House Appropriations Begins to Move FY 22 Bills

The House of Representatives has jumpstarted the appropriations process for fiscal year (FY) 2022. Four appropriations subcommittees released and advanced their spending bills last week: Agriculture-FDA, Financial Services-General Government, Legislative Branch, and Military Construction-VA. Appropriators are expected to move six bills through the full committee the week of June 28, with the panel completing its work the week of July 12. Leadership plans to bring the bills to the floor for a vote during the last two weeks of July. The Senate Appropriations Committee has not yet announced a markup schedule. A continuing resolution (CR) will likely be necessary to avoid a government shutdown at the end of the fiscal year on September 30.

Senate HELP Leadership Continues Work on Pandemic Preparedness

Bipartisan leadership of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee announced three new areas of oversight as a part of the panel’s work on pandemic preparedness. Committee staff will now begin oversight and investigations aimed at:

  • Identifying the greatest barriers to vaccination among communities of color, rural communities, Tribes, and other underserved communities, with the goal of identifying the most effective strategies to increase vaccine equity;
  • Assessing the root causes of supply shortages within the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) during H1N1, Ebola, and COVID-19; and
  • Reviewing information from federal agencies and relevant experts regarding the origins of the virus that causes COVID-19, and regarding how to improve the nation’s ability to assess the safety and security of biosafety laboratories.
Earlier this year, Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Ranking Member Richard Burr (R-N.C.) announced an effort to develop bipartisan policy proposals based on lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic to improve the nation’s public health infrastructure, medical preparedness, and response programs.

Ranking Member Burr also released a report last week on the role of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) during the COVID-19 pandemic – the second in a series of policy briefs making recommendations related to the federal government’s pandemic response. Reforming and Strengthening ASPR: Ensuring Specialized Capabilities, Sufficient Capacity, and Specific Authorities to Meet 21st Century Public Health Security Threats includes the following recommended reforms:

  • The Department Secretary’s and the ASPR’s authorities should be made clearer and more specific about the operational role of executing a coordinated response to any future public health emergency, and should be routinely exercised.
  • ASPR needs to expand, strengthen, and sustain public-private partnerships in the medical countermeasure, health care system, and medical supply chain sectors.
  • ASPR should leverage innovation to expand public health and medical preparedness and response capacity and capabilities, including those of the medical countermeasures enterprise, health care system, and public health programs.

Wyden Releases Drug Pricing Principles

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) released a document outlining principles for drug pricing reform last week. The goal of the paper is to outline “a series of principles that demonstrate that making prescription drugs more affordable while encouraging innovation and scientific breakthroughs are not mutually exclusive.” The following principles are detailed in the document:

  • Medicare must have the authority to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies, especially when competition and market practices are not keeping prices in check.
  • American consumers must pay less at the pharmacy counter.
  • Prices of drugs that increase faster than inflation will not be subsidized by patients and taxpayers.
  • Drug pricing reforms that keep prices and patient costs in check should extend beyond Medicare to all Americans, including those covered by employer and commercial health plans.
  • Drug pricing should reward scientific innovation, not gaming of the patent system.
Chairman Wyden stated his intention to propose legislation that builds on bipartisan proposals to reduce pharmaceutical prices already passed by his committee.

Lawmakers to Probe Biogen Alzheimer’s Drug

The House Oversight and Reform Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee are opening a joint investigation into Biogen Inc.’s Alzheimer’s drug Aduhelm. Oversight Chair Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Energy and Commerce Chair Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) stated that the process which led to the drug’s approval and its price tag warrant closer examination. They plan to probe the impact of Aduhelm’s approval on research for future Alzheimer’s treatments and on federal health care programs. Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.) are also urging Senate Finance Committee leadership to convene a hearing examining the cost of Aduhelm. “Approval of the new product has dramatic implications for our health care system that stretch well beyond the scope of FDA’s jurisdiction,” the lawmakers write.

Lawmakers Look to Curb Vaccine Misinformation

Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) have sent a letter asking Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg for details about plans to remove COVID-19 vaccine misinformation from his social media platform. “As the U.S. struggles to reach vaccine hesitant individuals and the world grapples with new variants, it is more important than ever that social media companies such as Facebook ensure that its platforms are free from disinformation,” the letter states. The lawmakers request data regarding how many users have viewed vaccine-related misinformation and how many posts have been removed from the site by July 5. In related news, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) announced that he is working with the American Medical Association (AMA) to draft a bill to combat vaccine misinformation on social media. The legislation aims to use the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to track and evaluate medical misinformation online.

Democrats Call for CFPB Action on Medical Debt

Six Democratic senators have sent a letter to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) urging the agency to place restrictions on medical debt collectors. The lawmakers outline a series of polices for consideration, including restrictions on the reporting of medical debt to credit agencies, a limit on how often debt collectors can call someone, requirements to inform debtors about financial assistance programs, and a ban on collecting from patients while they are appealing coverage denial, disputing charges, or seeking financial aid. “The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the many cracks that remain in our health care system into which people fall, sometimes plummet, regarding debt incurred for their health care,” the letter states. “The CFPB has an opportunity to strengthen protections for and improve the economic wellbeing and health of Americans.”

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