HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Eshoo Preps Virus Relief, Vaccine Measures

A key House committee is laying groundwork for injecting billions of dollars into local public health systems to speed up Covid-19 vaccination efforts and strengthen the country’s public health workforce.

House Energy and Commerce Committee members are working with Biden administration officials to assemble many of the health-related aspects of a virus aid plan that could reach the House floor next month, said Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), chair of the committee’s health panel. “We’re in a race against death.”

Eshoo’s panel scheduled a Feb. 3 hearing on accelerating the delivery of the Covid-19 vaccine, expanding testing for the virus, and addressing shortages in medical supplies.

In addition, the full committee plans a meeting to organize for the 117th Congress later today.

House Democrats will also be briefed tomorrow by Jeffrey Zients, coordinator of President Joe Biden’s coronavirus task force, and Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, on the Biden administration’s vaccine distribution plans, Eshoo said.

The push by House committees to ready the relief plan shows Democrats are moving ahead without Republicans, at least for now. Leaders said the House will likely vote the week of Feb. 1 on a budget resolution to set up a coronavirus-focused reconciliation bill. That would allow Democrats to push budget-related provisions through both chambers with simple majorities.

  • House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told members that they’ll need to prepare for weekend work to hasten a Covid-19 stimulus package through the chamber. House committees start work this week, with the full chamber in session next week and potentially into the weekend, Hoyer said. Committees will be working the following two weeks, with the full House in session the week of Feb. 22, Billy House and Erik Wasson report.
  • Related: BGOV OnPoint: Dates to Watch as New Congress Gets to Work

Meanwhile Republicans have said they’re not yet convinced another round of relief is needed. Republicans have largely rejected Biden’s initial proposal for a $1.9 trillion relief package, but some have agreed that funds for vaccine distribution and other virus-related measures would garner their support.

Rep. Brett Guthrie (R-Ky.), the ranking member on the Health Subcommittee, said he thinks there is support for another virus-related bill among his party, but warned there’s been little outreach to explain how much money is needed. He added the committee should hold hearings on the topic so members can get a sense for the need. “I do think we could be successful if it’s Covid-specific,” Guthrie said. Read more from Alex Ruoff.

Calls for Permanent Paid Leave Increasing: House Democrats, steeled by the pandemic, are eager to advance permanent paid leave legislation, in tandem with temporary protections the Biden White House is expected to try to push through Congress in the coming weeks. Federal and state Covid-19 legislation provided for or bolstered some paid leave benefits to over 87 million Americans for first time last year, emboldening Democrats who have long sought permanent, job-protected paid family and sick leave legislation. Despite national support for framework legislation, the U.S. remains the only developed nation in the world without some measure of paid family leave for private-sector workers. Read more from Austin R. Ramsey.

Biden Plans to Open Obamacare for Pandemic

Biden will make it easier for Americans to buy health insurance during the pandemic, reopening the federal Obamacare marketplace with an order today that’s a step toward reinvigorating a program his predecessor tried to eliminate.

Another directive Biden will issue today will immediately rescind the so-called Mexico City Policy, which prohibits international non-profits from receiving U.S. funding if they provide abortion counseling or referrals.

The Obamacare executive order will create a special enrollment period for plans sold in the federal Healthcare.gov market from Feb. 15 to May 15, offering a path to health care for people who’ve found themselves without insurance coverage after losing their jobs. The order also directs agencies to look for ways to strengthen Medicaid, the federal health program for low-income people, and the Affordable Care Act more broadly.

The long-expected executive orders build off more than two dozen executive actions Biden has already signed during his first week in office.

“As we continue to battle Covid-19, it is even more critical that Americans have meaningful access to affordable care,” the White House said in a statement. “Reliable and affordable access to health insurance doesn’t just benefit families’ health; it is a critical source of economic security and peace of mind for all.”

Democrats, the health insurance industry and advocates for the Affordable Care Act had repeatedly asked the Trump administration over the last several months to reopen HealthCare.gov enrollment, which is normally restricted to a few weeks in the fall. They were refused. Read more from Nancy Cook, Sara Hansard and John Tozzi.

