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KFF Health News' 'What the Health?': Debt Deal Leaves Health Programs (Mostly) Intact
KFF Health News' 'What the Health?'

Debt Deal Leaves Health Programs (Mostly) Intact

Episode 301

The Host

Julie Rovner
KFF Health News
Julie Rovner is chief Washington correspondent and host of KFF Health News’ 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.

A final deal cut between President Joe Biden and House Republicans extends the U.S. debt ceiling deadline to 2025 and reins in some spending. The bill signed into law by the president will preserve many programs at their current funding levels, and Democrats were able to prevent any changes to the Medicare and Medicaid programs.

Still, millions of Americans are likely to lose their Medicaid coverage this year as states are once again allowed to redetermine who is eligible and who is not; Medicaid rolls were frozen for three years due to the pandemic. Data from states that have begun to disenroll people suggests that the vast majority of those losing insurance are not those who are no longer eligible, but instead people who failed to complete required paperwork — if they received it in the first place.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of KFF Health News, Joanne Kenen of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Politico, Lauren Weber of The Washington Post, and Jessie Hellmann of CQ Roll Call.

Panelists

Jessie Hellmann
CQ Roll Call
Joanne Kenen
Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Politico
Lauren Weber
The Washington Post

Among the takeaways from this week’s episode:

  • Lawmakers and White House officials spared health programs from substantial spending cuts in a last-minute agreement to raise the nation’s debt ceiling. And Biden named Mandy Cohen, a former North Carolina health director who worked in the Obama administration, to be the next director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Though she lacks academic credentials in infectious diseases, Cohen enters the job with a reputation as someone who can listen and be listened to by both Democrats and Republicans.
  • The removal of many Americans from the Medicaid program, post-public health emergency, is going as expected: With hundreds of thousands already stripped from the rolls, most have been deemed ineligible not because they don’t meet the criteria, but because they failed to file the proper paperwork in time. Nearly 95 million people were on Medicaid before the unwinding began.
  • Eastern and now southern parts of the United States are experiencing hazardous air quality conditions as wildfire smoke drifts from Canada, raising the urgency surrounding conversations about the health effects of climate change.
  • The drugmaker Merck & Co. sued the federal government this week, challenging its ability to press drugmakers into negotiations over what Medicare will pay for some of the most expensive drugs. Experts predict Merck’s coercion argument could fall flat because drugmakers voluntarily choose to participate in Medicare, though it is unlikely this will be the last lawsuit over the issue.
  • In abortion news, some doctors are pushing back against the Indiana medical board’s decision to reprimand and fine an OB-GYN who spoke out about providing an abortion to a 10-year-old rape victim from Ohio. The doctors argue the decision could set a bad precedent and suppress doctors’ efforts to communicate with the public about health issues.

Also this week, Rovner interviews KFF Health News senior correspondent Sarah Jane Tribble, who reported the latest KFF Health News-NPR “Bill of the Month” feature, about a patient with Swiss health insurance who experienced the sticker shock of the U.S. health care system after an emergency appendectomy. If you have an outrageous or exorbitant medical bill you want to share with us, you can do that here.

Plus, for “extra credit,” the panelists suggest health policy stories they read this week that they think you should read, too:

Julie Rovner: The New York Times’ “This Nonprofit Health System Cuts Off Patients With Medical Debt,” by Sarah Kliff and Jessica Silver-Greenberg.

Jessie Hellmann: MLive’s “During the Darkest Days of COVID, Some Michigan Hospitals Made 100s of Millions,” by Matthew Miller and Danielle Salisbury.

Joanne Kenen: Politico Magazine’s “Can Hospitals Turn Into Climate Change Fighting Machines?” by Joanne Kenen.

Lauren Weber: The Washington Post’s “Smoke Brings a Warning: There’s No Escaping Climate’s Threat to Health,” by Dan Diamond, Joshua Partlow, Brady Dennis, and Emmanuel Felton.

Also mentioned in this week’s episode:

KFF Health News’ “As Medicaid Purge Begins, ‘Staggering Numbers’ of Americans Lose Coverage,” by Hannah Recht.

KFF Health News’ ‘What the Health?’
Episode Title:
Debt Deal Leaves Health Programs (Mostly) Intact
Episode Number: 301
Published: June 8, 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 are taping this week from the smoky, hazy, “code purple” Washington, D.C., area on Thursday, June 8, 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: Hi, everybody.

Rovner: Lauren Weber, of The Washington Post.

Lauren Weber: Hi.

Rovner: And Jessie Hellmann, of CQ Roll Call.

Hellmann: Hello.

