With other GOP presidential candidates following Donald Trump’s lead in calling for an end to the Affordable Care Act, Democrats are jumping on an issue they think will favor them in the 2024 elections. The Biden administration almost immediately rolled out a controversial proposal that could dramatically decrease the price of drugs developed with federally funded research dollars. The drug industry and the business community at large are vehemently opposed to the proposal, but it is likely to be popular with voters.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court hears arguments in a case to decide whether the Sackler family should be able to shield billions of dollars taken from its bankrupt drug company, Purdue Pharma, from further lawsuits regarding the company’s highly addictive drug OxyContin.
This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of KFF Health News, Anna Edney of Bloomberg News, Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico, and Rachana Pradhan of KFF Health News.
Among the takeaways from this week’s episode:
- The ACA may end up back on the proverbial chopping block if Trump is reelected. But as many in both parties know, it is unlikely to be a winning political strategy for Republicans. ACA enrollment numbers are high, as is the law’s popularity, and years after a failed effort during Trump’s presidency, Republicans still have not unified around a proposal to replace it.
- Democrats are eager to capitalize on the revival of “repeal and replace.” This week, the Biden administration announced plans to exercise so-called “march-in rights,” which it argues allow the government to seize certain patent-protected drugs whose prices have gotten too high and open them to price competition. The plan, once largely embraced by progressives, could give President Joe Biden another opportunity to claim his administration has proven more effective than Trump’s heading into the 2024 election.
- The Senate voted to approve more than 400 military promotions this week, effectively ending the 10-month blockade by Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama over a Pentagon policy that helps service members travel to obtain abortions. At the state level, the Texas courts are considering cases over its exceptions to the state’s abortion ban, while in Ohio, a woman who miscarried after being sent home from the hospital is facing criminal charges.
- Meanwhile, the Supreme Court soon could rule on whether EMTALA, or the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act, requires doctors to perform abortions in emergencies. And justices are also considering whether to allow a settlement deal to move forward that does not hold the Sacker family accountable for the harm caused by opioids.
- “This Week in Medical Misinformation” highlights a lawsuit filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton accusing Pfizer of failing to end the covid-19 pandemic with its vaccine.
Also this week, Rovner interviews Dan Weissmann, host of KFF Health News’ sister podcast, “An Arm and a Leg,” about his investigation into hospitals suing their patients for unpaid medical bills.
Plus, for “extra credit,” the panelists suggest health policy stories they read this week that they think you should read, too:
Julie Rovner: The Wisconsin State Journal’s “Dane, Milwaukee Counties Stop Making Unwed Fathers Pay for Medicaid Birth Costs,” by David Wahlberg.
Anna Edney: Bloomberg News’ “Tallying the Best Stats on US Gun Violence Is Trauma of Its Own,” by Madison Muller.
Alice Miranda Ollstein: Stat’s “New Abortion Restrictions Pose a Serious Threat to Fetal Surgery,” by Francois I. Luks, Tippi Mackenzie, and Thomas F. Tracy Jr.
Rachana Pradhan: KFF Health News’ “Patients Expected Profemur Artificial Hips to Last. Then They Snapped in Half,” by Brett Kelman and Anna Werner, CBS News.
Also mentioned in this week’s episode:
- Bloomberg News’ “The Pentagon Wants to Root Out Shoddy Drugs. The FDA Is in Its Way,” by Anna Edney and Riley Griffin.
- Ars Technica’s “Texas Sues Pfizer With COVID Anti-Fax Argument That Is Pure Stupid,” by Beth Mole.
KFF Health News’ ‘What the Health?’
Episode Title: Democrats See Opportunity in GOP Threats to Repeal Health Law
Episode Number: 325
Published: Dec. 7, 2023
[Editor’s note: This transcript was generated using both transcription software and a human’s light touch. It 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 reporters in Washington. We’re taping this week on Thursday, Dec. 7, at 10 a.m. As always, news happens fast, and things might’ve changed by the time you hear this. So here we go. Today, we are joined via video conference by Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico.
Alice Miranda Ollstein: Good morning.
Rovner: Anna Edney of Bloomberg News.
Anna Edney: Hello.
Rovner: And my KFF Health News colleague Rachana Pradhan.
Rachana Pradhan: Good morning, Julie.
Rovner: Later in this episode we’ll have my interview with Dan Weissmann, host of our sister podcast, “An Arm and a Leg.” Dan’s been working on a very cool two-part episode about hospitals suing their patients that he will explain. But first, this week’s news. So now that former President [Donald] Trump has raised the possibility of revisiting a repeal of the Affordable Care Act, all of the other Republican presidential wannabes are adding their two cents.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis says that rather than repeal and replace the health law, he would “repeal and supersede,” whatever that means. Nikki Haley has been talking up her anti-ACA bona fides in New Hampshire, and the leading Republican candidate for Senate in Montana is calling for a return to full health care privatization, which would mean getting rid of not only the Affordable Care Act, but also Medicare and Medicaid.
