Suffering from rare patient visits amid the new coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, small hospitals are increasingly turning to unpaid leave for physicians and nurses to reduce costs.
However, such stopgap measures will not keep the hospitals from going bankrupt if the pandemic drags on for a long time, observers said.
A director of a provincial children’s hospital recently gave unpaid leave to a regular doctor, a part-time doctor, and 20 percent of other employees.
“Patient visits fell almost 80 percent (this month). The number is only 20 percent of the previous level,” the director said. At the children’s hospital, 80 percent of the patients are those with respiratory symptoms. Still, those pediatric patients are rarely coming, he added.
The director could not help but tell employees to get the government subsidies given to workers who had to take temporary leave due to the COVID-19 outbreak. The maximum amount a hospital employee could get was 1.98 million won ($1,613) per month, but such subsidies were not allowed for doctors, he said.
The hospital head said he was holding on to debts to stay afloat and hoped that a business recovery could turn the tide shortly.
“If we can’t recover, I will have to close the hospital. The hospital makes hundreds of millions of won per month, but I don’t know how long the hospital could survive,” he said.
Another hospital head, who also runs a children’s hospital, was facing a similar situation. Eight doctors were on its payrolls except for the director himself, who divided them into two groups and gave them two-week unpaid leave.
For other hospital staff, the director is considering giving them unpaid leave from April or applying for the government’s subsidies for maintaining employment.
“During the same season last year, I saw 300 patients a day. But this year, it’s difficult to see even 100 patients,” the director said. “We decided to cut the number of doctors in half – four are working, and the other four are resting.”
He called for the government to work out measures immediately to support small hospitals.
“Our hospital has 72 beds, but we had only one inpatient recently. When we were discussing what to do after the patient is discharged, two new patients were hospitalized after one patient went home,” he said. “We don’t have any option. I almost gave up.”
The director claimed that the National Health Insurance Service must have accumulated some funds because of the decreased reimbursement payments with the falling number of patients. The government should care more about saving small hospitals, rather than evaluating their credit ranking and eligibility for medical loans, he added.
“If our hospital goes out of business, about 70 employees will have nowhere to go. I hope NHIS will support us with a surplus fund,” he said.
Yet another hospital director near Seoul said the government should come up with measures that can provide practical help for medical workers in the forefront.
The director noted that the government’s recent policy, which calls for the NHIS to make reimbursement payments to hospitals in advance to help boost hospital business, has many loopholes.
“Hospitals that have taken out medical loans are not eligible to apply for the advanced reimbursement payments. However, almost all small hospitals in Korea must have taken medical loans,” he said. “Advanced reimbursement payments should be given after the one-by-one reviews of hospitals, regardless of medical loan history.”
When the COVID-19 outbreak causes patients to shun hospital visits, driving hospitals to go belly up, medical institutions have to bear the brunt of damages, he went on to say.
“If COVID-19 outbreak prolongs, most small hospitals will go bankrupt. We need urgent measures, not normal support, given the urgent situation,” he added.
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