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KFF Health News' 'What the Health?': Newly Minted Doctors Are Avoiding Abortion Ban States
KFF Health News' 'What the Health?'

Newly Minted Doctors Are Avoiding Abortion Ban States

Episode 346

The Host

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

A new analysis finds that graduating medical students were less likely to apply this year for residency training in states that ban or restrict abortion. That was true not only for aspiring OB-GYNs and others who regularly treat pregnant patients, but for all specialties.

Meanwhile, another study has found that more than 4 million children have been terminated from Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program since the federal government ended a covid-related provision barring such disenrollments. The study estimates about three-quarters of those children were still eligible and were kicked off for procedural reasons.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of KFF Health News, Lauren Weber of The Washington Post, Joanne Kenen of the Johns Hopkins University schools of nursing and public health and Politico Magazine, and Anna Edney of Bloomberg News.


Joanne Kenen
Johns Hopkins University and Politico
Lauren Weber
The Washington Post

Among the takeaways from this week’s episode:

  • More medical students are avoiding applying to residency programs in states with abortion restrictions. That could worsen access problems in areas that already don’t have enough doctors and other health providers in their communities.
  • New threats to abortion care in the United States include not only state laws penalizing abortion pill possession and abortion travel, but also online misinformation campaigns — which are trying to discourage people from supporting abortion ballot measures by telling them lies about how their information might be used.
  • The latest news is out on the fate of Medicare, and a pretty robust economy appears to have bought the program’s trust fund another five years. Still, its overall health depends on a long-term solution — and a long-term solution depends on Congress.
  • In Medicaid expansion news, Mississippi lawmakers’ latest attempt to expand the program was unsuccessful, and a report shows two other nonexpansion states — Texas and Florida — account for about 40% of the 4 million kids who were dropped from Medicaid and CHIP last year. By not expanding Medicaid, holdout states say no to billions of federal dollars that could be used to cover health care for low-income residents.
  • Finally, the bankruptcy of the hospital chain Steward Health Care tells a striking story of what happens when private equity invests in health care.

Also this week, Rovner interviews KFF Health News’ Katheryn Houghton, who reported and wrote the latest KFF Health News-NPR “Bill of the Month” feature, about a patient who went outside his insurance network for a surgery and thought he had covered all his bases. It turned out he hadn’t. If you have an outrageous or incomprehensible medical bill you’d like to share with us, you can do that here.

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

Julie Rovner: The Nation’s “The Abortion Pill Underground,” by Amy Littlefield.

Joanne Kenen: The New York Times’ “In Medicine, the Morally Unthinkable Too Easily Comes to Seem Normal,” by Carl Elliott.

Anna Edney: ProPublica’s “Facing Unchecked Syphilis Outbreak, Great Plains Tribes Sought Federal Help. Months Later, No One Has Responded,” by Anna Maria Barry-Jester.

Lauren Weber: Stat’s “NYU Professors Who Defended Vaping Didn’t Disclose Ties to Juul, Documents Show,” by Nicholas Florko.

Also mentioned on this week’s podcast:

[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 health reporters in Washington. We’re taping this week on Thursday, May 9, 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 Lauren Weber of The Washington Post.

Lauren Weber: Hello. Hello.

Rovner: Joanne Kenen of the Johns Hopkins University schools of public health and nursing and Politico Magazine.

Joanne Kenen: Hi, everybody.

Rovner: And Anna Edney of Bloomberg News.

Anna Edney: Hi there.

Rovner: Later in this episode we’ll have my interview with KFF Health News’ Katheryn Houghton, who reported and wrote the latest KFF Health News-NPR “Bill of the Month.” This month’s patient went out of network for surgery and thought he did everything right. Things went wrong anyway. But first, this week’s news. We are going to start again with abortion this week with a segment I’m calling, “The kids are all right, but they don’t want to settle in states with abortion bans.”

This morning we got the numbers from the Association of American Medical Colleges on the latest residency match. And while applications for residency positions were down in general — more on that in a minute — for the second year in a row, they were down considerably more in states with abortion bans, and to a lesser extent, in states with other abortion restrictions, like gestational limits. And it’s not just in OB-GYN and other specialties that interact regularly with pregnant people. It appears that graduating medical students are trying to avoid abortion ban states across the board. This could well play out in ways that have nothing to do with abortion but a lot more to do with the future of the medical workforce in some of those states.

Edney: I think that’s a really good point. We know that even on just a shortage of primary care physicians and if you’re in a rural area already and you aren’t getting enough of those coming — because you could end up dealing with these issues in primary care and ER care and many other sections where it’s not just dealing with pregnant women all the time, but a woman comes in because it’s the first place she can go when she’s miscarrying or something along those lines. So it could lower the workforce for everybody, not just pregnant women.

