Students are suing universities over COVID-19 campus shutdowns

Plus, why doctors' offices and hospitals may have to shut down, the surprising number of counties that lack ICU beds and more.

April 22, 2020

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Students are suing universities over COVID-19 campus shutdowns

This is happening enough that it soon will be a trend.

Michigan State University students filed a lawsuit demanding reimbursement for tuition, housing and fees because the school closed its doors and transitioned classes into virtual teaching.

The same New York law firm that filed the Michigan State lawsuit also sued on behalf of students at Purdue University.

Students at Liberty University are also suing. Their lawsuit said Liberty is essentially “profiting from the COVID-19 pandemic” by keeping tuition, housing and other student fees without the regular expenses the school would incur if students were there. The lawsuit says Liberty University offered a $1,000 credit for students who return the next semester, but students who choose not to return get nothing.

A Drexel University student is suing the school on the grounds that he paid for an on-campus education, not a virtual education. That lawsuit focused on intramural fees, parking fees, athletic events fees, access to the student center and, this is interesting, it claimed that a degree based on a “pass/fail system will be diminished.”

The same South Carolina law firm that filed the suit against Drexel also represents a University of Miami student suing that school.

And the parents of a University of Arizona student filed a lawsuit against the Arizona Board of Regents, which oversees state schools in Arizona. The lawsuit said, “To the extent refunds have been offered, the refunds have not been commensurate with the financial losses to the students and their families. ABOR is, in essence, profiting from this pandemic.”

The schools said they are losing millions of dollars because of COVID-19.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported one such case:

Temple University said it couldn’t estimate how much money it has lost already — or could lose in coming months. Pennsylvania State University president Eric Barron said during a virtual town hall his school also faces a loss of millions. The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, which oversees 14 universities, is projecting a $100 million revenue shortfall.

The Associated Press reported that the University of California, Berkley and the University of Wisconsin, Madison “each expect to lose about $100 million,” even if the campuses reopen in the fall.

Smaller schools said they do not know how they will survive if they refund much of the spring semester tuition and housing. Washington University in St. Louis said it will furlough 1,300 employees. St. Louis Public Radio reported that school is being hit with the double-whammy of being a medical school and a university:

Clinics run by Wash U physicians are seeing 60% fewer patients, and operating revenue for the medical campus is down $60 million in just the past month. The medical school is projecting a total revenue loss of $150 million by the end of this fiscal year.

The main campus will lose $25 million, in part from refunding unused room-and-board payments to students after it shut down in March.

It’s not like many universities were flush with money to start the year. Nearly a third of public and private universities were already running operating deficits.

If colleges do not reopen in the fall, some may not survive

Another shoe is about to drop. Schools make a lot of money from international enrollments, especially from China. The Associated Press said there could be a drop in international enrollment this fall that could range from 25 to 75%.

Governing.com, a website that covers the hot topics facing state and local governments, pointed out that state-funded schools can look forward to big budget cuts because the state budgets are under pressure, too. Governing reported:

If students don’t return in the fall, colleges and universities will be in a world of hurt. Already, the American Council on Education, an advocacy group, predicts that enrollment is set to drop by 15% in the fall, including a 25% reduction in the number of international students, who have been a cash cow for many campuses in recent years. Some schools are crafting contingency plans that forecast much sharper drops.

Hospitals’ businesses are in trouble

Probably today, the U.S. House of Representatives will vote on and likely pass a $480 billion dollar package to help small businesses and hospitals. This is in addition to the $2 trillion rescue package, the $192 billion relief measure and another $8.3 billion plan Congress approved last month. This latest bill will include $75 billion for hospitals and health care providers.

It is true that some hospitals, like those in parts of New York City, are overrun with COVID-19 cases. But most hospitals have a lot of open beds because of delayed elective surgeries. State orders against elective surgeries are meant to keep beds free in case there is a sudden surge in cases.

Oklahoma will begin allowing elective surgeries again on Friday. The first surgeries that will be allowed are “for conditions that are not life-threatening and which, if not provided, would have the potential for increasing morbidity or mortality.”

In a press release, Oklahoma’s governor ordered, “All minor medical procedures and non-emergency dental procedures such as outpatient surgeries or procedures for not life-threatening illnesses may resume May 1.”

Texas is loosening its restrictions on elective surgeries, too, as long as the hospitals have adequate protective gear in reserve and as long as they have enough beds in reserve in case of a COVID-19 surge.

Alaska is also working to reopen elective surgeries starting with “non-urgent or non-emergency elective services that cannot be delayed beyond eight weeks without posing a significant risk to quality of life to resume May 4.”

Kaiser Health News put it in perspective:

Nearly half of the country’s rural hospitals were operating in the red before the pandemic hit and at least three have shuttered since it began.

