UPDATED Coronavirus tracker: HHS watchdog plans to investigate CARES Act funding to providers

UPDATED: Tuesday, May 26, at 3:12 p.m.

HHS Inspector General plans to examine CARES Act funding and Strategic National Stockpile

A federal watchdog agency has 14 projects underway to track the Trump administration's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General plans to audit the distribution of $50 billion to healthcare providers as part of the CARES Act provider relief fund, said Christi Grimm, Principal Deputy Inspector at HHS, during a video briefing Tuesday with members of the Committee on Oversight and Reform.

The inspector general plans to examine the effectiveness of HHS controls over the awarding and disbursement of billions in Provider Relief Fund (PRF) payments to hospitals and other providers. The goal is to understand how payments were calculated and review PRF payments for compliance with Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act requirements, she said.

Grimm also said she was in discussions with the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security for a joint investigation into the distribution of supplies from the national stockpile.

Among the 14 planned projects, the IG also plans to look at the Food and Drug Administration's role in COVID-19 testing, including examining the FDA's Emergency Use Authorization processes and challenges with COVID-19 diagnostic tests and serological tests for antibodies.

The federal watchdog also plans to review the CDC's process of producing and distributing COVID-19 test kits. 

Grimm was leading the inspector general's office in April when it issued a report on the resource challenges hospitals have been facing during the crisis, including shortages of testing supplies, personal protective equipment, and other critical medical supplies. 

That report warned that “severe shortages of testing supplies and extended waits for test results limited hospitals’ ability to monitor the health of patients and staff” and “hampered hospitals’ efforts to reduce community spread, protect staff, and care for patients.

President Donald Trump fiercely criticized the report. Trump called its findings "wrong," asking to know the name of the inspector general and suggesting the report was politically motivated, NPR reported. He later took to Twitter to castigate Grimm and the report even further.

In early May, Trump moved to replace Grimm and named Jason Weida as the White House nominee to take the permanent inspector general post. Grimm had been in that role in an acting capacity since January.

Grimm told lawmakers Tuesday the report on hospital conditions at the end of March was a "snapshot in time" and said the report offered "quick and reliable data from the ground" to support the department's operations and help hospitals prepare.

"It's just the beginning of the work we're doing in looking at the coronavirus response," she said.

She told lawmakers that HHS has taken numerous steps to address the issues flagged in the April 6 report.

UPDATED: Tuesday, May 26, at 10:46 a.m.

HHS distributes nearly $4.9 billion to nursing facilities

The Department of Health and Human Services has started delivering nearly $4.9 billion to skilled nursing facilities to supplement earlier provider funding.

The new funding announced by HHS on Friday aims to help nursing homes keep seniors safe

HHS said the new funding could help nursing homes address labor, scale-up testing and to acquire personal protective equipment.

Each nursing facility will receive a fixed $50,000 and another $2,500 per bed.

“All certified SNFs with six or more certified beds are eligible for this targeted distribution,” according to a release on the funding.

Congress has passed $175 billion in funding to providers to help them compensate for major revenue losses due to the pandemic.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the viability of SNFs in a variety of ways,” HHS said. “Since the beginning of 2020, SNFs have experienced up to a 6 percent decline in their patient population as current and potential residents choose other care settings, or as current residents pass away.”

The Trump administration also recently put out new guidance that says nursing homes looking to reopen should not relax restrictions until all residents and staff got results from baseline tests to ensure they don’t have COVID-19.

UPDATED: Friday, May 22 at 11:55 a.m.

Survey finds majority of docs aren't convince states ready to reopen

A new survey found U.S. physicians remain split on whether states are ready to reopen as shelter-in-place guidelines begin being lifted across the country.

The survey of 250 U.S. doctors conducted by InCrowd found 41% believe their respective state is ready to reopen while 59% they were not.

Part of the split appears linked to how many COVID-19 patients the physician treated. For instance, 52% of physicians with fewer than 20 COVID-19 patients were in favor of reopening while only a quarter of physicians who treated more than 20 COVID-19 patients were in favor or reopening.

The survey also found nearly half of physicians surveyed wanted to see restrictions such as required masking, six-foot social distancing, and limits to gatherings to continues even as states began to reopen. 

UPDATED: Thursday, May 21 at 1:55 p.m.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts processes 1M telehealth claims in 9 weeks

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts saw a massive spike in telehealth usage due to COVID-19, the insurer said Thursday.

Blue Cross said it has processed 1 million claims for telehealth in nine weeks under the pandemic. In February, the insurer was receiving about 200 claims per day for telehealth services; that number has climbed to about 38,000 per day at present.

“We’re experiencing a revolution when it comes to telehealth use, both for medical and mental health care,” said Andrew Dreyfus, Blue Cross’ president and CEO, in a statement. “It’s likely that this kind of growth would otherwise have taken years, based on the trends we saw before the COVID-19 crisis.”

Close to half of the claims have been for virtual behavioral and mental health services, according to Blue Cross. As such, it's taken steps to expand its network for such services.

Blue Cross said it's added 400 providers to its digital behavioral health network since March 1.

UPDATED: Wednesday, May 20 at 11:54 a.m.

HHS provides $225M for COVID-19 testing at rural clinics

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services provided $225 million in funding to support COVID-19 testing in rural areas.

The funding will go to more than 4,500 Rural Health Clinics (RHC), which are designated health care practices in underserved rural areas to help ensure access to care for rural residents. This funding is being made available through the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act, or the PPP stimulus package, which passed in April. 

The funds for the RHC's are based on the number of certified clinic sites they operate but work out to about $50,000 per clinic site.

“Further expanding testing capacity, including at RHCs, is a crucial element of safely reopening our country and helping Americans return to work and school," HHS Secretary Alex Azar siad in a statement. 
The funding may be used for a wide range COVID-19 testing and related expenses including planning for implementation of a COVID-19 testing program, procuring supplies to provide testing, training providers and staff on COVID-19 testing procedures, and reporting data to HHS on COVID-19 testing activities, officials said. 

UPDATED: Tuesday, May 19, at 3:03 p.m.

Employers urge Congress to block M&A as condition for provider COVID funds

A coalition of employer groups said in a letter (PDF) to congressional leaders Tuesday that providers that accept CARES Act funding should agree to not engage in mergers or acquisitions for 12 months after.

The groups are also calling for a ban on price gouging and enforce transparency, including a focus on banning surprise medical billing. Also to save costs, the employer groups say that out-of-network care related to COVID-19 should be billed at Medicare rates, as the lack of copayments may push patients seek out-of-network providers more readily.

"To date, Congress has mandated that all health plans and self-insured employers cover patients’ COVID-19 related testing, preventive services, and an eventual vaccine with no cost sharing or medical management," the groups wrote. 

"While these policies ensure people have the broadest access to vitally needed care, this is likely to result in higher use of out-of-network providers that have not agreed to join networks and accept reasonable prices," they said.

The employers are also urging Congress to ensure that COBRA subsidies are available to meet the demand as unemployment grows, and to consider a mechanism that would prevent premium hikes due to the pandemic.

UPDATED: Tuesday, May 19, at 12:55 p.m.

Civica Rx teams up in federal COVID response

Civica Rx, the generics drug company created by hospitals, joined a federally-funded partnership to produce essential generics in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Teams within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) are working with industry partners to expand generics, including creating stockpiles of active pharmaceutical ingredients and essential generic sterile injectable medications needed during public health emergencies and beyond.

The immediate priority for the partnership will be COVID-19 response, officials said. The partnership is led by Phlow Corporation of Richmond which is a public benefit pharmaceutical manufacturing company committed to manufacturing essential medicines in the U.S from beginning to end. The company was awarded $354 million by HHS and BARDA to manufacture the drugs in shortage. 

"This partnership fits well with Civica's mission to make essential generic medications accessible and affordable," said Martin VanTrieste, president and CEO of Civica Rx in a statement.

Civica will manufacture the finished dosage forms of essential medicines, including vials and syringes, with its existing network of manufacturing partners. For example, in partnership with Phlow, Civica has already provided 1.6 million doses of critical medicines such as broad-spectrum antibiotics, pain management medications, neuromuscular blocking agents, and additional medications needed to treat co-morbidities.

Civica will also begin to build its own finished dosage form manufacturing facility on the same site as Phlow’s other partner operations to ensure end-to-end domestic generic drug manufacturing dedicated to addressing critical drug shortages. 

UPDATED: Tuesday, May 19 at 11:45 a.m.

More than 75 children's hospitals call for more funding

The leaders of 76 children's hospitals around the U.S. sent a letter Tuesday to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar calling for more relief due to financial hardships from the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the letter, the hospitals requested allocations from the remaining relief from the Public Health and Social Services Fund (PHSSEF) be distributed to pediatric facilities and "fully reflect the contribution made by children’s hospitals to fighting the pandemic."

Specifically, they said, they are asking for an immediate tranche of funding to be released to children's hospitals. 

"We are grateful that the second tranche of PHSSEF reached our hospitals and still, the economic impact incurred by our institutions as a result of our response to COVID-19 continues to create catastrophic losses," the hospital leaders wrote in the letter. "The damage the crisis is creating cannot be reversed without the continued support and certainty that only the federal government can provide."

The hospitals pointed out that most of their revenue comes from the Medicaid program requiring any formula used to calculate funding reflect its disproportionate numbers of Medicaid patients. 

UPDATED: Monday, May 18, at 12:55 p.m.

Cerner begins phased re-entry to return employees to the office

Health IT giant Cerner started moving employees back to its Kansas City-based offices Monday, starting with executive leadership

Cerner is the region’s largest private employer with 14,000 associates across several Kansas City campuses. The healthcare IT company employs some 28,000 workers around the globe.

Only 10% of Cerner's workforce will return to work initially with a phased-in approach to follow, The Kansas City Star reported.

For the foreseeable future, all of Cerner’s buildings will house no more than half their usual numbers of workers.

As employees return, they’ll be encouraged to wear masks, according to The Kansas City Star. The company will close fitness centers and cafeterias. Elevators will be limited to two passengers and all staircases will be designated for one-way travel — either up or down.

Big tech giants in Silicon Valley have said they are in no hurry to get employees back to the office. Google and Facebook told employees that many workers who can do their jobs remotely should plan to do so until 2021. Amazon said its headquarters employees will stay home at least until October, the Washington Post reported

Cerner moved nearly its entire workforce to remote work within four days — a process that it will start to slowly unwind next week. But it’s already clear that the pandemic has forever changed the industry, said Eva Karp, a senior vice president and chief clinical and patient safety officer at Cerner, according to the newspaper.

Some positions, particularly in the company’s consulting and client support divisions, will likely transition to virtual roles in the future, Karp said.

“I don’t think we’ll ever go back to before. We’re considering a transition to the new and our new workforce and the new environment. We’re continually communicating that it’s an evolution," she told The Kansas City Star.

UPDATED: Friday, May 15, at 3:30 p.m.

Fitbit is working on emergency ventilators, CNBC reports

Wearables giant Fitbit is shifting its supply chain to make emergency-use ventilators, CEO James Park told CNBC.

The company is submitting its technology to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in the coming days, Park said. Before working on the design, Fitbit consulted emergency room physicians about their ventilator shortages and needs, including doctors at Massachusetts General and Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), CNBC's Christina Farr reported Friday.

“I think one of the advantages for us is that we have the infrastructure and manufacturing capability,” Park told Farr. “We already make 10 million (wearable) devices per year, and we plan to leverage that to make deliver product at whatever volumes are needed.”

A Fitbit spokesperson said that the company will work with an existing vendor in Taiwan to ramp up the ventilators once the FDA approves its request, Farr reported.

Park didn't reveal potential pricing but says the ventilators will be at a "lower" price point.

UPDATED: Friday, May 15, at 11:45 a.m.

CDC issues alert to doctors on rare COVID-linked syndrome in children

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a health alert to physicians Thursday on how to recognize and report cases of a rare, potentially life-threatening syndrome in children associated with the new coronavirus.

The illness, which the CDC calls "multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children," or MIS-C, has been reported in at least 19 states and Washington, D.C., according to NBC News.

There have been 100 cases among pediatric patients in New York State, the CDC reported.

The syndrome shares symptoms with toxic shock and Kawasaki disease including fever, rashes, swollen glands and, in severe cases, heart inflammation.

According to the alert, the CDC's case definition for MIS-C is an individual younger than 21 presenting with fever, laboratory evidence of inflammation, and evidence of clinically severe illness requiring hospitalization, with multisystem organ involvement (cardiac, renal, respiratory, hematologic, gastrointestinal, dermatologic or neurological).

To meet the criteria, doctors should rule out other plausible diagnoses. Children with the condition should also test positive for current infection with the novel coronavirus or for antibodies demonstrating a recent infection, the CDC said.

The CDC recommends healthcare providers report any patient who meets the case definition to local, state, and territorial health departments to enhance knowledge of risk factors, pathogenesis, clinical course, and treatment of this syndrome.

UPDATED: Friday, May 15, at 10:29 a.m.

UnitedHealth Group and Microsoft team up on COVID-19 symptom screening app

UnitedHealth Group and Microsoft have joined forces to launch a new protocol and app called ProtectWell to help employers bring their employees back to the office in a safe environment.

ProtectWell creates a framework backed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for screening and tracing of the virus.

A key part of the protocol is a smartphone that allows employers to offer workers a screening tool.

The app includes an “AI-powered healthcare bot that asks users a series of questions to screen for COVID-19 symptoms or exposure,” a UHG press release said. “If risk of infection is indicated, employers can direct their employees to a streamlined COVID-19 testing process that enables closed-loop ordering and reporting of test results directly back to employers.”

ProtectWell also offers resources for a safe work environment, including guidelines for social distancing and sanitation.

“As we plan for a safe and careful return to the workplace, employers need clear guidelines to ensure a safe environment and a robust process for employees to screen themselves for COVID-19 symptoms,” said Ken Ehlert, chief scientific officer for UnitedHealth Group.

UPDATED: Thursday, May 14 at 11:53 a.m.

Cigna to provide real-time digital support to members with COVID-19

Cigna will offer digital tools to its members with COVID-19 to provide real-time support while they recover.

The insurer is teaming with Collective Medical to identify members in real-time as they visit emergency departments with COVID-19 symptoms. This will allow its care teams to quickly connect with members who may need assistance, including remote monitoring or care management.

In addition, Cigna is launching a new tool in partnership with Medocity for members with mild COVID-19 to assist them in tracking their symptoms as they shelter in place. The tool will provide access to behavioral health resources and will alert care managers if symptoms worsen.

Both options are being made available at no cost, Cigna said.

"We are creating a differentiated and digital-first health care experience – one that leverages our expertise and innovative tools and resources – to help our customers improve their health, well-being and peace of mind," said Joan Harvey, president of care coordination at Cigna Health Services, in a statement. "With real-time data, we can quickly identify customers with COVID-19 and provide supportive services around their needs."

UPDATED: Wednesday, May 13 at 11:19 a.m.

Aetna extends cost-sharing waivers for COVID-19 care

Aetna announced Wednesday that it would extend its policy waiving member cost-sharing for testing and inpatient hospitalizations related to COVID-19 through the end of September.

The waivers were set to expire on June 1. In addition, Aetna said it will waive out-of-pocket costs for in-network primary care visits for its Medicare Advantage members.

“We remain committed to helping our members get the care they need without the added worry of wondering how they will pay for it," said Karen Lynch, executive vice president at CVS and president of Aetna, in a statement. "We’ll continue to invest in efforts that support our members’ physical and mental wellbeing, letting them know they are not alone during this crisis.”

Aetna is also extending its waivers for behavioral telehealth through Sept. 30, the insurer said. Aetna said it will also extend its policy to nix early refill limits on 30-day maintenance prescriptions, which was set to end on May 15.

UPDATED: Tuesday, May 12, at 8 p.m.

Judy Faulkner says Epic working on immunity passport technology

Epic CEO and founder Judy Faulkner said during an interview on CNBC Tuesday that the EHR giant is working on "immunity passport" technology rather than a contact tracing app.

During CNBC's Healthy Returns virtual summit, Bertha Coombs asked Faulkner about technology the company is working on during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"There’s been so much discussion about being able to track and trace, but eventually also being able potentially to sort of say, 'Look, I’ve been tested and I know I have antibodies.' Is that something that Epic can help with to help public health systems develop a way to be able to say, 'Hey, I’m clear'?"

Faulkner responded that Epic is working with a group to develop those kinds of tools.

"Putting a marker on the phone that will say whether you are tested and you’re clear, whether you are currently not safe, whether you have COVID right now, so that would be red for if you have COVID now, it would be green if you’re clear, and it would be yellow if it’s unknown," Faulkner said, according to a transcript of the interview posted on CNBC.

"We’re working with a group that’s doing that, and we said to them we’d like to do it for all our MyChart patients as well.  So we’re putting that on MyChart as well so that they too will have that and you could go into a restaurant, show your signal to the people in the restaurant, and they’ll know you’re clear," said Faulkner.

As states and businesses increasingly push to reopen amid pandemic concerns, interest around the concept of "immunity passports" or immunity certificates has begun to grow.

Many healthcare experts say that if immunity is proved, having a system of creating immunity passports for people who have had COVID-19 would increase their liberties without infringing on others' rights.

Coombs also asked the health IT company CEO if Epic would develop COVID-19 track and tracing capabilities as part of its mobile platform.

Tech giants Apple and Google are collaborating on a COVID contact tracing app that works on Bluetooth technology.

Recent surveys show that consumers have hesitations about using contact tracing apps, Faulkner said.

"About two-thirds of the people said they wouldn’t want that done and one-third said they would.  So we are watching the contact tracing and what people think of it to see about it. But right now our feeling is that with so many people feeling it isn’t the right thing to do, that it becomes too invasive, right now we are not going forward with that," she said.

UPDATED: Tuesday, May 12, at 2:33 p.m.

House Dems $3T COVID-19 bill includes $100B for providers

House Democrats want to give providers another $100 billion to help them respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the bill may not get through the Senate.

House Democrats unveiled a $3 trillion economic stimulus package on Tuesday that includes more funding for testing and providers. The $100 billion adds to another $175 billion that Congress has passed in prior relief bills.

The legislation includes another $75 billion for testing, contact tracing and covers free coronavirus treatments.

