The partisan fight in Congress over how to raise the nation’s debt ceiling to prevent a default has accelerated, as the U.S. Treasury predicted the borrowing limit could be reached as soon as June 1. On the table, potentially, are large cuts to federal spending programs, including major health programs.
Meanwhile, legislators in two conservative states, South Carolina and Nebraska, narrowly declined to pass very strict abortion bans, as some Republicans are apparently getting cold feet about the impact on care for pregnant women in their states.
This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of KFF Health News, Joanne Kenen of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Politico, Rachel Cohrs of Stat, and Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico.
Among the takeaways from this week’s episode:
- The United States is approaching its debt limit — much sooner than expected. And it is unclear how, or if, lawmakers can resolve their differences over the budget before the nation defaults on its debts. Details of the hastily constructed House Republican proposal are coming to light, including apparently inadvertent potential cuts to veterans’ benefits and a lack of exemptions protecting those who are disabled from losing Medicaid and nutrition benefits under proposed work requirements.
- A seemingly routine markup of a key Senate drug pricing package devolved this week as it became clear the committee’s leadership team, under Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), had not completed its due diligence to ensure members were informed and on board with the legislation. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee plans to revisit the package next week, hoping to send it to the full Senate for a vote.
- In more abortion news, Republican lawmakers in North Carolina have agreed on a new, 12-week ban, which would further cut already bare-bones access to the procedure in the South. And federal investigations into two hospitals that refused emergency care to a pregnant woman in distress are raising the prospect of yet another abortion-related showdown over states’ rights before the Supreme Court.
- The number of deaths from covid-19 continues to dwindle. The public health emergency expires next week, and mask mandates are being dropped by health care facilities. There continue to be issues tallying cases and guiding prevention efforts. What’s clear is the coronavirus is not now and may never be gone, but things are getting better from a public health standpoint.
- The surgeon general has issued recommendations to combat the growing public health crisis of loneliness. Structural problems that contribute, like the lack of paid leave and few communal gathering spaces, may be ripe for government intervention. But while health experts frame loneliness as a societal-level problem, the federal government’s advice largely targets individual behaviors.
Plus, for “extra credit,” the panelists suggest health policy stories they read this week they think you should read, too:
Julie Rovner: The Washington Post’s “Dog-Walking Injuries May Be More Common Than You Think,” by Lindsey Bever.
Joanne Kenen: The Atlantic’s “There Is No Stopping the Allergy Apocalypse,” by Yasmin Tayag.
Rachel Cohrs: ProPublica’s “This Pharmacist Said Prisoners Wouldn’t Feel Pain During Lethal Injection. Then Some Shook and Gasped for Air,” by Lauren Gill and Daniel Moritz-Rabson.
Alice Miranda Ollstein: The Wall Street Journal’s “Patients Lose Access to Free Medicines Amid Spat Between Drugmakers, Health Plans,” by Peter Loftus and Joseph Walker.
Also mentioned in this week’s episode:
- The New York Times’ “Surgeon General: We Have Become a Lonely Nation. It’s Time to Fix That,” by Vivek H. Murthy.
- “What the Health?” podcast, July 7, 2022: “A Chat With the Surgeon General on Health Worker Burnout.”
- KFF Health News’ “After Idaho’s Strict Abortion Ban, OB-GYNs Stage a Quick Exodus,” by Sarah Varney.
- Politico’s “‘You Can’t Hide Things’: Feinstein, Old Age and Removing Senators,” by Joanne Kenen.
KFF Health News’ ‘What the Health?’
Episode Title: Health Programs Are at Risk as Debt Ceiling Cave-In Looms
Episode Number: 296
Published: May 4, 2023
[Editor’s note: This transcript, generated using transcription software, has been edited for style and clarity.]
Julie Rovner: Hello and welcome back to “What the Health?” I’m Julie Rovner, chief Washington correspondent at KFF Health News. And I’m joined by some of the best and smartest health reporters in Washington. We’re taping this week on Thursday, May 4, at 10 a.m. As always, news happens fast and things might have changed by the time you hear this. So here we go. We are joined today via video conference by Joanne Kenen of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Politico.
