- - Tuesday, March 24, 2020

It has been inspiring to watch the entire health care community come together to build a response to COVID-19 — an unprecedented pandemic that requires all of us to play a crucial role.

The role of PAs, or physician assistants, is on the front lines, providing care for patients across the country. PAs are medical professionals who diagnose illness, develop and manage treatment plans, prescribe medications and often serve as a patient’s principle health care provider.

Right now, PAs are staffing COVID-19 testing clinics, providing consultation through telemedicine, and diagnosing and treating patients. PAs practice in every medical setting and specialty, but more than 40 percent of the nation’s 140,000 PAs work in hospitals or urgent care clinics — making them a significant part of the on-the-ground efforts to diagnose and treat the coronavirus.

The federal government, of course, also has an important role to play in slowing the spread of the virus. The American Academy of PAs supports Congress in its bipartisan efforts to respond to COVID-19. We particularly support efforts to improve access and affordability of care to patients, get vital personal protective equipment to providers and expedite the development of a vaccine.

As health care facilities gird for an influx of patients dealing with the virus, hospital beds for COVID-19 patients will be in short supply and steps must be taken now to prepare.

Congress can help increase hospital capacity and free up hospital beds for COVID-19 patients by authorizing PAs and nurse practitioners (NPs) to order home health care services for Medicare patients (in a manner consistent with state law). This change will more quickly get such patients back into the home setting, away from exposures to the virus and open beds for patients in immediate need.

Legislation has already been introduced — with strong bipartisan, bicameral support — that will accomplish this: The Home Health Care Planning Improvement Act (S. 296/H.R. 2150). The legislation is supported by 47 cosponsors in the Senate and 140 cosponsors in the House. It was introduced last year but is timely now. 

Under current Medicare rules, only physicians can certify patients to receive home health services, which is medical care provided in a patient’s home that can include skilled medical care, physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy. This is true despite the fact that many patients receive their regular care from PAs, NPs or other advanced-practice medical providers.

This federal restriction disrupts continuity of care for patients who rely on PAs for the care. It also can deny or delay the availability of care for seniors and the disabled — two groups who need increased access to high-quality care during the COVID-19 response. Removing red tape from the home health care process now is as important as ever.

Congress can pass this legislation now, or add it to a larger bill, in order to provide immediate help to improve care for patients and to free up hospital capacity for vulnerable patients. Fast-tracking this authorization through inclusion in the next COVID-19 response package would give our health care system and PAs and NPs another helpful tool in the fight to stem the COVID-19 virus.

As the health care community comes together to address this crisis, all options should be on the table. We strongly encourage Congress to enact this provision as part of the COVID-19 response so that PAs can do as much as possible to assist in this fight.

• Lisa M. Gables is the interim CEO and CFO of the American Academy of PAs.

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