Betsy Ryan is president and CEO of the New Jersey Hospital Association. Her blog, Healthcare Matters, examines the many issues confronting New Jersey's hospitals and their patients. Readers are encouraged to join the discussion, because healthcare matters - to all of us.

Good News: New York’s Evacuated Hospitals Back in Business

I was really glad to read recently that both Bellevue Hospital Center and NYU Langone Medical Center are caring for patients again in New York City. They had been closed following the devastation of Superstorm Sandy.  I think we all remember the news coverage of the dedicated nurses, doctors and others working hard as a team to transfer their patients and walking those little babies down many, many flights of stairs.  Both are located side by side on the East River and when the waters rose, they flooded. 

New York and New Jersey have been through a lot with Sandy, and healthcare facilities are no exception. New Jersey had two hospitals close for far shorter periods of time in the days immediately following Sandy. It isn’t easy to evacuate a hospital, and reopening takes much work also.

I’m Jersey born and raised, but I have a special connection to the hospitals in New York City. Bellevue is part of the nation’s largest public hospital system, New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation (HHC).  I’m very proud to have worked at HHC in the mid 1990s. When I took the job I did so knowing the City had a residency requirement.  Little did I understand how hard it was to find a place to live in Manhattan, so I actually lived at Bellevue for three months or so out of necessity, paying rent for former medical residents’ quarters.  I recall the CEO of Harlem Hospital was next door to me for a time.  It was not luxurious by any means, but I developed a special affinity for the place because it was my home.  NYU was and is its next-door neighbor and a friend of mine works there.

So welcome back Bellevue and NYU. It’s good to have you back on the front lines caring for your communities. 

Written by Betsy Ryan at 00:00

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Congress Avoids Fiscal Cliff, but Dodges Sandy Relief Bill

Congress wrapped up its votes yesterday with a deal on the fiscal cliff and a non-vote on Superstorm Sandy relief. I don’t even know where to begin…

I guess the fiscal cliff: Like any compromise, the deal includes some good news and some bad news for New Jersey healthcare providers and the people they serve. My number one concern: $15 billion in added cuts to hospitals over the next 10 years. The money was used to avert a scheduled Medicare payment cut to doctors. NJHA has long supported a fix to the physician pay cut, however we are extremely disappointed that it was accomplished with even deeper cuts to hospitals. We in the healthcare community share a common goal of caring for our seniors – so cuts that pit one healthcare provider against another fail to accomplish the overall mission of providing quality and accessible care to our communities. Hospitals in New Jersey and across the nation have already been targeted for billions in Medicare cuts under the Affordable Care Act. Now, these additional cuts place yet another burden on hospitals as they fight to provide high-quality care to our patients. NJHA will continue to work with our congressional delegation to find a more permanent solution to the physician payment formula, but will oppose any additional cuts to hospitals and other providers.

As for Sandy relief: It is hard for me to imagine how Congress has not yet acted to provide much-needed relief to New York and New Jersey for the devastation caused by Superstorm Sandy. And yet, the sad fact is we are still waiting for action. The Senate did act upon President Obama’s recommendation for a relief package, but the House of Representatives has not. I applaud our New Jersey delegation for pushing Speaker Boehner to post the measure for a vote last night.  Unfortunately, he failed to do so.

N.J. Governor Christie and N.Y. Governor Cuomo issued a joint statement saying, “It has now been 66 days since Hurricane Sandy hit and 27 days since President Obama put forth a responsible aid proposal that passed with a bipartisan vote in the Senate while the House has failed to even bring it to the floor. This failure to come to the aid of Americans following a severe and devastating natural disaster is unprecedented. The fact that days continue to go by while people suffer, families are out of their homes, and men and women remain jobless and struggling during these harsh winter months is a dereliction of duty. When American citizens are in need we come to their aid.”