Joanne Kenen: Hey, everybody.
Rovner: Rachel Cohrs of Stat News.
Rachel Cohrs: Good morning.
Rovner: And Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico.
Rovner: So plenty of news this week. We’re going to dive right in. We’re going to start again this week with the nation’s debt limit, which Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned this week could be reached as soon as June 1. That’s a lot earlier than I think most people had been banking on. And if Congress doesn’t act to raise it by then, the U.S. could default on its debts for the first time in history. Do we have any feel yet for how this gets untangled now that we know — I think there are, what, eight days left where both the House and the Senate will be in session?
Ollstein: You said it caught all of us by surprise. It seems to have caught lawmakers by surprise as well. They seem to have thought they had a lot more time to fight and blow smoke at one another, and they really don’t. And there has not been a clear path forward. There are efforts to get Mitch McConnell more involved. He has sort of said, “Ah, you people figure this out. You know, whatever House Republicans and the White House can agree on, the Senate will pass.” And he’s been trying to stay out of it. But now both Republicans and Democrats want him to weigh in. He’s seen as maybe a little more reasonable than some of the House Republicans to some of the players, and so —
Rovner: He may be one of the few Republicans who understands that it would be very, very bad to default.
Ollstein: Right. You have a lot of House Republicans saying it wouldn’t be so bad — the tough medicine for Washington spending, etc. So, you know, if I were to bet money, which I wouldn’t, I would bet on some sort of short-term punt; I mean, we’re really coming up to the deadline, and that’s what Congress loves to do.
Rovner: Yeah, I do too.
Kenen: I agree with Alice. You know, I think if the deadline had been a couple of months from now — they really didn’t want to do a punt. I mean, I think they wanted to walk up to the cliff and cut some kind of deal at the last hour. But I think this caught everybody off guard, including possibly Janet Yellen. So I think it’s much more likely there’ll be a short-term postponement. I think the Democrats would like to tie it to the regular budget talks for the end of the fiscal year. I’m not sure the Republicans will consider September 30 short-term. It might be shorter than that. Of course, we could have another one. But I think Alice’s instincts are right here.
Rovner: Yeah, I do too. I mean, the best thing Congress does is kick the can down the road. They do it every year with all kinds of things. Sorry, Rachel, I interrupted you.
Cohrs: Oh, no, that’s all right. I was just going to flag that the date to watch next week is May 9, when I think they’re all supposed to kind of get in a room together and start this conversation. So I think we’ll hopefully have a readout. I don’t know that they’re going to solve everything in that meeting, but we’ll at least get a sense of where everyone’s coming from and just how acrimonious things really are. So, yeah, those will kick off in earnest.
Rovner: Yeah. Well, one thing the Democrats are talking about is a discharge petition in the House, which is a rarely successful but not all that little-used way to bring a bill to the floor over the objections of the party in charge. Is there any chance that this is going to work this time?
Kenen: That’s one reason the Republicans might not want an extension, because they probably couldn’t do it in the next two or three weeks. There’s a slight chance they could do it in early to mid-June. The Democrats need five Republicans to sign on to that. I would think that if any Republicans are willing to sign on to that, they’re not going to say it in public, so we won’t know who they are, but the chances of it working improve if there’s an extension; the chances of it working are still not great, but I don’t think it’s impossible. I do not think it’s impossible, because there are Republicans who understand that defaulting is not a good idea.
Rovner: This has been painted this week as, Oh, this is a secret idea. It’s like, it’s not, but the actual discharge petition, you get to sign it not anonymously, but no one knows who’s signing on. It’s not like co-sponsoring a regular bill.
Kenen: But stuff gets out. I mean, there’s no such thing as a secret on the Hill.
Rovner: But technically, when you sign it, it’s not an obvious public thing that you’re supporting it, so we will — we’ll have to see. Well, we know that Republicans are demanding deep, in some cases very deep, cuts to federal spending with their bill to raise the debt ceiling. We’re finding out just how deep some of the cuts would be. One possible piece of fallout I think Republicans didn’t bargain for: They say they intended to exempt veterans from the cuts, but apparently the bill doesn’t actually do that, which has already prompted cries of outrage from very powerful veterans groups. This is the danger of these really broadly written bills, right, is that you can sort of actually accidentally end up sweeping in things you didn’t mean to.
