The financial impact on primary care practices due to the COVID-19 pandemic has been profound and will likely continue in the months ahead, according to a new study published in Health Affairs.
Visits of all types to medical practices declined 58% in March and April compared to the baseline average, and in-person patient encounters declined by 69%, the study found. Although visits are expected to have rebounded by June, volumes are still below pre-COVID-19 levels.
The drop in fee-for-service revenue for the 2020 calendar year is nearly $68,000 per physician, contributing to an estimated revenue decline of 12.5%. That's a steep enough loss to threaten the financial viability of many practices. Losses to primary care practices nationwide could top $15 billion over the year — a number that could grow if the federal government reverts increased telemedicine payment rates.
Medical practices across the United States have been hit hard by the COVID-19 outbreak.
The new study by researchers from Harvard Medical School and the American Board of Family Medicine attempts to put a price tag on that hit by running a microsimulation for projected 2020 revenues based on volume data for general practices, general internal medicine practices, general pediatric practices and family medicine practices.
As a result, they concluded that the average revenue loss per practice per physician will be $67,774, even taking into account revenue generated by telemedicine visits, which did not make up for the massive loss of patient volume during the spring.
That loss could be cut to as little as $28,265 per full-time physician if other staff is furloughed and salaries are cut to the 25th percentile of such cuts that took place during the peak of the stay-at-home orders.
Some practices are also projected to have steeper losses. Rural primary care practices are projected to lose $75,274 per physician. Other studies have suggested that pediatric practices have been hit harder than other primary care fields. Some organizations, such as the American Medical Group Association, say revenue won't rebound fully even next year.
The study also conducted various alternate scenarios for the remainder of 2020, including a second wave of COVID-19 in the fall. The researchers estimated that would cut patient volumes by about half as much as what occurred during the spring. However, the financial hit would deepen even further, reaching $85,666 per physician.
Altogether, the study projects primary care practices will lose $15.1 billion in fee-for-service revenue this year, not even accounting for a second wave of the coronavirus. The study’s authors note that "this loss would balloon substantially if telemedicine payment rates revert back to pre-COVID-19 levels towards the end of the year."
The study concluded that while primary care physicians as a whole have not been as hard hit as the hospital sector, the services they provide in managing chronic diseases such as diabetes and as the port of entry for many into the healthcare system makes them too valuable to suffer sustained levels of financial damage.