The Biden administration continued a bipartisan, decades-long effort to ensure that health insurance treats mental illnesses the same as other ailments, with a new set of regulations aimed at ensuring that services are actually available without years-long waits or excessive out-of-pocket costs.
Meanwhile, two more committees in Congress approved bills this week aimed at reining in the power of pharmacy benefit managers, who are accused of keeping prescription drug prices high to increase their bottom lines.
This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of KFF Health News, Anna Edney of Bloomberg, Joanne Kenen of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Politico, and Sarah Karlin-Smith of the Pink Sheet.
Among the takeaways from this week’s episode:
- The Biden administration’s new rules to enforce federal mental health parity requirements include no threat of sanctions when health plans do not comply; noncompliance with even the most minimal federal rules has been a problem dating to the 1990s. Improving access to mental health care is not a new policy priority, nor a partisan one, yet it remains difficult to achieve.
- With the anniversary of the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, more people are becoming aware of how to access help and get it. Challenges remain, however, such as the hotline service’s inability to connect callers with local care. But the program seizes on the power of an initial connection for someone in a moment of crisis and offers a lifeline for a nation experiencing high rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide.
- In news about the so-called Medicaid unwinding, 12 states have paused disenrollment efforts amid concerns they are not following renewal requirements. A major consideration is that most people who are disenrolled would qualify to obtain inexpensive or even free coverage through the Affordable Care Act. But reenrollment can be challenging, particularly for those with language barriers or housing insecurity, for instance.
- With a flurry of committee activity, Congress is revving up to pass legislation by year’s end targeting the role of pharmacy benefit managers — and, based on the advertisements blanketing Washington, PBMs are nervous. It appears legislation would increase transparency and inform policymakers as they contemplate further, more substantive changes. That could be a tough sell to a public crying out for relief from high health care costs.
- Also on Capitol Hill, far-right lawmakers are pushing to insert abortion restrictions into annual government spending bills, threatening yet another government shutdown on Oct. 1. The issue is causing heartburn for less conservative Republicans who do not want more abortion votes ahead of their reelection campaigns.
- And the damage to a Pfizer storage facility by a tornado is amplifying concerns about drug shortages. After troubling problems with a factory in India caused shortages of critical cancer drugs, decision-makers in Washington have been keeping an eye on the growing issues, and a response may be brewing.
Also this week, Rovner interviews KFF Health News’ Céline Gounder about the new season of her “Epidemic” podcast. This season chronicles the successful public health effort to eradicate smallpox.
Plus, for “extra credit,” the panelists suggest health policy stories they read this week that they think you should read, too:
Julie Rovner: The Nation’s “The Anti-Abortion Movement Gets a Dose of Post-Roe Reality,” by Amy Littlefield.
Joanne Kenen: Food & Environment Reporting Network’s “Can Biden’s Climate-Smart Agriculture Program Live Up to the Hype?” by Gabriel Popkin.
Anna Edney: Bloomberg’s “Mineral Sunscreens Have Potential Hidden Dangers, Too,” by Anna Edney.
Sarah Karlin-Smith: CNN’s “They Took Blockbuster Drugs for Weight Loss and Diabetes. Now Their Stomachs Are Paralyzed,” by Brenda Goodman.
Also mentioned in this week’s episode:
- CNN’s “Medicaid Disenrollments Paused in a Dozen States After Failure to Comply With Federal Rules,” by Tami Luhby.
- Abortion, Every Day’s “Why Are OBGYNs Being Forced to Go to Texas?” by Jessica Valenti.
- Politico’s “GOP Looks to Spending Fights for Wins on Abortion, Trans Care, Contraception,” by Alice Miranda Ollstein.
- KFF Health News’ “A Year With 988: What Worked? What Challenges Lie Ahead,” by Colleen DeGuzman.
KFF Health News’ ‘What the Health?’
Episode Title: Another Try for Mental Health ‘Parity’
Episode Number: 307
Published: July 27, 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 for 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, July 27, 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: Sarah Karlin-Smith, the Pink Sheet.
Sarah Karlin-Smith: Hi, Julie.
Rovner: And Anna Edney of Bloomberg News.
Rovner: Later in this episode, we’ll have my interview with my KFF colleague Céline Gounder about the new season of her podcast “Epidemic,” which tracks one of the last great public health success stories, the eradication of smallpox. But first, this week’s news. I want to start this week with mental health, which we haven’t talked about in a while — specifically, mental health parity, which is both a law and a concept, that mental ailments should be covered and reimbursed by health insurance the same way as a broken bone or case of pneumonia or any other — air quotes — “physical ailment.” Policymakers, Republican and Democrat, and the mental health community have been fighting pretty much nonstop since the mid-1990s to require parity. And despite at least five separate acts of Congress over that time — I looked it up this week — we are still not there yet. To this day, patients with psychiatric illnesses find their care denied reimbursement, made difficult to access, or otherwise treated as lesser. This week, the Biden administration is taking another whack at the issue, putting out proposed rules it hopes will start to close the remaining parity gap, among other things by requiring health plans to analyze their networks and prior authorization rules and other potential barriers to care to ensure that members actually can get the care they need. What I didn’t see in the rules, though, was any new threat to sanction plans that don’t comply — because plans have been not complying for a couple of decades now. How much might these new rules help in the absence of a couple of multimillion-dollar fines?
