Feds Misused Millions in Vaccine Research Funds: Report

Feds Misused Millions in Vaccine Research Funds: Report

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Plus, Biden will reopen Obamacare exchanges. Nearly 9 million could benefit.
Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Biden Will Reopen Obamacare Exchanges. Nearly 9 Million Could Benefit.

President Joe Biden is expected to sign an executive order Thursday that will reopen the federal health insurance marketplaces, allowing millions of people to sign up for coverage outside of the usual six-week enrollment period. In most states, the enrollment period ends on December 15.

Biden also reportedly plans to boost marketing and outreach efforts to encourage those who currently lack insurance to obtain coverage through the Obamacare exchanges, including those who lost their health insurance due to job losses during the pandemic. Those efforts were curtailed under former President Donald Trump, which may have reduced the number of people signing up for coverage over the last four years.

Could affect millions: The impact on health coverage in the U.S. could be enormous. According to an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation, about 4 million currently uninsured people could qualify for no-cost Obamacare bronze plans, with their premiums fully covered by federal subsidies, and another 4.9 million could be eligible for partially subsidized coverage.

“The 8.9 million people eligible for free or reduced-cost coverage represent nearly 60 percent of the approximately 15 million uninsured people in the U.S. who could shop for health insurance coverage on the ACA Marketplaces,” Kaiser said Wednesday.

Compared to the U.S. population as a whole, those who would qualify for fully subsidized, no-cost bronze plans are more likely to live in rural areas, Kaiser said. They also tend to be younger, have no more than a high school education, and be unemployed or working part-time. More than half of them live in just four states: Texas, Florida, North Carolina and Georgia.

Still, there are questions about how many people will actually sign up, given the chance. Many of those who lost their jobs and incomes have already signed up for Medicaid, and others have gained access to Obamacare plans through the special enrollment period open to those with qualifying events, including job loss. But making it easier to sign up, with assistance from paid navigators and with enough time to supply necessary documentation, could make a difference in participation. More broadly, reopening the marketplaces signals that Biden is taking a different approach on health care, one that seeks to assist as many people as possible.

Changes in Medicaid, too: Biden also plans to take steps Thursday to make it easier for people to sign up for Medicaid by removing barriers put in place by the Trump administration. According to The Washington Post, it’s not yet clear whether Biden intends to reverse specific provisions, such as a Trump-era rule that allows states to impose work requirements on Medicaid participants, or simply order officials to review current laws and recommend changes at a future date.

“You could think about it as announcing a war against the war on Medicaid,” Katherine Hempstead of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation told the Post.

HHS Misused Millions of Dollars Intended for Vaccine Research, Public Health: Report

Officials at the Department of Health and Human Services misused millions of dollars provided by lawmakers to fund vaccine research and preparedness efforts for public health threats like Ebola and Covid-19, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel said Wednesday in letters to President Biden and Congress.

Research funds for the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) were used for a variety of unrelated expenses, including administrative costs, news subscriptions, legal services, the removal of office furniture and the salaries of outside personnel. The raiding of BARDA funds for other purposes was so common, according to a report from the HHS Office of Inspector General, that it was given a name inside the agency: “Bank of BARDA.”

The misuse of funds dates back to at least fiscal year 2010, spanning the Obama and Trump administrations.

The investigation by the HHS inspector general was launched after a whistleblower complaint to the Office of Special Counsel alleged that officials in the office of the assistant secretary for preparedness and response (ASPR) were misappropriating funds. The inspector general’s 223-page report found that many of the claims were true and that the tapping of research funds for other purposes violated one federal law covering congressionally appropriated money and potentially violated another.

The report does not estimate the total amount of misappropriated funds, but it claims that, as recently as fiscal year 2019, about $25 million in BARDA research funding was improperly used for other purposes, the Office of Special Counsel said in a statement. It added that from 2007 to 2016, HHS had failed to account for $517.8 million in administrative spending. The inspector general also found that between fiscal years 2013 and 2017, BARDA funds were used to pay at least $897,491 in salaries of individuals who did not actually work for BARDA.

“I am deeply concerned about ASPR’s apparent misuse of millions of dollars in funding meant for public health emergencies like the one our country is currently facing with the COVID-19 pandemic,” Special Counsel Henry Kerner wrote in his letter to President Biden. “Equally concerning is how widespread and well-known this practice appeared to be for nearly a decade.”

In a statement, Kerner urged Congress and HHS to take immediate steps “to ensure funding for public health emergencies can no longer be used as a slush-fund for unrelated expenses." Kerner said in his letter to Biden that HHS is reviewing the use of research funds and has also engaged an accounting firm to conduct an audit, with results expected by the summer.

Nicole Lurie, the Obama administration’s top emergency-preparedness official, who was named in the whistleblower complaint, told The Washington Post that the agency’s use of BARDA funds was appropriate. “All expenditures were done in a routine way,” Lurie said, adding, “BARDA was part of ASPR and had a shared mission and used common resources.”

Lurie told the Post that the inspector general has criticized spending decisions that helped expedite dozens of medical products to help fight public health emergencies.

House Dems Push for Automatic Stabilizers for Unemployment Benefits

As House Democrats prepare another round of coronavirus relief legislation, a group of moderates is urging party leaders to use automatic stabilizers to tie emergency unemployment benefits to economic conditions, The Hill’s Mike Lillis reports.

“In a letter to House Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Steny Hoyer (Md.), and another to President Biden, the lawmakers urged that a host of their priorities be incorporated. The list includes an expansion of the child tax credit, billions of dollars for mental health services, and billions more to boost the research, production and dissemination of COVID-19 vaccines.

“It also features legislation hitching the federal increase in unemployment benefits to economic factors on the ground, thereby precluding the need for Congress to extend those benefits with new legislation down the road.”

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