Rovner: Later in this episode we’ll have my interview with KFF Health News’s Sarah Jane Tribble about the latest KFF Health News-NPR “Bill of the Month.” This month is about the sticker shock of the American health care system experienced by residents of other countries. Before we get to this week’s news, I hope you all enjoyed our special panel of big health policy thinkers for our 300th episode. If you didn’t listen, you might want to go back and do that at some point. Also, that means we have two weeks of news to catch up on, so let us get to it. We’re going to start this week, I hope, for the last time with the fight over the debt ceiling. Despite lots of doubts, President Biden managed to strike a budget deal with House Republicans, which fairly promptly passed the House and Senate and was signed into law a whole two days before the Treasury Department had warned that the U.S. might default. The final package extends the debt ceiling until January 1, 2025, so after the next election, which was a big win for the Democrats, who don’t want to do this exercise again anytime soon. In exchange, Republicans got some budget savings, but nothing like the dramatic bill that House Republicans passed earlier this spring. So, Jessie, what would it do to health programs?

Hellmann: The deal cuts spending by 1.5 trillion over 10 years. It has caps on nondefense discretionary funding. That would have a big impact on agencies and programs like the NIH [National Institutes of Health], which has been accustomed to getting pretty large increases over the years. So nondefense discretionary spending will be limited to about 704 billion next fiscal year, which is a cut of about 5%. And then there’s going to be a 1% increase in fiscal 2025, which, when you consider inflation, probably isn’t much of an increase at all. So the next steps are seeing what the appropriators do. They’re going to have to find a balance between what programs get increases, which ones get flat funding — it’s probably going to be a lot of flat funding, and we’re probably at the end of an era for now with these large increases for NIH and other programs, which have traditionally been very bipartisan, but it’s just a different climate right now.

Rovner: And just to be clear, I mean, this agreement doesn’t actually touch the big sources of federal health spending, which are Medicare and Medicaid, not even any work requirements that the Republicans really wanted for Medicaid. In some ways, the Democrats who wanted to protect health spending got off pretty easy, or easier than I imagine they expected they would, right?

Hellmann: Advocates would say it could have been much worse. All things considered, when you look at the current climate and what some of the more conservative members of the House were initially asking for, this is a win for Democrats and for people who wanted to protect health care spending, especially the entitlements, because they — Republicans did want Medicaid work requirements and those just did not end up in the bill; they were a nonstarter. So, kind of health-care-related, depending on how you look at it, there was an increase in work requirements for SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program], which is, like, a food assistance program. So that will be extended to age 55, though they did include more exemptions for people who are veterans —

Rovner: Yeah, overall, that may be a wash, right? There may be the same or fewer people who are subject to work requirements.

Hellmann: Yeah. And all those changes would end in 2030, so —

Weber: Yeah, I just wanted to say, I mean, if we think about this — we’re coming out of a pandemic and we’re not exactly investing in the health system — I think it’s necessary to have that kind of step-back context. And we’ve seen this before. You know, it’s the boom-bust cycle of pandemic preparedness funding, except accelerated to some extent. I mean, from what I understand, the debt deal also clawed back some of the public health spending that they were expecting in the billions of dollars. And I think the long-term ramifications of that remain to be seen. But we could all be writing about that in 10 years again when we’re looking at ways that funding fell short in preparedness.

Rovner: Yeah, Joanne and I will remember that. Yeah, going back to 2001. Yeah. Is that what you were about to say?

Kenen: I mean, this happens all the time.

Weber: All the time, right.

Kenen: And we learn lessons. I mean, the pandemic was the most vivid lesson, but we have learned lessons in the past. After anthrax, they spent more money, and then they cut it back again. I mean, I remember in 2008, 2009, there was a big fiscal battle — I don’t remember which battle it was — you know, Susan Collins being, you know, one of the key moderates to cut the deal. You know, what she wanted was to get rid of the pandemic flu funding. And then a year later, we had H1N1, which turned out not to be as bad as it could have been for a whole variety of reasons. But it’s a cliche: Public health, when it works, you don’t see it and therefore people think you don’t need it. Put that — put the politics of what’s happened to public health over the last three years on top of that, and, you know, public health is always going to have to struggle for funds. Public health and larger preparedness is always going to happen to have to struggle for funds. And it would have, whether it was the normal appropriations process this year, which is still to come, or the debt ceiling. It is a lesson we do not learn the hard way.

Weber: That’s exactly right. I’ll never forget that Tom Harkin said to me that after Obama cut, he sacrificed a bunch of prevention funding for the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] in the ACA [Affordable Care Act] deal, and he never spoke to him again, he told me, because he was so upset because he felt like those billions of dollars could have made a difference. And who knows if 10 years from now we’ll all be talking about this pivotal moment once more.

