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9 U.S. senators to Harkin: Time to move on ENDA

Bipartisan group calls for vote on non-discrimination bill

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A bipartisan group of nine senators is backing the idea of having the Senate panel with jurisdiction over the Employment Non-Discrimination Act advance the legislation to the floor by a committee vote.

The group is asking for Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, to hold a markup on ENDA in the wake of the panel’s hearing on the legislation last week and the senator’s remarks to the Washington Blade immediately afterward that he wanted “to poll the committee” about moving the bill forward.

Mark Kirk, gay news, gay politics dc, enda

Sen. Mark Kirk is among those calling for an ENDA markup (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

In the week after the hearing, the Blade solicited statements from the offices of all 22 members of the Senate panel on whether they want to see the committee move the legislation to the Senate floor. Those who responded affirmatively were spokespersons for Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), ENDA’s lead sponsor, as well as Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), the only Republican on the panel who responded to the Blade’s inquiry.

All 12 Democrats on the panel — as well as Kirk, an original co-sponsor of the bill — are among the 41 total co-sponsors of ENDA, so the bill should have no trouble moving out of committee. The legislation would bar employers in most situations in the public and private workforce from discriminating against workers because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Sanders’ office accompanied his call for a committee vote on ENDA with a statement saying the time is now to pass ENDA to end workforce discrimination against LGBT people.

“As I’ve said many times before, discrimination of any kind is not what America is supposed to be about,” Sanders said. “Yet only 16 states, including my own state of Vermont, and D.C. currently prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. I will fully support Sen. Merkley and Chairman Harkin in their efforts to move the Employment Non-Discrimination Act out of committee, because no Americans should have to live with the fear of losing their jobs simply because of who they are.”

The support that Murray’s office conveyed to the Blade echoes the sentiment she expressed about moving the legislation forward during the committee hearing last week. Murray was explicit in calling for a markup, saying she wants to see ENDA pass out of committee “expeditiously.” In response, Harkin said, “I hope so.”

But speaking to the Washington Blade after the hearing, Harkin was non-committal about holding a markup, saying he wants to speak with panel members before moving forward.

Senate HELP Committee Chair Tom Harkin (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

“I’m going to poll my committee and see,” Harkin said. “Right now, I’m kind of up to here in getting [Food & Drug Administration] bill through, as you know. We got it through the Senate; we’ve got to work with the House on that trying to get that put to bed, and then I’m going to poll the committee and see what we want to do.”

The Senate HELP Committee didn’t respond to a request for comment on the possibility of holding a markup on ENDA. It’s unclear whether the seven senators who expressed support for a markup to the Blade’s solicitation is enough support for Harkin to schedule a markup.

Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work, said a markup would enable the committee to make technical changes to the bill before taking it to the Senate floor for final passage.

“Senate rules allow leader Reid to bring ENDA to the floor of the Senate without a committee vote, but a committee mark-up would present a good opportunity for Chairman Harkin to make technical improvements to ENDA, for example, by fixing the legal loophole created by a bad Supreme Court decision called Gross vs. FBL Financial,” Almeida said. “Mr. Harkin recently introduced legislation to fix the same loophole in the age discrimination statute, and ENDA needs the same fix to be incorporated into the bill.”

Ian Thompson, legislative representative for the American Civil Liberties Union, also backed the idea of a committee markup as a way to advance ENDA.

“The Senate HELP Committee should move forward with a markup of this critical and long overdue legislation that will allow American workers who stand side-by-side at the workplace and contribute with equal measure in their jobs to also stand on the same equal footing under the law,” Thompson said.

Thompson added the committee should make modifications to the bill when it comes up for consideration: (a) narrowing the legislation’s exemption so that it doesn’t provide religious organizations “with a blank check” to discriminate against LGBT people for any reason and not just religious teachings, and (b) removing a provision that expands the Defense of Marriage Act and allows employers in states where same-sex couples can legally marry to treat married gay employees as unmarried for the purposes of employee benefits.

Reporting the legislation to the floor would be similar to what Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) did for the Respect for Marriage Act, legislation that would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act. In November, Leahy held a markup on the bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee, passing the bill via a party-line vote.

A committee markup may be the furthest extent to which ENDA can advance during the 112th Congress. The 41 co-sponsors of the legislation fall significantly short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a Senate filibuster. Additionally, it’s highly unlikely that the Republican-controlled House would consider ENDA as long as House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is the presiding officer of that chamber.

