Late final month, earlier than President Joe Biden took workplace and proposed his pandemic aid plan, Congress handed a virtually 5,600-page legislative package deal that supplied some pandemic aid together with its extra basic allocations to fund the federal government in 2021.
Whereas the $900 billion that lawmakers included for pressing pandemic aid obtained many of the consideration, some even larger adjustments for well being care have been buried within the different components of that massive legislative package deal.
The bundle included a ban on surprise medical bills, for instance — an issue that key lawmakers had been wrestling with for 2 years. Beginning in 2022, due to the brand new legislation, sufferers typically is not going to pay extra for out-of-network care in emergencies and at in any other case in-network services.
However shock payments weren’t the one well being care challenge Congress addressed because it ended a tumultuous yr. Lawmakers additionally answered pleas from strained well being services in rural areas, agreed to cowl the price of coaching extra new docs, sought to strengthen efforts to equalize psychological well being protection with that of bodily drugs and instructed the federal authorities to gather information that may very well be used to rein in excessive medical payments.
Listed below are some particulars about these large adjustments Congress made in December.
Rural Hospitals Get a Increase
Throwing a lifeline to struggling rural well being methods — and, it seems, a bone to an outgoing congressional committee chairman — lawmakers gave rural hospitals a technique to receives a commission by Medicare for his or her companies no matter whether or not they have sufferers in beds.
The legislation creates a brand new class of supplier, referred to as a “rural emergency hospital.” Beginning in 2023, some hospitals will qualify for this designation by sustaining full-time emergency departments, amongst different standards, with out being required to supply in-patient care. The Division of Well being and Human Companies will decide how this system is carried out and which companies are eligible.
Medicare, the federal insurance coverage program that covers greater than 61 million People 65 and older or with sure disabilities, at present doesn’t reimburse hospitals for emergency or hospital outpatient companies until the hospital additionally presents in-patient care.
That requirement has exacerbated monetary issues for rural hospitals, lots of which stability serving communities with fewer sufferers — and fewer want for full in-patient companies — with the necessity for emergency and outpatient companies. One research final yr discovered 120 rural hospital facilities had closed in the past 10 years, with extra in danger.
Hospital teams have praised the change, which was introduced by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who has championed rural well being points and ended his time period as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee this month. “I labored to make sure rural America wouldn’t go missed,” he said in a statement.
Medicare Invests in Extra Docs
Hoping to deal with a nationwide scarcity of docs that has reached vital ranges through the pandemic, Congress created a further 1,000 residency positions over the subsequent 5 years.
Medicare will fund the positions, which contain supervised coaching to medical college graduates going into specialties like emergency drugs and are distributed amongst hospitals most in want of personnel, together with rural hospitals.
Critics like The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board have famous that is Congress’ try to repair an issue it created within the late Nineteen Nineties, when lawmakers capped the variety of Medicare-funded residency positions in the US, fearing too many docs would inflate the price of Medicare.
Whereas Medicare just isn’t the one supply of academic funding and hospitals could add their very own residency slots as wanted, Medicare typically will reimburse hospitals for the variety of residents they’d on the finish of 1996. Amongst different penalties of that 1996 cap, most Medicare-funded residencies are clumped at Northeastern hospitals, a 2014 study showed.
In distinction to the 1,000 positions created as a part of the stimulus package deal, one bipartisan proposal in 2019 that was by no means enacted would have added up to 15,000 positions over 5 years.
Strengthening Psychological Well being Parity
The legislative package deal strengthens protections for psychological well being protection, requiring federal officers to check the constraints insurance coverage corporations place on protection for psychological well being and substance use dysfunction therapies.
In 1996 Congress handed the primary legislation barring well being insurers from passing alongside extra of the price for psychological well being care to sufferers than they’d for medical or surgical care. The Inexpensive Care Act, constructing on earlier legal guidelines, made psychological well being and substance use dysfunction therapies an “important well being profit” — in different phrases, it required most medical health insurance plans to cowl mental health care.
However implementing that commonplace has been a problem, partially as a result of violations might be arduous to identify and the system has usually relied on sufferers to note — and report — them.
In December, lawmakers accepted a measure requiring insurers to investigate their protection and supply their findings to state and federal officers upon request.
In addition they instructed federal officers to request the findings from not less than 20 plans per yr which will have violated psychological well being parity legal guidelines and inform insurers find out how to appropriate any issues they discover — below penalty of getting insurer violations reported to their prospects if they don’t comply.
The legislation requires federal officers to publish an annual report summarizing the analyses they accumulate.
Extra Transparency in Price and High quality
People usually have no idea how a lot they are going to be anticipated to pay after they enter a physician’s workplace, an ambulance or an emergency room.
Taking one other modest step towards transparency, Congress banned so-called gag clauses in contracts between well being insurers and suppliers.
Amongst different issues, these kinds of “gag” restrictions beforehand have prevented insurers and group well being plans from sharing with sufferers and others — akin to employers — details about a supplier’s costs or high quality. The December laws additionally prohibited insurers from agreeing to contracts that forestall them from getting entry electronically to claims and different data from suppliers on behalf of the insurer’s enrollees.
In 2018, Congress banned gag clauses in contracts between pharmacies and insurers or pharmacy profit managers. These gag clauses had prevented pharmacists from sharing price data with sufferers, like whether or not they might pay a lower cost for a prescription by paying out-of-pocket relatively than utilizing their insurance coverage protection.
The proposal accepted in December’s laws got here from an enormous, bipartisan package deal of well being care price fixes handed in 2019 by the Senate Well being, Schooling, Labor and Pensions Committee, however not by the remainder of Congress. The committee’s Republican chairman, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, retired from Congress this month. His Democratic companion on that package deal, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, will take over the chairmanship as Democrats assume management of the Senate and has vowed to concentrate on well being care affordability.
Shoppers First, a well being consumer-focused alliance of well being professionals, labor unions and others, led by Households USA, praised the ban. The change is “a major step ahead” to cease “the abusive practices from hospitals and well being methods and different segments of the well being care sector which are driving up well being care prices and making well being care unaffordable for our nation’s households, staff, and employers,” it mentioned in an announcement.
Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a nationwide well being coverage information service. It’s an editorially impartial program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which isn’t affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.
KHN senior correspondent Sarah Jane Tribble contributed to this report.
Photograph: Justin Sullivan, Getty Photographs