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  • Washington Highlights

    Biden Highlights Health Priorities in “Unity Agenda” at First State of the Union


    Christa Wagner, Manager, Government Relations
    Sinead Hunt, Senior Legislative Analyst

    In his first State of the Union address on March 1, President Joe Biden discussed several health care and research priorities, including the administration’s current COVID-19 response efforts and a four-pronged “unity agenda” of bipartisan health-related priorities.

    In the unity agenda, Biden highlighted what he described as a personal priority to “end cancer as we know it” through continued efforts of the recently reignited Cancer Moonshot Initiative [refer to Washington Highlights, Feb. 4]. On Feb. 25, the AAMC joined nearly 100 organizations in a letter to congressional leaders, Biden, and Vice President Kamala Harris sharing support for the relaunched initiative and urging bipartisan support to fund the research infrastructure necessary to achieve this goal.

    In his speech, the president also urged Congress to pass legislation to fund his proposed Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health to advance the administration’s Moonshot goals of cutting the cancer death rate by at least 50% in the next 25 years, in addition to accelerating progress against Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and other health threats.

    Biden’s unity agenda also aims to address addiction and the overdose epidemic through increased investments in prevention, treatment, harm reduction, and recovery programs, as well as eliminating the requirement that providers receive a waiver prior to prescribing buprenorphine. In 2021, a bipartisan group of lawmakers in both the House and Senate introduced the Mainstreaming Addiction Treatment Act of 2021 (H.R. 1384S. 445) to eliminate the waiver requirement. 

    The agenda also aims to address the country's mental health crisis. This includes proposals to increase capacity, diversity, and cultural competency of the existing behavioral health workforce, expand access to mental health support through telehealth, invest in research for new treatment models, and support clinician well-being by signing the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act into law [refer to Washington Highlights, Feb. 25].

    The fourth objective of Biden’s unity agenda aims to improve the health of veterans, including policies to support veterans after military environmental exposures, such as burn pits, through research, provider education, and enhanced health benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs. The House of Representatives subsequently passed the related Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act of 2021 (H.R. 3967) by a bipartisan vote of 256-174 on March 3.

    Biden also reflected on the COVID-19 response moving forward, announcing a “test to treat” program in which pharmacies will be able to provide antiviral treatments to patients on site following a positive COVID-19 test. He added that vaccines for future variants of concern would be delivered within 100 days of their emergence.

    In the address, the president also announced his intention to request additional support from Congress to fund treatments, vaccines, rapid tests, and masks. On March 2, the Office of Management and Budget formally transmitted the administration’s request for $22.5 billion in emergency supplemental COVID-19 funding, to be included as part of the omnibus spending bill lawmakers are negotiating to fund the federal government in fiscal year 2022.

    Separately, the White House released a new national COVID-19 preparedness plan on March 2, providing additional details on four overarching goals the administration is setting “as we move America from crisis to a time when COVID-19 does not disrupt our daily lives and is something we prevent, protect against, and treat.”

    Also mentioned in the speech were the president’s recommendations to permanently extend the American Rescue Plan’s enhanced health insurance subsidies to help people save money on health care premiums and to make the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program permanent, as well as  including investments in community violence intervention programs.

    Biden also highlighted the country’s previous investment of 2% of the gross domestic product into research and development and urged Congress to recommit to domestic science and manufacturing by finalizing the “Bipartisan Innovation Act,” also known as the Senate-passed U.S. Innovation and Competition Act and House-passed America COMPETES Act [refer to Washington Highlights, Feb. 4]. Leadership from both chambers previously had committed to conferencing the two bills to send a compromise package to Biden’s desk, with continued work expected in the coming weeks.