The December Omnibus Bill's Little Secret: It Was Also a Giant Health Bill

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., walks amid her security agents as House Democrats and their new leadership meet to choose ranking members for committees as they assume the minority in the new Congress, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The giant spending bill passed by Congress last month kept the government open. But it also quietly rewrote huge areas of health policy: Hundreds of pages of legislation were devoted to new health care programs.

The legislation included major policy areas that committees had been hammering away at all year behind the scenes — such as a big package designed to improve the nation’s readiness for the next big pandemic. It also included items that Republicans had been championing during the election season — such as an extension of telemedicine coverage in Medicare. And it included small policy measures that some legislators have wanted to pass for years, such as requiring Medicare to cover compression garments for patients with lymphedema.

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Although the bill was primarily designed to fund existing government programs, a lot of health policy hitched a ride.

Big, “must-pass” bills such as the $1.7 trillion omnibus often attract unrelated policy measures that would be hard to pass alone. But the scope of the health care legislation in last month’s bill is unusual. At the end of 2022, congressional leaders decided to do something that staff members call “clearing the decks,” adding all the potentially bipartisan health policy legislation that was ready and written. There turned out to be a lot to clear.

The midterm election also played a role. Many lawmakers saw that the incoming Republican House majority would be far less likely to pass another big spending bill, and so the omnibus was widely viewed as a last legislative hurrah.

In fact, the new House leadership has pledged to avoid this sort of omnibus legislation in the future. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has agreed to move smaller spending bills one at a time, and to allow lawmakers to propose amendments to each on the House floor. That process would make it much more difficult to combine future spending bills with unrelated policy measures, like a package in the bill that aims to modernize the country’s mental health system.

The coming change made the omnibus bill a critical opportunity to pass pieces of legislation that might have withered in the new Congress. Many of the health measures weren’t controversial enough to stop the omnibus from passing as one big bill. They might not have all succeeded on their own, however.

Several retiring senators were eager to use the bill to pass favored measures and cement their legacies. Among departing senior Republicans were Richard Burr of North Carolina, who was the ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee; Roy Blunt of Missouri, who was ranking member on the Senate Appropriations health subcommittee; and Richard Shelby of Alabama, vice chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Legacies were also meaningful for the retiring Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who was the chair of Appropriations, as well as Nancy Pelosi, who was giving up her position as the top House Democrat.

Burr had been working all year with his Democratic counterpart to develop a pandemic preparedness package known as the Prevent Pandemics Act. That legislation passed as part of the spending bill.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the minority leader, had signaled earlier in the year that he hoped for a relatively modest spending bill. But he did not stand in the way of the giant bill in the end.

“Probably a lot of the driver was, ‘Let’s resolve it and accept the reality of a lot of stagnation we’ll see in the next Congress,’” said Drew Keyes, a senior policy analyst at the Paragon Health Institute and a former staff member on the Republican Study Committee. He was critical of the size and scope of the bill, especially given the limited debate on many of its provisions. But he said he understood why it came together: “We saw a lot of pieces that felt like this is the last opportunity.”

Some convoluted budget math made it possible for lawmakers to pass expansions of Medicaid without appearing to cost much money, an opportunity that was likely to disappear over time. By scheduling an end date for an expensive pandemic policy, Congress could then use the projected savings to pay for expanded Medicaid benefits for children, postpartum mothers and residents of U.S. territories.

The bill requires states to keep children signed up for at least a year at a time, and extends funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program. It also sets up a series of policies meant to discourage states from automatically dumping large numbers of adult enrollees after the end of an emergency policy that protected enrollments during the pandemic. The provisions reflected a long-standing interest by Pelosi in broadening health coverage through the Affordable Care Act and other means.

In addition to the expiring funding sources, there was a “time-limited coalition behind some of those policies,” said Matthew Fiedler, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who was tracking the Medicaid provisions.

Crucially, most of the bill’s health measures had bipartisan support in Congress. Even though Democrats held majorities in both the House and Senate, the bill needed 10 Republican Senate votes to overcome a legislative filibuster. It got far more — the omnibus passed the Senate by a 68–29 margin. (In the House, where Republicans were less involved in negotiations over the bill since their votes were not needed, a greater share voted against it. The final vote was 225–201.)

The consequence of all this deck clearing is that it may be a quiet Congress for new health legislation. There are a few health funding programs that will need to be renewed, including funding for programs to combat opioid addiction and overdoses, and one to subsidize hospitals that treat uninsured patients.

But beyond those must-pass items (which may or may not pass in the end), don’t expect too much.

Democrats already achieved much of their health care agenda earlier in the year, when they passed legislation to allow Medicare to limit the prices of some prescription drugs, expanded subsidies for Americans who buy their own insurance, and added new health benefits for veterans.

McCarthy did have some plans for modest health care measures with a chance of becoming law, including extended Medicare coverage for telemedicine. But that passed in the omnibus, leaving him without a lot of concrete health policy goals beyond oversight into the performance of pandemic programs.

The remaining wish list for Democrats includes measures to broaden Medicare benefits and to expand abortion rights — things they could not pass even when they controlled the House. As part of concessions with right-wing lawmakers to secure the speakership, Mr. McCarthy has promised Republicans in the House will propose substantial spending cuts to balance the budget in a decade, a goal that would be impossible without cuts to some or all of the major health programs — Medicare, Medicaid and Obamacare. But those would never advance with Democrats controlling the Senate and White House.

That means the omnibus was an unexpectedly meaty health care bill. There may not be another one for a while.

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