Lauren Clason

Republicans Won’t Probe Influence of Trump Friends at Veterans Department
Dems have questions about trio named in lawsuit

Updated 3:31 p.m. | Top Republican lawmakers have no plans to examine the alleged influence that a trio of President Donald Trump’s friends have at the Department of Veterans Affairs, even as Democrats call for an investigation.

The controversy peaked in recent weeks after reports that Marvel Entertainment Chairman Ike Perlmutter, Palm Beach doctor Bruce Moskowitz and D.C. lawyer Marc Sherman hold undue sway with VA leadership, including senior adviser Peter O’Rourke, who formerly served as acting secretary. Liberal veterans group VoteVets filed a lawsuit against the administration last week, claiming the VA is violating federal protocol related to private influence in matters of federal policy.

Veterans Affairs Watchdog Finds Significant Problems in VA Caregiver Program
Report comes as caregiver program is set to expand

Family caregivers seeking help from the Department of Veterans Affairs encountered extended wait times and spotty aid from the agency, according to a new report from the VA’s Office of Inspector General.

The OIG investigation found that 65 percent of the more than 1,800 applicants between January and September 2017 were forced to wait longer than the required 45-day timeframe to be approved for the program. Fifty-five percent of the applicants waited between three and six months for approval, while 14 percent waited even longer, according to thereport released Thursday.

House Committee Pledges to Roll Back More Medicare Regulations
Regulatory burdens now come at expense of patient care, Roskam says

The House Ways and Means Committee said it would continue exploring ways to reduce regulations in Medicare, after issuing a report last week on its conversations with health care providers.

While light on specifics, the committee said it is engaging in “ongoing dialogue” with the Trump administration over where legislative solutions are needed to reduce what it deems unnecessary regulations.

Number of Pregnant Women Abusing Opioids Skyrockets
Vermont and West Virginia most affected

The number of women giving birth with opioid use disorder quadrupled between 1999 and 2014, a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows.

The increase underscores the severity of the country’s opioid epidemic as a legislative package aimed at helping states curb addiction rates idles in the Senate. Newborns exposed to drugs while in the womb can suffer severe complications, including withdrawal, preterm birth and death.

Senators Back Agent Orange Benefits. The VA Is Not Convinced
‘Blue water’ bill would extend disability benefits to more Vietnam vets

The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee seems poised to advance a popular bipartisan bill extending disability benefits to Vietnam veterans who claim they were exposed to Agent Orange. But Department of Veterans Affairs officials said Wednesday the agency opposes the measure.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressed strong support for the legislation at a hearing Wednesday, questioning whether the VA adequately considers applications from vets who served in ocean vessels claiming exposure.

For New Veterans Affairs Chief, That Was the Easy Part
Robert Wilkie may have made it through the Senate, but the second-largest federal agency still has vacancies, other woes

His confirmation Monday drew scrutiny and nine dissenters. Now Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie must face the real challenge: repairing the sprawling agency that serves the nation’s veterans, including 9 million who receive health care benefits through the department.

The second-largest federal agency is embarking on two major initiatives — a reorganization of its private medical care options and a $15.8 billion electronic health records project — at the same time that it seeks to fill key positions overseeing them.

Federal Watchdog Advises HHS to Recoup Price’s Travel Expenses
20 of 21 trips failed to comply with requirements, OIG finds

A federal watchdog is recommending the Department of Health and Human Services recoup $341,000 associated with former Secretary Tom Price’s travel expenses.

The HHS Office of the Inspector General released Thursday an audit that found 20 of 21 trips Price and other HHS officials took during his time in office did not comply with federal requirements. Price, a hardline fiscal conservative during his time in Congress, resigned last September after it was revealed that he regularly chartered private planes for routine business trips.

VA Weighs Lifting Exclusion on Gender Reassignment Surgery
Administration already fighting multiple lawsuits against its transgender policies

The Department of Veterans Affairs is considering removing an exclusion on medical coverage for transgender services as the Trump administration battles multiple lawsuits against its transgender policies.

The VA released a request for comment Friday in response to a 2016 petition it received under former President Barack Obama to allow coverage of sex reassignment surgery. The petitioners, Dee Fulcher, Giuliano Silva and Transgender Veterans of America, eventually sued the Trump administration in 2017 in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The case is ongoing.

Trump Administration Finalizes Rule on Health Plans
“You’re going to save massive amounts of money and have much better health care,” president says

The Trump administration on Tuesday finalized a rule expanding the availability of alternative insurance plans that do not meet the 2010 health care law’s requirements despite objections from consumer advocates and the industry.

The rule will extend so-called association health plans, which allow insurance companies to skirt benefit requirements and other parts of the 2010 law. President Donald Trump heralded the new rule in a speech Tuesday to the National Federation of Independent Business trade group, or NFIB.

VA Faces Scrutiny as It Gears Up for Health Overhaul
Bipartisan bill expected to be signed by president this week

The Department of Veterans Affairs will face heavy scrutiny as it implements a major overhaul to its health care programs that President Donald Trump is expected to sign into law this week.

The bill, which moved through both chambers by wide bipartisan margins, would combine the VA’s seven programs for private medical care into one to streamline and simplify costs and access for veterans. The legislation would also extend the so-called Veterans Choice Program for one year, allowing veterans to seek care outside the VA under certain circumstances in the meantime.

