Tag: California

Massive Kaiser Permanente Strike Looms as Talks Head to the Wire

Kaiser Permanente and union representatives pledged to continue negotiating a new contract up until the last minute as the threat of the nation’s latest large-scale strike looms next month.

Unless a deal is struck, more than 75,000 health workers will walk out for three days from Oct. 4-7, disrupting care for KP patients in California, Colorado, Oregon, Virginia, Washington, and Washington, D.C. The unions represent a wide range of KP health workers, including lab technicians, phlebotomists, pharmacists, optometrists, social workers, orderlies, and support staff.

A strike, if it occurs, would affect most of Kaiser Permanente’s 39 hospitals and 622 medical offices across the U.S., and would disrupt care for many of its nearly 13 million patients. If workers walk off their jobs, “it will start to impact patient care right away,” said John August, director of health care and partner programs at Cornell University’s Scheinman Institute on Conflict Resolution, who is a former head of the union coalition currently negotiating with KP.

“You are immediately subject to problems with not being able to get patients in and out of the hospital. You risk problems with infection control. You’re not going to get meals,” August said.

Arlene Peasnall, Kaiser Permanente’s senior vice president for human resources, said the Oakland, California-based health care giant’s goal is “to reach a mutually beneficial agreement before any work stoppage occurs.” But she also said the nonprofit has plans in place to blunt the impact of a walkout.

“We will be bargaining with Kaiser up until the day we go on strike,” said Caroline Lucas, executive director of the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions, which represents about 40% of KP’s workforce. “Our front-line health care workers are fed up, and we really need Kaiser executives to seize the initiative and move forward on resolving the contract.”

The current contract expires Sept. 30 and, after months of talks, the two sides still disagree over pay and staffing. The coalition wants a $25-an-hour minimum wage across the company. KP executives agree there should be an organization-wide floor, but they’ve proposed $21.

KP prefers varying wage increases across regions, since the cost of living can vary sharply. The coalition, which is pushing for uniform wage increases across all regions, contends that management’s proposal is part of a “divide-and-conquer strategy.” Peasnall said the union’s stance “would prevent us from addressing fair market wages where we need to pay more to attract and retain the best people.”

The unions say their lowest-paid workers can barely make ends meet in the face of soaring prices for food, gasoline, and other essentials. And, they say, KP hospitals and clinics are severely understaffed, forcing workers to put in long hours and fill multiple roles. They argue that management is not moving quickly enough to fill positions and that the quality of care has suffered as patients, some with serious illnesses, often wait months for appointments, face extremely long waits in the emergency room, and experience delays in hospital admissions.

An industrywide labor shortage hangs heavily over the contract talks. The pandemic was particularly brutal for health care workers who often worked long hours in grueling conditions, as colleagues fell ill, died, or quit. Workers say many of the positions that became vacant during the pandemic still have not been filled.

Miriam De La Paz, a secretary in the labor and delivery department of KP’s Downey Medical Center in Southern California and a union steward, said when she is alone on a shift, she is responsible for two labor and delivery stations as well as triage, where patients are prioritized based on the acuity of their cases.

“Imagine if I’m putting this baby in the system and your wife shows up in pain, crying, but I’m not there to register her,” De La Paz said. “I can’t break myself in two.”

Unions want KP to invest more in education, training, and recruitment to fill current openings and create a pipeline of future workers. KP says it is doing so.

Peasnall said KP has already filled more than 9,700 out of 10,000 new coalition-represented jobs the two sides had agreed to create this year. And she said KP’s turnover rate is one-third the industry rate, in part because of “excellent pay and benefits.”

Earlier this month, California lawmakers passed legislation to gradually raise the minimum wage for health care workers in the state to $25 an hour. If Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom signs the bill into law, KP will have to comply. And nearly 80% of workers represented by the coalition in the current contract talks are in California.

On Sept. 22, as bargaining continued in San Francisco, the unions announced that more than 75,000 of the 85,000 workers they represent would stage the three-day walkout if there’s no deal. Federal law requires 10 days’ notice of strikes at health care facilities. The coalition said it is “prepared to engage in another longer, stronger strike in November,” if no agreement is reached by then.

A coalition spokesperson, Betsy Twitchell, said workers would welcome the Biden administration’s involvement in the talks “because of the importance of these negotiations to millions of patients and 75,000 frontline healthcare workers.”

