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KHN’s ‘What the Health?’: Getting Down to Work at HHS

Can’t see the audio player? Click here to listen on SoundCloud.

As questions swirl about the covid vaccine made by AstraZeneca, public health experts are worried the confusion could create more doubts among people already hesitant to get a vaccine.

Meanwhile, the first Senate-confirmed officials are settling into their offices at the Department of Health and Human Services, starting with new Secretary Xavier Becerra, who was confirmed on a 50-49 vote. Becerra, at least at first, appears focused on the rollout of new benefits for the Affordable Care Act passed as part of the recent covid relief bill.

And with the big covid bill behind them, members of Congress are looking to their next big package, which could include another effort to address the high costs of prescription drugs.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of KHN, Margot Sanger Katz of The New York Times, Anna Edney of Bloomberg News and Sarah Karlin-Smith of the Pink Sheet.

Among the takeaways from this week’s podcast:

  • Another challenge for Becerra may be managing the massive amounts of money for health services that are part of the covid relief bill enacted earlier this month.
  • One major administration post that President Joe Biden has yet to fill is the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. A longtime career employee, Dr. Janet Woodcock, is serving as acting commissioner and very few other names have circulated in Washington about a permanent replacement. But Woodcock has generated some criticism on Capitol Hill over the FDA’s lackluster efforts to stop the opioid epidemic, so she may not be an acceptable long-term appointee.
  • The Senate also this week confirmed two key administration appointments: Dr. Vivek Murthy as surgeon general and Dr. Rachel Levine as assistant secretary for health. Murthy, a gun control advocate, and Levine, the first openly transgender person confirmed by the Senate, had been expected to face a tough time but they moved through the process relatively easily.
  • The covid relief package offers more assistance to people buying health insurance on the ACA marketplaces, but consumers may not feel the effects quickly because it will take time to implement the changes. Some of these, like increases in premium subsidies, consumers can evaluate on the government’s website starting April 1. But it will take longer for unemployed workers to get their insurance subsidies.
  • Members of Congress are considering adding provisions to control drug prices to the major infrastructure bill in the works. That’s because, if they find a way to keep Medicare drug prices down, it will provide funding for other spending priorities.
  • Drugmakers are likely to put up a major fight against any measures that would control prices, and they have supporters on both sides of the aisle in Congress.
  • The pharmaceutical industry might also try to fight back any pricing legislation by pointing to the extraordinary success of the quick efforts to produce a covid vaccine. But much of that initial work was done as basic research by the National Institutes of Health, and the drug companies’ efforts were fully funded by the federal government.
  • AstraZeneca, which is making a covid vaccine widely used in Europe but not authorized yet in the U.S., has been beset by stumbles in explaining its research and results. The latest problem came this week when NIH chastised the company for using incomplete data in its announcement about the results of U.S. clinical trials it hopes to submit to the FDA soon.

Plus, for extra credit, the panelists recommend their favorite health policy stories of the week they think you should read too:

Julie Rovner: The New York Times’ “Bad News Bias,” by David Leonhardt

Margot Sanger-Katz: The Wall Street Journal’s “Hospitals Hide Pricing Data From Search Results,” by Tom McGinty, Anna Wilde Mathews and Melanie Evans

Anna Edney: Stat’s “What ‘Beans’ Taught Her Parents About Pediatric Cancer, the Need for Research, and Patient Advocacy,” by Meghana Keshavan

Sarah Karlin-Smith: KHN’s “In America, Covid Vaccine Eligibility Is a ‘Crazy Quilt’ of State Rules,” by Phil Galewitz

To hear all our podcasts, click here.

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KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.


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