Rovner: Yeah, Tom Harkin, the now-former senator from Iowa, who put a lot of prevention into the ACA; that was the one thing he really worked hard to do. And he got it in. And as you point out, and it was almost immediately taken back out.

Weber: Yeah.

Kenen: Not all of it.

Weber: Not all of it, but a lot of it.

Kenen: It wasn’t zero.

Rovner: It became a piggy bank for other things. I do want to talk about the NIH for a minute, though, because Jessie, as you mentioned, there isn’t going to be a lot of extra money, and NIH is used to — over the last 30 years — being a bipartisan darling for spending. Well, now it seems like Congress, particularly some of the Republicans, are not so happy with the NIH, particularly the way it handled covid. There’s a new NIH director who has been nominated, Dr. Monica Bertagnolli, who is currently the head of the National Cancer Institute. This could be a rocky summer for the NIH on Capitol Hill, couldn’t it?

Hellmann: Yeah, I think there’s been a strong desire for Republicans to do a lot of oversight. They’ve been looking at the CDC. I think they’re probably going to be looking at the NIH next. Francis Collins is no longer at NIH. Anthony Fauci is no longer there. But I think Republicans have indicated they want to bring them back in to talk about some of the things that happened during the pandemic, especially when it comes to some of the projects that were funded.

Kenen: There was a lull in raising NIH spending. It was flat for a number of years. I can’t remember the exact dates, but I remember it was — Arlen Specter was still alive, and it … [unintelligible] … because he is the one who traditionally has gotten a lot of bump ups in spending. And then there was a few years, quite a few years, where it was flat. And then Specter got the spigots opened again and they stayed open for a good 10 or 15 years. So we’re seeing, and partly a fiscal pause, and partly the — again, it’s the politicization of science and public health that we did not have to this extent before this pandemic.

Rovner: Yeah, I think it’s been a while since NIH has been under serious scrutiny on Capitol Hill. Well, speaking of the CDC, which has been under serious scrutiny since the beginning of the pandemic, apparently is getting a new director in Dr. Mandy Cohen, assuming that she is appointed as expected. She won’t have to be confirmed by the Senate because the CDC director won’t be subject to Senate approval until 2025. Now, Mandy Cohen has done a lot of things. She worked in the Obama administration on the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. She ran North Carolina’s Department of Health [and Human Services], but she’s not really a noted public health expert or even an infectious disease doctor. Why her for this very embattled agency at this very difficult time?

Kenen: I think there are a number of reasons. A lot of her career was on Obamacare kind of things and on CMS kind of quality-over-quantity kind of things, payment reform, all that. She is a physician, but she did a good job in North Carolina as the top state official during the pandemic. I reported a couple of magazine pieces. I spent a lot of time in North Carolina before the pandemic when she was the state health secretary, and she was an innovator. And not only was she an innovator on things like, you know, integrating social determinants into the Medicaid system; she got bipartisan support. She developed not perfect, but pretty good relations with the state Republicans, and they are not moderates. So I think I remember writing a line that said something, you know, in one of those articles, saying something like, “She would talk to the Republicans about the return on investment and then say, ‘And it’s also the right thing to do.’ And then she would go to the Democrats and say, ‘This is the right thing to do. And there’s also an ROI.’”. So, so I think in a sort of low-key way, she has developed a reputation for someone who can listen and be listened to. I still think it’s a really hard job and it’s going to batter anyone who takes it.

Rovner: I suspect right now at CDC that those are probably more important qualities than somebody who’s actually a public health expert but does not know how to, you know, basically rescue this agency from the current being beaten about the head and shoulders by just about everyone.

Kenen: Yeah, but she also was the face of pandemic response in her state. And she did vaccination and she did disparities and she did messaging and she did a lot of the things that — she does not have an infectious disease degree, but she basically did practice it for the last couple of years.

Rovner: She’s far from a total novice.

Kenen: Yeah.

Rovner: All right. Well, it’s been a while since we talked about the Medicaid “unwinding” that began in some states in early April. And the early results that we’re seeing are pretty much as expected. Many people are being purged from the Medicaid rolls, not because they’re earning too much or have found other insurance, but because of paperwork issues; either they have not returned their paperwork or, in some cases, have not gotten the needed paperwork. Lauren, what are we seeing about how this is starting to work out, particularly in the early states?