The unions say KP can afford to be more generous, citing its robust financial health.

Although KP reported a net loss of almost $4.5 billion in 2022, it generated a cumulative net income of nearly $22 billion over the three preceding years — both results driven largely by investment performance. In the first half of this year, KP posted profits of over $3 billion. And it is in a strong position to manage its debt, according to a report earlier this year by Fitch Ratings.

The unions note that Kaiser Permanente’s CEO, Greg Adams, received almost $16 million in compensation in 2021 and that dozens of others in KP management made more than $1 million, according to a KP filing with the IRS.

Peasnall said the compensation of KP’s senior management is less than that of their peers at other health care companies.

A KP walkout would be the latest in a string of worker movements. Strikes have hit Hollywood, hotels, auto manufacturers, and other industries. Public approval of unions is at a nearly 60-year high, according to a Gallup Poll released in August 2022.

Health workers are increasingly engaged, too. Several hospital groups have been hit by strikes, including Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and numerous facilities belonging to Sutter Health in Northern California, as well as health care organizations in other states.

“There is an atmosphere in the country: It’s labor summer, it’s strike summer, it’s all that,” August said. “That definitely has an influence on union leadership that says, ‘We need to be a part of that.’”

When You Think About Your Health, Don’t Forget Your Eyes

I vividly remember that late Friday afternoon when my eye pressure spiked and I staggered on foot to my ophthalmologist’s office as the rapidly thickening fog in my field of vision shrouded passing cars and traffic lights.

The office was already closed, but the whole eye care team was there waiting for me. One of them pricked my eyeballs with a sharp instrument, allowing the ocular fluid that had built up to drain. That relieved the pressure and restored my vision.

But it was the fourth vision-impairing pressure spike in nine days, and they feared it would happen again — heading into a weekend. So off I went to the emergency room, where I spent the night hooked up to an intravenous tube that delivered a powerful anti-swelling agent.

Later, when I told this story to friends and colleagues, some of them didn’t understand the importance of eye pressure, or even what it was. “I didn’t know they could measure blood pressure in your eyes,” one of them told me.

Most people consider their vision to be vitally important, yet many lack an understanding of some of the most serious eye diseases. A 2016 study published in JAMA Ophthalmology, based on an online national poll, showed that nearly half of respondents feared losing their eyesight more than their memory, speech, hearing, or limbs. Yet many “were unaware of important eye diseases,” it found.

A study released this month, conducted by Wakefield Research for the nonprofit Prevent Blindness and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, showed that one-quarter of adults deemed at risk for diseases of the retina, such as macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy, had delayed seeking care for vision problems.

“There is significantly less of an emphasis placed on eye health than there is on general health,” says Rohit Varma, founding director of the Southern California Eye Institute at Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center.

Because eye diseases can be painless and progress slowly, Varma says, “people get used to it, and as they age, they begin to feel, ‘Oh, this is a normal part of aging and it’s OK.’” If people felt severe pain, he says, they would go get care.

For many people, though, it’s not easy to get an eye exam or eye treatment. Millions are uninsured, others can’t afford their share of the cost, and many live in communities where eye doctors are scarce.

“Just because people know they need the care doesn’t necessarily mean they can afford it or that they have the access to it,” says Jeff Todd, CEO and president of Prevent Blindness.

Another challenge, reflecting the divide between eye care and general health care, is that medical insurance, except for children, often covers only eye care aimed at diagnosing or treating diseases. More health plans are covering routine eye exams these days, but that generally does not include the type of test used to determine eyeglass and contact lens prescriptions — or the cost of the lenses. You may need separate vision insurance for that. Ask your health plan what’s covered.

Since being diagnosed with glaucoma 15 years ago, I’ve had more pressure checks, eye exams, eyedrops, and laser surgeries than I can remember. I should know not to take my eyesight for granted. And yet, when my peepers were filling with that vision-threatening fog last March, I felt oddly sanguine.

It turned out that those serial pressure spikes were triggered by an adverse reaction to steroid-based eyedrops prescribed to me following cataract surgery. My ophthalmologist told me later that I had come “within hours” of losing my eyesight.

I hope my brush with blindness can help inspire people to be more conscious of their eyes.

