As epidemic continues, hospitals struggle financially

Posted at 4:28 PM, Apr 24, 2020

Over the course of the last few weeks, Steve Norton has had to make painful decisions that he never imagined he’d be faced with as the CEO of a major hospital. But as the coronavirus continues to spread, his hospital continues to lose money.

Norton oversees Elliot Hospital in Manchester, New Hampshire. Nestled near the White Mountains, this facility is a lifeline for the community here, with 190 beds in their trauma unit. But with elective procedures canceled due to COVID-19 concerns, this hospital and countless others across the country are dealing with record-revenue losses.

Last month, Elliot Hospital lost $25 million.

“They say every generation has something that fundamentally changes things in ways they didn’t anticipate,” said Norton via a Zoom video interview. “Well, this is that one.”

As hospitals, like Elliot, prepared for a surge in coronavirus cases, many didn’t see the massive influx in patients they were expecting. While that’s good for public health, it means far fewer patients coming in.

As a result, Elliot Hospital had to temporarily furlough 675 employees. Hard working men and women who Norton knows are eager to get back to work.

“We’re just reducing our financial stability, but healthcare is an industry that can’t fail,” he said.

Rural hospitals nationwide are particular susceptible to financial collapse. Since 2005, at least 170 rural emergency rooms have closed permanently across the country. Experts believe some emergency rooms already on financial life support before COVID won't survive.

“We were always told in school that we would have job security, especially in a crisis,” said Alison Chick, a physician’s assistant in Colorado, who had recently been furloughed. “You never expect to be out of work, because we’re needed.

“I felt a sense of being useless to the community, that I wasn’t providing the services I was trained to do."

While Chick has recently been brought back to work, she and other health care professionals across the country continue to deal with uncertainty as the epidemic lingers.