Cohrs: Right. Well, this bill came together very quickly, and Kevin McCarthy was dealing with a lot of competing factions and trying to make everyone happy on issues like energy credits, that kind of thing. And obviously this didn’t get attention before. And I think that that’s just kind of a symptom that isn’t infrequent in Washington, where things come together really quickly, and sometimes there are some unintended consequences, but I think that’s one of the functions of kind of the news cycle in Washington especially, is to bring attention to some of these things before they become law. So the rhetoric has been very fiery, but again, there’s a possibility that it could be worked out at a later date if for some reason the final deal ends up looking something like the Republican bill, which is not necessarily the case.
Rovner: Once upon a time — and we’ll talk about this next — we had something called regular order, where bills went through the committee process, there was a committee report, and people had time to look at them before they came to the floor. And now it’s sort of like a fish. If you leave it out too long, it’s going to start to smell. So you got to catch it and pass it right away. Well, before we get to that, another change that those people who wrote the Republican bill probably didn’t intend: The requirement for states to institute work requirements for those who get Medicaid and/or food stamps — something that states cannot opt out of, we are told — does not include exemptions for people with disabilities. In other words, they would be required to work if they are of the age. Even those who’ve been getting, you know, disability benefits for years would have to be recertified as quote “unfit to work” by a doctor, or else they would have their benefits terminated. I would imagine that states would be among those joining the uproar with this. They have enough to do with redeterminations right now from people who got on Medicaid during the pandemic. The last thing they need is to have to basically redetermine every single person who’s already been determined to have a disability.
Kenen: And it’s a burden for the disabled too, even if the states are willing to do it. Bureaucracies are hard to deal with, and people would get lost in the shuffle. There’s absolutely no question that disabled people would get lost in the shuffle given the system they’ve set up.
Ollstein: Yes, this is a perfect example of how people fall through the cracks, and especially because a lot of the mechanisms that states set up to do this, we’ve seen, are not fully accessible for people with disabilities. Some of them have audio-only options. Some of them have online-only options. It’s very hard for people to — even if they know about it, which they might not — to navigate this and become certified. And so there is a fair amount of data out there that the projected savings from policies like work requirements don’t come from more people working; they come from people getting kicked off the rolls who maybe shouldn’t be, should be fully eligible for benefits.
Kenen: And it’s not just physical disability. I mean, there’s all sorts of developmental disabilities — people who really aren’t going to be able to navigate the system. It’s just — it may not be what they intended, it may be what they intended, who knows. But it’s not a viable approach.
Rovner: Yeah. Meanwhile, even if the Democrats could sneak a bill out of the House with a little bit of moderate Republican support, there’s no guarantee it could get through the Senate, where West Virginia’s Joe Manchin says he supports at least some budget cuts and work requirements and where the absence of California’s Dianne Feinstein, who is 89 and has been away from Washington since February, trying to recover from a case of shingles, has loomed large in a body where the elected majority only has 51 votes. Joanne, you wrote about the sticky problem of senators of an advanced age. Feinstein is far from the first, but is there anything that can be done about this when, you know, one of our older senators is out for a long time?
Kenen: There is no institutional solution to an incapacitated senator. And in addition to the magazine piece I wrote about this yesterday for Politico Magazine, I also wrote about last night in Politico Nightly sort of going back to the history until the 1940s. I mean, there have been people, a handful, but people out for like three or four years. The only tool is an expulsion vote, and that is not used. You need two-thirds vote, and you can’t get that. It was used during the Civil War, where there were I think it was 14 senators from Confederate states who didn’t sort of get that they were supposed to leave once the Civil War started, so they got expelled. Other than that, there’s only been one case, and it was for treason, in the 1790s. So they’re not going to start expelling senators who have strokes or who have dementia or who have other ailments. That’s just not going to happen. But that means they’re stuck with them. And it’s not just Feinstein. I mean, there have been other impaired senators, and there will be more impaired senators in the future. There’s no equivalent to the 25th Amendment, for which the vice president and the cabinet can remove a president. The Senate has no mechanism other than behind-the-scenes cajoling. And, you know, we have seen Dianne Feinstein — she didn’t even announce she wasn’t running for reelection until other people announced they were running for her seat. But it’s like 50-50 Senate — if it’s 47-53 and one is sick, it doesn’t matter so much. If it’s 50-50 or 51-49, it matters a lot.
