Over the last six months, the United States has engaged in a once-in-a-generation effort against the novel coronavirus. As we do our part to flatten the curve and save lives, it’s critical that we continue to protect the most vulnerable among us. This means supporting the Americans most susceptible to COVID-19—including elderly individuals and those with serious underlying health conditions, like me.
Under the administration’s leadership, America has fought the virus head on. One of his most important – but underrecognized – steps was to relax onerous regulations for respiratory care. As a result, a growing number of COVID-19 patients have been able to access oxygen equipment in the comfort and privacy of their own homes. This is good news for patients living with diseases such as atrial fibrillation (like I do), ALS, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a leading cause of death in the U.S.
But as the demand for these critical treatments continues to surge, global supply chains are being strained like never before. This challenge, while manageable on its own, is being exacerbated by a new, ill-conceived Medicare policy that threatens to further undermine patient access to the life-sustaining oxygen Americans need. The policy, known formally as the Competitive Bidding Program (CBP), would hinder home oxygen suppliers and the critical services they provide.
To truly put our country first, President Trump must prevent this program from coming into effect for the duration of the public health emergency, and beyond to allow for ongoing treatment for patients once the official emergency expires.
Access to home oxygen supplies and equipment has always been critical for the nation’s one million chronic respiratory patients. This sizable group of Americans rely on home respiratory therapy to maintain their independence, improve their quality of life, avoid hospitalization, and stay close to loved ones. These benefits have only grown in importance in the era of COVID-19, especially for highly vulnerable chronic and acute respiratory patients.
Until President Trump made the decisive decision to relax regulations at the beginning of the pandemic, chronic respiratory patients were the only group who were able to access home oxygen supplies and equipment under Medicare. But now, Medicare beneficiaries with acute respiratory conditions such as COVID-19 can access the treatments they need at home—allowing them to avoid institutionalization while freeing up much-needed hospital beds. And, given the staggering 229 percent increase in demand for acute care patients between January and June, the president couldn’t have acted at a better moment.
Unfortunately, Medicare’s competitive bidding program threatens to undo much of the progress that has been made under President Trump’s leadership. The basic premise of the program, scheduled to take effect January 1, 2021, is to limit the number of suppliers serving specific communities based on past utilization. But, amid the current pandemic, this approach simply will not work to meet the unprecedented needs of patients recovering from COVID-19.
The formula used to set rates is based on pre-pandemic data that does not reflect the current supply chain disruptions, increased demand, treatment of acute patients, and rising costs oxygen suppliers are forced to incur. These problems may be even worse in rural parts of our country where competitive bidding rates are used as the basis for payment. Instead, CMS should continue to follow the so-called “blended rate” created by Congress until the needs of patients impacted by COVID-19 are met.
To protect access to home respiratory therapy used to treat COVID-19 patients, I call on the president to delay the implementation of the competitive bidding program for these treatments until 12 months after the public health emergency expires. In order to truly put American patients first—especially those with serious underlying conditions––he must once again show his willingness to relax burdensome and counterproductive regulations. This includes protecting access for Americans outside of the “big cities” and extend the congressionally-blended rates for the same period of time to protect patients living in rural areas. Doing so will stabilize the market for these critical treatments and help patients maintain access to medically necessary respiratory care during a time of staggering need.