Health

President Touts Progress on COVID, Pushes to Let Medicare Set Drug Prices

WASHINGTON — The COVID-19 pandemic and the high cost of prescription drugs factored heavily into President Biden’s address Wednesday night to a joint session of Congress.

“After I promised 100 million COVID-19 vaccine shots into peoples’ arms in 100 days — we will have provided over 220 million COVID shots in those 100 days, thanks to all the help of all of you,” Biden said, speaking in the Capitol to an unusually small crowd of about 200 people — a crowd size necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic. “We’re marshalling every federal resource. We’ve gotten vaccines to nearly 40,000 pharmacies and over 700 community health centers, where the poorest of the poor can be reached. We’re setting up community vaccination sites, and are deploying mobile units into hard-to-reach communities.”

“When I was sworn in, less than 1% of seniors in America were fully vaccinated against COVID-19,” Biden said. “One hundred days later, nearly 70% of seniors in America over 65 are fully protected. Senior deaths from COVID-19 are down 80% since January — down 80% because of all of you.” However, “there’s still more work to do to beat this virus,” he added. “We can’t let our guard down. But tonight, I can say because of you — the American people — our progress these past 100 days against one of the worst pandemics in history is one of the greatest logistical achievements this country has ever seen.”

He also reviewed a few of his other healthcare accomplishments. “During these 100 days, an additional 800,000 Americans enrolled in the Affordable Care Act because I established a special sign up period to do that,” said Biden. “We’re making one of the largest one-time ever investments ever in improving healthcare for veterans, and critical investments to address the opioid crisis.”

The president also pitched his proposal for an advanced healthcare research agency. “The Defense Department has an agency called DARPA — the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — that’s there to develop breakthroughs to enhance our national security,” he said. “The NIH, I believe — should create a similar Advanced Research Projects Agency for health — to develop breakthroughs — to prevent, detect, and treat diseases like Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and cancer.”

“This is personal to so many of us,” said Biden. “I can think of no more worthy investment. And I know of nothing that is more bipartisan. Let’s end cancer as we know it. It’s within our power; it’s within our power to do it.”

He also urged Congress to pass a few other healthcare items on his agenda. “The American Rescue Plan lowered healthcare premiums for 9 million Americans who buy their coverage under the Affordable Care Act,” he said, referring to the recently passed pandemic relief bill. “Let’s make that provision permanent so their premiums don’t go back up.”

Next up: lowering prescription drug costs. “We all know how outrageously expensive drugs are in America,” Biden said. “In fact, we pay the highest prescription drug prices in the world right here in America — nearly three times as much as other countries pay. We have to change that and we can. Let’s do what we’ve always talked about when I was in the Congress. Let’s give Medicare the power to save hundreds of billions of dollars by negotiating lower drug prescription [sic] prices.”

Doing so “won’t just help people on Medicare — it will lower prescription drug costs for everyone,” he continued. “The money we save can go to strengthen the Affordable Care Act — expand Medicare coverage and benefits — without costing taxpayers an additional penny. It’s within our power to do it; let’s do it now.”

Biden also discussed other issues that had a healthcare angle. He urged Congress to pass the Equality Act, which protects the rights of LGBTQ Americans. “To all the transgender Americans watching at home — especially the young people who are so brave — I want you to know that your president has your back,” he said.

“And another thing. Let’s reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act,” he said. “It will close the so-called ‘boyfriend’ loophole to keep guns out of the hands of abusers. The court order said this is an abuser, you can’t own a gun … It’s estimated that more than 50 women are shot and killed by an intimate partner every month in America. Pass it and save lives.”

Biden went on to discuss the gun violence epidemic, ending with: “I will do everything in my power to protect the American people from this epidemic of gun violence. But it’s time for Congress to act as well. We need more Senate Republicans to join with the overwhelming majority of their Democratic colleagues, and close loopholes and require background checks to purchase a gun. And we need a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. Don’t tell me it can’t be done. We’ve done it before … and it worked.”

“These kinds of reasonable reforms have the overwhelming support of the American people, including many gun owners,” he concluded. “The country supports reform, and the Congress should act.”

  • Joyce Frieden oversees MedPage Today’s Washington coverage, including stories about Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court, healthcare trade associations, and federal agencies. She has 35 years of experience covering health policy. Follow

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