Rovner: Yeah, and that’s what I was going to say. I mean, you and I remember when Tim Johnson from South Dakota had, what was it, an aneurysm?
Kenen: I think he had a stroke, right?
Rovner: Yeah. It took him a year to come back, which he did eventually.
Kenen: Well, we both covered Strom Thurmond, who, you know, was clearly not —
Rovner: —he was not all there —
Kenen: — situational awareness for quite a few years. I mean, it was very clear, you know, as I mention in this story, that, you know, instead of the staff following his orders, he was following the staff’s orders and he was not cognizant of Senate proceedings or what was going on.
Rovner: Yeah, that’s for sure.
Kenen: But there also are some who are really fine. I mean, we know some who are 80, 88 — you know, in their 80s who are totally alert. And so an age cutoff is also problematic. That doesn’t work either.
Rovner: Right. Ted Kennedy was, you know, right there until he wasn’t. So I’m amazed at the at how some of these 80-something-year-old senators have more energy than I do. Well, elsewhere on Capitol Hill, we talked about the bipartisan drug price bill last week in the Senate that was supposed to be marked up and sent to the floor this week, which did not happen. Rachel, how did what should have been a fairly routine committee vote get so messed up?
Cohrs: Yeah, it was a — it was a meltdown. We haven’t seen something like this in quite a — a couple of years, I think, on the Hill, where Chairman Bernie Sanders’ first major, you know, health care markup. And I think it just became clear that they had not done due diligence down the dais and had buy-in on these bills, but also the amendment process, which sounds like a procedural complaint but it really — there were some substantive changes in these amendments, and it was obvious from the markup that senators were confused about who supported what and what could get the support of the caucus. And those conversations in the Lamar Alexander, you know, iteration of this committee happened before. So I think it, you know, was a lesson certainly for everyone that there does need to be — I don’t know, it’s hard to draw the line between kind of regular order, where every senator can offer an amendment, and what passes. And it’s just another symptom of that issue in Congress where even sometimes popular things that an individual senator might support — they could pass on their own — that throwing off the dynamics of packages that they’re trying to put together. So I think they are hoping to give it another shot next week after a hearing with executives from insulin manufacturers and pharmacy benefit managers. But it was pretty embarrassing this week.
Rovner: Yeah. I was going to say, I mean normally these things are negotiated out behind the scenes so by the time you actually — if you’re going to have a markup; sometimes markups get canceled at the last minute because they haven’t been able to work things out behind the scenes. Correct me if I’m wrong, but Bernie Sanders has not been chairman before of a major legislative committee, right? He was chairman of the Budget Committee, but they don’t do this kind of take up a bill and make amendments.
Kenen: I don’t remember, but he was a lead author of the bipartisan veterans bill. So he has — it’s probably his biggest legislative achievement in the Senate. And that was a major bipartisan bill. So he does know how these things work.
Rovner: Right. He knows how to negotiate.
Kenen: It just didn’t work.
Rovner: Yeah, I think this came as a surprise — a committee like this that’s really busy with legislation and that does legislation that frequently gets amended and changed before it goes to the floor. I am told he was indeed chairman of Veterans’ Affairs, but they don’t do as much legislation as the HELP Committee. I think this was perhaps his first outing. Maybe he learned some important lessons about how this committee actually works and how it should go on. All right. Rachel, you said that there’s going to be a hearing and then they’re going to try this markup again. So we’ll see if they get through this in the May work period, as they call it.
Kenen: Maybe they’ll come out holding hands.
