HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: HHS Working With GOP With Covid Funds Eyed

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The Biden administration is cooperating with Senate Republicans who sought more information on how officials spent billions in testing funds, which could help lawmakers negotiate a bill to respond to the omicron variant of the coronavirus.

Department of Health and Human Services officials gave a substantial amount of information following a Jan. 3 letter asking for details on how they spent previously appropriated funds for coronavirus tests, and how they decided to distribute 500 million at-home tests earlier this month, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said yesterday.

But there are still some unanswered questions, said Blunt, the top Republican of the Senate Appropriations Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee. “While it’s not fully complete yet, they gave us a lot of information in a hurry, and I really appreciate the speed of their response based on what’s normally the case,” Blunt said. HHS responded to the letter late last week, according to an aide to Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Key Democratic leaders have said they expect a supplemental spending bill to provide more resources to respond to the wave of Covid-19 infections, but Republicans have raised objections, saying they want to know why the Biden White House wasn’t prepared ahead of time. Any supplemental spending bill for pandemic resources has to carry stringent transparency measures, Blunt said. “There needs to be more reporting and less ability to just transfer without any explanation,” he said, Jack Fitzpatrick reports.

  • Speaker Nancy Pelosi said earlier this week she hopes a supplemental could be done in time to be stuck to an omnibus government funding bill, which lawmakers would like to finish before the Feb. 18 funding deadline. Appropriators will have the first shot at addressing Covid-19 needs, Pelosi (D-Calif.) said. “We’d like to see that in any number of bills, but we’ll see how that goes in approps first,” Pelosi said. Republicans may support a bill, but they’ll insist on reusing previously appropriated funds rather than relying on all new spending, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), ranking member of the House Appropriations Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee, said Tuesday, Fitzpatrick and Emily Wilkins report.

Also Happening on the Hill

House Floor: The House today plans to vote on legislation (H.R. 4673) to automatically enroll veterans in the Veterans Affairs health care system. BGOV Bill Summary: H.R. 4673, VA Health-Care Auto Enrollment

Biden Says Spending Plan May be Broken Up: President Joe Biden at a press conference yesterday said his $2 trillion economic agenda will have to be broken up in order for a smaller version to pass Congress in the face of resistance in his own party that’s stalled the expansive package, Erik Wasson reports. “It is clear to me that we are probably going to have to break it up,” Biden said. Democrats will have to “get as much as we can now and come back and fight for the rest later.” The president said the provisions to lower prescription drug prices and to provide childcare and support for the elderly would make the economy more productive and cut costs for Americans.

Tests Need to Be Sold At-Cost, Markey Says: Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) sent letters to the Federal Trade Commission, Covid-19 test manufacturers, and retailers, urging companies to make at-home test prices lower. Markey cited reports that show at-home rapid tests can cost as little as $2 each to manufacture, but sell for $12 or more. “The FTC must be vigilant and respond immediately to any such illicit activity” related to “predatory or profiteering behavior,” he wrote. The letters were sent to Abbott, Amazon, CVS Health, Walmart, and several others. Read more from Kasia Klimasinska.

Buchanan Named Health Subcommittee Top Republican: Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) yesterday was named to be the head Republican of the House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee. His agenda will “focus on a patient-oriented system that would encourage innovation and increase personalized health care choices,” according to a statement from his office. Read his statement here.

  • Rep. Greg Murphy is also joining the House Ways and Means Committee, filling the spot that opened when former Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) left Congress last year. Murphy (R-N.C.) has been serving on the Veterans’ Affairs and Education and Labor panels. A practicing physician, Murphy will join the tax-writing committee’s Health Subcommittee, according to an announcement by ranking member Kevin Brady (R-Texas), Kaustuv Basu reports.

Intelligence Republican Rebukes Request for Test Before Meeting: The top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee yesterday rebuked a request from the committee’s chair that members take a Covid-19 test prior to coming to their next in-person meeting, Alex Ruoff reports. Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) told reporters Republicans “won’t comply” with the request as not enough Americans have access to regular Covid-19 testing. An Intelligence Committee spokeswoman said members are not required to get tested and the request was made because Covid-19 cases have reached historic levels across the country.

Abortion Rights Groups Warn Sinema Over Voting Rights: Two abortion-rights advocacy groups, EMILY’s List and NARAL Pro-Choice America, issued stern warnings to Sen. Krysten Sinema (D-Ariz.) for her sustained refusal to support changes to Senate rules that would allow voting rights legislation to pass. Sinema has long opposed eliminating the Senate filibuster so that a simple majority could pass legislation. The two groups are key funders for candidates that support abortion rights, and backed Sinema when she first ran in 2018, thoughs she’s not up for re-election until 2024. Read more from Ella Ceron.

