HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Burr Probe Upends Senators’ Health Agenda

An investigation into Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr’s (R-N.C.) stock trading throws into question his political future and the direction of a crucial Senate domestic policy committee.

Burr has been in line to helm the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, as Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) retires at year’s end, as will senior members Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), who currently leads a subcommittee focused on health care and retirement security, and Pat Roberts (R-Kan.).

But Burr stepped down May 14 as chairman of the intelligence panel after FBI agents seized his cellphone for the probe into his $1.7 million sale of stocks in February as the coronavirus pandemic loomed. The inquiry has also entangled Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.).

Burr is widely seen as the top GOP member most likely to maintain Alexander’s direction for the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee by taking on an overhaul of the Higher Education Act and health-care costs, while focusing less on labor matters.

If Burr takes charge of the panel, all signs point to him maintaining health policy as a priority, said Bill Cassidy (R-La.), a physician and HELP member. Burr has criticized the FDA on its proposals to ban menthol in cigarettes and has opposed measures that levy new user fees on drug production.

Any Republican committee leader would want to work on lowering health-care costs, allowing states more flexibility in adjusting rules for health insurers, Marie Fishpaw, director of domestic policy studies at the Heritage Foundation, said. “The path forward would be to build on those successes,” she said.

Burr’s woes come in a challenging election year for Senate Republicans, with Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), and Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) all facing difficult re-election bids, fueling Democrats’ hopes of winning control of the chamber in November. Read more from Jaclyn Diaz, Alex Ruoff, and Andrew Kreighbaum.

Also on Lawmakers’ Radars

GOP Scrutinizes Planned Parenthood Loans: A group of Republican senators urged the Justice Department to investigate Planned Parenthood affiliates that got coronavirus aid loans even though the lawmakers say they weren’t eligible. The organization said its affiliates are independent and qualified for funding.

The 27 senators, including Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) asked Attorney General William Barr in a letter yesterday to open a probe, citing a Fox News report that at least 37 Planned Parenthood affiliates in the U.S. received about $80 million in loans under the Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses.

The Planned Parenthood entities certified on loan applications that they were eligible when they knew they weren’t, the senators argued. They cited language in the bill enacted in March creating the program and an implementing rule, as well as a statement from Planned Parenthood Action Fund complaining that the bill gave the White House discretion to exclude Planned Parenthood affiliates. Read more from Mark Niquette and Ben Brody.

Democrats Seek to Force Medical Supply Production: Reps. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.) and Charlie Crist (D-Fla.) announced they will unveil a measure today that would require the president to use the Defense Production Act to designate personal protective equipment, testing supplies, and a future vaccine “as critical material essential to the national defense,” according to a statement. It would direct the materials to be produced and distributed to states “based on their requests for supplies and in proportion to their populations.” Read the text of the bill here.

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Testing, Treatment & Reopening Efforts

Americans Venture Out for Holiday Travel in Test of Containment: Americans are fleeing weeks of home isolation for beaches, parks and other leisure destinations over the Memorial Day weekend — and that has pandemic experts and businesses concerned about a spike in coronavirus cases. Many states have begun to lift restrictions at the urging of President Donald Trump while travel and tourism businesses are seeing signs of life after nearly two months of near-zero demand. Yet those limits on public activity helped slow the spread of the virus, and a surge in tourism could mean trouble, said Jeff Schlegelmilch, deputy director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University.

“We should be worried about increases in Covid-19 transmission,” he said. “I do expect that we’re going to see an uptick in coronavirus cases a week to two weeks after Memorial Day because of that increase in travel as well as because of the premature relaxing of social distancing in some states.” Read more from Ryan Beene and Alan Levin.

Dozens of Antibody Tests to Exit Market: The FDA said yesterday that 27 coronavirus antibody tests will no longer be distributed in the U.S., as part of a previously-announced crackdown by the regulator on the tests. Antibody tests look for markers in the blood that indicate exposure to the coronavirus, but, in contrast with diagnostic tests, cannot determine whether a patient has an active Covid-19 infection.

The FDA’s stricter stance on antibody tests follows an initially permissive policy that let hundreds of antibody tests be sold without the regulator’s oversight and prompted criticism about the tests having accuracy issues. The 27 tests either didn’t seek authorization from the FDA or had “significant problems” identified with them, according to the FDA. Read more from Jacquie Lee and Emma Court.