A large portion of the funding would go to states ($500 billion) and local governments would get $375 billion.

The legislation would also create a $200 billion Heroes fund that provides hazard pay for essential workers.

But Republicans in the Senate have blasted the bill as too partisan, likely dooming its chances of getting through Congress.

UPDATED: Tuesday, May 12 at 12:18 p.m.

BCBSA: Millennials, Gen Z adapting to telehealth more quickly than baby boomers

New data released by the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association shows that millennials and Gen Zers are adapting more quickly to the need for telehealth during COVID-19 than their baby boomer counterparts.

The study shows that 30% of millennials and 35% of Gen Zers report using telemedicine platforms, compared to 15% of baby boomers.

In addition, the analysis shows that telehealth is becoming a critical tool for maintaining behavioral healthcare. BCBSA found that 75% of Americans with a behavioral health need are continuing therapy during the pandemic, thanks in large part to telemedicine.

"The COVID-19 pandemic is a stressful time for everyone due to the fear and uncertainty that it brings, leading people to cope in different ways," said Vincent Nelson, M.D., vice president of medical affairs for BCBSA, in a statement. "It is vital that Americans continue to seek out the care they need from the telehealth options available to them to ensure that they can get and stay healthy."

UPDATED: Monday, May 11 at 1:50 p.m.

Optum boosts provider participation in behavioral telehealth platform

Optum said Monday that it's grown provider participation in its proprietary behavioral telehealth platform by 45% as a result of the pandemic.

The platform now boasts more than 10,000 network providers, Optum said. The company also said that the number of member visits booked through the platform has grown by 52% compared to before COVID-19.

Optum said that normally telehealth accounts for about 2% of the behavioral health claims it processes. Due to the pandemic, that number rose to 33% at the end of March.

“We will continue to ensure the people we serve are able to stay connected with behavioral health care providers during COVID-19,” said Rebecca Schechter, CEO of Optum Behavioral Health. “We’re also doing more by proactively reaching out to our most vulnerable members so they understand how to best continue their treatment, including prescription refills.”

Optum has also made it easier for the 200,000 providers in its behavioral healthcare network to offer visits virtually or over the phone, according to the announcement.

UPDATED: Friday, May 8 at 2:40 p.m.

Express Scripts launches program to help uninsured access prescriptions

Express Scripts has launched a new program to help people who are newly uninsured due to COVID-19 access their prescriptions.

Parachute Rx will provide significant discounts on more than 40 brand-name drugs and thousands of generics. It will cap the cost of 30-day generic prescriptions at $25 and 30-day brand-name prescriptions at $75.

The program was launched in partnership with drug manufacturers and retail pharmacies across the country.

Any person who loses their job because of the pandemic will be eligible for the program, Express Scripts said. Customers can view eligible prescriptions and participating pharmacies near them at express-scripts.com/parachuterx.

Customers can choose home delivery through Express Scripts Pharmacy or seek their medications at one of the more than 50,000 participating retail pharmacies, including Walgreens, CVS and Rite Aid locations. The discounts will also be available at some grocer and community pharmacies, too, Express Scripts said.

"We have seen this pandemic bring out the best of humanity, and the quick collaboration among our industry partners to make Parachute Rx a reality is what our country needs right now," said Tim Wentworth, president of health services. "The Parachute Rx program is an extraordinary partnership for these extraordinary times. Together, we can offer a softer landing for people whose lives have been upended by this pandemic so they can come out of this crisis healthy and strong."

UPDATED: Thursday, May 7 at 1:55 p.m.

Oscar, Uno partner to offer financial assistance to Medicare Advantage members

Oscar has teamed up with Uno Health to officer financial assistance to its Medicare Advantage members impacted by COVID-19.

The two companies will work together to help low-income MA members access benefits through government programs, which they may not be aware of or may be uncomfortable applying for.

Uno will be targeting 70% of Oscar's Medicare Advantage membership in New York and Texas for enrollment in government programs.

“Oscar is excited to be partnering with Uno to help our Medicare Advantage members access critical financial support during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Ananth Lalithakumar, who recently joined Oscar to lead the Medicare Advantage team.

“Through seamless partnerships with innovative companies like Uno, Oscar expands the scope of support we offer our members to meet more of the needs that impact their health,"  Lalithakumar said.


UPDATED: Thursday, May 7 at 1:33 p.m. 

HHS awards $583 million for testing

The Trump administration awarded $583 million to boost COVID-19 testing around the U.S.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), through the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), awarded the funds to nearly 1,400 health systems across the U.S., and eight U.S. territories. About 90% of the HRSA-funded health centers report testing patients, with more than 65% offering walk-up or drive-up testing. 

The funding is begin made available via the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act, signed into law April 24

UPDATED: Wednesday, May 6, at 2:55 p.m.

Intermountain starts limited COVID-19 antibody testing

Utah-based Intermountain Healthcare has started using a COVID-19 antibody test offered to patients and caregivers that meet certain criteria.

The test provided by ARUP Laboratories is used to determine whether an individual has developed antibodies to the virus.

Intermountain will continue to use the standard molecular testing for the general public that use nasal/throat samples.

The goal is to give the healthcare system a better sense of the presence of the virus in their community and whether it is aggressively spreading.

“When COVID-19 antibody testing is done in addition to PCR testing and in collaboration with the state and other providers, it can improve research and learning about the novel coronavirus here in Utah,” said Eddie Stenehjem, MD, an infectious diseases physician and medical director of Intermountain’s Antibiotic Stewardship program, in a statement.

UPDATED: Wednesday, May 6, at 1:56 p.m.

Cigna launches initiative to protect members from surprise COVID-19 bills

Cigna has kicked off a new program to help protect its members from surprise bills related to care for COVID-19. 

The insurer said Wednesday it would reimburse out-of-network providers who treat its members with the novel coronavirus at " reasonable, market-based rates" through its Customer Protection Program. In addition, Cigna said that it will assist members in negotiating any business disputes related to COVID-19 care.

"To support the regulatory mandates and remove any remaining uncertainties that customers may have, Cigna has created additional safeguards to mitigate the impact of surprise bills," CEO David Cordani said in a statement. "We will partner closely with any Cigna customer who receives a surprise bill related to COVID-19 care and work to resolve the issue, so they can have greater peace of mind."

Cigna said it will base rates on what the federal government will pay in a geographic region and will comply with state regulations. 

UPDATED: Wednesday, May 6, at 1:28 p.m.

Michigan Medicine to furlough and layoff 1,400 employees

Michigan Medicine announced Tuesday it will furlough and layoff 1,400 employees and will install a hiring freeze due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The academic medical center that is part of the University of Michigan health system also announced that Marschall Runge, CEO of Michigan Medicine, will take a 20% pay cut and other department chairs and leaders will reduce compensation between 5 to 15%.

“Other expense savings include suspension of merit increases, employer retirement match, tuition reimbursement, and reductions to supplies, consulting and discretionary expenses,” the system said.

The organization will also delay capital projects “not needed for safety or regulatory compliance. That includes a planned $920-million story hospital to be built on its Ann Arbor campus.

“While we don’t take any of these decisions lightly, we believe it is a preferable outcome to broad salary reductions and allows us to preserve as many jobs as possible,” said Runge, in a statement.

Michigan Medicine is the latest hospital system to furlough workers due to plummeting revenue from COVID-19. Other major hospital systems such as Tenet and Detroit Medical Center have had to furlough workers because of revenue loss from low patient volume and no revenue from elective surgical procedures.

Michigan Medicine said it is taking steps to resume some clinical services.

UPDATED: Monday, May 4 at 11:07 a.m.

CVS pledges $1 million to boost mental health supports

CVS Health said it would put more than $1 million toward boosting access mental health services for frontline workers effected by COVID-19.

The healthcare giant called the growing need for mental health services a "second curve" to the pandemic. CVS said it has seen a 200% increase year over year in virtual mental health visits since March 1.

The Aetna Foundation will provide $500,000 to Americares for its COVID-19 Mental Health and Psychosocial Support Project, and a $300,000 grant to Crisis Text Line's For the Frontlines initiative, which offers around-the-clock mental health supports to frontline workers.

CVS is also offering $220,000 to Give an Hour, a group that provides no-cost counseling to healthcare workers.

"The wrath of COVID-19 is not just physical. Mental trauma is the deadly undertow of the pandemic's first wave," said Karen Lynch, executive vice president at CVS Health and president of Aetna, in a statement. "The impact of isolation, fear, uncertainty and loss can be just as deadly as the virus itself. It is silent and can't be seen, but we are all affected by it."

UPDATED: Sunday, May 3, at 8:15 p.m.

Trump says COVID vaccine will be developed by the end of 2020

President Donald Trump said Sunday he believes a COVID-19 vaccine will be developed by the end of 2020.

Speaking during a virtual town hall on Fox News, Trump said, "We're pushing very hard. Many companies are, I think, close. We are very confident that we'll have a vaccine by the end of this year."

The White House last week announced an initiative, dubbed “Operation Warp Speed,” to try to accelerate development of a vaccine. The project's goal is delivering 100 million doses of a viable COVID-19 vaccine by January. It would be a radical acceleration of the typical vaccine development timeline, which is typically described in years, not months.

Dr. Deborah Birx, a member of the White House coronavirus task force, said that “on paper, it’s possible” that the accelerated deadline could be met.

“The way that it’s possible is if you bring forward five or six different classes of candidates, which the Operation Warp Speed has done. So it’s not relying on a single vaccine platform; it’s relying on several different candidates that are made differently and act differently,” Birx said on “Fox News Sunday.”

“And then it’s about doing compressed phase one, phase two, phase three trials in an overlapping way, moving forward when you have a good safety and immunogenicity data, but not with the level of pauses that are often present in vaccine development,” she said.

Birx added, “It’s whether we can execute and execute around the globe. Because you also, for phrase three, have to have active viral transmission in a community in order to study its efficacy.”

The U.S. has more than 1.15 million confirmed cases of COVID-19, and has recorded over 67,000 deaths.

During the town hall, Trump also said he supported allowing hospitals to resume elective surgeries, but noted that the decision is up to state governors.

"These hospitals are legitimately, you think they are making a lot of money, the are losing a fortune. They have to let these hospitals reopen and get back to elective surgeries," he said.

UPDATED: Friday, May 1, at 7:50 p.m.

HHS starts distribution of payments to COVID-19 hotspots

Health and Human Services started processing payments on Friday to hospitals with a large number of COVID-19 admissions through April 10 and to rural providers.

The agency is doling out $12 billion to 395 hospitals that provided inpatient care for 100 or more of COVID-19 patients through April 10.

HHS added that $2 billion of that funding will be distributed based on a hospital’s Medicare and Medicaid disproportionate share and uncompensated care payments, a nod to criticism from safety net hospitals that the first $30 billion round of funding only focused on hospitals that got Medicare payments.

The agency also is providing $10 billion to rural providers that include acute care general hospitals, critical access hospitals, rural health clinics and community health centers in rural areas.

The hospitals and rural health clinics each will get a minimum base payment plus a percent fo their annual expenses.

“This expense-based method accounts for operating cost and lost revenue incurred by rural hospitals for both inpatient and outpatient services,” HHS said in a release.

The money is part of a $100 billion fund that Congress passed a few weeks. Congress passed another $75 billion last week to help hospitals.

However, the American Hospital Association and American Nurses Association sent a joint letter to Congressional leaders no Friday imploring for more funding as hospitals face a cash crisis sparked by COVID-19.

UPDATED: Friday, May 1, at 7:39 p.m.

HHS offers $40 million to deliver COVID-19 info to rural, ethnic communities

Health and Human Services announced Friday it will invest $40 million for the development and coordination of a strategic network of organizations to deliver important COVID-19 information to racial and ethnic minorities, rural and socially vulnerable communities.

The information network is intended to help get information on testing, healthcare and social services to vulnerable communities hit hard by the pandemic.

““The vulnerable populations in many underserved communities are among the highest risk of suffering devastating health and economic impacts of COVID-19,” Assistant Secretary for Health Brett P. Giroir, MD, said in a statement. “This initiative will build upon our existing response, partnering federal, state, local, and tribal governments with the private sector to address the unique needs of these communities and individuals.”

The three-year initiative will include a multi-media outreach and education effort alongside providing more resources at the community level.

UPDATED: Thursday, April 30 at 11:23 a.m.

Humana Foundation puts $50M to COVID-19 relief

Humana will make $50 million available for COVID-19 through its philanthropic arm.

The Humana Foundation will partner with national and community service organizations to immediately deploy the funds for short-term and long-term relief efforts. $34 million will go to short-term needs, such as assisting health workers on the front lines, addressing food insecurity and supporting behavioral health groups.

“As the COVID-19 health crisis continues throughout our country, it is exposing daily challenges for Americans, and many are struggling,” said Bruce Broussard, Humana CEO and chair of the foundation's board.

“With this funding, we will help individuals and communities address immediate needs related to health care, food and employment. And, long term, these resources will serve as a catalyst in building capabilities and community resiliency, and ultimately sustainable, long-term success," Broussard said.

UPDATED: Tuesday, April 28 at 2:27 p.m.

AMA pushes feds to take stronger role in expanding testing

The American Medical Association is urging the Trump administration to take on a stronger leadership role as it works to expand diagnostic testing and antibody testing for COVID-19.

A critical ask in a letter sent to Department of Health and Human Services official Brett Giroir Tuesday is for more guidance to physicians on antibody testing, as new products come to market.

The AMA says that antibody, or serological, testing should be limited to use in population-level study by physicians and lab techs trained in interpreting them. The federal government should also offer education to patients and docs on the performance and limitations of these tests.

“As we anticipate the threat of COVID-19 may persist into the fall, the coming months represent a critical time for federal leadership to help ensure states are adequately resourced and prepared with critical strategies to manage what may be increased demand for testing services,” wrote AMA CEO and EVP James L. Madara, M.D. 

"Federal guidance and leadership as we move through new phases of this global pandemic will be critical to the rapid identification and management of new cases as we work together to eliminate this global threat," Madara wrote.

UPDATED: Monday, April 27, at 4:51 p.m.

AMA creates new online resource hub on health equity

The American Medical Association released on Monday an online resource hub that seeks to shine a light on health equity problems exacerbated by the COVID-19 outbreak.

“These timely and topical resources were designed to ensure that physicians are equipped with the information they need to confront inequities and advance equity across all aspects of the health care system,” said AMA President Patrice Harris, MD, in a statement Monday.

The tools include that AMA cultivated various health equity resources, including a frequently-asked questions document.

“This page provides guidance, recommendations and strategies that address key questions like what kind of role public health leadership should play in national response efforts and how to recognize physician bias,” an AMA release said.

UPDATED: Monday, April 27 at 3:44 p.m.

HHS launches new provider portal for uninsured COVID-19 claims

The Health Resources and Services Administration has launched a new portal to allow providers to submit claims for COVID-19 care provided to uninsured patients.

The Department of Health and Human Services said claims incurred on or after Feb. 2 are eligible. Reimbursements will generally be offered at Medicare rates for testing and treatment related to COVID-19, according to HHS.

The reimbursement was established as part of CARES Act.

"President Trump has promised to cover COVID-19 testing and treatment for uninsured individuals, and today, HHS is launching the tools needed to do that," said HHS Secretary Alex Azar in a statement. "The president and HHS made the bold decision to ensure that some of this money is specifically devoted to covering care for the uninsured, going to providers at the front lines of the pandemic response."

UPDATED: Monday, April 27 at 1:30 p.m.

Healthcare CFOs weigh-in on the challenges ahead

As financial struggles related to COVID-19 continue, healthcare industry financial executives are eyeing automation to stay afloat, a new survey shows.

PricewaterhouseCoopers released a survey of chief financial officers across industries on Monday, which found that healthcare CFOs were more likely than others to be planning for automation amid the pandemic.

Fifty-four percent said they indeed to accelerate such a transition as they begin to bring people back to work, compared to 40% on average across all industries, according to the survey.

Healthcare CFOs are also preparing for high demand from workers for extra protection, the survey found. Seventy percent said they're expecting employees to push initiatives better protect them, compared to 50% on average across industries.

"As the nation continues to grapple with the pandemic, getting back to work is top of mind for US financial leaders overall, but this is an especially pressing issue for health leaders," the researchers wrote. "They must plan for their own workforces, while dealing with an unfolding financial calamity."

UPDATED: Friday, April 24, at 12:53 p.m.

Trump signs into law extra hospital, testing funding

President Trump signed into law a new economic stimulus package that includes $75 billion for hospitals and $25 billion to prop up testing.

The legislation is expected to bolster a $100 billion relief fund for providers that have been devastated financially due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The new funding is part of a larger $484 billion package that also replenishes a small business loan program.

Health and Human Services gave out details earlier this week on how a majority of the funding will be distributed. The agency plans to provide $10 billion each to rural hospitals and to providers in COVID-19 hotspots.

HHS will also give $50 billion in more general funds to hospitals.

UPDATED: Friday, April 24, at 11:00 a.m.

Massachusetts partners with Doctor on Demand to provide free telehealth to uninsured

Doctor On Demand is teaming up with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to provide free virtual medical visits to Massachusetts residents without health insurance during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Doctor On Demand will support uninsured residents who have questions about COVID-19 symptoms or have been identified as needing telehealth care through the state’s COVID-19 contact tracing efforts. The partnership follows a previously-announced agreement with MassHealth, the state of Massachusetts’ administrator of Medicaid and children’s health insurance programs, to offer free virtual COVID-19 related visits to the State’s 1.8 million members.

"During the COVID-19 emergency, Massachusetts has made unprecedented efforts to eliminate barriers to health care access, including expansive coverage of telehealth services," said Acting Medicaid Director Amanda Cassel Kraft. "MassHealth is excited to announce this partnership with Doctor On Demand to provide medical support to our members and uninsured residents seeking guidance on COVID-19 symptoms or risk factors."

UPDATED: Thursday, April 23, at 4:53 p.m.

Envision Healthcare deploys or reassigns more than 500 clinicians to COVID-19 hotspots

Healthcare staffing firm Envision Healthcare announced Thursday that it has deployed or reassigned more than 500 clinicians across 55 hospitals and medical sites to areas hit hard by COVID-19.

The staffing firm said that it has sent 200 clinicians to New York area hospitals and that others are being reassigned in their own facility.

