Military vaccine mandate is in GOP’s sights

The military’s Covid-19 vaccine requirement could end if Republican senators succeed in amending the National Defense Authorization Act that’s expected to pass in the coming weeks, Grace reports.

The Senate bill will likely come to the floor soon, and the GOP will try to amend it. The House passed its version of the defense bill in July, leaving the mandate intact. A conference committee must reconcile them before final enactment.

Bills sponsored by Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, could form the basis for amendments.

Recruiting shortfalls: Blackburn wants to lift the mandate when the military isn’t meeting its “end strength” target – the number of troops in the force – which is the case right now.

The Army missed its recruitment goal by almost 10,000 soldiers for fiscal 2022, and defense officials aren’t optimistic about 2023.

The vaccine mandate isn’t helping. The armed services have discharged 8,000 active-duty troops since Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin first directed service members to get vaccinated in August 2021.

Anson Smith, the deputy chief of the Army National Guard Strength Maintenance Division, told Federal News Network in September that the National Guard might need to discharge 9,000 guard members this fiscal year and another 5,000 in fiscal 2024 for refusing the jab.

Blackburn’s amendments were deemed too controversial to be included in a package of 75 bipartisan changes expected to be added to the Senate bill. But they could still be debated on the Senate floor if they make it past closed-door negotiations between GOP and Democratic leaders this week.

But the military’s recruiting problems go beyond vaccine hesitancy.

This year, the Army found that only 23 percent of 17- to 24-year-olds in America were eligible for military service — a 6 percent decrease since 2017. Reasons for the low eligibility levels include:

— Falling test scores. Two-thirds of new recruits typically pass the Army’s Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, which tests reading, math and science comprehension. This year, only one-third did. Defense officials blamed pandemic-inflicted learning loss.

— Increasing obesity. A Council for a Strong America study points to rising obesity rates as a primary factor disqualifying American youth. The Army launched a Future Soldier Preparation Program this year to help potential recruits lose weight to meet enlistment eligibility criteria.

— Negative media coverage. Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said news stories about sexual assault and mental health problems in the military have deterred potential recruits. An internal military survey of American youth obtained by NBC News found that nearly 6 in 10 survey respondents expected emotional or psychological problems if they served.

— Low unemployment. A competitive job market has meant those considering signing up have had more career choices than they had in the past.

GOP victories in 2021: Last year’s defense bill, which Congress has passed in each of the last 62 years, barred the military from dishonorably discharging service members for refusing the vaccine to preserve their veterans’ benefits. That bill also states that service members could have their jobs back if they later opted to get the shot.

In July, a federal judge blocked the Air Force from discharging those who have submitted religious accommodation requests. In September, another judge made the same ruling for the Navy, allowing thousands of unvaccinated personnel to continue to serve.

Most have complied: Upwards of 98 percent of active-duty service members are fully vaccinated. The separated personnel amount to less than 1 percent of each branch.

Can an AI-rendered version of a deceased loved one one provide solace or make grief more intense? That’s what we’re wondering as scientists start to use tech platforms and virtual reality to create avatars and chatbots resembling people who have passed.

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Today on our Pulse Check podcast, Megan Messerly talks with Grace about the military’s Covid-19 vaccine requirement. Plus, Carmen discusses the U.N.’s recognition of a huge milestone: The Earth’s population now totals 8 billion.

Amazon is making another go at upending the health care market, Ruth reports.

The firm announced today a new telehealth business, Amazon Clinic.

Here’s how it will work:

– Amazon will now connect patients in 32 states with telehealth providers it’s vetted, like SteadyMD and HealthTap. Prices for consultations range from $30 to $50. Amazon doesn’t take health insurance.

Treatments for more than 20 health problems, including allergies, acne, and hair loss, are available. For certain skin conditions, like rosacea, eczema, and genital herpes, patients will need to have a prior diagnosis. Amazon is competing with businesses like Ro and Hims that offer similar services.

Patients can get their prescriptions filled at their preferred pharmacy, though Amazon hopes that will be Amazon Pharmacy.

The launch follows the announced shuttering of Amazon Care, the company’s first telehealth business.

Amazon Care served Amazon employees and a few other clients. Over the summer, the company purchased One Medical to expand its reach. It plans to close Amazon Care, saying that the service wasn’t comprehensive enough.

The ability to prescribe testosterone via telehealth has helped patients seeking gender transition — and their providers, too, Ben reports.

But in-person visits might soon be required again. The Department of Health and Human Services and the Drug Enforcement Administration made it easier to prescribe controlled substances like testosterone during the pandemic, but those rules are set to expire when HHS’ Covid-19 public health emergency does. That’s now slated for early next year.

Plume, a Denver-based provider, is lobbying Congress and HHS to extend the eased pandemic rules. It’s also advocating:

Removing or rescheduling of testosterone from the DEA’s schedule III list of controlled substances that the agency believes have a “moderate to low potential for physical and psychological dependence”

Enacting legislation by Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Ga.) that would require the attorney general to remove a drug from the DEA’s list of controlled substances within 180 days of an HHS removal recommendation.

“One of the reasons we exist is because access in care deserts is really hard to come by,” said Plume CEO Matthew Wetschler. The expiration of the HHS and DEA waivers “would reduce access to gender-affirming care … across the landscape.”

FOLX Health, a Boston-based virtual provider, is also pushing for extending the pandemic rules. It’s a member of the founding advocacy council of the American Telemedicine Association’s lobbying arm, ATA Action.

Correction: An earlier version of this newsletter incorrectly stated the operational status of Amazon Care.


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