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The Importance of Community Safety-Net Hospitals

Safety-net hospitals come in all sizes and shapes:  they’re large and small, urban and rural, public and private.  Some are freestanding and independent, some are part of health systems, and others belong to academic medical centers.  They can be found in all 50 states.

What safety-net hospitals have in common, regardless of how big they are or where they are located, is that they serve areas where especially high proportions of the residents are socially, economically, and medically vulnerable.  Many of these residents are insured by Medicaid, if they’re insured at all, and most are challenged by one or more social determinant of health.

Policy-makers increasingly are concluding that the obstacles created by these social determinants of health require public policies designed to tackle those social determinants while ensuring that those who face them have fair and equitable access to health care.  These conclusions have been brought into new, bold relief by the battle against COVID-19, which has starkly illuminated the challenges the medically vulnerable face – and the challenges safety-net hospitals face when striving to meet their health care needs.

That last part is important:  any attempt to address the social determinants of health and better serve the medically vulnerable needs to begin by identifying as safety-net hospitals those facilities that actually serve meaningful numbers and proportions of the medically vulnerable.  For many years these hospitals have been hamstrung by underinvestment, a paucity of commercially insured patients, inadequate Medicaid payments, and large numbers of uninsured patients, and as a result they have struggled to meet the challenges they face every day.

As the leading voice for community safety-net hospitals, the National Alliance of Safety-Net Hospitals has long championed the needs of community safety-net hospitals and has plunged headfirst into the current discussion about how to define such hospitals because these hospitals are vital community partners in efforts to address the social determinants of health and pursue health equity.  When the new congressional Social Determinants of Health Caucus issued a request for information, NASH submitted a detailed, substantive response that drove to the heart of the challenges community safety-net hospitals face.  When MedPAC began its discussion on the question of what makes a provider a safety-net hospital, NASH wrote to the commissioners with our own proposed data-driven methodology for identifying such hospitals.

At the heart of the NASH methodology for identifying community safety-net hospitals is to look not at individual hospitals and consider what kinds of patients they serve but to identify vulnerable communities and then zero in on the hospitals that are caring for meaningful proportions of their residents.  We believe this approach will offer a new, better way of determining where to direct the federal resources needed to address health equity and the social determinants of health.

In the future we’ll share more about community safety-net hospitals:  what they are, what they do, and what they need.  For now, though, we maintain that any effort to better serve the medically vulnerable and mount a successful fight against the effects of social determinants of health must better arm safety-net hospitals for that fight and that doing so must begin with identifying which of the more than 5000 hospitals in the U.S. are truly safety-net hospitals.

We’ll share more about these issues again soon.  Happy new year!

Ellen Kugler, Esq.

Executive Director

MedPAC Meets

The government agency that advises Congress on Medicare payment matters met publicly in Washington, D.C. last week.

During the virtual meeting, members of the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission discussed and debated future Medicare payments for:

  • hospital inpatient services
  • hospital outpatient services
  • physician services
  • ambulatory surgical center services
  • outpatient dialysis
  • hospice care
  • skilled nursing facilities
  • home health
  • inpatient rehabilitation facilities
  • long-term-care hospitals

MedPAC is an independent congressional agency that advises Congress on issues involving Medicare.  While its recommendations are not binding on either Congress or the administration, MedPAC is highly influential in governing circles and its recommendations often find their way into legislation, regulations, and new public policy.  Because so many patients of community safety-net hospitals are insured by Medicare, MedPAC’s deliberations are especially important to those hospitals.

For a look at the agenda for the two-day meeting and to find the presentations for each of these subjects, go here.

NASH Asks Congress to Block Medicare Sequestration Cuts

Stop the looming Medicare sequestration cuts, NASH asked in a message it sent to members of Congress on Tuesday, December 7.

The cuts – a resumption of the long-time two percent Medicare sequestration and an additional four percent sequestration cut necessitated by federal PAYGO rules – would pose a problem for community safety-net hospitals that still find themselves caring for significant numbers of COVID-19 patients amid rising costs, supply chain challenges, and rising personnel costs and labor shortages.

Go here to see NASH’s message to Congress.

Federal Health Policy Update for Monday, December 6

The following is the latest health policy news from the federal government as of 2:45 p.m. on Monday, December 6.  Some of the language used below is taken directly from government documents.

