Attorney General Xavier Becerra

Long-term care providers are hopeful for a much sought after extension to the spending deadline for Provider Relief Funds following comments from a top federal health official on Wednesday. 

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra on Wednesday revealed the agency is looking at the matter “very, very closely” while speaking during a hearing hosted by the health subcommittee on the House Committee on Energy & Commerce. 

“What I will tell you is again, we’ll be driven by facts in this case to make sure providers who have a need get those needs addressed,” Becerra said. 

Providers have until June 30, 2021, to spend any unused Provider Relief Fund money. Becerra’s comments come after a group of 77 lawmakers called on HHS to instead push the deadline to June 30, 2022. They argue that it would allow providers more time to put their relief funding toward fighting COVID-19. They also called on HHS to distribute the remaining money in the fund. Providers have estimated that it’s around $24.5 billion.

“Several providers have requested an extension to the deadline to utilize the PRF because of funds unused due to the changing reporting guidelines. This extension would provide adequate time to complete COVID-19-related projects,” the lawmakers wrote. 

“It is critical that every dollar of assistance to our health care providers can go as far as possible to keep people safe and healthy, particularly as we see SARS-CoV-2 variants like B.1.1.7 — which is more transmissible and potentially more deadly — account for an increasing share of new coronavirus cases,” they added. 

A LeadingAge spokeswoman on Wednesday called the lawmakers’ support “critical” and urged HHS to take action. She explained that due to confusion about the “ever-changing, administratively-burdensome reporting requirements, some providers have turned down or returned funds.” 

“What’s more, some providers have been approved for funds from Phase 3 distribution but have yet to receive these funds due to administrative issues they have been unable to resolve with HHS’s contractor Optum. It may be difficult for all of them to ‘spend’ all the funds by the June 30, 2021, deadline if they don’t receive them for several more weeks,” she told McKnight’s Long-Term Care News

LeadingAge also noted that not all providers were hit at the same time so the virus’ impact has varied throughout regions. 

“So, while many providers have already spent the funds they have received, others are using those funds to cover current COVID-19 expenses and losses,” the spokeswoman said. “Funds distributed to date under Provider Relief Fund only ensured that COVID-19 expenses and losses for the first half of 2020 were covered. Many providers were hardest hit at the end of last year and are struggling financially to keep their doors open while they wait for another opportunity to apply for more Provider Relief Funds. What’s more, even with the arrival of vaccines, the threat of infection remains.” 

LeadingAge said an informal member survey in March found that 75% of providers need more money to get through the pandemic — with 17% saying if no additional relief is forthcoming, they will be forced to either sell or close. The stated range of need varied from $100,000 to $20 million among providers.