The pandemic is an exciting time to profit off the poor.
By Moe Tkacik
In These Times (8/3/20)
As the coronavirus continues to batter the U.S., the horror stories still sound the same: basic medical supplies nowhere to be found, new patients keep showing up gasping for air, nurses with impossible workloads and back-to-back-to-back shifts, hospital staff with inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE) getting sick.
It might even sound like no one with any power in American healthcare has learned much since March, but that’s not true, according to Saum Sutaria, chief operating officer of Tenet Healthcare, a massive, for-profit hospital chain. “We’ve learned a tremendous amount,” Sutaria boasted to Wall Street analysts during a conference call in mid-June. The McKinsey alum and featured Aspen Ideas Festival speaker was talking about how to limit Covid-19 “costs on a unit basis of managing.”
Of course, hospitals can lower their costs in a lot of ways that make patient care worse. Tenet, for example, furloughed an astonishing 10% of its staff in March and April. It also stopped contributing to 401(k) retirement accounts, rationed PPE (and threatened to fire employees who brought their own), and slashed hours for its nurses. Some nurses were sent home mid-shift, leaving others to watch sections as big as 20 patients. At a Tenet hospital in Massachusetts, nurses filed more than 50 reports over two weeks in April, documenting specific instances of how the downsizing jeopardized patients. One declared she had “[never] been more ashamed to work” somewhere.
Of course, like many private equity deals, the goal was never the long-term health of the company (or the patients) but to make money (fast) by cutting costs, extracting cash and flipping it to another buyer.
Tenet’s pandemic management style has been especially harrowing at Detroit Medical Center (DMC), Detroit’s major hospital group (with 2,000 beds) and the city’s biggest employer. Nearly 3,000 people have died from Covid-19 in Wayne County, where Detroit is. Meanwhile, a lawsuit filed by four former DMC nurses claims that, at one point, DMC was so short-staffed that a staggering number of the deceased were in rigor mortis before anyone noticed they weren’t breathing. The staffers allege hospital administrators actively increased the death toll by instructing nurses not to revive patients suspected of having Covid-19.
Running out of body bags
As bodies piled up, DMC ran out of space for body bags, then ran out of body bags. When a group of overnight nurses showed up early for their shift to plead with their bosses for reinforcements—either from outside the hospital or among the 1,500 staffers the system had laid off over the past few years—Tenet officials instead sent them home. The day staff, then, worked a 25-hour shift.
The lawsuit also claims the emergency room’s lack of PPE led to numerous unnecessary deaths, as nurses and others became infected after sharing hospital gowns and masks.
This radical austerity is not completely new at DMC, though the pandemic showcases its pitfalls. In 2011, DMC was purchased by Vanguard Health Systems, which was itself controlled by The Blackstone Group, a private equity firm. The deal was hyped with so much promise for the hospital that Mike Duggan, the former DMC chief executive who helped broker the deal, used the story to get himself elected mayor. …
“The heady mix of CARES Act cash, austerity measures and public acceptance of mass death has enabled the pandemic to breathe temporary new life into the financial prospects of the so-called healthcare industry—ironic, given at least one company’s prohibition on reviving Covid-19 patients.”
— Moe Tkacik, Workers Blow the Whistle on Mass Death
Billionaires Should Pay For Nation’s Needed Health Protections
Public Citizen (8/6/20)
Statements From Public Citizen Experts
Note: U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) today introduced the Make Billionaires Pay Act, which would tax the wealth gains of billionaires during the COVID-19 health crisis at the rate of 60% and use the funding to cover medicines and out-of-pocket costs for the next year for people who need it.
Our country is facing dual health and economic crises because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, while people are suffering, billionaires continue to add to their already staggering hoards of wealth. Instead of letting this gross inequity continue to fester, this bill redistributes most of these unconscionable pandemic income gains to cover the medical needs of uninsured and underinsured Americans for the next year. Making us not just a safer, but also a fairer nation during this unprecedented pandemic.
The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the cracks in our broken health care system and far too many Americans are falling through them – meaning untreated illness and medical debt or bankruptcy. Congress must ensure that everyone in the U.S. can get the care they need during this historic crisis and the Health Care Emergency Guarantee Act does just that. Funding the bill through the Make Billionaires Pay Act means that billionaires’ ill-gotten gains will finally serve the public need instead of just private greed.
Susan Harley, Managing Director, Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division & Eagan Kemp, Health Care Policy Advocate, Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division