NASH Advocacy

  • NASH has submitted formal comments to the Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Labor, Department of the Treasury, and federal Office of Personnel Management in response to those agencies’ publication of a second regulation describing how the No Surprises Act will be implemented. In its letter NASH focuses on problems with the manner in which providers will be required to prepare good-faith estimates for those seeking care without benefit of insurance, the regulation’s Independent Dispute Resolution process, and the manner in which the regulation addresses resolving fee disputes between providers and patients.  NASH raises concerns about all of these processes, suggests better approaches to addressing them, and asks the federal agencies to suspend enforcement of the new requirements while they consider ways to improve the current approach to implementing the surprise billing law that was enacted late last year.  Go here to read NASH’s comment letter.

The White House

Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services

COVID-19

  • CMS has announced that it will require states to cover COVID-19 vaccine counseling during which health care providers talk to families about the importance of vaccines for children. Under this policy CMS will now consider certain COVID-19 vaccine counseling visits for children and youth to be COVID-19 vaccine administration for which state expenditures can be federally matched at 100 percent through the last day of the first quarter that begins one year after the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency.  CMS will match COVID-19 vaccine counseling-only visits at the 100 percent federal match rate only when they are provided to children and youth under age 21 as part of the Medicaid Early and Periodic Screening, Diagnostic and Treatment (EPSDT) benefit.  Learn more from this CMS news release.
  • CMS has announced a series of steps it will take to encourage Medicare beneficiaries to receive COVID-19 vaccines. Read about these steps in this CMS news release.

Health Policy Update

Department of Health and Human Services

Health Policy Update

  • A new HHS report found a significant increase in the use of telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic, with specialists like behavioral health providers seeing the highest telehealth utilization relative to other providers. The report found that the share of Medicare visits conducted through telehealth in 2020 increased 63-fold, from approximately 840,000 in 2019 to 52.7 million.  States with the highest use of telehealth in 2020 included Massachusetts, Vermont, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Connecticut while states with the lowest use of telehealth that year were Tennessee, Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, and Wyoming. The report also identified trends in the kinds of services Medicare beneficiaries sought through telehealth.  Learn more from this HHS news release and go here to see the report itself.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Food and Drug Administration

Stakeholder Events

CMS – Open Door Forum on No Surprises Act – December 8

CMS will host an open door forum to discuss provider requirements under the No Surprises Act on Wednesday, December 8 at 2:00 p.m. (eastern).  The forum will be held by conference call only and interested parties can dial into the event at 1-888-455-1397; the conference ID is 8604468.

Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation – Roundtable on Health Equity Strategy – December 8

CMMI will hold a roundtable event on Wednesday, December 8 at 1:30 p.m. (eastern) to discuss how it can carry out its strategic objective of advancing health equity.  The agency also invites written comments on the subject.  For further information about the roundtable and to register to participate, go here.

CDC – Molecular Approaches for Clinical and Public Health Applications to Detect Influenza and COVID-19 Viruses – December 9

The CDC will hold a webinar on Thursday, December 9 to share with clinicians information about molecular approaches for clinical and public health applications to detect the influenza virus and COVID-19.  Go here to learn more about the webinar and how to participate.

MEDPAC – commission meeting – December 9-10

Members of the Medicare Payment Advisory Committee will meet virtually on December 9 and 10.  The two days of meetings will consist of four separate sessions.  For agendas for those sessions and information on how to register to participate, go here.

MACPAC – commission meeting – December 9-10

Members of the Medicaid and CHIP Payment and Access Commission will meet virtually on December 9 and 10.  To see the meeting agenda and register to participate, go here.

Federal Health Policy Update for Monday, October 25

The following is the latest health policy news from the federal government as of 2:30 p.m. on Monday, October 25.  Some of the language used below is taken directly from government documents.

NASH Advocacy:  MedPAC and Safety-Net Hospitals

On the heels of a recent meeting of the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) during which commission members discussed the challenges inherent in attempting to identify safety-net hospitals, NASH has written to the agency to suggest that it consider a different approach to addressing that matter.  In the letter, NASH suggests that MedPAC urge Medicare to look not at individual hospitals and what kinds of patients they serve but to focus instead on vulnerable communities and then to identify the hospitals that are caring for meaningful proportions of the residents of those communities.  Go here to see NASH’s letter to MedPAC.  In response to this letter, MedPAC scheduled a meeting with NASH to discuss this concept.