Weber: So as you said, I mean, much like we expected to see: So 600,000 Americans have been disenrolled so far, since April 1. And some great reporting that my former colleague Hannah Recht did this past week: She reached out to a bunch of states and got ahold of data from 19 of them, I believe. And in Florida, it was like 250,000 people were disenrolled and somewhere north of 80% of them, it was for paperwork reasons. And when we think about paperwork reasons, I just want us all to take a step back. I don’t know about anyone listening to this, but it’s not like I fill out my bills on the most prompt of terms all of the time. And in some of these cases, people had two weeks to return paperwork where they may not have lived at the same address. Some of these forms are really onerous to fill out. They require payroll tax forms, you know, that you may not have easily accessible — all things that have been predicted, but the hard numbers just show is the vast majority of people getting disenrolled right now are being [dis]enrolled for paperwork, not because of eligibility reasons. And too, it’s worth noting, the reason this great Medicaid unwinding is happening is because this was all frozen for three years, so people are not in the habit of having to fill out a renewal form. So it’s important to keep that in mind, that as we’re seeing the hard data show, that a lot of this is, is straight-up paperwork issues. The people that are missing that paperwork may not be receiving it or just may not know they’re supposed to be doing it.

Rovner: As a reminder, I think by the time the three-year freeze was over, there were 90 million people on Medicaid.

Kenen: Ninety-five.

Rovner: Yeah. So it’s a lot; it’s like a quarter of the population of the country. So, I mean, this is really impacting a lot of people. You know, I know particularly red states want to do this because they feel like they’re wasting money keeping ineligible people on the rolls. But if eligible people become uninsured, you can see how they’re going to eventually get sicker, seek care; those providers are going to check and see if they’re eligible for Medicaid, and if they are, they’re going to put them back on Medicaid. So they’re going to end up costing even more. Joanne, you wanted to say something?

Kenen: Yeah. Almost everybody is eligible for something. The exceptions are the people who fall into the Medicaid gap, which is now down to 10 states.

Rovner: You mean, almost everybody currently on Medicaid is eligible.

Kenen: Anyone getting this disenrollment notification or supposed to receive the disenrollment notification that never reaches them — almost everybody is eligible for, they’re still eligible for Medicaid, which is true for the bulk of them. If they’re not, they’re going to be eligible for the ACA. These are low-income people. They’re going to get a lot heavily subsidized. Whether they understand that or not, someone needs to explain it to them. They’re working now, and the job market is strong. You know, it’s not 2020 anymore. They may be able to get coverage at work. Some of them are getting coverage at work. One of the things that I wrote about recently was the role of providers. States are really uneven. Some states are doing a much better job. You know, we’ve seen the numbers out of Florida. They’re really huge disenrollment numbers. Some states are doing a better job. Georgetown Center on Health Insurance — what’s the right acronym? — Children’s and Family. They’re tracking, they have a state tracker, but providers can step up, and there’s a lot of variability. I interviewed a health system, a safety net in Indiana, which is a red state, and they have this really extensive outreach system set up through mail, phone, texts, through the electronic health records, and when you walk in. And they have everybody in the whole system, from the front desk to the insurance specialists, able to help people sort this through. So some of the providers are quite proactive in helping people connect, because there’s three things: There’s understanding you’re no longer eligible, there’s understanding what you are eligible for, and then actually signing up. They’re all hard. You know, if your government’s not going to do a good job, are your providers or your community health clinics or your safety net hospitals — what are they doing in your state? That’s an important question to ask.

Rovner: Providers have an incentive because they would like to be paid.

Kenen: Paid.

Weber: Well, the thing about Indiana too, Joanne, I mean — so that was one of the states that Hannah got the data from. They had I think it was 53,000 residents that have lost coverage in the first amount of unwinding. 89% of them were for paperwork. I mean, these are not small fractions. I mean, it is the vast majority that is being lost for this reason. So that’s really interesting to hear that the providers there are stepping up to face that.

Kenen: It’s not all of them, but you can capture these people. I mean, there’s a lot that can go wrong. There’s a lot that — in the best system, you’re dealing with [a] population that moves around, they don’t have stable lives, they’ve got lots of other things to deal with day to day, and dealing with a health insurance notice in a language you may not speak delivered to an address that you no longer live at — that’s a lot of strikes.

Rovner: It is not easy. All right. Well, because we’re in Washington, D.C., we have to talk about climate change this week. My mother, the journalist, used to say whenever she would go give a speech, that news is what happens to or in the presence of an editor. I have amended that to say now news is what happens in Washington, D.C., or New York City. And since Washington, D.C., and New York City are both having terrible air quality — legendary, historically high air quality — weeks, people are noticing climate change. And yes, I know you guys on the West Coast are saying, “Uh, hello. We’ve been dealing with this for a couple of years.” But Joanne and Lauren, both of your extra credits this week have to do with it. So I’m going to let you do them early. Lauren, why don’t you go first?

