HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Senators Push for Medical Stockpile Revamp

Pressure to reform and rebuild the nation’s emergency medical supply stockpile is mounting after shortages early in the coronavirus pandemic.

Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) will try this week to attach a measure to overhaul the Strategic National Stockpile to a collection of bills being considered under broad China competition legislation (S. 1260), congressional aides for the two senators said.

The pair unveiled a bill yesterday to authorize $500 million per year over the next three years to encourage the domestic production of medical supplies and restock the national stockpile. “We have witnessed how ill-prepared our country was for a large-scale public health crisis like Covid-19,” Bennet said in a statement.

Those who’ve studied the stockpile say the past year has exposed how the nation didn’t have enough reserves to meet demand for supplies like masks, gloves and other equipment badly need by doctors at the height of the pandemic. They said rebuilding the national stockpile will be necessary but also called for major reforms to how it’s run.

Robert Hanfield, a professor of supply chain management at North Carolina State University, told members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee yesterday that one problem is the stockpile is overseen by medical scientists—not emergency response personnel. He said early in 2020, those overseeing the Strategic National Stockpile warned Department of Health and Human Services officials about supply shortages, but were ignored.

“Members of the SNS spoke to leaders up the chain of command within the HHS, but again, these were scientists who did not understand how supply chains operated. And despite an SNS briefing predicting what would happen, they were not listened to,” Hanfield said, Alex Ruoff reports. Read text of Bennet’s and Tillis’ legislation here.
For more on the China measure, read the BGOV Bill Summary by Christina Banoub, Naoreen Chowdhury, Michael Smallberg, Adam M. Taylor and Brittney Washington.

U.S. Production of Medical Gloves to See Boost: The Biden administration will award a $56 million contract to New Mexico-based Rhino Health to make 1.4 billion nitrile gloves per year by the end of 2022, a top supply chain official said. The company will increase U.S. capacity for making these gloves, which are primarily manufactured overseas, to 130 million pairs per month, Brig. Gen. David Sanford, director of the supply chain task force, told Bloomberg Law.

Nitrile gloves, used for nonsurgical purposes in hospitals, and other medical gloves have been in short supply since the beginning of the pandemic. Read more from Shira Stein.

Lawmakers’ Pandemic Agenda

Senators Take Scalpel to Medicare Telehealth Curbs: Key senators are backing extensions of some policies that expanded access to telehealth services over the past year, as questions around costs and quality hamper a broader loosening of restrictions to remote care. Finance Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said yesterday that Medicare beneficiaries ought to be able to access mental health services via telehealth. The panel is reviewing which enacted policies during the pandemic should be made permanent, Wyden said. Alex Ruoff has more.

  • Also yesterday, Sens. Steven Daines (R-Mont.) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) introduced a bill to permanently allow Americans with high-deductible health plans with health savings accounts to use telehealth services without needing to first meet their deductible, extending a policy set to expire at the end of this year. Read more from Ruoff.
  • In addition, a separate bipartisan group of senators led by Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.) reintroduced legislation (S. 1309) that would let the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services pay for home health services offered via telehealth during a public health emergency. Tony Pugh has more.
  • Related: Online Medicine Faces Threat From $4 Trillion Sector’s Red Tape

House Chairs Criticize Virus Nursing Home Response: The Democratic chairs of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, Oversight and Reform, Energy and Commerce, and Ways and Means panels criticized the Trump administration after a Government Accountability Office report showed most U.S. nursing homes had multiple coronavirus outbreaks and weeks of sustained transmission between May 2020 and January 2021. Read the statement here and report here.

GOP Seeks to End Mask Mandate at Capitol: Republicans are pushing for House Democratic leaders to allow fully vaccinated members to ditch their masks on the chamber floor. Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) submitted a “privileged” resolution yesterday from the House GOP Doctors Caucus. It would require the House physician to update the guidance on mask-wearing in accordance with the May 13 announcement from the CDC that vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks in most places. Emily Wilkins and Alex Ruoff have more.

