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As US Bumps Against Debt Ceiling, Medicare Becomes a Bargaining Chip
KHN's 'What the Health?'

As US Bumps Against Debt Ceiling, Medicare Becomes a Bargaining Chip

Episode 280

The Host

Julie Rovner
KHN
Julie Rovner is chief Washington correspondent and host of KHN’s weekly health policy news podcast, “What the Health?” A noted expert on health policy issues, Julie is the author of the critically praised reference book “Health Care Politics and Policy A to Z,” now in its third edition.

While repealing the Affordable Care Act seems to have fallen off congressional Republicans’ to-do list for 2023, plans to cut Medicare and Medicaid are back. The GOP wants Democrats to agree to cut spending on both programs in exchange for a vote to prevent the government from defaulting on its debts.

Meanwhile, the nation’s health care workers — from nurses to doctors to pharmacists — are feeling the strain of caring not just for the rising number of insured patients seeking care, but also more seriously ill patients who are difficult and sometimes even violent.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of KHN, Joanne Kenen of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Politico, Tami Luhby of CNN, and Victoria Knight of Axios.

Panelists

Joanne Kenen
Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Politico

Among the takeaways from this week’s episode:

  • Conservative House Republicans are hoping to capitalize on their new legislative clout to slash government spending, as the fight over raising the debt ceiling offers a preview of possible debates this year over costly federal entitlement programs like Medicare.
  • House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said Republicans will protect Medicare and Social Security, but the elevation of conservative firebrands — like the new chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee — raises questions about what “protecting” those programs means to Republicans.
  • Record numbers of Americans enrolled for insurance coverage this year under the Affordable Care Act. Years after congressional Republicans last attempted to repeal it, the once highly controversial program also known as Obamacare appears to be following the trajectory of other established federal entitlement programs: evolving, growing, and becoming less controversial over time.
  • Recent reports show that while Americans had less trouble paying for health care last year, many still delayed care due to costs. The findings highlight that being insured is not enough to keep care affordable for many Americans.
  • Health care workers are growing louder in their calls for better staffing, with a nursing strike in New York City and recent reports about pharmacist burnout providing some of the latest arguments for how widespread staffing issues may be harming patient care. There is bipartisan agreement in Congress for addressing the nursing shortage, but what they would do is another question.

Plus, for extra credit, the panelists recommend their favorite health policy stories of the week that they think you should read, too:

Julie Rovner: Roll Call’s “NIH Missing Top Leadership at Start of a Divided Congress,” by Ariel Cohen

Tami Luhby: CNN’s “ER on the Field: An Inside Look at How NFL Medical Teams Prepare for a Game Day Emergency,” by Nadia Kounang and Amanda Sealy

Joanne Kenen: The Atlantic’s “Don’t Fear the Handshake,” by Katherine J. Wu

Victoria Knight: The Washington Post’s “‘The Last of Us’ Zombie Fungus Is Real, and It’s Found in Health Supplements,” by Mike Hume

Also mentioned in this week’s podcast:

The New York Times’ “As France Moves to Delay Retirement, Older Workers Are in a Quandary,” by Liz Alderman

Stat’s “Congressional Medicare Advisers Warn of Higher Drug Prices, Despite New Price Negotiation,” by John Wilkerson

KHN’s ‘What the Health?’
Episode Title:
As US Bumps Against Debt Ceiling, Medicare Becomes a Bargaining Chip
Episode Number: 280
Published: Jan. 19, 2023

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Julie Rovner: Hello! Welcome back to KHN’s “What the Health?” I’m Julie Rovner, chief Washington correspondent at Kaiser Health News. And I’m joined by some of the best and smartest health reporters in Washington. We’re taping this week on Thursday, Jan. 19, at 10 a.m. As always, news happens fast, and things might have changed by the time you hear this. So here we go. Today we are joined via video conference by Joanne Kenen of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Politico.

Joanne Kenen: Good morning, everybody.

Rovner: Tami Luhby of CNN.

Tami Luhby: Good morning.

Rovner: And Victoria Knight of Axios.

Victoria Knight: Good morning.

