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Alexander pushes for passage of pandemic planning law this year

The Health, Education, Labor and Pensions chairman released a 40-page white paper with recommendations

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., shown here in May, wants Congress to authorize Medicare and Medicaid to continue to pay for remote doctor and emergency care.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., shown here in May, wants Congress to authorize Medicare and Medicaid to continue to pay for remote doctor and emergency care. (Andrew Harnik/AP/Pool)

A key Republican senator is seeking ideas for legislation to address future pandemics and says Congress should consider a measure this year.

Lamar Alexander, a Tennessean who is chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, released a 40-page white paper on Tuesday with his recommendations.

The white paper outlines five areas Alexander says his committee should consider when drafting legislation. Those include how to accelerate research and development of tests, treatments and vaccines; improve disease surveillance; rebuild and sustain state and federal medical equipment stockpiles and improve supply surge capacity; bolster state and local health departments’ response capabilities; and strengthen federal agencies’ coordination.

Alexander laid out several recommendations related to each topic that could be included in legislation. He asked that others provide their ideas by June 26 and said he’ll share that feedback with committee members in both parties.

Many of the ideas that Alexander proposed aim to correct deficiencies in the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic. “Looking at lessons learned from the COVID-19 crisis, many of the challenges Congress has worked to address during the last 20 years still remain,” the white paper reads. “Additionally, COVID-19 has exposed some gaps that had not been previously identified.”

Alexander suggests that the government partner with the private sector to develop diagnostic tests and take steps to ensure that the Strategic National Stockpile of equipment can implement widespread disease testing quickly. He said states and health systems should develop their own medical stockpiles with support from the federal government.

He also said the gains made in telehealth during the current crisis should be maintained.

Among other things, Alexander said a pandemic preparedness bill should:

  • Allow for more timely communication between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, states and health professionals, and provide for the sharing of that information with the public as appropriate.
  • Ask those parties to work together to identify barriers to earlier detection of cases.
  • Build on existing public-private partnerships to stockpile excess medical supplies that may be needed for a future pandemic or public health emergency.
  • Direct the Strategic National Stockpile to contract with U.S. manufacturers to ensure certain products, such as N95 masks, are available if international supply chains are disrupted.
  • Have states establish their own policies to communicate with health care providers seeking supplies from the national stockpile and provide local authorities with guidance on best practices for distributing medical supplies from the stockpile.
  • Plan in advance to effectively distribute tests, treatments and vaccines.
  • Develop a strategy to allow doctors and hospitals to provide health care services and outpatient treatment during a pandemic.
  • Maintain contact tracing capacity for infectious diseases and make plans to develop surge capacity if needed.
  • Clarify who is in charge during a pandemic or public health threat and determine who has what authorities.
  • Rehearse pandemic response plans.

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