Apr 10 2017

Addressing Common Misconceptions Regarding Waivers and Equivalencies

Category: BlogBKeyes @ 12:00 am

There has been much confusion and differing of opinions regarding the process to submit waiver and equivalency requests, and once they have been approved, how long they are valid. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) recently implemented new procedures that resulted in changes on how the accreditation organizations processed waiver and equivalency requests.

Up until a couple of years ago, CMS always said that approved waivers are only valid for 1-year. After the 1-year cycle, the federal agency wanted hospitals to resubmit their waiver request for another 1-year cycle. When Det Norske Vertitas (DNV) came on the scene in 2008 or so, CMS told them straight out-of-the-box that DNV cannot approve waivers or equivalencies. DNV would be required to send them to the appropriate CMS Regional Office for approval. DNV was okay with that because they wanted deeming authority, so they complied. The odd thing though, CMS did not inform Healthcare Facilities Accreditation Program (HFAP) or The Joint Commission of the same policy at that time.

Joint Commission and HFAP always recognized that CMS was the only entity that could approve waivers, but these two accreditors always considered equivalencies as different animals and were not considered to be waivers. It was always understood that the difference between a waiver and an equivalency is a waiver is requesting a specific Life Safety Code requirement to be ‘waived’ and the hospital would not have to comply with it due to significant hardships. An equivalency does not ‘waive’ any Life Safety Code requirements, but instead analyzes surrounding features of fire-safety and assigns numerical values. The numerical values are run through a formula and if the result is a positive number then that confirms there is a equivalent level of safety even with the Life Safety Code deficiency. This concept is supported by section 1.4.3 of the 2012 Life Safety Code. But CMS never saw it the same way and decided an equivalency is similar to a waiver, and needs to be processed the same. Therefore, only they (CMS) could approve equivalencies.

In 2012 CMS notified HFAP that they can no longer approve equivalencies, and CMS wanted HFAP to submit the waiver/equivalency requests to the appropriate CMS Regional Office for approval, just like DNV. But, for reasons known only to them, it wasn’t until July, 2014, that CMS got around to telling Joint Commission the same rules. Joint Commission agreed to discontinue approving equivalencies and would forward them on to the appropriate CMS Regional Office. So, for the first time since 2008, the big three accreditors for hospitals (Joint Commission, DNV and HFAP) were all on the same page and on a level playing ground regarding the approval process for equivalencies. But immediately, there was confusion; not the least of which the CMS Regional Offices were not prepared to handle the influx of the paper requests for waivers and equivalencies. Some of the busier Regional Offices started to misplace the equivalency requests, which meant the hospitals would have to resubmit them. Most of the accreditors required the equivalencies to be submitted on paper rather than electronically because the equivalencies required drawings of the facility, and at that time electronic files of drawings were not easily read without CAD software. That led to large, bulky paper submissions, which were easily misplaced.

By 2015, CMS took action to resolve the serious problem concerning misplaced copies of waiver and equivalency requests, so they contracted with Healthcare Management Solutions (HMS), a vendor, to create an electronic process to accept waiver and equivalency requests and track their progress through the approval process. In May, 2015 HMS unveiled a rather slick and easy process to the accreditors called Sharepoint, whereby the accreditors can submit waiver and equivalency requests electronically from their clients to HMS. Representatives from HMS will review the submissions to ensure that significant information is included, and once they consider it to be an acceptable submission, they will then send it electronically to the appropriate CMS Regional Office for review and approval. At this time (in May, 2015), they submitted a 6-page document to the AOs explaining the process for waivers and equivalencies to be submitted and approved. Highlights of this document says:

  1. Only CMS Regional Offices can approve waivers and equivalencies.
  2. Waiver and equivalency requests will only be considered for existing Life Safety code deficiencies; they will not consider a request if the deficiency has not been cited by the accreditor. (This is contrary to the way that Joint Commission and HFAP operated, as they would approve equivalencies prior to the Life Safety Code deficiency being cited.)
  3. The hospital will submit their waiver or equivalency request directly to their accreditation organization as part of their Plan of Correction to resolve a deficiency cited during a survey.
  4. If the AO agrees with the hospital’s request for a waiver or an equivalency, then they submit the request electronically along with a cover letter recommending approval to the HMS Sharepoint. If the AO does not agree with the request made by the hospital, then they simply do not submit the request to HMS Sharepoint, and the request is effectively denied. This allows the AOs a right of first-denial.
  5. Once the request submission meets the requirements, then HMS sends it on to the appropriate CMS Regional Office. Originally, CMS said they expected the Regional Offices to approve or disapprove requests within 30 days, but that has not always been the case as the influx of waiver and equivalency requests has created a back-log.
  6. The CMS Regional Office decides whether or not to approve the waiver/equivalency request and they make their decision in writing and inform the hospital and the AO of their decision. If they approve the request, it is only valid until the next triennial survey whereby if the deficiency is not resolved at that time, it will be cited again. If they deny the request, the hospital must submit an alternative Plan of Correction to resolve the deficiency.