Rovner: So Congress is in recess this week, but there is still plenty of news, so we’ll get right to it. The new Congress is taking a breather for the MLK holiday, having worked very hard the first two weeks of the session. But there’s still plenty going on on Capitol Hill. Late last week, House Republicans leaked to The Washington Post a plan to pay only some of the nation’s bills if the standoff over raising the debt ceiling later this year results in the U.S. actually defaulting. Republicans say they won’t agree to raise the debt ceiling, something that’s been done every couple of years for decades, unless Democrats agree to deep spending cuts, including for entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid — why we are talking about this. Democrats say that a default, even a partial one, could trigger not just a crisis in U.S. financial markets, but possibly a worldwide recession. It’s worth remembering that the last time the U.S. neared a default but didn’t actually get there, in 2011, the U.S. still got its credit rating downgraded. So who blinks in this standoff? And, Tami, what happens if nobody does?

Luhby: That’s going to be a major problem for a lot of people. I mean, the U.S. economy, potentially the global economy, global financial markets, but also practical things like Social Security recipients getting their payments and federal employees in the military getting paid, and Treasury bond holders getting their interest payments. So it would be a giant mess. [Treasury Secretary Janet] Yellen last week in her letter to [House Speaker Kevin] McCarthy, signaling that we were going to hit the debt ceiling, likely today, urged Congress to act quickly. But instead, of course, what just happened was they dug their heels in on either side. So, you know, we have the Republicans saying that we can’t keep spending like we are. We don’t have just an unlimited credit card. We have to change our behavior to save the country in the future. And the White House and Senate Democrats saying this is not a negotiable subject. You know, we’ve been here before. We haven’t actually crossed the line before. So we’ll see what happens. But one of the differences is, this year, that McCarthy has a very narrow margin in the House. Any one of his members — this is among the negotiations that he did not want to agree to but had to after 15 rounds of voting for his job — any member can make a motion to vacate the speaker’s chair. And if that happens, then we don’t have to worry about the debt ceiling because we have to worry more about who’s going to be leading the House, because we can’t deal with the debt ceiling until we actually have someone leading the House. So this is going to be even more complicated than in the past.

Rovner: Just to be clear, even if we hit the debt ceiling today, that doesn’t mean we’re going to default, right? I mean, that’s not coming for several months.

Luhby: Right. So Social Security, seniors and people with disabilities, and the military and federal employees don’t have to yet worry about their payments. They’re going to be paid. The Treasury secretary and Treasury Department will take what’s called “extraordinary measures.” They’re mainly just behind-the-scenes accounting maneuvers. They won’t actually hurt anybody. Yellen had said that she expects these extraordinary measures in cash to last at least until early June, although she did warn that the forecast has considerable uncertainty, as does everything around the debt ceiling.

Rovner: So, Victoria, obviously, the sides are shaping up. Is this going to be the big major health fight this year?

Knight: I think it’s going to be one of the big topics that we’re definitely talking about this year in Congress. I think it’s going to be a dramatic year, as we’ve already seen in these first two weeks. My colleagues at Axios, we talked to some Republicans last week, asking them about: Do you actually think they will make cuts to entitlement programs, to Medicare, Medicaid? Is that realistic? It’s kind of a mixed bag. Some are like, yeah, we should look at this, and some are like, we don’t really want to touch it. I think they know it’s really a touchy subject. There are a lot of Medicare beneficiaries that don’t want the age increase. You know, there’s some talk of increasing the age to 67 rather than 65. They know that is a touchy subject. Last week in a press conference, McCarthy said, “We’re Republicans; we’ll protect Medicare and Social Security,” so they know people are talking about this. They know people are looking at it. So I think in a divided government, obviously, the Senate is in Democratic control. I think it seems pretty unlikely, but I think they’re going to talk about it. And we have a new Ways and Means chairman, Jason Smith from Missouri. He’s kind of a firebrand. He’s talked about wanting to do reform on the U.S. spending. So I think it’s something they’re going to be talking about. But I don’t know if that much will actually happen. So we’ll see. I have been talking to Republicans on what else they want to work on this year in Congress. I think a big thing will be PBM [pharmacy benefit managers] reform. It’s a big topic that’s actually bipartisan. So I think that’s something that we’ll see. These are the middlemen in regards to between pharmacies and insurers. And they’re negotiating drug prices. And we know there are going to be hearings on that. I think health care costs. There’s some talk about fentanyl, scheduling. But I think in regards to big health care reform, there probably isn’t going to be a lot, because we are in a divided government now.

