Our Other Looming Health Care Disaster

Since the coronavirus pandemic began, Americans have been presented with a series of harrowing portraits of a health care system thrown into chaos. First, there were the awful hypotheticals sketched by epidemiologists: hospitals overwhelmed, halls crammed with the desperately sick, doctors forced to decide whose lives were most worth saving. Then came the real-life chaos as the wave of infections began to crest in hot spots like New York City: nurses breaking down over trying to treat dozens of dying patients at once; corpses being forklifted into refrigerated trucks and buried in mass graves.

With evidence mounting that daily deaths are trending downward in some of the hardest-hit locations, there’s reason to hope that the worst is nearing its end. But we’re only just beginning to see the presence of a second, quieter crisis roiling our health care system, an economic disaster brought on by anti-COVID measures that has pushed untold numbers of doctors and practices to the brink of insolvency.

The hospitals bearing the brunt of America’s COVID-19 treatment have had to deal with several types of shortages over the last month: manpower, test kits, protective equipment. What’s been less of a struggle is money. The federal government has committed huge sums of money to ensure hospitals are adequately reimbursed for every COVID patient they treat. Meanwhile, the rest of the nation’s hospitals have felt the financial squeeze, as they sit mostly idle following a mad scramble to prepare for the possibility they were about to become COVID triage centers. According to first-quarter GDP numbers released yesterday, cratering spending in the health care industry accounted for nearly half of the economy’s 4.8 percent GDP shrinkage.

Take Michigan. In the early days of the coronavirus crisis, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer moved fast to shore up the state’s COVID readiness. Among the steps she took: a March 20 executive order temporarily postponing all non-essential medical procedures. As Detroit began to develop into a major coronavirus hotspot, Whitmer’s aggressiveness seemed prescient. As the weeks dragged on, however, some of the hospitals in more lightly affected areas began to sound the alarm that they were bleeding out financially.

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