Two Pennsylvania state senators are worried that residents of neighboring states are trying to take advantage of local healthcare facilities to get quicker testing or treatment during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sens. Dave Arnold, a Republican serving the 48th District (Lebanon County and parts of York and Dauphin counties), and Scott Martin, a Republican serving the 13th District (Lancaster County), sent a letter dated April 7 to Gov. Tom Wolf. In the letter, the state senators ask Wolf to look into the issue and do what he can to stop the influx of out-of-state patients.
“It appears our local healthcare systems are being inundated by out-of-state individuals seeking diagnosis/treatment for COVID-19,” Arnold wrote on his Facebook page Tuesday. “Our local hospital resources should be utilized by residents of Pennsylvania, and we call on Governor Wolf to take immediate action to ensure our hospitals have the beds and equipment needed, if, and when our residents need them.”
In their letter to the governor, Arnold and Martin said they learned on April 5 that out-of-state individuals may be “bussing” into Lancaster and Lebanon counties for care.
“We ask that you not dismiss this concern, as it was relayed to our offices by a medical professional working in a local emergency room,” they wrote.
“Our local medical centers were designed to treat the communities they service, and not to be an outlet for those seeking treatment from outside of the Commonwealth,” the letter reads. “If this has begun to affect central Pennsylvania, it has most certainly already affected those healthcare systems in northeastern Pennsylvania. These actions by out-of-state individuals concerns us, as we fear their permeation into our counties healthcare systems will lead to less available resources for the actual residents of the Commonwealth.
“We are lucky that our healthcare systems have been able to manage the patients they have, so far. With each passing day, that could quickly change,” the letter continues. “Our residents need to know that medical assistance is available should they need it, and that out-of-state patients aren’t draining the resources that should be readily accessible to them. We cannot allow out-of- state individuals to rob Pennsylvanians of available medical supplies and the healthcare to which they are entitled.”
The letter asks Wolf to “prohibit interstate travel of non-Pennsylvania residents entering into Pennsylvania with the intent to seek or receive a medical diagnosis and/or treatment of COVID-19.”
Contacted Thursday, Arnold said he and Martin have not heard back from the governor’s office on the issue.
He did not say how many people he believes have crossed state lines to obtain medical care in the area, nor did he say how many medical facilities have been impacted by out-of-state patients.
Arnold said his office has received “numerous, unsolicited, reports of out-of-state individuals seeking a diagnosis or treatment here” in south-central Pennsylvania.
“If hospitals in New York and New Jersey have agreements with hospitals in Pennsylvania to utilize unoccupied bed space, that is fantastic. But, that is not the topic here,” he wrote in an interview conducted through Facebook Messenger. “What we are talking about is a concerted effort by groups of sick, or possibly sick, individuals to pack into a vehicle and cross state lines traveling through multiple counties to get to the ‘country’ hospital.”
He noted that surrounding states have recommended that people stay at home and avoid travel. The federal government, Arnold said, has “contemplated a mandatory quarantine for New Jersey, New York and Connecticut.” Additionally, Rhode Island police have been stopping vehicles with New York plates.
“This isn’t a novel concept,” he said. “Stay home. Seek treatment from a local healthcare facility, and don’t spread the virus to other areas.”
Arnold said he wants Wolf to issue a public statement advising people who feel ill to contact their local healthcare providers and not cross state lines to receive care.
“New Yorkers should stay in New York, PA residents should remain in PA, and the same for the people of New Jersey,” he wrote. “Again, this is why Rhode Island has taken the steps it has to keep infected out-of-staters out. Stay home, keep your germs local, seek treatment locally. It is simple. Don’t overburden our healthcare networks that weren’t designed with that type of treatment in mind.”
Nate Wardle, press secretary for the state Department of Health’s Office of Communications, said in an email Wednesday that reports of COVID-19 infection are counted toward the patient’s state of residence, not the state in which the test is conducted.
“We have received information about concerns with individuals from other states using hospitals in Pennsylvania,” he said.
It is more of a concern in the northeast part of the state, Wardle said, “but we are also aware of concerns local health systems have” in south-central Pennsylvania.
“We would not consider this an undercount, however. This is the methodology that is used around the country,” he said. “We have other steps in place to ensure we are receiving regular data to hospitals to determine their needs and if they are becoming burdened or overwhelmed.”
When asked to comment on how often Pennsylvania was referring cases that had been confirmed via tests in the Commonwealth to other states, Wardle said, “We frequently report cases to other states as matter of our protocol.
Cindy Stauffer, a senior media relations and communications specialist at WellSpan Health, which includes WellSpan Good Samaritan Hospital at 252 S. 4th St., said in an email Thursday that they are not seeing an influx of out-of-state patients there.
“We are taking care of people from our community, who are seeking care,” she said.
WellSpan Health has conducted about 10,000 tests across the system, with approximately 600 testing positive, Stauffer noted. “The overwhelming majority of those patients are recovering at home, and a small percentage are being treated at WellSpan hospitals.”
Meanwhile, comments on Arnold’s Facebook page have both supported at criticized his joint letter to Wolf. Here is a sample:
“Are the out-of-state individuals that are receiving treatment in PA being included in the PA count?” asked Jamie Witter. “It is difficult to trust the numbers being reported when we are hearing that people who die for other reasons (heart attack) are being added to the COVID death count because that is what officials are told to do.”
“So, how do you know that these people live out of state?” asked Shirley Clark. “A lot of the people getting sick (and some dying) are younger than retirement age. College students, military, employment temporary relocation, etc., all have legal reasons to live in PA. So how you are you suggesting that Wolf distinguish this? I see this letter as nothing more than grandstanding.”
“Good they shouldn’t be here,” commented Barb Lynn. “Not only are they risking our lives they should not be inundating our hospitals!”
“Incredibly dangerous precedent,” commented Ashley Rome. “What else should hospitals be able to deny care based on?”
“This is the United States! Not the Divided States of America,” said Rebecca Gaidos. “I would go above and beyond to help a neighbor! Pity that people would turn away someone who needs life-saving medical care.”
“I thought nobody was to leave their state?” questioned Deb Zechman. “Maybe we need to protect our state borders.”
“This is not the time to play politics,” said Suzanne Simpson. “Be glad you are not a patient in New York. They are having a tough time and deserve some good words.”
“Other states have their own resources, hospitals. Until those resources are exhausted, no reason to over-whelm ours putting our citizens at risk,” said Bob Wert. “When and only when theirs is exhausted, we should accept others into our systems.”
“All I can say is, if my son who is high risk gets sick, we will be heading to a hospital in New York (Rochester) that is capable of handling his situation,” said Melissa Perry. “If they turn us away because we live in PA, I would be devastated and he could very possibly die. Not something I want to consider, but that’s where it stands. I hope for your sake the shoe is never in the other foot for these people you want to turn away from any necessary health care.”
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Full Disclosure: The campaign of Dave Arnold was an advertiser on LebTown during the special election cycle. WellSpan Health is an advertiser on LebTown at present. LebTown does not make editorial decisions based on advertising relationships and advertisers do not receive special editorial treatment. Learn more about advertising with LebTown here.
Davis Shaver contributed reporting to this article.