Biden Calls for Benefits for Refusing Unsafe Work: Workers who refuse a job they consider unsafe may have an easier time getting unemployment benefits under an earlier Biden administration proposal, but big questions remain around the policy’s specifics and how states could apply it. Biden told the Department of Labor to draft guidance to clarify that “workers have a federally guaranteed right to refuse employment that will jeopardize their health” while still qualifying for unemployment benefits. Read more from Chris Marr.

More on the Pandemic

New CDC Director Faces Institution in Crisis: The new leader of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is confronting two difficult missions at the same time: Leading the agency’s Covid-19 response amid the pandemic and trying to restore the agency’s stature after its profile was diminished during the Trump administration. Rochelle Walensky, who most recently was chief of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital, has treated patients on the front lines of the Covid-19 outbreak. The director’s post doesn’t require Senate confirmation, and Walensky took office last week.

She arrives in an accelerating crisis and inherits an agency whose reputation has been tarnished. Early in the pandemic, the Trump administration halted the CDC’s briefings and the agency faded from view. By the fall, mounting evidence showed how administration officials interfered in the agency’s work, slowing down publication of guidanceand stalling access to $1 billion in pandemic aid Congress intended for the agency. Hours after Biden’s inauguration, Walensky ordered a “comprehensive review” of all CDC guidance on Covid. Guidelines would be updated “so that people can make decisions and take action based upon the best available evidence,” she said in a news release. Read more from John Tozzi and Josh Wingrove.

Krishnamoorthi Probes U.S. Ventilator Contracts: House Oversight and Reform Committee senior member Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) yesterday asked Safeguard Medical and AutoMedx to provide documents regarding the federal government’s purchase of the SAVe II and SAVe II+ ventilators amid reports the Trump administration potentially wasted $70 million in taxpayer money, according to a statement. Read the statement here.

Vaccine Agency Diverted Funds for Other Uses: U.S. officials responsible for preparing for a pandemic routinely raided funds for public health emergencies, diverting money from vaccine development to fund other projects at the Health and Human Services Department, according to the HHS inspector general. The Office of the Special Counsel said a whistleblower informed authorities that funds for the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority had been diverted away from vaccines and preparedness. Read more from Gregory Korte.

Sanofi to Make Pfizer Vaccine in Unusual Move: Sanofi agreed to produce millions of doses of the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine in an unusual collaboration to expedite vaccination efforts. The French drugmaker will provide BioNTech access to a production facility in Frankfurt, which will start to deliver shots in the summer, Sanofi said in a statement yesterday. The agreement will create over 125 million doses of the mRNA vaccine for the European Union. Tim Loh has more.

The CEO of Pfizer Doesn’t Expect Covid-19 to Go Away: In an interview with Bloomberg Editor-in-Chief John Micklethwait, one of the people most responsible for helping to vaccinate the world against Covid-19 discusses how his company is navigating the pandemic. Read the highlights of Bloomberg’s interview with Albert Bourla here.

Health Records Challenge Biden Push for Covid Data Sharing: Getting information collected on Covid outbreaks and responses from state and local health authorities to the federal government could pose a challenge to the Biden administration’s push to share data across agencies. The data-sharing initiative is outlined in an executive order Biden issued Jan. 21. The order directs the Secretary of Health and Human Services to review the interoperability of public health data systems nationwide. Communication between records systems used by doctors or hospitals is often an issue in health care, since information may be maintained differently in different jurisdictions. Read more from Andrea Vittorio.

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What Else to Know Today

Pentagon Stalls $900 Million in Malpractice Claims: Roughly $900 million worth of medical malpractice claims are languishing at the Pentagon, more than a year after lawmakers eased the seven-decade ban on troops or their families seeking compensation for injury or death at the hand of military hospitals. Lawmakers say they are angry over the department’s delays in carrying out a policy for making payments. Read more from Travis J. Tritten and Roxana Tiron.

Purdue Talks Said to Stall on Sackler Cash Demand: Talks aimed at getting Purdue Pharma’s owners to increase their contribution to the opioid maker’s bankruptcy settlement have stalled, with members of the billionaire Sackler family resisting demands from states to boost their offer by more than $2 billion, according to people familiar with the matter. Read more from Jef Feeley and Jeremy Hill.

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To contact the reporter on this story: Brandon Lee in Washington at blee@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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