Editor’s Note: Morning 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.
— The health department’s $300 million campaign to “inspire hope” about coronavirus is highly irregular and has raised red flags, according to a POLITICO report.
— Democrats are seizing on the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to warn that her confirmation to the Supreme Court would spell the end of Obamacare.
— Health officials are struggling to explain how President Donald Trump’s promised drug discount cards for seniors would work and whether it’s even legal.
WELCOME TO MONDAY PULSE — Where we’re already circling Friday’s scheduled showdown between HHS Secretary Alex Azar and House Oversight’s select committee on the coronavirus. Sending viewing tips and other tidbits to [email protected] and [email protected].
THE HEALTH DEPARTMENT’S IRREGULAR COVID AD CAMPAIGN — The department is proceeding with interviews of celebrities like actor Dennis Quaid and singer CeCe Winans in its multimillion-dollar effort to “defeat despair” about the coronavirus, POLITICO’s Dan Diamond scooped on Friday.
The $300 million campaign — with a goal of getting public service announcements up before the election — was conceived by top HHS spokesperson and Trump loyalist Michael Caputo. It’s been closely steered by his deputies and is relying on a business partner of Caputo to film the videos.
The effort has been roundly criticized by Democrats, particularly given the timing of trying to rush ads on air. “Instead of acting to slow the spread, Trump is taking $300 million from the CDC for an election season ad campaign,” Rep. Adam Schiff tweeted. “It’s corrupt, pathetic, and deadly.”
— PULSE’s observation: There can be value in hearing more from public health experts, like infectious-disease expert Tony Fauci and Surgeon General Jerome Adams, who have already cut potential public service announcements for the campaign. Quaid and Winans also have said that they volunteered their time and insisted the conversations were not political.
But current and former HHS officials agreed: This is not how the department has ever run a public health awareness campaign, particularly one of this size, and it gives significant power to a small group of political appointees with little oversight.
“It’s like every red flag I could dream of,” said Josh Peck, a former HHS official who oversaw the Obama administration’s advertising campaign for HealthCare.gov.
Among the oddities:
— The CDC is paying $300 MILLION for a campaign it doesn’t control. HHS abruptly pulled the money from the agency over the summer, offering little clarity on where the funds would go.
CDC officials, who historically play a major role in public service awareness campaigns, have been shut out of developing this one.
— The filming itself is being handled by CAPUTO’s former business partner and client, Den Tolmor, a Russian-born filmmaker who doesn’t have experience making public health campaigns. HHS recommended to contractors that they use Tolmor’s firm, the department and contractor Atlas Research told POLITICO.
Tolmor was paying Caputo to do public relations work when Caputo joined the Trump administration in April, according to Caputo’s ethics disclosure form, which was obtained by POLITICO.
— HHS also hasn’t coordinated with the AD COUNCIL, the communications industry’s not-for-profit consortium that has spent decades partnering with the government on campaigns to fight public health problems like AIDS, opioids and obesity.
While the Ad Council earlier this year worked with the federal government and CDC specifically to promote the brand-new Coronavirus.gov website, a representative told POLITICO that the council is “not playing any role” with the current Caputo-conceived campaign.
HHS DEFENDED THE ARRANGEMENT — “There is no room for political spin in the messages and materials designed by HHS to help Americans make informed decisions about the prevention and treatment of Covid-19 and flu,” said Mark Weber, a career HHS public affairs official, in a statement. Caputo delegated the project to Weber before taking medical leave.
Weber added that he wasn’t aware of any pre-existing work between Tolmor and Caputo. Weber also dismissed questions about why Jeffrey Souder, who’s worked for Caputo’s private public relations firms, was also involved in the campaign. “I don’t know who Jeffrey Souder is, nor is he working on any part of the public service advertising effort,” Weber said.
Tolmor and Souder didn’t respond to requests for comment. Caputo, who was diagnosed with cancer last week, referred questions to HHS.
CHUCK SCHUMER: DEMOCRATS MUST FOCUS ON HEALTH CARE TO BEAT BARRETT — In a letter to his colleagues late Saturday, the Senate minority leader laid out how Senate Democrats will try to build opposition to Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court, POLITICO’s Burgess Everett reports: by focusing on how she could be the deciding vote to strike down the Affordable Care Act, with the high court set to hear the latest case on November 10.
“All the data show that with COVID raging, the number one priority for the American people is health care — its affordability, accessibility and quality,” Schumer wrote in the Dear Colleague note to other Democratic senators, obtained by POLITICO. “We must focus like a laser on health care because Judge Barrett’s record is so clear on this issue.”
That’s a message that’s been echoed across the caucus, including by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who recently made the case for stumping on a health care message on POLITICO’s “Pulse Check” podcast.
— The hearings are set to start Oct. 12, Burgess writes, and expected to last four days, similar to other recent confirmations.
The opening statements will be Monday, the first round of questions will be Tuesday, followed by a second round of questions and a closed session on Wednesday. Finally, outside witnesses will present on Thursday.
— Senate Republicans appear to have the votes to confirm Barrett, and it’s not clear who would back off amid Democrats’ efforts to stress the risk to Obamacare.
Meanwhile, Congress could easily make the ACA lawsuit go away with a legislative fix but probably won’t, Paige Cunningham writes in the Washington Post’s “Health 202.”
THE CONFUSION AROUND TRUMP’s DRUG CARDS — The administration says it can execute a plan to send $200 drug discount cards to older Americans by using existing powers to test new ways of delivering health care.
But critics see it as a brazen election-year ploy to buy votes that could exceed presidential authority while sapping Medicare’s finances, POLITICO’s Rachel Roubein and Susannah Luthi report.
— The doubts: Skeptics seized on the way the administration may rely on projected savings from a new drug pricing initiative still under development to justify the more than $6 billion expense as a sign the plan is built on flimsy promises.
Congress also hasn’t authorized spending money on the cards. Administration officials at a briefing Friday morning did not tell senior congressional staff about what pots of money would be tapped to launch the effort, though one former administration official with knowledge said the Medicare trust fund is a likely target.
DON’T COUNT ON HERD IMMUNITY YET — A study of more than 28,500 dialysis patients published Friday in The Lancet found fewer than 10 percent of U.S. adults had coronavirus antibodies as of July — far below what public health experts say is needed to achieve herd immunity, POLITICO’s David Lim reports.
“This research clearly confirms that despite high rates of Covid-19 in the United States, the number of people with antibodies is still low and we haven’t come close to achieving herd immunity,” study author Julie Parsonnet, a Stanford University infectious diseases expert, said in a statement.
North Dakota’s interim health officer resigned after the state rescinded its quarantine order — the third person to step down from the position since the pandemic began, Jeremy Turley writes for the Grand Forks Herald.
CDC pulled door-to-door surveyors out of Minnesota after they reported being targeted with racist slurs and intimidation, Jeremy Olson writes for the Star Tribune.
Elizabeth Ralph looks at how the pandemic finally ends — assuming a vaccine arrives — in POLITICO Magazine.