This Week’s Dose
President Biden urged Congress to pass standalone COVID-aid, which was stripped from the omnibus package, as the Administration begins scaling back mitigation efforts without the additional funding.
Administration Pushes for COVID Funds. Congress continued to work on the standalone $15.6 billion COVID-relief funding (H.R. 7007), initially included in the omnibus but removed after concerns over how to pay for the legislation. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) apologized to the Administration for Congress’ inaction. However, action has slowed without an agreed upon pay-for for at least part of the package which is needed in order for a bill to garner 60 votes in the Senate. Republicans continue to request a complete accounting of how previously allocated COVID-19 funds were used. While interest remains strong in another COVID relief package, the timing and ultimate scope of this legislation remains unclear.
All week, the Administration warned Congress that without the funds certain COVID-19 response efforts will stop as early as next week. On Thursday, the Health Resources and Services Administration posted an announcement making good on the threat. See related story below.
Broad Pandemic Preparedness Bill Passes Committee. The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pension on March 15 held a markup and passed by a vote of 20-2 the PREVENT Pandemics Act (S. 3799), introduced by Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-WA) and Ranking Member Richard Burr (R-NC).
The legislation, which includes ideas from 37 different bills, focused on bolstering public health and pandemic preparedness, also aims to establish the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H), a key priority in the bill. As part of the recently passed omnibus package, ARPA-H will receive $1 billion in funding; however, Congress must pass legislation to establish ARPA-H as agency in order to spend the funds.
Committee members were overall supportive of measures to bolster national security and medical supply chain at the markup. However, some members indicated that more data is needed on existing capabilities before moving forward with additional funding for implementing preparedness measures. The full Senate is likely to consider this bill later this year.
The Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing on March 17, going over many individual bills with similar objectives—including a House bill that would establish ARPA-H and CURES 2.0.
Senate Refocuses on Drug Pricing. The Senate Finance Committee held a hearing on March 16 entitled “Prescription Drug Price Inflation: An Urgent Need to Lower Drug Prices in Medicare” to discuss rising prescription drug costs. While the hearing was relatively uneventful, it was designed as a step in regular order to encourage Senator Manchin to proceed with a smaller version of the Build Back Better Act that would include prescription drug pricing provisions. Many Republicans continue to oppose price controls for pharmaceuticals. Ranking members Crapo (R-ID) and Grassley (R-IA) encouraged Democrats to compromise on drug pricing. Senators Grassley and Wyden (D-OR), the Committee’s chairman, have a bipartisan prescription drug pricing bill that was approved by the Finance Committee last year.
Coronavirus Program Funds Running Dry. The Health Resources Services Administration announced on March 16 that the reimbursement funds for the COVID-19 uninsured program will be closing in the coming days due to insufficient funds. This program provided reimbursement for doctors and other medical providers at approximately Medicare rates for COVID-19 tests, vaccines and treatment to uninsured individuals.
The deadlines for claims submissions are as follows:
- Testing claims: March 22, 2022
- Treatment claims: March 22, 2022
- Vaccine administration claims: April 5, 2022
Any testing, treatment and vaccine claims submitted past these quickly approaching deadlines will not be paid. Administration officials are also grappling with how to wind down investments in next-generation vaccines and treatments, including the purchase and development of oral antivirals, continuation of domestic manufacturing of tests, and global vaccination efforts. Without passage of the standalone COVID-19 relief, many of these COVID-related programs could soon end, as the White House warned in a fact sheet after the COVID funding failed to pass Congress. It is likely that this program will be restored if Congress is able to enact legislation providing the necessary funds, but it could be disruptive in the interim.
COVID Czar Steps Down. The Biden Administration announced on Mach 16 that Jeff Zients, White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator since 2021, will step down in April. Zients oversaw the U.S. COVID-19 response and led one of the largest vaccination campaigns. His departure may signal a new phase in the pandemic and focus on shifting to preparedness rather than crisis.
Taking his place, Anish Jha, MD, dean of Brown University School of Public Health, has been appointed to serve as the next White House COVID-19 response coordinator. Jha previously served as an advisor on President Biden’s National COVID-19 preparedness plan.
- The Senate on March 14 passed the Sunshine Protection Act, introduced by Senators Whitehouse (D-RI) and Rubio (R-FL), to make daylight savings time permanent in 2023. It will now go to the House for consideration, where Rep. Buchanan (R-FL), who introduced the House version in 2021, is expected to lead a letter urging leadership to quickly bring the bill to a full floor vote.
- CMS Performance Based Payment Policy Division of Program Alignment and Communication Director Steven Johnson announced during the 2022 HIMSS Conference in Orlando that the agency will adopt a new six-prong strategy to implement quality measures across its Shared Services Program to better assess the quality of care provided by Accountable Care Organizations. The agency is currently developing guidance it plans to release soon.
- The Senate on March 15 passed (57-40) a resolution to repeal federal mask mandates on public transportation. While unlikely to pass the House, it is a symbolic rebuke of the Biden Administration’s COVID-related policies.
- The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) and the Medicaid and CHIP Payment and Access Commission (MACPAC) issued program payment recommendations in their annual reports (MedPAC and MACPAC) to Congress on March 15.
- The Office of the Inspector General on March 15 released a report examining Medicare beneficiaries’ telehealth use, growth of services, and types of services used most commonly in the first year of the coronavirus pandemic (March 2020 through February 2021).
Next Week’s Diagnosis
The Senate will be in session and the House will enter a week’s long recess, leaving only two weeks of work time before both Chambers are out for spring break.
For more information, contact Debra Curtis, Madeline Hodge, Rachel Kosh, Kristen O’Brien or Erica Stocker.
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