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The Health 202

A newsletter briefing on the health-care policy debate in Washington.

Nearly one-third of ads supporting Warnock mentioned abortion

The Health 202

A newsletter briefing on the health-care policy debate in Washington.

Welcome to Wednesday’s Health 202, which wouldn’t be possible without Azi Paybarah’s data crunching expertise. 

Today’s edition: A scathing report urges major changes at the Food and Drug Administration. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is proposing to streamline the prior authorization process. But first …

Warnock and his supporters spent millions on ads referencing abortion in the Georgia runoff

Democrat Raphael Warnock is projected to defeat Republican Herschel Walker to represent Georgia in the Senate, a move that will send Warnock back to the chamber and grow the party’s slim majority there. 

For weeks, the topic of abortion hung over the Senate runoff race, and Democrats sought to capitalize on the issue in the final stretch of the campaign. The party vastly outspent Republicans on advertising that referenced abortion over the past month, a trend seen across the country during the midterms. 

Warnock and his allies centered ads around Republican Walker’s strict antiabortion stance, as well as leveled charges of hypocrisy over allegations from two women that he paid for their abortions. But abortion was rarely mentioned in ads supporting Walker. 

With help from our colleague Azi Paybarah, we took a deep dive into recent abortion-related ads. Here’s what we found, according to data from AdImpact, a firm tracking political ads. 

  • Democrats and their allies spent over $5 million on ads that include a reference to abortion in the Georgia runoff race since Nov. 8. Republicans and their affiliated groups spent roughly $6,500 on a single abortion-related ad in that same time frame.
  • Democrats largely focused their ads on character and abortion, with 30 percent of Democratic ads mentioning abortion. The GOP focused instead on character, President Biden, inflation and taxation. 
Where the candidates stood

Walker: As a candidate, the former football star has said he opposes the procedure without exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the mother, The Post has reported. He attempted to soften his hard-line stance during an October debate, saying he supported Georgia’s law banning abortions after fetal cardiac activity has been detected that includes exceptions. Walker has said he’d support a ban on abortions after 15 weeks at the federal level. 

Meanwhile, two women have alleged that Walker paid for their abortions. The allegations have drawn much attention over the past two months. The GOP nominee denies the accounts.

Warnock: The pastor and first Black senator from Georgia supports abortion rights and has said he believes a patient’s room “is too narrow and small and cramped space for a woman, her doctor and the United States government.” While in the Senate, he voted for the Women’s Health Protection Act, which is aimed at codifying Roe v. Wade

Ad spending

On the Democratic side 💰: Abortion-related ads came from groups such as American Bridge 21st Century and Georgia Honor, which is affiliated with the Democratic-aligned Senate Majority PAC, as well as Warnock’s own campaign.

Messaging alert: Several ads targeted Walker’s past comments on abortion, sometimes also tying in the allegation that he helped pay for two abortions. Other ads mention an array of issues, such as contending that health care, abortion access and voting rights are on the line. Walker’s campaign didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

On the Republican side 💰: During the runoff, it appears that the sole GOP abortion-related ad came from Women Speak Out PAC, which is a partner of prominent antiabortion group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America.

Messaging alert: The ad from Women Speak Out PAC referred to Warnock as “too extreme for Georgia,” alleging that the senator supports late-term abortions. Warnock’s campaign didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the claim and whether there are limits he supports.

The impact

This time around, the Georgia runoff was a sleepier affair than in 2020. That’s because control of the Senate wasn’t hanging in the balance, since Democrats already secured their 50th vote, The Post’s Aaron Blake writes. 

Warnock’s win hands Democrats their 51st seat and grants the party more leverage in the chamber, though partisan gridlock is expected due to Republicans controlling the House. The race was a tough battle for both parties in an increasingly purple state. 

Having a bigger Democratic advantage is definitely still beneficial for the party. For one, they’ll have another Democratic vote to push through legislation, though getting to 60 votes on major policy will still be exceedingly difficult. It’ll also be helpful when it comes to confirming judges, as well as handing the party Democratic majorities on committees. 

On the Hill

Another one bites the dust

A compromise defense policy bill released last night would eliminate a coronavirus vaccine mandate imposed on military service members. 

The move to jettison the Biden administration mandate is a win for Republicans, who have fiercely fought vaccine requirements. Earlier this week, White House officials pushed back against the idea of repealing the mandate, and said Biden opposed the move, believing it is a health and readiness issue. 

