Intermountain Healthcare is overstating ICU capacity problems, Utah lawmaker says

‘They chased their nurses away. They made it hell for their employees,’ Rep. Paul Ray says

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, said Wednesday it was "fearmongering" to lay the blame for overflowing ICUs in the state solely on unvaccinated Utahns.

A Utah Republican lawmaker made an inaccurate claim that the shortage of ICU beds in Utah hospitals was not because of the COVID-19 pandemic but partly because of bad business decisions.

Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield made the comment during a hearing on what lawmakers could do to thwart President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate for businesses. Ray was riffing on whether people should be required to be vaccinated.

“It’s a person’s choice. If you choose not to get vaccinated, you get sick and you die. That’s on you. That’s your call,” Ray said.

Unprompted, Ray shifted to the reports that ICU beds in Utah were beyond capacity because unvaccinated people were being hospitalized due to the runaway spread of the delta variant.

“IHC says they’re out of space. They’re not out of space. They’re out of employees. They chased their doctors away. They chased their nurses away. They made it hell for their employees,” Ray said. “They got caught in the middle of a pandemic trying to change their business model to increase their billion-dollar bottom line so they can make more money. They got caught with their pants down. Now all of a sudden it’s our fault.”

Dr. Marc Harrison, president and CEO of Intermountain Healthcare, said last week that Utah’s largest healthcare system would start postponing some surgeries because the surge in COVID cases has pushed ICU capacity in Intermountain hospitals above 100%.

Ray, who sponsored the “pandemic endgame” bill earlier this year that lifted most COVID-related restrictions, said it was disingenuous to blame the lack of capacity entirely on the COVID pandemic and those who were unvaccinated.

“Primary Children’s they said was at 103% capacity in their pediatric ICU. They had two COVID patients, the rest were trauma and RSV. Let’s get some honesty here. Let’s stop fear-mongering. Let’s quit trying to push people and just let them make their own decisions for once and get government out of it,” Ray said.

Jess Gomez, spokesman for Intermountain Healthcare, disputed Ray’s claim.

“This characterization is not accurate. All health systems in Utah and nationally have been deeply impacted by the COVID pandemic and the ongoing surge of new cases and hospitalizations caused by community transmission of the delta variant. Intermountain Healthcare also continues to experience very high patient volumes for COVID and non-COVID patient care. Our caregivers and leaders are working extremely hard to provide the best care possible during this extraordinary time,” Gomez said in an email to The Tribune.

Utah health officials said Tuesday that roughly 1,900 more Utahns tested positive for COVID-19 in the last 24 hours and 11 more have died of the coronavirus. School-age children contracted about one in four of all new cases.

In a phone conversation with The Tribune on Wednesday afternoon, Ray clarified that his first comment about lack of staff was in reference to a lack of regular hospital beds, not just the ICU.

“Let’s be more upfront with people. They don’t have the staffing to deal with patients in regular beds. I get the idea that the ICUs are full, but they can’t just blame it on COVID,” Ray said.

In the early stages of the pandemic, Intermountain did threaten cutbacks because of lower revenue due to COVID-19, preempting many optional or elective surgical procedures and lower inpatient admissions. Revenue fell nearly $435 million from March to May of 2020. As a result, IHC ended up cutting 401(k) match contributions for employees.

“I’ll go on the record saying IHC is the best medical system I’ve seen in many places. But, some of their capacity problems are the result of administrative choices they’ve made,” Ray said.