Financial Woes for GI Practices in the Face of COVID-19

Alicia Gallegos

April 14, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

On a typical clinic day, Will Bulsiewicz, MD, a Charleston, S.C.–based gastroenterologist, used to see 22 patients, while other days were filled with up to 16 procedures.

Since COVID-19 however, things have vastly changed. Dr. Bulsiewicz now visits with all clinic patients through telehealth, and the volume has dipped to between zero and six patients per day. His three-doctor practice has also experienced a more than 90% reduction in endoscopy volume.

"Naturally, this has been devastating," Dr. Bulsiewicz said in an interview. "Our practice was started in 1984, and we had a business model that we used for the history of our practice. That practice model was upended in a matter of 2 weeks."

Dr. Bulsiewicz is far from alone. Community GI practices across the country are experiencing similar financial distress in the face of COVID-19. In addition to a decrease in patient referrals, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has requested that all elective esophagogastroduodenoscopies, colonoscopies, endoscopies, surgeries, and procedures be delayed during the coronavirus outbreak to conserve critical equipment and limit virus exposure. The guidance aligns with recent recommendations issued by the American Gastroenterological Association, American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases, American College of Gastroenterology, and American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy. The lack of patients has led to plummeting revenue for many GI practices and resulted in layoffs, reduced hours, and limited salaries in order to keep practices afloat.

"We've had to make drastic changes in the way we work," said Rajeev Jain, MD, a Dallas-based gastroenterologist. "The way private practices are economically set up, they don't have large reserves of capital or liquidity. We're not like Apple or these big companies that have these massive cushions. It's one thing when you have a downturn in the economy and less people come to get care, but when you have a complete shutdown, your revenue stream to pay your bills is literally dried up."

Dr. Jain's practice is part of Texas Digestive Disease Consultants (TDDC), which provides GI care for patients in Texas and Louisiana. TDDC is part of GI Alliance, a private equity–based consolidation of practices that includes several states and more than 350 GIs. The management services organization is a collaboration between the PE firm and the partner physicians. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, Dr. Jain said his practice has seen a dramatic drop in patients. Normally, Dr. Jain would perform between 25 and 30 outpatient scopes over the course of 2 days, he said. On a recent Monday, he performed two procedures. To preserve cash flow, Dr. Jain said he and his senior partners are not taking an income right now. Some employees were recently furloughed and laid off.

"I never in my life thought that I would have to lay off people because of an economic issue," Dr. Jain said. "That's psychological strain that as a physician owner you feel because these are people that you work with on a day-to-day basis and you don't want them suffering either. That's been a tough thing.

James S. Leavitt, MD, said his 17-physician center in Miami, Fla., has furloughed about half its staff. The center is part of  Gastro Health, a private equity firm–based medical group with more than 250 providers in four states. Dr. Leavitt, president and chief clinical officer for Gastro Health, said his center has gone from about 150 patients per day to 5 or fewer, while procedures have dropped from more than 100 a day to maybe 5.

Having partnered with a private equity firm, however, Dr. Leavitt believes his practice is bettered situated to manage the health crisis and address financial challenges.

"It's made us better prepared to weather the storm. We have a very high-powered, sophisticated administration and much broader base and access to capital. [For example,] we had a lot of depth in management so that we could roll out a robust televisit program in a week in four states with over 250 doctors."

From a business standpoint however, certain goals for the company are on hold, he said, such as closing on potential acquisitions. 

Telemedicine has become a significant method of delivering care during the pandemic for GI practices. Dr. Leavitt said his center conducts between 120 and 150 televisits per day. The method works well for many patients, particularly for follow-up patients and for patients who have an established relationship with Dr. Leavitt, he said. There are limitations of course, he noted.

"If I were a dermatologist, maybe I could see the skin rash, but you can't examine the patient," he said. "There are certain things you can't do. If a patient has significant abdominal pain, a televisit isn't the greatest."

That's why Dr. Leavitt's care center remains open for the handful of patients who must be seen in-person, he said. Those patients are screened beforehand and their temperatures taken before treatment.

Dr. Bulsiewicz's practice made the transition to telehealth after never having used the modality before COVID-19.

"This was a scramble," said Dr. Bulsiewicz, who posts about COVID-19 on social media. "We started from zero knowledge to implementation in less than a week."

Overall, the switch went smoothly, but Dr. Bulsiewicz said reimbursement challenges come with telehealth.

"The billing is not the same," he said. "You're doing the same work or more, and you're taking a reduced fee because of the antiquated fee structure that is forcing you to apply the typical rules of an office encounter."

He hopes CMS will alter the reimbursement schedule to temporarily pay on par with traditional evaluation and management codes based on medical complexity as opposed to documentation of physical exam. CMS has already expanded Medicare telehealth coverage to cover a wider range of health care services in light of the COVID-19 crisis and also broadened the range of communication tools that can be used, according to a March announcement.

In the meantime, many practices have applied for financial assistance programs. The AGA recently pushed the government for additional assistance to help struggling practices.

Dr. Jain hopes these assistance programs roll out quickly.

"If these don't get out there quick enough and big enough, we are going to see a massive wave of loss of independent practices and/or consolidation," he said. "I fear a death to small, independent practices because they're not going to have the financial wherewithal to tolerate this for too long."

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