|THIS WEEK IN HEALTHCARE
What happened in healthcare this week—and what we think about it.
Implementing a long overdue vaccine mandate
Declaring that “our patience is wearing thin” with Americans who refuse to be vaccinated against COVID-19, President Biden announced sweeping new plans to implement vaccine mandates on Thursday. Businesses that employ more than 100 people must require their employees to get vaccinated or face weekly COVID testing, federal workers and contractors must be vaccinated or face disciplinary measures, and all healthcare organizations that receive Medicare or Medicaid funds must ensure 100 percent employee vaccination as a condition of continued participation in those federal payment programs. The healthcare component of the mandate will impact about 17 million workers, including those at hospitals, surgery centers, dialysis facilities, and home health agencies. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) already requires nursing home workers to be vaccinated, and yesterday announced plans to release a new regulation by October 1st, implementing the expanded mandate. According to Fierce Healthcare, at least 172 hospital systems have already announced some form of vaccine mandate, but others have expressed concerns that forcing workers to get vaccinated might exacerbate labor shortages and result in employees seeking work elsewhere.
Responding to President Biden’s announcement, the American Hospital Association (AHA) echoed those concerns, citing “the critical challenges that we are facing in maintaining the resiliency of our workforce.” In our view, that concern pales in comparison to the imperative to protect patients by reducing the potential for exposure by unvaccinated caregivers. If anything, the national healthcare mandate should provide cover for those hospitals and care providers that have shied away from mandates, letting other organizations take the lead. Once universal healthcare mandates are implemented, vaccine resistant workers will find few employment alternatives left, significantly dampening the risk of widespread resignations. If you don’t want to take the necessary precautions to keep patients safe, you shouldn’t be working in healthcare in the first place. Yesterday’s mandate announcement, while aggressive, is overdue.
Mobilizing for the intensifying COVID battle
In addition to announcing a broad vaccine mandate, the Biden administration unveiled other steps intended to bolster the fight against the resurgent COVID pandemic. The President reiterated his intention to provide booster shots to targeted populations starting on September 20th, subject to approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and promised that those boosters would be free and widely available. He further committed to ensuring the FDA had the resources needed to quickly review and approve vaccines for children under the age of 12 and called for a number of measures to enhance COVID safety in school settings. With the goal of significantly increasing the availability of COVID tests—a longstanding problem which has worsened as the Delta variant has taken hold—the President mobilized the Defense Production Act to procure over $2B worth of rapid and over-the-counter test kits, and announced partnerships with key retailers and care providers to make those tests easily available, at cost. Addressing the shortfall of frontline clinical workers, the President vowed to double the number of Department of Defense teams deployed to COVID-impacted hospitals, along with “monoclonal antibody strike teams” to provide onsite technical assistance in administering COVID therapies. Shipments of monoclonal antibody drugs to hospitals will also be increased by 50 percent.
Finally, responding to pressure from the hospital lobby and members of Congress, the Biden administration now plans to distribute more than $25B of the remaining provider relief funds approved as part of the CARES Act and American Rescue Plan. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) had been criticized for dragging its feet on the release of the funds, while citing a desire to ensure the money was distributed equitably. With the resurgence of COVID hospitalizations, and many hospitals being forced to again cancel or postpone non-emergent procedures, the funding has become increasingly critical for providers. On the whole, it appears the Biden administration has finally moved past the hopeful but premature optimism of the “summer of joy”, and is now steeling itself for a difficult autumn and winter of COVID—as should we all.