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The COVID fund for the uninsured is shutting down, which will likely drive spread

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The first real-world consequences of dwindling federal COVID 19 funds started to be felt this week. The White House said it needed $22.5 billion in order to continue current programs and prepare for future pandemic threats, but that request has stalled in Congress. As NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin reports, this impasse is adding to the many worries of the country's safety net hospitals.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: How does all of this look from where Dr. David Zaas sits in Charleston, S.C.?

DAVID ZAAS: It's been a really difficult two years for hospitals, and I think this is one additional threat.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Zaas is the chief clinical officer of the Medical University of South Carolina, a network of 14 safety net hospitals around the state. That means they treat a lot of low income and uninsured patients. He says even in nonpandemic times, running a safety net hospital is a tight-margin business. Add to that...

ZAAS: The decrease in surgeries as well as the increasing costs from supply chain and labor that have really challenged hospitals and the unpredictability - right? - of the different COVID waves.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: One federal resource he says has been essential is the Provider Relief Fund. Until this week, it reimbursed hospitals and other health centers for testing and treatment of uninsured patients with COVID-19.

ZAAS: We've had now $9.8 million for uninsured COVID patients that is now going away.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: He says they'll still provide the care. They're just not sure how they're going to pay for it. Even if you're not too concerned about hospital budgets or uninsured patients, you might want to think about the ripple effects. If someone who's uninsured is afraid to get tested for COVID-19 because of the risk of getting billed for it, they might just not get tested even if they're sick. They might also keep going to work, maybe serving your food or driving your Uber. Zinzi Bailey, an epidemiologist at the University of Miami Medical School, says all of those hidden cases can drive more spread.

ZINZI BAILEY: Bigger surges, different variants. And, you know, we do not have this thing under control.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Seven hundred fifty people are still dying from COVID every day on average across the country. Still, the funding remains stalled in Congress. Republicans have argued they want a more detailed accounting of where past pandemic spending has gone. The White House retorts that it's provided 385 pages' worth of details to lawmakers. They point to lots of other critical pandemic-fighting tools that are in danger without more funding. For instance, the federal government wouldn't be able to buy more treatments or have enough free boosters for everyone, and it would be harder to track new variants or do research on next-generation vaccines. Health officials warn the fund for the uninsured shutting down is just the beginning. Selena Simmons-Duffin, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.