HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: House Panel to Mark Up Public Health Bills

The House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold a markup of eight public health bills today, including one to create a campaign to combat physician suicide. If approved by the panel, the bills could later come up for a vote on the House floor, Alex Ruoff reports.

The committee is set to vote on the “Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act” (H.R. 1667), which passed the Senate in August and would be a rare effort by lawmakers to deal with deaths by suicide among providers. The seven other bills largely authorize other grant programs aimed at improving early hearing detection services, data collection on stillbirths, improving diversity in fields such as physical therapy, and other public health efforts.

Lorna Breen was a long-time New York emergency room physician who died by suicide in April 2020, after spending weeks treating Covid-19 patients and contracting the virus herself. Lawmakers have pointed to her story as evidence of increased burnout and stress among health-care providers dealing with the pandemic, which has killed more than 750,000 people in the U.S. since the start of 2020.

Happening on the Hill

No-Fly List Pitched to Deal With Anti-Mask Fliers: Mandatory self-defense training for airline flight crews, a no-fly list for offenders, and expanded FBI jurisdiction are needed as passenger unruliness is on the rise, industry representatives say. More needs to be done to address attacks on flight crews that have increasingly plagued airlines in the coronavirus pandemic, lawmakers and representatives for air transit workers said during a House Homeland Security subcommittee hearing. Federal government data tracked over 5,000 unruly passenger incidents this year, many involving opposition to mask wearing. Lillianna Byington has more.

‘Cures 2.0′ Bill Not Seen Passing This Year: Reps. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) and Fred Upton (R-Mich.) announced their long-awaited bill to speed up medical innovations and create a new federal research agency yesterday. But delays in its rollout mean the bill is unlikely to make it to President Joe Biden’s desk before the end of the year as they initially hoped, Upton said at a press conference yesterday. At the same time, DeGette said she expects this bill will take less time to pass compared to the 2016 law “because there is such an overwhelming support for the concept of it in both the Republican conference and the Democratic caucus.” Read more from Alex Ruoff and Jeannie Baumann.

Pharmacies Rail Against Survey Penalty in House Spending Bill: A potential $10,000 penalty in Democrats’ sweeping spending package for pharmacies that don’t quickly respond to drug cost surveys is prompting backlash from trade groups, which say Congress should focus instead on the practices of companies setting medication costs. Read more from Celine Castronuovo.

The Coronavirus Pandemic

GOP-Leaning Bench to Weigh Biden’s Vaccine Rule: A federal appeals court in Cincinnati has won the lottery to handle the consolidated case challenging the Biden administration’s emergency regulation requiring large employers to mandate that their workers either get vaccinated against Covid-19 or test regularly. The case will go to a panel of three judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, a federal panel on multidistrict litigation announced yesterday. The majority of judges in that circuit were appointed by Republican presidents.

While the Sixth Circuit won the random draw, the lottery doesn’t necessarily end the jockeying over which court will ultimately hear the case. Parties can petition circuit courts to transfer the case elsewhere. And no matter what happens at the circuit court level, the U.S. Supreme Court is likely to have the final say. Read more from Robert Iafolla.

  • Christian schools, churches, and seminaries contend OSHA’s Covid-19 vaccine mandate clashes with their constitutionally protected religious freedom, setting up a legal contest that pits the power of the federal government to act in a public health crisis against sectarian rights. Religious institutions have filed at least four lawsuits seeking to bar enforcement of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s emergency vaccine-or-test standard for large employers. The institutions maintain the federal mandate, which contained no faith-based carve-out, forces religious employers to violate their sincerely held religious beliefs. Read more from Erin Mulvaney.

U.S. to Buy 10 Million Courses of Pfizer Pill: The Biden administration plans to buy enough of Pfizer’s new Covid-19 pill to treat 10 million people, people familiar with the matter say. Pfizer’s pill to treat the disease caused by the coronavirus showed extraordinary results in a clinical trial, cutting down hospitalization and fatality by 89% among high-risk patients. The drugmaker announced yesterday it asked the Food and Drug Administration for an emergency use authorization for the treatment, administered twice a day for five days.

The administration has also ordered about 3.1 million courses of a pill from Merck, and has an option in its contract to purchase over 2 million additional courses. The two pills expand treatment options for people who test positive for the virus, although the medicines have to be taken relatively early in the illness to be effective. Officials have warned that the pills aren’t a vaccine replacement. “Although antivirals are promising, we must be sure to get our population vaccinated,” Biden’s chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci said. Read more from Josh Wingrove.

  • The White House purchase comes the same day Pfizer reached a licensing agreement that will allow generic-drug manufacturers to produce inexpensive versions of its pill for 95 low- and middle-income countries, following a similar move by Merck. In a statement yesterday, Pfizer said it’s signed an agreement with the United Nations-backed Medicines Patent Pool to license the treatment to generics companies. Robert Langreth and James Paton have more.

CDC Advisers to Meet Nov. 19 on Pfizer Booster Eligibility: The panel that advises the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on vaccination policies has scheduled a meeting this Friday to weigh expanding eligibility for booster shots of the vaccine produced by Pfizer and BioNTech. Pfizer asked federal regulators to sign off on an expansion of booster-shot eligibility earlier this month. The third shots are currently authorized for people 65 and older, as well as people 18 and up at higher risk of severe Covid. The CDC confirmed the advisory committee’s agenda in an email, Fiona Rutherford reports.

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What Else to Know Today

Biden’s Overdose Prevention Plan Faces Barriers: The Biden administration’s sweeping plan to quell rising drug deaths in the U.S. could face roadblocks as treatment specialists grapple with limitations in tracking overdoses and varying state regulations. Harm reduction, recovery support, evidence-based treatment, and primary prevention are the four tenets of Biden’s government-wide strategy for fighting an addiction crisis that has evaded policymakers since the Obama era. But tackling a hodgepodge of state policies, diverging treatment approaches, and funding restraints will be key to getting the administration’s efforts off the ground, health policy experts say.

The Department of Health and Human Services announced the overdose prevention strategy just one day before the Senate confirmed Rahul Gupta as the new director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Gupta, the first physician to hold the role and who previously led the opioid response in West Virginia, will have authority over dozens of agencies that deal with drug addiction and enforcement. Read more from Ian Lopez.

Migrant Teen Trafficking Probe Leaves Concerns: Federal investigators have been unable to locate most of a group of migrant children allegedly turned over to labor traffickers, but they’ve also found no evidence of exploitation. The unknown whereabouts of many of the children who had been approved by the Health and Human Services Department for release to adult sponsors in Enterprise, Ala., a small city in southeastern Alabama that’s home to a cluster of chicken slaughterhouses, exposes major gaps in the government’s inquiries. While some of the children who weren’t living at the Enterprise addresses listed on their HHS-approved paperwork could have moved to a safer location with a family member, there are still concerns that a network of traffickers used Enterprise as an initial “staging area,” before shuttling them off to different worksites, said one of the sources. Read more from Ellen M. Gilmer and Ben Penn.

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With assistance from Alex Ruoff

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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