For the first time in our modern history, staying at home has become a “new” normal. And with more than 1.5 million Americans now infected with COVID-19, never before in our lifetime has accessing care in a person’s home been so important.
Smartly, our federal and state policymakers quickly expanded reimbursement for telehealth and removed barriers that have now allowed more providers to care for patients virtually via video and phone, eliminating the risk of COVID-19 exposure during provider visits. But not all care can be provided through telehealth – and we would be shortsighted to not also address the growing need for home-based care.
Long before the COVID-19 emergency, health care policy experts have increasingly recognized the value of home-based health care. A recent AARP survey found that three in four adults 50 years and older would prefer to age in their homes and communities. And a growing body of evidence suggests it is less expensive to deliver care in the home. Indeed, for years we’ve seen hospitalized patients more quickly returning to their homes and communities to heal and recover safely, reducing costs for themselves and the health care system.
Home-based care addresses some of the negative health effects of social isolation and loneliness, which drive poorer health outcomes that annually cost billions of excess health care dollars. According to one study, those experiencing loneliness and social isolation had a more than 60 percent higher risk of developing dementia and a fourfold increase in hospital readmission rates within a year of discharge.
Despite its demonstrated value, our country has yet to fully integrate the support needed for home-based care. Instead, we have a collage of different reimbursement frameworks across state, federal, and private payers.
Traditionally, Medicare has paid only for home caregivers in very limited circumstances. But we’re now seeing small and promising changes. The Medicare Advantage program, for example, now allows plans to offer non-medical care services in the home as supplemental benefits. These benefits can include day care services, in-home support services including meals and support for caregivers.
We have also seen a surge of technologies to enable home-based care. From those receiving home infusion therapies, to home dialysis, to remote patient monitoring, the private sector has stepped up to meet the needs of those wanting to or needing to receive care at home.
Now is the time to expand on these promising changes with a more comprehensive approach to paying for home-based care delivery. With more thoughtful integration of caregiving services and improved care coordination across care settings, including the home, such models can drive down health care costs for patients and the system overall.
Whether caring for those impacted by our current public health crisis, or those who are medically homebound, or those who simply choose to age in place, policymakers should think beyond essential medical services and consider the non-medical drivers of health that are often as essential to good health outcomes. For example, many individuals needing to stay at home are ill-equipped to carry out their own basic needs. Daily tasks — such as getting in and out of a chair or bed, moving about the house, shopping and preparing meals, taking medications properly, bathing and dressing, and cleaning and laundry — can be a struggle for the elderly and those with serious health conditions.
Fortunately, we have millions of home health nurses and caregivers working on the front lines to care for vulnerable adults who should safely remain in their homes during this pandemic and beyond.
These workers are the foot soldiers who perform tasks such as shopping, meal preparation and assisting with mobility and personal care. Well-trained caregivers and nurses, sensitive to the time and place where patients actually live, can more readily identify and address issues that can exacerbate a person’s chronic, complex illness that may not otherwise be visible in a single visit to a traditional health care setting.
As we face record unemployment, federal, state and local policymakers should consider how best to utilize this untapped resource both now and in the future. With the appropriate testing, training, and reimbursement, individuals can have a choice in where they age and receive care.
While keeping people safe and healthy in their homes has always been appealing, now it is imperative. For our most vulnerable individuals — the elderly and those with chronic health conditions – home-based care can save their lives.