Healthcare and the Proposed Infrastructure Legislation

Senate Democrats Agree on $3.5 Trillion Infrastructure Bill | Barron's

One of the most important initiatives for President Biden since
taking office in 2021 has been to pass a sweeping infrastructure
bill to improve roads, bridges, water systems, and to make
affordable housing more available to Americans in need
, to name a few key
components. While a bill has not yet been passed, initial estimates range from $2.5 –
3.5 Trillion in total spending across all sectors. How will the proposed infrastructure bill
affect healthcare for Americans?
Healthcare remains the largest component of
household spending in the U.S. In 2019, Americans spent approximately $3.8 Trillion on
healthcare, or about 18% of the Gross Domestic Product. More importantly, we learned
from the pandemic that healthcare service providers are a critical infrastructure support
network to our nation. What does the infrastructure bill provide to assist with this going
forward?

The largest healthcare components in the infrastructure bill are estimated to be:

  • $400 Billion for Home and Community Based care for the disabled and elderly.
    According to census, an estimated 20% of the U.S. population will be over 65 by
  1. Caring for elderly relatives or living independently will become a top concern
    for most Americans. Home care is projected to grow by 22.6% in the next decade.
  • Lowering the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 60. If it passes, this will increase the
    participants in the Medicare program by an estimated 20 million.
  • $18 Billion for needed upgrades to VA hospitals. The average age of a VA hospital is
    58 years. The private-sector hospitals median age is 11 years old. There are 1,700
    VA hospitals and clinics with 69% are more than 50 years old. Additionally, nearly
    100 VA sites, mostly in the western part of the country, need seismic correction.
    Other President Biden Healthcare Priorities
    There are several other healthcare topics that President Biden has added to his Agenda.
    Expand coverage to Medicaid at the state level to provide access to almost 5
    million additional individuals
    Lowering drug costs for consumers by requiring drug companies to negotiate
    with Medicare, limiting drug price increases and import drugs to save costs
    • Ending surprise billing
  • Expand funding for mental health care through the ACA and bring parity between mental health and other healthcare services
  • Tax credits for eligible families who enroll in coverage through the Marketplace
  • Unfortunately, while these estimates may continue to change between now and when a final bill is passed, healthcare is not a meaningful part of the infrastructure bill. Given our recent experience during the pandemic with hospital capacity being overloaded, one would have thought that the infrastructure bill would have addressed this critical shortfall.

Pay cut forces Health Partners to lay off 560 workers

When layoffs become inevitable: The painful story

Health Partners, one of the largest home healthcare providers in Michigan, laid off 560 employees at the beginning of July, including nurses, nursing assistants, therapists and direct care workers, according to Crain’s Detroit Business

The layoffs occurred July 1 and happened as the Bingham Farms-based company is winding down business. The job losses are attributed to a 2019 state law capping Health Partners’ payment rates at 55 percent of what it bills insurance companies to care for injured motorists, said Chad Livengood, a senior editor at Crain’s Detroit Business

Health Partners owner John G. Prosser II, who has been in the home health business for decades, said the company couldn’t absorb the losses from the new fee schedule, which cuts payments by 45 percent, according to Crain’s

Other home healthcare companies in Michigan haven’t met the same fate as Health Partners because they rely more heavily on Medicaid, workers’ compensation insurance or private payers, according to the report. 

Read more here

Hospitals lose jobs for 4th straight month

New FBI Data Show Violent Crime Continued Downward Trend in 2014 |  FreedomWorks

Hospitals lost 5,800 jobs in April, marking the fourth month of job loss this year, according to the latest jobs report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The April count compares to 600 hospital jobs lost in March, 2,200 jobs lost in February and 2,100 jobs lost in January. Before January, the last job loss was in September, when hospitals lost 6,400 jobs.

Overall, healthcare lost 4,100 jobs last month — compared to 11,500 jobs added in March — and employment in the industry is down by 542,000 since February 2020.

Within ambulatory healthcare services, dentist offices saw 3,700 added jobs; physician offices saw 11,300 job gains; and home healthcare services lost 6,700 jobs in April. 

