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U.S. Sen. Capito questions HHS Secretary Becerra on budget, rural healthcare, opioid crisis

West Virginia Press Association

WASHINGTON, D.C. – On April 16, U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), Ranking Member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies (Labor-HHS), questioned U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra on the agency’s budget requests for Fiscal Year (FY) 2025.

During her first round of questions, Ranking Member Capito spoke about the importance of rural healthcare and efforts to combat the addiction crisis, specifically efforts taken by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) in communities across West Virginia and the country. Additionally, Ranking Member Capito asked Secretary Becerra about the suicide prevention hotline (988) and its effectiveness across the country since it opened.

During her second round of questions, Ranking Member Capito asked Secretary Becerra about medical research efforts overseen by HHS and return to in-person office policies for HHS employees across the country.



RANKING MEMBER CAPITO: “I want to talk about rural health because I mentioned in my opening statement that $12 million—it appears as though it’s $12 million lower [than last year]. I understand that our bill funded it at 36— I think $364.6 million, which is rural outreach, rural hospital flexibility, and other things. The [HHS rural health budget] request is for $352 [million], which is lower- $12.2 [million] lower than what we actually funded this for. I understand, also, that the budget release and then the timing of the actual passing of the budget, were almost at the exact same time might not have been ideal for you. What would you say about that? Healthcare delivery systems in rural America are still very difficult and underfunded. We have the lowest life expectancies in rural America. What’s your response to that?”

SEC. BECERRA: “Senator, you actually touched on, probably, the most important aspect of my answer and that is that our budget was being framed at a time that we have no idea what the 2024 budget would look like. And because of the constraints on where we could go, we had to make sure- we tried to be consistent with what might come out. So, we are more than willing to work with you, with the kinds of investments we would make in healthcare generally, but more specifically with regard to rural health, you will find that there are specific investments in rural health, especially in the area of substance use disorders and trying to keep hospitals afloat that we can work on to build on. Because, I think you’re right, there’s no doubt that it’s tougher, if you’re in a rural community, to find a health care facility near you. So, we’ll do everything we can to not just have them sustain but also have them thrive.”


RANKING MEMBER CAPITO: “I did have a lot of questions on drug abuse and SAMHSA prevention and harm reduction. Here’s the discouraging thing: these statistics are not coming down. I mean, the overdose statistics I heard on the radio the other day, that the statistics in [Washington] D.C., alone, are up, I don’t know, 20, 30%— deaths resulting from overdose. I don’t think we have the statistics quite yet for this past year. We’ve got a flow of fentanyl coming up through the southern border. We got to do better here. I mean, we are losing a generation. And I understand, in your last answer, some of the areas, you know, fentanyl strips and naloxone. But that’s still just treating somebody who’s already in heavy addiction. I mean, I think the prevention aspects of it, have not gotten to the younger children as much as they should. We got to start in kindergarten. What’s your response to that?”

SEC. BECERRA: “[I’m] with you, completely with you on that. Here’s the difficulty: as you know, at the federal level, the Department Health and Human Services, we don’t administer these programs, we work with the states. The states are the ones that have control over health care, and this aspect of health care. What we do is, essentially, provide them with more- more resources, or we give them some support and flexibility in doing what they can with the dollars that we give them. We are more than willing to work with the states to increase their capacities.”


RANKING MEMBER CAPITO: “Quickly on the suicide prevention line: you’ve asked for a lot more money here. We’ve provided a fourfold increase in fiscal year 2023. You’re requesting $100 million more for [Fiscal Year] 2025. And I’m wondering, can you give me a breakdown- you might not have that right now- but how is this breaking out? Is it going out the door to state and local crisis centers, versus a contractor that’s administering the system? I’d just like some more details on this request given the sensitive nature of the program and the critical work they do.

SEC. BECERRA: “Certainly, and we could follow up with your staff to give you more of the details, because those are out there. Most of the money helps sustain the state operation, the call centers that already existed. We essentially have buoyed them, because we established backup call centers, because a lot of the states didn’t have the capacity to deal with all the calls that might come in. We didn’t want people waiting on the phone, busy signal, so we set- we stood up all the backup call centers. We also make specialty lines. So, for example, if you’re a veteran, there’s a line that’s specific for you. Those are the things that the federal dollars have really helped boost. We also helped create the text and chat feature so that if you didn’t want to—”

RANKING MEMBER CAPITO: “Is that online now?”

SEC. BECERRA: “Absolutely. It’s available now for hearing impaired. It’s available, in some places, Spanish language. We’re trying to make sure no one feels like they should not call. And now you hear that we’re going to finally get to the point where we can make the 988 call work so that wherever you are, whatever your three digit- your area code is, you’re going to get some professional where you happen to be, not based on your area code. It’s working. The $600 million that is in the president’s budget for 988 is absolutely going to save lives. We know that in the first 18 months of launching national 988, a million and a half people reached out to us and said ‘help.’ We were able to answer.”

To watch Senator Capito’s opening statement, click here.

To watch Senator Capito’s first round of questioning, click here.

To watch Senator Capito’s second round of questioning, click here.

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