Nearly a year after the first COVID-19 vaccine was given emergency authorization in the United States, months of tracking coronavirus variants and increasing caseloads are combining with pandemic-related supply chain issues to cause headaches for medical practice leaders.
In recent months, medical practice leaders have noted that their spending on a range of supplies has grown even beyond the increased levels they experienced in 2020 during the early spikes in COVID-19 cases. For example: A box of nitrile exam gloves before the pandemic might have cost $5 a box; that price is now $23 a box.
A Nov. 30 MGMA Stat poll found that only 30% of medical practices report difficulty securing adequate supplies, such as personal protective equipment (PPE), compared to 70% that have no such issues.
The poll had 681 applicable responses.
The demand for PPE might be set to intensify amid heightened COVID-19 case numbers and renewed governmental orders for masking indoors in many areas of the nation. Simultaneously, there are renewed concerns about the quality of some supplies being imported into the United States: Several online retailers have become homes for fake or dysfunctional KN95 masks, as reported by The New York Times, that are not authorized for use in healthcare settings.
Regardless of the cause, medical practice leaders who responded to the MGMA Stat poll largely pointed to difficulty obtaining COVID-19 testing supplies, such as strips, as well as molecular testing supplies. Other items that medical practices reported as being difficult to obtain include:
- Medical gloves, masks and gowns (As one practice leader told MGMA, “COVID-19 case spikes are making it harder” to obtain these basic PPE, similar to what practices experienced in 2020.)
- Laboratory supplies, including testing reagents (e.g., hCG and ferritin)
- Injectables and IV fluids
- Durable medical equipment (DME), such as crutches
- A range of supplies made from plastic
- Computers and accessories.
These medical practices, challenged with staffing shortages and myriad other issues as the pandemic continues, face added burdens on time to call multiple suppliers to ensure they have sourced adequate quantities to continue delivering care.
Also complicating matters are ongoing reports of shipping delays for various practice supplies and medications.
But the largest issue with sourcing supplies for medical practices was not availability; several respondents noted that prices for supplies have been higher than they were prior to the COVID-19 pandemic:
- Multiple practice leaders noted price increases across the board, and one small practice leader said costs “have doubled, tripled or more in the past year” for certain items.
- Another noted that their supply costs have doubled. “Regular vendors have put us on allocation, so we’ve had to find other, more-expensive vendors.”
- Multiple practices reported significant price increases for injectable cortisones, lavender-top tubes for blood draws, and sharps containers.
These trends come more than a year after medical practices almost universally reported higher prices for the supplies they routinely use: An Aug. 11, 2020, MGMA Stat poll found 98% of practices said the total cost of obtaining PPE increased in 2020, and that 15% of them reported their total PPE costs increased by more than 100% in that period.
Experts from MGMA BestPrice, a member-benefit group purchasing organization (GPO), recently wrote that “the impacts from raw material cost and availability, manufacturing capacity, and increasing shipping costs and delays for all product or raw material originating outside the United States” will continue to affect healthcare providers in their quest to secure PPE and COVID-19 testing supplies.
“The breadth of supply chain issues leaves no major manufacturer untouched. They are already buying production time at a size and scale to overcome any simple issues,” according to MGMA BestPrice.
In most cases, these issues impact independent providers disproportionately. An MGMA BestPrice broad analysis of 2021 Q3 data found independent providers spent 37% more on average for exam gloves over the prior quarter, continuing a long string of quarterly price increases that topped 100% year over year. [That analysis includes average price paid by more than 3,000 independent providers utilizing all major national manufacturers, GPOs and medical distributors during Q3 2021.]
The Delta-variant-driven COVID-19 peak during the period drove utilization up 9%, putting additional strain on inventory and raw materials. Even when COVID-19 cases subside, providers should not expect much relief for exam gloves, as deferred elective surgical procedures resume and glove utilization increases.
“MGMA members should expect price increases to be relatively stable across vendors within a category based upon raw material and shipping costs and local COVID-19 outbreaks,” according to the MGMA BestPrice report. “For example, most exam gloves are manufactured in Malaysia, and most wound care products and PPE are made in China’s Wuhan province.”
- For further insights into navigating the PPE supply chain during the pandemic, read more from Gordon Fullerton, MBA, director of supply acquisition management for Lifeline Vascular Care, on the need for good communication, strong supplier relationships and understanding of the macro environment to make the right purchasing decisions amid supply chain disruptions.
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