CMS Steps Up Nursing Home Inspections & Tightens Inspections In Response To Continuing COVID-19 Outbreaks & Deaths

April 3, 2020

Skilled nursing and other long term care facilities commonly known as “nursing homes”  (“LTC facilities”),[i] rehabilitation, assisted living, retirement and other facilities and communities caring for elderly, disabled, aged or other infirm patients or residents should use recently released tools to confirm the adequacy of and update their current COVID-19 and other infectious disease prevention and control and other key policies and practices with the latest Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) requirements and guidelines in light of recently announced changes to CMS nursing home inspection policies (the “Targeted Inspection Policy”)[iii] that target nursing homes with COVID-19 outbreaks or death for likely inspection announced March 23, 2020 including all existing requirements including new “recommendations” on nursing homes on COVID-19 preparedness and response announced April 2, 2020 (the “April Recommendations”).[iii]

Prompted by the continuing explosive growth in COVID-19 infection and deaths among nursing home residents and widespread deficiencies found during recent inspections at the Kirkland, Washington Life Care Center nursing homes (the “Kirkland Facilities”) made notorious by the death of 23 people and other nursing homes with COVID-19 inspections, the Targeted Inspection Policy and April Recommendations supplement and give more teeth to the CMS Guidance for Infection Control and Prevention of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) in Nursing Homes (the “3/3 Directive”)[iv] previously released by CMS released in conjunction with President Trump’s Proclamation on Declaring a National Emergency Concerning the Novel Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Outbreak (“COVID Emergency Declaration”) in response to concerns raised by reports of 19 COVID-19 related deaths at the Kirkland Facilities[v] on March 13, 2020.

Despite CMS and CDC’s efforts to reign in nursing home based COVID-19 infections and deaths by ordering nursing homes in the Nursing Home Directive to limit outside visitors and take other precautions outlined in the Nursing Home Directive and release of other guidance and tools,  nursing home based COVID-19 infections and deaths have continued to soar since March 13, 2020.[vi]  Meanwhile, onsite audits at the Kirkland Facilities and other facilities during March uncovered concerning deficiencies in the compliance at the Kirkland Facilities and many other nursing homes across the nation, as well as the need to address other weaknesses in current CMS and CDC practices and guidelines that the agencies determined were perpetuating practices that left nursing home residents exposed to COVID-19.

The new Targeted Inspection Policy and April Recommendations attempt to address these compliance and other concerns by updating, clarifying and supplementing previously established requirements and guidance, providing new tools for nursing homes and their inspectors to use to assess nursing home compliance with the latest standards and stepping up inspections and enforcement of nursing homes that experience COVID-19 outbreaks.[vii]

April Recommendations Send Warnings, Share New Tools

To this end, the just announced April Recommendations urge nursing homes to move quickly to clean up their practices by:

  • Urging nursing homes to immediately ensure that they are complying with all CMS and CDC guidance related to COVID-19 and other infection control and other requirements;
  • Urging nursing homes immediately to implement symptom screening for all staff, residents, and visitors – including temperature checks; [viii]
  • Urging nursing homes to ensure all staff are using appropriate PPE when interacting with patients and residents, to the extent PPE is available and per CDC guidance on conservation of PPE;
  • Confirming the availability of Medicare coverage of Medicare enrolled residents performed by laboratories and that facilities can allow laboratory personnel into facilities to perform the tests;
  • Urging State and local leaders to consider the needs of long term care facilities with respect to supplies of PPE and COVID-19 tests as nursing homes are a critical part of the healthcare system, and because of the ease of spread in long term care facilities and the severity of illness that occurs in residents with COVID-19,
  • Recommending facilities use separate staffing teams for residents to the best of their ability to avoid transmission within nursing homes in response to evidence that using staff shared between multiple facilities helped to fuel the COVID-19 outbreak in the Kirkland Facilities;
  • Consistent previously published guidance and resources on the CDC Isolation Sites and Alternative Care Sites webpage,[ix] urging nursing homes to work with State and local leaders to designate separate facilities or units within a facility to separate COVID-19 negative residents from COVID-19 positive residents and individuals with unknown COVID-19 status; and
  • Encouraging  facilities to use new targeted survey assessment tools adopted by CMS to guide inspections under the Targeted Inspection Program to self-assess and make appropriate adjustments to tighten their facility compliance with applicable requirements and guidelines promptly.

