What’s Going on with the Provider Relief Fund?

The Provider Relief Fund (PRF) was essential for keeping countless health care providers afloat as the health care sector struggled with the COVID-19 pandemic throughout 2020. This is why Congress appropriated $178 billion in the CARES Act for the fund.  Nearly a year and a half after its creation, let’s take a deep dive look at the PRF to see what providers are saying about the program and where the program is today.

The Unsmooth Transition of the PRF

$178 billion in appropriations to the PRF has not equated to $178 billion in relief for hospitals and the distribution process for PRF money has been “uneven” and the plans of distributing the funds have been “opaque.” This unsmooth transition has not only caught the eyes of providers, but also Congress, who has urged HHS to respond to these challenges over the last couple of months.

HHS Responds

Fortunately, recent actions by HHS indicate the department is listening to health care providers.  On September 10, HHS announced it will make available $25.5 billion to affected providers, who can begin applying for the funds in September 29.  Payments will be distributed based on pandemic-related revenue losses between July 1, 2020, and March 31, 2021. 

About $8.5 billion will be set aside for rural Medicare, Medicaid, and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) providers operating in regions disproportionately affected by the pandemic, with the remaining $17 billion going to smaller providers who can demonstrate lost revenue and increased expenses due to the pandemic.  HHS has also announced it will offer bonus payments to Medicare, Medicaid, and CHIP providers.

To recognize the challenge providers are facing due to the Delta variant and recent natural disasters, HHS also announced it will offer providers a 60-day grace period on reporting requirements for relief fund recipients.  During this 60-day period, HHS will not carry out any enforcement or collection activities.  However, deadlines on PRF grants and the reporting period that HHS extended on June 11, 2021remain unchanged. 

The disbursement of remaining PRF dollars and new flexibility on reporting aren’t the only changes HHS has made recently.  On August 31, HHS announced via the Federal Register the reorganization of the Health Resources and Services Administration Office of Provider Support into the Provider Relief Bureau.  These changes suggest HHS understands the importance of ensuring funds from the PRF are getting to health care providers.

However, even after these recent responses, HHS has yet to lay out a timetable for the disbursement of the remaining PRF dollars, as many hospitals are still grappling with a nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases.  The PRF has been clearly valuable for hospitals by allowing them to survive since the beginning of the pandemic and so, HHS needs to continue to follow through with specific actions that provides meaningful relief.

What Happened, What You Missed: August 23-27

FDA Fully Approves Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine

On August 23, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) fully approved the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for people age 16 and older, but did not fully approve the vaccine for individuals ages 12 to 15, which is still only authorized for emergency use.  Full approval of the vaccine, which will be marketed as Comirnaty, is likely to spur additional companies and organizations to mandate employees to be vaccinated.  Just a few days later, Pfizer/BioNTech announced that it intends to submit a biologics license application (BLA) for a third dose of its vaccine to act as a booster shot.  Additionally, Moderna submitted a BLA for its COVID-19 vaccine this week, setting the stage for full FDA approval within the next few months.

New Data Shows J&J Booster Shot Increases Immune Response

Johnson & Johnson says data from a phase 2 clinical trial shows a second dose “booster shot” of its single-dose COVID-19 vaccine administered six to eight months after the first dose resulted in a nine-fold increase in antibodies compared to 28 days after the first dose.  The announcement comes amid concerns that the viral vector Johnson & Johnson vaccine may not be as effective as the mRNA vaccines offered by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna.  Last week, the Biden administration announced plans to make third-dose booster shots of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to all eligible Americans by late September, but declined to make a final decision on whether recipients of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine should also receive booster shot.  Johnson & Johnson also announced that that it is working with FDA and other regulators regarding the need for booster shots.

Intelligence Report Inconclusive on Origins of COVID-19

According to news reports, an intelligence report delivered to President Joe Biden this week was inconclusive over whether COVID-19 originated naturally via human contact with an infected animal or originated in a laboratory.  In late May, Biden ordered the US intelligence community to produce a report within 90 days on the origins of COVID-19 after a hypothesis that the virus escaped from a laboratory gained traction.  While some scientists have called for all possibilities for COVID-19’s origin to be explored, many believe the most likely scenario is that the virus jumped from animals to humans.  Intelligence officials plan on publicly releasing a summary of the report in the coming days.

House Passes FY22 Budget Resolution after Democrats Reach Agreement

On August 24, the House narrowly approved a $3.5 trillion budget resolution for Fiscal Year (FY) 2022 along a party-line vote, following a period of deadlock between a group of moderate Democrats and party leadership that threatened to derail the budget resolution.  Earlier this month, nearly a dozen centrist-leaning Democrats including Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) and Stephanie Murphy (D-FL) communicated that they would not support the budget resolution unless the House first voted on the Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill.  Per their public agreement with the group of centrists, House leadership have committed to consider the bipartisan infrastructure bill by September 27.  House approval of the FY22 budget resolution sets the stage for Congress to advance a social spending bill in both chambers without any Republican support.

ICYMI: Washington Monument Could Reopen Soon

The Washington Monument has been closed since August 15, following a lightning strike that damaged the monument’s electronic access system that operates the door and the elevators.  Since then, the National Park Service has been awaiting replacement parts to get the electronic access system back in working order.  The parts finally arrived on August 25, and the National Park Service says it will begin installing and testing on Thursday in the hopes of reopening “as soon as possible.”