Grady Hospital in Atlanta

Grady Memorial Hospital

Credit: Georgia Health News

Major happenings in health care didn’t cease over the holidays.

The news, in fact, exploded — in both familiar and surprising directions, including an unusual twist in the Northside Hospital vs. Anthem contract dispute.

It started, of course, with the latest on the COVID-19 pandemic.

The state last week reported daily totals of new COVID cases that shattered previous records, with the very contagious omicron variant spreading fast. And those state numbers didn’t count the people who tested positive for the virus at home but who didn’t report their infections.

The latest surge also sparked a combined announcement Wednesday from six major metro Atlanta hospital systems, which said they had seen 100% to 200% increases in COVID-19 hospitalizations in the past eight days. “The vast majority of inpatients are unvaccinated,’’ the statement said.

The announcement — accompanied by a plea from hospitals that people not use ERs to get COVID tests — continued the joint work on fighting COVID that these systems have pursued over the course of the pandemic.

On Monday, Grady Memorial Hospital reported treating 239 patients with COVID — the Atlanta safety-net provider’s highest virus number since the pandemic began.

Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta said Monday it had 102 patients hospitalized due to COVID — also a high for that system. Of these children, 74% had at least one pre-existing medical condition, said Children’s Healthcare. “This is the highest number of children with COVID-19 in our system to date, but we have three hospitals in our system with sufficient capacity to see and treat patients,’’ said the pediatric system.

Piedmont Healthcare, on the other hand, said it’s seeing big increases in COVID patients but not to the level of its recent September hospitalization peak.

State officials also are reporting an astonishingly high rate of nearly 30% of Georgians who got a recent PCR test showing an infection. And the Georgia Department of Public Health said Monday it would not report daily numbers “due to a large amount of data overwhelming the system.”

The spread in metro Atlanta has forced school systems to return to remote learning for students to begin the January semester.


Contract battle goes to court

Late last week, Northside Hospital announced a temporary reprieve in its contract battle with insurance giant Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield. The Atlanta-based health system said it had been granted an injunction in Fulton County Superior Court that averted a Jan. 1 termination of the contract.

Northside cited a new Georgia law (House Bill 454), which includes a provision saying that during a public health emergency, an insurer is prohibited from ending such a contract.

So, at least for the moment, hundreds of thousands of Georgia patients with Anthem insurance will remain in network if they go to Northside providers. (Here’s a recent GHN article on such contract disputes.)

Northside said it would continue its discussions with Anthem. “With the COVID-19 omicron variant now surging through U.S. and Georgia, Anthem’s decision to remove Northside from its networks defied both logic and sensitivity,” Northside said in a statement.

Anthem, meanwhile, said in a statement that the court order extends the current Northside pact only until Feb. 1.

“Continuing the current contract will not achieve the affordability or quality improvements we have been seeking from Northside, which is why we will not stop our good-faith negotiation efforts until we reach an agreement that is in the best interests of consumers,’’ said Anthem spokeswoman Christina Gaines.

State Rep. Mark Newton, an Augusta physician who was the lead sponsor of HB 454, said Monday that “this current contract dispute illustrates precisely the need for our recent bill protecting patients.”

Newton, a Republican, added that the Legislature “has worked to be sure individual patients are not crushed’’ in such contract battles.

“Georgia families can continue to receive their health care from trusted doctors and hospitals at affordable, in-network rates.”

Northside was not among the six metro Atlanta systems reporting the large hospitalization increases. Still, Katherine Watson, a spokeswoman, said Monday that Northside has seen a 221% increase in patients in the last two weeks alone.

The numbers are still increasing, she added.

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Georgia Health News.