ACA Section 1332 State Innovation Waivers Update

https://www.healthaffairs.org/do/10.1377/hblog20200729.217545/full/

Tracking Section 1332 State Innovation Waivers | KFF

On July 24, 2020, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and the Treasury Department approved Pennsylvania’s waiver application to operate a state-based reinsurance program under Section 1332 of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). This makes Pennsylvania the thirteenth state to be approved for a state-based reinsurance program. This post also summarizes the newest waiver proposal in Georgia.

Pennsylvania’s Waiver And More On Section 1332 Waivers

In late June, Pennsylvania received federal approval for a five-year reinsurance program beginning with the 2021 plan year. The state’s $139.3 million reinsurance program is expected to reduce premiums by about 4.6 percent (relative to what premiums would have been in the absence of the waiver) and increase enrollment in the individual market by about 0.5 percent in 2021. The federal government will contribute $95.1 million while state funds would account for about $44.2 million.

Implementation of the reinsurance program will coincide with a transition away from the federal marketplace to the new state-based marketplace, the Pennsylvania Health Insurance Exchange (Exchange). Both the reinsurance program and the Exchange were created in the same piece of 2019 legislation, which requires the Exchange to assess and collect fees—up to 3.5 percent of total monthly premiums—to support the reinsurance program. Pennsylvania expects to set the initial user fee at 3 percent of total monthly premiums. Each year, the Exchange will collect the user fee from insurers, deduct its operating expenses, and transfer the remaining funds to a reinsurance fund. In making reinsurance payments to insurers, Pennsylvania intends to first exhaust federal pass-through funding and then user fee revenue.

Based on CMS data, Pennsylvania insurers paid HealthCare.gov user fees of about $98.1 million for 2018 and about $83.1 million for 2019. (CMS has released 2018 and 2019 user fee data for each state that uses HealthCare.gov.) User fees in 2018 and 2019 were set at 3.5 percent of premiums, although the federal user fee was reduced to 3 percent for 2020.

Like nearly all states with reinsurance programs, Pennsylvania will use an overall attachment point model with parameters set annually by the insurance department. For 2021, the program is expected to reimburse insurers for 60 percent of claims between $60,000 and $100,000. To ensure program flexibility, the insurance department can make payments on a pro rata basis if funding is insufficient. Pennsylvania also intends to leverage the EDGE server maintained by CMS to determine how much each insurer is due. (This issue—whether and how states could leverage EDGE server infrastructure for reinsurance—has come up in at least one other state as well.)

Pennsylvania’s waiver application was submitted on February 11 and deemed complete on March 12. Federal regulators received and considered two supportive comments on the state’s application. In an approval letter to Commissioner Jessica Altman on July 24, the Departments laid out specific terms and conditions that the state must accept within 30 days for the waiver to go into effect. Once the waiver is accepted, the Departments will notify Pennsylvania of its amount of pass-through funding for 2021.

With Pennsylvania, 14 states have approved Section 1332 waivers. All but one approved waiver has been for a state-based reinsurance program, and CMS released a report on the effect of the 12 already-established state-based reinsurance programs. The report identifies the funding source for each state, program parameters, the impact on premiums by state and year, insurer participation, and enrollment. The average premium reduction for 2020 across all states was 17.7 percent. New Hampshire may be soon added to this list for 2021: the state’s waiver application was submitted in late April.

Latest On Georgia’s Waiver Application

Georgia submitted a waiver application in late December 2019. As discussed more here, Georgia’s application had two phases: phase one is for a reinsurance program and phase two involves much broader changes to the state’s individual market known as the “Georgia Access” model. Phase one was deemed complete on February 6, and review of phase two was “paused” to Georgia leaders could submit additional information.

Under the original Georgia Access Model, Georgia would have eliminated the use of HealthCare.gov, transitioned consumers to decentralized enrollment through private web-brokers and insurers, established its own subsidy structure, enabled the subsidization of plans that do not comply with all the ACA’s requirements, and capped enrollment if subsidy costs exceed federal and state funds. The proposal was criticized for jeopardizing access to comprehensive coverage and failing to satisfy Section 1332’s statutory guardrails.

About five months after review was “paused,” Georgia modified its waiver application, requesting that its reinsurance program be approved for 2022 (rather than 2021) and abandoning some initial components of phase two. The new waiver application was posted in early July and exposed for public comment until July 23.

The main change for phase two is that Georgia would no longer develop its own state-specific subsidy structure. Georgia would validate a consumer’s eligibility for premium tax credits and then send this information to the federal government. The federal government would then issue the subsidies to insurers and reconcile subsidies during tax season. Subsidies would only be available for qualified health plans under the ACA, as they are now. But Georgia wants to conduct its own eligibility determinations because it believes doing so will be more accurate: the state can leverage existing infrastructure, use more recent employment data, and integrate Medicaid eligibility determinations.

The waiver would, however, still eliminate the use of HealthCare.gov, which would make Georgia the only state to do so. Marketplace consumers would be forced to transition to a highly decentralized enrollment system that uses web-brokers and insurers. As a summary of the revised application puts it, Georgia will “transition responsibility for front-end functions of consumer outreach, customer service, plan shopping, selection, and enrollment from the [federal marketplace] to the commercial market.”

While federal subsidies could not be used towards non-ACA plans, Georgia continues to note that a benefit of moving away from HealthCare.gov to web-brokers and insurers is that residents could “view the full range of health plans” offered in the state. Georgia would leverage enhanced direct enrollment (EDE) standards which, as discussed more below, can lead to significant consumer confusion.

From here, Georgia will presumably respond to the latest round of public comment on its new proposal and then submit its revised application.

 

Some providers face daunting repayment deadline for Medicare advance loans

https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/hospitals/some-providers-face-daunting-aug-1-repayment-deadline-for-medicare-advance-loans?mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiWkRReFlqRmpaamRtWVdabSIsInQiOiJFTEp3SjQ3NG01NXcwRTg3Z0hCZkdTRlwvOURSeEVlblwvRlFUWlZcL09ONjZGNVEybzl3ekl3VFd2ZEgxSjY2NGQ0TkFIRFdtQ0ZDWUx0ak96NU15d09qMWcrdm9BMFUxOSszcVI0T21rak5raEN0aE5Kb0VUUGFcL254QnBjMjdCbzkifQ%3D%3D&mrkid=959610

Starting this month, some providers are facing the prospect of their Medicare payments garnished to repay COVID-19 loans.

The pressing Aug. 1 deadline has sparked concerns from some experts and hospital groups that worry providers couldn’t afford to lose out on Medicare revenue as they combat revenue losses caused by the pandemic. While the program was intended to be a short-term solution, COVID-19 surges are proving that is not the case for some hospitals.

At the onset of the pandemic in March, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) extended the advance payment program, which has been used previously to help providers beset by disasters such as hurricanes. Providers and suppliers could apply for advance Medicare payments to offset massive losses sparked by declines in patient volumes due to COVID-19.

Most providers could get up to 100% of their Medicare payments for a three-month period, and inpatient acute care hospitals, children’s hospitals and some cancer hospitals can request up to 100% for a six-month period. Critical access hospitals could have gotten up to 125% over six months.

CMS had given out $100 billion of loans before suspending the program.

“It was very effective because the process was already in place,” said Denise Burke, a partner with the healthcare compliance and operations group for law firm Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis.

The goal behind the program is to help providers stay afloat and was meant to be a short-term solution, as repayment starts 120 days after a provider gets the first payment. But that is the problem, experts say.

“It was intended as a short-term bridge so they could get through the summer before everything returned to normal, only problem is nothing has returned to normal,” said Dan Mendelson, founder and former president of consulting firm Avalere Health.

