Desolate winter scene.

A Timeline of Biden’s Pandemic Response, Part 4: Winter of Death (December 2021 – Present)

This series, which will run in four parts, has been adapted from “A year in, how has Biden done on pandemic response?” which was originally published on January 5, 2022 on Medium. Read the first, second, and third parts here.

By Justin Feldman

On December 1, 2021, the CDC issued a press release announcing that it had identified a case of the Omicron variant in the U.S. for the first time.

White House insiders admit that they were unprepared for Omicron, just as they were unprepared for Delta. Vice President Harris recently told an interviewer that the administration was caught flatfooted because their scientific advisors never warned that such variants could crop up (at least two of these advisors, Rick Bright and Celine Gounder, begged to differ).

While vaccination still provides powerful protection against hospitalization and death due to infection from Omicron, protection against symptomatic illness is weaker than before, particularly among those who have not received boosters. And though evidence is mounting that the risk of hospitalization and death is lower for each person infected compared to Delta, Omicron’s extremely high transmissibility means that a large fraction of the population will become infected in a short time period, particularly in the absence of additional public health measures.

On December 21, as the highly contagious variant started to sweep the country, President Biden delivered remarks about the new threat. For the hundred million Americans who remain unvaccinated, the president’s speech warned of the imminent risk of hospitalization and death. For the vaccinated and boosted, Biden’s message was: Keep Calm and Carry On, all will likely be fine. And for Wall Street, the speech was meant to provide a crucial piece of reassurance: There would be no federal support for public health measures that restrict commerce.

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Empty toolbox.

A Timeline of Biden’s Pandemic Response, Part 3: We Have the Tools (Sept. – Dec. 2021)

This series, which will run in four parts, has been adapted from “A year in, how has Biden done on pandemic response?” which was originally published on January 5, 2022 on Medium. Read the first and second parts here.

By Justin Feldman

Over the summer of 2021, concern grew that the vaccines were not providing the near-perfect protection against symptomatic disease and transmission that had first emboldened the administration to jettison other public health measures.

It was initially unclear whether the issue was Delta’s higher transmissibility or waning immunity from vaccines, as the first groups had been vaccinated nearly a year prior. There was noticeable concern from CDC, which acknowledged the “war has changed” in a set of leaked slides from July 29, 2021. Of particular concern were case reports from Massachusetts and internationally of high viral loads observed among those who were vaccinated and infected. In late July, CDC reversed course on its mask guidance and recommended indoor masking for all, including the fully vaccinated, in counties with high transmission. In late September 2021, CDC reversed course on its quarantine guidance, which had previously stated that fully vaccinated people should not quarantine after a known SARS-CoV-2 exposure.

These changing epidemiologic realities could have brought about a course correction and a push for other public health policies to complement vaccination. Instead, the administration mostly adapted by shifting its messaging.

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Vial and syringe.

A Timeline of Biden’s Pandemic Response, Part 2: A Pandemic of the Unvaccinated (May – Sept. 2021)

This series, which will run in four parts, has been adapted from “A year in, how has Biden done on pandemic response?” which was originally published on January 5, 2022 on Medium. Read the first part here.

By Justin Feldman

Framing vaccination as a way to opt out of the pandemic, and understanding the unvaccinated to be political enemies, has helped absolve the Biden administration of its responsibilities to protect the public’s health and facilitated the relentless push to restore “normalcy” (i.e., full economic activity).

The administration knows better: In September 2020, while the vaccines were still being tested, key figures in Biden’s orbit warned that it was unlikely vaccination alone could sufficiently control the pandemic.

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From Shutting Down the Virus to Letting it Rip: A Timeline of Biden’s Pandemic Response

This series, which will run in four parts, has been adapted from “A year in, how has Biden done on pandemic response?” which was originally published on January 5, 2022 on Medium. 

By Justin Feldman

Welcome to our “winter of severe illness and death.”

Hospitals are becoming overwhelmed in various parts of the U.S., and one model predicts more than 120,000 COVID deaths will occur in the first two months of 2022.

How did we get here? How is our Democratic president — who ran, in part, against Trump’s horrid pandemic response — letting the virus rip? How did we get to a point where a key organizer of the Great Barrington Declaration, a right-wing libertarian campaign opposed to public health measures, has stated that Republican and Democratic states alike have adopted policies in line with their philosophy? As hospitals fill up around the country, why are political leaders doing nothing to at least try to “flatten the curve”?

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Map of the United States.

