Telehealth measures, NIH boost included in omnibus package

The spending package would offer a five-month extension on telehealth waivers. It would also support more money for medical research, including a new agency proposed by President Biden.

A $1.5 trillion federal spending package includes some key priorities for healthcare, including an extension of telehealth waivers and boosts in aid for medical research.

The Democrat-controlled House of Representatives passed the spending package late Wednesday night. The Senate approved the spending plan Thursday night, and President Joe Biden is expected to sign it.

The measure didn’t include a proposed $15 billion for COVID-19 response efforts, which will apparently be voted on separately.

The package offers key provisions on telehealth access. The spending bill would allow federal reimbursements for telehealth visits to continue for five months after the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency.

The government eased restrictions on telehealth when the pandemic began, but the waivers are tied to the government’s declaration of the emergency. Dozens of healthcare groups have urged Congress and the White House to ensure telehealth access beyond the emergency, which is set to expire April 16. The Biden administration could extend the emergency, but some lawmakers are pressing Biden to end it.

The National Institutes of Health, the prime source of federal aid for medical research, would get a boost in spending if the package wins approval. The NIH budget would rise to $45 billion, a $2.25 billion increase over its current funding. Democratic and Republican lawmakers have generally shown strong support for the NIH.

The package also includes money to establish a new federal research agency sought by the president. The bill would include $1 billion to establish the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, dubbed ARPA-H. It would be set up within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Biden has pressed for the new agency to focus on innovative research to yield breakthroughs in treating cancer and other diseases. The government spends billions on cancer research, but the White House has said this agency would focus on high-risk, high-reward projects. Biden made another pitch for the agency in the State of the Union address last week.

The National Cancer Institute would get $6.9 billion, an increase of $353 million over current spending. It includes an additional $194 million for the "cancer moonshot" initiative.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would get $8.5 billion, an increase of $582 million. The spending package calls for $200 million for a new funding stream to improve public health infrastructure and capacity around the nation. Lawmakers have also approved increases in programs for preparedness programs to deal with future health emergencies.

The Health Resources and Services Administration would get $8.9 billion, an increase of $1.4 billion. It would include boosts in spending for HIV/AIDS, rural health and maternal and child health programs.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration would receive $6.5 billion, an increase of $530 million.

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality would get $350 million, an increase in $12 million. AHRQ is charged with improving the safety and quality of healthcare.

Congress and the White House have approved a series of short-term spending bills over the last several months, with the latest set to expire March 11.