The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness
The Health 202

A newsletter briefing on the health-care policy debate in Washington.

Other health issues are taking a back seat to abortion in Democratic political ads

The Health 202

A newsletter briefing on the health-care policy debate in Washington.

Happy Wednesday, everyone. We want to give a major shout to The Post’s Azi Paybarah, who crunched and pulled data for us to help with today’s newsletter. Send tips and gratitude:

Today’s edition: President Biden pledged to make abortion his first legislative priority in an attempt to mobilize voters to head to the polls. The White House released a plan to improve the country’s pandemic preparedness. But first …

As an ad topic for Democrats, health insurance and prescription drug costs have been dwarfed by abortion

Last January, Democrats openly fretted about what failing to deliver on their long-standing health policy goals would mean for the party’s prospects in the midterm elections. 

At the time, rank-and-file members told us that passing new health policies would be a “real groundswell” for their 2022 campaigns — and the distinct possibility of falling short was a real concern.

Since then, Democrats overcame infighting to pass a pared-back health and climate bill, making good on a years-long pledge to let Medicare negotiate the price of prescription drugs. But the issue has taken a back seat in political ads this election season.

As an ad topic, health policy has been dwarfed by abortion. Democrats and their supporters are banking that the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade will be a major motivator for the base, driving voters to the polls during a tough election year for the party. 

Their philosophy is evident in how groups are spending their cash:

  • Democrats and their allies have spent nearly $343 million on ads that include a reference to abortion in the primary and general election since January, compared with roughly $71 million spent by Republicans and their affiliated groups, according to data from AdImpact, which tracks television and digital political ads.
  • Meanwhile, Democrats and those supporting them have spent over $136 million on health-related ads across all races this year, compared with at least $25 million spent by Republicans and their affiliated groups.
Dem ads

Democrats and their supporters have released over 440 ads mentioning health care, some of which also touched on abortion. We reviewed some of them in state and congressional races, and found a variety of themes.

  • Rep. Jahana Hayes (Conn.) “took on the drug companies,” says an ad from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. 
  • Sen. Michael Bennet (Colo.) supported a new law expanding benefits to help veterans exposed to toxic burn pits, a campaign ad states. 
  • Iowa state Rep. Phyllis Thede says she has taken on health insurance companies “hellbent on denying coverage” in an ad from the Iowa Democratic Party and Thede.

Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who has worked for President Biden, said Democrats should be swinging big on health care, believing it’s a potent midterm message the party isn’t using enough. It provides a direct contrast to Republicans, who all voted against the party’s health and climate bill, and dealing with rising health-care costs is the party’s “single best answer” to inflation, she said.

“It mystifies me a little bit, and it disturbs me a lot,” she said, adding later that “the advertising that we’ve spent on abortion is exactly right. I think that, as Democrats, we've spent way too little on health care.”

GOP ads

Republicans and their affiliated groups released more than 110 health-related ads, and we also took a look at some of them. Similar to Democrats, we found a range of topics. 

  • Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee tells the camera that he expanded health benefits for new moms, referring to increasing postpartum Medicaid coverage, in an ad from his campaign. 
  • Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.) touts her support for requiring hospitals and insurers to disclose their secretive prices, she says in a campaign ad. 
  • A spot from the National Republican Senate Committee against John Fetterman, the Democratic Senate candidate in Pennsylvania, claims he backs a “government takeover of health care."

Republicans and GOP-supporting groups are spending the most on ads pledging to lower taxes and accusing Democrats of raising them, as our editor Paige Winfield Cunningham recently explained in The 5-Minute Fix (you can sign up for that newsletter here!). They’re also pouring dollars into hammering Democrats on the country’s inflation and tapping into Americans’ fears on crime. Meanwhile, health care has repeatedly shown to be a toxic issue for the party, so they’ve been steering clear of pledging major changes to the system. 

Reproductive wars

Biden kicks off Democrats' midterm sprint with a focus on abortion

Biden promised to make codifying Roe v. Wade his first legislative priority if Democrats maintain control of the House and expand their ranks in the Senate in November, our colleagues Cleve R. Wootson Jr. and Tyler Pager report.

The new commitment from Biden is partly aimed at re-energizing the Democratic base and harnessing voter anger of the decision, as Republicans hammer Democrats on inflation and the economy with just three weeks to go before Election Day.

