Zika Update

This week, the Senate will vote on a $1.1 billion funding measure to combat the Zika virus. The compromise was struck by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). The funding will be attached to a package that combines the transportation and military construction/Veterans Administration appropriations bills. Senators will actually have the chance to vote on three Zika amendments. In addition to the Murray/Blunt compromise, an amendment will be offered that fulfills the $1.9 billion requested by the administration, as well as one that fully offsets the $1.1 billion package by eliminating the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) Prevention and Public Health Fund. House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers (R-Ky.) is expected to release a standalone Zika package this week with funding levels below what was negotiated in the Senate.

Leaders in Health IT Convene for Datapalooza

Health care systems, technology companies, designers, and developers gathered for the 7th annual Health Datapalooza in Washington, D.C. last week. During the event, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell kicked off the “A Bill You Can Better Understand” contest. It will award $5,000 to winners who design a clearer and simpler medical bill from the perspective of the patient. National Coordinator for Health IT Karen DeSalvo announced $1.7 million in awards to improve data access. The funding will focus on improving medication management, care coordination standards, and laboratory data exchange. Vice President Joe Biden was also in attendance, and spoke about the importance of data sharing between clinicians and researchers.

Senate Hotlines Mental Health Bill

Senate leadership has decided to use a fast-track measure known as “hotlining” to gauge the ability of considering S. 1945, the Mental Health Reform Act of 2015, introduced by Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Sen. Christopher Murphy (D-Ct.) last year. The bill has not seen movement since it was approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee in March. There remain several obstacles to be overcome, including disagreements about funding and gun control. The “hotline” will help identify those senators with concerns about the legislation and hopefully encourage issues to be worked out to have the bill ready for floor debate sometime between Memorial Day and the July Fourth recess. Sen. Murphy and Sen. Cassidy announced that they will hold a mental health summit in support of their legislation. The summit is scheduled for 8:00 a.m. to 1:20 p.m. on May 26 in 902 Hart Senate Office Building.

Health Reform Task Force Holds Briefing on White Paper

Last week, the Republican task force charged with developing an alternative to replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA) briefed and accepted feedback from their colleagues on the details of their plan. Instead of framing their proposal as legislation, the task force decided to use the form of a white paper. The blueprint is expected to be released in the coming weeks, and is said to include proposals such as the establishment of health savings accounts, high-risk pools, and allowing insurers to sell across state lines. It is also likely to include reforms to the Medicare and Medicaid programs, such as a “per capita cap” on federal Medicaid payments and instituting the use of Medicare vouchers for the purchasing of private insurance.

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