States ranked by hospital beds per 1,000 population

Map: Number of hospital beds per 1,000 persons, 2013

South Dakota has the highest number of hospital beds per 1,000 population in the U.S., while Oregon and Washington have the lowest, according to a ranking from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The data is based on an analysis of the American Hospital Association’s annual survey from 2015 to 2019.

The national average per 1,000 U.S. residents was 2.4 hospital beds.

Here are the U.S. states ranked by number of staffed hospital beds per 1,000 population:

Note: The list includes ties and results in a numerical listing of 22.

1. South Dakota: 4.8 beds per 1,000 people 

2. District of Columbia: 4.2 

3. North Dakota: 4.4

4. Mississippi: 3.7

5. West Virginia: 3.6

6. Montana: 3.4

Wyoming: 3.4

7. Kansas: 3.3

    Louisiana: 3.3

8. Kentucky: 3.2

9. Alabama: 3.1

    Nebraska: 3.1

10. Arkansas: 3

     Iowa: 3

     Missouri: 3

11. Oklahoma: 2.9

12. Ohio: 2.8

      Pennsylvania: 2.8

13. Indiana: 2.7

      New York: 2.7

     Tennessee: 2.7

14. Florida: 2.6

     Maine: 2.6

     Michigan: 2.6

15. Illinois: 2.5

     Minnesota: 2.5

16. Georgia: 2.3

     Massachusetts: 2.3

     New Jersey: 2.3

    South Carolina: 2.3

17. Alaska: 2.2

     Delaware: 2.2

     Texas: 2.2

18. New Hampshire: 2.1

     North Carolina: 2.1

     Rhode Island: 2.1 

     Virginia: 2.1

19. Connecticut: 2

      Nevada: 2

     Vermont: 2

     Wisconsin: 2

20. Arizona: 1.9

      California: 1.9

      Colorado: 1.9

      Hawaii: 1.9

      Idaho: 1.9 

21. Maryland: 1.8

     New Mexico: 1.8

     Utah: 1.8

22. Oregon: 1.7

      Washington: 1.7

Biden rescinds Medicaid work rules in 2 more states

The Reality of Work Requirements for Medicaid - YouTube

President Joe Biden moved to unwind Medicaid work requirements in Michigan and Wisconsin, after pulling the rules in Arkansas and New Hampshire.

CMS sent letters to health officials in Michigan and Wisconsin April 6 withdrawing their approval to implement work requirements for Medicaid beneficiaries. In both letters, CMS noted that combined with the COVID-19 pandemic, the work rules risk “significant coverage losses and harm to beneficiaries.”

In March, the Biden administration revoked approval for similar Medicaid work requirements in Arkansas and New Hampshire.

One-third of small businesses say health insurance is a top concern during COVID-19: survey

Dive Brief:

  • Small businesses are struggling to cover the high costs of healthcare for their employees after a year of COVID-19, according to a new poll sponsored by the Small Business Majority and patient advocacy group Families USA.
  • More than one in three small businesses owners said it’s a challenge getting coverage for themselves and their workers. That pain is particularly acute among Black, Asian American and Latino businesses, which have fewer resources than their White counterparts, SBMfound.
  • As a result, small businesses want policymakers to expand coverage access and lower medical costs, beyond the temporary fixes included in the sweeping $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan passed by Congress earlier this month.

Dive Insight:

Providing health insurance can be pricey for small employers, a challenge that’s been exacerbated by the pandemic and its subsequent economic downturn.

Accessing health insurance has been a major barrier over the course of COVID-19, the national survey of 500 businesses with 100 employees or fewer in November found. The poll, conducted by Lake Research Partners for SBM and Families USA, found many such businesses have had to slash benefits during the pandemic. Among small business owners that have reduced insurance benefits, 36% have trimmed their employer contribution for medical premiums and 56% switched to a plan with a lower premium.

Additionally, one in five small business owners say they plan to change or lower coverage in the next few months, while only about a quarter have been able to maintain coverage for temporarily furloughed employees.

The situation is bleaker for minority-owned small businesses. Overall, 34% say accessing health insurance has been a top barrier during COVID-19, but that figure rises to 50%, 44% and 43% for Black, Asian American and Latino business respondents, SBM, which represents some 80,000 small businesses nationwide, said.

That’s in line with past SBM polling finding non-white entrepreneurs are more likely to face temporary or permanent closure in the next few months than their white counterparts, and are also more likely to struggle with rent, mortgage or debt repayments.

