HealthCare Roundtable e-News – January 18, 2022

Senate Health Committee Favors Califf Nomination FDA Chief

Last Thursday (Jan. 13), members of the Senate Health Committee voted in favor of confirming President Joe Biden’s FDA chief-nominee Robert Califf. The vote passed with 13 committee members voting “yes” for Califf and eight members voting against his nomination. The vote now heads to the full Senate, where Califf is likely to face more opposition to his confirmation.

President Biden first nominated Califf to Chair the agency in November 2021 after a lengthy search for a permanent FDA commissioner. Califf, who is a trained cardiologist, previously served as FDA commissioner in 2016 towards the end of the Obama administration. At the time, Califf won the Senate confirmation by a wide margin despite the objections of a handful of Democratic senators.

Republican Sens. Bill Cassidy (La.), Mike Braun (Ind.), Roger Marshall (Kan.), Tim Scott (S.C.), Tommy Tuberville (Ala.), and Jerry Moran (Kan.) voted against Califf, as well as Sens. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Both Hassan and Sanders claimed that Califf’s close ties to the pharma industry would hinder the administration’s efforts to effectively respond to the opioid epidemic and increase drug competition and lower drug prices. (InsideHealthPolicy)

HHS Extends Public Health Emergency Declaration for Additional 90 Days

The Biden administration announced on Friday (Jan. 14) that it would be extending the public health emergency for COVID-19 for the eighth time since the pandemic first began. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra extended the public health emergency for another 90 days, just before the most recent emergency period was about to expire.

While the agency did not respond to any comments regarding the declaration, Kirsten Allen, a spokesperson for HHS, said Wednesday that the agency “will provide states with 60 days notice prior to any possible termination or expiration in the future.” Hospitals and nursing homes have been urging the administration to consider extending the emergency while certain COVID-19 flexibilities would be in effect only as long as the public health emergency declaration is in place.

“The emergency declarations have proven critical in equipping hospitals and health systems with the tools and resources necessary to manage the recent COVID-19 surges and ensure high-quality care in this unprecedented environment,” said the American Hospital Association in a letter to President Biden and Becerra on Tuesday (Jan. 11) prior to the administration’s decision to extend the public health emergency. “In their absence, the challenges of the pandemic will be exponentially more difficult to overcome.” (InsideHealthPolicy)

Other groups and organizations, including American Health Care Association and State Medicaid directors, have shared their concern about what could happen when the public health emergency comes to an end. Medicaid directors have sited that the end of the period will require a restart of Medicaid beneficiary eligibility renewals and additional training for staff on a process that hasn’t been implemented in nearly two years. (InsideHealthPolicy)

HHS Says More Than Record 14.2M Americans Will Be Enrolled in ACA Coverage by Jan. 15 Deadline

The Medicare enrollment deadline passed this weekend with 14.2 million Americans total enrolling in marketplace coverage, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Of the more than 14 million people enrolled, 10 million people enrolled through HealthCare.gov and about 4.2 million people enrolled through 18 state-based marketplaces.

The announcement follows a report published by the agency leading up to the enrollment deadline that showed 13.8 million Americans had enrolled in coverage through December 15 for states that use HealthCare.gov and December 25 for state-based marketplaces.

“President Biden promised to build on the Affordable Care Act and bring down the cost of health care, and these record numbers are proof that we delivered,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra. “Thanks to the American Rescue Plan, more Americans across the country are gaining affordable health coverage than ever before, especially when we most need it during this pandemic.

Additionally, a new HHS Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (APSE) report published last week found that deductibles vary widely across enrollees, largely based on metal tier or whether an enrollee receives the ACA’s cost-sharing reductions (CSRs), which lower out-of-pocket costs for individuals who sign up for a silver-tier plan. The analysis of data for the plan year 2021 open enrollment period also found that 51% of enrollees received CSRs, making CSR plans the typical plan selection in the marketplace. The report also identified policy options that could improve affordability, including extending and enhancing CSRs similarly to the ARP’s increase in premiums subsidies. (InsideHealthPolicy)

Biden Administration Buys 500M Additional At-Home COVID Tests, Vows to Make Free Medical Masks Available to All Americans

Last week, President Joe Biden announced that his administration plans to double the amount of at-home COVID-19 tests to be distributed to Americans for free, increasing to a total of 1 billion tests. The administration will plan to make available “high-quality masks,” including N95 and KN95 masks, to Americans for free in an effort to help the country weather the spike in coronavirus cases.

The administration announced back in December that it ordered 500 million rapid, at-home tests to be distributed earlier this month. The additional 500 million tests will help “meet future demand,” according to the president, and will be available to Americans through a government-sponsored website where people can register to receive at-home rapid tests. (InsideHealthPolicy)

The president has yet to unveil his plan defining how his administration plans to make high-quality masks, available to Americans for free. However, Biden did note that the more protective masks will work better against highly transmissible variants, like Omicron. Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said last week that the best mask “is the one that you will wear and the one you can keep on all day long, that you can tolerate in public indoor settings.”