Edney: I had that same question when I was considering this because I didn’t see like, OK, like, great, they’re going to do their self-policing, and then what? But I do think that there’s the possibility, and this has been used in health care before, of public shaming. If the administration gets to look over this data and in some way compile it and say, here’s the good guys, here’s the bad guys, maybe that gets us somewhere.
Rovner: You know, it strikes me, this has been going on for so very long. I mean, at first it was the employer community actually that did most of the negotiating, not the insurers. Now that it’s required, it’s the insurers who are in charge of it. But it has been just this incredible mountain to scale, and nobody has been able to do it yet.
Kenen: And it’s always been bipartisan.
Rovner: That’s right.
Kenen: And it really goes back to mostly, you know, the late Sen. [Paul] Wellstone [(D-Minn.)] and [Sen. Pete] Domenici [(R-N.M.)], both of whom had close relatives with serious mental illness. You know, Domenici was fairly conservative and traditional conservative, and Wellstone was extremely liberal. And they just said, I mean, this — the parity move began — the original parity legislation, at least the first one I’m aware of. And it was like, I think it was before I came to Washington. I think it was in the ’80s, certainly the early — by the ’90s.
Rovner: It was 1996 when when the first one actually passed. Yeah.
Kenen: I mean, they started talking about it before that because it took them seven or eight years. So this is not a new idea, and it’s not a partisan idea, and it’s still not done. It’s still not there.
Edney: I think there’s some societal shift too, possibly. I mean, we’re seeing it, and maybe we’re getting closer. I’ve seen a lot of billboards lately. I’ve done some work travel. When I’m on the road, I feel like I’m always seeing these billboards that are saying mental health care is health care. And trying to hammer that through has really taken a long time.
Rovner: So while we are on the subject of mental health, one of the good things I think the government has done in the last year is start the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, which turned 1 this month. Early data from shifting the hotline from a 10-digit number to a three-digit one that’s a lot easier to remember does suggest that more people are becoming aware of immediate help and more people are getting it. At the same time, it’s been able to keep up with the demand, even improving call answering times — I know that was a big concern — but there is still a long way to go, and this is hardly a panacea for what we know is an ongoing mental health crisis, right?
Karlin-Smith: This is a good first step to get people in crisis help without some of the risks that we’ve seen. If you go towards the 911 route, sometimes police are not well trained to handle these calls and they end in worse outcomes than necessary. But then you have to have that second part, which is what we were talking about before, which is the access to the longer-term mental health support to actually receive the treatment you need. There’s also some issues with this hotline going forward in terms of long-term funding and, you know, other tweaks they need to work out to make sure, again, that people who are not expecting to interact with law enforcement actually don’t end up indirectly getting there and things like that as well.
Kenen: Do any of you know whether there’s discussion of sort of making people who don’t remember it’s 988 and they call 911 — instead of dispatching cops, are the dispatchers being trained to just transfer it over to 988?
Rovner: That I don’t know.
Kenen: I’m not aware of that. But it just sort of seems common sense.
Rovner: One thing I know they’re working on is, right now I think there’s no geolocation. So when you call 988, you don’t necessarily get automatically referred to resources that are in your community because they don’t necessarily know where you’re calling from. And I know that’s an effort. But yeah, I’m sure there either is or is going to be some effort to interact between 988 and 911.
Kenen: It’s common sense to us. It doesn’t mean it’s actually happening. I mean, this is health care.
Rovner: As we point out, this is mental health care, too.
Kenen: Yeah, right.
Rovner: It’s a step.
Kenen: But I think that, you know, sort of the power of that initial connection is something that’s easy for people to underestimate. I mean, my son in college was doing a helpline during 2020-2021. You know, he was trained, and he was also trained, like, if you think this is beyond what a college-aged volunteer, that if you’re uncertain, you just switched immediately to a mental health professional. But sometimes it’s just, people feel really bad and just having a voice gets them through a crisis moment. And as we all know, there are a lot of people having a lot of crisis moments. I doubt any of us don’t know of a suicide in the last year, and maybe not in our immediate circle, but a friend of a friend, I mean, or, you know — I know several. You know, we are really at a moment of extreme crisis. And if a phone call can help some percentage of those people, then, you know, it needs to be publicized even more and improved so it can be more than a friendly voice, plus a connection to what, ending this repetition of crisis.
