Overnight Healthcare

Overnight Health Care: Biden camp hits rivals on 'Medicare for All' ahead of debate | Trump officials offer plan to allow imports of cheaper drugs | Senate Dems to force vote on Trump ObamaCare change

Welcome to Wednesday's Overnight Health Care. 

Get ready for another debate night with Joe Biden going hard after his fellow Democrats who support "Medicare for All." Meanwhile back in Washington, HHS is starting to lay the groundwork to allow some drug importation, and Senate Democrats will force a vote to block a Trump policy they say will undermine ObamaCare. 

Tonight is the second night of the Democratic debate in Detroit, so we'll start with Biden... 


Biden campaign hits rivals on 'Medicare for All' ahead of debate

Get ready for some fireworks tonight. 

Former Vice President Joe Biden's campaign tweeted a video intended to show damaging clips of his Democratic presidential opponents on Medicare for All, including Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) giving varying answers on eliminating private insurance and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) saying taxes would have to increase. 

Top hits:

  • "Medicare for All would cost American taxpayers $30-$40 trillion over 10 years," the Biden video states. 
  • "Of course it'll raise middle class taxes," the video adds. 

In contrast, Biden's campaign touts his plan as one that would "allow Americans to keep their employer insurance if they want to" and would "protect and build on ObamaCare."

Bigger picture: Medicare for All is perhaps the top dividing line in the Democratic field. Biden is showing he's not backing down from defending his more moderate public option plan. And the progressives are ready to go after him for not fully embracing the proposal. 

Read more here


Meanwhile, the Trump administration has made its views clear: Medicare for All is dangerous. Speaking to a friendly audience at the conservative Heritage Foundation, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma on Wednesday warned that Medicare for All is no better than a public option. Both policies would drive up health costs, and create long wait times as low reimbursement rates would force doctors to stop accepting patients, or leave their practice altogether.

Seniors have paid into the Medicare program their entire life, but Medicare for All would push them into a different government-run program, Verma said, "and now we're [not] prioritizing them, we're not going to be focused on seniors," Verma said. "And I don't think that's fair, I don't think that's moral, considering the promise that we've made to them."

Verma said lawmakers should focus on fixing the current Medicare system to ensure it is fiscally sustainable, rather than forcing 180 million people off their current health coverage. 

"The fact that you know, the program is going to run out of money in seven years should be cause for alarm," Verma said. "And I think lawmakers, policymakers should be focusing on that issue, and fixing some of the issues."


Trump administration issues plan to allow imports of cheaper prescription drugs

A new development in drug pricing today as the administration has softened its stance on drug importation and indicated a willingness to move forward with plans. 

The Department of Health and Human Services issued a plan outlining the steps it will take to allow importation of cheaper generic drugs, including issuing a regulation to allow for states and pharmacies to submit drug importation pilot programs for approval. 

The administration outlined a two-track pathway: the first would involve an HHS proposal giving the agency the authority to approve state demonstration projects on importation.

The second track would allow manufacturers to import versions of FDA-approved drug products that they sell in foreign countries that are the same as the U.S. versions.  

The caveat: Don't look for cheaper imported drugs just yet. This is a preliminary announcement and there are several more steps in the process before anything will actually happen. The administration also did not give a timeframe for issuing the policy. State plans could take years to implement, and any proposed rule from the administration will also take time. The HHS blueprint released merely indicated the intention to issue a plan sometime down the road. 

Importing drugs isn't easy: The administration is getting some favorable headlines, but the situation is complicated. There isn't an existing infrastructure in place to ensure that drugs can be safely brought back into the U.S., once they've been packaged for Canadian wholesalers. Canadian pharmacists are concerned about drug shortages and price hikes in their own country. The administration will also need to overcome opposition by the drug industry. 

Why it matters: This is still an important change in policy, showing that the federal government is open to importation for the first time. 

"The door was closed," Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar told reporters. "What we are saying is, 'We are open. There is a pathway. We can be convinced.'"

Over on Capitol Hill: Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) both praised the move, though Alexander said he wanted to ensure safety. 

Democrats were quieter, with some offering light praise, and noting there is more work to be done. "I appreciate that the Administration says it will take initial steps to allow the safe importation of prescription drugs from places like Canada, but we've heard a lot of talk on prescription drugs from the Administration before, and it's critical that this is backed up by real action," Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) said in a statement. 

More on drug importation here


New bipartisan drug pricing bill

Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Rick Scott (R-Fla.) unveiled a new bill to lower drug prices that takes a somewhat novel approach.

The measure would set up a committee of experts to set a reasonable price for a drug if that drug relied on taxpayer funding through the National Institutes of Health to be developed. 

"This is common sense. If you're going to use taxpayer money than you shouldn't be charging unreasonable prices," Scott said. 

Drawback: A proposal this far-reaching would have a very hard time passing the Senate, to say the least, but it is another sign of the momentum around lowering drug prices in some form. 


Senate Democrats to force vote on Trump health care moves

Senate Democrats will force a vote to block the Trump administration from allowing states to make changes to their ObamaCare markets.

Under the Congressional Review Act, the Senate can overrule and block some actions taken by government agencies.

While it's unlikely to pass the Republican-controlled Senate, it gives Democrats another opportunity to hit the GOP on health care and protections for pre-existing conditions ahead of the 2020 elections.

Why it matters: While Democrats running for president are focusing on "Medicare for All," Democrats in the Senate have tried to tie Republicans to the Trump administration's attempts to "sabotage" ObamaCare.

The vote will give Democrats defending their seats in 2020 something to point to, and the opportunity to put vulnerable Republicans in the hot seat.

Read more here


Arizona sues Sackler family at Supreme Court

The state of Arizona filed a lawsuit at the Supreme Court, asking the justices to order the Sackler family -- the owners of Purdue Pharma -- to return billions of dollars in connection with their handling of the opioid epidemic. Filing a lawsuit directly to the Supreme Court is a highly unusual move, but not totally unheard of. The justices will first have to agree to allow the complaint to be filed before the case can move forward.

Arizona officials are alleging the family transferred the money from their company in order to avoid paying potential judgements over their alleged role in the crisis, in the process violating a 2007 legal agreement made with the state. The state says the family "reaped profits through misleading marketing tactics."

"The State brings this action because it has evidence that the Sacklers, Purdue, and the other Defendants were parties in recent years to massive cash transfers--totaling billions of dollars--at a time when Purdue faced enormous exposure for its role in fueling the opioids crisis," the complaint states.

Read more on the lawsuit here


What we're reading

Here are Democrats' three key disputes about Medicare For All (The Washington Post

The fight between Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders over "privatizing Medicare," explained (Vox.com)

White House races to come up with health-care wins for Trump's campaign (The Washington Post)

Drugmakers' alleged price-fixing pushed a needed pill out of reach (Bloomberg)


State by state

Largest North Carolina health insurer wants ObamaCare rate cuts (Associated Press

Hundreds of thousands sign up under expanded Medicaid program in Virginia (CBS 19)