Legislative Interim Update, August 11


In this issue:

Federal Updates

State Updates

COVID-19 News


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In the news

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Federal Updates

Congress Introduces Child Care is Essential Act

On May 27, several U.S. Representatives introduced the “Child Care is Essential Act” to support child care providers affected by the coronavirus pandemic. According to analysis from the Center for American Progress, the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to a permanent loss of nearly 4.5 million child care slots, leaving millions of families without the child care they need to return to work. 

The Child Care Is Essential Act would create a $50 billion Child Care Stabilization Fund to provide grant funding to child care providers to stabilize the child care sector and support providers to safely reopen and operate. The measure would provide the funding through the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) program as an emergency appropriation. Grants would be available to licensed, regulated or registered child care providers that are currently open or temporarily closed due to COVID-19, regardless of whether they had previously received funding through the CCDBG. 

As communities across the country move toward reopening and parents go back to work, it is more important than ever to ensure child care providers are supported to open their doors and continue serving their communities.

Racial Health Disparities Exposed During COVID-19 

On July 21, the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging held a hearing that focused on COVID-19’s disproportionate health impacts on racial and ethnic minority communities. According to a New York Times analysis, Black and Latino residents are infected with the virus at three times the rate of their white neighbors and are nearly twice as likely to die from COVID-19. 

Expert witnesses from various regions in the country provided testimony that addressed the reality of health disparities in America. The experts’ diverse background in health care provided the committee with solutions from different perspectives on how to bring about health equity for all Americans, amid the pandemic and for the future. 

Telehealth Expansion Proposal Introduced in the Senate

As the popularity and necessity for telehealth services continues to expand in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress has boosted funding and streamlined access to telehealth for Medicare recipients for the duration of the pandemic. Oregon Senator Ron Wyden has responded to this need by releasing a proposal to expand telehealth services on a permanent basis. 

Wyden’s proposal would make those changes permanent, giving Medicare recipients the option to use telehealth for medical visits and mental health services. Wyden stated “Telehealth allows seniors, especially those with multiple chronic conditions, to stay on top of their medical care without taking unnecessary risks or the inconvenience of leaving home.” The COVID-19 pandemic has been a trial by fire, but the experience to date has made clear that the health care system is ready for broader access to telehealth on a permanent basis.

State Updates

Governor Greg Abbott Announces Cecile Young as Executive Commissioner of Texas Health and Human Services Commission

On July 27, Governor Greg Abbott announced Cecile Young as the new Executive Commissioner of Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC). With over 30 years of experience in state government, Ms. Young has served in several positions for state Governors Bill Clements, George W. Bush, and Rick Perry. 

Ms. Young, who takes over in mid-August, will oversee an agency of nearly 37,000 employees as Texas battles a global pandemic and growing budget constraints. She has served as Director of the Medical Support Initiatives for the Offices of the Attorney General, as well as several other roles within the HHSC, including Acting Executive Commissioner, Chief Deputy Executive Commissioner, and Chief of Staff.

Early Voting Period Extended for Nov. 3 Election 

In response to the growing COVID-19 pandemic in many Texas counties, Governor Greg Abbott has issued a proclamation to extend the early voting period for the Nov. 3 election by almost a full week. 

Early voting by personal appearance will begin Tuesday, Oct. 13, and continue through Friday, Oct. 30. The order also extends the period in which marked mail-in ballots may be delivered to the early voting office; accepting ballots before and on the day of the election. 

Governor Abbott noted that by extending the early voting period and expanding time for mail-in ballots to be hand-delivered, Texans will have greater flexibility to cast their ballots, while at the same time protecting themselves and others from COVID-19.

State Broadband Fund for Rural Areas is Falling Short

State legislators representing rural areas are joining phone companies in asking utility regulators to increase the tax on interstate telecommunications services. This fee, which is allocated to the Texas Universal Service Fund (TUSF), provides rural telecommunications and internet services to about 55% of the state’s rural area. Covering approximately 8,344 square miles, this geographic area is larger than nine U.S. states. 

In early June, the Public Utility Commission (PUC) of Texas recommended raising the assessment rate from 3.3% to 6.4%, which would add about a dollar a month to customers’ telephone bills. The shift from traditional landline phones to internet-based phones has cut into company billings, which in turn has cut into tax proceeds. This past March, the PUC reported that the fund was falling short by $5 million to $7 million per month. Without the tax increase, the TUSF is expected to be depleted by the end of the 2020-21 state budget.

