HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Relief Talks Show Areas of Bipartisanship

Lawmakers negotiating the next coronavirus stimulus legislation are starting to see areas of health policy where Democrats and Republicans can agree, despite recent weeks of partisan bickering on Capitol Hill.

The legislation (H.R. 6800), passed Friday mostly along party lines 208-199, would give cash-strapped states and local governments more than $1 trillion while providing most Americans with a new round of $1,200 checks. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said it should be the basis of talks with the Senate and White House, which have called for a “pause” to allow earlier coronavirus recovery spending to work.

Republican aides say parts of the $3 trillion coronavirus package contained areas they support—such as revamps of the Strategic National Stockpile that would let the government partner with private companies and accept donations, and ways to protect the pharmaceutical and medical supply chains like creating centers of manufacturing excellence.

There is also growing agreement that there needs to be strengthened oversight of the emergency funds going to health-care providers.

Lawmakers are also finding common ground around improving Covid-19 testing in the U.S., which public health experts have said will be essential to reopening the country. “State testing capacity has gotten substantially better; however, we must reflect on what went wrong and how we can make sure it doesn’t happen in the future,” Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas) said on the House floor.

Overhauls of Medicare’s advance payment program have been getting attention by members of both parties after hospitals and doctors across the country took out nearly $100 billion in pre-payments from the federal government that they’ll need to pay back. The House-passed legislation would slash the interest rate for health-care providers who borrowed from Medicare, an effort that’s seen some bipartisan support this year.

Major divides between the parties on the next stimulus package remain: Senate Republicans want to bolster liability protections for businesses operating during the pandemic, but many Democrats have flatly rejected that priority. Democrats have sought to boost the Affordable Care Act and approve billions in state aide that Republicans have opposed.

Lobbying Stampede Breaks Out as Window Narrows for Next Stimulus: A socially distant lobbying stampede has broken out in Washington for what may well be the last major stimulus bill to address the coronavirus pandemic. Marijuana dispensaries want access to banking services, home builders want tax credits for constructing low-income residences, potato growers want to be paid for excess supply. Even the lobbyists are lobbying for a bailout.

As the economic legislation winds its way through Congress, special interests are vying to impress lawmakers with the magnitude of their losses from the pandemic. President Donald Trump has said he’s not interested in the $3 trillion package drafted by House Democrats and approved on Friday night. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) doesn’t plan to move on any Republican alternative until June at the earliest, according to an aide. With any compromise still weeks away, there’s still a window for lobbyists to get their wish lists in front of lawmakers. Read more from Ben Brody, Naomi Nix and Megan Wilson.

This Week’s Hearings on the Hill

VA Virus Response: The House Appropriations Military Construction-VA Subcommittee plans a hearing tomorrow on the Veterans Affairs Department’s Covid-19 response efforts. VA Secretary Robert Wilkie is scheduled testify.

CARES Act Report: The Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Development Committee tomorrow will hear the quarterly CARES Act report to Congress from Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell.

Virus Protection for Workers: The House Education and Labor Committee on Wednesday will examine the federal government’s actions to protect workers from Covid-19.

Seniors, Virus Care: The Senate Special Committee on Aging holds a hearing Thursday on caring for seniors during the pandemic.

Testing, Vaccine & Reopening Efforts

Azar Says Reopening Is a Health Equation: The question of when and how to end stay-at-home orders in the U.S. is a health-versus-health equation as well as an economic one, HHS Secretary Alex Azar said. There is a “very real health consequence to these shutdowns” that needs to be balanced against possible illness from the coronavirus, Azar told CBS’s “Face the Nation.” That’s shown with regard to other medical procedures or regular screenings not being performed or postponed until the outbreak is further contained, he said, citing suicides rates, “cardiac procedures not being received, cancer screenings, pediatric vaccinations declining.” Read more from Ros Krasny and Tony Czuczka.

Trump Seeks to Require Hospitals to Open Books: The White House wants Congress to require hospitals and insurers to reveal the prices they negotiate for medical services as part of any additional round of coronavirus stimulus, in an effort to short-circuit a legal battle with the health care industry. The HHS published two regulations last year requiring hospitals and insurers to make their prices public. The industry has challenged the rule in court, arguing that it’s a First Amendment violation, and successfully delayed its implementation. Read more from Jennifer Jacobs and Shira Stein.

Trump Unveils ‘Warp Speed’ Heads to Hasten Vaccine: Trump Friday named General Gustave Perna, who directs the U.S. Army Materiel Command, as chief operating officer of “Operation Warp Speed,” likening it to a Manhattan Project-effort. “That means big and that means fast,” Trump said in remarks on Friday from the White House Rose Garden. Former GlaxoSmithKline executive Moncef Slaoui will be the project’s “chief scientist,” Trump said, calling him “one of the most respected men in the world in the production, and really, the formulation of vaccines.” Justin Sink, Jordan Fabian, and Riley Griffin have more.

