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Key Takeaways from Senate HELP Committee Hearing with Biden Officials on Missing COVID-19 Strategy

Today, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) held a hearing with Biden Administration officials from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) on the continued federal response to COVID-19.

Here are some of the key takeaways:

#1: The Biden Administration still does not have a strategic plan to address future COVID-19 variants and regain public trust, two and a half years into the pandemic.

In his opening statement, Senator Richard Burr (R-NC), Ranking Member of the Senate HELP Committee, criticized the Administration for its failure to release a comprehensive COVID-19 plan, after receiving an insufficient, “confidential” one-pager from the White House.

“Now, in early May this plan went out. It just tells me what you would buy if you got $10 billion and what you would buy if you got $17.5 billion, and it says ‘confidential.’ This isn’t a plan. When is somebody going to share with the American people the destination that we are trying to get to, and how we’re going to get to that destination?”

Senator Burr continued, “I have asked you over and over for the plan. The plan for gaining back the trust of the American people, and moving our country forward. Six months later, I still have not received an adequate response as to what the plan actually is.”

#2: The Administration made “patently false” claims about available COVID-19 funding as it pressed Congress for billions in new spending.

Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) called out the Administration for its disingenuous claims to Congress that it would be unable to purchase more vaccines and therapeutics without additional funding. When in fact, a few months later, the Administration surprisingly diverted more than $10 billion for these purchases.

“The Administration has recklessly and unilaterally spent taxpayers’ money, we’ve run-away inflation, but instead of taking a real inventory of funds they had at their disposal, they said, ‘hey, we need more money.’”

Senator Romney continued, “For the Administration to provide information to us that was patently false is something which dramatically attacks [this] trust, which I have, members of my party have, members of both parties have. And I hope there’s an appreciation that for the Administration to say they could not purchase these things and then, after several months, divert some funds and then purchase them is unacceptable, and makes our ability to work together and have confidence in what we’re being told very much shaken to the core.”

In his closing remarks, Senator Burr blasted Administration officials for their continued efforts to disregard Congressional oversight requests, while simultaneously requesting billions more in funding.

“This has been the most well-orchestrated event that I’ve seen in the 28 years that I’ve been here. And for most of you, you’ve been willing participants in it. This was designed to pressure Republicans to open a checkbook, sign the check, and let the Administration fill in the balance. With no detail on how, when, or what that was being asked for. I’ve never in 28 years seen an attempt to get an outcome without answering questions.”

Senator Burr continued, “I will say this to each and every one of you. Nobody has worked harder on this issue, I think, on the Hill than I have. Nobody has gone to bat for emergency money with no strings attached than I have. But there is a point in time where my patience runs out, where the requirement I have for my constituents in North Carolina, for my colleagues in the minority, which are 50, exactly what’s in the majority, requires a degree of detail that you and this Administration are not willing to share.”

#3: Biden’s public health officials could not specify the percentage of employees at each agency who have returned from telework. 

In his line of questioning, Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA) expressed frustration over the stewardship of taxpayer dollars, after Assistant Secretary of Preparedness and Response (ASPR) Dawn O’Connell was uncertain how many days HHS employees have been working in the office.

“If you dissemble, it makes me think you aren’t in the office and you don’t want to give me a straight answer. I’m speaking on behalf of the American people who are paying taxes, and a lot of salaries, and they think people aren’t showing up to work.” Senator Cassidy continued, “There’s a perception that your agencies are underperforming and you’re not showing up. That is not good stewardship.”

Following Senator Cassidy’s questions, Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) underscored how the infant formula crisis was exacerbated by the fact that people weren’t working regular schedules in FDA’s mailroom.

“In response to a question by Dr. Cassidy, you refereed to a return-to-work pilot program. How many FDA employees are part of that pilot program, as opposed to working full time in the office or in the field?” Senator Collins asked.

FDA Commissioner Dr. Califf responded, “A majority are in the pilot program in one way or another. The goal is to adjust to the maximum productivity and job satisfaction.” 

Senator Collins continued, “But, they can’t do their job if they aren’t present.”

In his closing remarks, Senator Burr highlighted how remote work has interfered with the Administration’s ability to do its job. 

“FDA failed to identify a crisis with baby formula,” said Senator Burr. “CDC, I think, failed to lead as it relates to monkeypox. Secretary Becerra when I wrote him and asked him about HHS staffing and if they were actually working and not at the office, [he] wouldn’t provide me anything. Now, none of you seem to know how many people in your complex…aren’t at work – pilot programs, executive declarations – that makes me wonder how you measure whether people are actually working when at home.”

Dr. Califf was previously asked about FDA’s telework policies during a Senate HELP Committee hearingon the infant formula shortage on May 26, 2022.