Relief as People Forced to Wait for Elective Surgeries Can Now Reschedule

After green light from state officials, procedures put on hold as hospitals coped with COVID-19 surge started up again Tuesday

Ana Ampudia injured her foot in January, but doctors postponed surgery to repair it after Gov. Phil Murphy put elective procedures on hold March 27 as the pandemic threatened to overwhelm hospitals. She says waiting has been excruciating for her.

“I spend most of my days sitting in my bed because I can’t be walking around; it hurts,” she said.

Instead, hospitals focused scarce resources almost exclusively on critically-ill COVID-19 patients. Many people who were worried about exposure to the virus avoided emergency rooms, sometimes foregoing desperately-needed care.

But the governor’s ban ended Tuesday and doctors across New Jersey are back to booking surgeries. Ampudia’s going in Thursday.

Christina Sneyd’s surgery to reverse a tubal ligation so she can try to become pregnant was also rescheduled. It’s been a heartbreaking wait. At age 44, her insurance for fertility treatment coverage ends within months.

“Now we’re like pressing for time because after I’m 45, I’m pretty sure they won’t pay for anything until I’m actually pregnant,” she said. “Having it cancelled and cancelled and cancelled was really stressful. I had a mild panic attack and breakdown the second time. I was so frustrated.”

But the pandemic isn’t over, and New Jersey hospitals reopening for elective surgeries must follow strict guidelines to minimize risks. They’re disinfecting and testing every patient for the virus prior to surgery. Hospitals must create a COVID-negative care unit.

“We want to get people back to full care in New Jersey. This plan has been done with the governor’s road back,” said Kevin Slavin, the president and CEO of St. Joseph’s Health in Paterson.

“The message we want to get out to patients is, it’s safe to come in. We’ve really created what I like to call, a ‘hospital within a hospital.’ So it’s totally a COVID-negative area from the time you drive up to the front here to come in for surgery,” said Dr. Mark Connolly, St. Joseph’s University Medical Center’s Department of Surgery chair.

Big financial drain

Hospitals must monitor patient flow and be prepared for a second wave of COVID-19, but resuming elective surgeries brings a most welcome cash infusion. New Jersey acute care hospitals hemorrhaged $650 million a month in lost revenues, a 32% drop, when elective surgeries shut down statewide.

Doing elective work “is the bread and butter of every hospital,” said Dr. Daniel Varga, chief physician executive with Hackensack Meridian Health. “The good news for us is that we’re a financially strong organization. We’ve managed to go through this without furloughs.”

Many hospitals are struggling, even though 53 facilities recently received $1.7 billion in federal aid. But the real bottom line is patients.

“We’ve got to earn their trust back because we were inundated, like a lot of facilities in Jersey, with COVID,” said Varga.

For Ampudia, she just wants to be healed. “I want this all to be over. I want my foot healed, and I want the world healed,” she said.

For hospitals, resuming elective surgeries will bring largely financial relief. For their patients, it will end weeks of waiting and worry.

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