While characterized as “recommendations,” the reaffirmation in the April Recommendations that CMS intends to continue to follow the new Targeted Inspection Policy announced March 23, 2020 sends a strong message to all nursing homes that CMS does not view compliance with the recommendations as optional.

Under the Targeted Inspection Policy, CMS intends to conduct targeted inspections giving prioritization for Immediate Jeopardy investigations over recertification surveys for Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendment (CLIA) laboratories.

According to CMS’ announcement regarding the Targeted Inspection Policy, only the following types of federal inspections will be prioritized and conducted over the next few weeks:

  • Complaint inspections: State survey agencies will continue to conduct inspections related to complaints and facility-reported incidents that are triaged at the Immediate Jeopardy level. Inspectors will use a streamlined Infection Control review tool, regardless of the Immediate Jeopardy allegation.
  • Targeted Infection Control inspectionsFederal and state inspectors will conduct targeted infection control inspections of providers identified through CMS collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These inspectors will use a streamlined targeted review checklist to minimize the impact on provider activities, while ensuring providers are implementing actions to protect health and safety.  This will consist of both onsite and offsite inspections.
  • Self-AssessmentsThe Infection Control checklist referenced above will also be shared with providers and suppliers, to allow for self-assessment of their Infection Control plans.  This may be the best solution in some cases when there is a lack of personal protective equipment or state surveyors available.

During this time frame, CMS has indicated it will not conduct the following inspections:

  • Standard inspections for nursing homes, hospitals, home health agencies, intermediate care facilities for individuals with intellectual disabilities, and hospices; and
  • Revisit inspections not associated with Immediate Jeopardy.

In addition to redefining the priorities and scope for conducting inspections in the new Targeted Inspection Policy, CMS also refocused the inspection process that surveyors are expected to use when conducting inspections under the Targeted Inspection Policy which includes existing components of CMS’s infection control inspection process updated to include the latest CDC and CMS guidance. Under the Targeted Inspection Policy CMS and state inspectors will be guided by a newly developed and updated targeted assessment tool in assessing if certain facilities are prepared to meet CMS’s expectations for preventing the spread of COVID-19.  When gaps are identified, CMS warns that facilities will be required to take corrective actions to close the gaps.

Facilities are well advised to follow the recommendation of CMS to use the new surveyor tools to self-assess their own ability to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in accordance with applicable CMS requirements both to mitigate potential exposures to CMS sanctions and because CMS also is encouraging residents and families to be proactive about nursing home safety by among other things asking facility staff how the facility performed on its self-assessment.  Facilities and their leaders at all times should keep in mind the significant risks that they are likely to incur if significant deficiencies are found from an inspection.  While the March 23, 2020 announcement of the Targeted Inspection Policy states that CMS is not seeking to be punitive, but rather to respond to urgent issues while proactively ensuring providers are compliant with federal health and safety standards.  Accordingly, CMS has indicated that CMS intends to exercise enforcement discretion, unless Immediate Jeopardy situations arise.  Given the conclusions announced regarding Immediate Jeopardy findings found from the inspection at the Kirkland Facility, however, nursing homes are well advised to assume that the occurrence of COVID-19 related deaths or infections at their facilities might create a significant risk of Immediate Jeopardy findings with regard to their facilities which could result in significant sanctions.

CMS and other agencies continue to tailor their response to the COVID-19 outbreak.  In addition to verifying and maintaining their compliance with current COVID-19 and other CMS, CDC and state and local requirements and guidelines, nursing homes and their leaders also should continue to monitor emerging developments and guidance from CMS, CDC, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (“FEMA”) and their state and local regulatory bodies.

[i]  Nursing homes (also known as “skilled nursing facilities” under the Medicare program and “nursing facilities” under Medicaid; or “long-term care facilities”).

[ii]  Press release Trump Administration Issues Key Recommendations to Nursing Homes, State and Local Governments, CMS (2020), https://www.cms.gov/newsroom/press-releases/trump-administration-issues-key-recommendations-nursing-homes-state-and-local-governments (last visited Apr 2, 2020).

