to estimate how quickly Georgia would burn through supplies across hospitals, nursing homes, dialysis clinics, jails and prisons. The state had 527,424 N95 respirators but needed a total of nearly 1.1 million to get through the ensuing seven days. The projected need grew to 4.8 million masks when estimating supplies for the following 31 days.

It had 196,500 gloves on hand but would need more than 12.1 million to get through a week, and 54 million for 31 days. The state had about 122,000 face shields but required more than 458,000 for the coming seven days. For a month, the projected need ballooned to over 2 million.

The April 10 estimates — a day when Georgia’s new COVID-19 case count rose by about 1,000 people — were sent to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and Federal Emergency Management Agency as part of a broad effort to assess what states needed across health care settings to operate for at least seven days and up to a month. Federal officials asked state public health and emergency management officials to submit PPE projections daily, according to emails among state personnel, HHS and FEMA.

PPE estimates would be used “to determine projections for our region and the next hot spots within each state,” Jeanne Eckes, an HHS official working with FEMA on the federal government’s COVID-19 response, wrote in an April 3 email to officials in multiple states throughout the South, according to correspondence obtained by KHN.

Calculations Matter

Georgia officials contend the state’s estimated PPE deficits were larger early in the pandemic because projections accounted for all COVID-positive cases. Once the state had more information on how many of these positives were asymptomatic cases and how many led to hospitalizations, it could better gauge what was needed, they argued. Multiple changes were made to its burn-rate calculations, including a May 8 adjustment that replaced the total case count with hospital-based COVID cases, which reduced the projected demand for PPE.

However, multiple experts disputed the idea that knowing the number of asymptomatic patients would be relevant for PPE projections. In facilities like nursing homes and jails — both of which were accounted for in the Georgia estimates — asymptomatic individuals could spread the virus if not quarantined immediately.

“Because there’s not on-the-spot, point-of-care testing available for the most part, you have to use PPE throughout the hospital all the time,” said Dr. Eric Toner, a senior scholar with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “In this day and age, you just have to presume that everyone has COVID.”

When the state’s case count began surging in March, many COVID-19 patients treated at Tift Regional Medical Center in Tifton, Georgia, needed ICU-level care and were from nearby Dougherty County, a Georgia hot spot where hospitals were quickly overwhelmed.

“There were times to which we were down to only having a few days of PPE left,” said Dr. Kaine Brown, a physician and medical director at Tift, adding that the hospital was partly saved by donations of N95 and cloth masks. Gowns were the biggest problem. PPE supplies have since improved — as of early July, the hospital had stockpiled more than eight months’ worth of surgical masks and enough N95s and gowns to last six months and about three months, respectively.

Georgia’s stay-at-home order for most residents expired April 30; it remains in place for individuals at higher risk of severe illness.

“We were very apprehensive about [easing restrictions],” Brown said. “Those of us who had been working on the front lines knew how infectious this was.”

Since May, Georgia has reopened a broad swath of businesses. In early July, more than 1,000 health care workers signed a letter to Kemp urging him to institute a statewide mandate requiring face coverings, to close bars and nightclubs, and prohibit indoor gatherings of more than 25 people. Georgia currently bans gatherings of more than 50 people if social distancing cannot be observed.

State officials say PPE supplies have “greatly improved” since the start of the public health emergency. As of Aug. 14, the state had distributed 3.9 million N95s, 13.1 million surgical masks, 36.6 million gloves, 4.6 million gowns and 1.6 million face shields, among other items, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. Early on, Georgia also relied on donations to bolster PPE supplies when many items were unattainable through normal supply channels, which have since become more reliable.

However, even with the increased stocks, workers still reuse protective equipment and many fret over the uncertainty about how long they can do so safely. Another community-based organization, the Atlanta chapter of Sewing Masks for Area Hospitals, said that from April to June the organization gave out over 59,000 cloth masks to 152 health care facilities in the Atlanta area, including large hospitals, such as Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and Emory St. Joseph’s Hospital. Kayla Hittig, a co-founder of the sewing group, said that health care workers were using the cloth masks to cover their N95 or surgical masks to make them last longer.

“That’s the thing we hear the most — how often do we have to use these and how protective are they, for how long?” said Richard Lamphier, president of the Georgia Nurses Association.

Lamphier wasn’t critical of the state officials’ efforts to ensure health workers are protected.

“I think they’ve done the best they could with the situation they had,” he said.

It wasn’t enough to protect John Couch, whose family is reeling from his death.

“He was my whole life,” Karol Couch said. “My life is shattered.”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Teen Artist’s Portraits Help Frame Sacrifice of Health Care Workers Lost to COVID

As Xinyi Christine Zhang watched the COVID-19 death toll among health care workers rise this spring, she wanted to find a way to give solace — and thanks — to their families.

The teenager, of South Brunswick Township, New Jersey, joined her church in commemorating members who had died of COVID-19. But she was driven to try to do more, something personal.

“I thought there could be something more meaningful I could do for the families of the doctors who lost their lives fighting the pandemic,” said Christine, 15.

A gifted artist, Christine resolved to draw the fallen U.S. health care workers in colorful memorial portraits, distribute them to their families and post them on her website. She wanted the relatives to know that people appreciated those who were trying to help Americans heal while putting their own lives in jeopardy.

Christine frequently draws portraits for her friends and knew memorial portraits are usually rather expensive. She realized that drawing front-line workers could actually help families and was a better use of her time than drawing her friends — whom she said she’d drawn “like 10 times already.”

According to KHN and The Guardian’s “Lost on the Frontline” project, more than 1,000 health care workers in the United States have died after helping patients battle the coronavirus. The pandemic overburdened many hospitals and led to shortages in protective equipment such as masks and gowns that endangered many of those assisting patients.

Christine found her subjects through that project. She set up a website to upload her portraits and to let families request drawings of their loved ones. Her portraits are free and easily accessible online, Christine said.

She has finished and posted 17 portraits since she started in late April. Each one takes six to eight hours, and Christine spreads that work out over a few days so as not to interfere with her school assignments. Using a close-up image as a reference, she first digitally sketches the proportions of the person’s face with a pencil and then adds unique colors to “really bring life to the portrait.”

Her largest obstacle is getting in touch with the families. She hopes more families will request portraits through her website so she can work with them from the beginning.

Xinyi Christine Zhang, 15, wants families of health care workers who have died of COVID-19 to know she is thankful for the work of their loved ones. “Someone they don’t know personally, even a stranger, appreciates what their loved one has done,” Zhang says.(Xinyi Christine Zhang and Helen Liu)

One person Christine featured is Sheena Miles, a semiretired nurse from Mississippi who died of COVID-19 on May 1. Christine tracked down her son, Tom Miles, who expressed his gratitude on Facebook.

“When you’re going through a loss like that, like the loss of a mom, to get the email from out of the blue just kind of gives you a profound feeling that there are some good people in this world,” Tom Miles said in an interview. “For her to have such talent at such a young age, and that she really cares about people she doesn’t even know — she is what makes America what it is today.”

This kind of response is exactly what Christine aims for — she wants the families to know that she is thankful for the work of their loved ones.

“Someone they don’t know personally, even a stranger, appreciates what their loved one has done,” she said.

The portraits may be a source of brightness for grieving families, said Christine’s mother, Helen Liu.

“I hope that families who receive these portraits will have a feeling of hope that better times will come,” Liu said. “A memorial is something meaningful and permanent, and I feel her portraits capture the happiness that will forever be with them.”

She hopes to get additional requests for the memorials from families.

In addition to drawing, Christine is a member of the South Brunswick High School’s Science Olympiad team and helps build projects for competitions. She’s interested in exploring engineering or product design as a career. Anything related to building or creating, she said.

She plans to either major or minor in art in college. For now, she wants to continue this project throughout high school — hopefully with help from others who know how to create digital art. She has a form on her website where others with art experience can sign up to help out. She said they can also add “other heroes in our society, such as war veterans or firefighters.”

“There are so many people that need to be honored, but I can’t do it by myself,” Christine said.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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With COVID Vaccine Trial, Rural Oregon Clinic Steps Onto World Stage

MEDFORD, Ore. — From the outside, it appears to be just another suburban allergy clinic, a tidy, tan brick-and-cinder-block building set back from a busy highway and across the road from an auto parts store.

But inside the offices of the Clinical Research Institute of Southern Oregon, Dr. Edward Kerwin and his staff are part of the race to save the world.

Kerwin, 63, was tapped this spring to lead one of the nearly 90 U.S. clinical trial sites taking part in the large-scale, phase 3 test of a vaccine produced by biotech startup Moderna to fight the virus that causes COVID-19.

Starting in late July, Kerwin’s clinic, set in a working-class region roughly halfway between Seattle and San Francisco, began enrolling up to 40 participants a day for the two-year study. He hopes to recruit as many as 700 volunteers by the end of August.

They’ll join the 30,000 test subjects needed nationwide to determine whether the Moderna vaccine can tame a disease that has infected 5.4 million Americans and claimed the lives of more than 170,000. Another vaccine, produced by Pfizer and BioNTech, a German company, is being tested in nearly 30,000 more recruits.

“It’s a perfect opportunity for science to come to the rescue,” said Kerwin, a lanky figure in a bright-blue shirt and khaki pants. He led visitors to a conference room, took a chair well outside social-distancing range and doffed his mask, the better to explain the magnitude of this moment.

Dr. Edward Kerwin, medical director of the Clinical Research Institute of Southern Oregon, has led more than 750 clinical trials during the past quarter-century. Kerwin, an allergist and immunologist, was tapped as the principal investigator for Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine trial at the Medford test site.(Jim Craven for KHN)

He acknowledged “it may seem like a surprise” that Medford is the site of a clinical trial to halt the world’s biggest medical challenge in a century. But Kerwin, who worked as a NASA scientist before heading to medical school and a career in allergy, asthma and immunology, has led more than 750 clinical trials over the past quarter-century, mostly focused on asthma, lung disease and skin disorders.

He moved to southern Oregon in 1993, choosing the rural Rogue Valley because of its beauty and cultural opportunities, such as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. As his medical expertise grew, he built a top-enrolling clinical trial site that coexists with a clinic that treats asthma and allergy patients. Along the way, he established deep roots in the valley, where he founded Bel Fiore, a $10 million winery and vineyard that features a 19,000-square-foot chateau.

