H.R. 3635 Promises to Strengthen PPE Stockpile for Future Emergencies

  

This Capitol Beat article was guest-written by Debbi Waters, MSN, RN, MJ, CHC, a student in the McKendree University Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) in Ethical Leadership Program, who is completing her leadership practicum in partnership with ANA Senior Policy Advisor Lisa Stand.

This month, Congress took a positive step in preventing a repeat of the catastrophic shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) experienced by nurses at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. With bipartisan support, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 3635, the Strengthening America’s Strategic National Stockpile Act of 2021.

It has been nearly two years since the COVID-19 pandemic began to rapidly spread across the United States (U.S.), triggering the worst public health emergency the nation has witnessed in more than a century. From the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, nurses quickly found themselves fearing for their personal safety, as well as the safety of their patients and families, as PPE supplies were being depleted at an extraordinarily fast pace. Nurses on the frontlines were directed to abandon evidence-based infection prevention standards, for instance, by being required to wear the same PPE for extended periods of time, and to reuse PPE across multiple shifts. In an American Nurses Association (ANA) survey in May of 2020, 45 percent of nurses reported experiencing PPE shortages, with 79 percent of nurses reporting being encouraged or required to reuse PPE, of those 59 percent felt unsafe in doing so. The ANA completed a second survey, ending on August 14, 2020, with 47 percent of nurses reporting intermittent to occasional PPE shortages. Forty-two percent of participating nurses reported an increase in PPE availability, as compared to 36 percent reporting no change; however, 68 percent continued to report being required by their facility to reuse single-use PPE, with 62 percent reporting feeling somewhat to very unsafe. The enormity of the impact of COVID-19 on healthcare workers is yet to be determined; however, the failure to provide basic PPE to frontline nurses and healthcare workers was profound and consequential to physical and mental well-being of our nation’s nursing workforce.

Why is H.R. 3635 Important?
H.R. 3635 would address key vulnerabilities within the federal government’s ability to adequately respond to such large-scale public health emergency, particularly with the medical supply chain.

The U.S., as with most other countries around the globe, utilized unprecedented amounts of PPE during the COVID-19 pandemic. At times, the PPE burn rate was nearly a 100 percent increase over historical levels. Very early in the pandemic as hospitals exhausted PPE supplies and began experiencing challenges in purchasing supplies through the usual “just in time” supply chain channels, and as local and state supplies became depleted, states called up the federal government for assistance through the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS)

The SNS, long considered to be the contingency plan for public health emergencies, was ill-prepared to respond to a threat the size and scope of this pandemic, certainly not for a threat simultaneously affecting all 56 states, territories, and the District of Columbia. The SNS endured years of underfunding and budget cuts by Congress that, compounded by a failure to replenish and rotate stock, led not only to inadequate amounts of PPE, but also to the delivery of PPE that was expired, rotting, and inappropriate for safe use in protecting nurses from the dangers of COVID-19.

Maintaining the Stockpile
H.R. 3635 would address the issue of expired and unsafe supplies by allowing the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to distribute supplies from the SNS to any federal department or agency, on a reimbursable basis, if the supplies are within one year of expiration and can be replenished within the SNS. In addition, HHS would be required to ensure that supplies and equipment within the SNS are in working order.

Domestic Production
The COVID-19 pandemic also exposed the risks associated with U.S. dependence on foreign sources for nearly 60 percent of the nation’s medical supplies. This dependence created cataclysmic sourcing and price challenges for American hospitals and healthcare providers, caused by stockpiling of supplies and price gouging, at one point upwards of 1,000 percent the customary cost, for supplies that were of poor quality and at times counterfeit. The inability of domestic manufacturing proved to be detrimental to nurses who were providing care to COVID-19 patients. H.R. 3635 calls for the creation of a pilot program designed to strengthen the U.S. supply chain by increasing domestic manufacturing. Specifically, the pilot requires HHS to establish and maintain geographically dispersed domestic reserves of critical medical supplies, including PPE, and increased emergency stock of those critical supplies through cooperative agreements or partnerships with manufacturers to produce and maintain supplies. Additionally, the bill provides temporary authorization for HHS to disperse grants to states for use in maintaining or expanding state strategic stockpiles of critical supplies that are deemed essential by the State in preparation for future public health emergencies.

