2017 rewind: HHS applauds regulatory rollbacks, other ‘accomplishments’ that divided the healthcare industry

A new report released by the Department of Health and Human Services highlights the greatest hits of the Trump administration in 2017, including its responses to the opioid crisis and the devastating hurricanes that hit Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, as well as regulatory rollbacks to reduce the burdens on providers.

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Although 2017 was marked by uncertainty within the industry, especially over the future of the Affordable Care Act, the 37-page report (PDF) celebrates actions the department took last year to “support healthier people, stronger communities, and a safer country.” Among the highlights touted: efforts to identify federal regulatory burdens that hurt patients, as well as ways to lower high prescription drug costs. The result, the report said, was a “net decrease in the burden imposed by HHS regulations as well as positive reforms in a range of Medicare payment rules, actions from the Food and Drug Administration, and ongoing reviews of further areas for action.”


Regulatory rollbacks

To reduce burdensome regulations, the report notes that HHS withdrew 70 regulatory actions taken by the Obama administration, took 68 deregulatory actions and only introduced 27 regulations. In addition, CMS Administrator Seema Verma went on a listening tour to talk to providers, doctors and clinicians about regulatory burdens.

Open enrollment cutbacks

But many of the accomplishments listed in the report were controversial. For example, HHS says it conducted a “successful, consumer-friendly open enrollment period at significantly lower cost than in previous years, attracting similar levels of enrollment with more focused investments in marketing:” Yet the enrollment numbers are generally credited to the fact that private insurers stepped up advertising efforts to compensate for the fact that the federal government cut its ad budget by 90% and the amount of time citizens had to enroll in plans.

MIPS participation

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services also lowered the threshold for the Merit-based Incentive Payment System, the program track under the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA) that covers most physicians. This means fewer physicians have to participate in the program, which is good news, but many practices still don’t know whether they will be exempt from MIPS participation. Industry experts have called for CMS to provide definitive information about which practices are exempt from the program.

Response to opioid crisis

The report is also proud of the administration’s work to combat the opioid crisis in the U.S., citing Trump’s declaration that the epidemic was a national public health emergency and raising public awareness to the issue. But the response has been criticized by many who note that without funding, the declaration was meaningless. Last week former Democratic Rep. Patrick Kennedy, one of six members appointed to a bipartisan commission in March by President Trump to address the opioid crisis, called the work done by the task force a sham because the administration hasn’t put any money behind the actions the group suggested to combat the epidemic.

Public health response to hurricanes

And HHS highlighted the “round-the -clock, weeks-long public health response to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria,” where they deployed thousands of personnel and collaborated with local officials to inform disaster response, ensure continuity of medical care, and provide emergency services. The department continues to work in affected areas to restore medical services, according to the report.  But much of Puerto Rico is still in desperate condition following the hurricane and many were critical of the administration’s initial response to the hurricane on the island.