In addition, when the CMS Regional Office sends a letter of approval to the hospital, they include language that says: “If you are not in compliance with the above requirements at the time of your next survey, you will be required to either submit a plan to correct deficiencies or renew your request for waiver, in order to continue your participation on the Medicare program.” This reinforces the CMS position that waivers and equivalencies are only valid until the next survey.

Since an approved waiver or equivalency is only valid until the next survey, that implies the waiver or equivalency is a short-term, temporary process. This is different than what used to be considered in the past. CMS now allows waiver requests to extend up to 3 years, rather than 1-year; and approved equivalencies are now limited to no more than 3 years, rather than indefinitely or until there is renovation in the area as Joint Commission and HFAP used to allow. Hospitals started to change their strategy and submitted more waiver request rather than equivalencies since equivalencies cost more resources to prepare.

CMS will allow a time-limited waiver request which is essentially the hospital requesting permission to continue to operate the facility with the cited Life Safety Code deficiency for a short-period of time until the hospital can either resolve the deficiency or implement other measures to qualify for an equivalency. CMS has stated that if a hospital cannot resolve a Life Safety deficiency within 60 days of the end of the survey, then they would expect the hospital to submit a time-limited waiver request.

You may wonder why CMS has not issued a public notice explaining the changes with the waiver and equivalency requests. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect it may be that they really don’t see that there have been any significant changes on their part to explain. Other than the HMS Sharepoint process which is really a private conversation between the CMS and the AOs, the statement that the waivers and equivalencies are only valid until the next survey has always been the case with CMS. It really was the Joint Commission and HFAP that had different procedures and allowed equivalencies to be valid indefinitely or until there was renovation in the area. Once CMS got those two AOs to stop approving equivalencies, then everything else fell into place.

Tags: ,

Jun 06 2014

Changes With Equivalency Requests for The Joint Commission

Category: BlogBKeyes @ 11:00 pm

imagesO752ZQ8RAs a result of the June 4, 2014 online announcement by The Joint Commission which identified major changes for the Statement of Condition Plan for Improvement (PFI) list, they also mentioned that beginning July 1, 2014 all equivalency requests submitted to them will be passed along to the appropriate CMS Regional Office for their approval.

What The Joint Commission did not say is CMS will not accept any equivalency requests unless it is submitted as part of the organization’s Plan of Correction. This means, hospitals will no longer be able to submit an equivalency request prior to a survey, but will only be able to submit equivalency requests after the Life Safety Code deficiency is cited in a survey report.

What affect will this have on hospital facility managers? I think both changes involving the PFI list and the equivalency requests has the potential for a huge impact on the overall safety of the physical environment, and it won’t be positive.

In just the two days since Joint Commission announced this change, I must have talked with or emailed with over 20 different facility managers and safety officers of Joint Commission accredited hospitals, discussing what options they have with these new changes. This has many of these individuals very concerned since two key tools are changing on how they manage their Life Safety Code deficiencies.

Allow me to summarize these changes:

1). Beginning July 1, 2014, Joint Commission says all items identified on the PFI list will be cited as deficiencies on the survey decision report. No longer will hospitals enjoy a pass from receiving a written deficiency in the survey report for anything identified on the PFI list. [I talked with one facility manager who has over 200 items on his PFI list and their organization is in the survey window for their triennial survey. He needs to clear those PFIs or risk having them identified on the survey report.]

2). Joint Commission says they will review equivalency requests and send them on to the CMS Regional Office for final action. Since CMS does not accept equivalency requests for LSC deficiencies that have not been cited on a survey report, no longer will facility managers be allowed to be proactive and seek an equivalency for a deficiency prior to a survey.

So, I see a very strong potential for facility managers to discontinue being proactive and identify their LSC deficiencies prior to a triennial survey, since there is no relief from the PFI list and there is no opportunity to seek an equivalency. They very likely will take the stand of wait-and-see if the surveyor finds the deficiency and then deal with it afterwards. I fear our industry may fall back into the “hide our skeletons” concept of over 20 years ago. No longer will some facility managers want to be transparent and self-identify their problems. By failing to self-identify their deficiencies, those deficiencies do not get resolved, and if the surveyors fail to identify them, then they likely will not get resolved at all. How safe is that for our patients?

