COVID has drastically altered the future of home health care
Early in the pandemic, stories of exhausted ICU nurses went viral and people around the world applauded our brave medical providers. During the delta and omicron waves, hospital beds filled once again, and fatigued hospital staff left to seek out new careers. Today, the healthcare industry is confronted with increasing workforce shortages and skyrocketing inflation, all while contending with new challenges that persist as the nation moves on from the worst of COVID-19.
While the pandemic has largely been measured in available hospital beds and ICU counts, home health has been a key part of limiting unnecessary hospital stays and keeping capacity open for those who needed it most. Care at home also benefitted vulnerable patients, allowing them to stay safe at home and out of the hospital while being much more cost-effective — a vital option for many families, especially in today’s endemic world.
Recognizing this immense need for a variety of health care options during the pandemic, lawmakers championed bold financial and regulatory efforts, including PPP loans, Provider Relief Funds, regulatory waivers and the expanded use of telehealth. Now, the industry needs these solutions to continue, coupled with more big ideas that will save critical health care providers and benefit patients in the long term.
As inflation continues to balloon, home health care costs are becoming more unmanageable and home health agencies are sinking into a deeper financial hole, with no relief in sight. Further burdened by complex government regulations, the home care and hospice industry is at a crossroads.
Now is not the time for government regulators to implement rate reductions. Rather, we need comprehensive policy discussions to ensure patients seeking care at home continue to have access to high-quality home health and hospice providers.
For instance, services in rural counties across Texas — which make up approximately two-thirds of the state’s counties — are losing supplemental rural payments designed to support services that are hard to come by in these areas. Furthermore, regulatory waivers meant to reduce provider costs and burdens are headed for the chopping block after the public health emergency (PHE) declaration officially ends, all while Medicare home health payments could be reduced next year.
Federal lawmakers also have the opportunity to support modernizing legislation such as the Choose Home Care Act and the Home Health Emergency Access to Telehealth (HEAT) Act, which will expand care choices for Medicare beneficiaries post-hospitalization and allow qualified home health providers to safely care for eligible patients in the comfort of their own home, saving Medicare an estimated $925 million annually. The HEAT Act will also allow home health providers to care for patients via telehealth when appropriate and ensure providers receive payment for the efforts taken to protect patients and their employees.
For many Americans, home health is the only option to meet their care needs, and a strong home care and hospice industry is vital to supporting our health care system as a whole. Additional burdens and disincentives for home health will further challenge an industry that has never backed down from providing necessary medical care during a pandemic.
We need regulators to not impose further reductions and Congress to act, protecting patients and recognizing the vital work home care nurses, therapists, aides and the entire industry provides, so millions of Americans can continue receiving the comfortable, compassionate care they deserve.
Rachel Hammon is a registered nurse and the executive director of the Texas Association of Home Care & Hospice.
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