Political News

Vaccine affordability a last sticking point in coronavirus funding package talks in Congress

Posted March 3, 2020 3:41 p.m. EST
Updated March 3, 2020 5:03 p.m. EST

— Congressional negotiators as of Tuesday afternoon have not finalized a multi-billion supplemental spending bill to respond to the coronavirus outbreak in the US and a final sticking point revolves around how to make an eventual vaccine affordable, according to senators and aides in each party.

"Democrats have been pushing for strong provisions to ensure the vaccine is available and affordable to everyone who needs it," said a Democratic aide familiar with the negotiations.

LIVE UPDATES: Coronavirus outbreak spreads across the world

But some Republicans are worried that any sort of price controls on the vaccine could curb a robust market-based response by pharmaceutical companies to find a cure.

"I don't think it's a legitimate sticking point. There is not an example of a vaccine developed for a pandemic that's ever not been made available in a reasonable way to people," said Sen. Roy Blunt, a Republican from Missouri who chairs the health subcommittee on appropriations.

Top negotiators from across Congress and from both parties have worked for days to pull together funding package to combat the disease. It still remains to be seen how much the deal will be worth. But sources told CNN over the weekend it could exceed $7 billion, a level far higher than the $2.5 billion White House request. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer proposed $8.5 billion to deal with the outbreak last week.

The top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee said Tuesday that Democrats are wary of drug companies earning big profits from a vaccine.

"In our discussion in the Appropriations Committee, we have talked about the fact that millions and millions of dollars -- possibly hundreds of millions of taxpayers' dollars -- are going to go into developing the vaccine and test kits," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont. "We are not going to say to the drug companies after the taxpayers have paid for this, now go out and make a huge profit. That's not going to happen."

The top Republican on the Appropriations Committee said he hoped to resolve the issue quickly so Congress can pass a bill quickly, possibly by the end of the week.

Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama said making sure poorer Americans can afford the vaccine is a top priority for him.

"I really believe that no one, no American, should be denied vaccine because they have no money to pay for it. Because this is life or death situation," Shelby said. "I think we can work together and cover a lot of that. I want to do that."

Asked if he was open to setting aside a fund of up to $500 million for such a purpose, he responded: "We are trying to get to yes."

Congressional leaders hope to have a deal by the end of the day Tuesday.

Democrats press Pence over coronavirus

In a sign of tensions over the spread of coronavirus on Capitol Hill, a number of Democratic senators, including Jon Tester of Montana, Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Mark Warner of Virginia signaled unease with the US response as they emerged from a briefing with Vice President Mike Pence on the issue during the Senate Democratic lunch.

"No," Tester said when asked if the US is prepared, arguing the President "dropped the ball early" and there are "not enough test kits" available.

"We have a long ways to go to get to where we need to be," Tester said.

Reed said the US is not prepared: "I think there's an attempt to minimize -- not to be realistic in the assessment."

Warner said he's concerned about the impact the coronavirus could have on federal employees. Asked if he's satisfied with the administration's response to date, Warner said: "It's a work in progress."

Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington state, said that she and others pressed Pence about the number of tests that are available -- and said the US government needs to come up with a "more aggressive" plan.

Pence responded by saying that the FDA announced last Saturday that it was expanding the tests by letting academic and commercial labs do the testing as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to Cantwell.

But she said that Democrats were not satisfied.

"They made this big move on Saturday through the FDA but I think they keep throwing out numbers like millions of tests ... That's not right," Cantwell said. "Millions of tests are not available right this second. And people are calling their doctors and they're not able to get a test."

Cantwell added, "So let's get crisper and clearer about what the process is for people to get testing and when the availability of those tests will be there for them."

Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan said that ample concerns were raised that people are told to stay home from work but when they try to get tested, there are no available tests.

"He said he realized that was a concern," Stabenow said, characterizing Pence's response.

Stabenow also said that Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois and Sens. Jeff Merkley of Oregon raised concerns that ICE agents could arrest undocumented immigrants who are carrying the virus but may be worried about getting treated. She said the US government needs to send a different message to the public on that.

Asked how Pence responded to the question, Stabenow said: "He did not. He said he appreciated the question."

This story has been updated with additional developments Tuesday.

Our commenting policy has changed. If you would like to comment, please share on social media using the icons below and comment there.