KHN’s ‘What the Health?’: The Biden Health Agenda

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President Joe Biden wasted no time getting down to work. Among the raft of executive orders he signed on Inauguration Day were several aimed at curtailing the covid crisis, including one requiring mask-wearing by federal employees and anyone on federal property for the next 100 days.

Meanwhile, with the inauguration of Vice President Kamala Harris and the swearing-in of two new Democratic senators from Georgia, Democrats took over the majority in the Senate, albeit with a 50-50 tie. That leaves Democrats in charge of both the legislative and executive branches for the first time since 2010, but with such narrow majorities it could be difficult to advance many of Biden’s top health agenda items, starting with an expansion of the Affordable Care Act.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of KHN, Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico, Tami Luhby of CNN and Sarah Karlin-Smith of the Pink Sheet.

Among the takeaways from this week’s podcast:

  • Although Biden can make certain changes to the federal policies in the fight against covid-19, much of what he has detailed in his plan will require congressional action, and Senate Republicans do not appear willing to support a major legislative package just yet.
  • Many of the efforts against covid that Biden has said he wants to put in place are initiatives that have been recommended by public health officials over the past year and not acted upon. But the discovery of new, more contagious variants of the coronavirus may necessitate faster efforts to distribute vaccine and other actions.
  • Wearing masks and other simple public health practices can have a big impact on slowing the spread of covid, but much of the public is looking to a vaccine for help. Those supplies remain limited and it’s not clear whether Biden’s interest in using the Defense Production Act to force industry to help will increase vaccine production.
  • Vaccination success is hampered by unreliable estimates of the amount of supplies states can expect to receive and a patchwork of sign-up methods and eligibility criteria.
  • Among the actions Biden and a Democratic Congress could take to reverse policies instituted by the Trump administration are ramping up workplace enforcement of covid rules to help keep employees from spreading the disease, restoring a penalty for not having insurance so that the lawsuit threatening the Affordable Care Act would become moot, and overturning rules requiring reviews of federal scientists.
  • The Senate has not yet scheduled a confirmation hearing for Xavier Becerra, Biden’s choice for Health and Human Services secretary. Before a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol this month, it was thought that establishing a new federal health team would be the president’s priority, but national security took precedence after the violence.
  • Controlling drug prices is an issue with huge popular support, but Congress is divided over how to do it. The broad measure that passed the House in 2019 is again unlikely to fly in the Senate, but senators may try to produce a more modest proposal along the lines of a bipartisan measure offered previously by Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore).
  • Drugmakers have generally fought most efforts to implement price controls, but there may be growing interest within the industry to work out a bipartisan deal that they have a hand in, rather than waiting to see what Democrats can push through.

Plus, for extra credit, the panelists recommend their favorite health policy stories of the week they think you should read too:

Julie Rovner: The Atlantic’s “Pramila Jayapal Is ‘Next-Level’ Angry,” by Elaine Godfrey

Alice Miranda Ollstein: The New York Times’ “Emerging Coronavirus Variants May Pose Challenges to Vaccines,” by Apoorva Mandavilli

Sarah Karlin-Smith: Vanity Fair’s “A Tsunami of Randoms”: How Trump’s COVID Chaos Drowned the FDA in Junk Science,” by Katherine Eban

Tami Luhby: KHN’s “Black Americans Are Getting Vaccinated at Lower Rates Than White Americans,” by Hannah Recht and Lauren Weber

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Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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