HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Biden Grows Health Team; Works with HHS

The Biden transition team has added five people to its Health and Human Services review unit and is likely to add more in the coming days, two former HHS officials familiar with President-elect Joe Biden’s plans said.

Three of the new team members added to the list on the transition’s website—David Kessler, a former FDA commissioner; Vivek Murthy, the former surgeon general; and Marcella Nunez-Smith, a physician at Yale School of Medicine —were leading Biden’s Coronavirus Task Force. They’re expected to remain central to Biden’s coronavirus team, the former HHS officials said.

Two others added to the HHS review team list have a long history with Biden. Jeff Zients was a top economic adviser to Obama and also served as an economic adviser in Biden’s transition. Danielle Carnival was the chief of staff and a senior policy director for the White House Cancer Moonshot Task Force, which Biden spearheaded under President Barack Obama.

The former officials expect the Biden team to name even more people to its HHS review team in coming days to lay the groundwork for Biden’s takeover. HHS is responsible for nearly one-quarter of all federal domestic spending and administers more grant dollars than every other U.S. agency combined, Alex Ruoff reports.

Progressive groups are pressuring the transition team to hire people who favor left-of-center policies, such as “Medicare for All” and government controls on drug prices. The Progressive Change Institute, Center for Popular Democracy, MoveOn, Public Citizen, Sunrise Movement, Economic Policy Institute, and other groups recently sent a list of 400 suggested names to the Biden transition team. Read the list here.

Biden Says Trump Staff Cooperating on Virus: Bidensaid his transition team will not be “so far behind the curve” now that the Trump administration has begun cooperating on the fight against the coronavirus and providing access to intelligence reports after a three-week delay.

“We’re already working out meeting with the Covid team in the White House,” Biden said in an interview on “NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt.”

“And how to not only distribute, but get from a vaccine being distributed, to a person being able to get vaccinated. So I think we’re going to not be so far behind the curve, as we thought we might be in the past,” he said. Read more from Gregory Korte.

  • Biden yesterday also said that his staff had spoken to Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert. Biden said he had not spoken to Fauci himself yet, but he has widely praised Fauci’s efforts to stem the spread of the coronavirus around the country. Read more from Magan Crane.
  • Separately, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar yesterday said the department has been in touch with Biden’s staff, Vivek Shankar reports.

The Coronavirus Pandemic

Guidance Coming on Shortened Quarantine Period: Federal health officials are working on new guidance that would shorten the recommended 14-day quarantine period after potential exposure to the coronavirus, the top U.S. virus-testing official said. Officials are beginning to see a preponderance of evidence that people could spend less time in quarantine if they also test negative for Covid-19, said Admiral Brett Giroir, an assistant secretary at HHS, on a call with reporters. Read more from Emma Court and Jacquie Lee.

Vaccine Rollout May Come Before CDC Panel Meets: U.S. distribution of a Covid-19 vaccine might not wait for the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices to recommend how the allocation process should work, Azar said today. “We are not dependent on any delay for ACIP in terms of helping to advise states on their prioritization,” he said during a Operation Warp Speed press briefing. But the government plans to ship out the first 40 million doses within 24 hours of an FDA emergency authorization, and Azar signaled it won’t wait if ACIP hasn’t met. Jeannie Baumann has more.

Warren Pushes Funds for ‘Medically Underserved’: Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee member Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) plans to unveil a Senate version of a measure by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) to provide $8 billion in funds for “community organizations in medically underserved communities.” The coronavirus has “laid bare the systemic racism embedded in the U.S. health care system,” Warren wrote in a statement. Read the statement here.

Airlines Stir Doubts With ‘Flying Is Safe’ Claim: Airlines have loudly insisted that it’s safe to fly during the pandemic, and U.S. travel is surging before Thanksgiving despite a nationwide spike in virus cases. Yet top U.S. infectious disease experts say the findings underpinning the carriers’ safety claims aren’t that conclusive. Concerned about the “misinterpretation” of the findings, researchers on a Defense Department study that’s been widely cited by the industry added a cautionary revision. Read more from Alan Levin.

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What Else to Know

Obamacare Program for Pre-Existing Conditions Updated: The Trump administration is changing calculations for a complicated Obamacare program intended to ensure that health insurers are paid when covering the sickest patients. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services released a final rule yesterday aimed at improving the patient data used to determine how insurers pay one another for covering high-cost enrollees. Read more from Sara Hansard.

Amazon Pharmacy Play Raises Privacy Queries: Amazon’s push into delivering prescription drugs puts it in the crosshairs of everyone from state attorneys general to data thieves—who will all be scrutinizing how the online commerce giant protects sensitive patient information. Amazon’s new online pharmacy business will sell brand and generic prescription medications that consumers can buy through insurance or their Prime accounts for a discount. Collecting that data means Amazon will have to navigate through various overlapping federal and state privacy and data security laws. Read more from Jacquie Lee and Jake Holland.

Abortion Insurance Bill Rule Revival Sought: Agency regulations requiring health insurers to bill customers separately for insurance to pay for abortions should be reinstated because they are “more consistent” with a law requiring separate payments than a previous rule that allowed the coverage to appear as a separate line item on a single bill, HHS said. HHS asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit to overturn a lower court ruling vacating the rules requiring insurers to send customers two bills—one for abortion coverage and one for all other health coverage—rather than a single bill. Read more from Mary Anne Pazanowski.

ACA Birth Control Opt-Out Valid, White House Says: Trump administration rules granting employers with religious or moral objections the right to opt out of providing workers health plans that pay for birth control are valid and should be upheld because the federal agencies fully considered the arguments for and against adopting them, those agencies told a federal court. Thus, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California should reject claims that they arbitrarily and capriciously adopted the regulations, the Trump administration said. Read more from Pazanowski.

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Editor’s Note: Bloomberg Government’s Health Care Briefing will not publish Thursday, Nov. 26 and Friday, Nov. 27. We’ll resume publication Monday, Nov. 30.

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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