Backed By HHS — and Up to $237M — Nursing Home Action Network Targets Infection Control

As part of an effort to bolster the implementation of evidence-based infection prevention and safety in nursing homes, a federal agency within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is establishing a National Nursing Home COVID Action Network, supported financially by the Provider Relief Fund.

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), part of HHS, is partnering with the University of New Mexico’s ECHO Institute in Albuquerque and the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI) in Boston to establish the network, which will provide free training and mentorship to nursing homes across the U.S.

Project ECHO, or Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes, includes more than 250 training partners across the country; its initial establishment and evaluation was funded by AHRQ starting in 2004.

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The network is being created through an AHRQ contract worth up to $237 million, part of the almost $5 billion Provider Relief Fund authorized earlier this year under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

“Protecting vulnerable older Americans in nursing homes is a central part of our fight against COVID-19, and we’ve learned that improving infection control in many nursing homes is not a matter of will but of skill,” HHS Secretary Alex Azar said in a press release announcing the network. “AHRQ is deploying its unique expertise in partnership with Project ECHO and IHI to help nursing homes protect both their residents and staff from the virus, slowing the spread and saving lives.”

The ECHO Institute is recruiting large health centers and academic medical centers across the U.S. to serve as training hubs, and nursing homes certified to participate in the Medicare and Medicaid programs will be able to take part in a 16-week training program, with a standardized curriculum developed by IHI, according to the release.

The curriculum will be refined as the pandemic situation changes, but some of the topics for the early weeks will include:

  • Best practices in the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) for COVID-19
  • Minimizing COVID-19 spread
  • Testing
  • Clinical management of asymptomatic and mild cases

Nursing homes “that actively participate” will be eligible for $6,000 to cover staff training time. The sessions will be weekly and virtual, facilitated by small teams of subject matter and quality improvement experts, combining short lectures with case-based group learning, according to the press release. Peer-to-peer learning will also be available between sessions.

“Expanding the use of proven safety practices will directly benefit nursing home residents and staff members and help save lives,” AHRQ director Gopal Khanna said in the release. “AHRQ has a proven track record of producing science and research to address critical needs such as responding to COVID-19 and achieving 21st century care for all Americans. We are pleased to be working with the ECHO Institute and IHI on this new initiative.”

Two of the largest nursing home trade groups, the American Health Care Association (AHCA) and LeadingAge, also featured in the announcement of the initiative.

“Collaborative education and shared learning is critical for our nonprofit nursing home members on the front line of this pandemic, under often challenging conditions,” Katie Smith Sloan, president and CEO of LeadingAge, said. “Access to mentors, local experts, community peers, and resources, with a focus on continuous improvement, will go a long way to help mitigate the virus’ spread and ensure the health and safety of older adults.”

Mark Parkinson, the president and CEO of AHCA, said provider participation in the network was “strongly encouraged” by the association.

“The ECHO model is a proven approach that brings experts and providers together to learn and solve clinical and operational challenges,” he said in the release. “We strongly encourage providers to participate in the COVID Action Network to get access to experts and learn the latest best practices to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

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