Health Update (July 20)
House Appropriations Approves HHS FY2021 Spending Bill
On Monday (Jul. 13), the House Appropriations Committee approved the FY 2021 Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations bill. The bill will increase the HHS’ budget by $1.5 billion. In addition, over $24 billion in emergency spending will be allocated to state and local public health departments and laboratories. Democrats argue these additional funds included in the bill are necessary to deal with the pandemic. Republicans say the funding should instead be included in a separate supplemental bill.
“The administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been inconsistent, incoherent, and above all, dangerous,” said Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee Chair Rosa DeLauro (D-CT).
The bill will move to the House floor in the upcoming weeks. Federal funding expires in less than 12 weeks; it is likely Congress will have to develop a continuing resolution.
HHS Announces Additional $10B for Hospitals in High Impact COVID-19 Areas
On Friday (Jul. 17), HHS announced the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) will begin distribution of an additional $10 billion of high impact area funding to hospitals next week. This second round of relief comes in light of the recent surge in COVID-19 cases across the country.
“The top priority for HHS’s administration of the Provider Relief Fund has been getting support as quickly as possible to providers who have been hit hard by COVID-19,” said HHS Secretary Alex Azar. “Because we’ve carefully targeted support, we can make payments to areas most in need as the pandemic evolves, like we are doing with this round of funds.”
To view the HHS announcement, click here.
Administrator Verma Unveils CMS Telehealth Plans
On Wednesday (Jul. 15), CMS Administrator Seema Verma introduced the agency’s three-step plan for expanding telehealth coverage as a long term goal. This initiative could potentially allow Medicare beneficiaries to acquire permanent access to virtual care.
Verma published data on CMS tracking in the area of telehealth, including a surge in the number of beneficiaries getting telemedicine services. Before the pandemic, approximately 13,000 beneficiaries in fee-for-service (FFS) Medicare received telemedicine in a week. In the last week of April, nearly 1.7 million beneficiaries received telehealth services. CMS reported that in total, over 9 million beneficiaries have received a telehealth service during the public health emergency.
“The rapid adoption of telemedicine among providers and patients has shown that telehealth is here to stay. CMS remains committed to ensuring that the government supports innovation in telehealth that leverages modern technology to enhance patient experience, providing more accessible care”, wrote Verma.
Going forward, CMS is reviewing the temporary changes made during the pandemic and assessing which of these modifications could be made permanent for the purpose of expanding telehealth. The agency is evaluating the impacts these adjustments had on access to care, health outcomes, medicare spending, and the overall health care delivery system.
In Congress, a bipartisan, bicameral group of lawmakers has been working to remove geographic restrictions on telehealth reimbursement by modifying the Social Security Act and through the CONNECT for Health Act of 2019.
Trump Admin Modifies COVID Data Reporting System
On Wednesday (Jul. 15), the administration asked hospitals and states to refrain from reporting data through the CDC’s National Healthcare Safety Network (NHSN) and instead send information through HHS’ system, known as HHS Protect.
HHS began developing the HHS Protect database in collaboration with the CDC in April and has thus far been used to combine data collected from NHSN and other public and private sources through a system called TeleTracking.
With this policy change, the administration is now requesting all COVID-19 data be sent directly to HHS Protect in order to streamline data reporting and reduce the chance of duplication, CDC Director Robert Redfield and HHS Chief Information Officer Jose Arrieta explained at a press conference Wednesday. Redfield also noted the change will allow CDC to focus its efforts on nursing home and long-term health facility support, and does not limit CDC’s access to coronavirus data. Additionally, state and local public health departments will have access to HHS Protect.
The administration is facing criticism from Democratic lawmakers over the decision to change how COVID-19 data is reported, suggesting the move is an effort to undermine public health officials and limit access to coronavirus data.
“CDC has had a system in place for over a decade to track infection data, and hospitals and states know and trust this system,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA). “It’s entirely unclear why the Trump administration has asked states and hospitals to entirely upend their reporting systems in the middle of a pandemic.”
Administration officials have rebuked these claims: “We have not changed the data ecosystem; we have merely streamlined the data collection mechanism for hospitals on the frontlines,” Redfield said in his statement Wednesday.
To view Redfield and Arrieta’s complete remarks, click here.
To view HHS’ COVID-19 Guidance for Hospital Reporting and FAQs For Hospitals, Hospital Laboratory, and Acute Care Facility Data Reporting, click here.
Schumer Announces Plan to Aid Minority Communities
On Thursday (Jul. 16), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Senate Democrats released a $350 billion proposal to invest in communities of color most vulnerable to the impacts of the pandemic. The so-called ‘Economic Justice Act’ would create ten new initiatives to provide $135 billion for child care, community health care, and job training, along with $215 billion for infrastructure, expanding Medicaid, and providing a tax credit for homeowners and renters.
