HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Biden Separates Health from Economic Plans

President Joe Biden last night for the first time explicitly called for separating his economic and health care plans, a move that hasn’t been welcomed by members of his party, Alex Ruoff reports.

Biden in his address to Congress said this year he’ll work with lawmakers to give Medicare the power to negotiate with drugmakers and use the savings to the government from lower drug prices to strengthen the Affordable Care Act and expand Medicare’s coverage and benefits.

Biden said such a package can be done “without costing taxpayers one penny.”

“We pay the highest prescription drug prices of anywhere in the world right here in America—nearly three times for the same drug as much as other countries pay,” Biden said. “We can change that. Let’s do what we’ve always talked about in all the years I was down here in this Congress.”

Biden’s family aid plan omits drug-pricing and any proposal to expand public health insurance. That plan only proposes making a temporary Obamacare expansion permanent.

Key Democrats on Congress this week have rejected the call to separate these health care goals from Biden’s tax rewrite and economic package. Lawmakers trying to lower prescription drug prices and expand Medicare may still try to tie those initiatives to Biden’s plan.

Democrats say they want to pass major health-care legislation as part of the one or more packages they will advance to implement Biden’s agenda. Some fear it will be the last opportunity before the 2022 elections to fulfill promises to voters to take on the high prices of prescription drugs in the U.S. and other rising health costs. Read more.

Related:

BGOV OnPoint: Biden’s $1.8 Trillion Family Aid Plan

Employers Fear Fallout on Biden Health Subsidies Plan: Biden’s plans for reshaping health-care coverage could have conflicting consequences for employers—reducing costs by lowering the Medicare age yet potentially undermining company health plans if younger, healthier employees leave for cheaper, subsidized Obamacare coverage. The plan includes $200 billion in expanded tax credits to permanently subsidize health insurance purchased on the Affordable Care Act exchanges. Read more from Sara Hansard.

Employers, Tired of ‘Bloated’ Health Costs, Back Public Option: Many employers who provide health coverage for their workers want the option of a government-run health plan and a lower Medicare age. They also support capping hospital prices in noncompetitive markets, as well as having the government negotiate prices for high-cost, sole-source drugs or set limits on drug price increases.

Those findings were from a survey of 302 employers with at least 5,000 employees released today by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Purchaser Business Group on Health. The companies were surveyed in December 2020 and January. Read more from Sara Hansard.

Biden Re-Ups Health Innovation Goal: Biden last night also reiterated his goal for the National Institutes of Health to create an agency to develop breakthroughs to enhance health, a program akin to the Defense Department’s DARPA. “The National Institutes of Health, the NIH – should create a similar Advanced Research Projects Agency for health,” Biden said in his speech, Laura Curtis reports. Biden said the agency would “develop breakthroughs – to prevent, detect, and treat diseases like Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and cancer.”

Happening on the Hill

Hearings on the Hill:

  • Health Antitrust: The House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial, and Administrative Law meets for a hearing on anticompetitive conduct and consolidation in health care markets.
  • Telehealth: The House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee holds a hearing on telehealth.

NIH to Issue Long-Term Covid-19 Research Grants: More than $1 billion worth of research grants will go out in the next three weeks to study the long-term effects of Covid-19, in what NIH Director Francis Collins called an “unprecedented” effort to figure out why symptoms of the illness can linger for months and how to help patients. “Long Covid and the people living with them can no longer be a hidden toll of the pandemic,” Collins said yesterday at a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing.

The grants follow up on a February request for research ideas on long-term Covid-19. Collins said the NIH received 273 responses to that call for proposals, and awards will be announced in the coming weeks. Intensive lab and initiative studies will be underway by the summer, he said. Preliminary data suggest anywhere from 10% to 30% of patients have symptoms lasting for months, Collins said. Read more from Jeannie Baumann.

Panel Pushes Eased Telehealth Rules: Key senators yesterday voiced support for continuing the loosened telehealth restrictions for Medicare enacted in response to the spread of Covid-19. Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the heads of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, both said that expanding access to telehealth services helped U.S. health-care providers respond to the increase in mental health emergencies in 2020. “Telehealth has been a key to treatment during Covid and it must not be rolled back post-Covid,” Burr said.

The pair join key House lawmakers, such as Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), head of the Energy and Commerce Committee’s health panel, in trying to extend the temporary changes made during the pandemic, Alex Ruoff reports.

In 2020, the government temporarily authorized Medicare to pay for telehealth outside rural areas and add more than 100 new telehealth-eligible services. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services also allowed some health visits by phone, waiving requirements for audio-visual technologies, and increased what it pays to doctors for some telehealth visits to make them comparable to an in-person trip. As a result, Medicare beneficiaries used telehealth for 44% of their primary care visits in April, compared to under 1% in February 2020, HHS found.

Democrats Push Shot-Makers to Ship to India: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and others sent letters to Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson seeking information on their plans to widen access to coronavirus vaccines and vaccine manufacturing capacity across the globe, according to a statement, which specifically said India is in especially desperate need. Find their letters here.

  • The U.S. will become an arsenal of Covid-19 vaccines for other countries, Biden said in his first address to Congress, Teaganne Finn reports.
  • U.S. assistance flights will start arriving in India today and will continue into next week, the White House said in a statement. Aid will total more than $100 million, the statement said, Kasia Klimasinska reports.

Read more:

Hearing on OSHA’s Covid-19 Standard Delayed: A House hearing on the status of OSHA’s proposed Covid-19 emergency temporary standard has been postponed. The April 30 hearing before the House Education and Labor Committee’s Workforce Protections Subcommittee got postponed yesterday, the same week that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration forwarded that rule to the Information and Regulatory Affairs. Read more from Bruce Rolfsen.

More on the Pandemic

Biden’s Speech Urges Vaccines, Skips Masks and Pivots From Covid: Biden’s speech to Congress focused heavily on the promise of a post-pandemic rebound, with only brief warnings of the virus’s staying power and slowing vaccination rates, and no mention of masks. Biden’s first speech to Congress yesterday was centered on policies designed to lead America out of the pandemic, including trillions of dollars in new spending designed to propel the recovery.

But, as he touted his recovery plan, Biden didn’t dwell on the pandemic that has fueled the crisis in the first place. He took note of its toll and pleaded with Americans to get their vaccine doses, but didn’t reprise any public health advice on masks or other measures and then pivoted swiftly to other policy initiatives. Read more from Josh Wingrove and Elaine Chen.

Vaccine Test Consent Forms Seen as ‘Ridiculous’ Legal Tomes: Volunteers participating in Covid-19 vaccine clinical trials waded through paperwork that was longer and more complex than needed and included ancillary details, a study published yesterday found. An evaluation of informed consent documents from trials by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca found they averaged more than 21 pages long and took around 35 minutes to read. The analysis signals pharmaceutical researchers continue to fall short of making the informed consent process accessible to study volunteers. Read more from Jeannie Baumann.

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What Else to Know

U.S. Clears Rule Setting Framework for 2022 ACA: A final rule setting the pay structure and other policies for Obamacare plans in 2022 has cleared a White House review and could soon be published. This annual rule from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services finalizes payment parameters related to its risk adjustment and data validation programs. It also sets parameters for patient cost-sharing, like copayments and deductibles, Sara Hansard reports.

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