Public Policy News – January 2021
Ask Your Senators to Support Loan Repayment Bill
CSWE Endorses New Social Determinants of Health Bill
2021 Look Ahead: Biden Administration Agenda
Congress Passes FY 2021 Funding and COVID-19 Relief Package
Biden Nominates Key HHS Officials
Biden Nominates New Secretary of Education
NIH Holds Advisory Committee to the Director Meeting
Rural Health Research Gateway Hosts Webinar
Chan Named Congressional Fellow – Applications Still Being Accepted!
Bipartisan legislation—the Strengthening America’s Health Care Readiness Act—would provide scholarships and loan repayment funding for social workers, clinicians, and other health-care workers in exchange for service commitments in urban or rural areas with shortages of providers. Introduced by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Marco Rubio (R-FL), the bill would provide a “historic investment” in the National Health Service Corps and National Disaster Medical System.
“Our health care heroes continue to sacrifice under dire conditions on the front lines of our pandemic response. COVID-19 has demonstrated the need for a national policy that increases the number of health workers to address shortages, medical disparities, and respond to emergencies. The Strengthening America’s Health Care Readiness Act expands he NHSC, NDMS, and Nurse Corps programs, and I’m proud to partner with Senator Rubio to boost our care capacity, especially in underserved communities,” Sen. Durbin said in a press release.
Contact your senators today and ask them to support the Strengthening America’s Health Care Readiness Act!
CSWE joined several organizations in signing on to a letter supporting a new social determinants of health bill, the Leveraging Integrated Networks Communities to Address Social Needs Act. The bipartisan bill would support a Department of Health and Human Services grant program to establish new or enhance existing community integration network infrastructure. Seed funding provided to states would support efforts to facilitate cross-sector referrals, communication, service coordination, and outcome tracking between social service providers and health-care organizations by establishing or expanding secure connected technology networks. States could also design networks that are responsive to their unique cultures and needs. The legislation would authorize $200 million in funding to support such activities and is expected to be introduced by the end of January.
The Biden Administration’s agenda as it begins to work with a Congress under narrow Democratic control includes COVID-relief, infrastructure, economic development, climate change, and supporting diversity and equity. The administration has released a proposed $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief plan, titled “American Rescue Plan,” with support from leading Democrats. Provisions of the rescue package include
- $20 billion for a national vaccination program;
- $50 billion to expand COVID-19 testing;
- support for 100,000 public health jobs corps members for contact tracing and vaccine education;
- $130 billon to assist schools in reopening safely; and
- $35 billion for public colleges, community colleges, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), and Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs).
It is unclear how much bipartisan support the measure will garner, given the high price tag, which many Republicans will probably oppose. COVID relief and other legislative efforts could pass under reconciliation, a special budget rule that requires a simple majority vote in the Senate instead of the 60-vote threshold normally required. President Biden, however, hopes to get a bipartisan majority on his first major legislative package.
Another early priority for the Biden Administration will be student loan relief. Although President Biden has indicated his support, his stated preference is for congressional efforts rather than executive action. Other top priorities for the U.S. Department of Education include addressing Title IX regulations, increasing education funding, and increasing HBCU and MSI support.
Working with Congress to pass police reform legislation will also be a top priority. With Democrats in control of the House, Senate, and the White House, discussions of police reform legislation probably will resume but will face legislative hurdles given the narrow Democratic majority and competing legislative needs.
Congress ended 2020 by passing major legislation with direct impact on institutions of higher education, research organizations, and academic health centers. The legislation included a $1.4 trillion spending package and a $908 billion COVID-19 aid package. The spending bill includes a $1.25 billion increase for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and a 3% increase in funding for Title VII Health Professions Programs at the Health Resources and Services Administration. It also provides funding for a new pilot program to study social determinants of health and address health disparities, programs to address Alzheimer’s disease, and efforts to alleviate mental health and substance use disorders.
Although much of the funding included in the COVID-19 relief bill is directed toward small businesses and individuals, the package includes an additional $1.25 billion for COVID-19 related research at NIH, $22 billion for states to perform COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, and $5 billion for substance abuse and mental health services.
The COVID-19 legislative package also includes $81.9 billion for the Education Stabilization Fund for COVID relief for educational entities. This includes $54.3 billion for elementary and secondary school relief, $4.05 billion for a Governors Emergency Education Relief Fund, and $22.7 billion specifically for the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF). Of the HEERF funds, $20.2 billion will be available to all public and private nonprofit institutions of higher education, and $1.7 billion will be available for HBCUs, tribal colleges, and Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs). HEERF funds can be spent on financial aid for students, COVID-19 expenses, or to carry out student support services.