The Senate measure will die on the Senate floor unless the House acts by Thursday, when a new Congress is sworn in. There are real people in real need in our region.  Please don’t make them wait any longer.

Written by Betsy Ryan at 00:00

Hurricane Heroics: Please Share Your Stories!

For almost two weeks, New Jersey’s healthcare community has been fixed on a single goal: caring for patients in the aftermath of one of the worst natural emergencies to ever strike the Garden State. This storm will forever be linked to the images of devastated shore communities, neighborhoods without electricity and long lines at gas stations. But I wanted to highlight what has gone on at our hospitals and other healthcare facilities behind the scenes – things like:

  • Healthcare employees sleeping at their hospitals and nursing homes because of travel and fuel problems. They did it to make sure adequate staffing would always be available to care for their patients.
  • Hospitals across the state caring for a tremendous number of New Jerseyans in their emergency rooms; some hospitals reported ER volume as high as four times normal. Many of these were true emergency cases, some were patients with needs like oxygen that couldn’t be met in their homes without electricity, some were individuals who experienced chest pains, back injuries and other problems as they began the long process of storm cleanup, and many were individuals coping with stress-related conditions and other mental health issues related to the pressures of the storm.
  • Hospitals becoming true community centers during the storm and resulting power loss. A few examples among many: Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital at Rahway and Hackettstown Regional Medical Center opened community “charging stations” in their lobbies for residents without electricity. CentraState Healthcare System opened its fitness center and showers to the public, providing a healthy outlet for residents with no power or hot water in their homes. And hospitals in the Atlantic Health System provided space for community-based physicians whose offices were without electricity.
  • A team of healthcare workers working at an elderly support program in Jersey City called PACE – Program for All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly – climbing into a van during the storm to call on their clients and make sure they had the support they needed.
Those are some of the stories I’ve heard, but I know there are many other examples out there. I would love to hear more and invite you to add your comments at the bottom of this post and share any other stories of service in the storm.

For me, one of the things I will most remember from Hurricane Sandy is the reassuring reality that healthcare services never stop. Despite storm surge, damaging winds, power loss, fuel shortages and any number of challenges, New Jersey hospitals, nursing homes, home health agencies and hospice providers cared for the people of our state before, during and after the storm. A few examples: Newark Beth Israel Medical Center and St. Barnabas Medical Center performed six life-saving transplants in a three-day span when they were still on generator power. And AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center – which took a pounding on the coast – delivered 20 babies, including a set of twins, in the four days during and immediately following the storm. So far as we know, none were named Sandy.
Written by Betsy Ryan at 17:28

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Appreciation Replaces Devastation as New Jersey Begins Recovery

As a lifelong Jersey girl, I don't know if I've ever been so proud of our first responders, our healthcare professionals and our resilient people who mourn great losses but still are fighting back to rebuild tomorrow.

I've been in constant contact with our hospitals and other healthcare facilities throughout the storm, and now its aftermath. We had two hospitals evacuate and several nursing homes as well. All occurred seamlessly, which is amazing under the circumstances. New Jersey's healthcare workers are second to none.

Widespread power losses crippled our state, and at one time nearly half of the state's acute care hospitals were running on generators. But they remained open, caring for their communities. In the five days since Sandy struck the Garden State, our hospitals report that their Emergency Rooms are much busier than normal; some hospitals are reporting ER cases at two to four times their average. That's testament to hospitals' place in their communities. Our citizens recognize them as the safety net that is always there for them. I'm so proud of that.

I know much more needs to be done to restore power all over the state. Access to gasoline also remains a major issue for people across New Jersey, including healthcare workers who need to travel to and from hospitals, nursing homes and home health appointments. We continue to work with the state on that critical healthcare issue.

Throughout the storm and its aftermath, our hospitals and other healthcare providers have appreciated the response of our state officials, starting with the Governor and including our state Health Commissioner Mary E. O'Dowd and her team. They have listened and reacted and responded. And our Governor especially has been out front leading the state. Not too many leaders have the power to postpone Halloween and have a state full of kids comply.

