Senate Cancels August Recess

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced his decision to officially cancel the chamber’s scheduled August recess. McConnell blames Democratic obstruction of the president’s nominees for his decision. He stated that lawmakers should expect to remain in session to pass appropriations bills and make progress on the consideration of executive nominees. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) stated that his caucus welcomes the additional time as an opportunity to work on many health care related issues, including reigning in rising health insurance premiums, expanding access to Medicare, and lowering drug prices. The plan is for senators to recess the week of August 6 before returning to work the following week and remaining in session for the rest of the month. Senators were previously scheduled to recess until after Labor Day.

Trump Administration Won’t Defend Key Provisions of ACA

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has told Congress that the Justice Department will no longer defend the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) individual health insurance mandate. The plaintiffs in a Texas-led lawsuit are arguing that Congress’ repeal of the mandate penalty last year means that all of Obamacare should be repealed. Sessions sent a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), explaining that the Department of Justice (DOJ) will argue that certain parts of the ACA are inseverable from the individual mandate, which would impact the guaranteed-issue and community rating provisions of the law. While the Attorney General acknowledges that the DOJ has a longstanding tradition of defending federal laws, this is “a rare case where the proper course is to forgo defense” of the law. Seventeen Democratic-led states have already intervened to defend Obamacare in DOJ’s absence. Legal experts are skeptical about the potential success of the DOJ’s strategy, given that Congress itself indicated that the rest of the law could still stand without the mandate when lawmakers repealed the individual mandate tax penalty last year.

WH to Propose HHS Restructuring; FDA Also Considers Changes

President Trump is considering a reorganization of the federal government. His plan, which is expected to be released in the coming weeks by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), would consolidate safety-net and welfare programs within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). HHS would be renamed, perhaps to restore the term ‘welfare’ to its title; the agency was previously called the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. The President’s proposal would also make cuts to USAID and the State Department. The biggest changes contained in the forthcoming report would likely require congressional approval.

Commissioner of Food and Drugs Scott Gottlieb also announced that the FDA plans to improve the efficiency of the drug-approval process through structural changes and product-specific guidance. The agency will increase the number of offices that make decisions about drug marketing and regulatory oversight to remove administrative barriers. The FDA will also make an effort to engage sponsors earlier in the drug approval process.

Lawmakers Inquire on HHS Cybersecurity Role

Bipartisan leadership of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee have written to HHS Secretary Alex Azar about the implementation of the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA). The law aimed to strengthen cybersecurity through increasing data on digital threats. The lawmakers outline a number of information gaps in the Department’s Cyber Threat Preparedness Report (CTRP), delivered to Congress last April. The report lacked information about the role and status of the Healthcare Cybersecurity and the Department of Homeland Security’s Communications Integration Center (HCCIC). The lawmakers also request clarification on how HHS plans to manage its role as both a regulator of the health care sector and the Sector Specific Agency (SSA) responsible for providing guidance and support during cybersecurity incidents.

2018 Medicare Trustees Report

The 2018 Medicare Trustees Report was released last week. The report finds that Medicare’s Hospital Insurance (HI) trust fund which funds Medicare Part A will be depleted in 2026, three years earlier than last year’s report predicted. At this point, it is estimated that Medicare will only be able to cover 91 percent of program costs. The report cites the repeal of the individual mandate as one factor responsible for the state of the program; Medicare will face increased payments to hospitals for uncompensated care costs as a result of an increased number of uninsured individuals. Diminishing revenues from payroll and Social Security taxes are also responsible for the trust fund’s decline. The Trustees recommend that Congress and the administration take steps in the near future to address the depletion of the trust fund and projected growth in program spending. In response to the report, many congressional Republicans acknowledged the need to reform the Medicare program to ensure its fiscal sustainability.

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