Lawmakers, Wolf admin., Pa. hospitals are negotiating COVID-19 emergency relief fund

Capital-Star file

(Updated, 12:45 p.m., 3/24/20: This story has been updated to include comment from the Wolf administration. Updated, 2:24 p.m, 3/24/20 to include an updated COVID-19 case count and comment from HAP spokesperson Rachel Moore.)

Legislative leaders and the Wolf administration, with significant input from Pennsylvania’s hospital community, are negotiating the details of an emergency relief fund that would be used to help hospitals brace against an expected surge in COVID-19 patients as cases across the state continue an exponential rise.

Andy Carter, the president and CEO of the Hospital and Health System Association of Pennsylvania, whose organization is spearheading the push, could not immediately put a price tag on that fund. But, speaking to journalists in a conference call, Carter did say a similar fund established in Washington State, which has 60 percent of the population of Pennsylvania, had already reached $200 million.

“We’re eager to work with the administration and General Assembly on the dollar amount,” Carter said. “We know it will be an extraordinary amount to match the size of the surge [in treatment that] we’ll be providing.”

Legislative sources confirmed that four-caucus talks were ongoing about the fund, one of a number of proposals under consideration as the Legislature seeks remedies for the escalating public health crisis. But so far, no agreement has been reached.

COVID-19 in Pa.: Gov. Tom Wolf orders residents in seven hard-hit counties to stay at home

The fund is “under consideration,” Mike Straub, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, said, adding that such proposals are contingent on a massive, federal relief bill now moving toward a vote on Capitol Hill.

*In a statement released to the Capital-Star, Wolf administration spokesperson Lyndsay Kensinger said the “administration is working with stakeholders to determine the needs of hospitals throughout the commonwealth, and to ensure we are prepared.

 “It is important to note that planning with stakeholders for an infectious disease outbreak is done year-round, and our collaboration is essential as we communicate with hospitals across the state” Kensinger continued.

“While most of our hospitals are prepared to handle COVID-19, we know that there is the potential for a surge of patients and we are planning, along with stakeholders, for what would happen if that occurs. We are certainly concerned that a worst-case scenario could strain our health care system to a point they cannot keep up,” she said.

*As it’s currently envisioned, the proposal calls for the Pennsylvania Department of Health to administer the money. Hospitals could petition the agency for assistance if they have an immediate need or have exhausted their existing resources. The agency would then make a determination on funding, HAP spokesperson Rachel Moore said.

At midday on Tuesday, state health officials confirmed 207 new cases, bringing the statewide COVID-19 total to 851 cases. Six people have so far died as a result of the illness, which was present in 34 of 67 counties.

At mid-morning Tuesday, Congressional leaders in Washington were expected to reach agreement on a $2 trillion rescue package by Tuesday afternoon. The proposal contained as much as $100 billion in relief for hospitals, though that amount it was likely the amount would increase in the final, negotiated package.

An $8.3 billion emergency aid package signed into law last week included $2.2 billion in support for federal, state and local health agencies, according to Modern Healthcare, an industry publication. About $500 million of that total was set aside to purchase medical supplies, and an “unspecified” amount was allocated for increasing surge capacity, Modern Healthcare reported.

Speaking to journalists in Pennsylvania, the hospital association’s Carter said the proposed state fund would be used to cover an array of costs, from overtime and new hiring to temporary housing for patients and childcare facilities for healthcare workers. The fund would also ensure that “providers remain fiscally viable in years to come,” once the pandemic passes.

Carter said Tuesday that the fund would only be accessed if federal money isn’t available. It was not immediately clear Tuesday how the yet-to-be approved federal assistance for hospitals would be allocated — whether in direct payments to providers or through existing state channels, as is the case with Medicaid, which is a joint effort between the states and the federal government.

Asked about the proposal’s reception among lawmakers and the administration, Carter said it had been “respectful.”

“There is great interest in making sure that we carefully harmonize with any steps at the state level,” he said. “We’re calling on Pa. not to wait for action at the federal level. If resources are allocated to Pennsylvania, we will structure the proposal so that we’re not double-dipping.”

On March 20, the investigative news outlet Spotlight PA reported that the demand for intensive care beds would “greatly outstrip demand,” if the state is particularly hard hit by the virus — which is what current trend lines now indicate.

Carter stressed Tuesday that the hospital industry had been “preparing for years” to handle a pandemic. Even so, the size and scope of the public health crisis would put a huge strain hospitals’ resources and fiscal stability, he noted. For instance, hospitals statewide had already canceled elective surgeries, which provide about 80 percent of their revenue.

“Procedures that can be safely postponed are being postponed,” he said. “If they cannot be safely postponed, then they are continuing to be done, as determined by physicians and clinicians assessing who are patient safety. Most patients understand the need, and many have volunteered [to forego procedures] because they want to play a role.”

Asked about access to resources such as ventilators and face masks, acknowledged the current shortage.

“All hospitals are working to get to surge capacity based on its plan. I cannot say that every hospital in the commonwealth is ready. We are working to control that surge risk. It’s vital that we try to flatten the curve.”

John L. Micek
A 3-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. An award-winning political reporter, Micek’s career has taken him from small town meetings and Chicago City Hall to Congress and the Pennsylvania Capitol. His weekly column on U.S. politics is syndicated to 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. He also contributes commentary and analysis to broadcast outlets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Micek’s first novel, “Ordinary Angels,” was released in 2019 by Sunbury Press