  • AstraZeneca will make as many as 30 million doses of coronavirus vaccine available to the U.K. by September and has committed to delivering 100 million doses this year. The U.K. will be the first country to get access to the vaccine should it be successful. The vaccine being developed at the University of Oxford will get 65.5 million pounds ($79 million) of funding, U.K. Business Secretary Alok Sharma said yesterday in a statement. The inoculation is already being studied in humans and could reach late-stage trials by the middle of the year. Another 18.5 million pounds will go to Imperial College London as trials accelerate. Read more from Sara Marley.
  • An experimental Covid-19 vaccine developed by cigarette maker British American Tobacco is poised to start trials in humans. Pre-clinical trial efforts showed a positive immune response, the London-based producer of Lucky Strike cigarettes said in a statement Friday. The first phase of human trials may start as soon as next month if it’s authorized by drug regulators, BAT said. Read more from Corinne Gretler.
  • At the World Health Organization, the public health group is pushing a plan that aims to ensure broad access to treatments and vaccines while offering an appropriate reward to creators. Under a plan offered by Costa Rica, drug companies would voluntarily donate Covid-related intellectual property to a global pool. Countries would be free to decide how to mete out the rights. Read more.

States Push to Streamline Ventilator Fixes: A group of state officials has an idea to boost the availability of ventilators and other equipment that hospitals need to treat coronavirus patients: let more medical facilities fix the ones they have. In a letter to equipment manufacturers, state treasurers of Pennsylvania, Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, and Rhode Island said hospitals sometimes had to wait over a week for technicians under contracts. They want manufacturers to release all repair manuals and service keys and let hospitals use technicians of their choice rather than those required under contracts, Susan Decker reports.

Trump to Tour Ford Ventilator Assembly Plant in Michigan: Trump will visit a Ford plant Thursday that has been repurposed to manufacture ventilators and personal protective equipment, according to a White House official, who added the president is expected to tour the plant and discuss the collaboration between Ford and General Electric to respond to the coronavirus outbreak, Justin Sink reports. Trump will visit Ford’s Rawsonville plant in Ypsilanti, Michigan, about 30 miles west of Detroit. He’s expected to speak after the tour.

At-Home Sample Collection Kit Approved: The FDA has authorized the first at-home sample collection kit that can be used with multiple Covid-19 diagnostic tests. The FDA said Saturday it granted an emergency use authorization to Everlywell for its collection kit, allowing patients who have been screened online to self-collect a nasal sample and send it to specified labs for use with an authorized diagnostic test. Read more from Alexis Kramer.

More Headlines:

What Else to Know Today

Kushner Task Force Shares Private-Sector Zeal, Oscar Health Ties: As the coronavirus spread in mid-March, White House adviser Jared Kushner began assembling an ad hoc task force to combat it. One of his first calls was to a longtime acquaintance, Adam Boehler. In short order, Boehler called Nat Turner, a friend and health care angel investor. Boehler and Turner had founded successful health care startups, but they also shared a connection with Kushner not previously reported: All three have been investors at one time or another in Oscar Health, the company founded and run by Kushner’s brother, Josh.

Kushner says it was simple logic that led him to put together a task force led by businessmen rather than government bureaucrats, running in the shadow of the vice president’s official task force. “The health care sector in America is mostly controlled by the private sector and not-for-profits, so it’s not run by the government,” Kushner said during an April 29 interview on “Fox and Friends.” “So you needed to take a custom, tailored approach.” Read more from David Kocieniewski and Caleb Melby.

China’s Xi to Address Key WHO Meeting Following Fight Over Virus: Chinese leader Xi Jinping will address the World Health Organization’s decision-making body as it commences its annual summit Monday in Geneva, amid rising acrimony over his country’s early handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Xi was invited by WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to give a video speech at the opening ceremony of the 73th World Health Assembly, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

The president will speak hours after China’s foreign ministry said the timing wasn’t right for an investigation into the virus’s origins, which is being urged by the European Union and Australia. “The vast majority of countries believe that the epidemic situation is not over,” ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a regular briefing in Beijing, responding to a question on whether China supports an inquiry into an independent investigation. Anti-epidemic cooperation “is a top priority,” he said, “so the time to immediately start reviewing and tracing the virus’s origins is not yet ripe.”

Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said on Monday that Taiwan was dropping its campaign to be included in this week’s assembly as the proceedings had been shortened due to the virus, and would resume it later in the year when meetings would be conducted normally. Read more from Bloomberg News.

  • Yesterday, the Trump administration stepped up its campaign of blaming China for the virus after a senior White House aide suggested Beijing sent airline passengers to spread it across the world. “The virus was spawned in Wuhan province, patient zero was in November,” Trump’s trade aide Peter Navarro told ABC. China “for two months hid the virus from the world and then sent hundreds of thousands of Chinese on aircraft to Milan, New York and around the world to seed that.” Read more from Steve Geimann.

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To contact the reporters on this story: Alex Ruoff in Washington at aruoff@bgov.com; Brandon Lee in Washington at blee@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Giuseppe Macri at gmacri@bgov.com; Zachary Sherwood at zsherwood@bgov.com; Michaela Ross at mross@bgov.com

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