Nursing homes may be seeing a rise in COVID-19 infections as cases in many areas of the country are resurging, but providers now know that, no matter what, they will be rewarded for safer performances between last August and September.

Approximately a third of a billion dollars ($333 million) will be distributed to more than 10,000 nursing homes starting next week, the Department of Health and Human Services announced Wednesday. More than three fourths (77%) qualified for payment, with 76% qualifying with lower infection and mortality criteria during the August to September measurement period.

It marked the first incentive segment of five that are scheduled under a $2 billion COVID-19 funding plan that officials announced in August.

The performance-based payment structure pays nursing homes that keep new COVID-19 infection and mortality rates among residents lower than the communities they serve, as analyzed against CDC data.

Providers’ actions contributed to 1,200 fewer COVID-19 related nursing home deaths between August and September, officials said.

“Today’s announcement illustrates how complementing relief payments with outcome-based payments help to yield positive results in improving quality and infection control in nursing homes,” the HHS announcement said.

Providers also expressed their enthusiasm for the first round of rewards, saying the program shows what investment in operators can yield.

Wednesday’s announcement proves that when nursing homes have sufficient personal protective equipment and testing they then “have a fighting chance to contain and feate this horrible virus,” explained Mark Parkinson, president and CEO of the American Health Care Association/National Center for Assisted Living. 

“This HHS program further incentivizes nursing homes to take appropriate action and is an important part of providing facilities with the resources they need to protect our nation’s seniors,” Parkinson said. He added that the association has long supported provider payments being based on outcomes and, “HHS’s bold initiative is a great step in this direction.”

“We know that nursing homes in communities with high infection rates are more susceptible to COVID infections. [Wednesday’s] HHS announcement shows us that over three-quarters of eligible nursing homes beat those odds,” said Katie Smith Sloan, president and CEO of LeadingAge, which represents nonprofit providers of aging services, including nursing homes.”

Payments announced Wednesday reflect a retrospective view of what occurred, meaning recent spikes in many areas of the country could bring much different results and inventive payment levels in the future, Sloan acknowledged. Providers can remain in the payment pipeline, however, by recording better infection and mortality rates than the general public around them. She stressed vigilance.

“Despite these improvements, older adults in nursing homes — and all care settings — continue to be under threat from this pandemic,” Sloan noted. “This new reporting suggests that nursing homes could protect even more residents and care workers with additional help and resources. With a rising count of over 60,000 nursing home deaths to-date, this is no time to declare victory and walk away.”

A state-by-state breakdown on incentive payments from this first cycle is available here. An HHS spokesperson told McKnight’s Long-Term Care News Wednesday that as recipients attest to receipt of their incentive reward payment(s), they will be listed in this public dataset.

The performance payments are part of an additional $5 billion in aid for skilled nursing providers announced by the Trump administration in late July. The initial $2.5 billion in upfront payments was released late August to help nursing homes increase coronavirus testing, staffing and PPE needs.