Rovner: I want to turn to abortion. It seems that maybe, possibly, the tide in states is turning against passage of the broadest possible bans. In the same day last week we saw sweeping abortion restrictions turned back, though barely, by lawmakers in both South Carolina and Nebraska. And in North Carolina, where Republicans just got a supermajority big enough to override the state’s Democratic governor’s veto, lawmakers are now looking at a 12-week ban rather than the six-week or total ban that was expected. Alice, is this a trend or kind of an anomaly?
Ollstein: Every state is different, and you still have folks pushing for total or near-total bans in a lot of states. And I will say that in North Carolina specifically, a 12-week ban will have a big impact, because that is the state where a lot of people throughout the entire South are going right now, so they’re getting incoming folks from Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Louisiana. So it’s one of the sort of last havens in the entire southeast area, and so even a restriction to 12 weeks, you know, we know that the vast majority of abortions happen before that point, but with fewer and fewer places for people to go, wait times are longer, people are pushed later into pregnancy who want to terminate a pregnancy sooner. And so it could be a big deal. This has also been kind of a crazy saga in North Carolina, with a single lawmaker switching parties and that being what is likely to enable this to pass.
Rovner: Yeah, a Democrat turned Republican for reasons that I think have not been made totally clear yet, but giving the Republicans this veto-proof majority.
Kenen: They’ve got the veto-proof majority. I did read one report saying there was one vote in question. It might be this lawmaker who turned, whether she’s for 12-week or whether she’s for 15 or 20 or whatever else. So it’ll certainly pass. I don’t have firsthand knowledge of this, but I did read one story that said there’s some question about they might be one short of the veto-proof majority. So we’ll just have to wait and see.
Rovner: Yeah, North Carolina is obviously a state that’s continuing. So my colleague and sometime podcast panelist Sarah Varney has a story this week out of Idaho, where doctors who treat pregnant women are leaving the state and hospitals are closing maternity wards because they can no longer staff them. It’s a very good story, but what grabbed me most was a line from an Idaho state representative who voted for the ban, Republican Mark Sauter. He told Sarah, quote, “he hadn’t thought very much about the state abortion ban other than I’m a pro-life guy and I ran that way.” He said it wasn’t until he had dinner with the wife of a hospital emergency room doctor that he realized what the ban was doing to doctors and hospitals in the state and to pregnant women who were not trying to have abortions. Are we starting to see more of that, Alice? I’ve seen, you know, a few Republicans here and there saying that — now that they’re seeing what’s playing out — they’re not so sure these really dramatic bans are the way to go.
Ollstein: Yeah, I will say we are seeing more and more of that. I’ve done some reporting on Tennessee, where some of the Republicans who voted for the state’s near-total ban are expressing regret and saying that there have been unintended consequences for people in obstetric emergency situations. You know, they said they didn’t realize how this would be a chilling effect on doctors providing care in more than just so-called elective abortion situations. But it does seem that those Republicans who are speaking out in that way are still in the majority. The party overall is still pushing for these restrictions. They’re also accusing medical groups of misinterpreting them. So we are seeing this play out. For instance, you know, in Tennessee, there was a push to include more exceptions in the ban, alter enforcement so that doctors wouldn’t be afraid to perform care in emergency situations, and a lot of that was rejected. What they ended up passing didn’t go as far as what the medical groups say is needed to protect pregnant people.
Rovner: It’s important to point out that the groups on the other side, the anti-abortion groups, have not backed off. They are still — and these are the groups that have supported most of these pro-life Republicans who are in these state legislatures. So were they to, you know, even support more exemptions that would, you know, turn them against important supporters that they have, so I think it’s this —
Rovner: —sort of balancing act going on.
Ollstein: Plus, we’ve seen even in the states that have exemptions, people are not able to use them in a lot of circumstances. That’s why you have a lot of pro-abortion rights groups, including medical groups, saying exemptions may give the appearance of being more compassionate but are not really navigable in practice.
Rovner: Right. I mean, we’ve had all these stories every week of how near death does a pregnant woman have to be before doctors are not afraid to treat her because they will be dragged into court or put in jail?
