On Feb. 4, WHA submitted comments on a bipartisan discussion draft related to pandemic preparedness to the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP). WHA's comments on this draft legislation, the PREVENT Pandemics Act Discussion Draft, requested the committee put a larger emphasis on the role hospitals and health systems have played serving on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Writing to HELP Committee Chair Patty Murray and Ranking Member Richard Burr, WHA President and CEO Eric Borgerding expressed appreciation for Congress taking on this important issue, but also cautioned, "The discussion draft so far seems to lack meaningful support for the health care system that has been on the front lines of this pandemic for more than two years now. WHA encourages the HELP Committee to include a larger focus of how public health and preparedness efforts must support hospitals, health systems and the health care infrastructure as a whole."
The PREVENT Pandemics Act discussion draft was released on Jan. 25 and included a bevy of strategies aimed at strengthening state and federal preparedness efforts to improve the health care system’s ability to respond to the next pandemic. Most of these strategies are focused on better preparing federal agencies and state and local public health infrastructure.
In WHA's comments to the HELP Committee, Borgerding highlighted the challenges that a lack of adequate public health infrastructure created for hospitals and health systems, most notably, by requiring hospitals and health systems to take on the challenges of mass testing and vaccination campaigns for the public.
"The health care workforce is finite, and each body a hospital or health system reassigned to testing or vaccination efforts was one less person available to provide direct patient care. While this was easier to absorb during phases of the pandemic when hospitals and clinics saw lower volumes, it had a dramatic impact during the patient surges in fall of 2020 and fall of 2021," said Borgerding.
WHA recommended the committee set aside adequate emergency funding to allow public health infrastructure to work cooperatively with hospitals and health systems to quickly scale up hiring for these functions.
WHA also recommended the committee recognize the harm that was caused by a post-acute/long-term care systems failure. A WHA survey done during the fall surge of 2021 found that 600 hospital beds could have been freed up in one day if not for the patients being stuck in hospitals due to a lack of nursing home beds being available to care for them. WHA urged the committee to look at flexibilities in certified nursing assistant (CNA) training and other staffing strategies to prevent a similar breakdown of post-acute care in the future.
Lastly, WHA suggested the PREVENT Pandemics Act include direct workforce support for the hospitals and health systems that care for patients during a pandemic. Citing the significant staffing challenges hospitals have faced during COVID-19, including those associated with utilizing traveling nurse staffing agencies, WHA recommended the HELP Committee include both short-term and long-term workforce support for hospital and health systems, such as additional graduate medical education slots, loan repayment programs for practitioners with infectious disease and emergency planning expertise, and special immigrant visas to help alleviate some of the more immediate shortages facing health care.
Contact WHA Vice President of Federal and State Relations Jon Hoelter with questions.