Health Care

Overnight Health Care — Medicare to cover at-home COVID-19 tests

Welcome to Thursday’s Overnight Health Care, where we’re following the latest moves on policy and news affecting your health. Subscribe here: digital-stage.thehill.com/newsletter-signup

Minnesota’s “Name a Snowplow” contest returned this year with eight new trucks, including “Betty Whiteout,” “Control Salt Delete” and “Scoop Dogg.”  

After an outcry, Medicare is planning to cover the cost of some at-home COVID-19 tests for beneficiaries and people with Medicare Advantage. 

For The Hill, we’re Peter Sullivan (psullivan@digital-stage.thehill.com) and Nathaniel Weixel (nweixel@digital-stage.thehill.com). Write to us with tips and feedback, and follow us on Twitter: @PeterSullivan4 and @NateWeixel 

Let’s get started. 

 

At-home Medicare COVID tests coming 

Medicare will soon start to pay for at-home COVID-19 tests, allowing beneficiaries to have the same access to free over-the-counter tests as people with private insurance. 

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services on Thursday announced a new initiative that will allow Medicare beneficiaries and people with Medicare Advantage plans to access up to eight over-the-counter COVID-19 tests per month for free at participating pharmacies and retailers, beginning “in the early spring.” 

Medicare will directly reimburse participating pharmacies and other retailers, allowing Medicare beneficiaries to pick up tests at no cost. The agency did not say how many retailers will be participating. 

“There are a number of issues that have made it difficult to cover and pay for over-the-counter COVID-19 tests. However, given the importance of expanding access to testing, CMS has identified a pathway that will expand access to free over-the-counter testing for Medicare beneficiaries,” the agency said in a statement. 

The White House last month began requiring private insurance companies to cover the cost of eight at-home COVID-19 tests per person each month, if the customer files for reimbursement.  

Latest move after backlash: The policy did not apply to Medicare beneficiaries, and the exclusion of millions of older and disabled Americans triggered a backlash. Administration officials recognized the problem and have been working to find the best way forward. 

Read more here.  

No smooth sailing for FDA nominee 

Robert Califf testifies before a Senate committee.

President Biden’s pick to lead the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is facing surprising headwinds, as Senate Democrats work to build up enough bipartisan support for confirmation. 

More than two months after being nominated, it’s unclear if Robert Califf has enough votes to be confirmed. At least five Democrats have already spoken out against him, and others remain undecided.

At the same time, Republicans are facing pressure from anti-abortion groups, which have mobilized against Califf. He gained just four GOP votes in a committee vote last month. 

Califf, a cardiologist and Duke University researcher, was confirmed to the same post by a vote of 89-4 in 2016 when he was nominated by former President Obama.

Some Democrats said they are still confident Califf will get 50 votes, but there are concerns about extra drama during a process that was supposed to be fairly smooth. 

“I think he’ll have the votes. But it’s going to be an interesting mix of Republicans and Democrats,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). 

Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, said the votes were “very close.” 

Dem opposition: Four Democrats — Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Ed Markey (Mass.), Maggie Hassan (N.H.) and Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) — as well as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who caucuses with the Democrats, have signaled opposition to Califf’s nomination over his ties to industry and the FDA’s role in the opioid crisis. 

Since he left government, Califf has advised Google Health and its spinoff, Verily Life Sciences, where he was paid millions in stock and more than $2.7 million in salary and bonuses. 

Read more here

‘PLAUSIBLE ENDGAME’ TO PANDEMIC?

The director of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Europe office said on Thursday that the region is entering a “plausible endgame” as COVID-19 deaths start to slow down. 

Hans Kluge said during a news briefing that European countries have a “singular opportunity” to take control of COVID-19 transmission because of several factors, according to The Associated Press:

1. High levels of immunization from the vaccines and natural infection

2. The virus’ tendency to spread less in warmer weather

3. The lower severity of the omicron variant

“This period of higher protection should be seen as a cease-fire that could bring us enduring peace,” Kluge added at the briefing. 

Looking ahead: Kluge said health authorities should be able to control any new variant that may emerge, noting that spring “leaves us with the possibility for a long period of tranquility and a much higher level of population defense against any resurgence in transmission,” the AP reported. 

However, Kluge urged everyone in the region to get vaccinated and called for “a drastic and uncompromising increase in vaccine-sharing across borders.” 

The context: Countries in Europe, including Denmark, Norway and Britain, have slowly been lifting coronavirus restrictions in recent weeks, with Sweden being the latest, according to the AP. 

Read more here

 

SOUTH DAKOTA REPUBLICANS BLOCK NOEM ABORTION BAN

South Dakota Republicans have blocked Gov. Kristi Noem’s (R) bill seeking to ban almost all abortions in the state over concerns its language could interfere with another legal challenge against Planned Parenthood. 

