Overnight Health Care: Dems press HHS pick on drug prices | Alexander, Trump discuss ObamaCare fix | Senate Dems seek $25B to fight opioids | Maryland eyes ObamaCare mandate replacement

Overnight Health Care: Dems press HHS pick on drug prices | Alexander, Trump discuss ObamaCare fix | Senate Dems seek $25B to fight opioids | Maryland eyes ObamaCare mandate replacement
© Greg Nash

Dems press Trump HHS nominee on drug pricing

Drug prices took center stage at the confirmation hearing for President TrumpDonald TrumpRomney: 'Pretty sure' Trump would win 2024 GOP nomination if he ran for president Pence huddles with senior members of Republican Study Committee Trump says 'no doubt' Tiger Woods will be back after accident MORE's nominee to lead the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as Democrats expressed concerns over the former pharmaceutical executive's background.

Democrats said that Alex Azar -- who previously held top positions at HHS -- served at Lilly USA during a time when several drugs saw price increases. Republicans countered that Azar's experience at the pharmaceutical company is an asset.

"Mr. Azar's work in the pharmaceutical industry will give him important insights regarding the impact of policies designed and implemented by HHS," Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchHow President Biden can hit a home run Mellman: What happened after Ginsburg? Bottom line MORE (R-Utah) said at the panel's nomination hearing Tuesday.


The panel's top Democrat, Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenYellen deputy Adeyemo on track for quick confirmation Hillicon Valley: Google lifting ban on political ads | DHS taking steps on cybersecurity | Controversy over TV 'misinformation rumor mills' 11 GOP senators slam Biden pick for health secretary: 'No meaningful experience' MORE (Ore.), though, laid out the Democratic argument against Azar in his opening remarks. Wyden pointed to four different drugs, including ones for heart disease and ADHD, saying they more than doubled during Azar's tenure at the company.

"This morning the committee will likely hear that this is just the way things work -- it's the system that's to be blamed," Wyden said. "My view is, there's a lot of validity in that. The system is broken. Mr. Azar was a part of that system."

In the hearing, Azar said his work in the drug industry would help him quickly jump into the issue of lowering drug pricing, if confirmed, saying the learning curve on this complex issue would be high for someone without prior knowledge of the industry.

If confirmed, Azar would be tasked with overseeing many facets of the health care system, including disease control, drug approvals, Medicare and Medicaid.

Azar wouldn't be new to the HHS building, having previously served as general counsel from 2001 to 2005 at HHS under President George W. Bush. He then became the department's deputy secretary for two years.

His former colleagues say he has a deep understanding of the regulatory process, which could come in handy as it appears unlikely Republicans will return to ObamaCare repeal and, instead, Trump could look to change the health care law administratively.

Read more here.


Maryland state lawmakers propose replacement for repealed ObamaCare mandate

State lawmakers in Maryland are looking to replace ObamaCare's individual mandate, which was repealed by Republicans in Congress last month.

A proposal in the state would require people to pay a penalty for not having insurance. The money, though, could be used as a down payment for a health insurance plan.

People would also have the option to pay the penalty and get nothing in return.

If approved, the proposal would take effect in 2020.

The fine would be 2.5 percent of a person's income or a flat rate of $696 -- whichever is more. The proposal would also automatically enroll uninsured residents who are eligible for Medicaid in the program.

Read more here


Alexander, Trump discussed ObamaCare fix in Nashville

Sen. Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderCongress addressed surprise medical bills, but the issue is not resolved Trump renominates Judy Shelton in last-ditch bid to reshape Fed Senate swears-in six new lawmakers as 117th Congress convenes MORE (R-Tenn.) says he spoke to President Trump on Monday about a bipartisan bill aimed at stabilizing ObamaCare markets and that Trump again expressed his support for the measure.

Alexander told reporters Tuesday that Trump asked about the bill when the two appeared together at an event in Tennessee on Monday. Alexander said he told the president he would get back to him after meeting with Sens. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayBiden health nominee faces first Senate test Overnight Health Care: US surpasses half a million COVID deaths | House panel advances Biden's .9T COVID-19 aid bill | Johnson & Johnson ready to provide doses for 20M Americans by end of March The Hill's 12:30 Report: Mars rover prepares for landing MORE (D-Wash.) and Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsMicrosoft, FireEye push for breach reporting rules after SolarWinds hack On The Money: Schumer urges Democrats to stick together on .9T bill | Collins rules out GOP support for Biden relief plan | Powell fights inflation fears Schumer urges Democrats to stick together on .9T bill MORE (R-Maine) this week.

