Harris Health gets $50 million in federal COVID-19 relief

Harris Health System received $50 million in federal relief funds for safety net hospitals suffering from decreased revenues due to COVID-19, said Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, the system’s president.

Federal officials said in early June they would dole out $10 billion in funding to medical systems that serve high volumes of uninsured and Medicaid patients. The disbursements were based on the number of Medicaid patients seen, the cost of uncompensated care per bed and how profitable it was. Each qualifying hospital received a minimum of $5 million.

Up until June, the Harris Health System had only received $9.5 million in aid, according to federal data. By early June, Harris Health officials had estimated that they were $40 million in the red from lost revenue and mounting expenses for treating COVID-19 patients.

The $50 million disbursed June 9 will cover those losses and prevent hospital officials from cutting patient services at a time when 30 percent of the beds in Harris Health’s intensive care units are filled with coronavirus patients, Porsa said.

“We can keep our doors open,” he said, “and take care of a disproportionate, large segment of COVID-19 patients.”

FUNDING DISCREPANCY: Big hospitals are getting millions from the CARES Act. One Houston-area clinic only got $10.

In Texas, 57 safety net hospitals received a total of $692 million in Provider Relief Fund payments, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The money will help stabilize many of the medical centers serving poor and often uninsured patients, said Ellen Kugler, president of National Alliance of Safety-Net Hospitals.

“Safety-net hospitals are often in poorer financial conditions than other hospitals in the country,” Kugler said. They’re less likely to have the funding for stockpiling personal protective equiment, and don’t have the same payments from insurers to make up for the cost of treating patients.

While the funding is helpful, it’s not a sustainable way of keeping those hospitals afloat when they’re likely to incur more costs for treating COVID-19 patients down the line, said Ken Janda, a health care consultant and former CEO of Community Health Choice.

Federal officials now need to allocate whatever is left to independent physician practices and nonprofit clinics that have largely missed funding from the CARES Act, Kugler and Janda said. Nearly 3,100 Houston-area health care businesses received more than $470 million in Provider Relief Fund. However, small practices have missed the bulk of the funds — roughly 80 percent of those providers received $50,000 or less.

The finances for hospital systems like Harris Health are far different from that of small doctors’ offices. But Porsa said independent providers should also receive aid.

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“I hope they get whatever they’re able to get during this time because the community needs them,” he said.

Federal officials are working to distribute money in a way that is fast and transparent, an HHS spokesman said. But industry analysts said more must be done to prevent the surge of cases nationwide from ballooning into an unmanageable pandemic.

“In a crisis,” Janda said, “we find some money to patch up the system rather than asking what’s a more efficient way to fund care for everybody.”

gwendolyn.wu@chron.com

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