HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Biden Talks Covid, Abortion in Big Speech

President Joe Biden vowed to turn the page on the coronavirus pandemic in a State of the Union address intended to reassure a nation on edge.

In an unexpected move that may cause unease among some Americans still wary of the virus, Biden urged people who have been working from home for nearly two years to return to their offices.

While urging people to resume more normal lifestyles as the pandemic recedes, he sought to ease the concerns of those who might worry the government is retreating too quickly from restrictions such as social distancing and mask requirements.

Pills to treat Covid-19 will soon be available on-demand at pharmacies immediately after someone tests positive, Biden said. Pfizer is working to escalate production of its pill, which has been shown to be highly effective at preventing severe disease and death in clinical trials. The company is aiming to deliver a million courses of the treatment this month and over 2 million in April, Biden said.

He called on Congress to dedicate new funding for Covid-19 initiatives, including efforts to prepare for the arrival of any new variant.

The president outlined a revamped economic plan to replace an earlier proposal, Build Back Better, that was rejected by Republicans and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). The measures in his rebranded plan concentrate on two issues at the front of mind for most Americans: rising consumer prices and the still-lingering pandemic. Read more from Jordan Fabian and Josh Wingrove report.

He also pushed for cutting the prices for prescription drugs and childcare, along with reduced healthcare premiums, and more affordable long-term care, Katia Dmitrieva reports. Biden voiced his support for recent legislative initiatives to lower insulin costs to $35 a day.

After the speech, Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), who faces a competitive reelection, said he spoke to Biden in the well of the House about the push to lower the cost of prescription drugs, especially insulin, Zach C. Cohen reports. Kildee said both agreed it was possible to get it done. “If we can make the case, which he helped do tonight, I think we got a shot,” Kildee said in an interview. Kildee downplayed the cost of a cap on insulin to insurance companies, saying “market forces” and “pressure to negotiate prices” help.

Turning to other legislative requests, Biden said he would “soon” send Congress a request for supplemental spending on free vaccines, treatments, tests and masks. Lawmakers aim to enact a three-part spending package including Ukraine aid, Covid-19 relief, and a 12-bill government funding package by the end of next week, but the addition of supplemental measures has complicated negotiations on the broader omnibus, Jack Fitzpatrick reports.

Biden also urged Congress to protect a woman’s right to an abortion as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to rule this year on whether a Mississippi ban on the procedure after 15 weeks can remain. During arguments Dec. 1, the court’s six conservatives all suggested they were likely to uphold the Mississippi ban. And five signaled they were interested in going further and eliminating the constitutional right to abortion altogether, Jeff Green reports.

  • Biden also touted his Cancer Moonshot initiative, as well as the creation of an Advanced Research Project Agency. Drug companies should be able to speed up testing of promising new cancer therapies under a set of FDA guidance released separately yesterday that aim to help navigate challenges in oncology clinical trials. The Food and Drug Administration released three guidance documents on cancer clinical trials, two of which aim to expedite development of oncology drugs and biologics. The third encourages drug companies to include older adults, particularly those over 75, in their cancer drug studies. Read more from Jeannie Baumann.
  • The president conveyed a renewed focus on operations of nursing homes as the White House plans to examine the roles that private equity and real estate investment trusts play in the ownership of U.S. long-term care facilities, and whether these corporate structures are serving the best interests of facility residents. Read more from Tony Pugh.
  • Biden also urged Congress to boost spending to train more mental health doctors. Simplifying how people get mental health care is a key part of Biden’s health agenda. Alex Ruoff has more. Also part of that agenda is limiting the use of children’s data by social media companies for targeted ads, as well as their use of addictive platforms. “We must hold social media platforms accountable for the national experiment they’re conducting on our children for profit,” he said. Read more from Andrea Vittorio.

Happening on the Hill

Senate Floor: The Senate at noon today will consider S.J. Res. 32, a Congressional Review Act resolution from Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) to block the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ vaccine mandate for health care workers, Nancy Ognanovich reports. The measure may find support in the Senate, but would likely not clear the House and would ultimately be vetoed by Biden.

