Congress is back. Here are 4 things to watch out for, from postponing pay cuts to mental health reform

Lawmakers are returning to Congress this week after their monthlong August recess and have only a few weeks to make key decisions that could affect providers, including how to tackle looming payment cuts. 

Here are four policy items to watch out for in the remainder of the year.

Addressing looming cuts to providers

Provider groups are ramping up their efforts to convince lawmakers to stave off a 4% cut to provider payments under the PAYGO law, which calls for mandatory cuts if federal spending reaches a certain level. Lawmakers have traditionally postponed such pay cuts from taking effect. Physician groups are hoping that the latest cuts don’t prove to be an exception.

“While short-term intervention is clearly needed, it is vital we also identify and advance necessary reforms that create a more robust and reliable Medicare payment system in the long-term,” said Patricia Turner, M.D., executive director of the American College of Surgeons, in a statement.

Reauthorizing rural hospital payment programs

At the end of September, two key programs that help rural hospitals could go away if Congress doesn’t act: the low-volume hospital program and the Medicare-dependent Hospital program. Both programs are intended to help stabilize finances for rural hospitals, which traditionally operate on thin margins and have faced a massive trend of closures in recent years. The programs will expire after the end of September.

Hospital advocates are hoping to include a five-year reauthorization in either a must-pass spending package or a reauthorization of the Food and Drug Administration’s user fee program, both of which have to pass by the end of the month.

Extra funding to fight COVID-19 and monkeypox outbreaks

The White House has requested Congress approve nearly $27 billion to help replenish funding for COVID-19 vaccines and treatments as well as more help to combat the monkeypox outbreak. The White House announced a request for $22.4 billion for new vaccines, testing and therapeutics to fight COVID-19 ahead of the fall season. It also called for nearly $4 billion to bolster the fight against the monkeypox outbreak for vaccines and $600 million for fighting the global spread of the virus. But the funding may be a tough sell for Congress.

The White House made a $27 billion funding request earlier this year for COVID-19 relief, but that figure was whittled down to $10 billion. However, while the relief funds passed the House, the legislation stalled in the Senate after a spat on scheduling votes for unrelated amendments.

Mental health reform and reauthorization

Two bipartisan senators introduced earlier this year legislation that seeks to reauthorize several grant programs and other funding for mental health services through 2027. The Mental Health Reform Reauthorization Act of 2022 introduced by Sens. Bill Cassidy, R-Louisiana, and Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, has not moved in the Senate since being introduced in May.

The legislation could be packaged with a larger reform effort taking place in the Senate Finance Committee, which is working to improve pay parity between behavioral and physical pay rates. However, the committee has not fully released the package text yet, as a summer deadline passed by.