Medicare slow to fix equity issue for seniors’ access to at-home COVID test kits

Published on Feb. 7 in Rhode Island News Today

Today home test kits were made available in a variety of ways – but, for Medicare recipients, it was a different story, being forced to go thru a different purchasing and payment process than those having private insurance, or no insurance. That process required the oldest and most at-risk population to take more than several steps, put up their own money, do a lot of paperwork, to seek reimbursement.

The White House made changes in testing so that at-home tests are now fully covered by health insurances. Those insured can pick up their test kits in a store and have them paid for at the time of purchase by their insurance, at no cost to the person. They aren’t required to visit their physician or get a prescription to obtain the free test. They have a limit of 8 test kits per month.

But, when the program began, this was not the plan for those insured through the government’s Medicare and Medicare Advantage plans.

Red Tape… Upfront Charges for COVID-1

Jane, a 65-year old Medicare beneficiary from Warwick went through the steps to get a kit after a relative she had seen found out she was exposed to COVID.  Before Medicare announced easing up on the purchasing process of COVID-19 test kits, she expressed frustrations to this writer about the regulatory hoops she faced because she was on Medicare – purchasing the test kits and getting reimbursed for the upfront charges. “First, I had to request a prescription from my physician and say that I had either been exposed to someone who had COVID, or I was having symptoms, myself,” recalls the frustrated Medicare beneficiary.  “Once my physician sent the prescription over to CVS, I was notified that it would take a couple of days before I could pick up the kits and that I would only be given two kits per prescription”, she fumed, knowing that sometimes it takes 4 or 5 days of testing to test positive, but was only eligible to receive two, and she might have to go through the whole process again in a few days.

“Three days later CVS finally left me a message saying these kits were in. I used the drive-up window for pickup and the cashier asked me for $46,” Jane remembered.  “When questioning this charge, a pharmacist came to the window to assist and told me that I had to pay for the kits upfront and then seek reimbursement,” she added.

Paying for the kits, Jane went home, and called Blue Cross, her Medicare supplement company and was told she needed to request a copy of the prescription which took hours to finally request with the back and forth phone calls to her busy doctor’s office. It was almost two weeks later she finally got a copy of the receipt detailing her $46 payment for the kits. She was then able to upload the copy of the prescription and a copy of her receipt to a BCBS reimbursement screen on her computer (or she could have printed the form out and mailed the whole package in). At press time, Jane is still waiting for her reimbursement, being told it will take from 4 to 6 weeks to receive a check.

It’s better late than never, says Jane, when she heard that Medicare would now cover free over-the-counter COVID-19 tests. “Not everyone can put out $46 and wait two months to get it back, home health tests were made available in a variety of ways – but, for Medicare recipients, there was a different process. More concerning was all the steps I had to take to complete the process they had originally intended for us to do. How many people would really complete all those steps?” she says. “We talk a lot about equity, but seniors need equitable healthcare processes, too.”

Just days ago, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) announced that beneficiaries in either Original Medicare or Medicare Advantage will be able to get over-the-counter COVID-19 tests at no cost starting in early spring, estimated to be in April. Under the new CMS initiative, Medicare beneficiaries will be able to access up to eight over-the-counter COVID-19 tests per month for free. Tests will be available through eligible pharmacies and other participating entities. This policy will apply to COVID-19 over-the-counter tests approved or authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). A prescription will not be required.

CMS Unveils New Medicare Benefit

According to CMS, this new initiative will enable payment from Medicare directly to participating pharmacies and other participating entities to allow Medicare beneficiaries to pick up tests at no cost. This is the first time that Medicare has covered an over-the-counter test at no cost to beneficiaries.

CMS’s announcement follows last month’s announcement that the Biden-Harris Administration would be requiring commercial health insurance companies to cover at-home COVID tests for free.

Until the new benefit kicks in, Medicare beneficiaries can access free tests through a number of channels established by CMS, too. Now, they can request four free over-the-counter tests for home delivery at covidtests.gov. Or beneficiaries can access COVID-19 tests through health care providers at over 20,000 free testing sites nationwide. Many cities and towns are also giving out free test kits at drive-up handout programs as the state receives supplies.