Kenen: Just one thing about how people talk about protecting Medicare and Social Security, it doesn’t mean they don’t want to make changes to it. We’ve been through this before. Entitlement reform was the driving force for Republicans for quite a few years under … when Paul Ryan was both, I guess it was budget chair before he was speaker. I mean, that was the thing, right? And he wanted to make very dramatic changes to Medicare, but he called it protecting Medicare. So there’s no one like Ryan with a policy really driving what it should look like. I mean, he had a plan, yet the plan never got through anywhere. It died, but it was an animating force for many years. It went away for a minute in the face of the last 10 years that were about the Affordable Care Act. So I don’t think they’re clear on what they want to do. But we do know some conservative Republicans want to make some kind of changes to Medicare. TBD.

Rovner: And Tami, we know the debt ceiling isn’t the only place where House Republicans are setting themselves up for deep cuts that they might not be able to make while still giving themselves the ability to cut taxes. They finessed some of this in their rules package, didn’t they?

Luhby: Yes, they did. And they made it very clear that they, in the rules, they made it harder to raise taxes. They increased it to a supermajority, 3/5 of the House. They made it easier to cut spending in the debt ceiling and elsewhere. And, you know, the debt ceiling isn’t our only issue that we have coming up. It’s going to be right around the same time, generally, maybe, as the fiscal 2024 budget, which will necessitate discussion on spending cuts and may result in spending cuts and changes possibly to some of our favorite health programs. So we will see. But also just getting back to what we were talking about with Medicare. Remember, the trustees estimate that the trust fund is going to run out of money by 2028. So we’ll see in a couple of months what the latest forecast is. But, you know, something needs to be done relatively soon. I mean … the years keep inching out slowly. So we keep being able to put this off. But at some point …

Rovner: Yeah, we keep getting to this sort of brinksmanship, but nobody, as Joanne points out, ever really has a plan because it would be unpopular. Speaking of which, while cutting entitlement programs here is still just a talking point, we have kind of a real-life cautionary tale out of France, where the retirement age may be raised from 62 to 64, which is still younger than the 67, the U.S. retirement age is marching toward. It seems that an unintended consequence of what’s going on in France is that employers don’t want to hire older workers. So now they can’t get retirement and they can’t find a job. And currently, only half of the French population is still employed by age 62, which is way lower than other members of the European Union. France is looking at protests and strikes over this. Could the same thing happen here, if we might get to that point? It’s been a while since we’ve seen the silver-haired set out on the street with picket signs.

Knight: I think it would be pretty contentious, I think, if they decide to actually raise the age. It’ll be interesting to see [if] there are actual protests, but I think people will be very upset, for sure, especially people reaching retirement age having counted on this. So …

Kenen: They probably wouldn’t do it like … if you’re 62, you wouldn’t [go] to 67. When they’ve talked about these kinds of changes in the past, they’ve talked about phasing it in over a number of years or starting it in the …

Rovner: Right, affecting people in the future.

Kenen: Right.

Rovner: But I’m thinking not just raising the retirement age. I’m thinking of making actual big changes to Medicare or even Medicaid.

Kenen: Well, there’s two things since the last debate about this. Well, first of all, Social Security was raised and it didn’t cause … it was raised slowly, a couple of months at a time over, what, a 20-year period. Is that right? Am I remembering that right, Julie?

Rovner: Yeah, my retirement age is 66 and eight months.

