HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Revamp Eyed for Covid-19 Health Aid

The Biden administration will soon release guidance on what health-care providers can do with unspent stimulus funds, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra told lawmakers.

HHS this month will outline how health-care providers can “apply for and make use, good use, of their monies,” Becerra said. He declined to say whether the department will extend the June 30 deadline for providers to spend Covid-19 stimulus funds.

Becerra signaled that HHS under President Joe Biden will change how the remaining $24 billion in relief money will be distributed compared with the $150 billion already given out over the last year. “We’re trying to make sure we don’t make the mistakes of the past,” Becerra told members of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Congress, through two laws, approved $178 billion in provider relief funds, money to hospitals and doctors that shut down health services during the early spread of Covid-19. Those that received funds through the two laws (Public Law 116-136, Public Law 117-2) face a June 30 deadline to spend it.

Hospital groups in May asked HHS to extend that deadline and distribute the remaining $24 billion in the relief fund. Long-term care groups have complained they didn’t get their fair share of the relief.

Providers must spend the relief money on Covid-related activities and many are still not back to pre-pandemic revenue, Michael Strazzella, head of federal government relations at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney PC, a law firm and lobbying group, said. Some hospitals want to funnel the money to vaccination programs or to bring back staff cut during the pandemic, he said. Read more from Alex Ruoff.

Happening on the Hill

Hearings on the Hill:

  • U.S., Global Pandemic Response: The House Foreign Relations Subcommittee on International Development, International Organizations and Global Corporate Social Impact convenes today for a hearing on U.S. leadership in the international response to Covid-19.
  • Senate Appropriations Hearings: The Senate Appropriations Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee will weigh appropriations for HHS today, where Becerra will testify.

Democrats Irked by Alzheimer’s Drug’s Price: The cost of Biogen’s new Alzheimer’s drug is drawing criticism from Democratic lawmakers a day after its approval by U.S. regulators. The $56,000-a-year price tag for Biogen’s Aduhelm “will likely cost Medicare billions of dollars,” said House Oversight and Reform Chair Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.). in an emailed statement. Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) tweeted that it’s “unconscionable” to charge so much for a drug that has not been proven to work. Read more from Brody Ford.

  • The approval of Biogen’s $56,000-a-year Alzheimer’s therapy creates an unprecedented challenge for the U.S. health system: a drug many patients may get at a high price even though it may not slow their cognitive decline. The health system is taking on a treatment that as many as 1 million people could qualify at a total annual cost of as much $50 billion. Despite the large burden, there’s little certainty about whether patients will be better off. Read more from John Tozzi.

Health Preparedness Pick Vows to Apply Lessons from Pandemic: “Be ready for the next public health emergency.” That’s the top priority for Biden’s nominee to lead the agency within the HHS that prepares for and works to stop pandemics and biohazard attacks. “Make sure that we have the advantage of everything that we’ve learned this time” from the Covid-19 crisis, said Dawn O’Connell, who is seeking confirmation to be HHS assistant secretary for preparedness and response.

She testified yesterday before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. Republicans on the committee didn’t state how they would vote on O’Connell’s nomination or that of Miriam Delphin-Rittmon for assistant secretary for mental health and substance use, who also testified yesterday. Read more from Shira Stein.

Panel to Take Up Vaccine Legislation: The House Energy and Commerce Committee will convene next week to consider several vaccine-related measures, according to Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and Health Subcommittee Chair Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.). They include H.R. 1452, which would to direct the HHS secretary to publish the formula used to determine the allocation of Covid-19 vaccines to states. Find the full list of legislation here.

The Coronavirus Pandemic

Rebound in Health Care to Drive 2022 Spending: U.S. medical costs are expected to increase in 2022 as health care deferred during the pandemic returns and Covid-19 testing and vaccinations continue, according to an analysis released today. Industry efforts to improve the health-care supply chain, increase staff wages, and update infrastructure—to prepare for the next crisis—will also drive higher prices, PwC Health Research Institute found in the report.