The company employs a lot of anesthesiologists and many have transitioned to provide backup to emergency department and intensive care units.

“As COVID-19 patient volumes fluctuate in different parts of the nation, Envision will continue to deploy clinicians to care for patients in areas of need,” the company said in a release.

UPDATED: Thursday, April 23 at 1 p.m.

Trump administration releases telehealth toolkit for states

The White House has issued a new toolkit aimed at making it easier for state Medicaid and CHIP programs grow their use of telehealth.

As coverage in Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program varies between states, the toolkit flags policies that may impede the expansion of telehealth benefits.

The toolkit also includes the major issues that states should consider if they wish to adjust their telehealth strategy, such as the target patient populations and which providers are eligible to offer telehealth services.

“While not all patient interactions can be delivered through telehealth, our clinicians on the frontlines need every tool in their arsenal to fight this invisible enemy,” said Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma. “I’m urging states to use this toolkit to make sure our Medicaid patients, particularly our children, can continue to receive needed care from the safety of their homes.” 

UPDATED: Wednesday, April 22, at 6:00 p.m.

Cuomo announces tri-state contact tracing program with $10M commitment from Bloomberg

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg announced Wednesday a COVID-19 contact tracing program to control the infection rate of the disease in the tri-state area.

"One of the most critical pieces of getting to a new normal is to ramp up testing, but states have a second big task - to put together an army of people to trace each person who tested positive, find out who they contacted and then isolate those people," Cuomo said in a statement. "This partnership with Mike Bloomberg to create an unprecedented, nation-leading contact tracing program will do just that and serve as a model for the rest of the nation."

There has never been a contact tracing program implemented at this scale either in New York or anywhere in the United States, according to Cuomo.

New York will partner with New Jersey and Connecticut to launch the tri-state tracing program.

During his daily press briefing, Cuomo said he’s discussed the “massive undertaking” with New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) and Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D). He said there is no timeline for the program, but tracing is “starting now” and will increase “incrementally," The Hill reported.

The three states will work with Bloomberg, Johns Hopkins University and Vital Strategies to institute the program,

Bloomberg has volunteered to contribute upward of $10 million through the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

The New York State Department of Health will work with Bloomberg Philanthropies to help identify and recruit contact tracer candidates for the training program, including staff from the State Department of Health, investigators from various state agencies, hundreds of tracers from downstate counties and SUNY and CUNY students in medical fields.

UPDATED: April 22, at 1:15 p.m.

Senators press Verma for ACO mulligan for 2020

A duo of bipartisan senators is calling for the Trump administration to waive accountable care organizations from having to repay losses for 2020.

Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Bill Cassidy, R-La., wrote to Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma on Tuesday seeking more relief for ACOs.

ACOs must meet certain spending and quality targets. If they do meet those targets then they get a share of any savings but must repay Medicaer for any losses.

But the COVID-19 outbreak has wreaked havoc on healthcare systems and the costs could be beyond the control of ACOs.

Senators were pleased that CMS will prorate any 2020 losses based on the duration of the public health emergency.

If the emergency lasts for six months then ACOs “would be liable for the losses for the year,” the letter said. “The policy does not adequate adjust losses for ACOs in hard-hit COVID areas and still holds ACOs accountable for the abnormally high costs of providing care during a global pandemic.”

Therefore the senators are calling for CMS to waive any losses for 2020, a request that ACOs have also been making.

UPDATED: Tuesday, April 21 at 8:24 p.m.

Data shows improvement, but nursing homes still seeing outbreaks, Birx warns

First the good news. 

Data shows continued improvement across almost all the large metro areas across the U.S., said Deborah Birx, M.D., White House coronavirus response coordinator.

That includes the New York Metro area and surrounding states including New York City and Long Island, as well as Rhode Island and Connecticut. It also includes declines in other areas of recent concern including the Detroit area, as well as New Orleans, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Houston, Atlanta, Nashville, Baltimore, Indianapolis and St. Louis, she said.

Now the bad news. 

Among the areas that aren't declining just yet: The D.C. metro area, she said. She also warned the U.S. will continue to see deaths, particularly in the cities as they begin to move past their peaks, because deaths will lag. 

She also pointed out a number of outbreaks that have been occurring in long-term care facilities, nursing homes and confined spaces in rural areas and less populated states.

"We asked everyone in phase one to make sure they continued their social distancing in public, to make sure the vulnerable with co-morbidities and other conditions and the elderly were staying at home and making sure we’re still providing service to them," Birx said about recently released national guidelines for reopening the country. "I think as Americans, we want to stop that and we have the ability to do that by paying attention to the guidelines."

UPDATED: Tuesday, April 21 at 1:21 p.m.

Blues plans have provided $3B in COVID-19 support to date

Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans have offered $3 billion in financial support to members and providers to fight the COVID-19 pandemic so far.

The Blue Cross Blue Shield Association announced Tuesday that the funding from its 36 member plans has targeted a slew of initiatives, from waiving member costs to tackling social determinants to assisting in building out testing capabilities.

"We are grateful to all of those on the front lines in the ongoing battle against COVID-19 who are fighting to ensure Americans can get and stay healthy during this unprecedented global pandemic," said Scott Serota, BCBSA president and CEO.

"As local, independent organizations that have long served and met the unique needs of their communities, Blue Cross and Blue Shield companies are well positioned to understand what each community needs most and are working alongside local officials, health care professionals and hospitals to ensure they have access to the resources and support they need to help improve the health of America," Serota said.

UPDATED: Monday, April 20, at 4:50 p.m.

AMA calls for governors to remove barriers to boosting capacity

The American Medical Association has called on the National Governors Association to support removal of obstacles to expanding physician workforce.

The AMA sent a letter to the group on Monday that some federal, state and local directives related to COVID-19 could create possible liability risks for physicians. It calls for all governors in the NGA to adopt liability protections for physicians that volunteer or temporarily relocate to hotspot COVID-19 areas.

“The AMA urges governors to adopt broader civil immunity and provide coverage to both volunteers and paid physicians, thereby removing barriers to physicians responding to the call to action in areas experiencing a surge in COVID-19 patients,” the letter said.

Retired physicians and physicians in other states have either moved or returned to service to help overwhelmed healthcare systems.

The letter pointed to executive orders in New York and Connecticut that gave civil immunity for any “injury or death alleged to have sustained directly as a result of an act” of a physician while providing medical services in response to the outbreak.”

UPDATED: Monday, April 20, at 2:14 p.m.

Nurses to protest at White House over PPE

A group of registered nurses will hold a protest in front of the White House on Tuesday to call attention to issues facing the frontline healthcare workers such as a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE).

The protest organized by National Nurses United, the country’s largest registered nurse union, calls for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to make an emergency temporary standard so healthcare workers are provided with optimal PPE.

The union petitioned OSHA back on March 4 to create such a standard, but haven't heard back.

“With no federal health and safety standard, nurses and other healthcare workers in many hospitals across the country have not been provided with adequate PPE to protect them from exposure to the virus,” according to a release from the union.

The union is also asking Congress to insert such a standard in the next COVID-19 legislative package.

“The nurses are also demanding that President Trump use his authority under the Defense Production Act (DPA) to order the mass production of PPE, including N95 respirators, face shields, gowns, gloves and shoe coverings, as well as ventilators and COVID-19 testing kits,” NNU said.

UPDATED: Monday, April 20 at 10:42 a.m.

Study finds far higher in-hospital mortality for diabetic COVID-19 patients

A new study found that diabetic patients who contract COVID-19 are four times more likely to die in the hospital.

Glytec, a platform that offers insulin management software, released an observational study on how diabetic patients are impacted by the virus. The study found that 29% of those with hyperglycemia while hospitalized died, compared to 6% for other patients.

In addition, the researchers found that 42% of those patients had not been diagnosed with diabetes prior to hospitalization, and developed hypoglycemia while admitted.

"This research confirms that diabetes is an important risk factor for dying from COVID-19," said Bruce Bode, M.D., a diabetes specialist at Atlanta Diabetes Associates and adjunct associate professor of medicine at Emory University School of Medicine. It also suggests that patients with acutely uncontrolled hyperglycemia – with or without a diabetes diagnosis – are dying at a higher rate than clinicians and hospitals may recognize."

The researchers also found a longer length of stay for patients with hypoglycemia. The study was based on 1,122 COVID-19 from 88 hospitals across 11 states.

UPDATED: Friday, March 17 at 1:20 p.m.

FCC approves $3.2M for six hospitals in initial COVID-19 Telehealth Program funding round

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has approved $3.2 million in funding for six hard-hit health systems to deploy telemedicine technology and connected devices to support virtual care.

The initial batch of funding is part of the FCC's new $200 million Emergency COVID-19 Telehealth Program, the agency announced Thursday.

FCC staff approved the first set of applications just three days after the application window opened.

The approved funding will go to the Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta; Hudson River HealthCare, Inc., in Peekskill, New York; Mount Sinai Health System in New York City, Neighborhood Health Care, Inc., in Cleveland; UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh; and the Ochsner Clinic Foundation in New Orleans.

"The FCC has moved with unprecedented speed to support the nation’s response to COVID-19. I am pleased that this initial batch of $3.2 million in funding will be used to stand up telehealth programs so that our country’s health care heroes can treat both COVID-19 patients and those experiencing a range of other health conditions," FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr said in a statement.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump in late March, earmarks the funds for the FCC to help healthcare providers offering telehealth. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai announced that he wanted to use $200 million from the economic stimulus package to expand telehealth services across the country.

Organizations interested in applying for funding through the COVID-19 Telehealth Program can find more information and an online application here.

UPDATED: Friday, March 17 at 12:16 p.m.

ACAP urges policy changes to support community health plans

The Association for Community Affiliated Plans sent a letter to the Trump administration outlining a number of policy changes that could support community health plans through the COVID-19 pandemic.

ACAP wants the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to launch a federal special enrollment period and issue a temporary moratorium on short-term plans. In addition, the group is pushing the agency to consider allowing issuers to reinstate coverage for people who dropped out due to failure to pay premiums, and delay rate filing deadlines.

Plus, ACAP said CMS should consider delaying its interoperability rule, and coverage transparency rule.

ACAP said that 54 of its members signed a pledge to waive cost-sharing for Medicaid and Medicare members. There are some members who have extended that same promise to their exchange plan members, ACAP said.

"These efforts are already underway, along with plans’ efforts to support their providers, members, and staff over the coming months," ACAP wrote.

UPDATED: Thursday, March 16 at 4:25 p.m.

FDA relaxes compounding rules for hospitals

The Food and Drug Administration will allow hospitals to compound drugs needed to treat COVID-19 patients for the duration of the public health emergency.

The new guidance document released Thursday said that FDA has received “a number of reports related to increased demand and supply interruptions involving FDA-approved drug products used in the treatment of hospitalized patients with COVID-19.”

Many of the drugs listed in the guidance are related to the practice of intubating patients or other similar care related to patients with COVID-19.

The guidance applies to hospitals that have registered with the agency as an outsourcing facility. The agency has an existing list of drugs that outsourcing facilities can compound and the guidance adds a series of anesthesia and other types of drugs to that list.  

UPDATED: Thursday, April 16 at 9:10 a.m.

HCA, GE to help ramp ventilator supply

The Department of Health and Human Services announced a $336 million contract under the Defense Production Act to General Electric to develop ventilators in partnership with Ford. 

The contract calls for 50,000 ventilators to be produced by July 13.

In total, HHS said it now has finalized contracts to produce or acquire 41,000 ventilators by the end of May and more than 187,000 by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, HCA Healthcare announced it will provide up to 1,000 ventilators as part of the American Hospital Association’s collaboration with the federal government and health systems to distribute the equipment to hospitals experiencing surges. 

The Dynamic Ventilator Reserve will include an online inventory of ventilators and associated supplies, such as tubing and filters, to support the overall needs of combatting the COVID-19 pandemic, officials said. Hospitals and health systems will input into the database available equipment that they are able to lend to others.

Providers are then able to request access to this virtual inventory should their need for ventilators increase. The AHA will manage the inventory and work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to determine when ventilators might be needed to supplement the national emergency stockpile.

UPDATED: Wednesday, April 15 at 7:00 p.m.

White House COVID Task Force reports declining cases across the U.S.

Officials with the White House Coronavirus Task Force announced Wednesday that COVID-19 cases are declining across the country.

President Donald Trump also announced during a press briefing Wednesday that he would announce guidelines for states to start reopening communities on Thursday.

"It’s clear that our aggressive strategy is working. New cases are declining throughout the NYC metro area. Cases in the Detroit and Denver metro areas are flat. Washington DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia, St. Louis, are all showing great signs of progress. New cases in Houston and New Orleans are declining," Trump said.

"Data suggest that nationwide we have passed the peak on new cases," he said.

Trump specifically called out the use of telemedicine to help combat the spread of the virus. "[Telemedicine] has grown by leaps and bounds in the past few weeks. Going forward, it's going to be important for our country," he said.

Deborah Birx, M.D., White House coronavirus response coordinator, said cases have been declining across the country in the past six days, highlighting that social distancing measures have been effective in stopping the spread. The task force continues to study COVID case trends in individual states and metro areas, she said.

"We remain concerned about Rhode Island and Providence. Providence has seen increasing cases from the New York City area and now the Boston area, it's caught between two incredible hot spots in the country," Birx said.


UPDATED: Wednesday, April 15 at 12:43 p.m.

StartUp Health to launch 'Pandemic Response Moonshot' during music festival

StartUp Health will launch a new moonshot aimed at pandemic response during "One World: Together at Home," a virtual music festival airing this weekend.

The event, curated by Lady Gaga and featuring dozens of celebrity performances, will air Saturday globally.

StartUp Health said that the "Pandemic Response Moonshot" will be a multi-year effort to support entrepreneurs who are developing solutions to prepare for and manage pandemics. In the immediate future, the group plans to invest in 10 startups that are building tools to address COVID-19 or future pandemics, with the intent to continue investing in the coming months.

Interested startups can apply here.

UPDATED: Wednesday, April 15 at 10:41 a.m.

Optum CEO Andrew Witty to assist WHO with vaccine development

UnitedHealth Group president and Optum CEO will take a leave of absence from the insurance giant to join the World Health Organization's efforts to accelerate the development of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Witty will return to UnitedHealth when his work with WHO is over, which is likely to be at the end of 2020. Witty's appointment begins April 20. In the interim, UnitedHealth Group CEO David Wichmann will oversee Optum.

"I am deeply honored to help lead this mission to seek a COVID-19 vaccine and am confident the people of Optum will remain relentless in their work to help their customers, communities and each other each day," Witty said in a statement. "I look forward to rejoining them on the other side of this crisis to continue helping make the health system work better for everyone."

Wichmann said in a statement that the insurer was proud of Witty's decision to join the vaccine development effort and that the company has the utmost confidence that he'll be effective in accelerating that process.

Witty was named CEO of Optum in March 2018 and was tapped to serve as UnitedHealth Group president in November 2019. He was previously CEO of pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline.


UPDATED: Tuesday, April 14, at 6:27 p.m.

Public-private partnership to distribute ventilators

A new public-private partnership was announced Tuesday to help distribute ventilators from facilities to other hospitals at the forefront of the COVID-19 outbreak fight.

The Dynamic Ventilator Reserve is a voluntary effort that includes the participation of the American Hospital Association and several other hospital systems. The announcement comes after a meeting with AHA and hospital system leaders at the White House and as providers in hard-hit areas are still struggling to find more ventilators to treat COVID-19 patients.

“This voluntary effort is a great example of their commitment to help one another, and as well as their patients and communities," said AHA President and CEO Rick Pollack in a statement Tuesday.

The reserve has created an online inventory of ventilators and related supplies such as tubes and filters.

“Hospitals and health systems will input into the database available equipment that they are able to lend to others in the country,” according to a release on the effort. “Providers are then able to access this virtual inventory as their need increases.”

Currently, there are 60,000 ventilators that are not in use, said Adam Boehler, former head of the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Innovation during the White House press briefing Tuesday.

AHA said it will take the lead in managing the inventory and will work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency for when the virtual inventory may need to be supplemented from the federal stockpile of medical supplies.

So far 20 health systems and hospitals have signed on to the effort, including Cleveland Clinic and Mayo Clinic, Boehler said. CommonSpirit Health has also joined the effort.

UPDATED: Tuesday, April 14 at 4:50 p.m.

Cigna to offer virtual dental care

As more people embrace telehealth amid social distancing, Cigna is launching a new initiative to offer emergency dental consults virtually.

In a virtual visit, dentists can triage urgent needs such as pain, infection or swelling. When appropriate, they are able to prescribe antibiotics or pain medication through these visits, Cigna said.

The teledentistry visits will be available through Cigna's network dentists who offer telehealth and in partnership with The Teledentists, a national provider with more than 300 dentists.

Virtual dental care will be made available at no cost in Cigna's employer-sponsored health plans through May 31.

"We fast-tracked our efforts to launch Cigna Dental Virtual Care to help dentists and their patients access an urgent dental consult while minimizing their risk of COVID-19 exposure," said Frederick E. Scardellette, vice president of Cigna dental and vision, in a statement. "This virtual solution is a simple and convenient option to help our customers access care during this unprecedented time."

UPDATED: Tuesday, April 14 at 12:25 p.m.

Penn State, CHIME team up on global COVID-19 survey

Penn State University researchers have launched a global online survey to better understand public misconceptions about COVID-19 and identify populations whose behaviors put them at risk of infection.

Penn State has teamed up with the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME) to distribute the survey, which is anonymous and offered in 20 languages.

The first round of data collection will end at midnight EDT April 20.

“As the world takes on the COVID-19 pandemic, the value of good information and the dangers of misinformation have become clear,” said Robert P. Lennon, M.D., an associate professor of family and community medicine at Penn State College of Medicine. “In fact, misinformation has always been one of the greatest challenges of pandemic infection. Only by understanding public misconceptions, planned compliance with prevention practices like social distancing and preferred information sources can we effectively ensure maximum public participation and minimize the spread of infection.”

A Penn State College of Medicine team developed the questionnaire to measure public knowledge about COVID-19, their intentions to follow recommended safety practices such as social distancing and hand washing, and their preferred method of receiving new information.