CMS’s Feb. 3 statement noted that Medicare beneficiaries can also access lab-based PCR tests and antigen tests performed by a laboratory when the test is ordered by a physician, non-physician practitioner, pharmacist, or other authorized health care professional at no cost. In addition to accessing a COVID-19 lab test ordered by a health care professional, people with Medicare can also already access one lab-performed test without an order, also without cost sharing, during the public health emergency, says CMS.

In addition, CMS says that Medicare Advantage plans may offer coverage and payment for over-the-counter COVID-19 tests as a supplemental benefit in addition to covering Medicare Part A and Part B benefits. Medicare beneficiaries covered by Medicare Advantage should check with their plan to see if it includes such a benefit.

Finally, all Medicare beneficiaries with Part B are eligible for the new benefit, whether enrolled in a Medicare Advantage plan or not.

“AARP applauds today’s announcement that will guarantee access to at-home over-the-counter COVID-19 tests at no cost for Medicare’s 64 million beneficiaries and we thank [Health and Human Resources]Secretary Becerra and CMS Administrator Brooks-LaSure for their diligence in addressing this issue. Expanded access to no-cost testing will help protect seniors who have been hit hardest by the pandemic and ensure they can remain connected with their loved ones and community.,” says AARP Executive vice president and Chief Advocacy and Engagement Officer Nancy LeaMond in a statement issued with CMS’s Feb. 3rd announcement of the new Medicare benefit.

“Every American should have an easy way to get at-home COVID tests. We know that people 65 and older are at much greater risk of serious illness and death from this disease – they need equal access to tools that can help keep them safe. The cost of paying for tests and the time needed to find free testing options are barriers that could discourage Medicare beneficiaries from getting tested, leading to greater social isolation and continued spread of the virus, adds LeaMond.

Successfully Advocating the Seniors

Last month, Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) along with 17 of their  Senate colleagues including Rhode Island Democratic Senators Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse wrote to HHS Secretary Becerra and  CMS Administrator Brooks-LaSure urging them to expand Medicare coverage of free at-home rapid COVID-19 testing.

Aging groups also joined the Senators in pushing Medicare to offer the new testing kick benefit.  “It is clear that regular testing is a crucial part of managing the spread of COVID-19. That’s why AARP has been calling for coverage of at-home tests, says AARP’s LeaMond, noting that the nation’s largest aging advocacy group “will continue to watch for details about when and how at-home COVID tests are made available to those in Medicare.”

Thankfully CMS quickly heeded their calls.

For more information, please see these Frequently Asked Questions, https://www.cms.gov/files/document/covid-19-over-counter-otc-tests-medicare-frequently-asked-questions.pdf (PDF)

Stay tuned for free N95 masks to be made available to all coming up soon.

It’s time. Staff vaccinations required for nursing homes as 10 RI facilities see new COVID cases

Published in Rhode Island News Today on August 24, 2021

With the COVID-19 Delta variant spiking across the country especially among the unvaccinated, last Wednesday, President Joe Biden announced at an afternoon address at the White House that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will require nursing homes to require all workers to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as a condition for those facilities to continue receiving federal Medicare and Medicaid funding.

According to federal data, of the 1.6 million nursing home workers across the  nation, about 540,000 — 40 percent of the work force — are unvaccinated.  

Since the spread of the Delta variant, there has been a rise in the number of COVID-19 cases, especially in those states that have low rates of vaccinated workers. Both the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) data confirm a strong relationship between the increase of COVID-19 cases among nursing home residents and the rate of vaccination among nursing home workers.

These new emergency federal regulations, crafted  by CDC and CMS, would apply to nearly 15,000 nursing home facilities, which employ approximately 1.6 million workers and serve approximately 1.3 million nursing home residents.

Rhode Island Gov. Dan J. McKee, along with other states, has already taken a similar step to protect nursing home residents by requiring all staff to be vaccinated and the new federal mandate will ensure consistent and equitable standards throughout the country. 

At a COVID-19 update held at the state the state capitol in early August, McKee called for the new vaccine mandate (as a term of employment) to take effect on Oct. 1st.

On August 23rd, Pfizer’s vaccine was fully approved by the FDA. Approvals of Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and booster shots are expected to follow soon.

