Payers should cover home-based cardiac rehabilitation programs, researchers argue

Insurers need to rethink their coverage policies regarding home-based cardiac rehabilitation programs, according to a study published yesterday in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

In a press release, the study’s senior author Mary A. Whooley, M.D. said that “our biggest challenge in the U.S. is that home-based cardiac rehabilitation is not covered by many health insurers. Currently, Medicare only pays for on-site or facility-based cardiac rehabilitation.”

While problems persist on the supply side for providing these programs, the study also found a lack of demand.

“The biggest surprise of our analysis was how few patients chose to participate in cardiac rehabilitation,” Whooley said, a primary care physician at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center and professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

HBCR programs focus on lifestyle changes. “However, changing behaviors is difficult, and while care facilities may offer on-site cardiac rehabilitation, many patients don’t choose to take advantage of follow-up treatment,” Whooley said.

The study, which authors tout as the first to show that home-based cardiac rehabilitation can help people with heart disease live longer, involved examining data of 1,120 patients eligible for cardiac rehabilitation at the San Francisco Veterans Health Administration between 2013 and 2018.

Excluded from the study were veterans who choose to attend facility-based cardiac rehabilitation programs or those who died within 30 days of hospitalization. Researchers compared outcomes for 490 home-based care participants to 630 patients who did not participate in the program. The patients were monitored through June 30, 2021.

Those in the home-based program had a 36% lower risk of death compared to those who did not participate.  

“Although no observational study can eliminate the possibility that healthier patients were more likely to participate in HBCR, we rigorously adjusted for confounding using an inverse probability weighted Cox regression analysis with the goal of equalizing the samples across all variables other than exposure to HBCR,” the study found. “These results suggest that participation in HBCR contributed to lower mortality among patients referred to [cardiac rehabilitation].”

The home-based rehabilitation program lasted 12 weeks and included nine coaching calls, motivational interviews and a health journal to track diet, exercise and vital signs. Participants were also given a stationary bike and a blood pressure monitor.

Patients were given physical activity goals, after consultation with a nurse or exercise physiologist. Follow-up calls were made to patients at three and six months after the program, and they were monitored an average of 4.2 years after being hospitalized.

Researchers note that cardiac rehabilitation might be more appealing than facility-based programs, which do not seem to be something most cardiac patients participate in. They cite data that say that from 2007 to 2011, 15% of Medicare patients and 10% of veterans opted for cardiac rehabilitation. In 2016, among Medicare beneficiaries cleared for cardiac rehabilitation, only 24% choose to participate in on-site programs.

This might beg the question of whether insurers paying for these programs would make that much of a difference because the demand for the service doesn’t seem to exist.

In the press release, Whooley said that “we don’t know why so many patients opted out of rehabilitation. Even when home-based cardiac rehabilitation was offered at the time and place of their choosing, only 44% of eligible patients chose to participate. Many patients were simply not interested in changing their behaviors.”