Rovner: So this continues. Well, the other big story of the week has to do with exactly that. The federal Department of Health and Human Services has opened an investigation into two hospitals, one each in Missouri and Kansas, that federal officials say violated the federal emergency medical care law by refusing to perform an abortion on a woman in medical distress. If the hospitals don’t prove that they will comply with the law, they could face fines or worse, be banned from participation in Medicare and Medicaid. I can’t help but think this is the kind of fight that’s going to end up at the Supreme Court, right? I mean, this whole, if you have a state law that conflicts with federal law, what do you do?
Ollstein: Yeah, we’re seeing that both in the EMTALA space [Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act] and in the drug space. We’re seeing a lot of state-federal conflicts being tested in court, sort of for the first time in the abortion question. So we also, in addition to these new federal actions, you know, we still have cases playing out related to abortion and emergency care in a few other states. So I think this will continue, and I think that you’re really seeing that exactly the letter of the law is one thing, and the chilling effect is another thing. And how doctors point out if a lot of these state abortion bans are structured around what’s called an affirmative defense, which means that doctors have to cross their fingers and provide the care and know that if they get sued, they can mount a defense that, you know, this was necessary to save someone’s life. Now, doctors point out that a lot of people are not willing to do that and a lot of people are afraid to do that; they don’t have the resources to do it. Plus, in the medical space, when you apply for licenses or things in the future, it doesn’t just say, “Were you ever convicted of something?” It says, “Were you ever charged with something?” So even if the charges are dropped, it still remains on their record forever.
Rovner: Yeah, and they have malpractice premiums. I mean, there’s a whole lot of things that this will impact. Well, I want to talk about covid, because we haven’t talked about covid in a couple of weeks. It is still with us. Ask people who went to the big CDC conference last week; I think they’ve had, what, 35 cases out of that conference? Yet the public health emergency officially ends on May 11, which will trigger all manner of changes. We’re already seeing states disenrolling people for Medicaid now that they’re allowed to redetermine eligibility again, including some people who say they’re still eligible, as we talked about a little bit earlier. We’re also seeing vaccine mandates lifted. Does this mean that the pandemic is really over? It obviously is a major signal, right, even if covid is still around?
Kenen: It means it’s legally over. It doesn’t mean it’s biologically over. But it is clearly better. I mean, will we have more surges next winter or over some kind of holiday gathering? You know, it’s not gone and it’s probably never going to be gone. However, we also don’t know how many cases there really are because not everybody tests or they don’t realize that cold is covid or they test at home and don’t report it. So the caseload is murky, but we sure note that the death toll is the lowest it’s been in two years, and I think it’s under 200 a day — and I’d have to double check that — but it’s really dropped and it’s continuing to drop. So even though there’s concern about whether we still need some of these protections, and I personally think we do need some of them in some places, the bottom line is, are people dying the way they were dying? No. That is — you know, I’ve watched that death toll drop over the last couple of weeks; it’s consistent and it’s significant. And so we should all be grateful for that. But whether it stays low without some of these measures and access to testing and access to shots and — and people are confused, you know, like, Oh, the shots aren’t going to be free or they are going to be free or I don’t need one. I mean, that whole murkiness on the part of the public — I mean, I have friends who are quite well aware of things. I mean, I have friends who just got covid the other day and, you know, said, “Well, you know, I’m not going to — I’m not really, really sick, so I don’t need Paxlovid.” And I said, “You know, you really need to call your doctor and talk about that.” So her doctor gave her Paxlovid — so she actually had a risk factor, so, two risk factors. So it’s not over, but we also have to acknowledge that it’s better than many people thought it would be by May 2023.
Rovner: Yeah, I know. I mean, the big complaints I’m seeing are people with chronic illnesses who worry that masks are no longer required in health care facilities, and that that seems to upset them.
Kenen: I mean, I think if you were to ask a doctor, I would hope that you could ask your doctor to put on a mask in a certain situation. And that doesn’t work in a hospital where lots of people around, but the doctors I’ve been to recently have also worn masks and —
Rovner: Yeah, mine too.
