On December 21, Congress passed the end-of-year legislative package. Among other things, it includes funding for the remainder of Fiscal Year 2021, COVID relief provisions, funding to support testing and contact tracing as well as funding for research and clinical trials related to the long-term effects of COVID-19, continuation of the Paycheck Protection Program with extended eligibility requirements for 501(c)(6) organizations, such as AARC, and a variety of health provisions.
Although we had anticipated the bill would include an extension of telehealth flexibilities as had been included in earlier versions of the COVID relief package, the legislation is silent on this issue. Because the wavier authority granted to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) allows for telehealth expansions to continue through the end of 2021, additional action by Congress was not required. However, the bill did provide $250 million to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for the COVID-19 Telehealth Program that was authorized under the CARES Act and established two grant programs to support broadband connectivity for tribal and rural areas.
The end-of-year package also included the “Preventing Online Sales of E-cigarettes to Children Act,” which revises requirements regarding the online sale and delivery of electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS) to prohibit the sale and delivery of these systems to anyone under the legal age to buy tobacco products. This includes any electronic device that delivers nicotine, flavor or any other substance through an aerosolized solution, e-cigarettes, hookahs, e-cigars, vape pens and advanced refillable personal vaporizers. AARC has supported legislation that prevents youth access to tobacco products and enhances protections against underage youth sales, and we applaud Congress for including this provision in the year-end package.
Another area of interest to AARC included in the end-of-year package is a provision that waives budget neutrality under the Medicare program as it relates to establishing new payment classes of oxygen and oxygen equipment. Simply put, this means it is no longer necessary to “Rob Peter to Pay Paul.” Waiving this provision in law was an issue that AARC and other clinician and patient advocates highlighted in its dealings with CMS and Congressional leaders relative to payment rates for liquid oxygen and the constraints it put on the agency to address Medicare beneficiary access. This legislative action will give CMS the administrative flexibility it needs to improve access to supplemental oxygen and help to increase payment for certain oxygen equipment in rural areas.
Another issue that AARC and other stakeholders have supported on Capitol Hill is dedicated funding at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for a new Chronic Disease Education and Awareness Program in the amount of $3 million. Although we did not get the amount requested, we are pleased that the end-of-year package includes funding in the amount of $1.5 million. This enables the CDC to establish a pool of resources that can be used to fund meritorious proposals for public health initiatives focused on conditions that do not have line-item CDC funding, such as COPD. Further, since the COPD National Action Plan calls for a variety of public health activities that have yet to be implemented, this provides the CDC with the opportunity to support COPD-specific activities in addition to timely and important efforts focused on other chronic diseases.
The AARC will continue to monitor legislative actions as part of its advocacy efforts with the introduction of a new Congress and Administration in 2021 and report to its members issues of interest to the respiratory care profession.
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