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Valley patients in the dark on COVID-19 hospital care

Posted at 7:14 PM, Apr 20, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-20 22:14:56-04

PHOENIX — Most Arizona hospitals leave patients in the dark about their preparations and response to the coronavirus pandemic.

FULL SECTION: Everything you need to know about coronavirus

A team from Northern Arizona Healthcare gives weekly media briefings on hard-hit Flagstaff Medical Center and they post daily COVID-19 case numbers online. They have been taking many patients from the large outbreak on the Navajo Nation.

Their transparency comes in stark contrast to Arizona's four largest hospital groups. Banner, Dignity, HonorHealth, and Abrazo have repeatedly declined requests for interviews, tours, specific data or pictures showing their operations during the pandemic.

"The short answer is, I think hospitals are very busy right now preparing to meet the patient demand of COVID-19," said Ann-Marie Alameddin, President & CEO of the Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association.

Alameddin is offering some insight on hospitals' financial difficulties as they follow Governor Doug Ducey's executive orders to expand bed capacity by 50 percent and cancel all elective surgeries. AzHHA wrote a letter to the governor last week asking for him to roll back some of the requirements.

"Given the significant financial strain the hospitals are under, and the need to have those hospitals be strong and viable as a healthcare infrastructure moving forward, let's look at the data and let's see where we're at," she said.

Some hospitals groups including Dignity, Banner and the Mayo Clinic are now planning furloughs and pay cuts to save money.

"All of our volumes have gone down by about 50%," said emergency room Dr. Nicholas Vasquez. "So a lot of us are sitting around treating COVID patients, but not much else."

Dr. Vasquez is one of only a few Valley hospital workers who has been willing to speak out about what they are experiencing every day.

"We could always use more PPE [personal protective equipment]," Vasquez said. "I think everybody needs to understand, as we sit here now, we do have enough, but all you need is a spike and we're out."

While most Arizona hospitals are not pushing back the curtain, data show the vast majority are not hard-hit like New York and Flagstaff.

The Arizona Department of Health Services started releasing data last week showing hospitals have less total patients than usual, and there are thousands of empty beds statewide. While the data does not indicate individual hospital's COVID-19 patient loads, it does show stable overall numbers of emergency room visits and vacant inpatient and intensive care beds.

Several hospitals, while declining interviews and tours, did provide statements to ABC15 Monday.

Dignity Health Statement:

Per the increase of the number of beds: Our hospitals are well-prepared to respond to any sudden increases in patient load, including COVID-19 patients. Surge plans based on Governor Ducey’s Executive Order have been created to ensure we have the necessary patient beds, medical staff and equipment that will be needed to support our patients and medical team. We assess a number of COVID-related decision points every day and continue to monitor and adapt to our patient census, PPE supplies, medical equipment and staffing to make safe and informed decisions.

Regarding the cancelation of elective surgeries and how it’s affecting our hospitals: Like many health care systems, we are experiencing financial strain during this crisis with large declines in non-COVID-19 volumes and revenue. Our daily census numbers at our Dignity Health hospitals in Arizona are currently much lower than normal, as we prepare for COVID-19 patients and with the postponement of elective surgeries. Because of these measures, and in order to help minimize financial impact, our executive leadership team has temporarily reduced their base pay by as much as 15 percent through the end of the fiscal year. Additionally, we’ve asked some staff members to flex their hours and are asking all employees who don’t care directly for COVID-19 patients to use their flexible paid time off benefit. We recognize that this has been an incredibly trying time for some of our employees and their families and we are doing everything we can to support our staff during this difficult time.

Regarding the reinstatement of elective surgeries?:
Due to our united efforts across Dignity Health Arizona to conserve PPE and the innovative ways in which we’ve developed and begun manufacturing our own FDA-approved, sustainable PPE - including N95 masks and isolation gowns - we believe we currently have sufficient PPE planned to reinstate elective surgeries in a phased approach. Additionally, we are taking every measure possible to avoid exposure to the general patient population. As always, our top priority remains the safety of our staff and patients.

