As more COVID-19 patients flock to hospitals and doctors’ offices, the federal government has agreed to finally release billions in money Congress authorized for medical providers back in March.

Congress earmarked $175 billion for provider health care relief, but the federal Department of Health and Human Services only distributed about $75 billion. The payments went mostly to traditional Medicare providers, especially big, urban hospitals. Rural areas and reservations got shortchanged.

The promise to release additional funding came after Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and a bipartisan group of senators urged HHS to get more help to rural hospitals, doctors, nursing homes and other health care facilities.

“On a pre-pandemic basis, these providers face high uncompensated care costs and bring in significantly lower revenue than other hospitals. COVID-19 has severely exacerbated these disparities. We are concerned about the future financial viability of our hospitals that help care for the sickest, lowest-income and costliest patients,” Sinema and other senators wrote.

Gila County residents rely heavily on the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS), which provides coverage for individuals and families making up to 138% of a poverty-level income. In Gila County, 14,000 people depend on AHCCCS, roughly 27% of the population.

Studies have shown that people on AHCCCS are twice as likely to have health care risk factors that dramatically increase the severity of COVID-19, like diabetes and hypertension.

An extensive list of health care providers in Gila County have already received payments and stand to get more in coming weeks. The numbers come from a list posted by HHS. It’s unclear if the list includes the newly authorized money.

In Payson that includes Rim Country Rehab ($489,000), RM Arizona Holdings ($287,000), Payson United Medical Investors ($171,785) and Hospice of Payson ($41,000), PHSM Rehabilitation ($497,000).

The payments will come as Arizona becomes a national COVID-19 hotspot, with new cases and hospitalizations hitting nearly daily records since Gov. Doug Ducey lifted his stay-at-home order nearly a month ago.

Emergency room visits, hospital admissions and ICU beds used for COVID-19 patients have all increased dramatically since the reopening, along with one of the steepest rates of new cases in the country.

As of Tuesday, the state’s website showed the state’s hospitals have about 2,000 COVID-19 inpatients, compared to 790 when the governor eased restrictions on May 15.

Roughly 84% of the state’s ICU beds are in use, with COVID-19 patients accounting for more than a third of those patients — roughly 600 out of 1,400. That leaves the whole state with less than 300 unfilled ICU beds.

Roughly 82% of the state’s hospital beds are in use by roughly 6,400 patients. That leaves 1,300 remaining beds. That means COVID-19 patients account for a little less than a third of the hospitalized patients in the state.

Emergency room visits have also spiked. The most recent figures show 1,200 new COVID-19 visits per day, compared to 517 visits per day when the stay-at-home order expired.

The number of confirmed cases has jumped to 58,000 — with about 3,500 new cases confirmed each day.

State health officials have said some increase reflects more widespread testing and note that the number of deaths has not increased as rapidly. The state reported 42 deaths on Tuesday, with a fatality rate of 19 per 100,000.

However, the percentage of positive tests has jumped — hitting 11% this week. That compares to about 5% before the reopening. When the state lifted the stay-at-home order, virtually the only downward trend that met federal recommendations was the percentage of positive tests.

Gila County has since the reopening registered one of the state’s most rapid rates of increase in cases, with 175 confirmed cases as of Wednesday.

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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