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4 Healthcare Topics to Watch in the First Trump-Biden Presidential Debate

By Jack O'Brien  
   September 25, 2020

Several important healthcare policies and trends are likely to be discussed Tuesday night.

President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden are scheduled to face off in the first 2020 presidential debate Tuesday night.

The debate between Trump, the incumbent Republican, and Biden, the Democratic nominee, will be moderated by Fox News' Chris Wallace, who earlier this week released a list of six topics he intends to cover during the 90-minute affair.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which has infected more than 7 million and killed over 200,000 Americans, is among the debate topics on the list but other healthcare policies and trends are also likely to be discussed.

Below are four healthcare topics that might get debated by Trump and Biden.

1. COVID-19 response

The core of the debate is likely to center on the coronavirus outbreak, which has upended the American economy and caused an unprecedented public health crisis.

The nation just passed the six-month mark since the outbreak began in mid-March and the Trump administration has received substantial criticism for its handling of the pandemic.

Most recently, the administration has been criticized for its messaging about the virus and a decision by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to publish and then withdraw a guidance about the aerosol spread of the virus.

Related: President Trump Defends Price Transparency Rule, Attacks Medicare for All at State of the Union

Trump's approach to the pandemic even prompted Scientific American to endorse Biden, marking the magazine's first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history.

Conversely, Trump is likely to highlight the administration's strategic and economic responses to the challenges presented by the coronavirus as well as the ongoing effort to produce an effective vaccine through Operation Warp Speed.

2. Race to a vaccine

Currently, there are several coronavirus vaccine efforts underway and while a few have progressed to Phase 3 trials, there are still lingering concerns about the lack of diversity among volunteers and the timeline going forward.

In an effort to reassure the public, Moncef Slaoui, the former pharmaceutical executive and leader of the U.S. vaccine effort, promised earlier this month that he would resign if politics trump science in the push for a coronavirus vaccine.

Additionally, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar responded to criticism from Biden and his vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., saying that a coronavirus vaccine would not be driven by politics and instead meet "very high safety and efficacy standards."

Azar doubled down this week, telling The Today Show he would be "first in line" for a COVID-19 vaccine when it's available.

3. Fate of the ACA

'The Supreme Court' is included on Wallace's list of debate topics, which is timely given the recent passing of Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. 

Ginsburg's death comes at a crucial time in a contentious election cycle but also could have major ramifications for healthcare policy in this country.

Trump announced his nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to replace Ginsburg during a ceremony at the White House on Saturday, while Biden has not released a list of potential Supreme Court nominees, despite pledging to select a Black woman.

Related: Without Ginsburg, Judicial Threats to the ACA, Reproductive Rights Heighten

Ginsburg was a liberal stalwart on the court, having defended the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in several rulings, including the landmark National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius case in 2012, which upheld most provisions of the healthcare legislation.

Now, as the ACA faces a major legal challenge in California v. Texas, Ginsburg's absence could affect millions of Americans who have received healthcare coverage through the law. 

In June, the Department of Justice argued in a brief that the individual mandate, which was zeroed out as part of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, cannot be severed from the remainder of the ACA and that therefore, the entire law must fall.

4. Healthcare objectives for 2021

The future of healthcare policy following the election will likely get discussed Tuesday night.

Despite multiple unsuccessful efforts to pass a repeal-and-replace healthcare plan for the ACA, Trump has enacted significant legislative and regulatory changes in the healthcare industry during his first term.

In an interview with Wallace in July, Trump said the administration would unveil a healthcare plan in two-week's time but that has still not been released.

Additionally, The New York Times reported last week that the administration had been negotiating with the pharmaceutical industry on a deal to lower prescription drug costs but then demanded the companies send $100 cash cards to seniors before the election, which prompted drugmakers to walk away.

For his part, Biden has pledged to strengthen the ACA though has not embraced a 'Medicare for All'-style plan to achieve universal healthcare coverage.

Related: With Healthcare a Top Issue for Voters, What do Biden and Trump Propose?

Jack O'Brien is the finance editor at HealthLeaders, a Simplify Compliance brand.

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