HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Progressives Revive Medicare-for-All Push

Progressive Democrats are reviving their Medicare for All plan this week, part of a campaign for universal health coverage they claim is even more urgent after the coronavirus pandemic exposed and exacerbated disparities in the U.S. health-care system.

The bill has little chance of clearing this Congress, with Republicans and moderate Democrats opposing its broad reach, but the legislation lays out progressive priorities for transforming a health care system worth nearly a fifth of the nation’s GDP. Their plan would eliminate private health insurance and require the federal government to establish a single-payer program that covers all U.S. residents.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and one of the bill’s sponsors, said the American public increasingly supports a larger role for the U.S. government in health care. “While this devastating pandemic is shining a bright light on our broken, for-profit health care system, we were already leaving nearly half of all adults under the age of 65 uninsured or under-insured before Covid-19 hit,” Jayapal said.

President Joe Biden has stopped short of supporting Medicare for All, saying that he prefers to expand the Affordable Care Act. But advocates for a more comprehensive approach argue overhauling the entire system in one piece of legislation would yield more savings and provide better outcomes for patients.

“It would be a tough lift in the Senate,” said Eagan Kemp, a health-care policy advocate for consumer nonprofit Public Citizen. “But it’s an important time to be laying the groundwork.”

Jayapal told reporters she is pushing Democrats to include a lower age limit for Medicare and drug-price negotiation in the next fast-track budget reconciliation bill that wouldn’t need any Republican votes under current Senate rules. Jayapal said she’s spoken with the White House and made it clear progressives want at least these elements of her health revamp included in Democrats’ next major legislative package.

Opponents argue that a single-payer model would increase wait times and lower the quality of care, in addition to the necessary increase in taxes and government spending. Shifting the total health-care burden to the federal government would cost more than $30 trillion over 10 years, according to some estimates, although advocates say total health spending could decrease in a centralized system that could negotiate drug prices and cut administrative costs. Read more from Jarrell Dillard and Alex Ruoff.

Happening on the Hill

Becerra’s Confirmation Vote: The Senate at noon today plans to vote on the nomination of Biden’s nominee to be secretary of Health and Human Services. Senators voted 50-49 yesterday to limit debate on the nomination of California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to the post. A vote last week to move Becerra’s nomination forward cleared on just a 51-48 vote, signaling that he could get the least amount of GOP support of any of Biden’s cabinet choices.

  • Becerra’s confirmation vote comes after two other nominees for key public health leadership posts at the HHS were approved yesterday by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. The nominations of Vivek Murthy and Rachel Levine to serve as U.S. surgeon general and assistant secretary for health, respectively, now head to the full chamber for a vote. Read more from Shira Stein.

Fauci, Walensky Testify on Virus Response: Anthony Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser, and CDC Director Rochelle Walensky are set to appear today at a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing examining Covid-19 response, according to notice posted online. The hearing will also include ex-FDA chief David Kessler, the chief science officer for the U.S. government’s coronavirus response, and Peter Marks, director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research.

  • Fauci’s appearance follows testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Oversight Subcommittee yesterday, where he said dangerous variants of the coronavirus continue to threaten progress that the U.S. has made in reducing Covid-19 cases and immunizing the population. “While we are cautiously optimistic about the future, we know that many challenges remain,” Fauci said. John Tozzi has more.
  • In addition, Fauci said children and other patients who are afraid of needles could find protection from Covid-19 through a nasal spray or an oral version in future generations of the vaccines. He said the National Institutes of Health is funding research to make it easier to administer vaccines that could eliminate the need for shots. Read more from Jeannie Baumann.

House GOP Allows Earmark Money: House Republicans yesterday voted to allow members to request dedicated-spending projects, also known as “earmarks,” following the same move by Democrats, in a positive sign for Biden’s hopes for a bipartisan infrastructure bill that may carry health-care modernization provisions. Republicans in the Senate will still have to decide whether to revive the earmarking process. Read more from Erik Wasson.

Panel OKs ‘Forever Chemicals’ Bill Shielding Firefighters: The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee approved legislation yesterday to protect firefighters from “forever chemicals” and reduce releases into the environment. The panel approved the bill and more than a dozen others unanimously, meaning they’ll now move the bill to the full chamber, which passed a similar measure towards the end of the last congressional session. Read more from Pat Rizzuto.

