CMS Announces New Flexibilities Per COVID-19, Including Significant Telehealth Flexibilities

March 31, 2020
On Monday evening, CMS announced the creation of a series of blanket waivers, in order to give hospitals and other patient care organizations the flexibility to better care for patients during the COVID-19 pandemic

On Monday, March 30, the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) announced the creation of a series of blanket waivers, apparently expanding some of the agency’s waiver activity of the past few weeks, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

CMS’s press release, posted on Monday evening on the agency’s website, began thus:

“At President Trump’s direction, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) today is issuing an unprecedented array of temporary regulatory waivers and new rules to equip the American healthcare system with maximum flexibility to respond to the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. CMS sets and enforces essential quality and safety standards for the nation’s healthcare system, and is the nation’s largest health insurer serving more than 140 million Americans through Medicare, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and Federal Exchanges.

Made possible by President Trump’s recent emergency declaration and emergency rule making, these temporary changes will apply immediately across the entire U.S. healthcare system for the duration of the emergency declaration. This allows hospitals and health systems to deliver services at other locations to make room for COVID-19 patients needing acute care in their main facility.

The changes complement and augment the work of FEMA and state and local public health authorities by empowering local hospitals and healthcare systems to rapidly expand treatment capacity that allows them to separate patients infected with COVID-19 from those who are not affected. CMS’s waivers and flexibilities will permit hospitals and healthcare systems to expand capacity by triaging patients to a variety of community-based locales, including ambulatory surgery centers, inpatient rehabilitation hospitals, hotels, and dormitories. Transferring uninfected patients will help hospital staffs to focus on the most critical COVID-19 patients, maintain infection control protocols, and conserve personal protective equipment (PPE).”

The press release went on to quote CMS Administrator Seema Verma as saying that “Every day, heroic nurses, doctors, and other healthcare workers are dedicating long hours to their patients. This means sacrificing time with their families and risking their very lives to care for coronavirus patients. Front line healthcare providers need to be able to focus on patient care in the most flexible and innovative ways possible. This unprecedented temporary relaxation in regulation will help the healthcare system deal with patient surges by giving it tools and support to create non-traditional care sites and staff them quickly,” Verma said.

“CMS’s announcement will also waive certain requirements to enable and encourage hospitals to hire local physicians and other providers to address potential surges,” the press release went on. “New rules allow hospitals to support physician practices by transferring critical equipment, including items used for telehealth, as well as providing meals and childcare for their healthcare workers. Other temporary CMS waivers and rule changes dramatically lessen administrative burdens, knowing that front line providers will be operating with high volumes and under extraordinary system stresses.”

Among numerous other elements of Monday’s set of announcements were the following:

>“CMS will allow communities to take advantage of local ambulatory surgery centers that have canceled elective surgeries, per federal recommendations. Surgery centers can contract with local healthcare systems to provide hospital services, or they can enroll and bill as hospitals during the emergency declaration as long as they are not inconsistent with their State’s Emergency Preparedness or Pandemic Plan. The new flexibilities will also leverage these types of sites to decant services typically provided by hospitals such as cancer procedures, trauma surgeries and other essential surgeries.”

> “CMS will now temporarily permit non-hospital buildings and spaces to be used for patient care and quarantine sites, provided that the location is approved by the State and ensures the safety and comfort of patients and staff. This will expand the capacity of communities to develop a system of care that safely treats patients without COVID-19, and isolate and treat patients with COVID-19.”

>   “CMS will also allow hospitals, laboratories, and other entities to perform tests for COVID-19 on people at home and in other community-based settings outside of the hospital. This will both increase access to testing and reduce risks of exposure. The new guidance allows healthcare systems, hospitals, and communities to set up testing sites exclusively for the purpose of identifying COVID-19-positive patients in a safe environment.”

>   “CMS is issuing waivers so that hospitals can use other practitioners, such as physician assistants and nurse practitioners, to the fullest extent possible, in accordance with a state’s emergency preparedness or pandemic plan. These clinicians can perform services such as order tests and medications that may have previously required a physician’s order where this is permitted under state law.”

>   Significant flexibility is now being added to the regulation of telehealth services: “Building on prior action to expand reimbursement for telehealth services to Medicare beneficiaries, CMS will now allow for more than 80 additional services to be furnished via telehealth. During the public health emergencies, individuals can use interactive apps with audio and video capabilities to visit with their clinician for an even broader range of services. Providers also can evaluate beneficiaries who have audio phones only. These temporary changes will ensure that patients have access to physicians and other providers while remaining safely at home. Providers can bill for telehealth visits at the same rate as in-person visits. Telehealth visits include emergency department visits, initial nursing facility and discharge visits, home visits, and therapy services, which must be provided by a clinician that is allowed to provide telehealth. New as well as established patients now may stay at home and have a telehealth visit with their provider. CMS is allowing telehealth to fulfill many face-to-face visit requirements for clinicians to see their patients in inpatient rehabilitation facilities, hospice and home health. CMS is making it clear that clinicians can provide remote patient monitoring services to patients with acute and chronic conditions, and can be provided for patients with only one disease. For example, remote patient monitoring can be used to used to monitor a patient’s oxygen saturation levels using pulse oximetry. addition, CMS is allowing physicians to supervise their clinical staff using virtual technologies when appropriate, instead of requiring in-person presence.”

For additional background information on the waivers and rule changes, go to: https://www.cms.gov/newsroom/fact-sheets/additional-backgroundsweeping-regulatory-changes-help-us-healthcare-system-address-covid-19-patient

For more information on the COVID-19 waivers and guidance, and the Interim Final Rule, please go to the CMS COVID-19 flexibilities webpage: https://www.cms.gov/about-cms/emergency-preparedness-response-operations/current-emergencies/coronavirus-waivers

Healthcare Innovation will continue to update readers on developments in this area, as they emerge.

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