The Republican House opens with an abortion agenda

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After spending the entire first week choosing a speaker, the Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives is finally getting into the legislative work, including passing two bills backed by anti-abortion groups. It is unlikely that either will become law, as they will not pass the Senate and will not be signed by President Joe Biden. But the move highlights how abortion will surely remain a high-profile issue in the nation’s capital.

Meanwhile, as the Affordable Care Act’s open enrollment date of January 15 approaches, a record number of people have signed up, taking advantage of rolling benefits and other help with medical costs.

This week’s panelists are KHN’s Julie Rovner, The New York Times’ Margot Sanger Katz, Politico’s Alice Miranda Olstein, and Pink Sheet’s Sarah Carlene Smith.

Among the points learned from this week’s episode:

  • The House now has a speaker after 15 rounds of roll-call voting in the full House. This paved the way for members to be sworn in, committee assignments to be done, and new committee chairs to be named. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) and Jason Smith (R-Missouri) will chair the key health committees.
  • McMorris Rodgers will chair the House Energy and Commerce Committee; Smith will serve as Chairman of the Board of Directors of Ways and Means. Unlike McMorris Rodgers, Smith has little background in health issues and has mostly focused on tax issues in his public speaking points. But Medicare will likely be on the agenda, which will require the input of the chairmen of both committees.
  • One thing is for sure: The new GOP-controlled House will do a lot of investigation. Republicans have already reconstituted a committee to investigate COVID-19, though unlike the Democrats’ panel, this one will likely spend some time trying to find the origin of the virus and trace where the federal dollar might have gone wrong.
  • This week, the House of Representatives began considering a series of abortion-related bills – “manifesto” or “letters” – that are unlikely to see the light of day in the Senate. Still, some in the caucus question the wisdom of holding a vote on issues like this that could leave its more moderate members more vulnerable. To date, the bills have received unanimous support from the Republican Party. Divisions are likely to emerge over topics such as a national abortion ban. Meanwhile, the Title X program, which pays for things like birth control and testing for sexually transmitted diseases, has become a hot topic statewide and in some lawsuits. A case in Texas would limit the availability of birth control to minors through this program.
  • It is increasingly clear that the abortion pill will become a larger part of the abortion debate. On the one hand, the FDA has relaxed some of the risk assessment and mitigation strategies (REMS) prescribing rules regarding the abortion pill. The Food and Drug Administration puts these additional restrictions or safeguards in place for some drugs to add extra protection. Some advocates say these pills simply don’t bring that level or risk.
  • Anti-abortion groups are planning protests in early February at large pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens in an effort to get them to back down from plans to distribute abortion pills in states where they are legal.
  • A growing number of states are pressing the Department of Health and Human Services to allow them to import cheaper prescription drugs from Canada — or, more accurately, import Canadian price controls. While this has long been a bipartisan issue, it has also long been controversial. FDA officials remain concerned about breaking the closed supply chain between the drugs being manufactured and delivered to authorized US buyers. However, this policy is popular because it promises lower prices for at least some medications.
  • Also in news from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA): The agency granted fast-track approval for Leqembi to treat Alzheimer’s disease. Leqembi is another drug that is expensive and appears to be effective, but it also carries significant risks. However, it is generally seen as an improvement over the more controversial Alzheimer’s drug Aduhelm. It remains to be determined whether Medicare — which provides insurance for most people with Alzheimer’s disease — will cover the drug.
  • As the Affordable Care Act encapsulates a record number of Americans, it is notable that repealing the law was not mentioned as a priority for the GOP’s new majority in the House of Representatives. Instead, the main health problem is likely to be how to lower the price of Medicare and other health “benefit” programs.

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

Julie Rovner: Washington PostSocial Security rejects disability benefits based on a job listing from 1977Written by Lisa Ren

Margot Sanger Katz: roll callMedicaid providers say Medicare is holding back the benefit of new methadoneWritten by Jesse Hellman

Alice Miranda Olstein: New York times’ “Grant Wahl was a loving husband. I will always protect his legacy.Written by Celine Gunder

Sarah Carlyn Smith: KHN’sExperts say hospitals’ use of volunteer staff risks circumventing labor lawsWritten by Lauren Susser

Also featured in this week’s podcast:

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