Kenen: Luckily, we do know now that if you wear a good mask, an N95, properly, it is not perfect, but you still can protect yourself by wearing a mask. You know, I take public transport and I wear masks in public transport, and I still avoid certain settings, and I worry more about the people who are at risk and they don’t understand that the shots are still free; they don’t know how to get medication; they don’t — there’s just a lot of stuff out there that we have communicated so poorly. And the lack of a public health emergency, with both the resources and the messaging — I worry about that.
Rovner: And as we pointed out, people losing their health insurance, whether, you know —
Kenen: That’s a whole other —
Rovner: Yeah, rightly or not. I mean, you know, whether they’re no longer eligible.
Kenen: Most are, but they’re still, you know — falling through the cracks is a major theme in American health care.
Rovner: It is. Well, finally this week, the U.S. surgeon general, Vivek Murthy, wants us to be less lonely. Really. The health effects of loneliness have been a signature issue for Dr. Murthy. We talked about it at some length in a podcast last summer. I will be sure to add the link to that in the show notes. But now, instead of just describing how loneliness is bad for your health — and trust me, loneliness is bad for your health — the surgeon general’s office has issued a new bulletin with how Americans can make themselves less lonely. It’s not exactly rocket science. It recommends spending more time in person with friends and less time online. But does highlighting the issue make it easier to deal with? I mean, this is not one of the traditional public health issues that we’ve talked about over the years.
Ollstein: I’m very interested to see where this conversation goes, because it’s already sort of feeling like a lot of other public health conversations in the U.S. in that they describe this huge, existential, population-level problem, but the solutions pushed are very individual and very like, you have to change your lifestyle, you have to log off, you have to join more community groups. And it’s like, if this is a massive societal problem, shouldn’t there be bigger, broader policy responses?
Kenen: You can’t mandate someone going out for coffee —
Kenen: —three times a week. I mean, this one —
Ollstein: Exactly. You can’t boostrap loneliness.
Kenen: This one, I think — I think it validates people’s feelings. I mean, I think people who are feeling isolated —I mean, we had loneliness before the pandemic, but the pandemic has changed how we live and how we socialize. And if — I think it’s sort of telling people, you know, if you’re feeling this way, it is real and it’s common, and other people are feeling that way, too, so pick up the phone. And maybe those of us who are more extroverted will reach out to people we know who are more isolated. So, I mean, I’m not sure what HHS or the surgeon general can do to make people spend time with one another.
Ollstein: Well, there are structural factors in loneliness. There are economic factors. There is, you know, a lack of paid time off. There are a lack of public spaces where people can gather, you know, in a safe and pleasant way. You know, other countries do tons of things. You know, there are programs in other countries that encourage teens, that finance and support teens forming garage bands, in Scandinavian countries. I mean, there are there are policy responses, and maybe some of them are already being tried out at like the city level in a lot of places. But I’m not hearing a lot other than telling people to make individual life changes, which may not be possible.
Rovner: But although I was going to point out that one of the reasons that this is becoming a bigger issue is that the number of Americans living alone has gone up. You know, and again, Joanne, this was way before the pandemic, but it’s more likely — people are more in a position to be lonely, basically. I mean, it’s going to affect a larger part of the population, so —
Kenen: And some of the things that Alice suggested are policies that are being worked on because of, you know, social determinants and other things: recreation, housing. Those things are happening at both the state and federal level. So they would help loneliness, but I don’t think you’re going to see them branded as a loneliness — national loneliness program. But, you know, the demographics of this country — you know, families are scattered. Zoom is great, you know, but Zoom isn’t real life. And there are more people who are single, there are more people who are widowed, there are more people who never married, there are more people who are divorced, the elderly cohort. Many people live alone, and teens and kids have had a hard time in the last couple years. So I think on one level it’s easy for people to make fun of it because, you know, we’re coming out of this pandemic and the surgeon general’s talking about loneliness. On the other hand, there are millions or tens of millions of people who are lonely. And I think this does sort of help people understand that there are things to be done about it that — I don’t think individual action is always a bad thing. I mean, encouraging people to think about the people in their lives who might be lonely is probably a good thing. It’s social cohesion. I mean, Republicans can make that case, right, that we have to, you know, everybody needs to pick up a telephone or go for a walk and knock on a door.