Nursing and residential care facilities lost 19,500 jobs last month, compared to 3,200 jobs lost the month prior.

The U.S. gained 266,000 in April after gaining 916,000 jobs in March. The unemployment rate was 6.1 percent last month, compared to 6 percent in March.

To view the full jobs report, click here.

President Biden lays out his sweeping legislative agenda

https://mailchi.mp/097beec6499c/the-weekly-gist-april-30-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

Legislative Agenda

In his first address to a joint session of Congress, delivered on the eve of his 100th day in office, President Biden laid out his vision for two major legislative proposals to follow the $1.9T stimulus package he signed into law last month.

The first, described as an “infrastructure” bill, focuses largely on investing in transportation-related improvements, building projects, and “green” upgrades to the nation’s energy grid, along with a $400B investment in home-based care for the elderly and people with disabilities—which amounts to over 17 percent of the package’s $2.3T price tag.

The second, which he unveiled in Wednesday’s speech, is a $1.8T “families” bill, is largely aimed at expanding childcare subsidies, early childhood education, paid family and medical leave, and educational investments. Included in that package is $200B to extend the temporary subsidies—approved as part of last month’s stimulus law—for those seeking health insurance coverage on the individual marketplaces created by the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Notably absent from either proposal were two categories of healthcare reform that received much focus and airtime during last year’s election campaign: reducing the cost of prescription drugs and lowering the eligibility age for Medicare to 60 or below. Given the closely divided makeup of the new Congress, and the relatively moderate position staked out by the Biden administration on healthcare issues (with a bias toward bolstering the ACA rather than pursuing sweeping changes), we’re not surprised to see the Medicare expansion go unmentioned. 

But the bipartisan popularity of lowering prescription drug costs seems like a missed opportunity for Biden, who encouraged the Congress to return to it separately, later in the year. We’ll see. For now, with even some Democrats expressing concern about the $4.1T price tag of Biden’s proposals, we would be surprised if all $600B of the healthcare-related spending makes it to the final legislation. In particular, our guess is that some portion of the home-care spending will get traded away in favor of other components of the package. Expect negotiations to be intense.
 

MedPAC calls for 2% bump to hospital payments, no update for docs in 2022

MedPAC March 2019 Report to the Congress Released - ehospice

A key Medicare advisory panel is calling for a 2% bump to Medicare payments for acute care hospitals for 2022 but no hike for physicians.

The report, released Monday from the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC)—which recommends payment policies to Congress—bases payment rate recommendations on data from 2019. However, the commission did factor in the pandemic when evaluating the payment rates and other policies in the report to Congress, including whether policies should be permanent or temporary.

“The financial stress on providers is unpredictable, although it has been alleviated to some extent by government assistance and rebounding service utilization levels,” the report said.

MedPAC recommended that targeted and temporary funding policies are the best way to help providers rather than a permanent hike for payments that gets increased over time.

“Overall, these recommendations would reduce Medicare spending while preserving beneficiaries’ access to high-quality care,” the report added.

MedPAC expects the effects of the pandemic, which have hurt provider finances due to a drop in healthcare use, to persist into 2021 but to be temporary.

It calls for a 2% update for inpatient and outpatient services for 2022, the same increase it recommended for 2021.

The latest report recommends no update for physicians and other professionals. The panel also does not want any hikes for four payment systems: ambulatory surgical centers, outpatient dialysis facilities, skilled nursing facilities and hospices.

MedPAC also recommends Congress reduce the aggregate hospice cap by 20% and that “ambulatory surgery centers be required to report cost data to [Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS)],” the report said.

But it does call for long-term care hospitals to get a 2% increase and to reduce payments by 5% for home health and inpatient rehabilitation facilities.

The panel also explores the effects of any policies implemented under the COVID-19 public health emergency, which is likely to extend through 2021 and could continue into 2022.

For instance, CMS used the public health emergency to greatly expand the flexibility for providers to be reimbursed for telehealth services. Use of telehealth exploded during the pandemic after hesitancy among patients to go to the doctor’s office or hospital for care.

