In an effort to increase hospital capacity amid the current COVID-19 surge, the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) on Wednesday announced “unprecedented” flexibilities around providing hospital-level care for patients in their homes.

Similar to CMS’s recent allowances surrounding telehealth, the agency’s latest efforts are focused on lifting barriers that could potentially hinder care during the public health emergency, CMS Administrator Seema Verma said in a statement.

Wednesday’s flexibilities aren’t coming out of thin air. Instead, they build off the success and learnings of the nation’s existing hospital-at-home models, pioneered by organizations like Johns Hopkins and Mount Sinai.

“With new areas across the country experiencing significant challenges to the capacity of their health care systems, our job is to make sure that CMS regulations are not standing in the way of patient care for COVID-19 and beyond,” Verma said.

Through CMS’s “Acute Hospital Care At Home program,” eligible hospitals will be granted “unprecedented” and “comprehensive” regulatory flexibilities to treat certain patients in their homes. The agency clarified the new flexibilities are aimed at acute care in the home and very different from “traditional home health services.”

In addition to building new capacity, CMS’s program is also a means to support established hospital-at-home programs, which have mostly had to rely on payment mechanisms outside of the Medicare fee-for-service world. CMS believes that with proper monitoring and treatment, acute conditions such as asthma, congestive heart failure, pneumonia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can be treated in the home setting.

Wednesday’s move received praise from Dr. Bruce Leff, a hospital-at-home expert and the director of the Center for Transformative Geriatric Research at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

“CMS made a terrific decision in recognizing the value of hospital-at-home care for the public health emergency,” Leff told Home Health Care News in an email. “Hospital-at-home is well proven to provide high-quality hospital-level care in patients’ homes for many acute conditions — and patients and their families love it.”

Similarly, the move drew applause from Contessa, a company that helps organizations provide hospital-level care in the home through its Home Recovery Care model.

“Given the tremendous strain COVID-19 is putting on our health care system, access to home hospital care has never been more important,” Travis Messina, CEO of the company, said in an email. “The teams at CMS and CMMI expertly executed this hospital-driven model. Hospital-level care requires appropriate clinical oversight from hospital leaders.”

Messina added that his team is “thrilled” Mount Sinai Health System, one of Contessa’s partners, was already approved for CMS’s new model due to its extensive experience with the hospital-at-home concept.

Under the program, participating hospitals will be required to implement screening protocols prior to delivering care in the home. Participants will need to screen for both medical and non-medical factors, including working utilities, assessment of physical barriers and screenings for domestic-violence concerns.

Participating hospitals will also need to provide in-person physician evaluation before starting care in the home.

Additionally, a registered nurse is required to perform evaluations on each patient — in person or remotely — daily.

“Acute Hospital Care at Home is for beneficiaries who require acute in-patient admission to a hospital and who require at least daily rounding by a physician and a medical team monitoring their care needs on an ongoing basis,” CMS noted.

Wednesday’s announcement from CMS has roots in its Hospitals Without Walls program, which was first established in March. CMS’s Hospitals Without Walls program loosened regulatory restrictions in order to enable hospitals to provide services in other settings.

Over the years, the hospital-at-home model has gained a reputation for providing better outcomes at a lower cost. Despite this, the model has still mostly existed as a niche service line for providers in the U.S.

Recently, the COVID-19 emergency has served as a catalyst for renewed interest in the model.

Currently, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Huntsman Cancer Institute, Massachusetts General Hospital, Mount Sinai Health System, Presbyterian Healthcare Services and UnityPoint Health are being approved for CMS’s new program.

“We’re at a new level of crisis response with COVID-19, and CMS is leveraging the latest innovations and technology to help health care systems that are facing significant challenges to increase their capacity to make sure patients get the care they need,” Verma’s statement continued.

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