Democrats have tried repeatedly in the current Congress to enshrine Roe v. Wade’s protections into federal law, but have been unable to do so because they need more than a simple majority in the Senate to overcome the chamber’s filibuster. While Biden has said he supports suspending the 60-vote threshold to codify abortion rights, moderate Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) have opposed such a movemeaning the party needs to pick up at least two extra seats to counter their opposition and scuttle the parliamentary rule.

“If you do your part and vote for Democratic leaders in Congress, I promise you we’ll do our part,” Biden pledged to voters yesterday at a Democratic National Committee event. It’s less clear what additional steps Biden will take to protect abortion rights if the Democrats cannot hold the House and add seats in the Senate.

On the other side: Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the antiabortion group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, pushed back against Biden’s remarks. “We encourage pro-life Republicans to keep going on offense to expose this extremist position,” she said in a statement.  

Jen Psaki, former White House press secretary: 

Watch Biden’s speech at Washington’s Howard Theatre: 

On Oct. 18, President Biden said that if Democrats win the midterm elections, the first bill he will send to the next Congress would be to codify Roe v. Wade. (Video: The Washington Post)

White House prescriptions

White House maps out the nation’s plan to fight the next pandemic

The White House released its new national biodefense strategy yesterday outlining Biden’s plan to defend the country against future pandemics and biological threats.

The strategy, which targets more than 20 federal agencies, aims to detect early warnings of biological threats, prevent outbreaks, reduce the impacts of epidemics when they occur and develop a long-term national recovery plan. It aims to prioritize recruiting, training and sustaining a robust public health workforce across the nation, as well as helping at least 50 countries strengthen their own local capacities.

Additionally, the new U.S. plan lays out a series of “moonshot” efforts that build off lessons learned from the coronavirus pandemic. Those include goals like developing tests for a new pathogen within 12 hours of its discovery and producing enough vaccines to protect the nation within 130 days. Oversight of the initiative will be based at the White House under the national security adviser.

Next steps: Administration officials said they have begun pursuing some of the strategy's goals with agencies’ existing funding, but noted that the plan calls on Congress to approve $88 billion over five years for pandemic preparedness and biodefense

Jake Sullivan, White House national security adviser: 

Agency alert

FDA, DOJ sue six e-cigarette manufacturers

The Justice Department is taking legal action against six e-cigarette manufacturers after the companies allegedly ignored the Food and Drug Administration’s warnings that they were selling some of their products illegally.

The move marks the first time the FDA has initiated permanent injunction proceedings to enforce the agency's premarket review requirements for new tobacco products. It comes after the Biden administration has faced intensifying criticism from lawmakers and advocates for not doing enough to ensure the agency authorizes every vaping product sold in the United States.

According to the agency, all six of the companies the FDA is seeking to shut down previously received warnings that they had failed to obtain permission to sell their products and continued to do so anyway. None of the six companies responded to The Health 202’s request for comment.

What the administration wants: The injunctions would permanently block the companies from manufacturing and selling their own vapor products in the United States unless they get marketing authorization and agree to an FDA inspection of their facilities.

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids: 

In other health news

  • New this a.m.: A quarter of fetal deaths in the United States are the result of placental, cord and membrane complications, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that analyzed more than 46,000 deaths across 41 states and D.C. from 2018 to 2020. 
  • Wisconsin Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels indicated yesterday that he doesn’t support enforcing the state’s near-total ban on abortions, saying “I will never arrest a doctor” before his campaign walked back the comment, the Associated Press writes.
  • States across the country can now apply for enhanced Medicaid funding to expand their Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics. The program, which has been limited until now, was expanded in the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act earlier this year.
  • Black, Hispanic, American Indian and Alaska Native adults are more likely to be hospitalized from the flu and less likely to be vaccinated against it than their White peers, according to a new report from the CDC that comes as health officials warn of a potentially severe season ahead.

Health reads

In Florida, flesh-eating bacteria follow in Hurricane Ian’s wake (By Frances Stead Sellers and Sabrina Malhi | The Washington Post)

Centene Gave Thousands to Georgia Leaders’ Campaigns While Facing Medicaid Overbilling Questions (By Maya T. Prabhu, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Andy Miller | Kaiser Health News)

Whites now more likely to die from covid than Blacks: Why the pandemic shifted (By Akilah Johnson and Dan Keating l The Washington Post)

Anti-abortion groups: It’s time for Republicans to stop avoiding the issue (By Megan Messerly and Alice Miranda Ollstein | Politico)

Sugar rush

Thanks for reading! See y'all tomorrow.