HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Covid Relief Stalls as Schumer Rejects GOP

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The $10 billion in emergency pandemic response money sought by the White House is stalled in the Senate ahead of a two-week recess because of objections by Republicans and a few Democrats to the Biden administration’s impending opening of the U.S.-Mexico border to asylum-seekers.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and other Democratic leaders have rejected a Republican demand to vote on an amendment requiring the Biden administration to continue a Covid-related requirement known as Title 42 to expel adult migrants entering the U.S. via the Mexico border, which the administration intends to lift next month.

The amendment likely would pass in the Senate with the support of all Republicans and a group of moderate Democrats, who are on record opposing the lifting of the border restriction. But that would have made the bill toxic to progressive House Democrats, who have cheered the re-opening of the border.

Members of both parties traded blame for the funding impasse, which is all but certain to put off any action until after Congress returns from a two-week recess that begins on Friday. The delay could have real-world consequences for fighting the pandemic especially if a new variant gains momentum. The White House has warned that the lack of funding will leave the country without adequate vaccines, tests and treatments to fight the virus.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the chamber’s second-ranking Republican, said that Schumer and other Democratic leaders were “adamantly” opposed to a vote on a border policy amendment and that means the Covid bill will be stalled at least until the Senate returns to Washington at the end of April. “That’s going nowhere,” he said of the bill. He said the Biden administration’s announcement of the border policy change as the Senate was working on a Covid funding bill was a tactical mistake. “The timing couldn’t have been worse,” he said. “It just lit people up.”

In addition to the GOP opposition to the border policy, Senate Democrats facing close re-election contests this year, such as Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), have objected to lifting Title 42. Still, Schumer blamed Republicans, saying they were blocking vital aid by trying to make a political point with an amendment to a broadly supported funding bill. “Instead of joining Democrats to begin a simple debate on Covid legislation, Republicans wanted to kill this bill with unrelated poison pills,” Schumer said. “This is potentially devastating for the American people.” Read more from Erik Wasson, Alex Ruoff, and Josh Wingrove.

Also on Lawmakers’ Radars

U.S. Lawmakers Push to Expand Long Covid Treatment: A bill to increase funding for Long Covid treatment and clinics marks the latest push from lawmakers to confront chronic health problems related to the coronavirus that affect millions of Americans. The Treat Long Covid Act is a joint effort from Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.). Both have been involved in efforts to bolster federal support for Long Covid research, treatment and education.

Earlier this week, President Joe Biden issued a memorandum directing Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra to create the first interagency research action plan regarding Long Covid. Pressley and Duckworth’s bill would authorize HHS to award grants of as much as $2 million toward the creation or expansion of multidisciplinary clinics. Read more from Madison Muller.

Warnock Looks to Cap Drug Costs for Seniors: Medicare recipients would get a $2,000 annual cap on what they pay for drugs under a bill from a Senate Democrat facing one of the toughest reelection fights of 2022. In the measure, Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) for the second time pulled a major drug pricing provision from his party’s stalled domestic spending package. Warnock also introduced a bill earlier this year to cap at $35 per month what people with insurance pay for insulin. “Our country should never allow for our seniors to have to ration or skip the medication they need because they can’t afford it,” he said.

Warnock’s bill would redesign Medicare’s payment structure to make drugmakers pay a larger share of costs once seniors hit their out-of-pocket limit. Brand name pharmaceutical corporations that sell products that typically cost more than generic drugs would pay a larger share than generic drug companies do. Read more from Alex Ruoff.

‘Targeted Investments’ Backed for Nursing Home Overhaul: Congress should grant the federal government the authority and resources necessary to implement costly and sweeping reforms to overhaul the country’s nursing home industry, according to a report published on Wednesday by an influential national advisory panel. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, in conjunction with a coalition of sponsors, formed the Committee on the Quality of Care in Nursing Homes in 2020 to study how the nation provides, funds, oversees, and evaluates nursing home care. Read more from Tony Pugh.

VA Chief Seeks to Split Health Funds From Other Needs: Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough said Wednesday the Biden administration wants lawmakers to negotiate veterans’ health funds as a separate pool of money from the debate over defense and nondefense discretionary funding each year, aiming to avoid a conflict between growing health costs and other domestic investments. “For that to come at the expense of the rest of nondefense discretionary makes us less effective overall than we might otherwise be,” McDonough told House appropriators. Read more from Jack Fitzpatrick.

What Else to Know Today

Covid’s Next Wave Worries FDA Advisers Mapping Vaccine Plans: Health officials should be developing a consistent standard for Covid-19 vaccines as they prepare for the rapid emergence of new variants, U.S. Food and Drug Administration advisers said. Chances are roughly 20% that there will be another “omicron-like” event in the next 12 months, according to research reviewed Wednesday by the FDA and its advisory panel on vaccines. A key portion of the spike protein that the coronavirus uses to enter cells is changing at least twice as fast as one common influenza strain. Read more from Fiona Rutherford and Robert Langreth.

Opioid Recovery Gets Bump With DOJ Disability Protection Guide: The Justice Department’s declaration that those recovering from opioid use disorder are legally protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act marks a critical step in lifting stigmas and encouraging them to seek treatment, addiction specialists say. People recovering from opioid use disorder and not illegally using drugs are protected from health-care, employment, and other discrimination under DOJ guidance announced Tuesday. It’s part of a wider push to cut down on barriers for treatment and comes amid an all-time high for overdoses. Ian Lopez has more.

Cancer Research Head Sees Hope in Moonshot: Clinical trial costs are rising, too many cancer research applications are going unfunded, and the White House proposed no new money for the National Cancer Institute despite its plan to cut the disease’s death rate in half. Yet Ned Sharpless remains optimistic about the prospects for the institute he’s led for nearly five years and its role in Biden’s Cancer Moonshot 2.0 . “There will be significant investment in the NCI as part of the president’s priorities in the future,” Sharpless said in an interview. Read more from Jeannie Baumann.

Biden Team Proposes to Delay Cancer Care Payment Model Again: The Biden administration wants to postpone the start and performance period of a Medicare payment model for cancer care yet again. “We are proposing to delay the current start date of the Radiation Oncology Model to a date to be determined through future rulemaking, and to modify the definition of the model performance period to provide that the start and end dates of the model performance period for the RO Model will be established in future rulemaking,” according to the proposal from the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services. Tony Pugh has more.

Escaping Abortion Desert Harder Than Crossing State Lines: As states like Texas and Oklahoma restrict abortion access ahead of a pivotal Supreme Court decision, Americans are being forced to travel farther from home to access care. But leaving town to escape restrictive laws is neither an easy solution nor an equitable one. Texas is a case in point. Following the signing of a law to ban abortion after about six weeks, an average of 1,400 Texans a month are traveling outside the state for abortions, according to a study from the University of Texas at Austin’s Texas Policy Evaluation Project in March. Read more from Ella Ceron.

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