HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Panel Tees Up HHS Funds Amid Abortion Spat

Federal health, education, and labor funds are heading for a vote in the full House after a panel approved a spending measure largely along party lines yesterday.

The House Appropriations Committee approved the Labor-HHS-Education spending measure, which would provide $237 billion in discretionary funding next year, by a 33-25 vote. Most Republicans opposed the legislation, saying it was too expensive and would lift a ban they support on federal funds for abortion services.

Under the measure, the Department of Health and Human Services would get $119.8 billion in discretionary funding in fiscal 2022, a $22.9 billion increase from fiscal 2021. Much of that boost would head to the National Institutes of Health, which would get $49 billion in fiscal 2022, a $6.5 billion bump. The bill would use $3 billion for President Joe Biden’s proposed new biomedical research center.

Democratic leaders on the committee say ending the Hyde Amendment—the ban on federal funds for abortions except in certain circumstances—remains a key priority for them. “I believe repealing the Hyde Amendment is the best thing we can do to support our mothers and families,” Chair Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said. Other provisions in the measure include:

  • Abortion Ban: The measure would also omit the “Weldon Amendment,” which in previous bills has prohibited discrimination against health-care providers that refuse to offer or refer patients for abortion services. Opponents say it restricts access to abortion. An amendment from Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) to restore the two abortion restrictions failed.
  • Wuhan Research Ban: The committee added a provision that would ban federal funds for the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a research center in a city tied to early outbreaks of the coronavirus. The panel also added a provision to ban federal funds for “gain-of-function” research in foreign countries.

The full House will vote on the Labor-HHS spending bill the week of July 26 as part of a “minibus” appropriations bill that includes funding for other federal agencies, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told members yesterday. Read more from Alex Ruoff and Andrew Kreighbaum.

Happening on the Hill

Medicaid Cash, Drug Recovery Bills Sail Through Panel: Lawmakers took the first step toward extending Medicaid funding for people in Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories before financial support expires this fall. The House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Health Subcommittee approved H.R. 4406 by unanimous voice vote and now heads to the full committee for consideration. It was among 18 other approved bills, ranging from resources for substance use recovery to better education on vaccines.

H.R. 4406 would mark the longest Medicaid funding extension for U.S. territories since Congress passed the Affordable Care Act in 2010, Energy and Commerce Chair Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) said. It would extend funding for five years for Puerto Rico and eight years for American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Pallone said he supports the bill but that he also has his eye on an eventual “permanent funding decision.”

The subcommittee also approved five measures related to substance use prevention and recovery. The pandemic exacerbated an already-surging opioid crisis. Drug overdose deaths rose 30% in 2020, up to 93,331, according to data released Wednesday by the CDC. One bill would seek to regulate the distribution of controlled substances, and another would declare methamphetamine an “emerging drug threat,” and require an emerging threat response plan for the drug. Read more from Jacquie Lee and Allie Reed.

Senate Infrastructure, Budget Packages to Advance: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) set a Wednesday deadline to wrap up talks on both the bipartisan infrastructure package and an agreement among all Democrats on moving forward on a budget resolution, Erik Wasson and Steven, T. Dennis report. Schumer’s move puts pressure on Republicans to cut a deal quickly on the $579 billion infrastructure plan and on moderate Democrats to agree to the $3.5 trillion budget blueprint that is moving on a separate, parallel track.

The Coronavirus Pandemic

L.A. Reinstates Mask Requirement, Even for Vaccinated: Los Angeles County told its residents they must wear masks indoors—even the vaccinated—following a surge in Covid-19 cases and the spread of the delta variant. The county of 10 million people added more than 1,000 new cases for a seventh straight day, with the transmission rate reaching close to a “high” level after hitting a “substantial” pace in a short period of time, Muntu Davis, the county’s health officer, said in a briefing, Bloomberg News reports.

Booster Doses Can Wait, Scientists Argue: Most vaccinated Americans are not likely to need Covid-19 booster shots for months or years, despite the rise of highly infectious variants and the continued spread of the virus, according to leading scientists. Pfizer has been touting a plan to apply for clearance this summer for a third shot of its messenger RNA vaccine. But vaccine experts and health officials in both the U.S. and Europe say existing shots remain highly effective. Read more from Robert Langreth.

mRNA Shot Access Divides World: The latest surge in Covid-19 cases is widening one of the biggest inequities of the pandemic: The gap between nations that have mRNA vaccines and those that don’t. The cutting-edge technology has proven more effective than others in staving off infections and illness. Yet only a handful of facilities in the U.S. and Western Europe account for almost all of the world’s mRNA vaccine supplies, leaving many countries in a desperate race to catch up. Read more from Bruce Einhorn.

WHO Urges China to Cooperate in Origin Hunt: The World Health Organization’s director general called on China to cooperate in a second phase of studying the origins of the coronavirus as the pandemic rages on around the world. One of the challenges is the lack of raw data, especially from the early days of the outbreak, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a media briefing. China hasn’t yet shared that information. Read more from Corinne Gretler.

  • Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has repeated his call for a transparent probe into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, with the nation’s two largest cities again in lockdown to halt the spread of the delta variant. “The world deserves answers,” Morrison said in Sydney after a meeting of national cabinet with state leaders today. “Those who have lost their lives and their livelihoods, they deserve answers. Australia will continue to ask the questions to get those answers.” Read more from Matthew Burgess.

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What Else to Know Today

Home Health Agencies Fight Medicare Cut: Home health agencies want the Biden administration to reconsider a proposal that would cut their Medicare payment rate by nearly 4.4% for a third straight year in 2022. The “behavior assumption adjustment” in the proposed Home Health Prospective Payment System rule would lower Medicare payments, on the “assumption” home health agencies would alter billing activity to maximize Patient-Driven Groupings Model reimbursements. Tony Pugh has more.

Biogen Faces Setbacks as Providers Resist Alzheimer’s Drug: Biogen shares sank to their lowest in more than a month after two major hospital systems and a group of health insurers said they would not administer its controversial Alzheimer’s disease medicine. The Cleveland Clinic, Mount Sinai Health System in New York City and some Blue Cross Blue Shield plans snubbed Aduhelm’s use, and others like UnitedHealth could follow suit. Read more from Cristin Flanagan.

Health Data Sharing With Social Services Criticized: Proposed changes to federal health privacy rules meant to encourage data sharing with social services agencies could pose unacceptable privacy risks, advocates claim. The goal of the changes to the HIPAA privacy rule is to encourage health-care providers and social services agencies to collaborate to address social challenges affecting health, but critics worry that information sharing is beyond the reach of HIPAA’s protections, Christopher Brown reports.

Employers Take On Factors Weighing on Employees’ Health: Employers increasingly are getting involved in the movement to help identify and address social factors that can have an adverse impact on the health of their workers. Kentucky state and local governments, GE, and Humana are among those participating in a program with the CDC seeking to identify problems affecting their workers’ health but aren’t normally covered by health insurance. Read more from Sara Hansard.

DaVita Accused by U.S. of Colluding on Employee Recruitment: DaVita, an operator of kidney dialysis centers, and its former chief executive officer were charged with colluding with other companies not to recruit one another’s employees, the Justice Department said. A grand jury in Denver indicted DaVita and former CEO Kent Thiry on conspiracy charges, the department said in a statement yesterday. Denver-based DaVita said in a statement that the government’s case relies on “an unprecedented and untested application” of antitrust laws. Read more from David McLaughlin.

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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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