Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
For the first time ever, I’m skipping my annual checkup — and no, it’s not because I’m tired of seeing the scale creep toward the right or listening to a passive-aggressive lecture on my diet. In response to COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has strongly encouraged Americans to cancel or delay their non-urgent doctor appointments.
Consequently, many small practices across the nation have been impacted. Patient visits have dwindled, and these practices’ revenue has dropped precipitously to reflect the barren waiting rooms. The truth is, many of these practices may not survive COVID-19. In order to secure the future of our health care system, the government needs to provide more targeted relief to these independent practices.
Due to the pandemic, primary care visits have dropped by nearly 50 percent – and other specialties have witnessed similar numbers. Ateev Mehrotra, a professor at Harvard Medical School who helped conduct this study, said “Within my lifetime, I have not seen anything of this magnitude.”
To stay afloat, some practices have shifted to telehealth visits. By relying on advances in Medicare and increased eligibility from private insurance companies, physicians have managed to offset some of their losses. In addition, the coronavirus aid bill passed in late March has provided some relief through the Paycheck Protection Program, which is targeted toward small businesses. For up to eight weeks, the government will cover payroll costs in an effort to reduce layoffs and bankruptcy.
But these independent practices are still hemorrhaging money at an alarming rate. According to several physicians, after the safety net provided by the coronavirus relief bill expires, many practices may be forced to shut down due to a lack of revenue. Currently, it seems like the federal government is solely focused on larger hospitals, making it unlikely to obtain more aid. Tens of billions of dollars are being sent to rescue these institutions while smaller practices are practically left to their own devices.
If these practices shut down, many patients could be at risk of losing their main point of health care access. This is especially devastating in rural or low-income areas, where residents may not have access to another reliable hospital or practice that’s within a reasonable distance.
What’s arguably even worse is that some physicians may end up selling their practice to larger hospitals to survive. This will exacerbate the consolidation of our health care system into ever-expanding large hospitals, inevitably contributing to rising costs of care due to a lack of competition. For young physicians or others who see many patients, this may be objectively better than shutting down or retiring.
While COVID-19 is indisputably our main priority, it’s important to plan for the future. This pandemic has exposed innumerous shortcomings in our health care system and has highlighted inequalities in health care accessibility and affordability. By helping independent practices stay afloat, the government can protect against the consolidation of our health care system and prevent these inequalities from deepening.