Kenen: Right. So … it used to be 65. And they’ve been going, like, 65 and one month, 65 and two months. It’s crept up. And that was done on a bipartisan basis, which, of course, not a whole lot is looking very bipartisan right now. But I mean, that’s the other pathway we could get. We could get a commission. We could move toward some kind of changes after … last time there was a commission that failed, but the Social Security commission did work. The last Medicare commission did not. The two sides are so intractable and so far apart on debt right now that there’s probably going to have to be some kind of saving grace down the road for somebody. So it could be yet another commission. And also in 2011, 2012, which was the last time there was the big debate over Medicare age, was pre-ACA [Affordable Care Act] implementation. And, you know, if you’re 65 and you’re not working, if they do change the Medicare in the out years, it’s complicated what it would do to the risk pools and premiums and all that. But you do have an option. I mean, the Affordable Care Act would … right now you only get it to Medicare. That would have to be changed. So it’s not totally the same … I’m not advocating for this. I’m just saying it is a slightly different world of options and the chessboard’s a little different.

Rovner: Well, clearly, we are not there yet, although we may be there in the next couple of months. Finally, on the new Congress front. Last week, we talked about some of the new committee chairs in the House and Senate. This week, House Republicans are filling out some of those critical subcommittee chairs. Rep. Andy Harris, a Republican from Maryland who’s also an anesthesiologist who bragged about prescribing ivermectin for covid, will chair the Appropriations subcommittee responsible for the FDA’s budget [the Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration subcommittee]. Things could get kind of interesting there, right?

Knight: Yeah. And there is talk that he wanted to chair the Labor [Health and Human Services, Education] subcommittee, which would have been really interesting. He’s not.

Rovner: Which would’ve been the rest of HHS. We should point out that in the world of appropriations, FDA is with Agriculture for reasons I once tried to figure out, but they go back to the late 1940s. But the rest of HHS is the Labor HHS Appropriations subcommittee, which he won’t chair.

Knight: Right, he is not. Rep. Robert Aderholt is chairing Labor HHS. But this is, as we were talking about, they’re going to have to fund the government. Republicans are talking about wanting to pass 12 appropriations bills. If they actually want to try to do that, they’re going to have to do a lot of negotiations on what goes into the Labor HHS bill, what goes into the AG bill with FDA, with these chairs over the subcommittees, they’re going to want certain things in there. They’re going to maybe want oversight of these agencies, especially in regards to what’s happening with covid, what’s going on with the abortion pills. So I think it’ll be really interesting to see what happens. It seems unlikely they’re actually going to be able to pass 12 appropriations bills, but it’s just another thing to watch.

Rovner: I would point out that every single Congress, Republican and Democrat, comes in saying, we’re going to go back to regular order. We’re going to pass the appropriations bills separately, which is what we were supposed to do. I believe the last time that they passed separately, and that wasn’t even all of them, was the year 2000; it was the last year of President [Bill], it might have been. It was definitely right around then. When I started covering Congress, they always did it all separately, but no more.

Luhby: And they want to pass the debt ceiling vote separately.

Rovner: Right, exactly. Not that much going on this year. All right. Well, last week we talked about health insurance coverage. Now it is official. Obamacare enrollment has never been higher and there are still several weeks to go to sign up in some states, even though enrollment through the federal marketplace ended for the year on Sunday. Tami, have we finally gotten to the point that this program is too big to fail or is it always going to hang by a political thread?

Luhby: Well, I think the fact that we’re all not reporting on the weekly or biweekly enrollment numbers, saying “It’s popular, people are still signing up!” or under the Trump years, “Fewer people are signing up and it’s lost interest.” I think that in and of itself is very indicative of the fact that it is becoming part of our health care system. And I mean, I guess one day I’m not going to write the story that says enrollment opens on Nov. 1, then another one that says it’s ending on Jan. 15.

Rovner: I think we’ll always do that because we’re still doing it with Medicare.

Luhby: Well, but I’m not. So … it’s possible, although now with Medicare Advantage, I think it is actually worth a story. So that’s a separate issue.

Rovner: Yes, that is a separate issue.

Luhby: But yeah, no, I mean, you know, I think it’s here to stay. We’ll see what [District Judge Reed] O’Connor does in Texas with the preventive treatment, but …

Rovner: Yes, there will always be another lawsuit.

Luhby: There will be chips around the edges.