Rovner: I feel like the people who worked hard to get this implemented are pretty happy a year later at how, you know — obviously there’s further to go — but they’re happy with how far they’ve come. Well, so, probably the only thing worse than not getting care covered that should be is losing your health coverage altogether, which brings us to the Medicaid unwinding, as states redetermine who’s still eligible for Medicaid for the first time since the start of the pandemic. Our podcast colleague Tami Luhby over at CNN had a story Friday that I still haven’t seen anywhere else. Apparently 12 states have put their disenrollments on pause, says Tami. But we don’t know which 12, according to the KFF disenrollment tracker. As of Wednesday, July 26, at least 3.7 million people have been disenrolled from the 37 states that are reporting publicly, nearly three-quarters of those people for, quote, “procedural reasons,” meaning those people might still be eligible but for some reason didn’t complete the renewal process. The dozen states on pause are apparently ones that HHS [the Department of Health and Human Services] thinks are not following the renewal requirements and presumably ones whose disenrollments are out of line. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which is overseeing this, is not naming those states, but this points up exactly what a lot of people predicted would happen when states started looking at eligibility again, that a lot of people who were quite likely still eligible were simply going to lose their insurance altogether, right?
Edney: Yeah, it seemed like there was a lot of preparation in some ways to anticipating this. And then, yeah, obviously you had the states that were just raring to go and try to get people off the rolls. And yeah, it would be very interesting to know what those 12 are. I think Tami’s reporting was stellar and she did a really good job. But that’s, like, one piece of the puzzle we’re missing. And I know CMS said that they’re not naming them because they are working well with them to try to fix it.
Rovner: The one thing we obviously do know is that there are several states that are doing this faster than is required — in fact, faster than is recommended. And what we know is that the faster they do it, the more likely they are going to have people sort of fall between the cracks. The people who are determined to be no longer eligible for Medicaid are supposed to be guided to programs for which they are eligible. And presumably most of them, unless they have, you know, gotten a really great job or hit the lottery, will still be eligible at least for subsidies under the Affordable Care Act. And they’re supposed to be guided to those programs. And it’s not clear yet whether that’s happening, although I know there are an awful lot of people who are watching this pretty closely. There were over 90 million people on Medicaid by the end of the pandemic, by the point at which states no longer had to keep people on. That’s a lot more people than Medicaid normally has. It’s usually more around 70 or even 80 million. So there’s excess people. And the question is what’s going to happen to those people and whether they’re going to have some sort of health insurance. And I guess it’s going to be more than a couple of months before we know that. Yes, Joanne.
Kenen: I think that it’s important to remember that there’s no open enrollment season for Medicaid the way there is for the ACA, so that if you’re disenrolled and you get sick and you go to a doctor or a hospital, they can requalify you and you can get it again. The problem is people who think that they’re disenrolled or are told that they’re disenrolled may not realize. They may not go to the doctor because they think they can’t afford it. They may not understand there’s a public education campaign there, too, that I haven’t seen. You know, if you get community health clinics, hospitals, they can do Medicare, Medicaid certification. But it’s dangerous, right? If you think, oh, I’m going to get a bill I can’t afford and I’m just going to see if I can tough this out, that’s not the way to take care of your health. So there’s that additional conundrum. And then, you know, I think that HHS can be flexible on special enrollment periods for those who are not Medicaid-eligible and are ACA-eligible, but most of them are still Medicaid-eligible.
Rovner: If you get kicked off of Medicaid, you get an automatic special enrollment for the ACA anyway.
Kenen: But not forever. If the issue is it’s in a language you don’t speak or at an address you don’t live in, or you just threw it out because you didn’t understand what it was — there is institutional failures in the health care system, and then there’s people have different addresses in three years, particularly poor people; they move around. There’s a communication gap. You know, I talked to a health care system a while ago in Indiana, a safety net, that was going through electronic health records and contacting people. And yet that’s Indiana and they, you know, I think it was Tami who pointed out a few weeks ago on the podcast, Indiana is not doing great, in spite of, you know, really more of a concerted effort than other states or at least other health systems, not that I talk to every single health system in the country. I was really impressed with how proactive they were being. And still people are falling, not just through the cracks. I mean, there’s just tons of cracks. It’s like, you know, this whole landscape of cracks.
Rovner: I think everybody knew this was going to be a big undertaking. And obviously the states that are trying to do it with some care are having problems because it’s a big undertaking. And the states that are doing it with a little bit less care are throwing a lot more people off of their health insurance. And we will continue to follow this. So it is the end of July. I’m still not sure how that happened.
Kenen: ’Cause after June, Julie.
