Happy Friday! As if those sky-high medical bills weren’t bad enough, apparently California teachers also must pay substitutes to cover for them — even while undergoing treatment for breast cancer.
Which is the perfect segue into what you may have missed this week (almost like I planned it).
President Donald Trump waded into the turf wars among doctors, hospitals and insurers Thursday when he called for an end to surprise medical bills. The issue has been gaining attention across the country as stories about $48,512 cat bites and $109,000 heart attacks resonate with voters who are sick of paying an arm, a leg and a mortgage for health care even when they have insurance.
It’s not exactly a controversial issue — it’s listed as a top concern among voters, and lawmakers are lining up in droves to sign their names to any potential legislation. But, as is often the case with health care costs, the devil’s in the details. The costs don’t just disappear because the president doesn’t want patients to have to pay them. Physician groups tend to favor arbitration, while insurers argue that method is flawed because it still relies on bill charges. Instead, the industry wants set prices, with rates in line with what they would consider reasonable for the procedures. Each side hates the other’s opinion. So … good luck to the lawmakers who have to balance those two big interest groups!
(FWIW: Two stories of the patients who were featured at the White House event were previously highlighted in KHN and NPR’s “Bill of the Month” series. Check them out here.)
Kicking off a veritable blitz of bills, House Democrats voted on legislation that would ban the Trump administration from granting states waivers for health law regulations. Over the next couple of weeks, Dems are expected to go hard on their campaign promises to shore up the bruised and battered health law. Some of the topics of those bills: short-term “junk insurance” plans, outreach funding, “reinsurance” payments, drug rebates and more.
Speaking of waivers, Tennessee is set to ask for one to shift its Medicaid program into a block grant model. Block grants — aka Republicans’ longtime dream system — as an idea have a long history riddled with controversy and criticism, and the request, if granted, is all but certain to draw a court challenge. Now the question is: How far is CMS ready to go in pushing the envelope on Medicaid changes? Especially when other waivers are getting knocked down left and right in court?
Meanwhile, the Trump administration is proposing a change to the formula to calculate poverty. That may seem fairly dry, but since government assistance (like Medicaid and food stamps) is tied to that line, millions could lose health care coverage and/or have to go hungry.
Pharma companies are going to start to have to include list prices in their TV ads under a new rule that’s central to the Trump administration’s war on high drug costs. While most people think, in general, it’s a good step, many doubt it will accomplish much. It’s not as if sick consumers can then go negotiate a different price, as they would with cars.
As Ben Wakana, the executive director of Patients for Affordable Drug Prices, told NPR: “Drug companies have been shamed about their price increases for years. They appear to be completely comfortable with the shame as long as it is bringing them in the billions of dollars a year that they make from their outrageous prices.”
Drug prices were a hot topic this week (and most weeks, amiright?), with the Senate Finance Committee holding a hearing on the idea of setting an international price index. Other countries set lower prices and “we look like chumps,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.).
And, yup, there’s still more news: Despite HHS Secretary Alex Azar’s concerns about safety, Trump backed Florida’s plan to import drugs from other countries. The kicker here: Florida will surely be a battleground state in the 2020 election, and drug prices routinely top voters’ list of concerns. The potential for a winning talking point is huge.
In somewhat tangential news, Gilead announced it will donate its drug that reduces the risk of HIV transmission for up to 200,000 people a year. The price of the life-changing medication has long been a barrier to the goal of ending HIV transmissions, and many advocates were thrilled with the decision. Still, others were disappointed, saying that will cover only a fifth of what the country needs.
But everyone was cheering a new study out of Europe. Out of nearly 1,000 gay male couples where one partner had HIV and was taking antiretroviral drugs, there were zero cases of HIV transmission even without the use of condoms.
Fed up with the strategy to slowly chip away at abortion rights, Alabama lawmakers are poised to go all in. The legislation (which was almost up for a vote this week, but was delayed because of a ruckus over rape and incest amendments) would effectively ban all abortions and criminalize the act of performing the procedure. The supporters of the bill aren’t being coy at all about their intention: They want to challenge Roe v. Wade with a simple, “clean bill” on the legality of abortions.
And over in Georgia, abortion rights advocates have one message to Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who just signed a heartbeat bill: “We will see you, sir, in court.”
On a sad note: Legendary New York Times reporter Robert Pear passed away this week from complications of a stroke. Although I did not have the pleasure of meeting or working with him, his byline became a familiar friend of mine. He has shaped my world for the past several years with the stories he continuously broke. It is a loss for journalism, for health care and for the people he helped through the light he shined on Washington.
His last story is a perfect example of that: looking at legislation that carried promises of helping people with preexisting conditions but failed to live up to them.
In the miscellaneous files of the week:
• Traditionally, HHS has received, on average, one complaint related to “conscience” violations from health care workers per year. Last year, that rose to 343. What on earth happened? (Hint: It does not mean the problem actually worsened.)
• It might seem like the anti-vaccination movement is a new phenomenon spurred on by social media, but there’s a long history of resistance in the country. And it’s not as random as it might appear at first. Usually, it’s tied to time periods that are marked by great resentment toward government.
• Stories about student heroes stopping mass shooters and dying in the process highlight just how grim our reality has become as young people find themselves thrust into violence.
• Not only is the United States’ maternal mortality rate abysmal, a new study finds that many of those deaths — 60%! — are preventable. What’s more, African American and American Indian/Alaska Native women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy and childbirth than white women.
• Beneath the bright, tantalizing promises of the stem cell industry (targeted at the most desperate patients) festers a dark underbelly of greed and profit.
Have a great weekend, and remember, as National Nurses Week wraps up, to hug (or otherwise appropriately thank) the nurses in your life. Their job can be quite tough.