Even with his experience, however, testing a vaccine to halt a global pandemic is a challenge like no other, Kerwin said. When the call came from Velocity Clinical Research — the North Carolina-based company that operates Kerwin’s clinic, known as CRISOR, and more than a dozen other COVID trial sites across the U.S. — he paused for a moment.

“You take a big gasp and say, ‘Do we have the resources to do this?’” Kerwin said. “You definitely do it, but you want to do your homework.”

So far, the testing is going well, he said. Unlike most clinical trials, for which it’s difficult to recruit enough volunteers, the COVID effort has attracted intense interest. All of Velocity’s sites are paying participants $1,962 for the two-year trial, but Kerwin’s staff of two dozen didn’t advertise widely at first.

“We would worry our phone would ring off the hook,” Kerwin said.

The Medford clinic is the only COVID vaccine clinical trial site in Oregon, so participants have come from as far as Portland, nearly 300 miles north.

It’s a prime example of the gamble drugmakers and federal trial sponsors take when deciding where to host large-scale COVID clinical trials. To gauge whether the vaccine works, you need to know there’s a good chance participants will be exposed to the virus in the environment. Ethically, in traditional phase 3 trials, you can’t deliberately infect people with COVID, a disease with no treatment or cure, though some propose doing just that in controversial human challenge trials.

Southern Oregon has not been a hot spot for COVID, with fewer than 500 confirmed cases and two deaths in Jackson County, which includes Medford. But, Kerwin said, it’s at risk of becoming one, offering the opportunity to vaccinate trial participants before the virus becomes widespread.

“It’s almost too late in New York and Arizona,” he said.

In the meantime, he’s trying to shift the odds that trial volunteers will be exposed to COVID-19 by reaching out to people at greater risk of infection.

So Kerwin’s team has contacted businesses in industries such as agriculture and food production, where the disease has been known to spread with particular virulence. Locally, that includes employers such as Harry & David, the food retailer famous for its fruit-of-the-month shipments, and Amy’s Kitchen, the maker of vegetarian frozen meals, which operates a production plant in the area.

The Medford trial site is also emphasizing enrollment of elder volunteers, those age 65 and up, who are at higher risk of serious illness or death from the coronavirus.

One of the first volunteers was Trish Malone, a 68-year-old cultural anthropologist who lives in Ashland. Like many of the other participants, she has enlisted in Kerwin’s previous clinical trials of devices to treat asthma. When clinic staffers reached out to ask whether she’d participate in the COVID trial, she didn’t hesitate.

“I said, ‘Wow, yes,’” Malone recalled. “It’s because of [Kerwin] and his expertise. Little Medford gets to have this testing.”

Participating is a way to “give back” to her community, said Malone, who sat, calm and still, on a recent Thursday as study coordinator Audrey Kuehl sank the injection into Malone’s left shoulder.

Audrey Kuehl, a study coordinator at the Clinical Research Institute of Southern Oregon, inoculates Trish Malone with Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine on Aug. 6.(Jim Craven for KHN)

“She was fast. It was no pain, and it was fine,” Malone said.

Half of the patients in the trial will receive two doses, 28 days apart, of the Moderna vaccine, called mRNA-1273. It uses a snippet of the genetic code of the coronavirus, not the virus itself, to instruct cells to produce a protein that triggers an immune response to protect against infection. The other half will receive a placebo, or saline dummy shot.

Three study coordinators at the Medford clinic, Kuehl among them, know which patients receive which dose, but the information is kept from volunteers and other staff members — including Kerwin, the principal investigator.

Participants who receive the vaccine may experience some side effects, such as redness at the injection site, muscle soreness, fatigue or headache, Kerwin said. “It’s a sign the vaccine is working with your immune system,” he said.

Four days after her first injection, Malone was disappointed to report no reaction at all. “I am bummed, totally bummed,” she said. “I have no symptoms. I think I got the placebo.”

That may not be true, of course. Even if it is, Malone said, she’s happy to participate in an effort that may help stop the deadly virus.

“This a global pandemic,” she said. “What can I do to help?”

The study will run for two years so that investigators can track the longer-term effects of the vaccine. Malone will keep a diary of her temperature and symptoms, if any, and have regular blood tests to determine whether she has antibodies to the virus.

Kerwin is optimistic about the chances the Moderna vaccine will work, agreeing with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, who predicted the study could demonstrate efficacy by November or December. Kerwin estimates that the vaccine could prove 90% effective, though outside infectious disease experts said it’s far too soon to tell.

Even if the trial shows the vaccine is successful, it would take months longer to produce and deliver enough injections for the U.S. and beyond.

As he enrolls patients and awaits data, Kerwin said, he’s mindful of the real-world implications of his work. His mother, in her 90s, lives in a Denver nursing home where, so far, there have been no cases of COVID-19. But the threat looms.

The tragedy of the pandemic has underscored the promise of science — and the interconnectedness of people far beyond this small corner of Oregon.

“Immunology has never been more fascinating than it is today,” he said. “This is a year that reminds us we cannot live in isolation and do not live in isolation from the world.”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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PPE Shortage Could Last Years Without Strategic Plan, Experts Warn

Shortages of personal protective equipment and medical supplies could persist for years without strategic government intervention, officials from health care and manufacturing industries have predicted.

Officials said logistical challenges continue seven months after the coronavirus reached the United States, as the flu season approaches and as some state emergency management agencies prepare for a fall surge in COVID-19 cases.

Although the disarray is not as widespread as it was this spring, hospitals said rolling shortages of supplies range from specialized beds to disposable isolation gowns to thermometers.

“A few weeks ago, we were having a very difficult time getting the sanitary wipes. You just couldn’t get them,” said Dr. Bernard Klein, chief executive of Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills, California, near Los Angeles. “We actually had to manufacture our own.”

This same dynamic has played out across a number of critical supplies in his hospital. First masks, then isolation gowns and now a specialized bed that allows nurses to turn COVID-19 patients onto their bellies — equipment that helps workers with what can otherwise be a six-person job.

“We’ve seen whole families come to our hospital with COVID, and several members hospitalized at the same time,” said Klein. “It’s very, very sad.”

Testing supplies ran short as the predominantly Latino community served by Providence Holy Cross was hit hard by COVID, and even as nearby hospitals could process 15-minute tests.

“If we had a more coordinated response with a partnership between the medical field, the government and the private industry, it would help improve the supply chain to the areas that need it most,” Klein said.

Klein said he expected to deal with equipment and supply shortages throughout 2021, especially as flu season approaches.

“Most people focus on those N95 respirators,” said Carmela Coyle, CEO of the California Hospital Association, an industry group that represents more than 400 hospitals across one of America’s hardest-hit states.

She said she believed COVID-19-related supply challenges will persist through 2022.

“We have been challenged with shortages of isolation gowns, face shields, which you’re now starting to see in public places. Any one piece that’s in shortage or not available creates risk for patients and for health care workers,” said Coyle.

At the same time, trade associations representing manufacturers said persuading customers to shift to American suppliers had been difficult.

“I also have industry that’s working only at 10-20% capacity, who can make PPE in our own backyard, but have no orders,” said Kim Glas, CEO of the National Council of Textile Organizations, whose members make reusable cloth gowns.

Manufacturers in her organization have made “hundreds of millions of products,” but, without long-term government contracts, many are apprehensive to invest in the equipment needed to scale up the business and eventually lower prices.

“If there continues to be an upward trajectory of COVID-19 cases, not just in the U.S. but globally, you can see those supply chains breaking down again,” Glas said. “It is a health care security issue.”

For the past two decades, personal protective equipment was supplied to health care institutions in lean supply chains in the same way toilet paper was to grocery stores. Chains between major manufacturers and end users were so efficient, there was no need to stockpile goods.

But in March, the supply chain broke when major Asian PPE exporters embargoed materials or shut down just as demand increased exponentially. Thus, health care institutions were in much the same position as regular grocery shoppers, who were trying to buy great quantities of a product they never needed to stockpile before.

“I am very concerned about long-term PPE shortages for the foreseeable future,” said Dr. Susan Bailey, president of the American Medical Association.

“There’s no question the situation is better than it was a couple of months ago,” said Bailey. However, many health care organizations, including her own, have struggled to obtain PPE. Bailey practices at a 10-doctor allergy clinic and was met with a 10,000-mask minimum when they tried to order N95 respirators.

“We have not seen evidence of a long-term strategic plan for the manufacture, acquisition and distribution of PPE” from the government, said Bailey. “The supply chain needs to be strengthened dramatically, and we need less dependence on foreign goods to manufacture our own PPE in the U.S.”

Some products have now come back to be made in the U.S. — although factories are not expected to be able to reach demand until mid-2021.

“A lot has been done in the last six months,” said Rousse. “We are largely out of the hole, and we have planted the seeds to render the United States self-sufficient,” said Dave Rousse, president of the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry.

In 2019, 850 tons of the material used in disposable masks was made in the U.S. Around 10,000 tons is expected to be made in 2021, satisfying perhaps 80% of demand. But PPE is a suite of items — including gloves, gowns and face shields — not all of which have seen the same success.

“Thermometers are becoming a real issue,” said Cindy Juhas, chief strategy officer of CME, an American health care product distributor. “They’re expecting even a problem with needles and syringes for the amount of vaccines they have to make,” she said.

Federal government efforts to address the supply chain have foundered. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, in charge of the COVID-19 response, told congressional interviewers in June it had “no involvement” in distributing PPE to hot spots.

Project Airbridge, an initiative headed by Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, flew PPE from international suppliers to the U.S. at taxpayer expense but was phased out. And the government has not responded to the AMA’s calls for more distribution data.

Arguably, Klein is among the best placed to weather such disruptions. He is part of a 51-hospital chain with purchasing power, and among the institutions that distributors prioritize when selling supplies. But tribulations continue even in hospitals, as shortages have pushed buyers to look directly for manufacturers, often through a swamp of companies that have sprung up overnight.

Now distributors are being called upon not just by their traditional customers — hospitals and long-term care homes — but by nearly every segment of society. First responders, schools, clinics and even food businesses are all buying medical equipment now.

“There’s going to be lots of other shortages we haven’t even thought about,” said Juhas.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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COVID Data Failures Create Pressure for Public Health System Overhaul

After terrorists slammed a plane into the Pentagon on 9/11, ambulances rushed scores of the injured to community hospitals, but only three of the patients were taken to specialized trauma wards. The reason: The hospitals and ambulances had no real-time information-sharing system.

