HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Biden Spotlights ARPA-H, Cancer Moonshot

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President Joe Biden’s spotlight on his cancer moonshot and a proposed new research entity in the State of the Union address on Tuesday signals the administration’s reliance on biomedical innovation as a vehicle to advance bipartisan initiatives through Congress.

Lawmakers told Bloomberg Government they’re hoping to fund a new medical research agency as part of a fiscal 2022 spending bill, which must pass by March 11.

Biden ended his speech by outlining a new “unity” agenda with a heavy emphasis on health policies. He said the success of the cancer moonshot will involve Congress agreeing, on a bipartisan basis, to fund the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H, a new entity that aims to speed up cutting-edge biomedical discoveries.

“I call on Congress to fund ARPA-H, the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health,” he said. “It’s based on DARPA—the Defense Department project that led to the Internet, GPS, and so much more. ARPA-H will have a singular purpose: to drive breakthroughs in cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and more. A unity agenda for the nation.”

Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the top Democrat and Republican appropriators on the health spending panel, both told Bloomberg Government yesterday they’re pushing to get money and authorization for ARPA-H soon, possibly in an upcoming omnibus appropriations measure. “We’ll just see here in the next few days how much we can put together,” Blunt said yesterday.

But he noted appropriators’ ability to put ARPA-H funds into fiscal 2022 bills may depend on the whether language to authorize ARPA-H can be attached. “There’s no authorizing bill out yet. Frankly, they got about a year behind. They should’ve been doing this last March,” he said. Jeannie Baumann and Alex Ruoff have more.

Manchin Offers Path to Revive Biden Agenda: Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) outlined a path to revive Biden’s economic agenda, a day after Biden’s speech that laid out a version of the Build Back Better bill designed to appeal to Manchin and focused on health care costs.

Manchin said he could support a slimmed down version that divides any revenue raised between shrinking the deficit and new spending. His proposal would partially roll back the 2017 tax cuts by raising rates on upper-income Americans and corporations, with half the increased revenue going toward “fighting inflation” or deficit reduction. “The other half you can spend on a 10-year program, whatever you think is the highest priority,” he said. Read more from Erik Wasson.

Happening on the Hill

Senate Floor: The Senate will vote on a resolution (S.J. Res. 38) from Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) to end the national emergency related to the Covid-19 pandemic that then-President Donald Trump declared on March 13, 2020.

The Senate yesterday adopted another resolution from Marshall blocking the Biden administration’s requirement that health-care workers be vaccinated against the virus (S.J. Res. 32). The House hasn’t considered similar proposals, which the president could veto if they reached him. The measure would disapprove of the mandate under the Congressional Review Act and was passed 49-44, with six Democrats missing the vote, Alex Ruoff reports.

House Floor: House lawmakers will complete consideration today of a bill (H.R. 3967) that would expand eligibility for health-care benefits and disability compensation for veterans exposed to toxic substances. BGOV Bill Summary: H.R. 3967, Toxic-Exposed Veterans’ Benefits

Senate Panel Sets Vote for ‘Next Pandemic’ Bill: A sweeping pandemic readiness measure will go before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on March 15, a GOP aide told Bloomberg Government. Chairwoman Patty Murray and ranking member Richard Burr (R-N.C.) released a draft version of the PREVENT Pandemics Act earlier this year with the aim of taking the lessons learned from this pandemic to bolster the U.S.’s public health infrastructure and health security systems and assist the nation’s response to the next outbreak. Alex Ruoff and Jeannie Baumann have more.

Kaine Has Long Covid, Introduces Bill to Address Symptoms: Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) is all too familiar with the harrowing effects of Long Covid. And yesterday, he introduced legislation to help other Americans struggling with the same mysterious illness. The Comprehensive Access to Resources and Education (CARE) for Long Covid Act is Kaine’s solution. The bill, co-sponsored by Sens. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.), aims to expand Long Covid research and improve access to treatment. Read more from Madison Muller.

Democrats Urge Appropriators on Covid-19 Therapy Funds: Reps. Bill Pascrell, Jr. (D-N.J.) and Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.) pressed congressional appropriations to provide additional money for new Covid-19 therapies in the fiscal 2022 government spending package under negotiations. “Giving the American people access to new treatments is one of the federal government’s most critical missions during this phase of the COVID-19 response,” they and 21 other members told House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and ranking member Kay Granger (R-Texas) in a letter. Read it here.

Democrats Scrutinize PhRMA on Price Hikes: Democrats are pushing the head of the nation’s leading pharmaceutical lobbying organization on whether the industry collectively agreed to hold off on increasing drug prices in 2021, when Democrats first took power in Washington with a vow to tackle rising costs of drugs. A group of Democrats wrote to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America expressing concern over analyses that show average price increases of over 5% for brand name drugs in January 2022 “was almost twice as high as overall inflation for medical care services for all of 2021.” Read their statement here.