“Without legislative action, many of the changes will expire at the end of the [public health emergency],” the report said.

MedPAC recommends Congress temporarily continue some of the telehealth expansions for one to two years after the public health emergency ends. This will give lawmakers more time to gather evidence on the impact of telehealth on quality and Medicare spending.

“During this limited period, Medicare should temporarily pay for specified telehealth services provided to all beneficiaries regardless of their location, and it should continue to cover certain newly-covered telehealth services and certain audio-only telehealth services if there is potential for clinical benefit,” according to a release on the report.

After the public health emergency ends, Medicare should also return to paying the physician fee schedule’s facility rate for any telehealth services. This will ensure Medicare can collect data on the cost for providing the services.

“Providers should not be allowed to reduce or waive beneficiary cost-sharing for telehealth services after the [public health emergency],” the report said. “CMS should also implement other safeguards to protect the Medicare program and its beneficiaries from unnecessary spending and potential fraud related to telehealth.”

The home-based care space heats up

https://mailchi.mp/05e4ff455445/the-weekly-gist-february-26-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

Home Healthcare Market Size, Growth Report, 2020-2027

This week Brookdale Senior Living, the nation’s largest operator of senior housing, with 726 communities across 43 states and annual revenues of about $3B, announced the sale of 80 percent of its hospice and home-based care division to hospital operator HCA Healthcare for $400M. The transaction gives HCA control of Brookdale’s 57 home health agencies, 22 hospice agencies, and 84 outpatient therapy locations across a 26-state footprint, marking its entry into new lines of business, and allowing it to expand revenue streams by continuing to treat patients post-discharge, in home-based settings.

Like other senior living providers, Brookdale has struggled economically during the COVID pandemic; its home and hospice care division, which serves 17,000 patients, saw revenue drop more than 16 percent last year. HCA, meanwhile, has recovered quickly from the COVID downturn, and has signaled its intention to focus on continued growth by acquisition across 2021.
 
In separate news, Optum, the services division of insurance giant UnitedHealth Group, was reported to have struck a deal to acquire Landmark Health, a fast-growing home care company whose services are aimed at Medicare Advantage-enrolled, frail elderly patients. Landmark, founded in 2014, also participates in Medicare’s Direct Contracting program.

The transaction is reportedly valued at $3.5B, although neither party would confirm or comment on the deal. The acquisition would greatly expand Optum’s home-based care delivery services, which today include physician home visits through its HouseCalls program, and remote monitoring through its Vivify Health unit.

The Brookdale and Landmark deals, along with earlier acquisitions by Humana and others, indicate that the home-based care space is heating up significantly, reflecting a broader shift in the nexus of care to patients’ homes—a growing preference among consumers spooked by the COVID pandemic. 

Along with telemedicine, home-based care may represent a new front in the tug-of-war between providers and payers for the loyalty of increasingly empowered healthcare consumers.

Early evidence on disparities in vaccine acceptance

https://mailchi.mp/128c649c0cb4/the-weekly-gist-january-22-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

Distributing a COVID-19 Vaccine Across the U.S. – A Look at Key Issues –  Issue Brief – 9563 | KFF

Although only 17 states are currently reporting data on the racial and ethnic breakdown of vaccine recipients, the early data indicate that there are significant disparities in who is getting vaccinated, with the share of Black and Latino people among vaccinees lower than their share of the total population in those states.

Alarmingly, in our recent conversations with health system executives, those same disparities seem to be present among healthcare workers employed by hospitals and health systems. Anecdotally, across a half-dozen health systems we’ve spoken with in the past week, most report that they’ve had about 70 percent of their workers agree to get the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

However, that number looks significantly different when broken down by race and ethnicity: on average, the uptake rate among White, Asian, and Pacific Islander workers has been closer to 90-95 percent, while among Black and Latino workers, it’s been closer to 30-40 percent. Bear in mind these are employees of health systems—in many cases they’re frontline caregivers—and given their work environments you might expect them to be less hesitant to get the vaccine.

