Doctors, nurses fighting coronavirus are having pay and benefits impacted as employers lose revenue

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Emergency room doctors and nurses who are putting their personal health at risk to treat coronavirus patients are now seeing their pay, compensation and other benefits impacted as economic shockwaves from the pandemic spread through the medical industry.

Staffing companies that have contracts with hospitals and employ those who work in emergency rooms say the coronavirus has eaten into one of their main sources of revenue: non-essential, elective procedures, which are being postponed nationwide as states are directing facilities to go all-hands-on-deck to fight the coronavirus.

“Despite the risks our providers are facing, and the great work being done by our teams, the economic challenges brought forth by COVID-19 have not spared our industry,” Alteon Health CEO Steve Holtzclaw wrote in a memo to its employees earlier this week, which was obtained by ProPublica.

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The company, which said it employs more than 1,700 clinicians across 16 states and the District of Columbia, has announced a 20-percent pay cut for administrative staff and a suspension of 401(k) matches, bonuses and paid time off, according to ProPublica.

The news website, citing the memo, also reported that clinicians were told to expect a reduction in hours as well, but Alteon Health later told Fox News in a statement Wednesday that "in fact, doctors and other clinicians who are working more hours on COVID-related cases will get paid more than they would have previously."

Holtzclaw said in his memo that he isn’t sure how long the changes will remain in effect, but based on his recent conversations with other health care employers, “you can be assured that similar measures are being contemplated within these organizations and will likely be implemented in the coming weeks,” ProPublica reports.

Despite the crisis, Alteon Health -- which is supported by private equity firm Frazier Healthcare Partners -- has "expanded eligibility for our clinician health benefits, and we are paying doctors who are self-isolating," said Holtzclaw in his statement Wednesday.

"As we build resources for the COVID-19 fight, we are reducing administrative costs but not at the expense of clinicians, as there are fewer needs for non-COVID cases as people stay home more than ever," he continued. "In situations where there is a surge of clinical need, we will ensure full coverage and support of our valued clinicians."

A medical director who says he is classified as an Alteon Health administrative employee told ProPublica that the cuts, to him, amount to a loss of around $20,000 a year.

“Every day I’m in county and federal emergency meetings. This is besides seeing patients. I’m doing more hands-on work right now than ever before,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “I’m getting calls 24/7 from the hospital administration, the county management team. I have not had a day off in over two weeks. And I’m working all this for 20 percent less.”

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The director added that he understands Alteon Health’s new economic outlook, but wishes the company let employees choose their sacrifices instead.

“If a company cannot support physicians during the toughest times, to me there’s a significant question of integrity," he told ProPublica.

Alteon Health is not the only company though revising its compensation for hospital staff during the coronavirus outbreak.

In Massachusetts, Atrius Health – a network of more than 1,100 physicians, primary care providers and clinicians – announced that some staff members will have 10 to 25 percent of their pay withheld through the beginning of May, under the expectation they will receive it later, according to The Boston Globe.

The newspaper, citing an internal email from Atrius Health’s CEO, also reported that nonphysicians who are now finding themselves in less demand because of the crisis are being asked to take a one-month unpaid furlough with health benefits.

“Like every healthcare organization here and across the country, we are operating in uncharted waters,” Marci Sindell, Atrius senior vice president of external affairs, told The Boston Globe in a statement. “In light of the realities we face as a result of the drop in routine patient visits and cancellation of elective surgeries, our practice must adapt quickly and decisively to protect our patients and to preserve our mission.”

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The newspaper also reported emergency room staff at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston have been informed that some of their accrued pay is being withheld.

“This is at a time when many of us have moved out to live like lepers separate from family to prevent spreading infection, and have already been working huge extra hours trying to scrape together [personal protective equipment] and otherwise brace for COVID-19,” Matt Bivens, an emergency room doctor there, told the Globe.

And Tenet Healthcare, a company that runs 65 hospitals and is headquartered in Dallas, has announced a postponement of 401(k) matches, ProPublica reports.

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One company that staffs emergency rooms though said its employees are remaining financially unaffected during the coronavirus outbreak.

“We are not instituting any reduction in pay or benefits,” TeamHealth, which is based in Tennessee and has more than 20,000 affiliated physicians and clinicians, told ProPublica. “This is despite incurring significant cost for staffing in anticipation of surging volumes, costs related to quarantined and sick physicians, and costs for PPE as we work hard to protect our clinicians from the virus.”