Now, repayment for the first loans are due on Aug. 1 as more and more states are seeing massive surges of COVID-19. Some major hospital systems, such as HCA and CHS, have been able to offset massive declines in revenue thanks to the loans and money from a $175 billion provider relief fund passed by Congress.

Hospitals have one year from the date of the accelerated payment to repay the balance of the loan, but Medicare Part A providers and Part B suppliers have 210 days from the accelerated payment to repay.

“CMS should think about relative to financial position of the provider,” Mendelson said. “Some providers are doing just fine and can repay loans just like everybody else.”

After the 120-day period is up, CMS will take 100% of Medicare claims payments that would have gone to the provider to offset the balance of the loan.

But it remains unclear whether CMS can change the terms of the repayment to give providers and suppliers more time, especially if they are struggling.

“CMS moves deadlines all the time,” Mendelson said. “The question is whether they can or are willing to exercise this discretion in this case.”

It also is unlikely that CMS will resume the program, which some provider groups have also called for.

“It seems unlikely CMS will continue to allocate money through the advance payment program that has fewer terms and conditions than allocating through provider relief fund,” Burke said, referring to the $175 billion fund that Health and Human Services is still allocating.

CMS did not return a request for comment as of press time.

A major problem for some hospitals is they may not have the liquidity available to repay the loans.

“There are a lot of hospitals struggling right now because volumes are off,” Mendelson said. “This comes down to the fact that people are staying away from the hospital to the extent they possibly can.”

Provider groups such as the American Hospital Association are imploring Congress to forgive the loans, or at the very least change the repayment terms.

For instance, some groups want to lower the interest rates to 50 or 25% of a Medicare payment as opposed to 100%.

But talks on a new COVID-19 relief package have stalled so far no deal has emerged.

Senate Republicans released their own package earlier this week that includes another $25 billion for providers and gives liability protections for hospitals and other businesses. But the package doesn’t include changes to the loans.

 

 

 

The COVID-19 Downturn Triggers Jump in Medicaid Enrollment

The COVID-19 Downturn Triggers Jump in Medicaid Enrollment

Reversing a three-year decline, the number of people covered by Medicaid nationwide rose markedly this spring as the impact of the recession caused by the outbreak of COVID-19 began to take hold.

Yet, the growth in participation in the state-federal health insurance program for low-income people was less than many analysts predicted. One possible factor tempering enrollment: People with concerns about catching the coronavirus avoided seeking care and figured they didn’t need the coverage.

Program sign-ups are widely expected to accelerate through the summer, reflecting the higher number of unemployed. As people lose their jobs, many often are left without workplace coverage or the money to buy insurance on their own.

Medicaid enrollment was 72.3 million in April, up from 71.5 million in March and 71 million in February, according to the latest enrollment figures released last week by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. The increase in March was the first enrollment uptick since March 2017.

About half of the people enrolled in Medicaid are children.

The increases varied widely around the country. Kentucky had the largest jump at nearly 7% from March to April. In addition, enrollment rose to 1.4 million in April from 1.2 million in February, according to the CMS data. That has continued, and today it’s up to 1.5 million, state officials said in an interview.

Kentucky has an aggressive outreach strategy using email or phone calls to contact thousands of residents who applied for state unemployment insurance, designed to make sure they know about Medicaid. “It’s been very effective, and in the past few weeks we’ve been enrolling 8,000 to 10,000 people a week,” said Eric Friedlander, secretary of the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services, which oversees Medicaid.

The Bluegrass State has also made enrollment easier by developing a one-page online form instead of having people fill out a 20-page application, he added.

“This is the right thing to do to help people get signed up for health care coverage and it supports the health industry in our state,” Friedlander said. “The health industry would collapse without Medicaid.”

Joan Alker, executive director of the Center for Children and Families at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., said she expects Medicaid enrollment to keep rising this summer. “Given that there are no signs that the virus is coming under control anytime soon, job losses will become more permanent, and more folks will become eligible for Medicaid over time,” she said.

One reason Medicaid numbers have not grown faster, she suggested, is because people have more immediate needs than securing health coverage, especially if they are feeling well.

Many people are worried about getting unemployment insurance or getting evicted from their home, she noted. “That’s combined with the fact that many people are reluctant to go to their doctor because of safety concerns,” she said. “And, as a consequence, applying for Medicaid may not be at the top of their list.”

Chris Pope, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a conservative think tank, said the slower-than-expected growth in Medicaid could signal that people who were laid off had coverage through a spouse or a parent.

In addition, he said, “many jobs that went away did not offer health insurance,” citing millions of service-sector positions in industries such as hotels and restaurants that have been lost.

Beyond the surge in unemployment, Medicaid rolls have risen because states cannot discontinue coverage to people enrolled as of March 18, 2020, as a condition of receiving higher federal Medicaid funding included in a coronavirus relief package passed by Congress.

Medicaid is a countercyclical program, meaning enrollment typically rises during an economic downturn. But that forces states to face the fiscal challenge of paying for their share of the program even as tax revenue dries up.

An exception to this rule was the jump in enrollment starting in 2014 when the Affordable Care Act allowed states to expand Medicaid to cover everyone with incomes below 138% of the federal poverty level, or about $17,609 for an individual this year.

Enrollment soared by about 15 million people from 2014 to 2017, peaking at about 75 million as nearly three dozen states expanded the program. Since then, a strong economy and steadily declining unemployment levels led to a drop in Medicaid rolls until April.

Enrollment changes in April varied across the country.

California, which has the highest Medicaid enrollment in the country, saw its level hold relatively steady at 11.6 million people in April.

Nevada and Oklahoma posted nearly 4% enrollment growth rates between March and April’s data.

Florida’s Medicaid numbers jumped to 3.7 million in April from 3.6 million in March, nearly a 2.5% increase, the CMS data showed. Since then, Florida data shows enrollment has topped 4.1 million.

The Trump administration has been criticized by consumer advocates for not establishing a national campaign to promote Medicaid during the economic downturn and health crisis.

One indicator that Medicaid enrollment is still going up is the growing number of recipients in managed care plans in 16 states that reported data from March to May. Those plans have increased by a total of nearly 4%, according to a KFF report. (KHN is an editorially independent program of KFF.) Most states have shifted many of their Medicaid enrollees into these private health plans.

KFF estimated that nearly 13 million people who became uninsured after losing their jobs in March are eligible for Medicaid.

Robin Rudowitz, a KFF vice president, said there is typically a lag time of weeks or months before people who have lost their jobs and health coverage seek to enroll in Medicaid. The impact on Medicaid enrollment also lasts well after the immediate effect of a downturn, she said.

“There is a long tail,” she said.

 

 

 

 

 

Back Into the Lion’s Den: COVID-19 and Post-Acute Care

https://www.medpagetoday.com/infectiousdisease/covid19/87596?xid=nl_popmed_2020-07-17&eun=g885344d0r&utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=DailyUpdate_071720&utm_term=NL_Daily_Breaking_News_Active

Back Into the Lion's Den: COVID-19 and Post-Acute Care | MedPage Today

Returning COVID patients to unprepared facilities a “recipe for disaster”

As Florida becomes the new epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., the state is trying to ensure that nursing homes and rehabilitation facilities aren’t quickly overwhelmed by patients still suffering from the disease.

So far, it has dedicated 11 facilities solely to COVID patients who need post-acute or long-term care: those who can’t be isolated at their current facilities, as well as those who’ve gotten over the worst of their illness and who can be moved to free up hospital beds for the flow of new patients.

One of those facilities is Miami Medical Center, which was shuttered in October 2017 but now transformed to care for 150 such patients. In total, the network of centers will handle some 750 patients.

