July 27, 2020

6 Things Large Employers are Watching for in the Next Round of COVID Legislation

More than three months after enactment of the landmark CARES Act, and more than two months after the House of Representatives passed the HEROES Act – their own “Phase 4” legislation – the Senate is finally taking steps to pass another major bill responding to the still raging COVID-19 pandemic. As the likely last chance to pass major legislation before the November elections, this bill is particularly vital for employers and health care purchasers seeking to stay financially stable and manage COVID-19 costs during the sharpest economic contraction since the Great Depression.
Congressional and White House negotiations over this high-stakes (and likely more than $1 trillion) bill will dominate the headlines coming out of the nation’s capital for the next several weeks. PBGH and its employer/purchaser allies have weighed in with Congress and the Administration, including in two letters this week, focused on testing and our other priorities, signed by more than 30 national, regional, and local purchaser organizations. Here are the six employer priorities you should watch out for in the weeks ahead and the six sticking points that could spell trouble for the bill.

What Employers and Purchasers Want to See

  1. Stopping Price Gouging and Ensuring Fair Prices: Since the pandemic began to affect the United States in February, stories have abounded about bad actors engaging in egregious pricing of critical equipment. While largely limited to personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing, price gouging could get worse as the pandemic wears on. Of particular concern, the CARES Act, enacted in March, stipulates that all health insurance plans must cover the cost testing in full for employees without placing any limit on what a provider may charge for a test. The House-passed HEROES Act could further exacerbate the problem by mandating coverage – with no out-of-network price limitations — for all COVID-19 treatment.Large employers are urging Congress to not mandate that they cover these costs in full without appropriate guardrails to ensure fair prices for out-of-network care and testing. Further, a blanket ban on price gouging for COVID-19 supplies and services, enforceable by the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general, is essential to ensuring a fair and reasonable market.
  2. Banning Surprise Billing: Surprise billing has been a top priority for employers and purchasers for several years, and while Congress has come close to banning this egregious practice, it has not yet reached a final agreement. Recognizing that this may be their last opportunity, congressional leaders, led by retiring Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), are pushing to include a ban in the upcoming bill. Sen. Alexander’s legislation would ban surprise billing while stipulating a market-based benchmark price for out-of-network care. Such a benchmark has been found to reduce health care costs over time for consumers, purchasers, and taxpayers alike.
  3. Providing Subsidies for COBRA Coverage: The pandemic has led to the sharpest rise in unemployment in the nation’s history. With millions of people laid off or furloughed, the number of uninsured people has spiked. Employers want to ensure the availability of direct subsidies for COBRA coverage so that laid off and furloughed workers can continue to stay on their employer-sponsored insurance without having to pay the full – and often unaffordable – premium.
  4. Federal Funding for Testing: Nearly six months since COVID began to spread in the United States, the country still lacks sufficient diagnostic tests to provide timely access to COVID-19 diagnosis. With obvious concern about getting the U.S. economy back on its feet, and a recognition that the health of American citizens and the economy are interwoven, large employers are looking to Congress to infuse new federal spending to ensure timely access to tests for all who need them.
  5. Financial Support to Struggling Primary Care Providers: Paradoxically, the pandemic has led to a significant decrease in utilization of health care, particularly for primary care providers. Many such providers are struggling to keep their doors open during the ongoing pandemic. According to survey findings from a provider survey conducted by the Larry Green Center at Virginia Commonwealth University, 40% of primary care clinicians say they may lack the financial resources to stay open through the end of August. Employers are looking to Congress to set aside a portion of funds already appropriated to the Provider Relief Fund for struggling primary care providers.
  6. Policies to Mitigate Risk in the Employer Health Insurance Market: While health care spending is down since the beginning of the pandemic, many patients are deferring necessary care. Faced with a possible spike in utilization next year, purchasers are unable to accurately project spending into 2021. That’s why they’re largely supporting the establishment of a one-sided risk corridor that would provide financial support to purchasers if costs substantially exceed projections.

The August recess is officially scheduled to begin on Aug. 8, but negotiators are already signaling that they may not reach final agreement by then. Hopefully, employers will have a clear indication of what is in and what is out by the middle of the month.