Providers can begin applying for their share of an additional $25.5 billion in COVID-19 relief funds starting Sept. 29, the Department of Health and Human Services announced Friday morning.

The cash infusion follows months of waiting and increasingly desperate pleas from cash-strapped and labor-challenged long-term care providers for additional help in confronting COVID-19.

It’s the second “big win” in as many days for long-term care providers, after President Joe Biden announced Thursday that all participants in the Medicare and Medicaid programs — not just nursing homes — would have to mandate staff vaccinations.

“This funding critically helps healthcare providers who have endured demanding workloads and significant financial strains amidst the pandemic,” HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement Thursday. “The funding will be distributed with an eye towards equity, to ensure providers who serve our most vulnerable communities will receive the support they need.”

The funding includes $8.5 billion in American Rescue Plan resources for providers who serve rural Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance Program or Medicare patients, and an additional $17 billion for Provider Relief Fund Phase 4 for providers who can document revenue loss and expenses associated with the pandemic.

The Phase 4 PRF payments will be based on lost revenues and expenditures between July 1, 2020, and March 31, 2021.

Providers can use a single portal to apply for either or both types of funds through the Health Resources and Services Administration. HHS officials said HRSA will use existing Medicaid, CHIP and Medicare claims data in calculating payments.

Skilled nursing providers have argued that more assistance was needed to sustain infection prevention, testing and other interventions during the pandemic’s delta surge.

“Ensuring that this funding is delivered to long-term care providers immediately is critical to our primary role of caring for and protecting our nation’s seniors and most vulnerable,” wrote Mark Parkinson, president & CEO of American Health Care Association/National Association for Assisted Living in an August letter to Becerra, one of several sent by provider associations and federal lawmakers

On Thursday, HHS also released information on the methodology it used to calculate PRF Phase 3 payments. Providers who believe those payment were calculated incorrectly will now be able to request reconsideration. More details on that process will be shared at a future date.

Additionally, “in light of the challenges providers across the country are facing due to recent natural disasters and the Delta variant,” the agency issued a 60-day grace period to help providers comply with reporting lost revenues and COVID expenses in connection with Phase 1 funds. The official deadline for that reporting period is September 30, 2021, but HHS said it will not initiate collection activities or similar enforcement actions for noncompliant providers during the grace period.

Nursing homes and assisted living facilities have so far received about $14 billion of $178 billion in Provider Relief Funds, with the last allocation coming in December. But providers have since grown impatient with HHS’ inaction on the matter. The agency told McKnight’s Aug 4 that it was “committed to distributing these funds to providers as quickly and equitably as possible.”

The American Health Care Association and industry executives had speculated in early June that nursing homes and other providers would soon see “positive news”, but HHS then went radio silent on the issue. That remained the case even as the Government Accountability Office in late July criticized the agency for not having a clear timeline for doling out the remaining funds.

“We are thrilled that the application process for additional Provider Relief Funds is being opened up and that payments in this phase are structured to address the specific financial challenges of medium and small providers, as well as those who serve Medicaid, CHIP and/or Medicare patients,” Katie Smith Sloan, LeadingAge president and CEO, said following the announcement.

Parkinson added the financial aid is long overdue, but greatly appreciated by the long-term care sector.

“These federal funds are critical in helping providers acquire the ongoing staff support, personal protective equipment, and testing they need to protect our residents and staff members as well as prevent facility closures. We hope to see this aid delivered swiftly to the frontlines, so our nation’s most vulnerable continue to receive the high quality, long term care they deserve,” Parkinson said.

Please check back for updates to this developing story.