New York state-based Hospice Buffalo has expanded its inpatient operations to include a unit dedicated to COVID-19 patients. The hospice provider is also increasing the bereavement services it offers to the community.
The hospice owned a 10-bed inpatient unit that had long been out of use following a move to a 22-bed unit on the organization’s Cheektowaga, N.Y.-based campus. As a rising number of coronavirus patient started to come in, Hospice Buffalo reopened the 10-bed unit.
“We’re always open to taking COVID-19 positive patients, but this really allowed us to keep them in place to isolate them, which is essential if you’re going to take care of positive patients,” Christopher Kerr, M.D., CEO of Hospice Buffalo said. “You also need to protect your staff and other families. “If you know that they’re in a contained area, it makes that a lot easier.”
The physical structure of the unit required extensive renovations to resume operations, including overhauling the phone systems, the oxygen systems and other upgrades.
Hospice Buffalo also needed interdisciplinary teams to staff the unit. Leaders asked for volunteers to work with COVID-19-positive patients. Nurses, nurse practitioners, social workers and physicians volunteered in sufficient numbers to operate the unit around the clock.
The hospice intends to keep the unit open after the worst of the pandemic passes to increase its capacity for respite care patients.
“About 20 years ago, it was not unusual in a 10-bed unit to have 30% of our patients on respite care. Our current unit wtih 22 beds is filled up with patients who have acute needs, so we’ve been offering less respite,” Kerr told Hospice News. “I see an increased opportunity going forward. As people are going to assume more of the care for their loved ones, there will be an increased need for respite care, and the reimbursements have become more favorable.”
The U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) for Fiscal Year 2020 rebased hospice payment rates, allowing for a 2.7% cut in routine home care payments and a corresponding 2.7% increase in payments for continuous home care, general inpatient care, and inpatient respite care. Prior to this rebasing, payment rates for those three levels of care amounted to less than the cost of providing them. The agency has proposed keeping 2021 rates at those same levels.
Also in response to the COVID-19 crisis, Hospice Buffalo has ramped up its community-facing bereavement program, which during the pandemic is offering virtual counseling and support groups to the public, regardless of whether their loved ones had been among the organization’s patients.
“We recognized that the enormous need that is there and is going to accumulate as a result of the pandemic, not only due to loss of life, but isolation and caregiver strain. We’re adding bereavement counselors to do that work, and we’ve secured some grant funding as well,’ Kerr said “The virtual interaction has been really working. Our groups are ongoing, which is wonderful and our sessions are being done, all virtually. It’s been a success.”