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Medicare chief says COVID-19 patient ethnicity data coming next month

Minorities have been hit especially hard by the disease

CMS plans to release findings early next month after determining that earlier preliminary data could be misleading.
CMS plans to release findings early next month after determining that earlier preliminary data could be misleading. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Data on the ethnicity of COVID-19 Medicare patients will likely be released in early May after federal officials analyze claims from the first month of cases, the head of Medicare and Medicaid told reporters Monday.

National attention on racial disparities in the coronavirus outbreak has intensified as states report increased infection rates among African Americans and other minorities. Public health advocates have called for better data and prevention strategies to slow the spread in vulnerable communities.

In early April, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma said the department would be releasing the data “very shortly.” But she told reporters Monday that because the Medicare billing code for COVID-19 only went live on April 1, the department is just now beginning to aggregate data that are sufficient to evaluate and publish. 

CMS plans to release findings early next month after determining that earlier preliminary data could be misleading. Verma cautioned that because many medical providers have up to a year to report claims, the data will still likely be incomplete.

“And as providers have been in some of these areas where we know that they’ve been hit hard, some of them have told us they have had some delays in submitting claims data as well,” she said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also released some data, but the department warned against drawing too many conclusions from incomplete numbers.

The announcement is one of several recent agency developments.

Nursing homes

On Sunday, CMS announced that nursing homes will have to report coronavirus cases directly to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as the department works to ramp up testing efforts that would allow states to lift social distancing restrictions. 

Nursing homes must also notify patients and their families if a COVID-19 case is confirmed at the facility. Verma said rules on the disclosures would be included in an upcoming package of regulations stemming from the economic aid package enacted last month, but she expects nursing homes to implement the requirements “right away.” 

Under the requirements, patients would know within 12 hours of a case being confirmed. CMS is considering a $1,000 weekly penalty or more for facilities that don’t report information to the CDC, with a grace period allowing nursing homes to become familiar with the new reporting system that would probably last a couple of weeks.

CMS is examining whether the results should be published on the department’s Nursing Home Compare site or somewhere else after CDC transmits the data. The department is also considering boosting payments for lab sample collections done by medical providers, similar to what the department did earlier this month for labs.

The new requirements caught some nursing home groups off guard.

LeadingAge, an advocacy organization of aging service providers, said the reporting requirements duplicated existing requirements of state and local health authorities, and said financial penalties are ill-advised as facilities struggle to cope with the pandemic. “The possibility of monetary penalty for failure to report as required at a time when skilled nursing facilities are strapped financially and facing staffing challenges due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic is unduly burdensome,” CEO Katie Smith Sloan said in a statement.

Elective procedures

The department also released guidance Sunday for providers to resume elective procedures. Verma said that data the department plans to release later Monday shows that most hospitals are reporting they have 50 percent available capacity or more.

“We understand that patients across the country still need medical care and not all these services can be accomplished by telehealth,” she said.

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