Medical employees furloughed, laid off amid pandemic will impact healthcare long-term

PUYALLUP, Wash. — More than 1 in 10 people have lost their jobs. Businesses have closed their doors. And the people on the front lines of this COVID pandemic are not spared.

Hospitals and other health care providers are laying off or furloughing their employees too.

The problem that's leaving medical professionals out of work goes deeper than just the virus keeping people at home.

“I do this every year,” said Ramses Tsifo, who was getting a regular checkup at Sound Family Medicine in Puyallup.

This year the COVID-19 pandemic has the set up looking a little different. Doctors and nurses see patients in their cars under tents set up outside to prevent anyone gathering in waiting rooms.

The other change that’s a little harder to see from the outside is the steep drop in patients.

“It’s very, dramatically slower,” said Destiny Kealoha, a medical assistant.

“I think patients are really scared about coming in,” said Therese Pasquier, CEO of Sound Family Medicine.

Pasquier other patients are postponing care to comply with the stay at home order, while some worry doctors are too busy dealing with COVID-19.

“We are seeing about a 47% drop in visits,” Pasquier said.

That causes a big problem.

“For a practice like ours, if patients don't come in, we don't get paid,” Pasquier said. “Our employees, they're hurting."

Almost 50% of revenue suddenly disappeared for the independent practice, and Sound Family Medicine had to make cuts.

“We did have to make the difficult decision of furloughing 25% of our staff,” Pasquier said. That's 60 sixty employees.

“That’s another layer of stress the public probably doesn't realize that we're going through too,” said Ericka Gilson, a nurse practitioner.

She was dressed up to make a public service announcement about social distancing.

“Trying to keep it fun,” Gilson said.

But the reality is, jobs are on the line.

“Every floor is losing somebody,” Gilson said. “Sound Family Medicine is truly a family, so it's hard."

Kealoha said she worried she would be among the ranks cut.

“I take care of my grandparents, so it's just me working right now. I was just like man, what am I going to do if I do get furloughed?” Kealoha said.

It’s not just Sound Family Medicine.

Multicare Health System is asking employees to voluntarily furlough for a week and is projecting losses of more than $75 million for both April and May.

Grays Harbor Community Hospital is reducing staff by 18% and said it only has 45 days’ worth of cash on hand.

Virginia Mason cut pay to salaried leadership and also furloughed some employees.

The impact on small practices is even more severe.

“A lot of practices are going to go out of businesses and that's going to hurt the community even more,” Pasquier said.

Here's why health care providers are facing this problem.

Most operate on a system called “fee for service.” They don't get paid by insurance companies unless the doctor or nurse sees you in person.

“That's why primary care physicians are so burnt out,” Pasquier said. “They are having to churn patients through."

The lack of patients brings more than just a financial toll.

Dave Chase is the founder of https://healthrosetta.org/ , a Bellingham nonprofit organization. He’s been studying our health care system for more than a decade and trying to fix it.

“Diabetes, hypertension and all of these things didn’t suddenly get that cured while we had (COVID-19),” Chase said.

Those in the industry say the need for health care didn't drop. Patients are just delaying their visits.

“This is a dire situation. You're going to have a community that has such a pent-up demand right now because they haven't seen their doctor,” Pasquier said.

“Do you see that as having a direct impact to people's health?” KIRO7’s Deedee Sun said.

“Absolutely. When you have to delay care, that's only going to worsen your condition,” Pasquier said.

Health Rosetta says private practices forced to close during this pandemic makes the problem on health care long-term even worse, meaning fewer doctors will be around after the COVID-19 crisis to handle the backup.

“It’s really unfortunate,” Chase said.

That will bring longer wait times to get an appointment and could drive more people to the emergency room.

“So the fallout, not only the financial fallout but the care, the community, this is going to take a while for us to come back from,” Pasquier said.

Patients say they had no idea health care professionals are losing their jobs, too.

“It’s really surprising. It's really surprising,” Tsifo said.

Sound Family Medicine is hoping to get a loan from the federal Paycheck Protection Program and bring back all the employees it furloughed. But it said what's happening now needs to be a wake-up call.

“I am hopeful this situation with this crisis right now is opening everybody's eyes because I can tell you, the status quo, we're not going to survive this next time,” Pasquier said.

Sound Family Medicine said you can help by doing what you would normally do and stay up to date on your health care.

From clinics to hospitals providers are taking measures to be able to see you safely.

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