But the Affordable Care Act is more popular than ever, at least judging from this year’s still very brisk open enrollment signups. Alice, you wrote an entire story about how the ACA of 2023 is not the ACA of 2017, the last time Republicans took a serious run at it. How much harder would it be to repeal now?
Ollstein: It would be a lot harder. So, not only have a bunch of red and purple states expanded Medicaid since Republicans took their last swing at the law — meaning that a bunch more constituents in those states are getting coverage they weren’t getting before and might be upset if it was threatened by a repeal — but also just non-Medicaid enrollment is up as well, fueled in large part by all the new subsidies that were implemented over the last few years. And that’s true even in states that resisted expansions.
DeSantis’ Florida, for instance, has the highest exchange enrollment in the country. There’s just a lot more people with a lot more invested in maintaining the program. You have that higher enrollment, you have the higher popularity, and we still haven’t seen a real replacement or “supersede” plan, or whatever they want to call it. And folks I talk to on Capitol Hill, Republican lawmakers, even those that were pretty involved last time, do not think such a plan is coming.
Rovner: It did get asked about at the “last” Republican presidential primary debate last night, and there was an awful lot of hemming and hawing about greedy drug companies and greedy insurance companies, and I heard exactly nothing about any kind of plan. Has anybody else seen any sign of something that Republicans would actually do if they got rid of the Affordable Care Act?
Pradhan: No. There was a time, immediately after the ACA’s passage, that health care was a winning political issue for Republicans, right? It was multiple election cycles that they capitalized on Obamacare and used it to regain House majorities, Senate majorities, and the presidency eventually. But that has not been true for multiple years now. And I think they know that. I think establishment Republicans know that health care is not a winning issue for the party, which is why Democrats are so eager to capitalize on this reopening of ACA repeal, if you will.
Rovner: What a perfect segue, because I was going to say the Biden administration is wasting no time jumping back into health care with both feet, trying to capitalize on what it sees as a gigantic Republican misstep. Just this morning, they are rolling out new proposals aimed at further lowering prescription drug prices, and to highlight the fact that they’ve actually gotten somewhere in some lowering of prescription drug prices.
Now they would like to make it easier to use government “march-in rights,” which would let the government basically tell prescription drug companies, “You’re going to lower your price because we’re going to let other people compete against you, despite your patent.” They’re also doing, and I will use their words, a cross-government public inquiry into corporate greed in health care. Now, some of these things are super controversial. I mean, the march-in rights even before this was unveiled, we saw the drug industry complaining against. But they could also have a real impact if they did some of this, right? Anna, you’ve watched the drug price issue.
Edney: Yeah, I think they definitely could have an impact. This is one of those situations with the march-in rights where we don’t have any clue on where or how exactly, because we haven’t been told that this drug or this class of drugs are kind of what we’re aiming at at this point. It sounds like maybe there’s a little bit more of the plan to be baked, but I am sure there are a lot of progressives, particularly, who had pushed for this that, over the years, who are very excited to even see it mentioned and moving in some sort of way, which hasn’t really happened before.
And, clearly, the Biden administration wants to, like you said, capitalize on health care being part of the campaign. And they’ve done a lot on drug prices, at least a lot in the sense of what can be done. There’s negotiation in Medicare now for some drugs. They kept insulin for Medicare as well. So this is just another step they can say, “We’re doing something else,” and we’d have to see down the line exactly where they’d even plan to use it.
And, of course, as pharma always does, they said that this will hurt innovation and we won’t get any drugs. Not that things have been in place that long, but, clearly, we haven’t seen that so far.
Rovner: Yes, that is always their excuse. I feel like this is one of those times where it doesn’t even matter if any of these things get done, they’re putting them out there just to keep the debate going. This is obviously ground that the Biden campaign would love to campaign on — rather than talking about the economy that makes people mostly unhappy. I assume we’ll be seeing more of this.
Edney: Yeah. Your food prices and other things are very high right now. But if they can talk about getting drug prices lower, that’s a totally different thing that they can point to.
Ollstein: And it’s an easy way to draw the contrast. For people who might be apathetic and think, “Oh, it doesn’t matter who wins the presidential election,” this is an area where the Biden administration can credibly claim, based on what Trump recently said, “This is what’s at stake. This is the difference between my opponent and me. The health care of millions is on the line,” which has been a winning message in past elections.
And what’s been really striking to me is that even talking to a bunch of conservatives now, even though they don’t like the Affordable Care Act, they even are starting to argue that full-scale repeal and replace — now that it’s the status quo — that’s not even a conservative proposal.
