Government Affairs and Advocacy

Feb. 26 Federal Update: Congress Nears Deal on WIC and SNAP

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February 26, 2024

Lawmakers are on the verge of finalizing a significant deal to break the funding gridlock in Congress before a partial government shutdown on March 2. Discussions center around a potential arrangement in which a pilot program narrowing food options for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) beneficiaries would be launched in return for increased funding for other nutritional programs, such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). Championed by Chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture Andy Harris (R-Md.), the proposed pact includes the SNAP-choice pilot program within the Agriculture-Food and Drug Administration spending bill. The bill bolsters WIC, which faces an imminent funding shortfall.

The pilot initiative, designed to encourage healthier dietary decisions, has ignited controversy within nutrition advocacy circles as well as the food industry. Despite these ongoing disputes and reservations, the increased funding allocations for a range of nutritional programs signals a comprehensive endeavor to tackle funding challenges and strengthen food assistance initiatives. There is opposition from some House Democrats who advocate for disentangling the SNAP-choice initiative from bipartisan WIC funding endeavors; however, the deal has already been elevated to congressional leaders who, reportedly, will finalize it within days.

New HHS Study Highlights Positive Fiscal Impact of Refugees and Asylees

A recent comprehensive study conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) reveals the substantial positive fiscal impact of refugees and asylees on the American economy from 2005 to 2019. HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said, “This historic federal study is important data-driven evidence demonstrating that over time, refugees, asylees, and their immediate families have made significant positive fiscal contributions to our country.”

The study underscores the notable contributions made by refugees and asylees to both the U.S. government and society. Key findings indicate, during the 15-year period, refugees and asylees had a positive net fiscal impact of nearly $124 billion, with substantial contributions to government revenue totaling $581 billion. While the study acknowledges the initial costs associated with governmental expenditures on refugees and asylees, it emphasizes the long-term positive cumulative effects on government budgets. According to ASPE, the report helps the public to understand the positive financial return on assistance to refugees and asylees.

HUD Releases Update to Equity Action Plan

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) unveiled the 2023 update to its Equity Action Plan, in line with the Biden-Harris Administration’s overarching equity agenda. In a statement, Secretary Marcia L. Fudge emphasized HUD’s dedication to rectifying historical disparities, particularly affecting marginalized groups like Black, Brown, and low-income individuals. HUD’s Equity Action Plan aims to embed equity into all facets of its operations, echoing the administration’s directive to prioritize racial equity.

Since its initial release in 2022, HUD has facilitated homeownership for approximately a quarter of a million Black individuals through Federal Housing Administration (FHA) mortgages. Additionally, HUD has advanced initiatives such as finalizing rules on Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) to address housing inequality as well as reinstating the Discriminatory Effects Rule to combat systemic housing discrimination. The agency has also expanded access to housing counseling and provided $10 million to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) for housing and community development research. Moreover, HUD allocated $30 million to fair housing organizations and implemented measures to provide second chances for individuals with criminal records in public housing.

Senate HELP Committee Holds Hearing on Drug Prices

On Feb. 8, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions hosted a hearing entitled, “Why Does the United States Pay, by Far, the Highest Prices in the World for Prescription Drugs?” The first panel was made up of CEOs from three major pharmaceutical companies: Johnson & Johnson, Merck, and Bristol Myers Squibb. The CEOs highlighted their companies’ contributions to healthcare innovation and pressed lawmakers to support policies that encourage innovation, price transparency, and health equity while avoiding policies like drug price controls.

The second panel of experts began with Peter Maybarduk of Public Citizen, who underscored the financial obstacles to medication access, particularly for vulnerable populations, and criticized pharmaceutical companies for exploiting their market power through patent abuse. He acknowledged recent efforts by the Biden administration but urged further reforms to alleviate the crisis, such as targeting practices of specific companies.

Tahir Amin from Initiative for Medicines, Access & Knowledge argued the rampant use of patent thickets to extend market monopolies in the pharmaceutical industry is a widespread issue. He suggested Congress redefine what qualifies as a patent-worthy invention, as many patents are granted for trivial modifications rather than truly innovative breakthroughs. Darius Lakdawalla of the University of Southern California Schaeffer Center emphasized the need to balance medical innovation with affordability, cautioning against blunt price controls and advocating for policies that align drug prices with their value to stimulate beneficial innovation. He suggested legislation promoting transparency and affordable insurance coverage can help address accessibility issues for American families.

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