Kenen: I mean, this court has done … we all thought that litigation was over, like we thought, OK, it’s done. They’ve … upheld it, you know, however many times, move on. But this Supreme Court has done some pretty dramatic rulings and not just Roe [v. Wade], on many public health measures, about gun control and the environment and vaccine mandates. And, of course, you know, obviously, Roe. Do I think that there’s going to be another huge existential threat to the ACA arising out of this preventive care thing? No, but we didn’t think a lot of the things that the Supreme Court would do. There’s a real ideological shift in how they approach these issues. So politically, no, we’re not going to see more repeal votes. In the wings could there be more legal issues to bite us? I don’t think it’s likely, but I wouldn’t say never.

Rovner: In other words, just because congressional Republicans aren’t still harping on this, it doesn’t mean that nobody is.

Kenen: Right. But it’s also, I mean, I agree with Tami … I wrote a similar story a year ago on the 10th anniversary: It’s here. They spent a lot of political capital trying to repeal it and they could not. People do rely on it and more … Biden has made improvements to it. It’s like every other American entitlement: It evolves over time. It gets bigger over time. And it gets less controversial over time.

Rovner: Well, we still have problems with health care costs. And this week we have two sort of contradictory studies about health care costs. One from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found a three-percentage-point decline in the number of Americans who had trouble paying medical bills in 2021 compared to the pre-pandemic year of 2019. That’s likely a result of extra pandemic payments and more people with health insurance. But in 2022, according to a survey by Gallup, the 38% of patients reported they delayed care because of cost. That was the biggest increase ever since Gallup has been keeping track over the past two decades, up 12 percentage points from 2020 and 2021. This has me scratching my head a little bit. Is it maybe because even though more people have insurance, which we saw from the previous year. Also more have high-deductible health plans. So perhaps they don’t want to go out and spend money or they don’t have the money to spend initially on their health care. Anybody got another theory? Victoria, I see you sort of nodding.

Knight: I mean, that’s kind of my theory is, like, I think they just have high-deductible plans, so they’re still having to pay a lot out-of-pocket. And I know my brother had to get an ACA plan because he is interning for an electrician and — so he doesn’t have insurance on his own, and I know that, like, it’s still pretty high and he just has to pay a lot out-of-pocket. He’s had medical debt before. So even though more people have health insurance, it’s still a huge issue, it doesn’t make that go away.

Rovner: And speaking of high medical prices, we are going to talk about prescription drugs because you can’t really talk about high prices without talking about drugs. Stat News reports this week that some of the members of the Medicare Payment Advisory Committee, or MedPAC, are warning that even with the changes to Medicare that are designed to save money on drugs for both the government and patients — those are ones taking effect this year — we should still expect very high prices on new drugs. Partly that’s due to the new Medicare cap on drug costs for patients. If insurers have to cover even the most expensive drugs, aside from those few whose price will be negotiated, then patients will be more likely to use them and they can set the price higher. Are we ever going to be able to get a handle on what the public says consistently is its biggest health spending headache? Victoria, you kind of previewed this with the talk about doing something about the middlemen, the PBMs.

Knight: Yeah, I think it’s really difficult. I mean, the drug pricing provisions, they only target 20 of the highest-cost drugs. I can’t remember exactly how they determine it, but it’s only 20 drugs and it’s implemented over years. So it’s still leaving out a lot of drugs. We still have years to go before it’s actually going into effect. And I think drugmakers are going to try to find ways around it, raising the prices of other drugs, you’re talking about. And even though they’re hurt by the IRA [Inflation Reduction Act], they’re not completely down and out. So I don’t know what the answer is to rein in drug prices. I think maybe PBM reform, as I said, definitely a bipartisan issue. This Congress … I think will actually have maybe some movement and we’ll see if actually legislation can be passed. But I know they want to talk about it. So, I mean, that could help a little bit. But I think drugmakers are still a huge reason for a lot of these costs. And so it won’t completely go away even if PBMs have some reforms.

Rovner: And certainly the American public sees drug costs as one of the biggest issues just because so many Americans use prescription drugs. So they see every dollar.

Knight: Yes.