The funding portion of the bill includes several important wins for higher education. The maximum award for Pell Grants will be increased by $150, bringing the award to $6,495 for the 2021–2022 school year. Federal student aid programs, including the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant and Federal Work Study, also receive increases, as do several programs for MSIs. The bill also includes higher education policy changes, which typically would have come under a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. These include streamlining of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, a long-standing top priority of retiring Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chair Lamar Alexander (R-TN). The bill also removes the ban on federal student aid for applicants with drug-related convictions and reinstates Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated students.
With Democrats capturing control in the Senate, President Biden’s nominee to lead the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, may advance more easily than predicted. There have been reports that Becerra, a former member of Congress, has begun the vetting process with members of the Senate Finance Committee in preparation for confirmation hearings. President Biden also nominated Dr. Rochelle Walensky, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital, as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy as surgeon general. Nominations for the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services have not been announced.
Dr. Miguel Cardona, commissioner of education for the state of Connecticut, has been nominated as President Biden’s secretary of education. If confirmed, Cardona will be the first Latino to hold the position. Formerly a fourth grade teacher and principal, Cardona’s background is primarily in elementary and secondary education, although he served on the Connecticut State Colleges & Universities Board of Regents as an ex officio member and as an adjunct professor at the University of Connecticut. Cardona has been an acting commissioner for only a year but gained notice when he led Connecticut to become the first state to ensure each public-school student had a laptop and access to high-speed Internet.
Given Cardona’s experience, it is believed that he will need many strong advisors on higher education issues. Cardona has expressed his support for free community college and all public colleges for families earning less than $125,000, a policy that Biden prioritized throughout his campaign. A full biography of Cardona can be found on the Biden Transition Team website.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) held its biannual meeting remotely on December 10–11. The ACD is an external stakeholder group intended to represent a broad cross-section of the biomedical research community and help the director support and promote the agency and its research enterprise. COVID-19 continues to present major challenges to the research enterprise, and this was a focus of much of the meeting. NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins opened his remarks by addressing COVID-19 challenges to the research enterprise and summarizing COVID-19 related activities at the NIH since the June 2020 ACD meeting.
Dr. Gary Gibbons, director of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, discussed the Community Engagement Alliance (CEAL) Against COVID-19 Disparities network, which addresses the effects of COVID-19 on communities of color. Lessons learned from the 11 cities in the CEAL network may provide a foundation to address health disparities more widely and build healthier communities. In addition, the Office of Behavioral and Social Science Research released a report assessing how behavioral and social science can address vaccine hesitancy in the COVID-19 pandemic and provides recommendations based on coordinated and consistent communication, building trust through partnerships, and prioritizing equity. This report may lead to new funding opportunities focused on addressing vaccine hesitancy, such as the National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities’ Research to address Vaccine Hesitancy, Uptake, and Implementation among Populations that Experience Health Disparities.
NIH also continued its discussion of promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion in biomedical research. In September NIH leadership received input from several internal NIH groups to inform its approach, including discussion of the need to create an environment void of hostility grounded in race, to commit to eliminating the status quo across the biomedical research workforce that led to the lack of inclusivity and diversity, and to expand research on health disparities. NIH plans to create five transagency working groups to address understanding stakeholder experiences, new research on health disparities/inequities, the intramural workforce, the extramural workforce, and communicating with internal and external stakeholders, to be reported at future ACD meetings.
The NIH-Wide Strategic Plan for FYs 2021–2025 was presented. It contains three main objectives—research areas, research capacity, and research conduct—and highlights current NIH initiatives that are strong examples of what can be accomplished within each. In contrast to the agency’s last strategic plan, this edition also includes several cross-cutting themes including public health challenges, women’s health, and minority health and health disparities. The plan concludes with 35 predictions that demonstrate the goals NIH leadership hopes to accomplish over the next 5 years, including the All of Us research program reaching its goal of 1 million diverse participants, significantly decreasing maternal deaths in Black and Native populations, and demonstrating at least one promising lifestyle intervention to prevent Alzheimer’s disease. The new strategic plan should be available to the public early in the new year.
The Health Resources and Services Administration-funded Rural Health Research Gateway has posted a recorded webinar titled Social Determinants of Health Challenges and Opportunities in Rural America. Building on work conducted by the Rural and Minority Health Research Center, the webinar highlights some of the key elements associated with health across rural White and minority populations, including education, income, and availability of health facilities.
Keith Chan, PhD, LMSW, an assistant professor at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College, City University of New York, and current Co-Char of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) APM track, has been placed as a Congressional Fellow through the Health and Aging Policy Fellows Program at the U.S. House Committee on Ways and Means. Dr. Chan’s research focuses on social determinants of physical and mental health for older adults, in particular for Asian Americans, immigrants, and more recently, the opioid epidemic.
The current application deadline for the program is April 15. More information on the Health and Aging Policy Fellows Program and the application process can be found at https://www.healthandagingpolicy.org/fellowship-application/fellowship-overview/.