Nineteen years later, there is still no national data network that enables the health system to respond effectively to disasters and disease outbreaks. Many doctors and nurses must fill out paper forms on COVID-19 cases and available beds and fax them to public health agencies, causing critical delays in care and hampering the effort to track and block the spread of the coronavirus.

“We need to be thinking long and hard about making improvements in the data-reporting system so the response to the next epidemic is a little less painful,” said Dr. Dan Hanfling, a vice president at In-Q-Tel, a nonprofit that helps the federal government solve technology problems in health care and other areas. “And there will be another one.”

There are signs the COVID-19 pandemic has created momentum to modernize the nation’s creaky, fragmented public health data system, in which nearly 3,000 local, state and federal health departments set their own reporting rules and vary greatly in their ability to send and receive data electronically.

Sutter Health and UC Davis Health, along with nearly 30 other provider organizations around the country, recently launched a collaborative effort to speed and improve the sharing of clinical data on individual COVID cases with public health departments.

But even that platform, which contains information about patients’ diagnoses and response to treatments, doesn’t yet include data on the availability of hospital beds, intensive care units or supplies needed for a seamless pandemic response.

The federal government spent nearly $40 billion over the past decade to equip hospitals and physicians’ offices with electronic health record systems for improving treatment of individual patients. But no comparable effort has emerged to build an effective system for quickly moving information on infectious disease from providers to public health agencies.

In March, Congress approved $500 million over 10 years to modernize the public health data infrastructure. But the amount falls far short of what’s needed to update data systems and train staff at local and state health departments, said Brian Dixon, director of public health informatics at the Regenstrief Institute in Indianapolis.

The congressional allocation is half the annual amount proposed under last year’s bipartisan Saving Lives Through Better Data Act, which did not pass, and much less than the $4.5 billion Public Health Infrastructure Fund proposed last year by public health leaders.

“The data are moving slower than the disease,” said Janet Hamilton, executive director of the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists. “We need a way to get that information electronically and seamlessly to public health agencies so we can do investigations, quarantine people and identify hot spots and risk groups in real time, not two weeks later.”

The impact of these data failures is felt around the country. The director of the California Department of Public Health, Dr. Sonia Angell, was forced out Aug. 9 after a malfunction in the state’s data system left out up to 300,000 COVID-19 test results, undercutting the accuracy of its case count.

Other advanced countries have done a better job of rapidly and accurately tracking COVID-19 cases and medical resources while doing contact tracing and quarantining those who test positive. In France, physicians’ offices report patient symptoms to a central agency every day. That’s an advantage of having a national health care system.

“If someone in France sneezes, they learn about it in Paris,” said Dr. Chris Lehmann, clinical informatics director at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

Coronavirus cases reported to U.S. public health departments are often missing patients’ addresses and phone numbers, which are needed to trace their contacts, Hamilton said. Lab test results often lack information on patients’ races or ethnicities, which could help authorities understand demographic disparities in transmission and response to the virus.

Last month, the Trump administration abruptly ordered hospitals to report all COVID-19 data to a private vendor hired by the Department of Health and Human Services rather than to the long-established reporting system run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The administration said the switch would help the White House coronavirus task force better allocate scarce supplies.

The shift disrupted, at least temporarily, the flow of critical information needed to track COVID-19 outbreaks and allocate resources, public health officials said. They worried the move looked political in nature and could dampen public confidence in the accuracy of the data.

An HHS spokesperson said the transition had improved and sped up hospital reporting. Experts had various opinions on the matter but agreed that the new system doesn’t fix problems with the old CDC system that contributed to this country’s slow and ineffective response to COVID-19.

“While I think it’s an exceptionally bad idea to take the CDC out of it, the bottom line is the way CDC presented the data wasn’t all that useful,” said Dr. George Rutherford, a professor of epidemiology at the University of California-San Francisco.

The new HHS system lacks data from nursing homes, which is needed to ensure safe care for COVID patients after discharge from the hospital, said Dr. Lissy Hu, CEO of CarePort Health, which coordinates care between hospitals and post-acute facilities.

Some observers hope the pandemic will persuade the health care industry to push faster toward its goal of smoother data exchange through computer systems that can easily talk to one another — an objective that has met with only partial success after more than a decade of effort.

The case reporting system launched by Sutter Health and its partners sends clinical information from each coronavirus patient’s electronic health record to public health agencies in all 50 states. The Digital Bridge platform also allows the agencies for the first time to send helpful treatment information back to doctors and nurses. About 20 other health systems are preparing to join the 30 partners in the system, and major digital health record vendors like Epic and Allscripts have added the reporting capacity to their software.

Sutter hopes to get state and county officials to let the health system stop sending data manually, which would save its clinicians time they need for treating patients, said Dr. Steven Lane, Sutter’s clinical informatics director for interoperability.

The platform could be key in implementing COVID-19 vaccination around the country, said Dr. Andrew Wiesenthal, a managing director at Deloitte Consulting who spearheaded the development of Digital Bridge.

“You’d want a registry of everyone immunized, you’d want to hear if that person developed COVID anyway, then you’d want to know about subsequent symptoms,” he said. “You can only do that well if you have an effective data system for surveillance and reporting.”

The key is to get all the health care players — providers, insurers, EHR vendors and public health agencies — to collaborate and share data, rather than hoarding it for their own financial or organizational benefit, Wiesenthal said.

“One would hope we will use this crisis as an opportunity to fix a long-standing problem,” said John Auerbach, CEO of Trust for America’s Health. “But I worry this will follow the historical pattern of throwing a lot of money at a problem during a crisis, then cutting back after. There’s a tendency to think short term.”


This KHN story first published on California Healthline, a service of the California Health Care Foundation.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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KHN’s ‘What the Health?’: Kamala Harris on Health

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California Sen. Kamala Harris, the newly named running mate for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, doesn’t have a lot of background in health policy. But that’s unlikely to prevent Republicans from using her on-again, off-again support for “Medicare for All” against her in the fall campaign.

Meanwhile, with talks between Congress and the Trump administration over the next round of COVID-19 relief at a standstill, President Donald Trump is trying to fill the void with executive orders. What’s unclear is whether the president has the authority to do some of what he is proposing — or whether it will work to help people in dire economic and health straits.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of KHN, Kimberly Leonard of Business Insider, Joanne Kenen of Politico and Mary Agnes Carey of KHN.

Among the takeaways from this week’s podcast:

  • Although Harris isn’t closely associated with health care issues, one created problems for her last fall during her failed presidential bid. She was an original co-sponsor of the Medicare for All bill put forward by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt).
  • Trump’s executive order to suspend payroll taxes is causing consternation. It’s not clear if the order applies to both Social Security and Medicare or whether employers will follow the order. There is no indication that Congress would accept the president’s plan — and, if lawmakers don’t, workers and companies would owe the back taxes by the end of the year.
  • The tax suspension also has handed Democrats a club for the fall campaign. They are charging that the lack of revenue would endanger the Social Security and Medicare trust funds and could affect consumer benefits. Trump has replied that money from the federal government’s general fund would be used to fill the gap, but with the pandemic causing an economic upheaval, there’s no guarantee the government could afford that.
  • The president has promised he will shortly issue an executive order to protect coverage for people with medical conditions. The Affordable Care Act, which Trump has repeatedly pledged to abolish, already carries that protection, so this could be an attempt to offer Republicans a shield if the case before the Supreme Court overturns the law or some of its provisions. Previous vows by the president to offer health care plans have largely gone unfulfilled.
  • The administration is seeking to change the U.S. reliance on foreign nations, largely China and India, for prescription drugs and is moving to mandate that the government buy only U.S.-manufactured medications. Although the effort enjoys bipartisan support, it could end up increasing drug prices.
  • The recent announcement that the federal government is offering Kodak a $765 million loan to begin making chemicals that could be used in drug manufacturing triggered new scrutiny of the company. Stock trades made before the announcement, major escalation of the company’s lobbying efforts in Washington and a leak about the pending deal are all being analyzed.
  • The KHN-Guardian spotlight on the deaths of health care workers from COVID-19 points to a longer-term issue: shortages of medical professionals in key care fields.

Plus, for extra credit, the panelists recommend their favorite health policy stories of the week they think you should read, too:

Julie Rovner: The Wall Street Journal’s “Covid-19 Data Reporting System Gets Off to Rocky Start,” by Robbie Whelan

Joanne Kenen: The Texas Tribune and ProPublica’s “ICE Is Making Sure Migrant Kids Don’t Have COVID-19 — Then Expelling Them to ‘Prevent the Spread’ of COVID-19,” by Dara Lind and Lomi Kriel

Kimberly Leonard: The Philadelphia Inquirer’s “Coronavirus Is Changing Childbirth in the Philadelphia Region, Including Boosting Scheduled Inductions,” by Sarah Gantz

Mary Agnes Carey: The New York Times’ “Inside the Fight to Save Houston’s Most Vulnerable,” by Sheri Fink, Emily Rhyne and Erin Schaff

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Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Dying Young: The Health Care Workers in Their 20s Killed by COVID-19

Jasmine Obra believed that if it wasn’t for her brother Joshua, she wouldn’t exist. When 7-year-old Josh realized that his parents weren’t going to live forever, he asked for a sibling so he would never be alone.

By spring 2020, at ages 29 and 21, Josh and Jasmine shared a condo in Anaheim, California, not far from Disneyland, which they both loved.

Both worked at a 147-bed locked nursing facility that specialized in caring for elderly people with cognitive issues such as Alzheimer’s, where Jasmine, a nursing student, was mentored by Josh, a registered nurse.

Both got tested for COVID-19 on the same day in June.

Both tests came back positive.

Yet only one of them survived.

While COVID-19 takes a far deadlier toll on elderly people than on young adults, an investigation of front-line health care worker deaths by the Guardian and KHN has uncovered numerous instances when staff members under age 30 were exposed on the job and also succumbed.

In our database of 167 confirmed front-line worker deaths, 21 medical staffers, or 13% of the total, were under 40, and eight (5%) fatalities were under 30. The median age of a COVID-19 death in the general population is 78, while the median age of health care worker deaths in the database is 57. This is in part because we are, by definition, including only people of working age who were treating patients during the pandemic — but it is also because, as health workers, they are far more exposed to the virus.

