Inside the push for a permanent pandemic preparedness office at the White House

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Some bitter medicine ahead of this week’s drug pricing hearing

The Senate Finance Committee will hold a drug pricing hearing this Wednesday, three years after a high-profile hearing where those same lawmakers dressed down pharma CEOs for their high prices.

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As I write in a new story for STAT, the hearing isn’t a victory lap or an opportunity to look at the changes lawmakers have enacted. Instead, it’s a reminder of just how royally lawmakers have failed at lowering drug prices.

As I lay out, all of the issues lawmakers were debating at that infamous hearing three years ago are still problems today.

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If you’re like me, the data throughout the story will make you pause, sigh, and wish you had three years of your life back. Check it out here.

Will pandemic response be permanently enshrined at the White House?

The Senate health committee is set to mark up a major pandemic preparedness package today, and lawmakers made a big change since the draft was first released: a brand-new, permanent White House office.

The new office, named the Office of Pandemic Preparedness and Response Policy, would have a director appointed by the president, who would be part of the Domestic Policy Council and the National Security Council. The focus of the office would be coordinating the whole-of-government pandemic response, mitigating supply chain issues, overseeing research and development of countermeasures like therapeutics and vaccines, and issuing reports on any readiness gaps.

Industry groups like BIO had complained that in the draft bill, lawmakers were missing an opportunity to legislate a pandemic command and control center that emulated the success of Operation Warp Speed. Senate health committee ranking member Richard Burr (R-N.C.) himself mused to reporters in February about how the bill essentially left out one of the most successful parts of the American Covid-19 response.

Phyllis Arthur, vice president of infectious diseases and diagnostics policy at BIO, told STAT that BIO is encouraged by the new office but is still concerned that the bill, as written, does not give the office the funding or authority it needs to actually recreate the successes of Warp Speed.

“What we hope this office will do is lay out a strategy … and then literally live this strategy in peacetime. That requires resources and coordination,” Arthur said.

The markup will go forward in the shadow of the past week’s implosion of more than $15 billion in Covid-19 funding — an ominous signal that lawmakers may have reached their limit on investing in pandemic preparedness.

Also on tap this week: The House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold a hearing this Thursday on more than 20 health care bills. The splashiest legislation being considered – Rep. Anna Eshoo’s (D-Calif.) ARPA-H bill and Rep. Diana DeGette’s (D-Colo.) Cures 2.0 – should be old hat to readers of D.C. Diagnosis. But there are plenty of other FDA bills to nerd out on as well, ranging from legislation that would require the FDA to more closely consider patients’ wishes when reviewing drugs to a dueling set of bills on the FDA’s accelerated approval program. The hearing begins at 10:30 a.m. on Thursday.

In-person advocacy is heating up, too

It’s warming up in Washington, masks are coming off, and health care advocates are back to in-person rabble-rousing in the nation’s capital.

Alzheimer’s advocacy organizations will protest outside HHS this morning in opposition to Medicare’s recent decision to only pay for Biogen’s controversial Alzheimer’s drug Aduhelm when patients are enrolled in clinical trials. The protest comes on the heels of a newly announced multi-million dollar advertising campaign from the group UsAgainstAlzheimer’s that is meant to drum up letters to the White House and Congress opposing Medicare’s decision.

Regulators are expected to make a final decision on how to cover Aduhelm in just under one month.

Advocates for research into colorectal cancer are in town, too. Already, they have plastered the National Mall with more than 27,000 flags to represent the number of people under the age of 50 projected to be diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2030.

They will be rallying this Wednesday outside the Capitol in an effort to push Congress to dramatically ramp up its research into colorectal cancer. The group specifically wants Congress to require the National Cancer Institute to create a strategic plan for addressing colorectal cancer. The head of the NCI, Ned Sharpless, will speak at the group’s rally on Wednesday, as will a number of powerful Democratic lawmakers, including Democratic Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), a spokesperson for the group organizing the rally, Fight Colorectal Cancer, confirmed to STAT. The group will follow up the rally with roughly 250 lobby meetings on Thursday, according to the spokesperson.

The latest in the polling wars

A new online poll from the drug industry lobby finds that just 2% of Americans flagged prescription drug prices as the most important issue facing the country — far below other issues like inflation, Covid-19, and climate change. And the poll found that more than 82% of those surveyed said they can afford to refill their medications. The poll also found that 87% of those surveyed agreed that “Politicians have lost touch with what the public needs from their health care” and a similar amount agreed that “Congress should focus on cracking down on abusive health insurance practices that make it harder to get the care we need.”

The poll of roughly 2,500 people, which was conducted by Ipsos, is likely to give drug makers ammunition to argue that Washington’s drug pricing efforts are incorrectly focused on drug makers instead of others in the drug supply chain.

But here’s the catch: The poll failed to demonstrate that a large portion of the country is actually having trouble with their insurance. Only 20% of those surveyed said they had to wait for their health insurer to issue a “prior authorization” before taking a medicine and an even smaller number – 7% of respondents – were forced to take a cheaper medication before being prescribed the more expensive option.

The poll can be found here.

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Source: STAT