On July 23, 2020, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar renewed the determination that a Public Health Emergency related to the COVID-19 pandemic exists. Secretary Azar first declared the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency on January 27, 2020 and first renewed that declaration on April 21. This renewal was due to expire on July 25. The emergency powers granted through a Public Health Emergency have empowered the expansion of telehealth, emergency approval of new drugs and tests, and a host of waivers and flexibilities to facilitate and aid providers’ treatment of their patients through the COVID-19 pandemic. This new expansion will last for 90 days until late October.
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has announced an additional $5 billion of funding from the Provider Relief Fund will go to Medicare-certified long term care facilities to support the enhancement of nursing homes’ response to COVID-19. These funds are meant to assist facilities with enhancing infection control, building up staffing, increasing testing, and providing additional services such as implementing technology to assist residents and families. Nursing homes must participate in the Nursing Home COVID-19 Training on infection control and best practices as a condition to receive the funding. CMS will also begin requiring all nursing homes in states with a 5% positive rate or higher to perform COVID-19 diagnostic testing on all nursing home staff every week. Additional testing devices will be distributed to facilities to support this requirement, beginning with 600 devices shipping this week.
Last week, hospitals were directed to bypass the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) National Healthcare Safety Network and report coronavirus-related information directly to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). More information on the shift of reporting is also available here. This week, HHS launched its Coronavirus Data Hub, which purports to report a more robust and comprehensive data set. The change has been met with skepticism and concern among various groups in the healthcare industry.
As previously reported, Congress has been weighing legislation that would make some changes and expansions to telehealth services permanent following the conclusion of the COVID-19 public health emergency. On July 15, 2020, the director of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), Seema Verma, published a blog analyzing the data collected since the temporary expansion of telehealth and telehealth’s impact on beneficiary access to care. There has been an obvious surge in telehealth services since many restrictions and limitations were waived and patients and providers worked toward avoiding unnecessary and potentially risky in-person encounters. Looking forward to whether some of these changes may be implemented permanently, CMS is considering: (1) the importance of determining when telehealth services are clinically appropriate and safe for patients; (2) Medicare payment rates for telehealth services and whether adjustments in rates are necessary and appropriate; and (3) how CMS can protect the Medicare program from fraud and abuse by “unscrupulous actors” who attempt to manipulate telehealth services to receive overpayments.