At Senate Finance Committee Hearing, Portman Secures Commitment From HHS Secretary to Help Vulnerable Elderly and Disabled Get Care They Need

Portman Also Makes Another Push to Pass Meaningful Prescription Drug Pricing Reforms

February 13, 2020 | Press Releases

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, at a Senate Finance Committee hearing, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) once again renewed his push for passing meaningful and bipartisan prescription drug pricing reform like the legislation that was approved by the committee last year. In addition, he secured a commitment from the Department of Health and Human Services Secretary, Alex Azar II, that the Department would work with the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) in identifying the associated cost savings to the Money Follows the Person Program, which helps transition Medicaid beneficiaries from nursing homes to long-term care in their homes. Senator Portman introduced the bipartisan EMPOWER Care Act to extend the program for an additional five years.

Secretary Azar also committed to providing technical assistance for Senator Portman’s bipartisan Hospice Care Improvement Act, which will address the lack of safety protocols and transparency in hospices across the country and also seek to improve oversight and accountability in the nation’s hospices by focusing on improving patient awareness of hospice abuse and by ensuring that hospices remain responsible for the care that they provide to patients. 

A transcript of his remarks can be seen below and a video can be found here:

Portman: “Thank you, Mr. Chairman. First of all, Mr. Secretary, I appreciate the job you’re doing and I wanted to comment on a few things in the budget, there’s a lot in there. Wish I had more time, but first, on prescription drugs let me just make this comment. We voted as you know, on a bipartisan package. I think 19 of us voted for it, I was one of them. And you put a placeholder in the budget, I noticed, that is roughly equivalent to the amount of savings we would have through the prescription drug cost reductions that we passed in this committee. I thank you for that and I urge you to continue working with us on a bipartisan basis to find a solution, it’s really important to the constituents all of us have back home, and prescription drug prices is an area where I think we have the potential to find some common ground.

“I also noticed that in the opioid area you have increased funding for the State Opioid Grant program and also for the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, which I appreciate. We need it badly. I’d love to say that we have been victorious in this battle and that we are turning the tide, we do have fewer overdose deaths, but the reality is that crystal meth and cocaine, which are psychostimulants, have come back with a vengeance. So, I really appreciate the flexibility you’re providing in the State Opioid Response grants because that is what we’re hearing back home in Ohio. I just finished another round of visits in Ohio talking to folks about this and unfortunately, we had a spate of overdose deaths just in the last couple of weeks with this mixture of fentanyl, cocaine, and crystal meth, so thank you for that flexibility. 

“I have a question for you on Money Follows the Person. This is a great program. Ohio is one of the leaders in it, as you may know. It’s a demonstration program right now, we want to make it permanent. We keep trying to do that unsuccessfully. You have put in the budget that it should be permanent. And it’s a great program because it’s a win-win. It actually provides better care to get people out of institutional care into home care but it also saves the government money. You know, what’s wrong with that? So I would hope that for our seniors in Ohio and for people with disabilities in Ohio that your budget is actually successful in making it permanent. It’s already transitioned 90,000 Americans from institutional care to home and community care. You have a report from HHS saying this lowers hospital readmission rates among those who are coming out of nursing care which is one of our great objectives. Additionally, it says that the average per person monthly cost decreases from $13,500 per month to $9,500 per month. So, it’s providing better care and it’s also less expensive. One of our challenges frankly has been that CBO is skeptical of the cost savings. Can you talk about that for a second and also commit to working with CBO to try and come up with more realistic costs based on the data you’ve given us?”

Secretary Alex Azar, Department of Health and Human Services: “Yes we certainly will work with them. I struggle with actuaries and how they do their calculations in terms of savings because we have seen the MFP program, it’s popular the results of this demonstration have been positive. Just as you said and thank you for your leadership on that. It’s time for us to convert this from being a grant program with a lack of predictability that comes with a grant program to a state option where they can build that in the intrinsic fabric of their program. So, happy to keep working with you on that.”

Portman: “Great, well thank you. On hospice, I’m a big supporter. Ohio is at the cutting edge of hospice. We were one of the states that pushed hard for Medicare coverage for hospice back in the day. I am told that, based on a MedPac study, 2017 marked the first time ever that a majority of Medicare beneficiaries selected hospice services for their end of life care. And I think that’s a good thing. My own family, we’ve used hospice to be sure with end of life challenges people are able to have the dignity that they deserve. Yet, there are some hospice organizations that are not meeting the quality standards that we all want. Senator Cardin and I have been working on this issue. We have legislation we’ve introduced. Again, it’s something I see in your budget because you have said that you would like to see some similar penalties to the ones we have for bad actors in this space. So, what my request today would be, would you be willing to work with us to provide more input into our legislation, specifically some technical assistance that apparently, we’ve had a tough time getting, I know HHS is busy. But we really want to move this forward. I think it could be a good bipartisan accomplishment to this committee and most importantly can help so many constituents back home who are looking for that dignity at the end of life but also high-quality care.”

Secretary Azar: “Absolutely, we’d be happy to help you on that. We, in our budget, proposed that we have a greater ability to make transparent the accreditation surveys for accredited facilities so that people can really make informed choices. We also make a major investment with $442 million in the survey and certification work to ensure that we’re doing our job with the expanding number of providers and then finally with regard to hospice in particular, we’re proposing one of the OIGs recommendations there on how we can bring modified payments to hospice providers so that they reduce the incentives for hospice to actually seek out beneficiaries in nursing facilities.”

Portman: “We look forward to working with you on that and again hopefully passing some legislation that will give you some statutory authority to do that. Thank you.”