Our community hospitals are on the front line response to the COVID-19 pandemic, working with the CDC, Gov. Brian Kemp and local officials to treat all patients, control the spread of the virus, and develop recovery and mitigation initiatives.
Preparedness efforts began months ago, and our hospitals are collaborating with one another to share best practices. While each hospital’s response varies based on local community needs, our member hospitals are taking actions that include:
· Setting up separate screening sites or surge tents;
· Instituting drive-through testing;
· Erecting mobile units to expand bed capacity;
· Hosting blood drives;
· Starting coronavirus hotlines;
· Establishing visitor restrictions to protect patients; and
· Postponing nonessential surgeries and services.
In addition, one of our member hospitals recently announced its development of new expedited COVID-19 testing.
To survive on the front lines, we require an army supporting us. Across Georgia, communities have rallied to support their local hospitals, physicians, nurses and other clinical personnel. Volunteers have donated personal protective equipment, sewn face masks, arranged for restaurants to deliver meals to healthcare workers, and donated blood.
In normal times, such an all-hands-on-deck approach is a luxury; in these circumstances, it is mission critical.
As our state and nation’s leader have said repeatedly, the rapid spread of the coronavirus will challenge our entire healthcare network.
Daily reports from media outlets are highlighting the very real financial burden on our nation’s rural and other community hospitals as they are forced to pay higher prices for needed equipment and supplies, delay nonessential surgeries and other profitable services to free up capacity and preserve resources, and invest in creative solutions to reduce the strain of the COVID-19 outbreak on the healthcare system.
In recognition of the fact that community hospitals are the “safety net” providers for the uninsured and underinsured, Georgia and many other states have Certificate of Need laws designed to protect community hospitals and reduce hospital closures. Hospitals operate 24/7/365 and must maintain the high-cost infrastructure and personnel needed to serve a wide range of conditions and prepare for emergencies. The CON laws ensure that hospitals aren’t cannibalized by providers who can cherry pick the highest-paying customers and provide only the most profitable procedures.
Longtime opponents of these CON laws aren’t letting the COVID-19 crisis go to waste, as they call for states to revisit or repeal these laws. They claim the CON laws impede preparedness and are to blame for the anticipated “shortage of hospital beds” as demand surges for COVID-19 inpatient care.
Nothing could be further from the truth. According to 2018 data from the Georgia Department of Community Health, Georgia hospitals had 24,843 CON-authorized hospital beds, but only 20,233 were set up and staffed. The number of available hospital beds in Georgia and elsewhere is not the result of legal restrictions, but practical operational realities, including efforts to reduce costs (such as not staffing unused beds) and the severe shortage of physicians and other health professionals in Georgia, particularly in rural areas.
The recent Harvard Global Health Institute Report shows that there is no correlation between projected ICU bed shortages and CON laws. Of the 10 biggest U.S. cities, those in states without CON laws face a greater shortage of ICU beds than those in states that have these protections.
The CON program ensured access to high-quality care for all Georgians for four decades and remains one of the most critical pillars of the stability and quality of Georgia’s entire healthcare system. Knocking it down or weakening it would bring catastrophe.
In a state of emergency like today, we need creative solutions such as those outlined by Gov. Kemp to bolster our healthcare workforce and improve supply chains. The best way to protect public health now and in the future is to preserve policies that keep community hospitals open and able to respond in times of crisis.
Monty Veazey is the president and CEO of the Georgia Alliance of Community Hospitals.