Update for Week Ending May 15, 2020

Update for Week Ending May 15, 2020

Despite the coronavirus emergency, TSCL is continuing its fight for you to protect your Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefits.  We have had to make some adjustments in the way we carry on our work, but we have not, and will not stop our work on your behalf.

The Senate was back in Washington this week, holding hearings and confirming judicial and executive branch nominees.  And while those are official duties of the Senate, no new legislation was passed.

The House of Representatives did not return to Washington but on Friday they held a vote on a resolution about whether to start conducting official votes by using proxies.  To do so would end more than 200 years of precedent and now allow lawmakers serve as proxies for colleagues quarantined or otherwise stuck at home during the pandemic.

Proxy voting allows a member of the House to give to another member the right to cast a vote on his or her behalf.  The member authorizing the proxy will stipulate how the vote should be cast and the member casting the proxy vote is required to abide by the wishes of the member granting the proxy.

Voting this way is a temporary answer to reduce health concerns raised by dozens of lawmakers.  Several lawmakers have disease and dozens of others placed themselves in self-quarantine after exposure to someone who was infected. The sister of California Representative Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) died because of an infection.

The resolution would also allow committees to meet remotely using interactive technology and let members cast votes remotely during the legislative process.

Some Republicans said such proxy voting is unconstitutional and would subject any legislation passed with such procedures to court challenges.  However, Democrats countered by citing letters from two legal scholars who argued the Constitution gives the House and Senate the power to determine their rules and procedures and the courts have declared them off limits to legal challenges.

Passage of this new rule will allow the House to start conducting business on a larger scale than has been happening since the beginning of the coronavirus social distancing measures.

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A Fifth Coronavirus Relief Bill Unveiled in the House of Representatives

This week House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D- Calif.) introduced a more than $3 trillion coronavirus aid package, a sweeping effort with $1 trillion in aid for states and cities. It also includes $75 billion for testing people for the novel coronavirus, direct payments of up to $6,000 per U.S. household, $10 billion in emergency grants for small business and $25 billion for the U.S. Postal Service, among other things.

House Democrats did not pre-negotiate terms with the GOP-Senate or the White House, so it is unlikely that the bill, called the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act will become law in its present form.  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R- Ky.) has already pronounced the bill dead.  But most observers believe it is the opening bid on the part of the House leaders to begin a process that will eventually lead to a fifth virus-related relief bill.

Both Senate Leader McConnell and President Trump have said they are in no rush to pass another virus-related aid bill, but the Democrats believe it is necessary to get relief out to individuals and businesses as soon as possible.

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TSCL Goal of new Drug Pricing Legislation Left out of new House Bill

Unfortunately, a long-time TSCL goal of reducing prescription drug prices did not make it into the newly introduced House bill.  It appears that, as we have written before, legislation to reduce drug prices will not be dealt with until sometime in the fall.

The coronavirus pandemic has also raised a new issue of concern regarding the price of any new treatment or vaccine for the virus.  Congress is pumping billions of federal dollars into research and efforts to spur the production of treatments and a vaccine for Covid-19 but there are no price controls as part of the effort.  That means you will have already paid, in-part, for any new vaccine or treatment for the virus.

We at TSCL believe that if the drug companies do not offer vaccines or treatments either free of charge, at-cost, or with only a small profit, Congress must take action to reduce the cost.  It is simply unacceptable for the American taxpayers to have to pay a large amount of money for something that is so desperately needed by everyone and that has disrupted, and most likely permanently changed, our lives.

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Essential Drugs Need to be made in the U.S.

We are happy to see that the Trump administration is preparing an executive order that would require certain essential drugs and medical treatments for a variety of conditions be made in the U.S. The order comes in light of drug and device shortages during the pandemic.

A draft of the order is circulating inside the government and was obtained by Bloomberg News. “It is critical that we reduce our dependence on foreign manufacturers for essential medicines, medical countermeasures” to “ensure sufficient and reliable long-term domestic manufacturing” that prevents shortages and supplies to “mobilize our nation’s public health industrial base” when needed, says the nine-page draft.

We at TSCL believe this is something that should have been done years ago.

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National Emergency Stockpile to be Increased

Also, this week the Trump administration announced plans to keep 90 days of medical supplies on hand to help gird against future flare-ups of the outbreak, something that we think should have been made national policy a long time ago.

The Strategic National Stockpile will maintain the supplies while additional surge manufacturing is built up, a senior administration official said Thursday. The stockpile will include testing supplies that were not maintained in the past.

The stockpile had 13 million medical-quality N-95 masks when the pandemic hit. The government aspires to have 1 billion, with 300 million anticipated by fall. It had 2 million gowns at the start of the pandemic and expects that to grow to as many as 7 million.

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Some Seniors to Pay More for Drugs Under New Rule

While President Trump has long called for reducing the prices of prescription drugs, his administration took action this week that will likely raise the costs for some seniors.

Under a rule change that will take effect in July the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) will allow insurers and employers to exclude certain copay assistance programs from counting toward deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums. The rule applies even for expensive brand-name drugs with no generic alternatives. 

As a result of the new rule, consumers will have to pay more for their prescriptions, as a growing number of people rely on the programs offered by drug makers to lower their copays.

Interestingly, the big drug manufacturers do not like the new rule.  A spokesperson for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), the drug industry's largest trade group, said the rule is "unconscionable" for making it "harder for patients to use manufacturer cost-sharing assistance to lower their out-of-pocket costs for medicines."

"We should not allow health insurers to limit how much cost-sharing assistance can help patients at the pharmacy counter," the spokesperson said.

TSCL is opposed to this new rule.  It is not possible to reduce the costs of prescription drugs by taking actions that end up making those who need the drugs pay more.

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A Word of Warning

We at TSCL are not doctors or scientists.  But with all the different voices being heard about what the right thing is to do or not to do, what we do urge you to be is very cautious. It makes sense to us to listen to the trained professionals in medical and scientific fields as we deal with our current health care situation.

That is why we are letting you know that the American Medical Association said this week that neither doctors nor the general public should use coronavirus antibody tests to determine whether someone is protected from the pathogen.

The diagnostics are designed to pick up signs that the human immune system has successfully fought the novel infection, a step many scientists believe will confer some measure of immunity. The AMA said given the uncertainties surrounding the tests -- including about their accuracy -- medical and safety decisions should not be made based on those assumptions.

Questions have swirled around the accuracy of many of the more than 100 tests available, often imported from around the world by little-known distributors, that were rushed onto the market as the outbreak exploded. U.S. regulators initially allowed them and required little evidence from manufacturers, then subsequently put some requirements in place as criticism of the approach mounted.

Physicians should use only those tests that have been authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, of which there have been about 12 to date, the AMA said. Even then, they should only be used to determine how broadly the virus has moved through the population and for specific information like whether someone can donate convalescent plasma.

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For progress updates or for more information about these and other bills that would strengthen Social Security and Medicare programs, visit the Bill Tracking section of our website or follow TSCL on Twitter.