HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Lawmakers Call for Ousting of Trump

Top Democratic lawmakers with oversight over Department of Health and Human Services funding called for the ousting of the Trump administration’s top health spokesman.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), the ranking member and chairwoman of the Senate and House appropriation subcommittees overseeing health funding, respectively, called on HHS Secretary Alex Azar to fire spokesman Michael Caputo, stating he propagated conspiracy theories and revised CDC reports to downplay the coronavirus threat and promote President Donald Trump’s response, Alex Ruoff reports.

Murray, who is also the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions ranking member, said in a statement Azar can’t meet his responsibilities as HHS secretary while also letting Caputo, “a yes-man for President Trump,” continue serving.

Caputo, assistant secretary for public affairs at the Health and Human Services Department, came under increased fire yesterday after appearing to have deleted his Twitter account after a late-night rant in which he suggested tear-gassing press and tangled with other users on the site. Caputo, in tweets from his Twitter-verified personal account, said “gas all of them” in commenting on a post from a self-described journalist who had published a video saying they were about to be tear-gassed. In a second tweet, Caputo described another user with an epithet for a feminine hygiene product, adding “you have four followers.”

Caputo didn’t respond to an email and text message seeking comment Monday afternoon.

“Mr. Caputo is a critical, integral part of the President’s coronavirus response, leading on public messaging as Americans need public health information to defeat the Covid-19 pandemic,” the Health and Human Services Department said in an emailed comment.

In recent days, Caputo became the center of controversy over the White House’s attempt to influence scientific study of the Covid-19 pandemic. Politico reported that Caputo was involved in trying to manipulate medical reports by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over fears they may harm Trump politically. Read more from Drew Armstrong.

  • On the Hill, the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis said it’s starting an investigation into alleged political interference in the CDC’s scientific and medical reports during the pandemic. Democrats yesterday sent a letter to CDC Director Robert Redfield and Azar requesting documents regarding the White House’s role in the publication of reports. Read more from Caitlin Webber.

More on the Pandemic:

Happening on the Hill

Who’s in Play for Committee Gavels? The competition for several committee assignment openings next year on Capitol Hill will start heating up as members finish their work this fall. Formal discussions about the parties’ lineups will wait until a post-election, lame-duck session and won’t be official until January when the new Congress convenes, according to committee aides in both parties. Still, members who want an opening will spend the rest of the year making the case to leaders and colleagues why they’re the best pick.

There is potential for plenty of turnover. Democrats are in striking distance of a Senate majority and, with it, committee gavels for the first time since 2015. And there are lawmakers set to lose their chairmanships either through retirement, term limits, or electoral defeat. Three health-related committee reorganizations may be in the line-up:

  • Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee: Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) is retiring, while committee member Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who’s below in seniority than the retiring Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), stepped down as the Intelligence Committee chairman amid an FBI investigation tied to stock sales he made before the pandemic crashed markets. Behind Burr is Rand Paul (R-Ky.).
  • House Energy and Commerce Committee: Top Republican Greg Walden (R-Ore.) is retiring, and though Fred Upton (R-Mich.) has seniority, he held the gavel from 2011 to early 2017. Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), who has the top GOP spot on the Environment and Climate Change Subcommittee, is also retiring. The top contenders are Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), ranking member of the Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee and a former GOP leadership member, and Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas), a physician who has held the top spot on the Health Subcommittee.
  • House Appropriations Committee: Three Democrats, Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), are vying to succeed the retiring Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.). DeLauro leads the committee’s Labor-HHS panel, which is a high priority for Democrats. Nancy Ognanovich breaks down other contests for panel chairmanships here.

Halt on Fetal Tissue Research Said Improper: The Trump administration is blocking federally funded fetal tissue research over ideology and not science, two Democrats said, and called on HHS’s Azar to halt those efforts. The White House has hindered research for more than a year on treatments to diseases including Covid-19, House Oversight and Reform Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Murray said. Read more from Vivek Shankar.

Health & Economy in Latin America: The House Foreign Affairs Western Hemisphere, Civilian Security, and Trade Subcommittee will examine health, economic and political challenges in Latin America and the Caribbean.

What Else to Know

Critics’ Pressure Causes HHS to Reverse Course on Medicaid Rule: A proposed federal rule aimed at reining in Medicaid payments was withdrawn in response to pushback from health providers and states, Seema Verma, administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, announced yesterday. The proposed Medicaid Fiscal Accountability Rule was designed to require greater transparency and accountability from state Medicaid programs, especially with regard to “supplemental payments,” which accounted for $50 billion in Medicaid spending as recently as 2016. Read more from Christopher Brown.

Drug Pricing Advocates Launch Ad Campaign: A drug pricing-advocacy group backed by billionaire former hedge fund managers will launch a seven-figure ad campaign aimed at bolstering candidates of both parties who back prescription drug bills. The spots by Patients for Affordable Drugs Action will air in 15 states, including states with battleground races such as Virginia, Montana, Minnesota, Iowa, and Georgia, the group will announce this week.

The ads are likely to help some incumbents in tough races on both sides of the aisle who have supported major drug pricing measures this Congress, from Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), who backed a bipartisan Senate bill (S. 2543) the group favors, to Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), who voted for a bill (H.R. 3) to provide the government the power to force drugmakers to lower their prices, Alex Ruoff reports.

Meanwhile, Trump is hoping to buoy his own health-care accomplishments by touting an executive order calling on pharmaceutical companies to close the gap between what Americans pay for medicine and what people in other countries pay. The ads won’t mention Trump’s order, a spokeswoman for the group said.

Patients for Affordable Drugs is funded by an organization created by John and Laura Arnold, a former Enron trader who became a hedge fund manager and a former attorney respectively. Its campaign comes as drugmakers’ trade groups have already spent more than $10 million on ads this year. The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America has spent $5.6 million on ads this year, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers have spent over $6 million on ads this year, according to Advertising Analytics.

Panel Tosses Freeze on Public Charge Rule: A nationwide injunction blocking a Trump administration rule halting legal status to immigrants receiving public assistance was stayed by a Second Circuit panel. The Southern District of New York found the rule “impedes public efforts” to stem the spread of Covid-19 by deterring non-citizens from getting tested or seeking treatment. But the court likely lacked jurisdiction to enter the injunction, the Second Circuit ruled. Peter Hayes has more.

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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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