Thursday Miscellany

Thursday Miscellany

Photo by Clarisse Meyer on Unsplash

From the Capitol Hill front, Roll Call reports that

The Senate broke a logjam over the statutory debt limit Thursday, clearing a measure that would allow Democrats to increase the nation’s borrowing capacity on their own without any Republican assistance necessary.

On a 59-35 vote, the Senate sent President Joe Biden a bill granting a one-time exemption to Senate rules so that a debt ceiling increase can go straight to final passage on a simple majority vote, rather than first having to clear a 60-vote procedural hurdle. 

Passage of the fast-track process legislation effectively ends weeks of partisan brinkmanship over whether and how to raise the statutory debt limit. Without congressional relief, the government may be unable to meet all its financial obligations after Dec. 15, Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen has warned.

Democrats have yet to release the bill that will actually raise the debt limit, though Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi hope to clear that measure before Wednesday to meet Yellen’s deadline.

The legislation heading to the White House also would delay Medicare cuts that would otherwise be triggered Jan. 1, including across-the-board reductions to provider reimbursements as well as separate cuts to physician and laboratory services payments. It would temporarily waive statutory pay-as-you-go rules that would require steeper Medicare cuts next year as well as major reductions in farm price supports and a host of other federal benefits.

So Congress will remain in session next week.

Govexec adds that “The House on Thursday approved a package of reforms to add new protections to federal civil servants, further empower agency watchdogs and limit who can lead federal offices on a temporary basis.” The bill now heads over to the Senate.

From the COVID vaccine front, AHIP informs us that

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today authorized a booster dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for 16- and 17-year-olds. Eligible teens will be able to get the shot once they are at least six months past their second dose.

New data from Israel published this week showed that a Pfizer booster increased immunity among citizens 16 and older, and though the study focused on the Delta variant, Pfizer announced this week that a third dose can help fight the Omicron variant.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) are not expected to meet to develop new clinical recommendations for teen boosters, according to a report from Politico.

From the COVID vaccine mandate front, Federal News Network tells us that

The Biden administration offered more details Thursday for federal contractors tracking the multiple legal challenges to the president’s vaccine mandate, while reporting a slight increase in the number of executive branch employees who have complied with their agency’s own requirements.

Agencies will not enforce the provisions of the president’s federal contractor vaccine mandate while a nationwide preliminary injunction is in place, the Biden administration said.

Specifically, the government won’t enforce those clauses embedded in existing contracts where the work is performed inside the United States or an outlying area and is subject to a recent court order, according to a brief update to the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force issued Thursday.

the Wall Street Journal adds that

General Electric Co., Union Pacific Corp. and other large employers have suspended Covid-19 vaccine requirements for workers after a U.S. court ruling blocked the Biden administration’s plan to mandate vaccines for federal contractors.

A federal judge on Tuesday issued a nationwide preliminary injunction after concluding that federal procurement law didn’t give the administration the clear authority to impose the vaccine rules for contractors. Lawyers for the federal government filed a notice of appeal Thursday.

The court’s injunction applies to the federal government, including OPM, not to the government contractors. The government contractors therefore are free to choose whether or not to continue with their vaccine mandate programs while government enforcement of the program is enjoined. This news nevertheless suggests that the squeeze may not be worth the fallout.

From the No Surprises Act front, the American Hospital Association announced that

The American Hospital Association (AHA) and American Medical Association (AMA), representing hospitals, health systems, and physicians, sued the federal government today over the misguided implementation of the federal surprise billing law. The associations are joined in the suit by plaintiffs including Renown Health, UMass Memorial Health and two physicians based in North Carolina. 

The complaint was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The plaintiffs also have moved for a preliminary injunction or a summary judgment.

The provider groups are freaking out over the regulator’s decision to use the plan’s payment in No Surprises Act situations, known as the qualifying payment amount, as the lodestar for baseball arbitration purposes in the No Surprises Act independent dispute resolution process. The QPA is based on the health plan network’s median payment as of January 2019 adjusted for inflation and regional differences. The QPA should be similar to what plans pay in-network providers which always has been materially more than the out-of-network rate which usually is based on Medicare’s fee schedule. Paying the out of network providers more than the in-network doctors under the No Surprises Act would disrupt health plan networks. The rule’s lodestar use of the QPA is perfectly reasonable.

From the miscellany department –

  • Beckers Payer Issues reports that “CMS is continuing to use discretion on enforcing payer data exchange guidelines introduced in a May 2020 interoperability rule, HHS stated in a Dec. 7 notice.  * * * “We are now announcing that we expect to extend this exercise of enforcement discretion of the payer-to-payer data exchange requirement until we are able to address the identified implementation challenges through future rulemaking,” the notice stated. “We anticipate providing an update on any evaluation of this enforcement discretion notification and related actions during calendar year 2022.” This is one of the 21st Century Cures Act’s three interoperability initiatives for HHS regulated health plans.
  • “Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra today announced that Lawrence A. Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D., the principal deputy director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), will serve as the acting director of NIH effective December 20, 2021.”

President Joe Biden selected 230 federal leaders to receive a Presidential Rank Award in 2021, nearly double the usual number of employees recognized.

The Presidential Rank Awards are one of the most prestigious civil service recognitions and come with a 35% of base salary award for Distinguished Rank recipients, who have demonstrated sustained, extraordinary career accomplishments, and a 20% award for Meritorious Rank recipients, who have demonstrated sustained accomplishments.

Congratulations to the recipients.