Though employers expect a more stabilized business environment starting in the second quarter, many are still reeling from difficult economic circumstances last year. COVID-19 capsized normal efforts to calculate medical cost trends for 2021, complicating financial planning for the year ahead — especially for fragile small businesses.

Washington did allocate a significant amount of financial aid for small businesses last year, and the ARP includes numerous provisions including increased subsidies for health insurance premiums for two years, and extended COBRA coverage for laid off employees through September.

But respondents to this latest polling urged for more long-term support.

The most popular policy proposal was bringing down the cost of prescription drugs, with 90% of businesses saying they supported the measure and 54% saying they were in strong support. Protecting coverage for people with pre-existing conditions was also popular, with 87% of small business owners in total support and 51% strongly supporting.

Three-fourths of small business owners strongly support a public health insurance option, while 73% support expanding Medicaid eligibility in all states and 66% support letting people buy into Medicare starting at age 55.

Both a public option and lower age of eligibity for Medicare are key tenets of President Joseph Biden’s healthcare plan — though getting both through Congress is unlikely. And long-time business groups like the Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation for Independent Business hold major sway on such issues and tend to be more recalcitrant on progressive policy changes.

Still, calls have been mounting for employers, which insure more than half of the U.S., to do more to move the needle on medical costs, as price increases outpace overall inflation.

A survey of large to mid-size employers from the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions published Wednesday found at least three-fourths of employers support drug price regulation, surprise billing regulation, hospital price transparency and hospital rate regulation.

Shifting payer mix puts 340B hospitals at risk of losing eligibility

Dive Brief:

  • Hospitals enrolled in the 340B drug discount program may no longer be eligible after the pandemic shifted their payer mix, according to a Wednesday letter the American Hospital Association sent to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra.
  • Depleted patient volumes and canceled elective surgeries lowered the proportion of hospital patients who are Medicaid and Medicare SSI patients in 2020, according to AHA. When hospitals file their Medicare cost reports reflecting those changes, they may no longer meet the criteria for the program and lose access.
  • AHA wants HHS to waive certain eligibility requirements for hospitals in the program to allow them continued access during the public health emergency, according to the letter.

Dive Insight:

Throughout the pandemic HHS has issued a number of regulatory flexibilities to help providers, and the hospital lobby is asking it to do so again by waiving the current eligibility requirements for the 340B drug discount program before providers experiencing a temporary shift in payer mix are kicked out.

The program requires drug companies to give discounts on outpatient drugs to providers serving a large share of low-income patients, particularly those in rural areas.

The discounts can range from 25% to 50% of the cost of the drugs, according to HRSA, which operates the program.

But many of those patients did not seek care last year, hampering hospitals’ finances and altering the mix of payers.

Hospitals currently qualify for the program based on their volume of inpatient Medicaid and Medicare SSI patients, reported through their most recently filed Medicare cost reports.

“Losing access to 340B discounted drugs and program savings could jeopardize the ability of these hospitals to provide critical services for their communities, which would be particularly catastrophic at a time when they remain on the front lines of the ongoing pandemic,” AHA said in its letter.

This latest issue comes after several years of clashes over the 340B program. 

Last year, a federal appeals court sided against the hospital lobby, ruling that HHS’ significant rate cut for some 340B drugs could remain in place. HHS made the reimbursement cut arguing that the hospitals already received steep discounts for the drugs and could be incentivized to overuse them.

At the time, AHA said it was weighing its options over whether to appeal to the Supreme Court. 

To head off other issues, HRSA finalized a rule late last year that created a dispute resolution process for when hospitals believed they were overcharged for 340B drugs. The drug manufacturers have a similar mechanism to raise concerns about whether hospitals received duplicate discounts. 

The barriers to vaccine passports

https://www.axios.com/barriers-coronavirus-vaccine-passport-ee5ae689-c9e2-4306-9671-0af28bf21445.html

Vaccine passports could become available soon to help people resume their lives — but they face numerous scientific, social and political barriers to being accepted.

The big picture: Reliable and accessible proof of vaccine-induced protection from the novel coronavirus could speed international travel and economic reopening, but obstacles to its wide-scale adoption are so great it may never fully arrive.