“We recognize that that would be something that would be very problematic, to have COVID-positive nursing home residents be put back into a facility where you couldn’t have proper isolation,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said during a press briefing last week. “[That] would be a recipe for more spread, obviously more hospitalizations and more fatalities, and so we prohibited discharging COVID-positive patients back into nursing facilities.”

Whether 750 beds will be enough to accommodate the state’s needs remains a question, but it’s a necessary first step, given testing delays that in some cases stretch more than a week. Experts have warned that patients recovering from COVID shouldn’t be transferred to a facility without being tested first.

Without dedicated facilities, hospitals in Florida in dire need of beds for new patients might have had no other choice.

Key Role for Testing

There are no national data on the percentage of hospitalized COVID-19 patients who need rehabilitation or skilled nursing care after their hospital stay.

In general, about 44% of hospitalized patients need post-acute care, according to the American Health Care Association and its affiliate, the National Center for Assisted Living, which represent the post-acute and long-term care industries.

But COVID has “drastically changed hospital discharge patterns depending on local prevalence of COVID-19 and variations in federal and state guidance,” the groups said in an email to MedPage Today. “From a clinical standpoint, patients with COVID-19 symptoms serious enough to require hospitalization may be more likely to require facility or home-based post-acute medical treatment to manage symptoms. They also may need rehabilitation services to restore lost function as they recover post-discharge from the acute-care hospital.”

The level of post-acute care these patients need runs the spectrum from long-term acute care hospitals and inpatient rehabilitation facilities to skilled nursing facilities and home health agencies.

The variation is partly due to the heterogeneity of the disease itself. While some patients recover quickly, others suffer serious consequences such as strokes, cardiac issues, and other neurological sequelae that require extensive rehabilitation. Others simply continue to have respiratory problems long after the virus has cleared. Even those who are eventually discharged home sometimes require home oxygen therapy or breathing treatments that can require the assistance of home health aides.

Yet post-acute care systems say they haven’t been overwhelmed by a flood of COVID patients. Several groups, including AHCA, NCAL, and the American Medical Rehabilitation Providers Association (AMRPA) confirmed to MedPage Today that there’s actually been a downturn in post-acute care services during the pandemic.

That’s due to a decline in elective procedures, the societies said, adding that demand is starting to pick back up and that systems will need to be in place for preventing COVID spread in these facilities.

Testing will play a key role in being able to move patients as the need for post-acute care rises, specialists told MedPage Today.

“You shouldn’t move anyone until you know a status so that the nursing facility can appropriately receive them and care for them,” said Kathleen Unroe, MD, who studies long-term care issues at the Regenstrief Institute and Indiana University in Indianapolis.

AHCA and NCAL said they “do not support state mandates that require nursing homes to admit hospital patients who have not been tested for COVID-19 and to admit patients who have tested positive. This approach will introduce the highly contagious virus into more nursing homes. There will be more hospitalizations for nursing home residents who need ventilator care and ultimately, a higher number of deaths.”

Earlier this week, the groups sent a letter to the National Governors Association about preventing COVID outbreaks in long-term care facilities. They pointed to a survey of their membership showing that, for the majority, it was taking 2 days or longer to get test results back; one-quarter said it took at least 5 days.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) recently announced that it would send point-of-care COVID tests to “every single” nursing home in the U.S. starting next week. Initially, the tests will be given to 2,000 nursing homes, with tests eventually being shipped to all 15,400 facilities in the country.

Hospitals can conduct their own testing before releasing patients, and this has historically provided results faster than testing sites or clinical offices, especially if they have in-house services. However, demand can create delays, experts said.

Preparing for the Future

Jerry Gurwitz, MD, a geriatrician at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, says now is the time to develop post-acute care strategies for any future surges.

Gurwitz authored a commentary in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society on an incident in Massachusetts early in the pandemic where a nursing home was emptied to create a COVID-only facility, only to have residents test positive after the majority had already been moved.

“We should be thinking, okay, what are the steps, what’s the alternative to emptying out nursing homes? Can we make a convention center, or part of it, amenable to post-acute care patients?” Gurwitz said. “Not just a bed to lie in, but possibly providing rehabilitation and additional services? That could all be thought through right now in a way that would be logical and lead to the best possible outcomes.”

Organizations can take the lead from centers that have lived through a surge, like those in New York City. Rusk Rehabilitation at NYU Langone Health created a dedicated rehabilitation unit for COVID-positive patients.

“We were able to bring patients out from the acute care hospital to our rehabilitation unit and continue their COVID treatment but also give them the rehabilitation they needed” — physical and occupational therapy (PT/OT) — “and the medical oversight that enhanced their recovery and got them out of the hospital quicker and in better shape,” Steven Flanagan, MD, chair of rehabilitation medicine at NYU Langone, said during an AMRPA teleconference.

Flanagan noted that even COVID patients who can be discharged home will have long-term issues, so preparing a home-based or outpatient rehabilitation program will be essential.

Jasen Gundersen, MD, chief medical officer of CareCentrix, which specializes in post-acute home care, said there’s been more concern from families and patients about going into a facility, leading to increased interest in home-based services.

“We should be doing everything we can to support patients in the home,” Gundersen said. “Many of these patients are elderly and were on a lot of medications before COVID, so we’re trying to manage those along with additive medications like breathing treatments and inhalers.”

Telemedicine has played an increasing role in home care, to protect both patients and home health aides, he added.

Long-term care societies have said that emergency waivers implemented by CMS have been critical for getting COVID patients appropriate levels of post-acute care, and they hope these remain in place as the pandemic continues.

For instance, CMS relaxed the 3-hour therapy rule and the 60% diagnostic rule, Flanagan said. Under those policies, in order to admit a patient to an acute rehabilitation unit, facilities must provide 3 hours of PT/OT every day, 5 days per week.

“Not every COVID patient could tolerate that level of care, but they still needed the benefit of rehabilitation that allowed them to get better quicker and go home faster,” he said.

Additionally, not every COVID patient fits into one of the 13 diagnostic categories that dictate who can be admitted to a rehab facility under the 60% rule, he said, so centers “could take COVID patients who didn’t fit into one of those diagnoses and treat them and get them better.”

AHCA and NCAL said further waivers or policy changes would be helpful, particularly regarding basic medical necessity requirements for coverage within each type of post-acute setting.

But chief among priorities for COVID discharges to post-acute care remains safety, the groups said.

“The solution is for hospital patients to be discharged to nursing homes that can create segregated COVID-19 units and have the vital personal protective equipment needed to keep the staff safe,” they said. “Sending hospitalized patients who are likely harboring the virus to nursing homes that do not have the appropriate units, equipment and staff to accept COVID-19 patients is a recipe for disaster.”

 

 

 

 

340 organizations tell Congress to make telehealth permanent

https://www.healthcarefinancenews.com/news/340-organizations-tell-congress-make-telehealth-permanent?utm_source=SFMC&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=NL-HFN-NewsDay-2020-07-01+-+20200629_101004+-+20200630_102918+-+20200630_181109+-+20200701_104543%e2%80%8b

Advocacy and Policy | Primary Care Collaborative

New report finds the growth of telemedicine visits has plateaued and accounts for a relatively small percentage of rebounding ambulatory care.

On Monday, 340 organizations signed a letter urging Congress to make telehealth flexibilities created during the COVID-19 pandemic, permanent. 

Those signing the letter include national and regional organizations representing a range of healthcare stakeholders in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

Congress quickly waived statutory barriers to allow for expanded access to telehealth at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, providing federal agencies with the flexibility to allow healthcare providers to deliver care virtually.

Stakeholders also want Congress to remove restrictions on the location of the patient to ensure that all patients can access care at home, and other appropriate locations; to maintain and enhance HHS authority to determine appropriate providers and services for telehealth; ensure federally qualified health centers and rural health clinics can furnish telehealth services after the public health emergency; and make permanent the Health and Human Services temporary waiver authority for future emergencies.