Rovner: Yes. Thank you. July is often when committees in Congress rush to mark up bills that they hope to get to the floor and possibly to the president in that brief period when lawmakers return from the August recess before they go out for the year, usually around Thanksgiving. This year is obviously no exception. While Sen. Bernie Sanders [(I-Vt.)] at the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee has delayed consideration of that primary care-community health center bill that we talked about last week until September, after Republicans rebelled against what was supposed to have been a bipartisan bill, committee action on pharmacy benefit managers and other Medicare issues did take place yesterday in the Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee. Sarah, you’re following this, right? What’s happening? And I mean, so we’ve now had basically all four of the committees that have some kind of jurisdiction over this who’ve acted. Is something going to happen on PBM regulation this year?
Karlin-Smith: Actually, five committees have acted because the House Ed[ucation] and Workforce Committee has also acted on the topic. So there’s a lot of committees with a stake in this. I think there’s certainly set up for something for the fall, end of the year, to happen in the pharmacy benefit manager space. And there’s a decent amount of bipartisanship around the issue, depending on exactly which committee you’re looking at. But even if the policies that haven’t gotten through haven’t been bipartisan, I think there’s general bipartisan interest among all the committees of tackling the issue. The question is how meaningful, I guess, the policies that we get done are. Right now it looks like what we’re going to end up with is some kind of transparency measure. It reminded me a little bit of our discussion of the mental health stuff [President Joe] Biden is doing going forward. Essentially what it’s going to end up doing is get the government a lot of detailed data about how PBMs operate, how this vertical integration of PBMs — so there’s a lot of common ownership between PBMs, health insurance plans, pharmacies and so forth — may be impacting the cost of our health care and perhaps in a negative way. And then from that point, the idea would be that later Congress could go back and actually do the sort of policy reforms that might be needed. So I know there are some people that are super excited about this transparency because it is such an opaque industry. But at the same point, you can’t kind of go to your constituents and say, “We’ve changed something,” right away or, you know, “We’re going to save you a ton of money with this kind of legislation.”
Rovner: You could tell how worried the PBMs are by how much advertising you see, if you still watch TV that has advertising, which I do, because I watch cable news. I mean, the PBMs are clearly anxious about what Congress might do. And given the fact that, as you point out and as we’ve been saying for years, drug prices are a very bipartisan issue — and it is kind of surprising, like mental health, it’s bipartisan, and they still haven’t been able to push this as far as I think both Democrats and Republicans would like for it to go. Is there anything in these bills that surprised you, that goes further than you expected or less far than expected?
Karlin-Smith: There’s been efforts to sort of delink PBM compensation from rebates. And in the past, when Congress has tried to look into doing this, it’s ended up being extremely costly to the government. And they figured out in this set of policies sort of how to do this without those costs, which is basically, they’re making sure that the PBMs don’t have this perverse incentive to make money off of higher-priced drugs. However, the health plans are still going to be able to do that. So it’s not clear how much of a benefit this will really be, because at this point, the health plans and the PBMs are essentially one and the same. They have the same ownership. But, you know, I do think there has been some kind of creativity and thoughtfulness on Congress’ part of, OK, how do we tackle this without also actually increasing how much the government spends? Because the government helps support a lot of the premiums in these health insurance programs.
Rovner: Yeah. So the government has quite a quite a financial stake in how this all turns out. All right. Well, we will definitely watch that space closely. Let us move on to abortion. In addition to it being markup season for bills like PBMs, it’s also appropriations season on Capitol Hill, with the Sept. 30 deadline looming for a completion of the 12 annual spending bills. Otherwise, large parts of the government shut down, which we have seen before in recent years. And even though Democrats and Republicans thought they had a spending detente with the approval earlier this spring of legislation to lift the nation’s debt ceiling, Republicans in the House have other ideas; they not only want to cut spending even further than the levels agreed to in the debt ceiling bill, but they want to add abortion and other social policy riders to a long list of spending bills, including not just the one for the Department of Health and Human Services but the one for the Food and Drug Administration, which is in the agriculture appropriations, for reasons I’ve never quite determined; the financial services bill, which includes funding for abortion in the federal health insurance plan for government workers; and the spending bill for Washington, D.C., which wants to use its own taxpayer money for abortion, and Congress has been making that illegal pretty much for decades. In addition to abortion bans, conservatives want riders to ban gender-affirming care and even bar the FDA from banning menthol cigarettes. So it’s not just abortion. It’s literally a long list of social issues. Now, this is nothing new. A half a dozen spending bills have carried a Hyde [Amendment] type of abortion ban language for decades, as neither Republicans nor Democrats have had the votes to either expand or take away the existing restrictions. On the other hand, these conservatives pushing all these new riders don’t seem to care if the government shuts down if these bills pass. And that’s something new, right?
Kenen: Over abortion it’s something new, but they haven’t cared. I mean, they’ve shut down the government before.
Rovner: That’s true. The last time was over Obamacare.