Driving the news: The secure digital identity app CLEAR and CommonPass, a health app that lets users access vaccination records and COVID-19 test results, will be working together to offer a vaccine passport service, my Axios colleague Erica Pandey reports.

  • The news comes as a growing number of countries and companies are talking up plans to introduce similar vaccine passports that could help the protected return to normal life and travel as soon as possible.
  • To restart the economy, to save certain industries, I think you need a solution like this,” Eric Piscini, a vice president at IBM who oversaw the development of the company’s new health passport app, told the New York Times.

Yes, but: There are numerous health, ethical and operational questions that need to be resolved before vaccine passports could become an effective part of daily life.

Health: Medical experts still don’t fully know how effective vaccinations — or exposure to the virus — are at preventing onward transmission of COVID-19.

  • While the CDC is set to soon release new guidance around social activity for fully vaccinated people, current recommendations still call for them to keep wearing masks and practicing social distancing.
  • Until it’s clear that vaccination effectively prevents transmission, there’s a limit to how useful any vaccine passport can be for public health — especially if emerging variants render some vaccines less protective.
  • The utility of a vaccine passport is only as good as the evidence of how long the immunity lasts,” David Salisbury, an associate fellow at think tank Chatham House, told Bloomberg. “You could find yourself with a stamp in your passport that lasts longer than the antibodies in your blood.”

Ethical: The most obvious use case for vaccine passports is for international travel, which has been crippled by onerous quarantine restrictions. But such a system risks locking out billions of people who are unable or unwilling to get the vaccine.

  • The EU has been discussing the creation of a vaccine passport, with tourism-dependent countries like Greece leading the charge. But Germany and France — where the vaccine rollout has been low and hesitancy is high — have reservations, and any such system looks to be months away.
  • A bigger ethical concern is the many people in developing countries who may not get access to vaccines of any sort for months or even years while rich nations hoard supplies.
  • And if vaccine passports are used not just for international travel but to allow people to work and engage in social life domestically, they could create cripplingly unequal barriers that might paradoxically reinforce vaccine hesitancy.

Operational: Passports for international travel are regulated by governments and have decades of history behind them, but there’s no such unified system for vaccine passports, which are being introduced by governments and businesses with different standards, making them a target for fraud.

  • The U.S. in particular has a decentralized medical system that can make it difficult for people to easily access their health care records, especially if they lack digital literacy.
  • “I can pretty much 100% guarantee that fraud is going to occur,” says Jane Lee, a trust and safety architect at the cybersecurity company Sift. “We will have a lot of bad actors where they pretend to offer a service that will provide some sort of vaccination passport, but it’s really a phishing campaign.”

Be smart: None of these obstacles are insurmountable on their own. But as we saw with the failures of digital contact tracing, just because a technological solution exists doesn’t mean it will be effective or adopted by the public.

  • “There’s a huge motivation to make this work socially,” says Kevin Trilli, chief product officer at Onfido, an identification verification company. “But there’s a lot of governmental issues that are going to really make the system difficult to implement.”
  • There’s a time pressure at work here as well, especially in the U.S, where vaccination rates have picked up. The more people who are vaccinated, the less value there will be in creating a complex system to sift the protected from the unprotected.

The bottom line: Some form of vaccine visas will likely be introduced for international travel, but it seems unlikely they’ll become a passport to resuming normal life.

Senate votes to delay sequester cuts to Medicare payment

https://mailchi.mp/3e9af44fcab8/the-weekly-gist-march-26-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

Democrats ran and won on health care. Now what? - CNN Politics

If you’re looking for an issue that can unite a heavily divided Congress, it seems nearly all Senators can get behind delaying payment cuts to providers during a pandemic. On Thursday the Senate voted 90-2 to pause the 2 percent sequester cuts to Medicare payment slated to go into effect on April 1.

The bill is expected to be passed by the House and signed into law by President Biden, delaying the cuts through the coronavirus public emergency. While hospitals, many of whom are still recovering from increased costs and volume loss during the pandemic, can breathe a sigh of relief, providers face an even larger 4 percent payment cut in the fall due to the PAYGO, or “pay as you go”, statute, which would trigger automatic payments cuts due to the deficit increases caused by the COVID relief bill. 

We’d gamble that intense industry lobbying to delay the PAYGO cuts will prove successful—again, legislators will be reticent to dock provider payment as pandemic recovery continues. But eventually, in a more normal world, hospitals can expect policymakers to shift their focus from pandemic relief to cost control—and it will likely not prove possible to delay the inevitable reckoning over the high cost of our health system.

