The hospitals hit hardest by COVID-19 are seeing fewer patients, but a full financial recovery is still a long way away.
After COVID-19 units in Catholic Medical Center, Elliot Hospital and Southern New Hampshire Medical Center were at capacity this spring, the wards are emptying.
Last week, Elliot Hospital and Southern New Hampshire Medical Center had a total of nine COVID patients, down from a high of 30 in early May. Catholic Medical Center’s COVID unit was full a month ago, but the hospital is seeing fewer patients with COVID-19.
“In Manchester, in Nashua, we’ve seen continued declines in hospitalizations,” said Steve Norton, chief strategy officer of SolutionHealth, which owns Elliot Hospital and Southern New Hampshire Medical Center.
Hospital operations are getting more normal, as is hospital staffing, Norton said. About 84% of the staff is working again, after extensive furloughs in April.
“Happily, the numbers here in the city and at Catholic Medical Center have declined significantly,” said Alex Walker, the hospital’s chief operating officer and executive vice president. “We are in a much better place today.”
Manchester’s hospitals treated about two-thirds of the 589 New Hampshire residents hospitalized with COVID-19.
But federal funds have favored the state’s rural hospitals: Elliot Hospital and Catholic Medical Center received less than 10% of the federal aid sent directly to hospitals. Another $6.1 million in federal aid for New Hampshire hospitals was announced Friday, but the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has yet to announce which hospitals will get funds.
Tens of millions of dollars in Paycheck Protection Program loans disclosed last week by the Small Business Administration went to the state’s smaller, rural hospitals.
The Paycheck Protection Program, often called PPP, gave zero-interest loans to businesses and non-profit organizations with 500 employees or fewer. If the businesses do not lay off any employees, the loans will be forgiven.
Seven small hospitals in New Hampshire received a total of $22 million to $47 million in loans from the Paycheck Protection Program. The largest loans went to Androscoggin Valley Hospital in Berlin, Huggins Hospital in Wolfeboro and Speare Memorial Hospital in Plymouth, which each received between $5 million and $10 million.
New Hampshire’s largest hospitals, including those in Manchester and Nashua, have too many employees to be eligible for the loans. And while their operations are returning to normal, the losses are piling up.
“The finances have not improved as quickly as we would like,” Walker said. “We continue to lose millions of dollars each month.” In March, April and May, the hospital lost $35 million.
Norton said Elliot Hospital and Southern New Hampshire Medical Center have lost $57 million since the pandemic began. The hospital group projects losing $11 million to $12 million next year, and a planned expansion at Elliot Hospital was scrapped.
“You can’t get away from the fact that there are big financial consequences to this,” Norton said.
The $17 million from the CARES Act helped, as will the $11 million promised from the state for Elliot Hospital and Southern New Hampshire Medical Center, but that will cover barely a third of the hospitals’ loss. Catholic Medical Center is set to receive $7 million from the state.
Walker and Norton both said they worry about surging cases in other states, and a second surge in New Hampshire that could set hospitals back more.
“Just as we were behind the country in the surge last time, we might be behind the rest of the country again,” Norton said.
“This virus is not going away anytime soon,” Walker said.
“Until there is a fully effective vaccine, we are going to need to be super-vigilant about the basics, the blocking and tackling of infection prevention, the social distancing, the hand-washing, wearing masks.”