Portneuf Medical Center Emergency Room Exterior (Winter)

The emergency room entrance at Portneuf Medical Center in Pocatello during Wednesday’s snowstorm. PMC and other local hospitals are trying to weather economic hard times caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

You would think a worldwide pandemic that’s hospitalized tens of thousands of Americans would result in large profit margins for physicians and the medical facilities where they work.

But local health care officials say think again. In reality, the financial outlook for many hospitals throughout the country is grim and at least one East Idaho hospital is on a trajectory to lose $10 million this year if the current COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t let up to allow more relaxed social distancing guidelines and bring more non-coronavirus patients in for treatment. Other local hospitals such as Portneuf Medical Center in Pocatello are furloughing employees, cutting employees’ hours and eliminating positions.

“People may find themselves asking why hospitals are facing such financial stress when it’s a sector of the economy that in many ways is in the highest demand during an epidemic,” Mark Baker, an administrator at Bingham Memorial Hospital in Blackfoot, told the Idaho State Journal during a Wednesday phone interview. “But one factor for the financial stress for providers is that the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services encouraged hospitals and physician practices to limit or even cancel elective surgeries altogether (because of the pandemic). For hospitals, elective surgeries are the lifeblood of a system. That is further compounded by the decline in hospital visits as patients skip out on routine care in the wake of social distancing recommendations.”

Moreover, Baker says in addition to a massive decrease in elective surgery and outpatient volume because of COVID-19, the highly contagious and deadly respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus, BMH’s emergency room visits have even seen a reduction in volume.

“In fact, if we continue on this trajectory it will put (BMH) at about a $10 million loss for the year,” Baker said. “We wish we could say we had a large cash reserve to carry us through this time but the reality is we are a small critical access hospital and our profit margins have only averaged about 1 percent for the last decade.”

Despite the projected losses, Baker said BMH is not laying off any employees, though the hospital has implemented what Baker described as a “low-census protocol,” which has “led to reduced hours for many of our employees and we recognize that impact.”

Baker said one avenue employees of BMH who find themselves in financial trouble can take advantage of during the COVID-19 pandemic is a program the Bingham Health Care Foundation started last year called the employee emergency fund. Further, BMH executives have taken steep pay cuts, as have some of the hospital’s physicians, to ensure the hospital can weather the pandemic and maintain its presence in East Idaho for years to come, Baker said.

“The employee emergency fund is a resource that is funded by employees and is specifically for employees that are in acute financial stress.... There has been a significant increase in the use of that service because of the reduction of hours,” Baker said. “Some other things we are doing to decrease our expenses is the executive team has taken a 20 percent reduction in pay, our managers are taking a reduction in hours, and many of our physicians have graciously volunteered to take a reduction in compensation.”

BMH is a member of Bingham Health Care, a federally-recognized non-profit organization located in Blackfoot with additional facilities in Idaho Falls, Pocatello and Shelley.

In the Gate City, employees at PMC are also feeling the financial impact of the pandemic. Portneuf Medical Center Marketing and Communications Director Mary Keating provided the Journal with a written statement on Wednesday afternoon that said the impact of COVID-19 at PMC has resulted in layoffs, furloughs and the outright elimination of some positions.

“All businesses are feeling the stress and financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and health care providers are no exception,” Keating’s statement read.

“To balance the resources needed to care for our sickest patients against the economic impact of postponed visits and the decline in surgeries, we have made some difficult workforce decisions. To minimize position eliminations we have made a variety of adjustments including reduction of hours, furlough (unpaid time off) and pay reduction for exempt employees. Even with this approach, however, some positions were eliminated.”

Keating said the furloughs at PMC will average 90 days, but employees may be called back sooner based on need.

”We know this is a difficult time for workers and families alike,” Keating said in her statement. “We are grateful for the service of all staff members and we remain hopeful that over the next few months, we will return to normal hours and paychecks for our employees.”

PMC is one of 36 health care entities under the Ardent Health Services umbrella. Ardent is the third largest private investor-owned health care company in the United States with 26,000 employees, nearly 1,400 doctors and over $4.4 billion in revenue.

Keating told the Journal that PMC has “been very fortunate that we have not experienced a surge in COVID-19 patients at this time,” adding that “we are proud of the commitment our employees show, day in and day out, to our most vulnerable patients.”

Those working for Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center in Idaho Falls, a hospital under the umbrella of health care giant HCA, seem to be in the best spot locally in terms of weathering the economic impacts of the pandemic.

In addition to the financial insurance of a new comprehensive pandemic pay continuation policy, EIRMC and all other HCA Healthcare facilities that are treating COVID-19 or suspected COVID-19 patients now have services in place to provide employees with free child care, free lodging at a hotel for up to five days and free onsite scrub laundry.

Still, EIRMC Director of Marketing and Community Relations Coleen Niemann echoed the sentiments of other local health care providers in that a massive reduction in outpatient and elective based care such as surgeries and mammograms has resulted in significant financial losses at EIRMC. However, EIRMC like BMH has not had to lay off any employees. And with HCA Healthcare’s new pandemic pay continuation policy, all health care workers with reduced hours who work in clinical facilities or support areas “will receive 70 percent of base pay for up to seven weeks until HCA Healthcare better understands the long-term implications of this pandemic on the organization,” EIRMC said in an April 2 news release.

“For colleagues working in patient care facilities who are quarantined per Centers for Disease Control guidelines, the hospital will pay 100 percent of base pay for scheduled hours regardless of where the exposure took place,” the EIRMC release added

Additionally, HCA Healthcare announced that its senior leadership team will take a 30 percent cut in pay until the pandemic is over.

“HCA Healthcare also announced additional ways to keep employees safe medically,” Niemann said. “Any employee who cares for COVID-19 positive or suspected patients has access to free hotels for five days after their shift.”

EIRMC employees can also show up to work in plain clothes and receive a free clean set of hospital-issued scrubs while their personal scrubs are being laundered for free as a means to reduce fears of unknowingly bringing the virus into their own homes, Niemann added.

HCA Healthcare has also partnered with the YMCA to provide free emergency child care services for employees, Niemann said.

“We need to be able to provide a way for our employees to stay safe and free up that additional strain on their emotional capacity,” Niemann said. “The pandemic pay, free hotels, scrub laundering and the child care represent our efforts to give our employees peace of mind on many different fronts during this pandemic.”