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KHN’s ‘What the Health?’: Pause and Effect on Covid Vaccines

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The effort to vaccinate Americans against covid-19 took a hit this week. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration jointly called for a pause in use of the vaccine made by Johnson & Johnson while experts try to figure out whether it is responsible for a small number of serious blood clots, mostly in women of childbearing age. While the J&J vaccine has so far made up only a small percentage of vaccines delivered in the U.S., experts are worried that concerns about it could spread to the other vaccines currently in use and exacerbate vaccine hesitancy.

Meanwhile, President Joe Biden unveiled a budget that calls for major increases in health programs, and his administration moved to keep promises to abortion-rights backers regarding the abortion pill and the federal family planning program, Title X.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of Kaiser Health News, Tami Luhby of CNN, Rebecca Adams of CQ Roll Call and Shefali Luthra of The 19th.

Among the takeaways from this week’s podcast:

  • After use of the J&J vaccine was paused, the CDC’s vaccine advisory panel met Wednesday but delayed offering any additional recommendations. The pause is not expected to significantly slow U.S. vaccination efforts, but it will be a problem globally — especially when considered in the context of the problems faced by the similar vaccine advanced in Europe and abroad by AstraZeneca. These were the vaccines that were going to be important to the developing world because they require only a single shot and are easier to store than the vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.
  • Another emerging wrinkle in the vaccine effort has to do with the idea of counterfeit covid documents.
  • Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra went to Capitol Hill this week to talk about the HHS budget, which includes a 23% spending increase for “discretionary” programs (not including Medicare and Medicaid). While programs might not get the full boosts, there appears to be bipartisan support for increases to the National Institutes of Health, including a new research initiative focusing on cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. Also likely to see significantly more in the way of resources is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Biden signed a bill this week that would delay a scheduled 2% Medicare cut. This cut is separate from one that could be triggered by the recently enacted covid relief bill. Congress appears unlikely to want to cut payments to health providers, who are still struggling with the pandemic, but it is also unclear whether lawmakers will go back and renegotiate the budget rules that triggered the cuts in the first place.
  • After a contentious confirmation for Becerra, Biden’s other HHS nominees seem to be having an easier go. Andrea Joan Palm, the nominee to be deputy secretary, and Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, tapped to be administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, went before the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday. Both nominees appear headed for confirmation, though both faced questioning about lawmakers’ pet projects, the increases in opioid deaths, the children at the border and even the “public option,” the government plan for insurance for people who don’t get coverage on the job.
  • On the reproductive health front, Biden’s FDA took steps to waive the federal rule requiring women seeking medical abortions to receive the abortion pill in person — at least until the pandemic ends. The administration also issued a proposed rule to reverse Trump administration regulations on Title X. The Trump policy will continue to be in effect for months, however, because the procedure to rewrite regulations is time-consuming.
  • Biden doesn’t seem completely comfortable talking about abortion. There’s speculation that he is performing a balancing act on this issue — doing what can be done to shore up the support of his base and the pro-choice faction of the party without calling significant attention to the policies.

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

Julie Rovner: KHN’s “Redfield Joins Big Ass Fans, Which Promotes Controversial Covid-Killing Technology,” by Christina Jewett and Lauren Weber.

Shefali Luthra: The 19th’s “Survey: 69 percent of women under age 30 say COVID-19 has harmed their mental health,” by Luthra.

Rebecca Adams: CQ Roll Call’s “Broader vaccine eligibility may exacerbate racial inequities,” by Ariel Cohen.

Tami Luhby: ProPublica’s “A Tiny Number of People Will Be Hospitalized Despite Being Vaccinated. We Have to Learn Why,” by Caroline Chen.

To hear all our podcasts, click here.

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