The impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic have been felt throughout the healthcare industry and led to major shifts across all verticals. In particular, the care of the elderly and frail population has faced some of the most scrutiny over the past 18 months given the population’s elevated level of susceptibility to Covid-19 and the major safety protocols that come along with keeping them protected from transmission. Institutional, in-home, and community-based long-term services and support (“LTTS”) providers were forced to make major changes in procedure and delivery of care which has led to mixed results. However, one segment of the LTTS healthcare sector, Programs of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly, or “PACE” organizations, has been incredibly successful in evolving its services under the tumultuous circumstances of the pandemic. The pandemic provided a unique opportunity for PACE organizations to rethink in-community and care-based services for participants. Throughout the pandemic, PACE organizations consistently demonstrated the ability to pivot quickly and effectively while maintaining a high level of safety for their enrollees and staff; all the while, keeping the cost of care under control.
PACE Programs are community-based programs serving over 55,000 elderly participants across 31 states and D.C. (1). Under PACE, enrollees are provided with an extensive list of care and services covered by Medicare and Medicaid as well as necessary care and services not covered while still able to reside in their own home (2). The general eligibility of PACE programs requires the enrollee to be above 55 years, reside in the PACE organization’s service area, and be certified as eligible for nursing home care by their state while able to live in a community setting (2).
PACE Programs, as opposed to other long-term care-facilities, allow enrollees to live in their own homes while providing transportation to the on-site PACE community center, with a central objective of reducing cost of care and admissions to both hospitals and residential care facilities (3). The platform allows for socialization and interaction but does not require nor offer 24/7 contact with other enrollees and staff. This degree of separation of enrollees largely affected the number of transmissions of Covid and Covid-related deaths in PACE Programs; approximately 1.39% of PACE enrollees tested positive and died from Covid-19 as of July 27, 2020 whereas 5.23% of the 1.3 million nursing home residents had died from Covid-19 as of August 13, 2020 (4). Despite enrollees’ frailty and eligibility for nursing homes, PACE participants, on average, had fewer hospitalizations, less time in the hospital, and a lower death rate than nursing home residents for both Covid and non-Covid related ailments (4). Non-communal living allowed PACE Programs the ability to change course rapidly without the concern of transmission from member to member or staff to member.
When the pandemic first began, PACE programs had to pivot, and could no longer view themselves as solely a physical location, but rather a moving entity comprised of enrollees, staff, and transportation vans. Problems centered around the conglomeration of people to receive care and to interact socially within the PACE centers (3). PACE programs had to redesign their care model almost overnight to accommodate regulations and to protect enrollees. All activities ceased, care providers were sent into homes, transportation vans became mobile health clinics, daily phone calls were made to enrollees, meals were delivered to homes, and activities became virtual (3). While every precaution taken was to protect enrollees, with the reduced interaction, loneliness for enrollees living alone became a pervasive issue. To combat this issue, some PACE programs partnered with telehealth companies. One PACE Program, Element Care, partnered with the telehealth company GrandPad, to obtain a proprietary tablet with a simple interface which allowed their enrollees to reach nurses, complete physical therapy, and participate in social activities (5). This program was one of many that were able to effectively reduce levels of loneliness and depression with the implementation of telehealth that offered enrollees an alternative way to connect with their peers during periods of isolation.
A huge concern surrounding care for the enrollees was the temporary closure of medical practices, due to the pandemic, to assist with the enrollees’ average six chronic illnesses (4). As a potential solution, Summit Eldercare, one of the largest PACE programs, opted to transform their in-house community center into an infirmary to care for Covid-positive members who were discharged from hospitals (4). It took about a month for Summit Eldercare to get the infirmary running, serving a total of 11 patients and providing around-the-clock care (4). Although the last patient was discharged in June of 2020, Summit Eldercare demonstrated PACE programs’ ability to utilize space effectively with the resources at their disposal.
PACE offers a much more dynamic and evolving system of aging that gained popularity and traction with the loosening of legal boundaries and allowance of for-profit entities entry into the market in 2015 (7). Prior to 2015, PACE programs were solely non-profit organizations that were plagued by static growth in participants and locations around the country despite the high demand for eldercare services (1). By 2030, the youngest Baby Boomers will be above the age of 65, contributing to the overall aging of the US population and creating a strain on the healthcare system (8). PACE has the opportunity to tap into this market and the potential to grow through scale, spread, and scope; increasing the number of people, number of organizations and communities served, and expanding the range of populations that PACE serves (9).
PACE Programs demonstrated the adaptive nature of the platform and their potential for growth, however, PACE still have substantial issues as the nation emerges from lockdown. Job growth in the leisure and hospitality industry has grown significantly over the past three months and Healthcare is one of the industries with the highest amount of job openings, in part due to 2/3rds of workers who lost their jobs either reconsidering their job choice or choosing to stay home (10). As PACE organizations plan for future expansion, these organizations will be forced to navigate a tight labor market in order to provide the full spectrum of care to new participants.
PACE programs adapted to the “new normal” that Covid presented and proved the benefits for quality in home and community-based care. Given the successes of PACE since the spring of 2020, policymakers around the country will continue to take notice and deliberate further expansion of the programs in their states. Although PACE has its fair share of headwinds, the innovative mindset of the operators as well as the program’s track record during the pandemic bodes well for the future of PACE in the ever-growing elderly care market space.