HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Vaccine, Testing Funds in GOP Relief Plan

Senate Republicans presented their $1 trillion plan to bolster the coronavirus-ravaged U.S. economy in a series of bills that would trim extra unemployment benefits, send $1,200 payments to a majority of Americans and shield schools, businesses, and other groups from lawsuits stemming from infections.

Senate Republicans appear to be on the same page with House Democrats when it comes to key health priorities, namely boosting funding for federal research and oversight of nursing homes.

GOP leaders unveiled a plan yesterday that would give the Department of Health and Human Services $118.4 billion, including $51 billion for Covid-19 testing and vaccine development. Their proposal would also give the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services $150 million to increase surveys at nursing homes and to create federal “strike teams” to improve testing and care at elder facilities.

  • Read a summary of the GOP’s emergency appropriations for coronavirus here.

The proposal mimics what Democrats in the House proposed earlier in the year for nursing homes and is more generous with the National Institutes of Health compared to what the White House and Democrats have sought, potentially giving the research agency $15.5 billion in new funds.

Republicans used the introduction of their proposal to criticize Democrats for their bill, despite the similarities.

“House Democrats have put forward an unserious proposal loaded with unnecessary and unrelated spending and policy provisions,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said yesterday. “At the same time, they’ve provided less than this proposal for critical needs like child care and vaccine development, manufacturing, and distribution.”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) yesterday similarly dismissed the Republican proposal as “totally inadequate.”

Republican have suggested adding $25 billion in emergency funds to the provider relief fund, bringing to total amount of money sent to hospitals and doctors this year to $200 billion, and giving doctors until January to pay back Medicare for advance payments.

Chip Kahn, president and CEO of the Federation of American Hospitals, said the Republican proposal doesn’t go far enough to help hospitals that took out Medicare loans.

“While recognizing that hospitals and caregivers require further assistance, unfortunately, the package does not sufficiently ease the burden of the Medicare Accelerated and Advance Payment Programs loan repayment,” Kahn said in a statement. “It is critical that truly sustainable terms for loan repayment are provided by Congress.”

The plan would also provide scholarships to students to return to the private school they attended before the coronavirus pandemic and provide support to child care providers, according to a summary from Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.).

Read more: Student Loan Relief, Childcare Grants Included in GOP Stimulus

The $1 trillion package was pulled together after days of negotiations between Senate Republicans and President Donald Trump’s emissaries that didn’t fully settle differences within the GOP over the size and scope of additional federal spending in response to the pandemic.

“We have one foot in the pandemic and one foot in the recovery,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on the Senate floor, noting the rising Covid-19 death toll and a fragile economic recovery. “The American people need more help, they need it to be comprehensive, and they need it to be carefully tailored to this crossroads.”

Congress has little time to act: supplemental jobless insurance is expiring, and other elements of the last stimulus legislation are beginning to dry up.

Lawmakers are set to leave for an August break in two weeks and will be facing a timetable compressed by the looming November election when they return in September. Read more from Erik Wasson and Laura Litvan.

Congressional Virus Efforts

Neal Scrutinizes HHS Over Data Reporting: House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) in a letter yesterday to the Health and Human Services Department raised concerns after the recent HHS decision to “abruptly change the reporting process of key COVID-19 data, giving hospitals five days to comply with the change,” according to a statement. Due to the “short period” of time, Neal wants to know what type of training or outreach the department may have managed with hospitals to make sure “there were no gaps in reporting and that no reporting data have been lost.” Read the letter here.

DeLauro Blasts Azar Over Declining to Testify: HHS Secretary Alex Azar and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield declined to testify before the House Appropriations Labor-HHS Subcommittee to discuss emergency Covid-19 funding needs and data reporting, according to Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.). DeLauro said some states are “now in the dark about the severity” of their own coronavirus outbreaks due to the reporting changes. Read the statement here.

