Wednesday, March 18, 2020

To help with covid-19, government relaxes Medicare tele-health rules, lets closed schools serve meals to students

The federal government has been taking a number of measures to help rural areas impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Tuesday that it is working with several organizations to provide meals to students in schools closed due to the coronavirus. Many school districts have been serving meals to students as they would during the summer; the USDA already waived the requirement that students eat the food in a "congregated" setting, which allows students to take meals home and avoid unnecessary exposure to others, AgWeek reports. Areas that don't have access to the USDA's Summer Food Service Program will be prioritized.

The USDA is working with the Baylor University Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty, McLane Global, PepsiCo, and others to provide nearly a million meals a week, starting next week. Pepsi is providing $1 million. The program will be based on the 2019 "Meals-2-You" home-delivery pilot program. Children will get boxes containing five days' worth of shelf-stable, nutritious, individually packaged foods that meet the USDA's summer food requirements, AgWeek reports. Initial capacity will be limited, and other vendors are actively being sought to contribute to the program.

Meanwhile, Medicare tele-health services have been temporarily expanded nationwide. "Physicians, nurse practitioners, clinical psychologists and licensed clinical social workers can now offer tele-health to Medicare beneficiaries in any healthcare facility, including a physician's office, hospital, nursing home or rural health clinic, as well as from their homes," Mike Miliard reports for Healthcare IT News. The Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General "is also adding flexibility for healthcare providers to reduce or waive cost-sharing for telehealth visits paid by federal healthcare programs. Providers can learn more with this fact sheet."

The move is meant to keep patients with non-coronavirus health issues from traveling to a clinic or hospital where they may be exposed (or expose others) to covid-19. It will also free up clinics and hospitals to focus on covid-19 cases, Miliard reports.

"A bipartisan group of 24 senators is asking FEMA to coordinate with USDA and the Interior Department to deploy federal workers trained in emergency response to rural communities overwhelmed by the pandemic. The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are 'uniquely qualified,' the senators wrote," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's Morning Agriculture.

One problem to keep an eye on in rural areas, though: hospitals nationwide could start running low on ventilators if they get overwhelmed with covid-19 cases. Since rural hospitals are generally last in line in medical supply chains, the problem could be more acute there. President Trump recently advised states not to rely on the federal government and to start looking for ventilators themselves. But China, South Korea and Italy snapped up ventilators months ago as they dealt with the pandemic, and now it will be months before major manufacturers can make a dent in the projected need in the U.S. Click here for a deeper dive into the ventilator situation, and how some are attempting to mitigate it.

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