Weber: Yeah, I’ve highlighted a piece by my colleague Dan Diamond and a bunch of other of my colleagues, who wrote all about how this is just a sign of what’s to come. I mean, this is not something that is going away. The piece is titled “Smoke Brings a Warning: There’s No Escaping Climate’s Threat to Health.” I think, Julie, you hit the nail on the head. You know, we all live here in Washington, D.C. A lot of other journalist friends live in New York. There’s been a lot of grousing on Twitter that everyone is now covering this because they can see it. But the reality is, when people can see it, they pay attention. And so the point of the story is, you know, look, I mean, this is climate change in action. We’re watching it. You know, it’s interesting; this story includes a quote from Mitch McConnell saying [to] follow the public health authorities, which I found to be quite fascinating considering the current Republican stance on some public health authorities during the pandemic. And I’m just very curious to see, as we continue to see this climate change in reality, how that messaging changes from both parties.

[Editor’s note: The quote Weber referenced did not come from McConnell but from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, and would not have warranted as much fascination in this context.]

Kenen: But I think that you’ve seen, with the fires on the West Coast, nobody is denying that there’s smoke and pollutants in the air — of either party. You know, we can look out our windows and see it right now, right? But they’re not necessarily accepting that it’s because of climate change, and that — I’m not sure that this episode changes that. Because many of the conservatives say it’s not climate change; it’s poor management of forests. That’s the one you hear a lot. But there are other explain — or it’s just, you know, natural variation and it’ll settle down. So it remains to be seen whether this creates any kind of public acknowledgment. I mean, you have conservative lawmakers who live in parts of the country that are already very — on coasts, on hurricane areas, and, you know, forest fire areas there. You have people who are already experiencing it in their own communities, and it does not make them embrace the awareness of poor air quality because of a forest fire. Yes. Does it do what Julie was alluding to, which is change policy or acknowledging what, you know, the four of us know, and many millions of other people, you know, that this is related to climate change, not just — you know, I’m not an expert in forestry, but this is not just — how many fires in Canada, 230?

Rovner: Yeah. Nova Scotia and Quebec don’t tend to have serious forest fire issues.

Kenen: Right. This is across — this is across huge parts of the United States now. It’s going into the South now. I was on the sixth floor of a building in Baltimore yesterday, and you could see it rolling in.

Rovner: Yeah. You have a story about people trying to do something about it. So why don’t you tell us about that.

Kenen: Well it was a coincidence that that story posted this week, because I had been working on it for a couple of months, but I wrote a story. The headline was — it’s in Politico Magazine — it’s “Can Hospitals Turn Into Climate Change Fighting Machines?” Although one version of it had a headline that I personally liked more, which was “Turn Off the Laughing Gas.” And it’s about how hospitals are trying to reduce their own carbon footprint. And when I wrote this story, I was just stunned to learn how big that carbon footprint is. The health sector is 8.5% of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, and that’s twice as high as the health sector in comparable industrial countries, and —

Rovner: We’re No. 1!

Kenen: Yes, once again, and most of it’s from hospitals. And there’s a lot that the early adopters, which is now, I would say about 15% of U.S. hospitals are really out there trying to do things, ranging from changing their laughing gas pipes to composting to all sorts of, you know, energy, food, waste, huge amount of waste. But one of the — you know, everything in hospitals is use once and throw it out or unwrap it and don’t even use it and still have to throw it out. But one of the themes of the people I spoke to is that hospitals and doctors and nurses and everybody else are making the connection between climate change and the health of their own communities. And that’s what we’re seeing today. That’s where the phenomenon Laura was talking about is connected. Because if you look out the window and you can see the harmful air, and some of these people are going to be showing up in the emergency rooms today and tomorrow, and in respiratory clinics, and people whose conditions are aggravated, people who are already vulnerable, that the medical establishment is making the connection between the health of their own community, the health of their own patients, and climate. And that’s where you see more buy-in into this, you know, greening of American hospitals.

Rovner: Speaking of issues that that seem insoluble but people are starting to work on, drug prices. In drug price news, drug giant Merck this week filed suit against the federal government, charging that the new requirements for Medicare price negotiation are unconstitutional for a variety of reasons. Now, a lot of health lawyers seem pretty dubious about most of those claims. What’s Merck trying to argue here, and why aren’t people buying what they’re selling?

Hellmann: So there’s two main arguments they’re trying to make. The primary one is they say this drug price negotiation program violates the Fifth Amendment, which prohibits the government from taking private property for public use without just compensation. So they argue that under this negotiation process they would basically be coerced or forced into selling these drugs for a price that they think is below its worth. And then the other argument they make is it violates their First Amendment rights because they would be forced to sign an agreement they didn’t agree with, because if they walk away from the negotiations, they have to pay a tax. And so it’s this coercive argument that they are making. But there’s been some skepticism. You know, Nick Bagley noted on Twitter that it’s voluntary to participate in Medicare. Merck doesn’t have a constitutional right to sell its drugs to the government at a price that they have set. And he also noted — I thought this was interesting — I didn’t know that there was kind of a similar case 50 years ago, when Medicare was created. Doctors had sued over a law Congress passed requiring that a panel review treatment decisions that doctors were making. The doctors sued also under the Fifth Amendment in the courts, and the Supreme Court sided with the government. So he seems to think there’s a precedent in favor of the government’s approach here. And there just seems to be a lot of skepticism around these arguments.

