Advocates lobby for bills to reform step therapy, expand rheumatology workforce
More than 100 patient advocates, including physicians and health professionals from the American College of Rheumatology, took to Capitol Hill this week for the organization’s annual Advocates for Arthritis event, to call on legislators to support a trio of bills that would reform step therapy and increase the number of pediatric rheumatologists in underserved areas.
“Aligning with Rheumatic Disease Awareness Month, this event is a great opportunity for our members to raise awareness and work with lawmakers to address the myriad challenges rheumatic disease patients currently face,” Paula Marchetta, MD, MBA, president of ACR, said in a press release. “We look forward to working with Congress to make positive and lasting policy changes so that patients can live longer, healthier and more fulfilling lives.”
The lobbying effort, which ran from Sept. 9 to 10, included advocacy training, prominent guest speakers and visits with senators and representatives in Congress, according to the ACR. Advocates educated lawmakers on the increasing prevalence of rheumatic diseases, particularly arthritis, and asked them to support a series of bills designed to increase access to rheumatology care, the group said.
The first bill, H.R. 2279 — the Safe Step Act — was introduced in April and referred to the House Committee on Education and Labor. The bill would amend the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 to require group health plans to place exceptions on step therapy.
According to the ACR, the bill would “place reasonable limits on the use of step therapy in employer-sponsored health plans and create a clear process for patients and doctors to seek exceptions.”
“The legislation builds on reforms passed in 22 states to address this pervasive practice that delays effective care and puts patients at unnecessary risk,” noted the ACR release. “While state efforts to limit insurer use of step therapy are an important step forward, Congressional action is needed to address the use of step therapy in employer-provided plans, which are regulated by federal law.”
Introduced by Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., who is a physician, and Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, who is a podiatrist, the bill currently has 83 cosponsors in the House of Representatives.
Another bill, H.R. 2781, or the Educating Medical Professionals and Optimizing Workforce Efficiency and Readiness (EMPOWER) for Health Act of 2019, aims to increase the number of pediatric subspecialists in underserved areas by providing loan repayment for health professionals who agree to work at least 2 years in pediatric medicine. According to the ACR, the bill would also reauthorize funding to encourage a more diverse health care workforce.
Introduced in May by Rep. Michael C. Burgess, R-Texas, who practiced obstetrics and gynecology, and Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., the bill has 14 cosponsors and has been referred to the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Lastly, H.R. 1554, also known as the REDI Act, would amend the Higher Education Act to defer the accumulation of interest on student loans for borrowers while they complete a medical internship or residency program. According to the ACR, this would make careers in medicine more accessible.
Introduced in March by Rep. Brian Babin, R-Texas, the legislation has 67 cosponsors and has been referred to the House Education and Labor Committee.
“An estimated one in four Americans have been diagnosed with a rheumatic disease such as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus,” according to the ACR release. “Although there is no known cure for these conditions, early intervention and proper diagnosis and treatment by a specialist can help patients manage symptoms and lifestyle limitations to live longer, healthier lives.”
“Unfortunately, a growing shortage of rheumatology specialists threatens patient access to timely diagnosis and treatment,” the release added. “For example, although nearly 300,000 American children have juvenile arthritis, there are fewer than 400 board-certified pediatric rheumatologists in the United States.” – by Jason Laday