Nursing home residents account for at least one-third of COVID-19 deaths, and this disparity reveals numerous problems with infection control in institutional settings. As a result, many states are rethinking and restructuring their long-term services and supports (LTSS) programs.
A recent National Academy for State Health Policy (NASHP) annual conference session explored what states have learned during the current health crisis that could improve LTSS during and beyond the pandemic. State officials from Washington State, Wisconsin, and Ohio highlighted their states’ responses to the current crisis, emerging innovations, and prospects for restructuring LTSS in a post-COVID-19 era.
Maximizing the Flexibility of Home- and Community-Based Waiver Services
Washington State, home to the first nursing home to be ravaged by COVID-19 in the United States, immediately worked with federal partners to maximize the flexibility of home- and community-based waiver services following its first reported case. The state was among the first to receive approval from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) for its 1135 and 1115 Medicaid waivers, which provided enrollees with increased access to services during the COVID-19 pandemic and additional supports to LTSS workers. State officials noted that the presumptive eligibility measures incorporated into these new waivers ensured that individuals were able to access the LTSS they need without having to wait for their applications to be fully processed. This flexibility has helped minimize administrative burdens on eligibility workers as states face increased demands on their Medicaid programs.
Like Washington State, Wisconsin utilized waivers to implement much-needed flexibility within its home- and community-based services (HCBS) provided through the state’s 1915(c) Medicaid waiver. Importantly, the state expanded the ability of its HCBS agencies to provide waiver services remotely, including care coordination and day services. The state also modified service delivery for Medicaid acute primary services, allowing these to be delivered through telehealth and other technologies to comply with social distancing.
Leveraging State Resources to Prevent and Contain Outbreaks for High-Risk Individuals
To contain and prevent outbreaks, Ohio relied on the following guiding principles to support its nursing facilities throughout the pandemic:
- Leverage regional and local leadership to coordinate a unified response; and
- Provide resources to support nursing facilities, including additional health services and technical assistance. These efforts were supported by $314 million from the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), some of which was provided by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, that was specifically dedicated to Ohio skilled nursing facilities (SNFs). Each SNF in Ohio with six or more certified beds was eligible to receive a fixed distribution of $50,000 plus an additional $2,500 per bed.
To coordinate a unified state COVID-19 response, Gov. Mike DeWine and leaders from a major hospital chain created three health care zones divided among the state’s large metro areas to manage hospital capacity and maintain patient level of care during an anticipated surge in hospitalization services. State officials in the three health care zones paired nursing facilities with local hospitals to manage distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE) and to ensure that staff were well-equipped to treat patients.
Additionally, the state developed the following resources to support nursing facilities, staff, and patients throughout the pandemic:
- A toolkit developed by the Ohio Department of Aging, Department of Health, Department of Developmental Disabilities, and Department of Medicaid to assist nursing facilities with assessing residents and determining their care needs during a COVID-related surge in service utilization;
- Increased testing services for nursing facility staff as mandated by a Public Health Order signed by the director of the Ohio Department of Health and conducted by the Ohio National Guard over a period of two months; and
- Congregate Care Unified Response Team (CCURT) Bridge Team, composed of staff from the Ohio Department of Health and Ohio Department of Medicaid, to assist nursing home staff with decision making in emergency situations and coordinating facility communication with relevant state agencies, the Emergency Operations Center, health care zones, and hospitals in the area.
Many of the steps taken by Ohio state officials track with the principal recommendations issued by the CMS-appointed Coronavirus Commission Report for Safety and Quality in Nursing Homes, including establishing a statewide strategy for testing in nursing homes, coordinating with state and local leadership, leveraging resources to support the nursing home workforce, and assembling a long-term care emergency response team to evaluate and guide emergency care coordination. With these strategies and systems in place, Ohio and other states now have the infrastructure to better manage infection control in institutional settings for future public health emergencies.
While many of the policy changes highlighted here are temporary and in effect only during the pandemic, it is important to understand the impact of these changes on cost and quality of life to determine which, if any, should be retained after the pandemic. State officials from Washington State, Ohio, and Wisconsin reported they found the following flexibilities especially helpful:
- Presumptive eligibility for LTSS, so the state can initiate home- and community-based services as quickly as possible;
- Waiving plan signatures and self-attestation in favor of post-enrollment verification to ensure that enrollees receive timely supports; and
- Flexibilities for respite care for family caregivers, particularly those supporting individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, to reduce stress and burnout.
State officials noted it would be helpful to receive support from CMS in retaining these flexibilities. State officials also suggested that broader legislative changes to Medicaid, such as streamlining Medicaid authorities that support HCBS and making HCBS mandatory state plan services on par with nursing home care, would help reduce administrative complexity and facilitate rebalancing efforts.