HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Hospitals Worry About Infrastructure Plan

Hospital groups are raising alarms on Capitol Hill over the possibility that a bipartisan infrastructure package will be paid for partly by Covid-19 relief funds earmarked for health-care providers and an extension of Medicare cuts.

Health care trade groups launched a lobbying blitz earlier this month, with the American Hospital Association, America’s Essential Hospitals and seven other hospital groups sending letters to House and Senate leaders, warning lawmakers not to tap into health care funds to pay for a $579 billion infrastructure agreement struck with President Joe Biden, which could come up for a vote in the Senate this week.

Hospitals are worried that lawmakers want to claw back the $24 billion in unspent Covid-19 relief funds and extend beyond 2030 mandatory sequestration, which would tack on more years of expected automatic Medicare cuts. The AHA and other groups are arguing they need the relief funds and sequestration extensions should only be considered for health care-related policies.

“The precedent has been for using Medicare dollars for Medicare,” AHA Executive Vice President Stacey Hughes told Bloomberg Government in an interview.

Early frameworks for the infrastructure deal listed an extension of sequestration and collecting unspent pandemic aid. Lawmakers involved, however, said last week the details remain fluid. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) set a Wednesday deadline to wrap up talks on the package, giving hospitals until then to get their message across, Alex Ruoff reports.

Happening on the Hill

Hearings on the Hill:

  • Federal Virus Response: The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee holds a hearing tomorrow on the federal response to Covid-19.
  • Care Workforce: The House Education and Labor subcommittees on Health, Employment, Labor, and Pensions; and Higher Education and Workforce Investment meet for a joint hearing tomorrow on the direct care workforce.
  • Life Expectancy Disparities: The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Subcommittee on Primary Health and Retirement Security holds a hearing Wednesday on disparities in life expectancy.
  • Extreme Heat: The House Science, Space and Technology Environment Subcommittee holds a hearing Wednesday on extreme heat in the U.S.

International Vaccine Initiative: The U.S. would be authorized to participate in the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), an international partnership on vaccine development, under H.R. 2118, which the House is slated to consider today under expedited procedure. The Foreign Affairs Committee approved the measure by voice vote on March 25. For more, see the BGOV Bill Summary by Christina Banoub.

Swalwell Bill Puts HHS Chief on Security Council: Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) Friday unveiled two bills his office argues would help prepare the federal government to treat pandemics like Covid-19 “as national security threats.” One bill would give the secretary of Health and Human Services a seat on the president’s National Security Council, and another would seek to strengthen the federal government’s ability to combat health misinformation. Read a statement here.

Senate Narcotics Caucus Sets Meeting on U.S. Response: The Senate International Narcotics Control Caucus will hold a meeting tomorrow on the federal response to the national drug abuse epidemic. The meeting will address the federal response to the drug overdose epidemic and “drug threats that have emerged or changed as a result of COVID-19,” according to a statement from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), chair of the caucus. Read the statement here.

The Coronavirus Pandemic

Biden Says Social Media ‘Killing People’ With Virus Fiction: Biden said Friday that social media networks are “killing people” by allowing the spread of misinformation about coronavirus vaccines. “The only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated,” said Biden after he was asked about his message for tech companies as he departed the White House. “And they’re killing people.” His comments came shortly after CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said the U.S. is seeing a “pandemic of the unvaccinated” in parts of the country where inoculation rates are low.

Just four states accounted for 40% of Covid-19 cases in the past week, and the seven-day average of new infections is now up 70% from the previous week, with 26,300 new infections a day, U.S. officials said. Only 55% of Americans have received one dose of the vaccine, and the pace is falling despite U.S. efforts to encourage Americans to get the shot. Earlier this week, White House officials called on social media networks to do more to purge posts carrying misinformation.