Selling Medicaid expansion to the holdout states

https://mailchi.mp/d88637d819ee/the-weekly-gist-march-19-2021?e=d1e747d2d8

The American Rescue Plan stimulus package just sweetened the deal for the twelve holdout states that haven’t yet expanded Medicaid. In exchange for expanding eligibility to the roughly four million adults with incomes up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level, new expansion states will also be eligible for a five percent increase in the federal matching rate for their entire traditional Medicaid population for a two-year period.

The graphic above shows the cumulative fiscal impact for holdout states, should all Medicaid-eligible individuals enroll. Since the traditional Medicaid population is so much larger than the expansion population, the temporary increase more than offsets states’ cost to cover their share of the expansion, resulting in an estimated net fiscal benefit of almost $10B. While the net benefit would vary from state to state, a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis found the two most populous non-expansion states, Texas and Florida, could net up to $1.9B and $1.8B respectively across the two-year period.
 
Medicaid expansion has had a significant positive financial impact on hospitals, reducing uncompensated care and increasing overall operating margin by an average of 1.7 percent.

A recent analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found uncompensated care costs as a share of hospital expenses fell an average of 45 percent in Medicaid expansion states between 2013 and 2017. So far, only two states eligible for the enhanced expansion, Alabama and Wyoming, have signaled interest in taking advantage of the new deal. Convincing the remaining ten to follow suit will require intense and coordinated advocacy efforts from the healthcare and business communities. Making the financial case for expansion should prove straightforward, compared to overcoming long-entrenched political opposition. 

Who Can and Can’t Get Vaccinated Right Now

Who Can and Can’t Get Vaccinated Right Now

Some countries have stockpiles. Others have nothing. Getting a vaccine means living in the right place — or knowing the right people.


A 16-year-old in Israel can get a vaccine.

So can a 16-year-old in Mississippi.

And an 18-year-old in Shanghai.

But a 70-year-old in Shanghai can’t get one. Older people are at high risk for severe illness from Covid-19. But Chinese officials have been reluctant to vaccinate seniors, citing a lack of clinical trial data. Neither can an 80-year-old in Kenya. Low vaccine supply in many countries means only health care employees and other frontline workers are eligible, not the elderly.

Nor a 90-year-old in South Korea. Koreans 75 and older are not eligible until April 1. Only health care workers and nursing-home residents and staff are currently being vaccinated. The government initially said it was awaiting assurances that the AstraZeneca vaccine was safe and effective for older groups.


Anyone in Haiti.

Anyone in Papua New Guinea.

Anyone in these 67 countries. These countries have not reported any vaccinations, according to Our World in Data. Official figures can be incomplete, but many countries are still awaiting their first doses.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this: Covax, the global vaccine-sharing initiative, was meant to prevent unequal access by negotiating vaccine deals on behalf of all participating nations. Richer nations would purchase doses through Covax, and poorer nations would receive them for free.

But rich nations quickly undermined the program by securing their own deals directly with pharmaceutical companies. In many countries, they have reserved enough doses to immunize their own multiple times over.

Anyone who can afford a smartphone or an internet connection in India and is over 60 can get one. Mostly wealthy Indians are being inoculated in New Delhi and Mumbai, hospitals have reported, since vaccine appointments typically require registering online. Less than half of India’s population has access to the internet, and even fewer own smartphones.

And anyone who can pay $13,000 and travel to the U.A.E. for three weeks and is 65 or older or can prove they have a health condition.

A British travel service catering to the rich offered vaccination packages abroad, and wealthy travelers to the U.A.E. have acknowledged they were vaccinated there.


member of Congress in the United States. Friends of the mayor of Manaus, Brazil. Lawmakers in Lebanon. A top-ranking military leader in Spain. The extended family of the deputy health minister in Peru. The security detail to the president of the Philippines. Government allies with access to a so-called “V.I.P. Immunization Clinic” in Argentina. Around the world, those with power and connections have often been first in line to receive the vaccine — or have cut the line altogether.


A smoker in Illinois can get one. But not a smoker in Georgia.

A diabetic in the United Kingdom can. A diabetic in Connecticut can’t.

Countries have prioritized different underlying health conditions, with the majority focusing on illnesses that may increase the risk of severe Covid-19. In the U.S., health issues granted higher priority differ from state to state, prompting some people to travel across state borders.

