HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Virus Oversight; Trump Signs Drug Order

Lawmakers are flexing their oversight powers to show Americans that they’re keeping them safe during the coronavirus pandemic, even as negotiations on legislation to boost virus research and testing remains at a standstill.

Committee leaders on both sides of the aisle are turning up the heat on federal health officials recently: Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) has called the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before the Senate Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee on Wednesday to explain how the CDC plans to fairly distribute a future Covid-19 vaccine.

“Specifically, I am concerned that CDC’s ability to plan and execute a distribution strategy will be severely hindered absent agreement on another supplemental to provide the resources necessary for this effort,” he said in a letter to the CDC.

The House and Senate have each proposed their own, competing packages to help boost the economy and combat the spread of Covid-19, leaving Congress without a recent win to brag about to constituents. An oversight push gives members the chance to show voters they’re not just sitting on their hands.

The House Oversight and Reform Committee recently launched an investigation into a $250 million federal communications contract awarded by the Department of Health Human Services aimed to “defeat despair and inspire hope” around the virus.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), chairwoman of the panel, as well as Reps. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), who lead their own oversight panels, all asked the HHS to suspend the contract pending the investigation.

The trio said they’re worried the Trump administration “may use this contract as a vehicle for taxpayer-funded political propaganda” before the Nov. 3 election.

House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) also raised questions about the contract in a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. Pallone cited “the White House’s unrelenting push to put politics above science” in the letter, Alex Ruoff reports.

Trump Signs Order to Test Lower Drug Price Strategy

President Donald Trump started a process that could cut some drug costs by tying prices to those paid by countries with national health systems, a move drugmakers said will stifle innovation.

The order yesterday came after an earlier attempt to force pharmaceutical companies to make reductions didn’t yield results.

Trump, during a trip to Nevada, tweeted that he signed an order on the “most favored nation” plan, which would try to link Medicare Part B and Part D prices to lower prices paid by other countries. The approach was broader than an initial effort that only targeted Part B.

The order is a first step that instructs HHS to begin the rule-making process to test “a payment model” for some medicines. It offered few details.

The order falls far short of an immediate cut that Trump has touted would lower patients’ out-of-pocket costs. Instead, it starts the process for HHS’s Azar to test the impact of such a change. That likely means patients won’t see lower prices until well after the U.S. presidential election, if at all, as the path to lowering drug prices remains uncertain.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) dismissed the proposal as a “sham.”

“President Trump is making empty promises instead of taking actual action to lower Americans’ drug prices,” Pelosi said in a statement. “In fact, Trump’s rebate rule will increase premiums for America’s seniors and people with disabilities.”

“It is clear that Trump’s promise in the campaign to negotiate drug prices ‘like crazy’ means not negotiate at all.” Read more from Riley Griffin and Josh Wingrove.

Also Happening on the Hill

U.S. Faces Last Chance to Salvage Stimulus Deal as House Returns: Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin opened this month by saying that despite the stalemate over Covid-19 relief funding, the Trump administration and Congress could agree on one thing: a stimulus package was needed. That hasn’t produced serious negotiations, however, and prospects for a relief bill before the November election are dwindling fast.

Pelosi welcomes the House back today, but that’s unlikely to give fresh impetus to the discussions. Republicans and Democrats both are testing a risky strategy that the public — and voters — will blame the other side for failing to deliver help to millions of households and companies. Read more from Erik Wasson and Billy House.

More Hearings This Week:

Legislation:

The House plans to vote Wednesday on the following measures:

  • Child Care Safety During Covid-19: The Health and Human Services Department would have to assist states and tribes with providing child care services safely during the Covid-19 pandemic under a modified version of H.R. 7909. HHS could also make grants to states, territories, and tribes to provide guidance, technical assistance, and support to child care providers. The House Education and Labor Committee hasn’t acted on the bill, which Rep. Abby Finkenauer (D-Iowa) introduced on July 31. For more, see the BGOV Bill Summary by Danielle Parnass.
  • Child Care Background Checks: An interagency task force to assist in implementing background check requirements for child care providers would be established under a House-amended version of S. 2683. The Senate passed the bill by voice vote on March 5. For more, see the BGOV Bill Summary by Danielle Parnass.