Rovner: And Nick Bagley, for those of you who don’t know, is a noted law professor at the University of Michigan who specializes in health law. So he knows whereof he speaks on this stuff. I mean, Joanne, you were, you were mentioning, I mean, this was pretty expected somebody was going to sue over this.

Kenen: It’s probably not the last suit either. It’s probably the first of, but, I mean, the government sets other prices in health care. And, you know, it sets Medicare Advantage rates. It sets rates for all sorts of Medicare procedures. The VA [U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs] sets prices for every drug that’s in its formulary or, you know, buys it at a negotiated —

Rovner: Private insurers set prices.

Kenen: Right. But that’s not government. That’s different.

Rovner: That’s true.

Kenen: They’re not suing private insurers. So, you know, I’m not Nick Bagley, but I usually respect what Nick Bagley has to say. On the other hand, we’ve also seen the courts do all sorts of things we have not expected them to do. There’s another Obamacare case right now. So, precedent, schmecedent, you know, like — although on this one we did expect the lawsuits. Somebody also pointed out, I can’t remember where I read it, so I’m sorry not to credit it, maybe it was even Nick — that even if they lose, if they buy a extra year or two, they get another year or two of profits, and that might be all they care about.

Rovner: It may well be. All right. Well, let us turn to abortion. It’s actually been relatively quiet on the abortion front these last couple of weeks as we approach the one-year anniversary of the Supreme Court striking down Roe v Wade. I did want to mention something that’s still going on in Indiana, however. You may remember the case last year of the 10-year-old who was raped in Ohio and had to go to Indiana to have the pregnancy terminated. That was the case that anti-abortion activists insisted was made up until the rapist was arraigned in court and basically admitted that he had done it. Well, the Indiana doctor who provided that care is still feeling the repercussions of that case. Caitlin Bernard, who’s a prominent OB-GYN at the Indiana University Health system, was first challenged by the state’s attorney general, who accused her of not reporting the child abuse to the proper state authorities. That was not the case; she actually had. But the attorney general, who’s actually a former congressman, Todd Rokita, then asked the state’s medical licensing board to discipline her for talking about the case, without naming the patient, to the media. Last month, the majority of the board voted to formally reprimand her and fine her $3,000. Now, however, lots of other doctors, including those who don’t have anything to do with reproductive health care, are arguing that the precedent of punishing doctors for speaking out about important and sometimes controversial issues is something that is dangerous. How serious a precedent could this turn out to be? She didn’t really violate anybody’s private — she didn’t name the patient. Lauren, you wanted to respond.

Weber: Yeah, I just think it’s really interesting. If you look at the context, the number of doctors that actually get dinged by the medical board, it’s only a couple thousand a year. So this is pretty rare. And usually what you get dinged for by the medical board are really severe things like sexual assault, drug abuse, alcohol abuse. So this would seem to indicate quite some politicization, and the fact that the AG was involved. And I do think that, especially in the backdrop of all these OB-GYN residents that are looking to apply to different states, I think this is one of the things that adds a chilling effect for some reproductive care in some of these red states, where you see a medical board take action like this. And I just think in general — it cannot be stated enough — this is a rare action, and a lot of medical board actions will be, even if there is an action, will be a letter in your file. I mean, to even have a fine is quite something and not it be like a continuing education credit. So it’s quite noteworthy.

Rovner: Well, meanwhile, back in Texas, the judge who declared the abortion pill to have been wrongly approved by the FDA, Trump appointee Matthew Kacsmaryk, is now considering a case that could effectively bankrupt Planned Parenthood for continuing to provide family planning and other health services to Medicaid patients while Texas and Louisiana were trying to kick them out of the program because the clinics also provided abortions in some cases. Now, during the time in question, a federal court had ordered the clinics to continue to operate as usual, banning funding for abortions, which always has been the case, but allowing other services to be provided and reimbursed by Medicaid. This is another of those cases that feels very far-fetched, except that it’s before a judge who has found in favor of just about every conservative plaintiff that has sought him out. This could also be a big deal nationally, right? I mean, Planned Parenthood has been a participant in the Medicaid program in most states for years — again, not paying for abortion, but for paying for lots of other services that they provide.