Mayo Clinic Statement:

Elective procedures statement:

Mayo Clinic is beginning to meet the needs of patients whose medical care was delayed due to the deferment of elective and less urgent care which started in early March in Arizona. Although we have remained closely connected to patients through virtual services, some of the care that was able to be deferred at that time cannot be delayed indefinitely without impact to our patients’ health and wellness. We are committed to safely meeting our patients’ needs and preventing negative health outcomes.

The provision of these services adheres to executive orders at both federal and state levels and we are taking every precaution to ensure the safety of our patients, staff and communities. We continue to closely monitor all aspects of the situation including the activity of the pandemic in our communities, regions, nationally and globally while ensuring the proper resources are available to care for all patients, including staff, personal protective equipment, space and supplies.

Financial impact statement:

Richard Gray, M.D., CEO, Mayo Clinic in Arizona:

"Mayo Clinic staff are doing extraordinary work leading in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. We are proud of and committed to our staff and our communities as they come together to fight this global health crisis. Mayo Clinic is facing unprecedented challenges as a result of these circumstances, including a financial impact that requires significant adjustments to our operations. The decision to proactively postpone elective patient care was the right one, but it eliminated the majority of our revenue at the same time we are making critical investments to develop and expand testing, conduct research to stop the pandemic and re-align our facilities and care teams to treat COVID-19 patients.

Mayo Clinic is taking necessary steps to reduce expenses but additional measures are needed to ensure that we can emerge from this situation in a stable position. While we were able to protect full pay and benefits for our employees through April 28, temporary furloughs of some staff and salary reductions will be required after that time. We are working on the details and do not have a number of employees affected in Arizona. There are no plans for permanent staff layoffs. We will work with our teams in the coming weeks to ensure that our staff are supported, that the duration of this disruption is as limited as possible, and that all staff are quickly welcomed back as we are able to resume more care that is not directly related to our COVID-19-response."

Banner Health Statement:

Today Banner Health announced several financial actions taken to address the current environment as a result of COVID-19.

Banner team members who have and continue to contribute to the direct care of COVID-19 patients will receive a one-time bonus to be awarded in July. This award will be based upon hours worked with COVID-19 patients in March, April and May.

While many of our units and team members are very busy addressing the pandemic, elective surgeries and non-life-threatening procedures are on hold, and that means fewer than normal patients and a reduction in work for many of our team members.

Our priority has been to redeploy Banner talent where it’s needed most, and this remains our first option for team members who have seen a reduction in their work. To date we have redeployed more than 1,500 team members to support COVID-19-critical needs throughout the organization.

In response to those team members who want or need to be home during this time, we also offer a voluntary sabbatical program that gives eligible team members a month of unpaid time off, with Banner paying for their full employee and employer pre-tax benefit premiums for medical, dental and vision. We now have 376 team members participating in this voluntary program.

In addition, Banner Health will implement a short-term furlough program this week for team members with low or no work, allowing them to be eligible for unemployment, including the extra $600 per week provided by the state through the CARES Act. This program is being implemented based upon workload and, while on this status, team members will have their medical, dental and vision benefit premiums paid in full by Banner.

For many team members, this may be just be two weeks long as we anticipate work may increase in many areas in the coming weeks. We anticipate 5- 7% of the employee population would potentially be impacted by this temporary measure.

Banner Health will also pause hiring at this time for most non-clinical, non-revenue generating positions across the organization. This includes newly created jobs as well as vacant roles in the corporate office and facilities. We will continue to post and recruit for positions that are essential to meet the needs of COVID-19.

Lastly, all senior leaders at Banner Health – including senior vice presidents, presidents, vice presidents and CEOs – will take up to a 20 percent reduction in pay beginning in May. Members of Banner’s senior leadership team have also contributed $100,000 to the Banner Health Foundation’s Supporting our Staff (SOS) Fund to provide financial support for team members who may need it during this time.

We are doing our very best to be nimble, responsive and supportive of our team members’ needs as conditions rapidly change during the COVID-19 pandemic. We remain committed to them while providing reliable, quality care for our patients and maintaining a safe environment for all.