Although the concrete details are unknown, the federal government appears to be taking steps toward distributing point-of-care COVID-19 diagnostic tests to home health agencies, which have largely been prioritized behind skilled nursing facilities (SNFs) and other congregate aging services providers.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced on Aug. 27 that it — along with the Department of Defense (DOD) — had secured 150 million rapid point-of-care COVID-19 tests as part of a $760 million contract with multinational medical device manufacturer Abbott.
At the time, HHS officials said the plan is to eventually distribute that stockpile to the places with the most urgent testing needs.
“By strategically distributing 150 million of these tests to where they’re needed most, we can track the virus like never before and protect millions of Americans at risk in especially vulnerable situations,” HHS Secretary Alex Azar said in the announcement.
The government’s contract with Abbott is for the company’s BinaxNOW COVID-19 point-of-care test, which recently received emergency-use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The tests use the nasal-swab method and typically deliver results in about 15 minutes, without the use of specialized computer equipment, according to HHS. Each test is about the size of a credit card and priced at about $5 per unit.
In terms of distribution targets, HHS officials specifically called out schools and organizations that serve special-needs populations.
But in a call with members of the media, the department’s Adm. Brett Giroir noted that means assisted-living facilities, senior centers and home health staff, too.
“The administration will begin distributing BinaxNow tests in collaboration with Abbott in mid-September,” Giroir said on the call. “Distribution will occur to support the protection of the vulnerable in assisted living, senior centers and home health staff, which currently do not receive the benefits of our nursing home program.”
On Wednesday, an HHS spokesperson told Home Health Care News that the department does not have any further information to share at this time.
If it ultimately plays out, the delivery of testing supplies would be a source of much needed relief for the nearly 11,400 home health agencies operating in the U.S.
Currently, most of the home health agencies that have been able to secure testing supplies have done so out of their own pocket or by dipping into CARES Act funding, when appropriate.
Regular COVID-19 testing has become an increasingly important part of agency operations, both to reduce the spread of the virus during in-home visits but also to continue operating in long-term care facilities.
The U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) issued strict requirements for COVID-19 testing in nursing homes last month, making routine staff testing a requirement for participation in Medicare and Medicaid programs. Noncompliance can lead to thousands of dollars’ worth of fines, a possibility that has caused many operators to take an abundance of caution when it comes to testing — even in relation to visits from outside staff.
The National Association for Home Care & Hospice (NAHC) is aware of Giroir’s remarks about sending testing supplies to home health agencies.
Additionally, leaders from the Washington, D.C.-based trade group have been in active discussions with senior HHS officials to advocate on behalf of home-based care providers.
At least three home health representatives that HHCN reached out to for this story said they were not aware of the government’s plans to distribute COVID-19 tests to agencies in the coming weeks.
Two others said they were aware, but have not received any details.
“All the focus so far has been to get the testing to the skilled nursing facilities,” Peter Miska, president of Illinois-based Phoenix Home Care, told HHCN in an email. “If home health can get access to the testing and be able to do it on a regular, twice-weekly basis, we would be able to help the assisted- and independent-living facilities manage their populations going into the next phase of the pandemic with greatly reduced stress — instead of being locked out.”
More than half of all home health agencies have treated COVID-19-positive patients in 2020, according to previous information from NAHC.
“We appreciate the administration’s thoughtfulness and consideration for home health care clinicians and professionals,” Cleamon Moorer, Jr., president and CEO of Michigan-based American Advantage Home Care Inc., (AAHC) told HHCN in an email. “The clinicians at AAHC serve as health care heroes all throughout Metro Detroit, which was hit very hard by the pandemic. Hopefully these … tests can offset and complement our weekly and remote testing at third-party testing centers.”
Moving forward, DOD will likely be in charge of distributing the tests.
On Tuesday, the federal government also announced it will release about 750,000 point-of-care COVID-19 tests from Abbott to nursing homes next week in a separate initiative, HHCN sister site Skilled Nursing News reported.
In the meantime, home health operators will remain on the lookout for testing support of their own.
“Keeping staff COVID-free is key to keeping patients safe,” Miska added. “Many times, it’s the staff or the families that are infecting the patients. If the patients are able to recover at home in safety, it means CMS is saving big money and lives.”