This week, lawmakers worked to keep the federal government operating, and one congressional committee held a hearing to discuss the opioid epidemic. In addition, the Senate Finance Committee advanced the nomination of Alex Azar, and The Senior Citizens League (TSCL) endorsed one new bill.
Lawmakers Scramble to Avert Shutdown
This week, lawmakers in the House and Senate continued working on a plan to fund the federal government past Friday, January 19th. Those in the House passed a one-month continuing resolution (CR) on Thursday evening to keep the government operating until February 16. At the time of writing this week’s update on Friday morning, the Senate had not yet voted on the measure, but a vote later in the day on Friday is likely to fail and the federal government could shut down at midnight.
TSCL will be closely monitoring discussions to keep the federal government operating since a shutdown could negatively impact the timely delivery of Social Security payments and Medicare reimbursements. For updates on the negotiations, follow TSCL on Twitter or Facebook.
House Committee Discusses Opioid Epidemic
On Wednesday, the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Oversight held a hearing titled “The Opioid Crisis: The Current Landscape and CMS Actions to Prevent Opioid Misuse.” The hearing focused on efforts by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to combat the opioid epidemic and its impact on Medicare Part D beneficiaries.
In her opening statement, Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Lynn Jenkins (KS-2) said: “More than 42 million beneficiaries rely on the [Medicare] program for prescription drugs, including opioids. It is critical that Medicare and private Part D plan sponsors have the tools they need to ensure that opioids are provided only when medically necessary.”
Ranking Member of the Ways and Means Committee Richard Neal (MA-1) agreed, saying: “Although overdose rates are highest for people 25-54, this public health emergency also affects Medicare beneficiaries … In 2016, one-third of Medicare Part D beneficiaries filled a prescription opiate … This number is too high and we need to explore better ways to manage chronic pain.”
Three expert witnesses at Wednesday’s hearing spoke on behalf of the federal government and gave recommendations for combatting the opioid crisis. One witness – Mr. Gary Cantrell (Deputy Inspector General for Investigations at the Office of the Inspector General) – suggested utilizing “lock-in” policies that restrict at-risk beneficiaries to a limited number of pharmacies or prescribers. Another witness – Ms. Elizabeth Curda (Director of Health Care at the Government Accountability Office) – recommended requiring Medicare plans to report doctors and providers who prescribe opioids more frequently than usual.
A third witness, Ms. Kimberly Brandt (Principal Deputy Administrator for Operations at CMS) assured lawmakers at Wednesday’s hearing that Medicare beneficiaries will continue to receive the most effective treatments – including counseling, behavioral therapies, and access to the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone – for Opioid Use Disorder.
Chairman Jenkins closed Wednesday’s hearing by saying, “The committee plans to do more oversight on this issue as we continue to examine other ways to reduce opioid abuse.” As discussions on Capitol Hill evolve, TSCL will continue to monitor them and we will post updates here in the Legislative News section of our website.
Nomination Advanced by Senate Committee
On Wednesday, the Senate Finance Committee voted to advance the nomination of Mr. Alex Azar, a former pharmaceutical executive who was selected by President Donald Trump to become the next Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
The committee advanced the nomination with a vote of 15-12 on Wednesday. Mr. Azar’s nomination now goes to the full Senate for confirmation, and the vote is expected within the next few weeks. If confirmed as expected, Mr. Azar will oversee the department that runs major health programs like Medicare and Medicaid, and he will be tasked with monitoring the pharmaceutical industry, which he recently helped lead.
TSCL Endorses New Legislation
This week, TSCL announced its support for one new bill – the Nursing Home CARE Act (H.R. 4704) – which was introduced by Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (FL-23) with the bipartisan support of five cosponsors. If adopted, H.R. 4704 would protect Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries by more quickly codifying emergency preparedness rules for facilities that receive funding from the federal government.
In a letter to the bill’s sponsor, Art Cooper – Chairman of TSCL’s Board of Trustees – wrote: “Last year, TSCL and its supporters nation-wide were shocked by the horrible images and heartbreaking stories from seniors who were impacted by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma … To know that much of the suffering was preventable is sickening, but we are encouraged by your efforts in Congress to improve the emergency preparedness of skilled nursing facilities.”
TSCL enthusiastically supports H.R. 4704, and we look forward to working with Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz in the months ahead to help build support for her important new bill. For more information, visit the Bill Tracking section of our website.