CHIME built the technology infrastructure for the survey along with its distribution. With members in 56 countries and 11 international chapters, CHIME will help distribute the survey on a global scale using platforms such as social media as well as partnerships with other organizations. 

“At its core, this is really about saving lives,” said Russell Branzell, CHIME’s president and CEO. “It is critical that we reach as many people as possible and as quickly as we can. CHIME can help by using our membership, our strong relationships across the global healthcare ecosystem and our digital tools to distribute the link to the survey.”

UPDATED: Tuesday, April 14 at 12:02 p.m.

Kaiser Permanente expands benefits for frontline workers

Kaiser Permanente rolled out expanded benefits on Monday to frontline healthcare workers fighting the COVID-19 outbreak.

The temporary benefits include an additional 80 hours of paid leave for employees and physicians positive for the virus, childcare grants of up to $300 a week to help secure care for school-age children and short-term housing near the medical centers and specialty hubs to help those needing temporary or alternate housing.

“We recognize many of our staff are managing sudden and sometimes difficult changes in their personal and family lives while at the same time taking on these unprecedented challenges at work,” the system said.

Childcare has been a major issue for healthcare providers as schools have closed.

UPDATED: Monday, April 13 at 3:23 p.m.

Stanford Medicine is using data and digital tools to predict the next COVID-19 surge

UPDATED: Monday, April 13 at 12:08 p.m.

Cigna launches new program to connect with isolated seniors

The elderly, a population already at high-risk for isolation, are likely to be significantly impacted by social distancing amid COVID-19.

So, health insurer Cigna has launched a new program to boost social connectivity for 24,000 Medicare Advantage members. Cigna staffers are reaching out proactively to seniors in the program to check on their well-being, and participants can opt-in to receive further calls to help alleviate their loneliness.

"Our deep research into loneliness has shown us the undeniable correlation between our emotional and physical health," said Douglas Nemecek, M.D., chief medical officer of behavioral health at Cigna, in a statement. "With so many older Americans living alone and sheltering in place right now, we want to go the extra mile to help support, engage and connect with them during this unprecedented time."

Cigna is looking to rapidly expand further to reach more MA members.

Cigna workers also made 2,500 cards to be distributed at senior communities, which are largely not accepting visitors at this time, through Bring Smiles to Seniors.

UPDATED: Friday, April 10 at 1:25 p.m.

AHIP to make annual meeting virtual

America’s Health Insurance Plans, the top insurance lobbying group in the U.S., announced it will move its annual AHIP Institute & Expo 2020 expected to take place June 16-18 to a virtual setting. It was originally supposed to take place in Miami.

AHIP said on Tuesday that it will bring the keynote presentation, panel discussions and other sessions from remote locations.

“Attendees can also participate in Q&A with speakers, engage with each other and meet with exhibitors,” AHIP said.

The expo is the latest major healthcare conference to be delayed, cancelled or go virtual.

Major conferences such as HIMSS20 and the World Health Care Congress decided to cancel or be postponed as the novel coronavirus started to spread at a higher rate in the U.S.

UPDATED: Thursday, April 9, at 12:27 p.m.

Walgreens rolls out new telehealth features, digital health tools

Walgreens has expanded its Walgreens Find Care digital platform to include new telehealth services, a COVID-19 risk assessment tool and Find My Clinical Trial program.

The launch of new digital health tools coincides with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to use telehealth to help address medical needs while supporting social distancing, an important step in managing the impact of COVID-19, the company said.

Through the Walgreens digital platform, patients can now connect with more than 30 providers who treat over 100 conditions. 

Walgreens has rolled out a COVID-19 Risk Assessment, powered by Microsoft Healthcare Bot which runs on Microsoft Azure, to help users assess their risk of COVID-19 based on CDC guidelines. Additionally, on Walgreens Find Care, patients can learn more about COVID-19 clinical trials by using the Find My Clinical Trial program.

Use of the Walgreens mobile app is up 22% compared to the same time last year and 12% year-to-date as more patients turn to digital health services during the pandemic, according to the company.

“Connecting patients to telehealth services from trusted local providers is more important now than ever before as people turn to digital solutions to help minimize exposure to COVID-19,” said Richard Ashworth, Walgreens President.

UPDATED: Thursday, April 9, at 12:13 p.m.

AMA provides new resource guide for retired physicians

The biggest doctor group in the country is putting together a resource guide for volunteer physicians pressed into service to combat COVID-19.

The guide released Thursday by the American Medical Association provides a “curated selection of helpful health resources from across the nation,” the group said.

“With up-to-date information just a click away, frontline physicians and health care workers will have what they need to tackle the challenges of COVID-19,” said AMA President Patrice Harris.

So far seven states — California, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, New Jersey, New York and Washington —have created registration sites for physicians and healthcare professionals to volunteer and help overwhelmed providers.

AMA added the continually updated platform will connect physicians with states requesting volunteer medical personnel and provide information on licensure requirements and registration.


UPDATED: Thursday, April 9 at 11:58 a.m.

VA hits pause on Cerner EHR project; Trump appoints new acting VA Deputy Secretary

President Donald Trump has ordered Pamela Powers, the Department of Veterans Affairs' chief of staff to serve as VA's acting deputy secretary.

Powers began duties as deputy VA secretary April 2 and will concurrently hold both of her current roles indefinitely, the department said.

In February, former VA Deputy Secretary James Byrne was abruptly dismissed. In his five months at the agency, Byrne was a key leader updating members of Congress on the progress and challenges of the VA's electronic health record implementation project.

The VA also is hitting pause on its $16 billion EHR project to transition from its customized VistA platform to a Cerner EHR system. VA Secretary Robert Wilkie confirmed the delay in a letter to Congress, writing that he had directed the agency's office of EHR modernization to take a "non-intrusive posture."

It's the second delay in recent months. The VA decided in mid-February to push off its go-live date for the new EHR at its first VA hospital. The VA had planned to flip the switch on the new EHR at Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center in Spokane, Washington on March 28. The VA recently announced it was delaying those plans to commence end-user training. The go-live date has been pushed to July, at the earliest.

Cerner said in a statement that it "fully supports the VA’s decision to adopt a non-intrusive posture."

"Cerner is actively working with VA to reassess and revise deployment timelines while pushing forward on critical elements of the program including but not limited to: launching the new joint HIE (health information exchange), technical build, interfaces, IP and program management – keeping the electronic health record modernization on track for a successful go-live," the company said.


UPDATED: Thursday, April 9 at 11:31 a.m.

Insurer groups urge Congress to mitigate COVID-19 coverage losses

The two biggest insurance industry groups sent a letter (PDF) to leaders in Congress, asking them to take several steps to address ongoing coverage losses due to COVID-19.

America's Health Insurance Plans and the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association wrote in the letter that as more Americans become unemployed due to the pandemic, they need support to maintain health coverage.

Steps the groups suggest include subsides for employers to maintain benefits, which should be maid available to employers of all sizes, and full federal subsidization of COBRA benefits for workers who've lost their jobs.

AHIP and BCBSA also call for a special enrollment period on the Affordable Care Act exchanges, and for risk mitigation programs in commercial plans, Medicare Advantage and Part D.

"The steps we lay out here are critical to assure that people can maintain the coverage and care that they need and that health insurance providers can continue to partner with their members, provider partners and communities to provide the coverage that people count on," the groups wrote.


UPDATED: Wednesday, April 8, at 9:21 p.m.

HHS releases tracking tool on COVID-19 grants

Health and Human Services has updated its website called the Tracking Accountbility in Government Grants System with new information on the grants and funding awarded to providers associated with fighting the COVID-19 outbreak.

The announcement late Wednesday comes a day after the Trump administration said it will disperse $30 billion in grants to providers this week. The grants are part of a $100 billion fund passed with the latest economic stimulus package.

The website details not just funding from the stimulus but other appropriations that Congress has made over the past month to help providers combat the COVID-19 outbreak, which has wreaked hospital finances.

The TAGGS website includes a map detailing the amounts given out to each state and the amounts each agency has delivered.

UPDATED: Wednesday, April 8, at 2:27 p.m.

MUSC Health to lay off 900 workers

As provider finances continue to take a hit amid the COVID-19 pandemic, many are turning to lay offs, furloughs and pay cuts to stay afloat.

One of the latest is MUSC Health, based in Charleston, S.C., which will temporarily 900 healthcare workers and cut pay for remaining employees, WCSC 5 reported.

Leadership will take a 20% salary reduction, and other employees will see a 15% pay cut. Hourly paid workers who are not caring for patients directly will see their time at work cut back.

President David Cole called the layoffs and pay cuts a "workforce realignment" as COVID-19 puts strain on the health system's finances.

"I wish the reality we are confronting were a different one," Cole wrote in a latter to staffers obtained by WCSC. "I hope there is some small comfort in knowing that we will do all that we possibly can to ensure that such large-scale disruption to individuals’ lives, in and outside of MUSC, is not in vain and as short as possible."

UPDATED: Wednesday, April 8, at 12:42 p.m.

Study: COVID-19 costs could hit $556 billion over two years

A new study estimates that health plans could see as much as $556 billion in costs related to testing and treatment for the novel coronavirus over the next two years.

The analysis, backed by America's Health Insurance Plans and conducted by Wakely Consulting Group, estimates that a midrange impact of the pandemic could sicken more than 50 million Americans and lead to 5.5 million hospitalizations, of which 1.3 million will be in intensive care.

The analysis is based on data on the pandemic from between March 20 and 28.

Depending on how far the virus spreads, the consultants estimate costs on the low end at $56 billion through 2020 and 2021.

"Protecting Americans’ health and financial stability always has been, and always will be, our first priority,” said Matt Eyles, president and CEO of AHIP. “This new data provides us with better insight to help policymakers, private sector leaders, and other stakeholders understand the investments required to successfully care for every American subjected to this life-threatening virus."

UPDATED: Wednesday, April 8, at 12:23 p.m.

HHS awards $1.3B to health centers for COVID-19 response

The Department of Health and Human Services has awarded $1.8 billion to nearly 1,400 community health centers to assist with their response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The funds were made available by the sweeping $2 trillion stimulus bill, or the CARES Act, and are provided through the Health Resources and Services Administration. The funding may be used to assist to detect the virus, assist in treatment and prevention and to maintain or increase staffing levels as necessary.

"This new funding secured by President Trump will help our community health centers continue the work they're doing on the ground against the coronavirus," said HHS Secretary Alex Azar. "HRSA-funded health centers are already playing a critical role by delivering essential services, serving as community testing and screening sites, and alleviating burdens on our nation's emergency rooms and hospitals."

UPDATED: Wednesday, April 8, at 11:22 a.m.

Democratic congressional leaders press for another $100B for hospitals

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called for an additional economic stimulus package to combat the COVID-19 outbreak, and among the demands are $100 billion for hospitals. 

The congressional leaders sent out a statement Wednesday calling for the extra funding as part of a $500 billion package that would also contain funding for small businesses and state and local governments, according to a report on CNBC.

Congress already passed a $2.2 trillion economic stimulus package a few weeks ago that included $100 billion for hospitals. 

But providers have questioned if the $100 billion is going to be enough as their revenues dwindle and capacity must ramp up to combat COVID-19.

UPDATED: Tuesday, April 7 at 3:18 p.m.

At-home medical kit maker Tyto Care raises $50M as demand for virtual care soars

Tyto Care has raised $50 million in its latest funding round as interest in virtual care solutions grows amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The company makes an at-home medical exam and telehealth device kit. The funding round, co-led by Insight Partners, Olive Tree Ventures, and Qualcomm Ventures LLC, brings the company’s total funding to over $105 million.

Previous investors including Orbimed, Echo Health, Qure, and Teuza also participated in the oversubscribed funding round.

In the wake of COVID-19, health systems and hospitals are expanding their use of telehealth and remote monitoring technologies to treat infected patients and help stem the spread of COVID-19.

"Since the start of the crisis, we’ve seen an increase in demand from both consumers and health systems," said Dedi Gilad, CEO and co-founder of Tyto Care.

UPDATED: Tuesday, April 7 at 10:52 a.m.

Lyft grows access to non-emergency transport amid pandemic

Lyft said Tuesday that its ride-share services will be covered by Medicaid in Florida, Indiana and South Carolina, the latest partnerships for non-emergency transport coverage.

The ride-share company said in a blog post that these benefits can be critical in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lyft said that it's also working with health systems to provide transportation for health workers and expanding delivery partnerships.

"Lyft can play an essential role supporting public health and helping keep our communities safe during this crisis," the company said. "Today more than ever, we have a shared responsibility to support each other, and we’ll continue to do everything we can to help make reliable transportation available to patients and healthcare workers during these challenging times."

UPDATED: Monday, April 6 at 6:11 p.m.

Trump: $30 billion to be distributed this week to hospitals

President Trump announced that $30 billion will be distributed to hospitals this week as more and more systems furlough workers.

Trump did not divulge how the funding, which is part of the $100 billion fund passed with the economic stimulus package, will be diverted to hospitals.

Hospital groups have been pressing the administration to provide direct assistance to hospitals as soon as possible. Systems have faced low patient volume and dwindling revenue due to the cancellation of elective procedures.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services previously announced it expanded the agency’s accelerated and advance payment program to all providers to get faster Medicare payments to facilities.

UPDATED: Monday, April 6 at 12:51 p.m.

Hilton, American Express donate up to 1 million room nights for healthcare workers 

McLean, Va.-based hotel chain Hilton and financial giant American Express announced Monday they are teaming up to donate up to 1 million hotel room nights.

Starting next week, the rooms will be made available for free to doctors, nurses, EMTs, paramedics and other frontline medical staff who need a place to sleep, recharge or isolate from their families through the end of May.

Hilton is initially working with 10 associations that collectively represent more than 1 million healthcare workers to provide access to the program. Those associations include the American Association of Critical Care Nurses, the American College of Emergency Physician, the American Hospital Association, the American Nurses Association, the Emergency Medicine Residents’ Association, the Emergency Nurses Association, the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians, the Society of Critical Care Medicine, the Society of Emergency Medicine Physician Assistants and the Society of Hospital Medicine.

The rooms are aimed at helping individuals who might have otherwise had to spend their own money on the accommodations.

“During this crisis, we have seen so many examples of medical professionals working in the most challenging circumstances, sacrificing their own needs for the greater good. They truly are heroes,” said Hilton President and CEO, Christopher J. Nassetta said in a statement. “We are honored to extend our Hilton hospitality to them during this difficult time.”

American Express is joining in Hilton in the donation of the rooms, which will be provided at or below cost by Hilton’s network of independent owners and franchisees. Rooms will be available across a variety of Hilton brands, including Hampton by Hilton, Hilton Garden Inn, DoubleTree by Hilton and others. Officials said the hotels will be "staffed by team members who have received additional training on relevant health and safety measures to safeguard their own and their guests’ well-being."

UPDATED: Monday, April 6 at 11:47 a.m.

CVS launches drive-thru testing sites in Georgia, Rhode Island

CVS Health announced Monday that it has teamed up with local officials in Georgia and Rhode Island to launch new drive-thru COVID-19 testing sites.

Licensed MinuteClinic providers will oversee the sites, CVS said, and testing will be available at no cost. CVS opened its first drive-thru testing location in Massachusetts on March 19, and the lessons learned there will be brought to Georgia and Rhode Island.

"Thanks to our partnerships with state officials and the utilization of advanced technology, our providers will be able to test large numbers of people in these states and make real-time decisions about treatment and appropriate next steps," said Troyen Brennan, M.D., chief medical officer and executive vice president of CVS Health, in a statement.

The testing sites will use the new Abbott ID NOW test.

UPDATED: Monday, April 6 at 11:17 a.m.

Omada expands access to mental health program for employers, health plans

Omada Health is making its program for stress, anxiety, and depression accessible at no cost for the next six months to all U.S.-based employers and commercial health plans.

The digital health company is well-known for its online diabetes prevention program that uses digital tools and coaching.

Omada uses a similar approach for its Omada for its behavioral health program that incorporates clinically validated, evidence-based methods and matches participants with dedicated behavioral health coaches.

The company said employers and health plans, and their covered populations will now have access to behavioral health coaching powered by Omada’s technology to provide real human support and teach techniques that reduce symptoms. The offer comes as more than 60% of Americans have reported increased stress or anxiety due to COVID-19, the company said.

“We are living in a moment of collective, and unprecedented, stress and anxiety,” said Omada CEO and Co-Founder Sean Duffy. “Omada has the opportunity—and the ability—to deliver personalized support to people as they deal with the impact of a situation unlike anything we’ve experienced. Our coaches, and our digital care program, are uniquely positioned to provide human expertise and empathy at scale. For the next six months, we are here for any organization that wants to provide Omada for Behavioral Health to their populations.”

Interested organizations can email: [email protected].

UPDATED: Monday, April 6 at 10:34 a.m.

AHIP reaches out to hospitals to combat COVID-19

America’s Health Insurance Plans, the top insurance industry lobbying group, told a major hospital group that it is working to expedite processing of claims and other moves to help facilities get through the COVID-19 outbreak.

But the group stopped short of pledging to eliminate prior authorization and certain payment edits that can delay payments to hospitals strapped for cash.

The American Hospital Association wrote to leaders of the top insurers and lobbying groups on Friday urging them to help hospitals that are low on cash due to fewer patients coming in and the cancellation of elective procedures.

The letter asked for insurers to provide periodic interim payments and/or accelerated payments for the duration of the public health emergency. The Trump administration is doing something similar for the Medicare program.  

It also called for providing adequate coverage and reimbursement of services for hospitals and in alternative sites of care.

AHIP wrote to the AHA on Monday that insurers want to help hospitals that are under “enormous clinical and financial stress and health insurance providers stand strong with you.”

AHIP said insurers are largely waiving costs and treatment for COVID-19 patients, expanding access to telehealth, and partnering to “accelerate the pace of patient treatment, transfers, discharges and payments to eliminate administrative work.”

The group added that providers are eliminating administrative work to help hospitals and providers and that insurers are “committed to expediting claims processing to ensure that payments are paid as quickly as possible.”

But AHIP's letter doesn’t mention waiving prior authorization, which providers say creates major administrative burdens but insurers employ to control costs on pricey drugs.

UPDATED: Saturday, April 4 at 6:30 p.m.

White House says next two weeks will be "deadly"

President Donald Trump warned Saturday that the next two weeks would be "deadly" in the U.S. 