They’re saying that it’s more conservative to propose smaller changes that chip around the edges and create some alternatives, but mainly leave it in place, which I think is really interesting, because for so long the litmus test was: Are you for full repeal, root and branch? And we’re just not really hearing that much anymore — except from Trump!
Rovner: The difficulty from the beginning is that the basis of the ACA was a Republican proposal. I mean, they were defanged from the start. It’s been very hard for them to come up with a replacement. What it already is is what Mitt Romney did in Massachusetts. Well, let us turn to the other big issue that Democrats hope will be this coming election year, and that’s abortion, where there was lots of news this week.
We will start with the fact that the 10-month blockade of military promotions by Alabama Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville is over. Well, mostly over. On Tuesday, the Senate approved by voice vote more than 400 promotions that Tuberville had held up, with only a few four-star nominees still in question. Tuberville’s protests had angered not just Senate Democrats and the Biden administration, who said it was threatening national security, but increasingly his own Senate Republican colleagues.
Tuberville said he was holding up the nominations to protest the Biden administration’s policy of allowing active-duty military members and their dependents to travel out of state for an abortion if they’re stationed where it’s illegal, like in, you know, Alabama. So Alice, what did Tuberville get in exchange for dropping his 10-month blockade?
Ollstein: So, not much. I mean, his aim was to force the Biden administration to change the policy, and that didn’t happen — the policy supporting folks in the military traveling if they’re based in a state where abortion is banned and they need an abortion, supporting the travel to another state, still not paying for the abortion itself, which is still banned. And so that was the policy Tuberville was trying to get overturned, and he did not get that. So he’s claiming that what he got was drawing attention to it, basically. So we’ll see if he tries to use this little bit of remaining leverage to do anything. It does not seem like much was accomplished through this means, although there is a lot of anxiety that this sets a precedent for the future, not just on abortion issues, but, really, could inspire any senator to try to do this and hold a bunch of nominees hostage for whatever policy purpose they want.
Rovner: I know. I mean, senators traditionally sit on nominees for Cabinet posts. And the FDA and the CMS [Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services] didn’t have a director for, like, three administrations because members were angry at the administration for something about Medicare and Medicaid. But I had never seen anybody hold up military promotions before. This was definitely something new. Rachana, you were going to add something?
Pradhan: Oh, I mean, I was just thinking on Alabama specifically. I mean, I don’t claim to know, even though there was rising anger in Sen. Tuberville’s own party about this move. I mean, I’m not saying I know that this is a factor or not, but in Alabama, regardless of what he tried to do, I think that the attorney general in Alabama has made it clear that he might try to prosecute organizations that help people travel out of state to get abortions.
And so, it’s not like this is only the last word when you’re even talking about military officers or people in the military. Even in his home state, you might see some greater activity on that anyway, which might make it easier for him to honestly, in a way, give it up because it’s not the only way that you could presumably prosecute organizations or people who tried to help others go out of state to access abortion.
Rovner: Yeah, it’s important to say that while he irritated a lot of people in Washington, he probably had a lot of support from people back home in Alabama, which he kept pointing out.
Ollstein: Right. And I saw national anti-abortion groups really cheering him on and urging their members to send him thank-you letters and such. And so definitely not just in his home state. There are conservatives who were backing this.
Rovner: Well, moving on to Texas, because there is always abortion news out of Texas, we have talked quite a bit about the lawsuit filed by women who experienced pregnancy complications and couldn’t get abortions. Well, now we have a separate emergency lawsuit from a woman named Kate Cox, who is currently seeking an abortion because of the threat to her health and life.
Both of these lawsuits aren’t trying to strike the Texas ban, just to clarify when a doctor can perform a medically needed abortion without possibly facing jail time or loss of their medical license. Alice, I know the hearing for Kate Cox is happening even now as we are taping. What’s the status of the other case? We’re waiting to hear from the Texas Supreme Court. Is that where it is?
Ollstein: Yeah. So oral arguments were the other day and a bunch of new plaintiffs have joined the lawsuit. So it’s expanded to a few dozen people now, mostly patients, but some doctors as well who are directly impacted by the law. There was some interesting back and forth in the oral arguments over standing.
And one of the things the state was hammering was that they don’t have standing to sue because they aren’t in this situation that this other woman is in today, where they’re actively pregnant, actively in crisis, and being actively prevented from accessing the health care that they need that their doctor recommends, which in some circumstances is an abortion. And so I think this is an interesting test of the state’s argument on that front.
Rovner: Also, the idea, I mean, that a woman who literally is in the throes of this crisis would step forward and have her name in public and it’s going to court in an emergency hearing today.
