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The daily coronavirus update: Health plans waive some COVID-19-related costs; MDH to release info on group-living facilities with cases

One more Minnesotan has died of COVID-19, the Minnesota Department of Health said Thursday, for a total of 18. The number of confirmed cases in the state rose by 53 to 742.

Photo: CDC/Alissa Eckert

For the foreseeable future, MinnPost will be providing daily updates on coronavirus in Minnesota, published following the press phone call conducted by the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) with Gov. Tim Walz and administration officials each afternoon.

Here are the latest updates from April 2, 2020:

742 confirmed cases; 18 deaths

A 69-year-old Hennepin County resident who did not live in a long-term care facility died of complications related to COVID-19, the Minnesota Department of Health said Thursday, bringing Minnesota’s death toll due to the virus to 18.

It has been 14 days since the state saw its first confirmed death due to COVID-19 and 27 days since Minnesota’s first case of the disease was confirmed.

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As of Thursday, there have been 742 total confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Minnesota, up from 689 on Wednesday. Because Minnesota doesn’t have the capacity to test everybody with symptoms, the number of confirmed cases should be considered a significant undercount.

Since the start of the outbreak, 138 Minnesotans have been hospitalized and 75 are currently in the hospital. 38 are in intensive care. 373 Minnesotans who previously tested positive for COVID-19 no longer need to be isolated, which means they are considered to have recovered.

More information on cases can be found here.

Minnesota health plans to waive COVID-19 expenses for patients

Gov. Tim Walz’s office announced Thursday that Minnesota health plans have agreed to waive cost-sharing for COVID-19 testing and in-network hospitalization related to the virus, at least through May 31.

This applies to commercial insurance held by individuals, small businesses and some large businesses, and includes those insured by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, HealthPartners, Hennepin Health, Medica, PreferredOne and UCare. The state does not have regulatory authority over self-insured plans through employers, but a Walz administration statement urges employers to work with plan administrators toward similar ends.

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“If you get sick with COVID-19, your focus should only be on getting better and recovering. You shouldn’t have to worry about getting a bill that could ruin you financially, especially during this difficult time,” Commerce Commissioner Steve Kelley said on Thursday’s daily press call with Gov. Tim Walz and administration officials.

Asked whether the announcement applies to out-of-network hospitalizations, Kelley said not as of now, though he said the state will continue its talks with health plans. He acknowledged that in a situation where the healthcare system is very full, some Minnesotans could be hospitalized out-of-network by no choice of their own.

MDH to provide more information on long-term care facilities with COVID-19 outbreaks

The Minnesota Department of Health will share more information about which long-term care facilities in Minnesota have COVID-19 cases.

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The department has gotten pushback for not naming the facilities, whose residents tend to be at higher risk of severe complications from COVID-19. The way the virus ravaged elder care settings in Washington has raised alarm among families who have loved ones living in them.

11 of Minnesota’s 18 COVID-19 deaths have occurred among residents of long-term care facilities. 47 group living facilities in Minnesota have had confirmed cases. As of Thursday, the number of facilities by type with at least one case are as follows:

  • Assisted living: 18 facilities with at least one case
  • Skilled nursing: 16 facilities with at least one case
  • Group home: 5 facilities with at least one case
  • Memory care: 3 facilities with at least one case
  • Other congregate living facilities (e.g. mental health, substance abuse treatment): 5 facilities with at least one case

The department had been recommending group living facilities with cases of COVID-19 immediately inform residents, family members and employees, and Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said Thursday the decision not to publicly list facilities was out of a desire to protect patient privacy. “The Health Department has historically been quite cautious about sharing any sort of disease investigation information that could identify individual patients or compromise patient privacy,” Malcolm said.

With the risk associated with COVID-19, though, she acknowledged the need to balance patient privacy with transparency and said MDH will begin sharing additional information about facilities with cases. MDH will begin releasing the names of such facilities no later than Saturday on its website, provided the facilities have more than 10 beds, she said.

Unemployment update

Minnesota has seen 297,397 applications for unemployment benefits since March 16. 24,640 people filed Wednesday.

Minnesota is one of four U.S. states seeing fewer claims than last week, which DEED Commissioner Steve Grove suggested is likely the result of Minnesota opening up unemployment to those affected by COVID-19 before most states, allowing it to process many applications early on.

The top five industries whose workers have filed for unemployment:

  • Food preparation and serving: 66,355
  • Health care: 27,871
  • Sales and service: 27,557
  • Administration and support 21,881
  • Personal care and service: 17,166

Grove noted there are more job openings this week on the state’s job bank than there was last week. The top five occupations for openings are nursing assistants, customer service representatives, registered nurses, medical and health service managers and combined food prep and serving workers.

Hospitals say they need money and supplies

At the first meeting of a new state Senate task force to consider next steps in the COVID-19 response, an executive of the Minnesota Hospital Association said none of the money set aside by lawmakers last month for health care expenses has been distributed.

Mary Krinkie, vice president for government relations for the Minnesota Hospital Association, said that neither the $50 million in emergency grants nor the $150 million in longer-term needs has been spent by the state Department of Health.

“We are getting a little frustrated,” she said.

That, and the fact that hospitals are not performing elective surgeries or nearly as many routine appointments, is putting hospitals in a financial bind. Still, member hospitals are adding beds within existing hospitals to prepare for a surge of COVID-19 patients.

“Our hospitals right now in Minnesota are losing $31 million a day because of lost revenue from eliminating elective surgeries,” she said. Hospitals agree with the decision in a Walz executive order as the best way to preserve supplies but it is hurting rural hospitals more because they are not yet seeing COVID patients. She suggested a  loan program for short-term cash flow needs that can be repaid in 2021. “We are in desperate need of cash to remain open,” she said.

Supplies remain a concern, Krinkie said, especially of personal protective equipment and ventilators. She said she heard from someone in a state hospital to urge policymakers to “treat N-95 masks like they are gold.”

“We can build out capacity, you can look at alternative care sites but if you don’t have the staff to take care of patients the rest of it really doesn’t matter,” Krinkie said.

Mary Turner, the president of the Minnesota Nurses Association and an ICU nurse caring for COVID patients, echoed the need. She and other nurses reuse N-95 masks until they no longer fit, she said.

“We are at war. We are the nurses. We are at the front lines. We head to the hospitals every day with what little PPE we have,” she said. “And that’s our armor.”

Hospitals want changes to licensing requirements

Krinkie also told senators that there are several policy requests that she described as controversial but needed. They include letting health personnel licensed in other states work in Minnesota without going through relicensing. Such a waiver has been granted in other states but not yet in Minnesota.

“We need to streamline and eliminate much of our state licensing process so we can bring in any health care worker from around the country into Minnesota,” she said, as long as they are licensed by another state.

“My team is assessing that,” Walz said during his daily media call. “If this is a solution that they need, we will certainly look at it, try and honor that. Whatever it takes to make sure we have the right staff in those hospitals at the right time.”

Other requests are to allow physician assistants to work in their field of specialties without direct oversight from a medical doctor, to allow medical and nursing students to work with their professional counterparts, to eliminate unnecessary record keeping, to enlist retired doctors and nurses to return to work especially in telemedicine settings, a relaxation of insurance company requirements to get prior authorization before treatment can be given and to give health care personnel and hospitals immunity from civil suits for errors of omission.

“These are very unusual times, and we kind of have to put politics on the back burner,” she said of the requests that could be met either by executive order of the governor or legislation.

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Hotline, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.: 651-201-3920