Swine flu threatens hospital business

A nurse vaccinates a medical worker.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: The quote of the day goes to Bank of England governor Mervyn King. You heard part of a speech he gave up at the top of Steve's story.

Elsewhere in that speech, King channelled his inner Churchill and came up with this line about banks and all the government support they've gotten. Never before, he said, has so much money been owed by so few to so many.

There's no telling how much the Swine Flu could end up costing in lost lives, lost productivity and medical expenses. The vaccine is only now making its way to hospitals and doctor's offices across the country. But the estimates are in the multi-billions. Hospitals are especially worried. Not just about their ability to care for all the people who get sick but about being able to carry on their other business as usual.

Joel Rose explains.


JOEL ROSE: It's hard to say how the swine flu pandemic will affect hospitals' bottom lines, because no one knows how many people will get sick enough to be admitted.

ERIC Toner: If this became a severe outbreak, then we would expect that the financial effect on hospitals would be significant.

Eric Toner is a researcher at the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Toner and his colleagues predicted that a severe flu pandemic could cost hospitals as much as $3.9 billion. That's in part because hospitals would see more uninsured patients. And there are only so many hospital beds. If lots of swine flu patients need those beds, Toner says hospitals would be forced to delay other procedures that aren't as critical -- but much more lucrative.

Toner: Hospitals stay profitable to the extent that they are profitable by high-profit services, such as elective surgeries. So if hospitals have to defer elective surgeries, that will definitely impact them adversely.

Toner says that's not a problem now because the pandemic is still mild. But it wouldn't take much to disrupt business as usual at many hospitals, says Boston University public health professor David Ozonoff.

DAVID Ozonoff: They have MRI suites and colonoscopy suites that are doing procedures right after the other throughout the day and some of them running 24/7. If you have to start rescheduling that, it's going to cut into their income.

Ozonoff agrees that hospitals have been able to cope with the swine flu outbreak so far. But he also warns that anything you predict about flu is bound to be wrong.

I'm Joel Rose, for Marketplace.

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