Rovner: So the good news is that more people are getting access to medical care. The bad news is that the workforce to take care of them is burned out, angry, and simply not large enough for the task at hand. The people who’ve been most outspoken about that are the nation’s nurses, who’ve given the majority of the care during the pandemic and taken the majority of patient anger and frustration and sometimes even violence. We’re seeing quite a few nurses’ strikes lately, and they’re mostly not striking for higher wages, but for more help. Tami, you talked to some nurses on the picket line in New York last week. What did they tell you?

Luhby: Yeah, I had a fun assignment last week. Since I live in the Bronx, I spent two days with the striking nurses at the Montefiore Medical Center, and there were 7,000 nurses at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan and Montefiore in the Bronx that went on strike for three days. It was a party atmosphere there much of the time, but they did have serious concerns that they wanted to relay and get their word out. There was a lot of media coverage as well. Their main issue was staffing shortages. I mean, the nurses told me about terrible working conditions, particularly in the ER. Some of them had to put babies on towels on the floor of the pediatric ER or tell sick adults that they have to stand because there aren’t even chairs available in the adult ER, much less beds or cots. And every day, they feared for their licenses. One said that she would go to sleep right when she got home because she didn’t want to think about the day because she was concerned she might not want to go back the next day. And she said, heartbreakingly, that she was tired of apologizing to families and patients, that she was stretched too thin to deliver better care, that she was giving patients their medicines late because she had seven other patients she had to give medicine to and probably handle an emergency. So the nurses at Montefiore, interestingly, they’re demanding staffing. But one thing they kept repeating to me, you know, the leaders, was that they wanted enforcement ability of the staffing. They didn’t just want paper staffing ratios, and they wanted to be more involved in recruitment. While the hospitals — interestingly, this is not necessarily over in New York as it probably won’t be elsewhere. These hospitals reached a tentative agreement with the unions, but there’s another battle brewing. The nurses’ contract for the public hospital system expires on March 2, and the union is already warning that will demand better pay and staffing.

Rovner: Yeah. Well, it’s not just the nurses, though. Doctors are burnt out by angry and sometimes ungrateful patients. Doctors in training, too. And I saw one story this week about how pharmacists, who are being asked to do more and more with no more help — a similar story — are getting fried from dealing with short-tempered and sometimes abusive patients. Is there any solution to this, other than people trying to behave better? Is Congress looking at ways to buttress the health care workforce? This is a big problem. You know, they talked about, when they were passing the Affordable Care Act, that if you’re going to give all these people more insurance, you’re going to need more health care professionals to take care of them.

Knight: Yeah.

Rovner: Yet we haven’t seemed to do that.

Knight: Yeah, I know. It’s something that is being talked about. My colleague Peter [Sullivan] at Axios talked to both Sen. [Bernie] Sanders and Sen. [Bill] Cassidy about things they might want to work on on the HELP [Health, Education, Labor & Pensions] Committee. And I know that the nursing workforce shortage is one thing they do actually agree on. So it’s definitely possible. I do think the medical provider workforce shortage is maybe a bipartisan area in this Congress that they could work on. But I mean, they’ve been talking about it forever. And will they actually do something? I’m not sure. So we’ll see. But I know nursing …

Rovner: Yeah, the spirit of bipartisanship does not seem to be alive and well, at least yet, in this Congress.

Knight: Yeah, well, between the House and the Senate. Yeah, well, we’ll see.

Kenen: But the nursing shortage is, I mean, been documented and talked about for many, many years now and hasn’t changed. The doctor shortage is more controversial because there’s some debate about whether it’s numbers of doctors or what specialties they go into. I mean, and, also, do they go to rich neighborhoods or poor neighborhoods? I mean, if you’re in a wealthy suburb, there’s plenty of dermatologists. Right? But in rural areas, certain urban areas … So it’s not just in quantity. It’s also an allocation both by geography and specialty. Some of that Congress could theoretically deal with. I mean, the graduate medical education residency payment … they’ve been talking about reforming that since before half of the people listening to this were born. There’s been no resolution on a path forward. So some of these are things that Congress can nudge or fix with funding. Some of it is just things that have to happen within the medical community, some cultural shift. Also student debt. I mean, one reason people start out saying they’re going to go into primary care and end up being orthopedic surgeons is their debt. So it’s complicated. Some of it is Congress. Not all of it is Congress. But Congress has been talking about this for a very, very, very, very, very long time.

