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Health care groups call for government aid to stay afloat amid ban on non-urgent care

Seven independent health care clinics and groups across Oregon and Southwest Washington are pressing federal and state officials for help.

PORTLAND, Ore. — In the wake of widespread layoffs and furloughs, a coalition of seven independent health care clinics and groups across Oregon and Southwest Washington are pressing federal and state officials for help.

They say Oregon Governor Kate Brown’s moratorium on elective and non-urgent procedures is pushing them to the brink of permanent financial ruin, which, they fear, will leave hundreds of thousands of Oregonians with too few options when it comes to accessing care post-pandemic.

“Independent medical groups do not have deep pockets and deep reserves,” said Tom Sanchez, CEO of the Oregon Clinic. “Some of our groups within this coalition have, within this current state, 30 to 90 days of reserves.”

The participating groups are:

  • North Bend Medical Center
  • ORM Fertility
  • Oregon Medical Group
  • The Corvallis Clinic
  • The Oregon Clinic
  • The Portland Clinic
  • Women’s Healthcare Associates

A news release sent out Wednesday said the groups “…provide critical, necessary healthcare to 655,000 urban and rural Oregonians at more than 2,265,000 patient visits each year.”

The groups also employ over 3,000 medical professionals, according to the release. At least, that was the case before COVID-19.

Last month, The Oregon Clinic temporarily laid off more than 800 healthcare workers and other staff.

“It was just heartbreaking for our physician owners who have just amazing incredible staff,” Sanchez said. “Our staff have been wonderful in understanding that big picture of the need to be able to do that in order to survive in the long-term.”

On the coast, The North Bend Medical Center has laid off about a quarter of its 400 employees and scaled back hours for others.

CEO John Burles is hopeful they can hang onto the rest.

“The worst possible thing that can happen in a rural area is for these highly trained professionals to leave,” he said. “We've spent years building staff that's really excellent, and to lose that is really disheartening.”

To keep further damage at bay, the coalition this week sent letters and demands to state and federal officials.

From the state, and particularly from Oregon Governor Kate Brown, they’re calling for:

  • A plan to allow elective/non-emergency surgeries to resume as part of the first wave of relaxing COVID restrictions.
  • The distribution of funds provided by the CARES Act Emergency Relief Fund to key medical providers. Oregon is expected to get approximately $1.6 billion.
  • A pause on the collection of the first and second quarter of The Corporate Activities Tax for these private independent health clinics.
  • An executive order to commercial insurance plans to pay for telephone/audio only visits at the same rate as audio/video and in-person visits.

They’re calling on the feds to:

  • Expand the current grant funding from the CARES Act to include Medicare Advantage and Medicaid patients. On April 13, HHS released grant funding based solely on traditional Medicare funding. In addition, provide at least $150 billion in new funding for medical providers like our clinics and hospitals.
  • Offer grant funding for specialized services such as OB/GYN and reproductive services.
  • Request that commercial insurance companies offer financial support to independent practices based on savings from unused insurance premiums.

The CARES Act has already injected stimulus funding into the healthcare industry, but Sanchez said Thursday the language was vague and independent clinics aren’t sure whether they’ll eligible.

“Certainly there’s a lot of attention and focus on hospitals and that’s very appropriate given our situation,” he said. “The care that’s provided in these communities every day for non-COVID patients is still there, and we need to be able to take are of those patients, especially in a post-COVID world.”

KGW reached out to Governor Kate Brown’s office about the requests.

Press secretary Liz Merah responded via email, writing, “The Governor is aware of these issues, and one of her top priorities is to ensure we’re supporting front-line health care workers throughout the COVID-19 crisis. Funds from the federal CARES Act will provide relief to hospitals, clinics, and other health care providers. We are continuing to work to find state-level solutions that will help mitigate the impacts this unprecedented crisis has had on Oregon health care providers.”

Congressional leaders confirmed they’ve received the coalition’s pleas, too.

Representative Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., wrote “I will do all I can do.”

She added, “I’m working with independent practices and their providers to make sure that funding Congress has already provided gets distributed fairly to serve patients who need it the most. And as we negotiate the next relief package, we are discussing how to best address their concerns, including the need to ramp up acquisition of PPE using the Defense Production Act.”

Congressman Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., wrote “We will come out of this crisis on the other side, but we will still need, more than ever, the health care services that have been neglected during the pandemic. I fought to ensure that there was a dedicated source of funding for health providers in the recent COVID-19 relief bill and we were successful. I’m working to keep these independent health providers alive during these difficult times.”

Senator Jeff Merkley’s office also offered reassurance that independent clinics will receive relief funding from the CARE Act.

Communications director Sara Hottman wrote, “The remaining $70 billion hasn’t yet been dispersed, and Sen. Merkley continues to push the administration to release the rest of the money as soon as possible. The senator has been in regular communication with stakeholders across the state, and is continuing to relay that urgency and push the administration to respond.”

His fellow democratic Senator, Ron Wyden, was the first to respond to KGW’s inquiries.

In a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, Wyden and other Senate democrats called for clear and transparent criteria for how and to whom federal funds will be dispersed.

In the letter, the Senators said they continue to hear from providers in their states who “need additional financial support immediately to ensure they make it through this crisis.”

Healthcare staff admit it’s all the harder not knowing how long the crisis will last.

Right now, they’re walking a tightrope between pushing for a reopening of the economy and keeping people healthy, like they always have.

“We want to be able to see more people, to do elective surgeries… but the other part of that is we’ve got to make sure that everybody’s safe,” he said. “So we’re torn. This is a really difficult decision.”

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