Kenen: The way this case was structured, there’s all these enormous number of penalties, like 11,000 per case or something, and it basically comes out to be $1.8 billion. It would bankrupt Planned Parenthood nationally, which is clearly the goal of this group, which has a long history that — we don’t have time to go into their long history. They’re an anti-abortion group that’s — you know, they were filming people, and there’s a lot of history there. It’s the same people. But, you know, this judge may in fact come out with a ruling that attempts to shut down Planned Parenthood completely. It doesn’t mean that this particular decision would be upheld by the 5th Circuit or anybody else.

Rovner: Or not. The same way the mifepristone ruling finally woke up other drugmakers who don’t have anything to do with the abortion fight because, oh my goodness, if a judge can overturn the approval of a drug, what does the FDA approval mean? This could be any government contractor — that you can end up being sued for having accepted money that was legal at the time you accepted it, which feels like not really a very good business partner issue. So another one that we will definitely keep an eye on.

Kenen: I mean, that’s the way it may get framed later, is that this isn’t really about Planned Parenthood; this is about a business or entity obeying the law, or court order. I mean, that’s how the pushback might come. I mean, I think people think Planned Parenthood, abortion, they equate those. And most Planned Parenthood clinics do not provide abortion, while those that do are not using federal funds, as a rule; there are exceptions. And Planned Parenthood is also a women’s health provider. They do prenatal care in some cases; they do STD [sexually transmitted disease] treatment and testing. They do contraception. They, you know, they do other things. Shutting down Planned Parenthood would mean cutting off many women’s access to a lot of basic health care.

Rovner: And men too, I am always reminded, because, particularly for sexually transmitted diseases, they’re an important provider.

Kenen: Yeah. HIV and other things.

Rovner: All right. Well, that is this week’s news. Now we will play my “Bill of the Month” interview with Sarah Jane Tribble, and then we will be back with our extra credits. We are pleased to welcome back to the podcast Sarah Jane Tribble, who reported and wrote the latest KFF Health News-NPR “Bill of the Month” story. Sarah, thanks for coming in.

Sarah Jane Tribble: Thanks for having me.

Rovner: So this month’s patient is a former American who now lives in Switzerland, a country with a very comprehensive health insurance system. But apparently it’s not comprehensive enough to cover the astronomical cost of U.S. health care. So tell us who the patient is and how he ended up with a big bill.

Tribble: Yeah. Jay Comfort is an American expatriate, and he has lived overseas for years. He’s a former educator. He’s 66 years old. And he decided to retire in Switzerland. He has that country’s basic health insurance plan. He pays his monthly fee and gets a deductible, like we do here in the U.S. He traveled last year for his daughter’s wedding and ended up with an emergency appendectomy in the ER [emergency room] at the University of Pittsburgh in Williamsport.

Rovner: And how big was the ultimate bill?

Tribble: Well, he was in the hospital just about 14 hours, and he ended up with a bill of just over $42,000.

Rovner: So not even overnight.

Tribble: No.

Rovner: That feels like a lot for what was presumably a simple appendectomy. Is it a lot?

Tribble: We talked to some experts, and it was above what they had predicted it would be. It did include the emergency appendectomy, some scans, some laboratory testing, three hours in the recovery room. There was also some additional diagnostic testing. They had sent off some cells for a diagnostics and did find cancer at the time. Still, it didn’t really explain all the extra cost. Healthcare Bluebook, which you can look up online, has this at about $14,000 for an appendectomy. One expert told me, if you look at Medicare prices and average out in that region, it would be between $6,500 and $18,000-ish. So, yeah, this was expensive compared to what the experts told us.

Rovner: So he goes home and he files a claim with his Swiss insurance. What did they say?

Tribble: Well, first let me just say, cost in the U.S. can be two to three times that in other countries. Switzerland isn’t known as a cheap country, actually. Its health care is —

Rovner: It’s the second most expensive after the U.S.

Tribble: Considered the most expensive in Europe, right. So this is pretty well known. So he was still surprised, though, when he got the response from his Swiss insurance. They said they were willing to pay double because it was an emergency abroad. Total, with the appendectomy and some extra additional scans and so forth: About $8,000 is what they were willing to pay.

Rovner: So, double what they would have paid if he’d had it done in Switzerland.

Tribble: Yeah.

Rovner: So 42 minus 8 leaves a large balance left. Yeah. I mean, he’s stuck with — what is that — $34,000. He’s on the hook for that. I mean, it’s better than having nothing, obviously, but it’s a lot of money and it’s really striking, the difference, because, you know, in Switzerland, they’re very much like, we would pay this amount, then we’ll double it to pay you back. And he still has this enormous bill he’s left paying. He’s on a fixed income. He’s retired. So it’s quite the shock to his system.

