The December Omnibus Bill’s Little Secret: It Was Also A Giant Health Bill

Opinion | Does America Have Too Much Debt? - The New York Times

Source: The New York Times, by Margot Sanger-Katz

The giant spending bill passed by Congress last month kept the government open. But it also quietly rewrote huge areas of health policy: Hundreds of pages of legislation were devoted to new health care programs.

The legislation included major policy areas that committees had been hammering away at all year behind the scenes — like a big package designed to improve the nation’s readiness for the next big pandemic. It also included items that Republicans had been championing during the election season — like an extension of telemedicine coverage in Medicare. And it included small policy measures that some legislators have wanted to pass for years, like requiring Medicare to cover compression garments for patients with lymphedema.

Though the bill was primarily designed to fund existing government programs, a lot of health policy hitched a ride.

Big, “must-pass” bills like the $1.7 trillion omnibus often attract unrelated policy measures that would be hard to pass alone. But the scope of the health care legislation in last month’s bill is unusual. At the end of 2022, congressional leaders decided to do something that staffers call “clearing the decks,” adding all the potentially bipartisan health policy legislation that was ready and written. There turned out to be a lot to clear.

The midterm election also played a role. Many lawmakers saw that the incoming Republican House majority would be far less likely to pass another big spending bill, and so the omnibus was widely viewed as a last legislative hurrah.

In fact, the new House leadership has pledged to avoid this sort of omnibus legislation in the future. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has agreed to move smaller spending bills one at a time, and to allow lawmakers to propose amendments to each on the House floor. That process would make it much more difficult to combine future spending bills with unrelated policy measures, like a package in the bill that aims to modernize the country’s mental health system.

The coming change made the omnibus bill a critical opportunity to pass pieces of legislation that might have withered in the new Congress. Many of the health measures weren’t controversial enough to stop the omnibus from passing as one big bill. They might not have all succeeded on their own, however.

Several retiring senators were eager to use the bill to pass favored measures and cement their legacies. Among departing senior Republicans were Richard Burr of North Carolina, who was the ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee; Roy Blunt of Missouri, a Republican who was ranking member on the Senate Appropriations health subcommittee; and Richard Shelby of Alabama, vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Legacies were also meaningful for the retiring Democrat Patrick Leahy, who was the chairman of Appropriations, as well as Nancy Pelosi, who was giving up her position as the top House Democrat.

Mr. Burr had been working all year with his Democratic counterpart to develop a pandemic preparedness package known as the Prevent Pandemics Act. That legislation passed as part of the spending bill.

Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, had signaled earlier in the year that he hoped for a relatively modest spending bill. But he did not stand in the way of the giant bill in the end.

“Probably a lot of the driver was, ‘Let’s resolve it and accept the reality of a lot of stagnation we’ll see in the next Congress,’” said Drew Keyes, a senior policy analyst at the Paragon Health Institute and a former staffer on the Republican Study Committee. He was critical of the size and scope of the bill, especially given the limited debate on many of its provisions. But he said he understood why it came together: “We saw a lot of pieces that felt like this is the last opportunity.”

Some convoluted budget math made it possible for lawmakers to pass expansions of Medicaid without appearing to cost much money, an opportunity that was likely to disappear over time. By scheduling an end date for an expensive pandemic policy, Congress could then use the projected savings to pay for expanded Medicaid benefits for children, postpartum mothers and residents of U.S. territories.

The bill requires states to keep children signed up for at least a year at a time, and extends funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program. It also sets up a series of policies meant to discourage states from automatically dumping large numbers of adult enrollees after the end of an emergency policy that protected enrollments during the pandemic. The provisions reflected a longstanding interest by Ms. Pelosi in broadening health coverage through the Affordable Care Act and other means.

In addition to the expiring funding sources, there was a “time-limited coalition behind some of those policies,” said Matthew Fiedler, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who was tracking the Medicaid provisions.

Crucially, most of the bill’s health measures had bipartisan support in Congress. Even though Democrats held majorities in both the House and Senate, the bill needed 10 Republican Senate votes to overcome a legislative filibuster. It got far more — the omnibus passed the Senate by a 68–29 margin. (In the House, where Republicans were less involved in negotiations over the bill since their votes were not needed, a greater share voted against it. The final vote was 225–201.)

The consequence of all this deck clearing is that it may be a quiet Congress for new health legislation. There are a few health funding programs that will need to be renewed, including funding for programs to combat opioid addiction and overdoses, and one to subsidize hospitals that treat uninsured patients.

But beyond those must-pass items (which may or may not pass in the end), don’t expect too much.