Congress allocated $100 billion for hospitals out of the $2 trillion stimulus bill. Hospitals say that does not come close to keeping them solvent.

The Chicago Tribune said hospitals are looking at losses in the billions in Illinois alone: “The Illinois Health and Hospital Association estimates that hospitals statewide could now be losing about $1.4 billion a month. That’s the money hospitals are missing out on because of canceled elective surgeries and fewer visits by other patients, many of whom may be avoiding medical care for fear of catching the virus.”

President Donald Trump said the federal government would cover the cost of COVID-19 testing and treatment, but hospitals said the reimbursements, when they come, will not cover the costs.

Doctors may have to close their practices

Doctors’ individual practices are taking a big hit, too.

Yes, the federal government helps pay for telehealth visits, but it is a fraction of what they would earn if they were seeing patients in-person. Plus, 65% of doctors in one survey of 2,600 physicians — including those who work in urgent care, family medicine, pediatrics and geriatrics — said they have patients who have no internet access and “22% of practices report no use of video visits, 42% no use of e-visits, and 28% are not using patient portals.”

But there is another issue, according to the poll. Physicians said they are losing staff because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The poll found:

3% predict closure due to low staffing; 14% unsure if they will have enough staff to stay open

12% predict closure due to low patient volume; 43% unsure if they will have enough patient volume

6% predict closure due to lack of cash on hand; 47% unsure if they will have enough cash to stay open

10% have not received payment for video/e-based care; 16% have not received payment for phone-based care

Note that some physicians said they are serving patients via telehealth, but the payments are not coming in.

When you read the detailed comments from these physicians, you begin to see life as health care providers see it right now. The comments are followed by the state in which the respondent lives.

There are patients dying of non COVID-19 diagnoses because they cannot receive the care they need; low income patients are NOT able to stay home [and they] are going to work sick. I cannot make them stay home! DC

Wage earners are feeling very stressed. And those with mental health issues are breaking through what used to be effective doses of medications- they are not coping well. Seniors are worried they will get the virus and die. PA

Most of my patients are low income [and] cannot follow CDC guidelines for social distancing. Many have lost jobs and have severe economic concerns. Majority of my patients are people of color. VA

Patients with addictions hurt greatly. WI

I live near a reservation, they are more affected as they live in multigenerational houses and have no running water. NM

Fear is high among Chinese and SE Asian patients. People who need to work are at risk and have no PPE from employers. OR

Large # of patients have lost their job, and of those ~ 1/4 have also lost insurance. A large # of young are working in grocery stores. A large # of poor are working in high risk jobs with little to no ppe. Of these a large % are AA, Hispanic. PA

Low income and minority patients are harder to reach by phone because they are working. At our clinic, Latinx patients make up 80% of positive results but 40% of tests. CA

There are counties with no ICU beds

Across America, there are counties, lots of them, where a quarter of the population are senior citizens but there are between zero and two intensive care unit beds. You will find these nationwide — in Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Louisiana and Texas.

Across the country, Kaiser Health News said the average is 1,300 older people per bed in each county.

(Courtesy: Kaiser Health News)

Why does this matter? Kaiser explained:

Certainly, being in a county with few or no ICU beds may not be as dire as it seems if that county abuts another county with a more robust supply of such beds.

In Michigan, health planners have determined that rural counties with few ICU beds, such as Livingston and Ionia, in the central part of the state, would be served by major facilities in nearby Lansing or Detroit in a major crisis.

Dr. Peter Graham, executive medical director for Physicians Health Plan in Michigan, is affiliated with Sparrow Health System in Lansing. He is making no assumptions. It’s possible central Michigan could take overflow COVID-19 patients from Detroit if that’s where the disease clusters, he said. Or patients might have to be transferred hundreds of miles away.

“It’s just obvious people are going to need to move” if local facilities are overwhelmed, he said. “If we’re able to find a ventilator bed in Indianapolis, in Chicago or Minneapolis or wherever, it is go, get them there!”

Here is an important point that can be lost when you just look at aggregate data: The Society of Critical Care Medicine pointed out that the U.S. has “three times as many ICU beds per capita as Italy and 10 times as many as China,” and the U.S. has more ventilators than many other developed countries. But where that equipment is located is hugely important. America’s critical care health system is clustered in bigger cities and not in rural areas.

What did you do during the COVID-19 lockdown? Not much. Went to Harvard and Yale. No biggie.

(Class Central)

A bunch of Ivy League schools are making hundreds of classes free to the public. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, Cornell, basically all of the schools that would have laughed at your application now want you to come, free.

They have created more than 500 courses for you. I just enrolled in a “cognitive science” course from Columbia University about how people learn. It is just great. Go learn something!

The way we work now

(Screenshot, Twitter)

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Al Tompkins is senior faculty at Poynter. He can be reached at atompkins@poynter.org or on Twitter, @atompkins.