While federal agencies can address some of these policies going forward, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid does not have the authority to make changes to Medicare reimbursement policy for telehealth under current law, stakeholders said.

In a statement separate from the letter to Congress, Lux Research Associate Danielle Bradnan said key concerns for legislators are broadband internet access, payer reimbursement and licensure barriers, since, currently, medical licenses are only valid for specific states.

WHY THIS MATTERS

If Congress does not act before the COVID-19 public health emergency expires, current flexibilities will disappear, according to stakeholders.

The PHE is scheduled to expire in July.

In a tweet late yesterday, Michael Caputo, the assistant secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services for public affairs, said HHS is expected to renew the PHE before it expires. It has already been renewed once.

THE LARGER TREND

The use of telehealth has skyrocketed under in-person restrictions under COVID-19.

Private health plans have followed suit, the letter said, resulting in a 4,300% year-over-year increase in claims for March 2020.

However, a new report from the Commonwealth Fund has found that the growth of telemedicine visits has plateaued and account for a relatively small percentage of rebounding ambulatory care services.

As states experiment with reopening – and re-closing – their economies in response to concerns around rising coronavirus cases, the report found that telemedicine visits have actually been declining since April.

 

 

 

 

Nursing homes go unchecked as fatalities mount

https://www.politico.com/news/2020/06/15/nursing-homes-coronavirus-321220

Health workers help a patient into Cobble Hill Health Center

About half of all facilities have yet to be inspected for procedures to stop the spread of coronavirus.

Thousands of nursing homes across the country have not been checked to see if staff are following proper procedures to prevent coronavirus transmission, a form of community spread that is responsible for more than a quarter of the nation’s Covid-19 fatalities.

Only a little more than half of the nation’s nursing homes had received inspections, according to data released earlier this month, which prompted a fresh mandate from Medicare and Medicaid chief Seema Verma that states complete the checks by July 31 or risk losing federal recovery funds.

A POLITICO survey of state officials, however, suggests that the lack of oversight of nursing homes has many roots. Many states that were hit hard by the virus say they chose to provide protective gear to frontline health workers rather than inspectors, delaying in-person checks for weeks if not months. Some states chose to assess facilities remotely, conducting interviews over the phone and analyzing documentation, a process many experts consider inadequate.

In places where state officials claimed that in-person inspections have taken place, the reports found no issues in the overwhelming majority of cases, even as Covid-19 claimed more than 31,000 deaths in nursing homes. Less than 3 percent of the more than 5,700 inspection surveys the federal government released this month had any infection control deficiencies, according to a report on Thursday by the Center for Medicare Advocacy, a nonprofit patient activist group.

“It is not possible or believable that the infection control surveys accurately portray the extent of infection control deficiencies in U.S. nursing facilities,” the report states.

Noting the vast and unprecedented danger that the coronavirus presents to the elderly and people with disabilities, patient advocates described the lack of inspections as a shocking oversight.

“If you’re not going in, you’re essentially taking the providers’ word that they’re doing a good job,” said Richard Mollot, the executive director of the Long Term Care Community Coalition.

In March, the Trump administration paused routine nursing home inspections, which typically occur about once a year. Instead, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services asked that state agencies focus on inspecting facilities for their infection control practices, such as whether staff wash their hands or properly wear protective clothing before tending to multiple patients.

But for more than two months, state inspectors failed to enter half the country’s homes — a revelation that prompted CMS to crack down.

“We are saying you need to be doing more inspections,” Verma told reporters, explaining her message to states. “We called on states in early March to go into every single nursing home and to do a focused inspection around infection control.”

In some hard-hit states, inspectors conducted remote surveys rather than going into nursing homes, a process that involved speaking to staff by phone and reviewing records. In Pennsylvania, for example, inspectors conducted interviews and reviewed documents for 657 facilities from March 13 to May 15 — most of which was done remotely.

But critics say the failure to make in-person checks prevented states from identifying lapses at a crucial time. The fact that family members were blocked from visiting their relatives — a policy intended to prevent the virus from entering the facility — removed another source of accountability in homes, some of which ended up having more than half of their residents stricken with the coronavirus.

Keeping relatives out of nursing homes — a policy that continues — has made it more difficult to advocate on behalf of residents in the state, said Karen Buck, executive director of the Pennsylvania-based SeniorLAW Center. More than 4,000 residents of nursing homes and other personal care facilities have died of coronavirus in the Keystone State.

“The inspections are vital,” said Buck. “I think access to residents is essential, and we are very concerned that Pennsylvanians are behind where we should be. We recognize these are very difficult times for our leaders, but we can’t continue to wait.”

Pennsylvania officials maintained that the remote inspections were beneficial, and said they went into the facilities when they felt there was significant concern over residents’ health.

“We can conduct the same interviews, review the same documentation and do all the same actions we could in person, except for the ability to be on-site,” health department spokesperson Nate Wardle wrote in an email, adding that Verma’s office approved the remote procedures earlier this spring.

Nonetheless, many public health experts say they believe states have erred in choosing not to prioritize nursing home inspectors when handing out protective equipment. While it makes sense to direct resources to front-line workers, nursing home inspectors were only a tiny number of people compared to the hundreds of thousands of hospital employees — and experts contend that the situation in nursing facilities was dire enough to require immediate action.

David Grabowski, an expert in aging and long-term care at Harvard Medical School, said he understands inspectors were put in a tough position in the early days of the pandemic, but that inspections needed to be ramped up within a few weeks.

“I think after those first few weeks we should have had personal protective equipment in place for the inspectors and doing these inspections remotely is really second best,” he said.

And yet state after state waited on inspections or performed them remotely.

In Utah, only a small portion of the state’s nearly 100 facilities received inspections over the first three months of the pandemic. Only now is the state health department ramping up on-site inspections, with the goal of hitting all of its nursing homes by the second week of July. It conducted 14 last week, and received some help from federal inspectors with another four.

The state survey agency said it made a conscious determination not to request protective equipment for state inspectors in the initial phase of the pandemic, fearing they would take supplies away from frontline health providers, said Greg Bateman, the head of long-term care surveys. Instead, the department conducted 43 remote reviews and talked to nursing homes at least twice a week.

In Idaho, state inspectors have only recently received the N95 masks, face shields and gowns necessary to perform inspections.

“The reason we had difficulty is because Idaho, like many other states, was challenged to secure adequate PPE to meet the needs of the various health care entities,” health department spokesperson Niki Forbing-Orr wrote in an email. “The state surveyors had concerns about potentially using PPE that other entities could use that provide direct medical services and care to Idaho residents.”

In New Jersey, which has seen roughly 6,000 deaths in nursing homes and other communal settings, the health department also first chose sending supplies to frontline workers in nursing homes and hospitals. The state began making in-person checks when it received PPE April 16, said Dawn Thomas, a New Jersey health department spokesperson.

But New Jersey still has a long way to go. The state has completed inspections in only about 115 out of more than 360 nursing homes as of June 3, according to Thomas.

While Pennsylvania, Idaho, New Jersey and other states complained of a lack of PPE, other states battling major outbreaks of coronavirus in nursing homes have completed nearly all of their inspections, calling into question the explanations for why others have struggled.

Washington state, where the Life Care Center of Kirkland became an early epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, has completed 99 percent of its inspections, the state reported this spring to CMS. And Michigan, which has had nearly 2,000 deaths in nursing homes, has completed nearly 85 percent of its inspections.

By contrast, states such as West Virginia and Maryland, with only 11.4 and 16.4 percent of facilities inspected as of the end of May, lagged way behind.