The Coronavirus Pandemic

Free Covid-19 Tests Website Gets Huge Engagement: The Biden administration quietly opened a portal this week that allows U.S. residents to order free Covid-19 tests, one day before the site’s formal launch. Americans swiftly took notice: and rocketed to the top of the federal government’s webpage portfolio Tuesday, according to the analytics tracker for the U.S. As of yesterday morning, almost 300,000 users were engaging with these sites, accounting for 40% of the U.S. government’s online traffic. Read more from Kriston Capps.

Health Worker Jabs Back On Nationwide After Texas Suit Tossed: The Biden administration’s vaccine mandate for health workers is now enforceable across the U.S. after a federal court yesterday dismissed a lawsuit filed by Texas, the only state that didn’t have to comply following a U.S. Supreme Court decision. Texas requested that the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas close the case in light of the Supreme Court decision that allowed the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to enforce its mandate in the rest of the country. Read more from Allie Reed.

Schools Should Spend More on Learning Loss, Biden Aide Says: Money from the American Rescue Plan should be used to keep schools open and safe, but also to deal with the learning loss caused by the pandemic, Gene Sperling, a top adviser to Biden, said in an interview with Bloomberg TV. “This is not going to be taken care of in a few months, but is an important, negative lingering impact of this pandemic,” said Sperling, who Biden tapped to coordinate spending the $1.9 trillion relief plan. He said that plan is focused on jump-starting growth and providing flexibility to deal with persistent impacts. Maria Luiza Rabello has more.

HHS Said Needs Help to Take Over ‘Warp Speed’: The Department of Health and Human Services took over the government’s program to speed Covid-19 vaccines to Americans without the personnel needed to oversee it properly, a watchdog agency said. The HHS assumed total control of rushing the development, manufacturing, and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines—once known as Operation Warp Speed—at the start of 2022, while lacking enough staff to monitor vaccine supply-chain safeguard programs, the Government Accountability Office reported yesterday. Read more from Alex Ruoff.

AGs Demand OSHA Toss Shot-or-Test Order: The Republican state attorneys general who convinced the U.S. Supreme Court to prevent enforcement of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Covid-19 shot-or-test standard are asking the office to formally pull the regulation. “OSHA lacks authority to require that tens of millions of employees vaccinate against an endemic virus that presents a generic risk, not a workplace risk,” the letter from 27 state attorneys general said. “OSHA should, therefore, immediately withdraw the ETS.” Read more from Bruce Rolfsen.

  • Large businesses now must make their own decisions on mandating employees to be vaccinated. The rule would have required employers with 100 or more workers to mandate vaccination or weekly testing, affecting an estimated 80 million employees. Complicating any such decision is the patchwork of state laws and executive actions to restrict or ban vaccine mandates and related rules in the private sector. Read a BGOV OnPoint delving into OSHA’s would-be mandate.

Most Combos Yield Higher Omicron Shield Than Just J&J: Nearly all combinations of Covid-19 shots appear to ramp up antibodies to fight off the omicron variant, although researchers found that two doses of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine offer the least antibody protection. The two other vaccines available in the U.S., from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, differ from J&J by using genetic material called messenger RNA, or mRNA, to help the body form antibodies against Covid. An mRNA booster after a J&J vaccine or another mRNA vaccine is effective against omicron, a National Institutes of Health study found. Read more from Jeannie Baumann.

Protection by Earlier Infection Rose Amid Delta, CDC Says: Prior infection with Covid-19 gave at least as much protection from a repeat bout of the coronavirus as vaccination during the rise of the delta variant, according to a U.S. study. Before delta arose last summer, vaccinated people without a previous infection were roughly half as likely to be diagnosed with Covid-19 as unvaccinated people who had the disease earlier, according to a CDC analysis. After delta became dominant, those with prior cases alone were better protected than those who’d only received vaccines, without an earlier infection. However, the researchers said, the findings don’t apply to the omicron strain of the virus. Read more from Angel Adegbesan and Fiona Rutherford.

More Headlines:

What Else to Know Today

Judge Tosses Ex-HHS Official’s Suit to Keep Advisory Post: A federal district court yesterday tossed a lawsuit the former Health and Human Services civil rights director brought against Biden after he was told resign from an advisory committee he had been appointed to days before Biden took office. Roger Severino, who served as director of the Office for Civil Rights at the Health and Human Services Department during the Trump administration, argued Biden didn’t have the power to boot him from the Council of the Administrative Conference of the United States. Read more from Lydia Wheeler.

Bias Against Black Patients Revealed in Health Records’ Language: Black patients were over two times more likely than White patients to be described with negative language in the electronic health-records system at a Chicago-area academic medical center, according to a study released yesterday. The finding provides evidence of systemic bias in the health-care system, and suggests that Black patients are often stigmatized in ways that could compromise their care, the study said. Read more from Christopher Brown.

More Headlines:

With assistance from Emily Wilkins

To contact the reporters on this story: Brandon Lee in Washington at; Jack Fitzpatrick in Washington at

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

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