Health Care Checkup
December 3, 2021
THE BIG PICTURE
The U.S. House and Senate returned to Washington this week after the Thanksgiving holiday and there was a flurry of activity, primarily in the Senate, to try to wrap up a series of end-of-year priorities. The most pressing was reaching a deal to avoid a government shutdown, which Congress did late Thursday evening—extending funding until February 18, 2022. Text of the CR can be found here.
 
In addition, work continued on the Senate floor to try to finalize the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), while negotiations continued behind the scenes on how to extend the federal government’s borrowing authority past mid-December, avoid across the board Medicare sequestration cuts to physicians, hospitals, and health plans, and try to prevent statutory “PayGo” cuts from hitting government programs including Medicare.
 
Also, behind closed doors, Senate Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer continued negotiations off the Senate floor to try to broker a compromise between conservative Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) and other Senate Democrats to allow President Biden’s Build Back Better Act (BBB) to also become law before year’s end.
 
Across the Capitol in the House, legislative activities slowed but oversight picked up steam. Most notably, former President Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows agreed to cooperate and provide testimony to the House Select Committee investigating the January 6 attack on the Capitol.
 
Wednesday, the Supreme Court’s majority conservative bloc signaled during nearly two hours of oral arguments on a Missouri law restricting abortion rights that they likely find the state law constitutional, significantly curtailing or perhaps even overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. The Court’s decision is not expected until later next year in June or July.
 
Meanwhile, the Biden Administration announced a new strategy to prevent the new omicron coronavirus variant, which was first discovered nearly two weeks ago in Africa, from spreading widely in the U.S. Among the measures announced last Thursday were more widespread availability of free home testing, international travel restrictions, and a renewed push on boosters for all eligible adults.
 
On Friday, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released a study conducted by researchers in HHS's Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) that showed a 63-fold increase in Medicare telehealth utilization during the pandemic. The study found that Medicare visits conducted via telehealth rose from 840,000 in 2019 to 52.7 million in 2020. The report also found a 32-fold increase in behavioral health care through telehealth.
What to Expect Next Week: Next Wednesday, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health will hold a hearing titled, “The Future of Biomedicine: Translating Biomedical Research into Personalized Health Care.” It is expected that the House and Senate will continue their work to wrap up end of the year Congressional priorities.
DEEP DIVE
Congress Votes to Approve Government Funding CR, Averting Shutdown

The House and Senate voted Thursday on a short-term government funding measure to avert a government shutdown ahead of the Friday midnight deadline. The continuing resolution (CR) will fund the government through February 18, 2022. The vote in the Senate came after several Republican senators said that they would not vote for the CR unless a vote also occurred on an amendment to defund the Biden Administration’s workplace vaccine mandate. The vote on that amendment ultimately failed, in a vote of 48-50.
 
New HHS Study Finds Massive Increase in Utilization of Telehealth Services During the Pandemic
 
On Friday, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released a study conducted by researchers in HHS's Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) that showed a 63-fold increase in Medicare telehealth utilization during the pandemic. The study found that Medicare visits conducted via telehealth rose from 840,000 in 2019 to 52.7 million in 2020. The report also found a 32-fold increase in behavioral health care through telehealth. HHS reported that these findings “prominently show an increased interest in seeking behavioral health care through telehealth.” The full ASPE report can be found here and HHS’s press release can be found here.
 
Supreme Court Hears Oral Arguments in Landmark Abortion Case
 
During nearly two hours of oral arguments on Wednesday, several conservative Supreme Court justices signaled that they would support Missouri’s abortion law that prohibits abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Currently, Roe v. Wade prohibits states from banning abortions before fetal viability, which is approximately the 23-week point. Missouri’s law would reduce that timeframe by about eight weeks. The Court’s decision is not expected until later next year in June or July.
 
CMS Seeks Stakeholder Feedback to Reduce Disparities in Organ Transplantation and Improve Dialysis Care
 
On Wednesday, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) issued a Request for Information (RFI) to solicit input from stakeholders to improve the organ transplantation system. The RFI seeks feedback from the public on organ transplant waitlists, transplant recipients, families of transplant recipients, living donors, chronic kidney disease, and End-Stage Renal Disease (ESRD) patients. CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure said, “We are seeking input on ways to improve organ donation and transplantation and are committed to engaging all stakeholders throughout our policy development process.” The press release from CMS can be found here and the RFI can be found here.
 
Biden Administration Announces Travel Ban to Eight Countries Due to Omicron Variant 
 
Late last week, the Biden Administration announced that travel to the United States would be banned for South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi. The emergency ban was put in effect due to the highly transmissible new COVID-19 variant, Omicron. On Wednesday, it was announced that the first case of Omicron in the United States was identified in California. Scientists are racing to find out more about the new variant, which originated in South Africa. So far, scientists believe the variant to be even more contagious than the highly contagious Delta variant. Due to Omicron, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now recommends that all adults who are eligible for the COVID-19 booster receive it. The CDC’s recommendation can be found here.
 
FDA Panel Narrowly Approves Merck’s COVID-19 Antiviral Pill
 
On Tuesday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Antimicrobial Drugs Advisory Committee voted 13-10 to recommend emergency use authorization of Merck’s COVID-19 antiviral pill. The pill, named “molnupiravir,” is designed for use in adults with mild or moderate cases of COVID-19 who are also at risk for developing a severe case of the virus, or hospitalization. The Members who did not vote in favor of emergency authorization cited concerns for potential birth defects in fetuses when the pill is taken by a pregnant woman and the potential for mutations that could arise from the pill. Merck’s clinical study of the drug showed that, among 1,400 patients, it was 30% effective at reducing the risk of hospitalization or death. Several members of the advisory committee recommended that the debate be revisited later when more information is available. 
SENATE HEARINGS AND EXECUTIVE SESSIONS
N/A
HOUSE HEARINGS AND EXECUTIVE SESSIONS
Wednesday, December 8, at 10:30 AM ET
 House Committee on Energy and Commerce - Hearing
Subcommittee on Health Hearing: "The Future of Biomedicine: Translating Biomedical Research into Personalized Health Care"
ADMINISTRATION ANNOUNCEMENTS
Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services
 
Food and Drug Administration
 
Guidance Documents from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

National Institutes of Health
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