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Legal Insights and Perspectives for the Healthcare Industry

Imagine you are the primary caretaker for your 94-year-old terminally ill mother who lives in your home while under hospice care during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Overwhelmed, exhausted, and drained—or even exposed to COVID-19—you discuss caregiver break with the hospice social worker who suggests “respite stay” for your mother but says Medicare only covers respite services up to five days, and only when care is furnished in an inpatient facility, like a nursing home. You don’t want that option given your mother’s heightened risk of contracting COVID-19 in a facility.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) issued a statement on March 9 related to actions the agency is taking to protect the health and safety of patients and providers. CMS urges providers to stay abreast of CDC guidance on the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19). As of March 9, CMS has issued COVID-19-specific guidance for hospice providers and nursing homes. Both guidance documents are linked in the CMS press release. Morgan Lewis will continue to monitor CMS statements related to COVID-19, including any regulatory relief for providers, as those statements are made available.

The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC), which advises Congress on Medicare issues, recently finalized and approved a series of recommended updates on January 16 that include payment reductions for hospice and home health.

Hospice

MedPAC recommendation: Hold Medicare base payment rates for hospice steady with no increase, and wage-adjust and reduce the hospice aggregate cap by 20%.

MedPAC addressed its concerns that “hospice payment rates may be higher than needed to ensure appropriate access to care” and recommended no payment update for hospice in fiscal year 2021. With respect to the aggregate cap, MedPAC recommended a wage-adjusted cap to improve equity across providers because high-wage-index areas are more likely to exceed the cap than low-wage-index areas (e.g., a hospice in San Francisco will reach the aggregate cap more quickly than one in Topeka, Kansas). MedPAC further asserted that a 20% cap reduction will improve payment accuracy by focusing payment reductions on hospices with long stays and high margins, characterized by MedPAC in its December meeting as “disproportionately for-profit, freestanding, urban, small and newer entrants into the Medicare program.” If adopted, this would be the first major aggregate cap change in many years.

Home Health

MedPAC recommendation: Reduce the calendar year (CY) 2020 Medicare base payment rate for home health agencies by 7%.

While acknowledging major revisions to home health payments in 2020, including a new unit of payment (Patient-Driven Groupings Model (PDGM)), the removal of therapy as a payment factor, and a new case mix system, MedPAC officials cautioned in the December meeting that Medicare has a history of overpaying for home health “since the PPS was established.” To that end, MedPAC commissioners voted in January to recommend that Congress reduce the CY 2020 Medicare base payment rate for home health agencies by 7% for CY 2021. Noting “home health payment adequacy indicators are positive,” MedPAC officials concluded that their recommended reduction “should not affect the willingness of providers to serve beneficiaries.” However, the agency also recognized that it “may increase cost pressures for some providers.”

What’s Next?

The recommendations will be included in the MedPAC’s March 2020 report to Congress on Medicare payment policy. Mandated by law, these reports hold great sway with Congress and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). However, neither Congress nor CMS is required to follow the MedPAC recommendations.