In a State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Joe Biden highlighted the country's need for quality mental health services and called for action to combat rising drug prices.
He also discussed how the U.S. can get back to "more normal routines" despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Biden announced a "test to treat" program that would allow people to receive a COVID-19 test at a pharmacy and immediately get free antiviral pills, such as Pfizer's Paxlovid or Merck's molnupiravir.
Biden also pledged to remain vigilant against the coronavirus. "I cannot promise a new variant won't come. But I can promise you we'll do everything within our power to be ready if it does," he said, according to prepared remarks.
He called for allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices, an idea Democrats have continued to put forward in recent months — although legislation has been scaled back. Late last year, members put forward a bill that would allow negotiation for a limited number of older drugs that aren't protected by regulatory exclusivity and which don't have generic competitors.
The president in particular called out insulin prices, and said those costs should be capped at $35 a month. In March 2020, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services put forward a model with this proposal, but it is voluntary. Some payers, including Cigna and Express Scripts, had previously stuck to this cap, but it remains inaccessible to many.
"Drug companies will still do very well," Biden added.
Also, Biden namechecked a request in the beleaguered Build Back Better legislation to make permanent premium assistance for Affordable Care Act plans, which helped drive record numbers in open enrollment for this year.
He addressed the opioid epidemic, asking to get rid of restrictions on doctors who prescribe treatment for the disease. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has taken steps toward that goal, and last year stripped some regulations on training and other requirements for doctors who prescribe medicines like buprenorphine to treat opioid use disorder.
During the pandemic, drug overdose deaths and reports of depression and anxiety have skyrocketed.
Biden specifically requested parity in coverage for physical and mental health, a subject that has recently been discussed in Congress. Last month, two hearings on the Hill examined the country's mental health crisis, and some legislators supported giving the Department of Labor more power in enforcing parity rules, including with fines.
That followed a federal government report that found insurers aren't adequately complying with existing requirements that mental health and substance use disorder coverage be on par with coverage for other medical services.
Biden on Tuesday also reiterated his goal to cut cancer death rates in half over the next 25 years and called on Congress to fund the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health to help achieve that goal. In his budget for 2022, Biden requested $6.5 billion over three years for the agency meant to drive biomedical breakthroughs for treatment of cancer, Alzheimer's and other diseases.
The president addressed nursing home quality, and said Medicare would be setting higher standards for the facilities. He called out private equity firms that have been buying up nursing homes.
"As Wall Street firms take over more nursing homes, quality in those homes has gone down and costs have gone up," Biden said.
A Weill Cornell Medicine study from November indeed found that emergency room visits and hospitalizations increased at nursing homes that had been acquired by private equity companies.