HHS intervenes in Change Healthcare hack

HHS said March 5 it would help accelerate payments to hospitals affected by the Change Healthcare cyberattack and institute other workarounds for providers.

The agency said hospitals facing cash-flow issues from the IT outage can submit accelerated payment requests, like those issued during the pandemic, to their Medicare Administrative Contractors for "individual consideration." HHS said more details would be coming from the contractors later this week.

Organizations like the American Hospital Association and American Medical Association had urged HHS to act following the ransomware attack that caused UnitedHealth Group's Change Healthcare to take its claims and payment processing systems offline Feb. 21, leaving much of the healthcare industry reeling. One cybersecurity firm estimated that large health systems were bleeding over $100 million a day.

"Numerous hospitals, doctors, pharmacies and other stakeholders have highlighted potential cash-flow concerns to HHS stemming from an inability to submit claims and receive payments," HHS said in the March 5 news release. "HHS has heard these concerns and is taking direct action and working to support the important needs of the healthcare community."

In addition, HHS said CMS is encouraging Medicare Advantage organizations and Part D sponsors to remove or relax prior authorizations, asking Medicare Advantage plans to extend advanced funding to affected providers, advising providers to request new electronic data interchanges from their Medicare Administrative Contractors for claims processing, and notifying those contractors to accept paper claims.

Industry associations, however, said HHS' stop gaps fall short.

"We cannot say this more clearly — the Change Healthcare cyberattack is the most significant and consequential incident of its kind against the U.S. healthcare system in history," AHA President and CEO Rick Pollack said in a March 5 statement. "The magnitude of this moment deserves the same level of urgency and leadership our government has deployed to any national event of this scale before it. The measures announced today do not do that and are not an adequate whole of government response."

The AMA called the plans a "welcome first step" but said physicians need relief as well.

"Many physician practices operate on thin margins, and we are especially concerned about the impact on small and/or rural practices, as well as those that care for the underserved," AMA President Jesse Ehrenfeld, MD, stated March 5. The AMA urges federal officials to go above and beyond what has been put in place and include financial assistance such as advanced payments for physicians."

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