HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Biden Boosts Vaccines Distribution Efforts

The Biden administration will steer nearly $10 billion toward bolstering Covid-19 vaccine access for vulnerable U.S. communities that have suffered the most from the pandemic — including funding aimed at encouraging people to get inoculated.

The money, largely from the $1.9 trillion relief package passed earlier this month, will expand Biden’s efforts to help disadvantaged parts of the country, including Black and Latino communities where people are more likely to fall ill with coronavirus and die from it.

The administration detailed the measures in an announcement released this morning.

The funding includes more than $6 billion for community health centers, to which President Joe Biden has directed vaccines in an effort to close a gap that has emerged in inoculations, with White people getting a disproportionate share of shots so far.

The Department of Health and Human Services will expand vaccinations, testing and treatments and increase capacity for the health centers beginning next month, the administration said.

The Biden administration is also expanding eligibility for people to get vaccines at those health centers, adding frontline essential workers and all adults with high-risk conditions, it said.

The plan also includes $3 billion in funding for states, territories and some large cities, which the administration didn’t identify, to start programs to expand vaccine access. Read more from Josh Wingrove.

Biden Press Conference: Biden will host his first formal news conference at the White House on Thursday, a high-stakes test for a president facing questions about two recent mass shootings, a surge in migrant children at the U.S. southern border and the ongoing pandemic. Biden could also be pressed on the subject of whether vaccinated teachers should be forced to return to the classroom, even if their students haven’t yet received shots. Biden will likely seek to sidestep the issue by noting his administration earlier this month ordered pharmacies participating in a federal vaccine program to prioritize shots for school staff. Justin Sink previews other topics to watch at Biden’s first press conference.

Happening on the Hill

HHS Deputy Pick Levine Wins Senate Confirmation: Biden’s nominee to lead a key public health office within the HHS, Rachel Levine, was confirmed yesterday by the full Senate. The Senate voted 52-48 for Levine to serve as assistant secretary for health of the Health and Human Services Department under Secretary Xavier Becerra. The votes came one week after the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee voted to advance her nomination. She is the first openly transgender person ever confirmed for any Cabinet post. Read more from Shira Stein.

House Panel Advances Pregnancy Labor Protection Bills: The House Education and Labor Committee signed off on a trio of workplace-related bills yesterday, including one (H.R. 1065) that would augment pandemic protections for pregnant workers. Democrats pointed to studies showing pregnant workers are at a higher risk from Covid-19. The bill is backed by over 200 advocacy groups, civil rights organizations, and business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Congress. Read more from Paige Smith.

Democrats Eye Rollback of Short-Term Plan Rule: Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), and Bob Casey (D-Penn.) yesterday unveiled legislation that would seek to “overturn the Trump-era rule expanding junk health insurance plans that don’t have to provide health care coverage for people with preexisting conditions,” according to a statement. The “junk” plans refer to short-term health insurance plans former President Donald Trump made easier to purchase on Affordable Care Act marketplaces. Read text of the legislation here.

  • Meanwhile, many state-run Obamacare exchanges are ahead of the federal government in administering the American Rescue Plan Act, the $1.9 trillion pandemic aid bill Biden signed into law this month, which provides a major expansion of premium subsidies for 2021 and 2022. Obamacare marketplaces in six states as well as the District of Columbia will raise subsidies for people already getting them, with implementation scheduled at different dates. Read more from Sara Hansard.

Bipartisan Duo Push Mobile Clinics, Health Centers: Sens. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) today will unveil legislation that seeks to broaden the “allowable use criteria” in the New Access Points Grant program to include part-time mobile clinics and upgrades to community health centers. Permitting greater flexibility in the use of grants for community health centers would increase access to affordable, accessible, quality services “in rural and underserved communities,” they said in a statement.

Hearings on the Hill:

  • The House Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee plans a hearing to look at private equity’s role in heath care, which will likely touch on health care prices and surprise billing practices.
  • The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee scheduled a hearing on Covid-19 response, health equity and disparities.
  • The Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee meets for a hearing on the Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, focusing on vaccines and stimulus payments.

