Apr 9, 2018

Axios Vitals

By Caitlin Owens
Caitlin Owens

Good morning ... People are apparently hoarding some of the world’s worst candy. Hope you did something more rational with your weekend.

Congress is back and buckling down on opioids

Photo: Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Both the Senate and the House are pushing forward this week on their respective opioid legislation.

  • The Senate health committee is marking up the bipartisan bill it released last week, and the House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold its third and final hearing on opioid legislation. Both committees will meet Wednesday.
  • The Senate bill would give the National Institutes of Health money to research new, less addictive pain treatments; clarify the Food and Drug Administration's authority over packaging changes and seizure of illegal drug shipments; and expand access to treatment and mental health programs in schools.

What’s next: Leaders in both chambers support passing opioid legislation this year, and so far Congress is cruising smoothly towards doing so.

  • Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would "like to give us floor time if what we report is bipartisan and a good product. So far it passes both tests," a senior GOP Senate aide told my colleague Caitlin Owens.
  • And in the House, per an E&C aide: "Chairman Walden continues to push toward his goal of having legislation [on] the House floor ahead of the Memorial Day recess. We hope to begin marking up legislation in the coming weeks."
Health care is still a reliable jobs engine
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Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics; Chart: Axios Visuals

The health care industry is inching closer to employing 16 million people, keeping it ahead of the retail and manufacturing industries as the country's largest source of jobs. In the 18 months since President Trump was elected, health care companies have added an average of 24,000 jobs per month.

The bottom line: Everyone gets sick and dies, making health care a mostly recession-proof industry. But rising health care employment isn’t necessarily good for the economy: more jobs inevitably leads to higher spending.

Jackson: "I've got what it takes" to lead VA

Ronny Jackson, the White House doctor and Trump's pick to be the next Veterans Affairs secretary, defended his management experience over the weekend in an interview with the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal.

  • Jackson is well liked in the White House and seems well regarded as a doctor, but some critics — and even some Republicans — aren't sure that's enough to lead the second-largest federal bureaucracy.

Key quote: Here's how Jackson responded to those questions with the Avalanche-Journal:

“I’ve been in leadership school for 23 years now. ... And I’ve been able to rise to the level of an admiral, a flag officer in the Navy. I didn’t just stumble into that. So I’ve gotten a lot of leadership background, I’ve got a lot of leadership experience as a Navy officer, and I’ve got a lot of day-to-day leadership experience,” he said. “You know, I’m not just an officer in the Navy; I’m an emergency medicine physician in the military. I’ve been confronted on a day-to-day basis with life and death decisions."
“I think I’ve got what it takes, and you know, I don’t buy into that argument at all.”
Blues face a setback in antitrust lawsuit

A federal judge last week dealt the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association an early but potentially significant setback in litigation that accuses Blues' plans of anti-competitive practices.

  • The lawsuits "allege that the insurers are illegally conspiring to divvy up markets and avoid competing against one another," The Wall Street Journal reports.
  • A federal trial judge in Alabama found some merit to those claims, ruling last week that the Blues' challengers had presented evidence to support an antitrust claim, though lawyers on both sides acknowledged to the WSJ that this case still has a long way to go.

Why it matters: Blues' plans are the largest players in many state insurance markets — and the only insurer in some parts of the Affordable Care Act's markets.

While you were weekending ...
  • Sen. Susan Collins said on CNN that McConnell had followed through on the health care-related promises that helped secure her vote for the tax bill. "It was blocked actually by senators on the other side of the aisle. That was something that I never anticipated," she said.
  • Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan signed a bipartisan bill to create a $380 million reinsurance program in the state, which should help moderate the next round of premium increases in the state.
  • A key Republican in the Virginia legislature says he's OK expanding Medicaid if it's paired with a more generous tax cut to help middle-class people afford their premiums, which seems like a condition Democrats should be able to accept. The Washington Post has the details.
  • Medicare could be the next big business opportunity for Uber and Lyft, Forbes' Bruce Japsen writes.
  • Novartis is buying AveXis for $8.7 billion, making a big bet on gene therapy, Reuters reports.
Caitlin Owens

What we're watching today: The Atlantic holds a day-long health care event.

What we're watching this week: Opioid hearings on Wednesday (see above). House appropriators hold a hearing Thursday on the health care workforce in rural areas.

What are you watching? Let me know: baker@axios.com.