Medicare Skilled Nursing Facility Use and Spending before and after Introduction of the Public Health Emergency Waiver during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Agne Ulyte, R. J. Waken, Arnold M. Epstein, E. John Orav, Michael L. Barnett, Karen E. Joynt Maddox, David C. Grabowski

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Importance: In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Medicare introduced a public health emergency (PHE) waiver in March 2020, removing a 3-day hospitalization requirement before fee-for-service beneficiaries could receive skilled nursing facility (SNF) care benefits. Objective: To assess whether there were changes in SNF episode volume and Medicare spending on SNF care before and during the PHE among long-term care (LTC) residents and other Medicare beneficiaries. Design, Setting, and Participants: This retrospective cohort study used Medicare fee-for-service claims and the Minimum Data Set for Medicare beneficiaries who were reimbursed for SNF care episodes from January 2018 to September 2021 in US SNFs. Exposures: The prepandemic period (January 2018-February 2020) vs the PHE period (March 2020-September 2021). Main Outcomes and Measures: The main outcomes were SNF episode volume, characteristics, and costs. Episodes were defined as standard (with a preceding 3-day hospitalization) or waiver (with other or no acute care use). Results: Skilled nursing facility care was provided to 4 299 863 Medicare fee-for-service beneficiaries. Medicare beneficiaries had on average 130 400 monthly SNF episodes in the prepandemic period (mean [SD] age of beneficiaries, 78.9 [11.0] years; 59% female) and 108 575 monthly episodes in the PHE period (mean [SD] age of beneficiaries, 79.0 [11.1] years; 59% female). All waiver episodes increased from 6% to 32%, and waiver episodes without preceding acute care increased from 3% to 18% (from 4% to 49% among LTC residents). Skilled nursing facility episodes provided for LTC residents increased by 77% (from 15538 to 27537 monthly episodes), primarily due to waiver episodes provided for residents with COVID-19 in 2020 and early 2021 (62% of waiver episodes without preceding acute care). Skilled nursing facilities in the top quartile of waiver episodes were more often for-profit (80% vs 68%) and had lower quality ratings (mean [SD] overall star rating, 2.7 [1.4] vs 3.2 [1.4]; mean [SD] staffing star rating, 2.5 [1.1] vs 3.0 [1.2]) compared with SNFs in the other quartiles. Monthly Medicare spending on SNF care was $2.1 billion before the pandemic and $2.0 billion during the PHE. For LTC residents, monthly SNF spending increased from $301 million to $585 million while spending on hospitalizations remained relatively stable. Conclusions and Relevance: This cohort study found that the PHE waiver for SNF care was associated with a marked increase in the prevalence of SNF episodes without a preceding hospitalization, especially in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. The waiver was used primarily among certain types of facilities and for LTC residents with COVID-19. Although the effect of the waiver cannot be differentiated from that of the pandemic, overall SNF care costs did not increase substantially; for LTC residents, the waiver was applied primarily for COVID-19 care, suggesting the waiver's successful implementation..

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)637-645
Number of pages9
JournalJAMA Internal Medicine
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 3 2023


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