If passed, the legislation would require the defense secretary to rescind the mandate no later than 30 days after the bill is enacted. A Senate aide said the bill doesn’t direct the Department of Defense to reinstate discharged service members. That decision is up to the department, and there’s not an expectation that it will do so. 

Last year, the Biden administration announced a slew of vaccine mandates, but most are not currently being enforced. The most sweeping mandate in place at the moment is one for workers in health-care facilities that receive Medicare and Medicaid funds. 

FDA watch

Report calls for major changes to the FDA’s food safety program

An outside group recommended a major restructuring of the Food and Drug Administration in a report released yesterday, which said flaws in the leadership structure and poor communication has led to a culture of “constant turmoil,” The Post’s Laura Reiley reports. 

The Reagan-Udall Foundation task force concluded that the food program is led by officials with overlapping responsibilities and competing priorities. It offered several recommendations to improve leadership problems hampering the agency, including by establishing a separate Federal Food Administration within the Department of Health and Human Services or by reorganizing and clarifying lines of command within the FDA. Some of the changes suggested in the report, like the creation of a new Center for Nutrition, may require congressional action. 

Experts with the group, the Reagan-Udall Foundation, were asked to examine the agency charged with overseeing most of the nation’s food supply after it came under fire for its handling of an infant formula crisis that left parents scrambling earlier this year. 

The report’s authors also found that the food program is too slow, lacks collaboration and is hamstrung by risk-aversion. The panel suggested the agency commit to better transparency, timeliness and communication across different divisions. 

FDA Commissioner Robert Califf said in a statement that he will review the report and make decisions about the future of the agency with input from experts inside and outside the FDA. 

Susan Mayne, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition:

In other FDA news …

Three former inspectors who previously worked for the FDA’s office responsible for licensed vaccine products allege that training has decreased dramatically in recent years. That raises concerns that the office isn’t equipped to identify quality control issues in manufacturing as it works through a pandemic-induced backlog of inspections, Politico reports. 

Emergent BioSolutions announced yesterday that its application for over-the-counter use of its opioid overdose reversal drug was granted priority review by the FDA. The agency is expected to issue a decision by March 29, putting it on track to be available over-the-counter.

Industry Rx

CMS proposes new rule to streamline prior authorization process

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services proposed a new rule yesterday aimed at smoothing out the prior authorization process and improving patient and provider access to health data.

The details: If finalized, the regulation would require Medicare Advantage plans and other payers to implement an electronic prior authorization process and establish policies to make the process more efficient and transparent. It would also shorten the time frame for those payers to send authorizations decisions to 72 hours for urgent requests and seven days for standard requests. 

In addition, the rule proposes to require certain payers to implement standards for sharing health data between payers when patients change from one plan to another, in an effort to ensure complete patient records are available during transition periods.

Why it matters: The complicated process, which is used to request approval from insurers before providing medical items or services, can become a health risk for patients if it delays or disrupts care. Providers have often complained of bureaucratic hurdles to asking for permission from insurers, which contend the process promotes safe and timely care. 

The American Academy of Family Physicians:

In other health news

  • China announced Wednesday that frequent covid-19 tests and digital health passes would no longer be required for daily life or travel within the country, which were two key policies of its “zero covid” strategy, The Post’s Christian Shepherd and Lyric Li report. 
  • Ukraine’s Health Ministry is asking hospitals to consider suspending nonessential surgeries following a recent spate of attacks on the nation’s energy infrastructure that have caused rolling blackouts across the country, Reuters reports. 
  • In the final chapter of a legal battle that began 16 years ago, a federal court yesterday ordered several major tobacco companies to display “corrective statements” alongside their products in retail stores that inform the public about the adverse health effects of smoking.
  • Performing an audit of the White House’s coronavirus messaging “would not be a bad thing” to improve the federal government’s communication strategy for the next outbreak, Francis Collins, special adviser to the president and former director of the National Institutes of Health, told our colleague Francis Stead Sellers during a discussion on building trust in science hosted by The Post yesterday.  

Health reads

Dying to compete (Jenn Abelson, Nate Jones and Ladka Bauerova l The Washington Post)

Congress has its sights set too low on addiction, advocates charge (By Lev Facher | Stat)

Employers Use Patient Assistance Programs to Offset Their Own Costs (By Julie Appleby | Kaiser Health News)

Sugar rush

Thanks for reading! See y'all tomorrow.