PwC expects costs to increase by 6.5% in 2022, slightly slower than 2021, but higher than in other years. “The pandemic made a pronounced impact on how and where Americans gain access to care, a shift large enough to influence multiple aspects of price and utilization,” PwC said. Lesley Torres has more.

U.S., EU Set to Back New Study Into Origins: The U.S. and the European Union are set to back a renewed push into investigating Covid-19’s origins after conflicting assessments about where the outbreak started, a document seen by Bloomberg News says. In a draft statement the allies hope to adopt at a meeting later this month, they “call for progress on a transparent, evidence-based, and expert-led WHO-convened” study that’s “free from interference.” Alberto Nardelli and Josh Wingrove have more.

Biden Vaccine Donations Test Drugmakers’ Liability Shield: Pfizer and other Covid-19 vaccine makers may face new liability risks for adverse effects after the Biden administration donated 25 million doses abroad, where vaccine legal protections generally aren’t as strong as in the U.S., health law experts say. The liability shields granted under a 2005 U.S. public readiness law safeguard drugmakers and other entities from stateside lawsuits over alleged Covid-19 vaccine complications unless there’s willful misconduct. Those protections are more solid than what’s afforded in other countries—heightening the risk that companies will have to defend lawsuits in the regions that are getting their products. Read more from Ian Lopez.

U.S. Eases Travel Warning for Many Nations: The State Department loosened its travel warnings for nations around the globe including France, Canada and Germany, in a move that could loosen airline restrictions for people wanting to go overseas as the coronavirus pandemic eases in parts of the world. The department changed its travel warnings yesterday for multiple countries from level 4, or “do not travel,” to level 3, “reconsider travel.” Read more from Nick Wadhams.

  • The Biden administration is also forming expert working groups with Canada, Mexico, the EU, and the U.K. to determine how best to safely restart travel, Reuters reports, citing a White House official. The working groups will be led by the administration’s Covid-19 Response Team and the National Security Council, and will include the Centers for Disease Control. Read more from Reuters.
  • Meanwhile, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is preparing to ease Canada’s border restrictions for travelers who have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19, people familiar with the discussions said. The government is writing plans to loosen the current 14-day isolation period for border-crossers who have had two vaccine doses, said the people, speaking on condition they not be identified. Read more from Kait Bolongaro and Shelly Hagan.

Fauci Urges Vaccinations as Variant Spreads in U.K.: U.S. health officials said that the more harmful Covid-19 variant known as Delta has surged in the U.K., a country with high vaccination levels, in a warning to states as inoculation uptake fades across the country. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and an adviser to Biden, said at a media briefing that the Delta strain first seen in India now accounts for over 6% of cases sequenced in the U.S. Josh Wingrove has more.

Pfizer to Launch Study of Shot in Kids Under 12: Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine will be tested in children less than 12 years old in a late-stage study seeking to extend Covid-19 protection across the entire range of ages. The vaccine makers announced the plans yesterday to launch the trial of the shot within weeks. It will enroll up to 4,500 participants at over 90 sites across the U.S., Finland, Poland and Spain. Read more from Riley Griffin.

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What Else to Know Today

Top Obama Medicare Deputy Returns: Jonathan Blum has rejoined the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services as principal deputy administrator, returning to the same job he held during the Obama administration “A tireless public servant and health policy expert, he brings invaluable experience to CMS,” Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure said in a statement to Bloomberg Law yesterday. Read more from Shira Stein.

Rollback of Trump-Era Insulin Rule Clears Hurdle: A rescission of a Trump administration drug rule requiring community health centers to give all their insulin and epinephrine discounts to patients has cleared White House review and can be published at any time. The proposal to retract the rule was approved by the White House Office of Management and Budget for Health and Human Services Department to release in the Federal Register. Read more from Jacquie Lee.

FDA Says U.S. to Boost Local Pharma Production: The Biden administration announced a set of actions designed to ensure the U.S. has access to the pharmaceuticals necessary for economic security, health security, and national defense, a plan that includes boosting local production. The plan also includes fostering international cooperation and promoting research and development that establishes innovative manufacturing processes and production technologies to strengthen supply chain resilience, according to the FDA website. Read more from Luzi Ann Javier.

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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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