Good morning, and we're back with Vitals. The Senate is about to take an easy Obamacare repeal vote, President-elect Trump is about to learn that Congress is slow, and Johnson & Johnson is about to take a step toward drug price transparency. Also: a look at what those Obamacare enrollment numbers really mean.
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They can start Obamacare repeal, but can they finish it?
Senate Republicans think they're probably safe on the budget resolution vote that starts the Obamacare repeal process. It's happening after a long series of amendment votes that could start Wednesday night. The bigger danger: Republicans still aren't any closer to uniting around a replacement plan afterwards, much less a timetable for passing one.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, the moderate chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, is talking up his own plan to move to a new system, Caitlin Owens reports. It's unique in that it takes a few steps, including:
- Give states way more flexibility through waivers, pass legislation letting people use subsidies outside of Obamacare marketplaces
- Congress passes a broader replacement
- Then repeals the rest of Obamacare
The Obamacare repeal state of play, in two quotes
And what will Scott Gottlieb do?
He's still very much in the running to head the Food and Drug Administration, and was starting to look like the front-runner. But Gottlieb has also been outspoken about the scientific consensus that there's really no danger in the vaccines. "We don't need more research. At some point, enough is enough," he told CNBC in 2015.
Does he still want to be FDA commissioner in an administration where he'd have to deal with a commission headed by a vaccine skeptic? And how would he handle the conflict if he takes the job? Gottlieb wouldn't comment for the record when I asked him — which isn't surprising, but still leaves him in an awkward position. Keep your eye on this one.
Johnson & Johnson's move into price transparency
The company is getting a lot of attention after promising to reveal its average prescription drug price increases next month. The catch? It's only going to be average list and net price increases — not the prices of individual drugs, reports Linda Johnson of the Associated Press.
The upside: Other drug makers could follow Johnson & Johnson's lead, especially since members of Congress have been calling on the pharmaceutical industry to show more transparency.
The downside: The move really won't shed light on individual drug prices, AP notes, because J&J doesn't want to disclose the discounts it gives to middlemen.
The Obamacare age mix hasn't changed — at all
Obamacare signups are definitely outpacing last year, according to the latest enrollment report — 11.5 million signups so far. But if you look at the age mix, it's a different story. Compared to last year's report at this time, the share of customers in each age group is almost exactly the same.
That could be a problem for the Obama administration, which has been trying to goose the young adult signups so insurers will have more healthy customers. Key points from two members of the Axios board of experts, a group of outside analysts who will contribute insights to help deepen our coverage:
- "That underscores that the individual market remains unbalanced," said Chris Condeluci, a consultant and former Senate Finance Committee Republican aide.
- But it's not necessarily bad news for insurers, Condeluci said, because they have more experience now: "They understand that the risk pool is not improving and is not likely to improve.
- Yvette Fontenot, a former Democratic Senate aide and Health and Human Services official, said the bottom line is that enrollment is higher than ever: "Just goes to show that few things are quite as motivating as threatening to take away a family's health insurance."
Liquid biopsies and other health care tech to watch
The nonprofit ECRI Institute has released its list of the top 10 advances in health care technology that will have the biggest impact this year, according to Healthcare IT News. A few of the highlights:
- Liquid biopsies (genetic tests that use bodily fluids instead of biopsied tissue)
- Genetic testing and biosensors to see who's at risk for opioid addiction
- Web-based tools and coaching that can help patients recover from abdominal surgery
Obama's challenge: Come up with something better
Reality check: Obama has been saying things like this for years: If you have better ideas, Republicans, send 'em my way. Now that they're on the road to repeal, it's his parting challenge, and it's easy to make — because he and most Democrats are sure that Republicans won't be able to do it. They're about to have their chance to prove him wrong.
What we're watching today: Trump press conference, 11 a.m. Eastern; Senate "vote-a-rama" on budget resolution leading to Obamacare repeal, starting around 6 p.m. Eastern.
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