HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Democrats Eye More Disease Readiness Funds

Freshman Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.) is sounding alarms over concerns that Democratic leaders are planning to dedicate $5 billion to pandemic preparedness in their budget blueprint, not $30 billion as sought by President Joe Biden.

Torres told reporters he’s met with House leaders but wasn’t assured that preparedness programs would receive $30 billion in the package. The Senate passed instructions for the budget reconciliation package yesterday, kicking off planning for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion economic reform plan. “The fact that members of Congress are even considering defunding pandemic preparedness in the midst of a pandemic is dangerously short sighted,” Torres said.

Torres’ calls were joined by 20 other Democrats, including Sens. Ron Wyden (Ore.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), and Ed Markey (Mass.), who sent a letter to congressional leadership demanding a $30 billion figure. “This investment will strengthen our health systems, protect our economy, and potentially save millions of lives,” they said.

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.), whose panel is tasked with drafting pandemic preparedness provisions for the package, declined Tuesday to say how much she wants to dedicate to measures meant to prevent another viral outbreak in the U.S. Murray said she’s aiming to hold public discussions around bill starting in September.

“We are at critical moment in our nation’s pandemic response—and I’m pushing to make sure that the budget reconciliation bill makes as strong of an investment as possible in our public health infrastructure right now,” Murray said in a statement.

Murray said part of the fight is securing “sustained, annual investments” in public health funding to bolster pandemic programs.

Public health researchers have also been publicly warning that Congress isn’t dedicating enough money to programs that would strengthen disease surveillance and speed the production of countermeasures like new vaccines in the case of another disease outbreak in the U.S. Former CDC Director Tom Freiden and former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle wrote an op-ed in The Hill last month warning that Democrats were preparing to underfund these programs.

Read more: Biden Economic Agenda Confronts Tripwires Everywhere in Congress

Happening on the Hill

Booker Wants Justice Overhaul Tied to Opioid Change: Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) is planning to add criminal justice overhaul to Congress’s agenda this fall by linking it to an extension of the government’s power to ban fentanyl-like substances. Booker has been trying to slash mandatory minimum prison sentences for nonviolent drug-related crimes, and reduce harsher penalties for crack possession, among other changes.

Now, he’s seeking to shift the country’s response on overdoses toward promoting treatment for addiction, and away from jailing people with substance use disorders, placing himself in the middle of the broader congressional debate over how the U.S should respond to the persistent overdose crisis. Booker said he’s eyeing a key October expiration of the government’s authority to treat fentanyl-like substances as powerful synthetic opioids, which law enforcement agencies argue is necessary.

The senator wants to tie his proposed changes for the U.S. criminal justice system to any extension of this authority, which he’s opposed in the past. “It’s wrong to take people who are addicted and to criminalize them in the way that this effort seems to be doing,” Booker said in an interview this week. “It’s trying to treat addiction as a crime.” Read more from Alex Ruoff.

Senate Confirms Agriculture Pick: The Senate voted to confirm the nomination of Jennifer Moffitt to serve as the Agriculture Department’s undersecretary of marketing and regulatory programs. The undersecretary will help market agricultural products, set standards, and oversee the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. She previously served as the undersecretary of California’s Food and Agriculture Department. She’ll succeed Trump-era undersecretary Greg Ibach, Megan Boyanton reports.

The Coronavirus Pandemic

FDA Set to Clear Third Covid-19 Shot for Some: U.S. drug regulators are set to clear a third dose of Covid vaccines for people with weak immune systems as a new study showed the benefits of an extra shot in transplant patients. A third dose of Moderna’s vaccine significantly raised antibody levels against the coronavirus in transplant patients, according a comparison of an extra shot to a placebo in people with weak immune systems. The Food and Drug Administration is set to amend clearances as soon as today for vaccines from both Moderna and Pfizer to allow extra doses for people with compromised immune systems, according a person familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity. Read more from Robert Langreth and Josh Wingrove.

Biden Meets Business Leaders Who Mandated Vaccines: Biden met yesterday with business, education and health leaders who have required employees to get Covid-19 vaccinations as the White House prods more Americans to get shots. Biden met virtually with United CEO Scott Kirby, whose airline was the first in the U.S. to mandate vaccinations. The meeting highlights the piecemeal approach across the U.S. in which some businesses are requiring their employees to get a Covid-19 shot. Josh Wingrove has more.

