HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: No Crack Pipe Funding, Biden Officials Say

Bloomberg Government subscribers get the stories like this first. Act now and gain unlimited access to everything you need to know. Learn more.

The Biden administration said it wouldn’t fund efforts to distribute free pipes to drug users after Republican lawmakers railed against the idea. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) threatened yesterday to prevent quick passage of a short-term government funding bill unless she gets firmer assurances that federal funds aren’t being used to buy drug paraphernalia.

Several conservative news outlets reported that the Biden administration would purchase and distribute “crack pipes” as part of a harm-reduction program. “U.S. taxpayer dollars should not be used to fund vending machines for crack pipes,” Blackburn said in a statement yesterday.

Government funding is set to expire Feb. 18. Blackburn’s hold will prevent senators from quickly passing a funding extension by unanimous agreement, instead requiring the bill to compete for time on the chamber’s busy calendar. Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) also this week decried the notion of distributing pipes to drug users.

No funds will go toward buying such pipes, the heads of the Health and Human Services Department and the Office of National Drug Control Policy said in a joint statement. “HHS and ONDCP are focused on using our resources smartly to reduce harm and save lives,” they said. “Accordingly, no federal funding will be used directly or through subsequent reimbursement of grantees to put pipes in safe smoking kits.”

The program would focus on “providing naloxone, fentanyl test strips, and clean syringes, as well as taking decisive actions to go after violent criminals who are trafficking illicit drugs like fentanyl across our borders and into our communities,” HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra and ONDCP’s Rahul Gupta said. Read more from Alex Ruoff.

Also on Lawmakers’ Radars

HHS Top Lawyer Nominee Moves One Step Closer to Confirmation: Biden’s pick to defend the Department of Health and Human Services against legal challenges, Samuel Bagenstos, yesterday moved closer to full Senate confirmation. The Senate voted 48-47 to allow the confirmation vote to occur without committee action. A final vote on Bagenstos’s nomination could occur at any time. Read more from Allie Reed.

Republican Blocks Sanders’ Drug Bill: Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) attempted to bring a prescription drug pricing bill to the floor yesterday, but were blocked, adding to the frustration among Democrats over the lack of action on the issue. Sanders and Klobuchar wanted to open debate and eventually pass their bill, but were stopped by Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), who said the bill was unvetted and any legislation should go through a committee mark up. Sanders replied that “we’ve been going through regular order dealing with prescription drugs for 40 years.”

The measure would require drugmakers who want their products covered by Medicare to price them at the level offered to the Department of Veterans Affairs, which negotiates the price it pays for pharmaceuticals. Democrats’ hopes to pass a major drug pricing bill is tied to the Build Back Better $1.75 trillion domestic spending package stalled by opposition from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Alex Ruoff reports. Read a summary of the bill from Sanders’ office here.

Schumer Boosts Pot Legalization as Priority: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is bolstering prospects for marijuana initiatives on Capitol Hill by throwing the weight of his office behind them. The Democrat recently said back in his home state that he will formally unveil legislation as soon as April to legalize marijuana and set tax and banking rules to oversee the burgeoning industry. It may be ready for floor action before this fall’s midterms. “As majority leader, I can set priorities. This is a priority for me,” Schumer said at an event with advocates. Read more from Nancy Ognanovich.

The Coronavirus Pandemic

Biden Bid to Lift Block on Federal Worker Shot Mandate Denied: A federal appeals court declined Wednesday to lift an injunction blocking the Biden administration from enforcing a Covid-19 vaccination requirement for federal workers. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in a 2-1 vote, will allow the injunction to remain in place while the court determines whether the vaccine order exceeds the president’s authority. Read more from Maeve Allsup.

CDC Studies Guidance for Easing Mask Rules: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention experts are developing guidance to help states ease Covid-19 rules for mask-wearing, even as U.S. health officials said it’s still premature to dispense of the measures, as some governors are doing. “We are working on that guidance,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in a White House press call, cautioning that: “our hospitalizations are still high, our death rates are still high. So as we work towards that, and as we are encouraged by the current trends, we are not there yet.” Read more from Josh Wingrove and Fiona Rutherford.

More on the Pandemic:

What Else to Know Today

Trump-Era Rule to Report Hospital Pricing Off to Slow Start: The majority of surveyed U.S. hospitals are ignoring a federal order to publicly post their prices, a new report by an advocacy group found, raising questions about how strongly the Biden administration is enforcing a Trump-era measure. A review of 1,000 hospitals by Patient Rights Advocate, which supports the price transparency measure, found that only 14% were fully complying with the rule. Others obeyed the pricing rules, but not other required measures, while a majority did not post sufficient rates. Read more from Josh Wingrove and Allison Reed.

Many Juul Vapors in Limbo as Teen Rates Delay FDA Move: Thousands of vapors are awaiting their fate in the marketplace as the FDA works beyond a court-ordered deadline to review whether benefits to adult smokers outweigh the risk of teen addiction. The Food and Drug Administration is still assessing 55,000 premarket applications for e-cigarettes from Juul and other companies currently on the shelves, an FDA spokesperson told Bloomberg Law. The FDA was tasked with deciding by Sept. 9 last year how to regulate nearly 6.7 million of these products after expanding its authority over tobacco. Celine Castronuovo has more.

Non-Opioid Pain Relievers Get Push by FDA: The FDA is pushing drugmakers to develop non-addictive opioid alternatives for treating pain, marking the latest move in a government-wide effort to curb rising overdose numbers across the country. Draft guidance published yesterday aims to help companies navigate the review process for non-opioid acute pain medications and spells out how to best measure their effectiveness in development. It also lays out how to promote through labeling that their products may reduce opioid use. Read more from Ian Lopez.

Hospital’s Challenge on Supplemental Payments Tossed Back: A 13-year Medicare payment dispute between Empire Health Foundation and the Department of Health and Human Services will bounce back to HHS for a new look following a forthcoming rule addressing the heart of the dispute, a court said on Tuesday. The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia agreed with the HHS that sending the case back is “the most efficient course” for resolving it. The dispute first arose in 2009 and concerns a change in the formula used by HHS to calculate disproportionate share hospital payments. Christopher Brown has more.

More in Industry & the Courts:

To contact the reporter on this story: Brandon Lee in Washington at

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

Stay informed with more news like this – from the largest team of reporters on Capitol Hill – subscribe to Bloomberg Government today. Learn more.