HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Trump Eyes Order Cutting Drug Costs ‘Soon’

President Donald Trump said he plans to sign a “very inclusive” health-care plan “very soon” that will result in Americans paying significantly less for pharmaceutical drugs. “I want what’s right for the people,” Trump said at a press briefing Friday. “We’re going to bring our drug prices down to levels that nobody ever thought possible.”

Trump described a “favored nations” plan under which his administration would take the country that has the lowest drug prices as the yardstick for what people should be charged. While he provided few other details, Trump on July 24 announced his plan for executive orders to lower prescription drug prices under Medicare by linking them to rates paid in other countries and letting Americans buy medication imported from Canada.

Trump has been seeking to repair his standing on health-care issues, especially with senior voters. Surveys have shown sentiment is souring over his handling of the pandemic and effort to eliminate the Affordable Care Act without having a ready replacement.

McLaughlin & Associates, a consulting and polling firm, produced a memo July 29 for Republican leaders saying that “price transparency is a winning issue in key battleground states.” The memo said Republicans need to show what they stand for on health care.

Voters got the message that the Republicans want to repeal Obamacare, but they don’t know what the party supports, according to the memo. Read more from Olivia Raimonde and Jennifer Jacobs.

Coronavirus Talks on the Hill

Pelosi Lacks Confidence in Birx: Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she doesn’t trust information from the coordinator of the White House’s coronavirus task force, the latest political skirmish over the U.S. response to the pandemic. Trump has been spreading disinformation about the virus and Deborah Birx “is his appointee, so I don’t have confidence there, no,” Pelosi said on ABC’s “This Week.”

Pelosi was asked about a Politico report stating that she described Birx as a spreader of disinformation at a closed-door meeting Friday with White House officials. “Birx is the worst. Wow. What horrible hands you’re in,” she said at the meeting, the outlet reported. A New York Times article in July on the Trump administration’s coronavirus response portrayed Birx as overly optimistic about the pandemic. Tony Czuczka has more.

U.S. Officials Defend Virus Response at Panel: Federal public health officials testifying before a House panel agreed the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic has been hampered by a lack of funding but insisted that they’ve done the most they can within those confines. “Within the context with what we have, what’s available to us, we are doing everything we possibly can,” Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis.

The officials, who also included U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield, inventoried the measures taken to bolster testing and develop therapeutics and vaccines. But their remarks didn’t discuss what many health experts argue is needed and the hearing was called to discuss: A national strategy to slow the virus to replace the current state-by-state piecemeal effort.

Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), chairman of the newly formed panel, cited the administration’s approach of “deferring to the states” and “rushing to reopen” as prolonging the crisis, Anna Edney and Jeannie Baumann report.

Pelosi Defers to Physician on Testing Members: The Capitol physician hasn’t yet recommended Covid-19 testing for members, Pelosi told reporters Friday. It doesn’t necessarily make sense for lawmakers alone to have testing, Pelosi said, since there are roughly 20,000 people on Capitol Hill, including staffers and the press, Kathleen Miller and Erik Wasson report.

  • Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) says he’s been infected with the virus, a few days after a hearing where one Republican member in attendance later tested positive for Covid-19. Grijalva, who issued a statement saying he isn’t exhibiting any symptoms, has been self-isolating at his home in Washington since Wednesday upon learning that Rep. Louie Gohmert (Texas) tested positive. Read more from Tom Schoenberg and Erik Wasson.

Democrats Say U.S. Paid Too Much for Ventilators: The House Oversight and Reform Committee said in a report that the administration overpaid by as much as $500 million for a ventilator contract with Philips. The report said the Trump administration didn’t build on an existing Obama-era contract with Philips, and that a new deal was negotiated by the office of White House trade adviser Peter Navarro. The report says Philips recommended new “clinician-friendly screens,” but that they were identical to a cheaper model bought under President Barack Obama. Shira Stein has more.

Emergency Preparation Ideas Get Approval: The House Select Modernization Committee unanimously approved a series of recommendations Friday to allow legislative work to continue safely through the current pandemic and any future emergency. Most of the dozen proposals from the panel focused on technology, like making permanent the option to electronically submit committee reports or expanding the use of digital signatures for a majority of House business.

The panel also pitched a bipartisan, bicameral task force to identify the lessons from the public health crisis and recommend more improvements. Emily Wilkins has more.

Also Happening on the Hill

House Passes $1.3 Trillion Spending Package: The House on Friday passed a fiscal 2021 spending package (H.R. 7617) with $1.3 trillion in discretionary funds by a 217-197 vote.

The measure includes funding for programs under Defense, Commerce-Justice-Science, Energy and Water, Financial Services, Labor-HHS-Education, and Transportation-HUD appropriations. Jack Fitzpatrick has more.

  • Also under the bill, private equity-owned health-care firms seeking Medicare reimbursements would be subject to greater transparency. The rule forces companies seeking short-term Medicare loans to disclose whether they are owned by private equity. Findings would be published in a quarterly report issued by HHS. It also recommends that the secretary of HHS forbid private equity-owned hospitals and health systems from furloughing employees or cutting benefits. Read more from Caleb Melby.
  • The House once again agreed to strike the federal restriction on creating a special “identifier” for Americans’ health data. The provision, sponsored by Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.) was tucked into the spending package and would lift the ban on HHS from creating a unique patient identifier, similar to a Social Security number, to help hospitals label health records. The ban has regularly been part of spending bills. But health technology firms have said lifting it would help doctors share records, Alex Ruoff reports.

