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.
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.