Trump administration will reimburse hospitals for treating uninsured coronavirus patients using stimulus funds

Ambulances in front of the emergency room entrance of the Wyckoff Heights Medical Center. By Vivian Salama and Tami Luhby, CNN

(CNN) -- The Trump administration will use funds from the $2 trillion federal stimulus package to pay hospitals for treating uninsured coronavirus patients, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Friday.

The money will come from a $100 billion fund set up to reimburse hospitals and other health care providers for their coronavirus expenses, he said. Providers, who will be paid at Medicare rates, will not be allowed to send bills to the uninsured patients for the cost of their care, Azar added.

The story was first reported by The Wall Street Journal.

The potential proposal comes several days after the White House was slammed for deciding not to reopen the Affordable Care Act federal exchanges so the uninsured could sign up for coverage amid a rising wave of job losses.

Insurers, Democrats and at least two Republican governors called upon the administration to create a special enrollment period as the number of Americans falling ill or dying from the coronavirus continues to mount.

Eleven states that run their own Obamacare exchanges, along with the District of Columbia, have launched temporary special enrollment periods. Those who lose job-based coverage have 60 days to sign up for an Obamacare policy in any state, though reopening the enrollment period would reduce the amount of paperwork needed to enroll.

Using stimulus funding to pay for treating the uninsured will divert funds that hospitals say they desperately need for other coronavirus-related expenses, such as personal protective equipment for their workers and additional ventilators and beds. The American Hospital Association called the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which President Donald Trump signed a week ago, "an important first step," signaling that more money would be needed.

The legislation set up a $100 billion fund aimed at reimbursing hospitals, health care providers and others for expenses and lost revenue related to the pandemic. Hospitals are expecting to get about $65 billion, according to the association.

Tapping into the fund to pay for treating the uninsured "leaves less money for other things than an actual coverage expansion," said Karyn Schwartz, senior fellow at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The association said in a statement Friday that it has "encouraged" the administration to look at options other than using the fund, which it stressed is meant to provide emergency relief to hospitals that are incurring significant expenses dealing with the coronavirus. Its suggestions include opening a special enrollment period for Obamacare or expanding Medicaid.

In addition to the fund, the legislation removed $8 billion in scheduled payment reductions to hospitals that care for large numbers of uninsured and Medicaid patients, though that cut was already expected to be delayed. And an earlier stimulus package gave states the option of covering testing for the uninsured through Medicaid, with the federal government picking up the tab.

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