Rovner: I will point out — and Joanne was with me when this happened — when Congress passed the Balanced Budget Act in 1997, they cut the number of residencies that Medicare would pay for with the promise — and I believe this is in the report, if not in the legislation — that they would create an all-payer program to help pay for graduate medical education by the next year, 1998. Well, now it’s 2023, and they never did that.

Kenen: They meant the next century.

Rovner: We’re a fifth — almost a quarter of the way — through the next century, and they still haven’t done it.

Kenen: And if you were on the front lines of covid, the doctors and the nurses, I mean, at the beginning they had no tools. So many people died. They didn’t know how to treat it. There were so many patients, you know, in New York and other places early on. I mean, it was these nurses that were holding iPads so that people could say goodbye to their loved ones. I don’t think any of us can really understand what it was like to be in that situation, not for 10 minutes, but for weeks and over and over …

Rovner: And months and years, in some cases.

Kenen: Right. But I mean, the really bad … it’s years. But these crunches, the really traumatic experiences, I mean, we’ve also talked in the past about the suicide rate among health care providers. It’s been not just physically exhausting, it’s become emotionally unimaginable for those of us who haven’t been in those ICU or ERs.

Rovner: Well, it’s clear that the pandemic experiences have created a mental health crisis for a lot of people. Clearly, people on the front lines of health care, but also lots of other people. This week, finally, a little bit of good news for at least one population. Starting this week, any U.S. military veteran in a mental health crisis can get free emergency care, not just at any VA [Department of Veterans Affairs] facility, but at any private facility as well. They don’t even have to be in the VA health system because many former members of the military are not actually eligible for VA health care. This is for all veterans. It’s actually the result of a law passed in 2020 and signed by then-President [Donald] Trump. How much of difference could this change, at least, make? I mean, veterans in suicidal crises are also, unfortunately, fairly common, aren’t they?

Kenen: Yeah, but I mean, we have a provider shortage, so giving them greater access to a system that doesn’t have enough providers, I mean, will it help? I would assume so. Is it going to fix everything? I would assume not. You know, we don’t have enough providers, period. And there are complicated reasons for that. And that’s also … they’re not all doctors. They’re, you know, psychologists and social workers, etc. But that’s a huge problem for veterans and every human being on Earth right now. I mean, everybody was traumatized. There’s degrees of how much trauma people had, but nobody was untraumatized by the last three years. And the ongoing stresses. You can be well-adjusted traumatized. You could be in-crisis traumatized. But we’re all on that spectrum of having been traumatized.

Knight: Yeah.

Rovner: Well, lots more work to do. OK. That’s the news for this week. Now it is time for our extra-credit segment, where we each recommend a story we read this week we think you should read, too. Don’t worry if you miss it; we will post the links on the podcast page at khn.org and in our show notes on your phone or other mobile device. Victoria, why don’t you go first this week?

Knight: The story that I’m recommending is called “‘The Last of Us’ Zombie Fungus Is Real, and It’s Found in Health Supplements.” It’s in The Washington Post by Mike Hume. “The Last of Us” is a new HBO show everyone’s kind of talking about. And, basically, people become zombies from this fungus. Turns out that fungus is real in real life. It’s spread by insects that basically infect people and then kind of take over their minds and then shoot little spores out. And in the show, they do that as well, except they don’t spread by spores. They spread by bites. But it’s used in health supplements for different things like strength, stamina, immune boost. So it’s kind of just a fun little dive into a real-life fungus.

Rovner: To be clear, it doesn’t turn people into zombies.

Knight: Yes. To be clear, it does not turn people into zombies. If you eat it, that will not happen to you. But it is based on a real-life fungus that does infect insects and make them zombies.

Rovner: Yes. [laughter] It’s definitely creepy. Tami.