Ollstein: Right, as opposed to the other women who were harmed previously. By the time they are seeking relief in court, their pregnancy is already over and the damage has already been done, but they’re saying it’s a threat of a future pregnancy. It’s impacting their willingness to become pregnant again, knowing what could happen, what already happened. But the state was saying like, “Oh, but because you’re not actively in the moment, you shouldn’t have the right to sue.” And so now we’ll see what they say when someone is really in the throes of it.
Rovner: In the moment. Well, another troubling story this week comes from Warren, Ohio, where a woman who experienced a miscarriage is being charged with “abuse of a corpse” because she was sent home from the hospital after her water broke early and miscarried into her toilet, which is gross, but that’s how most miscarriages happen.
The medical examiner has since determined that the fetus was, in fact, born dead and was too premature to survive anyway. Yet the case seems to be going forward. Is this what we can expect to see in places like Ohio where abortion remains legal, but prosecutors want to find other ways to punish women?
Ollstein: I mean, I also think it’s an important reminder that people were criminalized for pregnancy loss while Roe [v. Wade] was still in place. I mean, it was rare, but it did happen. And there are groups tracking it. And so I think that it’s not a huge surprise that it could happen even more now, in this post-Roe era, even in states like Ohio that just voted overwhelmingly to maintain access to abortion.
Pradhan: Julie, do we know what hospital? Because when I was looking at the story, do we know what kind of hospital it was that sent this person away?
Rovner: No. The information is still pretty sketchy about this case, although we do know the prosecutor is sending it to a grand jury. We know that much. I mean, the case is going forward. And we do know that her water broke early and that she did visit, I believe, it was two hospitals, although I have not seen them named. I mean, there’s clearly more information to come about this case.
But yeah, Alice is right. I mean, I wrote about a case in Indiana that was in 2012 or 2013, it was a long time ago, about a woman who tried to kill herself and ended up only killing her fetus and ended up in jail for a year. I mean, was eventually released, but … it’s unusual but not unprecedented for women to be prosecuted, basically, for pregnancy loss.
Ollstein: Yeah, especially people who are struggling with substance abuse. That’s been a major area where that’s happened.
Pradhan: I would personally be very interested in knowing the hospitals that are a part of this and whether they are religiously affiliated, because there’s a standard of care in medicine for what happens if you have your water break before the fetus is viable and what’s supposed to happen versus what can happen.
Rovner: There was a case in Michigan a few years ago where it was a Catholic hospital. The woman, her water broke early. She was in a Catholic hospital, and they also sent her home. I’m trying to remember where she finally got care. But yeah, that has been an issue also over the years. Well, meanwhile, back here in Washington, the Supreme Court is likely to tell us shortly, I believe, whether the 1986 Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act, known as EMTALA, requires doctors to perform abortions in life-threatening situations, as the Biden administration maintains.
Alice, this case is on what’s known as the “shadow docket” of the Supreme Court, meaning it has not been fully briefed and argued. It’s only asking if the court will overturn a lower court’s ruling that the federal law trumps the state’s ban. When are we expecting to hear something?
Ollstein: It could be after justices meet on Friday. Really, it could be whenever after that. As we’ve seen in the last few years, the shadow docket can be very unpredictable, and we could just get, at very odd times, major decisions that impact the whole country or just one state. And so, yes, I mean, this issue of abortion care and emergency circumstances is playing out in court in a couple different states, and the federal government is getting involved in some of those states.
And so I think this could be a big test. Unlike a lot of lawsuits going on right now, this is not seeking to strike down the state’s abortion ban entirely. It’s just trying to expand and clarify that people who are in the middle of a medical emergency shouldn’t be subject to the ban.
Rovner: It’s similar to what they’re fighting about in Texas, actually.
Ollstein: Yeah, exactly. And this is still playing out at the 9th Circuit, but they’re trying to leapfrog that and get the Supreme Court to weigh in the meantime.
Rovner: Yeah, and we shall see. All right, well, while we’re on the subject of “This Week in Court,” let us move on to the case that was argued in public at the Supreme Court this week about whether the Sackler family can keep much of its wealth while declaring bankruptcy for its drug company, Purdue Pharma, that’s been found liable for exacerbating, if not causing much of the nation’s opioid epidemic.
The case involves basically two bad choices: Let the Sacklers manipulate the federal bankruptcy code to shield billions of dollars from future lawsuits or further delay justice for millions of people injured by the company’s behavior. And the justices themselves seem pretty divided over which way to go. Anna, what’s at stake here? This is a lot, isn’t it?
Edney: Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting how it doesn’t exactly break down on ideological lines. The justices were — I don’t want to say all over the place, because that sounds disrespectful — but they had concerns on many different levels. And one is that the victims and their lawyers negotiated the settlement because for them it was the best way they felt that they could get compensation, and they didn’t feel that they could get it without letting the Sacklers off the hook, that the Sacklers basically would not sign the settlement agreement, and they were willing to go that route.