NASH Advocacy:  Surprise Billing Regulation

Representatives Suozzi (D-NY), Wenstrup (R-OH), Ruiz (D-CA), and Bucshon (R-IL) are leading a bi-partisan congressional sign-on letter to HHS Secretary Becerra and others, urging the administration to revise the Surprise Billing, Part II interim final rule’s (IFR) implementation of the independent dispute resolution (IDR) process.

The letter states that

…we urge you to revise the IFR to align with the law as written by specifying that the certified IDR entity should not default to the median in-network rate and should instead consider all of the factors outlined in the statute without disproportionately weighting one factor.

NASH is listed among the supporters of this letter.

Action required:  NASH members should contact their House members today to ask them to sign on to the Suozzi-Wenstrup-Ruiz-Bucshon letter to support the successful implementation of Congress’s surprise billing ban.  The deadline for representatives to sign onto the letter is this Friday, October 29.

If you would like more information about the letter or if you need contact information for your representatives, contact Kate Finkelstein.

Provider Relief Fund:  Deadline for Submission is Tuesday, October 26

  • The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) will accept applications for $25.5 billion in health care relief funds until October 26.  Go here for further information.
  • HRSA has modified some of the terms for applying for assistanceAll applicants must complete the first step of the application process (i.e., submitting their Tax Identification Number (TIN) and associated information for Internal Revenue Service (IRS) validation no later than October 26, 2021 at 11:59 PM EST.  The required IRS validation that occurs after completion of the first step may take a few days.  If an applicant submits their TIN for validation by the October 26, 2021 deadline and that TIN is subsequently validated by the IRS, the applicant will have until November 3, 2021 at 11:59 PM EST to complete and submit their application.
  • The Provider Relief Fund FAQ has been updated with seven modified or new questions on pages 4, 9, 10 (two questions), 37, and 58 (two questions); all are dated 10/20/2021.  Entities that have received Provider Relief Funds in the past and/or intend to apply for Phase 4 funds should review these changes carefully.

The White House

  • In anticipation of the FDA’s independent advisory committee meeting on October 26 and the CDC’s independent advisory committee meeting on November 2-3, the administration has unveiled a plan to ensure that if a vaccine is authorized for children ages 5-11 it is quickly distributed and made conveniently and equitably available to families across the country.  Learn more from this White House fact sheet.
  • The White House has posted transcripts of the October 20 and October 22 press briefings given by its COVID-19 response team and public officials.

Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services

Health Policy News

  • CMS has issued guidance to states about the statutory requirement for them to cover COVID-19-related treatment without cost-sharing in Medicaid and CHIP for many seniors, low-income adults, pregnant women, children, and people with disabilities who receive health coverage through these programs.  This coverage includes care for conditions that could complicate the treatment of COVID-19 in patients who are presumed positive for the virus or have been diagnosed with COVID-19.  Find a news release about the guidance here and find the guidance itself here.
  • CMS has posted a new edition of MLN Connects, its online newsletter.  This latest edition includes features on new/modifications of the place of service codes for telehealth, a prescriber’s guide to Medicare prescription drug opioid policies, and more.  Go here to find these and other items.
  • In a separate, special edition of MLN Connects, CMS presents new Medicare rates and billing information for Moderna and Johnson & Johnson booster vaccines.
  • The CMS Innovation Center has published a document that shares its strategic direction for the coming years.  Driving Health System Transformation – A Strategy for the CMS Innovation Center’s Second Decade reviews the lessons the agency has learned over the past ten years and lays out its objectives for the next ten.  Find it here.
  • CMS’s Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation has posted the fourth evaluation report and performance year 5 (2020) financial and quality results for its Next Generation ACO Model.  Find the report by going here and scrolling down to “Performance Year 5 (2020 (XLS).”
  • CMS’s “Medicare & You” handbook is now available in Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese.  Go here for the agency’s announcement and links to the new handbooks.