Eyeglasses or contact lenses can make a huge difference in one’s quality of life by correcting refractive errors, which affect 150 million Americans. But don’t ignore the risk of far more serious eye conditions that can sneak up on you. They are often manageable if caught early enough.

Glaucoma, which affects about 3 million people in the U.S., attacks peripheral vision first and can cause irreversible damage to the optic nerve. It runs in families and is five times as prevalent among African Americans as in the general population.

Nearly 10 million in this country have diabetic retinopathy, a complication of diabetes in which blood vessels in the retina are damaged. And some 20 million people age 40 and up have macular degeneration, a disease of the retina associated with aging that diminishes central vision over time.

The formation of cataracts, which cause cloudiness in the eye’s natural lens, is very common as people age: Half of people 75 and older have them. Cataracts can cause blindness, but they are eminently treatable with surgery.

If you are over 40 and haven’t had a comprehensive eye exam in a while, or ever, put that on your to-do list. And get an exam at a younger age if you have diabetes, a family history of glaucoma, or if you are African American or part of another racial or ethnic group at high risk for certain eye diseases.

And don’t forget children. Multiple eye conditions can affect kids. Refractive errors, treatable with corrective lenses, can cause impairment later in life if they are not addressed early enough.

Healthful lifestyle choices also benefit your eyes. “Anything that helps your general health helps your vision,” says Andrew Iwach, a clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology and executive director of the Glaucoma Center of San Francisco.

Minimize stress, get regular exercise, and eat a healthy diet. Also, quit smoking. It increases the risk of major eye diseases.

And consider adopting habits that protect your eyes from injury: Wear sunglasses when you go outside, take regular breaks from your computer screen and cellphone, and wear goggles when working around the house or playing sports.

The Prevent Blindness website offers information on virtually everything related to eye health, including insurance. Other good sources include the American Academy of Ophthalmology’s “EyeSmart” site and the National Eye Institute.

So read up and share what you’ve learned.

“When you get together for the holidays,” says Iwach, “if you aren’t sure what to talk about, talk about your eyes.”

This article was produced by KFF Health News, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation. 

California Officials Seek ‘CARE’ Without Coercion as New Mental Health Courts Launch This Fall

The first time Heidi Sweeney began hallucinating, the voices in her head told her Orange County’s Huntington Beach was where she would be safe. There, behind the bikini-clad crowds playing volleyball and riding beach cruisers, she slept in homeless encampments, then beside a bush outside a liquor store, drinking vodka to drown out the din only she could hear.

For years, she refused help, insisting to all who offered, “I’m not sick,” until police arrested her for petty theft and public drunkenness. A judge gave her an ultimatum: jail or treatment. She chose treatment.

“I’m so thankful that they did that,” said Sweeney, now 52. “I needed that. I think there’s others out there that need it, too.”

If she hadn’t been compelled to get care, Sweeney said, she wouldn’t be alive today, back at work and reunited with her husband. It’s why she supports California’s new civil CARE Courts that will launch this fall in eight counties, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Orange, followed by the rest of the state in 2024.

Under the new system, family members and first responders can ask county judges to order people with psychotic illness into treatment, even if they are not unhoused or haven’t committed a crime. A judge will then determine if a person meets criteria for the program and may oversee a care agreement or compel a treatment plan. That treatment plan could even include involuntary commitment.

The bill creating the program sailed through the state legislature with near-unanimous support last year amid growing frustration from voters over the state’s increasing number of homeless people, even as it drew vehement opposition from disability rights groups, who argued CARE Courts’ hallmark — compelling people who have done nothing wrong into mental health care — is a violation of civil rights.

That tension — between those who advocate for treatment being voluntary and those who say the status quo allows people to die in the streets “with their rights on” — is playing out all over the state of California. In Orange County, officials are threading a delicate needle: how to convince people to accept care without coercion, particularly when their illness causes them to believe they are not ill.

“We don’t want to punish people,” said Maria Hernandez, the presiding judge for Orange County Superior Court. “We want them to maintain their dignity.”