Young health care workers are at a “stage in their career and a stage of life at which they have so much more to offer,” said Andrew Chan, a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School. “Lives lost among any young people related to COVID really should be considered something that’s unacceptable to us as a society.”

As coronavirus cases surge — and dire shortages of lifesaving protective gear like N95 masks, gowns and gloves persist — the nation’s health care workers face disproportionate risk. Chan’s research has found that health care workers of any age are at least three times more likely to become infected than the general population, and the risk is greater if they are people of color or have to work without adequate personal protective equipment. People of color are also likelier to have inadequate access to PPE.

In interviews, relatives and friends of these younger victims described a particular and wrenching sorrow. Everything lay ahead for these front-line workers. They were just embarking on their careers. Some still lived in the family home; others were looking forward to getting married or had young children. Several parents of victims contacted by the Guardian and KHN said they were simply unable to talk about what had happened, so immense was their grief.

Valeria Viveros, a 20-year-old nursing assistant, was “barely blooming,” said her uncle, Gustavo Urrea. She made ceviche for her patients at a nursing home in Riverside, California, and Urrea could see her visibly growing in self-confidence. When she first fell sick from the virus, she went to the hospital but was sent home with Tylenol. She returned several days later in an ambulance — her final journey.

“We’re all destroyed,” Urrea said. “I can’t even believe it.”

Dulce Garcia, 29, an interpreter at a medical facility in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, died in May. “It just doesn’t feel real,” said friend Brittany Mathis. Garcia was the one who wouldn’t let friends drive if they’d had too many drinks, and she loved going out to dance to bachata, merengue and reggaeton. “There were so many things she had unfinished,” Mathis said.

While people of any age with underlying conditions such as diabetes and obesity are at higher risk of a severe COVID-19 infection, the particular impacts of the virus on young adults are only now becoming clear.

Doctors in New York noticed that more younger patients than usual were presenting with strokes, to the point that “the average age of our stroke patients with large-vessel strokes” — the most devastating kind — “has come down,” said Thomas Oxley, a Mount Sinai medical system neurosurgeon. COVID-19 infections cause inflammation, and often blood clots, in blood vessels as well as the lungs.

Angela Padula and Dennis Bradt became engaged in early February. On May 13, Bradt died of a heart attack as doctors tried to coax him off a ventilator.(Angela Padula)

Angela Padula thought that she and Dennis Bradt had done everything right.

Padula, 27, and Bradt, 29, became engaged on Feb. 8. She was a special-education teacher, and he was an addiction technician at Conifer Park, a private addiction treatment facility in Glenville, New York.

The couple wanted to save up for a few years for their wedding, but by early April, they had already purchased her engagement and wedding rings. Bradt, who had the sweeter tooth, had chosen a raspberry-swirl wedding cake.

After the pandemic hit, Bradt started showering when he got home from work. He and Padula wore masks when they went out, which was usually only for groceries or gas. They stopped visiting their immunocompromised parents.

On April 5, Bradt came down with a fever, stomach-bug symptoms and achiness, and went to the hospital. His COVID-19 test came back negative. Soon he couldn’t breathe. Another test proved positive. On April 16 he was put on a ventilator. In the process, he choked on his own vomit, which caused his lung to collapse.

Padula assumes Bradt was infected at work, and is unsure whether he had sufficient PPE. Conifer Park did not respond to queries, but according to local health authorities, 12 employees and six patients at the facility tested positive for COVID-19. Padula herself had symptoms so severe that she was taken to the emergency room in an ambulance.

She was not allowed to visit Bradt, and was quarantined alone at home, where she spent her 28th birthday, taking anxiety medication prescribed by her doctor.

On May 13, as doctors tried to coax Bradt off the ventilator, he suffered a heart attack, Padula said. She and Bradt’s mother were permitted to say goodbye to him. But “he was gone by the time we got there,” Padula said in an interview. “He didn’t look like himself,” swollen and festooned with tubes.

Today Padula is still sick. Pain in her arms, legs and back wakes her at night. She feels as though the virus has taken over her life.

“I have my days where it’s just too much to think about,” she said. “I’ll see people getting engaged on Facebook — it makes me mad. I want to be happy for them, but it’s very difficult for me to be happy. We were planning on having kids in a couple years.”

“It’s been a tough month for all of us,” Josh Obra wrote in an Instagram caption less than two months before he fell ill. “It’s just mentally exhausting thinking each night when I come home that I may be having symptoms the next day.”(The Obra family)

Less than two months before Josh and Jasmine Obra fell ill, Josh posted two pictures to Instagram: One was a photo of a fireworks display at Disneyland; the other was a picture of himself in medical scrubs, wearing a face mask, giving the peace sign.

“Heeeeeyo! It’s been a minute,” he wrote in the caption. “It’s been a tough month for all of us.” He worked with a vulnerable population, he said, and “it’s just mentally exhausting thinking each night when I come home that I may be having symptoms the next day.”

Even so, Josh was the kind of helpful, empathetic nurse who “makes things easier for everybody,” said colleague Sarah Depayso. He knew how to talk to patients and was attuned to others’ stress levels. “We were so busy, and it was ‘I’ll buy you lunch, I’ll buy you dinner, I’ll buy you boba.’”

It had been about 35 days since Disneyland closed its gates, Josh noted in his post. Josh’s photos — of the Sleeping Beauty castle framed by tabebuia blossoms, or of himself in an attention-grabbing Little Mermaid sweater — and corny jokes endeared him to thousands of followers on Instagram. “He had a way of capturing magic,” said his friend Brandon Joseph. The pictures were joyful, like memories of childhood.

Josh’s last post was on June 10, announcing that Disneyland planned to reopen in July. At some point the virus had reached his nursing home, infecting 49 staff members and 120 residents and ultimately killing 14 people. Approximately 41% of all U.S. coronavirus deaths are linked to nursing homes, where frail people live in close quarters, according to The New York Times.

After taking the virus test on June 12, his health deteriorated. On June 15, he messaged Joseph that he couldn’t take a full breath of air without feeling like he was being knifed in the chest. On June 20, he texted that he was at the hospital and that he had a particularly bad case.

The final time Josh spoke with his family, before he was put on a ventilator, was on June 21. “On our last video call together, I was isolated in Anaheim, quarantined, and our parents were at home,” Jasmine said. It was Father’s Day, “and I remembered crying and crying because this was the reality of what our family was.”

Josh’s family was not permitted to visit him in the hospital, and he died on July 6.

By coincidence, Josh, like his grandparents, was buried in the same cemetery as Walt Disney — Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.

Before the funeral, Jasmine walked over to Disney’s grave, she said. “I was like, ‘Hi, Walt. I hope you and my brother found each other.’”

Every night since he died, Jasmine has watched Southern California’s spectacular sunsets, the pinks and yellows that Josh kept returning to in his pictures. “And every time I feel like he’s with me. I look at the sky and sometimes I start talking to it, and I feel like I’m talking to my brother, and that he’s painting beautiful skies.”

Melissa Bailey, Eli Cahan, Shoshana Dubnow and Anna Sirianni contributed to this report.

This story is part of “Lost on the Frontline,” an ongoing project by The Guardian and KHN (Kaiser Health News) that aims to document the lives of health care workers in the U.S. who die from COVID-19, and to investigate why so many are victims of the disease. If you have a colleague or loved one we should include, please share their story.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Primary Care Doctors Look at Payment Overhaul After Pandemic Disruption

For Dr. Gabe Charbonneau, a primary care doctor in Stevensville, Montana, the coronavirus pandemic is an existential threat.

Charbonneau, 43, his two partners and 10 staff members are struggling to keep their rural practice alive. Patient volume is slowly returning to pre-COVID levels. But the large Seattle-area company that owns his practice is reassessing its operations as it adjusts to the new reality in health care.

Charbonneau has been given until September to demonstrate that his practice, Lifespan Family Medicine, is financially viable — or face possible sale or closure.

“We think we’re going to be OK,” said Charbonneau. “But it’s stressful and pushes us to cut costs and bring in more revenue. If the virus surges in the fall … well, that will significantly add to the challenge.”

Like other businesses around the country, many doctors were forced to close their offices — or at least see only emergency cases — when the pandemic struck. That led to sharp revenue losses, layoffs and pay cuts.

Dr. Kevin Anderson’s primary care practice in Cadillac, Michigan, is also scrambling. The practice — like others — shifted in March to seeing many patients via telemedicine but still saw a dramatic drop in patients and revenue. Anderson, 49, and his five partners are back to about 80% of the volume of patients they had before the pandemic. But to enhance their chances of survival, they plan to overhaul the way the practice gets paid by Medicare.

Jodi Faustlin, CEO of the for-profit Center for Primary Care in Evans, Georgia, manages 37 doctors at eight family medicine practices in the state. She’s confident all eight will emerge from the pandemic intact. But that is more likely, she said, if the company shifts from getting paid piecemeal for every service to a per-patient, per-month reimbursement.

One of those 37 doctors is Jacqueline Fincher, the president of the American College of Physicians. Fincher said the pandemic “has laid bare the flaws in primary care” and the “misguided allocation of money and resources” in the U.S. health care system.

“It’s nuts how we get paid,” said Fincher, whose practice is in Thomson, Georgia. “It doesn’t serve patients well, and it doesn’t work for doctors either — ever, let alone in a pandemic.”

Physicians and health policy experts say the pandemic is accelerating efforts to restructure primary care — which accounts for about half the nation’s doctor visits every year — and put it on a firmer financial footing.

The efforts also aim to address long-festering problems: a predicted widespread shortage of primary care doctors in the next decade, a rising level of physician burnout and a long-recognized underinvestment in primary care overall.

No data yet exist on how many of the nation’s primary care doctors have closed up shop permanently, hastened retirement or planned other moves following the COVID-19 outbreak. An analysis by the American Academy of Family Physicians in late April forecast furloughs, layoffs and reduced hours that translated to 58,000 fewer primary care doctors, and as many as 725,000 fewer nurses and other staff in their offices, by July if the pandemic’s impact continued. In 2018, the U.S. had about 223,000 primary care doctors.

