HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Covid Aid Slips Further Down Hill Agenda
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Congressional leaders this week are rushing to tackle one crisis after another, poised to again leave town without new funds for the most deadly among them.
A $10 billion Covid emergency funding package will likely remained stalled until at least mid-June, aides and lawmakers said this week. Replenishing federal coffers to buy more Covid vaccines and antivirals will have to wait. The package has gotten caught up in a separate partisan battle over immigration.
With continuing war in Ukraine and lingering US baby formula shortages, Democrats also say getting more Covid funding simply isn’t the most pressing issue. “Everybody is scattered,” Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.) said. “There’s so much demand for our resources, for our time, for our energy. Ukraine being really urgent among them—these elections,” she added, referring the primary elections in Pennsylvania on Tuesday.
Competing priorities means there’s little pressure for Democrats and Republicans to break the stalemate on Covid, something that would require one or both sides to compromise on federal immigration policy.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Tuesday that one million people in the US have died of Covid-related illnesses since 2020, a massive death toll that makes the virus one of the largest killers of Americans over the last two years. And cases are climbing across the country, though the overall death rate has been steadily dropping since early February. US officials have praised the spread of Covid vaccines and antivirals as essential to curbing deaths related to the virus. But officials warn that their stock of antivirals could run out in the fall.
Lawmakers say battling Covid remains a priority—but it isn’t the only one. “It’s not that there’s a lack of urgency, it’s that there’s a lot of priorities and we’re working on lots of things all at once,” Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.) said. Read more from Alex Ruoff and Emily Wilkins.
US Looks to Cut Programs to Pay for Vaccines: US pandemic response leaders are examining what programs or purchases can be sacrificed to buy a new generation of vaccines, Biden’s Covid czar said, warning there won’t be enough for the broad American public without new help from Congress. Lawmakers have balked at the White House’s request for fund to order treatments, tests and vaccines—including forthcoming shots designed to boost protection against omicron and its subvariants. The administration has steadily ratcheted up warnings that it will run out of supplies without a new cash infusion.
The administration is already in touch with vaccine makers about the new bivalent vaccines that target more than one version of the virus. Those could be available in fall, but orders need to be placed imminently, White House Covid-19 response coordinator Ashish Jha said Wednesday. “Every day we wait, every week we wait, we just fall a little further behind in line,” he said in the first White House briefing on the pandemic in over a month. “We want Congress to just step up and fund our ability to make sure we get enough vaccines for all Americans.” Josh Wingrove and Riley Griffin have more.
CDC Insiders Bemoan Culture, Data Gaps: An internal review by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has uncovered deep concerns among current and former employees about its urgency and culture, multiple people involved in the process said in interviews. Findings from the review announced last month, some of which could be released in weeks, may give CDC Director Rochelle Walensky momentum to usher in change at an agency that’s been criticized by Congress and experts for not having the tools needed to respond effectively. Read more from Drew Armstrong and Riley Griffin.
Biden Taps Defense Law for Formula as House Passes Aid
President Joe Biden invoked emergency powers under the Defense Production Act to try and boost production of baby formula, while ordering the use of government planes for imports to alleviate shortages. The administration said in a statement that the move would allow domestic manufacturers to obtain needed ingredients and speed shipments of foreign stocks. The president also announced “Operation Fly Formula” to ship in supplies from other countries.
“I know parents all across the country are worried about finding enough infant formula to feed their babies. As a parent and as a grandparent, I know just how stressful that is,” Biden said in a video posted to Twitter. He said he was invoked the DPA “to ensure that manufacturers have the necessary ingredients to make safe, healthy infant formula here at home.”
The national baby formula shortage has emerged as the latest crisis for Biden’s White House, which is struggling to ease supply-chain bottlenecks and inflation sparked by pandemic-era distortions to the global economy. Biden is under pressure from both Republicans and Democrats in Congress to act quickly to ease the formula shortage, which has been months in the making and could soon ease as production restarts at a key plant.
In a letter, Biden directed Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to “take all appropriate measures available to get additional safe formula into the country immediately.” That would include finding ways to accelerate importation of formula as well as identify aircraft contracted with the government to fly it to the US. Read more from Jordan Fabian and Josh Wingrove.
House Passes Formula Bill, But Senate Path Uncertain: The House passed a $28 million emergency funding bill for the Food and Drug Administration to address the shortage of infant formula in the US and provide tighter oversight of the industry. The legislation was approved Wednesday on a 231-192 vote. Democrats argued that increasing funding for inspections would help bolster supplies by expediting formula sourcing from new domestic and international suppliers, which must be FDA-approved. Read a BGOV Bill Summary by Christina Banoub.
Republicans opposed the bill (H.R. 7790), saying it offered a blank check to the FDA without securing an immediate boost in formula supply. The fate of the measure in the Senate isn’t clear, given the level of House Republican opposition and the need for the support of at least 10 Republicans for it to pass the 50-50 chamber. Senate Appropriations ranking member Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said he’s studying to see if the bill is necessary, as did the Labor-HHS-Education ranking Republican, Roy Blunt (Mo.). Blunt said it’d be unusual to spend a week of Senate debate time on a spending bill so small. Erik Wasson has more.
The House also passed legislation (H.R. 7791) under suspension of the rules to waive some program requirements under the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) during emergencies or disruptions to the supply chain. The measure will help “improve access to formula products for WIC participants, while also ensuring participants are better protected during future product recalls,” said sponsor Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-Conn.) in a release on May 17. Read a BGOV Bill Summary by Christina Banoub.
