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Vermont health care providers welcome millions in relief funding

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/3/2020 8:43:02 PM
Modified: 7/3/2020 8:42:50 PM

RANDOLPH — Health care and human service organizations in Vermont welcomed the Legislature’s approval last week of nearly $327 million in funding to support them as they navigate the challenges of COVID-19.

The bulk of the funds, $275 million, is slated to create a Health Care Provider Stabilization Grant Program through which the Agency of Human Services will distribute money to providers using a need-based application process. Another chunk, $28 million, is set to cover hazard pay for front-line workers. Smaller amounts are slated to go to the Vermont Foodbank; parent-child centers; and organizations that help new Americans, refugees and immigrants, among others.

“We’re very pleased with the package that passed,” said Jessa Barnard, executive director of the Vermont Medical Society.

Though Vermont has made it through the pandemic thus far without the huge surge of COVID-19 cases initially feared, health care providers still have faced challenges including lost revenues, especially when their services were curtailed to prevent the spread of the virus. They’ve also incurred unexpected expenses to purchase additional personal protective equipment, train staff in how to use it, and buy tools necessary to make telemedicine work.

Barnard said the relief fund is “critical” at this time

“Some practices are really struggling to keep their doors open,” she said.

Even though most have begun welcoming back more patients for in-person visits, she said they still need to prepare for the possibility that the state may see a surge of COVID-19 cases in the future.

The bill, HB 965, which Gov. Phil Scott signed into law on Thursday, directs the Agency of Human Services to send the $275 million to a range of health care providers, including hospitals, independent medical practices, dentists, mental health agencies, home health providers and nursing homes, based on their needs and the effect that COVID-19 has had on the services they provide.

Dan Bennett, CEO of Gifford Medical Center in Randolph, is among those who say they will need the help to get through the next stage of the pandemic. Gifford, like other hospitals, already has received money through the federal CARES Act and the Vermont Medicaid Monthly Retainer Payment program. Those funds, totaling about $7.5 million, were sufficient to cover COVID-19-related operating deficits for March, April, May and at least part of June, Bennett said.

Gifford also has taken steps to cut costs during the pandemic, including introducing a voluntary furlough program that at one point in April included as many as 64 staff members and reduced the hospital’s payroll by 12%, Bennett said.

“That’s been helpful,” he said.

Now workers are gradually returning to work and patients are coming in at rates of 85% to 90% of what was typical before COVID-19.

“We’re getting there,” Bennett said.

The future remains uncertain. He estimates that Gifford may see a loss of about $2 million for the fourth quarter of its fiscal year, which runs from July through September.

“We might do better than that,” he said.

To help, Gifford plans to apply for a stabilization grant from the state, he said.

Springfield (Vt.) Hospital, which even before the pandemic was going through Chapter 11 bankruptcy to manage its debt, also is looking forward to applying for a stabilization grant.

“Utilization is starting to make its way to normal levels and, given our past financial challenges, any amount of COVID relief funding would be greatly welcomed and help ensure needed services are accessible to the public when they need them,” Michael Halstead, Springfield Hospital’s interim CEO, said in an email.

New Hampshire hospitals also are seeking increased state and federal support to help them make it through the pandemic. Collectively, New Hampshire hospitals lost $534.9 million in revenue between March and the end of June, according to New Hampshire Public Radio. Grants have so far covered $261.3 million, or roughly half of those losses. And they expect to incur more, according to Vanessa Stafford, spokeswoman for the New Hampshire Hospital Association.

“We’ll need additional support to help us get through the pandemic so that we can continue to be there for our patients today and into the future,” Stafford said in an email.

Jill Olson, the executive director of VNAs of Vermont, said she expects that home health agencies will benefit from both Vermont’s stabilization grant and the hazard pay for workers. During the pandemic, home health agencies have continued to care for people, including some with COVID-19, she said. Home health agencies have cared for four times as many people with COVID-19 as the hospitals, she said.

Doing so has meant that the agencies have incurred costs related to obtaining the necessary personal protective equipment for workers and training them in how to use it. It’s also caused stress for the agency’s staff members who were worried for themselves and their families, especially in the early days of the pandemic when so little was known about the new virus, she said.

“Our staff never know what they’re going to find when they open the door to someone’s home,” Olson said.

The hazard pay of $1,200 to $2,000 depending on the number of hours worked from mid-March to mid-May is slated to go to front-line workers, including employees of home health agencies, nursing homes and dental offices, as well as first responders and others.

Home health care agencies employ a “low-paid workforce, but they’re very dedicated,” Olson said.

While Olson said she doesn’t think the $275 million will cover all of the health care losses caused by COVID-19 in Vermont, it will help. Like other health care providers, home health agencies have seen declines in demand for some of their services such as post-operative support during the pandemic, Olson said. Some patients also have been fearful of having home health workers come into their homes. Home health agencies have tried to shift some of their work to telemedicine, delivering care via video or phone, but that isn’t being reimbursed at the same rate as in-person visits, she said.

In addition to struggling to make ends meet financially, some health organizations also are still trying to figure out how to provide services during the pandemic.

“Funding is out there, yes, but it is like putting a square peg in the round hole trying to meet all of the requirements,” Julia O’Donnell, executive director of Oxbow Senior Independence Program in Newbury, Vt., said in an email.

O’Donnell said she hears from participants in the adult day program that they miss the program’s social aspects, the group meals and activities. Participants’ caregivers have told her they miss the respite and medical monitoring the program provides.

“Not a day goes by that I don’t think about the participants, caregivers and staff who are currently laid off,” O’Donnell said.

A couple of adult day programs in Vermont have closed permanently since the pandemic began, including one in Barre that had been operated by Gifford. But Bennett said that closing had been planned before the pandemic.

The program is considering a way to offer some programming virtually while the in-person aspect remains closed.

“I personally miss the people-to-people contact, and think the virtual will fall short, but it is something, it is a connection, a check-in, an activity. So we can see where that goes,” O’Donnell said.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.




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