A nursing home in Maryland’s Carroll County served as an early example of just how quickly the coronavirus can ravage nursing homes. On March 26, a resident at a Carroll County, Md., facility tested positive for the coronavirus. Two weeks later, the number of confirmed cases was up to 77 out of 95 residents, along with 24 staff members. At least 28 residents have died.

A Maryland health department spokesperson says the state took “early and aggressive measures” to address the virus in nursing homes, noting that Maryland created the country’s first strike teams — composed of state and local health officials, medical professionals and National Guard members — to help triage seniors and scrutinize facilities.

Nonetheless, state inspectors didn’t have personal protective equipment until late April, according to the health department.

“In April, PPE acquisition was challenging across the nation and in Maryland due to the rapidly evolving Covid-19 pandemic,” the spokesperson wrote in an email, adding that the department sought N95 masks, gowns and other items from “the national stockpile, FEMA and national and international supply chains.”

With many facilities still closed to visitors, the slow pace of inspections lost a key window into the nursing homes during the pandemic.

“I think having more eyes on what’s happening is really important,” Grabowski said.

Last month, the Health and Human Services’ watchdog agency announced plans to review the pace of inspections in nursing homes and barriers to completing them — referring to such checks as a “fundamental safeguard to ensure that nursing home residents are safe and receive high-quality care.”

“There is no substitute for boots on the ground — for going into a facility to assess whether a facility is abiding by long-standing infection control practices,” Verma told reporters this month.

 

 

 

Predicting COVID-19’s Long-Term Impact on the Home Health Care Market

Predicting COVID-19’s Long-Term Impact on the Home Health Care Market

Predicting COVID-19's Long-Term Impact on the Home Health Care ...

The Patient-Driven Groupings Model (PDGM) and its unintended ripple effects were supposed to be the dominant story this year for the nation’s 12,000 or so Medicare-certified home health care providers. But the coronavirus has rewritten the script for 2020, throwing most of the industry’s previous projections out the window.

While PDGM — implemented on Jan. 1 — will still shape home health care’s immediate future, several other long-term trends have emerged as a result of the coronavirus and its impact on the U.S. health care system.

These trends include unexpected consolidation drivers and the sudden embrace of telehealth technology, the latter of which is a development that will affect home health providers in ways both profoundly positive and negative. Unforeseen, long-term trends will also likely include drastic overhauls to the Medicare Home Health Benefit, a revival of SNF-to-home diversion and more.

Now that providers have had roughly three full months to adapt to the coronavirus and transition out of crisis mode, Home Health Care News is looking ahead to what the industry can expect for the rest of 2020 and beyond.

‘Historic’ consolidation will still happen, with some unexpected drivers

Although the precise extent was often up for debate, most industry insiders predicted some level of consolidation in 2020, driven by PDGM, the phasing out of Requests for Anticipated Payment (RAPs) and other factors.

That certainly appeared to be true early on in the year, with Amedisys Inc. (Nasdaq: AMED), LHC Group Inc. (Nasdaq: LHCG) and other home health giants reporting more inbound calls related to acquisition opportunities or takeovers of financially distressed agencies.

In fact, during a fourth-quarter earnings call, LHC Group CEO and Chairman Keith Myers suggested that 2020 would kick off a “historic” consolidation wave that would last several years.

“As a result of this transition in Q4 and the first few months of 2020, we have seen an increase in the number of inbound calls from smaller agencies looking to exit the business,” Myers said on the call. “Some of these opportunities could be good acquisition candidates, and others we can naturally roll into our organic growth through market-share gains.”

Most of those calls stopped with the coronavirus, however.

Although the vast majority of home health agencies have experienced a decline in overall revenues during the current public health emergency, many have been able to compensate for losses thanks to the federal government’s multi-faceted response.

For some, that has meant taking advantage of the approximately $1.7 billion the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has distributed through its advanced and accelerated payment programs. For others, it has meant accepting the somewhat murky financial relief sent their way under the Provider Relief Fund.

In addition to those two possible sources of financial assistance, all Medicare-certified home health agencies have benefitted from Congress’s move to suspend the 2% Medicare sequestration until Dec. 31.

Eventually, those coronavirus lifelines and others will be pulled back, kickstarting M&A activity once again.

“We believe that a lot of the support has stopped or postponed the shakeout that’s occurring in home health — or that we anticipated would be occurring around this time,” Amedisys CEO and President Paul Kusserow said in March. “We don’t believe it’s over, though.”

Not only will consolidation happen, but some of it will be fueled by unexpected players.

With the suspension of elective surgeries and procedures, hospitals and health systems have lost billions of dollars. Rick Pollack, president and CEO of the American Hospital Association (AHA), estimated that hospitals are losing as much as $50 billion a month during the coronavirus.

“I think it’s fair to say that hospitals are facing perhaps the greatest challenge that they have ever faced in their history,” Pollack, whose organization represents the interests of nearly 5,000 hospitals, told NPR.

To cut costs, some hospitals may look to get rid of their in-house home health divisions. It’s a trend that may already be happening, too.

The Home Health Benefit will look drastically different

With a mix of temporary and permanent regulatory changes, including a redefinition of the term “homebound,” the Medicare Home Health Benefit already looks very different now than it did three months ago. But the benefit will likely go through further retooling in the not-too-distant future.

Broadly, the Medicare Part A Trust Fund finances key services for beneficiaries.

While vital to the national health care infrastructure, the fund is going broke — and fast. In the most recent CMS Office of the Actuary report released in April, the Trust Fund was projected to be entirely depleted by 2026.

The COVID-19 virus has only accelerated the drain on the fund, with some predicting it to run out of money two years earlier than anticipated. A group of health care economics experts from Harvard and MIT wrote about the very topic on a joint Health Affairs op-ed published Wednesday.

“COVID-19 is causing the Medicare Part A program and the Hospital Insurance (HI) Trust Fund to contend with large reductions in revenues due to increased unemployment, reductions in salaries, shifts to part-time employment from full time and a reduction in labor force participation,” the group wrote. “In addition to revenue declines, there was a 20% increase in payments to hospitals for COVID-related care and elimination of cost sharing associated with treatment of COVID.”

Besides those and other cost pressures, Medicare is simultaneously expanding by about 10,000 new people every day. The worst-case scenario: the Medicare Part A Trust Fund goes broke closer to 2024.

There are numerous policy actions that can be taken to reduce the financial strain on the trust fund. In their op-ed, for example, the team of Harvard and MIT researchers suggested shifting all of home health care under Part B.

In 2018, Medicare spent about $17.9 billion on home health benefits, with roughly 66% of that falling under Part B, which typically includes community-based care that isn’t linked to hospital or nursing home discharge. Consolidating all of home health care into Part B would move billions of dollars away from Part A, in turn expanding the Trust Fund’s lifecycle.

“Such a policy change would move nearly $6 billion in spending away from the Part A HI Trust Fund but would put upward pressure on the Part B premium,” the researchers noted.

Of course, all post-acute care services may still undergo a transformation into a unified payment model one day. However, the coronavirus has devastated skilled nursing facility (SNF) operators, who were already dealing with the Patient-Driven Payment Model (PDPM), a payment overhaul of their own.

Regulators may shy away from introducing further disruption until SNFs have a chance to recover, a process likely to take years — if not decades.

Previously, the Trump administration had estimated that a unified payment system based on patients’ clinical needs rather than site of care would save a projected $101.5 billion from 2021 to 2030.

Telehealth will be a double-edged sword

The move toward telehealth was a long-term trend that home health providers were cognizant of before COVID-19, even if some clinicians were personally skeptical of virtual visits. But because the virus has demanded social distancing, telehealth has forced its way into health care in a manner that would have been almost unimaginable in 2019.

In late April, during a White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing, President Donald Trump indicated that the number of patients using telehealth had increased from about 11,000 per week to more than 650,000 people per week.