Transparency and Tracking
Strengthening America’s Strategic National Stockpile Act of 2021 would require HHS to develop a transparent process for distribution and use of supplies from the SNS by January 1, 2022. This would include a process for states, localities, tribes, and territories (SLTT) to request supplies; the decision-making process HHS will follow when determining if the request will be fulfilled or denied; and the process for the prioritization of distribution to the SLTT. In addition, the bill would require a monthly report to be provided detailing the requests submitted by SLTT, including the amount of materials and supplies requested, along with the outcomes of those requests. In the event a supply request is only partially filled or denied, the rationale for those outcomes must be included.

Our nation must begin building upon the lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic by planning and preparing a response to future public health emergencies. We must remain vigilant, as COVID-19 will not be an isolated incident, if we are going to prevent a repeat of the catastrophic failures experienced during the COVID-19 response. H.R. 3635 is a positive step towards ensuring the U.S. response to upcoming public health emergencies will be more efficient and effective, while protecting the health and safety of our frontline healthcare workers and we thank Representative Elissa Slotkin for her leadership in addressing this critical issue.

Next Steps
There is still work to be done to ensure the Strengthening America’s Strategic National Stockpile Act of 2021 is signed into law. This legislation now moves to the Senate where a companion bill S.1974 was introduced in June 2021. As you know, things tend to move slowly in the Senate and they need a groundswell of support from their constituents to pass legislation. Without action, nurses will be no more protected in future pandemics, than we were in March of 2020. Please visit our Latest News page for updates on the legislation and a chance for every nurse and health care advocate to take action and message their members of Congress soon.

FY 2022 budget proposal sets the stage for Biden administration

  

The Biden administration released its proposed FY 2022 budget, which helps bring some clarity to the continued priorities of the administration. The budget reflects the administrations promise to rebuild a strong public health and community-based care system that can respond to the health challenges faced in diverse areas across the United States. Many priorities of the administration align with ANA’s advocacy focus to support nurses in areas such as workforce, behavioral health, maternal health, rural health, preparedness and safety including personal protective equipment (PPE), and research.

Below are a few highlights from the proposed budget that align with the work of ANA:

  • $15.4 billion for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which reflects the largest budget authority increase in nearly two decades. The funding would go to support core public health capacity improvements, modernize data collection, training for public health experts, and prepare for, and respond to emerging global threats.
  • $12.6 billion for the Health Resources and Service Administration, which is $497 million above FY 2021 enacted.
  • $52 billion for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), an increase of $9 billion above FY 2021 enacted. $6.5 billion of the $9 billion increase is to support the establishment of the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, that is intended to speed transformational innovation in health research for diseases like cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s. The remaining $2.5 billion will continue the research and translation into clinical practice for some of the most urgent challenges including the opioid crisis, climate change, and gun violence. ANA continues to monitor communications and opportunities to engage with the National Institute of Nursing Research under NIH.
  • An increase of $3.7 billion above FY 2021 enacted, for a total of $9.7 billion for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration with a charge to respond to the opioid and substance use epidemic by expanding programs and targeting prevention and treatment; and increasing access to mental health services to protect the health of children and communities.
  • $14.2 billion for the Department of Labor (DOL), including $665 million for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), $73 million above FY 2021 enacted, for increased enforcement and whistleblower protection programs. The DOL budget requests $285 million for apprenticeship programs, specifically $100 million increase for the Registered Apprentice Program. There is no additional information on the DOL industry-recognized apprenticeship programs (IRAPs), which have supported nurse training initiatives.