That 30-40 percent uptake rate is very worrisome, in two ways: caregivers outside of hospital settings, especially home care and nursing home workers, likely include a larger number of workers hesitant to get vaccinated. And in the general population, among whom health literacy is presumably much lower than among healthcare workers, it’s precisely those populations who are at highest risk of COVID infection, hospitalization, and death. (A further complication: health systems made it easy for their employees to get the shot. With vaccines for the general population still scarce, at-risk populations will inevitably have the most difficult time getting signed up, even if they want the vaccine.)

If health systems are the canary in the coal mine for vaccine hesitancy rateswe’re in for a tough challenge in getting the most vulnerable populations vaccinated in the months to come.

MedPAC to recommend 2% payment boost for hospitals next year

MedPAC approves 2021 payment recommendations | AHA News

The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission voted Jan. 14 to recommend a 2 percent raise in Medicare payments for hospitals next year.

The commission said it wants to give the payment boost to both acute-care and long-term care hospitals. The 2 percent payment increase will result in about a $750 million to $2 billion increase in acute-care hospital spending for Medicare and about $50 million for long-term care hospitals.  

MedPAC also plans to recommend no change to the payment rate for physicians in 2022 and a 5 percent decrease for home health firms and inpatient rehabilitation centers. 

Although MedPAC will recommend the payment boost, Congress is not required to implement the recommendation.

The vote occurred at MedPAC’s January public meeting. 

Atlanta home healthcare owner gets 5 years in prison for Medicaid fraud

Whistleblower Helps Texas End $20M Fraud Case | The Texas Tribune

The owner of an Atlanta-based home healthcare provider was sentenced to five years and three months in prison for defrauding Medicaid out of nearly $1 million, the U.S. Justice Department said Dec. 2.

Diandra Bankhead, owner and operator of Elite Homecare, admitted to submitting thousands of  claims for services that were never provided to children in the Georgia Pediatric Program between September 2015 and April 2018. Children who are eligible for services under the program  typically suffer from physical and cognitive disabilities.

Ms. Bankhead and Elite Homecare submitted more than 5,400 claims to Georgia Medicaid, receiving $1.2 million in reimbursement. About $1 million was determined to be fraudulent, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors said Ms. Bankhead defrauded Medicaid in several ways, including submitting  fraudulent credentialing information to become a Georgia Pediatric Program provider, submitting claims for in-home nursing services provided to families who had not hired Elite and submitting claims in which employees provided more than 24 hours of services in a day. 

“It is outrageous that Bankhead profited off children who suffered from significant physical and cognitive disabilities,” said U.S. Attorney Byung Pak. “For years her scheme exploited Medicaid-eligible children and their families by billing for services never performed and for children never seen, diverting critical resources from those who needed them most.”

Ms. Bankhead pleaded guilty in federal court to one count of healthcare fraud in August 2019. She was also ordered to pay $999,999 in restitution.

CMS seeks to boost hospital capacity during COVID-19 surge

Troy Medicare Signs Contract with CMS for 2020 - Troy Medicare

CMS is giving hospitals facing a surge of COVID-19 patients expanded flexibility to care for Medicare patients in their homes, the department announced Nov. 25. 

The new Acute Hospital Care At Home program will require in-person screening protocols to assess both medical and non-medical factors, including working utilities, before care can begin at home. Medicare patients will be admitted into the program from emergency departments and inpatient hospital beds.

Once at-home care begins, a registered nurse will evaluate each patient every day either in person or remotely, and either registered nurses or mobile integrated health paramedics will have two in-person visits daily based on the patient’s nursing plan and hospital policies.

CMS approved the following six health systems with extensive experience providing acute hospital care at home to immediately participate in the program: 

  • Boston-based Brigham and Women’s Hospital
  • Salt Lake City-based Huntsman Cancer Institute
  • Boston-based Massachusetts General Hospital
  • New York City-based Mount Sinai Health System
  • Albuquerque, N.M.-based Presbyterian Healthcare Services
  • West Des Moines, Iowa-based UnityPoint Health. 

Other hospitals and health systems may submit a waiver request online.