5 takeaways from POLITICO’s Health Care Summit

Government is unlikely to repeat the success of Operation Warp Speed

HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra downplayed expectations that the Biden administration will be able to reprise Operation Warp Speed in developing the next generation of Covid-19 vaccines — unless the effort gets a lot more money from Congress.

The recent deal to raise the debt ceiling preserved about $5 billion in funding for Project NextGen, which aims to develop new Covid vaccines and treatments.

But in an interview with White House reporter Adam Cancryn, Becerra lamented that Congress isn’t funding it like it did Operation Warp Speed.

“We’ve got some really innovative approaches and therapies in the works,” Becerra said. “Here’s the difference … they really did have trillions of dollars.”

That was an overstatement. Operation Warp Speed did not get “trillions of dollars,” but did receive an estimated $18 billion.

The opioid crisis could get a lot worse

Rahul Gupta, the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said that the number of fatal drug overdoses could climb to 165,000 a year by 2025, about 55,000 more than last year.

At the same time, he said that if President Joe Biden’s policies to address the crisis are implemented — such as funding treatment for incarcerated individuals and expanding telehealth treatment — the number of people dying each year could be cut in half.

Artificial intelligence could transform health care, if government and industry can set standards

“There needs to be a really robust set of guidelines on fairness and bias checking,” Hirsh Jain, the head of public health and senior vice president of federal at Palantir Technologies, the Denver software developer, said.

Jain said the federal government and industry should collaborate on developing guardrails to avoid a patchwork of regulations written by the states.

Shannon Thyme Klinger, chief legal officer at Moderna, said AI can accelerate vaccine development and help drugmakers enroll a more diverse population in clinical trials.

Racial disparities remain a major public health challenge

Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) lamented continuing racial disparities in health that will require “transformational legislation” to combat.

“We have to talk about deconstructing a system built on racism and colonization,” he said.

Sol Flores, deputy governor of Illinois, agreed with Bowman’s assessment, saying that state and federal officials need to work together to move forward on health equity, especially as Medicaid unwinding is underway.

The post-pandemic redetermination of eligibility for Medicaid enrollees threatens the most vulnerable patients, they said, if not handled with care.

Democrats are at war with the pharmaceutical industry

Rep. Debbie Dingell of Michigan was among the Democratic panelists who lashed out at drugmaker Merck for suing to block Medicare drug price negotiations ordered by Congress in last year’s Inflation Reduction Act.

“If you live in this country and you’re sick, you should be able to go to the doctor and get the medicine that you need and the treatment you require,” Dingell said.

She echoed Merck’s claim in its suit — that the negotiation is “tantamount to extortion” — in accusing the New Jersey pharmaceutical giant of fleecing Americans.

“I call it extortion when they increase the cost of drugs more than inflation, to seniors who have no choice — not only seniors, but to patients across this country that have no other choice,” Dingell said.

Becerra, meanwhile, said negotiating over prices is “as American as apple pie.”