The Coronavirus Pandemic

White House Unveils New Covid-19 Roadmap: The White House will expand access to Covid-19 treatments and research into the long-term effects of the virus, part of a new U.S. roadmap for a return to normal society. Health officials offered more details on the administration’s National Covid-19 Preparedness Plan at an event yesterday, the first press briefing that saw Biden’s health aides gather maskless, in-person and sitting side-by-side, in a symbolic nod to diminishing risks. The plan will require near- and long-term funding, they said, without specifying amounts.

In his State of the Union address, Biden said the administration would launch test-to-treat centers at pharmacies, where people can immediately receive Covid-19 antiviral therapy if they test positive. He also announced an expanded supply of Pfizer’s Covid-19 treatment Paxlovid for this month, and said U.S. households will soon be able to order another free tranche of test kits from the federal government. His plan signals a pivot away from crisis-level management of Covid-19, though officials stopped well short of saying the fight is over.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky downplayed comparing current levels and those of the summer, saying vaccination, boosters, therapies and the omicron strain make total case counts a less effective signal of severity. “How these cases are in February of March of 2022 is just very different than where we were in June of 2021,” Walensky said. “It’s not necessary that we compare exactly the same number of cases.”

The plan, developed over weeks in consultation with independent experts, includes four broad components—Covid-19 prevention and treatment, preparation for new variants, minimizing shutdowns of society and vaccinating the world. It calls for centers to study “Long Covid,: a lasting syndrome that can even affect people whose infections didn’t cause symptoms, and a nationwide effort to curb burnout and strengthen mental-health care. Read more from Josh Wingrove, Emma Court, and Jeannie Baumann.

Study Says Omicron Much Deadlier Than Flu: The omicron strain of Covid-19 is at least 40% more lethal than seasonal flu, according Japanese scientists, underscoring the potential danger of lifting pandemic curbs too quickly and underestimating the virus’s ongoing health risks. The case fatality rate of omicron in Japan, based on cumulative excess deaths and the number of infections since January, was about 0.13%, according to an analysis by scientists who advise the country’s health minister. While that is significantly lower than the 4.25% case fatality rate from earlier in the outbreak, it’s still higher than the 0.006% to 0.09% seen with seasonal flu, they said. Read more from Kanoko Matsuyama.

Hamburg Tapped for Health Infrastructure Role: Former FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg has been tapped to lead a new commission by the Commonwealth Fund to restructure the U.S. public health infrastructure at the federal, state and local levels, Jeannie Baumann reports. The commission will review recent reports and assessments from the Covid-19 pandemic response to develop policy recommendations for all levels of government. That report is scheduled for release later this spring, the Commonwealth Fund said.

Rising Nursing Salaries May Hit Nursing Homes: Average hikes in nursing wages have doubled compared with pre-pandemic rates, putting nursing homes across the U.S. at risk of closure, according to a study produced by CliftonLarsonAllenLLP. Nursing homes have been at the epicenter of the pandemic due to the congregate nature of facilities, the vulnerability of residents, lack of personal protective equipment and poor vaccination uptake among employees. They have been forced to turn away patients due to labor shortages. Read more from Allie Reed.

Abortion Protesters May Proceed in Covid-19 Order Case: Two North Carolina localities will face a suit by anti-abortion protesters over a Covid-19 stay-at-home order because they properly alleged that the provision violated their religious free exercise rights, a federal court in the state said. Read more from Mary Anne Pazanowski.

More on the Pandemic:

What Else to Know Today

Drug-Pricing Debate Resurfaces Amid Pressure From Pharmacies: Independent pharmacies and the White House are pressuring the Federal Trade Commission to set its sights on the reimbursement rates set by pharmacy benefit managers, potentially shifting the larger debate in Washington around the ballooning cost of prescription drugs. A study by the FTC could be the first step toward meaningful changes in the role played by PBMs—companies that dictate prescription drug benefits on behalf of health insurers and employers.

The FTC is likely to move forward with a study in the coming months after an initial vote deadlocked 2-2 on Feb. 17 over concerns about its scope. The original study would have examined whether PBMs’ drug price-setting practices unfairly favor affiliated pharmacies at the expense of independent or specialty ones. Read more from Shira Stein and Alex Ruoff.

Texas Blocked From Investigating Transgender Teen’s Parents: A Texas judge temporarily blocked the state’s child protective services agency from investigating the parents of a transgender teen for alleged child abuse. The request came in litigation over the letter Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) issued Feb. 22 directing the state’s child welfare agency to investigate families for child abuse if they’re suspected of seeking gender-affirming care for a child with gender dysphoria. The letter followed an unprecedented opinion from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) that said gender-affirming care, including “sex change” procedures and puberty-blocking drugs, can constitute child abuse when performed on minors. Read more from Lydia Wheeler.

More Headlines:

With assistance from Alex Ruoff and Jeannie Baumann

To contact the reporter on this story: Brandon Lee in Washington at

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

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