Kenen: Right. And, which, the great irony is the one thing they — when they shut down the government because Obamacare was mandatory, not just discretionary funding, Obamacare went ahead anyway. So, I mean, minor details, but I think this is probably going to be an annual battle from now on. It depends how hard they fight for how long. And with some of these very conservative, ultra-conservative lawmakers, we’ve seen them dig in on abortion, on other issues like the defense appointees. So I think it’s going to be a messy October.
Rovner: Yeah, I went back and pulled some of my old clips. In the early 1990s I used to literally keep a spreadsheet, and I think that’s before we had Excel, of which bill, which of the appropriations bills had abortion language and what the status was of the fights, because they were the same fights year after year after year. And as I said, they kind of reached a rapprochement at one point, or not even a rapprochement — neither side could move what was already there. At some point, they kind of stopped trying, although we have seen liberals the last few years try to make a run at the actual, the original Hyde Amendment that bans federal funding for most abortions — that’s in the HHS bill — and unsuccessfully. They have not had the votes to do that. Presumably, Republicans don’t have the votes now to get any of these — at least certainly not in the Senate — to get any of these new riders in. But as we point out, they could definitely keep the government closed for a while over it. I mean, in the Clinton administration, President [Bill] Clinton actually had to swallow a bunch of new riders because either it was that or keep the government closed. So that’s kind of how they’ve gotten in there, is that one side has sort of pushed the other to the brink. You know, everybody seems to assume at this point that we are cruising towards a shutdown on Oct. 1. Does anybody think that we’re not?
Kenen: I mean, I’m not on the Hill anymore, but I certainly expect a shutdown. I don’t know how long it lasts or how you resolve it. And I — even more certain we’ll have one next year, which, the same issues will be hot buttons five weeks before the elections. So whatever happens this year is likely to be even more intense next year, although, you know, next year’s far away and the news cycle’s about seven seconds. So, you know, I think this could be an annual fight and for some time to come, and some years will be more intense than others. And you can create a deal about something else. And, you know, the House moderates are — there are not many moderates — but they’re sort of more traditional conservatives. And there’s a split in the Republican Party in the House, and we don’t know who’s going to fold when, and we don’t — we haven’t had this kind of a showdown. So we don’t really know how long the House will hold out, because some of the more moderate lawmakers who are — they’re all up for reelection next year. I mean, some of them don’t agree. Some of are not as all or nothing on abortion as the —
Rovner: Well, there are what, a dozen and a half Republicans who are in districts that President Biden won who do not want to vote on any of these things and have made it fairly clear to their leadership that they do not want to vote on any of these things. But obviously the conservatives do.
Kenen: And they’ve been public about that. They’ve said it. I mean, we’re not guessing. Some of them spoke up and said, you know, leave it to the states. And that’s what the court decided. And they don’t want to nationalize this even further than it’s nationalized. And I think, you know, when you have the Freedom Caucus taking out Marjorie Taylor Greene, I mean, I have no idea what’s next.
Rovner: Yeah, things are odd. Well, I want to mention one more abortion story this week that I read in the newsletter “Abortion, Every Day,” by Jessica Valenti. And shoutout here: If you’re interested in this issue and you don’t subscribe, you’re missing out. I will include the link in the show notes. The story’s about Texas and the exam to become a board-certified obstetrician-gynecologist. The board that conducts the exam is based in Dallas and has been for decades, and Texas is traditionally where this test has been administered. During the pandemic, the exam was given virtually because nothing was really in person. But this year, if a doctor wants to become board-certified, he or she will have to travel to Texas this fall. And a lot of OB-GYNs don’t want to do that, for fairly obvious reasons, like they are afraid of getting arrested and sent to prison because of Texas’ extreme anti-abortion laws. And yikes, really, this does not seem to be an insignificant legal risk here for doctors who have been performing abortions in other states. This is quite the dilemma, isn’t it?
Karlin-Smith: Well, the other thing I thought was interesting about — read part of that piece — is just, she was pointing out that you might not just want to advertise in a state where a lot of people are anti-abortion that all of these people who perform abortions are all going to be at the same place at the same time. So it’s not just that they’re going to be in Texas. Like, if anybody wants to go after them, they know exactly where they are. So it can create, if nothing else, just like an opportunity for big demonstrations or interactions that might disrupt kind of the normal flow of the exam-taking.
Kenen: Or violence. Most people who are anti-abortion are obviously not violent, but we have seen political violence in this country before. And you just need one person, which, you know, we seem to have plenty of people who are willing to shoot at other people. I thought it was an excellent piece. I mean, I had not come across that before until you sent it around, and there’s a solution — you know, like, if you did it virtually before — and I wasn’t clear, or maybe I just didn’t pay attention: Was this certification or also recertification?
Rovner: No, this was just certification. Recertification’s separate. So these are these are young doctors who want to become board-certified for the first time.
Kenen: But the recertification issues will be similar. And this is a yearly — I mean, I don’t see why they just don’t give people the option of doing it virtual.