The office of Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) reiterated the senator’s support for ENDA in response to the Blade inquiry without explicitly calling for a markup. Jude McCartin, a Bingaman spokesperson said, “Sen. Bingaman is a cosponsor of the bill and as such intends to vote for it.” McCartin didn’t respond to follow up inquiries to clarify whether this means Bingaman wants to see a markup.

But some of the committee members who responded affirmatively to the idea of a markup — Merkley, Murray, Casey and Kirk — went further and volunteered they also want to see a floor vote on the legislation despite the lack of assured passage of the legislation. Even a vote that failed would demonstrate where senators stand on the bill — and which lawmakers ENDA supporters should work to expel on Election Day.

Merkley expressed support for the idea of a markup and floor vote in response to a question from the Washington Blade during a conference call with reporters following the ENDA hearing last week.

“I support any effort that takes this issue forward whether it’s a markup in committee or it going straight to the floor,” Merkley said. “I’ll defer to the leadership of the committee on the most effective legislative strategy, but I think it is long past time for the Senate as a whole to debate and vote on this bill.”

In a statement to the Blade, Casey expressed support for a Senate vote on ENDA in a statement accompanying his backing a markup of the bill.

“I hope that the Senate moves quickly toward bipartisan passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act,” Casey said. “This common-sense legislation ensures that employees are judged on their skills and abilities in the workplace and not on their sexual orientation or gender identity and I am hopeful that it will see swift passage.”

Kirk’s support for both a markup and floor vote on ENDA puts him ahead of many Democrats on where he wants to take the legislation. Kate Dickens, a Kirk spokesperson, said, “Sen. Kirk is supportive of committee passage and floor consideration of ENDA.”

Christian Berle, deputy executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, said his organization supports Kirk’s call to advance the legislation as far as possible in the Senate.

“Jobs and the economy must be the first priority for Congress, and the freedom to work is fundamental to getting all Americans back to work,” Berle said. “Log Cabin Republicans support Sen. Mark Kirk’s effort to secure a markup both in committee and on the floor. Sen. Harry Reid remains the majority leader and could easily schedule a vote to maintain his commitment to equality and should not delay in doing so.”

Support for a floor vote on ENDA echoes a letter that Freedom to Work sent to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) calling for a floor vote this summer on the legislation. The letter notes that Reid said during a 2009 Human Rights Campaign dinner in Utah a floor vote on ENDA would take place “soon” — but has yet to happen — as well as the Blade’s questioning of then-White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs at the start of this Congress.

In response to a question on whether the administration sees values in passing ENDA in one chamber of Congress, Gibbs acknowledged, “there’s no doubt that whenever you get something done in one [chamber], you’re closer to certainly seeing it come to fruition.”

A number of LGBT groups — including the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force — had previously called for a markup of ENDA as they sought a Senate hearing on the legislation. But the call for a full Senate vote on ENDA wasn’t as unified.

Fred Sainz, HRC’s vice president of communications, wasn’t explicit in calling for a floor vote when asked by the Blade if his organization wants to see the Senate take the legislation that far during this Congress.

“HRC supports advancing the bill in the smartest, most strategic fashion and at the most opportune time,” Sainz said. “We will continue to work with our ally organizations as well as fair-minded members of both houses of Congress to find that time.”

Stacey Long, the Task Force’s director of public policy and government affairs at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said her organization wants to see a Senate vote, but only after the committee has first marked up the bill.

“We want it to follow the procedure — first voted out of committee, then sent to the Senate floor, followed by a full Senate vote,” Long said.

But Almeida insisted that a Senate floor vote on ENDA is the best possible route for the bill in the immediate future regardless of what action the committee takes.

“The most opportune time for a Senate vote on ENDA is right away,” Almeida said. “We should not accept excuses for further delay on a Senate vote for legislation supported by super-majorities of the American people. … ENDA now has Republicans calling for a full Senate vote, and that is consistent with the White House’s position that right now the administration prefers a congressional vote on ENDA rather than an executive order that is waiting for the president’s signature.”

Almeida was referring to the proposed executive order barring federal contractors from discriminating against workers based on sexual orientation and gender identity. In April, the White House announced it wouldn’t issue such a directive at this time.

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Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney introduces bill to make monkeypox testing free

Health insurers would be required to cover costs

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Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney has introduced legislation to make monkeypox testing free to the public. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), amid the ongoing monkeypox affecting gay and bisexual men, has introduced legislation in the U.S. House seeking to make testing for disease free to the public.

Maloney, one of seven openly gay members of Congress and chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in a statement the measure, called the No Cost for Monkeypox Testing Act, would testing amid the monkeypox outbreak would be accessible to all.

