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OVERNIGHT HEALTH: Congress begs for attention on Ebola

The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offered a rare scrap of good news in the world’s battle against Ebola on Wednesday.

The number of Ebola cases is no longer expected to exceed 1 million, Dr. Tom Frieden told senators, moving away from a worst-scenario that the CDC had predicted just two months ago.

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While the disease is still spreading in Sierra Leone and Guinea, he said Liberia is no longer seeing “exponential growth” in infections — a positive sign that the outbreak is slowing in the hardest-hit country.

It was Frieden’s third appearance before a congressional panel this week, and likely the last for a while. But was anyone listening?

Lawmakers have been begging for public attention on Ebola after it disappeared from the political agenda almost immediately after Election Day.

Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillDemocrats slide in battle for Senate Overnight Health Care — Presented by Purdue Pharma —Senate debates highlight fight over pre-existing conditions | Support grows for Utah Medicaid expansion measure | Arkansas health official defends work requirements McCaskill campaign says ‘intern’ who filmed campaign had access to voter data MORE (D-Mo.), who was among the few lawmakers at Wednesday’s Ebola hearing before the Senate Homeland Security Committee, tried to use guilt to hoist the issue back into the nation’s attention.

She tweeted a photo from her seat during Wednesday’s hearing, which showed a half-dozen empty desks beside her. “Fascinating. Empty seats and no cameras for hearing on Ebola & public health: threats, lessons learned, and preparedness,” McCaskill wrote in the tweet.

But even the Missouri senator did not stay for the full hearing, which lasted nearly three hours. By the end, only Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.) remained.

Carper told The Hill after the hearing that he and his colleagues still have questions about the White House’s massive request for $6 billion to fight Ebola.

“The administration needs to be prepared to make their case,” he said. “For me, I want to make sure we drill down and find out, is that a reasonable amount of money?”  Read more here.

 

Subsidies pose challenge: The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is still struggling to ensure that ObamaCare subsidies are going to the right people at the right time, according to a government audit. More than a year after the launch of the government’s healthcare exchanges, the timeliness and verification of payments remains a top concern, the inspector general of HHS wrote in a report.  

“Ensuring sound expenditure of taxpayer funds for intended purposes poses a substantial management challenge,” the report states.

Part of the problem is HHS’s reliance on manual systems. To improve the process, the report says the department must create more reliable financial management and payment systems. Without safeguards to ensure correct payments, the system could put “substantial federal funds“ at risk, according to its 2014 Top Management & Performance Challenges report. Read more here.

Few stats available on HealthCare.gov: The Obama administration is keeping a tight lid on most figures related to the performance of HealthCare.gov, a practice that drew criticism during the site's failed launch last year. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) reported Saturday that 500,000 people logged on to the site, and 100,000 submitted applications, but most other statistics remain private as the system enters its fifth day back online.

The federal exchange appears to be functioning well in its second year, with only a few glitches temporarily hampering users. Still, information available about the system's functionality pales in comparison to what Massachusetts health officials release about that state's exchange, which inspired the Affordable Care Act.

In Massachusetts, officials report the number of accounts created, applications submitted and eligibility determinations made on the state's marketplace every day. Read more here.

Obama enlists local leaders: President Obama is calling on state and city leaders to help meet enrollment targets in the second year of his signature healthcare law. Obama held a conference call Tuesday with more than 200 local officials from both parties, according to the White House.

He also encouraged governments to spread the word through office mailings and newsletters and to “keep developing creative ways to get the people they serve the information they need,” the White House said. Across the country, there have been more than 300 events to promote ObamaCare, the White House added. About two dozen of those events were geared toward Hispanic communities, which tend to have higher rates of people who are uninsured. Read more here.

GOP goes after Gruber grant: Republicans are asking the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to defend a multi-million-dollar grant given to ObamaCare consultant Jonathan Gruber in light of his controversial comments on the law's passage.

"Recent developments related to Dr. Gruber raise questions about his objectivity and judgment, and thus the utility of his research," Reps. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) and Andy Harris (R-Md.) wrote in a letter to NIH Director Francis Collins Wednesday.

"Further, the award of this grant causes major concerns regarding NIH's funding priorities."

The letter stated that Gruber has received $1.5 million from the National Institute on Aging to study how seniors choose between plans in Medicare Part D. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor is "on pace" to receive more than $2 million for the project, Republicans said.

Gruber is under fire for saying last year that a "lack of transparency" and the "stupidity of the American voter" aided the passage of the healthcare law. He has apologized, but remains a political villain for the right as more videos emerge. Read more here.

HealthCare.gov flashback: Sparks flew Wednesday at a hearing on the botched rollout of HealthCare.gov as Republican lawmakers grilled former White House Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Todd Park about his role in the site's creation. GOP members had sought for almost a year to bring Park before the House Science and Technology Committee, to determine his level of involvement in the debacle.

The administration has consistently argued he was not a key player, though he assisted greatly with the effort to fix the system by the end of November 2013. Park ultimately testified after months of back-and-forth between Republicans and the White House. The panel issued a subpoena, though White House officials said it was unnecessary because Park had already agreed to serve as a witness voluntarily. Read more here.

 

Thursday’s schedule:

The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions will hold a hearing to examine the pricing of generic drugs.

Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) and anti-abortion groups will hold a press briefing at 2 p.m. to disclose research about healthcare plans that allowed funding for abortion.

 

State by state:

NC Medicaid forecasting small surplus this year

Top insurers overstated doctor networks, Calif. regulators charge

Ill. lawmakers eye final attempt at state-run exchange

Wash. lawmakers voice anger with insurance exchange’s technical troubles

 

Reading list:

Immigrants baffled by HealthCare.gov lapse

Meet Michael Cannon, the man who could bring down Obamacare

Obama’s order won’t extend Obamacare to undocumented immigrants

Few employers dropping health benefits, surveys find

 

What you might have missed at The Hill:

GOP doubles down on ‘stupidity’ gaffe

Senate panel passes measure to speed up approval of Ebola drug

Medicare, Medicaid get ‘big data’ chief

Celebrities condemn global response to Ebola

 

Please send tips and comments to Sarah Ferris, sferris@thehill.com, and Elise Viebeck, eviebeck@thehill.com.

Follow on Twitter: @thehill@sarahnferris@eliseviebeck