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SSM Health no longer using race-based criteria for COVID-19 treatment

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SSM Health, which operates seven hospitals and four affiliates in the state, said Friday it is no longer using race as a determining factor for COVID-19 treatments — guidance that was challenged this week by a conservative law firm, which claimed the use of such criteria is discriminatory.

The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a nonprofit conservative law firm, sent a letter on Friday to SSM Health’s president and CEO Laura Kaiser questioning a risk scoring calculator that has been used by the St. Louis-based health care system when determining a patient’s eligibility for COVID-19 monoclonal antibody products (mAbs). SSM Health describes the manufactured antibodies on its website as being “highly effective in neutralizing the virus and preventing symptoms from worsening.”

The hospital in Medford, like others, is feeling the strain, with no end in sight.

SSM Health said Friday the criteria referenced by WILL is no longer in use. WILL cited in its letter guidance issued by SSM Health in a Dec. 30 email.

“While early versions of risk calculators across the nation appropriately included race and gender criteria based on initial outcomes, SSM Health has continued to evaluate and update our protocols weekly to reflect the most up-to-date clinical evidence available,” SSM Health said in a statement. “As a result, race and gender criteria are no longer utilized. The internal memo cited by WILL inadvertently referenced an expired calculator.”

SSM Health did not say specifically when the scoring calculator was updated, but said it occurred before WILL’s letter was received Friday.

In order to be eligible under the previous guidance, patients at least 12 years old would have to score a minimum of 20 points on a variety of factors, including age and gender, as well as preexisting conditions such as diabetes, obesity and asthma. Patients also received seven points if they listed being nonwhite or Hispanic.

“In other words, non-white patients receive a 7-point head start in your risk scoring calculator and are therefore more likely to receive life-saving medical treatment based solely on the color of their skin,” WILL president and general counsel Rick Esenberg and deputy counsel Daniel Lennington wrote in the letter, which was provided to the Wisconsin State Journal. “But having ‘non-white’ skin color is not a medical condition, co-morbidity, or treatable symptom.”

WILL has alleged that the risk calculator would be illegal for discriminating against patients based on race.

“We’re encouraged that SSM Health has dropped the racial classifications from their risk-scoring calculator,” Lennington said Friday. “But if they updated this calculator before today, we have yet to see any communication to Wisconsin physicians on the matter.”

Conservative law firm challenges Gov. Tony Evers over homeowner assistance program

SSM Health said tools and protocols implemented by many health systems across the country early in the pandemic were based on the best available information. Risk-scoring calculators are one of many tools used by clinicians to provide evidence-based care.

“SSM Health consistently strives to provide exceptional care to every patient, in every encounter,” SSM Health said. “We do not discriminate based on race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation or any other class or status.”

Racial disparities

Data collected by the state Department of Health Services has highlighted racial and ethnic disparities brought on by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, with communities of color experiencing higher rates of hospitalizations and deaths paired with lower vaccination rates.

“Individual choice is not what keeps these communities from being as healthy as possible,” according to the state DHS website. “In fact, structural racism and social factors often create barriers and obstacles for many people. Health is influenced not just by your access to quality health care services, research shows it is also impacted by where you work, where you live, how much money you earn, and how much education you have.”

DHS data show Hispanic residents have 1.4 times greater COVID case rates compared to white Wisconsinites. Black residents have 1.8 times greater hospitalization rates than white residents, and American Indian residents have 1.3 times greater death rates.

Other challenges

SSM Health Wisconsin includes seven hospitals and four affiliates, more than 85 physician clinics, a pharmacy benefit company, 10 nursing homes and an insurance company, Dean Health Plan.

On Wednesday, WILL sent a letter to Gov. Tony Evers alleging that the state’s plan to follow federal guidelines when allocating $92.7 million in mortgage assistance grants would be illegal, saying the program’s intention to steer federal funds toward people of color is discriminatory.

WILL last year successfully challenged the federal government’s reasoning for allocating federal funds based on race to help end systemic racism for programs related to loans for farmers and business owners.

State government reporter Mitchell Schmidt's top stories of 2021

It would be an understatement to say it’s difficult to select my top five stories from 2021.

Covering Wisconsin politics is anything but dull or slow (by my count I’ve had a little over 300 stories so far this year), but here are a few of the bigger impact stories I’ve had over the last 12 months.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my work as much as I’ve enjoyed covering Wisconsin, or at the very least have found these stories to be informative.

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