A photo of a judge sitting at their bench in a courtroom.
Orange County Superior Court Presiding Judge Maria Hernandez says Orange County’s CARE Court, launching this fall, will resemble the county’s other collaborative courts, like her young adult diversion court, where compassion and science drive her decisions.(April Dembosky/KQED)

Orange County is expecting between 900 and 1,500 residents will be eligible for CARE Court in any given year, according to the county public defender’s office. Local lawyers, judges, and health officials have all aligned in designing their program with a distinct patient focus, endeavoring to make the process as benign and nonthreatening as possible.

Hernandez said that means modeling the new civil court after the county’s other collaborative courts, where judges often lose the black robe and come down off the bench to work with people, eye to eye.

One prototype, she said, is her Young Adult Court, where, on a day in June, the mood was downright jovial. Defendants and their family members were chatting and laughing, munching on snacks laid out on a table in the back as three young men “graduated” from the diversion program.

“Judge Hernandez is so awesome,” said Abraham, 25, a graduate of the program, who asked to be identified only by his first name because he was charged with a felony that has since been expunged from his record. “I don’t even look at her as the judge. She’s just like a mom figure. She’s only trying to push you to be the better you.”

A minute later, Hernandez walked through the aisle of the courtroom and gave Abraham a hug.

Even if CARE Court is overseen by a judge like Hernandez, patient advocates object to the idea. Orlando Vera, who lives with bipolar disorder, said helping a vulnerable person heal from mental illness shouldn’t involve dragging them into a courtroom.

“It’s not a place you resolve your emotions. It is a very business-oriented environment. So I do feel that this is not the place for it,” Vera said, adding, “Can we stop it? I would say we can’t.”

After advocates failed to persuade the state Supreme Court to block the program on constitutional grounds, some started referring to gearing up for the rollout of CARE Court as “disaster preparedness,” equating it with a devastating earthquake or wildfire.

Peer Voices of Orange County, a group Vera co-founded and runs, plans to install patient advocates at the courthouse to attend all CARE Court hearings.

“Our focus is how do we support those that are going through the system,” he said. “We need to be their voice.”

A photo of a man sitting indoors.
Orlando Vera, a co-founder of Peer Voices of Orange County, says he and other people with lived experience of mental illness will attend CARE Court proceedings on behalf of patients.(April Dembosky/KQED)

Orange County behavioral health director Veronica Kelley is sympathetic to advocates’ concerns. She said CARE Court is not the program she would have created to improve the state’s mental health system. But she serves at the will of the governor and other elected officials who control her budget.

“So we end up building the Winchester Mystery House,” she said, referring to the 100-year-old mansion in San Jose known for its mazelike layout. “It is a structure that was OK, but then it just started adding hallways to nowhere and basements that are on top of the building. That’s what our system looks like.”

Kelley is trying to shape the new court process into something its critics can accept. This is why she wanted Orange County to go first: “so we can help craft it into something that’s not another colossal waste of time and funds, and that we don’t destroy the people we’re trying to serve at the same time,” she told a roomful of patient advocates during a meeting of the state Patients Rights Committee, held in Santa Ana.

This means social workers from her behavioral health department or the public defender’s office might visit people 20, 30, or 40 times to build trust, listen, and set goals.

Under the CARE legislation, county courts are allowed to fine public behavioral health agencies $1,000 a day if they can’t find a patient and enroll them in treatment by certain deadlines.

Kelley said her county’s judges have agreed to give her staff the time and extensions they need to do their jobs well. She also vowed that no one who declined services in her county would be institutionalized involuntarily, even though the new legislation allows it.

“If someone agrees to do something of their own accord, it is far more probable that there will be long-term success and long-term commitment to the services being provided,” she said.

Kelley pointed to the county’s success with another civil court process, established by Laura’s Law in 2002, in which, for every person involved in court-ordered outpatient care, another 20 accepted treatment willingly.

She said the county has the same goal for CARE Court, with the focus on finding a treatment plan people accept voluntarily, before a judge has to order it.

A photo of a woman sitting indoors.
Veronica Kelley, the behavioral health director for Orange County, will oversee mental health outreach and care provided through the local CARE Court, launching in October.(April Dembosky/KQED)

This article is from a partnership that includes KQED, NPR, and KFF Health News.

California Lawmakers Approve Nation-Leading $25 Minimum Wage for Health Workers

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A sweeping agreement between labor and the health industry would gradually raise the minimum wage for hundreds of thousands of health workers in California to a nation-leading $25 an hour while ending a years-long battle over dialysis clinics.