HHSC Announces Extension of Automatic SNAP Renewals 

On July 24, Governor Greg Abbott announced that the Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) has received federal authorization to extend the certifications for Texas SNAP recipients whose benefits are up for renewal in July and August, extending benefits to approximately 276,000 households who have yet to file their renewal information for July and August. The state has also received federal approval to waive the interview and other waiver requirements for new and current beneficiaries. 

On July 28, Governor Abbott also shared news that the HHSC will extend the application deadline for the Pandemic-Electronic Benefit Program to Aug. 21. P-EBT is a one-time benefit of $285 per eligible child and can be used in the same way Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) food benefits pay for groceries.

Medicaid and CHIP Providers Urged to Apply for Federal COVID-19 Relief Funds

Governor Greg Abbott and the Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) are urging eligible Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance providers to apply for $15 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds before the Aug. 3 deadline. 

Applicants can receive approximately 2% of reported gross revenue from patient care. As of July 15, 2020, less than 5% of the state’s 27,351 eligible providers in Texas have applied. Failure to apply for, and secure relief funds will leave potentially billions of federal dollars otherwise available to Medicaid and CHIP providers in Texas, unused. 

State Extends Medicaid and CHIP Flexibilities through October 

On July 30, Governor Abbott announced that the HHSC is extending flexibilities to Medicaid and CHIP recipient providers through Oct. 23. 

These flexibilities were put in place to minimize face-to-face care to ensure the safety of clients and health care providers. They include extended timelines for clients to request and appeal fair hearings, the implementation of telehealth services for all managed care plans, and a suspension of requirements that out-of-state providers be licensed in the state where they are practicing. The extension also waives CHIP office visit copayments for all members for services provided from March 13, and physicians can temporarily use telemedicine for Texas Health Steps (THSteps) medical checkups of children older than 24 months through Oct. 23. In addition, physicians’ and providers’ Medicaid revalidation due dates will be extended 30 calendar days to prevent disenrollment. You can view your revalidation status on the Provider Information Management System (PIMS).

More information of Medicaid and CHIP flexibilities can be found here.


Study Finds Children May Carry Coronavirus at High Levels

As the conversation on back to school policies continue, the narrative that young children are mostly spared by the coronavirus and don’t appear to spread it to others is now being challenged by a study recently introduced by Dr. Taylor Heald-Sargent, a pediatric infectious diseases expert at the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. The study found that children younger than age five may host up to 100 times as much of the virus in the upper respiratory tract as adults. 

Dr. Heald-Sargent and her colleagues tested three mild/asymptomatic age groups: 46 children younger than age five, 51 children age 5 to 17, and 48 adults age 18 to 65. The study found that the older children and adults had similar cycle thresholds, C.T’s, with a median of 11 ranging up to 17. Children younger than five however, had significantly lower C.T’s of about 6.5. The lower value suggests that the children’s samples were teeming with the virus.

Population Point Prevalence of SARS-CoV-2

On July 24, The CDC released a report on population point prevalence of COVID-19 in Indiana. The report looked at active infections and past infections. Point prevalence of active infection at the time of testing was less than 2%; 44% of those people reported no symptoms two weeks before testing. 

The overall prevalence of current and previous infections of SARS-CoV-2 in Indiana was 2.79%. Greater prevalence’s were observed among Hispanic individuals and those who reported having a household contact who had previously been told by a health care provider that they had COVID-19. By late April, the number of past infections was 9 – 10 times higher than the number of reported, confirmed cases. The number of reported cases grossly underestimates the number of people who are estimated to be infected.

Given that many individuals remain susceptible, adherence to evidence-based public health mitigation measures (e.g., social distancing, consistent and correct use of face coverings, and hand hygiene) is needed to reduce surge in hospitalizations and prevent morbidity and mortality from COVID-19.

Texas A&M Tapped to Produce COVID-19 Vaccine

The federal government continues to award more contracts for the production of vaccines. On July 27, the Texas A&M University System was tapped by the federal government to mass produce COVID-19 vaccines. 

Texas A&M’s plan for COVID-19 vaccine will include nontraditional vaccinators, and plans are underway to ensure Texas can handle the volume of needed vaccinations and follow forthcoming guidance on prioritization. Texas A&M joins Pfizer, which has been contracted to produce 100,000 vaccines and Moderna, which has recently entered into phase three for its clinical trials.

For more information on health care research, policy or advocacy, please contact Chris Yanas at cyanas@mhm.org.

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