Speaking during a White House Coronavirus Task Force press briefing about the federal government's response to the outbreak, Trump said, "Over the next week and two weeks, this is going to be a deadly period. We’re going to make it so we lose as few lives as possible."

Deborah Birx, M.D., the White House's coronavirus response coordinator, said hot spot locations such as Louisiana, Detroit and New York City and "bedroom communities" around those metro areas are predicted to hit peak mortality for coronavirus cases in the next "six to seven days."

Birx referenced data from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, an independent global health research center at the University of Washington. According to IHME, New York is projected to hit peak daily deaths from COVID on April 10 with 855 deaths.

Trump also announced at the briefing that some 1,000 military troops, mostly doctors and nurses, are deploying to New York City.

On the subject of critical medical supplies, Trump said he would use the Defense Production Act for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to order 180 million masks for medical workers.

Birx also said the task force had concerns about rising cases in Pennsylvania, Colorado and Washington D.C.

"We’re watching them because they are starting to go on the upside of the curve. We’re hoping and believing that if people mitigate strongly, the work that they did over last two weeks will blunt that curve and won’t have the same upward slope and peak that New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and parts of Rhode Island are having," she said.

She added, "The next two weeks are extraordinarily important," referring to the need for people to maintain social distancing guidelines.

Vice President Mike Pence and White House officials also praised the work of U.S. healthcare workers during the outbreak.

"I don’t think people can appreciate the extraordinary efforts by these people," said Anthony Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. "These brave warriors in the hospitals are giving life saving treatment to people and every single day putting themselves at risk. We owe a phenomenal debt of gratitude to these people."

UPDATED: Friday, April 3 at 7:00 p.m.

CDC recommends general public wear "non-medical cloth-based" masks 

President Donald Trump said Friday that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that Americans wear "non-medical, cloth" masks in public.

Recent studies have shown that the transmission of the virus from individuals without symptoms is playing a more significant role in the spread of the virus than what was previously believed.

"In light of these studies, the CDC is advising the use of non-medical cloth-based covering as part of voluntary public health measures," Trump said during a White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing.

“You can do it. You don’t have to do it. I’m choosing not to do it,” Trump said. “It’s only a recommendation.”

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, M.D., said the CDC and the World Health Organization had originally recommended against the general public wearing masks. "The best evidence available at the time indicated that masks were not deemed to have a significant impact on a healthy person contracting COVID. We always recommend that symptomatic persons wear masks."

He added, "We now know from recent studies that a significant portion of people with COVID lack symptoms. In light of new evidence, CDC and the Task Force recommends Americans wear cloth-based masks" to slow the spread of the virus.

The CDC is recommending the use of "basic cloth or fabric masks made at home or purchased online" and face coverings that can be easily washed or reused.

The CDC is not recommending the use of surgical grade or medical grade masks by the general public.

"Surgical masks or N95 respirators should continue to be reserved for healthcare workers," Adams said.

In response to the guidance, the American Hospital Association, the American Medical Association, and the American Nurses Association issued a statement calling on the public to "be mindful of the need to ensure N95 respirators and medical-grade surgical masks remain prioritized for doctors, nurses and other front line caregivers and workers."

"As this pandemic spreads, our organizations will continue to urge that all levers be used by both the government and private sector to ensure front line caregivers have the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) they need to protect themselves and their patients," the healthcare groups wrote.

 UPDATED: Friday, April 3 at 3:20 p.m.

Healthcare lost 43K jobs in March

More than 43,000 healthcare jobs were lost in March, according to the latest federal data.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports total nonfarm payroll employment fell by 701,000 in March, and the unemployment rate rose to 4.4% as a result of the effects of COVID-19 and efforts to contain it.

Employment in hospitality and leisure saw the steepest declines last month, with employment falling by about 459,000 jobs.

However, employment in healthcare and social assistance felt the pain with a total loss of about 61,000 jobs in March.

Healthcare employment, specifically, dropped by 43,000 with about 12,000 job losses from doctors' offices, about 17,000 job losses from dentists' offices and about 7,000 job losses from the offices of other healthcare practitioners.

UPDATED: Friday, April 3 at 10:50 a.m.

Blues plans to waive cost-sharing for COVID-19 treatment

The Blue Cross Blue Shield Association announced that its member plans will waive cost-sharing and copayments for treatment related to COVID-19.

The waivers will be available to people enrolled in Medicare, individual market and fully insured employer plans through May 31.

“It is important that our members feel safe and secure during these unprecedented times, which is why we are committed to ensuring our members who are dealing with a diagnosis of COVID-19 can easily access the care they need,” said Scott Serota, BCBSA president and CEO, in a statement.

Blues plans are also working with state officials to ensure access to testing and care for members in Medicaid and CHIP, BCBSA said.

UPDATED: Thursday, April 2, at 3:36 p.m.

HHS allows business partners to share COVID patient data under HIPAA

The Department of Health and Human Services has taken steps to provide guidance for healthcare business associates, such as collections agencies, financial institutions, and technology companies, that share patient data as part of efforts to combat the coronavirus.

In a notification of enforcement discretion published today, the HHS' Office for Civil Right said that it will not impose penalties for violations of certain provisions of the HIPAA Privacy Rule against health care providers or their business associates for the "good faith uses and disclosures" of protected health information.

This follows earlier guidance from OCR indicating that the HIPAA Privacy Rule permits healthcare providers to share COVID-19 patients' medical information without their express authorization to help protect first responders from the risk of infection.

The latest notification (PDF) was issued to support federal public health authorities and health oversight agencies, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), state and local health departments, and state emergency operations centers who need access to COVID-19 related data, including protected health information, OCR said.

The HIPAA Privacy Rule already permits covered entities to provide this data, and today's announcement now permits business associates to also share this data without risk of a HIPAA penalty, according to OCR.

"The CDC, CMS, and state and local health departments need quick access to COVID-19 related health data to fight this pandemic," said Roger Severino, OCR Director. "Granting HIPAA business associates greater freedom to cooperate and exchange information with public health and oversight agencies can help flatten the curve and potentially save lives."

UPDATED: Thursday, April 2, at 1:34 p.m.

Molina joins other insurers in waiving COVID-19 treatment costs

Molina Healthcare became the latest insurer to waive all COVID-19 out-of-pocket costs for any Medicare, Medicaid and Affordable Care Act marketplace customers.

The insurer joins UnitedHealth, Humana, Aetna, Cigna and Anthem alongside some regional plans in waiving cost-sharing for any treatment.

“The coronavirus health crisis is having a devastating effect on our most vulnerable populations and Molina is committed to supporting the swift testing and immediate treatment for all members that require it at no cost to them,” said Dr. Jason Dees, executive vice president and chief medical officer for Molina.

Molina and other major insurers have largely waived co-pays for testing for COVID-19.

UPDATED: Thursday, April 2, at 1:05 p.m.

AHA wants private payers to do more to address COVID-19

The American Hospital Association sent a letter to five of the biggest U.S. insurers — Aetna, Anthem, Cigna, Humana and UnitedHealthcare — urging them the join hospitals in the fight “ensure that the health care system is there for anyone who needs care.”

AHA also set the letter to America's Health Insurance Plans and the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, the industry's largest trade groups.

The hospital group is asking for private insurers to take up similar steps as the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, such as allowing providers to opt into accelerated payments.

"Inadequate financial resources and cash flow threaten hospitals’ ability to remain staffed and open," AHA wrote. "While Congress and the Administration have taken a number of steps to address these issues, their actions alone cannot fill the gap resulting from reduced revenue from private insurance."

The hospitals also want insurers to eliminate processes that can slow payments, such as prior authorization.

UPDATED: Thursday, April 2, at 12:09 p.m.

Democrats demand ACA special enrollment period

A group of House and Senate Democrats blasted President Trump’s refusal to reopen enrollment in Affordable Care Act exchanges.

Democrats issued a joint statement on April 1 saying that reopening enrollment can help to bolster insurance coverage during the COVID-19 outbreak.

While there is a special enrollment period for people who have lost their jobs, creating a new enrollment period for everyone can help people who are uninsured or underinsured, the statement said.

“The Affordable Care Act’s marketplaces can serve a critical role in helping people access the care they need,” the statement added.

Reps. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., Richard Neal, D-Mass., Bobby Scott, D-VA., signed the statement alongside Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

UPDATED: Thursday, April 2 at 11:53 a.m.

HCSC to offer special enrollment period

Health Care Services Corporation announced that it is offering a special enrollment period to its fully insured employer group plans, which began on April 1.

Employees at these eligible companies will have the option to opt into coverage if they did not select a plan during the initial enrollment window. Covered workers who wish to add a spouse or dependent to their plans will also be able to do so during the special enrollment period, which ends April 30.

The enrollment period extends only to medical and dental coverage, HCSC said.

“These are extraordinary times and an extraordinary response is needed," said Greg Thompson, HCSC spokesperson, in a statement. "We are stepping up to help meet the health care coverage needs of as many people as possible by opening up a special enrollment period.”

UPDATED: Thursday, April 2 at 10:51 a.m.

DOJ and HHS to distribute supplies confiscated from price gougers

The Trump administration is distributing hoarded personal protective equipment to providers in New York and New Jersey.

The supplies were discovered by the Federal Bureau of Investigation on March 30 as part of a task force to target hoarding and price gouging during the COVID-19 outbreak.

The supplies found included 598,000 gloves, 130,000 surgical masks, procedure masks, N100 masks, gowns, disinfectant towels, particulate filters, bottles of hand sanitizer and spray disinfectant, according to a release issued on Thursday.

“Cracking down on the hoarding of vital supplies allows us to distribute this material to the heroic healthcare workers on the frontlines who are most in need,” said HHS Secretary Alex Azar in a statement.

HHS will pay the owner of the equipment fair market value for the supplies and “has begun distributing to meet the critical need for the supplies among healthcare workers in New York and New Jersey,” the release said.

UPDATED: Wednesday, April 1 at 3:15 p.m.

FCC chief unveils $200M program to boost telehealth

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai wants to use $200 million from the economic stimulus package to expand telehealth services across the country.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump last week, earmarks the funds for the FCC to help healthcare providers offering telehealth.

The COVID-19 Telehealth Program, which Pai proposed as a draft order Monday, would have to be approved by the commission before launching.

Pai said the program will provide immediate support to healthcare providers using virtual care in combating the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"As we self-isolate and engage in social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth will continue to become more and more important across the country. Our nation’s health care providers are under incredible and still increasing, strain as they fight the pandemic," Pai said in a press release.

If adopted by the commission, the program would offer qualified healthcare providers full funding to buy “telecommunications services, information services and devices necessary to enable the provision of telehealth services during this emergency period.”

UPDATED: Tuesday, March 31 at 7:15 p.m.

White House task force projects between 100,000 and 240,000 could die

The latest projections from the White House Coronavirus Task Force predict between 100,000 and 240,000 people in the U.S. will die from the coronavirus under the social distancing guidelines extended through April 30.

But, they say, that number could be far higher in the absence of those mitigation strategies, potentially stretching to between 1.5 million and 2.2 million deaths. 

"This begins in the middle and the end with community, this community of American people, that are going to have to do the things for the next 30 days to make a difference," said Deborah Birx, M.D., who serves as the response coordinator for the task force. "

UPDATED: Tuesday, March 31 at 11:15 a.m.

Florida Blue waives cost-sharing for COVID-19 treatment

Florida Blue is the latest insurer to waive member cost-sharing for treatment for the novel coronavirus.

The waiver extends through June 1 and is available to members in its Medicare Advantage, individual market and fully-insured employer group plans. Florida Blue is also working with its self-insured employers to make these waivers available.

"Many in our state are already facing financial uncertainty due to this health crisis, and we do not want the fear of health care costs preventing them from seeking potentially life-saving treatment for COVID-19," said Pat Geraghty, Florida Blue president and CEO.

Aetna, Cigna and Humana have also committed to waive cost-sharing for treatment.

UPDATED: Tuesday, March 31 at 10:07 a.m.

Alignment Healthcare launches crisis meal delivery program

Medicare Advantage insurer Alignment Healthcare has launched a meal delivery program to assist members who may not be able to access food amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Under the program, eligible members, including those below the poverty line and those who live alone, are provided with two weeks worth of meals.

“Beyond providing clinical support for COVID-19, we could not ignore the additional challenges our members now face, especially that of food insecurity as seniors are left to fend for themselves or risk exposure at public grocery stores,” said John Kao, CEO of Alignment Healthcare, in a statement. “That’s why the team at Alignment mobilized quickly to deploy a volunteer meal delivery program."

Alignment's team has delivered 3,000 meals so far in partnership with Mom's Meals and Meals on Wheels Orange County to members across four California counties. More than 400 meals are delivered per day.

The insurer is both providing meals to those who request them and also reaching out to the members most at risk.

UPDATED: Monday, March 30 at 2:03 p.m.

Federal watchdog offers providers flexibility on deadlines

Health and Human Services’ watchdog pledged to work with providers that face major deadlines for quality issues.

HHS’ Office of the Inspector General said in a letter to providers on Monday that if a healthcare organization needs an extension of any OIG deadlines to “produce data for an OIG review or to comply with a Corporate Integrity Agreement, are encouraged to ask their OIG contact.”

The inspector general added that it will work with organizations on a “reasonable solution.”

OIG also said during the COVID-19 emergency that it will work hard to “meet its mission while respecting the great challenges currently facing the healthcare industry.”

Several HHS agencies have sought to provide regulatory relief for healthcare organizations facing the strain of the COVID-19 outbreak. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has pushed back reporting deadlines for providers in value-based programs.

UPDATED: Monday, March 30 at 1:34 p.m.

MassHealth, Maven partner to provide free telehealth services

MassHealth is partnering with women and family health startup Maven to provide free telemedicine appointments for members with COVID-19 symptoms.

MassHealth is the Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program in Massachusetts.

MassHealth members will be connected through an online navigation tool to Maven providers through on-demand chat and video appointments 24 hours a day through the use of any web-enabled device.

"During the COVID-19 emergency, MassHealth has made unprecedented efforts to eliminate barriers to health care access, including expansive coverage of telehealth services," said Acting Medicaid Director Amanda Cassel Kraft. "We are excited to announce this partnership with Maven ​to provide medical support to our members seeking guidance on COVID-19 symptoms or risk factors."

In the wake of COVID-19, women and families are dealing with a myriad of health concerns, from managing conditions related to a high-risk pregnancy to being discharged from hospitals soon after giving birth to caring for a newborn. T

“This pandemic has raised serious concerns for millions of women who are pregnant or have just given birth,” said Kate Ryder, Founder and CEO of Maven. “We have doctors available around the clock to support MassHealth members and alleviate the burden on the healthcare system during this public health crisis. Massachusetts has long been a leader in healthcare and other states should look to their innovative response to this crisis as a model.”

Maven has developed dedicated COVID-19 resources including a Covid-19 support section in its member app for those looking to connect with specific providers and specific Maven provider in-app resources with the most up-to-date information regarding Covid-19.

UPDATED: Sunday, March 29 at 7:27 p.m.

Trump extends social distancing through April 

During a speech in the White House Rose Garden, President Donald Trump announced he is extending social distancing guidelines across the country to last April 30 in response to COVID-19 concerns. 

Trump said the latest data shows the country should hit a peak number of deaths in the next two weeks and urged Americans to continue to stay home to curb the spread of the virus.

"Nothing would be worse than to declare victory before the victory is won. That would be the greatest loss of all," Trump said. "Therefore, the next two weeks and during this period, it’s important everyone strongly follow the guidelines."

More information would be announced on Tuesday, he said.

During his speech, Trump also announced Humana and Cigna committed to waiving co-pays, co-insurance and deductibles related to COVID-19 treatment. 

He also announced that, on Friday, the Food and Drug Administration developed a new COVID-19 test developed by Abbott Labs that can produce a result within five minutes. They've committed to delivering 50,000 new tests each day starting this week, he said. 

"That's a whole new ballgame," Trump said. "The deployment of rapid testing will vastly accelerate our ability to monitor, track, contain and ultimately defeat the virus. We will defeat the virus. It will also allow us to test doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers immediately and to act quickly and aggressively to shut down the spread of the virus."

UPDATED: Friday, March 27 at 5:27 p.m.

President Trump signs $2T stimulus bill; invokes Defense Production Act

During an oval office ceremony on Friday, President Donald Trump signed the $2 trillion economic stimulus package aimed at addressing the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic into law. 

He was joined by members of Republican leadership, Cabinet members and the 'Coronavirus Task Force.' 

The package includes major requirements for insurers to cover diagnostics and services associated with COVID-19 and gives some flexibility to hospitals. A major part of the legislation is $100 billion to hospitals to help them meet the COVID-19 pandemic. The bill also includes massive unemployment assistance and help to businesses.

Trump also said he would invoke the Defense Production Act to require General Motors to prioritize contracts to produce breathing ventilators.

UPDATED: Friday, March 27 at 1:17 p.m. 

Nancy Pelosi (C-SPAN)

Pelosi promises healthcare 'help is on the way'

As the House wrapped up its deliberations on Friday afternoon over the massive stimulus package sent over from the Senate, Speaker Nancy Pelosi urged members and Americans to think about the package as a "downpayment," rather than a final solution.

Even as Congress was passing its third package to respond to the coronavirus in recent weeks, she said, they must also advance a fourth bill. 

"For our fight against the coronavirus, our state and local governments will need vastly more support for preventing, preparing for and responding to the crisis," Pelosi said during remarks on the floor at the U.S. Capitol. "Hospitals and health systems still need vast infusions of funding so they can treat those in needs."

She also said Congress must provide more funding to protect healthcare workers. 

"This has been a constant theme on both sides of the aisle: Our gratitude for our healthcare workers. They are our heroes. We are thankful and grateful for them. We pray for them. But we need to do more for them than just to say those words," Pelosi said. "Our frontline healthcare workers — whether they be emergency doctors or firefighters or law enforcement — face a dire lack of personal protective equipment. PPE ... We must ensure the President uses the Defense Production Act to its full extent to provide the tools we need to combat this crisis." 

UPDATED: Friday, March 27 at 11:27 p.m.

JAMA issues call for PPE conservation ideas

They say necessity is the mother of invention.

So the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) is issuing a nationwide call for creativity when it comes to conserving personal protective equipment. 