Rovner: Yeah, they do. I mean, Republicans are big on doing things at the community level. That’s the idea, is let’s have government at the lowest level possible. Well, this will be an interesting issue to watch and see if it catches on more with the public health community. All right. That is this week’s news. Now it is time for our extra credit segment. That’s when we each recommend a story we read this week we think you should read too. As always, don’t worry if you miss it. We will post the links on the podcast page at KFF Health News and in our show notes on your phone or other mobile device. Rachel, why don’t you go first this week?
Cohrs: My story is in ProPublica and the headline is “This Pharmacist Said Prisoners Wouldn’t Feel Pain During Lethal Injection. Then Some Shook and Gasped for Air,” by Lauren Gill and Daniel Moritz-Rabson. And I think it’s just a story about this ongoing issue of expert testimony in criminal justice settings. And obviously these are really important questions about medications that, you know, are used for lethal injections and how they work and just how, you know, people are responding to them in the moment. And I mean, it’s just such an important issue that gets overlooked in the pharmaceutical space sometimes. And yeah, I think it’s just something that is very sobering, and it’s just a really important read.
Rovner: Yeah. I mean, there’s been a lot about doctors and the ethics of participating in these. This is the first time I’ve seen a story about pharmacists. Joanne?
Kenen: Well, I saw this one in The Atlantic. It’s by Yasmin Tayag, and I couldn’t resist the headline: “There Is No Stopping the Allergy Apocalypse.” Basically, because of climate change, allergies are getting worse. If you have allergies, you already know that. If you think you don’t have allergies, you’re probably wrong; you’re probably about to get them. They take a little while to show up. So it’s not in one region; it’s everywhere. So, you know, we’re all going to be wheezing, coughing, sneezing, sniffling a lot more than we’re used to, including if you were not previously a wheezer, cougher, or sniffler.
Rovner: Oh, I can’t wait. Alice.
Ollstein: So I have a piece from The Wall Street Journal called “Patients Lose Access to Free Medicines Amid Spat Between Drugmakers, Health Plans,” by Peter Loftus and Joseph Walker. And it is some really tragic stories about folks who are seeing their monthly costs for medications they depend on to live shoot up. In one instance in the story, what he has to pay per month shot up from 15 to more than 12,000. And so you have the drugmakers, the insurance companies, and the middlemen pointing fingers at each other and saying, you know, “This is your fault, this is your fault, this is your fault.” And meanwhile, patients are suffering. So, really interesting story, hope it leads to some action to help folks.
Rovner: I was going to say, maybe the HELP Committee will get its act together, because it’s trying to work on this.
Rovner: Well, my story is from The Washington Post, and it’s called “Dog-Walking Injuries May Be More Common Than You Think,” by Lindsey Bever. And it’s about a study from Johns Hopkins, including your colleagues, Joanne, that found that nearly half a million people were treated in U.S. emergency rooms for an injury sustained while walking a dog on a leash. Not surprisingly, most were women and older adults, who are most likely to be pulled down by a very strong dog. The three most diagnosed injuries were finger fractures, traumatic brain injuries, and shoulder injuries. As a part-time dog trainer in my other life, here are my two biggest tips, other than training your dog to walk politely on a leash: Don’t use retractable leashes; they can actually cut off a finger if it gets caught in one. And never wrap the leash around your hand or your wrist. So that is my medical advice for this week. And that is our show. As always, if you enjoy the podcast, you can 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. Also, as always, you can email us your comments or questions. We’re at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can tweet me, as long as Twitter’s still there. I’m @jrovner. Joanne?
Rovner: We will be back in your feed next week. Until then, be healthy.
To hear all our podcasts, click here.
And subscribe to KFF Health News’ ‘What the Health? on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Pocket Casts, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
This article was produced by KFF Health News, formerly known as Kaiser Health News (KHN), a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF — the independent source for health policy research, polling, and journalism.