  • That revelation led to some criticism from some conservatives, who argued the White House effort amounted to government censorship. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) tweeted the White House was “colluding” with the social media giant. Meanwhile, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) suggested that the White House was defining misinformation as “stories that make Joe Biden look bad.” Read more from Mario Parker and Justin Sink.
  • But Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said misinformation on social media about Covid-19 vaccines adds urgency to her call to change liability standards for what is published on their platforms. “There’s absolutely no reason they shouldn’t be able to monitor this better and take this crap off of their platforms,” Klobuchar told CNN yesterday. “I really appreciate President Biden calling this out.” Read more from Yueqi Yang.
  • Facebook pushed back against Biden on Friday, saying the president’s claim was “not supported by facts.” Facebook’s Vice President of Integrity Guy Rosen also made a blog post on Saturday citing customer surveys and other actions the company has taken as defense. Among them include its data showing 85% of U.S. users have been or want to be vaccinated, and how its efforts have also pushed vaccine hesitancy down by 50%. Read more from Shamim Adam.
  • YouTube will start adding fact-check labels and re-order its ranking system for videos about health with help from a nonprofit group just days after President Joe Biden tore into social media for “killing people” by spreading falsehoods about vaccines. YouTube, part of Alphabet’s Google, announced the changes this morning. Beneath certain videos about health, the company will add information panels, like those currently found at the bottom of clips about popular conspiracy theory topics such as the moon landing. YouTube will also start displaying select videos more prominently on the site when people search for health terms, similar to how it now treats certain news topics. Read more from Mark Bergen.

Covid-19 Kills Faster Than Guns, Car Crashes, Flu: Covid-19 continues to kill people faster than guns, car accidents, and influenza combined, according to a review of mortality data. The situation has improved dramatically since winter, when Covid-19 deaths were outpacing even heart disease and cancer as the country’s top killer. Still, in June, it was responsible for 337 deaths per day in the U.S., compared to the historic average deaths from gunshots, crashes and flu at 306 a day. Read more from Tom Randall.

FDA Gives Pfizer Vaccine Priority Review: Pfizer said its Covid-19 vaccine was granted priority review by U.S. regulators, putting it on track for a potential full approval by early 2022. The drugmaker and its German partner BioNTech said in a statement Friday that the FDA plans to decide whether to approve the shot for use in people 16 and older by January. A full vaccine approval could help bolster the flagging U.S. vaccination effort. Read more from Timothy Annett.

Pandemic Backlash Leaves Cities With Less Power: Leading cities through the biggest public health crisis in a century has come with a lasting side effect for mayors: state clampdowns on their authority to address the next emergency. Legislators in more than a dozen states passed laws in recent months dismantling the ability of city and county governments to mandate masks, shutter businesses, and require vaccines. Many communities already lifted restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of Covid-19, but lawmakers pushing the measures say they don’t want local leaders to have those options in the future. Read more from Brenna Goth.

More U.S. Headlines:

China Weighing WHO Plan on Virus Origin Probe: China is reviewing plans for further inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus, after the head of the World Health Organization urged Beijing to cooperate in the next phase of the investigation. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a news briefing Friday that China was mulling over a proposal made by WHO Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Read more from Bloomberg News.

Canada Passes U.S. in Covid-19 Vaccinations: Canada has fully vaccinated 48.8% of its population against Covid-19, overtaking the U.S. rate for the first time after a delayed start caused by procurement troubles and distribution bottlenecks. In the U.S, where vaccinations are plateauing in some regions, 48.5% of the population is fully inoculated. Read more from Shelly Hagan.

More Global Headlines:

What Else to Know Today

Appeals Court Ends Immigrant Health Coverage Battle: A lawsuit over then-President Donald Trump’s proclamation barring immigration by people who lack approved health insurance or the resources to pay for medical care is over, as the Ninth Circuit Friday denied as moot a petition for full court review. Judges of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit also vacated their earlier ruling overturning a preliminary injunction that blocked the order’s enforcement. Mary Anne Pazanowski has more.

Anti-Trans Bid in Texas Signals Pushback of Biden: A drive by Texas lawmakers to curtail transgender participation in sports is the latest signal of pushback in Republican-led states as Biden champions expanded LGBTQ rights. While two Texas bills are stuck because of a walkout by the state’s House Democrats, the bills are part of a growing trend of more than 250 anti-LGBTQ bills introduced in 33 states this year. Read more from Jarrell Dillard.

More Headlines:

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