Trump administration to pay hospitals to treat uninsured COVID-19 patients

The Trump administration announced Friday that it plans to reimburse providers at Medicare rates if they treat uninsured patients for COVID-19.

Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said during the White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing that the funds would be pulled from the $100 billion allocated to hospitals as part of the economic stimulus package.

"Getting the uninsured access to the care they need is a top priority for President Trump. We are already rolling out the $1 billion in funding for the Families First Coronavirus Response Act to cover providers' expenses for testing and diagnosing the uninsured. The Cares Act, signed by the President, includes another $100 billion for healthcare providers," Azar said.

RELATED: Hospitals get $100B in massive stimulus deal as facilities face COVID-19

"Under the President's direction, we will use a portion of that funding to cover providers' costs of delivering COVID care for the uninsured, sending the money to providers through the same mechanism used for testing," he said.

As a condition of receiving funds under this program, providers would have to agree not to bill the patients or issue unexpected charges, a practice called balance billing.

Hospitals will be reimbursed at current Medicare rates, Azar said.

Congressional Democrats had criticized Trump’s refusal to reopen enrollment in the Affordable Care Act exchanges. Democrats issued a joint statement April 1 saying that reopening enrollment can help bolster insurance coverage during the COVID-19 outbreak.

While there is a special enrollment period for people who have lost their jobs, creating a new enrollment period for everyone can help people who are uninsured or underinsured, the statement said.

Major hospital and medical groups have called for Congress to provide $100 billion in direct assistance to front-line healthcare workers and hospitals so they can get ready for the influx of COVID-19 patients.

The letter, sent Thursday by the American Hospital Association, the American Nurses Association and the American Medical Association, comes as some healthcare systems are beginning to be overwhelmed in hot spots of COVID-19 outbreaks.

“Due to expenses to treat COVID-­19 patients, hospitals are currently losing up to $1 million per day,” the letter to congressional leaders said. “This loss may increase as the outbreak spreads.”

RELATED: Providers implore Congress to give $100B in assistance to handle COVID-19

Azar said the administration would look to distribute the funds "in a way that is fast, fair and transparent."

With 6.6 million Americans filing for unemployment last week, Azar also noted that people who had lost employer-sponsored health insurance had other options, including being eligible for a special enrollment period on healthcare exchanges or enrollment in state Medicaid programs.

The Trump administration also announced Friday a partnership with software company Oracle to collect data on "experimental" coronavirus treatments.

Oracle has created a web portal to collect data in real time from doctors trying unproven drugs, such as anti-malarial drugs, on COVID-19 patients.

"Many providers are trying different experimental therapies and we need data on how those treatments are working Oracle is donating to the government a web portal and platform to gather crowdsourced real-time information from providers about how patients respond to different therapeutics," Azar said Friday.

He noted that the platform doesn't replace the "important work of clinical trials," but it provides researchers with rapidly gathered data.

According to reporting from The Washington Post, a series of conversations Trump had with tech billionaire Larry Ellison helped convince him two old anti-malarial drugs may be game-changing treatments for COVID-19.

Ellison—who recently held a high-profile fundraiser for Trump—has helped arrange a partnership between Oracle, the software company he co-founded, and the federal government to crowdsource that idea by collecting data in real time from doctors trying out those and other unproven drugs on COVID-19 patients, according to the Post.

On its website, Oracle described the program, called the COVID-19 Therapeutic Learning System, as an offering that allows physicians and patients to record the effectiveness of promising COVID-19 drug therapies.

"These drugs, like hydroxychloroquine, remdesivir, and Kaletra, have been safely used to treat other diseases but are not yet definitively proven to be effective against COVID-19. Physicians are now routinely prescribing these drugs to treat COVID-19 patients," the company said. "By collecting this real-world patient data throughout the United States now, and throughout the world soon thereafter, we will quickly discover which of the new drugs are most effective against COVID-19, their optimal dosages, and how early in the disease progression the drugs need to be administered."