"We seek creative immediate solutions for how to maximize the use of PPE, to conserve the supply of PPE, and to identify new sources of PPE," the editorial from Editor-in-Chief Howard Bachner, M.D., as well as Executive Editor Phil Fontanarosa and Deputy Editor Eddward Livingston, M.D.  

"We are interested in suggestions, recommendations, and potential actions from individuals who have relevant experience, especially from physicians, other health care professionals, and administrators in hospitals and other clinical settings," they wrote. "JAMA is inviting immediate suggestions, which can be added as online comments to this article."

UPDATED: Friday, March 27 at 10:17 a.m.

AHA launches nationwide "100 million mask" initiative

The American Hospital Association has launched a nationwide initiative aimed at getting out millions of personal protective equipment to help hospitals tackle COVID-19.

The goal of the initiative is to facilitate public-private partnerships to fight the shortages across the country. The initiative announced Friday builds on one started by Providence, a system comprising of 51 hospitals across Western states, to collaborate with companies to produce PPE. 

"This challenge builds on the incredible efforts of Providence to bring this call to action to the nation," AHA President and CEO Rick Pollack said in a statement. 

Providence collaborated with a Washington state-based furniture maker called Kaas Tailored to produce PPE and develop and share specs with other manufacturers who want to help out. 

"Providence will maintain focus on Washington State while the national initiative will expand to cover other areas experiencing an influx of coronavirus patients," AHA said in a release. "In recognition that shortages are much greater nationwide, the AHA-led initiative will, over time, expand its scope to meet the growing and ongoing challenges."

UPDATED: Thursday, March 26 at 6:30 p.m

Trump says FEMA shipped millions of PPE; White House to issue new guidelines to relax some social distancing

During a press briefing from the White House coronavirus task force Thursday, President Donald Trump said the Federal Emergency Management has shipped 9 million N95 respirators produced by manufacturer 3M, as well as 20 million surgical masks, and nearly 6,000 ventilators.

FEMA also is shipping 2.6 million gowns and 14.6 million gloves. Trump did not specify the states or cities that would receive a portion of those supplies.

Vice President Mike Pence said with FEMA in the lead, the Trump administration's approach is that COVID-19 response should be "locally executed by healthcare workers and local public health officials, state-managed and federally supported."

Testing is now available in 50 all states and 552,000 tests have been performed and completed across the U.S., Pence said.

Over the weekend the Trump administration plans to release guidelines for state and local governments to use to determine whether to increase or relax social distancing rules to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

Trump said officials are gathering testing data that will suggest guidelines categorizing counties as "high risk, medium risk or low risk" for the virus. The data will drive "the next phase" of the response, according to NPR, which published a copy of the letter to state governors.

"We have to get back to work. We will be talking about dates," Trump said at the press briefing, referring to dates when he expects the country to open back up.

Trump has indicated that he wants to adjust his 15-day social distancing guidelines so that more parts of the stalled U.S. economy can reopen by April 12. The 15th day of the original guidelines is Monday.

Anthony Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, said during the press briefing that the social distancing measures in place curb further spread of the virus and help to "buy time to get better prepare for a rebound."

"When we pull back, which we ultimately will have to do, then we will have to prepare for a rebound or that it might cycle into the next season," he said.

Fauci also said a Covid-19 vaccine will go into production during clinical trials while researchers are still studying if it works as part of an ambitious plan to accelerate vaccine development.

"We didn’t take it that risk with Zika. One of the things we're going to push on is to have [the vaccine] ready if in fact, it works," Fauci said.

UPDATED: Thursday, March 26 at 5:10 p.m.

Unclear how much of the $100B for healthcare in coronavirus stimulus package will go to help physician practices

There’s $100 billion in the coronavirus stimulus package for “healthcare providers,” and while most will go to hospitals, it’s unclear how much will go to help physician practices.

There may be a smaller piece of the pie to help practices struggling to stay afloat as many see a dramatic drop in patient visits—and revenues.

“It’s very important that the administration clarify and ensure that at least some of that is earmarked [for practices],” said Dan Bowles, a senior vice president at Aledade, a company that partners with independent primary care physicians to build and lead accountable care organizations.

Physician organizations were taking a close look at the $2 trillion economic stimulus package, which passed the Senate in the early hours of Thursday morning and is set to get through Congress by the end of this week.

“It’s not entirely clear that primary care physicians and physician-owned practices can get access to it,” said Bowles, who is leading Aledade’s efforts to help physicians financially navigate the coronavirus crisis.

At least a portion should go to physician-owned practices and community primary care, which will help hospitals in the long-run and retain the capacity of the primary care system when the crisis is over, he said.

“I understand why hospitals got all of the press and put at the front of the line,” he said, with the need for personal protective equipment, intensive care beds and ventilators to treat coronavirus patients. “But primary care is really on the front lines in a way that hospitals are not. If you want to keep hospital volumes down, you need to invest in primary care.  If these practices close that’s 20 or 30 or 40, maybe more, ER visits that would not have otherwise happened.”

Practices will also be helped by the piece of the stimulus package that provides help for small businesses, said Kyna Fong, co-founder of Elation Health, a company that provides technical tools for physician practices. The package includes $350 billion in loans for companies with 500 employees or fewer and provides eight weeks of cash assistance through loans to cover payroll, rent and other expenses, much of which would be forgiven if the company retains workers.

UPDATED: Thursday, March 26 at 3:15 p.m.

Anthem joins alliance aimed at driving innovative COVID-19 solutions

Anthem is teaming up with Xprize, a nonprofit that works to kickstart initiatives to address “humanity’s great challenges,” to launch new programs to address the COVID-19 outbreak. 

The insurer is one of the initial members of the Xprize Pandemic Alliance, a global group that’s planning to unite innovators to address the coronavirus pandemic and future potential outbreaks.

As a launch member of the alliance, Anthem will provide access to a database of de-identified information from prior outbreaks such as swine flu.

“In this time of crisis, we see an opportunity to come together as a community via the powerful XPRIZE platform to address the most acute needs in the system today and to accelerate new solutions: from protecting our healthcare workers at the front lines and proactively taking care of the high-risk populations to developing new approaches to diagnostics, therapy and vaccines,” said Rajeev Ronanki, Chief Digital Officer at Anthem.

Other members of the alliance include the Department of Veterans Affairs and Intel.

UPDATED: Thursday, March 26, 2:07 p.m.

Fauci chats coronavirus with hoops star Steph Curry

With a basketball hoop hanging behind him, epidemiological star Anthony Fauci, M.D., jumped on an Instagram Live chat about COVID-19 with hoops phenom Steph Curry on Thursday. 

Attracting an audience of up to 60,000 viewers at times, the Warrior point guard lobbed questions on his Instagram about testing and social distancing to the Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID.) 

“Why is it so challenging to get a test if you do have the symptoms?” Curry asked. “What are some of the things that are inhibiting those from being accessible to the masses?” 

“Well, there should be nothing now that’s inhibiting it. But originally, the system the way it was set up, Steph, was not geared for this kind of massive capacity of instantaneously safety getting a test, getting it done in a good period of time," Fauci said. "That has changed largely because it’s being handed over to the commercial firms who know how to do it.”

While the chat — which had an informal, but serious style — didn’t cover new territory, it likely did reach a new audience for Fauci who is more often seen at the podium with the President these days.  

UPDATED: Wednesday, March 25, 8:04 p.m.

Pence: Anesthesiology devices used for outpatient surgery could be converted to ventilators

Vice President Pence said that the federal government has reached out to devices used by anesthesiologists for outpatient surgery to convert them to ventilators to combat COVID-19.

“We literally believe tens of thousands of ventilators can be converted now that the FDA has given guidance,” Pence said during a press conference on Wednesday.

He added that the federal government produced a video to explain how those devices can be converted.

A lack of ventilators is one of providers’ biggest concerns as the number of COVID-19 cases rises.

UPDATED: Wednesday, March 25, 3:41 p.m. 

Companies retooling manufacturing plans to produce medical supplies

Several private companies have announced plans in recent days to restart manufacturing in light of shortages of critical medical supplies. 

Among them is Medline which is retooling its Hartland, Wisconsin manufacturing facility from a new manufacturing line to produce 150,000 bottles of hand sanitizer per week by mid-April as hand hygiene becomes a critical defense against the spread of COVID-19, officials said.

Already, Medline's 300-square-foot facility produces infection prevention products including 2% chlorhexidine gluconate solution, skin antiseptics, body washes, lotions, over the counter drug products, povidone-iodine and lubrication gel.

Meanwhile, Walker, Michigan-based Altus, which creates mobile technology stations, began production of ventilator carts to help address the shortage of the equipment. The manufacturer said it is adding production team members and working extra shifts as it ramps up quickly to begin producing the carts which are designed to provide mobile worksurfaces to hold ventilators.

And Toronto-based Canada Goose which will begin production of medical scrubs and patient gowns as part of a response program. They plan open back up two previously closed manufacturing facilities to begin production of the necessary medical gear for frontline healthcare workers and patients across Canada, they announced. 

UPDATED: Wednesday, March 25, 11:50 a.m. 

Cuomo: New York has enough PPE … for now

New York state has enough personal protective equipment for the state’s hospitals but that may not be the case in the next couple of weeks.

“Today no hospital, no nurse, no doctor can say legitimately I don’t have PPE,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said at a press conference Wednesday. “Right now and for the foreseeable future we have a supply.”

Cuomo said that they don’t have a supply for three to five weeks from now but “we are still shopping.”

A lack of PPE has been the number one complaint from providers as hospitals start to see more COVID-19 cases emerge.

Cuomo also said that the state’s supply of ventilators is lacking. “We need 30,000,” Cuomo said. “We have in the existing hospital system 4,000 ventilators, purchased 7,000 and still shopping.”

He added that the federal government has sent 4,000 ventilators but Cuomo pressed for more.

“We are exploring splitting where one ventilator can do two patients,” he said. “Italy had to do this because they were forced to do it.”

UPDATED: Tuesday, March 24 at 2:36 p.m.

Doctors, nurses, hospitals to the public: #StayHome

It’s a plea that has come from everyone from the president to top health officials.

Now doctors, nurses and hospitals are giving the public the same message: Stay at home to reduce the spread of coronavirus.

Whether all Americans will listen, is an unknown. But the American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association and the American Hospital Association are adding their voices to the plea.

The leading groups, that represent the country’s physicians, nurses and hospitals that are on the frontlines of battling the coronavirus, issued an open letter (PDF) urging the public to #StayHome as they said the U.S. is reaching the critical stages of the national response to the pandemic. They said staying home will help reduce the spread of the highly contagious COVID-19 and limit its long-term health effect on the country.

“Those contracting COVID-19 are your family, friends and loved ones,” they said, in the short letter, appealing to the public for help.

“Physicians, nurses and healthcare workers are staying at work for you. Please stay at home for us,” the groups pleaded.

Physical distancing and staying at home are the keys to slowing the spread of the virus and will healthcare professionals on the “front lines a fighting chance at having the equipment, time and resources necessary to take on this immense challenge,” they wrote.

Those with urgent medical needs, including pregnant women, should seek care as needed. "Everyone else should #StayHome,” the groups wrote.

Millions are doing so, connecting with friends and loved ones through video chats, social media or with telephone conversations, but they said millions more must get on board.

UPDATED: Tuesday, March 24 at 1:36 p.m.

UnitedHealthcare offers special enrollment period

UnitedHealthcare announced that it would work with its fully insured and level-funded employer clients to open a special enrollment period from workers.

Employees who did not opt-in to coverage will have the option to sign up through April 6. Self-funded employers are also able to offer this enrollment period if they choose, UnitedHealthcare said.

The insurer also unveiled several other initiatives aimed at the COVID-19 outbreak. It said it would suspend prior authorization requirements in post-acute care through May 31, and also suspend such requirements for patient transfers between providers.

UnitedHealthcare said it would offer further options to ease prior authorization in the regions hit hardest by the pandemic.

“UnitedHealthcare is committed to helping people access health care to the fullest extent possible as we come together to address this national emergency,” said UnitedHealthcare Chief Executive Officer Dirk McMahon. “We will continue to help people get coverage for the care they need, as well as ease care provider and health system administrative burdens.” 

UPDATED: Tuesday, March 24 at 11:58 p.m.

Cuomo: Give us all the ventilators in federal stockpile

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called for the federal government to give the state all of the 20,000 ventilators in the national stockpile because the state has by far the highest amount of COVID-19 cases at more than 25,000.

“We need at a minimum an additional 30,000 ventilators,” Cuomo said during a press conference Tuesday. “You cannot buy them, you cannot find them.”

He said that so far the state has procured an additional 7,000 ventilators.

But Cuomo cautioned that the spread of the disease in New York is accelerating and that the state could reach the apex of cases in as soon as 14 days and completely overwhelm hospitals. 

“The inescapable conclusion is the rate of infection is going up,” said Cuomo. “The apex is higher than we thought and the apex is sooner than we thought.”

So with the state unable to buy more ventilators, Cuomo made the request for the federal government to give the state all of the ventilators in the stockpile.

“New York you are looking at a problem of a totally different magnitude and dimension” compared to other states that have a couple thousand cases like California or Washington, he added.

Cuomo said that he could return the ventilators or send them to other states after the apex of the disease has been reached and cases subside.

UPDATED: Tuesday, March 24 at 10:33 a.m.

AHIP board pledges to assist providers with capacity

America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) said its board of directors has committed to working with hospitals to boost capacity as the COVID-19 pandemic.

The board, which represents many of the largest health plans in the country, said it would work closely with providers to ensure patients are discharged from the hospital to the most clinically appropriate care setting.

The member insurers added that they would commit to matching Medicare's waivers to relax and ease policies for the regions facing the most dramatic capacity issues.

"Health insurance providers will continue to take action, to help patients get the testing and treatment they need, to help businesses and their workers continue their coverage, and to help  policymakers implement effective solutions," AHIP's board said. "Together, we can and will meet this challenge."

UPDATED: Tuesday, March 24 at 10:13 a.m.

CMS approves Medicaid waivers for 11 more states

The Trump administration has granted waivers to 11 more states to allow flexibility on a wide range of Medicaid requirements.

The waivers, announced late Monday by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), are intended to help states with relief on prior authorization, provider enrollment requirements and other facets of the Medicaid program.

Alabama, Arizona, California, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina and Virginia all got waivers from CMS.

“These waivers give a broad range of states the regulatory relief and support they need to more quickly and effectively care for their most vulnerable citizens,” CMS Administrator Seema Verma said in a statement Monday.

Florida was the first state to get a waiver last week.

UPDATED: Monday, March 23 at 8:11 p.m.

FEMA distributing N-95 masks, PPEs; HHS to issue new guidance for commercial labs

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is distributing 8 million N-95 respirator masks and 13.3 million surgical masks across the country "right now," President Donald Trump said during what's become a daily press conference on the coronavirus. 

"We're focusing on the areas with the greatest need," Trump said. "We've shipped 73 pallets of personal protective equipment to New York City and 36 pallets to the state of Washington. In the past 96 hours, FEMA has also received donations of approximately 6.5 million masks. We're having millions and millions of masks made as we speak and other personal protective equipment we'll be targeting to medical hot spots." 

Vice President Mike Pence, who is head of the U.S. Cononavirus Task Force, said 313,000 COVID-19 tests have been completed in the U.S. and about 41,000 have received a positive test result. FEMA and the U.S. Public Health Service personnel and resources are being deployed to expand testing and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is considering testing that would rely on self-collected nasal swabs that can be collected at clinics and drive-through testing sites. 

In the meantime, Pence announced the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) would issue new guidance for commercial labs to prioritize testing for COVID-19 for hospitalized patients. "We also reminded the governors today that all state laboratories, all hospital laboratories are now required by law to report the results of coronavirus tests to the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,]" Pence said.

During the press conference, Trump also announced he signed an executive order to block companies from potentially hoarding vital medical equipment such as PPEs or face masks in order to price gouge.

Attorney General William Barr said the Justice Department was aware of some activities that were "disrupting the supply chain and suggestive of hoarding." 

"We're talking about people hoarding these goods or materials on an industrial scale with the purpose of manipulating the market and ultimately driving windfall profits," Barr said. "If you have a big supply of toilet paper in your house, this is not something you have to worry about. But if you are sitting on a warehouse with surgical masks, you will be hearing a knock on your door."

UPDATED: Monday, March 23 at 4:53 p.m.

CDC rolls out coronavirus self-checker bot named Clara

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has launched a COVID-19 assessment bot to help consumers make decisions about seeking appropriate medical care if they feel they have symptoms of coronavirus.

Called "Clara," the coronavirus self-checker tool was created in partnership with CDC Foundation and Microsoft Azure’s Healthcare Bot service.

According to a Microsoft blog post, the chatbot can quickly assess the symptoms and risk factors for people worried about infection, provide information and suggest the next course of action such as contacting a medical provider or, for those who do not need in-person medical care, managing the illness safely at home.

The self-checker bot assesses whether the user has symptoms such as fever, shortness of breath, and cough and asks about pre-existing conditions.

As the number of COVID-19 cases rise, there is a concern that hospitals and urgent care centers will be overwhelmed.

"Microsoft's Healthcare Bot service is one solution that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to help the CDC and other frontline organizations respond to these inquiries, freeing up doctors, nurses, administrators and other healthcare professionals to provide critical care to those who need it," Microsoft said.

UPDATED: Monday, March 23 at 4:16 p.m.

New York governor mandates hospitals add more beds

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo demanded hospitals expand bed capacity by 50% as cases in the state continue to increase. 

"We would ask you to try to increase your capacity by 100%," Cuomo said during a press conference on Monday. 

Currently, there are 53,000 hospital beds in the state and Cuomo said they will likely need 110,000. There are also only 3,000 intensive care unit beds and New York may need between 18,000 to 37,000. 

Cuomo added that the state has reached out to the entire retirement community of healthcare professionals who are still licensed and registered to press them into service. 

"This is just a request," Cuomo said. "We put it out and we have gotten very good response."

He also singled out insurance companies, saying that they employ healthcare professionals like nurses and doctors who should be enlisted to help facilities. 

"We don't need them in the insurance business now," he said. "We would like them to help in hospitals."

New York is one of the hardest-hit states in the nation, with more than 20,000 cases of COVID-19.