The Biden administration has been vocal about priorities that will transform the health care system. However, the administration’s budget is slightly more than a wish list. Ultimately it is up to Congress to fund the agencies. ANA urges the Administration and Congress to focus on rebuilding and transforming the health care system to improve on the challenges brought forth during the pandemic. Nurses have been the agents of transformative change in facilities, systems, and communities to support improved patient outcomes and advancing equity. Building on these successes, ANA will work with the agencies and administration to build on the budget priorities to continue to put nurses at the forefront of change.  

ANA is also working on the Hill for legislation that will address infrastructure and access for telehealth services, PPE for the current and future public health emergencies, and workplace safety programs for nurses. ANA’s advocacy includes a multi-pronged approach to deliver what nurses need in all settings. It is clear through the first budget of this administration that health care is a top priority to improve as we transition to a post-pandemic environment.

Recognizing the Value of Nursing Under Universal Health Care Coverage

  

The debate over how the nation structures its health care delivery system has waged on for decades. At the heart of this debate has been how to ensure coverage and access to needed health care services for patients. Looking at a system where most get their health needs covered by Medicare, Medicaid, or commercial, employer-sponsored covered, many recognized that too many Americans continued to be left behind. On one side of the debate, we have seen a push towards a single-payer system—like what is in place in Canada and the United Kingdom. Others, pushing for more market-based solutions to expand coverage through private plans.

At ANA, we have long supported movement toward adopting a single-payer health care system as the most desirable option. That is a health care system that is structured where services provided are financed by one payer, typically the government. Since that position was formally adopted in 1999, ANA has altered its advocacy on ensuring all Americans have access to health care coverage and nursing care, rather than focusing on how the health care system is financed. This evolution is a result of a shift in conversations about health care reform and delivery system, which was fully realized with the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA)—which celebrates its 11th anniversary this year. This landmark legislation made several critical reforms to the nation’s health care delivery system that continue to influence health care policymaking today.

The ACA adopted some market-based solutions to expand access to coverage through the creation of federal and state-based marketplaces, while at the same time expanding eligibility for the Medicaid program to vulnerable adult patient populations. In addition to focusing on coverage, the ACA has helped to trigger a broader movement to value and quality in how health care services are provided and paid. We know that many of our nurses are integral in leading and ensuring the success of value-based models and other innovations that better the care for patients, recognized through underlying payment structures.

As ANA engages with Congress and policymakers, it is key that the association’s position better reflect the current conversations and priorities, as well as allowing flexibility that allows the association to weigh in on proposed legislation and regulations. This will only serve to allow our voice to be more effective on behalf of our members—making it clear that the existing support of a single-payer system must be updated. Rather, we must adopt a replacement policy that endorses universal health coverage that recognizes the value of nursing. As defined by the World Health organization, universal coverage is a system wherein everyone has access to the health care services they need.

Through promoting universal health coverage that recognizes the value of nursing, ANA has the opportunity to continue to amplify the vital role nurses play in changing and improving the nation’s health care delivery system. Nurses are key to the provision of high-quality care to patients—regardless of the patient’s health care coverage. What is critical in these debates is the recognition of the nurse role through equitable payment for the services they provide to patients. Additionally, as policymakers continue to drive innovation and reform into the delivery system, nurses must be allowed to practice at the top of their license to fully contribute to the success of any system changes.

While our complex health care delivery system is far from perfect, there are many opportunities to shape policies that impact coverage, care, and ultimately the nursing profession. Over 30 million of our fellow Americans remain uninsured, a number likely to continue to grow due the economic challenges we all face due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This will likely lead to actions that work to ensure greater access to health care coverage. We also know that innovation and delivery system reform will continue to be an area of focus for policymakers. The role of the nurse must be forefront in these conversations and—most importantly—in any resulting legislation or regulations. Adopting a position that recognizes that access to health care coverage is most important, regardless of the underlying financing, lets us focus on ensuring that the value of nursing is fully recognized in our health care delivery system.

Over the next few weeks, members should watch ANA’s communication platforms as we near this year’s Membership Assembly. Dialogue forums are back, and we look forward to a robust conversation about moving ANA from endorsing a single-payer system to one that supports universal access to health care that fully recognizes the value of nursing.