Becerra: Accountability and transparency major factors in distribution of rest of $25B in COVID-19 relief funds

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Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra outlined how the department plans to get out the remaining $25 billion in COVID-19 relief funding to providers. (Getty Images)

Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra said the agency will demand accountability and transparency from providers as it distributes the remainder of COVID-19 relief funding.

Becerra spoke about the Provider Relief Fund and other topics during a hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee Wednesday on HHS’ budget. Becerra’s comments come as hospital groups are pressing HHS to quickly disperse the remainder of a $175 billion relief fund created under the CARES Act.

Becerra told lawmakers that there is about $25 billion of the $175 billion fund intended to help providers plug major revenue shortfalls caused by the pandemic. That $25 billion figure does not include the $8.5 billion funding for rural providers passed under the American Rescue Plan Act earlier this year.

“We are going to demand accountability and transparency as we disperse the remaining $25 billion or so in the pot,” Becerra said.

He noted that the goal is to disperse the money in a way “that will go to those who need it the most” without elaborating on the new qualifications for dispersing the money.

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Rep. Frank Pallone, D-New Jersey, the committee’s chairman, said the funding has been critical to providers to keep their doors open. He called for a broad criteria in distributing the rest of the money, criticizing the approach used by the Trump administration.

“We were very concerned during the pandemic under the Trump administration with the various tranches [of funding] that much of it was not using formulas that actually got it out to the areas that had the greatest need,” Pallone said.

The Trump administration initially sent out relief funding to providers based on their Medicare funding, then moved to more targeted rollouts focusing on providers that relied more on Medicaid and to COVID-19 hot spots and rural areas.

Becerra was also asked about a pressing June 30 deadline for providers to pay all their relief funds. A collection of hospital groups wrote to Becerra earlier this week asking to extend the deadline through the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency, which is likely to last through the rest of 2021.

The secretary did not say whether the deadline should be extended, only that HHS will be looking at the concerns “very closely.”

“It will be driven by the facts to make sure those providers who have the needs get those needs addressed,” Becerra said.

How to regulate surprise billing

The battle over how to handle surprise medical bills seemed to have ended after Congress passed a law banning the practice earlier this year. However, now there are major questions over how the law will be regulated by HHS.

The agency is tasked with setting up an arbitration process to determine the correct price for an out-of-network charge that has been disputed by providers.

Rep. Larry Bucshon, R-Indiana, said any regulations on the law should follow congressional intent and that any arbitration process needs to be fair and balanced.

“We are going to be even-handed when it comes to the dispute itself,” Becerra responded. “The factors that go into that we will hear from everyone to make sure we have a balanced approach.”