Doctors, nurses and healthcare providers across America have heroically risked their lives treating patients suffering from COVID-19. These healthcare heroes deserve support from our communities and lawmakers. But the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) is scheduled to cut reimbursement rates in early 2021 that our doctors depend on. Our healthcare system is still vulnerable to this deadly pandemic. We cannot afford to damage it further.
According to the CDC, more than 600 healthcare workers have passed away from COVID-19 since March. An anesthesiologist in Richmond, VA, who compiled a database of fatalities, has counted that this number may be higher than 1,000 deaths among frontline healthcare workers.
But COVID-19 isn’t just a healthcare crisis. America’s doctors and frontline providers are also facing a financial crisis. In March, state and local governments across the country ordered that hospitals and clinics cease voluntary procedures. This was the right decision at the time to free up resources to treat COVID-19 patients and limit any unnecessary contact between healthcare workers and patients.
However, this decision resulted in many specialties experiencing patient volume decreases of more than 50 percent in the early months of the pandemic. Patients with minor injuries skipped treatments, and those who could delay procedures did so. Without patients coming in their doors, physicians did not receive critical reimbursements that they depend on to pay staff and keep clinics open.
In April, more than 1.4 million healthcare workers were furloughed or lost their jobs. Although some of those jobs have returned, a recent study estimated that 800,000 jobs have cumulatively been lost since February. The American healthcare system can’t afford any more financial hits. Yet, policymakers in Washington have decided to implement a rule that will further weaken our critical healthcare system.
In January 2021, the federal government is set to adopt a rule that will shift how physicians are reimbursed for their services, effectively resulting in lower payments from CMS to physicians for treatment provided to patients covered by Medicare. Unfortunately, the new CMS rule will effectively undercut many physicians based on their type of practice.
The federal government’s decision to cut reimbursement rates for treatment provided to patients on Medicare is coming just as our doctors, nurses and frontline providers are beginning to recover. CMS’s decision will result in a loss of pay for doctors who use these reimbursements to pay the healthcare workers we all depend on.
Medical providers had been warning against this cut prior to the pandemic. The stakes are even higher now that hundreds of thousands of healthcare jobs have been lost. CMS’s move was misguided before the pandemic. Now it is downright dangerous.
With lower reimbursements, doctors will be forced to lay off more healthcare workers needed to treat COVID patients. Cash strapped hospitals and clinics in rural and underserved communities will struggle even further, and some may even close. An ongoing study from the University of North Carolina found that 132 rural hospitals and healthcare facilities have closed since 2010. In each of these communities, patients have been forced to wait and travel further for the critical care they need.
Fortunately, the United States Congress has the ability to stop this destructive pay cut from being implemented. I want to personally thank Senators Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott for standing up for our physicians when they allocated much needed financial relief to healthcare providers in the CARES Act earlier this year. Now it is incumbent that Congress moves quickly to ensure the damage to the healthcare system caused by COVID-19 is short-lived.
We cannot afford to let our healthcare system suffer further. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed that we need every doctor, nurse and clinician fighting on the frontlines. Federal lawmakers should all stand up for our healthcare heroes just as thousands of health care professionals do for us each and every day.
Nathan Ballentine is a member of the SC House (District 71) representing Richland and Lexington Counties.