UPDATED: Monday, March 23 at 12:15 p.m.

Harvard Pilgrim offers more than $3 million in grants to community groups

Harvard Pilgrim Health Care announced Monday that it would make more than $3 million in grant funding available to community groups in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire through its foundation.

Efforts include engaging with local restaurants to offer take-out restaurants to families and working to help people get back to work.

The insurer also runs a "mini" grant program, that allows its employees to allocate $500 to charities of their choice.

"As this unprecedented pandemic continues, we are committed to further reinforcing community efforts across the region in addition to caring for our members and supporting our providers," said Michael Carson, CEO of Harvard Pilgrim, in a statement.

UPDATED: Monday, March 23 at 10:10 a.m.

Biden urges Trump to drop ACA case amid pandemic

Former Vice President and Democratic front-runner Joe Biden sent a letter to the Trump administration and state officials on Monday urging them to drop the legal case that leaves the future of the Affordable Care Act in doubt.

The coronavirus pandemic that's gripping the country highlights how critical the reforms in the ACA are, Biden wrote.

"At a time of national emergency, which is laying bare the existing vulnerabilities in our public health infrastructure, it is unconscionable that you are continuing to pursue a lawsuit designed to strip millions of Americans of their health insurance and protections under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), including the ban on insurers denying coverage or raising premiums due to pre-existing conditions," Biden wrote.

The landmark healthcare law was signed ten years ago today, as Biden noted in his letter. Read Biden's full letter over at Axios.

The Supreme Court agreed earlier this month to hear the case over the ACA in the upcoming term, meaning a final call on its future is unlikely until after the election in November.

UPDATED: Monday, March 23 at 9:27 a.m.

CVS will bring on 50,000 workers, offer employees bonuses

With CVS Health's pharmacies remaining open as an essential business while Americans are urged to stay home, the healthcare giant announced several steps to grow its employee base and reward its workers.

CVS said it plans to fill 50,000 full-time, part-time and temporary positions in its stores across the country, including sales associates, delivery drivers, customer service workers and distribution center workers. The company will be using a virtual approach to hiring, including digital job fairs, interviews and tryouts.

CVS also said it will issue bonuses of between $150 and $500 to pharmacists, front-line healthcare workers, store employees and managers and other select employees. Beginning in April, CVS will also cover 25 days of childcare or adult and eldercare for employees in partnership with Bright Horizons.

"Our colleagues have demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to providing essential goods and services at a time when they're needed most," said CVS Health CEO Larry Merlo in a statement. "As they continue to be there for the individuals and families we serve, we're taking extra steps to provide some peace of mind and help them navigate these uncertain times." 

UPDATED: Friday, March 20 at 2:09 p.m.

Trump: General Motors will start making ventilators

President Trump said during a press conference Friday that General Motors has agreed to start manufacturing ventilators to help providers cope with the growing spread of COVID-19.

Trump announced earlier this week that he will invoke the Defense Production Act that can direct factories to produce needed supplies such as personal protective equipment and ventilators.

He added that he is working with other companies to make ventilators, but wouldn’t say how many or who they are.

Concerns are growing among the healthcare industry on whether there will be enough ventilators to deal with the influx of patients with respiratory disease associated with COVID-19.

UPDATED: Thursday, March 19 at 10:18 a.m.

Wide coalition of healthcare groups send list of demands to White House

A large collection of pharma, insurer, hospital and physician groups wrote to the White House outlining the needs to battle the COVID-19 outbreak.

The letter released late Wednesday by 18 groups said that a “coordinated government response” is needed to ensure critical supplies such as equipment for testing and personal protective equipment and avoid supply chain disruptions.

“That means assuring that manufacturers can provide a continuous supply of medicines to patients by protecting the free flow of medicines, pharmaceutical ingredients and related goods, while avoiding mandates that could disrupt the supply chain,” said the letter.

Hospitals also need to modify existing facilities in and around hospitals, including making temporary units when needed or making use of “surplus government property,” the letter added.

Groups that signed on to the letter include America’s Health Insurance Plans, American Hospital Association, American Medical Association, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America and Blue Cross Blue Shield Association.

UPDATED: Thursday, March 19 at 6:29 a.m.

Trump signs massive stimulus package

President Donald Trump signed another economic stimulus package aimed at propping up the economy in the midst of the pandemic. 

Among other things, the bill includes an increase to state Medicaid funding and requirements for coronavirus testing coverage.

Specifically, the bill:

  • Includes funding for the Department of Agriculture for nutrition and food assistance programs including the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children as well as nutrition programs that assist the elderly.

  • Has provisions that establish a federal emergency paid leave benefits program to provide payments to employees taking unpaid leave due to the coronavirus outbreak. It will also require employers to provide paid sick leave to employees, but establish a payroll credit.
  • Will establish requirements for providing coronavirus diagnostic testing at no cost to consumers and treating personal respiratory protective devices as covered countermeasures that are eligible for certain liability protections.
  • Will also temporarily increase the Medicaid federal medical assistance percentage determined for each state by 6.2 percentage points.
  • Sets aside $30 million to the Department of Veterans Affairs for health services consisting of COVID–19 related items and services.

UPDATED: Wednesday, March 18 at 3:20 p.m.

Match Day goes on, but without some of pomp and circumstance; Changes in medical license exams because of COVID-19

Match Day, when thousands of medical students learn where they will spend their years of residency, takes place on Friday. But for these future doctors, it will happen without the usual pomp and circumstance.

The coronavirus outbreak and the need for social distancing has prompted medical schools to either cancel Match Day celebrations or instead to livestream events to minimize social contact. So, the day that many doctors still recall decades later won’t be marked this year by those typical on-campus celebrations and gatherings.

“The NRMP understands the disappointment for schools and students unable to have a Match ceremony. This is a pivotal day for everyone,” the National Resident Matching Program (NRMP) said in an email to FierceHealthcare.

Coronavirus, however, won’t impact the NRMP’s process or administration of The Match, according to the organization. During Match Week, more than 40,000 resident physician applicants will learn their future.

And in other news that impacts doctors, the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) program has announced changes in its testing as a result of coronavirus.

The program announced that Pometric test centers in the U.S. and Canada will be closed for 30 days, starting today. The company, which does licensing testing, said it plans on reopening April 16.

Also this week, USMLE temporarily suspended its Step 2 clinical skills testing. “Given the unique, human-to-human delivery mode of this exam, it is important to take . . . precautionary steps to protect the health of examinees and test center staff,” it said. USMLE said it hopes to reopen clinical skills test centers April 13, but said that date is subject to change. It said it is working on a plan to extend the eligibility periods for all those impacted.

UPDATED: Tuesday, March 17 at 3:48 p.m.

KFF: What pregnant women need to keep in mind

Medical experts warn that symptoms of the novel coronavirus may be more severe in pregnant women, according to new issue brief from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

However, there is no evidence at present that a pregnant woman will pass the virus to an infant during pregnancy, though cases of newborn infection have been found.

There is also no sign that the virus will transmit via breast milk to a newborn, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued precautionary guidance on breastfeeding for pregnant women or new moms who have COVID-19.

Pregnant women may also struggle with social distancing, according to the report, as they require routine, potentially weekly, prenatal care visits. Telehealth can help, but coverage for virtual visits for obstetrics can be spotty, the authors said.

"Keeping in mind the pregnant population during the COVID-19 pandemic may help mitigate potential preventable health disparities," the authors wrote.

UPDATED: Tuesday, March 17 at 3:38 p.m.

Kaiser Permanente, Anthem flex philanthropic muscle

Kaiser Permanente and Anthem, two titans in the industry, have announced millions of dollars in donations to assist with some of the fallout from social distancing to prevent COVID-19 spread.

Through its Anthem Foundation, the insurer is working to redirect $2 million in grant funding to the Boys and Girls Clubs across the country to assist with distributing meals to needy children and families who are asked to stay home. 

In addition, it's continuing to donate to other organizations, including the Red Cross, Direct Relief, Americares and Feeding America.

Kaiser Permanente, meanwhile, teamed up with the National Health Care for the Homeless Council to put $1 million toward assisting the homeless during the outbreak. Homeless people are often highly vulnerable to infection but overlooked in times of crisis, the health system said.

"Given the elevated risk faced by people living on the streets or in shelters at this time, we are making it a priority to support outreach, prevention, and treatment for this community," said Bechara Choucair, M.D., chief health officer at Kaiser Permanente.

UPDATED: Tuesday, March 17 at 2:50 p.m.

Telehealth visits surge

There has been a surge in demand for virtual care visits as the coronavirus outbreak has progressed.

On Friday, Teladoc reported that patient visit volume spiked 50% over the prior week and continues to rise. The company had been handling visit demand consistent with peak flu volumes, but on March 11 began to see that number accelerate to as much as 15,000 visits requested per day. 

Teladoc Health reported that it provided approximately 100,000 virtual medical visits to patients in the United States during a seven-day period, helping to alleviate pressure on the broader health care system.

The company also saw respiratory condition diagnoses increase 24% over the same month last year.

"We are seeing more patients and more of those patients are experiencing upper respiratory issues,” said Lew Levy, M.D., chief medical officer at Teladoc Health. “As we saw during the flu epidemic of 2018, a community’s healthcare system can become overwhelmed and virtual care can help provide needed relief."

Salt Lake City, Utah-based Intermountain Healthcare has seen a dramatic surge in consumer use of its Connect Care virtual care services. Intermountain is using telehealth to pre-screen patients who are concerned about coronavirus.

In just the past two days, there have been 1,000 downloads of the Connect Care app. While Connect Care typically has 120 visits a day – and about 160 daily during cold and flu season – the app had 258 visits yesterday, more than 75 COVID-19 related, the health system reported.

UPDATED: Tuesday, March 17 at 1:09 p.m.

Pence urges construction workers to donate N95 masks

In a press briefing Tuesday afternoon, Vice President Mike Pence, who's heading up the administration's coronavirus task force, urged construction companies to donate unused and unneeded N95 masks to hospitals.

In addition, he asked that construction companies avoid making additional orders for such masks amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

Doing so, he said, would more effectively protect healthcare workers as masks are in short supply.

UPDATED: Tuesday, March 17 at 10:30 a.m.

CMS approves Medicaid flexibility for Florida

Florida has become the first state to get more flexibility on Medicaid as part of a larger effort by the Trump administration to remove regulatory barriers in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services announced on Friday states can apply for additional Medicaid flexibility for states under Section 1135 that include waiving prior authorization requirements and enrollment restrictions.

“CMS is committed to removing all unnecessary administrative and bureaucratic barriers that may hinder an effective response to this public health emergency, and I have directed my team to expeditiously process these requests,” CMS Administrator Seema Verma said on Tuesday.

The state got approval to streamline enrollment processes, remove prior authorization requirements and enable care to be provided in alternative settings if a facility needs to be evacuated.

The waiver also extends deadlines for appeals and state fair hearing requests.

“These flexibilities will enable the state to focus its resources on combating this outbreak and provide the best possible care to Medicaid beneficiaries in their state,” according to a CMS release.

UPDATED: Tuesday, March 17 at 6:44 a.m.

Red Cross warns of blood shortage

The American Red Cross is facing a severe blood shortage as thousands of blood drives in community settings across the country have been canceled due to coronavirus concerns, resulting in about 86,000 fewer blood donations.

More than 80% of the blood the Red Cross collects comes from drives held at locations of this type.

Officials say this could directly impact hospitals soon, affecting patients who need surgery, victims of car accidents and other emergencies or patients suffering from cancer.

“I am looking at the refrigerator that contains only one day’s supply of blood for the hospital,” said Robertson Davenport, M.D., director of transfusion medicine at Michigan Medicine in Ann Arbor. “The hospital is full. There are patients who need blood and cannot wait.”

The Red Cross has implemented new safety measures to ensure safety for donors and staff including temperature checks, providing hand sanitizer, spacing beds to ensure social distancing between donors and increased disinfecting of surfaces and equipment. There are no data or evidence that this coronavirus can be transmitted by blood transfusion, they said.

Individuals can schedule an appointment to give blood with the Red Cross by visiting RedCrossBlood.org, using the Red Cross Blood Donor App, calling 1-800-RED-CROSS or enabling the Blood Donor skill on any Alexa Echo device, officials said.

UPDATED: Monday, March 16 at 3:58 p.m.

Trump directs states to avoid federal medical supply stockpile

President Donald Trump directed states to buy their own ventilators and personal protective equipment rather than going through the federal stockpile if the states can get the supplies faster. 

Trump said during a news conference Monday that the federal government is also making orders for the federal stockpile of medical supplies as the coronavirus worsens.

His comments come amid concerns that hospitals will be ready for a surge in cases of coronavirus, which has already infected more than 1,600 Americans. 

Trump also demurred when asked about whether he will employ the Army Corps of Engineers to ramp up new hospital sites to meet demand. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo had pressed Trump to deploy the army to help construct new hospital sites to meet demand.

"We are looking into it very strongly," Trump said. 

UPDATED: Monday, March 16 at 10:35 a.m.

AMA approves new CPT code for COVID-19 lab tests

The American Medical Association (AMA) has approved a new Current Procedural Terminology (CPT) code for reporting novel coronavirus tests. 

The AMA said last week it would fast track establishment of a new code to empower surveillance and laboratory testing in response to the spread of the coronavirus,

"In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the CPT Editorial Panel has expedited approval of a unique CPT code to report laboratory testing services that diagnose the presence of the novel coronavirus," said AMA President Patrice A. Harris, M.D., M.A. "The new CPT code assigned to the test for the novel coronavirus provides analytical advantages for tracking, allocating and optimizing resources as testing ramps up in the United States."

For quick reference, the new Category I CPT code and long descriptor are: CPT code 87635 - Infectious agent detection by nucleic acid (DNA or RNA); severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) (Coronavirus disease [COVID-19]), amplified probe technique.

UPDATED: Monday, March 16 at 10:00 a.m.

U.S. health agency hit by cyber attack during COVID-19 response

The U.S. Health and Human Services Department (HHS) suffered a cyber-attack on its computer system Sunday night during the nation’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, both Bloomberg and ABC News reported.

The attack appears to have been intended to slow the agency’s systems down, but didn’t do so in any meaningful way, according to Bloomberg, citing three people familiar with the matter. The individuals asked for anonymity to discuss an incident that was not public.

The government realized Sunday that there had been a cyber intrusion and false information was circulating, Bloomberg reported.

The National Security Council (NSC) tweeted just before midnight: “Text message rumors of a national #quarantine are FAKE. There is no national lockdown. @CDCgov has and will continue to post the latest guidance on #COVID19.”

The tweet was in part meant to address the hacking, which involved multiple incidents. HHS officials assume that it was a hostile foreign actor, but there is no definitive proof at this time, Bloomberg reported.

HHS officials did not respond to FierceHealthcare's request for comment.

UPDATED: Monday, March 16 at 6:26 a.m.

Healthcare groups call for clarification on 'elective' surgeries

Several healthcare groups called for clarification over the weekend after Surgeon General Jerome Adams tweeted that hospitals should consider canceling "elective" procedures.

His tweet was in response to new American College of Surgeons recommendations advising prudence in elective procedures, including rescheduling of certain surgeries.

But the American Hospital Association, the Association of American Medical Colleges, the Children’s Hospital Association and the Federation of American Hospitals said they are concerned the statements to stop performing elective surgeries come without clear agreement about what that means.

"We agree that the crisis as it develops may require the curtailment of the least critical or time-sensitive hospital services, but any curtailment must be nuanced to meet the needs of all severely ill patients," the groups said in the letter. "Our patients will be best served by carefully evaluating and prioritizing gradients of 'elective' care to ensure that the most time-sensitive medically necessary care can be delivered by physicians and hospitals."

Elective simply means a procedure is scheduled rather than a response to an emergency, they said.

"For example, 'elective' surgeries could include replacement of a faulty heart valve, removal of a serious cancerous tumor, or a pediatric hernia repair. Often, if these types of procedures are delayed or canceled, the person’s condition gets rapidly worse and can even be life threatening," they said. "This is particularly true with children who are all in an active phase of their life growth and development. The resulting decline in their health could make them more vulnerable to COVID-19."

Meanwhile, a growing number of health systems around the U.S. have made announcements about plans to cancel elective procedures to make room for COVID-19 cases and preserve crucial supplies. Those include Tufts Medical Center and Hackensack Meridian Health as well as Seattle Children's Hospital and Swedish Hospital in Seattle.

UPDATED: Monday March 16 at 6:12 a.m. ET

ACEP calls for vigilance as it announces 2 emergency docs in 'critical condition'

Two emergency physicians are in critical condition after contracting COVID-19, the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) said in a statement over the weekend

One of the doctors is an emergency physician in his 40s in the state of Washington. The second is a 70-year-old physician in New Jersey.

"I am deeply saddened by this news, but not surprised," ACEP President William Jaquis, M.D., said in a statement. "As emergency physicians, we know the risks of our calling. We stand united with our colleagues and our thoughts and prayers for a full and speedy recovery are with each of them and their families."

It is unknown whether the emergency physician in Washington got the virus through treating patients or by community-based spread. Jaquis said the doctor complied at all times with personal protective equipment procedures.

The physician in Patterson, New Jersey, leads his institution’s emergency preparedness and was admitted to the hospital several days ago with upper respiratory problems. That doctor remains in isolation in its intensive care unit.

"It is my hope that these colleagues and their cases serve as a reminder to each of us to stay vigilant," Jaquis said. "This virus is dangerous, and its impact is still unfolding. As emergency physicians, we answer the call to care for our most vulnerable, even at great personal risk. Knowing that, I urge each of you to meticulously follow the recommended precautions to protect yourself."

UPDATED: Friday, March 13 at 3:53 p.m. ET

President Trump declares national emergency; Announces plan for Google screening website

President Donald Trump has declared the COVID-19 outbreak a national emergency.

Trump made the declaration an address at the White House on Friday, which allows the government to free up $50 billion for a response.

"To unleash the full power of the federal government … I am officially declaring a national emergency," Trump said. "Two very big words."

The announcement comes as the administration is facing increasing scrutiny over its response to the outbreak.

During his address, Trump also said Google-subsidiary Verily will build a website that will help prescreen individuals for the COVID-19 virus and direct them to testing sites.

