Weekly Policy Updates
Friday, February 26, 2021
FEHB, OPM & Federal Employees
Biden Nominates Kiran Ahuja for OPM Director: President Biden announced that he will nominate Kiran Ahuja for Director of OPM. Ahuja served as OPM’s Chief of Staff from 2015-2017 under the Obama Administration and led the OPM transition team for Biden.
Why it matters: As we have reported frequently over the last several weeks, OPM has a lot of work to do to rebuild the morale and trust of the Federal workforce. Ahuja, we hope, will be able to hit the ground running because of her previous experience at OPM.
USPS 10-Year Plan Looks to Redefine ‘Unachievable’ Standards: Postmaster General Louis DeJoy spoke with the House Oversight and Reform Committee Wednesday to discuss the 10-year business plan the agency plans to send to Congress in March. The Committee released draft text of a postal reform bill. This bill, versions of which have been proposed for several years, would create a Postal Service Health Benefit Program. DeJoy expressed the USPS supports the plan and that the plan would save $40-50 billion over the next 10 years.
Why It Matters: While it’s difficult to gauge the viability of this bill, given that it’s been introduced over the last several congresses and never seen much momentum. The National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association (NARFE) has indicated support for the bill.
Obama Administration Alum Chiquita Brooks-LaSure Picked to Head CMS: Chiquita Brooks-LaSure has been nominated as CMS Director. Brooks-Lasure has over 20 years of health policy experience and expertise in the Affordable Care Act.
Why it matters: While much of the work done by CMS does not directly impact the FEHB Program, OPM often follows the lead of CMS in terms of policy and operational priorities.
Union Announces ‘Boldest Agenda’ Yet to Strengthen Federal Employee Rights, Pay and Benefits: American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) has announced a sweeping agenda to undo many of the Trump policies related to the Federal workforce and to improve rights, pay, and benefits. In a recent virtual event. AFGE President Everett Kelley applauded Biden’s swift executive orders undoing Trump initiatives to create the controversial “Schedule F” and to bar federal agencies from providing diversity and inclusion training. He called on Congress to provide a 3.2% pay raise to Federal employees, implement COVID paid sick leave benefits, and restore collective bargaining rights.
Why it matters: AFGE will likely have significant influence over the Biden Administration’s platform and we expect Kiran Ahuja, as the newly nominated Director of OPM, to take their recommendations seriously. We expect to see many of AFGE’s priorities adopted by the Biden Administration (and indeed, many already have been).
Four Takeaways from Xavier Becerra’s Confirmation Hearing: Xavier Becerra, President Biden’s nominee to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, faced two days of hearings this week in the Senate HELP and Finance committees. Senators posed questions on key health priorities such as abortion access, safe school re-openings, and the rising costs of insurance coverage, prescription drugs, and medical procedures. Republicans also questioned Becerra’s previous support for “Medicare for All,” although Becerra clarified he would not pursue a single payer health plan as Secretary and would stick to Biden’s preferred policies, including expanding the ACA.
Why It Matters: Becerra’s answers offered very few surprises and generally stuck with the Biden Administrations stances on health issues. Equally as interesting as Becerra’s answers were the questions Senators chose to ask – for example, Republicans avoided mentioning the Affordable Care Act, and both parties chose to focus more on the costs associated with obtaining care rather than who gets covered. More so than some of Biden’s other nominees, Becerra’s nomination appears to have a clearer path to a quick approval. Next, he will face committee and then a full-chamber votes.
Democrats’ $1.9T COVID Aid Bill Faces the Senate: As the House prepares to send the $1.9T COVID relief bill to the Senate by the end of the week, staffers from both parties argued over whether key pieces from the plan can be included under the Senate’s reconciliation rules. The Senate Parliamentarian, a non-partisan position, will decide if provisions like raising the minimum rage and subsidies for laid-off workers remaining on their health insurance are allowed. Congressional leaders hope to pass the bill prior to a March 14th deadline for the expiration of federal unemployment benefits.
Why it Matters: Conflicts over raising the federal minimum wage to $15 have been significant in both parties. The parliamentarian is expected to rule on the provision next week, which will provide clarity as to whether Democrats will keep it in the larger COVID relief bill.
Schumer Eyes Infrastructure, Tech as Next Priorities for Democrats: Looking past the COVID-19 relief bill, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) signaled that Democrats will look to start large infrastructure packages and tech legislation as their next caucus priorities. Schumer pledged the bill would be bipartisan. He also signaled that the next bill to pass through the reconciliation process would have an infrastructure focus.
Why It Matters: Democrats focus on infrastructure, especially for the next reconciliation package, will potentially limit the willingness and capacity for major health care legislation like a public option. Other health care legislation that is not passed through the reconciliation process will likely have to have bipartisan support to defeat potential filibusters.
Hospitals Still Struggle with Volumes, Finances Due to COVID-19: Hospital operating margins remain depressed, despite distribution of CARES Act funding. Utilization continues to be low when compared to one year ago because of deferred treatment due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Why it matters: While we are seeing improvements in numbers of new cases and deaths from the COVID-19 pandemic, the ripple effect on the healthcare industry is expected to have lasting impact. We expect to see continued efforts by Congress and the Biden Administration to buoy providers and hospitals.
Nobody Has Openings: Mental Health Providers Struggle to Meet Demand: With anxiety and depression on the rise during the pandemic, therapists are struggling to keep up with demand.
Why it matters: The high levels of demand for mental health services have led to trends like the use of virtual BH, mental health apps, and other novel forms of care delivery. Insurers should expect to continue to see increased claims for BH services and will need to think through new ways of meeting this demand for members who may be facing barriers to accessing traditional mental health services.
CVS Targets SDOH, COVID-19 Vaccine with Community-Based Health: CVS Health announced a non-emergency medical transportation program in partnership with Lyft. The program will assist individuals experiencing social determinants of health by providing free or discounted rides COVID-19 vaccine appointments.
Why it matters: Efforts of this nature are in line with current trends in the health care industry to address social determinants of health and health disparities in the time of COVID. As insurers determine the best way to assist their enrollees with receiving the vaccine, they should consider methods that provide assistance to people with limited transportation options and other social determinants of health.
FDA Review Supports Safety, Efficacy of J&J Coronavirus Vaccine: The FDA found J&J’s coronavirus vaccine to be safe and effective in a recent review. Emergency authorization for use is expected in the coming days.
Pfizer, Moderna and J&J Tout Supercharged COVID-19 Vaccine Output, Eyeing Nearly 140M Doses by March: By the end of March, drugmakers are expected to up their weekly deliveries of COVID-19 vaccines by tens of millions.