Senate Takes New Approach to Medical Innovation Bills

With the House of Representatives in recess, action in Washington this week was in the Senate. On January 19, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions ("HELP") Committee announced it will hold the first of three executive sessions to review the Innovations for Healthier Americans Act, the committee's medical innovation legislation, on February 9.  After the legislation stalled over drug pricing and National Institutes of Health ("NIH") funding issues last year, Senate HELP Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) said it will be broken up into at least seven bills for consideration. The 21st Century Cures Act (H.R. 6), the counterpart bill in the House, was passed last summer with strong support.

The first markup in February will include legislation regarding electronic health records, FDA regulation and medical device reform, targeted therapies for rare diseases and research for medical rehabilitation and neurological disorders. The second HELP executive session, scheduled for March 9, will consider bipartisan legislation to modernize the NIH and the FDA and provide support for the White House's Precision Medicine Initiative.  

Senate Releases Draft Health IT Reform Bill

On January 20, the Senate HELP Committee released a draft health information technology bill.  Among other areas, the discussion draft is intended to reduce documentation burdens on providers and improve the interoperability and usability of electronic health records.  The bill calls for the creation of "an unbiased rating system" by the National Coordinator for Health IT for tools that allow for user feedback.  The legislation would provide the HHS Office of Inspector General with authority to examine and establish deterrents to information blocking practices.  The discussion draft also eliminates certain documentation requirements giving non-physician providers, such as nurses and physician assistants, the ability to document and creates specified health information technology certifications for physician specializations. 

Comments on the draft legislation are due by Friday, January 29.  The bill is expected to be taken up by the Senate HELP Committee in February or March. 

Senate Committee Holds Hearing on Mental Health Reform

On January 20, the Senate HELP Committee held a hearing to discuss efforts to improve the country's mental health system.  The primary legislation considered was the Mental Health Reform Act (S. 1945), introduced by Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and Chris Murphy (D-CT). The measure includes a provision that would create an exception to the Medicaid Institutions for Mental Diseases ("IMD") exclusion for short-term psychiatric care and require Medicaid to pay for stays at residential mental health facilities that last less than 20 days. The Congressional Budget Office scored the bill at between $46 and $66 billion over 10 years because of the IMD provision, which could make passage difficult.

The Senate HELP Committee is expected to mark up S. 1945 sometime in mid to late February.  The Senate is also expected to consider Sen. John Cornyn's (R-TX) mental health bill (S. 2002), which has become controversial due to provisions related to gun control. Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) said at this week's hearing that the committee will work to move comprehensive bills to the Senate floor this year.  Whether the Senate will be able to reconcile its differences with the major House mental health bill (H.R. 2646) is uncertain. 

Rural Hospital Demonstration Program Approved in the Senate

On January 20, the full Senate approved a 5-year extension of Medicare's Rural Community Hospital Demonstration program (S. 607).  The bill, which was sponsored by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), requires HHS to allow rural community hospitals participating in the demonstration program as of December 30, 2014 to continue during the second 5 years of the 10-year demonstration program.  23 hospitals are currently participating in the program, which tests a cost-based payment model for acute care inpatient services.  Related legislation is still pending in the House. 

New HHS Committee to Host First Meeting in February

HHS recently established an eleven-member panel to promote the development of physician-focused payment models in Medicare under the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015. The Physician-Focused Payment Model Technical Advisory Committee, chaired by Aurora Health Care Medical Group president Dr. Jeffrey Bailet, will provide comments and recommendations to the Secretary of HHS on physician-focused payment models.  The committee will meet on a quarterly basis and will hold its first meeting on Monday, February 1 in Washington, D.C.

Health-Related Bills Introduced This Week

There were no health-related bills introduced this week. 

Next Week in Congress

Congress left town on January 21 ahead of a winter storm that could bring historic levels of snow. Both chambers are schedule to resume legislative business on Tuesday, January 26, assuming lawmakers are able to make their way back to Washington after the storm passes. If legislative business proceeds as scheduled, the Senate HELP Committee will hold a hearing on accelerating patient access to generic drugs on Thursday, January 28.