“We think we’re going to be OK,” says Dr. Gabe Charbonneau, a primary care doctor in Stevensville, Montana. “But it’s stressful and pushes us to cut costs and bring in more revenue. If the virus surges in the fall … well, that will significantly add to the challenge.”(Tommy Martino for KHN)

“The majority [of primary care doctors] are hanging in there, so we haven’t yet seen the scope of closures we forecast,” said Jack Westfall, a researcher at the academy. “But the situation is still precarious, with many doctors struggling to make ends meet. We’re also hearing more anecdotal stories about older doctors retiring and others looking to sell their practices.”

Three-quarters of the more than 500 doctors contacted in an online survey by McKinsey & Co. said they expected their practices would not make a profit in 2020.

A study in the journal Health Affairs, published in June, put a hard number on that. It estimated that primary care practices would lose an average of $68,000, or 13%, in gross revenues per full-time physician in 2020. That works out to a loss of about $15 billion nationwide.

One main problem, said Westfall, is that payment for telehealth and virtual visits is still inadequate, and telehealth is not available to everyone.

Re-Engineering Primary Care Payments

The remedy being most widely promoted is to change the way doctors are reimbursed — away from the predominant system today, under which doctors are paid a fee for every service they provide (commonly called “fee-for-service”).

Health economists and patient advocates have long advocated such a transition — primarily to eliminate or at least greatly reduce the incentive to provide excessive and unneeded care and promote better management of people with chronic conditions. Stabilizing doctors’ incomes was previously a secondary goal.

Achieving this transition has been slow for many reasons, not the least of which is that some early experiments ended up paying doctors too little to sustain their businesses or improve patient care.

Instead, over the past decade doctors have sought safety in larger groups or ownership of their practices by large hospitals and health systems or other entities, including private equity firms.

A 2018 survey of 8,700 doctors by the Physicians Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy and research group, found, for example, that only 31% of doctors owned or co-owned their practice, down from 48.5% in 2012.

Fincher, the American College of Physicians president, predicts the pandemic will propel more primary care doctors to consolidate and be managed collectively. “More and more know they can’t make it on their own,” she said.

A 2018 survey by the American Medical Association found that, on average, 70% of doctor’s office revenue that year came from fee-for-service, with the rest from per-member, per-month payments and other methods.

The pandemic has renewed the push to get rid of fee-for-service — in large part because it has underscored that doctors don’t get paid at all when they can’t see patients and bill piecemeal for care.

“Primary care doctors now know how vulnerable they are, in ways they didn’t before,” said Rebecca Etz, a researcher at the Larry A. Green Center, a Richmond, Virginia, advocacy group for primary care doctors.

Charbonneau, in Montana, said he’s “absolutely ready” to leave fee-for-service behind.

However, he’s not sure the company that owns his practice, Providence Health System — which operates 1,100 clinics and doctors’ practices in the West — is committed to moving in that direction.

Anderson, in Michigan, is embracing a new payment model being launched next year under Medicare called Primary Care First. He’ll get a fixed monthly payment for each of his Medicare patients and be rewarded with extra revenue if he meets health goals for them and penalized if he doesn’t.

Medicare to Launch New Payment System

The Trump administration — following in the footsteps of the Obama administration — has been pushing for physician payment reform.

Medicare’s Primary Care First program is a main vehicle in that effort. It will launch in 26 areas in January. Doctors will get a fixed per-patient monthly fee along with flat fees for each patient visit. A performance-based adjustment will allow for bonuses up to 50% when doctors hit certain quality markers, such as blood pressure and blood sugar control and colorectal cancer screening, in a majority of patients.

But doctors also face penalties up to 10% if they don’t meet those and other standards.

Some private insurers are also leveraging the pandemic to enhance payment reform. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, for example, is offering financial incentives starting in September to primary care practices that commit to a shift away from fee-for-service. Independent Health, an insurer in New York state, is giving primary care practices per-patient fixed payments during the pandemic to bolster cash flow.

Meanwhile, two of the nation’s largest primary care practice companies continue to pull back from fee-for-service: Central Ohio Primary Care, with 75 practices serving 450,000 patients, and Oak Street Health, which owns 50 primary care practices in eight states.

“Primary care docs would have been better off during the pandemic if they had been getting fixed payments per month,” said Dr. T. Larry Blosser, the medical director for outpatient services for the Central Ohio firm.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Nurses and Doctors Sick With COVID Feel Pressured to Get Back to Work

The first call in early April was from the testing center, informing the nurse she was positive for COVID-19 and should quarantine for two weeks.

The second call, less than 20 minutes later, was from her employer, as the hospital informed her she could return to her job within two days.

“I slept 20 hours a day,” said the nurse, who works at a hospital in New Jersey’s Hackensack Meridian Health system and spoke on the condition of anonymity because she is fearful of retaliation by her employer. Though she didn’t have a fever, “I was throwing up. I was coughing. I had all the G.I. symptoms you can get,” referring to gastrointestinal COVID symptoms like diarrhea and nausea.

“You’re telling me, because I don’t have a fever, that you think it’s safe for me to go take care of patients?” the nurse said. “And they told me yes.”

Guidance from public health experts has evolved as they have learned more about the coronavirus, but one message has remained consistent: If you feel sick, stay home.

Yet hospitals, clinics and other health care facilities have flouted that simple guidance, pressuring workers who contract COVID-19 to return to work sooner than public health standards suggest it’s safe for them, their colleagues or their patients. Some employers have failed to provide adequate paid leave, if any at all, so employees felt they had to return to work — even with coughs and possibly infectious — rather than forfeit the paycheck they need to feed their families.

Unprepared for the pandemic, many hospitals found themselves short-staffed, struggling to find enough caregivers to treat the onslaught of sick patients. That desperate need dovetailed with a deeply entrenched culture in medicine of “presenteeism.” Front-line health care workers, in particular, follow a brutal ethos of being tough enough to work even when ill under the notion that other “people are sicker,” said Andra Blomkalns, who chairs the emergency medicine department at Stanford University.

In a survey of nearly 1,200 health workers who are members of Health Professionals and Allied Employees Union, roughly a third of those who said they had gotten sick responded that they had to return to work while symptomatic.

That pressure not only stresses hospital employees as they are forced to choose between their paychecks and their health or that of their families. The consequences are starker still: An investigation by KHN and The Guardian has identified at least 875 front-line health workers who have died of COVID-19, likely exposed to the virus at work during the pandemic.

But the dilemma also strains health workers’ sense of professional responsibility, knowing they may become vectors spreading infectious diseases to the patients they’re meant to heal.

Under Pressure

A database of COVID-related complaints made to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration this spring hints at the scope of the problem: a primary care facility in Illinois where symptomatic, COVID-positive employees were required to work; a respiratory clinic in North Carolina where COVID-positive employees were told they would be fired if they stayed home; a veterans hospital in Massachusetts where employees were returning to work sick because they weren’t getting paid otherwise.

“What we learned in this pandemic was employees felt disposable,” said Debbie White, a registered nurse and president of the Health Professionals and Allied Employees Union. “Employers didn’t protect them, and they felt like a commodity.”

Indeed, the pressure likely has been even worse than usual during the pandemic because hospitals have lacked backup staffing to deal with high rates of absenteeism caused by a highly infectious and serious virus. Hospitals do not staff for pandemics because in normal times “the cost of maintaining the personnel, the equipment, for something that may never happen” was hard to justify against more certain needs, said Dr. Marsha Rappley, who recently retired as chief executive of the Virginia Commonwealth University Health System in Richmond.

That has left many hospitals scrambling to find skilled staff to tend to waves of patients with COVID-19.

The nurse from Hackensack Meridian, the largest hospital chain in New Jersey, told the hospital’s occupational health and safety office that she could not return to work, citing a doctor’s instructions to isolate herself. No threat to fire her was made, she said.

But in daily calls from work, she was reminded her colleagues were short-staffed and “suffering.”

She also discovered her employer had revoked most of the paid time off she believed she had accumulated.

White said Hackensack Meridian had conducted what it described as a “payroll adjustment” in March and taken leave from many of its employees without explaining its calculations.

A statement provided by a Hackensack Meridian spokesperson, Mary Jo Layton, said the system’s occupational health office “has followed the CDC recommendations as it relates to the evaluation, testing and clearance of team members following infection with COVID-19.”

Hackensack Meridian adjusted some employees’ leave to correct a technical issue that prevented leave from being counted as it was taken, it said, adding workers were provided “an individual PTO reconciliation statement.”

“No team members were shorted any PTO that they rightfully earned,” Hackensack Meridian’s statement said.

Federal officials acknowledge that staffing shortages may require sick health care workers to return to work before they recover from COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even has strategies for it.

The CDC website lists mitigation options for short-staffed facilities, some of which have been implemented widely, such as canceling elective procedures and offering housing to workers who live with high-risk individuals.

But it acknowledges these strategies may not be enough. When all other options are exhausted, the CDC website says, workers who are suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19 (and “who are well enough to work”) can care for patients who are not severely immunocompromised — first for those who are also confirmed to have COVID-19, then those with suspected cases.

“As a last resort,” the website says, health care workers confirmed to have COVID-19 may provide care to patients who do not have the virus.

Like soldiers on the battlefield, Rappley said, front-line workers have been absorbing the consequences of that lack of preparedness on an institutional and societal level.

“This will leave scars for many generations to come,” she said.

Dr. Lauren Schleimer, a first-year resident at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, exhibited symptoms of the coronavirus after working in a COVID-only intensive care unit. She was instructed to stay home for seven days. She was never tested. Schleimer returned to the ICU symptom-free to treat patients fighting the same virus she suspects she had. (Shelby Knowles for KHN)

Personal Choice or No Choice?

Shenetta White-Ballard carried an oxygen canister in a backpack at work. A nurse at Legacy Nursing and Rehabilitation of Port Allen in Louisiana, she needed the help to breathe after battling a serious respiratory infection two years earlier.

When COVID-19 began to spread, she showed up for work. Her husband, Eddie Ballard, said his paycheck from Walmart was not enough to support their family.

“She kept bringing up, she gotta pay the bills,” he said.

White-Ballard died May 1 at age 44.

Legacy Nursing and Rehabilitation did not respond to requests for comment.

Ballard said his wife’s employer offered no support for him and their 14-year-old son after her sudden death. “Only thing they said was, ‘Come pick up her last check,’” he said.

