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May 10, 2021

This Week in Health Policy for May 10

This Week (May 10 - 14)

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee holds a hearing on "An Update from Federal Officials on Efforts to Combat COVID-19."

  • Detail: 10:00 AM EDT on 05/11/2021
  • Witnesses: Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical adviser to the president; Peter Marks, Director of the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research; CDC Director Rochelle Walensky; David Kessler, HHS chief science officer for COVID response.
  • More information available here.

The House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee holds a hearing on "The FY2022 HHS Budget."

  • Detail: 10:00 AM EDT on 05/12/2021
  • Witnesses: HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra
  • More information available here.

The House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee holds a hearing on "Mental Health Emergencies: Building a Robust Crisis Response System."

  • Detail: 10:00 AM EDT on 05/13/2021
  • More information available here.

Last Week (May 3 - 7)

Health Care Highlights

Democratic House leaders push for drug negotiation. Democratic leaders of key House committees this week – the Energy and Commerce (E&C) and Education and Labor (E&L) Committees – expressed their support for H.R. 3, a bill which would permit the federal government to negotiate with drug companies and set a 120% cap based on international reference prices, among other things. The bill faces widespread opposition from Republicans and an unclear path in the Senate. E&C Chairman Frank Pallone (D-NJ), however, said that H.R. 3 is the “comprehensive solution this country needs to fix our broken market for prescription drugs,” and that he would “use whatever vehicle I can” to pass it. In his joint session to Congress last week, President Biden said that we should “give Medicare the power to save hundreds of billions of dollars by negotiating lower drug prescription prices,” adding that we should use the savings “to strengthen the Affordable Care Act and expand Medicare coverage benefits,” however he did not include the proposal in either his infrastructure or jobs package. E&C Committee Ranking Member Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), along with other Republicans, called for bipartisan compromise, saying “instead of price controls, we should focus on the areas for bipartisan work,” such as capping seniors’ out-of-pocket costs and other bipartisan solutions contained in the Republicans’ drug pricing package (H.R. 19).

Administration supports waiving IP for COVID-19 vaccines. On Wednesday (May 5), the Biden administration expressed support for international talks on waiving patent protections for COVID-19 vaccines, reversing a longstanding policy that companies’ intellectual property is essentially untouchable due to what U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai called “extraordinary circumstances.” She said the administration would back a World Trade Organization (WTO) “process” to try to reach a deal to waive vaccine patents, rather than a specific proposal from South Africa and India, in an effort to boost supplies so that people around the world can get the shots. Under WTO rule, any decision must be unanimously agreed upon by its members. The President also announced this week that the White House will ship 60 million vaccine doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to other countries, starting this month.

Biden announces new vaccine goal. President Biden on Tuesday (May 4), announced his administration’s revised vaccine goal having 70% of adult Americans at least partially vaccinated and 160 million Americans fully vaccinated by July 4.  The administration said they would “wind down” mass vaccination sites and “move towards smaller locations even more convenient to the unvaccinated,” including allowing walk-in vaccinations at pharmacies, expanding pop-up and mobile clinics, and redirecting doses if states don’t order their full allocation in any given week. President Biden also said that if the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorizes Pfizer’s shot for children as young as 12, 20,000 pharmacies across the pharmacy are prepared to give them shots. The administration also launched a new website, text-message tool, and phone hotline to link Americans with COVID-19 vaccines close to them.

HHS launches new program for COVID-19 vaccine administration fees. On Monday (May 3), the Biden administration announced a new program – the COVID-19 Coverage Assistance Fund (CAF) – to cover the costs of administering COVID-19 vaccines to patients enrolled in health plans that either do not cover vaccination fees or cover them with patient cost-sharing. Since providers cannot bill patients for COVID-19 vaccination fees, CAF addresses an outstanding compensation need for providers on the front lines vaccinating underinsured patients. HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said HHS is “closing the final payment gap that resulted as vaccines were administered to underinsured individuals” and that “no healthcare provider should hesitate to deliver these critical vaccines to patients over reimbursement cost concerns.” The CAF is funded through the Provider Relief Fund (PRF) Program and will accept eligible claims from providers dated on or after December 14, 2020.

COVID-19 funds for rural clinics and hospitals. The administration announced this week the availability of nearly $1 billion in funding to to strengthen COVID-19 response efforts and increase vaccinations in rural communities, enabled by the American Rescue Plan. According to the announcement, the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) “will increase the number of vaccines sent to rural communities, expand testing and other COVID-19 prevention services, and work to increase vaccine confidence by empowering trusted local voices with additional funding for outreach efforts in underserved communities.” Rural health clinics will be able to directly receive vaccines from the federal government, separate from the doses given to states and local jurisdictions.”

HHS released $1.4 billion for older Americans. The administration announced this week it is released $1.4 billion in funding from the American Rescue Plan for Older Americans Act programs. The funding includes $750 million for meals for older adults, $460 million for Home and Community Based Services (HCBS), $44 million for health promotion and disease prevention, $145 million for caregivers, and $10 million for long-term care facilities. According to the fact sheet, “The Biden-Harris Administration is committed to expanding access to health care, nutrition services, caregiving, and opportunities to age in place for all older Americans.”

Reports, Studies, and Journals

Government Accountability Office: Behavioral Health: Patient Access, Provider Claims Payment, and the Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic. GAO found that there have been longstanding concerns about the availability of behavioral health treatment, particularly for low-income individuals. According to a review of federal data, one potential barrier to accessing treatment has been shortages of qualified behavioral health professionals, particularly in rural areas.

Health Affairs: Fewer Pharmacies In Black And Hispanic/Latino Neighborhoods Compared With White Or Diverse Neighborhoods, 2007-15. The accessibility of pharmacies may be an overlooked contributor to persistent racial and ethnic disparities in the use of prescription medications and essential health care services within urban areas in the U.S., researchers wrote.

The BMJ: Suicide and self-harm in adult survivors of critical illness: population based cohort study. Survivors of critical illness have increased risk of suicide and self-harm, and these outcomes were associated with pre-existing psychiatric illness and receipt of invasive life support.

CIDRAP: Mortality Rates For Hospitalized COVID Patients Declined Through 2020. In 2020, in-hospital mortality dropped from 19.1% in March and April to 10.8% in September through November in COVID-19 patients in the United States, according to a study yesterday in JAMA Network Open. While some associations with age, male sex, high body mass index (BMI), and comorbidities were seen, overall, the researchers say that neither these factors nor COVID-19 severity fully explained the decline.


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