Health care centers in Denver are being overwhelmed by new patients, forcing facilities to make tough decisions.
It’s not just emergency rooms, urgent cares and doctor’s offices say they can’t keep up with the demand.
This is due to an insurmountable amount of unpaid medical care costs and at Denver Health, they have made tough decisions like cutting salary increases, turning patients in the mental health and substance abuse unit away and even closing some of those beds.
That’s not slowing down anytime soon, with the arctic winds bringing in subzero temps through the weekend the emergency care unit at Denver Health expects to be busier than ever.
Eric Lavonas, an emergency physician at Denver Health says they’re expecting unhoused community members to seek their services through the weekend as well as migrants.
“We are definitely feeling the strain with all the care we always provide and this influx of newcomers who have a lot of unmet medical needs,” said Lavonas.
During a finance and governance committee meeting on Tuesday, Dr. Donna Lynne, CEO of Denver Health shared with Denver city leaders great concern over the financial stress the hospital is facing.
“Where do you think the migrants are getting care? They are getting care at Denver Health,” said Lynne.
The hospital will be prepared to deal with the unhoused community seeking care for things like hypothermia and frostbite, but they are also expecting their usual work to continue.
They look to be faced with patients who are coming in for respiratory illnesses, gastrointestinal and chronic diseases, especially those in the undocumented community.
Dr. Steven Federico with Denver Health says they have treated over 8,000 undocumented patients in the last year, with the majority of patients from Venezuela.
“That’s a combination of typical childhood illnesses, but also illnesses that you see when people live in close proximity, so people traveling by bus for a long time, people living in shelters, people tend to share those illnesses more commonly,” said Federico.
Denver Health serves as a safety net hospital for thousands, right now they are on the brink of reaching a breaking point, especially for those seeking care through their emergency care unit.
“There is only so much that a hospital like Denver Health can handle and adding an additional 8,000 patients who can’t afford to help pay for the healthcare has created a huge financial stress for Denver Health,” said Federico.
According to Lynne, of the 8,000 new patients they’ve seen in the last year, it has amounted to 20,000 visits.
“I suspect that no other hospital in the state of Colorado can say that and there has been no reimbursement for that and quite frankly it is an ongoing conversation with the city, with the state and with the federal government,” added Lynne.
This has caused a domino effect for the hospital, due to operating costs exceeding their revenue, they are having to turn patients away every day particularly those with mental health or substance abuse issues, defer maintenance at a clinic and reduce salary increases to employees who are under increasing duress in providing healthcare and escalating levels of violence.
“We have 78 inpatient beds that we devote to all substance abuse disorders as well as mental health, we’ve closed between 15 and 20 of them because we simply can’t do it financially,” said Lynne.
Their uncompensated care costs have more than doubled in the last three years.
In 2020, the hospital had about $60 million in uncompensated care, within two years that number doubled to $120 million and last year that number increased to $136 million with a quarter of that cost coming from non-Denver residents.
“It comes here because of something called EMTALA which requires to take anybody who comes into our emergency room, regardless of where they live by county, by state or by country,” said Lynne.
By law, Denver Health must provide care for patients regardless of their ability to pay.
“While I have tremendous compassion for what’s going on, it’s heartbreaking, it’s going to break Denver Health in a way that we didn’t even anticipate,” said Lynne.
Federico echoed that sentiment.
“We need financial support to provide the needed care for this population,” added Federico.
For the first time last year, Lynne says Denver Health was able to get some reimbursement from the state outside of Medicaid.
The hope is that the federal government will cover the funding gap, but as of now they have not received that support.