How Vermont hospitals are faring nearly a year into the pandemic

Published: Feb. 10, 2021 at 4:32 PM EST|Updated: Feb. 11, 2021 at 5:13 AM EST
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ST. ALBANS, Vt. (WCAX) - Last year, hospitals in our region had to stop everything to deal with the pandemic. It meant temporarily shutting down nonessential treatments and surgeries, things that normally make the margins for the hospitals. Our Ike Bendavid takes a look at how hospitals in Vermont are now faring financially.

As an independent hospital in rural Franklin County, Northwestern Medical Center says things are operating as normally as they can be during the pandemic.

“It’s been a remarkable response,” said Jonathan Billings, vice president of the Northwestern Medical Center.

Billings says like most hospitals, NMC had to quickly adapt to the pandemic. All nonessential surgeries and daily operations were shut down last spring for COVID precautions.

“Our services are essentially back to normal,” Billings said.

While that shutdown only lasted a matter of weeks, it added to an already difficult financial situation. The medical center was coming off a $9.3 million loss for the fiscal year 2019.

“We were in the process of working back through that to sustainability when this hit, so it made for a complex situation but we navigated successfully,” Billings said.

They say their own savings plus state and federal stimulus funding helped make up for pandemic losses.

“We had money in the bank that our board deliberately set aside to weather difficult times,” Billings said.

And the Northwestern Medical Center is not the only hospital that was feeling a financial impact pre-COVID.

“Even before pandemic a lot of our hospitals were experiencing financial troubles and very thin margins,” said Jeff Tieman, the president and CEO of the Vermont Association of Hospitals and Health Systems.

Tieman says that all 14 acute care nonprofit hospitals depend heavily on elective surgeries to balance their budgets.

“It created instant financial uncertainty and a lot of anxiety,” he said.

Tieman says the federal funding helped stabilize hospitals but he says it’s important to make sure hospitals are strong and stable moving forward.

He wouldn’t name specifics but said that there are hospitals in the state they are working with thin margins.

Moving forward, Tieman says that things like telehealth with an upfront cost could be something that could help margins.

“Operating right now during a pandemic and trying to stay on top of everything you are responsible for plus the most regulated health care environment in the country. I think we have to keep our eye on all the hospitals,” Tieman said.

But Billings says Northwestern Medical Center continues to serve and be there for their community.

“We are back on track for sustainability,” Billings said. “We are having a positive financial year so far.”

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