Starr County hospital sees 18% revenue decline from previous year

Notes to medical personnel are hung in an area as they prepare to enter a COVID-19 unit at Starr County Memorial Hospital, Monday in Rio Grande City. (Eric Gay | The Associated Press)

COVID-19 has affected at least 2,782 Starr County residents and killed 134 of them so far, according to the Department of State Health Services.  But on top of the loss of life, the pandemic has caused economic strain to many businesses as well as to their lone hospital, which saw a decrease in revenue this year.

During a meeting of the Starr County Memorial Hospital board last week, hospital controller Rafael Benavides delivered a comparison of the hospital revenues from January through July 2018, 2019 and 2020.

“As part of a preparation to submit some of this information to the government, in order to keep the funds that we received from the state, we went in and compared, took a sample of 14 different departments of the hospital — most of them ancillary departments — the two rural health clinics and the ambulance/EMS services,” Olivares told the board Thursday.

Overall, the hospital revenues from those 14 departments decreased from $22,860,665.68 to $18,686,813.82, a difference of $4,173,851.86 or 18%, Olivares reported.

In March 2019, the hospital had more than $4.5 million but that went down this year to $4,029,899.20, a difference of $534,756.44.

The departments with the biggest losses were EMS with a $218,000 hit, the laboratory department with $83,000 and the GI lab with $69,000.

For April, revenues decreased by 44% from 4,720,115.71 in 2019 to $2,629,329.31 this year.

“This was when everybody was scared of coming over to the hospital and we saw a tremendous decrease in many, many areas including ambulance but also our cardiopulmonary department,” Olivares said.

The hospital received $273,000 less this year from their ambulances, $299,000 less from the radiology department, $235,000 less from cardiopulmonary and $114,000 less from the pharmacy.

The following month, the gastrointestinal, or GI lab brought in zero in revenues in May compared to the $312,930 in 2019 and the $328,000 it brought in during 2018.

The lab department also went down from more than $1.3 million in May 2019 to $979,162 in May 2020, a decrease of $373,801.

The radiology department brought in $161,000 less this year while the cardiopulmonary department brought in $144,000 less.

“So for this month of May, comparing 2019 to 2020, we saw a decrease of $5.3 million in these 14 departments,” Olivares said. “We’ve also noticed that our rural clinics saw a decrease in many areas.”

The Rio Grande City clinic made $31,000 less that month while the Roma clinic made $29,000 less.

Though, the hospital did see an overall loss in revenue in June also, which wasn’t as stark as it was in previous months.

Overall, the total combined loss for June was $520,505 or a 12.47% decrease.

Ambulance revenues started ticking back up this month and increased from the same month last year, from $321,000 in June 2019 to $442,000 in June 2020, a bump of about $120,000.

All other departments saw decreases, though, such as the GI lab which went from $295,000 in 2019 to $36,529 this year, a $258,677 difference.

Things improved during July when the hospital actually received 6% more, or $291,132.64, in revenue than during the same month last year in those 14 departments.

But because of the high number of COVID-19 patients at the hospital, their lab department increased from $1.27 million in 2019 to more than $1.78 million in July 2020, an increase of $516,000.

“It’s because we were doing a lot of lab work for these patients,” said Hospital CEO and Administrator Thalia H. Muñoz. “You saw this month and the month before the lab went up but it was all those inpatients in the COVID unit and a lot of lab work was being done on them.”

The rise in patients hospitalized with COVID-19 also caused a bump in their pharmacy — from $358,000 in 2019 to $639,318 this year — and in their cardiopulmonary department — from $372,838 to $780,840.

However, most of their departments again saw losses in July, such as the GI lab which went from $260,938 in revenue last year to $32,719 this year, a difference of $228,000.

Their emergency department services also went down from $539,000 to $394,000 for a difference of $144,000.

The surgery department went down from $38,000 last year to $16,000 this year while their wound care clinic decreased from $37,000 to $18,000.

The imaging center saw a decrease from $90,802 to $43,000, a difference of $47,000; and the radiology department went down from $654,000 to $490,000, a difference of a $164,000.

As for the hospital’s expenses, Olivares said a detailed report was not yet prepared but said the hospital had acquired much more in supplies this year and that there was an increase in overtime among their staff, though many employees had left for various reasons.

Despite the loss in revenue during that five-month period — with the exception of July — Olivares told the board the hospital’s bottom line remained positive because of funds received from the state and through other programs.

“Even though we had less activity and less revenues being posted to our books, our bottom line up to June still showed a reasonable bottom line,” he said. “We were not in the red.”

While the coronavirus pandemic has strongly impacted the hospital financially, there’s a likelihood that the resumption of services like elective surgeries will give the hospital some relief.

Elective surgeries were suspended as the number of COVID-19 patients overwhelmed the hospital and their resources. However, with the decline in cases, Dr. Jose Vazquez, the hospital board president suggested they look into offering those services again.

“I think that perhaps it’s time to start resuming some of that activity,” Vazquez said.

But how soon those services will resume remains unclear and whether this decline in coronavirus hospitalizations will continue is also something hospital officials are keeping an eye on.

When the hospital was in desperate need of staff, the U.S. Department of Defense deployed two U.S. Navy Rural Rapid Response Teams to assist with the patients dealing with COVID-19.

The expiration date of those teams is fast approaching but Muñoz said they will try to keep them longer in case coronavirus cases spike again.

The official termination date is Sept. 6, Muñoz said, but officials are giving them leeway to keep them there past that.

“I talked to the county judge, I talked to the mayor this afternoon and I told them that as far as we were concerned, we were going to write a letter requesting that they remain as long as we could keep them, at least through the month of September,” Muñoz said.

A big concern was the upcoming Labor Day weekend which has typically been cause for many get-togethers.

Emphasizing the desire to hold on to the staff longer, Muñoz was told it would be difficult to get them to return.

“If you let go of your staff and something happens, it’s going to be extremely difficult for you to get these people back,” Muñoz said.