House Floor: The House today plans to begin consideration of a bill (H.R. 3967) that would expand eligibility for health-care benefits and disability compensation for veterans exposed to toxic substances.

Progressives Skeptical of Changes to Medicare Pilot: Progressive Democrats are urging the Biden administration to make more changes to a proposed redesign of a Trump-era Medicare pilot program that looks to revamp the way doctors are reimbursed. Democrats have criticized the pilot program, saying it’s an effort to privatize Medicare quietly and the proposed changes to to the global and professional direct contracting model may not go far enough.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said she’s diving into the details of the changes to ensure they don’t allow profiteering at the expense of seniors in the program. “This particular model was designed to maximize profit for private equity and other outside investors and minimize care for the people who need it,” she said. Read more from Alex Ruoff.

Pharma, Tech, Defense Want R&D Break Restored in Funding Bill: Leaders of over 30 major companies, including Intel, AT&T, IBM, Genentech, and Northrop Grumman, have called on Congress to include the restoration of a more generous research and development tax benefit in an upcoming government funding bill. The letter from a group of defense, technology, and pharmaceutical companies branding themselves as the R&D Coalition calls for reversal of a planned sunset of a benefit that allowed companies to immediately write down R&D costs from their tax bill. Read more from Colin Wilhelm.

Anti-Abortion Group Targets Arizona’s Kelly: The Susan B. Anthony List yesterday said it’s launching a $1 million statewide ad campaign targeting Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) after yesterday’s unsuccessful Senate vote on H.R. 3755, which would codify protections under the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Kelly is a co-sponsor of the legislation. In a statement, the Susan B. Anthony List said CatholicVote Civic Action contributed $100,000 toward the ad campaign, which will run on cable and broadcast TV in the Phoenix and Tucson area for two weeks, according to the group.

The Coronavirus Pandemic

Vaccines Protected Kids, Teens After Omicron: Covid-19 vaccines protected children and adolescents from severe disease even after the immune-evasive omicron variant emerged, according to findings from U.S. government analyses. After omicron became dominant in the U.S. last year, protection against infection and urgent care visits declined for 5- to 17-year-olds who had received primary inoculations, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data released yesterday. However, fully vaccinated children and teens were still less likely to get infected than their unvaccinated peers, the CDC said, Fiona Rutherford reports.

Hospital Worker Vaccination Rate Data Withheld: The Biden administration said it will hold back data on how many hospital workers are vaccinated until October 2022. Meanwhile, patients across the country continue to delay medical care over fear of catching the virus in hospitals. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has three month’s worth of data on vaccine rates that it started requiring hospitals to submit Oct. 1, 2021. “CMS will not be updating this measure with quarterly refreshes until the agency has a full year of data in October 2022,” a CMS spokesperson said. Read more from Allie Reed.

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What Else to Know Today

NIH Foundation Taps Former CDC Head: Former CDC Director and Merck executive Julie L. Gerberding will take on a critical role overseeing the National Institutes of Health’s public-private partnerships, including a project to speed Covid-19 therapeutics. The Foundation for the National Institutes of Health announced Gerberding will serve as its next chief executive officer, effective May 16. Gerberding joined the foundation’s board yesterday. Jeannie Baumann has more.

Justices Probe Proof Burden in ‘Pill Mill’ Prosecutions: Lawyers for doctors accused of operating like drug dealers sparred with the Justice Department at the Supreme Court in a case that could affect medical practice nationwide. Hearing argument yesterday against the backdrop of the national opioid crisis, the high court sought to settle exactly what burden of proof the government has when it seeks to lock doctors up for prescribing controlled substances. Justices questioned whether the U.S. government’s burden is high enough in cases where defendants face stiff prison terms. Read more from Jordan S. Rubin.

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With assistance from Nancy Ognanovich

To contact the reporters on this story: Brandon Lee in Washington at blee@bgov.com; Zach C. Cohen in Washington at zcohen@bloombergindustry.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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