HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: House Stopgap Caps Medicare Premium Hikes

House Democrats want to limit any increase in Medicare premiums to about $4 per month, saying decisions by President Donald Trump‘s administration could mean premium rates rise by much more next year.

The stopgap spending bill (H.R. 8319) that House Democrats released yesterday includes a provision limiting 2021 Part B premium increases. House leaders plan to vote on the measure today.

A senior Democratic aide said the roughly $4 cap is needed because premiums could otherwise be slated for a bigger increase after the Trump administration issued billions of dollars in Medicare advance loans to providers but hasn’t yet recouped the money or used emergency funds Congress appropriated to help providers affected by pandemic-related shutdowns.

The provision mimics one Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) championed in a coronavirus-related aid package that Republicans in the Senate unveiled in July. That bill would have frozen Medicare premiums at 2020 levels and forced beneficiaries to pay a $3 a month surcharge to recoup budget shortfalls for the program.

Grassley supports the language in the continuing resolution, the appropriations measure that largely keeps funding levels steady, a spokesman said. “Chairman Grassley led the effort to include this policy in the CR, and welcomes Democrats’ support for his work to contain costs for seniors,” the spokesman said.

Part B covers health-care services and supplies, preventive services, and durable medical equipment, and ambulance services. The standard monthly premium is roughly $144.60 this year, up from $135.50 in 2019, and the annual deductible is about $198, up from $185 in 2019.

Medicare hasn’t yet announced premium levels for 2021, so it’s yet to be seen if whether seniors will have to pay more into the program next year, but now may be the best time politically to freeze premium rates, said Casey Schwarz, senior counsel for the Medicare Rights Center, a nonprofit that helps people navigate the public health insurance program, said.

“By the time we know the scope of the problem,” Schwarz said, “it will be more challenging politically to solve it.” Read more from Alex Ruoff.

Related: BGOV Bill Summary: H.R. 8319, Stopgap Funds & Program Extensions

The Coronavirus Pandemic

Virus Containment: The Joint Economic Committee will discuss the effects of the U.S.’s failure to contain Covid-19.

CDC Removes Guidance About Airborne Spread: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pulled from its website what it said was a draft guidance posted late last week stating that coronavirus could spread through the air in small particles at distances of more than six feet. The agency had said in a virus update that, in addition to spreading between people in close contact, the coronavirus can spread through airborne particles that can linger in the air and travel more than six feet, in settings like restaurants, gyms and churches.

The update appeared to confirm emerging research that suggests tiny particles can transport the virus some distance, especially in indoor or poorly ventilated environments. But by yesterday, the new guidance was taken down. At the top of the website, the CDC said a draft version was published “in error” and that it was in the process of updating its recommendations on airborne transmission. Read more from Emma Court and John Tozzi.

GAO Says Trump Should Share Vaccine Plan: The White House should set up a time-frame to document and share its plans to distribute and give a potential Covid-19 vaccine to Americans, the Government Accountability Office said, and HHS Secretary Alex Azar should work alongside Secretary of Defense Mark Esper on the plan, the GAO said in a third report on the Trump administration’s Covid-19 response. It also said the CDC should craft a strategy to collect more complete data, such as on race and ethnicity, on Covid-19 cases and deaths. Read more from Jarrell Dillard.

  • Meanwhile, a new survey about coronavirus looks like bad news for Trump. After months of touting unproven treatments for the virus, Americans just don’t trust his word on the vaccine. An ABC News/Ipsos poll found only 9% said they had a great deal of confidence in a Trump-backed vaccine, while 18% said they had some confidence, Ryan Teague Beckwith reports.

Loan Fraud, Data Shortfalls Hinder Covid Aid: Loan fraud, testing shortages and incomplete health data continue to plague the U.S. coronavirus response, but the federal government has been able to correct some previous mistakes, such as sending millions of stimulus payments to deceased people, the GAO said. Read more from Laura Davison and Mark Niquette.

HHS Takes Back Control of Buying Supplies: The Department of Health and Human Services is reclaiming its duties to buy, distribute, and track the supply of masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment, the GAO said. HHS has shared those duties with FEMA and the Pentagon since March, when early surges of Covid-19 caused mass shortages across the U.S., Shira Stein reports.

Panel Says ICE Failed to Stop Virus Outbreaks: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s improper, insufficient oversight of migrant facilities has resulted in substandard care, including deficient Covid-19 prevention measures, as well as abuses that go uncorrected, House Homeland Security Committee majority staff wrote in a new report, Shaun Courtney reports.
Related: ICE Detainees Win Class Status in Suit Over COVID-19 Conditions

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What Else to Know

Trump Zeroes In on Coney Barrett: Trump is moving toward nominating Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court, according to people familiar with the matter, despite the president saying yesterday he’s considering as many as five candidates. Barrett was at the White House yesterday, one person said. She is a favorite of anti-abortion groups, who are heavily lobbying the White House and Trump personally to pick her to succeed the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Trump also believes Barrett won’t be wobbly on major issues for conservatives, including abortion and health care, when they come before the justices. Trump has been disappointed in some of the decisions of his first appointment to the court, Justice Neil Gorsuch, one person said. Jennifer Jacobs, Jordan Fabian, and David Yaffe-Bellany have more.

Top White House-HHS Liaisons Cut: The Trump administration has removed the top two liaisons between the White House and HHS, Politico reports, citing three people familiar with the situation. HHS Chief of Staff Brian Harrison told personnel that White House Liaison Emily Newman and her deputy, Catherine Granito, will now work for the U.S. Agency for Global Media. Politico has more.

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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: Zachary Sherwood at zsherwood@bgov.com; Giuseppe Macri at gmacri@bgov.com; Michaela Ross at mross@bgov.com

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