[iii] Fact sheet Kirkland, Washington Update and Survey Prioritization Fact Sheet, CMS (2020), https://www.cms.gov/newsroom/fact-sheets/kirkland-washington-update-and-survey-prioritization-fact-sheet (last visited Mar 31, 2020).

[iv]  Guidance For Infection Control and Prevention of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) in Nursing Homes, DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH & HUMAN SERVICES (2020), https://www.cms.gov/files/document/3-13-2020-nursing-home-guidance-covid-19.pdf (last visited Mar 30, 2020).

[iv]  Nursing home with the biggest cluster of covid-19 deaths to date in the U.S. thought it was facing an influenza outbreak, a spokesman says, https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/nursing-home-with-the-biggest-cluster-of-covid-19-deaths-to-date-in-the-us-thought-it-was-facing-an-influenza-outbreak-a-spokesman-says/ar-BB11fvgj (last visited Mar 30, 2020).

 [vi]  See e.g., Guidance for Infection Control and Prevention of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) in Nursing Homes (REVISED), CMS (2020), https://www.cms.gov/files/document/qso-20-14-nh-revised.pdf (last visited Apr 2, 2020).

[vii]  In the initial wave of surveys during the week of March 30, CMS reports finding 36 percent of facilities inspected in recent days did not follow proper hand washing guidelines and 25 percent failed to demonstrate proper use of personal protective equipment (PPE) required by longstanding federal regulations.  Press release Trump Administration Issues Key Recommendations to Nursing Homes, State and Local Governments, CMS (2020), https://www.cms.gov/newsroom/press-releases/trump-administration-issues-key-recommendations-nursing-homes-state-and-local-governments (last visited Apr 3, 2020).

[viii]  Facilities that have not already done so should consult with experienced legal counsel for assistance about the advisability of providing or posting notifications and/or securing consents to these screening procedures, advisable or recommended procedures regarding the collection, use, or disclosure of screenings or their results, or other safeguards to manage relevant privacy or other legal rights or risks.

[ix]  See Alternate Care Sites and Isolation Sites (March 25, 2020) https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/healthcare-facilities/alternative-care-sites.html. Also see Topic Collection: Alternate Care Sites (including shelter medical care) https://asprtracie.hhs.gov/technical-resources/48/alternate-care-sites-including-shelter-medical-care/47.

More Information

We hope this update is helpful. In addition to this update, the author also has prepared a more comprehensive discussion of these concerns scheduled for publication by the American Bar Association Health Publication in April, 2020.  To request access for a prepublication unofficial manuscript of that upcoming publication or of more information about the these or other health or other legal, management or public policy developments, please contact the author Cynthia Marcotte Stamer via e-mail or via telephone at (214) 452 -8297.

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About the Author

Recognized by her peers as a Martindale-Hubble “AV-Preeminent” (Top 1%) and “Top Rated Lawyer” with special recognition LexisNexis® Martindale-Hubbell® as “LEGAL LEADER™ Texas Top Rated Lawyer” in Health Care Law and Labor and Employment Law; as among the “Best Lawyers In Dallas” for her work in the fields of “Labor & Employment,” “Tax: ERISA & Employee Benefits,” “Health Care” and “Business and Commercial Law” by D Magazine, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer is a practicing attorney board certified in labor and employment law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and management consultant, author, public policy advocate and lecturer widely known for 30+ years of health industry and other management work, public policy leadership and advocacy, coaching, teachings, and publications. As a significant part of her work, Ms. Stamer has worked extensively on pandemic, business and other crisis planning, preparedness and response for more than 30 years.

Scribe for the ABA JCEB Annual Agency Meeting with OCR, Vice Chair of the ABA International Section Life Sciences Committee, past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group and the ABA RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Group, Ms. Stamer is most widely recognized for her decades of pragmatic, leading edge work, scholarship and thought leadership on health and other privacy and data security and other health industry legal, public policy and operational concerns.  Ms. Stamer’s work throughout her 30 plus year career has focused heavily on working with health care and managed care, health and other employee benefit plan, insurance and financial services and other public and private organizations and their technology, data, and other service providers and advisors domestically and internationally with legal and operational compliance and risk management, performance and workforce management, regulatory and public policy and other legal and operational concerns.  As a part of this work, she has continuously and extensively worked with domestic and international health plans, their sponsors, fiduciaries, administrators, and insurers; managed care and insurance organizations; hospitals, health care systems, clinics, skilled nursing, long term care, rehabilitation and other health care providers and facilities; medical staff, accreditation, peer review and quality committees and organizations; billing, utilization management, management services organizations, group purchasing organizations; pharmaceutical, pharmacy, and prescription benefit management and organizations; consultants; investors; EHR, claims, payroll and other technology, billing and reimbursement and other services and product vendors; products and solutions consultants and developers; investors; managed care organizations, self-insured health and other employee benefit plans, their sponsors, fiduciaries, administrators and service providers, insurers and other payers, health industry advocacy and other service providers and groups and other health and managed care industry clients as well as federal and state legislative, regulatory, investigatory and enforcement bodies and agencies.

