HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Biden Seeks $22.5 Billion in Covid Funding

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The White House asked Congress for $22.5 billion for immediate new investment in testing, anti-viral treatments, and improved vaccines in anticipation of a possible new coronavirus variant and subsequent waves of cases, forming the majority of a broader $32.5 billion supplemental request that also includes money for Ukraine.

Republicans have said new Covid-related spending should be paid for by re-purposing unspent money from last year’s economic rescue plan. So far, Congress and President Joe Biden’s administration have yet to determine where those funds may come from.

The $22.5 billion figure includes $12.2 billion for procurement of vaccines—including those for children—as well as antiviral pills and monoclonal antibody treatments, $2 billion for testing, and other funds to prepare for any future variants. It also includes a request for $2.6 billion to expand vaccination efforts around the world, and $1.7 billion for Covid treatments, tests, and supplies for high-need overseas populations.

Both the Covid and Ukraine requests come amid negotiations over how to fund the government. Without congressional action, critical federal agencies will run out of money around March 11 and could struggle to respond adequately to either emergency. The White House is asking that the new funds be included in that effort. The request is designated as “emergency,” meaning it would come above and beyond regular agency levels.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said yesterday the Covid supplemental should be included in the full-year spending package being negotiated on the Hill. “Congress must include funding for Covid relief to assure our schools and our communities face minimal disruption in case another variant comes, and we should do it ASAP,” Schumer said in floor remarks. Josh Wingrove, Erik Wasson, and Roxana Tiron have more.

Happening on the Hill

Build Back Better Hearings to Come: Democrats in the Senate are planning to hold hearings on various sections of their stalled domestic policy agenda now that Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has signaled he’s open to supporting a partisan spending measure. Senate Aging Chairman Bob Casey (D-Pa.) said his panel is looking to schedule at least one hearing on home-health workers and the availability of home and community-based care.

Casey said Democrats want to remind their colleagues, as well as the American people, about the issues they had been hoping to tackle with the House-passed Build Back Better Act. “We want to start to highlight these issues again because a lot has happened in the last few months,” Casey said. Separately, a Senate Finance Committee aide said the panel is looking into hearings on areas under its jurisdiction, namely drug pricing, Alex Ruoff reports.

The House passed a $1.75 trillion spending package that included the crux of Democrats’ health agenda, from extending Obamacare’s bolstered premium subsides beyond this year to legislation to empower the government to negotiate with drugmakers. The House’s version effectively died in the 50-50 divided Senate when Manchin said he would not support it, although he’s indicated a desire for narrower legislation on drug pricing.

GOP Votes for End to Public Health Emergency Label: Senators agreed to a resolution to terminate the Covid public health emergency, a largely symbolic bid that shows the deep divide between the two parties on how to respond to the pandemic, now in its third year. The Senate voted 48-47 on the resolution (S.J. Res. 38) yesterday. The measure is not expected to clear the House nor be accepted by Biden. Ending the federal government’s public health emergency designation would have wide-ranging ramifications, the administration warned. The emergency powers have allowed the U.S. to fast-track vaccines, ease health regulations and greatly boost Medicaid funds for states. Alex Ruoff has more.

Federal Trade Commission Pick Gets Second Tie Vote: A panel of senators has again deadlocked over Biden‘s pick to join the Federal Trade Commission, though Alvaro Bedoya’s nomination can still advance to the full Senate. If confirmed, Bedoya would serve at an agency that lawmakers of both parties are increasingly depending on to help bolster online privacy protections and oversee social media platforms. He’d also get involved in probing prescription drug managers. The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee to vote 14-14 on his nomination. Mari Curi and Celine Castronuovo have more.

The Coronavirus Pandemic

Covid Pill Prescriber Rules Limit Reach of ‘Test to Treat’ Plan: Biden’s plan to launch one-stop shops for Covid-19 tests and treatment pills is raising concerns that some of the hardest hit Americans will remain without access to the therapy. Biden’s “Test to Treat” initiative, unveiled this week in his State of the Union address, would establish hundreds of locations where patients can immediately receive an authorized antiviral pill from Pfizer or Merck if they test positive for the virus.

