HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: HHS Rolls Back Abortion, LGBT Protections

The Trump administration finalized a policy that would remove women seeking abortions and LGBTQ people from the Affordable Care Act’s non-discrimination protections, the HHS announced Friday. The regulation would allow health-care workers, hospitals and insurance companies receiving federal funding to refuse to offer or cover services such as abortions or transition-related care.

The move continues the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back protections in health-care services for LGBT people. The Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights sees preserving “religious freedom” as critical to making sure health-care professionals don’t get penalized for actions they do or do not take in their jobs because of their moral beliefs.

“HHS respects the dignity of every human being, and as we have shown in our response to the pandemic, we vigorously protect and enforce the civil rights of all to the fullest extent permitted by our laws as passed by Congress,” said OCR Director Roger Severino. “We are unwavering in our commitment to enforcing civil rights in healthcare.”

The rule will also keep protections for individuals with disabilities to physically access health-care facilities, technology to assist the visual or hearing-impaired, and protections for non-English speakers.

Lawmakers from the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus, Congressional LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus, Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, Congressional Hispanic Caucus and Congressional Black Caucus argued the latest rule would “embolden discrimination” and is “cruel and unconscionable.”

But conservatives celebrated the decision and its protections for workers and insurers. The White House “is right to formally rescind Obamacare regulations that radically altered the meaning of ‘sex’ to mean things it doesn’t,” said Ryan Anderson, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

The rule is estimated to save $2.9 billion over five years in regulatory burden due to eliminating the requirement that health-care providers send patients information in 15 or more languages in mailings. Read more from Shira Stein.

Pandemic Efforts on the Hill

Strategy to Track Virus Seen as Crucial to Reopening: State and local health departments are pushing Congress for billions to expand their disease-tracing and tracking programs, warning that many areas of the country are reopening without systems in place to monitor the spread of the coronavirus. Lawmakers have already provided $25 billion to boost Covid-19 testing, which includes $11 billion sent to state governments that could be used for tracing. Such programs are key to loosening distancing rules, health experts say. Alex Ruoff has more.

Democrats Want Telehealth Fund Transparency: House Democrats called on the Federal Communications Commission to be more transparent about its use of congressional coronavirus relief after health-care providers reported difficulty obtaining funds earmarked for telehealth services. House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) on Friday sent a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai with concerns over “a lack of transparency” in its Covid-19 Telehealth Program. Read more from Julia Weng.

  • Meanwhile, old fashioned paper, faxes, and electronic forms are getting in the way of some virtual checkups with patients, threatening payments and backstops for health providers. The District of Columbia and 38 states such as California require patients to give their written or verbal consent before doctors can conduct appointments via the web. Read more from Ayanna Alexander.
  • The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee holds a hearing on Wednesday on telehealth and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Democrats Seek Medical Aid Rate Increase: A group of 39 Senate Democrats led by Mark Warner (Va.), Doug Jones (Ala.), Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.) on Friday urged Senate and House leadership to ensure any upcoming pandemic relief bill carries “strong provisions to expand access to quality and affordable health care.” They called for an increase in federal matching for medical services and said states should expand Medicaid and provisions to cut down premiums. Read their letter here.

Research, Treatment & Vaccine Efforts

Doctors Can Contact Ex-Patients for Blood: Doctors and other health-care providers can legally identify and contact patients who have recovered from Covid-19 to give them information on how to donate their blood and plasma, the HHS said Friday. Providers may use patients’ health information to do so under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act because it’s part of their work as managing those who have Covid-19, HHS said in guidance. Read more from Shira Stein.

U.S. Role at Risk in Next Flu Vaccine: The CDC could lose the ability to select next year’s flu vaccine if the White House follows through with terminating its relationship with the World Health Organization. “The selection of the influenza vaccine every year is a very detailed process by which stakeholders sit around the table and look at data from around the world. If the U.S. isn’t at that table, Americans lose out and are less safe,” said Charles Holmes, co-director of the Georgetown University Center for Innovation in Global Health, said. Jeannie Baumann has more.

More Headlines:

Testing, Aid & the Path to Reopening

CDC ‘Strongly’ Encourages Face Masks: States and cities might have to resume lockdowns if Covid-19 cases surge dramatically, officials at the CDC said at their first press briefing in months. The officials offered little in the way of explanation for why cases are increasing in some parts of the country, releasing little new data on what’s driving up cases in states such as Arizona and Texas. They focused on reminding people to take the same precautions the CDC has been recommending: Wear masks, keep six feet apart, wash your hands. Read more from Robert Langreth.

  • Masks can reduce the growth rate of Covid-19 infections by 40%, according to researchers who studied the experience of Germany that promoted their use. After the city of Jena became an early adopter of face masks in transit and shops on April 6, new infections in the municipality of 108,000 almost disappeared, Tim Loh reports.

23% of New Yorkers Know Someone Who Died: Over 40% of New York City residents know someone who’s tested positive for Covid-19, and 23.1% know someone who died from the disease. That’s according to a survey released by the CDC and may help explain regional differences in perceptions about the coronavirus and efforts to reopen local and state economies. Among people surveyed in Los Angeles, about 10% know someone with positive test results, and 7.3% know someone who died. Across the U.S., the numbers were 16.8% and about 6%. Read more from Alex Tanzi.

Don’t Plan on Summer Holidays in U.S., Fauci Tells the British: A lifting of the ban on travel to the U.S. from Great Britain could still be months away, and in a worst case may not come until a coronavirus vaccine is available, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told a U.K. newspaper. Read more from Ros Krasny.

Rush to Disinfect U.S. Offices Has Some Health Experts Worried: Businesses across the U.S. have begun intensive Covid-19 disinfection regimens, exposing returning workers and consumers to some chemicals that are largely untested for human health, a development that’s alarming health and environmental safety experts. The rush to disinfect is well-intentioned. Executives want to protect employees while abiding by U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention guidelines (and to avoid liability). Pre-pandemic, corporate cleaning staffs typically “freshened” lobbies every three hours, sanitized restrooms every four hours and cleaned other areas at night, said Rich Feczko, national director of systems, standards and innovation at Crothall Healthcare, which cleans hundreds of hospitals, as well as offices and universities.That pace has now accelerated. Read more from Arianne Cohen.

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What Else to Know

Insurers Can Send ACA Rebates Early: Obamacare consumers will be able to receive refunds earlier than usual this year after the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services moved to relax federal enforcement of the health insurance premium rebate rules. The agency on Friday said that insurers may now send ACA rebates for 2019 via premium credits prior to Sept. 30 and before reporting their medical loss ratio to HHS. Read more from Alexis Kramer.

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To contact the reporter on this story: Brandon Lee in Washington at blee@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Giuseppe Macri at gmacri@bgov.com; Zachary Sherwood at zsherwood@bgov.com; Michaela Ross at mross@bgov.com

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