Meanwhile, MedStar Health went from delivering just 10 telehealth visits per week to nearly 4,000 per day.

Backed by policymakers, technology companies and consumers, telehealth is likely here to stay.

“I think the genie’s out of the bottle on this one,” CMS Administrator Seema Verma said in April. “I think it’s fair to say that the advent of telehealth has been just completely accelerated, that it’s taken this crisis to push us to a new frontier, but there’s absolutely no going back.”

The telehealth boom could mean improved patient outcomes and new lines of business for home health providers. But it could also mean more competition moving forward.

For telehealth to be a true game-changer for home health providers, Congress and CMS would need to pave the way for direct reimbursement. Currently, a home health provider cannot get paid for delivering virtual visits in fee-for-service (FFS) Medicare.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has floated the idea of introducing legislation that would allow for direct telehealth reimbursement in the home health space, but, so far, no concrete steps have been taken — at least in public. With a hyper-polarized Congress and a long list of other national priorities taking up the spotlight, it’s impossible to guess whether home health telehealth reimbursement will actually happen.

While home health providers can’t directly bill for in-home telehealth visits, hospitals and certain health care practitioners can. That regulatory imbalance could lead to providers being used less frequently as “the eyes and ears in the home,” some believe.

A new SNF-to-home diversion wave will emerge

Over the past two decades, many home health providers have been able to expand their patient census by poaching patients from SNFs. Often referred to as SNF-to-home diversion, the approach didn’t just benefit home health providers, though. It helped cut national health care spending by shifting care into lower-cost settings.

At first, the stream of SNF residents being shifted into home health care was like water being shot from a firehose: In 2009, there were 1,808 SNF days per 1,000 FFS Medicare beneficiaries, a March 2018 analysis from consulting firm Avalere Health found. By 2016, that number plummeted to 1,539 days per 1,000 beneficiaries — a 15% drop.

In recent years, that steady stream has turned into a slow trickle, with more patients being sent to home health care right off the bat. In the first quarter of 2019, 23.3% of in-patient hospital discharges were coded for home health care, while 21.1% were coded for SNFs, according to data from analytics and metrics firm Trella Health.

Genesis HealthCare (NYSE: KEN) CEO George Hager suggested the initial SNF-to-home diversion wave was over in March 2019. Kennett Square, Pennsylvania-based Genesis is a holding company with subsidiaries that operate hundreds of skilled nursing centers across the country.

“To anyone [who] would want [to] or has toured a skilled nursing asset, I would challenge you to look at the patients in our building and find patients that could be cared for in a home-based or community-based setting,” Hager said during a presentation at the Barclays Global Healthcare Conference. “The acuity levels of an average patient in a skilled nursing center have increased dramatically.”

Yet that was all before the coronavirus.

Over the last three months, more than 40,600 long-term care residents and workers have died as a result of COVID-19, according to an analysis of state data gathered by USA Today. That’s about 40% of the U.S.’s overall death toll.

CMS statistics place that number closer to 26,000.

In light of those figures and infection-control issues in congregate settings, home health providers will see a new wave of SNF-to-home diversion as robust as the first. As the new diversion wave happens, providers will need to be prepared to care for patients with higher acuity levels and more co-morbidities.

“[That’s going to change] the psyche of the way people are going to view SNFs and long-term care facilities for the rest of our generation,” Bruce Greenstein, LHC Group’s chief strategy and innovation officer, said during a June presentation at the Jefferies Virtual Healthcare Conference. “You would never want to put your parent in a facility if you don’t have to. You want options now.”

One stat to back up this idea: Over 50% of family members are now more likely to choose in-home care for their loved ones than they were prior to the coronavirus, according to a survey from health care research and consulting firm Transcend Strategy Group.

Separate from SNF-to-home diversion, hospital-to-home models will also likely continue to gain momentum after the coronavirus.

There will be a land grab for palliative care

Over the past two years, home health providers have aggressively looked to expand into hospice care, partly due to the space’s relatively stable reimbursement landscape. Amedisys — now one of the largest hospice providers in the U.S. — is the prime example of that.

During the COVID-19 crisis, palliative care has gained greater awareness. Generally, palliative care is specialized care for people living with advanced, serious illnesses.

“Right now, we are seeing from our hospital partners and our community colleagues the importance of palliative care, including advanced care as well as appropriate pain and symptom management,” Capital Caring Chief Medical Officer Dr. Matthew Kestenbaum previously told HHCN. “The number of palliative care consults we’re being asked to perform in the hospitals and in the community has actually increased. The importance of palliative care is absolutely being shown during this pandemic.”

As community-based palliative care programs continue to prove their mettle amid the coronavirus, home health providers will increasingly consider expanding into the market to further diversify their services.

Currently, just 10% of community-based palliative care programs are operated by home health agencies.

Demand will reach an all-time high

The home health industry may ultimately shrink in terms of raw number of agencies, but the overall size of the market is very likely to expand at a faster-than-anticipated pace.

In years to come, home health providers will still ride the macro-level tailwinds of an aging U.S. population with a proven preference to age in place — that hasn’t changed. But because of SNF-to-home diversion and calls to decentralize the health care system with home- and community-based care, providers will see an increase in referrals from a variety of sources.

In turn, home health agencies will need to ramp up their recruitment and retention strategies.

There’s already early evidence of this happening.

Last week, in St. Louis, Missouri, four home-based care agencies announced that they were hiring a combined 1,000 new employees to meet the surge in demand, according to the St. Louis Dispatch.

Meanwhile, Brookdale Senior Living Inc. (NYSE: BKD) similarly announced plans to hire 4,500 health care workers, with 10% of those hires coming from the senior living operator’s health care services segment.

Bayada Home Health Care likewise announced plans to ramp up hiring.

“We are absolutely hiring more people now than ever,” Bayada CEO David Baiada previously told HHCN. “The need for services — both because of societal and demographic evolution, but also because of what we anticipate as a rebound and an increase in the demand for home- and community-based care delivery as a result of the pandemic — is requiring us to continue to accelerate our recruitment efforts.”

The bottom line: The coronavirus may have presented immediate obstacles for home health providers, but the long-term outlook is brighter than ever.

 

 

 

 

How The Rapid Shift To Telehealth Leaves Many Community Health Centers Behind During The COVID-19 Pandemic

https://www.healthaffairs.org/do/10.1377/hblog20200529.449762/full/

How to reduce the impact of coronavirus on our lives - The ...

The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed the landscape of ambulatory care with rapid shifts to telehealth. Well-resourced hospitals have quickly made the transition. Community health centers (CHCs), which serve more than 28 million low-income and disproportionately uninsured patients in rural and underserved urban areas of the United States, have not fared as well since ambulatory visits have disappearedresulting in furloughs, layoffs, and more than 1,900 temporary site closures throughout the country. Government officials have taken notice, and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act infused $1.32 billion toward COVID-19 response and maintaining CHC capacity.

Many states have directed insurers to temporarily cover COVID-19-related services via telehealth while mandating parity of reimbursement for telehealth visits with in-person visits for their Medicaid program.

Preparedness Of Community Health Centers For Telehealth

Despite the changes, many health centers may not be ready to implement high-quality telehealth. study using 2016 data showed that only 38 percent of CHCs used any telehealth. In our review of 2018 Uniform Data System data—the most recent available—from a 100 percent sample of US CHCs, we found that our nation’s health centers are largely unprepared for this transformation.

Across the US, 56 percent of 1,330 CHCs did not have any telehealth use in 2018 (exhibit 1). Of those without telehealth use, only about one in five were in the process of actively implementing or exploring telehealth. Meanwhile, 47 percent of the centers using telehealth were doing so only with specialists such as those at referral centers, rather than with patients. Of those using telehealth, the majority (68 percent) used it to provide mental health services; fewer used it for primary care (30 percent) or management of chronic conditions (21 percent), suggesting that most CHCs with telehealth capabilities prior to COVID-19 were not using it for the most frequent types of services provided at CHCs.

