HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Bills Push Vaccine Access Amid GOP Doubts

The House Energy and Commerce Committee pushed to expand vaccine access for seniors and low-income children, as President Joe Biden seeks to get 70% of Americans inoculated against the coronavirus by July 4.

“While the development of these remarkable vaccines marked a huge step forward, this terrible pandemic has also made clear that we must do more to reduce incidence of all vaccine-preventable diseases,” Chair Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) said in opening remarks at a committee hearing yesterday.

Three of the bills introduced would expand vaccine access generally for seniors (H.R. 1978), low-income adults (H.R. 2170), and children (H.R. 2347) by reducing cost-sharing and expanding who is eligible for vaccine coverage through federal or state funded health programs.

Although many of the bills discussed were bipartisan, Health Subcommittee ranking member Brett Guthrie (R-Ky.) expressed concerns that “a number of these bills are duplicative of current efforts already underway to address the Covid-19 pandemic.” Those include a bill requiring HHS to offer weekly reports on vaccine allocation and a bill to fund transportation to vaccine sites. The Department of Health and Human Services already briefs lawmakers weekly, Guthrie said.

He also said Uber and Lyft “stepped up” to offer people free rides to vaccine sites and noted Congress already authorized non-emergency transportation for Medicaid beneficiaries, which may make funding another transportation bill unnecessary.

Witnesses hit on many of the key themes found in other Covid-19 hearings, including the need to close racial and ethnicity disparities in vaccine administration, the high value of vaccinations, and the need to boost public health infrastructure.

“We will prepare ourselves for future immunization efforts and future pandemics” with better public health funding, said Lijen Tan, chief strategy officer for the Immunization Action Coalition and a witness at yesterday’s hearing. “Things are improving but we’re not out of the woods yet,” Tan said, Jacquie Lee reports.

Happening on the Hill

Hearings on the Hill:

  • Nominations: The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee meets to vote on nominations including Dawn Myers O’Connell to be assistant secretary for preparedness and response, and Miriam E. Delphin-Rittmon to be assistant secretary for mental health and substance use, both for the Health and Human Services Department.
  • HHS Policies: The House Education and Labor Committee plans a hearing with Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra on the agency’s policies and priorities.
  • Women’s Health Protection Bill: The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on The Constitution plans a hearing on the Women’s Health Protection Act.

House Sets Appropriations Markups: The House Appropriations Committee announced the schedule for markups of the fiscal 2022 spending bills. Subcommittee markups begin June 24 and full committee markups begin June 29, the panel said in a statement.

Abortion Fights Heating Up in Congress, Courts: Democrats are looking to codify abortion protections and roll back funding restrictions as the Supreme Court gears up to review Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban in its next term. Legislative analyst Christina Banoub explores the judicial history of abortion, the current case before the top court, state and federal limits on abortion, and potential legislative action in this BGOV OnPoint. Read the analysis here.

  • Meanwhile, Kentucky lost its ability to defend an abortion law when a federal appeals court denied its attorney general’s request to join a lawsuit to determine the law’s validity, Attorney General Daniel Cameron (R) told the U.S. Supreme Court. The move infringed on the state’s sovereign power to decide who will represent it in court, and impaired its ability to hand off the law’s defense from one state official to another, Cameron said in a brief to the U.S. Supreme Court. Read more from Mary Anne Pazanowski.
  • Related: Anti-Abortion Employer Tries to Revive New York ‘Boss Bill’ Row

The Coronavirus Pandemic

Vaccine Mandates in the Workplace: Many employers have been reluctant to impose workplace vaccination mandates while the Covid-19 shots cleared in the U.S. retain emergency use status. But that could change in the coming months once the vaccines get full regulatory approval. Some lawyers predict an uptick in employer mandates if and when the FDA grants Pfizer and Moderna their requests. Employers generally have the legal authority to mandate vaccination, yet that free hand comes with obligations related to protecting the records of worker inoculations. Read more about requirements from Bobby Iafolla and Jake Holland.

Pandemic Headlines:

What Else to Know Today

HHS Proposes Rescinding Trump Insulin Rule: The HHS is proposing to rescind a Trump administration drug rule requiring community health centers to give all their insulin and epinephrine discounts to patients. Centers that don’t pass on the savings wouldn’t qualify for federal grants under the rule. Biden delayed the effective date of the rule to July 20 to give officials more opportunity to review the rule and ensure it wouldn’t impede “immediate priority work” of responding to the pandemic. Jacquie Lee has more.

Plans Trading Health Benefits for Data Tracking Touted: A low-cost health insurance alternative covering people who have agreed to have their internet data tracked is a valid ERISA plan, and the Labor Department’s contrary conclusion is arbitrary and invalid, two data tracking partnerships told the Fifth Circuit yesterday. The plans offered by Data Marketing Partnership and LP Management Services allow people to “parlay their internet usage into a business opportunity” by trading data for health coverage, the partnership said. Read more from Jacklyn Wille.

Texas Governor Signs Bill Expanding Medicinal Marijuana: The medical cannabis program in Texas will cover people with all forms of cancer and post-traumatic stress disorders starting in September, under a bill signed yesterday by Gov. Greg Abbott (R). The measure (H.B. 1535) also raises from .5% to 1% the cap for THC, the primary psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. Read more from Paul Stinson.

More Headlines:

Pharmaceutical Headlines:

To contact the reporters on this story: Brandon Lee in Washington at blee@bgov.com; Jacquie Lee in Washington at jlee1@bloomberglaw.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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