Democrats already achieved much of their health care agenda earlier in the year, when they passed legislation to allow Medicare to limit the prices of some prescription drugs, expanded subsidies for Americans who buy their own insurance, and added new health benefits for veterans.

Mr. McCarthy did have some plans for modest health care measures with a chance of becoming law, including extended Medicare coverage for telemedicine. But that passed in the omnibus, leaving him without a lot of concrete health policy goals beyond oversight into the performance of pandemic programs.

The remaining wish list for Democrats includes measures to broaden Medicare benefits and to expand abortion rights — things they could not pass even when they controlled the House. As part of concessions with right-wing lawmakers to secure the speakership, Mr. McCarthy has promised Republicans in the House will propose substantial spending cuts to balance the budget in a decade, a goal that would be impossible without cuts to some or all of the major health programs — Medicare, Medicaid and Obamacare. But those would never advance with Democrats controlling the Senate and White House.

That means the omnibus was an unexpectedly meaty health care bill. There may not be another one for a while.

Will Your Smartphone Be the Next Doctor’s Office?

Will Your Smartphone Be the Next Doctor's Office? | Kaiser Health NewsSource: Kaiser Health News, by Hannah Norman

The same devices used to take selfies and type out tweets are being repurposed and commercialized for quick access to information needed for monitoring a patient’s health. A fingertip pressed against a phone’s camera lens can measure a heart rate. The microphone, kept by the bedside, can screen for sleep apnea. Even the speaker is being tapped, to monitor breathing using sonar technology.

In the best of this new world, the data is conveyed remotely to a medical professional for the convenience and comfort of the patient or, in some cases, to support a clinician without the need for costly hardware.

But using smartphones as diagnostic tools is a work in progress, experts say. Although doctors and their patients have found some real-world success in deploying the phone as a medical device, the overall potential remains unfulfilled and uncertain.

Smartphones come packed with sensors capable of monitoring a patient’s vital signs. They can help assess people for concussionswatch for atrial fibrillation, and conduct mental health wellness checks, to name the uses of a few nascent applications.

Companies and researchers eager to find medical applications for smartphone technology are tapping into modern phones’ built-in cameras and light sensors; microphones; accelerometers, which detect body movements; gyroscopes; and even speakers. The apps then use artificial intelligence software to analyze the collected sights and sounds to create an easy connection between patients and physicians. Earning potential and marketability are evidenced by the more than 350,000 digital health products available in app stores, according to a Grand View Research report.

“It’s very hard to put devices into the patient home or in the hospital, but everybody is just walking around with a cellphone that has a network connection,” said Dr. Andrew Gostine, CEO of the sensor network company Artisight. Most Americans own a smartphone, including more than 60% of people 65 and over, an increase from just 13% a decade ago, according the Pew Research Center. The covid-19 pandemic has also pushed people to become more comfortable with virtual care.

Some of these products have sought FDA clearance to be marketed as a medical device. That way, if patients must pay to use the software, health insurers are more likely to cover at least part of the cost. Other products are designated as exempt from this regulatory process, placed in the same clinical classification as a Band-Aid. But how the agency handles AI and machine learning-based medical devices is still being adjusted to reflect software’s adaptive nature.

Ensuring accuracy and clinical validation is crucial to securing buy-in from health care providers. And many tools still need fine-tuning, said Dr. Eugene Yang, a professor of medicine at the University of Washington. Currently, Yang is testing contactless measurement of blood pressure, heart rate, and oxygen saturation gleaned remotely via Zoom camera footage of a patient’s face.

Judging these new technologies is difficult because they rely on algorithms built by machine learning and artificial intelligence to collect data, rather than the physical tools typically used in hospitals. So researchers cannot “compare apples to apples” with medical industry standards, Yang said. Failure to build in such assurances undermines the technology’s ultimate goals of easing costs and access because a doctor still must verify results.

“False positives and false negatives lead to more testing and more cost to the health care system,” he said.

Big tech companies like Google have heavily invested in researching this kind of technology, catering to clinicians and in-home caregivers, as well as consumers. Currently, in the Google Fit app, users can check their heart rate by placing their finger on the rear-facing camera lens or track their breathing rate using the front-facing camera.

“If you took the sensor out of the phone and out of a clinical device, they are probably the same thing,” said Shwetak Patel, director of health technologies at Google and a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Washington.

Google’s research uses machine learning and computer vision, a field within AI based on information from visual inputs like videos or images. So instead of using a blood pressure cuff, for example, the algorithm can interpret slight visual changes to the body that serve as proxies and biosignals for a patient’s blood pressure, Patel said.

