HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Democrats Eye Public Health Insurance Bill

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Democratic leaders in Congress took the first step toward creating a public health insurance option, soliciting ideas from colleagues for a government-run insurance plan that could cut Americans’ health care costs.

A public insurance option was a major plank of President Joe Biden’s health agenda during the campaign, though Biden recently has focused on his infrastructure and tax plans, not health care.

“This is an opportunity to lower health care costs,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, told reporters yesterday. She and Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), who leads the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in a letter that they’ll take comments until the end of July.

A Senate Democratic aide familiar with the planning said Murray plans to have a bill together by the end of 2021, making passage possible in 2022.

The move puts the two committee leaders at the heart of a policy debate that’s been raging among Democrats for years: how to lower health-care costs as the government increasingly takes on the expenses of Americans’ health insurance.

And the country’s aging population is adding to Medicare’s rolls, while millions of Americans are enrolled on subsidized coverage plans through the Affordable Care Act’s marketplaces. That has left the government playing a larger role than ever in paying for insurance coverage and care.

Murray’s and Pallone’s letter asks colleagues for input over who should be eligible to join a government-run plan, how to structure its benefits and how to maintain a network of doctors. But their plan could be a tough sell to Republicans concerned about market impacts, with the announcement already seeing pushback from the health-care industry. Read more from Alex Ruoff.

Happening on the Hill

NIH Research Center’s Head Expected to Have ‘Gravitas’: The head of Biden‘s proposed biomedical research agency will hold an empowered, five-year position, allowing future administrations to shape their own visions as the science evolves. Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said he expects the head of the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health to be named by either the White House or the HHS secretary.

“This needs to be somebody with gravitas, who is recognized as having the kind of authority that you’re going to need to have to move swiftly and not have too many things in the way,” Collins said in an interview after a Senate hearing yesterday on NIH funding. Read more from Alex Ruoff and Jeannie Baumann.

Nursing Mother Protection Bill Advances: A House panel yesterday approved a bill (H.R. 3110) to extend protections for breaks to breastfeeding employees who were excluded from federal overtime law under the Fair Labor Standards Act. That includes teachers and workers in agriculture, transportation and airlines. The panel voted 28-19 to approve that measure. Read more from Andrew Kreighbaum.

Medicaid Gap Fix Sought in Biden Package: Sens. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) and Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.), urged Senate leaders to include provisions in future federal relief legislation, including Biden’s proposed American Jobs Plan and Families Plan, to close coverage gaps in states that haven’t yet expanded Medicaid, according to a statement. Read their letter here.

Duckworth Wants Mask Guidance for Parents: Parents, caregivers and people with compromised immune systems need clearer guidance from the CDC about mask usage, Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said yesterday. In a letter sent to CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, she also asked for guidelines on masks when at school, child care, camp, and during sports, Maria Luiza Rabello reports.

The Coronavirus Pandemic

Biden Orders Report on Virus Origin: Biden said he ordered the U.S. intelligence community to “redouble” its effort to determine where the new coronavirus came from, after conflicting assessments of whether its origins are natural or a lab leak. In a statement yesterday, Biden said the intelligence community delivered a report to him this month that showed it was divided on the origins of the pandemic. Two “elements” of the community leaned toward animals being the source, while one leans toward a lab origin, “each with low or moderate confidence,” he said.

More than a full year after the emergence of the worst pandemic in more than a century, scientists have yet to determine the novel virus’s origins. The first cases were reported in Wuhan, China, where the government operates a high-security biosafety lab that researches coronaviruses. Read more from Josh Wingrove.

  • The Senate last night passed a measure that would require the Biden administration to declassify intelligence related to any potential links between the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic. The legislation, sponsored by Republican Senators Josh Hawley (Mo.) and Mike Braun (Ind.), passed by unanimous consent, Laura Curtis reports.


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What Else to Know Today

Billions Flow to U.S. Digital Health Care: Investors are pouring a record amount of money into young companies seeking to transform health care in America at an accelerating pace. Spurred by the pandemic, private funding for health companies has reached new highs every quarter since Covid-19 emerged. Investors steered a record $6.7 billion to U.S. digital health start-ups in the first three months of 2021, according to venture firm and researcher Rock Health. Read more from John Tozzi.

Hospital Pay for Uninsured Under Medicaid at Risk: Federal funds to cover the cost of hospital care for uninsured people could end up on the chopping block in states that haven’t expanded Medicaid eligibility to include poorer adults. Several of the largest states that haven’t expanded Medicaid, including Texas and Florida, operate uncompensated care pools in their Medicaid programs that direct money to hospitals to help cover health services for the uninsured. Christopher Brown has more.

Anti-Abortion Group Buys Ads Amid SCOTUS Case: Anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List announced yesterday it launched a $2 million TV ad campaign on the heels of the Supreme Court’s decision to review a Mississippi law limiting abortion services after 15 weeks, according to a statement. The 30-second TV spot will air in the Washington, D.C., media market, the statement says.

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To contact the editors responsible for this story: Zachary Sherwood at; Giuseppe Macri at; Michaela Ross at

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