CHCs not using telehealth reported several barriers to implementation (exhibit 2). Thirty-six percent cited lack of reimbursement, 23 percent lacked funding for equipment, and 21 percent lacked training for providing telehealth. Although most barriers were similar in both urban and rural regions, a greater proportion of rural clinics compared to urban clinics (18 percent versus 7 percent) reported inadequate broadband services as an issue.

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the enormous disparities in telehealth capacity. Without adequate telehealth capacity and support, many CHCs will be left without means of providing the continuous preventive and chronic disease care that can keep communities healthy and out of the hospital. During the crisis, the Health Resources and Services Administration estimates that CHCs have seen 57 percent of the number of weekly visits compared to pre-COVID-19 visit rates, 51 percent of which have been conducted virtually, suggesting that many CHC patients have forgone care that they would have otherwise received. Given CHCs serve a disproportionate share of low-income, racial/ethnic minority, and immigrant populations—populations hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic—any disruption to CHC capacity may exacerbate the racial disparities that have rapidly emerged.

While an important first step, policy makers cannot simply infuse more funding to CHCs and expect them to withstand the challenges of the COVID-19 era. We recommend three targeted strategies to help CHCs adapt and perhaps even thrive beyond COVID-19: legislate permanent parity in telehealth reimbursement for all insurers; allocate sufficient funding and guidance for telehealth equipment, personnel, training, and protocols; and implement telehealth systems tailored to vulnerable populations.

Permanent All-Payer Parity For Telehealth Reimbursement

Payment parity—where telehealth is reimbursed at the same level as an in-person visit—is a crucial issue that must be addressed and instituted beyond the current public health emergency. Without commensurate reimbursement for telehealth, CHCs cannot maintain patient volume or make the long-term investments necessary to remain financially viable. A “global budget” of paying CHCs a fixed payment per patient per month would give practices flexibility in how and where to treat the patient, although this may be politically and practically challenging. Meanwhile, payment parity has already been implemented and could simply be permanently codified into existing reimbursement schemes, giving providers the option to select the best mode of treatment without making financial trade-offs.

In reviewing state telehealth policies during COVID-19, all states have implemented temporary executive orders or released guidance on telehealth access—although with significant variations. At least 22 states have explicitly implemented telehealth parity for Medicaid. For Medicare, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) expanded access to telehealth beyond designated rural areas, loosened HIPAA requirements around telehealth platforms, and instituted parity in reimbursement with in-person visits.

To build on these significant steps, states should mandate telehealth parity across all payers and cover all services provided at CHCs, not just COVID-19-related care. At least 12 states have mandated all-payer parity for telehealth. Meanwhile, private insurers have individually adjusted telehealth policies on a state-by-state basis if there was no statewide mandate. Nevertheless, all payers should reimburse at parity given the patchwork quilt of insurance plans that exists at CHCs.

Furthermore, state legislatures and CMS should look to extend parity beyond the current COVID-19 emergency so that CHCs can make sustainable investments that continue to benefit patients. Even as states reopen, in-person visits are unlikely to return to their previous volume as the threat of infection continues to loom. Temporary measures should be made permanent so that CHCs can make sustainable investments that continue to benefit patients.

Funding And Guidance For Equipment, Personnel, Training, And Protocols

For telehealth to function smoothly and reduce errors, proper hardware and software are critical, including telephone service, computers, broadband internet access, and electronic health records. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released funding to procure telehealth services and devices and some CHCs have received private funding; similar targeted funding mechanisms from states and the federal government are necessary at scale to equip hundreds of CHCs with the necessary telehealth capabilities.

However, merely having technology is not sufficient. Proper personnel with appropriate training are key to a high-functioning telehealth system along with support from information technology specialists. Additionally, CHCs need ancillary systems in place to allow for the effective use of phone and video visits. Empanelment systems to attribute patients to providers can allow for longitudinal follow-up even with telehealth. Daily huddles and team-based care can enhance the inherent complexities of coordinating care remotely. Protocols should be tailored for different specialties and services such as nutrition management and social work. Meanwhile, a robust e-consult referral network should allow primary care providers at CHCs to easily connect patients to specialty care when necessary. Adding robust protocols and systems will allow for the successful implementation and scaling of telehealth.

For example, groups of CHCs called the Health Center Controlled Networks (HCCNs), which have traditionally collaborated to leverage health information technology, are positioned to harness their economies of scale and group purchasing power to widely adopt new infrastructure while standardizing protocols. They could be a means to accelerate the adoption of telehealth technologies, trainings, and care models to optimize the use of telehealth across CHCs.

Telehealth Support For Vulnerable Patients

The patient population seen by CHCs presents unique challenges that not all ambulatory practices, particularly those in affluent neighborhoods, may face. Health centers care for many immigrant patients with limited English proficiency. Thus, clinics need financial support to contract with telehealth interpreter and translation services to provide equitable access and care. Better yet, all telehealth platforms contracting with CHCs should be required to provide multilingual support to deliver equitable access to telehealth services.

Moreover, many low-income patients lack health and digital literacy. Virtual telehealth platforms should design applications such that interfaces are intuitive and easy to navigate. They should provide specialized support to guide patients who are not familiar with telehealth systems. Additionally, insurers can reimburse CHCs that provide patient navigators, care coordinators, and shared decision-making support that bridge the health literacy divide.

Many around the US also do not have access to high-speed internet, consistent telephone services, and phones or computers with video conferencing capabilities. First, to allow for flexible access to telehealth for all patients, insurers should permanently waive geographic and originating site restrictions that limit the type and location of facilities from which patients can use telehealth. Second, insurers should waive audio-video requirements and consistently reimburse for phone-only visits to accommodate patients without video conferencing. Third, the type of services covered by telehealth should be expanded—ranging from primary care to physical therapy to nutrition counseling to behavioral health.

To address disparities in ownership of digital devices, taking a page out of the book of educators in low-income neighborhoods, local governments could loan laptops and smartphones or supply internet hotspots and phone-charging stations for these communities to enable access. Additionally, insurers could reimburse for the FCC Lifeline program to provide affordable communication services and cellular data to low-income populations to maintain their outpatient care.

Conclusions

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps through the US, health care delivery will never be the same. Health centers are struggling as many have been largely unprepared for the abrupt swing toward telehealth. COVID-19 may pose long-lasting damaging effects on CHCs and the patient populations that they serve. Nonspecific federal and state funding will allow CHCs to survive; however, deliberate action is needed to enhance telehealth capacities and ensure long-term resilience.

Similar to the Association of American Medical Colleges’ recent letter to CMS to make various telehealth changes permanent, both CMS and state governments should take immediate action by making permanent parity in reimbursement for telehealth services by all payers. State and federal policy should direct payers to lift onerous restrictions on the types of services covered via telehealth, audio/video requirements, and geographic and originating sites of telehealth services. States and payers should also explore innovative solutions to expand access to cellular data services and digital devices that allow low-income patients to digitally “get to their appointment,” similar to non-emergency medical transportation. Local governments should invest in digital infrastructure that expands broadband coverage and provides internet or cellular access points for people to engage in telehealth. Additionally, CHCs should come together under HCCNs to harness their group purchasing power to rapidly implement telehealth infrastructure that provides multilingual support and other tools that bridge gaps in digital literacy. Finally, best practices, trainings, and protocols should be standardized and disseminated across CHC networks to optimize the quality of telehealth.  