Trump Targets Drug Pricing in Trade Agreements
‘It’s unfair, it’s ridiculous and it’s not going to happen any longer’

President Donald Trump has instructed trade ambassador Robert Lighthizer to grant the drug industry’s wish of making pharmaceutical prices a “top priority” in negotiations with other countries.

Trump revealed the instruction during a Friday announcement unveiling the administration’s overall strategy for lowering drug costs.

Drug Pricing Proposal Should Revamp Medicare, GOP Experts Say
Overhauling Part B drug benefit could have “massive impact overnight”

An upcoming Trump administration proposal on lowering drug costs should ask Congress to allow private insurance companies to negotiate prices for drugs administered in a doctor’s office or hospital, two Republican policy experts said.

The administration’s proposal is a request for comment on strategies to lower drug prices and out-of-pocket costs. It was originally expected to be released in tandem with a speech by President Donald Trump on Thursday, but the speech was delayed as Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar recovers from an infection.

Federal Officials Push for New Types of Flu Vaccines
The FDA has not approved a new class of antivirals in the last 20 years

The heads of multiple health agencies told a House subcommittee Thursday that both the government and industry need to invest more resources in researching new forms of flu vaccines in light of this year’s epidemic.

Vaccines are often developed using egg-based technology, but newer cell-based and recombinant DNA technologies offer more speed and flexibility for fighting viruses — like the flu — that mutate frequently. While the technology offers promise, it remains uncommon, with lingering gaps in technology.

Experts, Industry Push Back on Health Insurance Proposal
Trump administation wants to loosen ERISA regulations

Industry groups and policy experts are questioning a Trump administration proposal on health insurance even as it garners accolades from congressional Republicans. 

The proposed rule, announced on Thursday, would loosen regulations under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA, that govern association health plans. Such plans allow businesses to band together in purchasing health insurance. Supporters say the rule is intended to help consumers hit the hardest by rising premiums under the 2010 health care law.

HHS Political Appointees’ Résumés Show Ties to Price, Pence
Many also have links to conservative groups close to vice president

Political appointees at the Department of Health and Human Services include at least 16 staffers with ties to former Secretary Tom Price and at least 12 with connections to Vice President Mike Pence or Indiana, a review of 129 résumés of appointed staffers in the department shows.

Pence’s influence over the agency can be seen in the appointment of Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma, who worked closely with the former Indiana governor to expand Medicaid in that state, and the appointment of Verma’s deputy Brian Neale, who currently oversees Medicaid and served as Pence’s health care policy director in Indiana. A number of staffers also have ties to conservative groups close to Pence, such as the Heritage Foundation and anti-abortion organizations.

House Administration Adopts Ad Change Aimed at Open Enrollment

The House Administration Committee unanimously adopted on Wednesday a change in the member handbook that could help Democrats seeking to promote HealthCare.gov.

The new rule allows lawmakers to promote and link to federal government websites besides their own. Democrats had encountered the hurdle while attempting to promote the federal health insurance exchange through taxpayer-funded advertisements, known as franking.

House Republicans Propose Deal on Congressional Ads
Franking rule change would let lawmakers link to HealthCare.gov

House Republicans are working to resolve a dispute over rules that Democrats say are stopping them from promoting the health insurance exchanges.

Currently, lawmakers are prohibited from linking to any website other than their own in taxpayer-funded advertisements. Rep. Rodney Davis is proposing to allow them to link to other federal government websites, including HealthCare.gov.

Consumer Choice for Health Care Lags Behind Rhetoric
Experts urge consumers to “shop around,” but pricing is dizzyingly complex

When Chris Raymond called her insurance company recently to get the price of a brain scan, she came prepared. Or so she thought.

Raymond’s experience as a former medical reporter for the Journal of the American Medical Association gives her an edge over the typical patient trying to navigate the fractured health care system. As an active middle-aged woman who still plays recreational basketball, Raymond has also suffered enough injuries to understand the system from the patient perspective.

Franking Fracas Hits Open Enrollment Ads
House Democrats accuse commission of playing politics

Attempts by House Democrats to promote open enrollment in the health care marketplaces are running up against arcane rules and what they call partisan politics. Lawmakers are seeking to compensate for reduced marketing on the part of the Trump administration with their own taxpayer-funded ads.

The Department of Health and Human Services earlier this year slashed advertising for HealthCare.gov by 90 percent, prompting cries of “sabotage” from Democrats and consumer advocates. House Democrats are trying to fill that gap through their own ads on social media and other outlets, but are being thwarted by Republicans on the Franking Commission who say the advertisements do not comply with congressional rules.

Insurers Face Exchange Deadlines and Senate Repeal Uncertainty

Insurance companies are on edge as they await resolution on a Republican bill to replace the 2010 health care law at the same time that they are about to finalize contracts for the individual markets next year.

A Hail Mary effort from GOP Sens. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina revived the party’s effort to fulfill their seven-year campaign promise to repeal the law in the final week before the opportunity to pass the measure with a simple majority expires on Sat., Sept. 30. The deadline for insurers to sign contracts is Wednesday.