This  involvement encompasses helping health care systems and organizations, group and individual health care providers, health plans and insurers, health IT, life sciences and other health industry clients prevent, investigate, manage and resolve  sexual assault, abuse, harassment and other organizational, provider and employee misconduct and other performance and behavior; manage Section 1557, Civil Rights Act and other discrimination and accommodation, and other regulatory, contractual and other compliance; vendors and suppliers; contracting and other terms of participation, medical billing, reimbursement, claims administration and coordination, Medicare, Medicaid, CHIP, Medicare/Medicaid Advantage, ERISA and other payers and other provider-payer relations, contracting, compliance and enforcement; Form 990 and other nonprofit and tax-exemption; fundraising, investors, joint venture, and other business partners; quality and other performance measurement, management, discipline and reporting; physician and other workforce recruiting, performance management, peer review and other investigations and discipline, wage and hour, payroll, gain-sharing and other pay-for performance and other compensation, training, outsourcing and other human resources and workforce matters; board, medical staff and other governance; strategic planning, process and quality improvement; meaningful use, EHR, HIPAA and other technology,  data security and breach and other health IT and data; STARK, ant kickback, insurance, and other fraud prevention, investigation, defense and enforcement; audits, investigations, and enforcement actions; trade secrets and other intellectual property; crisis preparedness and response; internal, government and third-party licensure, credentialing, accreditation, HCQIA and other peer review and quality reporting, audits, investigations, enforcement and defense; patient relations and care;  internal controls and regulatory compliance; payer-provider, provider-provider, vendor, patient, governmental and community relations; facilities, practice, products and other sales, mergers, acquisitions and other business and commercial transactions; government procurement and contracting; grants; tax-exemption and not-for-profit; privacy and data security; training; risk and change management; regulatory affairs and public policy; process, product and service improvement, development and innovation, and other legal and operational compliance and risk management, government and regulatory affairs and operations concerns. to establish, administer and defend workforce and staffing, quality, and other compliance, risk management and operational practices, policies and actions; comply with requirements; investigate and respond to Board of Medicine, Health, Nursing, Pharmacy, Chiropractic, and other licensing agencies, Department of Aging & Disability, FDA, Drug Enforcement Agency, OCR Privacy and Civil Rights, Department of Labor, IRS, HHS, DOD, FTC, SEC, CDC and other public health, Department of Justice and state attorneys’ general and other federal and state agencies; JCHO and other accreditation and quality organizations; private litigation and other federal and state health care industry actions: regulatory and public policy advocacy; training and discipline; enforcement;  and other strategic and operational concerns.

Author of “Privacy and the Pandemic Workshop” for the Association of State and Territorial Health Plans, as well as a multitude of other health industry matters, workforce and health care change and crisis management and other highly regarded publications and presentations, the American Bar Association (ABA) International Section Life Sciences Committee Vice Chair, a Scribe for the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits (JCEB) Annual OCR Agency Meeting and a former Council Representative, Past Chair of the ABA Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, former Vice President and Executive Director of the North Texas Health Care Compliance Professionals Association, past Board President of Richardson Development Center (now Warren Center) for Children Early Childhood Intervention Agency, past North Texas United Way Long Range Planning Committee Member, and past Board Member and Compliance Chair of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas, and a Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, Ms. Stamer also shares her extensive publications and thought leadership as well as leadership involvement in a broad range of other professional and civic organizations. For more information about Ms. Stamer or her health industry and other experience and involvements, see www.cynthiastamer.com or contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at (214) 452-8297 or via e-mail here.

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