By reorienting the goals for implementing telehealth, policy makers, payers, and providers can empower health centers to thrive into the future and meet the nation’s underserved patients where they are, even during the pandemic. In the long run, telehealth can increase access and equity—but only if the right investments are made now to fill the gaps laid bare by COVID-19.

 

 

 

 

Amwell CEOs on the telehealth boom and why it will ‘democratize’ healthcare

https://www.fiercehealthcare.com/tech/amwell-ceos-telehealth-boom-will-democratize-healthcare?mkt_tok=eyJpIjoiWmpobE5XVmlaRGd6T0dFdyIsInQiOiJsQmxnbVNxNVlISVNkczJIZkJXb3ZFZG9tVlpMblZ1XC9oVVB6SlRINzNhOXE4MWQzNk1cL3JTaDlcL2l0MGdhSnk0NUtqY1RzdThCN1wvZ1ZoVUxqOHJwZFJcL1wvK3FtS0o5NFwvSHA0WHhTUnhVNnY3bk5RNmhRQTdxYzYwclhYN3JTRW8ifQ%3D%3D&mrkid=959610

Amwell CEOs on the telehealth boom and why it will 'democratize ...

The COVID-19 pandemic has catapulted the telehealth industry forward by decades in a matter of months, according to Amwell’s Roy Schoenberg.

That not only benefits the Amwell’s business, but it’s a win for patients, said Schoenberg, who serves as the company’s president and co-CEO.

“We are going to see an enormous amount of change, nothing short of a revolution, going forward,” he told Fierce Healthcare.

Roy and his brother Ido Schoenberg have been telehealth advocates for more than a decade since launching Amwell, formerly American Well, in 2006. The Boston-based telehealth company works with more than 240 health systems comprised of 2,000 hospitals and 55 health plan partners with over 36,000 employers, reaching over 150 million lives.

Like other virtual care companies, Amwell has seen skyrocketing demand for its services during the COVID-19 pandemic as stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines prevented many patients from visiting doctors in person. Shares in public digital health companies like Teladoc and Livongo have grown by double digits during the health crisis.

The momentum around telehealth also has attracted investors. The company recently raised $194 million in a series C funding round.

Amwell also is gearing up to go public later this year, according to CNBC’s Christina Farr and Ari Levy. The company confidentially filed for an IPO earlier this week and has hired Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley to lead the deal, Farr and Levy reported last week, citing people who asked not to be named because the plans have not been announced.

The company declined to comment on the CNBC report.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic began, Amwell was providing an average of 5,000 telehealth visits a day. That has jumped to 45,000 to 50,000 virtual visits a day due to the coronavirus, said Ido Schoenberg, who serves as chairman and co-CEO. 

“We saw 30 times, 40 times higher volumes and we have clients that had 2% to 3% of their patient volume online that now have 75% of visits online,” he said. “It’s truly incredible. The number of active providers on our platform grew seven times over in two months.”

As visits surged, technology companies struggled to keep up with demand, and patients reported long wait times for virtual visits on some platforms.

Roy Schoenberg acknowledged Amwell also faced challenges rapidly scaling its technology and services almost overnight as it was “thrown into the center stage of trying to save the world.”

The company leverages automation for processes such as onboarding physicians, credentialing, licensing, and working with health plans and that capability proved critical to scaling its services, the executives said.

“We needed to allow 40,000 to 50,000 physicians to come on to our system and begin to use it. If this was a manual process, it would have been broken,” Roy Schoenberg said.

Regulatory barriers to telehealth also quickly fell away, at least temporarily. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and commercial health plans have expanded access to telehealth by offering payment parity for many telehealth services for the first time.

While questions remain about what regulatory flexibilities will remain in place to support the ongoing demand for telehealth, Amwell executives believe virtual care has proven its value to providers, payers and patients.

CMS will likely tighten up some of the relaxed requirements around telehealth which is a “fiscally responsible approach,” Roy Schoenberg said.

“At the end of the day, even though the government tends to be a little bit slow, it gravitates to where the value is. How long will it take for the payment structure to retract and then expand, that’s anyone’s guess. We have an election year coming in. Who knows what that is going to do? There may be some changes, but I think overall, the genie is out of the bottle, the toothpaste is out of the tube, or whatever phrase you want to use,” he said.

The executives never doubted that telehealth would, at some point, reach the mainstream. Now that it’s happened, health systems and patients have become advocates for the technology and that will also put pressure on CMS and commercial payers to continue to support it, they said.

The executives now see an opportunity for Amwell to use its platform to expand the reach of healthcare to more patients. There is a growing industry of telehealth providers, device makers, and technology-enabled disease management companies that will enable digital home healthcare services, they said.

“What we built is something way bigger than a video conference between doctor and patient, which you can easily do using Zoom or FaceTime,” Ido Schoenberg said.

Digital connectivity will enable providers to gather health data on patients from wearables and devices to better understand gaps in care, get an overall picture of patients’ health and then provide more effective interventions, all without patients leaving their living rooms. The combination of telehealth and remote devices will enable elderly, frail patients to receive care at home, where they want to be, rather than being moved to a skilled nursing facility, they said.

“It’s about the ability to democratize healthcare and make great care available to many more people that today don’t always have access to it,” Ido Schoenberg said.

Roy Schoenberg added, “These are the opportunities opening fast and furious in front of us and the promise is to make healthcare less painful as an individual experience. That’s the value proposition.”

 

 

 

 

Nearly 30,000 nursing home residents died during coronavirus pandemic, government report shows

https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/06/01/coronavirus-nursing-home-deaths/?pwapi_token=eyJ0eXAiOiJKV1QiLCJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiJ9.eyJjb29raWVuYW1lIjoid3BfY3J0aWQiLCJpc3MiOiJDYXJ0YSIsImNvb2tpZXZhbHVlIjoiNWI2M2EzNDJhZGU0ZTI3Nzk1NTBjYTFiIiwidGFnIjoid3BfbmV3c19hbGVydF9yZXZlcmUiLCJ1cmwiOiJodHRwczovL3d3dy53YXNoaW5ndG9ucG9zdC5jb20vYnVzaW5lc3MvMjAyMC8wNi8wMS9jb3JvbmF2aXJ1cy1udXJzaW5nLWhvbWUtZGVhdGhzLz93cG1rPTEmd3Bpc3JjPWFsX25ld3NfX2FsZXJ0LWhzZS0tYWxlcnQtbmF0aW9uYWwmdXRtX3NvdXJjZT1hbGVydCZ1dG1fbWVkaXVtPWVtYWlsJnV0bV9jYW1wYWlnbj13cF9uZXdzX2FsZXJ0X3JldmVyZSJ9.y8RVJLZebL0pp382hoWXZKNybZzPCGaPXQJE5N60CqU&utm_campaign=wp_news_alert_revere&utm_medium=email&utm_source=alert&wpisrc=al_news__alert-hse–alert-national&wpmk=1

Coronavirus Claims at Least 6,900 Nursing Home Deaths in U.S. ...

About one in five homes reported a death but about 20 percent of nursing homes have not yet reported case counts.

At least 26,000 residents died and more than 60,000 were sickened as the novel coronavirus continued its unrelenting assault on America’s nursing homes, sweeping through facilities in every corner of the country.

The numbers, released late Monday, represent the first official national accounting of fatalities in the 15,000 nursing homes certified by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The tally, however, is incomplete. About 20 percent of the nation’s nursing homes did not report data to the federal government. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services on Monday said early analysis shows homes with a history of infection-control and other health deficiencies were more likely to have covid-19 outbreaks.

Early analysis shows that facilities with a one-star quality rating were more likely to have large numbers of COVID-19 cases than facilities with a five-star quality rating. CMS will take enforcement action against the nursing homes that have not reported data into the CDC as required under CMS participation requirements.