While the deadly coronavirus seems to be subsiding in Connecticut for now, its impact on nursing homes has not. More than 6,700 beds are empty, and it may take many months of financial struggle before occupancy climbs back to pre-pandemic levels. Of the approximately 200 nursing homes in Connecticut that receive payments from Medicaid, the government health insurance program for low-income people, only 15 were 70% or less occupied in January, according to the Connecticut Health Investigative Team’s analysis of state data. By August, almost five times as many facilities saw occupancy drop to that level or less. While the statewide average decline was 15%, the number of residents in 19 nursing homes has plummeted to 55% and below since January.
The coronavirus has decimated many of the nation’s nursing homes, where elderly, chronically ill residents account for 64% of Connecticut’s death toll of 4,201 and rising. They are roughly 100 times more likely to die of the virus than other people in the state. So, the fact that some 41 of Connecticut’s 214 nursing homes have managed to keep out the virus, according to an analysis by C-HIT, is both remarkable and mystifying. Did they just get lucky? Administrators at several COVID-19-free facilities use the word “fortunate” to describe a situation they acknowledge could change at any time.
Federal investigators have found that Medicare officials rarely enforce rules for private insurance plans intended to make sure beneficiaries will be able to see a doctor when they need care. It’s a problem many Connecticut seniors know too well. In 2013, UnitedHealthcare, the nation’s largest health insurance company, dropped hundreds of health care providers from its Connecticut Medicare Advantage plan, including 1,200 doctors at the Yale Medical Group and Yale-New Haven Hospital. Medicare Advantage beneficiaries scrambled to find new insurance or new doctors while the Fairfield and Hartford counties medical associations went to court to try to stop the terminations. The report by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said that Medicare did not check provider networks to ensure that doctors were available to beneficiaries and cited Connecticut as a “case study” in what can go wrong.
Next year, seniors with private Medicare Advantage insurance policies whose doctors leave their plan may be able to leave, too, under a new Medicare rule. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), which oversee Medicare Advantage programs, will create a special three-month enrollment period in any state where insurers make network changes “considered significant based on the affect or potential to affect, current plan enrollees,” according to an update to Medicare’s Managed Care Manual. The special enrollment period – if granted by CMS – would allow Medicare Advantage members to switch out of their plans and join traditional Medicare or another Medicare Advantage plan whose provider network includes their doctors. The mid-year special enrollment period wasn’t an option in 2013 when more than 32,000 UnitedHealthcare Medicare Advantage members in Connecticut were affected by the company’s decision to drop thousands of doctors from its network of providers. The Fairfield County Medical Association sued the company to stop the terminations but was ultimately unsuccessful.
Starting Wednesday, a new state law requires Connecticut hospitals to tell all patients when they are being kept in the hospital for observation instead of being admitted and to warn them about the financial consequences. Anyone who goes to the hospital can be placed on observation status, so that doctors can determine what’s wrong, and decide whether the patient is sick enough to be admitted or well enough to go home. Observation patients may receive diagnostic tests, medications, some treatment, and other outpatient services. Depending on their insurance, they can be charged a share of the cost. “They are in a regular hospital bed in a hospital room, getting a hospital level of care, and they have no way of knowing they were not admitted,” said Rep. Susan Johnson, a sponsor of the legislation and co-chair of the General Assembly’s Public Health Committee.