The Senate on Tuesday passed a bill that gives $75 billion in new grants to providers, expands COVID-19 testing capacity, and replenishes small business assistance programs.
The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to pass the bill as soon as Thursday.
Major hospital lobbying groups including the American Hospital Association, Federation of American Hospitals, Association of American Medical Colleges, and America's Essential Hospitals had asked Congress to double the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act's $100 billion in grant funds for providers. Hospitals applauded the funding boost even though it was less than they asked for.
"The efforts to secure additional funding are greatly appreciated by hospitals and health systems across the country who will now be able to continue their efforts on behalf of their patients and communities," said AHA President and CEO Rick Pollack.
Congress did not include any further guidance to HHS about how to distribute the provider grant funds, according to a summary of the deal. Lawmakers had complained that the department's methodology for first $30 billion round of grants disadvantaged providers in COVID-19 hotspots and rural hospitals.
HHS is expected to announce details about how the next tranche of funding will be distributed shortly. HHS said that priorities for the next round will be areas with severe COVID-19 outbreaks, rural providers and those who serve the Medicaid population or have a payer mix that's lighter on Medicare fee-for-service. Some of the fund will also go to paying treatment costs for the uninsured, though details about that program have not been announced.
"We must ensure this funding reaches these hospitals, which are on the front lines and caring for populations at greatest risk—racial and ethnic minorities, low-income patients, and other vulnerable people," said America's Essential Hospitals President and CEO Bruce Siegel.
Congress' bipartisan agreement will also allocate $25 billion to expand testing capacity as national and local leaders begin planning to relax social distancing restrictions. Public health experts agree that sufficient testing will be crucial to managing the spread of the coronavirus once widespread lockdowns are lifted. The federal government, states and localities will be required to develop testing plans.
"We cannot safely return to a fully-functioning economy if we do not dramatically increase our nation's testing capacity—something that the administration has thus far failed to accept responsibility for," said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) in a letter to colleagues.
State and local governments will receive $11 billion of the testing funds to expand testing capacity, trace contacts, and support testing by employers. Another $1 billion in the package doubles funding to pay for COVID-19 tests for the uninsured.
Small business assistance will get a more than $300 billion recharge, including a $60 billion set-aside for businesses without established banking relationships. Some small hospitals and physician practices with fewer than 500 employees may qualify for the forgivable loans, though observers expect the new funds could be exhausted quickly by applicants with pending loan applications.
Another, larger COVID-19 relief bill is already on the horizon. The Federation of American Hospitals said they were grateful for the new grant money in the interim measure, but they would still like to see changes made to expanded Medicare accelerated payments.
"While we appreciate Congress taking swift action — more still needs to be done to defeat COVID," said FAH President and CEO Chip Kahn.
Insurers are also angling for assistance they say is necessary to ensure steady premiums steady in 2021.