Biden administration officials are considering further steps to avoid a steep drop in infant formula access for low-income Americans as shortages linger in pockets across the country.
Administration officials in the coming days are likely to again extend federal flexibilities for low-income moms and infants to access formula through the federal WIC nutrition program, with current waivers set to expire Sept. 30, according to two people, including a Biden administration official.
Half of all infant formula in the country is purchased through the WIC program. The move would help the administration lower financial burdens on those families, which is especially critical as the White House tries to tout President Joe Biden’s efforts to ease economic hardship on Americans ahead of the November midterm elections while limiting GOP political attacks around infant formula stocks.
“What we don’t want is another major disruption in access when Abbott still isn’t pushing out its normal supply flow,” said a USDA official who was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.
With the Abbott Nutrition plant at the center of the shortages still not operating at full capacity, extending the waivers would provide families more flexibility to buy other formula brands that are available. Abbott’s dominance over the WIC market’s exclusive, state-level contracts has proven to be a major pain point as low-income families who rely on WIC were hit especially hard by the company’s shutdown and recall of some products made at its Sturgis, Mich. plant in mid-February after FDA inspectors found strains of a bacteria that can be deadly to infants.
A spokesperson for the Agriculture Department, which oversees the WIC program, confirmed the department is taking “a very serious look at extending the flexibilities and hopes to do so soon.”
Abbott is separately planning to pay for another month of the rebates it’s been providing to WIC users so they can buy whatever formula is in stock if Abbott’s regular Similac product isn’t available — even if it means buying formula from a competitor, according to three people. Abbott spokesperson John Koval confirmed the move to POLITICO.
Some medical providers have expressed concern about the rapidly approaching WIC deadlines hitting low-income families while shelves are still sparse in pockets across states from North Carolina to Ohio to Utah. Drug stores in areas like New York City are also again limiting formula purchases to one per person. Biden officials privately say the step by Abbott, which initially resisted pressure from the administration this spring to pay for such rebates, suggests the company doesn’t expect to have ample supply of its regular Similac formula for some time still.
Abbott’s Koval confirmed the Sturgis plant is not yet producing Similac, but he said the company was “working to restart Similac production as soon as we can” and would provide more information when it’s available.
As POLITICO first reported, Abbott has been shipping newly-produced EleCare formula from its Sturgis plant since early July, following the February recall and another facility shut down in June after Abbott said heavy rains triggered flooding in the facility. Supplies of EleCare, a specialty formula for infants with milk and other allergies, are still significantly limited but Abbott has been sending free cases of the formula to families on an emergency request basis.
Biden officials have already tapped nearly every emergency tool at their disposal to address widespread baby formula shortages that culminated in a political crisis this May. But despite a flurry of federal action, including flying in formula from abroad, some shortages are lingering as the administration has struggled in recent months to gain a full picture of the country’s formula stocks. After enacting reforms to promote long-term competition in the consolidated sector, the administration has few levers left — other than extending the WIC flexibilities, which are expensive. USDA has so far declined to provide POLITICO with the total amount the department has spent on such WIC efforts since February.
Shortages have generally eased around the country to the relief of the Biden administration.
White House, FDA and USDA officials are still holding regular calls with medical providers and other stakeholders about the formula situation. Those officials are often fielding questions about when Americans can expect the shortages to subside, and when the Abbott plant will again be shipping out its regular amount of supply.
Biden officials say part of the issue is that formula makers are producing fewer sizes and varieties of formula products in order to streamline production — contributing to a perception problem that there isn’t enough supply on shelves. They also cite some continued panic-buying as another issue.
“From what we’ve been told, the supply is actually there,” Dayle Cristinzio, director of stakeholder engagement at FDA’s Office of External Affairs, said on a USDA-organized call last Thursday, according to the two people on the call.
Cristinzio added that formula is being produced in higher quantities than before the Abbott recall, but consumers aren’t seeing it because retailers haven’t yet reorganized their shelf displays.
The answer raised concern among several providers on the call, who have heard a similar answer from FDA in recent months. But the providers also worry the administration isn’t aware that the situation is still as bad as it is in many areas of the country. Biden officials say they’re continuing to be vigilant in addressing the shortages.
“The stocking issue isn’t the only problem here,” said one of the people on the call, who noted they were hearing from parents across a wide range of states, in urban and rural communities, who were still having trouble finding formula for their children.
Administration officials on the call last week also mentioned the current WIC flexibility expiration date at the end September — prompting some people on the call to assume USDA was ending the waivers. But the two people familiar with the plans said that’s likely not the case as the administration braces for the shortages to stretch into the coming months.