In a summary of the legislation, Senate Democrats described the proposal as an “important down-payment to answer the calls to address systemic racism and historic underinvestment in communities of color.”
The caucus has indicated the act is intended to work with the House-passed HEROES Act, rather than as a replacement. The proposal would be funded by the $200 billion of unspent money from the CARES Act.
To view the Senate Democrats’ press release, click here.
To view a summary of the ‘Economic Justice Act,’ click here.
To view a backgrounder on the ‘Economic Justice Act,’ click here.
Senate Democrats Propose $25B Plan for Free Vaccines
On Monday (Jul. 13), top Senate Democrats released a proposal calling for free vaccines to be provided to Americans. They are also asking Congress to include $25 billion in the next coronavirus stimulus package for the purpose of developing and distributing a COVID-19 vaccine. In addition, Senate Democrats want the FDA to deliver full transparency when reviewing vaccine candidates to prevent political interference.
“If the federal government does not directly purchase enough Covid-19 vaccines for the full population, Congress must act to ensure that all individuals will have access to eventual COVID-19 vaccines free of charge regardless of insurance status, including for the uninsured,” wrote Senate HELP Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) and others.
The House and Senate have begun to develop plans for the next coronavirus stimulus package, expected ahead of the August recess.
CHCG Committee Coverage
On Wednesday (Jul. 15), the House Energy & Commerce Committee held a markup that included 17 health bills. All bills were reported favorably to the House floor. CHCG provided coverage of the following bills:
- R. 2477, the “Beneficiary Enrollment Notification and Eligibility Simplification (BENES) Act of 2019”
- R. 5201, the “Telemental Health Expansion Act of 2019”
- R. 4866, the “National Centers of Excellence in Continuous Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Act of 2019”
- R. 5663, the “Safeguarding Therapeutics Act”
- R. 5668, the “Making Objective Drug Evidence Revisions for New (MODERN) Labeling Act of 2020”
- R. 7574, the “Strengthening America’s Strategic National Stockpile Act of 2020”
To view an executive summary of the markup, click here.
To view the Chairman Frank Pallone’s (D-NJ) comments on the health legislation, click here.
 Ollstein, Alice Miranda “House appropriators advance bill with HHS budget boost, emergency health funds,” Politico Pro, 13 Jul 2020. https://link.edgepilot.com/s/024290bd/pd_4UdKMBkiD-pI-z0vOsA?u=https://subscriber.politicopro.com/article/2020/07/house-approps-advances-hhs-bill-after-arguments-on-abortion-charter-schools-1965032
 Verma, Seema “Early Impact Of CMS Expansion Of Medicare Telehealth During COVID-19,” Health Affairs, 15 Jul 2020. https://link.edgepilot.com/s/e3e68c0a/S3GN80laDUC9nXuNEusvcQ?u=https://www.healthaffairs.org/do/10.1377/hblog20200715.454789/full/
 Ravindranath, Mohana, “CMS chief lays out plan for telehealth policy changes,” Politico Pro, 15 Jul 2020. https://link.edgepilot.com/s/b64901d7/skov05U3fU_80jj4qVopbg?u=https://subscriber.politicopro.com/article/2020/07/cms-chief-lays-out-plan-for-telehealth-policy-changes-3982553
 Bettelheim, Adriel “Trump’s Covid-19 data reporting switch draws outcry from health groups,” Politico Pro, 15 Jul. 2020. https://link.edgepilot.com/s/928ccfb1/HHqBTdCQoEm5esAOX7YJVg?u=https://subscriber.politicopro.com/article/2020/07/trumps-covid-19-data-reporting-switch-draws-outcry-from-health-groups-1965590
 Levine, Miranda “Schumer proposes $350B in aid to communities of color ahead of coronavirus talks,” Politico Pro, 16 Jul. 2020. https://link.edgepilot.com/s/871488e4/Q_wYZbztU0G0mjiKg_2Eng?u=https://subscriber.politicopro.com/article/2020/07/schumer-proposes-350b-in-aid-to-communities-of-color-ahead-of-coronavirus-talks-1965814
 U.S. Senate Democrats “The Economic Justice Act,” (Press Release) 16 Jul. 2020. https://link.edgepilot.com/s/48cf3ad9/8Lge1lE3RkSOwEmrqDXFVw?u=https://www.democrats.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/The%2520Economic%2520Justice%2520Act%2520-%2520SUMMARY.pdf
 Brennan, Jackson “Senate Democrats seek $25B for Covid-19 vaccine development and distribution,” Politico Pro, 13 Jul. 2020. https://link.edgepilot.com/s/74c2f60b/u0tiGJ4Dy0OMkP6HHIGKGA?u=https://subscriber.politicopro.com/article/2020/07/senate-democrats-seek-25b-for-covid-19-vaccine-development-and-distribution-3982437