  • Meanwhile, drugmaker Abbott said an interim analysis of a study in urgent care clinics indicates that its Covid-19 rapid test, ID NOW, performs best in patients tested earlier after their symptoms start to show, when they are most likely to go in for care. The findings come about a week after the FDA warned that the virus test had potential accuracy issues. Read more from Drew Armstrong and Michelle Fay Cortez.

Mixing of Tests Muddy Virus Data as U.S. Looks at When to Reopen: The CDC and some states reported both completed diagnostic tests and antibody tests in public datasets, mixing results that show current infections with past infections and presenting an image of testing capacity that’s greater than the on-the-ground reality. The agency is now working to distinguish the two types of tests and will report the differentiated data online “in the coming weeks,” a CDC spokesperson said. Read more from Emma Court.

Report Says 4.1% of U.S. Infected: A new report from the Imperial College London estimates that 4.1% of the U.S. has been infected by the coronavirus, with a wide variation between states. In New York, the world’s epicenter, the researchers estimate that 16.6% of the population has already been infected. Researchers conducted their first state-by-state analysis of the U.S., modeling the number of people infected, those currently infectious and average number of secondary infections caused by people with Covid-19. Find the report here.

Nursing Homes Short of Tests: Most of the country’s nursing homes can’t test all their residents and staff for Covid-19, an industry survey shows, potentially thwarting efforts to stop outbreaks among the most vulnerable to the outbreak. State and federal agencies are asking nursing and assisted living homes to perform coronavirus tests regularly to help prevent outbreaks among the elderly and could face fines if they fail to do so. Eight states have rolled out universal testing plans for elder care facilities and are reporting mixed results. Read more from Alex Ruoff.

U.S. Spends $1.2 Billion for Astra Vaccine: The U.S. threw its weight behind one of the fastest-moving experimental solutions to the coronavirus pandemic, pledging as much as $1.2 billion to AstraZeneca to help make the University of Oxford’s Covid vaccine. Beset by criticism of his response to the virus, Trump is pushing his way to the front of the line to secure a shot to protect Americans from the virus and allow business to resume. The U.S. has backed projects underway at Johnson & Johnson, Moderna and Sanofi, fueling concerns that other parts of the world could fall behind, John Lauerman and Suzi Ring report.

Trump Says Guidance on Churches Coming: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention plans to put out guidance for reopening churches “very soon,” Trump said yesterday. “I said I want the churches to open,” he said, suggesting the guidance would be released this week. “We want to get our churches back.” Recommendations for restarting activities by religious groups weren’t part of CDC suggestions for opening workplaces, schools and restaurants released over the weekend, though they had been included in a draft first reported by The Associated Press. Read more from Mario Parker and Emma Court.

Obamacare Insurers Stand to Gain as Newly Jobless Seek Coverage: Insurers selling policies on the Obamacare exchanges look to get a boost over the coming year as people who lose employer-sponsored health care in the pandemic downturn move to the individual market and those who thought they didn’t need coverage change their minds. One insurer, Bright Health, is already seeing an enrollment bump of about 10%, and others such as UnitedHealthcare, Anthem, Centene, and Oscar Health are moving to expand their presence in the exchanges for 2021. Read more from Sara Hansard.

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What Else to Know

U.S. Census Says Millions Put Off Health Care: More than 76 million American adults didn’t get needed medical care for conditions unrelated to coronavirus in the past month, new Census data show. The estimate from the new Household Pulse Survey is the clearest picture yet of how pandemic-related shutdowns led to a staggering drop in people seeking medical care, cutting revenue for health centers and doctors. Almost 94 million adults, more than a-third of the adult population, delayed care during the pandemic, the Census says. Read more.

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Editor’s Note: Bloomberg Government’s Health Care Briefing will not publish Monday, May 25 in observance of the Memorial Day holiday. Publication will resume Tuesday, May 26.

To contact the reporter on this story: Brandon Lee in Washington at blee@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Giuseppe Macri at gmacri@bgov.com; Zachary Sherwood at zsherwood@bgov.com; Michaela Ross at mross@bgov.com

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