And the government is worried about using that and letting the Sacklers off the hook in this way and using this bankruptcy deal to be able to shield a lot of their money that they took out of the company, essentially, and have in their personal wealth now. And so that’s something that a lot of companies are, not a lot, but companies are looking to hope to use the sign of bankruptcy protection when it comes to big class-action lawsuits and harm to consumers.
And so I think that what the worry is is that that then becomes the precedent, that the ones at the very top will always get off because it’s easier to negotiate the settlement that way.
Rovner: We’ll obviously have to wait until — as this goes a few months — to see the decisions in this case, but it’s going to be interesting. I think everybody, including the justices, are unhappy with the set of facts here, but that’s why it was in front of the Supreme Court. So our final entry in “This Week in Court” is a twofer. It is also “This Week in Health Misinformation.”
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has filed suit against Pfizer for allegedly violating Texas’ Deceptive Trade Practices Act because its covid vaccine did not, in fact, end the covid epidemic. Quoting from the attorney general’s press release, “We are pursuing justice for the people of Texas, many of whom were coerced by tyrannical vaccine mandates to take a defective product sold by lies.” It’s hard to even know where to start with this, except that, I guess, anyone can sue anyone for anything in Texas, right?
Edney: Yeah, that’s a very good point. The entire concept of it feels so weird. I mean, a vaccine doesn’t cure anything, right? That’s not the point of a vaccine. It’s not a drug. It is a vaccine that is supposed to prevent you from getting something, and not everybody took it. So that feels like the end of the story, but, clearly, the attorney general would prefer attention, I think, on this, and to continue to sow doubt in vaccines and the government and the Food and Drug Administration seems to be maybe more of the point here.
Rovner: I noticed he’s only suing for, I think, it’s $10 million, which is frankly not a ton of money to a company as big as Pfizer. So one would assume that he’s doing this more for the publicity than for the actual possibility of getting something.
Pradhan: Yeah, I think Pfizer’s CEO’s annual salary is more than the damages that are being sought in this case. So it’s really not very much money at all. I mean, more broadly speaking, I mean, Texas, Florida, I think you see especially post-public-health-emergency-covid times, the medical freedom movement has really taken root in a lot of these places.
And I think that it just seems like this is adding onto that, where doctors say they should be able to give ivermectin to covid patients and it helped them and not be at risk of losing their license. And that’s really kind of an anti-vaccine sentiment. Obviously, it’s very alive and well.
Rovner: We are post-belief-in-scientific-expertise.
Edney: Well, I was going to say, I appreciated The Texas Tribune’s story on this because they called out every time in this lawsuit that he was twisting the truth or just completely not telling the truth at all in the sense that he said that more people who took the vaccine died, and that’s clearly not the case. And so I appreciated that they were trying to call him out every time that he said something that wasn’t true, but was just completely willing to put that out in the public sphere as if it was.
Rovner: There was also a great story on Ars Technica, which is a scientific website, about how the lawsuit completely misrepresents the use of statistics, just got it completely backwards. We’ll post a link to that one too. Well, while we are talking about drug companies, let’s talk about some drugs that really may not be what companies say they are.
Anna, you have a new story up this week about the Pentagon’s effort to ensure that generic drugs are actually copies of the drugs they’re supposed to be. That effort’s running into a roadblock. Tell us a little about that.
Edney: Yeah, thanks for letting me talk about this one. It’s “The Pentagon Wants to Root Out Shoddy Drugs. The FDA Is in Its Way.” So the FDA is the roadblock to trying to figure out whether the drugs, particularly that the military and their family members are taking, work well and don’t have side effects that could be extremely harmful. So what’s going on here is that the Defense Department and others, the White House even, has grown skeptical of the FDA’s ability to police generic drugs, largely that are made overseas.
We did some analysis and we found that it was actually 2019 was the first time that generic drug-making facilities in India surpassed the number of those in the U.S. So we are making more, not just active ingredients, but finished products over in India. And the FDA just doesn’t have a good line into India. They don’t do many unannounced inspections. They usually have to tell the company they’re coming weeks in advance. And what we found is when the Defense Department started looking into this, they partnered with a lab to test some of these drugs.
They got some early results. Those results were concerning, as far as the drug might not work, and also could cause kidney failure, seizures. And even despite this, they’ve been facing the FDA around every corner trying to stop them and trying to get them not to test drugs. They say it’s a waste of money, when, in fact, Kaiser Permanente has been doing this for its 12.7 million members for several years.
And it just seems like something is going on at the FDA and that they don’t want people to have any questions about generic drugs. They really just want everyone to accept that they’re always exactly the same, and they even derail the White House effort to try to look into this more as well. But the Pentagon said, “Thank you very much, FDA, but we’re going forward with this.”
