KHN’s What the Health? Get to Work at HHS

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When asked about the Covid vaccine manufactured by AstraZeneca, public health experts fear the confusion could lead to further doubts among people who are already reluctant to get a vaccine.

Meanwhile, the first Senate-approved officials are moving into their offices in the Ministry of Health and Human Services, starting with the new Secretary, Xavier Becerra, who was confirmed by 50 votes to 49. At least at first glance, Becerra appears to be focused on introducing new benefits for the Affordable Care Act, which was passed under the recently passed Aid Act.

And with the big Covid bill behind them, members of Congress are looking for their next big package that could include further efforts to deal with the high cost of prescription drugs.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner from KHN, Margot Sanger Katz from the New York Times, Anna Edney from Bloomberg News and Sarah Karlin-Smith from Pink Sheet.

Among the takeaways from this week’s podcast:

  • Another challenge for Becerra could be managing the huge sums of money dedicated to health care that are part of the Relief Aid Act passed earlier this month.
  • A key administrative post that President Joe Biden has not yet filled is the Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. A long-time career employee, Dr. Janet Woodcock, serving as acting commissioner, and very few other names have spoken of a permanent replacement in Washington. But Woodcock has voiced some criticism on Capitol Hill of the FDA’s lackluster efforts to end the opioid epidemic, so she may not be an acceptable candidate in the long run.
  • The Senate also confirmed two important appointments in the administration this week: Dr. Vivek Murthy as general surgeon and Dr. Rachel Levine as Assistant Secretary for Health. Murthy, a gun control attorney, and Levine, the first openly Senate-approved transgender person, had expected a difficult time, but they got through the process with relative ease.
  • The Covid Aid Package offers more support to people who buy health insurance in the ACA marketplaces, but consumers may not feel the effects quickly as the changes will take time to implement. Some of these, like the increase in premium subsidies, will be available for consumers to rate on the government website starting April 1st. However, it will take longer for unemployed people to receive their insurance subsidies.
  • Members of Congress are considering adding drug price control provisions to the major infrastructure bill underway. If they find a way to keep Medicare drug prices down, other spending priorities will be funded.
  • Drug makers are likely to be in a big fight against any measures that would control prices, and they have supporters on both sides of the aisle in Congress.
  • The pharmaceutical industry could also try to fight pricing laws by pointing out the tremendous success of the swift effort to manufacture a covid vaccine. However, much of this initial work was done as basic research by the National Institutes of Health, and the efforts of the pharmaceutical companies were entirely funded by the federal government.
  • AstraZeneca, which makes a Covid vaccine widely used in Europe but not yet approved in the US, has encountered stumbling blocks in explaining its research and results. The most recent issue arose this week when NIH penalized the company for using incomplete data on clinical trial results in the US in its announcement, which it hopes will soon be filing with the FDA.

As an added credit, panelists recommend their favorite health stories of the week that they think you should read too:

Julie Rovner: The New York Times “Bad News Bias” by David Leonhardt

Margot Sanger-Katz: The Wall Street Journal’s “Hospitals Hide Price Data From Search Results” by Tom McGinty, Anna Wilde Mathews, and Melanie Evans

Anna Edney: Stat’s “What ‘Beans’ Taught Their Parents About Childhood Cancer, Research Needs, and Patient Advocacy” by Meghana Keshavan

Sarah Karlin-Smith: KHN’s “In America, Covid Vaccine Eligibility is a” crazy quilt of “state rules” by Phil Galewitz

To hear all of our podcasts, click here.

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KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces extensive journalism on health issues. Alongside Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three most important operational programs of the KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is a foundation that provides health information to the nation.


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