Wyden Aide Joins Health Group: Grant Couch, a health lobbyist and a former aide to Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), has joined Venn Strategies as a vice president in its health group. He comes from the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, where he served as a senior director of federal government relations. He’s also held advocacy roles at the American Medical Group Association and American Society of Anesthesiologists, Megan Wilson reports.

Healthcare for At-Risk Americans: The Senate Special Committee on Aging meets today for a hearing on Covid-19 and health care for at-risk Americans.

Warren Rebuffed by Covid-Hit Care Homes: A struggling Pennsylvania nursing home company says it did nothing wrong in providing a multi-million dollar severance package for its former CEO, even as it pondered bankruptcy protection and more than 2,800 of its residents were dying from Covid-19. In a statement yesterday released at the start of a Senate Finance Committee hearing about the nursing home industry’s pandemic response, Genesis HealthCare responded to an inquiry from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, (D-Mass.) saying its compensation for company executives—including a $5.2 million retention bonus to former CEO George V. Hager—was “contractual, fair and appropriate.” Read more from Tony Pugh.

The Coronavirus Pandemic

Biden to Reach 100 Million Vaccinations Goal Early: Biden is poised to meet his goal of delivering 100 million Covid-19 vaccine shots in his first 100 days in office as soon as today, reaching the milestone more than a month ahead of time. As of yesterday, his 57th day in office, the U.S. had vaccinated nearly 98 million people since Biden’s inauguration. The pace of shots has risen to an average of nearly 2.5 million per day for the last week. That leaves Biden within grasp of his target today — the 58th day of his presidency — and poised to hit it no later than tomorrow, barring a major slowdown. He’s scheduled to speak publicly this afternoon about the state of vaccinations. Read more from Josh Wingrove.

Biden to Send Billions to Increase Virus Testing in Schools: The Biden administration said it will send states billions for coronavirus testing to help reopen schools safely as Republicans in Congress pushed for students to get back into classrooms faster. HHS is allocating $10 billion to help schools test teachers and students, according to a statement. Another $2.25 billion will help support scaled-up testing in underserved populations and development of new guidance on testing in schools and in workplaces. Read more from Fiona Rutherford and Josh Wingrove.

  • Separately, the Department of Education will host a summit on safely reopening schools March 24, Secretary Miguel Cardona announced yesterday. Cardona, First Lady Jill Biden, and CDC’s Walensky will speak at the event, which will discuss how schools can open up while meeting CDC guidelines, Andrew Kreighbaum reports.
  • Cardona yesterday also told states how much they will receive from $122 billion in relief for K-12 public schools provided through the latest coronavirus relief bill. The Education Department will release those funds this month to help pay for the costs of coronavirus mitigation measures on campuses and cover other disruptions, Kreighbaum reports.

CDC Study Finds Vaccine Inequity in 31 States: Vaccine coverage was lower in U.S. counties that have the highest social vulnerability, according to a report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published yesterday. The agency measures social vulnerability through an index that accounts for social, economic, racial and ethnic factors. Equity in vaccine access hasn’t been achieved nationally, the report suggested. Vaccination disparities were observed in 31 states, according to the overall measure. Read more.

Mexico, Canada Top Biden’s List for Eventual Exports: Mexico and Canada are at the top of Biden’s list of nations to eventually receive exports of U.S.-made Covid-19 vaccines, according to a U.S. official familiar with the plans. But Biden and White House officials have said the U.S. will not share any vaccines until after it has enough for its own citizens, leaving timing for any exports unclear. Read more from Josh Wingrove.

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What Else to Know Today

Biden Considers Expanding ACA Enrollment Window Past May: The Biden administration is considering extending the special enrollment window for Americans to buy Obamacare health plans beyond its current expiration date of May 15, according to an administration official. The president opened a new enrollment period from Feb. 15 to May 15, giving Americans a chance to buy health-care plans on the Affordable Care Act marketplace outside the usual end-of-year window. Read more from Josh Wingrove and John Tozzi.

Americans Fear Weak Action on Drug Prices: Americans are more concerned that Congress won’t do enough to lower the cost of medicines than they are about harming pharmaceutical innovation, according to a survey published yesterday by the consumer group Families USA. It found two-thirds of Americans thought lawmakers might not take enough action to deal with drug costs. Those results were similar among Democrats and Republicans, chief pollster Geoff Garin said, Alex Ruoff reports. Read the findings here.

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With assistance from Alex Ruoff, Megan R. Wilson, and Andrew Kreighbaum

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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