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The Health 202

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

The GOP base is still resentful over the covid response

The Health 202

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

Happy Wednesday, y’all. Today’s top is adapted from a story out last night from Yasmeen Abutaleb, Isaac Arnsdorf and your Health 202 host. Send us your thoughts:

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Today’s edition: The Food and Drug Administration is creating a senior position to oversee food safety and nutrition after the baby formula shortage exposed flaws in the agency. At least 4 in 10 adults are unsure whether an abortion pill is legal in their state. But first … 

House Republicans aren’t ready to forgive and forget on pandemic mandates and closures

On Capitol Hill, House Republicans are focused this week on delivering a political message to their base: The pandemic has long been over and the Biden administration doesn’t realize it.

For many Americans, the relentless focus on covid seems largely a thing of the past. Far fewer people are wearing masks, businesses and schools are mostly open, and many people are living with the threat of contracting the virus.

But among activist Republicans, immense resentment persists at government policies aimed at curbing the pandemic, such as vaccine mandates, school closures and mask requirements. And that’s shaping up to be a significant part of the GOP’s messaging as anger bubbles up among potential Republican presidential contenders and newly empowered House Republicans, Yasmeen Abutaleb, Isaac Arnsdorf and I report.

For Democrats, the push is an extension of conservatives’ insistence on embracing false conspiracy theories, like saying vaccines are harmful and the virus isn’t real. But Republican strategists say that while issues like inflation and immigration are still top of mind for GOP voters, the covid debate is expected to play a significant role in Republican messaging ahead of the 2024 election

  • “Over the past two years, the skepticism of big government, the skepticism of government bureaucrats telling you what to do, has only grown,” Republican strategist Corry Bliss said. “And the takeaway a lot of people have is those in charge made it up and had no idea what they were doing.”

More from Isaac:

On Capitol Hill

House Republicans are pushing ahead with congressional hearings on the pandemic beginning today, with the House Oversight and Accountability Committee convening to analyze fraud in covid-19 relief spending and a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee examining challenges to investigating the origins of pandemics and other biological threats.

On tap next week: Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), who chairs the chief oversight panel, told The Health 202 that he’ll hold a hearing next week bringing in front-line border patrol agents to “find out the extent of the problem.” This would include questions over a pandemic-era policy the Biden administration and Hill Republicans have fought over for months, known as Title 42, which allows for the quick expulsion of migrants from the U.S. borders for public health reasons.

Meanwhile, the House Energy and Commerce oversight and health subcommittees will hold a Feb. 8 hearing on the federal response to the coronavirus

  • Those slated to testify are Lawrence Tabak, the acting director of the National Institutes of Health; Robert Califf, the head of the Food and Drug Administration; Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and Dawn O’Connell, the federal health department’s assistant secretary for preparedness and response. 
  • Top Republican committee leaders are billing it as the first of a series of hearings and probes, according to details shared with The Health 202. Bloomberg first reported the news of the hearing.

On the House floor yesterday, Republicans passed a bill to end the current public health emergency in a 220-210 vote yesterday. All Democrats stuck together to oppose the measure, which wasn’t the case for another vote yesterday, where seven crossed party lines to approve terminating the vaccine mandate for health-care workers whose services are billed under Medicare and Medicaid. More votes are scheduled for today on two other pandemic-related measures. 

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), the chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee:

Trump vs. DeSantis

Former president Donald Trump, who has announced he’s seeking the presidency in 2024, and a potential leading rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), have begun sparring over who did a better job of rejecting public health measures they view as an overreach. 

On Saturday, Trump accused DeSantis of “trying to rewrite history” on his response to the pandemic, saying that “Florida was closed for a long period of time.” The Florida Republican hit back yesterday, noting that he was easily reelected last year while Trump wasn’t in 2020. 

This comes after the two were largely aligned when Trump was in the White House and DeSantis was in his first term as governor. “The president has been outstanding through all of this,” DeSantis said in a Fox News interview in April 2020.

But the dynamic between the two has changed since then. Both have moved sharply against covid restrictions amid anger from the Republican base, and sought to downplay their earlier support for such measures.

Read the full story here.


On tap today: President Biden will meet with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) at the White House to discuss a “range of issues” — including the debt ceiling. At the highly anticipated meeting, Biden will press McCarthy to commit to avoiding a default on the nation’s debt and to release a budget plan outlining Republicans spending cuts, The Post’s John Wagner reports.

Later, Biden will host a transition event to thank exiting chief of staff Ron Klain for his work and officially welcome Jeff Zients to the White House to fill the role. 

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.):

Agency alert

FDA to overhaul its food division in wake of baby formula crisis

The Food and Drug Administration will create a senior position to oversee food safety and nutrition after a series of foodborne-illness crises, including a nationwide baby formula shortage, exposed major flaws in the agency’s structure and culture, The Post’s Jacob Bogage reports.

