Welcome to Wednesday's Overnight Health Care, where the phrase of the day is “neanderthal thinking.”
President BidenJoe BidenMarcus Garvey's descendants call for Biden to pardon civil rights leader posthumously GOP grapples with chaotic Senate primary in Pennsylvania Trump social media startup receives commitment of billion from unidentified 'diverse group' of investors MORE responded to Texas and Mississippi lifting COVID-19 restrictions, his pick for Health and Human Services Secretary will get a Senate floor vote, and the new education secretary said vaccinating teachers is his top priority.
We'll start with Biden:
Biden upping the rhetoric: Biden slams Texas, Mississippi for lifting coronavirus restrictions
President Biden on Wednesday denounced the governors of Texas and Mississippi for lifting coronavirus restrictions, calling the moves "Neanderthal thinking."
"I think it's a big mistake," Biden told reporters in the Oval Office when asked about the two states lifting their mask mandates and all capacity limits on businesses on Tuesday.
"I hope everybody's realized by now these masks make a difference," he added. "We are on the cusp of being able to fundamentally change the nature of this disease because of the way we're able to get vaccines in people's arms."
He noted there will be enough vaccines available for all adults by May.
"The last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking that in the meantime everything's fine, take off your mask, forget it," he said. "It still matters."
It’s an escalation: It was an uncharacteristically harsh response from Biden, who has been trying to cultivate "civility" and working with Republicans. Administration health officials have avoided calling out states by name, instead warning in general terms that it is too early to lift restrictions. Biden made the message a bit sharper.
Senate panel splits along party lines on Becerra
The Senate Finance Committee split evenly Wednesday on party lines in a vote on advancing Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) nominee Xavier BecerraXavier BecerraThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump's pre-debate COVID-19 test sparks criticism Biden unveils updated strategy to end HIV epidemic by 2030 Buttigieg has high name recognition, favorability rating in Biden Cabinet: survey MORE, highlighting the GOP resistance to his nomination.
The vote means Becerra's nomination can still go to the full Senate, but there will be an added step of Senate Majority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerHospitals in underserved communities face huge cuts in reckless 'Build Back Better' plan GOP infighting takes stupid to a whole new level Progressive groups urge Schumer to prevent further cuts to T plan MORE (D-N.Y.) moving to discharge the nomination from committee, followed by an added vote in the full Senate on discharging it.
All Democrats on the committee voted for his nomination, and all Republicans voted against, on the evenly split panel.
Will any Republicans support him on the floor? It is unclear if any GOP senators will vote for his nomination in the full Senate.
Republicans have made Becerra a lightning rod for criticism, attacking him over what they say is a lack of health care experience, as well as his views on abortion and his support for "Medicare for All."
Over 200K sign up for ACA plans during Biden special enrollment period
Americans want health insurance. More than 200,000 people signed up for health coverage on federal ObamaCare exchanges in the first two weeks of a special pandemic enrollment period, according to federal statistics released Wednesday.
An executive order signed by President Biden in January allows uninsured Americans to sign up for coverage on healthcare.gov from Feb. 15 through May 15.
Most states that operate their own exchanges have also extended open enrollment, which is typically available only for qualifying life events such as getting married, a job loss or a move.
"These numbers are an encouraging sign — but we can’t slow down until every American has the security and peace of mind that quality, affordable health coverage provides," Biden said in a statement.
According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the number of signups from Feb. 15 to Feb. 28 was nearly three times higher than during the same period last year, when only 76,000 people signed up.
Nearly 30 million people were uninsured in 2019 before the pandemic, according to the Census Bureau, but the Trump administration opted not to open a special enrollment period for them during the pandemic despite doing so for natural disasters in the past.
Senate coronavirus bill lowers cutoffs for stimulus checks
Senate Democrats have struck a deal to lower the income cut off for receiving a stimulus payment as part of the coronavirus bill, a Democratic aide confirmed to The Hill.
The decision, which speeds up the phasing out of checks, reflects a demand from moderate Democrats to curb the ability of high-income earners to receive the stimulus payments.
Under the agreement, individuals who make up to $75,000 per year or couples who make up to $150,000 per year will still receive a $1,400 check.
But the Senate bill, which is expected to be unveiled as soon as Wednesday, significantly reduces the income window for receiving a partial check.
The checks would phase out completely at an income threshold of $80,000 for individuals under the Senate deal, compared to $100,000 under the House bill.
While the Senate bill changes the checks, it’s expected to keep the House-passed $400 per week unemployment payment. Those payments would go through August, but not September, as some like Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenSenate parliamentarian looms over White House spending bill Democrats push tax credits to bolster clean energy Five reasons for concern about Democrats' drug price control plan MORE (D-Ore.) wanted.
Education secretary: Vaccinating teachers 'my top priority'
Education Secretary Miguel CardonaMiguel CardonaHillicon Valley — Immigrants being put in surveillance programs Senate Democrats urge government to do more to protect K-12 schools against hackers Democrats call on Education secretary to address 'stealthing' at federal level MORE said Wednesday, the day after he was sworn in, that ensuring that teachers are swiftly vaccinated so that schools can reopen is his “top priority.”
“We must continue to reopen America’s schools for in-person learning as quickly and as safely as possible. The president recognizes this, which is why he took bold action yesterday to get teachers and school staff vaccinated quickly,” Cardona said while touring a Connecticut school with first lady Jill BidenJill BidenWhite House holiday decorations available for 360 tour via Google Street View The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Congress avoids shutdown The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden talks up bright side beneath omicron's cloud MORE.
“As secretary of Education, that is my top priority,” he added.
His remarks came after President Biden on Tuesday called on all states to prioritize teachers for COVID-19 vaccinations in order for all teachers and school staff to have received at least one dose of vaccine by the end of this month.
The trip on Wednesday represented an effort by the Biden administration to show support for schools as they take steps to reopen. Biden has set a goal for most schools to physically reopen in his first 100 days in office.
Virtual Event Announcement: Thursday, March 4 at 1:00 PM ET, COVID-19: Trust and Communication
From countering disinformation and building public trust, to reaching disadvantaged communities and broadband deserts – governments at all levels must find a way to engage, educate and get the vaccination message out to all Americans. Gov. Jim Justice, Mayor Eric GarcettiEric GarcettiLos Angeles police announce 14 arrests in connection to smash-and-grab thefts Garcetti was aware of sexual harassment allegations against top aide: report LA councilmembers vote to ban 'ghost guns' MORE, Andy Slavitt, The Ad Council's Lisa Sherman and more join The Hill's Steve Clemons for a discussion on the value of fact-based health communication and building trust in the COVID-19 vaccine. RSVP here.
What we’re reading
Obamacare would get a big (and quiet) overhaul in the Covid relief bill (NBC News)
Freight pilots are flying Covid-19 vaccines around the world — and calling for their turn to be vaccinated (Stat News)
Rural Americans in pharmacy deserts hurting for Covid vaccines (Kaiser Health News)
Some states drop CDC guidelines and vaccinate people by age group (NPR)
State by state
DC to launch coronavirus vaccine preregistration system next week (WTOP)
Michiganders 50 and older will soon be eligible for coronavirus vaccine (M Live)
Wealthy Keys enclave received COVID vaccines in January before much of the state (Miami Herald)
Illinois smokers now prioritized for the coronavirus vaccine (Chicago Sun Times)
Op-eds in The Hill