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Congress appears to be inching ever closer to agreement on a long-delayed COVID-19 relief bill, which would extend unemployment insurance and other emergency programs set to expire in the next several days. That bill, however, apparently will not include the top-priority items for both political parties: business liability protections supported by Republicans and aid to states and localities sought by Democrats.

The bill is likely to be part of a giant spending bill to keep the federal government funded for the rest of the fiscal year. And it might include a last-minute surprise: legislation to put an end to “surprise” medical bills sent to patients who inadvertently obtain care outside their insurance network.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of Kaiser Health News, Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico, Rebecca Adams of CQ Roll Call and Mary Agnes Carey of KHN.

Among the takeaways from this week’s podcast:

  • Congress has essentially agreed on a federal spending bill for the rest of the fiscal year — which began in October. But it will likely wait as lawmakers continue squabbling over the COVID relief package, with negotiations now centering on small details.
  • Republicans for months have been hesitant to move forward on a bill that would provide more relief for consumers affected by the pandemic because party leaders did not like Democrats’ insistence that it include more state and local aid. But that provision has been jettisoned, so Republicans are less opposed to the measure. Plus, i tried alli they see a political downside to holding up the bill: Their two Georgia candidates for Senate — facing Democratic opponents in a special runoff election — are being hammered on the issue.
  • The compromise on surprise medical bills came after supporters secured agreement among Democrats who had favored varying remedies and all the committees in the House and Senate on the bill, a consensus that was forged with major concessions by progressives.
  • But doctors’ groups and other industry critics are still attacking the surprise billing proposal — even though many observers see the bill as tilted in their favor over insurers — so its passage is not guaranteed. Supporters are banking on the looming end of the congressional session to move the measure over the finish line.
  • Vice President Mike Pence announced he will get vaccinated against COVID-19 in public this week in hopes of convincing anyone skeptical about the shots that they are safe. President-elect Joe Biden is planning to do the same soon. But this is a difficult stance for politicians. They don’t want to look as if they are pushing themselves ahead in line, but they also want to normalize the use of the vaccine.
  • About 200 state and local public health leaders have quit or been fired because of public opposition to measures to curb the coronavirus. Although President Donald Trump has reined in his criticism of some of these officials and their efforts, the opposition is still strong. Those critics may be buttressed by fears that new restrictions imposed to control the surging virus will hurt the economy.

Also this week, Rovner interviews Elizabeth Mitchell, president and CEO of the Pacific Business Group on Health, about the future of employer-provided health insurance.

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Plus, for extra credit, the panelists recommend their favorite health policy stories of the week they think you should read too:

Julie Rovner: The Texas Monthly’s “Texas Wedding Photographers Have Seen Some $#!+,” by Emily McCullar

Alice Miranda Ollstein: The New York Times’ “‘Like a Hand Grasping’: Trump Appointees Describe the Crushing of the C.D.C.,” by Noah Weiland

Mary Agnes Carey: NPR’s “How Do We Grieve 300,000 Lives Lost?” by Will Stone

Rebecca Adams: Bloomberg News’ “White House Official Recovers From Severe Covid-19, Friend Says,” by Jennifer Jacobs

To hear all our podcasts, click here.

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