COVID-19 relief package includes health IT expansion
The $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill sent to President Joe Biden on Wednesday includes a number of provisions aimed at expanding health IT.
Like the coronavirus relief packages before it, the legislation acknowledges the role digital health tools can play in addressing the fallout from the COVID-19 crisis – and earmarks funds toward bolstering those tools, particularly in rural communities.
Biden is expected to sign the bill into law on Friday.
WHY IT MATTERS
Unsurprisingly, much of the bill focuses on COVID-19 response, including vaccines and continued testing.
Amidst lingering critiques over the government's handling of COVID-19 patient information – particularly at the start of the pandemic – the American Rescue Plan sets aside $500 million for a data modernization and forecasting center at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That money would go toward establishing, expanding and maintaining efforts to modernize the United States disease warning system to forecast and track hotspots for COVID-19, along with variants and emerging biological threats. Such a warning system revamp would include support for analytics and informatics infrastructure and data collection systems.
The bill also allocates $1.75 billion to expand activities and workforce related to genomic sequencing, analytics and disease surveillance related to the novel coronavirus.
And it puts $7.6 billion toward funding for community health centers and community care, which can be used (among other options) to detect, diagnose, trace and monitor COVID-19 infections.
When it comes to COVID-19 vaccines specifically, the bill includes $7.5 billion for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The HHS secretary, in conjunction with the CDC and other agencies, can use that money to ramp up vaccine distribution nationwide, including providing technical assistance for state, local, tribal and territorial public health departments.
That assistance, per the legislation, can include "information technology, standards-based data, and reporting enhancements, including improvements necessary to support standards-based sharing of data related to vaccine distribution and vaccinations and systems that enhance vaccine safety, effectiveness and uptake, particularly among underserved populations."
HHS can also use some of its newly appropriated $47.8 billion to enhance IT, data modernization and reporting.
The government signaled its support for expanding virtual care as well, particularly in rural areas.
The legislation includes $500 million in grant funding for rural healthcare, which providers can use to increase telehealth capabilities, including underlying healthcare information systems.
It also includes $50 million of appropriation for community-based local behavioral health needs, including providing services via telehealth.
In addition, it allocates $140 to the Indian Health Service for information technology, infrastructure and the IHS electronic health records system.
States are also permitted to use some of their fiscal recovery funding to make necessary investments in broadband infrastructure.
THE LARGER TREND
The COVID-19 relief package passed under former President Donald Trump this December also included a number of health IT provisions, including more funding for the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT and billions of dollars in broadband expansions.
Advocates' reaction to that legislation was mixed, with American Telemedicine Association CEO Ann Mond Johnson noting that it did not include permanent telehealth expansion.
Although congressional committees have been largely supportive of telehealth, substantive legislation to address its expansion has remained sluggish.
ON THE RECORD
"It’s a remarkable, historic, transformative piece of legislation, which goes a very long way to crushing the virus and solving our economic crisis," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi during a press conference on Tuesday about the package.