Industry Voices—Thank Medicare for protecting home oxygen patients during COVID-19 crisis

With COVID-19 cases again soaring across the nation, one group of seniors—those with severe respiratory diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), the nation’s third leading cause of death—is particularly vulnerable.

Fortunately, Medicare has taken steps to ensure this community’s continued access to home respiratory care to reduce hospitalizations and keep patients safe at home.

More than 1 million Americans require home respiratory care, which includes home oxygen, noninvasive ventilators and continuous positive airway pressure machines. Access to home respiratory supplies and services is essential because it helps sick seniors maintain independence, enhance their quality of life and stay out of the hospital.

The ability to be treated in the safety of the home is all the more critical during the COVID-19 pandemic. Older Americans with serious respiratory conditions are most at risk for being infected by the novel coronavirus, while hospitals are scrambling to keep beds open as they brace for another surge in patients. Given its benefits, home respiratory care is therefore critical for both patient health and the viability of America’s healthcare system to weather the storm. 

RELATED: Industry Voices—Amid pandemic, rural Americans could soon face respiratory care shortages

During this unprecedented pandemic, Medicare put policies in place to make sure that seniors’ access to home respiratory care is not constrained. Specifically, Medicare’s recent decision to exclude home oxygen supplies and equipment from the Competitive Bidding Program (CBP) for Durable Medical Equipment has reassured suppliers that they won’t be destabilized at a time of skyrocketing demand and rising costs. Moreover, Medicare recently proposed making permanent an important technical policy that will extend the 50-50 blended rate in noncompetitive bidding areas, which are often rural and sparsely populated.

Ultimately, these policies will protect vulnerable respiratory patients, including those with chronic conditions like COPD, as well as patients with serious acute conditions like COVID-19. Designed prior to the public health emergency, the CPB’s built-in assumptions failed to predict serious supply chain disruptions, skyrocketing demand and surging costs caused by the pandemic. As the demand for home oxygen supplies grows—buoyed by the need to treat seriously ill coronavirus patients—there have been serious backlogs in ordering crucial equipment.

Case in point: There is now a global shortage of oxygen concentrators and home respiratory care suppliers say that roughly half of their orders for home oxygen supplies and equipment have been canceled or backlogged since the pandemic started.

That is why Medicare’s decision to exclude oxygen supplies and services from the CBP Round 2021 is so important.

By excluding home oxygen supplies and equipment in the competitive bidding program during the pandemic and extending the 50-50 blended rate for rural communities permanently, Medicare seized the opportunity to stabilize the market, especially in rural areas where population density is low and logistical costs are higher.

Thanks to Medicare, the immense financial challenges and patient risks that would have been created by the CBP can now be avoided. As a result, many suppliers at risk of permanently closing their doors are more optimistic about their ability to continue serving vulnerable respiratory patients. Amid a sea of troubling headlines, this is great news for Medicare patients across the country. 

Crispin Teufel is chairman of the Council for Quality Respiratory Care.