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COVID-19 Preparedness Leads To Cash Crunch For Hospitals

Medical equipment.
Robbie Gaffney

Florida’s hospitals are under capacity as they anticipate a rise in COVID-19 patients within the month. The lack of patients, coupled with increased spending to bulk up on supplies, has some of these hospitals furloughing their staff. 

Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami is the state’s largest, with nearly 800 beds. Many of those beds, about 370 of them,are empty according to state data as of Friday morning. Some nurses are being told to stay home for now.

“And we’re like, ‘are you crazy?’ This is not a time to be furloughing nurses, we need to be training them and if we’re lucky enough to have 4 weeks of peace, we can train them well," said Martha Baker, a Jackson Memorial nurse and local union president. Baker lamented about the plight in a recent conference call hosted by the SEIU, an employee union.

Her question — as to why some healthcare workers are being sidelined in the midst of an increasing public health crisis -- has an answer. Florida Safety Net Hospital Alliance CEO Justin Senior says it comes down to mostly one thing: Money, or, a lack of it.

“It’s a dire situation. That has been the most extreme difficulty hospitals around the state have been dealing with," said Senior. 

The Alliance’s members are made up children’s, teaching and public hospitals like Jackson Memorial. Senior says hospitals have spent a lot of money trying to prepare for COVID-19: money they’ve spent on masks, personal protective equipment, supplies, while at the same time, they’ve stopped doing profitable elective surgeries, and postponed others, which is how hospitals make money. The result: furloughed nurses.

“What you’ve got is, hospitals that are, compared to their normal running capacity, are nearly vacant. That’s in contrast to what we’re seeing in New York. But you have to remember that no surge like they’ve seen in New York has. happened in Florida yet. Hospitals are in a state of preparedness and they’re in a state of readiness," he said. 

Federal assistance is on the way.

"The CARES bill we just passed, has $100 billion available to hospitals," explained Florida Congresswoman Donna Shalala. She served as U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary between 1995 and 2001.

“While they’re getting some money for the coronavirus patients, and we’re paying for free tests and the insurance companies are covering some of the costs to take care of the coronavirus patients and we’ve upped the amount the state is going to get for its own Medicaid program, that does not offset the losses of not doing everything from transplants to neurosurgery," Shalala said. 

While the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise, about 12% of them are resulting in hospitalizations.  Shalala suggests Congress could put more money toward hospitals. In the meantime, those facilities continue to order more supplies, while rationing the ones they currently have.

Follow @HatterLynn

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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