Liz Stokes, director of the American Nurses Association’s Center for Ethics and Human Rights, said immunocompromised workers, in particular, have faced difficult decisions during the pandemic — sometimes made more difficult by pressure from employers.

Stokes recounted the experience of a surgical nurse in Washington with Crohn’s disease who took a temporary leave at her doctor’s recommendation but was pressured by her bosses and co-workers to return.

“She really expressed severe guilt because she felt like she was abandoning her duties as a nurse,” she said. “She felt like she was abandoning her colleagues, her patients.”

The Right Thing to Do

Residents, or doctors in training, are among the most vulnerable, as they work on inflexible, tightly packed schedules often assisting in the front-line care of dozens of patients each day.

Not long after one of New York City’s first confirmed COVID-19 patients was admitted to NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, Lauren Schleimer, a first-year surgical resident, reported she had developed a sore throat and a cough. Because she had not been exposed to that patient, she was told she could keep working and to wear a mask if she was coughing.

Her symptoms subsided. But a couple of weeks later, as cases surged and ventilators grew scarce, she was working in a COVID-only intensive care unit when her symptoms returned, worse than before.

The hospital instructed her to stay home for seven days, as health officials were recommending at the time. She was never tested.

A NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital spokesperson said of its front-line workers: “We have been constantly working to give them the support and resources they need to fight for every life while protecting their own health and safety, in accordance with New York State Department of Health and CDC guidelines.”

Schleimer returned to the ICU symptom-free at the end of her quarantine, caring for patients fighting the same virus she suspects she had. While she never felt that sick, she worried she could infect someone else — an immunocompromised nurse, a doctor whose age put him at risk, a colleague with a new baby at home.

“This was not the kind of thing I would stay home for,” Schleimer said. “But I definitely had some symptoms, and I was just trying to do the right thing.”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Lost on the Frontline: Explore the Database

Journalists from KHN and the Guardian have identified more than 900 workers who reportedly died of complications from COVID-19 they contracted on the job. Reporters are working to confirm the cause of death and workplace conditions in each case. They are also writing about the people behind the statistics — their personalities, passions and quirks — and telling the story of every life lost.

Explore the new interactive tool tracking those health worker deaths.

Jump To The ‘Lost on the Frontline’ Database

 

More From This Series:

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Más de 900 trabajadores de salud han muerto por COVID-19 en los Estados Unidos. Y la cifra aumenta

Más de 900 trabajadores de atención médica esenciales han muerto por COVID-19, según una base de datos interactiva creada por The Guardian y KHN.

Lost on the Frontline es una asociación entre las dos redacciones que tiene como objetivo contar, verificar y honrar a cada trabajador de salud de los Estados Unidos que ha muerto durante la pandemia.

Es el recuento más completo de las muertes de trabajadores de salud del país.

A medida que aumentan los casos de coronavirus, y persiste la grave escasez de equipos de protección que salvan vidas, como máscaras N95, delantales y guantes, los trabajadores de salud del país se enfrentan de nuevo a condiciones potencialmente mortales, en especial en los estados del sur y el oeste.

A través de análisis y comparación de registros y fuentes, informes de colegas, redes sociales, obituarios en línea, sindicatos de trabajadores y medios locales, los reporteros de Lost on the Frontline han identificado a 922 trabajadores de salud que murieron por COVID-19 y sus complicaciones.

Un equipo de más de 50 periodistas de The Guardian, KHN y de escuelas de periodismo han pasado meses investigando muertes individuales para comprobar que fueran a causa de COVID-19 y de que los fallecidos efectivamente estuvieran trabajando en la primera línea de batalla, en contacto directo con pacientes con COVID o trabajando en lugares donde reciben tratamiento.

Los reporteros también han estado investigando las circunstancias de sus muertes, incluido su acceso a equipo de protección personal (EPP), y han estado contactando a familiares, compañeros de trabajo, representantes sindicales y empleadores para que comentaran sobre estas muertes.

Hasta el momento, se han publicado167 con nombres, datos, e historias de vida con colegas o seres queridos opinando y recordando sus vidas. Cada semana se publican los nombres de nuevas víctimas. Y Cada muerte se confirma de manera individual antes de publicarla.

El recuento incluye médicos, enfermeras y paramédicos, así como personal de apoyo crucial, como conserjes de hospitales, administradores y trabajadores de hogares de adultos mayores, que arriesgaron sus propias vidas durante la pandemia para cuidar a otros.

Los primeros datos indican que han muerto decenas de personas que no pudieron acceder a equipo de protección personal adecuado y al menos 35 sucumbieron después que funcionarios federales de seguridad laboral recibieran quejas sobre la seguridad en sus lugares de trabajo.

Los primeros recuentos también sugieren que la mayoría de las muertes se produjeron entre personas de color, muchas de ellas inmigrantes. Pero debido a que esta base de datos es un trabajo en curso, con nuevos casos confirmados y sumados semanalmente, los primeros hallazgos representan una fracción del total de informes y no son representativos de todas las muertes de trabajadores de salud.

De los 167 trabajadores agregados a la base de datos de Lost on the Frontline hasta ahora:

  • La mayoría, 103 (62%), fueron identificadas como personas de color.
  • Se informó que al menos 52 (31%) tenían un equipo de protección inadecuado.
  • La edad promedio fue de 57 años, y oscilaba entre los 20 y los 80 años, con 21 personas (13%) menores de 40.
  • Aproximadamente un tercio, al menos 53, nacieron fuera de los Estados Unidos y 25 eran de Filipinas.
  • La mayoría de las muertes, 103, ocurrieron en abril, después del aumento inicial de casos en la costa este.
  • Aproximadamente el 38% (64) fueron enfermeras, pero el total también incluía médicos, farmacéuticos, socorristas y técnicos hospitalarios, entre otros.
  • Al menos 68 vivían en Nueva York y Nueva Jersey, dos estados muy afectados al comienzo de la pandemia, seguidos por Illinois y California.

Algunas de estas muertes se pudieron prevenir. La mala preparación, los errores del gobierno y un sistema de salud sobrecargado aumentaron ese riesgo. El acceso inadecuado a las pruebas, la escasez de equipos de protección en todo el país y la resistencia al distanciamiento social y al uso de máscaras han obligado a más internaciones en hospitales ya sobrecargados, y han elevado el número de muertos.

Los vacíos en los datos gubernamentales han aumentado la necesidad de un seguimiento independiente. El gobierno federal no ha registrado con precisión las muertes de trabajadores de salud. Hasta el domingo 9 de agosto, los Centros para el Control y Prevención de Enfermedades (CDC) informaron 587 muertes entre este grupo, pero la agencia no enumera nombres específicos y ha admitido que se trata de un recuento insuficiente.

Las medidas recientes de la Casa Blanca subrayan la necesidad de datos públicos y responsabilidad. En julio, la administración Trump ordenó a los centros de salud que enviaran datos sobre hospitalizaciones y muertes por COVID-19 directamente al Departamento de Salud y Servicios Humanos, sin pasar por los CDC.

En los días siguientes, la información vital sobre la pandemia desapareció del ojo público. (Los datos se restauraron más tarde después de una protesta pública, pero la agencia indicó que es posible que ya no actualice las cifras debido a un cambio en los requisitos de informes federales).

Historias exclusivas de los reporteros de Lost on the Frontline han revelado que muchos trabajadores de salud están usando máscaras quirúrgicas que son mucho menos efectivas que las máscaras N95, lo que los expone a mayor peligro. Los correos electrónicos obtenidos a través de una solicitud de registros públicos mostraron que los funcionarios federales y estatales estaban al tanto a fines de febrero de la grave escasez de equipos de protección.

Investigaciones posteriores encontraron que los trabajadores de salud que contrajeron el coronavirus y sus familias ahora luchan por acceder a las pensiones y otros beneficios del sistema de compensación para trabajadores. El informe también ha examinado las muertes de 19 trabajadores de salud menores de 30 años que murieron por COVID-19.

Seguimos recopilando los nombres de los trabajadores de salud que han fallecido y analizando por qué tantos se han enfermado. Agradecemos sugerencias y comentarios en [email protected] y [email protected].

La corresponsal senior de KHN Christina Jewett y Melissa Bailey colaboraron con este informe.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Public Health Officials Are Quitting or Getting Fired in Throes of Pandemic

Vilified, threatened with violence or in some cases suffering from burnout, dozens of state and local public health officials around the U.S. have resigned or have been fired amid the coronavirus outbreak, a testament to how politically combustible masks, lockdowns and infection data have become.

One of the latest departures came Sunday, when California’s public health director, Dr. Sonia Angell, was ousted following a technical glitch that caused a delay in reporting virus test results — information used to make decisions about reopening businesses and schools.

Last week, New York City’s health commissioner was replaced after months of friction with the police department and City Hall.

A review by KHN and The Associated Press finds at least 49 state and local public health leaders have resigned, retired or been fired since April across 23 states. The list has grown by more than 20 people since the AP and KHN started keeping track in June.

Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called the numbers stunning. He said they reflect burnout, as well as attacks on public health experts and institutions from the highest levels of government, including from President Donald Trump, who has sidelined the CDC during the pandemic.

“The overall tone toward public health in the U.S. is so hostile that it has kind of emboldened people to make these attacks,” Frieden said.

The past few months have been “frustrating and tiring and disheartening” for public health officials, said former West Virginia public health commissioner Dr. Cathy Slemp, who was forced to resign by Republican Gov. Jim Justice in June.

“You care about community, and you’re committed to the work you do and societal role that you’re given. You feel a duty to serve, and yet it’s really hard in the current environment,” Slemp said in an interview Monday.

The departures come at a time when public health expertise is needed more than ever, said Lori Tremmel Freeman, CEO of the National Association of County and City Health Officials.

“We’re moving at breakneck speed here to stop a pandemic, and you can’t afford to hit the pause button and say, ‘We’re going to change the leadership around here and we’ll get back to you after we hire somebody,’” Freeman said.

As of Monday, confirmed infections in the United States stood at over 5 million, with deaths topping 163,000, the highest in the world, according to the count kept by Johns Hopkins University researchers. The confirmed number of coronavirus cases worldwide topped 20 million.

Many of the firings and resignations have to do with conflicts over mask orders or shutdowns to enforce social distancing, Freeman said. Despite the scientific evidence that such measures help prevent transmission of the coronavirus, many politicians and others have argued they are not needed, no matter what health experts tell them.

