HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Biden Doubles Vaccine Goal to 200 Million

President Joe Biden set a new goal of administering 200 million coronavirus vaccine doses by the end of April, doubling his target for his first 100 days in office. The country is on pace to meet the new goal, Biden said in opening remarks at his first formal press conference yesterday. “I know it’s ambitious,” Biden said. “I believe we can do it.”

Biden set his original goal in December, before the vaccination campaign began, of giving 100 million shots in his first 100 days in office. The U.S. met his goal earlier this month, on his 58th day in office. Biden at the time declined to immediately set a new goal. He later mused about doubling the target before doing so yesterday. At its current pace, the U.S. would record just over 203 million shots by the end of Biden’s 100th full day in office.

The pace of vaccines is also poised to ramp up. One manufacturer, Johnson & Johnson, is set to sharply increase its shipments that have only trickled out since its authorization one month ago, and Pfizer and Moderna have been steadily increasing their production. Biden previously has said the U.S. will have enough vaccine for all adults by the end of May, but administration officials have said administering the shots could take longer.

Biden said the pandemic required the vaccination effort and the $1.9 trillion stimulus that he pushed through Congress to be his leading priority in the early weeks of his presidency. “The fundamental problem is getting people some peace of mind,” he said in answer to a question about other items on his agenda that face Republicans’ opposition. “So, we’re going to move on these one at a time, try to do as many simultaneously as we can.” Josh Wingrove has more.

Happening on the Hill

Senate Clears Delay of Medicare Cut: Senators voted yesterday to delay an automatic 2% cut to Medicare payments triggered by last year’s CARES Act coronavirus bill, but stripped out a measure to avert other cuts triggered by this year’s $1.9 trillion stimulus, leaving more work for later in the year, Jack Fitzpatrick reports.

Senators voted 90-2 to pass the measure (H.R. 1868) to delay the automatic cuts from April 1 to Dec. 31, setting the stage for a year-end debate over sequestration. They also amended the measure to remove a House measure to waive the need for Medicare cuts due to the recent stimulus. That requirement could trigger $36 billion in Medicare cuts in 2022, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

House lawmakers passed a measure last week with both sequestration waivers but will have to vote again to pass the amended version. Twenty-nine House Republicans joined Democrats in supporting the measure in a 246-175 vote. The other 175 Republicans opposed the measure, and Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) blamed Democrats for “ignoring the effects of their own bill.”

The move to delay one deadline to December and wait to address another sets the stage for key negotiations later this year on billions in automatic cuts to Medicare due to federal spending in response to the coronavirus. Government funding bills have served as a legislative vehicle for sequestration waivers in the past. In 2017, when Republicans faced similar cut requirements due to their tax cuts, they attached a measure to avert cuts to a government funding measure.

Most Republican lawmakers have withheld support for the measure to avert the cuts triggered by the $1.9 trillion stimulus. Some have pushed for amendments that would rescind some of the stimulus spending in addition to waiving the required cuts.

  • The extension of the sequestration moratorium would be a major victory for the hospital lobby, which has pushed hard to avert it. Hospital groups are now turning their attention to the House, eyeing fast passage. “Extending the 2% Medicare sequester moratorium is a key piece of the puzzle to ensure clinicians and hospitals have the critical resources to care for their patients and defeat this virus,” the Federation of American Hospitals said.
  • Hospital groups have said that they’re urging the government to avoid cutting Medicare payments in early April if the House doesn’t act before the deadline. The U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services have in the past given health-care providers leeway on cuts if it appears Congress will act shortly after a deadline, Alex Ruoff reports.

Lawmakers to Probe Private Equity in Nursing Homes: Key House lawmakers are vowing to probe private equity’s ownership of nursing homes and physician practices, warning they may want the industry to disclose its interest in health care practices. The chair of the House Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee, Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.), says he is worried private equity ownership of nursing homes will erode patient care and harm the elderly.

“It’s past time a bright light be shined on how private equity ownership affects patient safety, costs and jobs,” Pascrell said at a hearing yesterday. Pascrell endorsed legislation (H.R. 5825) from Ways and Means Chair Richard Neal (D-Mass.) requiring private equity firms to disclose to the Internal Revenue Service whenever they have a controlling interest in certain medical service providers, Alex Ruoff reports.

