On July 22, 2020, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) announced new initiatives designed to protect nursing home residents from the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).
The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) will distribute $5 billion of the CARES Act Provider Relief Fund to Medicare-certified long-term care facilities and state veterans’ homes (nursing homes) to enhance the response of nursing homes to COVID-19, with an emphasis on improving infection control.
This new funding is in addition to the previously announced $4.9 billion that offset revenue losses and helped nursing homes cope with additional costs associated with their response to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, in order to qualify for the new funding, nursing homes must participate in a new online Nursing Home COVID-19 Training program (described below).
The funds can be used to address critical needs in nursing homes including hiring additional staff, implementing infection control “mentorship” programs with subject matter experts, increasing testing, and providing additional services to residents, such as technology that will allow residents to connect with their families when family members are unable to visit.
HHS has not yet specified the mechanism it will use to distribute the additional $5 billion to nursing homes.
CMS announced that it will begin requiring, rather than recommending, that nursing homes located in states with a positive COVID-19 testing rate of 5% or greater test all of their staff each week. CMS believes this new testing requirement must go through formal rulemaking and the agency has not indicated when the rulemaking process will begin.
CMS intends to deploy more than 15,000 point-of-care testing devices in nursing homes over the next few months to help support the forthcoming testing mandate, with over 600 devices shipping imminently. This initiative was first announced on June 14, 2020, but the rollout will proceed more slowly than was stated at that time.
Additional Technical Assistance & Support
Federal Task Force Strike Teams are available to provide onsite technical assistance and education to nursing homes that are experiencing outbreaks. The goal is to reduce transmission and the risk of COVID-19 spread among residents. The first deployments took place in 18 nursing homes in Illinois, Florida, Louisiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas between July 18th and July 20th. The Task Force Strike Teams are composed of clinicians and public health service officials from CMS, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), and the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health.
The Task Force Strike Teams selected nursing homes that had reported an increase in COVID-19 cases. The Strike Teams focus on detecting COVID-19 cases quickly, preventing virus transmission, and managing staff.
Nursing Home Online COVID-19 Training
Finally, CMS reports that it intends, in partnership with the CDC, to roll out an online, self-paced, on-demand Nursing Home COVID-19 Training program focused on infection control and best practices. The training program has 23 educational modules and scenario-based learning modules that include materials on “cohorting” strategies and using telehealth to assist nursing homes as they continue to work on mitigation strategies to limit spread of the virus in their facilities. This program will supplement training already available to better equip nursing homes to contain and stop the spread of COVID-19.
Nursing homes must complete this new online training program in order to qualify for the new funds that CMS will distribute from the CARES Act Provider Relief Fund.
The new training program will be available to all 15,400 nursing homes nationwide. Specialized technical assistance will also be available for nursing homes that had infection prevention deficiencies in their most recent CMS inspection, and had reported recent COVID-19 cases to the CDC. CMS will offer a certificate of completion to nursing homes that complete the new training program, and those nursing homes will be able to download recognition badges for display on their website.
Nursing home residents continue to be disproportionately affected by COVID-19. The CMS announcement is a significant first step, but the industry will be watching for follow-through and will weigh the impact of the new initiatives on their ongoing efforts to control the spread of COVID-19 within their facilities.