‘We cannot allow the reporting to go on’: Political pressure on CDC sparks outrage – Politico

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Editor’s Note: POLITICO Pulse is a free version of POLITICO Pro Health Care’s morning newsletter, which is delivered to our subscribers each morning at 6 a.m. The POLITICO Pro platform combines the news you need with tools you can use to take action on the day’s biggest stories. Act on the news with POLITICO Pro.

— A POLITICO report on political appointees meddling with CDC reports provoked widespread outrage, with Democrats set to demand that HHS Secretary Alex Azar immediately brief them.

— President Donald Trump signed a new executive order intended to slash drug prices and put pressure on the pharma industry.

— The Trump administration is speeding forward with a new vaccine data management system, but the pace of the project and unanswered questions have left state officials unsettled.

WELCOME BACK TO MONDAY PULSE — And greetings from South Carolina, where PULSE didn’t see a single other mask-wearing person all weekend, and there is serious distrust of coronavirus warnings. “Fauci is a scumbag … this is the flu,” said Steve M., a 67-year-old who claimed to PULSE that hospitals and doctors were inflating Covid-19 numbers to make money. (There is no evidence of widespread inflation of coronavirus cases, your author hastens to add.)

Got news tips — or advice on how to wrangle with a neighborhood of coronavirus skeptics? Send them to [email protected] and [email protected].

WE CANNOT ALLOW THE REPORTING TO GO ON‘ — POLITICO’s Dan Diamond broke the story on Friday night that Trump appointees have meddled with the CDC’s famed Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports, seeking retroactive changes to coronavirus-related articles, delaying some releases and even demanding that CDC pause all reports until HHS political appointees in the press shop can review them.

Paul Alexander, the scientific adviser to HHS Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Michael Caputo, has insisted that CDC officials adjust reports that he claimed were attempts to “hurt the President.” Both men have complained that the agency’s reports are attempts to undermine Trump’s optimistic messages about the outbreak, demanding caveats or changes.

“The reports must be read by someone outside of CDC like myself, and we cannot allow the reporting to go on as it has been, for it is outrageous. Its lunacy,” Alexander told CDC Director Robert Redfield and other officials in an Aug. 8 email. “Nothing to go out unless I read and agree with the findings how they CDC, wrote it and I tweak it to ensure it is fair and balanced and ‘complete.'”

CDC officials have ignored or fought back against the most substantive changes but have increasingly allowed Caputo and his team to review reports before publication and in some cases have compromised on wording, Dan reported.

— The story provoked outrage among public health experts, Democrats and even some Republicans, who said the decision to meddle with a cornerstone of CDC’s scientific reports put Americans at risk.

Political appointees “should have no role in scientific publications. None,” surgeon Atul Gawande tweeted.

The agency’s MMWRs have famously been a backbone of global public health for decades. Infectious disease expert Tony Fauci has credited MMWRs in 1981 on the emergence of HIV for changing the course of his career.

FIRST IN PULSE: PALLONE, DeGETTE TO DEMAND IMMEDIATE BRIEFING WITH AZARThe two senior Democrats are calling on the HHS secretary to explain why he has “refused to defend the agencies under your charge to lead,” in a harshly worded letter that’s set to go out later today, citing POLITICO’s reporting on political interference at CDC and NIH.

“Congress and the American people deserve to know if you approved these egregious actions by these political appointees, and if it was done without your knowledge, what actions you will take to ensure that it never happens again,” House Energy and Commerce Chair Frank Pallone and subcommittee Chair Diana DeGette write in a letter previewed with PULSE. “It is long past time that you stand up for public health.”

Pallone and DeGette in July previously called on Azar to “stand up to protect public health or step aside as the nation’s top health official.” In addition to Friday’s report, the Democrats cite POLITICO’s scoop on Alexander’s effort to muzzle Fauci.

— Azar didn’t directly address Friday’s POLITICO report, releasing a vague statement this weekend that said the president “has always been receptive to the data and science presented by me and other members of the task force,” and adding that “President Trump’s science-based decision making has saved lives.”

MEANWHILE: CAPUTO DEFIANT — The public affairs chief doubled down in interviews with media outlets, defending the decision to put pressure on the “deep state” in CDC, touting the Oxford-educated epidemiologist Alexander as a worthy reviewer of scientific articles, and retweeting criticism of a Buffalo News story that focused on scrutiny over Caputo’s role.

