CMS implements temporary regulatory changes to aid COVID-19 response


The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has announced a wide range of temporary regulatory moves aimed at helping hospitals and health systems handle the surge of COVID-19 patients.

Seema Verma, CMS administrator

Seema Verma

“We are waiving a wide and unprecedented range of regulatory requirements to equip the American health care system with maximum flexibility to deal with an influx of cases,” CMS Administrator Seema Verma said during a March 30 conference call with reporters. “Many health care systems may not need these waivers and they shouldn’t use them if the situation doesn’t warrant it. But the flexibilities are there if it does. At a time of crisis, no regulatory barriers should stand in the way of patient care.”

Among the changes is an expansion of the venues in which health care systems and hospitals can provide services.

Federal regulations call for hospitals to provide services within their own buildings, raising concerns as to whether there will be enough capacity to handle the anticipated COVID-19 caseload.

“Under CMS’s temporary new rules, hospitals will be able to transfer patients to outside facilities, such as ambulatory surgery centers, inpatient rehabilitation hospitals, hotels, and dormitories, while still receiving hospital payments under Medicare,” the CMS stated in a fact sheet highlighting the regulatory changes.

Ambulatory surgery centers will have the option to contract with local health care systems to provide hospital services or they can enroll and bill as hospitals during the emergency, the fact sheet noted. They will be able to perform hospital services such as cancer procedures, trauma surgeries, and other essential surgeries.

CMS also is waiving the limit on the number of beds a doctor-owned hospital can have.

For Medicare patients who may be homebound, CMS will now pay for a laboratory technician to make a home visit to collect a specimen for COVID-19 testing, and hospitals will be able to conduct testing in homes or other community-based settings under certain circumstances.

In addition, CMS is taking actions aimed at expanding the health care workforce.

For instance, the agency is issuing a “blanket waiver” that allows hospitals to provide benefits to medical staff, including multiple daily meals, laundry service for personal clothing, or child care services while the staff is at the hospital providing patient care, according to the fact sheet. Teaching hospitals will also receive more flexibility in using residents to provide health care services under the virtual direction of a teaching physician, who may be available through audio/video technology.

CMS also is temporarily eliminating paperwork requirements and allowing greater use of verbal orders so that clinicians can spend more time on direct patient care.

Another change announced deals with the Merit-based Incentive Payment System (MIPS) track of the Quality Payment Program. Clinicians affected by the pandemic can request reweighting of the MIPS performance categories for the 2019 performance year, which will allow clinicians who are unable to submit MIPS data in the current submission period to request reweighting and receive a neutral payment adjustment in the 2021 payment year.

CMS also added an option for calendar year 2020 in the improvement activity category. Clinicians will receive credit if they are participating in a clinical trial that uses a drug or biological product to treat a COVID-19 patient and they report the findings to a clinical trial repository or registry.

On the device/equipment side, Medicare will cover respiratory-related devices and equipment “for any medical reason determined by clinicians,” according to the fact sheet, rather than only under certain circumstances.

And on the telehealth side, CMS is expanding the number of services that it will pay for via telehealth by more than 80, including ED visits, initial nursing facility and discharge visits, and home visits, which must be provided by a clinician that is allowed to provide telehealth. CMS will allow the use of commonly available interactive apps with audio and video, as well as audio-only phones.

CMS noted that providers can report telehealth for new and established patients, even if the billing code is specific for established patients only. CMS also has removed requirements regarding documentation of medical history and/or physical examination in the medical records during the COVID-19 crisis to help facilitate the use of telehealth for evaluation and management visits.

To help practices financially, providers who participate in Medicare fee-for-service will be able to request up to a 100% advance on their Medicare payments for a 3-month period. Repayment begins 120 days after the advance payment is received and must be paid within 210 days of the payment. Repayment will be automatically deducted from claims processed.

The agency also included new exceptions to the Stark Law. Some examples include the ability for hospitals to pay above or below fair market value to rent equipment or receive services from physicians and the allowance of health care providers to provide financial assistance to each other to ensure continuity of operations.

*This story was updated on 4/17/2020.

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