Rovner: Yeah. I mean, I could see that the FDA would be concerned about … they’re supposed to be the last word on these things. But, as you point out and as much of your reporting has pointed out over the last couple of years, the FDA has not been able to keep up with really making sure that these drugs are what they say they are.
Edney: One thing I learned that was interesting, and this is that in Europe, actually, there’s a network of 70 labs that do this kind of testing before drugs reach patients and after they reach patients. So it’s not a totally unusual thing. And for some reason, the FDA does not want that to happen.
Rovner: Well, finally on the drug beat this week, CVS announced earlier that it would overhaul its drug pricing to better reflect how much it pays for the drugs, all of which sounds great, but the fact is that how much CVS pays for the drugs doesn’t have all that much effect on how much we end up paying CVS for those same drugs, right? They’re just changing how they get the drugs from the manufacturers, not necessarily how they price it for the customers.
Pradhan: I think my main question would be, what does that mean for a patient’s out-of-pocket cost for prescriptions? I don’t know how much of this has to do with … for CVS as the pharmacy, but we have CVS Caremark, which is a major PBM, and how this affects the pricing models there. And PBMs, of course, have been under scrutiny in Congress. And there’s outside pressure too, right? The story that you highlighted, Julie, talks about Mark Cuban’s affordable-drug effort. And so, yeah, I don’t know. I mean, I think it sounds good until maybe we see some more details, right?
Rovner: I saw one story that said, “This could really help lower drug prices for consumers,” and one that said, “This could actually raise drug prices for consumers.” So I’m assuming that this is another one where we’re going to have to wait and see the details of. All right, well, that is this week’s news.
Now we will play my interview with Dan Weissmann of the “Arm and a Leg” podcast, and then we will come back with our extra credits. I am pleased to welcome back to the podcast Dan Weissmann, host of KFF Health News’s sister podcast, “An Arm and a Leg.” Dan has a cool two-part story on hospitals suing patients for overdue bills that he’s here to tell us about. Dan, welcome back.
Dan Weissmann: Julie, thanks so much for having me.
Rovner: So over the past few years, there have been a lot of stories about hospitals suing former patients, including a big investigation by KFF Health News. But you came at this from kind of a different perspective. Tell us what you were trying to find out.
Weissmann: We were trying to figure out why hospitals file lawsuits in bulk. Investigative reporters like Jay Hancock at KFF [Health News] have documented this practice, and one of the things that they note frequently is how little money hospitals get from these lawsuits. Jay Hancock compared the amount that VCU [Health] was seeking from patients and compared it to that hospital system’s annual surplus, their profit margin, and it looked tiny. And other studies document essentially the same thing. So why do they do it?
And we got a clue from a big report done by National Nurses United in Maryland, which, in addition to documenting how little money hospitals were getting compared to the million-dollar salaries they were paying executives in this case, also noted that a relatively small number of attorneys were filing most of these lawsuits. Just five attorneys filed two-thirds of the 145,000 lawsuits they documented across 10 years, and just one attorney filed more than 40,000 cases. So we were like, huh, maybe that’s a clue. Maybe we found somebody who is getting something out of this. We should find out more.
Rovner: So you keep saying “we” — you had some help working on this. Tell us about your partners.
Weissmann: Oh my God, we were so, so lucky. We work with The Baltimore Banner, which is a new daily news outlet in Baltimore, new nonprofit news outlet in Baltimore, that specializes in data reporting. Their data editor, Ryan Little, pulled untold numbers of cases, hundreds of thousands of cases, from the Maryland courts’ website and analyzed them to an inch of their life and taught us more than I could ever have imagined.
And Scripps News also came in as a partner and one of their data journalists, Rosie Cima, pulled untold numbers of records from the Wisconsin court system and worked to analyze data that we also got from a commercial firm that has a cache of data that has more detail than what we could pull off the website. It was a heroic effort by those folks.
Rovner: So what did you find? Not what you were expecting, right?
Weissmann: No. While Rosie and Ryan were especially gathering all this data and figuring out what to do with it, I was out talking to a lot of people. And what I found out is that in the main, it appears that frequently when these lawsuits happen and when hospitals file lawsuits in general, they’re not being approached by attorneys. They’re working with collection agencies. And most hospitals do work with a collection agency, and it’s essentially like, I put it like, you get a menu, oh, I’m having a hamburger, I’m going to pursue people for bills.
Like, OK, do you want onions? Do you want mustard? Do you want relish? What do you want on it? And in this case, it’s like, how hard do you want us to go after people? Do you want us to hit their credit reports — if you still can do that, because the CFPB [Consumer Financial Protection Bureau] has been making regulations about that — but do you want us to do that? How often can we call them? And do you want us to file lawsuits if we don’t get results? And so that is essentially in consultation with the hospital’s revenue department and the collection agency, and it’s a strategic decision between them.
