Biden has room on health care, though limited by Congress

FILE - In this July 10, 2018, file photo bottles of medicine ride on a belt at a mail-in pharmacy warehouse in Florence, N.J. President-elect Joe Biden is unlikely to get sweeping health care changes through a closely divided Congress, but theres a menu of narrower actions he can choose from to make a tangible difference in affordability and coverage for millions of people. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)
FILE - In this July 10, 2018, file photo bottles of medicine ride on a belt at a mail-in pharmacy warehouse in Florence, N.J. President-elect Joe Biden is unlikely to get sweeping health care changes through a closely divided Congress, but theres a menu of narrower actions he can choose from to make a tangible difference in affordability and coverage for millions of people. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File) (Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

WASHINGTON – President-elect Joe Biden is unlikely to get sweeping health care changes through a closely divided Congress, but there’s a menu of narrower actions he can choose from to make a tangible difference on affordability and coverage for millions of people.

With the balance of power in the Senate hinging on a couple of Georgia races headed to a runoff, and Democrats losing seats in the House, Biden's proposals for a public health insurance option and empowering Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices seem out of reach. Those would be tough fights even if Democrats controlled Congress with votes to spare.

But there's bipartisan interest in prescription drug legislation to limit what Medicare recipients with high costs are asked to pay and to restrain price increases generally. Biden also could nudge legislation to curb surprise medical bills over the finish line.

Moreover, millions of people already eligible for subsidized coverage through “Obamacare” remain uninsured. A determined effort to sign them up might make a difference, particularly in a pandemic. And just like the Trump administration, Biden is expected to aggressively wield the rule-making powers of the executive branch to address health insurance coverage and prescription drug costs.

With COVID-19 surging across the country, Biden's top health care priority is whipping the federal government’s response into shape. In his victory speech Saturday, he pledged to “spare no effort, or commitment, to turn this pandemic around.” He appointed a pandemic task force to develop “an action blueprint” that could be put into place on Inauguration Day.

On broader health policy issues, Biden has signaled he will stick with his robust campaign platform, which called for covering all Americans by building on the Affordable Care Act, adding a new public insurance option modeled on Medicare and lowering the eligibility age for Medicare.

“We’re going to work quickly with the Congress to dramatically ramp up health care protections, get Americans universal coverage, lower health care costs, as soon as humanly possible,” the president-elect said earlier this week.

Progressives who drive the Democratic Party's health care agenda say Biden must try as hard as he can to deliver, no matter if Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., remains majority leader of the Senate.