Health Reform via State Waiver

By Erin Fuse Brown and Chelsea Campbell

The path to systemic health reform in the U.S. may run through the states. To get there, the Biden/Harris administration should use its existing waiver authority under federal health care statutes to facilitate progressive state health reform efforts, including a state-based public option or single-payer plan.

One of the benefits of the United States’ federalist system, in which the power to enact policy and govern is divided between the national government and the states, is that we can test policies at the state level, and if we can establish a proof of concept there, it smooths the way for federal reform.

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U.S. Capitol Building.

Possibilities and Pitfalls of Health Reform Through Budget Reconciliation

By Nicole Huberfeld

The Biden administration entered office promising health reform. But the evenly-split Senate means ten Republican votes are necessary to move major legislation — cooperation that seems unlikely after years of Republican attempts to repeal and obstruct the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Still, expanding health insurance coverage may be on the menu through budget reconciliation. A budget reconciliation bill progresses with a simple majority vote: special rules limit debate and make filibuster impossible.

The Biden administration has already navigated budget reconciliation to enact speedy health policy measures in response to the pandemic. Signed March 11, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA) is a reconciliation bill which, among other things, offers federal money to support states’ and localities’ public health needs; facilitates economic recovery; increases tax subsidies provided through health insurance exchanges to expand affordability; and builds on the ACA and 2020 COVID relief bills by offering Medicaid non-expansion states an enhanced federal match of 5% for each enrollee to encourage expansion and counterbalance costs. The ARPA also addresses determinants of health and health equity, for example by extending the option of maternal Medicaid coverage for a year after the 60-day post-partum period and creating a new child tax credit. Most provisions last no more than two years.

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Grafton, Illinois, USA, June 1, 2019 -Car submerged under flood water in small river town, Grafton, Illinois, as Mississippi River floods roads, businesses and houses. vehicle under water, men in boat

Bail Out Humans

By Christina S. Ho

This past year has sensitized us politically to government’s affirmative obligations, especially the duty to backstop health catastrophes in order to dampen the risks that ordinary people must bear. 

Our government bails out large risks in so many other arenas. Yet we too often fail to backstop the most human risk of all — our vulnerability to suffering and death. 

Throngs of scholars have described our deep tradition of government-sponsored risk mitigation to nurture favored private activities and expectations, and relieve those favored actors from catastrophes beyond what they could be expected to plan for. I have characterized this distinctive political role figuratively as one of “government as reinsurer.”

The federal government provides standard reinsurance for private crop insurers, virtually full risk-assumption for private flood insurance, guarantees for employer pension benefits, robust backstops for bank liquidity risks, FHA mortgage insurance and a federal secondary market to absorb the risks of housing finance.

In these arenas and more, statistically correlated or high-magnitude catastrophic losses are shed onto the state in order to smooth out and shore up the underlying private risk market. We have yet to commit similarly in the health care domain. 

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People protesting with signs that say "healthcare is a human right" and "medicare for all."

A Long View on Health Insurance Reform: The Case for an Employer Public Option

By Allison K. Hoffman

Historically, job-based health insurance coverage was the gold standard. It was broadly available to workers and was comprehensive. It covered the lion’s share of most services someone might need. 

Yet, job-based private health coverage has been in decline. Employers are struggling to maintain plans in the face of escalating health care prices, and indicating the need for government involvement to solve this problem.  

Even before the pandemic, a decreasing share of workers, especially lower wage workers, had health benefits through their jobs. The majority of the currently uninsured are workers, either those whose jobs do not offer them coverage, such as gig workers and part-time workers, or those who are offered coverage but cannot afford their share of the cost. Ironically, some of these workers become ineligible for Affordable Care Act (ACA) marketplace subsidies because they are offered job-based coverage. 

Even for those who have job-based coverage, health benefits have become less generous over time, leaving households vulnerable to unmanageable health care expenses. The average deductible for a worker-only plan has increased 25% over the last five years and 79% over the last ten years. 

To help address these shortcomings and challenges of job-based coverage, the Biden administration should offer employers a Medicare-based public health insurance option for their employee coverage. It would simultaneously offer an out for employers who want it, and start to build the foundation for a simpler, more equitable financing system down the road.

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Symposium Introduction: Recommendations for a Biden/Harris Health Policy Agenda

By Erin C. Fuse Brown

This digital symposium explores recommendations for the Biden/Harris administration’s health policy agenda. We asked leading health law scholars to describe one health policy action the administration should pursue, beyond the pandemic response. Their recommendations make up this symposium. The responses range from concrete policy changes to broad reform ideas and can be grouped into three categories, those that (1) Reverse and Restore; (2) Reinforce; (3) Reform.

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