“It’s not a health divide; it’s a political divide,” Freeman said.

Some health officials said they were stepping down for family reasons, and some left for jobs at other agencies, such as the CDC. Some, like Angell, were ousted because of what higher-ups said was poor leadership or a failure to do their job.

Others have complained that they were overworked, underpaid, unappreciated or thrust into a pressure-cooker environment.

“To me, a lot of the divisiveness and the stress and the resignations that are happening right and left are the consequence of the lack of a real national response plan,” said Dr. Matt Willis, health officer for Marin County in Northern California. “And we’re all left scrambling at the local and state level to extract resources and improvise solutions.”

Public health leaders from Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, down to officials in small communities have reported death threats and intimidation. Some have seen their home addresses published or been the subject of sexist attacks on social media. Fauci has said his wife and daughters have received threats.

In Ohio, the state’s health director, Dr. Amy Acton, resigned in June after months of pressure during which Republican lawmakers tried to strip her of her authority and armed protesters showed up at her house.

It was on Acton’s advice that GOP Gov. Mike DeWine became the first governor to shut down schools statewide. Acton also called off the state’s presidential primary in March just hours before polls were to open, angering those who saw it as an overreaction.

The executive director of Las Animas-Huerfano Counties District Health Department in Colorado, Kim Gonzales, found her car vandalized twice, and a group called Colorado Counties for Freedom ran a radio ad demanding that her authority be reduced. Gonzales has remained on the job.

In West Virginia, the governor forced Slemp’s resignation over what he said were discrepancies in the data. Slemp said the department’s work had been hurt by outdated technology like fax machines and slow computer networks. Tom Inglesby, director of the UPMC Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins, said the issue amounted to a clerical error easily fixed.

Inglesby said it was deeply concerning that public health officials who told “uncomfortable truths” to political leaders had been removed.

“That’s terrible for the national response because what we need for getting through this, first of all, is the truth. We need data, and we need people to interpret the data and help political leaders make good judgments,” Inglesby said.

Since 2010, spending on state public health departments has dropped 16% per capita, and the amount devoted to local health departments has fallen 18%, according to a KHN and AP analysis. At least 38,000 state and local public health jobs have disappeared since the 2008 recession, leaving a skeleton workforce for what was once viewed as one of the world’s top public health systems.

Another sudden departure came Monday along the Texas border. Dr. Jose Vazquez, the Starr County health authority, resigned after a proposal to increase his pay from $500 to $10,000 a month was rejected by county commissioners.

Starr County Judge Eloy Vera, a county commissioner who supported the raise, said Vazquez had been working 60 hours per week in the county, one of the poorest in the U.S. and recently one of those hit hardest by the virus.

“He felt it was an insult,” Vera said.

In Oklahoma, both the state health commissioner and state epidemiologist have been replaced since the outbreak began in March.

In rural Colorado, Emily Brown was fired in late May as director of the Rio Grande County Public Health Department after clashing with county commissioners over reopening recommendations. The person who replaced her resigned July 9.

The months of nonstop and often unappreciated work are prompting many public health workers to leave, said Theresa Anselmo of the Colorado Association of Local Public Health Officials.

“It will certainly slow down the pandemic response and become less coordinated,” she said. “Who’s going to want to take on this career if you’re confronted with the kinds of political issues that are coming up?”

Weber reported from St. Louis. Associated Press writers Paul Weber, Sean Murphy and Janie Har and California Healthline senior correspondent Anna Maria Barry-Jester contributed reporting.

This story is a collaboration between KHN and The Associated Press.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Amid COVID Chaos, California Legislators Fight for Major Health Care Bills

California lawmakers are barreling toward an end-of-month deadline to pass or kill bills amid the biggest public health crisis the state has faced in a century.

Yet even in a year consumed by sickness, they’re considering significant — sometimes controversial — health policy measures that aren’t directly related to COVID-19.

Much of this legislation predates the pandemic, having lacked the support to win approval in previous years. Now, the bills are making significant progress because they underwent rigorous vetting in the past. That puts them steps ahead in a year with little time for deliberation or debate.

They include bills to ban the sale of flavored tobacco products, such as menthol cigarettes and vaping liquids; allow California to develop its own brand of generic drugs; enhance the state attorney general’s power to reject hospital mergers; and allow nurse practitioners to practice independently.

“Some of these bills, which have pretty far-reaching effects, may just sweep through because [lawmakers are] trying to get out of here by the end of August,” said Garry South, a Democratic political strategist.

The California legislature has had a bizarre year. Lawmakers left town abruptly in March to comply with lockdown orders and then again in July when some Assembly members tested positive for COVID-19, cutting the legislative session short.

The reduced time means most policy committees scheduled fewer hearings in the last weeks of the session to debate bills. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, most witnesses are giving testimony over the phone and in video conferences, lawmakers are unable to have informal meetings in the hallways, and advocates have less opportunity to lobby officials.

Lawmakers face an Aug. 31 deadline to send bills to Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has until the end of September to sign or veto them.

Given the shortened time frame for voting and deliberation, legislative leaders repeatedly asked committee chairs and members of their houses to reduce their legislative load, focusing on the most pressing challenges, like COVID-19 and wildfires. Despite those directives, most officials acknowledge a need to address more than those issues this year.

“We have the capacity to do many different things, and there are many things we must tend to in this state,” Newsom said at a press conference in late July. “I look forward to signing many bills that the legislature sends down.”

Passage is not guaranteed in the last three chaotic weeks of the legislative session, but the following major health care bills have made it through one house of the legislature and are working their way through committees in the second chamber.

  • SB-977 would give the attorney general new authority to regulate and potentially deny mergers between large for-profit hospitals, private equity firms and physicians’ groups. Attorney General Xavier Becerra has been working on this legislation for years in the face of strong opposition from hospitals.
  • SB-793 is an enormously controversial bill that would go beyond the recent federal ban on flavors in vape cartridges, which excludes menthol and tobacco flavors. This measure would ban the sale of most flavored tobacco products statewide, including menthol cigarettes, an idea that has died and been resurrected in many forms in both the Senate and Assembly.
  • AB-890 represents another long-standing Capitol feud, with the powerful doctor lobby opposing. The measure would allow nurse practitioners — nurses with advanced degrees and training — to practice medicine in some cases without oversight from a physician.
  • SB-852 would establish a state office that would contract with drug manufacturers to produce or distribute low-cost generic drugs in California. Newsom floated the idea in January.

It’s not an accident that such weighty bills are the ones left standing after legislators were asked to slash their portfolio of bills this year, said Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento), who chairs the Senate Health Committee.

When Pan culled the bills his committee would consider, he eliminated measures with unresolved questions, he said, because administration officials dealing with the pandemic were less available to testify as witnesses and lawmakers were unable to work closely with one another in the Capitol.

“Is this something that needs to be done this year?” Pan said he asked himself.

That means many of the bills moving through his committee and other policy committees are largely the ones that have been scrutinized in previous years, Pan said.

“We spent a lot of time working through those issues and trying to get those all resolved for the committee,” Pan added.

But South warned that even legislation that has been heard in the past deserves the full debate and deliberation that would take place in a typical year.

“I don’t think the process is set up this year to be passing major legislation that affects major sections of society without adequate input from stakeholders and the general public,” he said.

Some lawmakers are keeping other measures alive by using the pandemic to sharpen pitches for their pre-COVID bills, with the refrain “Now more than ever.” Sure, the bill was important when it was introduced in February, they argue, but “now more than ever” it really has to pass.

“You’ve got legislators not used to having so many of their bills threatened,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican political consultant. “It’s not surprising they’d be trying to adapt their proposals to the narrowed purview of this session, which is obviously COVID-related.”

Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), author of the tobacco flavor bill, is employing this tactic.

“I know we’ve all had to reassess our priorities,” Hill said at an Assembly committee hearing. “Yet emerging evidence about smoking and COVID-19 suggests smoking can put people at greater risk.”

Another example of the “Now more than ever” trend is SB-855, a “mental health parity” bill that would strengthen requirements for private health insurance to cover medically necessary treatment for mental illnesses.

“Even before COVID, mental health and addiction were major crises in this country,” but the pandemic is making the crises worse, the bill’s author, Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), said at a press conference last week. “People who were stable with their mental health are now losing stability.”

That’s not to say using COVID-19 as justification to pass a bill is just a gimmick; some problems really have gotten worse since the start of the pandemic, said Larry Levitt, executive vice president of health policy at KFF. (KHN, which produces California Healthline, is an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.)

“Mental health is a perfect example of the pandemic exacerbating problems that were already there,” he said.

Wiener’s measure has survived the Senate and several committees, but other lawmakers haven’t seen the same success.

Assembly member Adrin Nazarian (D-Van Nuys) lobbied hard for AB-2203, which would have capped out-of-pocket payments for insulin. Nazarian pointed to a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that showed 40% of people who died of COVID-19 had diabetes.

His bill sailed through the Assembly but wasn’t given a hearing in the Senate. He said he followed directions from leadership to reduce the number of bills he was carrying, paring them down from about 25 to fewer than 10.

“Without a pandemic, this was a straightforward bill that would protect consumers and curb health care costs,” Nazarian said. “I’m extremely upset and frustrated about this.”


This KHN story first published on California Healthline, a service of the California Health Care Foundation.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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‘An Arm and a Leg’: Financial Self-Defense School Is Now in Session

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When you need medical care, it can be a lot like entering a casino — playing for your financial life with the deck stacked against you.

But in this episode, reporter Celia Llopis-Jepsen offers insight and tips no dealer will divulge. She got a health care executive to talk honestly — maybe more honestly than he realized — about how his company and others are playing the game when they send patients huge bills.

When she investigated one man’s $80,000 bill, here’s what Llopis-Jepsen found:

Providers who took some of the $175 billion in pandemic-related bailout funds that Congress authorized in March had to promise not to ding patients with surprise bills for COVID-related care. But don’t expect your provider to merely tell you if that rule applies in your case. (That $80,000 bill did not include a footnote that said, “Once insurance pays us, you can forget all about this.”)

If you get a bill for COVID treatment, you can look up the provider yourself. Llopis-Jepsen found a government database where you can see if your provider took bailout funds.

She also has a tip sheet for pushing back against your medical bills.

