Hospitals press Washington for more COVID-19 relief

The American Hospital Association asks Biden, Congress to release billions to healthcare organizations struggling with the surge of coronavirus patients.

The American Hospital Association and healthcare leaders are pressing Washington for more COVID-19 relief for hospitals.

In a media call Tuesday morning, AHA officials and healthcare leaders talked about the serious toll of the coronavirus pandemic on doctors, nurses and hospitals.

Rick Pollack, the AHA’s president, acknowledged the federal government has directed billions to hospitals. But he said more support is needed, since the Omicron variant has fueled records in COVID-19 hospitalizations.

The AHA is seeking an additional $25 billion in COVID-19 relief.

The hospital association is also pushing for President Biden’s administration and Congress to release some more of the federal Provider Relief Fund to aid hospitals. The Provider Relief Fund includes a total $178 billion for all providers, and an additional $8.5 billion for rural providers. But some of that money has yet to be given out.

“No distributions have been made or announced for expenses related to the Delta or Omicron variant surges, despite increases in hospitalizations, deaths and cases,” Pollack said.

Later Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced it was distributing an additional $2 billion in COVID-19 relief.

About 150,000 COVID-19 patients are being treated in hospitals nationwide. The number of hospitalizations has dropped slightly from the peak in recent days, but many hospitals are filled with patients. While hospitalizations are dropping in some eastern states, western and southern states are seeing more COVID-19 patients filling hospital beds.

The AHA has sent letters to Congress and the administration urging more federal support. They outlined several priorities in the media call.

Medicare funding

Congress and the Biden administration agreed to delay automatic cuts in Medicare but they are still coming. Medicare is slated for a 1% cut in April and a 2% reduction in July. The AHA is asking Biden and Congress to delay automatic spending cuts in Medicare, also known as sequestration, for the rest of 2022.

Hospitals are struggling financially due to the huge number of COVID-19 patients, coupled with other patients who delayed care due to the pandemic and now require treatment. And hospitals are facing higher labor and supply costs, Pollack said.

“Now is not the time to reduce support for hospitals or cut payments,” Pollack said.

Hospitals were able to get advance Medicare payments to help cover some pandemic-related costs, but the money needs to be repaid this year. The AHA is asking Congress to suspend those repayments for six months.

Nursing shortage

Pollack and other hospital leaders on the media call talked about the impact of the shortage of nurses in their facilities. Healthcare leaders said many nurses, among other healthcare professionals, have resigned or retired over the course of the coronavirus pandemic.

Robyn Begley, the AHA’s senior vice president and chief nursing officer, cited federal projections of 500,000 nurses leaving the workforce in 2022. The pandemic is leaving nurses and other healthcare workers overwhelmed and exhausted.

“It’s very hard for our staff to go home and do one's normal activities after seeing so much pain and loss in the work setting,” Begley said.

Expanding the pipeline

Congress and the administration need to authorize more funding to train more doctors and nurses, Pollack and others said. There was a shortage of doctors and nurses before the emergence of COVID-19, and the pandemic has exacerbated the problem.

Pollack and other healthcare leaders have pushed Washington to authorize more federally-funded slots for graduate medical education. They're seeing more money to train doctors and nurses, particularly in vulnerable and underserved communities.

Staffing agencies

The AHA is asking the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the practices of nurse staffing agencies. The association said some agencies are charging two or three times what they charged before the pandemic.

Melinda Hatton, AHA’s general counsel, said the hospital association first brought up the issue with the FTC last year.

“It’s fair to investigate whether these companies are price gouging,” Hatton said.

Mental health

The AHA is asking Congress to sign off on the Lorna Breen Act, a bill that would authorize grants to address the mental health needs of workers. The bill is named for an emergency departrment physician who died by suicide early in the COVID-19 pandemic. The House has passed the bill, but it must clear the Senate.