That was what we found out through talking to people. What Rosie and Ryan turned up, and the data we had from the folks in New York backed up, is that, surprisingly, in the three states that we looked at, there’s just so much less of this activity than we had expected to find. In Maryland, Ryan sent me a series of emails, the first saying, like, “I’m not actually seeing any this year. That’s got to be wrong. They must be hiding them somewhere. I’m going to go investigate.” And a week later he was like, “I think I found them, and then we’ll go run some more numbers.”
And then a week later, after going to the courthouse and looking at everything you could find, he was like, “No, actually Maryland hospitals just do not seem to be suing anybody this year.” And we had expected there to be fewer lawsuits, but zero was a surprise to everybody. In New York, we appear to have found that two of those three law firms handling all those cases are no longer handling medical bill cases. And in Wisconsin, final numbers are still being crunched. Our second part will have all those numbers.
The Banner is coming out with their numbers this week. But Scripps News and us are still crunching numbers in Wisconsin. But what was the biggest shocker was, I can just tell you, there were so many fewer lawsuits than we had expected, and many of the most active plaintiffs had either cut the practice entirely, like filing zero lawsuits or filing hardly any. One of the things that a lot of these reports that look at across a state, like in New York and the Maryland report, note, and that we found in Wisconsin too, is that most hospitals don’t do this.
Noam Levey at KFF [Health News] found that many hospitals have policies that say, “We might file a lawsuit,” and some larger number of hospitals file some lawsuits. But in all these cases where you’re seeing tons of lawsuits filed, the phenomenon of suing people in bulk is actually not business as usual for most hospitals. That is driven by a relatively small group of players. There was a study in North Carolina by the state treasurers, obviously and Duke University, that found 95% of all the lawsuits were filed by just a few institutions.
The New York people found this. We’ve seen it in Wisconsin. So I mean, it’s another very interesting question when you’re looking at why does this happen. It’s like it’s not something that most institutions do. And again, in Wisconsin, we found that most of the players that had been the most active had basically stopped.
Rovner: Do we know why? Is it just all of the attention that we’ve seen to this issue?
Weissmann: Probably the answer is we don’t know why. Our colleagues at The Banner called every hospital in Maryland and were not told very much. We emailed all the hospitals in Wisconsin that we could that we had seen dramatically decrease, and nobody came to the phone. So we don’t really know.
But it does seem like, certainly in Maryland and New York, there were these huge campaigns that got tons of publicity and got laws changed, got laws passed. And there has been attention. The reports that Bobby Peterson put out in Wisconsin got attention locally. Sarah Kliff of The New York Times, who’s been writing about these kinds of lawsuits, has written multiple times about hospitals in Wisconsin. So it seems like a good first guess, but it’s a guess. Yeah.
Rovner: Well, one thing that I was interested that you did turn up, as you pointed out at the top, hospitals don’t get very much money from doing this. You’re basically suing people for money that they don’t have. So you did find other ways that hospitals could get reimbursed. I mean, they are losing a lot of money from people who can’t pay, even people with insurance, who can’t pay their multi-thousand-dollar deductible. So what could they be doing instead?
Weissmann: They could be doing a better job of evaluating people’s ability to pay upfront. The majority of hospitals in the United States are obligated by the Affordable Care Act to have charity care policies, financial assistance policies, in which they spell out, if you make less than a certain amount of money, it’s a multiple of the federal poverty level that they choose, we’ll forgive some or all of your bill. And, frequently, that number is as much as four times the federal poverty level. They might knock 75% off your bill, which is a huge help.
And as a guy that I met noted, using data from KFF, 58% of Americans make less than 75% of the federal poverty level. That is a lot of people. And so if you’re chasing someone for a medical bill, they might very well have been someone you could have extended financial assistance to. This guy, his name is Nick McLaughlin, he worked for 10 years for a medical bill collections agency. Someone in his family had a medical bill they were having a hard time paying, and he figured out that they qualified for charity care, but the application process, he noted, was really cumbersome, and even just figuring out how to apply was a big process. And so he thought, I know that chasing people for money they don’t have isn’t really the best business model and that we’re often chasing people for money they don’t have. What if we encourage hospitals to be more proactive about figuring out if someone should be getting charity care from them in the first place?
Because, as he said, every time you send someone a bill, you’re spending two bucks. And you’re not just sending one bill, you’re sending like three bills and a final notice. That all adds up, and you’re manning a call center. You’re spending money and you’re missing opportunities by not evaluating people. Because while you’re asking about their income, you might find out they’re eligible for Medicaid, and you can get paid by Medicaid rather than chasing them for money they don’t have.