"We are developing a tool to help triage individuals for Covid-19 testing," Verily officials said in a statement. "Verily is in the early stages of development, and planning to roll testing out in the Bay Area, with the hope of expanding more broadly over time."

UPDATED: Friday, March 13 at 1:31 p.m. ET

Doc offers look at San Francisco General Hospital's response

Vivek Jain, M.D., an infectious disease physician and researcher, is part of the team leading San Francisco General Hospital's response to the spread of COVID-19.

In a lengthy twitter thread, Jain offered a look inside the hospital's approach. The hospital is using a quick, low radiation dose cat scan that can evaluate and stratify patients by their risk.

The hospital has also developed its own test for the virus and is leaning on other rapid response tests for respiratory illness to evaluate patients, Jain said.

"We at hospitals are here for you," he tweeted. "We’re doing everything we can to be ready. But we need the public’s help to hand wash, social distance, work from home if your employers have advised/allowed it, and avoid large crowds. This will help blunt the impact on hospitals."

UPDATED: Thursday, March 12 at 4:56 p.m. ET

Lawmakers target supply chain with new bills

Lawmakers have introduced two bills aimed at improving the healthcare supply chain that is in peril due to the coronavirus.

A bill led by Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., would direct the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to explore supply chain vulnerabilities. For instance, the bill wants to assess the dependence of the supply chain on products manufactured in foreign countries.

The coronavirus, which originated in China, has caused skepticism on the reliance of China to manufacture key active ingredients for drugs and personal protective equipment such as masks.

The bill also wants the academies to provide recommendations and an action plan to improve the resiliency of the supply chain.

A separate bill introduced by Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., would establish a fund to offer loans to investors who want to fund advanced manufacturing startups that want to make products in the U.S.

“To remain competitive and keep innovative technologies and capabilities in the U.S., the federal government must partner with the private sector to increase access to capital,” Booker said in a statement.

UPDATED: Thursday, March 12 at 4:50 p.m. ET

Envision Healthcare promises care for coronavirus patients no matter their ability to pay

Envision Healthcare, a Nashville-based healthcare company, said its patients will receive care for coronavirus without any unexpected costs from surprise medical bills.

Envision’s doctors and caregivers are working to prevent the spread of the coronavirus by identifying and treating patients who present symptoms, Envision President and CEO Jim Rechtin said in a statement Thursday.

“Our providers are expediently delivering care to these patients and we will continue to treat every patient, regardless of their ability to pay,” he said.

The healthcare company and national hospital-based physician group, said it considers testing and screening of patients for coronavirus an essential health benefit and that patients should have access to care without undue financial burdens.

Envision said its policy is to treat all patients, regardless of their ability to pay, and offer direct support to patients to help them understand potentially complicated health plan bills.

“Patients screened and treated for coronavirus will not be burdened with unexpected costs related to care, and we will offer direct support for confusing or complicated bills. In the event that patients experience undue charges inadvertently because of the difficulty of identifying the coronavirus, we will work with patients to ensure that they are only responsible for in-network charges,” Rechtin said.

Surprise medical bills occur when patients receive medical care from a doctor or hospital that isn’t in their insurance network.

UPDATED: Thursday, March 12 at 4:15 p.m. ET

Health systems roll out their own tests

In the wake of delays and shortages of coronavirus tests, Mayo Clinic and Hackensack Meridian Health are among health systems around the country that have developed their own tests.

Officials at New Jersey-based Hackensack announced their Center for Discovery and Innovation (CDI) began developed a new rapid response test to shorten the amount of time it takes to get results from days to hours. The health system work on the test in mid-January after the outbreak of the virus was first identified in China in December.

"The CDI test combines elements of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) diagnostic, and a test developed in Germany and adopted by the World Health Organization (WHO)," officials said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Mayo announced it's own "fully validated" test which will be submitted to the Food and Drug Administration for review and emergency use authorization.

"This test should help ease some of the burden that is currently being felt at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state public health laboratories," said William Morice II, M.D., president of Mayo Clinic Laboratories, in a statement. "We are doing everything we can to help relieve the burden during this time to provide answers for patients here in Rochester and around the world."

The real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test can identify SARS-CoV-2 from a variety of clinical samples, offficials said. Mayo officials told the Minneapolis Star Tribune the initial estimated capacity is 200 to 300 tests per day.

The health system is also among those that have begun offering drive-through testing for COVID-19.

And in Ohio, Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals say they have ordered tests and reagents to roll out their own testing soon, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported

UPDATED: Thursday, March 12 at 11:57 a.m. ET

World Health Care Congress postponed due to coronavirus

The coronavirus has caused another healthcare conference to close up.

The World Health Care Congress will no longer take place in Washington, D.C., March 28 to April 1, according to an e-mail sent to panel speakers on Thursday. The event was likely to have between 1,200 to 1,500 attendees.

The conference will be moved to a later date that has not been announced.

Where major health conferences stand

World Health Care Congress (March 29-April 1) - Postponed

Muscular Dystrophy Association Clinical & Scientific Conference (March 22-25) - Postponed

HIMSS (March 9-13, Orlando) - Canceled

SXSW health track (March 13-17, Austin) - Canceled

RISE Nashville (March 15-17, Nashville) - Postponed to late June

AHIP National Health Policy Conference (March 18-20, Washington, D.C.) - Canceled

AHIP National Conference on Individual and Small Group Markets (March 19-20, Washington, D.C.) - Canceled

National Quality Forum Annual Conference (March 23-25, Washington, D.C.) - Canceled

American College of Healthcare Executives Annual Congress (March 23-26, Chicago) - Canceled

The Wall Street Journal Health Forum (March 24) - Digital only

Business Group on Health Business Health Agenda (March 26) - Canceled

World Health Care Congress (March 29-April 1, Washington, D.C.) - Postponed

NatCon20 (April 5-7, Austin) - Canceled

American Case Management Association National Conference (April 6-9, Chicago) - Canceled

Institute for Healthcare Improvement Summit on Primary Care (April 16-18, Washington, D.C.) - Still scheduled

American College of Physicians Internal Medicine Meeting 2020 (April 23-25, Los Angeles) - Canceled

Epic's Experts Group Meeting (April 27-May 8, Verona, Wisconsin) - Canceled

The American Academy of PAs 2020 conference (May 16-20, Nashville) - Canceled 

The conference is the latest to be postponed or cancelled due to the coronavirus. Last week HIMSS and South By Southwest cancelled major conferences because of the virus.

But last week the congress had expected to take place as scheduled. Organizers told FierceHealthcare they would include measures to mitigate spread of the virus such as more hand sanitizer stations.

Things have changed rapidly though since then. More than 1,000 people have been infected with the virus and major sports teams have decided to close down or play games without fans present.

Washington's city government also recommended that any gathering of 1,000 or more people be cancelled.

UPDATED: Thursday, March 12 at 11:15 a.m. ET

Emblem Health partners with Medly Pharmacy for prescription home delivery in NYC

In response to rising concerns of COVID-19, health insurer EmblemHealth is partnering with Medly Pharmacy to provide direct, at-home delivery of prescriptions to members.

Medly Pharmacy is a full-service digital pharmacy that delivers prescription medication and serves customers in New York City, Long Island, and New Jersey. The company has 3.2 million members across the New York tri-state area. 
"This partnership is designed to give our members peace of mind knowing they can get their prescriptions delivered. This is an immediate concern for our very elderly members, members who are homebound, or have weakened immune systems," said EmblemHealth President and CEO Karen Ignagni.

She also noted the partnership likely will be popular among members who prefer not to go to the pharmacy in order to minimize risk of exposure to germs.

UPDATED: Wednesday, March 11 at 3:55 p.m. ET

Massachusetts, Washington ACA exchanges hold special enrollment periods

The state-run exchanges in Massachusetts and Washington are holding new enrollment periods for uninsured people to sign up in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Massachusetts announced Wednesday it will hold a special enrollment period until April 25 for uninsured state residents to sign up for coverage. Washington’s exchange will hold a period from April 1 through April 8.

Both states cite the growth of the coronavirus, which has sickened more than 1,000 people in the U.S., according to federal data.

“Responding to this threat requires adequate access to the resources necessary to receive appropriate testing and treatment,” the Massachusetts Health Connector said in a release Wednesday.

The state added that ensuring someone has insurance coverage can increase the likelihood they will get treatment or testing.

So far major insurers have announced they are waiving cost-sharing for coronavirus tests, but affordability for other healthcare services associated with the virus remains an issue.

UPDATED: Wednesday, March 11 at 12:56 p.m. ET

WHO declares coronavirus outbreak a pandemic

The World Health Organization (WHO) Wednesday declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic.

The WHO generally defines a pandemic as a disease that has become widespread around the world.

Up until this point, the WHO had declined to designate the rapidly spreading virus as a pandemic, although it became increasing clear the virus was likely to continue to spread around the globe.

It has now been reported in 114 countries.

WHO’s Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the coronavirus outbreak will worsen. "In the days and weeks ahead, we expect to see the number of cases, the number of deaths and the number of affected countries climb even higher," he said, in making the announcement.

UPDATED: Wednesday, March 11 at 12:12 p.m. ET

Anthony Fauci: Coronavirus likely 10 times deadlier than flu

The coronavirus’ death rate is likely 10 times deadlier than the seasonal flu, according to the NIH’s infectious disease point man Anthony Fauci.

Fauci told a congressional panel on Wednesday that the 3.4% death rate released by the World Health Organization earlier this week is likely going to lower.

“If you count all the cases of minimally symptomatic or asymptomatic infection that probably brings the mortality rate down to somewhere around 1%, which means it is 10 times more lethal than the seasonal flu,” he told the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday.

Fauci, head of NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, added that people have to “stay ahead of the game in preventing this.”

He said that mitigation strategies such as canceling large events are important right now, even in areas that don’t have the virus.

“If we wait until we have many, many more cases, we will be multiple weeks behind,” he said. “If we don’t do very serious mitigation now then what is going to happen we are going to be weeks behind and the horse is going to be out of the barn.”

UPDATED: Tuesday, March 10 at 4:35 p.m. ET

American College of Physicians cancels annual meeting

The American College of Physicians (ACP) has canceled its annual scientific meeting, Internal Medicine Meeting 2020, which was scheduled to take place in Los Angeles, April 23-25.

The organization said it’s decision was based on recent reports from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of rapidly escalating concerns about the coronavirus and in recognition of the role of internal medicine physicians in diagnosing, managing and caring for their patients and communities on the front lines.

ACP members and other meeting participants will be offered a refund, the group said.

UPDATED: Tuesday, March 10 at 4:13 p.m. ET

AHIP heads to White House to discuss coronavirus

Leaders with America’s Health Insurance Plans, the insurance industry’s top lobbying group, headed to the White House on Tuesday to discuss the burgeoning coronavirus.

The meeting focused on the insurance industry’s response to the outbreak and included President Trump, Vice President Pence and the coronavirus task force. Several major insurers have announced they will waive cost-sharing for any coronavirus test.

“No one should hesitate to see their doctor to get tested and treated for COVID-19 because of costs,” AHIP President Matt Eyles said in a statement after the meeting. “Health insurance providers across the country have taken action to remove cost barriers to care.”

UPDATED: Tuesday, March 10 at 1:25 p.m. ET

CMS rolls out new provider guidance

As the coronavirus spreads through the U.S., the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has released guidance for providers on billing for diagnostic tests and how Medicare will pay for emergency services.

The agency’s guidance released late Monday comes as testing is ramping up for the respiratory virus that has already sickened 647 Americans, according to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CMS’ guidance includes a frequently asked questions document on how providers can bill and get payments for testing patients for the virus. It also details Medicare’s payment policies for lab and diagnostic services, drug and vaccine coverage and how to bill for telehealth or in-home provider services.

“We are receiving up-to-the-minute information about COVID-19 and are in turn, making necessary updates to our requirements and sharing that information with our providers throughout the healthcare system,” CMS Administrator Seema Verma said in a release on the guidance.

UPDATED: Tuesday, March 10 at 1:07 p.m. ET

CPT code expected soon to report and bill for coronavirus tests

The American Medical Association is moving forward to approve a new Current Procedural Terminology (CPT) code for reporting novel coronavirus tests.

Approval of a new CPT code that will allow physicians to bill for coronavirus will be considered this week at a special meeting of the committee that makes revisions to the code, the AMA said today.

The AMA said it hoped to fast track establishment of a new code to empower surveillance and laboratory testing in response to the spread of the coronavirus, officially named COVID-19, which is rapidly spreading in the U.S. There are now over 761 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the U.S. as of Tuesday morning, according to Johns Hopkins University's real-time dashboard.  

UPDATED: Monday, March 9 at 2:33 p.m. ET

CVS announces resources aimed at ensuring access to medication amid outbreak

CVS Health's Aetna said last week that it would waive cost-sharing for COVID-19 testing, and on Monday the healthcare giant released additional plans to ensure patients have continued access to medication.

CVS Pharmacy will waive costs for home prescription delivery, and Aetna will begin offering coverage for 90-day maintenance medication prescriptions in its commercial and Medicare plans. The insurer is working with state governments to extend the same option to Medicaid managed care plans, and self-funded Aetna customers will also be able to offer this option to members.

CVS' Caremark pharmacy benefit manager is also working with clients to waive early refill restrictions on 30-day maintenance medication prescriptions.

"Being committed to the welfare of those we serve means being responsive to evolving needs and acting swiftly. This is particularly true in times of uncertainty," said Troyen Brennan, M.D., chief medical officer at CVS Health.

UPDATED: Monday, March 9 at 11:35 a.m. ET

More insurers commit to coronavirus coverage

UnitedHealth Group unveiled a slew of updates at both UnitedHealthcare and Optum for members to address the spread of COVID-19, including waived cost-sharing for tests. The insurer is encouraging members to take advantage of UHC's telehealth benefits to seek treatment and said it has trained clinicians at OptumCare on the latest from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the novel coronavirus.

“Our top priority is the health and wellbeing of our members and patients – and the safety of those who deliver care,” said Richard Migliori, M.D., chief medical officer, UnitedHealth Group. "While the situation is dynamic, we are committed to adapting and supporting those we serve.” 

Anthem made a similar announcement Friday, waiving cost-sharing for tests and urging members to seek out telehealth treatment when possible. Oscar Health also followed suit.

UPDATED: Monday, March 9 at 7:10 a.m. ET

Fauci to clinicians: 'The risk group is very, very clear'

As clinicians gear up to fight the novel coronavirus spreading throughout the U.S., top officials say they should focus special attention on seniors.

"It’s so clear that the overwhelming weight of serious disease and mortality is on those who are elderly and those with a serious comorbidity: heart disease, chronic lung disease, diabetes, obesity, respiratory difficulties," said Anthony Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institutes of Health's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Fauci was speaking in an interview with Howard Bauchner, M.D., editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association aimed at addressing the medical community. "If you look at the weight of the data the risk group is very, very clear." It was just one of the observations he shared about COVID-19 which has been grabbing headlines, but for which there is limited information when it comes to treatment.

UPDATED: Saturday, March 7 at 11:48 a.m.

Additional conferences cancel

SXSW, AHIP and ACHE all announced over the weekend that they would cancel conferences this month. SXSW is a massive Austin event over the course of 10 days that includes sessions on film, music and technology, with a growing healthcare presence. In 2019, the conference drew about 280,000 people across all of its events.

America's Health Insurance Plans, the industry's top lobbying group, said it will not hold its National Health Policy Conference or National Conference on the Individual and Small Group Markets planned for March 18-20 in Washington, D.C. The American College of Healthcare Executives also decided to cancel its 2020 Congress on Healthcare Leadership that was expected to take place March 28 in Chicago. 

Several other conferences remain on the books for this month, including the World Health Care Congress, set for March 29 to April 1 in Washington, D.C.

UPDATED: Thursday, March 5 at 12:43 p.m. ET

HIMSS cancels 2020 conference

The Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) today canceled its global health conference.

HIMSS organizers said the 2020 HIMSS Global Health Conference & Exhibition was called off due to the coronavirus outbreak and the "unacceptable risk to bring so many thousands of people together in Orlando next week.”

Organizers made the decision following recent reports from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). HIMSS said in an announcement posted on its website.

HIMSS20 was slated to take place next week, March 9-13, at the Orlando Convention Center. It's the first time in 58 years that the conference has been canceled. President Donald Trump had been slated to speak on Monday at the conference to address healthcare interoperability. The conference had been a "go" as of Wednesday, according to organizers.

HIMSS organizers have taken a lot of heat on social media and from attendees for going ahead with the conference under the shadow of pandemic fears from the virus known as COVID-19.

“We recognize all the hard work that so many have put into preparing for their presentations and panels that accompany every HIMSS conference,” said Hal Wolf, president and CEO of HIMSS. “Based on evaluation of evolving circumstances and coordination with an external advisory panel of medical professionals to support evidence-based decision making, it is clear that it would be an unacceptable risk to bring so many thousands of people together in Orlando next week.”

HIMSS had convened a medical advisory board earlier this week to advise it on the evolving coronavirus outbreak.

The advisory panel recognized that industry understanding of the potential reach of the virus has changed significantly in the last 24 hours, which has made it impossible to accurately assess risk, HIMSS said in its announcement.

Additionally, there are concerns about the disproportionate risk to the healthcare system given the unique medical profile of global conference attendees and the consequences of potentially displacing healthcare workers during a critical time, as well as stressing the local health systems were there to be an adverse event.

Organizers said the cancelation was "unavoidable in order to meet HIMSS’ obligation to protect the health and safety of the global HIMSS community, employees and local residents, as well as for the healthcare providers tasked with keeping our U.S. and global communities healthy."

HIMSS20 exhibitors and attendees will be contacted with further information regarding booth contracts and registrations. 

UPDATED Thursday, March 5 at 12:37 a.m. ET

AHIP board commits to easing cost burdens of coronavirus testing

Top insurers committed Thursday to mitigate the costs associated with testing for and treatment of the novel coronavirus that has begun spreading in the U.S.

The board of industry group America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP)—which includes the heads of top insurers like Humana, Anthem, CVS and Cigna—said in a statement they are committed to providing coverage for tests ordered by a physician. They also said they are working to ease network, referral and prior authorization requirements that could hinder access.

The group said their organizations would also potentially waive out-of-pocket costs for the tests.