Routine care visits have plummeted at Blue Mountain Hospital and Grant County Health Department amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Grant County Health Administrator Kimberly Lindsay said patient visits have dropped by 24% in recent weeks. Blue Mountain Hospital District CEO Derek Daley said patients have declined in volume between 40% to 60% in a month, which mirrors the rest of the state.
Dr. Raffaella Betza, chief of staff at BMHD, said the drop in patient volume is mostly due to Gov. Kate Brown’s March 17 order to postpone elective surgeries and non-urgent procedures until June 15 to free up capacity and conserve personal protective equipment for treating coronavirus patients.
Betza said, while the hospital continues to push out elective surgeries and procedures, they have encouraged patients to call their health care provider instead of going into the hospital or urgent care settings.
Both BMH and the health department have encouraged patients to shift to telemedicine, which both facilities adopted long before the COVID-19 pandemic.
With the passage of the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act in Congress last month, Medicare now allows patients to engage in telehealth visits from any setting, whereas before appointments were required to be done from a medical facility.
Last month the state followed suit as well when the Oregon Health Authority, which oversees Medicaid, loosened telehealth regulations in response to COVID-19. OHA ordered insurers, including coordinated care organizations that administer Medicaid, to support telehealth options on all platforms, which includes video, audio, email and text, and reimburse the insurance claims.
Lindsay said that older patients still prefer face-to-face visits.
Betza said she still encourages patients, even those who are opposed to telehealth visits, to call their health care provider to discuss their options.
Lindsay said they are concerned about the health of the community and want people to know that they are still open.
While emergency care, vital surgeries and family planning are exempt from the state order, Brown’s directive meant that most rural hospitals would be without their primary sources of income until at least June 15.
Meanwhile, with one positive COVID-19 case in Grant County, the health department and the hospital have sat relatively empty, and revenue has begun to dry up.
Hospitals statewide are hemorrhaging cash due to declining demand for care, even as the virus continues to spread.
Mark Owens, the state representative representing Grant County, said he signed on with a bipartisan coalition of legislators in support of funding for rural hospitals.
“Allowing rural hospitals to be forced to close during a pandemic would be a travesty,” Owens said. “These hospitals have limited revenue coming in due to the ban on non-emergency surgeries and procedures, and many have not seen the influx of COVID-19 patients they were told to prepare for.”
Lindsay said the health department secured a loan through the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program. The program provides forgivable loans if the funds are used to keep employees on the payroll.
Daly said an eligibility determination has not been made for rural hospitals.
“The SBA’s PPP would be helpful,” Daly said.