Health system leader reflects on coronavirus lessons learned; study shows $473 million hit to Arkansas hospitals

by Roby Brock ([email protected]) 1,346 views 

Eric Pianalto says as health care returns to more normal routines the lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic will last a lifetime. Pianalto, President of Mercy Health Northwest, said from community messaging to adaptable workforces to managing inventory his health system and others will run their businesses differently.

“One, the community response has been phenomenal. We’ve been engaged in the community for many, many years, but I can’t say enough about how the community responded to help us in so many ways, especially around personal protective equipment. We’re no different than most businesses. We try to keep small inventories, we try to turn our inventory over and not have excess supplies and other things sitting on the shelves. And in a time like this, that becomes a problem, he said. “What we will do is really look at our stocks and really look at how we address having enough protective equipment without having too much where it won’t be used. It does have a shelf life, so a big lesson there.”

“Then, I think a clear and concise messaging. The work that’s been done at this point will benefit generations to come. This won’t be the last infectious disease to sweep our state or nation or country. So, you know, I think all of the preparation work that’s been done as a nation, as a state and then also locally, we need to keep those those things in place. We need to remain vigilant. We need to work together to assure the safety and health of everybody here in Northwest Arkansas,” Pianalto added.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson and the Arkansas Department of Health are relaxing guidelines to allow hospitals, medical clinics and surgery centers to resume some operations, including elective procedures.

A directive issued April 27 outlined rules for resumption of standard business for physicians and medical providers. In part, the guidelines allow for elective procedures on an outpatient basis, no contacts with COVID-19 patients, and institutions providing services must have ample personal protective equipment (PPE).

The Health department advised that any healthcare setting allowing procedures should “start with a small initial volume of cases and increase incrementally as PPE availability and number of statewide occurrences dictate.

Some of the elective procedures allowed include dental, eye, nasopharyngeal, chest surgeries, and colonoscopies.

Since mid-March when Gov. Hutchinson locked down a number of health-related businesses in an effort to make sure Arkansas could handle a surge at hospitals, the state’s healthcare industry has taken a large financial hit. Anecdotally, there were a number of furloughed workers within the state’s regional health systems, especially at hospitals.

An interim financial impact study conducted by the Arkansas Hospital Association last week among nearly 80 hospital members, provided staggering insight into the financial toll on the state’s economy. Business disruption in March and April at Arkansas hospitals accounted for a whopping $271.08 million in revenue losses. Based on estimates, even with a return of some procedures, the hospital respondents estimated an additional $473.11 million in business interruption costs in May and June.

Add to the financial hit another $34.85 million for those roughly 80 hospitals that had to spend on COVID-19 adjustments including capital costs for equipment, supplies such as PPE and tests, and pay for furloughed workers, quarantined staff and more security and housekeeping.

Even with money coming to hospitals through Congressional funding relief and state assistance, the AHA is projecting as high as a $615 million net loss through the end of June for its hospitals.

Pianalto said his staff is ready to transition back to pre-COVID-19 conditions – as much as possible. He said Mercy Health Northwest will begin slow and make sure people are comfortable coming into their facilities.

“We are ready to begin, start taking care of patients for needed services,” he said. “Something I like to remind people is we take care of infectious disease everyday. That’s a seven day a week, 365 day a year mission. We have infectious disease in our hospitals, in our facilities. We’re used to taking of infectious disease. So we’re ready, we’re prepared all of the time to take care of our people who need health care safely and effectively.”

You can watch Eric Pianalto’s full interview below.