HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Science Chief Exit Adds Pressure on ARPA-H

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The White House must move swiftly to fill key health posts to advance biomedical initiatives after the departure of its first-ever, Cabinet-level science adviser, research groups say.

Eric Lander said he will step down by Feb. 18 from his job as President Joe Biden‘s science adviser and Office of Science and Technology Policy director after a White House investigation found he bullied and spoke harshly to staff members. Lander’s departure comes as the White House pushes forward with plans to create a new entity to spark medical discoveries and launch a second iteration of his signature Cancer Moonshot initiative.

The Biden White House “has invested organizational capital in putting science at the heart of decision making. They’ve invested political capital in things like the Cancer Moonshot,” said Sudip Parikh, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said. “What’s impressive is all of them are at the cusp of going from an abstract concept to something that’s concrete.”

The OSTP director is the critical coordinator and face of these activities to multiple audiences, including Congress, the public, and scientists, Parikh added. “So we’re going to need another scientist in that role that has these excellent situational communication skills because this administration has put a lot of effort into this.”

The administration also needs to fill other top posts, including commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration and director of the National Institutes of Health. Former NIH Director Francis S. Collins, who retired in December 2021, was one of the major forces—along with Lander—behind Biden’s proposed biomedical incubator known as the “Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health.” Tara Schwetz was OSTP’s point person on ARPA-H, but she left the White House to become the NIH’s acting deputy director—the second highest post at that agency.

“Moving quickly to fill these positions with trusted individuals to make sure that the focus on science remains front of mind while dealing with the current situation” is essential to keep the momentum going on these projects, Heather H. Pierce, senior director for science policy and regulatory counsel for the Association of American Medical Colleges, said yesterday. Jeannie Baumann and Alex Ruoff have more.

Also on Lawmakers’ Radars

House Passes Stopgap, Sends to Senate: The House passed a three-week government funding bill on a 272 to 162 vote, sending the measure to the Senate ahead of a Feb. 18 government shutdown deadline. The Senate is set to vote next week on the stopgap, which would keep the government open through March 11 and provide Democrats and Republicans time to settle on a longer-term funding deal. The bill continues funding the government at fiscal 2021 levels with a few exceptions. It also continues a temporary designation of fentanyl and its analogues as a controlled substance. Erik Wasson has more.

Lawmakers Want Help for Medicare Specialty Providers: Sixty-three lawmakers urged House and Senate leaders to include relief for office-based specialty providers “in the upcoming omnibus appropriations legislation and protect Medicare patients’ access to care,” according to a statement. Changes to 2022 Medicare Physician Fee Schedule are set to cut reimbursements by potentially 20% for some specialty providers, the bipartisan group, led by Reps. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) and Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.), said. That could disproportionately affect patients of color, they said. Read their letter here.

Senate Floor: The Senate today will vote on a motion to discharge from committee the nomination of Sam Bagenstos to be general counsel at the Department of Health and Human Services, Nancy Ognanovich reports.

Wyden Unveils Panel’s Mental Health Agenda: Senate Finance Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) yesterday outlined his panel’s agenda “as it continues to work to address the shortfalls in America’s mental health care system,” according to a release. “The goal is to produce a bipartisan bill this summer that brings together all that work,” Wyden said. Priorities include increasing access to care, ensuring parity between behavioral and physical care, expanding the use of telehealth, and improving behavioral care access for children and young people. Read the release here.

Democrats Push to Reinstate Pandemic Leave Policies: Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and other Senate Democrats called on congressional leaders “to reinstate and expand emergency paid sick and family caregiving leave” in the final fiscal 2022 appropriations measure or in future pandemic aid packages. “Guaranteed emergency leave would also ensure workers have the ability to quarantine if needed” or “care for a child who cannot attend in-person school or childcare,” Gillibrand said, though any such provision faces an uphill battle with holdouts like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). Read the letter here.

GOP Lawmaker Apologizes for Cursing Democrat Over Mask Request: A longtime Republican lawmaker said he had apologized to the head of the Congressional Black Caucus for cursing at her during an encounter in which she asked him to wear a mask in the U.S. Capitol, illustrating the bubbling tension over Covid-19 rules in the House. Rep. Hal Rogers (Ky.) said he extended the apology to Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), who tweeted that the four-decade Republican lawmaker “poked” her in the back after she asked him to put on a mask on the Capitol subway and said “kiss my a–” when she objected to being touched. Read more from Erik Wasson.

What Else to Know Today

Anti-Seizure Drug Targeted for Controlled Substance Restrictions: The popular pain and seizure drug gabapentin is under fire for its alleged role in the nation’s overdose crisis, with an influential consumer advocacy group urging the government to classify the prescription medication as a controlled substance. Almatica’s Gralise and Pfizer‘s Neorontin are among the brand-name medicines that would fall under the Drug Enforcement Agency’s watch, if Public Citizen convinces the U.S. to categorize gabapentin and gabapentin enacarbil under Schedule V of the Controlled Substances Act. Ian Lopez has more.

Federal Rules on Family Planning Funding Stay in Place For Now: Family planning clinics that receive federal funding and make abortion referrals can continue, for the time being, to operate under rules instituted by the Biden administration that walked back some restrictions imposed under the Trump administration, the Sixth Circuit ruled yesterday.

The Department of Health and Human Services eased restrictions in 2021 that required family planning clinics to separate, both physically and financially, abortion and family planning services. The Trump administration rules also forbade clinics from referring patients for abortions. Under the 2021 changes, clinics are allowed to discuss that option with patients. Read more from David McAfee.

Voters Fed Up With Covid Are Turning Against Democrats: With the omicron wave receding across the U.S., frustration with pandemic lockdowns and restrictions is on the rise. Among almost every segment of society—the vaccinated and unvaccinated, Republicans and Democrats, city dwellers and their country cousins—growing numbers of Americans are becoming resigned to living with Covid-19, even if it means accepting that more people will get sick and die. With disapproval of Biden’s handling of the crisis steadily increasing, he’s increasingly out of step with the public—including, crucially, many Democrats. Read more from Joshua Green.

GOP Back High Court Bid to Limit Federal Agency Power: Fifteen Republican-led states and a quartet of GOP senators urged the U.S. Supreme Court to take a veteran disability case that could make federal regulations of all types more vulnerable to legal challenge. The state coalition and Republican lawmakers filed briefs Monday backing Air Force veteran Thomas Buffington’s bid for nearly three years of disability benefits he claims were wrongfully denied. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit applied the Chevron doctrine—which calls for courts to defer to agency interpretations of ambiguous laws—to side against Buffington in an August ruling. Read more from Robert Iafolla.

Merck Fills U.S. Order for Covid-19 Pill: Merck said that it had provided about 3.1 million courses of its Covid-19 pill to the U.S. government, fulfilling the terms of a federal pact that the drugmaker and partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics agreed to last year. The companies said in a release yesterday that they’ve completed manufacturing of 10 million courses of the therapy and are on track to make at least 20 million courses this year. The surge in coronavirus infections in the U.S. spurred by the omicron variant has caused demand for treatments to soar. Read more from Timothy Annett.

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With assistance from Nancy Ognanovich

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

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