Medical professionals responded with outrage late Saturday after President Donald Trump pushed the baseless claim that doctors and hospitals are intentionally inflating coronavirus death counts because they have a financial "incentive" to do so, a narrative that has been circulating for months in right-wing media circles and among some Republican lawmakers.
During a campaign rally in Waukesha, Wisconsin Saturday night, the president said "doctors get more money and hospitals get more money" if they attribute to Covid-19 deaths that, according to Trump, should have been primarily attributed to comorbidities.
"This apathy, utter willful disconnect from reality of the pain of this pandemic while the country spirals into what might be our worst surge yet—we cannot let this cruelty continue."
—Dr. Nahid Bhadelia, Boston University School of Medicine
Trump's claim resembles falsehoods that have been spreading on Facebook and Twitter since the early stages of the pandemic, such as one viral post asserting that "hospitals get $750 if you die from the flu, and $17,500 if you died from Covid-19."
Deeming the claim false, PolitiFact noted: "Under the CARES Act, the largest of the three federal stimulus laws enacted in response to the coronavirus, Medicare pays hospitals a 20% 'add on' to its regular payment for Covid-19 patients. But there is no indication that hospitals are over-identifying patients as having Covid-19 for the sake of padding their revenue. If anything, evidence suggests the illness is being underdiagnosed."
"Medicare pays hospitals based on a diagnosis; whether a patient dies does not affect the amount," PolitiFact pointed out. "And even then, the same diagnosis might trigger one reimbursement amount at one hospital, and a different payment at a hospital in another location."
Experts have also rejected Trump's insistence that people with comorbidities who die after falling ill with Covid-19 should not be counted as a coronavirus fatality. Justin Lessler, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told Scientific American last week that "when we ask if Covid killed somebody, it means 'Did they die sooner than they would have if they didn't have the virus?"
While preexisting conditions make people more vulnerable to coronavirus, Lessler said, "the fact is: they're not dying from that preexisting condition."
DISGUSTING—Trump tells his MAGA audience that frontline healthcare workers are claiming false #COVID19 diagnoses to profit from it. This is beyond pale. It’s a well known right wing conspiracy theory. PUSH back—1600-1700 HCW have died. pic.twitter.com/1o7u9DmWws
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— Eric Feigl-Ding (@DrEricDing) October 25, 2020
Trump's comments—which came as the U.S. coronavirus death toll approached 225,000, the highest in the world—were met with immediate condemnation by physicians and other medical professionals.
"As a doctor, this is such an insult," said Rob Davidson, an emergency room physician and executive director of the Committee to Protect Medicare. "We report deaths how they occur. If you did your damn job we wouldn't be reporting so many Covid-19 deaths. About 130,000 fewer according to a Columbia University study."
Dr. Nahid Bhadelia, an infectious disease doctor and an associate professor at Boston University School of Medicine, tweeted that the president's claims are an affront "to the almost quarter of a million people who have died of this disease."
"In people with comorbidities, Covid, like any major insult to the system, serves to worsen the outcome," Bhadelia continued. "The virus is still absolutely the reason that person died. The comorbidities were their vulnerabilities that the virus took advantage of."
"This speech by the person who should supposedly be leading us through this crisis—it breaks me," wrote Bhadelia. "This apathy, utter willful disconnect from reality of the pain of this pandemic while the country spirals into what might be our worst surge yet—we cannot let this cruelty continue."