- A similar WIC measure was unveiled in the Senate, with the senior lawmakers on the Agriculture Committee hoping for quick passage to ease the shortage’s impact on low-income families. The bill from Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and ranking member John Boozman (R-Ark.) would give the Agriculture Department more flexibility in carrying out WIC. About half of the infants in the WIC program are covered by an Abbott contract. The legislation seeks to ensure families can use their benefits to purchase alternatives. Read more from Maeve Sheehey.
- Meanwhile, Senate Finance Chairman Ron Wyden is investigating Abbott Laboratories’ low tax rates and alleging that the company’s investments in buybacks may have driven the nationwide shortages. Wyden (D-Ore.), in a letter to CEO Robert Ford, highlighted the company’s tax rate—averaging at 12% the last three years—and $8 billion in stock buybacks in recent years. “I have long been concerned that windfalls from sweeping tax cuts for mega-corporations,” enacted during by Republicans in 2017, “would be used for padding the pockets of corporate executives,” he said. Laura Davison has more.
- Senate Democrats also urged Biden to assign a baby formula coordinator to address the shortage and to implement “a national strategy to increase the resiliency of the infant formula supply chain and protect against future contamination and shortages,” according to a statement. “We need organized leadership and a clear plan for addressing this crisis. We cannot stop working on this issue until babies are fed,” wrote the senators, including Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.). Read their letter to Biden here.
- BGOV OnPoint: Congress Races to Address Baby Formula Shortage
Also Happening on the Hill
Top House Democrat Set to Grill FDA Chief on Formula Plant Plans: A leading House Democrat plans to grill the Food and Drug Administration’s chief about plans to reopen an Abbott Laboratories infant formula plant without first addressing a whistle-blower’s allegations at a House Appropriations Agriculture-FDA Subcommittee hearing today.
House Appropriations Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said she wants to know why FDA Commissioner Robert Califf entered an agreement that will allow formula production to resume at Abbott’s plant in Sturgis, Michigan. While Abbott is facing fallout from sickness in four babies given infant formula in recent months, DeLauro is concerned that the agency hasn’t dealt with the whistle-blower’s report of earlier quality lapses and falsified records at the company’s plant. Read more from Anna Edney.
- The Senate Judiciary Committee holds a Thursday markup on S. 4007 to require the Justice Department to propose a program to treat PTSD among public safety officers.
- The Senate Aging Committee holds a Thursday hearing on identifying and combating mental health stigmas facing elder Americans.
House Panel Advances Trio of Health Bills: The House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday approved three bills targeting mental health, ARPA-H, and the user fees that help fund the FDA:
- H.R. 7666 to bolsters funding and services for mental health and people suffering from drug addiction, the latest in a series of federal steps to address the nation’s worsening overdose crisis. The committee approved the bipartisan legislation in a voice vote. The measure by Committee Chair Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) would establish a Behavioral Health Crisis Coordinating Office to organize efforts between HHS agencies as well as outside parties. Ian Lopez has more.
- H.R. 5585 to set up Biden’s new biomedical innovation hub as an independent HHS agency. The committee approved the bill a 53-3 vote. The legislation by Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) would authorize the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, which aims to deliver medical breakthroughs the same way that existing federal programs helped pave the way for the internet and GPS. Read more from Celine Castronuovo and Jeannie Baumann.
- H.R. 7667 to reauthorize the user fees that help fund the FDA. Committee members voted 55-0 in support of the bill that governs the fees that drug and device industries pay to the FDA to improve its review and approval process. It carries proposals to overhaul the accelerated approval pathway and remove barriers to generic drug competition. The latest deal needs to be reauthorized before the current user fee agreements expire Sept. 30. Celine Castronuovo has more.
Senators Probe Tech Firms on Abortion-Related Data: Over a dozen Senate Democrats, led by Elizabeth Warren (D- Mass.), are demanding data brokers provide information about cell phone location data collection that could be tied to abortion clinics. The Democrats wrote to SafeGraph and Placer.ai, which sell geographic and foot traffic data based on a phone’s location, to highlight the risks to privacy and safety from allowing customers to track phones to a clinic. The companies’ sale of such data “poses serious dangers for all women seeking access to abortion services,” they wrote. Laura Litvan and Brody Ford hasve more.
Bill Targets Public Safety Officers’ Insurance Costs: Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) on Thursday will introduce a bill to establish a new tax credit for retired firefighters, law enforcement officers, and other eligible public safety officers to help reduce the cost of health insurance coverage. The new tax credit of up to $4,800 would help retired public safety officers who are not yet eligible for Medicare, he said in a statement. “Public safety officers serve our communities for years in physically demanding jobs, and this tax credit will help reduce their health care costs before they are eligible for Medicare,” Bennet writes, Alex Ruoff reports.
What Else to Know Today
Workplace Vaccine Mandate Exemption Suits Falter: Companies with workplace Covid-19 vaccination mandates have largely fended off legal challenges to their handling of employees’ requests for religious and health-related exemptions. Workers have filed at least 66 lawsuits against private firms since September 2021 for refusing to grant exemptions, or for providing allegedly insufficient accommodations, according to a Bloomberg Law review of cases. Judges have rejected workers’ requests for orders immediately blocking enforcement of those policies in 22 of those challenges. Robert Iafolla has more.
CDC Probe of Kids’ Hepatitis Grows to 180 Cases: US health officials are investigating 180 pediatric hepatitis cases, up from an earlier count of 109, as reports of illnesses with no known cause climb. Most of the new cases occurred earlier and were recently reported from 36 states and territories because they fit the description of the disease released by health officials, the CDC said in an emailed statement. Concern about the mysterious cases of hepatitis in kids has been growing since the CDC issued an alert in April regarding a cluster of nine cases in Alabama. Read more from Madison Muller.
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- Allergic Patient’s Lawsuit Against Hospital Potentially Barred
With assistance from Alex Ruoff
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