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— Democrats and Republicans are divided on new Covid relief as Biden officials warn of fast-approaching shortfalls.
— There is building skepticism that Ashish Jha can navigate the complex government operations that await him as Covid czar.
— The president may soon end a deportation policy so far shielded by the public health crisis.
WELCOME TO THURSDAY PULSE — Join us TODAY at POLITICO’s inaugural health care summit, where Krista moderates a panel on the legacies of Covid-19 and Sarah interviews HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra on health care access. Livestream here.
SENATORS HOLD THE KEY TO COVID’S NEXT PHASE — America’s ability to face the pandemic’s next challenge may depend on a handful of senators.
Talks between Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) entered their most urgent stage yet Wednesday, as the two spearhead an effort to allocate $15.6 billion to fight the pandemic, POLITICO’s Burgess Everett and Marianne Levine report. The two convened a group Wednesday to see if they have any real chance at a bipartisan bill before the April 9 congressional recess. The meeting broke without a deal but with a vow to keep talking.
Lawmakers already disagree on how to claw back cash from unused pots of money dispensed earlier in the pandemic, which they want to use to bankroll the new funding.
But a philosophical divide is proving to be more complicated: The two parties disagree on the urgency of allocating more money during the current lull. Given those underlying problems, the big question is whether Schumer and Romney can get the needed 10 Republican senators to sign on, Burgess and Marianne note.
“We need to have enough vaccines available for the next surge, whatever it is. No one knows. And you can’t just order it the day before,” said Senate HELP Committee Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.).
But many Republicans question the urgency and argue they need a more detailed explanation of earlier spending. “If we need it for the American people, we’ll do it. We always have,” said Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee. “I’m not a scientist. But some of that money’s been used for various and sundry things, you know?”
THE RIGHT GUY FOR THE JOB? In the weeks since President Joe Biden named public health expert Ahish Jha his new Covid-19 czar, administration officials have privately expressed concerns about how the Brown University School of Public Health dean might lead a complicated, multiagency government response, POLITICO’s Adam Cancryn reports.
Jha takes over from current czar Jeffrey Zients in a matter of days, a transition that’s fueled anxiety within the ranks about how the response effort might evolve.
Few question Jha’s communication skills, broadly recognized during the pandemic as he’s taken to Twitter and television to weigh in on shifting policies and risks. Yet, some question whether the move signals the White House will begin ceding more responsibility for the response to individual health agencies. The uncertainty gripping Biden’s Covid team, described in Adam’s interviews with 11 administration officials and others close to the response, underscores the delicate transition the White House is navigating.
“We’ve got all these communicators,” said one Biden official working on the pandemic effort. “But do we have anyone left who knows operations?”
Jha himself appears to be aware of the concerns. According to three people familiar with the matter, he is planning to bring on a deputy with government experience who’s well versed in the byzantine structures of the federal government.
“Dr. Jha has the calming, steady hand and deep public health and pandemic preparedness knowledge we need,” Zients said in a statement. “President Biden wanted a leader who would sustain and build on the progress we’ve made, been an effective communicator, and help America move forward safely; that is not an easy find, but he found it in Dr. Jha.”
BIDEN MULLS ENDING DEPORTATION POLICY — The White House plans to revoke a Trump-era deportation policy for migrants who arrive at the Southern border, according to multiple people briefed on the plans.
The public health order, Title 42, would be phased out, starting with families and eventually followed by adults, four people familiar with the discussion told POLITICO’s Laura Barrón-López, Sarah Ferris and Adam Cancryn. An announcement could come as early as Thursday evening, those sources said, though the implementation of the new policy would take longer.
The White House said it continues to defer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on decisions around Title 42 and any possible announcement on any change in the order will come from the agency.
There are divides on the shift. Several border-state lawmakers, including Democrats, have already warned of a potential influx once Title 42 is fully reversed. The order allows immediate deportations on grounds of managing the pandemic’s public health elements. Several Democrats have publicly urged Biden not to revoke the policy; others have called its usage a discriminatory remnant of the Trump era.
