Number of U.S. Hospitals and Beds Dwindled Before ‘Catastrophic’ Pandemic

The years preceding the pandemic saw a drop in the number of U.S. hospitals and beds, and the cost of caring for Covid-19 patients could push those totals even lower, according to a trade group report.

Research issued late Thursday by the American Hospital Association shows the number of facilities dropped to 6,090 in 2019 -- the most recent year data were available -- from 6,146 the previous year. Hospital beds also decreased, to around 920,000 in 2019 from 924,000 in 2018, continuing a decades-long trend.

The explosion of Covid-19 has not only overwhelmed staff and facilities but pushed more hospitals into financial distress as they limited more profitable elective procedures and faced the “astronomical” costs of preparing for an influx of infected patients, the group said. Covid-19 cases “tend to be incredibly resource intensive,” the report added.

Even the $175 billion providers received from the CARES Act “falls far short of covering these losses,” according to the report.

Rural ‘Concern’

The U.S. has reported 24.5 million cases and more than 400,000 deaths from the pandemic as intensive care beds have filled across the nation, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University and Bloomberg News.

The AHA estimated last spring that hospitals would tally at least $323 billion in losses due to the virus through the end of 2020. But that didn’t account for certain expenses like costs for protective equipment or surging cases that continue to roil the country, it said. The long-term impact on care will be “severe, and in many cases, catastrophic,” according to the report. The viability of rural hospitals, many of which were suffering from declining revenues before the pandemic, is of “particular concern.”

The number of rural community hospitals declined by 16 in 2019, to 1,805, according to the AHA.

But that’s not their only issue, said James Wesp, principal of health-care consultancy Oasis LLC. “Small, rural facilities do not have the staff or certain, critical specialists and equipment to effectively treat the influx of Covid patients,” he said.

The first round of the virus bypassed rural areas, and hospitals there furloughed workers or saw staff depart to take lucrative jobs in epicenters, Wesp said. “When the next wave hit these rural centers, they were not prepared from a staffing standpoint or with the necessary supplies, including PPE.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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