Walensky Cites Steep Funding Cuts in Virus Response: The U.S. response to the Covid-19 pandemic would have been “extraordinarily different” if public health funding hadn’t faced steep declines over the last dozen years, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told a Senate funding panel. “We would have had contact tracers on the ground ready to go. We would have been able to identify cases quickly. We would have been able to see single outbreaks and clusters,” Rochelle Walensky told the Senate Appropriations Labor-HHS-Education subcommittee yesterday. Read more from Jeannie Baumann.

  • Also at the hearing, Walensky said the CDC’s decision to relax its masking restrictions for vaccinated Americans could spur more people to get the shot, but that was not the main driver behind the rule change. “It would be really amazing if our new guidance got more people vaccinated,” Walenksy said, adding that the CDC does not make guidance “based on what it will help people do,” Baumann reports.

Emergent Says Ready to Make Shots in Days: Executives of embattled vaccine manufacturer Emergent BioSolutions defended their firm at a House Oversight and Reform hearing yesterday, saying its Baltimore facility was stretched by the emergency production of shots. A congressional probe into Emergent has found that the contract manufacturer didn’t address deficiencies in vaccine production at its facilities despite warnings following inspections in 2020. CEO Robert Kramer said the U.S. government mandated it take “unprecedented” steps to ramp up production of two vaccines developed by Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca. Read more from Riley Griffin.

Border Agency Sees End of Virus Immigration Rules: U.S. Customs and Border Protection is sending more staff and resources to the border for the “eventuality” that Covid-19 restrictions on immigration end, the acting agency head said yesterday. The public health move known as “Title 42″ permitted the agency to quickly boot over 62% of the migrants who illegally entered the U.S. in April. Troy Miller, the senior official performing the duties of the CBP commissioner, told a House panel that the restrictions will be lifted “soon.” Read more from Shaun Courtney.

More on the Pandemic:

Global Outbreak and Vaccine Headlines:

Also Happening on the Hill

Hearings Today:

Democrats Unveil Bill to Codify Abortion Rights: Democrats reintroduced a bill to enshrine abortion rights into law following the U.S. Supreme Court’s announcement that it would take up a Mississippi abortion case. The case “directly threatens” 50 years of precedent protecting abortion access, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and others said yesterday. The group’s bill, the “Women’s Health Protection Act,” would guarantee equal access to abortion, they said. Blumenthal first unveiled the bill in 2019. Read text of the 2019 bill here.

H.R. 3 Savings Estimated at $195 Billion for Employers: Legislation empowering the federal government to negotiate drug prices would save $195 billion for employers and $98 billion for workers by 2030, according to a new study released today. Congress is considering legislation (H.R. 3) that would allow Medicare to directly negotiate prices with drug manufacturers for some drugs and make those same negotiated prices available to those covered by private insurance. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated the savings to the U.S. government would be $456 billion over the same period. Read more from Sara Hansard.

  • Meanwhile, a pharmaceutical reform advocacy group plans to launch a seven-figure ad campaign aimed at moderate Democrats, urging them to support H.R. 3. The campaign, by a group created partly by a pair of Texas billionaires, wants Democrats to get behind Medicare drug pricing negotiation. Targeted districts include those represented by the 10 Democrats who wrote to Democratic leadership last week with concerns over H.R. 3., Alex Ruoff reports. Read the letter from the 10 Democrats here.

More Headlines:

What Else to Know

Cancer Fatality Rates Higher in States Limiting Medicaid Access: Cancer patients in U.S. states that limited Medicaid use with higher income barriers were more likely to die than those living in states with lower limits, medical records show. States began allowing more of the nation’s poor to enroll in Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, which subsidizes much of the excess cost with federal dollars, but 14 states haven’t adopted that expansion. Findings from a study of 1.4 million people diagnosed with cancer from 2010 to 2013 illustrate the consequences. Read more from John Lauerman.

More Headlines:

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: Zachary Sherwood at zsherwood@bgov.com; Giuseppe Macri at gmacri@bgov.com; Michaela Ross at mross@bgov.com

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