Rovner: A lot of these graduating medical students are of the age where they want to start their own families. If not them, they’re worried about their partners. Somebody also pointed out to me — this isn’t even in my story — that graduating medical students tend to wait longer to have their children, so they tend to be at higher risk when they are pregnant. So that’s another thing that makes them worry about being in states where if something goes wrong, they would have trouble getting emergency care.

Weber: I would just add, I mean, you know, a lot of these states also overlap with states that have severe health professional shortages as well. You know, my reporting in St. Louis for KFF Health News — we did a lot of work on how there are just huge physician shortages to start with. So the idea that you’re combining massive gaps in primary care or massive gaps in reproductive health deserts with folks that are going to choose not to go to these places is really a double whammy that I don’t necessarily think people fully grasp at this current point in time.

Rovner: I promised I would explain the reason that applications are down. This is something that’s happening on purpose. There are still more graduating medical students from MD programs and DO [Doctor of Osteopathy] programs and international medical graduates than there are residency slots, but graduating students had been applying to literally dozens and dozens of residencies to make sure they got matched somewhere, and they’re trying to deter that. So now I think students are applying to an average of 30 programs instead of an average of 60 programs.

That’s why it takes so long for them to crunch the numbers because everybody’s doing multiple applications in multiple states and it’s hard to sort the whole thing out. Of course, it may be that they don’t need all of those doctors. Because according to a separate survey from CNBC and Generation Lab, 62% of those surveyed said they probably wouldn’t or definitely wouldn’t live in a state that banned abortion. Seriously, at some point, these states are going to have to balance their state economies against their abortion positions. Now we’re talking about not just the medical workforce, but the entire workforce, at least for younger people.

Edney: Yeah. I was thinking about this recently because during the pandemic you had tech or Wall Street companies looking at Texas or Florida for where they wanted to move their headquarters or move a substantial amount of their company. And then when Dobbs [v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization] happened, how is the workforce going to play out? I’m curious what that ends up looking like because many of the people that might want to work for those companies might not want to live there in those states, and I think it could affect how the country is made up at some point. I think what’s still to play out is that over 60% that wouldn’t want to move to a state with abortion restrictions, whether that is something that plays out or whether some people say, “Well, that job’s really good, so maybe I do want to go make a lot more money in this place or whenever.” I’m curious how all of this I think, you know, over the next five years or something, plays out.

Rovner: Yeah. I mean, at some point, this something is better than nothing, that’s true of the residency numbers, too. If the only place you can match is in a state that you’d rather not go, I think most people would rather go somewhere than not be able to pursue their career, and I suspect that’s true for people in other lines of work as well. Well, meanwhile, anti-abortion states are continuing to push the envelope as far as they can. In Louisiana, legislation is moving, it passed the Senate already, to criminalize the act of ordering abortion pills from out of state. It’s scheduling mifepristone and misoprostol in the same category as opioids and other addictive drugs.

Simple possession of either abortion drug without a prescription could result in a $5,000 fine or five years in prison. And in a wild story out of Texas, the ex-partner of a woman who traveled to Colorado for an abortion is attempting to pursue wrongful death claims against anyone who helped her, by helping her with travel or providing money or anything else associated with the abortion. Both of these cases seem like they’re trying to more chill people from attempting to obtain abortions than they are really actually pursuing legal action, right?

Kenen: Well, in that case, he’s pursuing legal action. We don’t know how that’s playing out, but I mean, it’s this accumulation of barriers and threats and making it both more difficult and more risky to obtain an out-of-state abortion or obtain medication abortion in-state. But there’s a big thicket and a lot of it, because it’s in court and it takes years to straighten things out, we don’t know what the final landscape’s going to look like, but obviously the trend is toward greater restriction.

Rovner: And I would point out that the lawyer who’s representing the ex-partner who’s trying to find everyone involved with the ex-partner’s abortion is the lawyer who brought us SB 8 [Senate Bill 8] the law, the “bounty hunter law,” that makes it a crime for people to aid and abet somebody getting an abortion in Texas. Lauren.

Weber: Yeah. I just would add too that tactics like this, whether or not — however they do play out in court, they do have a deterrence effect, right? There’s no way to absolutely tell someone XYZ is legally safe or not. At the end of the day, that can lead to a heck of a lot of misinformation, misconceptions, and different life choices. So I mean, I think the different things that Joanne and Julie are describing lead to people making different choices as all this plays out.

