HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Dueling Fentanyl Ban Extensions Offered

The House and Senate are moving forward with dueling extensions of a ban on highly addictive fentanyl analogues that expires on May 6.

The extension would keep the government’s ability to classify fentanyl-like substances as one of the most strictly controlled drugs, a tool President Joe Biden’s administration has defended as necessary to fight synthetic opioids.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called for the ban to be made permanent during remarks on the Senate floor yesterday. “We should not just kick the can down the road for two months or five months or 12 months,” McConnell said.

Despite his remarks, lawmakers are weighing extensions of various lengths.

The House is slated to vote today on a shorter extension, through Sept. 30, in H.R. 2630. Read Bloomberg Government’s bill summary of the legislation here.

In the Senate, Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), and John Cornyn (R-Texas) offered a measure (S. 1216) this week that would continue the drug’s temporary classification as a Schedule I substance, the strictest drug control level, until July 6, 2022. The Senate gave a second reading for S. 1216, and placed it on the chamber’s calendar yesterday, Nancy Ognanovich reports.

Civil rights groups have been calling for an end to the temporary ban, and for Congress and the White House to instead target steps to reduce harm, such as addiction treatment and safe injection sites, Sarah Babbage reports.

Earlier: Fentanyl Ban Complicates Biden’s Plan to Shift Drug Policy

Happening on the Hill

Schumer Marks 4/20 With Call for Pot Legalization: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he’s working with fellow Democrats Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) on a bill to legalize marijuana, and hopes to make progress on the issue in the next year. “The war on drugs has too often been a war on people, particularly on people of color,” he said in remarks on the chamber floor yesterday. “The time has come to end the federal prohibition on marijuana in this country.” Read more from Vivek Shankar.

Clyburn Targets Trump Officials’ Ties With Emergent: House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis Chair Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), the No. 3 House Democrat, said he’s concerned about the track record of Emergent BioSolutions, a manufacturer set to produce the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine at its Baltimore facility, and has opened an investigation on how it came to be given federal pandemic contracts. Clyburn has requested testimony from Emergent’s executives.

“We want to know whether or not one particular person—who seemed to have a relationship with the Trump administration and with this company—whether or not that relationship led to this contract rather than their skills,” he told Bloomberg yesterday. “It looks as if some insider dealings were taking place rather than rewarding the company for the work that’s done,” said Clyburn. Read more from Elaine Chen.

The Coronavirus Pandemic

Biden to Speak on Covid-19 Response, Vaccinations: Biden will speak at the White House at 1;15 p.m. today on the U.S.’s Covid-19 response and the state of vaccinations, according to the daily schedule..

Polarized Politics Delays Pandemic Exit: Thirteen months and two presidents into a once-in-a-century public health crisis, toxic politics still bedevil effective efforts against the coronavirus—an indication of the challenges the nation might face in any future pandemic. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D), who was targeted in a kidnapping plot due to her early lockdowns, has lost the political capital to impose new restrictions even as Covid-19 surges there. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is claiming vindication because his state’s death toll was lower than in some Democratic bastions—making him an early favorite for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.

But as politicians jockey over whose states performed best, the key takeaway seems to be that the entire country fared worse than it should have. Polarization, coupled with porous borders between states, rendered the pandemic playbook less effective. Democratic states took more dramatic mitigation measures than Republican ones. In less homogeneous places, adherence to health advice was mixed, regardless of which party occupied the governor’s mansion. Read more from Jonathan Levin and Nic Querolo.

J&J to Resume EU Vaccine Shipments: Johnson & Johnson will restart deliveries of its Covid-19 vaccine to the European Union, after the EU’s drug regulator said the benefits of the shot outweigh the threat of a possible link with cases of rare blood clots. The European Medicines Agency assessment yesterday echoed its review of the vaccine from AstraZeneca, which has also been linked with the rare clot. Read more from Naomi Kresge.

  • Also yesterday, Johnson & Johnson indicated that uncertainty regarding its Covid-19 vaccine could ease in the coming days. The U.S. paused use of the vaccine last week after six women who received it developed rare blood clots in the brain. A panel of CDC advisers reviewing data on the clots could vote Friday on whether the hold should end. No additional cases of the clots have been confirmed since the pause began, according to Jason McDonald, a spokesman for the CDC. Read more from Riley Griffin.

U.S. Pulls WTO Proposal to Tighten Medical Supply Chains: The U.S. withdrew a Trump-era initiative to stop other nations from filling government contracts for medical supplies related to Covid-19, according to a document circulated yesterday by the World Trade Organization. The U.S. withdrew its proposal under the WTO Government Procurement Agreement and will attempt to “find solutions to secure the medical supply chain” with allies and partners, it said. Read more from Bryce Baschuk.

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What Else to Know

Novel Health Plan Fight Threatens ACA Protections: A case before a federal appeals court challenging a new type of employee health plan has insurers and state regulators concerned about its potential to create an end-run around Obamacare and state insurance regulations. The Labor Department is fighting back against a decision from a federal judge in Texas that allowed two companies to offer health plans to individuals who agree to have their internet activity tracked and sold.

If upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, opponents say the decision may open the door for “junk” health plans that undermine the Affordable Care Act, evade state insurance regulations, and drive up the cost of premiums by pulling the healthiest people away from the federal marketplace. Read more from Lydia Wheeler.

  • Also on the ACA, Texas and five other states will be requesting the Supreme Court to hear their objections to an Obamacare program that cost them nearly $500 million in “health insurer premium” fees imposed on Medicaid managed care companies. The Fifth Circuit agreed to stop the issuance of a mandate confirming the states’ liability for the tax until Sept. 6 or the states’ filing of a petition for review by the top court, whichever occurs first. Read more from Mary Anne Pazanowski.

Biden HHS Mulling New Drug Fight Panelists: The White House is moving to designate new panelists to a long-awaited forum for resolving drug discount battles after it nixed Trump-era appointees earlier this year, a step that had effectively halted the dispute process. The Health and Human Services Department is weighing “recommended new appointments” to “correct for shortcomings in the prior slate of appointments” made by Trump, a court document filed by the government says, Ian Lopez reports.

More Headlines:

With assistance from Nancy Ognanovich

To contact the reporters on this story: Brandon Lee in Washington at blee@bgov.com; Sarah Babbage in Washington at sbabbage@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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