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Omnibus Spending Bill Passes Up on Crucial Healthcare Issues

The Health Resources and Services Administration, however, did received $1 billion for programs to improve maternal and child health.

Congress passed a $1.5 trillion spending bill last Thursday…with bipartisan support.

That’s right. Bipartisan support.

President Biden signed the bill on Friday, and the package not only keeps the government’s doors open for another six months, it also gives assistance to Ukraine and includes some healthcare items we’ll talk about now. Most striking, however, are the healthcare issues that are not addressed in the package. 

The omnibus package does include $1 billion in funding for Mr. Biden’s Cancer Moonshot initiative, and for research into Alzheimer’s. It also includes increased funding for opioid and health disparities research. And HRSA, the Health Resources and Services Administration, received $1 billion for programs to improve maternal and child health. 

In his State of the Union address at the beginning of March, Biden also outlined a plan to address the nation’s mental health crisis. That initiative got a boost of half a billion dollars.

The package did not make any of the pandemic telehealth waivers permanent, but it did extend those waivers to continue for another five months, or to whenever the Public Health Emergency (PHE) ends. Those waivers include loosening originating site restrictions and allowing audio-only telecommunications.

When will the PHE end? No one knows for sure, but here are some breadcrumbs: the current PHE is set to end next month, April 16, but the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has promised they’ll give the industry a two-month warning before it actually ends, which would certainly put us past April 16.

So, best guess, if things continue to get better in terms of COVID, the PHE may end as early as July. Add the five months that this spending package gives to telehealth waivers, and that puts those waivers ending in December 2022. That gives Congress a little more time to make them permanent.

Now, let’s talk about the healthcare issues that were not included in the spending package.

First, it did not address looming Medicare sequestration cuts, which were suspended at the beginning of the pandemic. Absent any other congressional action, payments from Medicare will be decreased by 1 percent beginning next month and 2 percent in July. Congress may take the issue up in a separate action, but it’s unlikely they will do so before the first set of cuts takes place next month. 

There were also no COVID relief funds in the package. Over the past week, COVID relief was taken out of the bill, because there was disagreement on how the funds should be handled. 

The proposed way to pay for COVID relief in the original package was to take the money from any unspent COVID funds that had been given to the states through earlier relief packages. That’s a bit like when your mom says, a week after Halloween, that if you haven’t eaten your candy yet, she’s going to distribute it to all the other kids. In Washington, D.C. and in statehouses across the country, some thought that was unfair; others, however, thought there’s still too much uneaten candy (or COVID relief money) lying about.

Although money for COVID issues did not make it into this particular package, Congress does expect to take it up in a standalone bill later this spring.

Note that for COVID relief targeted specifically for healthcare and providers, as of last week, all of those COVID funds have been spent or are already allocated.

Programming Note: Listen to Matthew Albright’s live reports on federal healthcare legislation Mondays on Monitor Monday 10 Eastern, sponsored by Zelis.

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Matthew Albright

Matthew Albright is the chief legislative affairs officer at Zelis Healthcare. Previously, Albright was senior manager at CAQH CORE, and earlier, he was the acting deputy director of the Office of E-Health and Services for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

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