Vaccines Urged for Pregnant Women: U.S. health officials stepped up calls for pregnant women to get vaccinated against Covid-19 as new evidence showed no added risk of miscarriage from the shots. Women who received mRNA vaccines before 20 weeks of pregnancy have no more safety concerns than the general population, an analysis of an agency registry says. The CDC updated its message to recommend vaccines to pregnant women. It previously just said they were eligible. Read more from Fiona Rutherford.

  • Meanwhile, Moderna plans to double enrollment in a trial of its Covid-19 vaccine in children under age 12, following a request from U.S. regulators to collect additional safety data. Moderna’s study will enroll around 13,275 participants age 6 months to 12 years old, according to a listing on the clinicaltrials.gov website. In a post last month the Massachusetts-based drugmaker said it would seek to enroll about 7,000. Read more from Riley Griffin.

Fear, Anger Grip Parents as Variant Spikes: In U.S. school districts, debates over safety have devolved into lawsuits and protests as the first day of class nears. The toxic mix has sparked fear among parents that their children face a third academic year marred by Covid-19. Yesterday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who’s been fighting local school officials over his refusal to permit mask rules, said he’ll fight “ferociously” if the U.S. government seeks to overrule him. Nic Querolo and Danielle Moran have more.

  • Meanwhile, Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott (R) escalated the fight over his ban on local face mask rules, vowing along with his attorney general yesterday to drag into court “any school district, public university or local government official that decides to defy” the governor. But even as the two said they would immediately ask a state appeals court to wade into the fight, resistance to their campaign against mandatory masks was spreading. Yesterday, school district and municipal officials in Dallas, San Antonio, Austin and Houston continued to roll out new masking rules aimed at slowing the rampage of Covid-19 across one of the nation’s hottest infection zones. Read more from Laurel Calkins.

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What Else to Know Today

Indiana Abortion Provisions Ruled Unconstitutional: Indiana abortion providers partially won their case to block several state provisions regulating the procedure, as a federal trial court enjoined laws prohibiting telemedicine abortions and hospitalization requirements. Six of the challenged provisions—including in-person examination rules for medication abortions and preabortion counseling services—violate the Fourteenth Amendment, the Southern District of Indiana said. Mary Anna Pazanowski has more.

HHS Revokes Medicaid Work Requirements in Three More States: The Department of Health and Human Services continued to unwind Trump-era policy priorities in the Medicaid program, rolling back work requirements in three more states—Ohio, South Carolina, and Utah—and asking for additional public comments on a demonstration project in Tennessee. Read more from Christopher Brown.

FDA Objects to CBD Label as Diet Supplement: The FDA objected to an application from Charlotte’s Web Holdings for a CBD product to be sold as a dietary ingredient, leaving a cloud of uncertainty over the booming industry for the cannabis-derived substance. The company’s bid to sell its full-spectrum hemp extract with CBD as a dietary supplement will not be considered because of the FDA’s own prior verdict to treat CBD as a drug, the agency website says. Tiffany Kay has more.

Chamber Sues HHS Over Insurance Transparency: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce sued HHS and other federal agencies to halt their implementation of a new insurance price transparency provision finalized in the waning days of Trump’s administration. The HHS and others exceeded their authority by adopting a provision that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars each year, the group told the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, Mary Anne Pazanowski reports.

UnitedHealthcare Settles Over Mental Health Coverage: United Healthcare Insurance., United Behavioral Health, and Oxford Health Insurance will collectively pay more than $13 million to settle private litigation and investigations by the Labor Department and New York Attorney General, which accused the companies of violating federal mental health parity law, federal court filings in New York show. Jacklyn Wille has more.

FTC’s Merger Review Process Change Muddies Deal-Closing: A subtle shift in the Federal Trade Commission’s merger review process will add more risk management work for companies hoping to quickly wrap up mergers. The FTC warned this month that it lacks resources to complete an initial review of companies’ sizable mergers and acquisitions within 30 days, as generally laid out in the Hart-Scott-Rodino (HSR) Act. The FTC will now send a letter to companies doing deals that can’t be fully reviewed within 30 days that its investigation remains open and their deal may be subsequently declared unlawful. Read more from Siri Bulusu.

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To contact the reporters on this story: Brandon Lee in Washington at blee@bgov.com; Alex Ruoff in Washington at aruoff@bgov.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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