Chairman Neal Opening Statement at Hearing on the President’s Proposed Fiscal Year 2022 Budget with the Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Becerra
(As prepared for delivery)
After nearly a year and a half of devastation, economic uncertainty, and the loss of more than half a million American lives, we meet today at a moment of renewed optimism as our nation continues to make significant strides in eradicating COVID-19. Thanks to President Biden’s leadership - and the diligence of public health officials, health workers, and everyday Americans - coronavirus cases, hospitalizations, and deaths have dropped dramatically.
This progress is in no small part due to the administration’s efforts to make vaccines available to all Americans over the age of 12. However, vaccine availability is different from vaccine administration and there’s still much work to be done to reduce hesitancy and combat misinformation regarding the vaccine. I’m impressed with the creative steps the Administration is taking to encourage Americans to get vaccinated, as well as the efforts to eliminate barriers to the shot such as a lack of child care or transportation.
Another critical issue that threatens the health of all Americans, and is also often the target of misinformation, is climate change. Climate change is real. It is a tremendous threat to our planet and to the health of all people. Secretary Becerra, I recently sent you a letter asking HHS to pursue policy and regulatory changes that tackle climate change and promote sustainability. The health care sector can and must do more to reduce its carbon emissions and make its infrastructure more sustainable. There are opportunities for this Committee and your agency to work together on this matter and I look forward to your partnership.
A topic that I know is near and dear to your heart is the Affordable Care Act, a law I’m proud to say this Committee played a lead role in authoring. In your short tenure as HHS Secretary, you’ve already shown how the ACA can continue to expand its reach and its positive impacts. Thirty-one million people now have health coverage through the ACA thanks to our accomplishments over the past 11 years. And more than a million additional people in our country gained coverage through the Marketplaces over the past few months.
But there’s still more work to be done. For example, twelve states still have not adopted the law’s Medicaid expansion, leaving millions of vulnerable people without coverage for purely political reasons. I’d like to hear your thoughts on how we can ensure everyone who needs coverage gets it. I was pleased that we recently improved the Advanced Premium Tax Credit to help people afford their plans, but we need to make those investments permanent. That’s the kind of action we can take to grow the insured population and to help those who are covered thanks to the ACA stay covered.
While the Affordable Care Act certainly has helped reduce Americans’ health care costs, many people still fall victim to surprise medical billing, unexpectedly facing exorbitantly high charges for their care. At the end of last year, Congress acted to address this crisis with the passage of bipartisan legislation to protect patients from these surprise bills.
Ranking Member Brady and I worked together to ensure that the solution Congress ultimately came to was a balanced approach centered around strong consumer protections. Now it is up to HHS to implement the law and I hope you will work with us closely as you proceed.
Another area where your agency must take urgent action is nursing home safety and quality. The pandemic’s horrific impact on these facilities laid bare the longstanding problems and challenges that exist in that industry. I spoke with your predecessor many times about this topic and sent him a number of letters on the matter, but unfortunately saw little reform. I’m counting on you to make needed regulatory changes as Congress legislates.
Just as the pandemic illuminated serious problems plaguing nursing homes, it also brought to the fore a variety of substantial challenges that have confronted working families in the United States for many, many years. A lack of paid leave and inadequate access to affordable, quality child care are issues that existed long before COVID struck. Ways and Means Democrats recently released the Building an Economy for Families Act, our draft proposal to make sure the economy works for working families. HHS will be responsible for implementing many of the policies we put forward and I know we can count on you to prioritize these changes that will make our economy stronger, more inclusive, and more resilient.
And lastly, I want to address an issue that touches every single topic I’ve raised this morning, and it’s one I know you and President Biden care deeply about as well. That topic is equity. The Ways and Means Committee has been a leader in addressing inequities in our health care system and society more broadly. I’m pleased that we’ve done quite a bit of bipartisan work on the matter and I commend our Committee members from both sides of the aisle who have led our Rural and Underserved Communities Health Task Force, as well as those who lead our Racial Equity Initiative.
One specific equity-related matter I want to raise is the need to increase diversity in the physician workforce. I’d like to get your commitment to support a Pipeline to Practice program that would grow the number of minority doctors in the United States. This issue requires urgent attention and I plan to introduce legislation on it in the near future.
I know my comments have covered a lot of ground, but in truth they’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of the myriad challenges confronting our nation and your agency in particular. I’m pleased to see such an esteemed Ways and Means alumnus at the helm of HHS at this pivotal time. I look forward to your partnership as we work together to improve the health and wellbeing of the American people.
And with that, I will now recognize Ranking Member Brady for the purpose of an opening statement.