Weekly Policy Updates
Friday, March 5, 2021
FEHB, OPM & Federal Employees
Neera Tanden Withdraws as Biden’s Budget Chief Pick: Biden is withdrawing Tanden’s nomination as budget director due to opposition on both sides of the aisle. Many Republicans cited several controversial tweets from her past, including some that were considered as personal attacks against Republican lawmakers and the GOP.
Why it matters: The White House is expected to release their budget soon and will likely have to do so without a budget director.
Senate Panel Deadlocks on Advancing Becerra: The Senate Finance committee voted 14-14 on party lines to advance President Biden’s nominee for Health Secretary Xavier Becerra. Republican Senators questioned Becerra’s positions on abortion and his previous support for “Medicare for All” as well as his lack of a medical background. Barring any Democratic defections, Becerra could be confirmed by the full Senate as early as next week to assume the post.
Former Senate Aide Elizabeth Fowler to Lead CMS Innovation Center: Elizabeth Fowler, who has served at HHS in the past, will lead the CMS Innovation Center. In this role, she will lead efforts to implement payment models that reward quality over quantity. Fowler is credited with drafting significant portions of the Affordable Care Act and was heavily involved in early efforts to draft associated regulations and policies.
Why It Matters: Becerra will be among the top administration officials enacting Biden’s health agenda. The deadlock vote in the committee will force an additional four hours of debate, which Republicans will likely use to try to convince moderate Democrats like Joe Manchin (WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (AZ) that Becerra is unfit for the position. If the vote fails, the Department of Health and Human services will remain without a Secretary until another nomination can clears the Senate. As reported previously, HHS sets the healthcare policy landscape and OPM often follows their lead when implementing new programs and initiatives.
Emerging Policy Environment and Implications for Publicly-Funded Health Care: Health Management Associates released a slide deck outlining how the results of the election and resulting nominations to key Administration positions may impact health policy. It’s a great resource and we highly recommend you take a look.
Biden Strikes Stimulus Deal with Senate Democrats: Senate Democrats and President Biden agreed Wednesday to keep federal unemployment at $400 but narrow the eligibility for full $1400 stimulus checks. The package will be up for its first floor vote on Thursday, although Senators on both sides of the aisle are planning to force votes on several amendments which could add hours to the debate. Congress is trying to have the bill ready for Biden’s signature by March 14th, when federal unemployment benefits expire.
Why It Matters: The deal between Senate Democrats and Biden is a large step towards the total-party unity that will be required to pass the bill under the reconciliation process. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also indicated she was on board with the changes.
Policing, Guns, Voting rights: Historic Democratic Goals Hit Senate skids: The House voted to approve several legislative sweeps addressing Democratic priority items such as voting rights and police reform while teeing up new legislation on gun control. Longtime Democratic priorities, these items still face hardship in the Senate where legislation must meet a 60-vote threshold to defeat the filibuster.
Why It Matters: Although Democrats control the Senate, bipartisan agreements will be the required to pass legislation. This will likely mean major compromises on provisions in bills passed by the Democratic House. Senate Republicans have already expressed their annoyance with being excluded from negotiations on the COVID-19 relief bill, which only requires 51 votes to pass, which may sour their willingness to compromise on other measures.
House Passes Police Reform Bill: On Wednesday, the House passed a police reform bill that would prohibit racial and religious profiling, ban chokeholds at the federal level and no-knock warrants in federal drug cases, as well as eliminate qualified immunity for law enforcement. Compliance with these measures, which would be measured in part by mandatory data collection on police encounters, would be tied to funding at the state and government levels. The “George Floyd Justice in Policing Act” passed 220-212 on near party lines, with two Democrats voting against and Rep. Lance Gooden (R-TX) voting for, although he later clarified the vote was a mistake and he opposed the bill.
Why It Matters: The House passed a similar bill last summer after the death of George Floyd sparked nationwide protests, but the bill stalled in the Senate. Although the Democrats control the Senate now, they would need to be joined by 10 Republicans to make the bill law. However, bill sponsors are confident the legislation has a better chance this time around, as bipartisan talks have been underway in the Senate for several weeks. These efforts are part of a broader effort to address institutionalized racism and racial disparities in America; we expect to see a broad range of legislation to address these issues, including efforts in the healthcare arena.
UCare and the Minnesota Medical Association Collaborate on Health and Racial Equity Initiative: Minnesota insurer UCare is partnering with the Minnesota Medical Association on a two-year initiative to promote health and racial equity and improve health outcomes in traditionally underserved and diverse populations. The partnership will provide implicit bias and anti-racism resources for providers, establish a cross-organizational exchange of health equity best practices, develop metrics for accountability, and explore the use of restorative justice models to facilitate trust among communities of color.
Cigna Foundation Launches New Health and Well-Being Grant Program to Improve Access to Care and Eliminate Health Disparities: Health insurer Cigna has established a Health and Well-Being grant program and announced plans to aware over $3 million in grants to community organizations working to improve access to care and eliminate health disparities.
A Social-Return-On-Investment Analysis of Bon Secours Hospital’s ‘Housing for Health’ Affordable Housing Program: A recent Health Affairs study evaluated the social-return-on-investment analysis of Bon Secours Hospital’s Housing for Health program. The hospital currently has over 800 affordable housing units in Baltimore, Maryland. Results indicate that for every dollar in yearly spending towards this program, between $1.30 and $1.92 is generated in social returns for the community.
Why it matters: As insurers ramp up efforts to address health disparities and social determinants of health among their members, it will be important to keep a pulse on the actions of competitors. The examples above illustrate the range of activities that competitors are undertaking to address these issues.
White House: Merck to Help Produce Rival J&J’s Vaccine: Boosting efforts to provide adequate supply of the coronavirus vaccine, drugmaker Merck with help produce the recently approved Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Why it matters: J&J experienced some unexpected production issues, putting its promise of delivering 100 million doses by the end of June at risk. With Merck pitching in to help with production, this goal should be feasible and the White House has indicated that states should begin receiving the J&J vaccine this week.
White House Taps Insurers to Boost Vaccinations Among Vulnerable Communities: The Biden Administration and America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) are teaming up to galvanize health insurers in the COVID-19 vaccination effort for high-risk populations. The plan leverages operations already in place among health insurers to provide care coordination services, such as assistance with booking appointments, for high-risk members. AHIP and BCBSA released a joint press release about the “Vaccine Community Connectors pilot initiative.”
Why it matters: More and more health insurers are announcing their plans to boost vaccination numbers.