The details: FDA Commissioner Robert Califf unveiled a proposal yesterday to combine the agency’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition and Office of Food Policy and Response to create a new Human Foods Program. The program will be led by a deputy commissioner, who will control an annual budget of nearly $320 million and report directly to Califf.

Crucially, though, the FDA’s high-powered Office of Regulatory Affairs — responsible for investigations, inspections, laboratory testing and import controls — will remain independent and serve functions across the FDA, including drugs and medical devices, Jacob notes.

The shake-up comes on the heels of a scathing report from the Reagan-Udall Foundation, which found that the agency’s food division is plagued by decentralized leadership, indecisiveness and inaction that hinder its ability to safeguard public health. The independent task force recommended breaking up the agency so that oversight of the nation’s food system gets more attention.

  • In an interview with Jacob, Califf would not endorse splitting up the FDA, which would require congressional approval, but said it “deserves some due consideration.”

Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.):

Antiabortion protester acquitted

A jury acquitted abortion protestor Mark Houck of federal charges related to pushing an abortion clinic escort, Emily Belz writes for Christianity Today. During a protest, Houck got into an altercation with a 72-year-old clinic escort, who said Houck pushed them.

“The case drew particular attention–including a night of prayer before the trial began last week–because of its handling by federal officials,” Emily writes. “After local prosecutors declined to file charges, federal prosecutors took the unusual approach of treating Houck as a flight risk and arrested him with a team of FBI agents a year after the clinic incident.”

Poll check

Many adults are uncertain about the legality of medication abortion — even in states where the pills are allowed

New this a.m.: The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade six months ago sparked a quickly changing patchwork of abortion laws nationwide that has left many Americans confused about the legality of medication abortion at the state level, according to a new poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

By the numbers:

  • Across the country: At least 4 in 10 adults say they are “not sure” whether mifepristone, a drug used in medication abortion, is legal in their state. 
  • In states with near-total abortion bans: 47 percent of adults are “unsure” whether the drugs are legal where they live, while an additional 13 percent incorrectly believe they are allowed.
  • In states where abortion is legal: 44 percent of adults are “unsure” whether medication abortion is permitted in their state, and 1 in 10 adults incorrectly believe the drugs are banned. Roughly 44 percent are aware the pills are legal.

The poll also found that emergency contraceptives are a major source of confusion for Americans, even though the pills are legal and available over the counter in all 50 states. Roughly one-third of adults say they are “unsure” if emergency contraceptives are legal where they live and 5 percent incorrectly believe the drugs are illegal in their state.

On the Hill

Democrats urge immediate action on ‘junk plans’

Democratic leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee are pressing the departments of Health and Human Services, Labor and Treasury to roll back the Trump administration’s expansion of short-term insurance plans.

In a letter sent this week, a trio of lawmakers urged the administration to take action on the issue before Medicaid’s continuous enrollment requirement ends March 31, at which point millions of beneficiaries are expected to lose coverage on the safety net program in the coming months and will need to transition to another insurer. 

  • The letter was signed by the panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (N.J.); the oversight and investigations subcommittee ranking Democrat, Rep. Kathy Castor (Fla.); and Rep. Anna Eshoo (Calif.), the top Democrat on the health subcommittee.

Catch up quick: It’s been two years since Biden signed an executive order directing federal agencies to review Trump-era regulations. In a recent rulemaking agenda, the federal health department said it intends to issue a proposal by April, but that timeline isn’t binding. HHS didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.):

House GOP opposes rule to allow remote work for those with health challenges

Republicans on the House Oversight Committee rejected a proposed rule change that would have allowed members of the panel facing significant health issues to work remotely, The Post reports. 

The amendment was offered by the committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Jamie Raskin (Md.), who has been diagnosed with lymphoma and is currently undergoing chemotherapy. During committee debate yesterday, Raskin said the exception to in-person participation would apply only in extraordinary circumstances, such as having the coronavirus or being immunocompromised. 

While several of his Republican colleagues expressed their sympathy for Raskin, they ultimately voted against the amendment. Committee Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.) also opposed the change, saying it wasn’t needed because he’s already made accommodations for the lawmaker and pledged to continue doing so.  

Health reads

Official end of covid emergency injects uncertainty into telehealth (By Daniel Gilbert | The Washington Post)

Pfizer reports record revenue, expects Covid-19 vaccines to be commercialized later this year (By Katherine Ellen Foley | Politico)

Amgen pricing for its Humira biosimilar may benefit PBMs and insurers more than patients (By Ed Silverman | Stat)

Sugar rush

Thanks for reading! See y'all tomorrow.