“It is critical that we eliminate cost as a barrier to testing for monkeypox to ensure we can identify cases and prevent further spread,” Maloney said. “This legislation takes the lessons we learned from past public health emergencies and protects those at risk of contracting monkeypox by making tests accessible to everyone.”

The legislation would require private health insurers as well as Medicare and Medicaid to cover the costs of monkeypox testing at no expense to the patients, either through deductibles, co-payments, and co-insurance.

The bill introduction comes the week after the Biden administration declared the monkeypox outbreak a public health emergency and the same it has issued new guidance to enhance to the accessing of existing vaccines doses amid criticism federal officials were too slow in distributing shots.

The Washington Blade has placed a request in with the Centers for Disease Control seeking comment on the legislation. Secretary of Health & Human Services Xavier Becerra said Tuesday the federal government has the capacity to conduct an estimated 80,000 tests each week.

Maloney has been representing New York’s 18th congressional district, but after redistricting is now seeking re-election in the 17th district. Amid controversy over a potential showdown between Maloney and Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.), who’s Black, another openly gay member of Congress and the current representative of that district, Jones has since opted to run for re-election in the New York’s 10th congressional district. Maloney is now running unopposed in the 17th.

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Biden administration shifts monkeypox vaccine approach amid shortage

Health experts sees new guidance as mixed bag

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The Biden administration has changed its guidance on monkeypox vaccines to enhance availability amid the shortage.

The Biden administration, amid criticism it was slow to act on the monkeypox outbreak and still not meeting the demand for vaccines as the number of cases continues to grow, has announced a shift in guidance for implementation of the shot in an effort to enhance availability.

As the estimated number of monkeypox cases in the United States reaches 8,900, top health officials announced the new move on Tuesday as part of a decision by Secretary of Health & Human Services Xavier Becerra to issue a determination under Section 564 of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act to justify emergency use authorization of vaccines. The announcement follows up on the Biden administration’s announcement last week declaring the monkeypox outbreak a public health emergency.

Becerra said in a conference call with reporters the 564 determination and change in approach to vaccines would “boost and strengthen” the Biden administration’s response to monkeypox, which has overwhelmingly affected gay and bisexual men, and “safely accelerates and multiplies our supply of effective vaccines by up to fivefold.”

“Today’s action also reaffirms HHS and this administration’s commitment to using all available resources and capabilities to end the monkeypox outbreak and provide the best possible care to those suffering from the virus,” Becerra added.

The new vaccine approach, which may may be considered minor to non-medical observers, would change injections of the JYNNEOS vaccine from the subcutaneous route (delivery of the vaccine under the fat layer underneath the skin) to the intradermal route (delivery of the vaccine into the layer of skin just underneath the top layer). In theory, that would allow for greater accessibility of monkeypox vaccines as it increases the number of doses from each vial of vaccine.

The change was made amid criticism the Biden administration failed to meet the demand for vaccines during the outbreak and geographic inequity as certain metropolitan areas of the country have more access to vaccines than other places.

As The New York Times reported last week, the Biden administration has faced criticism for not moving quickly enough in acquiring and distributing vaccines, including bulk stocks already owned by the U.S. government manufactured in Denmark by Bavaria Nordic now being given to other clients.

“The government is now distributing about 1.1 million doses, less than a third of the 3.5 million that health officials now estimate are needed to fight the outbreak,” the Times reported. “It does not expect the next delivery, of half a million doses, until October. Most of the other 5.5 million doses the United States has ordered are not scheduled to be delivered until next year, according to the federal health agency.”

Biden officials, nonetheless, touted the numbers of vaccines and tests in response to monkeypox as a positive, acknowledging the 1.1 million vaccines being made available as well as delivery of more than 620,000 of those doses, deployment more than 15,000 courses of the monkeypox treatment and increasing the country’s capacity to administer tests on a weekly basis to around 80,000. Meanwhile, officials also promoted the change in approach in vaccines as means to allow greater accessibility to the shots.

Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, promoted during the conference call the use of intradermal injections and said they’re “often used for TB skin tests and have been used for other types of vaccines.”

Although Walensky conceded some health care providers “may not be as familiar with intradermal administration” as they are with subcutaneous injection, she said CDC would make additional guidance materials available, including a clinician alert message to the Association of State & Territorial Health Officials, outreach to key clinician partners and an education resource video. The change in guidance, Walensky said, is for vaccine implementation in adults and children — where single digit monkeypox cases have been reported — would continue to receive vaccination in the traditional subcutaneous approach.