Department of Health and Human Services

Health Policy News

  • HHS is awarding $797.5 million in American Rescue Plan funding to support survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault and their children.  The funds will cover COVID-19 testing, vaccines, mobile health units, and other support for domestic violence services programs and increase support for sexual assault service providers and culturally specific services.  Learn more about the new spending and how it will be distributed in this HHS news release and additional program resources.
  • HHS proposes repealing two final rules:  “Department of Health and Human Services Good Guidance Practices,” published in the Federal Register on December 7, 2020; and “Department of Health and Human Services Transparency and Fairness in Civil Administrative Enforcement Actions,” published in the Federal Register of January 14, 2021, maintaining that “…they create unnecessary hurdles that hinder the Department’s ability to issue guidance, bring enforcement actions, and take other appropriate actions that advance the Department’s mission.”  Learn more about the rules that would be repealed and HHS’s rationale for doing so in this Federal Register notice.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

  • The CDC has taken a series of actions to address COVID-19 booster vaccines, deciding that:
    • The use of a single booster dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine that may be administered at least six months after completion of the primary series to individuals 65 years of age and older; 18 through 64 years of age at high risk of severe COVID-19; and 18 through 64 years of age with frequent institutional or occupational exposure to COVID-19.
    • The use of a single booster dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine may be administered at least two months after completion of the single-dose primary regimen to individuals 18 years of age and older.
    • Each of the available COVID-19 vaccines may be use as a booster dose in eligible individuals following completion of primary vaccination with a different available COVID-19 vaccine.  This is now being referred to by many as “mixing and matching.”
    • A single booster dose of the Pfizer vaccine may be administered at least six months after completion of the primary series to individuals 18 through 64 years of age with frequent institutional or occupational exposure to COVID-19.

Stakeholder Events

CDC – Information about Recent Updates to CDC’s Recommendations for COVID-19 Boosters – October 26

On Tuesday, October 26 the CDC will provide an overview for clinicians of the most recent recommendations for administering COVID-19 booster vaccines and updates about the latest recommendations and clinical considerations for administering those boosters.  Go here for further information about the webinar and how to participate.

CDC – Pediatric COVID-19 Vaccines – November 4

The CDC will hold a webinar on Thursday, November 4 to provide an overview of its recommendations and clinical considerations for administering COVID-19 vaccines to children between the ages of five and eleven years old.  Go here for further information about the webinar and how to participate.

HHS – Monoclonals and More:  Issues and Opportunities with Early COVID-19 Treatment Options – November 12

HHS’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response will hold a webinar on COVID-19 treatment with monoclonal antibodies on Friday, November 12 at 12:30 p.m. during which it will address some of the most current recommendations for use of monoclonal antibodies, upcoming therapies, and the challenges and opportunities that new therapies may pose in conjunction with monoclonal antibodies and other treatments (e.g., prioritization and distribution).  Speakers also will highlight operational principles for a scaled strategy for use of these therapeutics in a scarce resource situation.  For more information about the webinar and to register, go here.

NASH Urges MedPAC to Reconsider “Safety-Net Hospital”

Following a recent meeting of the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission during which commission members discussed the challenges inherent in attempting to identify safety-net hospitals, NASH has written to the agency to suggest that it consider a different approach to targeting such hospitals.

In its letter, NASH urges MedPAC to recommend that Medicare look not at individual hospitals and what kinds of patients they serve but to focus instead on vulnerable communities and then to identify the hospitals that are caring for meaningful proportions of the residents of those communities.  NASH also points MedPAC to data that could be used in such an approach:  the “PLACES” data developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Such a change in approach, NASH writes in its letter, “…would lay a much-needed foundation for changes in the Medicare payment system that reduce barriers to access to care by making it more feasible for hospitals to serve vulnerable populations.”

Go here to see NASH’s letter to MedPAC.

NASH Lauds Creation of Congressional Social Determinants of Health Caucus

In a letter to the new Congressional Social Determinants of Health Caucus, the National Alliance of Safety-Net Hospitals expressed its appreciation for the group’s creation and said it would like to work in partnership with the caucus to identify health inequities and help develop ways to address them.

NASH noted that private safety-net hospitals “…have been working for years to address social determinants of health that lead to health inequities,” doing so at times as part of government programs but also on their own in response to the needs of their communities.  In the letter NASH recommended several steps Congress can take to address social determinants of health and pointed to its own response to the caucus’s recent request for information on the challenges stakeholders and Congress face when working to identify and address social determinants of health.

Go here to see NASH’s letter to the Congressional Social Determinants of Health Caucus.

