In rural Oregon, a health care crisis is festering. Gov. Kate Brown labeled health care providers “essential” during COVID-19, but the pangs of the lockdown have thrashed providers. In March and April, many rural hospitals and clinics sat nearly empty with outpatient procedures and elective surgeries postponed. The revenue drop battered already-fragile rural health systems.
May 1, Gov. Brown permitted medical providers to resume 50% of normal patient levels. But 50% means less than breaking even, said Eric Wiser, a doctor and deputy director of Oregon Area Health Education Center.
“At a rural clinic, a couple procedures less is all you need to run into the red,” said Wiser.
And Oregon’s rural medical practices are seeing a lot of red on their bottom lines.
From March through May, a survey by the University of Colorado’s Larry A. Green Center of more than 100 Oregon primary care practices found:
• Three-quarters experienced severe financial strain.
• Some 39% furloughed or laid off workers.
• One-quarter had some clinicians skip salaries.
• About 16% temporarily closed.
Thirty-three of those practices were in rural areas of the state.
Hospitals, too, took a hit. About 3 in 5 rural hospitals lost up to 70% of their revenue, according to the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems.
Federally funded community health centers are also hurting. They serve populations with limited health care access. Statewide since March, community health centers have lost more than $40 million, said Joan Watson-Patko, executive director of the Oregon Primary Care Association.
Some larger urban providers have been forced to tap their reserves.
Recent financial tallies show Oregon Health & Science University, PeaceHealth and Providence Health have about $1.1 billion, $2.1 billion and $6 billion in reserves, respectively.
“Smaller hospitals have fewer resources to fall back on,” said Kevin Mealy, spokesman for Oregon Nurses Association.
In a late May survey, the majority of respondents at Oregon primary care practices said they don’t know how much cash they have or think their reserves will last only three months.
Less money also means fewer jobs.
Statewide, community health centers shed 20% of jobs, said primary care expert Watson-Patko.
Hospitals also trimmed workers.
For example, Curry Health Network in Gold Beach furloughed, laid off or cut hours for 192 employees. Columbia Memorial Hospital in Astoria furloughed 90, North Bend Medical Center in Coos Bay 130 and Mid-Columbia Medical Center in The Dalles 225.
Mealy, spokesman for the nurses association, said the organization advocated for nurses to receive cross-training while departments were shuttered, making furloughs and layoffs a last resort.
Providers continued serving patients during lockdown, but most appointments were “telehealth” videos or calls. Experts say insurance reimbursements for telehealth are unsustainable and rural areas already have more patients on government insurance that pays providers less.
While revenue dwindled, expenses jumped.
The cost of personal protective equipment increased tenfold because of worldwide demand, disrupted supply lines and opportunists, said Harris. A 40-cent mask became $4.
“PPE, hands down, continues to be the greatest need,” said Brenda Johnson, CEO of La Clinica community health clinic in Medford.
Patients are trickling back, but providers say impacts will endure.
People delaying care, experts say, may face health consequences later. Parents have canceled children’s immunizations. Patients have postponed preventive care. Statewide, emergency rooms saw a 30% reduction in patients, saidKatie Harris, director of rural health and federal policy at the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems.
“Doctors are asking: Where are the heart attacks? Where are the strokes?” she said.
Many providers fear another long-term effect: a potential exodus from rural to urban areas of providers who were laid off. The biggest challenge in rural health care, experts say, is provider recruitment, and the pandemic could leave rural areas with fewer clinicians.
Suffering hospitals have also had ripple effects on businesses they fuel: architects, manufacturers, suppliers.
“I’m starting to recognize our focus on surviving is impacting all other businesses we touch,” said Jenn Welander, CFO of St. Charles Health System in Bend. “It’s like a crack in the ground that will keep growing. Some businesses we worked with may never open again.”
But not everything has been negative.
Providers say they are learning to be financially resilient, are establishing diverse PPE supply chains, are excited about the rise of telehealth and have seen “incredible wins” in coordinated care between urban and rural providers.
“There’s a long road ahead,” said Welander of St. Charles. “An event of this magnitude is not lived down within weeks or even within months. This is going to be a multiyear event.”