Luhby: My story is by my fantastic CNN colleagues this week. It’s called “ER on the Field: An Inside Look at How NFL Medical Teams Prepare for a Game Day Emergency.” It’s by my colleagues Nadia Kounang, Amanda Sealy, and Sanjay Gupta. Listen, I don’t know anything about football, but I happened to be watching TV with my husband when we flipped to the channel with the Bills-Bengals game earlier this month, and we saw the ambulance on the field. So like so many others, I was closely following the story of Damar Hamlin’s progress. What we heard on the news was that the team and the medical experts repeatedly said that it was the care on the field that saved Hamlin’s life. So Nadia, Amanda, and Sanjay provide a rare behind-the-scenes look at how hospital-quality treatment can be given on the field when needed. I learned that — from the story and the video — that there are about 30 medical personnel at every game. All teams have emergency action plans. They run drills an hour before kickoff. The medical staff from both teams review the plan and confirm the details. They station certified athletic trainers to serve as spotters who are positioned around the stadium to catch any injuries. And then they communicate with the medical team on the sidelines. But then — and this is what even my husband, who is a major football fan, didn’t know this — there’s the all-important red hat, which signifies the person who is the emergency physician or the airway physician, who stands along the 30-yard line and takes over if he or she has to come out onto the field. And that doctor said, apparently, they have all the resources available in an emergency room and can essentially do surgery on the field to intubate a player. So I thought it was a fascinating story and video even for non-football fans like me, and I highly recommend them.

Rovner: I thought it was very cool. I read it when Tami recommended it. Although my only question is what happens when there’s a team, one whose color is red and there are lots of people wearing red hats on the sidelines?

Luhby: That’s a good point.

Rovner: I assume they still can find the doctor. OK, Joanne.

Kenen: There was a piece in The Atlantic by Katherine J. Wu called “Covid Couldn’t Kill the Handshake.” It had a separate headline, depending on how you Googled it, saying “Don’t Fear the Handshake.” So, basically, we stopped shaking hands. We had fist bumps and, you know, bows and all sorts of other stuff. And the handshake is pretty much back. And yes, your hands are dirty, unless you’re constantly washing them, your hands are dirty. But they are not quite as dirty as we might think. We’re not quite as dangerous as we may think. So, you know, if you can’t get out of shaking someone’s hand, you probably won’t die.

Rovner: Good. Good to know. All right. My extra credit this week is a story I wish I had written. It’s from Roll Call, and it’s called “NIH Missing Top Leadership at Start of a Divided Congress,” by Ariel Cohen. And it’s not just about not having a replacement for Dr. Tony Fauci, who just retired as the longtime head of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases last month, but about having no nominated replacement for Frances Collins, who stepped down as NIH [National Institutes of Health] director more than a year ago. In a year when pressure on domestic spending is likely to be severe, as we’ve been discussing, and when science in general and NIH in particular are going to be under a microscope in the Republican-led House, it doesn’t help to have no one ready to catch the incoming spears. On the other hand, Collins’ replacement at NIH will have to be vetted by the Senate HELP Committee with a new chairman, Bernie Sanders, and a new ranking member, Bill Cassidy. I am old enough to remember when appointing a new NIH director and getting it through the Senate was a really controversial thing. I imagine we are back to exactly that today.

OK. That’s our show for this week. As always, if you enjoyed the podcast, you could subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. We’d appreciate it if you left us a review; that helps other people find us, too. Special thanks, as always, to our ever-patient producer, Francis Ying, and to our KHN webteam, who have given the podcast a spiffy new page. As always, you can email us your comments or questions. We’re at whatthehealth — all one word — @kff.org. Or you can tweet me. I’m still at Twitter, for now, where I’m @jrovner. Tami?

Luhby: I’m @Luhby — L-U-H-B-Y

Rovner: Victoria.

Knight: @victoriaregisk

Rovner: Joanne.

Kenen: @JoanneKenen

Rovner: We will be back in your feed next week. Until then, be healthy.

Credits

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Audio producer
Emmarie Huetteman
Editor

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This story was produced by KHN (Kaiser Health News), a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.