The Coronavirus Pandemic

Trump Aides Said Tried Meddling With CDC Reports: U.S. health department spokesman Michael Caputo and other aides asked to read and suggest changes to weekly Covid-19 reports by the Centers for Disease Control, Politico reports. Health and Human Services Department communications aides complained to CDC Director Robert Redfield that the reports would undermine Trump’s upbeat messaging about the pandemic, according to the report, which cited emails and people familiar with the matter who weren’t identified.

CDC employees pushed back against changes to the Mortality and Morbidity Weekly Report, a document meant to inform the medical community and the general public about the status of the Covid pandemic, but have increasingly agreed to allow political appointees to review the reports, and have agreed to amend language in some cases, Politico said. Read more from Melissa Cheok and Anna Edney.

Oxford, AstraZeneca Resume U.K. Clinical Trial: The University of Oxford and AstraZeneca have restarted a U.K. trial of their experimental Covid vaccine after it was halted over concerns about a participant who got sick. The U.K. Medicines Health Regulatory Authority recommended that the study resume after a review of the safety data triggered a pause on Sept. 6, Oxford said in a statement. Read more from Stephanie Baker.

  • Meanwhile, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said it’s “likely” the U.S. will deploy a Covid-19 vaccine to the public before year’s end and that the company is ready for such a scenario, pushing back against more tepid expectations shared by health authorities. Bourla told CBS’s “Face the Nation” that he’s “quite comfortable” that the vaccine the company is developing alongside BioNTech is safe, and that it could be available to Americans before 2021. Read more from Riley Griffin and Anna Edney.
  • In China, the newest Covid-19 vaccine candidate to start human testing is the first where the volunteers won’t get a painful injection. Instead, they’ll receive a spray through the nose. China on Wednesday approved phase 1 human trials for the nasal spray vaccine, being developed by researchers from Xiamen University and Hong Kong University, and by vaccine-maker Beijing Wantai Biological Pharmacy Enterprise. Read more.

Covid Heart Injuries Spur Call to Screen Athletes: Doctors recommend heart screening tests for competitive athletes who have recovered from Covid-19 after a small study found heart damage in 1 in 7 college sports competitors, including in patients whose infection didn’t cause symptoms. Cardiac magnetic resonance imaging on 26 competitive athletes who had a mild or asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infection found four, or 15%, with signs of inflammation of their heart muscle. Jason Gale and Angelica LaVito have more.

More Headlines:

What Else to Know

Gilead Ramps Up Cancer Focus With $21 Billion Immunomedics Deal: Gilead Sciences agreed to acquire Immunomedics for about $21 billion, a substantial premium for the maker of a promising breast-cancer therapy, in another big bet by the drug giant that an innovative tumor fighter can boost its fortunes. The proposed $88-a-share deal values Immunomedics at more than twice its closing price of $42.25 on Friday. The company makes a breast-cancer treatment called Trodelvy that gained approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in April. Read more from Timothy Annett and Robert Langreth.

Apollo’s Hospital Chain Tapped $1.5 Billion in U.S. Taxpayer Aid: Like hospital chains across the U.S., LifePoint Health tapped federal relief money to blunt the cost of the Covid-19 pandemic. It was a potent lifeline, a total of $1.5 billion. But LifePoint is unusual in one respect, its owner: private equity firm Apollo Global Management, led by billionaire Leon Black.

LifePoint was certainly eligible for the money. But the extent of the federal assistance could contribute to concern in Washington over whether private equity-backed hospitals should have been. In July, the U.S. House passed a bill that would require health-care companies to disclose any private equity backing when seeking short-term loans from the federal Medicare program. The reason for lawmakers’ concern: Private equity firms have ample access to cash. As recently as June, the Apollo fund that owns LifePoint had more than $2 billion to support its investments. Apollo, which manages $414 billion, recently told investors in an internal document that LifePoint was in such a strong market position that it was planning to make acquisitions of less fortunate hospitals. Read more from Sabrina Willmer.

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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