Rovner: So what happened? Has this been resolved?

Tribble: Let me first tell you what happened at the ER, because Jay was very diligent about providing documents and explaining everything. We had multiple Zoom calls. Jay’s wife was with him, and she provided the Swiss insurance card to UPMC. Now, UPMC had confirmed that there was some confusion, and it took months for Jay to get his bill. He had to call and reach out to UPMC to get his bill. He wants to pay his bill. He wants to pay his fair share, but he doesn’t consider $42,000 a fair share. So he wants to now negotiate the bill. We’ve left it at that, actually. UPMC says they are charging standard charges and that he has not requested financial assistance. And Jay says he would like to negotiate his bill.

Rovner: So that’s where we are. What is the takeaway here? Obviously, “don’t have an emergency in a country where you don’t have insurance” doesn’t feel very practical.

Tribble: Well, yeah, I mean, this was really interesting for me. I’ve been a health care reporter a long time. I’ve heard about travel insurance. The takeaway here for Jay is he would have been wise to get some travel insurance. Now, Jay did tell me previously he had tried to get Medicare. He is a U.S. citizen residing in Switzerland. He does qualify. He had worked in the U.S. long enough to qualify for it. He had gone through some phone calls and so forth and didn’t have it before coming here. He told me in the last couple of weeks that he now has gotten Medicare. However, that may not have helped him too much because it was an outpatient procedure. And it’s important to note that if you have Medicare and you’re 65 in the U.S., when you go overseas, it’s not likely to cover much. So the takeaway: Costs in the U.S. are more expensive than most places in the world, and you should be prepared if you’re traveling overseas and you find yourself in a situation, you might consider travel insurance anyway.

Rovner: So both ways.

Tribble: Yeah.

Rovner: Americans going somewhere else and people from somewhere else coming here.

Tribble: Well, if you’re a contract worker or a student on visa or somebody visiting the U.S., you’re definitely [going to] want to get some insurance because, wherever you’re coming from, most likely that insurance isn’t going to pay the full freight of what the costs are in the U.S.

Rovner: OK. Sarah Jane Tribble, thank you very much.

Tribble: Thanks so much.

Rovner: OK, we’re back, and it’s time for our extra credit segment. That’s where we each recommend a story we read this week that 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 kffhealthnews.org and in our show notes on your phone or other mobile device. Lauren and Joanne, you’ve already given us yours, so Jessie, you’re next.

Hellmann: Yeah. My extra credit is from MLive.com, an outlet in Michigan. It’s titled “During the Darkest Days of COVID, Some Michigan Hospitals Made 100s of Millions.” They looked at tax records, audited financial statements in federal data, and found that some hospitals and health systems in Michigan actually did really well during the pandemic, with increases in operating profits and overall net assets. A big part of this was because of the covid relief funding that was coming in, but the article noted that, despite this, hospitals were still saying that they were stretched really thin, where they were having to lay off people. They didn’t have money for PPE [personal protective equipment], and they were having to institute, like, other cost-saving measures. So I thought this was a really interesting, like, a local look at how hospitals are kind of facing a backlash now. We’ve seen it in Congress a little bit, just more of an interest in looking at their finances and how they were impacted by the pandemic, because while some hospitals really did see losses, like small, rural, or independent hospitals, some of the bigger health systems came out on top. But you’re still hearing those arguments that they need more help, they need more funding.

Rovner: Well, my story is also about a hospital system. It’s yet another piece of reporting about nonprofit hospitals failing to live up to their requirement to provide, quote, “community benefits,” by our podcast panelist at The New York Times Sarah Kliff and Jessica Silver-Greenberg. It’s called “This Nonprofit Health System Cuts Off Patients With Medical Debt.” And it’s about a highly respected and highly profitable health system based in Minnesota called Allina and its policy of cutting off patients from all nonemergency services until they pay back their debts in full. Now, nonemergency services because federal law requires them to treat patients in emergencies. It’s not all patients. It’s just those who have run up debt of at least $1,500 on three separate occasions. But that is very easy to do in today’s health system. And the policy isn’t optional. Allina’s computerized appointment system will actually block the accounts of those who have debts that they need to pay off. It is quite a story, and yet another in this long list of stories about hospitals behaving badly. OK, that is our show for this week. 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. As always, you can email us your comments or questions. We’re at whatthehealth@kff.org. Or you can tweet me, at least for now. I’m still there. I’m @jrovner. Joanne?

Kenen: @JoanneKenen

Rovner: Jessie.

Hellmann: @jessiehellmann

Rovner: Lauren.

Weber: @LaurenWeberHP

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

Credits

Francis Ying
Audio producer
Emmarie Huetteman
Editor

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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.