But health experts aren’t responding with overwhelming praise to the decision to change the guidance on vaccine implementation from subcutaneous injections to intradermal injections, expressing concerns the new approach may be insufficient.

Jennifer Kates, director of global health & HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, was among those saying the change in guidance on vaccine approach was a mixed bag and told the Blade more data is needed to emulate the effectiveness.

“As we saw with COVID, using these authorities in the context of public health emergencies is an important strategy,” Kates said. “In this case, this step will significantly expand access to vaccines for those most at risk. However, there remain questions about the effectiveness of this approach — real world studies are needed — and challenges to translating vaccines into vaccinations.”

Peter Marks, director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation & Research (CBER) at the Food & Drug Administration, was asked during the conference call with reporters to respond to concerns the change in guidance was insufficient and downplayed the novelty of implementing the vaccines through the intradermal route as “not at all new.”

“In fact, the reason why the Bavaria part of this equation comes from the fact that in Germany, this vaccine was given intradermally originally, in an effort to replicate the original version of the smallpox vaccine,” Marks said. “It’s been given to thousands of people intradermally, so this isn’t the first time it’s been done.”

Walkensky said the intradermal vaccine approach has been implemented amid policies among localities to implement a one-dose approach to the JYNNEOS vaccine through the subcutaneous route. (The D.C. government is one of the jurisdictions that had enacted a one-dose approach amid a vaccine shortage.) There is not data, Walkensky said, to support that approach and “in fact, if anything, there are data saying that that is not protective enough.”

“So by using this alternative strategy of intradermal dosing, not only do we have more doses, but we actually allow people to get two doses in a way that shows immunologic response that’s superimposable from the subcutaneous dosing,” Walkensky said. “So we have more doses, and in fact, we have the ability to doubly vaccinate people so that they get the protection that they need.”

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CDC echoes call for MSM to limit sex partners in monkeypox guidance

Controversial guidance also issued by WHO

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CDC is calling on men who have sex with men to limit their sexual partners.

The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention is now echoing the controversial call for men who have sex with men to limit their sexual partners amid the monkeypox outbreak.

The agency made the call as part of new comprehensive monkeypox guidance issued on Friday, which lists “limit your number of sex partners to reduce your likelihood of exposure” as among several ways to reduce risk, with vaccination at the top of the list.

Vaccination is an important tool in preventing the spread of monkeypox,” the guidance says. “But given the current limited supply of vaccine, consider temporarily changing some behaviors that may increase your risk of being exposed. These temporary changes will help slow the spread of monkeypox until vaccine supply is adequate.”

The call to limit partners was previously made by the World Health Organization and has been controversial as observers say it may stigmatize sex among gay and bisexual men, who are disproportionately affected by monkeypox.

Demetre Daskalakis, deputy director of the White House task force on monkeypox, outlined the new guidance on Friday in a conference call with reporters.

Asked by the Washington Blade whether the Biden administration agrees with WHO about the need for men who have sex with men to limit their sexual partners, Daskalakis alluded to the multi-faceted aspects of the CDC guidance.

“It mentions that folks should consider reducing multiple partners and anonymous new partners as one strategy to prevent exposure to monkeypox,” Daskalakis said. “So I think really, there’s a broad range, and I think one of the things that’s really important about the CDC guidance is it’s designed to really meet people where they are and see what we can do to have individuals to create their own prevention plans, understanding that there’s not one answer for preventing monkeypox, that it requires a lot of domains to really achieve the goal of preventing new infections.”

Vaccinations for monkeypox are a key component of the CDC guidance, even though the limited availability has not kept up with the growing demand for the shots as the outbreak continues. Daskalakis conceded on the call there is “supply and demand mismatch” for vaccines, but maintained the Department of Health & Human Services announcement declaring monkeypox a public health crisis would be a tool to address the shortage.

A key concern among reporters on the call was the Biden administration not emphasizing the disease is almost exclusively at this point affecting gay and bisexual men, as well as concerns about stigma and misinformation about monkeypox.

Daskalakis, drawing on his experience as a medical expert during the HIV/AIDS crisis, emphasized stigma should play no part in messaging.

“I know from my own experience in public health and personally that stigma is actually what drives so much of infection and really creates false starts and false information that really gets people to go down paths that end up really vilifying people’s lives and behavior,” Daskalakis said. “And so, coming from the experience, both professionally and personally, it is my mission, to not allow stigma to be a part of this or any response that I work on.”

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