Rovner: But we’ll see if they back down. But you know, I had the same thought that Sarah did. It’s like, great, let’s advertise that everybody’s going to be in one place at one time, you know, taking this exam. Well, we’ll see how that one plays out. Well, finally this week, building on last week’s discussion on health and climate change and on drug shortages, a tornado in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, seriously damaged a giant Pfizer drug storage facility, potentially worsening several different drug shortages. Sarah, I remember when the hurricane in Puerto Rico seemed to light a fire under the FDA and the drug industry about the dangers of manufacturing being too centralized in one place. Now we have to worry about storage, too? Are we going to end up, like, burying everything underground in Fort Knox?
Karlin-Smith: I think there’s been a focus even since before [Hurricane] Maria, but that certainly brought up that there’s a lack of redundancy in U.S. medical supply chains and, really, global supply chains. It’s not so much that they need to be buried, you know, that we need bunkers. It’s just that — Pfizer had to revise the numbers, but I think the correct number was that that facility produces about 8% of the sterile kind of injectables used in the U.S. health system, 25% of all Pfizer’s — it’s more like each company or the different plants that produce these drugs, it needs to be done in more places so that if you have these severe weather events in one part of the country, there’s another facility that’s also producing these drugs or has storage. So I don’t know that these solutions need to be as extreme as you brought up. But I think the problem has been that when solutions to drug shortages have come up in Congress, they tend to focus on FDA authorities or things that kind of nibble around the edges of this issue, and no one’s ever really been able to address some of the underlying economic tensions here and the incentives that these companies have to invest in redundancy, invest in better manufacturing quality, and so forth. Because at the end of the day these are often some of the oldest and cheapest drugs we have, but they’re not necessarily actually the easiest to produce. While oftentimes we’re talking about very expensive, high-cost drugs here, this may be a case where we have to think about whether we’ve let the prices drop too low and that’s sort of keeping a market that works if everything’s going perfectly well but then leads to these shortages and other problems in health care.
Rovner: Yeah, the whole just-in-time supply chain. Well, before we leave this, Anna, since you’re our expert on this, particularly international manufacturing, I mean, has sort of what’s been happening domestically lit a fire under anybody who’s also worried about some of these, you know, overseas plants not living up to their safety requirements?
Edney: Well, I think there are these scary things happen like a tornado or hurricane and everybody is kind of suddenly paying attention. But I think that the decision-makers in the White House or on Capitol Hill have been paying attention a little bit longer. We’ve seen these cancer — I mean, for a long time not getting anything done, as Sarah mentioned — but recently, it’s sort of I think the initial spark there was these cancer drug shortages that, you know, people not being able to get their chemo. And that was from an overseas factory; that was from a factory in India that had a lot of issues, including shredding all of their quality testing documents and throwing them in a truck, trying to get it out of there before the FDA inspectors could even see it.
Kenen: That’s always very reassuring.
Edney: It is. Yeah. It makes you feel really good. And one bag did not make it out of the plant in time, so they just threw acid on it instead of letting FDA inspectors look at it. So it’s definitely building in this tornado. And what might come out of it if there are a lot of shortages, I haven’t seen huge concern yet from the FDA on that front. But I think that it’s something that just keeps happening. It’s not letting up. And, you know, my colleagues did a really good story yesterday. There’s a shortage of a certain type of penicillin you give to pregnant people who have syphilis. If you pass syphilis on to your baby, the baby can die or be born with a lot of issues — it’s not like if an adult gets syphilis — and they’re having to ration it, and adults aren’t getting treated fully for syphilis because the babies need it more so, and so this is like a steady march that just keeps going on. And there’s so many issues with the industry, sort of how it’s set up, what Sarah was talking about, that we haven’t seen anybody really be able to touch yet.
Rovner: We will continue to stay on top of it, even if nobody else does. Well, that is this week’s news. Now we will play my interview with KFF’s Céline Gounder, and then we will come back and do our extra credit. I am pleased to welcome back to the podcast Dr. Céline Gounder, KFF senior fellow and editor-at-large for public health, as well as an infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist in New York and elsewhere. Céline is here today to tell us about the second season of her podcast, “Epidemic,” which tells the story of the successful effort to eradicate smallpox and explores whether public health can accomplish such big things ever again. Céline, thank you for joining us.
Céline Gounder: It’s great to be here, Julie.
Rovner: So how did you learn about the last steps in the journey to end smallpox, and why did you think this was a story worth telling broadly now?
Gounder: Well, this is something I actually studied back when I was in college in the ’90s, and I did my senior thesis in college on polio eradication, and this was in the late ’90s, and we have yet to eradicate polio, which goes to show you how difficult it is to eradicate an infectious disease. And in the course of doing that research, I was an intern at the World Health Organization for a summer and then continued to do research on it during my senior year. I also learned a lot about smallpox eradication. I got to meet a lot of the old leaders of that effort, folks like D.A. Henderson and Ciro de Quadros. And fast-forward to the present day: I think coming out of covid we’re unfortunately not learning what at least I think are the lessons of that pandemic. And I think sometimes it’s easier to go back in time in history, and that helps to depoliticize things, when people’s emotions are not running as high about a particular topic. And my thought was to go back and look at smallpox: What are the lessons from that effort, a successful effort, and also to make sure to get that history while we still have some of those leaders with us today.