According to CMS, the new mandate is a key component of protecting the health and safety of nursing home residents and staff by ensuring that all nursing home staff receive COVID-19 vaccinations. Over the past several months, millions of vaccinations have been administered to nursing home residents and staff, and these vaccines have shown to help prevent COVID-19 and have proven to be effective against the Delta variant.

“Keeping nursing home residents and staff safe is our priority. The data are clear that higher levels of staff vaccination are linked to fewer outbreaks among residents, many of whom are at an increased risk of infection, hospitalization, or death,” said CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure in a statement announcing the new vaccine mandate.  “We will continue to work closely with our partners at the CDC, long-term care associations, unions, and other stakeholders to advance policies that keep residents and staff safe. As we advance these new requirements, we’ll work with nursing homes to address staff and resident concerns with compassion and by following the science,” she said.

CMS says that it’s requiring all nursing home staff to be vaccinated is in keeping with the federal agency’s authority to establish requirements to ensure the health and safety of individuals receiving care from all providers and suppliers participating in the Medicare and Medicaid programs. About 62% of nursing home staff are currently vaccinated as of August 8 nationally, and vaccination among staff at the state level ranges from a high of 88% to a low of 44%. The emergence of the Delta variant in the United States has driven a rise in cases among nursing home residents from a low of 319 cases on June 27, to 2,696 cases on August 8, with many of the recent outbreaks occurring in facilities located in areas of the United States with the lowest staff vaccination rates.

Last May, CMS issued new regulations that require Long-Term Care (LTC) facilities and Intermediate Care Facilities for Individuals with Intellectual Disabilities (ICFs/IID) to educate residents, clients, and staff about COVID-19 vaccination and, when available, offer a COVID-19 vaccine to these individuals. These regulations also mandate that LTC facilities report weekly COVID-19 vaccination data for residents and staff to the CDC’s National Healthcare Safety Network (NHSN).

CMS will continue to analyze vaccination data for residents and staff from the CDC’s National Healthcare Safety Network (NHSN) data as an additional method of compliance monitoring and in keeping with current practice, as well as deploy the Quality Improvement Organizations (QIOs)—operated under the Medicare Quality Improvement Program—to educate and engage nursing homes with low rates of vaccinations.

CMS strongly encourages nursing home residents and staff members to get vaccinated as the Agency undergoes the necessary steps in the rule-making process over the course of the next several weeks. CMS expects nursing home operators to act in the best interest of residents and their staff by complying with these new rules, which the Agency expects to issue next month.  CMS also expects nursing home operators to use all available resources to support employees in getting vaccinated, including employee education and vaccination clinics, as they work to meet this staff vaccination requirement.

Rhode Island Long Term Care Facilities with new cases in the last 14 days (as of 8/14/2020):

These RI nursing homes are on the RI Dept. of Health list with increased cases –

Alpine – Coventry – 5-9 cases

Avalone – Warwick – less than 5

St. Antoine – North Smithfield – less than 5

Woonsocket Health – Woonsocket – less than 5

All America Assisted Living – Warwick – less than 5

Anchor Bay – Johnston – less than 5

Smithfield Woods – Smithfield – less than 5

Sunrise House – Providence – less than 5

Bridge at Cherry Hill – Johnston – 5-9

Tockwotton – Providence – less than 5

AARP Strongly Supports Biden’s Vaccine Mandate in Nursing Homes 

In response to the Biden Administration directing all nursing homes that receive Medicare or Medicaid funds to require vaccinations for all staff, Nancy A. LeaMond, AARP Executive Vice President and Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer, stated:  

“The Administration’s announcement today requiring vaccinations for nursing home staff is a significant step in the fight against this pandemic. Around 30% of COVID deaths have been among residents and staff in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, even though they represent less than 1% of the population. As the new variants are emerging, facilities cannot let preventable problems be repeated. Increasing vaccination rates in nursing homes is one of the most common sense and powerful actions we can take to protect the lives of vulnerable older adults.”

The AARP Public Policy Institute, in collaboration with the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University in Ohio, created the dashboard to provide snapshots of the virus’ infiltration into nursing homes and impact on nursing home residents and staff, with the goal of identifying specific areas of concern at the national and state levels in a timely manner.