A pregnant woman in New York. Not a pregnant woman in Germany. Up to two close contacts of a pregnant woman in Germany. Pregnant women were barred from participating in clinical trials, prompting many countries to exclude them from vaccine priority groups. But some experts say the risks to pregnant women from Covid-19 are greater than any theoretical harm from the vaccines.


A grocery worker in Texas, no. A grocery worker in Oklahoma, yes.

Many areas aim to stop the virus by vaccinating those working in frontline jobs, like public transit and grocery stores. But who counts as essential depends on where you live.

A police officer in the U.K. A police officer in Kenya. A postal worker in California. A postal worker in North Carolina. A teacher in Belgium. A teacher in Campeche, Mexico. Other jobs have been prioritized because of politics: Mexico’s president made all teachers in the southern state of Campeche eligible in a possible bid to gain favor with the teacher’s union.


Medical staff at jails and prisons in Colombia. A correctional officer in Tennessee. A prisoner in Tennessee. A prisoner in Florida. The virus spread rapidly through prisons and jails, which often have crowded conditions and little protective equipment. But few places have prioritized inoculating inmates.


An undocumented farm worker in Southern California. A refugee living in a shelter in Germany. An undocumented immigrant in the United Kingdom. Britain has said that everyone in the country is eligible for the vaccine, regardless of their legal status.

A Palestinian in the West Bank without a work permit. Despite leading the world in per-capita vaccinations, Israel has so far not vaccinated most Palestinians, unless they have permits to work in Israel or settlements in the occupied West Bank.


An adult in Bogotá, Colombia. An adult in the Amazonian regions of Colombia that border Brazil. In most of Colombia, the vaccine is only available to health care workers and those over 80.

But the government made all adults in Leticia, Puerto Nariño, Mitú and Inírida eligible, hoping to prevent the variant first detected in Brazil from arriving in other areas. A police officer in Mexico City. A teacher in rural Mexico.The government of populist president Andrés Manuel López Obrador has prioritized vaccinating the poor and those in rural communities, despite the country’s worst outbreaks occurring in major cities.

Native populations not federally recognized in the United States. The pandemic has been particularly deadly for Native Americans. But only tribes covered by the Indian Health Service have received vaccine doses directly, leaving about 245 tribes without a direct federal source of vaccines. Some states, including Montana, have prioritized all Native populations.

Indigenous people living on official indigenous land in Brazil.


These 43 countries, mostly high income, are on pace to be done in a year. These 148 countries, mostly low income, are on pace to take until next year or even longer. Countries like the U.S. continue to stockpile tens of millions of vaccine doses, while others await their first shipments.

“The vaccine rollout has been inequitable, unfair, and dangerous in leaving so many countries without any vaccine doses at all,” said Gavin Yamey, director of Duke University’s Center for Policy Impact in Global Health.

“It’s a situation in which I, a 52-year-old white man who can work from home and has no pre-existing medical conditions, will be vaccinated far ahead of health workers or a high-risk person in a middle- or low-income country.”

Becerra squeaks through confirmation vote to become HHS secretary

Becerra squeaks through confirmation vote to become HHS secretary - The  Washington Post

Xavier Becerra narrowly won confirmation Thursday to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, the agency pivotal to President Biden’s urgent goal of defeating the coronavirus pandemic and expanding access to health care.

Becerra, a congressman from Los Angeles for two dozen years and then California attorney general, squeaked by on a vote of 50 to 49, the closest margin for any of the Biden cabinet members the Senate has confirmed so far.

He becomes the first Latino secretary of HHS, the largest federal department in terms of spending. The department includes agencies at the core of the federal response to the pandemic that has infected more than 29.5 million people in the United States and killed more than 535,000. They include the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the vaccine-approving Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which oversees the country’s vast public insurance programs.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which considered the nomination, said that “after four years of going in reverse,” Becerra will make it “possible to go to drive and actually make progress for the American people, progress in terms of lowering the cost of health care.”

Republican Sen. John Barrasso (Wyo.), countered that Becerra is “an aggressive culture warrior from the radical left,” who is “out of touch with the views of the American people.” Barrasso noted that, as state attorney general, Becerra sued the Trump administration more than 150 times over immigration, environmental and health policies.

“In this time of crisis, our secretary of Health and Human Services may be the single most important member of the president’s cabinet,” Barrasso said, contending that “the president has chosen a nominee, no public health experience, extremely partisan record.”