"He's for it," Alexander said.

Backers of the measure, known as Alexander-Murray, had planned to attach it to a government funding bill last month, but had to punt after Congress opted for a slimmed-down, short-term spending measure instead.

They are now hoping to pass the bill when Congress acts on a long-term funding package in the coming weeks, but they still face opposition from House conservatives who say the measure is simply throwing more money at ObamaCare.

Alexander-Murray would fund for two years key payments to insurers that reimburse them for giving discounts to low-income ObamaCare enrollees. Trump cut off those payments last year.

Read more here.


Senate Dems seek $25B in opioid funding

Senate Democrats are pushing for an extra $25 billion to be included in any final budget agreement to combat the opioid epidemic.

Sens. Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenSenators press Treasury to prioritize Tubman redesign Can Palestine matter again? Senate signals broad support for more targeted coronavirus relief checks MORE and Maggie HassanMargaret (Maggie) HassanKoch-backed group launches ads urging lawmakers to reject COVID-19 relief bill The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by The AIDS Institute - COVID-19 rescue bill a unity test for Dems On The Trail: Trump threatens a Tea Party redux MORE, the New Hampshire Democrats who are leading the effort, said during a press conference Tuesday that the federal response to the crisis has been insufficient and negotiations over a long-term spending deal are an opportunity to change that.

"Make no mistake: This is a national public health emergency, and we still don't see a robust federal response," Shaheen said.

While Democrats have repeatedly said additional funding for the opioid epidemic is a priority, Republicans haven't matched their rhetoric, making it unclear if additional dollars will come in a spending package.

Read more here


CDC rejects censorship reports: No 'banned' words

The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the agency "has not banned, prohibited, or forbidden" the use of certain words, in a response to concerns from Senate Democrats.

Democrats had questions on whether "the Trump Administration is yet again prioritizing ideology over science" after reports that agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) had banned employees from using words including "fetus," "vulnerable" and "science-based."

CDC Director Brenda FitzgeraldBrenda FitzgeraldThe hollowing out of the CDC Overnight Health Care: Drug company under scrutiny for Michael Cohen payments | New Ebola outbreak | FDA addresses EpiPen shortage CDC director to take pay cut of more than 5k MORE told Sen. Brian SchatzBrian Emanuel SchatzLittle known Senate referee to play major role on Biden relief plan Bipartisan group of lawmakers proposes bill to lift rule putting major financial burden on USPS Warren to join Finance panel overseeing taxes, health care MORE (D-Hawaii) in a letter released Tuesday that "There are absolutely no 'banned' words. These are merely suggestions of what terms to use and what often overused words should be avoided."

As examples, she said the HHS style guide recommends avoiding the use of "vulnerable," "diversity," and "entitlement."

But Schatz and other Senate Democrats said even the suggestion to avoid certain words sends a politically charged message.

Read more here.


Hospital groups to appeal dismissed case against Trump administration

Three hospital groups will appeal a district court ruling that dismissed a lawsuit over the Trump administration's cuts to a discount drug program.

The American Hospital Association, the Association of American Medical Colleges and America's Essential Hospitals formally notified the court Tuesday of their intent to appeal the district court's Dec. 29 decision.

The groups initially sued the administration last year over a rule that will result in $1.6 billion in cuts to hospitals participating in the 340B drug discount program.

The program requires drug companies to give eligible hospitals serving a large number of low-income patients steep discounts for some drugs.

Read more here.


What we're reading

Oprah 2020: Science is not her secret (Stat)

Oprah's long history with junk science (Vox)

Rural hospitals rely on Medicaid expansion to stay open, study shows (PBS)

More than 10,000 organs donated in 2017, making a record (NBC)


State by state

Planned Parenthood criticizes cuts proposed by Nebraska governor (Lincoln Journal-Star)

4,700 now enrolled under NH's medical marijuana law (New Hampshire public radio)

Taxes, schools, health care and his legacy shape Idaho governor's final State of the State (Idaho Statesman)


From the Hill's op-ed pages:

Health care for the poor at brink of expiration