Caputo — whose name was trending on Twitter over the weekend — also posted a succinct defense of his style. “I’m Effective,” the tweet reads. “Get used to it.”

TRUMP’s NEWEST PLAN TO DRAMATICALLY SLASH DRUG PRICESThe president tweeted Sunday that he signed a new executive order for a “most favored nations” plan, POLITICO’s Sarah Owermohle reports.

Under the plan, certain Medicare drug prices will be linked to a “most-favored-nation price” drawn from the lowest price among members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that have a similar per-capita gross domestic product, the executive order states.

— The order directs federal health officials to carry out demonstration projects for Medicare Part B, a move that would bypass the monthslong process of rulemaking and could start the price cuts before Election Day. It also would develop a similar plan for Medicare Part D, or those drugs that patients pick up at the pharmacy counter.

The Part D component of Trump’s order, which was newly announced on Sunday, would apply to drugs without much competition for which seniors pay prices higher than those in comparable OECD countries.

The president had signed a Part B-focused version of the directive more than a month ago but said he would hold it so that industry could come up with an alternative. Talks broke down with the industry’s major lobby last week.

— There are still key questions about what’s next. Rachel Sachs, a Washington University law professor who specializes in drug policy, called the inclusion of Part D policies an “exciting new development,” but cautioned in a tweet thread that the administration faces challenges in trying to speed potential Part D reforms that haven’t been subject to public comment yet.

OFFICIALS RACE AGAINST TIME TO BUILD NEW TRACKING SYSTEMThe Trump administration is betting it can get millions of coronavirus shots to the Americans who need them most using a new, unproven data system that threatens to bypass state trackers that have long been mainstays in public immunization programs, POLITICO’s Darius Tahir and Rachel Roubein report.

The effort, funded by an almost $16 million sole-source contract, would help public health officials schedule Covid-19 immunizations and manage vaccine supplies, Darius and Rachel write. But some state officials are worried that the rapid pace of the project will introduce new complications, and there’s still uncertainty about what data will even need to be entered.

“It’s this bizarre, murky, muddy situation,” said Rebecca Coyle, executive director of the American Immunization Registry Association, which helps states keep tabs on childhood and adult vaccinations.

— The “Administration Management System,which is being developed by Deloitte using Salesforce technology, follows this summer’s bungled rollout of a new system to track hospital coronavirus cases that displaced a system long used by states and the CDC. The CDC says it expects an initial version of the software to be available next month.

— How CDC explains the plan to move forward: There are “inconsistent and disparate capabilities” among the states, and some systems require modernization to support increased reporting, especially to receive data in real-time, the agency said in a statement. CDC added that data collected through the new system will flow back into existing state vaccine databases.

FIRST IN PULSE: PROTECT OUR CARE HITS “ROAD” WITH VIRTUAL TOUR — The left-leaning advocacy group is kicking off its six-week “Your Health, Your Vote” campaign with virtual stops in 14 battleground states and appearances from local elected officials, prominent advocates and other speakers.

The goal: “highlight the impact of President Trump’s failed response to the coronavirus pandemic, his ongoing war on pre-existing conditions, Medicaid and Medicare and his failure to lower the cost of prescription drugs,” according to a Protect Our Care release.

— Tonight: PELOSI, SCHUMER and SEBELIUS. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and former HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius will formally launch the virtual tour, with “stops” in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Minnesota in the coming week.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo overrode local officials and centralized power during the coronavirus outbreak, which slowed reaction times and hampered the response, WSJ’s Jimmy Vielkind, Joe Palazzolo and Jacob Gershman report in a critical review.

Dueling plasma stories: The NYT’s Sharon LaFraniere, Noah Weiland and Michael D. Shear dive into how Trump told health officials to speed convalescent plasma as a coronavirus treatment, while the Washington Post’s Christopher Rowland digs into how the treatment got politicized in the first place.

An unexpected outcome of our investigation into CMS Administrator Seema Verma: Journalist Susan Page, who hosted an off-record “Girl’s Night” honoring Verma, is under scrutiny ahead of next month’s VP debate, which she’s set to moderate. The Washington Post’s Jeremy Barr has more.

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