Public Policy News – March 2021
President Biden Signs COVID-Relief Bill Into Law
NIH Announces New Diversity and Inclusion Initiative and RFI
Biden Administration Adds ED Officials; Senate Confirms HHS Nominee
President Biden signed into law the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion COVID-aid package. Most of the funding will cover $1,400 in direct payments to individuals and households and $300 a week in supplemental pandemic-related unemployment aid through September 6. Also included in the package are $360 billion for state and local aid, $160 billion for COVID vaccines and testing, and $7.6 billion for community health centers. The legislation also provides $39.5 billion to provide emergency student aid and support for institutions of higher education distributed through Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds. Additionally, the law makes federal student loan forgiveness nontaxable, a first step in a possible action by the Administration or Congress to implement some form of student loan forgiveness.
Attention in Congress is likely to turn to another massive legislative package focused on infrastructure and climate. Members of Congress and the Administration may use a broad definition of these areas, perhaps including support for environmental justice and public health in their efforts.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has announced a new program, the UNITE Initiative, to strengthen diversity, equity, and inclusion in the research enterprise. This followed a February 26 special meeting of the Institutes’ Advisory Committee to the Director to review NIH’s ongoing efforts to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion and end structural racism in biomedical research. NIH leadership has spent the past year engaged in stakeholder conversations, planning meetings to determine how it can best address racism in the scientific workforce, and discussing short- and long-term actions NIH can take to end structural racism in science.
As an initial step, NIH has published a request for information (RFI) inviting comments and suggestions to strengthen racial equity, diversity, and inclusion in biomedical research. The RFI seeks input on the biomedical workforce, policies and partnerships, and research areas. Comments must be submitted electronically by April 9. CSWE and the Society for Social Work and Research plan to submit a joint response.
The UNITE Initiative comprises five subcommittees, each organized around a theme central to NIH’s diversity, equity, and inclusion objectives:
- Understanding stakeholder experiences through listening and learning
- New research on health disparities, minority health, and health equity
- Improving the NIH culture and structure for equity, inclusion, and excellence
- Transparency, communication, and accountability with internal and external stakeholders
- Extramural research ecosystem: changing policy, culture, and structure to promote workforce diversity
Several of these subinitiatives will result in new funding priorities related to health disparities and minority health, including new Common Fund programs to support transformative research to eliminate health disparities and lead to innovative interventions. In addition, the UNITE Initiative will review existing NIH grant programs and grantee demographics related to career pathways, institutional culture, and NIH processes to identify new programs and policies that will enhance equity in the NIH funded research enterprise.
Miguel Cardona was confirmed by the Senate on March 1 as secretary of education. Other key officials awaiting confirmation include Cindy Marten as deputy secretary. Issues facing these new appointees include responding to a pledge by President Biden to reopen schools, implementation of COVID-19 relief packages passed by Congress, developing a fiscal year 2022 budget for the ED, and addressing the regulatory shift that occurred under the previous administration. President Biden nominated James Kvaal, president of the Institute for College Access and Success think tank, to be under secretary of education overseeing postsecondary education, adult and vocational education, and federal student aid. Kvaal previously served as a White House deputy domestic policy adviser and deputy under secretary for education during the Obama Administration and is expected to advance policies to increase the Pell Grant, strengthen student loan repayment options, and improve higher education affordability generally. He awaits Senate confirmation.
President Biden also appointed Michelle Asha Cooper, PhD, currently president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, as deputy assistant secretary for postsecondary education. Dr. Cooper will additionally serve as acting assistant secretary and oversee the ED Office of Postsecondary Education until a permanent assistant secretary is nominated and confirmed.
Additionally, the Senate narrowly voted (50–49) to confirm California Attorney General Xavier Becerra as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) was the only Republican to vote in favor of Secretary Becerra, giving him the least amount of Republican support of any of President Biden’s cabinet choices. Becerra’s confirmation vote comes after two other nominees for key public health leadership posts at HHS—Dr. Vivek Murthy as U.S. surgeon general and Dr. Rachel Levine as assistant secretary for health—were approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. Their nominations now head to the full chamber for a vote.
The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) released a report titled “High and Rising Mortality Rates Among Working-Age Adults.” The report highlights the key drivers of increasing death rates and disparities in working-age mortality over the period 1990 to 2017.