Don’t Just Single Out Nursing Homes 

“We appreciate the Administration’s efforts to increase COVID-19 vaccinations in long term care. Unfortunately, this action does not go far enough. The government should not single out one provider group for mandatory vaccinations. Vaccination mandates for health care personnel should be applied to all health care settings. Without this, nursing homes face a disastrous workforce challenge,” warns Mark Parkinson, president and CEO of the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living (AHCA/NCAL) 

“Focusing only on nursing homes will cause vaccine hesitant workers to flee to other health care providers and leave many centers without adequate staff to care for residents. It will make an already difficult workforce shortage even worse. The net effect of this action will be the opposite of its intent and will affect the ability to provide quality care to our residents. We look forward to working with the Administration in the coming days to develop solutions to overcome this challenge,” says Parkinson.

The full Nursing Home COVID-19 Dashboard is available at www.aarp.org/nursinghomedashboard. For more information on how COVID is impacting nursing homes and AARP’s advocacy on this issue, visit www.aarp.org/nursinghomes.

AARP: Making Seniors a Priority in Getting COVID-19 Vaccines

Published in Pawtucket Times on January 11, 2021

Last month, a statement the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH) announced recommendations from the Rhode Island COVID-19 Vaccine Subcommittee for hospitals that vaccinations would begin for frontline hospital workers against COVID-19. This recommendation was made at an emergency meeting of the Subcommittee. RIDOH has accepted this recommendation and has communicated to hospitals that they may begin vaccinating these workers, as soon as vaccine arrives.

Two doses will be needed for someone to be fully immunized. Second doses will start arriving in Rhode Island in roughly three weeks. Rhode Island expects to receive approximately 10,000 doses of Pfizer vaccine the first week it is available, and approximately 19,000 doses of Moderna vaccine the first week it is available. Vaccine will come to Rhode Island in weekly allotments over the coming months, says RIDOH.

Epidemiologists, primary care providers, pharmacists, pediatricians, long-term care advocates, ethicists, nonprofit leaders, school leaders, faith leaders serve on Rhode Island’s COVID-19 Vaccine Subcommittee.  This group is responsible for performing an independent review of the process for evaluating the safety and efficacy of the vaccine. The Subcommittee is advising RIDOH on how to prioritize distribution of the vaccine to ensure that it is done equitably, and in a way that best protects the State as a whole.

At press time, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted an Emergency Use Authorization for a COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer, and a vaccine made Moderna.

Making COVID-19 Vaccine Available Throughout the Ocean State

“After a rigorous scientific review, we know that COVID-19 vaccine is safe. We also know that it is one of the most effective vaccines ever developed,” announced Director of Health Nicole Alexander-Scott, MD, MPH in the Dec. 14 statement. “In the coming weeks and months, as vaccine becomes more available, getting vaccinated will be one of the most powerful things you can do to keep yourself and the people you love safe from COVID-19. We are going to work to ensure that every person in every community in Rhode Island has access to the vaccine, especially those communities hardest hit by this virus,” she said.

Added, Philip Chan, MD, MS, Consultant Medical Director for RIDOH’s Division of Preparedness, Response, Infectious Disease, and Emergency Medical Services, “We have never had a vaccine that has been – or will be – more closely monitored than the COVID-19 vaccine.”

“Teams of scientists at the national level have been scrutinizing thousands of pages of technical data for weeks, focusing on vaccine effectiveness, safety, and the manufacturing process, and our own local review has happened here in Rhode Island. I absolutely plan on getting vaccinated when it is my turn.,” said Chan.

According to RIDOH, the national vaccine trials for the COVID-19 vaccine involved tens of thousands of people to make sure they meet safety standards and people of different ages, races, and ethnicities. There were no serious safety concerns. (When vaccinated against COVID-19, people do sometimes develop post-vaccination symptoms such as soreness at the spot of the shot and headaches. This is normal, healthy, and expected. It means your immune system is working to develop protection.) Several systems are in place to do ongoing safety monitoring of the vaccine.