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) was the only member of the GOP to vote for Becerra’s confirmation along with a solid wall of Senate Democrats.

During his confirmation hearing last month before the Senate Finance Committee, Becerra said, “The mission of HHS — to enhance the health and well-being of all Americans — is core to who I am.”

In keeping with Biden’s emphasis on portraying his administration’s top rung as diverse and having working-class roots like his own, Becerra told the senators his immigrant parents had insurance through his father’s laborers union, making his family more fortunate when he was a boy than many of their neighbors.

As a longtime member of the House Ways and Means Committee, Becerra testified, he worked on several major pieces of health-care legislation, including the Children’s Health Insurance Program created in the late 1990s and changes to the way Medicare is run and financed, as well as the Affordable Care Act.

He did not mention that he was a longtime advocate of a single-payer health-care system, akin to the Medicare-for-all proposals backed by several Democratic candidates in last year’s presidential election, but rejected by Biden. Becerra has renounced his previous support since his nomination, echoing the president’s view that affordable insurance coverage should be widened by building upon the ACA.

Becerra, 63, became a lightning rod for conservatives immediately after Biden announced his selection in early December.

Senate Republicans targeted his defense of abortion rights. They contended he is unqualified because he is not a physician, though few HHS secretaries have had medical training. And they have denounced his previous advocacy of a larger government role in health insurance.

An undercurrent running through opposition to his nomination was Becerra’s leadership in recent years of a coalition of Democratic attorneys general fighting to preserve the ACA. Republicans, including President Donald Trump, are seeking to overturn the 2010 law in a case now before the Supreme Court.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) lambasted Becerra, saying he has “an appalling track record disrespecting the sanctity of life. . . . He has no shame when it comes to his pro-abortion beliefs.”

Inhofe also criticized Becerra’s support last year for California’s ban on indoor worship services as part of the state’s efforts to slow the cornavirus’s spread. And the senator criticized Becerra’s position that undocumented immigrants should be allowed public benefits, such as Medicaid.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Republicans’ arguments against Becerra “almost verge on the ridiculous.”

Schumer said Republicans challenging Becerra’s qualifications for the job had embraced the nomination of Alex Azar as Trump’s second HHS secretary, though he was a pharmaceutical executive who also was an attorney and had no medical training.

In addition to working to tame the pandemic, which Biden has identified as the government’s job number one for now, Becerra will face many major decisions at the helm of the sprawling department over whether to continue or reverse policies established by the Trump administration.

CMS has already announced it was rescinding a significant Medicaid policy of the Trump era that had allowed states to require some residents to hold a job or be preparing for work to qualify for the safety-net insurance program. HHS officials are reviewing other Trump-era Medicaid policies.

Another HHS agency, the Administration for Children and Families, oversees the nation’s policies regarding welfare and unaccompanied children coming across the country’s borders — a flashpoint during the Trump administration.

The CDC, the government’s public-health agency, has been working to regain its footing and scientific moorings after repeated intrusions into its advice to the public by the Trump White House. The agency has been involved in the largest mass vaccination campaign in U.S. history to immunize the public against the coronavirus. And it is developing guidance on aspects of American life — and ongoing public safety measures — as research findings evolve for the virus and vaccine’s effects.

The FDA is in the thick of decisions about coronavirus vaccines, developed in record time, as additional manufacturers, such as AstraZeneca, have devised them and tested their safety and effectiveness. The three vaccines being given to about 2 million Americans a day — by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson — are being allowed so far for emergency use and have not yet secured full FDA approval.

Becerra almost certainly will continue to face hostility from social conservatives after his swearing in, expected Friday.

Roger Severino, who led HHS’s Office for Civil Rights during the Trump administration and created a division to promote “conscience and religious freedom,” is building an “HHS Accountability Project” within the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center.

While at HHS, Severino tangled directly with Becerra during his tenure as attorney general of the nation’s most populous state, twice citing him in violation of federal laws for upholding California statutes involving abortion rights.

Severino said this week he believes those on the right might find common ground with Biden health officials on disability rights. But on matters of abortion and deference to religion, Severino said, “We will be watching.”

Congress Urged to Stop Pending Medicare Payment Cuts

— At stake: scheduled payment reductions totalling $54 billion

Healthcare groups are applauding efforts being made in Congress to stop two different cuts to the Medicare budget — both of which are due to “sequestration” requirements — before it’s too late.