Kenen: I think one of the stories that Julie shared this week — there was an interesting little aside about disinformation, which is the petition to get an abortion rights ballot initiative in, I think it was Missouri. And one of the things in that article was that the anti-abortion forces were telling people that if you sign this petition, you’re vulnerable to identity theft. Now, so that is not true, but it’s just like this misinformation world we’re living in is spilling over into things like, you know, democratic issues of, “Can you get something on the ballot in your state?” It may lose. Missouri is a very conservative state. I don’t know what the threshold is for passage there. I don’t know that it’s as high as the 60% in Florida. But who knows what’s going to happen?

Rovner: That story was interesting, though, because it was the anti-abortion groups were trying to get people not just to not sign the petition.

Kenen: Unsign.

Rovner: Right. They were trying to get people to take their signatures off. And when all was said and done, they had twice as many signatures as they needed to get it on the ballot, so it will be on the ballot. I don’t know either what the threshold is in Missouri ’cause they were playing with that. Lauren, do you know?

Weber: I don’t know what the threshold is, but I will say what I found interesting about that story was that they said they were going to activate the Catholic Church. And as someone who is Catholic and went to Mass during the Missouri eras of Todd Akin and the stem cell fights, activating the Catholic Church could be very effective on changing how the abortion ballot plays out because I’ve seen what that looks like. So I’ll be very curious to see how that plays out in the weeks and months to come.

Kenen: Right. States doing physician-assisted suicide, aid-in-dying bills, have also — people fighting them have activated the church and they’re quite effective.

Rovner: Yeah. But I think Ohio also activated the Catholic Church and it didn’t work out. So I mean, we obviously know from polling Catholics, they’re certainly in favor of contraception and more American Catholics are in favor of abortion rights than I think their priests would like to know, at least that’s what they tell pollsters.

Edney: I also think that activating the church, whatever church it is, is at least a above-the-board tactic where in a lot of ways you never know, but this was so scary because they’re really going out and, not assaulting, but like verbally trying to keep these people from even being able to get signatures, saying that why should we let people vote on something that’s bad for them. Like not giving the electorate the right to make their voices heard. It was pretty scary to see that because of things like Ohio and other abortion rights movements that won that this is what they’re resorting to to try to make sure Missouri goes a different way.

Rovner: Yeah. I think this is going to be a really interesting year to watch because there are so many of them. Well, in abortion travel news, a federal district judge in Alabama green-lighted a suit by abortion rights groups against the state’s attorney general, who was threatening to prosecute those who “aid and abet” Alabama residents trying to leave the state for an abortion. “The right to interstate travel is one of our most fundamental constitutional rights,” Judge Myron Thompson wrote. On the other hand, Idaho was in federal appeals court in Seattle this week arguing just the opposite. They want to have an injunction lifted on its law that would make it a crime to help a minor cross state lines for an abortion. So I guess this particular fight about whether states can have control over their residents’ trying to leave the state for reproductive health care is a fight that’s going to continue for a while.

Edney: I mean, I think that — and sure it’ll continue for a while — you know, my thought when hearing about these cases is sort of just like, I know people that, when there wasn’t really gambling in Maryland, that would get in the bus and the seniors would all go to Delaware and go to the casino and go gambling. Like, we do this all the time. We go to other states for other things — for alcohol, in some cases. It’s just interesting that now they’re trying to make sure that people can’t do that when it comes to women’s rights.

Rovner: Yeah. I know. I mean, there are lots of things that are legal in some states and not legal in others.

Edney: Right.

Rovner: This seems to be, again, pushing the envelope to places we have not yet seen. Well, moving on, it is May, which means it’s time for the annual report of the Medicare and Social Security trustees about the financial solvency of the trust funds, and the news is good, sort of. Medicare’s Hospital Insurance Trust Fund can now pay full benefits until 2036. That’s five years more than the trustees estimated last year, thanks largely to a strong economy, more people paying payroll taxes, and fewer people seeking expensive medical care. But of course, Washington being Washington, good news is also bad news because it makes it less likely that Congress will take on the distasteful task of figuring out how to keep the program solvent for the long term. Are we ever going to get to this or is Congress just going to kick the can down the road until it’s like next year that the trust fund’s going bankrupt?

Kenen: I mean, of all the can-kicking — you know, we’ve used that phrase about Congress frequently — this is the distillation of the essence of kicking the can when it comes to entitlements, right? Both Social Security and Medicare need congressional action to make them viable and sustainable and secure for decades, not years, and we don’t expect that to happen. I mean, even when things are less partisan than they are now, because obviously we’re in a hyperpartisan era, even when Washington functioned better, this was still a kick-the-can issue. Not only was it kick the can, but everybody fought over how to kick the can and where to kick the can and who could kick it furthest. So five extra years is a long time. I mean, it is. But again, the economy changes. Tax revenues change. It’s a cyclical economy. Next year, we could lose the five years or lose two years or gain one year. Who knows? But in terms of a sustained, bipartisan, sensible — no, I’m not holding my breath, because I would get very, very red, very fast.