As of January 8, the last update on RIDOH’s COVID-19 Data Tracker, out of the 31,541 does administered, 29,743 have been vaccinated with their first of two doses, only 1,798 people were fully vaccinated with two doses.

Don’t look for the roll out of COVID-19 to take days or weeks, it will take months to complete, warns RIDOH officials. Phase 1 of the vaccination program is expected to run through late March.  At press time, the state is currently working its way through the top three tiers of this phase, including hospital staff, healthcare workers, EMS personnel, home health and hospice workers, nursing home staff and residents, high-risk incarcerated persons, first responders, school nurses, and even hard-hit communities.

Finally, those in the final two tiers of Phase 1 to be vaccinated include outpatient providers (Dentists, primary care), Dialysis Center workers and death care professionals, expected to begin Jan. 25, and adults over 75 years of age, expected to start by February.

Phase 2 is expected to kick-in by late March.  A number of factors are being considered to target the distribution of COVID-19 vaccinations a person’s age, high-risk conditions, occupation and geography.  

Make Older Rhode Islanders a Priority in Receiving Vaccines

AARP Rhode Island, representing 132,000 older Rhode Islanders, calls for Governor Gina Raimondo to make the state’s seniors a priority in its time-line for on distributing COVID-19 vaccines.  The Jan. 8 correspondence, cosigned by Kathleen Connell, State Director of AARP Rhode Island and Phil Zarlengo, the group’s State President, called on Raimondo “to increase COVID vaccination transparency,” as it relates to older Rhode Islanders.

AARP Rhode Island asked the Governor to include the numbers of Rhode Islanders vaccinated by age and other criteria on a daily/weekly basis on RIDOH’s COVID-19 Data Tracker.  Specially, the largest state-wide advocacy group called for the state’s website to include:

·         the numbers and percentages of older Rhode Islanders by race and ethnicity, that have been vaccinated:

·         the number of Rhode Islanders vaccinated and their age demographics on a daily/weekly basis;

·         a clear and easy-to-understand schedule of vaccine administration for all populations; and the process by which individuals may seek and obtain a vaccine;

·          the numbers and percentages of long-term care residents, by facility, that have received their first and second doses of vaccines;

·         the numbers and percentages of long-term care staff, by facility, that have received their first and second doses of vaccines.

While acknowledging the many challenges the state officials must tackle in determining how to equitably, safely and effectively distribute COVID-19 vaccines, Connell and Zarlengo call for Rhode Islanders age 50 and older to be made a priority in receiving a vaccine.

“The data clearly show that the older people are, the higher risk they face if they contract COVID-19.  Given that older individuals are at a greater risk of death from COVID-19, we strongly urge you to ensure that Rhode Islanders age 50 and older are prioritized to receive a vaccine.  These individuals must be given priority access to vaccines, in addition to those individuals receiving care in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities,” say Connell and  Zarlengo.

“For years, the long-term care system has been shifting away from institutional care in nursing homes to home and community-based settings (HCBS). Here in Rhode Island, a significant percentage of long-term services and supports are provided in the home or settings such as assisted living facilities, residential care facilities, veterans homes, and in individuals’ own homes,” says Connell and Zarlengo, stressing that this why the state should prioritize seniors, especially those with underlying conditions, receiving care in these additional settings and the staff providing care, to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

Finally, AARP Rhode Island’s correspondence urges the Governor to ensure that all providers are fully complying with established state procedures for vaccine distribution and prioritization. “We urge you to investigate and take swift action against anyone who attempts to commit fraud, including by inappropriately selling the vaccine or intentionally providing vaccines to those who do not meet qualifying criteria in an attempt to circumvent the distribution process.”

From AARP’s National

 “We urge public health officials at the state and local level, as they decide on vaccine allocations, to rely on the evidence and make plans backed by science.  As production is ramping up, AARP is advocating hard to ensure every older American who wants to get the vaccine can get it.  It’s also vital that distribution plans for authorized vaccines are smoothly implemented.  There’s no time to waste: it’s time for full-scale mobilization, and any delays or early bottlenecks in distribution systems need to be addressed urgently,” says AARP Executive Vice President and Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer Nancy A. LeaMond in a Dec. 28 statement.