One cut, part of the normal budget process, is a 2% — or $18 billion — cut in the projected Medicare budget under a process known as “sequestration.Sequestration allows for prespecified cuts in projected agency budget increases if Congress can’t agree on their own cuts. Medicare’s budget had been slated for a 2% sequester cut in fiscal year 2020; however, due to the pandemic and the accompanying increased healthcare needs, Congress passed a moratorium on the 2% cut. That moratorium is set to expire on April 1.

Another projected cut — this one for 4%, or $36 billion — will be triggered by the COVID relief bill, formally known as the American Rescue Plan Act. That legislation, which President Biden signed into law last Thursday, must conform to the PAYGO (pay-as-you-go) Act, which requires that any legislation that has a cost to it that is not otherwise offset must be offset by sequestration-style budget cuts to mandatory programs, including Medicare.

There are now several bills in Congress to address these pending cuts. H.R. 1868, co-sponsored by House Budget Committee chairman John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), House Ways & Means Committee chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.), and House Energy & Commerce Committee chairman Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), among others, would get rid of the PAYGO Act requirement and extend the 2% Medicare sequester moratorium through the end of 2021.

Another bill, H.R. 315, introduced in January by Reps. Bradley Schneider (D-Ill.) and David McKinley (R-W.Va.), would extend the 2% sequester moratorium until the end of the public health emergency has been declared. In the Senate, S. 748, introduced Monday by senators Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) would do the same.

“For many providers, the looming Medicare payment cuts would pose a further threat to their ability to stay afloat and serve communities during a time when they are most needed,” Shaheen said in a press release. “Congress should be doing everything in its power to prevent these cuts from taking effect during these challenging times, which is why I’m introducing this bipartisan legislation with Senator Collins. I urge the Senate to act at once to protect our health care providers and ensure they can continue their work on the frontlines of COVID-19.”

Not surprisingly, provider groups were happy about the actions in Congress. “MGMA [Medical Group Management Association] supports recent bipartisan, bicameral efforts to extend the 2% Medicare sequester moratorium for the duration of the COVID-19 public health emergency,” said Anders Gilberg, senior vice president for government affairs at MGMA, in a statement. “Without congressional action, the country’s medical groups will face a combined 6% sequester cut — a payment cut that is unsustainable given the financial hardships due to COVID-19 and keeping up with the cost of inflation.”

Leonard Marquez, senior director of government relations and legislative advocacy at the Association of American Medical Colleges, said in a statement that it was “critical” that Congress extend the 2% sequester moratorium “to help ensure hospitals, faculty physicians, and all providers have the necessary financial resources to continue providing quality care to COVID-19 and all patients ... While we are making progress against COVID-19, cutting provider payments in the middle of a pandemic could jeopardize the nation’s recovery.”

The American Medical Association (AMA) also urged Congress to prevent both the 2% and the 4% Medicare cuts. “We strongly oppose these arbitrary across-the-board Medicare cuts, and the predictably devastating impact they would have on many already distressed physician practices,” AMA executive vice president and CEO James Madara, MD, said in a letter sent to congressional leaders at the beginning of March.

In the letter, Madara noted that an AMA report, “Changes in Medicare Physician Spending During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” analyzed Medicare physician claims data and found spending dropped as much as 57% below expected pre-pandemic levels in April 2020.

“And, while Medicare spending on physician services partially recovered from the April low, it was still 12% less than expected by the end of June 2020,” he continued. “During the first half of 2020, the cumulative estimated reduction in Medicare physician spending associated with the pandemic was $9.4 billion (19%). Results from an earlier AMA-commissioned survey of 3,500 practicing physicians conducted from mid-July through August 2020 found that 81% of respondents were still experiencing lower revenue than before the pandemic.”

Not everyone is a fan of extending the 2% cut moratorium, however. “Bad idea,” said James Capretta, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank, at an event Tuesday on Medicare solvency sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center. “There’s plenty of give in the revenue streams of these systems that creating a precedent where we’re going to go back to the pre-sequester level — it’s better to move forward and if there are struggling systems out there, deal with it on an ad hoc basis rather than just across the board paying out a lot more money, which I don’t think is necessary.” He added, however, that he agreed with the bill to get rid of the 4% cut. “The bigger cut associated with PAYGO enforcement I think would be too much.”