The pact approved by state lawmakers on Thursday, the last day of this year’s legislative session, would phase in the wage increase for hospitals, nursing homes, and other medical and psychiatric services providers. The bill now heads to the governor’s desk. A spokesperson for Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, Izzy Gordon, said the governor will evaluate the bill on the merits before his Oct. 14 deadline to act on the legislation.

SB 525 would raise the hourly minimum at large health facilities and dialysis clinics to $23 next year, $24 in 2025, and $25 in 2026. It would boost hourly wages at community clinics to at least $21 in 2024, $22 in 2026, and $25 in 2027. Other health facilities would go to at least $21 an hour in 2024, $23 in 2026, and $25 by 2028.

The agreement “now strikes an important balance between supporting workers and protecting jobs and access to care in some of our most vulnerable communities,” Carmela Coyle, president and CEO of the California Hospital Association, said in a statement. “The bill creates a pathway to improving wages for our lower-wage health care workers, while also recognizing the needs of our state’s most troubled hospitals.”

The deal is a significant union victory during what has been dubbed a “hot labor summer,” with picket lines formed by Hollywood writers and actors, hotel workers, and Los Angeles city employees. Thousands of nurses could be next. Labor also won a $20 minimum wage for California fast-food workers, a significant boost from the current statewide $15.50 minimum wage.

Union leaders say lower-income health workers such as certified nursing assistants, patient aides, and food service workers — many of them racial minorities — need the additional money to keep up. “Health care in California will be more accessible and equitable because workers and healthcare providers stood together and stood up for patient care,” SEIU California Executive Director Tia Orr said of the health care deal.

The phase-in would be slower at hospitals with a high percentage of patients covered by Medicare or Medicaid, rural independent hospitals, and small county facilities. The minimum hourly wage there would go to $18 next year, then increase annually by 3.5% until it reaches $25 in 2033.

Subsequently, at all sites, the $25 minimum wage would be increased annually to keep up with inflation. However, the bill allows health care facilities to apply for a temporary pause or slower phase-in if they can show state officials that providing the required minimum wage “would raise doubts about the covered health care facility’s ability to continue as a going concern.”

State Sen. María Elena Durazo, the Los Angeles Democrat who introduced the bill, called her bill “a first in the nation historic investment in our healthcare workforce.” The measure “is a critical step to ensuring that we are addressing our healthcare workforce shortage,” she said before the bill received final passage late Thursday in the Senate.

As part of the deal, in a separate memorandum of understanding, Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West would drop its effort to impose regulations on dialysis clinics through legislation and at the ballot box. Voters defeated all three ballot initiatives, most recently last year, but the fight has cost the dialysis industry hundreds of millions of dollars.

California Dialysis Council spokesperson Jaycob Bytel said in a statement that the agreement “protects patients from the ongoing threats at the ballot and in the legislature.” It bars for four years any legislation or statewide or local ballot measures by either SEIU or the dialysis industry.

The union has pushed for wage boosts in several California cities. But the agreement bars local governments from requiring higher local minimum wages for health care workers for 10 years, until 2034. Local governments could set higher local minimum wages, but they must include all workers.

The original bill cleared the Senate in May with no votes to spare amid strident opposition from employers, who said they couldn’t afford it. The California Chamber of Commerce put the proposal on its annual “job killer” list, a designation that often is enough to kill controversial legislation. The No SB 525 coalition, which included hospitals, doctors, and business and taxpayer groups, had said the bill would cost $8 billion annually, endangering services and leading to higher premiums and higher costs for state and local governments.

Republicans who opposed the bill echoed those arguments while saying the increases will harm rural health facilities. “We’ll see hospitals go out of service and we will see rural health clinics for sure be severely impacted and probably go out of business,” warned state Sen. Brian Dahle, a Republican who represents rural Northern California.

The bill’s opponents also included the California Nurses Association, which said it could prompt employers to lower wages for registered nurses. The association helped scuttle a push for a $25 hourly minimum wage for health workers a year ago. That earlier effort failed in part because it was tied to a delay in earthquake-safety upgrades at hospitals.

The University of California-Berkeley Labor Center projected that the increase would boost wages for more than 469,000 health workers. The center estimates it would most benefit workers of color, who make up 70% of those workers, and women, who represent about three-quarters.

