Hospitals will face a major dilemma if the current federal administration repeals the Affordable Care Act (ACA) without a suitable replacement. The ACA offers millions of Americans affordable health insurance, and hospitals have seen their revenues, and their quality of care, rise as those newly insured citizens access their services. If the ACA goes away, those health care patients and their accompanying insurance payments disappear, putting even more stress on today’s health care labor force. With profit decline comes employee decline, both in number and quality. This will first and foremost affect nursing staff, putting some out of work and others in-over-their-heads.
An Uncertain Health Care Future
Before enactment of the ACA, existing law required (and still requires) that health care facilities provide “stabilizing care” to any person who requests services, regardless of their ability to pay. Medicaid covered these costs. Without ACA coverage, many patients will be forced back to receiving only the substandard “stabilizing care,” and will not receive the services they need to regain their health.
In that circumstance, the medical facility will be forced to balance the volume of unsubsidized, stabilizing care offered against the revenues generated by paying patients, cost reductions, or staff workload increases. If they offer excessive unsubsidized care, they risk declining income levels, staff numbers and possible bankruptcy. If they provide too little, they risk losing their Medicaid/Medicare funding. In both cases, the facility, its staff, and America’s uninsured patients will suffer.
Unpaid Care Is Expensive for the Medical Office …
Every medical consultation generates a series of cost-creating actions, from those of the scheduling secretary to the attending medical professional, and all the way through to the deposits made by the final billing clerk. According to the American Hospital Association, hospitals provided $35.7 billion in uncompensated care to their patients in 2015 alone. When a hospital absorbs these losses, it is also forced to reduce the services it can afford to provide.
Consequently, it is not unheard of for doctors to reduce the size of their bills by limiting the services they provide or the number of recommendations they make, based on their perception of what the patient can afford. Other studies confirm that uninsured patients are checked into a hospital for shorter stays, and they are offered fewer interventions for their condition. For the health professionals, these painful decisions are in direct conflict with their oath to provide the best care possible for every patient.
… And Hard on the Staff
One group of hospital workers that will certainly absorb a significant percentage of additional work due to funding cuts are the nurses. Reduced funding often leads to reduced staff numbers; remaining staff end up working longer, harder shifts, with more responsibility and less break time. And nursing is already a challenging job, with a high demand for significant physical labor that also takes an emotional toll. In fact, between 2002 and 2012, nurses have reported the highest stress levels of all health care professionals.
Additionally, long hours may not allow nurses to get the sleep they need. Inefficient sleep has been associated with a deficit in performance, caused by cognitive problems, mood alterations, reduced motivation, increased safety risk, and physiological changes. These effects only get worse with total sleep deprivation, common among nurses who work consecutive shifts.
Additional Stress Factors
Research reveals that the changes in the nursing profession in particular and the health care system in general, contribute significantly to the problem:
- Sophisticated technology offers immense benefits but adds additional layers of responsibility on already overloaded schedules;
- Burnout is common, too. Protocols can change as resources ebb; nurses are compelled to follow evolving practices without the opportunity to add input regarding their patient’s care. A 2012 study published by the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions found high levels of burnout correlated to lower ratings for quality of care.
- Reduced staff numbers also drive nurses to work even when they are sick. Many choose to potentially infect their patients rather than leave their colleagues unsupported on shift.
The reality for America is that, before the ACA, unpaid hospital bills were often eventually born by other elements of the system, including taxpayers and patients who incurred higher medical care costs. Repealing it won’t save the country money, but instead will add extra stress to the system and further erode the health of millions of its citizens.