Do not misunderstand me… I do not advocate facility managers to discontinue being proactive and identifying their LSC deficiencies prior to a survey. In fact, I encourage them to continue as though nothing has happened in regards to the PFI list, and still use it as a tool to manage their deficiencies. But, human nature being what it is, I suspect many hospitals will not be as safe as they once were because some facility managers will no longer be proactive and self-identify their LSC deficiencies.

And, you can forget about the cost effective and economical Traditional Equivalencies that Joint Commission used to accept. CMS will not accept those at all, and will only accept the more costly Fire Safety Evaluation System (FSES) as identified in NFPA 101A.

I think this is a very sad day for healthcare. While I was an advocate for fair play amongst all the accreditation organizations, I wanted CMS to approve the advantage that Joint Commission had with the PFI list and approving equivalencies prior to the deficiency being cited, for all accreditors, not just for Joint Commission. Instead, CMS did not clearly understand the potential actions their insistence will cause.

It looks like CMS will not stop until all the accreditation organizations are homogenized into one big quasi-government group whereby you won’t be able to tell them apart. What good is that?

Tags: , , ,

Aug 09 2012

Sprinklers in Existing Healthcare Occupancies

Category: BlogBKeyes @ 5:00 am

This may seem basic to some of you, but one of the problems in the healthcare facilities management industry is people don’t always have a good solid foundation of the basics. From time to time, I have a conversation with a client about challenges they are having in regards to installing sprinklers in their existing facilities. Frequently they ask me how they should enter their sprinkler project into the Joint Commission Statement of Conditions (SOC), Plan For Improvement (PFI) list. Eventually I get around to asking the question “Why are you installing sprinklers?” Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a firm believer in sprinklers as they do save lives in the event of a fire, and I am all for hospitals and nursing homes retroactively installing them, but I want to make sure the client fully understands their options.

First of all, let’s make it very clear that the 2000 edition of the Life Safety Code (LSC) does not require existing healthcare occupancies to be protected with automatic sprinklers, unless the Construction Type or an approved equivalency requires it. Existing conditions is defined as the local authority having approved construction documents for new construction or renovation projects before March 11, 2003. Why March 11, 2003? Because that’s the date the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) approved the 2000 edition of the LSC. There is a caveat to this issue, and that is the LSC has required new construction and renovation to be protected with automatic sprinklers since the 1991 edition, so if your organization was required to comply with the 1991 (and subsequent) edition(s), then new construction and renovation conducted since the time that edition was adopted by your authorities needs to be sprinklered. CMS went directly from the 1985 edition of the LSC to the 2000 edition on March 11, 2003. I know Joint Commission had adopted the 1994 and the 1997 editions prior to adopting the 2000 edition on March 1, 2003 (Yes, they adopted the 2000 edition 10 days earlier than CMS…), but I do not know if and when they ever adopted the 1991 edition.

Construction Type is a NFPA reference describing the general fire resistance of the construction materials used to build the facility, and the level of fire protection on key structural members of the building, as measured in hours. So, Construction Type II (222) which is the most common type  for hospitals, would be a building constructed with fire resistant materials (such as concrete, brick, stone, gypsum board, etc.) and has key structural members (such as load bearing walls, beams, joists, trusses, floor decks) with a 2-hour fire resistant rating. Generally speaking, the taller the building the greater the Construction Type must be. According to the existing healthcare occupancy chapter (19) in the LSC, some lessor Construction Types in existing constructions must be sprinklered. In some cases an equivalency will specify sprinklers in an existing condition in order to gain enough points to be successful. If you have any approved equivalencies, check them out to see if automatic sprinklers are a condition of their approval.

So, getting back to the client with the question about entering the sprinkler project into the SOC PFI list, I ask them “Why are you installing sprinklers?” If they say it is just a desire of theirs to have a fully sprinklered facility, then that is not a LSC deficiency, and they cannot enter that into their PFI list. The PFI list is reserved only for deficiencies with the Life Safety Code. Now, if they are installing sprinklers because they are renovating an area,or correcting a deficiency with their Construction Type, or need the points on an equivalency, then that is a life safety deficiency and the sprinkler project may be entered into the PFI list.

Confusing? That’s all-right, as it can be. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and everything a facility manager needs to know about the Life Safety Code is not learned by just reading a blog posting…. But it can help!


P.S. Be prepared for changes when the 2012 edition of the Life Safety Code is finally adopted (probably in 2014 or 2015). The new edition will require existing nursing homes to be fully protected with automatic sprinklers, and existing hospitals that are considered high-rise facilities to be fully protected with automatic sprinklers. A high-rise building is greater than 75 feet in height where the building height is measured from the lowest level of fire department vehicle access to the floor of the highest occupiable story. A penthouse mechanical room would not typically be considered an occupiable story.

Tags: , , ,