The bump would help about 40% of California’s health workers, earning them on average an extra $10,352 a year and reducing their reliance on Medi-Cal, saving between $181 million and $363 million in the second year of the wage increase, according to a legislative analysis. The analysis said opponents’ $8 billion cost estimate is overblown because it fails to include billions in state assistance to hospitals.

This article was produced by KFF Health News, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation. 

California Legislature Passes Gov. Newsom’s Proposal to Retool Mental Health Services Act

The California Legislature passed a pair of bills greenlighting Gov. Gavin Newsom’s campaign to build 10,000 new beds and housing units and increase drug addiction treatment as part of his response to the state’s homelessness and drug crises. The Democratic governor is expected to sign the bills, which received bipartisan support.

The first bill, SB 326, is designed to transform the state’s Mental Health Services Act into the Behavioral Health Services Act, using an existing tax on millionaires to treat the most seriously mentally ill and to increase programs for substance use disorders. The second, AB 531, authorizes the state to issue $6.38 billion in bonds to build more housing for homeless people and treatment beds for those with the most severe needs.

Newsom will now ask voters to approve the changes on the March primary ballot.

“This reform will bring much needed accountability currently lacking at the local and state level, increased transparency and visibility into the whole mental health and addiction treatment system, and a modernized focus to address today’s crises,” Newsom said in a statement.

According to a June statewide study on homelessness by the University of California-San Francisco, more than 171,000 Californians experience homelessness daily, representing 30% of the nation’s homeless population. The majority of participants in the study reported high lifetime rates of mental health and substance use challenges; 82% reported a period in their life in which they experienced a serious mental health condition, and nearly two-thirds reported the use of illicit drugs or heavy drinking.

The mental health act was passed as Proposition 63 by voters in 2004 and levied a tax of 1% on income above $1 million, known as the “millionaire’s tax.” That money then flowed from the state to counties for use in five mental health areas, including community support, prevention, and facilities. Funding changes year to year, but the tax generated $3.3 billion in the 2022-23 fiscal year, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office.

However, the program has been criticized over the years for falling short of its initial promise. Last year, the Los Angeles Times highlighted several reasons, including revenue swings, consistent underfunding of social and mental health programs, tension between state and county officials, and a shortage of mental health clinicians.

Newsom pledged that the newly renamed Behavioral Health Services Act would build 10,000 new beds and housing units for people experiencing homelessness who have behavioral health needs. It would also focus on diversifying the workforce and improving accountability — tracking outcomes in a more detailed way — so the government can understand what’s working and what’s not.

However, counties that administer this money at the local level have raised concerns. A letter from the California State Association of Counties and other organizations representing local government interests expressed fear that Newsom’s proposal would result in counties receiving significantly less funding for core services, little protection from fluctuation in funds, and less flexibility in spending.

The governor’s office emphasized that new requirements still provide flexibility and the spokesperson said change is needed because the status quo isn’t working.

Assembly member Jacqui Irwin (D-Thousand Oaks), who was the lead author of the bond bill and served for seven years as the chair of the body’s Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, is particularly proud of a provision that will reserve $1.07 billion for housing for veterans. California has the largest number of veterans experiencing homelessness — 31% of the nation’s homeless veteran population — according to a 2021 homelessness report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“Getting veterans experiencing homelessness off the streets has long been a priority for California, but getting some of our most vulnerable veterans into needed treatment for behavioral health challenges will be transformative,” Irwin said.

Sen. Susan Talamantes Eggman (D-Stockton), who co-authored the bond bill and was the lead author of the other bill, also introduced SB 43, which expands involuntary treatment requirements to include those who are unable to provide for their personal safety or necessary medical care as a result of a severe substance use disorder.

Eggman said the bills are critical to the state’s continuum of care. “Together they will build out voluntary housing, reprioritize resources to those with the greatest needs, and provide a true safety net to prevent the many people falling through the cracks that we see today,” she said.

This article was produced by KFF Health News, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation. 

California’s Plan for Cheaper Insulin Collides With Big Pharma’s Price Cuts

The state awarded a $50 million contract to produce less costly treatments, but moves by major suppliers might undercut the initiative before any new product emerges.