And this story — which shows you don’t always owe what you are charged — is packed with insight, too.

Podcast Scheduling Announcement

From here on out, look for financial self-defense lessons from “An Arm and a Leg” every two weeks, instead of occasional seasons. Because it is always a good time to learn how to stand up against unfair medical bills.

“An Arm and a Leg” is a co-production of Kaiser Health News and Public Road Productions.

To keep in touch with “An Arm and a Leg,” subscribe to the newsletter. You can also follow the show on Facebook and Twitter. And if you’ve got stories to tell about the health care system, the producers would love to hear from you.

To hear all Kaiser Health News podcasts, click here.

And subscribe to “An Arm and a Leg” on iTunesPocket CastsGoogle Play or Spotify.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Business Is Booming for Dialysis Giant Fresenius. It Took a $137M Bailout Anyway.

As the coronavirus pandemic paralyzed most nonemergency medical practices this spring, the dialysis business, vital to the survival of patients with kidney disease, rolled ahead and in some cases grew.

Yet when the Trump administration sent billions in federal relief funds to medical organizations, at least $259 million went to dialysis providers, a KHN analysis of federal records found. Of that, kidney care behemoth Fresenius Medical Care accepted more than half, at least $137 million, despite acknowledging it had ample financial resources, the analysis showed.

The full amount going to Fresenius and many other dialysis providers is far higher than what KHN could confirm. The analysis was limited to the portion of grants disclosed by the federal government. And the analysis counted only grants going to organizations whose primary purpose was providing dialysis. In a securities filing last month, Fresenius disclosed it received a total of $277 million in relief funds under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

Funding to giant dialysis providers would have been greater if DaVita, the other multinational corporation that dominates dialysis care in the U.S., had not turned down $240 million in aid, saying other medical providers needed it more. Fresenius and DaVita each own more than 2,600 dialysis centers nationwide.

Headquartered in Germany, Fresenius Medical Care is focused on patients with kidney failure who need blood-purifying dialysis treatment three times a week to stay alive, billing itself as the world’s largest provider of dialysis and related services, equipment and drugs. Fresenius treated about 350,000 people worldwide and earned last year about $1.4 billion. The company announced second-quarter profits exceeding $400 million, up more than a third over last year, due to a 14% operating margin.

“From what we know today, the net impact of COVID-19 on our earnings is not so significant,” Helen Giza, Fresenius’ chief financial officer, told analysts.

With scores of COVID-19 patients developing major kidney damage, the pandemic caused unexpected demand for dialysis treatment. Chronic kidney disease and kidney failure were common among people hospitalized with COVID-19, accounting for 13% of all such patients nationally from January to March, when the extent of the virus’s spread in the U.S. was just coming to light, according to FAIR Health, a health data nonprofit that analyzes insurance bills.

Little Drop-Off in Business

The bailouts to Fresenius and other dialysis operations provide one of the bluntest examples yet of how the Department of Health and Human Services failed to direct taxpayer-supported bailout funds only to providers in crisis. Massive assistance payments from the $175 billion Provider Relief Fund allotted by Congress went to well-financed corporations and segments of the health care industry like dialysis that were financially stable, or to businesses with ample financial reserves.

For instance, HCA Healthcare, the for-profit hospital chain, posted a $1.1 billion second-quarter profit that included $590 million in government rescue funds. “We’ve seen billions flow to wealthy hospital systems and health care corporations that may not need the money,” said Kyle Herrig, president of Accountable.US, a government watchdog group and frequent critic of the Trump administration. “We should have designed a program that was most likely to help those that actually needed the help.”

Harder-hit segments of the health care industry reported the relief funds were insufficient to cover all COVID-related costs and losses. Some doctors’ offices and dentists struggled to stay afloat after having to forgo visits and procedures that are the main part of their businesses. Unlike the services hospitals provide, noted Ge Bai, associate professor of accounting and health policy at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, dialysis is “much more resistant to the pandemic in terms of revenue.”

Dialysis clinics said their drop-off in business was minimal.

“For the most part, patients actually came,” said Dr. Mihran Naljayan, medical director of Louisiana State University’s peritoneal dialysis program in New Orleans, one of the country’s earliest COVID-19 hot spots. “We didn’t see a decrease in the number of visits.” Instead, when the virus rapidly spread in the New Orleans metro area in late March, the number of inpatient dialysis treatments jumped 47% and continuous renal replacement therapy — dialysis for critically ill patients that is performed for a prolonged time — rose by 260%.

HHS defended its approach for distributing funds, noting that other options would have taken much longer to implement. Congress also did not instruct the department to determine the financial strength of each provider when allocating the money.

“HHS is acutely aware of the financial hardship many facilities and providers are facing. That is why HHS has and will make targeted distributions to facilities and providers that have been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus pandemic,” the department said in a statement.

Covering Unexpected Expenses

In explaining their need for federal money, dialysis clinics large and small said they faced unexpected costs to protect patients from COVID-19. They noted that defraying those costs was an explicit goal Congress set in creating the bailout fund and that their allotments did not cover those expenses.

Brad Puffer, a spokesperson for Fresenius Medical Care North America, which recorded about $41 billion in sales last year, said the money helped dialysis centers equip workers with protective equipment such as gowns, segregate COVID-positive patients, give emergency pay and child care stipends for workers, cover the costs of COVID testing and enact a telehealth system to conduct virtual visits.

“We believe our early and aggressive actions, and the vigilance with which our employees have implemented those actions, have successfully reduced the risks to our patients and employees,” Puffer said in an email.

Congress provided the money but largely left to federal health officials the specifics on how these grants, which don’t have to be repaid, should be distributed. In its haste to prop up providers, and after lobbying by hospitals and other sectors to quickly get money out the door, HHS meted out the first $50 billion based on past Medicare payments and overall patient revenue. Subsequent funding was steered to COVID-19 hot spots, nursing homes, providers in rural areas and safety-net institutions that care for higher numbers of the uninsured and other vulnerable groups.

The money is available to hospitals, physician practices, dialysis clinics and other medical entities regardless of financial strength; providers had only to agree the money would be used either to replace income lost because of the pandemic or to cover COVID-related expenses that weren’t reimbursed through other means.

In April, DaVita, a Fortune 500 company based in Denver that saw $11 billion in revenue and $1 billion in net income last year, indicated it would keep the $240 million the government sent. But a month later, CEO Javier Rodriguez told analysts DaVita decided to return the payments even though the company had incurred extra costs because of the pandemic.

“From our perspective, they were a safety net,” he said. “And they were to be used for people that needed that money, because the economic damage was so severe, that they couldn’t keep their doors open.”

In July, DaVita reported a 14% operating margin, a key measure of its business, for the second quarter. That was down from 16% from the same time last year. The company’s net profit was $202 million.

Dan Mendelson, founder of the health consulting firm Avalere and a private equity investor, said the move by DaVita probably helps its image. “They are very attuned to how things look,” Mendelson said. “When I saw they were turning it down, I was not surprised.”

A Steady Demand

The dialysis industry adapted its care after the pandemic struck. That included segregating patients suspected of having or diagnosed with COVID-19 from uninfected people, limiting staff interaction with patients, hiring additional personnel and bulking up on protective equipment.

But while the pandemic forced other types of providers to close temporarily or significantly limit procedures, there was little impact on dialysis services.

LogistiCare Solutions, which has contracts with multiple state Medicaid programs to provide nonemergency medical transportation to enrollees, saw a steady demand from dialysis patients, while calls for other medical and social services waned because of COVID-induced shutdowns, senior adviser Albert Cortina said. Dialysis patients, who accounted for roughly a fifth of the company’s volume before the pandemic, shot up to account for more than 40%.

“It was considered a true essential service,” Cortina said.

Some independent dialysis centers said the HHS relief funds were crucial even though they maintained normal patient loads. Northwest Kidney Centers, a nonprofit that runs 19 dialysis centers primarily in Seattle, received $2.6 million. Dr. Suzanne Watnick, the chief medical officer, said that will not cover all of the substantial expenses the center incurred in increasing protection for patients and workers.

“It’s important to recognize that what we had to do and stand up was like being in a hospital,” she said.

Watnick did not begrudge the large dialysis corporations that accepted the bailout money. “They do have 100 times the number of patients; that seems a reasonable way to allocate,” she said. “What do you say? ‘You have more of a profit margin, but you get less money’?”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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KHN’s ‘What the Health?’: Still Waiting for That Trump Health Plan

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President Donald Trump keeps promising to unveil a comprehensive plan to replace the Affordable Care Act, but it keeps not appearing. However, this week he did order an expansion of telehealth for Medicare beneficiaries and a program to help struggling rural hospitals.

Meanwhile, the administration still lacks a comprehensive plan to fight the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S., and Congress remains unable to agree on another round of COVID relief funding, despite broad agreement on the need.

Outside Washington, Missouri this week became the sixth state where voters approved an expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act over the objections of Republican governors and/or Republican-controlled legislatures.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of Kaiser Health News, Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico, Tami Luhby of CNN and Kimberly Leonard of Business Insider.

Among the takeaways from this week’s podcast:

  • If a compromise over a federal relief package is not reached, Trump said he will issue executive orders to provide enhanced unemployment benefits and protections for people facing eviction. Even if he can do that, other parts of the stimulus plan — including money for states and local governments facing major deficits, schools, and testing and tracing programs — will likely be out of luck.
  • Six states announced this week they are banding together to purchase quick-turnaround coronavirus tests as they try to increase the number of tests they can offer.
  • States that have been using National Guard troops during the coronavirus emergency to help provide services are facing the prospect of having to pick up part of the cost for those service members. The mobilization was set to expire soon, but this week the administration announced it would extend the use of the National Guard, if states helped pay for it.
  • No new health plan was offered by Trump despite his comments in an interview with Fox News anchor Chris Wallace two weeks ago that a plan would be unveiled by Aug. 2. Instead, the administration has rolled out a number of smaller initiatives, including proposals to lower prescription drug prices and extending telemedicine.
  • The loosening of Medicare’s rules for telehealth during the pandemic has proved popular and may be hard to roll back. It has helped overcome shortages of medical professionals in rural areas and in mental health services. Nonetheless, federal officials and some health policy analysts suggest that increased use of digital medical appointments could expand the nation’s overall health bill. For example, if a