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I must say that my relative who requested that we not stay at his home after returning from Australia two weeks ago, was showing his scientific background in spades. We are all experiencing a new normal that has the effect of causing high levels of anxiety: medical, social, and economic. How do we deal with the fire hose of information coming from so many sources and changing daily?
In this column I hope to provide some specific answers to the most frequently asked questions. I will assume that we all agree: 1) COVID-19 is a very serious issue 2) social distancing is the only thing within our control to help “flatten the curve” and reduce the overall severity of its affect and 3) our front line health workers are at the greatest risk. Without the Personal Protection Equipment that they need (masks, gloves, gowns), this infection escalates and individual risk expands exponentially.
There are a limited number of ICU beds and respirators for our regional population of close to 250,000. Kaiser Family Foundation says that we have 85 ICU beds in the county to serve our region. Trinity County has none. Rick Plummer, Communications Director, Dignity North State says, “Mercy Redding currently has 35 ICU beds and 29 ventilators. If we experience a big patient surge, we have the ability to expand to more than 60 ICU beds and 100+ ventilators”. Remember, some of those will be currently in use.
The first way to protect health care workers is to use medical resources judiciously. Embedded in this excellent summary article is a tool to help to “self-triage”. The test is devised with help from the CDC (Center for Disease Control) and USC.
Another method is to use the telemedicine tool option in your health plan. Contact the number on the back of your ID card to get the details. Most of these vendors have ramped up staffing considerably. Many fully insured carriers are waiving copays for telehealth including Anthem LiveHealth Online (1-888-548-3432) and Blue Shield of CA “Teledoc” (1-800- 835-2362).
Medicare is allowing providers to bill for telehealth services, subject to deductibles and coinsurance. The challenge is that many of local providers are not able to provide telehealth services. However, Dignity is fully operational and even has a free telehealth service for our community.
Will your health insurance continue during the mandatory shut down? That depends. This will need to be determined under the category of “managing multiple leave options”.
The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (H.R. 6201) is effective 4/2/2020 for employers with less than 500 employees and applies to employees who have been on the payroll for more than 30 days. This is an extension of the FMLA(Family Medical Leave Act).
Family Leave: According to SHRM(Society of Human Resource Mangers), “The first 10 days of this leave may be unpaid; however, employees may elect to substitute available paid time off, such as vacation, personal or sick leave, during this time.”
After the initial 10 days, employers must pay eligible employees at least two-thirds of the employees’ regular rate of pay, based on the regularly scheduled hours the employees to a maximum of $200 daily.
There is also a provision for Sick Leave that can be qualified under multiple Covid-19 scenarios including the care of child as a result of the precautionary shut downs or simply the fact that the employee is subject to the government isolation orders.
SHRM explains that employers are being supported through this by a tax credit. It “is created for each calendar quarter for an amount equal to 100 percent of the qualified sick leave wages and qualified family leave wages paid by an employer during the calendar quarter, including some costs associated with providing and maintaining a group health plan during such paid leaves.”
Many small employers may not be aware of this potential relief and will lay-off or furlough employees to protect themselves when there is no income. Consult a tax professional for further information and understand that this is a very dynamic period. The insurance carriers are telling us that if any employee is collecting unemployment benefits, they will be lenient for the first 30 days and allow them to stay on the health plan. After, they may be required to be offered COBRA continuation.
The deadline for this column is Tuesday, so I apologize if any of the information is outdated. This is a rapidly developing issue. With only 3 identified cases in Shasta County, one could be complacent. Since we have not had access to many testing kits, it is likely those numbers will rise.
This is where I get frustrated with our fractured health insurance system. Answers vary by insurance carrier, source of coverage and funding structures, adding to the challenge. Stay well and try to laugh each day!