Health-related highlights of the bill are below:
Rural provider relief. The law includes an $8.5 billion provider relief allocation for rural entities serving Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries. This is separate from the $178 billion provider relief fund made available in earlier relief legislation. These rural-specific funds are to reimburse providers for lost revenues and health care related expenses stemming from the pandemic. These funds will be available by application to HHS.
More Paycheck Protection Program funding with greater eligibility for rural hospitals. The law adds $7.25 billion to the Paycheck Protection Program, which provides forgivable loans to cover payroll and other eligible expenses for certain small businesses. Some small rural hospitals connected with larger hospital systems were not eligible for earlier rounds of PPP due to Small Business Administration rules aggregating affiliated businesses. This law changes those requirements, making more rural hospitals eligible.
Rural health grants: The law acknowledges that the COVID-19 pandemic has been especially hard for rural health providers. In addition to the $8.5 billion in provider relief, the law provides $500 million through the US Department of Agriculture to award grants to eligible entities, including local and tribal governments, and non-for-profit organizations in rural areas. These grants could be used to cover COVID-19 related expenses and increase telehealth capabilities.
Additional funding for vaccine distribution, testing, and contact tracing. The law provides an additional $7.5 billion to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to plan, prepare for, promote, distribute, administer, monitor, and track COVID-19 vaccines, $7.7 billion to state, local and territorial public health departments to hire staff and procure equipment, technology, and other supplies to support public health efforts. The relief law allocates $47.8 billion to continue implementation of an evidence-based national COVID-19 testing strategy and directs $1.75 billion to support genomic sequencing and surveillance initiatives.
There is a lot more than Congress is likely to take up in the coming weeks and months. The suspension of the 2% Medicare sequester will expire at the end of March 2021. The House of Representatives is starting to consider an extension of that suspension. Many providers have offered expanded telehealth and virtual care services during the COVID -19 public health emergency. The Biden Administration has indicated that the PHE will last throughout 2021, but Congress would have to enact legislation for Medicare to continue to reimburse for telehealth beyond the PHE. We will continue to monitor progress on these issues.
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