At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when it became clear that hospitals and other providers were losing revenue due to a sudden drop in admissions, procedures, and visits, CMS accelerated Medicare payments to minimize the effects of revenue shortfalls. The Medicare Accelerated and Advance Payment Programs, which existed before the pandemic, are designed to help hospitals facing cash flow disruptions during an emergency. These are loans that must be paid back, with timelines and terms for repayment.

CMS has had the authority to accelerate payments under certain circumstances, but the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act significantly expanded this authority to a broader set of hospitals, health professionals, and suppliers during the COVID-19 public health emergency. These funds are separate from amounts being distributed to health care providers through the Provider Relief Fund authorized by the CARES Act, which do not have to be repaid, as described in more detail below.

How have the Medicare advance payments been allocated?

As of May 2020, a total of $100 billion had been distributed to hospitals and other types of providers through the accelerated/advance payment program. These loans are paid out of the Medicare Hospital Insurance (Part A) and the Supplementary Medical Insurance (Part B) trust funds. The vast majority of Medicare advance and accelerated payments ($92 billion) went to providers that participate in Part A, which pays for inpatient hospital stays, skilled nursing facility (SNF) stays, some home health visits, and hospice care. Of this amount, $78 billion went to short stay hospitals and a combined $5 billion went to skilled nursing facilities and home health providers (Figure 1). Advance payments to Part A providers that offer both Part A and Part B services include loans for services that were funded through both the Part A trust fund (for Part A services) and the Part B trust fund (for Part B services).

The loans made under this program are an advance on reimbursement from traditional (fee-for-service) Medicare – an approach that may be less helpful to hospitals and other providers that serve a relatively large share of patients enrolled in Medicare Advantage plans. The share of Medicare beneficiaries in Medicare Advantage plans varies widely by state and county, ranging from less than 1% in some counties to more than 60% in others, including two-thirds of beneficiaries in Miami-Dade county in Florida.

Figure 1: The Vast Majority of Medicare Accelerated and Advance Payments (92%) Went to Part A Providers

What other financial assistance have providers received during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Money that providers received through the Accelerated and Advance Payment programs in the spring of 2020 likely served as a lifeline for many providers that were facing dramatic drops in revenue due to delays in non-emergency procedures. But these loans are not the only assistance providers have received since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Other financial assistance includes:

  • Provider relief grants: The CARES Act and the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act allocated $175 billion for grants to health care providers that do not have to be paid back. Of the $116 billion that already has been allocated, $50 billion went to Medicare providers proportionately based on their total net patient revenue. This formula favored hospitals that get most of their revenue from private insurance, which typically reimburses at prices that are twice as high as what Medicare pays, disproportionately helping for-profit hospitals and hospitals with higher operating margins. Additionally, $22 billion in grants went to hospitals that treated a high number of COVID-19 inpatients, $11 billion went to rural providers, and $13 billion went to safety net hospitals. About $59 billion still remains in this fund and has not been yet been allocated.
  • Treasury department and Small Business Administration loans: Health care providers are potentially eligible for some of the loan programs included in the CARES Act, including the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). Under the PPP for small businesses, loans are forgiven if employers do not lay off workers and meet other criteria. According to a Treasury Department analysis, health care providers received nearly $68 billion of the $520 billion in PPP loans that have been distributed. The CARES Act also appropriated $454 billion for loans to qualifying larger businesses – including hospitals and other large health care entities – but there have been delays in distributing those loans.
  • Increase in Medicare COVID-19 inpatient reimbursement: During the public health emergency, Medicare is increasing all inpatient reimbursement for COVID-19 patients by 20%. This payment increase applies to all hospitals paid under the inpatient prospective payment system and so would not apply to critical access hospitals. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that this change will increase Medicare spending by about $3 billion.

What is the current status of the Accelerated and Advance Payment Programs?

On April 26, 2020, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) announced that it was suspending advance payments to Part B providers and would be reevaluating pending and new applications for accelerated payments to Part A providers, due to the availability of the CARES Act provider relief grants. At that point, CMS had distributed $100 billion through the accelerated and advance payment programs.

Starting August 2020, hospitals and other providers that received Medicare accelerated and advance payments in the spring will be required to begin to repay these amounts. Most hospitals will have one year from the date the first loan payment was made to repay the loans, while many other providers will have seven months from when payments began. During that time, Medicare providers can continue to submit claims, but new claims will be offset to repay the loans. In other words, the Medicare reimbursements that providers would otherwise receive will instead go towards repaying the loans they received from Medicare. If any money remains unpaid after the final due date, an interest rate that is currently set at about 10 percent will begin to be charged.

What is the implication for providers of repaying these amounts?

The Medicare advance and accelerated payment program provided quick access to funds at a time when many hospitals were facing an unexpected and unprecedented disruption in cash flow. While some hospitals are continuing to struggle due to expenses and lost revenue related to coronavirus, other hospitals have posted profits and are reporting no liquidity concerns.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, hospitals’ financial situations varied widely, with some hospitals having much larger financial reserves than others. In 2018, the median hospital had enough cash on hand to pay its operating expenses for 53 days, but the 25th percentile hospital only hand enough cash on hand for 8 days. Smaller hospitals and rural hospitals are among those most likely to face financial challenges in the wake of COVID-19 revenue loss and may have greater difficulty than others under the repayment terms described above.

What modifications are being discussed to the repayment requirements and what are the implications for Medicare?

Congress is now being asked to consider a broad new coronavirus aid package that could include an extended timeline for repaying these loans. Some providers are lobbying to have the loans forgiven altogether for all hospitals or a subset of those that have been most adversely affected by the pandemic.

Modifications to the repayment requirements that would cancel amounts owed to Medicare for some (if not all) providers would have negative repercussions on the Medicare Hospital Insurance (Part A) trust fund, which is already facing a loss of payroll tax revenue due to due to the unemployment crisis brought about by the pandemic. Without taking into account the expected effects of the pandemic, government actuaries estimated that trust fund reserves would be $185 billion at the end of 2020, which is likely to be an overestimate because it does not take into account the loss of revenue due to the pandemic. Outlays from the trust fund have also been affected by the 20% increase in Medicare inpatient reimbursement for COVID-19 patients authorized by the CARES Act, although there have also been offsets in spending due to reductions in the use of health care by Medicare beneficiaries unrelated to the coronavirus.

In 2020, the Medicare trustees projected that the Part A trust fund would be insolvent by 2026, but that projection did not account for the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Medicare spending and revenues. If a significant share of the advance payment loans was not repaid and no other changes were made to hold the trust fund harmless, it could have a material impact on the solvency of the trust fund and its ability to fully meet obligations beyond the next few years.

As policymakers weigh whether to adjust the terms for repayment of loans from hospitals and other health care providers, they may want to take into account the different sources of funds that have been distributed since the start of the pandemic, the fact that some providers have recovered more quickly than others, and the extent to which any change could exacerbate the fiscal strain on the Medicare Hospital Insurance Trust Fund.

This work was supported in part by Arnold Ventures. We value our funders. KFF maintains full editorial control over all of its policy analysis, polling, and journalism activities.

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