Kidnapping in Mexico Draws Attention to Medical Tourism

Here’s what experts say about the risks and promises of traveling abroad for cost-efficient care.

Decisiones financieras de los hospitales juegan un papel en la escasez de camas pediátricas para pacientes con VRS

La grave escasez de camas pediátricas que azota a la nación este otoño es en parte producto de las decisiones financieras tomadas por los hospitales durante la última década, como cerrar las salas infantiles, que a menudo operan en números rojos, y ampliar la cantidad de camas disponibles para proyectos más rentables como reemplazos articulares y atención del cáncer.

Para hacer frente a la avalancha de niños enfermos por una convergencia radical de virus desagradables, especialmente el virus respiratorio sincitial (VRS), la influenza y el coronavirus, los centros médicos de todo el país han desplegado carpas de triage, retrasado cirugías electivas y trasladado fuera del estado a menores gravemente enfermos.

Un factor importante en la escasez de camas es una tendencia de muchos años entre los hospitales de eliminar las unidades pediátricas, que tienden a ser menos rentables que las de adultos, dijo Mark Wietecha, director ejecutivo de la Children’s Hospital Association.

Los hospitales optimizan los ingresos tratando de mantener sus camas llenas al 100 %, y llenas de pacientes con condiciones que las aseguradoras reembolsan bien.

“Realmente tiene que ver con los dólares”, dijo el doctor Scott Krugman, vicepresidente de pediatría del Hospital Pediátrico Herman and Walter Samuelson en Baltimore. “Los hospitales dependen de procedimientos de alto volumen y alto reembolso de seguros que paguen bien para ganar dinero”.

El número de unidades pediátricas para pacientes internados en los hospitales cayó un 19% entre 2008 y 2018, según un estudio publicado en 2021 en la revista Pediatrics. Solo este año, los hospitales han cerrado unidades pediátricas en Boston y Springfield, Massachusetts; Richmond, Virginia; y Tulsa, Oklahoma.

El aumento actual de enfermedades respiratorias peligrosas para los niños es otro ejemplo de cómo covid-19 ha alterado el sistema de atención médica. Los bloqueos y el aislamiento que marcaron los primeros años de la pandemia dejaron a los niños en gran medida sin exposición, y aún vulnerables, a virus distintos al covid durante dos inviernos, y los médicos ahora están tratando esencialmente enfermedades respiratorias de varios años.

La pandemia también aceleró los cambios en la industria de la atención de salud que han dejado a muchas comunidades con menos camas de hospital disponibles para niños gravemente enfermos, junto con menos médicos y enfermeras para atenderlos.

Cuando las unidades de cuidados intensivos se inundaron con pacientes mayores con covid en 2020, algunos hospitales comenzaron a usar camas infantiles para tratar a adultos. Muchas de esas camas pediátricas no se han repuesto, dijo el doctor Daniel Rauch, presidente del comité de atención hospitalaria de la Academia Estadounidense de Pediatría.

“Simplemente no hay suficiente espacio para todos los niños que necesitan camas”, dijo la doctora Megan Ranney, quien trabaja en varios departamentos de emergencia en Providence, Rhode Island, incluido el Hasbro Children’s Hospital. La cantidad de niños que buscaron atención de emergencia en las últimas semanas fue un 25% más alta que el récord anterior del hospital.

“Tenemos médicos que limpian las camas para que podamos acomodar a los niños más rápido”, dijo Ranney, vicedecana de la Escuela de Salud Pública de la Universidad Brown.

No hay mucho dinero en el tratamiento de niños. Alrededor del 40% de los niños estadounidenses están cubiertos por Medicaid, un programa federal y estatal conjunto para pacientes de bajos ingresos y personas con discapacidades. Las tarifas básicas de Medicaid suelen ser más de un 20% inferiores a las que paga Medicare, el programa de seguro del gobierno para adultos mayores, y son aún más bajas en comparación con los seguros privados.

Si bien la atención especializada para una variedad de procedimientos comunes para adultos, desde reemplazos de rodilla y cadera hasta cirugías cardíacas y tratamientos contra el cáncer, genera importantes ganancias para los centros médicos, los hospitales se quejan de que generalmente pierden dinero en la atención pediátrica de pacientes hospitalizados.