Vaccination Rates Low Among Medicaid Recipients

Individuals enrolled in Medicaid are less likely to have received COVID-19 vaccines than the population as a whole, according to a recently published report.

Among the possible reasons for this low rate, observers speculate, is greater vaccine hesitancy among low-income individuals (as identified in a nation-wide survey), less flexible work schedules, and economic barriers such as lack of transportation or child care.

This can pose a special challenge for safety-net hospitals because the communities they serve have more Medicaid beneficiaries than the typical community.

Learn more about the extent of the problem around the country and what state Medicaid programs are doing to encourage more Medicaid beneficiaries to roll up their sleeves and get vaccinated in the Roll Call article “Medicaid beneficiaries less likely to get COVID-19 shots.”

 

NASH Seeks Congress’s Help With 340B

Changing hospital admissions experiences in the past year resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic could jeopardize some safety-net hospitals’ continued eligibility for the section 340B prescription drug discount program and NASH is asking for Congress’s help to prevent this.

COVID-19 led to a reduction of hospitals admissions as people deferred addressing their medical problems out of fear of contracting the virus.  These reduced admissions, a one-year anomaly, could affect safety-net hospitals’ ability to continue participating in the 340B program, which is an essential tool for  helping hospitals provide low-cost prescription drugs to low-income patients in the communities they serve.

For this reason, NASH has asked members of Congress to co-sponsor and support H.R. 3203 and S. 773, which would protect hospitals from losing eligibility for the 340B program based on one year of once-in-a-lifetime admissions pattern changes.  See NASH’s message to members of Congress.

Federal Health Policy Update for Wednesday, May 19

The following is the latest health policy news from the federal government as of 2:15 p.m. on Wednesday, May 19.  Some of the language used below is taken directly from government documents.

NASH Advocacy

  • NASH has written to all members of Congress urging them to contact Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra about directing more of its remaining CARES Act Provider Relief Fund money to private safety-net hospitals to help them serve their diverse, predominantly low-income communities during the COVID-19 emergency.  Go here to see NASH’s message to Congress.

The White House

COVID-19

Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services

Health Policy News

Go here for links to these and other items.

Department of Health and Human Services

COVID-19

  • HHS’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is distributing $3 billion in American Rescue Plan funding for its mental health and substance use block grant programs.  The Community Mental Health Services Block Grant Program and Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grant Program are distributing $1.5 billion each to states and territories to help communities addressing mental health and substance use needs during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Learn more from HHS’s news release announcing the funding.
  • HHS’s Office of the Inspector General has updated its work plan for COVID-19-related audits, evaluations, and inspections scheduled for May.
  • In conjunction with the California Justice Department and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of California, HHS’s Office of the Inspector General has issued a news release advising the public that they should not be asked by providers to pay for COVID-19 vaccines and reminding providers that they may not attempt to charge or bill consumers for administering those vaccines.  See the news release here.
  • HHS’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response has published information about the challenges of providing hospice care amid the COVID-19 pandemic and about providing home care during the public health emergency.

Health Policy News

Senate Finance Committee Hearing

The Senate Finance Committee held a hearing today on COVID-19 flexibilities.

  • Go here to read the opening statement of the committee chair, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and go here to read the opening statement of the committee’s ranking minority member, Senator Mike Crapo (R-ID).
  • Go here to see the testimony of individuals who appeared at the hearing.
  • The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission has submitted a written statement to the committee.  The MedPAC statement notes that “While many of these actions have been helpful in addressing the short-term issues presented by the pandemic, continuing those changes indefinitely would have drawbacks.  Therefore, policymakers should be cautious about extending them beyond the duration of the public health emergency (PHE) or other scheduled expiration date.”  The statement pays particular attention to telehealth and post-acute care.  Go here to see the MedPAC submission “Temporary modifications of Medicare policies in response to the coronavirus public health emergency.”
  • The Government Accountability Office has submitted a report to the Senate Finance Committee on the same subject.  The GAO notes that it undertook this work, titled “Medicare and Medicaid:  COVID-19 Program Flexibilities and Considerations for Their Continuation,” because of a CARES Act provision that calls for the agency to “… conduct monitoring and oversight of the federal government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”  Find the GAO submission here.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

COVID-19

Food and Drug Administration

COVID-19

National Institutes of Health

COVID-19

National Academy of Medicine

FEMA

Government Accountability Office