Democrats Call for Medicaid Contribution Bump: Key House Democrats said they’re demanding another increase for the federal contribution to Medicaid as part of the next virus relief bill. Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) told reporters Friday enhancing the federal portion is necessary as millions of Americans have lost their jobs and will likely end up on the public health insurance program.

Between 5 million and 18 million Americans could join their state Medicaid rolls this year, according to an analysis by the Modern Medicaid Alliance. This comes as many states are facing budget shortfalls from a lagging economy due to the spread of the coronavirus. Trump signed into law a 6.2% increase in the federal contribution to Medicaid in March that will last until the end of the public health emergency related to the pandemic. House Democrats have proposed boosting that by 14% through June 2021.

Similar to other provisions being debated for the next stimulus package, cost has been the main barrier to increasing the federal share for Medicaid. Some Republicans such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) have aimed to restrict spending in the next legislation and have opposed past efforts to expand the public health insurance program.

The current increase is slated to cost $50 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. An additional 14% increase could be far more expensive because more people are joining the Medicaid program every month, Alex Ruoff reports.

Reopening Schools: The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis scheduled a virtual hearing Thursday on safely reopening K-12 schools amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

Research & Treatment Efforts

Test Wait Times Improvement Slight, Study Says: Wait times for results from Covid-19 tests changed only slightly between April and July, a sign that the U.S.’s testing system isn’t improving even as it’s expanding, according to a study released today by researchers from Northeastern University, Harvard University, Rutgers University, and Northwestern University.

Delays in testing results make it harder for public health officials to track outbreaks and contain the virus, researchers warned, Alex Ruoff reports. “Given the timing of how quickly and how long someone is infectious, speed in producing reliable enough results is of the essence for COVID-19,” the study said.

On average Americans waited 4.1 days for the results of nasal swab tests in July, compared to 4.2 days in April, according to the survey of more than 19,000 people nationwide.

The survey found that 37% of those tested received results within two days, crucial for contact tracing efforts, while 31% waited more than four days. Read the study here.

U.S. Pledges Billions for Sanofi, Glaxo Vaccine: The Trump administration will offer as much as $2.1 billion to Covid-19 vaccine partners GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi, the biggest U.S. investment so far in fast-tracking shots and snapping up supplies. Part of “Operation Warp Speed,” the funding will support clinical trials and manufacturing while letting the U.S. secure 100 million doses of the shot, if it’s successful, the companies said Friday. The U.S. has the option of receiving an additional 500 million doses longer term. Read more from James Paton.

  • Meanwhile, an experimental vaccine that’s produced in tobacco plants may begin clinical trials in weeks. British American Tobacco, which makes Lucky Strike, expects a response from the Food and Drug Administration any day now, Chief Marketing Officer Kingsley Wheaton said in an interview. Read more from Corinne Gretler.
  • In Japan, Pfizer and BioNTech agreed to provide the nation with 120 million doses of the Covid-19 vaccine they’re developing. The U.S. pharmaceutical giant and the German biotech firm said they’d supply the shots in the first half of 2021. Pfizer and BioNTech said earlier this week that they’ve started a later-stage trial of their candidate and set a goal for regulatory review as soon as October. Read more from Eric Pfanner.

NIH Pours $249 Million Into Rapid Tests: Quidel and six other companies that produce fast Covid-19 tests will receive $248.7 million in federal grants to ramp up their manufacturing. HHS already is tapping Quidel tests for nursing homes because they give results in 15 minutes. Other winners include point-of-care test manufacturers Mesa Biotech and Talis Biomedical and lab-based test makers Ginkgo Bioworks, Helix OpCo, Fluidigm, and Mammoth Biosciences. Read more from Jacquie Lee.

More Headlines:

What Else to Know

Health Providers for Poor Get More Time for Aid: Cash-strapped Medicaid providers hart hit by the Covid-19 crisis will have an additional month to seek federal relief money, HHS said Friday. HHS in June allocated $15 billion to health-care providers that primarily serve low-income and uninsured patients and that hadn’t yet received funding. Christopher Brown has more.

Fed Says Boosting Jobless Aid May Save Lives: As Congress debates extending generous unemployment relief, a new report says that keeping certain workers away from their jobs would save thousands of lives. The CARES Act (Public Law 116-136) benefits will likely increase U.S. unemployment by an average of 3.7 percentage points from April to December 2020, but it would also cut down cumulative deaths by 4.7% and save 27,000 lives, according to a working report posted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta on its website. Read more from Maeve Sheehey.

Drug Reimbursement Rate Cuts Upheld: Cuts to drug reimbursements given to hospitals serving low-income communities are valid under the Medicare law, the D.C. federal appeals court ruled Friday, overturning a lower court’s decision and rejecting a lawsuit brought by the American Hospital Association and other hospital groups. HHS’s decision to cut these hospitals’ reimbursement rates by nearly 30% is a reasonable exercise of the agency’s statutory authority, it ruled. Read more from Jacklyn Wille and Lydia Wheeler.

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