HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Biden Prods Senate to Act on Drug Prices

President Joe Biden said prescription drug prices in the U.S. are excessively high and that his expansive tax and spending bill would help lower costs, as he prodded the Senate to pass the legislation.

“We can agree that prescription drugs are outrageously expensive in this country,” Biden said yesterday at the White House. “It doesn’t need to be that way.”

The plan, which is part of the House-passed Build Back Better Act, would follow through on Democrats’ long-standing promise to direct the federal government to negotiate Medicare drug prices and to penalize drug companies for massive price spikes.

The president described patients who had to take half their doses of medication or go without needed medications altogether because of high prices. He praised drugmakers for developing lifesaving products but said they’re gouging consumers.

“Nobody is standing up for the patients,” Biden said. “Nobody has held the manufactures accountable—until now.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a letter yesterday to Democratic senators that the bill will make its way through committees over the next two weeks and that “our goal in the Senate is to pass the legislation before Christmas and get it to the president’s desk.”

It’s not clear, though, whether that timetable is realistic. Biden wasn’t as definitive as Schumer about the timing. Asked yesterday if he expects the bill to be completed by Christmas, the president said he wants it done “as early as we can get it.” But, he added, “I want to get it done no matter how long it takes.” Read more from Jennifer Epstein.

Happening on the Hill

Lawmakers Search for Path for Health Provisions: Congressional leaders looking for ways around a partisan impasse on raising the debt ceiling and automatic medicare cuts are considering procedural maneuvers linking them with a must-pass defense policy bill. One option being discussed is for the House to pass the defense bill agreed upon by Democrats and Republicans in both chambers, according to the aide, then separately pass a second bill with a one-time debt-ceiling increase with fast-track procedures in the Senate, which would also lift the so-called Paygo law to avoid automatic cuts in Medicare at the start of next year. Billy House and Laura Litvan have more on the effort.

  • Reps. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), Danny Davis (D-Ill.), and Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.) led 22 members of the Congressional Tri-Caucus in a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) urging the inclusion of language in any end-of-year legislative package to block the looming Medicare cuts. The lawmakers are seeking seek to block a portion of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services 2022 Physician Fee Schedule Final Rule that deals with updates to clinical labor data. “It is clear that any benefits of proceeding with the clinical labor policy at this time are far outweighed by the significantly negative impacts on PFS specialists, which will exacerbate health inequity, drive further health system consolidation, and undermine specialty care,” they wrote.

Bipartisan Call for GAO Review of Medical Advertising: Rep. Angie Craig (D-Minn.) and John Joyce (R-Pa.) led 17 lawmakers in asking the Government Accountability Office to review regulations on direct-to-consumer advertising practices for prescription products, such as contact lenses and orthodontic devices. “The rise of internet marketing and the push toward a DTC model of healthcare delivery represents a major change within our healthcare system. We are concerned that with the rapid growth of DTC advertising, appropriate regulatory oversight may be falling behind,” the members said in a letter.

Migrant Medical Treatment Investigation Reveals Substandard Care: Leading House Democrats want swift action from the Department of Homeland Security after an investigation concluded that an immigration detention center doctor did not “meet acceptable standards of care” when providing services to migrants. The Homeland Security and Oversight and Reform committees launched a joint investigation last year in response to reports of forced hysterectomies and other medical abuse at the Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia. The panels’ review of medical records was inconclusive on whether migrants were subject to forced surgeries but found the facility’s doctor was providing substandard care. Read more from Ellen M. Gilmer.

Lawmakers Query FDA on E-Cigarette Approvals: House Oversight and Reform Economic and Consumer Policy Subcommittee Chair Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) and top Republican Rep. Michael Cloud (R-Texas) sent a letter to the FDA requesting information about the agency’s progress in reviewing the pre-market tobacco product applications from e-cigarette manufacturers. “The request is the most recent effort by the Subcommittee to ensure FDA is exercising its full authority to protect children from harmful e-cigarette products,” the lawmakers said in an emailed statement, Kasia Klimasinska reports.

Biotech Sector on Track for Year Low after Sanders Tweet: Biotech stocks were on track to close at the lowest since November 2020 after Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) skewered the world’s leading vaccine makers, Pfizer and Moderna on Twitter yesterday. The slide follows last week’s 4.5% drop which capped off five weeks of losses for the sector, the longest losing streak since 2016. Sanders had tweeted, “This is obscene. Last week, 8 investors in Pfizer and Moderna became $10 billion richer as news about the Omicron variant spread. It’s time for these pharmaceutical companies to share their vaccines with the world and start controlling their greed. Enough is enough!” Read more from Cristin Flanagan reports.

The Coronavirus Pandemic

Fauci Says Ethics Drive Biden Covid-19 Policy More Than Trump’s: Top U.S. infectious-disease expert Anthony Fauci defended Biden’s Covid-19 strategy, saying the administration considers its ethical implications more than Trump’s did. The Trump administration considered ethics when making decisions on Covid-19 only “spottingly,” in comparison with Biden’s, Fauci said yesterday on a World Health Organization-led webcast on pandemic ethics. Fauci, who’s also director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said ethics needs to be at the base of policies related to travel and resource-sharing, including for vaccines. Read more from Thomas Mulier and Corinne Gretler.

NYC to Be First City in U.S. with Business Vaccine Mandate: New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city will become the nation’s first to impose a vaccine mandate on private-sector workers starting on Dec. 27, characterizing it as a “preemptive strike” to head off a potential upsurge in Covid-19 cases in the face of the omicron variant. His office said the mandate, which will take effect just days before de Blasio leaves office due to term limits, will cover roughly 184,000 businesses.

The city is also strengthening the vaccine rules for indoor dining, entertainment and fitness—which currently require people to have received at least one dose—to permit access only for those 12 and older who are fully vaccinated. Children ages 5 to 11 will need to show proof of one dose of the vaccine starting Dec. 14. Read more from Elaine Chen.

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What Else to Know

Hahn to Head Early Cancer Diagnostic Company: Stephen Hahn, the former top U.S. drug regulator, will head a company aimed at helping diagnose cancer during the early stages of the disease. The company, Harbinger Health, will use artificial intelligence and machine learning to analyze blood tests, helping doctors detect cancer early and intervene quickly, said Hahn, who was director of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration under former president Donald Trump. Read more from Fiona Rutherford.

SCOTUS Denies Bid to Revive Atrium Health Antitrust Case: The U.S. Supreme Court declined yesterday to consider reviving antitrust litigation against Atrium Health over claims that the multistate public hospital system has outgrown its original classification as a “local” government unit with statutory immunity against antitrust damages. The justices said they won’t review a ruling by a federal appeals court in Richmond, Va., which rejected a proposed class action challenging Atrium’s alleged practice of exploiting its market dominance to prohibit insurers from “steering” patients toward inexpensive health care. Read more from Mike Leonard.

More SCOTUS Headlines:

Walgreen Beats DOJ’s Virginia Medicaid Fraud Suit: Walgreens convinced a district court to dismiss a False Claims Act suit alleging that it bilked hundreds of thousands of dollars from Virginia’s Medicaid program by submitting false claims for hepatitis C drugs. Federal and Virginia prosecutors failed to sufficiently allege that a former Walgreen employee’s false records led to payments for medically unnecessary prescriptions, James P. Jones of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia said in a Dec. 3 opinion. Read more from Daniel Seiden.

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To contact the reporter on this story: Michaela Ross in Washington at mross@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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