FDA ASKS TO RAISE DEVICE-SHORTAGE BARS — The Food and Drug Administration’s top medical device regulator lobbied House lawmakers Wednesday to empower the agency to compel manufacturers to report potential medical device shortages outside of a health crisis, POLITICO’s David Lim reports.
Jeff Shuren, the director of the Center for Devices and Radiological Health, told lawmakers that because the FDA didn’t have the authority to require companies to inform them of medical device shortage risks, staff had to cold call more than 1,000 manufacturing facilities in 12 countries at the Covid-19 pandemic’s start.
The backdrop: President Donald Trump in March 2020 signed into law the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, which required companies to report potential shortages during public health emergencies. But the emergency could end this year, putting regulators back in the dark.
“There are situations, such as product recalls and natural disasters, that may not rise to the level of a [public health emergency], but for which device shortages could significantly impact patient care,” the Biden administration said in a legislative proposal submitted as part of its fiscal year 2023 budget request to Congress earlier this week.
Some aren’t convinced: Energy and Commerce Ranking Member Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) questioned the need to grant the FDA the additional authority, suggesting it would discourage innovation and increase paperwork for businesses.
But others, including Kentucky Republican Brett Guthrie, seemed open to the idea.
BIDEN WELCOMES PLANNED PARENTHOOD BACK — The administration’s revamp of the Title X family planning program ramped up Wednesday with the announcement that a host of Planned Parenthood clinics and other abortion providers that left the program in protest of Trump-era restrictions would receive five-year, multimillion-dollar grants.
In announcing the new grants, which will be used to provide contraception, STD testing and other services to millions of low-income people, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra referenced the expected Supreme Court decision later this year to roll back abortion rights.
“As communities face unyielding assaults on reproductive health care, I am proud that our nation can help bolster access to essential health and family planning services,” he said in a statement.
Still, providers in the Title X program predict it will remain unable to meet demand for its services. The budget Congress recently passed for 2022 kept funding flat at $286.5 million, and many expect greater need given the current record rates of STDs and the likelihood the Supreme Court will significantly erode abortion access later this year.
AMAZON ENTERS TELEHEALTH — The tech giant recently launched an Amazon Care expansion that could put telehealth services and in-person care in more than 20 cities this year. It also inked a deal with Teladoc, one of the largest telehealth providers in the country, which will allow people to access its services through their Alexa devices, POLITICO’s Emily Birnbaum writes in Future Pulse.
Why it matters: The company is getting serious about its role in the rapidly expanding telehealth industry, which could grow to a $20 billion sector over the next five years. Amazon is among many nontraditional health care businesses to make inroads into virtual care, joining Verizon, Dollar General, Best Buy and more.
The policy implications are enormous, prompting privacy and antitrust advocates to watch Amazon’s moves with trepidation, Emily writes. After all, it has a reputation for leveraging its dominance in other areas, like e-commerce, to take over new markets, sometimes at the expense of user privacy.
In a statement, Amazon spokesperson Julia Lawless said the company designed the Teladoc on Alexa experience with customer privacy in mind.
Elisabeth Fox is joining the Biotechnology Innovation Organization as director of federal government relations. She previously was a legislative assistant for Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
HHS is clawing back as much as $100 million in pandemic assistance from providers it says didn’t comply with reporting requirements, though those clinics argue they weren’t aware of the conditions, Allie Reed reports for Bloomberg Law.
As data suggesting people with schizophrenia were more likely to die from Covid-19 mounted in early 2021, advocates pushed for priority vaccine access. The barriers they met exposed much broader health challenges, April Dembosky writes in Kaiser Health News.
Children between 5 and 11 who received the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine were 68 percent less likely to be hospitalized with the Omicron variant, while teens were 40 percent less likely, Reuters’ Michael Erman reports.