Cantwell Questions Becerra on Washington Counterfeit Mask Issue, Health Care Affordability

WASHINGTON, D.C. – At a hearing today to consider the nomination of California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to be Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) questioned Becerra about drug shortages and health care affordability and asked him, if confirmed, to develop a taskforce to investigate counterfeit masks given to Washington hospitals.

In her Q&A, Cantwell asked Becerra to be aggressive in looking into the up to two million counterfeit N95 respirators given to dozens of Washington hospitals. On February 19, Cantwell wrote to the Acting Chair of the FTC asking them to open an investigation and establish a taskforce with other agencies to identify and crack down on counterfeit personal protective equipment (PPE).

“The issue on N95 masks and frauds have come up in the State of Washington. I want to know that you’ll do everything you can. I personally believe that we need a taskforce at this point in time between the FDA, Border and Customs, and DOJ and others to look at this issue,” Cantwell said. “We have health care workers, and we’re asking them to go into these situations and then they’re finding out that big, vast amounts of their supply of these masks don’t meet the standards. We need to be aggressive here with the FDA on a taskforce to make sure we’re looking into this.”

Discussing drug shortages in communities around the country, Cantwell asked about the role of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the oversight of drug pricing and supply: “We had a chance to discuss drug shortage issues, the fact that the price of insulin is just too darn high,” Cantwell said. “Do you think there is more that the FDA and the FTC should do in this area?”

“There’s no reason to see the spikes that we’ve seen in insulin, is that correct?” That there are policies we could be putting in place?”

After Becerra confirmed that some price spikes have been artificially created, Cantwell said: “I plan to do a lot on this issue as it relates to the Federal Trade Commission and its oversight.”

On the issue of health care affordability, Cantwell spoke about the Basic Health Plan, a provision she helped secure in the Affordable Care Act that is modeled on Washington state’s Basic Health Plan. The program was a highly successful state-funded health insurance program that became the first of its kind in the nation when late Governor Booth Gardner signed it into law in 1987.

“Turning now to the broader issues of affordability of health care, we also had the chance to talk about the Basic Health Plan, something that was part of the Affordable Care Act to take care of people above the Medicaid rate but at a very cost effective way to bundle people who don’t have access to insurance… It still leaves states in control of helping to negotiate on those programs. The end result of that has been 800,000 people in the state of New York buying insurance at basically $500 in an annual premium and saving more than $1,000 in what we would save for those individuals on the silver plan.”

Becerra responded: “It’s another way, especially for states that are willing to put skin in the game to make this happen to try to get to the point where we’re providing more coverage, better coverage at lower costs.”

Video of Senator Cantwell’s Q&A with Becerra is available HERE, audio is HERE, and a transcript is HERE.