And two, they might update their insurance information from you and you can get money from their insurance. You can extend financial assistance to somebody, as you said, who has a deductible they can’t pay, and they might actually come to you for care that you can unlock money from their insurance if they’re going to come to you because they’re not afraid of the bill.
I should absolutely say, while Nick McLaughlin is selling hospitals on the idea of adopting new software, which is a great idea, they should do that, they should be more proactive, an entity called Dollar For, a nonprofit organization out of the Pacific Northwest that’s been doing work all over the country, has been beating the drum about this and has a tool that anybody can use.
Essentially, go to their website, dollarfor.org, and type in where you were seen and an estimate of your income, and they will tell you, you’re likely to qualify for charity care at this hospital, because they have a database of every hospital’s policy. And if you need help applying, because some of these applications are burdensome, we’ll help you. So this exists, and everybody should know about it and everybody should tell everybody they know about it. I think the work they’re doing is absolutely heroic.
Rovner: Well, Dan Weissmann, thank you so much for joining us. We will post a link to Dan’s story in our show notes and on our podcast page.
Weissmann: Julie, thanks so much for having me.
Rovner: OK, we are back. And 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. Anna, why don’t you go first this week?
Edney: Sure. This is from my colleague Madison Muller, “Tallying the Best Stats on US Gun Violence Is Trauma of Its Own.” And I thought she just did such an amazing job with this story, talking to Mark Bryant, who helped start an organization, Gun Violence Archive, which is essentially the only place that is trying to tally every instance of gun violence.
And because of a lot of the restrictions that the NRA has helped get into government regulations and things, some of them which are more recently loosening, but because of those in the past, this is really the only way you could try to look up these statistics. And he’s just given the last decade of his life, with no breaks, trying to do this and his health is failing. And I thought it was just a really poignant look at somebody who has no skin in the game, but just wanted the right information out there.
Rovner: Yeah, obviously this is a big deal. Alice.
Ollstein: I did an op-ed that was published in Stat by a group of fetal medicine specialists who are writing about how their work is being compromised by state abortion bans right now. They were saying these are very risky, high-stakes procedures where they perform operations in utero, latent pregnancy usually, and it’s an attempt to save the pregnancy where there is a big risk. But with all of these, there are risks that it could end the pregnancy, and now they’re afraid of being prosecuted for that.
And they describe a bunch of challenging situations that, even without these bans are challenging, things where there’s twins and something to help one could harm the other twin, and this could all affect the health and life of the parent as well. And so they’re saying that they’re really in this whole new era and have to think about the legal risks, as well as the medical and bioethical ones that they already have to deal with.
Rovner: I’ve reported about this over the years, and I can tell you that these are always really wrenching family decisions about trying to desperately save a pregnancy by doing this extraordinarily difficult and delicate kind of procedure. Rachana.
Pradhan: My extra credit is a story from our colleague Brett Kelman, who worked on this investigation with CBS News. It is about a type of artificial hip known as Profemur that literally were snapping in half in patients’ bodies. I told Brett earlier this week that I was cringing at every line that I read. So if folks want to get a really, frankly, pretty gruesome, awful story about how people around the country have received these artificial hips, and the fact that they broke inside their bodies has really caused a lot of damage.
And, frankly, I know we talked about the FDA, but also this story really sheds light on how the FDA has dropped the ball in not acting with more urgency. And had they done that, many of these injuries likely would’ve been avoided. So, I urge everyone to read it. It’s a great story.
Rovner: It is. I also flinched when I was reading a lot of it. Well, my story is from the Wisconsin State Journal by David Wahlberg, and it’s called “Dane, Milwaukee Counties Stop Making Unwed Fathers Pay for Medicaid Birth Costs.” And while I have been covering Medicaid since the 1980s, and I never knew this even existed, it seems that a handful of states, Wisconsin among them, allows counties to go after the fathers of babies born on Medicaid, which is about half of all births — Medicaid’s about half of all births.
Not surprisingly, making moms choose between disclosing the father to whom she is not married to the state or losing Medicaid for her infant is not a great choice. And there’s lots of research to suggest that it can lead to bad birth outcomes, particularly in African American and Native American communities. I have long known that states can come after the estates of seniors who died after receiving Medicaid-paid nursing home or home care, but this one, at the other end of life, was a new one to me.
Now, I want to know how many other states are still doing this. And when I find out, I’ll report back.
OK, that is our show. As always, if you enjoy the podcast, you can subscribe wherever you get your podcast. We’d appreciate it if you left us a review. That helps other people find us too. Thanks, as always, to our tireless tech guru, Francis Ying, who’s back from vacation. Also, as always, you can email us your comments or questions. We’re at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can still find me at X, @jrovner, or @julierovner at Bluesky and Threads. Anna?
Pradhan: I’m @rachanadpradhan on X.
Rovner: We will be back in your feed next week. 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.