The healthcare industry is mobilizing to push Congress to provide more funds for COVID-19 testing as the issue has gotten caught in an intra-party GOP conflict.
The White House has indicated it doesn't want Senate Republicans to push for any additional funding for testing and contact tracing activities in the next major COVID-19 relief package lawmakers are hoping to pass. The Trump administration in June issued guidance letting insurers off the hook for paying for testing for public health surveillance or occupational health purposes. Lawmakers seem unlikely to force insurers to pay; getting government funding for tests is the safest option so employers, patients and labs aren't stuck with the bills.
Healthcare industry stakeholders warned in a letter to congressional leaders dated Tuesday that a failure to allocate more funding would result in reduced access to testing and higher insurance premiums.
"We share the goal of safely reopening the economy and returning to normal business, but this will require a sustained federal investment in testing facilitated by the public health and existing health care delivery system," the industry groups wrote.
The letter's signatories included the American Clinical Lab Association, the American College of Physicians, the American Health Care Association, America's Health Insurance Plans, the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, the Business Group on Health and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Employer groups sent a separate letter to lawmakers on Tuesday asking for more funds for testing activities, clear guidance as to how employers can use test results and protections from price gouging for tests.
ERISA Industry Committee Senior Vice President of Health Policy James Gelfand said that many member companies are engaged in reopening, but few are using testing as part of their strategy. One regulatory barrier Gelfand cited for back-to-work testing was recent guidance from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that stated employers can't use antibody tests to make decisions about returning employees to the workplace. However, diagnostic tests can be considered.
"The testing regime out there right now is not working," Gelfand said.
Beyond the availability and utility of tests, employers are also concerned about cost. Congress required payers to foot the bill for hospitals' and labs' posted cash price for COVID-19 tests, but employers noted that some providers don't post cash prices, and those that were posted varied widely. Kaiser Family Foundation researchers surveyed 102 of the largest hospitals in each state and the District of Columbia and found only 78 posted cash prices on their websites.
"We urge Congress to take measures to ensue that neither the government nor the private sector is subjected to unjustified charges related to testing," the employer groups wrote. The American Benefits Council, Business Group on Health, Pacific Business Group on Health, and ERIC were among the groups that signed on.
There are signs the White House might be willing to yield. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the chair of the Senate Appropriations health subcommittee, said on Tuesday that he feels better about additional funding for tests after meeting with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows.
Blunt said he also wants to focus on ensuring appropriated money that hasn't been spent yet is available, and that the money is spent on the most useful tests that yield the fastest results.
President Donald Trump on Tuesday evening said he's taking meetings on increasing funding for testing Tuesday night and Wednesday.
The administration's position on cutting funds for testing and tracing activities was first reported by the Washington Post.