I especially appreciate the Governor's heartfelt comments about the devastation at the Jersey Shore. The Shore is a treasure. So many of my memories of childhood, teenage years and now, memories with my own son, are rooted here - and I know the same goes for many of you. Springsteen captures it well in Jersey Girl, "down the shore everything's alright…." So true. The Jersey Shore is our place of respite, relaxation and renewal. We drive over the bridges to our favorite beaches and roll down the windows to smell the salt air.

This week it wasn't alright at all down the shore, and it won't be for some time. Some of the scenes from our favorite memories are forever altered. This summer, my son and his friends often rode on the roller coaster in Seaside that now lies in the Atlantic Ocean. I stare at the news photos in stunned awe at the power of nature. But those rollercoaster memories will remain, and new memories lie ahead. We just need to make them.

Written by Betsy Ryan at 20:09

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Declining Charity Care: 1-Year Anomaly or Long-Term Trend?

We recently received new data from the state Department of Health showing the state’s five-year trend in the provision of charity care services. The data was intriguing: The trend between 2007 and 2010 revealed an increase of approximately $82 million (9 percent) in documented charity care provided, with a peak of $1.03 billion in 2010. But last year – for the first time in at least five years – the documented charity care declined statewide by 3.3 percent to $994 million. There’s been a lot of speculation on why this may have occurred, and we have very smart people here at NJHA taking a “deep dive” into the data. While that analysis continues, here are a number of possibilities – none of which are intended to be conclusive:

  • The population of New Jersey is ever changing. Some regions experienced a decline, but other regions saw an increase. For instance, the combined counties of Middlesex and Somerset experienced an increase of 42.6 percent. The lesson here: Each community is different and may have its own unique reasons behind a shift in charity care.
  • The number of uninsured nationwide is decreasing, as evidenced by new data recently released by the U.S. Census Bureau. The new Census data, for example, includes the newly insured up to age 26, who are allowed to stay on their parents’ insurance under the Affordable Care Act.
  • Hospital admissions are down overall in New Jersey hospitals (a 4.5 percent decline in the last year.) That’s a trend that’s consistent with an economic downturn – people very often will delay elective procedures during a weak economy because they are concerned about missing work or other financial factors. Another factor in declining admissions: very light flu seasons in New Jersey the last two years.
  • New Jersey hospitals have focused much attention on their emergency departments, which is the point of entry for most charity care patients. Efforts to partner with federally qualified health centers and provide greater support for “frequent users” may be yielding measurable results.
  • New Jersey hospitals also have increased their focus on Medicaid enrollment for many years. Perhaps we are enrolling more eligible New Jerseyans into Medicaid.
  • Charity care documentation is based on Medicaid rates. A couple of years ago, the state changed the way it pays hospitals for Medicaid services in a way that many believed undervalued behavioral health. That may be a component of the change because so much of the charity care population comes to New Jersey hospitals for behavioral health issues or medical conditions with underlying behavioral health causes.
  • Many hospitals report an increase in bad debt (the amount that they cannot collect from patients). Might the increase in the insured be to high deductible and high co-pay plans that offer the individual an insurance card, but little coverage?
  • And perhaps the biggest variable of all: the impact of healthcare reform and its emphasis on improving efficiency, coordinating care and reducing costs. New Jersey hospitals have been focused intently on providing care in a cost-efficient manner in the appropriate setting and avoiding hospital readmissions. Could we be seeing some impact from that hard work to make our healthcare system better and more sustainable for the future?

Stay tuned as we dive deeper into the data and talk to our members and the state to try and figure out whether this is a one-year blip or a long-term change. We may find out that the reasons behind the data are all of the above, none of the above, a combination of factors – or perhaps something entirely new. That’s the complexity of healthcare.

Written by Betsy Ryan at 18:03

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