Today’s Hearings:

  • Medical Supply Chain: The Senate Finance Committee meets for a hearing on protecting the U.S. medical supply chain during Covid-19.
  • Water Standards: The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change holds a hearing on updating national drinking water standards.
  • Rules Meets onAppropriations: The House Rules Committee is scheduled to meet today to set the terms for floor consideration, including the amendments to be debated, for Democrats’ second fiscal 2021 appropriations package (H.R. 7617). The measure includes Defense, Commerce-Justice-Science, Energy and Water, Financial Services, Homeland Security, Labor-HHS-Education, and Transportation-HUD funding.
  • BGOV Bill Summary: H.R. 7614, Fiscal 2021 Labor-HHS-Education Funding

Research & Treatment Efforts

Moderna Launches First Large-Scale U.S. Vaccine Trial: The first large study of a Covid-19 vaccine in the U.S. began with the dosing of one patient yesterday in Savannah, Ga., the opening shot for wide trials by Moderna and the National Institutes of Health that will examine the vaccine’s safety and efficacy in 30,000 people. The Moderna candidate, backed by $955 million in government money, will be tested at 89 U.S. sites. It uses mRNA, a synthetic form of genetic material from the virus designed to nudge the body’s immune system into attack mode.

If the trial is successful, the company is on track to make 500 million doses of its vaccine in 2021, Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel said on a conference call with government officials. Early results from the Moderna trial could be available in November, said Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, on the call. But he called it “conceivable” that results could come as early as this October. Cristin Flanagan and Robert Langreth have more.

  • Separately, Pfizer and BioNTech reported the start of a global Phase 2 and 3 safety and effectiveness clinical trial to assess a single nucleoside-modified mRNA candidate from their BNT162 mRNA-based vaccine program against Covid-19. The study will also include 30,000 participants, said BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin. Read more from Hari Govind.
  • Also yesterday, at a Fujifilm plant in Morrisville, N.C., Trump said that HHS has awarded $265 million to the Tokyo-based biotechnology company as well as Texas A&M University to spur development and manufacture of a potential Covid-19 vaccine, Vivek Shankar reports.

Low-Value Research Said Clogging Database: Most Covid-19 studies posted to a government-run database aren’t generating meaningful evidence necessary to make treatment decisions, according to Stanford and Yale researchers. Just 29% of over 1,500 studies listed on ClinicalTrials.gov met a threshold of “high quality” based upon an Oxford University Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine scale, the study posted in JAMA Internal medicine said. Read more from Jeannie Baumann.

More Headlines:

What Else to Know Today

Trump Meeting with Drugmakers Dropped: Trump’s meeting with drugmakers, scheduled for today, was dropped from the White House schedule. Politico earlier reported major industry groups refused to meet with the president after he announced new drug pricing policies Friday. Read more: Drugmakers Nix White House Meeting After Trump Orders: Politico

Insulin, Epinephrine Price Breaks Unlikely: Insulin and epinephrine costs for most Americans won’t fall under a White House plan to reroute drug discounts directly to patients, health lawyers said. The community health centers targeted in the new order already sell discounted drugs to patients, and the White House may not have the legal power to force deeper discounts at enough pharmacies to make a difference, lawyers said.

Trump’s July 24 executive order directs federally funded health centers to sell patients insulin and injectable epinephrine at the same discounted price they got it from a drug company. Trump argues that his goal is to give more people affordable access to two critical, often expensive drugs. But rather than taking steps to address rising prices for lifesaving drugs, the executive order recycles techniques the Trump administration has already seen die in court or flounder at federal agencies. Read more from Jacquie Lee.

FDA Wants Block on Abortion Pill Rule: The Food and Drug Administration is seeking to continue requiring women to visit a hospital, clinic, or doctor’s office to obtain a pill used to induce abortions while it appeals an order blocking the provision, the FDA told a federal court. Women’s health-care providers argued that the in-person dispensing provision endangers women by requiring them to expose themselves to the coronavirus. Read more from Mary Anne Pazanowski.

More Headlines:

With assistance from Alex Ruoff

To contact the reporter on this story: 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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