Google is also investigating the effectiveness of the built-in microphone for detecting heartbeats and murmurs and using the camera to preserve eyesight by screening for diabetic eye disease, according to information the company published last year.

The tech giant recently purchased Sound Life Sciences, a Seattle startup with an FDA-cleared sonar technology app. It uses a smart device’s speaker to bounce inaudible pulses off a patient’s body to identify movement and monitor breathing.

Binah.ai, based in Israel, is another company using the smartphone camera to calculate vital signs. Its software looks at the region around the eyes, where the skin is a bit thinner, and analyzes the light reflecting off blood vessels back to the lens. The company is wrapping up a U.S. clinical trial and marketing its wellness app directly to insurers and other health companies, said company spokesperson Mona Popilian-Yona.

The applications even reach into disciplines such as optometry and mental health:

  • * With the microphone, Canary Speech uses the same underlying technology as Amazon’s Alexa to analyze patients’ voices for mental health conditions. The software can integrate with telemedicine appointments and allow clinicians to screen for anxiety and depression using a library of vocal biomarkers and predictive analytics, said Henry O’Connell, the company’s CEO.
  • * Australia-based ResApp Health got FDA clearance last year for its iPhone app that screens for moderate to severe obstructive sleep apnea by listening to breathing and snoring. SleepCheckRx, which will require a prescription, is minimally invasive compared with sleep studies currently used to diagnose sleep apnea. Those can cost thousands of dollars and require an array of tests.
  • * Brightlamp’s Reflex app is a clinical decision support tool for helping manage concussions and vision rehabilitation, among other things. Using an iPad’s or iPhone’s camera, the mobile app measures how a person’s pupils react to changes in light. Through machine learning analysis, the imagery gives practitioners data points for evaluating patients. Brightlamp sells directly to health care providers and is being used in more than 230 clinics. Clinicians pay a $400 standard annual fee per account, which is currently not covered by insurance. The Department of Defense has an ongoing clinical trial using Reflex.

In some cases, such as with the Reflex app, the data is processed directly on the phone — rather than in the cloud, Brightlamp CEO Kurtis Sluss said. By processing everything on the device, the app avoids running into privacy issues, as streaming data elsewhere requires patient consent.

But algorithms need to be trained and tested by collecting reams of data, and that is an ongoing process.

Researchers, for example, have found that some computer vision applications, like heart rate or blood pressure monitoring, can be less accurate for darker skin. Studies are underway to find better solutions.

Small algorithm glitches can also produce false alarms and frighten patients enough to keep widespread adoption out of reach. For example, Apple’s new car-crash detection feature, available on both the latest iPhone and Apple Watch, was set off when people were riding roller coasters and automatically dialed 911.

“We’re not there yet,” Yang said. “That’s the bottom line.”

Spending Bill Extends Telehealth Coverage For HDHPs Through 2024

Spending bill extends telehealth coverage for HDHPs through 2024 |  BenefitsPRO

Source: BenefitsPRO, by Willa Hart

When the pandemic hit, many measures were implemented to make telehealth more accessible to patients, including a rule in the 2020 CARES Act which says companies could choose to offer telehealth coverage to employees insured under HSA-qualifying high-deductible health plans, even before their deductible was met. Originally intended to expire at the end of 2021, the policy was later extended through the end of 2022. Now, it’s been extended a second time, with the most recent government spending bill reinstating the provision through at least December 31, 2024, according to the Society of Human Resource Management.

The recent spending bill also authorized the continued use of telehealth for Medicare patients for two more years, SHRM reports.

“Pre-deductible coverage helps employees because it allows insurance providers to cover telehealth services without requiring a co-pay or deductible upfront,” comments SHRM chief of staff, head of public affairs, and corporate secretary Emily Dickens, in their coverage of the change. “Employers need the flexibility to design benefit plans that improve employees’ wellbeing and help retain top talent.”

 

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, around 17% of companies who provide health insurance to employees offered HSA-qualifying HDHPs in 2021. HSA-qualifying HDHPs are particularly popular amongst companies with over 200 employees, more than half of whom offer these high-deductible plans, per KFF.

Likewise, as high deductible health plans are growing in popularity, so is telehealth. Nearly a quarter of all respondents to a 2021 government survey say they had used telehealth services within the last month, with Medicare and Medicaid users reporting even higher usage rates of 27.4% and 29.3% respectively.

But there are some concerns about telehealth services, including its accessibility: promoted by some as telehealth’s biggest virtue, ease of access has led others to worry about opportunities for fraud and spiking costs, according to Mercer.

Last Updated 01/25/2023

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