Update: Trump signs spending bill that boosts budgets for HHS, NIH and CDC, keeps ONC intact

The Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT will keep its $60 million operating budget, which some experts see as a boon to interoperability, and HHS gets a $10 billion boost.
By Susan Morse
01:15 PM
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House passes spending bill

President Trump on Friday signed the spending bill to fund the government. After threatening a veto, Trump moved forward with the law that includes bigger budgets for a number of health agencies than his budget proposal, which health IT experts consider to be a positive development.

Congress, for instance, demonstrated that it understands the importance of interoperability in its proposed $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill that passed the House on Thursday to fund the government through Sept. 30.

The budget includes a considerable amount of funding for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to begin the transition to Cerner for its EHR when that contract goes through. 

“That’s a good message,” said Tom Leary, Vice President for Government Relations with HIMSS, the parent company of Healthcare IT News and Healthcare Finance News. “That’s a sign from Congress that they’re interested in standards-based interoperability.”

[UPDATE: Senate passes spending bill without insurance stabilization; Trump threatens veto]

Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar for the past two weeks has been promoting innovation and interoperability and ways his department will seek to improve both.

HHS gets an increase of $10 billion in the bill currently being debated in the House. The bill authorizes $60 million provided by the 21st Century Cures Act.

“Providers and payers from an IT perspective should feel confident that Congress is meeting the financial requirements they outlined in MACRA and 21st Century Cures,” Leary said. “It’s maintaining the U.S. on path to stay as a leader in healthcare research and technology development. Specific to the IT community, it comes down to, they’re serious about interoperability, they recognize the seriousness of the ONC.”

[Also: Trump's budget proposes deep cuts to HHS, ONC, OCR budgets and staff]

One concern is that while many HHS programs get a bump-up, the bill only restores funding to flatline levels for the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology. Still, the $60 million appropriation is better than the cut to $28 million that was originally budgeted.

“It’s a real positive for the community given the role ONC has in 21st Century Cures requirements,” Leary said. However, he said, “I’d like to see ONC not only funded but getting a plus-up for advancing 21st Century Care.”

Another plus in the budget is an increase for the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Leary said. This supports research for best practices. 

“They’ve been working for the last 12 months to figure out ways to get best practices out faster,” Leary said. 

Insurers in the individual Affordable Care Act market promoted funding for cost-sharing reduction payments but were likely, not surprised to see, no appropriation for the CSRs or a reinsurance program they and providers told Congress were necessary to stabilize and lower premiums. 

“Premium reduction measures in the individual market would have ensured that Americans who buy their own coverage had more affordable choices that offer access to high-quality care,” America’s Health Insurance Plans said by statement. 

State and federal leaders support healthy markets through employer-provided coverage, Medicare Advantage and Medicaid managed care, but not the individual market, AHIP said.

Should the bill pass as is, and with states able to waive many of the requirements of the Affordable Care Act, that market is expected to remain unstable and premiums to remain at least 20 percent higher than if the government had funded the CSRs. Under the ACA, insurers are still required to help pay the deductibles and out-of-pocket costs for qualifying lower-income beneficiaries. 

CSRs and reinsurance were part of an amendment to the omnibus bill, the Bipartisan Health Care Stabilization Act of 2018, but Democrats balked at it being tied to the Hyde Amendment to prevent federal funds from going to any insurer offering abortion coverage.

Under the budget, the National Institutes of Health would receive a nearly 9 percent increase to $37.1 billion — including $100 million toward developing a universal flu vaccine and $500 million to research opioid addiction and alternative pain treatment, according to Politico. What’s more, the bill proposes to increase the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention budget by $1.1 billion to a total of $8.3 billion, a rejection of President Donald Trump's plans to drastically cut the public health agency's budget.

The pharmaceutical industry lost its battle to cut their portion of funding for the gap in the Medicare Part D doughnut hole from 70 to 60 percent.

This story has been updated to reflect final passage the bill on March 23, 2018.

Twitter: @SusanJMorse
Email the writer: susan.morse@himssmedia.com