Rovner: Yes, you’re singing my song here. I noticed the first episode is called “The Goddess of Smallpox.” Is there really a goddess of smallpox?
Gounder: There is: Shitala Mata. And the point of this episode was really twofold. One was to communicate the importance of understanding local culture and beliefs, not to dismiss these as superstitions, but really as ways of adapting to what was, in this case, a very centuries-long reality of living with smallpox. And the way people thought about it was that in some ways it was a curse, but in some ways it was also a blessing. And understanding that dichotomy is also important, whether it’s with smallpox or other infectious diseases. It’s important to understand that when you’re trying to communicate about social and public health interventions.
Rovner: Yeah, because I think people don’t understand that public health is so unique to each place. I feel like in the last 50 years, even through HIV and other infectious diseases, the industrialized world still hasn’t learned very well how to deal with developing countries in terms of cultural sensitivity and the need for local trust. Why is this a lesson that governments keep having to relearn?
Gounder: Well, I would argue we don’t even do it well in our own country. And I think it’s because we think of health in terms of health care, not public health, in the United States. And that also implies a very biomedical approach to health issues. And I think the mindset here is very much, oh, well, once you have the biomedical tools — the vaccines, the diagnostics, the drugs — problem solved. And that’s not really solving the problem in a pandemic, where much of your challenge is really social and political and economic and cultural. And so if you don’t think about it in those terms, you’re really going to have a flat-footed response.
Rovner: So what should we have learned from the smallpox eradication effort that might have helped us deal with covid or might help us in the future deal with the next pandemic?
Gounder: Well, I think one side of this is really understanding what the local culture was, spending time with people in community to build trust. I think we came around to understanding it in part, in some ways, in some populations, in some geographies, but unfortunately, I think it was very much in the crisis and not necessarily a long-term concerted effort to do this. And that I think is concerning because we will face other epidemics and pandemics in the future. So, you know, how do you lose trust? How do you build trust? I think that’s a really key piece. Another big one is dreaming big. And Dr. Bill Foege — he was one of the leaders of smallpox eradication, went on to be the director of the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] under President [Jimmy] Carter — one of the pieces of advice he’s given to me as a mentor over the years is you’ve got to be almost foolishly optimistic about getting things done, and don’t listen to the cynics and pessimists. Of course, you want to be pragmatic and understand what will or won’t work, but to take on such huge endeavors as eradicating smallpox, you do have to be very optimistic and remind yourself every day that this is something you can do if you put your mind to it.
Rovner: I noticed, at least in the first couple of episodes that I’ve listened to, the media doesn’t come out of this looking particularly good. You’re both a journalist and a medical expert. What advice do you have for journalists trying to cover big public health stories like this, like covid, like things that are really important in how you communicate this to the public?
Gounder: Well, I think one is try to be hyperlocal in at least some of your reporting. I think one mistake during the pandemic was having this very top-down perspective of “here is what the CDC says” or “here is what the FDA says” or whomever in D.C. is saying, and that doesn’t really resonate with people. They want to see their own experiences reflected in the reporting and they want to see people from their community, people they trust. And so I think that is something that we should do better at. And unfortunately, we’re also somewhat hampered in doing so because there’s been a real collapse of local journalism in most of the country. So it really does fall to places like KFF Health News, for example, to try to do some of that important reporting.
Rovner: We will all keep at it. Céline Gounder, thank you so much for joining us. You can find Season 2 of “Epidemic,” called “Eradicating Smallpox,” wherever you get your podcasts.
Gounder: Thanks, Julie.
Rovner: OK, we’re back. It’s 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 kffhealthnews.org and in our show notes on your phone or other mobile device. Sarah, why don’t you go first this week?
Karlin-Smith: Sure. I took a look at a piece from Brenda Goodman at CNN called “They Took Blockbuster Drugs for Weight Loss and Diabetes. Now Their Stomachs Are Paralyzed,” and it’s a really good deep dive into — people probably have heard of Ozempic, Wegovy — these what are called GLP-1 drugs that have been used for diabetes. And we’ve realized in higher doses even for people without diabetes, they often are very helpful at losing weight, that that’s partially because they slow the passage of food through your stomach. And there are questions about whether for some people that is leading to stomach paralysis or other extreme side effects. And I think it’s a really interesting deep dive into the complicated world of figuring out, Is this caused by the drug? Is it caused by other conditions that people have? And then how should you counsel people about whether they should receive the drugs and the benefits outweighing the risks? So I think it’s like just a good thing for people to read when you sort of hear all this hype about a product and how great they must be, that it’s always a little bit more complicated than that. And it also brought up another aspect of it, which is how these drugs may impact people who are going to get surgery and anesthesia and just the importance of communicating this to your doctor so they know how to appropriately handle the drugs. Because if you still have food content in your stomach during a surgery, that can be extremely dangerous. And I thought just that aspect alone of this story is really interesting, because they talk about people maybe not wanting to even let their doctors know they’re on these drugs because of stigma surrounding weight loss. And just again, once you get a new medicine that might end up being taken by a lot of people, the complications or, you know, there’s the dynamics of how it impacts other parts of medicine, and we need to adjust.