The Coronavirus Pandemic

Virus Hospitalizations Cost Medicare $10B: Traditional Medicare spent $10.3 billion on Covid-19 hospitalizations for more than 447,000 beneficiaries in 2020. That’s an average of almost $23,000 per patient, according to figures released by the federal government yesterday. The total taxpayer toll is probably higher. That figure doesn’t include nearly half of Medicare recipients on private Medicare Advantage plans, where data on individual costs isn’t as easily obtainable.

Over 2.7 million Medicare beneficiaries were infected with the coronavirus in 2020. American Indian/Alaska Native beneficiaries suffered the highest average infection rates, according to the new Medicare coronavirus data snapshot. Hispanic people saw the next highest infection rate, followed by Black people, White people, and Asian American/Pacific Islanders. Read more from Tony Pugh.

Astra Reports Lower Efficacy for Vaccine: AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine, which faced a fresh onslaught of questions this week, was 76% effective in a U.S. study—a slightly downgraded estimate based on the latest data collected from a contentious clinical trial. The company issued the new analysis in a statement after an independent monitoring board expressed concern that the initial efficacy of 79% relied on outdated information. The earlier reading was based on data gathered through Feb. 17. Read more from James Paton and Michelle Fay Cortez.

Two More States Open Up Vaccine Access: Louisiana and Utah became the latest states to move toward allowing anyone 16 and older to get a Covid-19 vaccine this month. In total, 12 states have plans to open vaccines to anyone 16 and older by March 31 or are already doing so—Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, and West Virginia. Read more.

CDC Says Order Limiting Cruises in Effect Till Nov. 1: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said an order that restricts the cruise industry’s activity and creates a phased approach to returning to operations will stay in place until Nov. 1. Cruise Lines International Association, the lead lobbying group for cruise companies including Carnival, had released a statement yesterday asking the CDC to pull the order and agree to let U.S. sailings resume by July. Read more from Jonathan Levin.

NY Aims to Repeal Covid-Era Nursing Home Liability Shield: New York lawmakers took steps to fully repeal civil liability protections provided to nursing home workers, administrators, and executives during the coronavirus pandemic. The controversial immunity law passed early last year at the start of the public health crisis, but has since come under intense scrutiny. The state scaled backprotections last summer. Read more from Keshia Clukey.

Carcinogen Found in Hand Sanitizers: Some widely available hand sanitizers that American consumers snapped up last year to ward off coronavirus infection contain high levels of a chemical known to cause cancer, a testing firm’s analysis found. An assortment of hand cleaners that flooded into the market after mainstays disappeared from retail outlets contain high levels of benzene, according to Valisure, a New Haven, Connecticut-based online pharmacy that tests products for quality and consistency. Read more from Anna Edney.

More U.S. Headlines:

EU, U.K. Show Progress Amid Vaccine Export Battle: The European Union and U.K. signaled a thawing of relations over vaccine sharing, hours after the bloc escalated their long-running public battle with tougher restrictions on exports of shots. “Given our interdependencies, we are working on specific steps we can take—in the short-, medium- and long term—to create a win-win situation and expand vaccine supply for all our citizens,” the pair said in a statement.

Officials on both sides signaled caution not to over-interpret and that this was not a deal on vaccine supply, rather the beginning of a negotiation. A diplomatic rapprochement over the loaded political issue of vaccine nationalism had escalated after the EU signaled it intends to play hardball. It marked a positive note on another day of drama in Europe that at one point turned farcical with the discovery of a stockpile of 29 million shots in an Italian factory. Read more from Ian Wishart, Dara Doyle, and Viktoria Dendrinou.

HHS to House Migrant Children on Military Bases: Unaccompanied migrant children will be housed on military bases in Texas as waves of people from Central America continue to arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border. A Defense Department spokesman, John Kirby, said that the Department of Health and Human Services would “maintain custody and responsibility for the well-being and support for these children at all times on the installation.” Read more from John Harney.

More Global Headlines:

To contact the reporter on this story: Brandon Lee in Washington at blee@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Zachary Sherwood at zsherwood@bgov.com; Giuseppe Macri at gmacri@bgov.com; Michaela Ross at mross@bgov.com

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