THIS WEEK IN REVIEW: Monday, Feb. 17th – Friday, Feb. 21st

February 21, 2020 by B. Cameron Webb, MD, JD

THIS WEEK IN REVIEW: Monday, February 17th – Friday, February 21st

Welcome back to another edition of Viewpoints, everyone! It’s a little chilly out there today, but sit back, get cozy, and prepare for a hot cup of health policy goodness to warm you right up!

As the Wuhan coronavirus, or Covid-19, continues to spread globally, the concern here in the United States is increasing simultaneously. On Wednesday, the Senate Health Committee announced a joint hearing with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Institutes of Health (NIH), and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to prepare for the potential spread of the virus here in the US. Senate Democrats have pressed the Trump administration to respond to the outbreak with emergency funding from Congress to support the escalating demand on public health agencies around the country. Over in the House of Representatives, Democrats have asked President Trump to ensure that vaccines and treatments be “accessible, available and affordable.” This comes after HHS partnered with a few drug companies, creating concern over a private manufacturer monopolizing the vaccine or treatment once created. 

In recent days, the Trump administration has received criticism from policy stakeholders over various proposals they have put forward. Since unveiling their proposed budget for 2021, congressional leaders from across the aisle have raised their concerns about the effects of proposed cuts to Medicaid spending. During a recent HHS hearing, legislators cautioned that the proposal could create “problems with access to care and threaten the safety net.” Similarly, Medicaid officials from 12 states sent a joint letter to HHS, warning that the proposal could possibly “force states to cut Medicaid eligibility, benefits and/or provider payments, which would have the effect of decreasing low-income individuals’ access to important health care services.” 

Another area the administration has received flack in recently is with religious exemptions to faith-based providers. The administration has proposed a rule that would allow providers who claim religious exemptions to not have to refer patients to other providers for services they do not provide. A number of Senate Democrats, led by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Patty Murray (D-WA), sent a letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar calling for the administration to not implement the rule, describing it as “both an attack on religious freedom and yet another step taken by President Trump to greenlight federally-funded discrimination.

As Congressional lawmakers gear up for the 2020 election, high pharmaceutical drug costs promise to be a key ballot issue. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Sen. Ron Wyden’s (R-OR) bipartisan drug pricing bill appears to be gaining momentum following Sen. Joni Ernst’s (R-IA) public endorsement on Tuesday. Sen. Ernst joins eleven other Republicans, many of whom are facing competitive 2020 re-election bids, who have expressed support of the bill in the Senate. Although President Trump also indicated his support for the legislation in his State of the Union address earlier this month, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has refrained from putting the bill up for a vote, citing “internal divisions” within the party. 

Now for a quick trip around the country: New Mexico’s governor is expected to sign a new bill into law that would allow pharmacists to be reimbursed for prescriptions they write. Those in favor of the bill say that supporting pharmacists in ways such as this can help rural areas that may be experiencing physician shortages. 

During California’s State of the Union on Wednesday, Governor Gavin Newsom shared several proposals to address the state’s homelessness and mental health needs. He wants to dedicate $695 million to housing aid and other interventions, to force localities to spend the money they’ve received that’s been set aside for mental health care expansion and to remove some barriers for individuals to receive emergency psychiatric care. 

On Thursday, federal judges struck down Mississippi’s ban on abortions of fetuses with detectable heartbeats, citing the precedent of blocking similar bans around the country. And finally, the Virginia state Senate passed a bill this week that would mandate businesses with more than 15 employees to provide earned paid sick leave and prevent employers from acting against those using their leave.

But regardless of whether you have sick leave or not, be sure to get your flu shot – it’s not too late! According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this year’s vaccine is much more effective than last season’s. While all eyes are on Coronavirus, your standard run-of-the-mill flu has infected upwards of 22 million Americans, hospitalized more than 210,000, and taken the lives of 12,000.

Stay toasty out there, friends!


This Week’s Viewpoints Writing Team:
Avery Bullock, Annie Duncan, Jo McClain, Steven Moore and Nana Owusu