Cuando Tufts Children’s Hospital cerró 41 camas pediátricas este verano, los funcionarios del hospital aseguraron a los residentes que los pacientes jóvenes podrían recibir atención en el cercano Boston Children’s Hospital. Ahora, Boston Children’s está retrasando algunas cirugías electivas para dejar espacio a los niños que están gravemente enfermos.

Rauch señaló que los hospitales infantiles, que se especializan en el tratamiento de enfermedades raras y graves como el cáncer pediátrico, la fibrosis quística y los defectos cardíacos, simplemente no están diseñados para manejar la avalancha de niños gravemente enfermos de esta temporada con virus respiratorios.

Incluso antes de la trifecta viral del otoño, las unidades pediátricas se esforzaban por absorber un número creciente de jóvenes con angustia mental aguda.

Abundan las historias de niños en crisis mentales que se quedan en el limbo durante semanas en las salas de emergencia mientras esperan ser transferidos a una unidad psiquiátrica pediátrica. En un buen día, dijo Ranney, el 20% de las camas de la sala de emergencias pediátrica del Hasbro Children’s Hospital están ocupadas por niños que experimentan problemas de salud mental.

Con la esperanza de aumentar la capacidad pediátrica, el mes pasado, la Academia Estadounidense de Pediatría se unió a la Asociación de Hospitales Infantiles para pedir a la Casa Blanca que declare una emergencia nacional debido a infecciones respiratorias infantiles y proporcione recursos adicionales para ayudar a cubrir los costos de la atención.

La administración Biden ha dicho que la flexibilidad que se les ha dado a los sistemas hospitalarios y a los proveedores durante la pandemia para eludir ciertos requisitos de personal también se aplica al VRS y la gripe.

El Doernbecher Children’s Hospital de Oregon Health & Science University ha cambiado a “estándares de atención de crisis”, lo que permite que las enfermeras de cuidados intensivos traten a más pacientes de los que normalmente se les asignan. Mientras tanto, los hospitales en Atlanta, Pittsburgh y Aurora, Colorado, han recurrido al tratamiento de pacientes jóvenes en carpas desbordadas en estacionamientos.

El doctor Alex Kon, pediatra de cuidados intensivos en el Centro Médico Comunitario en Missoula, Montana, dijo que los proveedores han hecho planes para cuidar a los niños mayores en la unidad de cuidados intensivos para adultos y desviar las ambulancias a otras instalaciones cuando sea necesario. Con solo tres UCI pediátricas en el estado, eso significa que los pacientes jóvenes pueden volar hasta Seattle o Spokane, Washington o Idaho.

Hollis Lillard llevó a su hijo de 1 año, Calder, a un hospital del ejército en el norte de Virginia el mes pasado después de experimentar varios días de fiebre, tos y dificultad para respirar. Pasaron siete horas angustiosas en la sala de emergencias antes de que el hospital encontrara una cama abierta y los trasladaran en ambulancia al Centro Médico Militar Nacional Walter Reed en Maryland.

Con la terapia adecuada y las instrucciones para el cuidado en el hogar, el virus de Calder fue fácilmente tratable: se recuperó después de que le administraran oxígeno y lo trataran con esteroides, que combaten la inflamación, y albuterol, que controla los broncoespasmos. Fue dado de alta al día siguiente.

Aunque las hospitalizaciones por VRS están disminuyendo, las tasas se mantienen muy por encima de la media para esta época del año. Y es posible que los hospitales no tengan mucho alivio.

Las personas pueden infectarse con este virus más de una vez al año, y Krugman se preocupa por un resurgimiento en los próximos meses. Debido al coronavirus, que compite con otros virus, “el patrón estacional habitual de virus se ha ido por la ventana”, dijo.

Al igual que el VRS, la influenza llegó temprano esta temporada. Ambos virus suelen alcanzar su punto máximo alrededor de enero. Tres cepas de la gripe están circulando y han causado aproximadamente 8,7 millones de casos, 78,000 hospitalizaciones y 4,500 muertes, según los Centros para el Control y la Prevención de Enfermedades (CDC).

Krugman duda que la industria de la atención de salud aprenda lecciones rápidas de la crisis actual. “A menos que haya un cambio radical en la forma en que pagamos la atención hospitalaria pediátrica”, dijo Krugman, “la escasez de camas solo empeorará”.