2020 marked the Wisconsin Hospital Association’s (WHA’s) 100th anniversary, but COVID muted our planned year-long celebration. While that was disappointing, and despite all our cancelled plans, I don’t think there has ever been a more important year in WHA’s proud history. Our members have been challenged in ways unfathomable just 10 months ago, and WHA has been by their side every hour of every day.
But for the great series of stories that appeared in The Valued Voice throughout 2020, it was easy to forget that 2020 was WHA’s centennial, COVID rendering this monumental milestone an afterthought. Some may see the confluence of a global pandemic and WHA’s 100th year as an unfortunate twist of fate. I see it much differently.
To me, 2020 has been WHA’s epoch year, the most remarkable and affirming of all our previous 100. A once-in-a-lifetime, career-testing/defining opportunity to help thousands of others by doing what WHA has been very intentionally built to do best—advocacy. A chance to use our resources and skills to truly make a difference for some of the most remarkable places and people in our society—our state’s hospitals and the true heroes who staff and keep them running no matter the challenge. What more can we ask than to be the advocate and voice for the individuals and organizations who are saving and improving lives and giving hope and comfort to thousands of people and families every minute of every day? That is a privilege and an honor, especially in this, our 100th year.
WHA has a well-earned reputation for results and a commitment to excellence, but I firmly believe that in all our past 100 years, WHA has never been as impactful and valuable to our members as we are right now. Here are just some of the things WHA accomplished for our members in 2020, none of which were on our agenda 365 days ago:
- Like other sectors, the pandemic has inflicted serious financial damage on health care. A federal directive in March that postponed non-emergency hospital care translated into approximately $2.5 billion in net losses for Wisconsin hospitals over four months. WHA successfully lobbied federal policymakers for fair distribution of the CARES Act Provider Relief Fund, ensuring no hospitals were left out; and to date, Wisconsin hospitals and health systems have received an estimated $1.1 billion from this funding. WHA also worked with the Evers administration to create a grant program for hospitals during COVID, these efforts leading to the distribution of $40 million to 72 eligible hospitals. WHA also applied for and received more than $3.5 million in grant money through the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR). WHA chose to use those dollars to help our members and quickly distributed funds to 114 hospitals.
Delayed care, whether by government mandate or capacity conserving necessity, has other serious, yet underappreciated, ramifications. According to the WHA Information Center, from March through June of this year colonoscopies and mammograms were down 63% and 58%, respectively, compared to 2019. Hip and knee replacements were also down 38% and 54%, and most concerning was the decrease in the diagnosis of mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, both down 50% from 2019.
WHA worked with the state to avoid Wisconsin issuing its own orders limiting non-emergency care, thus allowing our members to ramp up to normal volumes and provide important delayed care sooner. More than 30 other states issued such orders and restrictions; Wisconsin has not. WHA also launched a statewide PSA campaign and joined with physician partners and others to assure the public that hospitals were safe and urge important health care not to be delayed.
March, April and May were largely a dry run for what COVID became this fall, but it took information to help health care leaders, elected officials and others make critical decisions that served our state well then and still very much today. WHA was instrumental in filling the information void when on April 9 the WHA Information Center launched Wisconsin’s COVID “situational awareness” dashboard, a voluntary effort initiated by WHA. Our dashboard team collects, proofs and uploads 12 separate data elements from 155 hospitals into the dashboard every single day, including on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Entirely WHA staffed and funded, the WHA COVID dashboard has now been viewed over 800,000 times and has become the “go to” daily information staple for those monitoring the status and impact of COVID in Wisconsin.
Applying lessons learned in the spring, hospitals did everything possible to minimize “crowd-out” of non-COVID care during the fall and winter COVID surge. This is one of the many reasons slowing down COVID became a statewide, multi-industry imperative. In September, as COVID began raging in earnest here, WHA led the creation of a multi-industry coalition “Stop the COVID Spread!”, a diverse group intent on cutting through the politicization of COVID to drive widespread adoption of simple, yet critical, healthy behaviors. Since its launch in October, the coalition has grown to more than 125 Wisconsin organizations and aired six different safe practices ads on TV, radio and digital platforms that have been viewed, seen or heard an estimated 30 million times. The coalition is one of several WHA-initiated efforts to curb the spread of COVID, including partnering with the state’s hospital and health system physician leaders.
As the numbers of COVID inpatients drastically spiked in September, October and November, hospitals leveraged their earlier experiences and planning to reprioritize care, reallocate resources and retool space. With determination and creativity, Wisconsin hospitals added capacity for more than 1,400 inpatients in order to absorb the COVID wave, restructuring lobbies, waiting rooms and even ambulance garages to handle patient overflow and safely treat both COVID and non-COVID patients. All this took place while hospitals and health systems massively expanded their COVID testing capacity and conducted the majority of community testing across our state.
Staffing that expanded capacity, in a highly contagious pandemic, has proven an immense challenge. Community spread of COVID has taken thousands of Wisconsin heath care workers out of the fight at the same time demand surged. Hospitals have used every staffing tool and resource to cope, and here again, WHA was instrumental in supporting this incredible hospital response. We worked directly with Wisconsin Legislature, the Governor and federal policymakers to initiate, craft and implement facility waivers; expedite physician and nurse licensure; and expand use and reimbursement for telehealth, liability protections and other emergency actions, enabling hospitals to maximize space, capacity and workforce to respond to COVID
From adversity comes opportunity, and not surprisingly, Wisconsin’s hospitals initiated and refined new methods of care and resource use that are driving better outcomes and that should substantiate—and help government embrace—more regulatory reforms in the future. Health care will be forever changed by COVID and so, we hope, will government. Pandemic-driven regulatory innovation is an opportunity to maximize health care quality, access and affordability long after COVID recedes. WHA crafted and with our partners in Madison and Washington, D.C., advanced many of the temporary regulatory changes that turbo-charged these innovations, and now we are working to make many of them permanent.
Yes, 2020 has been difficult and so, too, will 2021, but I could not be prouder of the WHA staff and the Wisconsin hospitals and health systems we fight for every day. It is a privilege and honor to be your advocate and your voice, especially in challenging times like these. And I know that working together, we will emerge from this pandemic stronger than ever.