As part of a late flurry before adjourning for the year, Congress last week sent President Clinton legislation setting HHS' budget at $201.2 billion for fiscal 1998, a decrease from $211.7 billion budgeted in 1997.
Congress also sent the president legislation authorizing $50.3 million for construction and leases of Department of Veterans Affairs healthcare facilities (See story, below).
Clinton signed the HHS bill last week but had not given his approval to the VA bill.
The HHS bill gives Medicare's 72 carriers and intermediaries, which process Medicare claims, a $26.8 million increase to $1.7 billion for the year that began Oct. 1. Of that, $40 million has been designated for a modernization of Medicare's current patchwork claims-processing system.
Until now, that modernization has been embodied in a proposed automated claims-processing system called the Medicare Transaction System, or MTS. In August, HCFA canceled its contract with GTE Government Systems to develop the MTS because of mismanagement.
The HHS spending bill said congressional leaders "expect" that HCFA will spend no money beyond the $40 million on the MTS until officials first report on how to redesign it.
Meanwhile, congressional leaders stripped from the final legislation House-passed language that urged HHS' inspector general's office to suspend its controversial Medicare billing investigation of teaching hospitals and their faculty practice plans.
That language was opposed chiefly by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), senior Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee's HHS subcommittee, who has been adamant that the audits should continue.
Robert Dickler, senior vice president of the Association of American Medical Colleges, said the organization had expected the provision to be removed even though it had lobbied in favor of its inclusion.
The AAMC also is a plaintiff in a pending federal suit against HHS aimed at curtailing the same billing probe (Nov. 3, p. 4).
The HHS bill also cuts funding for HCFA survey and certification activities by about $4 million to $154 million. Those activities ensure that healthcare facilities receiving Medicare and Medicaid payments comply with quality regulations.
But the bill increases the budget of the Agency for Health Care Policy and Research by $3 million to $146.4 million. The agency conducts research on quality, utilization and other issues in healthcare.