Jun 6, 2020 - Health

Rich vs. poor hospitals

Illustrated collage of two health care workers, one with and one without scrubs.
Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The inequalities in American health care extend right into the hospital: Cash-strapped safety-net hospitals treat more people of color, while wealthier facilities treat more white patients.

Why it matters: Safety-net hospitals lack the money, equipment and other resources of their more affluent counterparts, which makes providing critical care more difficult and exacerbates disparities in health outcomes.

The big picture: A majority of patients who go to safety-net hospitals are black or Hispanic; 40% are either on Medicaid or uninsured.

The other side: Wealthy hospitals, including many prominent academic medical centers, are "far less likely to serve or treat black and low-income patients even though those patients may live in their backyards," said Arrianna Planey, an incoming health policy professor at the University of North Carolina.

  • An investigation by the Boston Globe in 2017 found black people in Boston "are less likely to get care at several of the city’s elite hospitals than if you are white."
  • The Cleveland Clinic has expanded into a global icon for health care, but rarely cares for those in the black neighborhoods that surround its campus, Dan Diamond of Politico reported in 2017.

Between the lines: The way the federal government is bailing out hospitals for the revenues they've lost during coronavirus is exacerbating this inequality. More money is flowing to richer hospitals.

  • For example, the main hospital within University of Colorado Health has gotten $79.3 million from the government's main "provider relief" fund — about the same amount as Cook County Health, Chicago's public hospital system, which predominantly treats low-income black and Hispanic people. It has gotten $77.6 million from that pot.
  • The Colorado system, however, is sitting on billions of dollars in cash and investments that Chicago's safety-net hospitals don't have. Chicago has also seen a worse coronavirus outbreak.

The bottom line: Poor hospitals that treat minorities have had to rely on GoFundMe pages and beg for ventilators during the pandemic, while richer systems move ahead with new hospital construction plans.

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