Rovner: Yeah. And also, I mean, the thing about fixing both Medicare and Social Security is that somebody has to pay more. Either there will be fewer benefits or more taxes, or in the case of Medicare, providers will be paid less. So somebody ends up unhappy. Usually in these compromises, everybody ends up a little bit unhappy. That’s kind of the best possible world. Lauren, you wanted to add something?

Weber: Yeah. I mean, I just wanted to add that if it goes insolvent by 2036, it’s not looking very good for my ability to access these programs.

Kenen: But they always fix it. They always fix it. They just fix it at the last minute.

Weber: That’s true. I mean, I think that’s a fair point, but I do think overall, the concern, it does seem like something will have to change. I don’t think that when I — hope, God willing — live long enough to access this Medicare benefits, that I think they’ll look very different. Because when there is a compromise or there is something like this, there’s just no way the program can continue as it is, currently.

Kenen: The other thing though is this Medicare date probably means there’ll be less campaign. You know, it was beginning to bubble up a little bit on the presidential campaign. I mean, there were plenty of other health care issues to fight about, but it probably means that there’ll be a little bit of token talk about saving Medicare and so forth, but unlikely that there will become a really hot-button issue with either Trump or Biden putting out a detailed plan about it. There’ll be some verbal, “Yes, I’ll protect Medicare,” but I don’t think it’ll be elevated. If it was the other way, if it had lost five years or lost three years, then we would’ve had yet another Medicare election. I think probably we won’t.

Rovner: Yeah. I think that’s exactly right. If the insolvency date had gotten closer, it would’ve been a bigger issue.

Kenen: And remember that the trend toward Medicare Advantage, which is more than people had anticipated, I mean, it is revolutionizing what Medicare looks like. It’s more than half the people now. So there’s many, many sub-cans to kick on that, with private equity and access and prior authorization. I mean, there’s a million things going on there, and payment rates and everything, but that is a slow-motion, dramatic change to Med[icare], not so slow, but that is a dramatic change to Medicare.

Rovner: We’re figuring out how to do sort of a special episode just on Medicare Advantage because there’s so much there. But meanwhile, let’s catch up on Medicaid, ’cause it’s been a while. As one of my colleagues put it on Slack this week, it was a swing and a miss in Mississippi, where some pretty serious efforts to expand Medicaid came to naught as the legislature closed the books on its 2024 session last week. Mississippi is one of the 10 remaining states that have not expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, which could expand health coverage to an estimated 200,000 low-income residents there who lack it now. It feels like these last states, mostly in the South, are going to hold out as long as they can, even though they’re basically giving up a gigantic handout from the federal government.

Edney: It’s billions of dollars they’re leaving on the table and it doesn’t really make sense. This seemed to maybe come down to a work requirement. Maybe there was more there. It was more of a poison pill in that Senate bill instead, but it doesn’t seem to make sense. I mean, even one of the earlier bills the Senate in Mississippi had come up with would have left billions of dollars on the table as well. So I think the idea of this being the central part of Obamacare is still strong in some places.

Kenen: And it also is worth pointing out that these are states not just with the gap in coverage, but most of these states don’t have great health status. They have a lot of chronic disease, a lot of obesity, a lot of addiction, a lot of diabetes, etc. The se are not the healthiest states in the country. You’re not just leaving money on the table; you’re leaving an opportunity to get people care on the table and —

Rovner: And exacerbating health inequities that we already have.

Kenen: Yes. Yes. And when North Carolina decided to, which took many years of arguing about it — that’s a purple state; there were some people who thought it would be a domino: OK, North Carolina stopped holding out; the rest of the South will now. I, never having reported in North Carolina on that, you know, having spent time in the state, I never thought it was a domino. I thought it was just something that went on in North Carolina. Do I think eventually most or all of them will accept Medicaid? Yes. But, you know, we’ve mentioned this before: It took almost 20 years for the original Medicaid to go to all 50 states.

And it’s not just — because North Carolina is North Carolina and South Carolina is different. They have different dynamics. And it’s not over by any means, and there’s no … Mississippi got close. Are they going to pick up where they left off and sort it out next year? Who knows? There’s elections between now and then. We don’t know what the makeup and who is the driver of this, and which chamber there, and who’s retiring, and who’s going to get reelected. We just don’t know exactly. It’s not going to be a dramatic shift, but in these close fights, a couple of seats shifting in state government can change things.

