Science Policy

A Bipartisan Health Agenda to Unite America: Innovative Ideas to Strengthen American Wellbeing

03.08.23 | 5 min read | Text by Grace Wickerson

As the COVID-19 pandemic has clearly shown – American health is crucial to the health of our nation. Yet American health is under threat from all angles, from escalating chronic deadly diseases like cancer to rising mental health challenges and the growing overdose epidemic. All of these threats contribute to the United States ranking 31st in life expectancy at birth, one of the lowest in the developed world, despite having the highest health spending per capita.

At the State of the Union, the Biden Administration presented a bipartisan platform dedicated to securing the health and wellbeing of the American people, from our Veterans to our youth. An agenda is a first step – unified action on public health comes next. Evidence-based science policy can bring us closer to a healthier future. Since 2020, policy entrepreneurs have developed innovative implementation-ready policy proposals through the Day One Project (D1P) to tackle some of the biggest societal problems. Here are a few that speak to the current moment:

To combat cancer…

With the median monthly cost of cancer drugs topping $10,000, many families cannot afford the costs of caring for their loved ones. Yet, there are 1,100 FDA-approved off-patent generics that could be used for treating cancer, at a fraction of the cost. Congress should appropriate $100 million into Phase III clinical trials of off-patent generics for treating a variety of cancers. This funding can go towards the National Cancer Institute and be implemented through an open-source pharmaceutical R&D framework through accelerated progress towards accessible and affordable cures.

Environmental hazards are a growing driver of cancers, and disproportionately impact rural and disadvantaged communities. Air pollution has been linked to lung cancer, the most deadly cancer for both men and women in the US. An interagency collaboration led by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and leveraging funds from the Inflation Reduction Act could deploy a network on low-cost, real-time, ground-based sensors in all 300 US cities with a population above 100,000 to track particulate matter rates. Connecting this data to relevant providers in these cities, such as federally-qualified community health centers, could inform physicians of high-risk sites to target early screening interventions. Further, materials composing American homes, from housing materials to pipe materials, and even water running in the faucets, have been identified as possible sources of carcinogens. The Biden Administration should launch the President’s Task Force on Healthy Housing and Water for Cancer Prevention to coordinate research, develop the statistical database, and prepare for regulatory actions.

Finally, innovations in primary care can also catch cancer at earlier stages in disease progression. Yet, many rural and disadvantaged communities lack access to primary care. The NIH’s $23 million investment investigating telehealth for cancer care will develop the best care strategies – but labor-market, technical, financial/regulatory barriers, and data barriers will remain for scaling to the broad population. The Biden Administration and Congress will need to collaborate to unlock barriers to delivering healthcare services directly to the American home, through reforming licensure, expanding broadband access, investing in new mobile healthcare devices, expanding Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements, and ensuring data interoperability.

To strengthen mental health…

Digital mental health technologies have enormous potential to combat the growing mental health crisis, as evidenced by the Administration’s plan on mental health research and development. Yet more work remains to build a national infrastructure for successful implementation of digital mental health services. The vast majority of digital mental health technologies are unregulated, as existing FDA standards fail to cover these emerging technologies because many do not make treatment claims. Congress should authorize Health and Human Services (HHS) to develop standards for digital mental health products to ensure clinical effectiveness, data safety, and mitigate risk. Technologies that meet these standards should then be reimbursable through Medicare and Medicaid, which will require further congressional action. Finally, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) should create a National Center for Digital Mental Health to maintain a database of approved digital products, provide training to providers, and ensure compliance of developers with national standards.

Knowing that tech platforms can be harmful to the youth’s wellbeing, the Congress and the Administration can take several steps to protect children’s privacy. Congress can expand the technological expertise at the Department of Education (ED) to protect children’s privacy and security in schools as well as appropriate $160 million funding to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to expand Children’s Online Protection Privacy Act (COPPA) enforcement and further investigate technology companies extracting children’s data. The Administration can commission a task force to identify ways to protect children’s data through existing legislation such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and COPPA.

To tackle the opioid crisis…

The opioid crisis is claiming thousands of lives every year, and there is bipartisan consensus on action. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) has sought strategies to prevent opioid use disorders – which will require reforms to the insurance reimbursement model which less generously covers preventative services. The Biden Administration should pilot a multidisciplinary study group to implement payment for prevention, using opioid use disorders as the test case. Following the guidance of the study group, CMS should provide guidelines to contracts between states and managed care organizations (MCOs) and between MCOs and providers and provide necessary technical assistance to implement these guidelines.

To deliver on care for Veterans…

Five million veterans live in rural areas, and of those, 45% lack access to reliable broadband internet, reducing access to vital health services. To ensure Veterans remain connected to healthcare services wherever they are, the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) should partner with the Postal Service and/or Department of Agriculture to pilot telehealth hubs in rural communities using existing FY23 appropriations for telehealth. An initial focus of care delivery could be on digital mental health and suicide prevention. Going forward, care delivery innovations like this one, if successful, can inspire new policies for the broader population, if the VHA’s health policy mission is expanded. VHA should be added to strategic interagency health policy coalitions such as the ACA interagency working group on healthcare quality and Healthy People 2030 to share data, develop innovative projects, and evaluate progress.

There’s more work to be done to build a healthier future for all Americans – these ideas can be jumping off points for Executive and Congressional action. FAS will continue to develop and surface evidence-based policies that can make a difference, and submissions to the Day One project are always welcome.