Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Congress Punts on Health Priorities

Drew Thies

The Senate postponed a much-anticipated bill this week in the face of a shortened legislative calendar and inter-party fighting.

Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) confirmed Monday that the 21st Century Cures package will not move on the Senate floor until after the summer recess.

Many expected delays in the legislation after it had a quick start, passing on the floor of the House this year. The bill makes broad changes to several health policy areas, including funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), medical devices, telehealth, and expanded Medicaid and Medicare coverage of certain health-related expenditures.

The HELP committee’s companion legislation to the House-passed Cures bill has been delayed for months in negotiations over billions in additional funding for NIH. Given fights between Republicans and Democrats on much smaller sums to address major political priorities such as Zika and the opioid epidemic, there is little to suggest there will be a breakthrough.

Congress attempted to pass a slew of voter-oriented legislation, such as funding to slow the Zika virus, bills addressing opioid abuse, and mental health care reform, but disagreements between both parties on content and the sequencing of priorities has left lawmakers with little to show for the summer session. Debates over gun violence and a “sit-in” led by Democrats on the House floor did little to relieve the intra-party tensions.

A congested calendar is also working against pragmatic lawmakers. Congress will adjourn next week for the Republican and Democratic conventions, where the parties will officially nominate their presidential candidates. The conventions will be followed by a month-long recess for the month of August, leaving members of Congress with less than a week left to wrap up business before returning to a busy September schedule.

Along with Cures, Congress will also like to wrap up business on Zika, opioid, and mental health bills.

Both chambers will also need to appropriate government funding and authorize FAA spending before the end of the fiscal year on October 1. “[T]here's no excuse for us not finishing our work in September,” Alexander said in a statement.

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