Rovner: Yeah. And I think the other thing is, you know, we know these drugs are safe because people with diabetes have been taking them for, what, six or seven years. But inevitably, anytime you get a drug that lots more people take, then you start to see the outlier side effects, which, if it’s a lot of people, can affect a lot of people. Joanne.
Kenen: I have a piece from FERN, which is the Food & Environment Reporting Network and in partnership with Yale Environ 360, and it’s by Gabriel Popkin. And it’s called “Can Biden’s Climate-Smart Agriculture Program Live Up to the Hype?” And I knew nothing about smart agriculture, which is why I found this so interesting. So, this is an intersection of climate change and food, which is obviously also a factor in climate change. And there’s a lot of money from the Biden administration for farmers to use new techniques that are more green-friendly because as we all know, you know, beef and dairy, things that we thought were just good for us — maybe not beef so much — but, like, they’re really not so good for the planet we live on. So can you do things like, instead of using fertilizer, plant cover crops in the offseason? I mean, there’s a whole list of things that — none of us are farmers, but there’s also questions about are they going to work? Is it greenwashing? Is it stuff that will work but not in the time frame that this program is funding? How much of it’s going to go to big agribusiness, and how much of it is going to go to small farmers? So it’s one hand, it’s another. You know, there’s a lot of low-tech practices. We’re going to have to do absolutely everything we can on climate. We’re going to have to use a variety of — you know, very large toolkit. So it was interesting to me reading about these things that you can do that make agriculture, you know, still grow our food without hurting the planet, but also a lot of questions about, you know, is this really a solution or not? But, you know, I didn’t know anything about it. So it was a very interesting read.
Rovner: And boy, you think the drug companies are influential on Capitol Hill. Try going with big agriculture. Anna.
Edney: I’m going to toot my own horn for a second here —
Edney: — and do one of my mini-investigations that I did, “Mineral Sunscreens Have Potential Hidden Dangers, Too.” So there’s been a lot of talk: Use mineral sunscreen to save the environment or, you know, for your own health potentially. But they’re white, they’re very thick. And, you know, people don’t want to look quite that ghostly. So what’s been happening lately is they’ve been getting better. But what I found out is a lot of that is due to a chemical — that is what people are trying to move away from, is chemical sunscreens — but the sunscreen-makers are using this chemical called butyloctyl salicylate. And you can read the article for kind of the issues with it. I guess the main one I would point out is, you know, I talked to the Environmental Working Group because they do these verifications of sunscreens based on their look at how good are they for your health, and a couple of their mineral ones had this ingredient in it. So when I asked them about it, they said, Oh, whoops; like, we do actually need to revisit this because it is a chemical that is not recommended for children under 4 to be using on their bodies. So there’s other issues with it, too — just the question of whether you’re really being reef-safe if it’s in there, and other things as well.
Rovner: It is hard to be safe and be good to the planet. My story this week is by Amy Littlefield of The Nation magazine, and it’s called “The Anti-Abortion Movement Gets a Dose of Post-Roe Reality.” It’s about her visit to the annual conference of the National Right to Life Committee, which for decades was the nation’s leading anti-abortion organization, although it’s been eclipsed by some others more recently. The story includes a couple of eye-opening observations, including that the anti-abortion movement is surprised that all those bans didn’t actually reduce the number of abortions by very much. As we know, women who are looking for abortions normally will find a way to get them, either in state or out of state or underground or whatever. And we also learned in this story that some in the movement are willing to allow rape and incest exceptions in abortion bills, which they have traditionally opposed, because they want to use those as sweeteners for bills that would make it easier to enforce bans, stronger bans, things like the idea in Texas of allowing individual citizens to use civil lawsuits and forbidding local prosecutors from declining to prosecute abortion cases. We’re seeing that in some sort of blue cities in red states. It’s a really interesting read and I really recommend it. OK. That is our show for this week. As always, if you enjoyed the podcast, you can subscribe where ever 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 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. I’m @jrovner, and I’m on Bluesky and Threads. Joanne.
Kenen: @joannekenen1 at Threads.
Rovner: You can always find us here next week where we will always be in your podcast feed. Until then, be healthy.
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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.
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