HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Georgia Races to Shape Biden Health Policy

Today’s runoff elections in Georgia could help President-elect Joe Biden quickly confirm his cabinet and begin in earnest on his health care agenda, depending on who wins, Alex Ruoff reports.

However, it won’t mean that Democrats will be able to easily make good on their promises to expand on Obamacare, send more funds to states to fight the pandemic, or lower the cost of prescription drugs.

If the two Democratic challengers in the race—Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock—emerge as the winners, then Democrats will gain control of the Senate and the confirmation process for political appointees. That would still leave their party needing 10 Republicans to join a unified Democratic caucus to pass legislation through the Senate, barring significant changes to the chamber’s rules.

“Georgia makes no difference for legislation if you’re being rational,” said Rodney Whitlock, a consultant for McDermott+Consulting and a former staffer for Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). “If you want to get legislation through, you still need to work together and make a compromise.”

Meanwhile, the Republican incumbents, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, are billing themselves as bulwarks against a liberal agenda that could upend the U.S. health system, among other things. If they win, they’ll guarantee that Republicans can continue to set the agenda in the Senate and control the speed of the president-elect’s confirmations.

Groups aligned with Democrats have billed the Georgia runoffs as pivotal to Congress clearing big health-care items, from drug pricing bills to Affordable Care Act upgrades. They see it as a chance for Democrats to force Senate Republicans into tough votes this Congress.

“Shifting control of the Senate will completely change the dynamic for Republicans,” Leslie Dach, chair of the advocacy group Protect Our Care, which calls for preserving and building upon the Affordable Care Act, said. “We will see Republicans having to actually vote on big, meaningful bills around coverage and health protections.”

Also on Lawmakers’ Radar

Pelosi Encourages Mask-Wearing on Floor: Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in a statement yesterday asked members to follow “proper health and safety guidelines on the Floor, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic” after an altercation between Republicans and Democrats on Sunday.

“When staff urge you to leave the Floor, it is not a suggestion. It is a direction, in the interest of keeping the Congress healthy and intact,” Pelosi said.

Granger Tests Positive for Coronavirus: House Appropriations ranking member Kay Granger (R-Texas) tested positive for the coronavirus after arriving in D.C. for the beginning of the 117th Congress, according to a statement from her office. Granger received the first dose of the vaccine in December, the statement said.

The Coronavirus Pandemic

Hahn Says Changes to Covid-19 Dosing Premature: FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn said suggesting changes to the FDA-authorized dosing or schedules of Covid-19 vaccines at this time is “premature and not rooted solidly in the available evidence.” The FDA has been following the discussions and news reports about reducing the number of doses, extending the length of time between doses, changing the dose volume, or mixing and matching vaccines in order to immunize more people. Hahn added these are all reasonable questions to evaluate in clinical trials, reports Hari Govind.

Easier-to-Spread Variant Amps Up Vaccine Urgency: An easier-to-spread variant of Covid-19 detected in the U.S. for the first time last week could intensify the virus’s surge, if it hasn’t already, boosting the urgency for a speedier, more effective vaccine push. Four states—New York, Colorado, California and Florida—have identified cases of the mutated strain that has been raging in the U.K. for months. And U.S. health officials say they don’t yet know how far the variant may already have traveled in the U.S., or what it could mean for the future. Read more from Michelle Fay Cortez and Anna Edney.

Cases Inch Back Toward Peak After Holiday Slump: The rolling average of U.S. coronavirus cases edged up in the past week, and on the current trajectory could break records again any day. Yesterday, 32 states saw seven-day case averages substantially growing when compared with the prior week, with some of the steepest rises in Kansas and Arizona. That’s a significant turnaround from mid-December, when 38 states reported cases flat or falling. Nationally, the U.S. recorded 204,805 new virus cases on Sunday, pushing the seven-day average to 208,489. Read more from Nic Querolo.

U.S. Risks Years of Higher Mortality: The U.S. could see elevated death rates for more than a decade as the fallout from the coronavirus persists, underscoring the long-term health effects of the financial recession and public health crisis. The U.S. mortality rate is forecast to increase 3% while life expectancy will drop 0.5% in the next 15 years, representing 890,000 more deaths in the U.S., analysts at Duke, Harvard, and Johns Hopkins universities said in a working paper. Read more from Julia Fanzeres.

Pandemic Watchdog Panel Appoints Horowitz: The Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency tapped Michael Horowitz to serve as the chairman of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, according to a press release. Horowitz, who’s also the Justice Department’s inspector general, has been serving in an acting role since April 2020. The PRAC oversees federal pandemic spending and consists of inspectors general from two dozen agencies, Laura Davison reports.

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What Else to Know Today

Pfizer Chief Among Executives Urging Vote Certification: Over 170 U.S. business leaders, including the chief executive officers of Goldman Sachs, BlackRock and Pfizer, are calling on Congress to accept the results of the presidential election. “Attempts to thwart or delay this process run counter to the essential tenets of our democracy,” the executives said in a letter yesterday by the Partnership for New York. Read more from Cecile Daurat.

Lawmakers Revive Bill to Ban Wildlife Trading: Reps. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) and Fred Upton (R-Mich.) yesterday reintroduced a bipartisan measure to shut down commercial wildlife markets that the lawmakers say can lead to diseases being transmitted from animals to humans. A companion measure will also be reintroduced in the Senate by Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) later this month, Quigley said in an emailed statement. Read more from Peyton Forte.

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