Hospitals and Physicians Will Likely Need Financial Help, but Let’s Not Pass That Cost to Our Seniors

From the anesthesiologist performing intubations, to the nurse doing everything possible to comfort dying COVID-19 patients, to the orderly transporting them through busy hallways, hospitals are teeming with heroes through this pandemic. The costs being felt by the frontline health care workers are staggering, both personally and financially, and as a nation we owe them a debt of gratitude and to make them whole. But how we do that without harming others already being disproportionately affected by this crisis will be key.

According to the CDC, 80% of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. have been in adults 65 and older. Of patients over 85 confirmed to have the virus, as many as 70% require hospitalization. For adults 65-84, they fare slightly better, with closer to 60% requiring hospitalization. There is no doubt that seniors are facing frightful odds in their fight against COVID-19. We can’t add more financial pressures to an already anxiety-inducing situation, and that’s exactly what one of the funding proposals on the table may do.

The most recent relief package enacted by Congress and signed by the President rightly included a series of provisions in acknowledgement of the tremendous financial hit that hospitals and physicians are taking as a result of the dramatic increase in trauma care and the significant decrease in lucrative elective surgeries and routine care. That package included a 2% increase in Medicare payments for providers, a 20% increase in Medicare inpatient care payments for COVID-19 related claims and direct funding of $100 billion. There isn’t a person paying attention to the harrowing nature of the work taking place in hospitals throughout this country who would begrudge them that financial support.

Nonprofit research firm Altarum recently reported that 43,000 health care workers lost their jobs in the first month of the COVID-19 pandemic. Major medical centers in Boston, Charleston and even Duluth, MN, are having to reduce salaries, furlough workers or lay off significant portions of their workforce, all on account of the significant revenue losses they are experiencing. Hospitals and physicians will likely need more help.

However, one way they’re asking for it is from health insurance providers, in the form of forward-looking payments for services and even payments unconnected to care actually provided. This is far from a tenable solution. Forcing health insurers to serve as banks for providers could have costly consequences for seniors, particularly those on Medicare Advantage.

Higher payments from insurers means higher premiums for consumers. Insurance providers throughout the country are covering more and more costs related to COVID-19 diagnosis, care, and treatment, waving copays, coinsurance and deductibles for impacted families. Wakely Consulting Group, a firm of actuaries and healthcare experts, estimated that through these steps and others, health insurers could shoulder as much as $556 billion in COVID-19 related costs over the next two years. Meanwhile, businesses are being forced to lay off millions of workers, with more and more people dropping their health insurance.

We also know that many of the treatments and routine care being deferred today cannot be put off forever. As soon as the coronavirus crisis eases, hospitals are likely to see lost revenue return, with insurance providers paying the bill. 

60 Plus recently wrote Administrator Verma regarding Medicare Advantage Rate Setting and our concern that the costs of COVID-19 to the system now could result in higher costs for seniors later. We echo that concern as it relates to this proposal. COVID-19 is putting unprecedented strain on every element of our health care system, from ambulatory care to hospitals to insurance providers. And government needs to do everything it can to provide them all the support they need to serve patients reliably today and into the future.