Lawmakers Query HHS Chief on Drug Prices, Mask Mandates

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WASHINGTON — The shortage of school nurses, high prescription drug prices, mask mandates, and youth suicide were among the topics Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra encountered at a House Education and Labor Committee hearing Wednesday on the HHS budget request for fiscal year 2022.

“We have a police officer in every school; we’ve tried to do that across the country,” said Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.). “With what has happened during this pandemic, do you agree that instead of having police officers in every school, we should focus on having a healthcare professional in every school?”

“You and I probably remember the days when we were in elementary school — we knew that there would be a nurse there for us,” Becerra said. “What a sin that we don’t do that for our children today, especially in our schools most in need of access to a nurse.” Becerra took the opportunity to advocate for the American Families Plan — the latest pandemic relief bill, which is still before Congress. “If you help us pass the American families plan, I guarantee you, we will see far more nurses in our schools providing care to our children who really need it, because we’ll give the resources to our local school districts to do that,” he said.

Biosimilars for Insulin

Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-Wisc.) asked Becerra whether he would be willing to support legislation that would allow for the legalization of biosimilars for insulin. “Hundreds of thousands of families right now are having to pay, for instance — depending upon the quality of their insurance — some get out relatively cheaply but some are paying $800 or $900 a month,” he said. “Would you be willing to champion the legalization of biosimilars if it will result in a cheaper substitute insulin products?”

“I think everyone agrees that the price of insulin has just been outrageous, the way it’s gone up,” Becerra replied. “We have to do something … I’ve got my team here; they’ve taken notes, so we’ll look forward to hearing from you or we’ll be in touch with you to follow up.”

Rep. Diana Harshbarger (R-Tenn.) asked about a regulation prohibiting the federal government from intervening in private drug pricing negotiations, and from establishing a single national formulary in the Medicare Part D drug program. “The evidence has been very clear that this approach establishing a competitive market based system in Part D has been successful in balancing cost containment with robust beneficiary access, but nevertheless, the political talk is all about the need for … government negotiation” of Part D drug prices and eliminating the non-interference rule, she said. “Can you clarify for me whether or not there is negotiation happening in Medicare Part D, and if so, who’s doing this negotiation?”

Becerra did not answer directly. “We’re now in court on a number of these matters, but what I will tell you is this, President Biden has made a commitment to reduce the prices of prescription drugs,” he said. “We’re looking for the best way to do that; we know that there are a number of proposals that are out there, different ways that other countries have found to do it …We will do everything we can, within our current power, but we’re hoping that working with you we can get more power to actually bring down the prices of prescription drugs.”

Fate of HHS Religious Freedom Office

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) asked whether Becerra was planning to eliminate HHS’s Conscience and Religious Freedom division, which was launched during the Trump administration to protect the rights of healthcare providers who decline to perform particular procedures or serve certain patients because of their ethical or religious beliefs. “We are going to continue the work that it takes to protect the rights of all Americans, including religious freedom rights, we’re going to do everything we can to be as aggressive as possible,” Becerra said, adding that this work would be done under the HHS Office for Civil Rights, which is where the religious freedom division resides.

That did not satisfy Stefanik. “It’s a simple question, is it a ‘yes or no’ that you plan on eliminating the conscious and religious freedom division?” she said. Becerra began to answer. “We will do nothing that — ” Stefanik interrupted him. “You won’t eliminate it. Great,” she said.

Committee chairman Bobby Scott (D-Va.) addressed the same question in another way a little while later. “You were in Congress when the Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed and it has been, I believe, abused in many ways, including allowing discrimination in federal contracts which I don’t think was ever anticipated,” Scott said to Becerra, who served more than 20 years as a congressman from California. “There are some groups that have been granted waivers and are discriminating not only on employment but also in services. Would you give a second look at contracts that allow a federal contractor with federal money to say, ‘We don’t hire Catholics, and we’re not going to provide services to those of the Jewish faith?'”

“We’re against any form of discrimination,” Becerra said. “We want to protect people’s rights, including religious freedom rights, but we also want to make sure folks aren’t discriminating, so we will take a close look, and if there’s anything you know in particular, please let us know, but we’re going to do everything we can to make sure we enforce the law.”

Regulating Social Media’s Suicide-Related Postings

Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.) asked about regulating social media companies that allow posting of information on committing suicide; she was flanked by a poster reading “How to Tie a Noose,” with a drawing of a noose on it. “This is a screenshot from YouTube that represents the beginning of a video on how to tie a noose,” she said. “We’ve been in contact with YouTube. I’ve been pushing YouTube for months to remove instructional videos” like this one, which received 1.3 million views. “Young people are all too often looking for answers on places like YouTube … Are you willing to convene a meeting with YouTube and experts in suicide prevention and get this addressed?” she asked.

“Please count us in any efforts you’re looking to undertake to try to help address this,” Becerra said, adding that the government is “far behind” on its efforts to launch a national “988” suicide prevention hotline. “It’s going to be tough to scale up to make sure 988 is available to anyone who needs to call.”

Rep. Scott Fitzgerald (R-Wisc.) wanted to know where HHS stood on a mask mandate in the event of a COVID resurgence. “We’re going to have science guide our best practices,” said Becerra. “We’re going to try to make sure that we are right there with our state and local partners and never abandon those partners, but what we’re going to do is work with them because any decision is up to the state and local government leaders, how to proceed.”

Several Republicans on the committee complained that the meeting was being held remotely when it should have been held in person. “There’s absolutely no reason why this event should not be conducted in person in the committee hearing room,” said ranking member Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.). Vaccines were taken, mask guidance has changed.” But Wilson demurred. “I want everyone to remember why we’re holding this hearing remotely,” she said. “Our country lost 600,000 people; they died. My district is still an epicenter and people are still dying. Members of Congress are going to continue to get sick and die until all members of Congress are vaccinated.”

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

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    Joyce Frieden oversees MedPage Today’s Washington coverage, including stories about Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court, healthcare trade associations, and federal agencies. She has 35 years of experience covering health policy. Follow

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