HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Biden Team Presses Congress on Covid Funds

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The Biden administration is warning lawmakers that the U.S. doesn’t have enough money on hand to respond to future Covid-19 variants, stockpile vaccines or develop new technologies.

Funds for pandemic response—including testing, vaccine distribution and other medical supplies—have been either spent or set aside already for purchases, according to a Department of Health and Human Services document obtained by Bloomberg News. All funds provided so far have been spent or earmarked for use.

Early in Joe Biden’s presidency, the U.S. Congress passed a $1.9 trillion federal aid package known as the American Rescue Plan that replenished funds needed to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic. But now nearly all the health-specific resources from the rescue plan, as well as other bills, have been spent or allocated, including resources that are financing ongoing omicron response efforts, according to a Biden administration official familiar with the funding.

Another Biden administration official said that if Congress doesn’t quickly provide additional money, the U.S. could once again be caught off-guard if another Covid-19 variant strikes, as it was when the omicron wave hit last last year.

Bipartisan consensus is critical to ensuring the U.S. doesn’t run low on vaccines, tests or treatments, that official said, speaking on condition of anonymity about the matter. The administration will be unable to prepare for a potential new wave without congressional action, the official said. Read more from Riley Griffin.

Happening on the Hill

Schumer Moves Women’s Health, Abortion Rights Bill Toward Vote: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) last night took procedural steps to set up a vote on the Women’s Health Protection Act of 2021 (H.R. 3755) later this month, Zach C. Cohen reports. The House-passed legislation would codify Roe v. Wade. “Across the country the assault on women’s health care has intensified to levels not seen in decades—so the Senate is going to vote when we return—on February 28th—to take action,” Schumer said. The measure is likely to be blocked by Republicans. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) said in a statement he will vote to allow debate on the measure.

Warnock Unveils Insurance Bill for BBB That Schumer Calls Priority: Legislation from Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) that would take aim at insulin costs is also a priority for Democrats, Schumer said last night. Warnock introduced a bill mimicking a key part of his party’s stalled $1.75 trillion spending package. Warnock’s bill would restrict what those with insurance pay for insulin at $35 a month. That cap was a popular and significant provision of the Build Back Better Act, which has passed the House but not the Senate due to opposition from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). Democrats have been looking for ways to fight rising inflation and reduce costs for Americans, including tackling drug costs.

However, many Senate Democrats aren’t ready to move on from key parts of BBB. Senate Finance Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) told reporters he thinks the party could united around the legislation’s health-care provisions, which includes the insulin cap as well as empowering the government to negotiate with drugmakers and extending bolstered premium subsidies for people on the Affordable Care Act, and energy goals, Alex Ruoff reports.

Senate Clears Funding Bill to Avert Saturday Shutdown: The Senate cleared a three-week funding bill on an 65 to 27 vote, averting a U.S. government shutdown that loomed after Feb. 18 and giving lawmakers more time to finish a full-year spending plan. The bill passed after the Senate defeated several amendments offered by Republicans, including one that would have prohibited funding for federal vaccine mandates, and another that would have blocked funding for schools with a vaccine mandate. The bill also continues a temporary designation of fentanyl as a controlled substance. Read more from Erik Wasson.

The Senate yesterday also:

  • Confirmed Christi A. Grimm as inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services;
  • Passed H.R. 1667, the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act; and
  • Passed H.R. 189, the John Lewis NIMHD Research Endowment Revitalization Act of 2021.

Mask Requirements, Covid-19 Tests Mark Biden’s Speech: All members of Congress will be allowed to attend Biden’s first State of the Union address, but they must follow Covid-19 health guidelines—such as masking—or risk being tossed from the event and fined. A memo yesterday by House Sergeant at Arms William Walker lays out the rules for Biden’s March 1 speech to a joint session of Congress, such as limiting lawmakers to one non-transferable ticket and requiring that they attest to negative Covid-19 results. Walker’s memo also states that attendees must adhere to social distancing guidelines. Read more from Billy House.

More on the Coronavirus Pandemic:

What Else to Know Today

Pharmacy Middlemen Dodge FTC Competition Probe: The Federal Trade Commission failed to reach consensus on launching a study into the reimbursement rates set by the entities that manage prescription drug benefits on behalf of insurers and Medicare Part D plans. The FTC, by a 2-2 party-line vote, decided to not open a probe into pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) and whether their drug price setting practices unfairly favor PBM-affiliated pharmacies at the expense of independent ones. The vote comes in spite of demands for scrutiny of an industry that’s long-remained without strong federal oversight. Celine Castronuovo has more.

Immigration ‘Public Charge’ Policy Adjusted After Trump Rule: The Homeland Security Department is redefining what it means for an immigrant to be a public charge, rejecting the Trump administration’s bid to turn away those needing food stamps, housing assistance, or other aid. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a part of DHS, unveiled the new definition yesterday as part of a notice of proposed rulemaking. The agency will seek comments before finalizing it. The Biden White House had already eliminated the Trump-era public charge definition, but immigrants’ rights advocates said a final new interpretation would clarify the standard.

The proposed rule “will return to the historical understanding of the term ‘public charge’ and individuals will not be penalized for choosing to access the health benefits and other supplemental government services available to them,” DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said. Read more from Ellen M. Gilmer.

Biden Eyes Trusted Scientists to Replace Disgraced Adviser: The White House decision to tap Francis Collins as the president’s acting science adviser signals the administration’s priorities in advancing biomedical research and hands the recently retired NIH chief more influence to pick his successor. Biden announced two appointments to fill the roles held by Eric Lander, who resigned this month as science adviser and head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy after findings that he bullied subordinates and created a hostile work environment. Read more from Jeannie Baumann.

Medicaid Agency Seeks Feedback on Health-Care Coverage, Access: The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services is looking for feedback on health-care access, according to a news release. The CMS hopes to develop a less challenging access strategy for its Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance programs by getting feedback from stakeholders on coverage enrollment, maintenance, care access, and provider payment rates, according to HHS. Read more from Bloomberg Law.

More Headlines:

Editor’s Note: BGOV’s Health Care Briefing will not publish on the Monday, Feb. 21 Presidents’ Day federal holiday. We’ll return Tuesday, Feb. 22.

With assistance from Alex Ruoff and Zach C. Cohen

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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