Sebelius Addresses Contraceptive Mandate, Drug Shortages

The president's controversial contraceptive mandate and ongoing national drug shortages were just two of the off-budget topics presented to Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius at today's Senate Finance Committee hearing.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, both expressed some criticism and concern about the  contraceptive mandate.

Hatch questioned whether Sebelius had consulted with any Catholic bishops on the matter prior to last week's reversal on the mandate that would require religious employers to cover certain preventable health services, such as contraception.

"I did not," she said.

She added that the president has "spoken to the bishops on several occasions," but she was unsure if it was about the compromise in the requirement.

Hatch also pressed her on whether HHS had conducted or requested any "analysis of the constitutional or statutory religious freedom issues" surrounding the mandate. Sebelius replied that she never spoke to anyone, but that HHS did "look at a whole host of legal issues."

Pressing the issue, Hatch asked if HHS consulted anyone at the Justice Department, to which Sebelius said "no."

"I think you've got it very wrong the first try" Grassley said, before turning his attention to whistle-blower protection. "You have a lot more work to do."

It wasn't all negative surrounding the mandate.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., commended the "reasonable position" HHS has taken.

"I think that it adequately protects religious liberty and it at the same time protects the right of women to obtain contraceptive services when they choose to," Bingaman said.

The recent drug shortages making headlines across the nation were also a topic of discussion.

Citing a 3-year-old in his district who can't get her leukemia medication, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., questioned why the government can't "fix this and stop playing catch-up ball."

"The FDA did announce yesterday that they feel that in the next two weeks the leukemia drug shortage will indeed be resolved," Sebelius said. "It's resolved because what we can do at the FDA is accelerate alternatives, if we have notification."

Sebelius cited a "market glitch" as the main cause of the problem.

"The market capacity for drugs has not increased," she said. "Currently, we have the same manufacturing capacity and drug marketers choosing which line of drugs to produce at which time."

A bill currently pending in the House and Senate would make it a requirement for drug companies to notify the government of an impending shortage - a process Sebelius said was "key" for the government's  role in preventing shortages.

Although Sebelius was brought to Capitol Hill today to testify before the Senate Finance Committee for the president's 2013 budget request, senators also took the opportunity to discuss these and other off-budget topics including duel eligibility, the Affordable Care Act,  low-incoming heating assistance, and more.