  • Private equity deals in the sector increased 21% from the year earlier, according to Bain & Co. Sabrina Howell, a finance professor at the NYU Stern School of Business, said any company taking government money should disclose who their owners are after she co-authored a study that found private equity ownership increased short-term probability of death in nursing homes by 10%. Read more from Sabrina Willmer.

Nursing Home Vaccine Data Sought: A bipartisan group of senators including Finance Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) asked the Biden administration to collect and make public data on Covid-19 vaccination rates “in the nation’s nursing homes at the facility level,” according to a statement. Senators sent the letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, asking HHS to require nursing homes to provide vaccination information to the CDC. Currently, they are not mandated to do so, resulting in “limited participation,” they said. Read their letter to Becerra here.

Nominations: The White House announced yesterday it had sent the nomination of Dawn Myers O’Connell to be assistant secreatry for preparedness and response at HHS to the Senate.

The Coronavirus Pandemic

Cases Are Rising Again, Reversing Months of Progress: Covid-19 cases in the U.S. are rising again, reversing course after months of decline and threatening another setback in the return to normality. The seven-day average of new cases jumped to 57,695 yesterday, 9.5% above the prior week, marking the biggest jump since Jan. 12, according to the Johns Hopkins University. While that’s a fraction of the mid-January peak, the change in direction is worrisome as states fling open their economies, variant cases multiply and the country races to vaccinate as many people as possible. Nic Querolo and Emma Court have more.

Pfizer Trial for Young Children Begins: Pfizer said that dosing has begun in a pediatric study of its coronavirus vaccine, a trial that will ultimately involve more than 4,500 children under 12 years old. The two-part test will first study three dose levels in 144 children from age 6 months to 11 years, the company said in a statement yesterday. When the optimal dose is established for each of the three age groups, 4,500 more kids in the U.S. and Europe will be enrolled in the second part of the trial, the company said. Read more from Robert Langreth.

U.S. Pulls 95% of Medical Gown Stockpile: The U.S. medical stockpile has removed 25 million out of 26 million isolation gowns from its inventory while experts determine if they adequately protect health workers. The move to pull the gowns for further testing follows concerns raised over the government’s contracting process and safety of personal protective gear for workers on the front lines of the pandemic. If workers wear gowns without the correct protection level for a procedure, it puts them at risk of exposure. Read more from Shira Stein.

More U.S. Headlines:

More Vaccine Headlines:

World’s Vaccinations Pass 500 Million: More than half a billion Covid-19 vaccine doses have been administered worldwide, according to Bloomberg’s Vaccine Tracker, under four months into the rollout of the shots. So far, the vaccines have been given in 140 countries around the world. The vast majority have gone to rich, developed economies that secured early doses by the hundreds of millions, and of the doses given so far, 39% of have been administered in the U.S. and the EU. On average, around 12 million shots a day are being administered across the world. Find the Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker here.

EU Reveals Huge Vaccine Exports: The European Union has exported more Covid-19 doses to the rest of the world than it’s administered at home, piling more pressure onto European governments hoping to justify prolonged lockdowns to their increasingly exasperated voters. The numbers were revealed to EU leaders as they discussed how to turn around their vaccine campaign and deal with a new flare up in infections. They showed that drugmakers exported 77 million shots produced in the EU since Dec. 1, against 62 million doses dispensed. Viktoria Dendrinou and Nikos Chrysoloras have more.

Worst Death Rates Are in One Region: The countries with the highest Covid-19 mortality at the moment are all in eastern Europe, and some are still resisting the stricter lockdowns their doctors say are needed to halt the spread of the coronavirus. Nine of the 10 worst-hit nations globally in terms of deaths per capita are located in the region, according to data compiled by Bloomberg that cover the past week. The performance marks a stark turnaround from earlier days of the disease, when the continent’s east suffered far fewer fatalities than places like the U.K. and Spain. Read more from Piotr Skolimowski and Zoltan Simon.

More Global Headlines:

More Global Vaccine Headlines:

What Else to Know:

To contact the reporters on this story: Brandon Lee in Washington at blee@bgov.com; Alex Ruoff in Washington at aruoff@bgov.com; Jack Fitzpatrick in Washington at jfitzpatrick@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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