The House State Affairs Committee in the South Dakota legislature declined Wednesday to take up Noem’s proposal, which if enacted would ban abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected — which can occur as early as six weeks after pregnancy — and place a minimum $10,000 fine on anyone who assists others in getting an abortion, according to The Associated Press

The bill, which mirrors Texas’s controversial abortion law that went into effect in September, allows private citizens to enforce it. It does not call for exceptions for rape or incest, though it does say that men who commit said rape or incest are not permitted to sue. 

According to the AP, state House Speaker Spencer Gosch (R) said that while he agreed with Noem’s overarching objective of banning abortions, he could not get behind the language in the legislation because it would “jeopardize” the state’s stance in another legal conflict with Planned Parenthood, which is the state’s sole health clinic that provides abortions. 

Read more here.

 

CDC data shows disparities in HIV infections

Black people account for a much higher proportion of new HIV infections compared to other races and ethnicities, and a majority of them reside in residentially segregated and vulnerable areas, according to data released Thursday from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

The report comes ahead of National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day on Feb. 7, and highlights efforts by the CDC to focus on addressing social vulnerabilities and long-standing inequities in the health system. 

According to the CDC, Black people accounted for 13 percent of the U.S. population in 2019, but 40 percent of people with HIV.  

While new HIV infections declined 8 percent overall from 2015 to 2019, they remained stable among Black people during that period. According to the CDC, Black people face rates of infection that are eight times as high as white people, and Hispanic/Latino people face rates that are almost four times as high.

The new figures highlight the immense disparities facing Black populations and the challenges of trying to end the HIV epidemic. 

There has been some recent progress, especially preexposure prophylaxis (PrEP). But those HIV treatments and preventions are not reaching the people that need them the most. 

Read more here.

WHAT WE’RE READING

  • Merck’s Covid pill fumble gives Pfizer potential $17 billion win (Bloomberg
  • Biogen’s 2022 outlook leaves investors wanting, shares slip (AP
  • At nursing homes, long waits for results render Covid tests ‘useless’ (Kaiser Health News

 

STATE BY STATE

  • “Light at the end of the tunnel”: Texas COVID-19 hospitalizations down as omicron wave appears to crest (Texas Tribune
  • COVID cases spiking in California immigration facilities. Will state officials intervene? (The Fresno Bee)  
  •  Illinois school districts call for ‘off ramp’ from masking and quarantines, with a ‘measured return to normalcy’ (Chicago Tribune)  

 

OP-EDS IN THE HILL

The CDC is finally recognizing ‘natural immunity’ — legislators should follow suit 

When it comes to antibiotics, it’s time to change how the sausage gets made 

That’s it for today, thanks for reading. Check out The Hill’s health care page for the latest news and coverage. See you tomorrow.

Tags Barack Obama Bernie Sanders Chris Murphy Dick Durbin Ed Markey Joe Biden Joe Manchin Kristi Noem Maggie Hassan

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File - A Chevrolet Bolt is displayed at the Philadelphia Auto Show, Jan. 27, 2023, in Philadelphia. Electric vehicles are far less reliable than gasoline-powered cars, trucks and SUVs, mainly because most automakers are still learning how to build a completely new power system, according to this year's auto reliability survey by Consumer Reports.(AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)
File - A Chevrolet Bolt is displayed at the Philadelphia Auto Show, Jan. 27, 2023, in Philadelphia. Electric vehicles are far less reliable than gasoline-powered cars, trucks and SUVs, mainly because most automakers are still learning how to build a completely new power system, according to this year's auto reliability survey by Consumer Reports.(AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

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In this photo released by the Governor of Sevastopol, Mikhail Razvozhayev telegram channel, a rescuer gestures as he helps people during an evacuation after storm and flooding in Sevastopol, Crimea, Monday, Nov. 27, 2023. A storm in the Black Sea took down power grids and left almost half a million people without power after it flooded roads, ripped up trees and damaged buildings in Crimea, Russian state news agency Tass said. (Governor of Sevastopol Mikhail Razvozhayev's telegram channel via AP)
In this photo released by the Governor of Sevastopol, Mikhail Razvozhayev telegram channel, a rescuer gestures as he helps people during an evacuation after storm and flooding in Sevastopol, Crimea, Monday, Nov. 27, 2023. A storm in the Black Sea took down power grids and left almost half a million people without power after it flooded roads, ripped up trees and damaged buildings in Crimea, Russian state news agency Tass said. (Governor of Sevastopol Mikhail Razvozhayev's telegram channel via AP)

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