The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has announced a wide range of temporary regulatory moves aimed at helping hospitals and health systems handle the surge of COVID-19 patients.
“We are waiving a wide and unprecedented range of regulatory requirements to equip the American health care system with maximum flexibility to deal with an influx of cases,” CMS Administrator Seema Verma said during a March 30 conference call with reporters. “Many health care systems may not need these waivers and they shouldn’t use them if the situation doesn’t warrant it. But the flexibilities are there if it does. At a time of crisis, no regulatory barriers should stand in the way of patient care.”
Among the changes is an expansion of the venues in which health care systems and hospitals can provide services.
Federal regulations call for hospitals to provide services within their own buildings, raising concerns as to whether there will be enough capacity to handle the anticipated COVID-19 caseload.
“Under CMS’s temporary new rules, hospitals will be able to transfer patients to outside facilities, such as ambulatory surgery centers, inpatient rehabilitation hospitals, hotels, and dormitories, while still receiving hospital payments under Medicare,” CMS stated in a fact sheet highlighting the regulatory changes. “For example, a health care system can use a hotel to take care of patients needing less intensive care while using inpatient beds for COVID-19 patients.”
With these waivers, hospital systems will not have to rely on the Federal Emergency Management Agency to set up temporary hospitals and can move ahead using available community resources to help deal with the expected surge, Ms. Verma said.
These regulatory changes will be effect for the duration of the public health emergency, according to Ms. Verma.
Ambulatory surgery centers will have the option to contract with local health care systems to provide hospital services or they can enroll and bill as hospitals during the emergency, the fact sheet noted. They will be able to perform hospital services such as cancer procedures, trauma surgeries, and other essential surgeries.
CMS also is waiving the limit on the number of beds a doctor-owned hospital can have.
Additionally, for Medicare patients who may be homebound, CMS will now pay for a laboratory technician to make a home visit to collect a specimen for COVID-19 testing, and hospitals will be able to conduct testing in homes or other community-based settings under certain circumstances.
CMS also is taking actions aimed at expanding the health care workforce.
For instance, the agency is issuing a “blanket waiver” that allows hospitals to provide benefits to medical staff, including multiple daily meals, laundry service for personal clothing, or child care services while the staff is at the hospital providing patient care, according to the fact sheet.
Teaching hospitals will also receive more flexibility in using residents to provide health care services under the virtual direction of a teaching physician, who may be available through audio/video technology.
CMS also is temporarily eliminating paperwork requirements, and allowed greater use of verbal orders, to allow clinicians to spend more time on direct patient care.
On the device/equipment side, Medicare will cover respiratory-related devices and equipment “for any medical reason determined by clinicians,” according to the fact sheet, rather than only under certain circumstances.
And on the telehealth side, CMS is expanding the number of services that it will pay for via telehealth by more than 80, including emergency department visits, initial nursing facility and discharge visits, and home visits, which must be provided by a clinician that is allowed to provide telehealth. CMS will allow the use of commonly available interactive apps with audio and video, as well as audio-only phones.