During an hour-long press conference late last week, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra discussed a wide range of topics, including risk adjustment in Medicare Advantage, COVID, and telehealth.
HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra spoke with reporters Friday about the “State of the Department,” offering prepared remarks on the COVID public health emergency but also answering questions on telehealth and Medicare Advantage.
COVID and the public health emergency
Becerra said that when he became HHS secretary a year ago, less than one percent of Americans had a COVID vaccine, there were no take-home tests available, hospitals were running out of beds and ventilators, patients were dying, and people were losing their jobs and their health insurance. The administration’s priority when President Biden took office was to get control of COVID.
Today, he said, more than 255 million Americans have received a vaccine and tens of millions of Americans have received boosters. President Biden has made hundreds of millions of take-home tests and good-quality N95 masks available for free. In addition, the country has access to several therapies for those who do contract COVID.
Becerra said HHS is watching COVID cases abroad and in the United States and monitoring variants. He encourages Americans who aren’t yet vaccinated to get vaccinations, and to take precautions such as wearing a mask, if you are in higher risk areas of the country.
Asked about plans to unwind the public health emergency, Becerra said HHS will give 60-days’ notice before ending it for good. The current emergency is set to expire on April 16, but public health experts predict the administration will extend it for at least another 90 days into July.
Although some states and trade industry groups have asked for a 120-day notice, Becerra said it would be difficult to commit to more than 60-days’ notice. HHS reviews it every 90 days and every time it extends the public health emergency, it starts the process of reviewing it again. “We will alert them as soon as we have a sense of where we’re going,” he said. A decision to end the public health emergency will be based on science and facts, he added.
Medicare Advantage overpayments
Asked whether he is concerned about risk adjustment tactics that may lead to upcoding and Medicare Advantage overpayments, Becerra said that federal data seems to show that the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services spends more per Medicare recipient through the Medicare Advantage program than it does through traditional fee-for-service. “We have seen some evidence that in certain areas there seems to be charges that go beyond what would be necessary,” he said.
The department is examining issues such as upcoding—the practice of billing for a service at a higher level than what the patient needed and getting a higher payment “We want to make sure that every American senior, every American who receives Medicare gets what they deserve…We don’t want anyone overcharging seniors or any other Medicare recipient for services and we don’t want taxpayers to be duped. And so, we’re going to do everything we can, whether it is Medicare Advantage or Medicare fee-for-service to make sure that we’re getting our money’s worth.”
Becerra indicated he would support an initiative to make the telehealth flexibilities permanent after the COVID public health emergency ends. “There is no doubt that telehealth saved lives, and we would be really closing our eyes to a new form of quality health care if we did not expand authorities for telehealth to be available to Americans, whether you're in rural America or impoverished inner-city America, telehealth can be important,” he said.
Easing the restrictions on telehealth permanently also will require the country to have good quality broadband and giving providers and physicians more authorities on what they can and can’t prescribe virtually and post-visit, he said.
Becerra’s news conference is available on HHS’ You Tube Channel. Click here to listen to it in its entirety.