The pills are only available by prescription, so the test-to-treat centers will be set up at local pharmacy-based clinics, community health centers, and other facilities that have in-house physicians or other authorized prescribers. Pharmacy groups say the restriction could harm minority and rural communities, which are typically less likely to have primary care providers and rely on independent pharmacists as their main source of care. Read more from Celine Castronuovo.

Misinformation Tests Doctors’ Free Speech Rights: Doctors who have called the coronavirus vaccines a hoax or falsely claim it changes people’s DNA may infuriate public health watchdogs, but the First Amendment may protect medical professionals from efforts by state licensing boards to crack down on false information. Health professionals speaking outside the context of a one-on-one doctor-patient relationship usually enjoy the full free-speech protections of the First Amendment, so disciplining doctors for public remarks will be a matter of “threading the needle,” one legal expert said. Christopher Brown has more.

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What Else to Know Today

Florida Lawmakers Send 15-Week Abortion Ban to Governor’s Desk: Florida would ban abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy under legislation sent late Thursday to the governor’s desk. The bill (H.B. 5) is similar to a Mississippi law that’s before the U.S. Supreme Court. “As technology has gotten better, the courts have been able to take new positions as it relates to being pro-life,” Senate President Wilton Simpson (R) told reporters in Tallahassee, Fla., last night before his chamber’s vote. “We’re giving 15 weeks, as a state. And the U.S. Supreme Court, it hasn’t yet, but I believe they will uphold that.” Read more from Jennifer Kay.

SCOTUS Lets Kentucky Official Defend Abortion Curbs: The Supreme Court ruled that Kentucky’s Republican attorney general can take over the defense of a strict abortion law after the state’s top health official, a Democrat, stopped defending the measure once an appeals court struck it down. Voting 8-1, the justices rejected a federal appeals court’s conclusion that Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron (R) waited too long to get involved. The case centers on procedural issues, not substantive questions of abortion rights. The law would ban the most common abortion technique after 15 weeks, Greg Stohr reports.

Purdue’s Sacklers Reach $6 Billion Opioid Deal With States: Members of the billionaire Sackler family that own Purdue Pharma agreed to a bigger opioid-painkiller settlement with the handful of states that helped overturn its prior deal, bringing the drugmaker closer to a resolution of all its liabilities over the highly addictive medicines.

The family has struck a deal worth as much as $6 billion with the dissenting states, a court-appointed mediator in Purdue’s bankruptcy case said in a report yesterday. The agreement will also give Sackler family members broad immunity from future opioid lawsuits—a sore spot with opioid victims and some state officials. More than 500,000 Americans have died from drug overdoses over the last two decades as part of the opioid epidemic. Read more from Jeremy Hill and Jef Feeley.

Drug Czar Taps States for Addiction Treatment Push: States grappling with America’s opioids crisis have a new road map from the administration to direct users toward public health services and away from the criminal justice system. The Law Enforcement and Other First Responder Deflection Act, a model law floated yesterday by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, gives state law enforcement legislative suggestions on how to steer those with substance abuse and mental health disorders toward getting treatment. It also encourages alternatives to “unnecessary admission” to emergency rooms. Read more from Ian Lopez.

HHS Delays Trump-Era Review of Agency Rules: The Health and Human Services Department yesterday delayed a last-minute Trump administration rule that would have caused health regulations to expire if they weren’t reviewed every 10 years. The HHS released a final rule that postpones Trump’s rule until Sept. 22. The Trump rule was published in the Federal Register on Jan. 19, 2021, one day before Biden took office, and its effective date had already been pushed back once before to March 22. Under the rule, HHS would have five years to assess existing regulations that are over 10 years old. Shira Stein has more.

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To contact the reporters on this story: Brandon Lee in Washington at; Alex Ruoff in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Zachary Sherwood at; Giuseppe Macri at; Michaela Ross at

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