Rovner: That’s what happened in Kansas, although Wyoming came close, I think it was a couple of years ago, and then there I haven’t seen any action either, so.

Kenen: You still hear talk about Wyoming considering it. Like, that’s not off the … I don’t think any of us would be totally shocked if Wyoming is the next one, but I mean it didn’t happen this year, so.

Rovner: Well the other continuing Medicaid story is the “unwinding,” dropping those from coverage who were kept on during the pandemic emergency by a federal requirement. A new report from the Georgetown Center for Children and Families finds that as of the end of 2023, the number of children covered by Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program was down by 10%, or about 4 million. Yet an estimated three-quarters of those kids are actually still eligible. They were struck from the rolls because of a breakdown in paperwork. Texas alone was responsible for more than a million of those disenrollments, a quarter of the total. Texas and Florida together accounted for nearly 40% of those dropped. And Texas and Florida are also the largest states that haven’t expanded Medicaid to the working poor. At some point the problem with the uninsured is going to be back on our radar, right? I mean, we haven’t talked about it for a while because we haven’t sort of needed to talk about it for a while because uninsurance rate has been the lowest it’s been since we’ve been keeping track.

Weber: I just can’t get over that three-quarters of kids lost their coverage due to paperwork issues. I mean, I know we talk about it many times on this podcast, but just to go back to it again: I miss mail. We all miss mail. I’m not someone also that’s moving frequently. That would make it easier to miss mail. I mean, that is just …

Kenen: You speak English.

Weber: Yeah, and I speak English. That is a wild stat, that 75% of these children lost this coverage because of paperwork issues. And as that report discusses, you know, some states did work to mitigate that and other states worked to not mitigate it. And I think that’s an important distinction to be clear about.

Rovner: And I will link to the report because the report shows the huge difference in states, the ones that sort of did it slowly and carefully. I think the part of it that made my hair stand on end was not so much the kids who came off because, you know, the whole family did, because the paperwork issues, but it’s the kids, particularly kids in CHIP who were still eligible when their parents aren’t. And there were some states that just struck families entirely because the parents were no longer eligible without realizing in their own state that parents’ eligibility and kids’ eligibility isn’t the same. And that apparently happened in a lot of cases. And I think the federal government tried to intercede in some of those because those were kids who, by definition of how these programs work, would still be eligible when their parents were not.

Kenen: The one thing it’s always good to remind people that, I mean, this is an extraordinary mess. I mean, it’s not the unwinding, it’s the unraveling. But unlike employer-sponsored insurance and the Obamacare exchanges, there’s no enrollment season for Medicaid. You can get in if you qual … so it can be the unwinding could be rewound. If a child gets sick and they are in an ER or they’re in a hospital or in a doctor’s or whatever, they can get back in quickly. It is a 365-day, always-open, for both Medicaid and CHIP in I believe every state. There may be an exception I’m not aware of, but I think it’s everywhere.

Rovner: I think it’s everywhere. I think it’s a requirement that it’s everywhere.

Kenen: I think it’s federal, right. So yes, it’s a mess, but unlike many messes in health care, it is a mess that can be improved. Although of course not everybody knows that and somebody will be afraid to go to the doctor ’cause they can’t pay, etc., etc. I’m not minimizing what a mess it is. But if you get word out, you can get word out to people that, you know, if you’re sick, go to the doctor. You’re still being taken care of.

Rovner: And also when people do go to the doctor, at the same time they’re told, uh-oh, your Medicaid’s been canceled, they can be reenrolled if they’re still eligible.

Kenen: Yeah, right. I mean, community health clinics know that. Hospitals know that. I don’t know that all private physicians’ offices know that, but …

Rovner: Although they should —

Kenen: They should.

Rovner: — because that’s how they’ll get paid.

Kenen: They should.

Rovner: So I suspect — providers have an incentive to know who’s eligible because otherwise they’re not going to get paid.

Kenen: So that should be the next public campaign. If you lost your Medicaid, here’s how you get it back. And we don’t see enough of that.

Rovner: Last week we talked about a lot of health-related regulations the Biden administration is trying to finalize. If it seems they’re all happening at once, there is an actual reason for that. It’s called the Congressional Review Act. Basically the CRA lets a new Congress and administration easily undo regulations put in place by an earlier administration towards the end of a presidential term. Basically that means any regulations the Biden administration doesn’t want easily overturned by the next Congress and president, should it return to Republican hands, those regulations need to be completed roughly by the end of this month. Towards that end, and as I said, speaking of looking at the problem of the uninsured, last week the administration finalized a rule that would give people here under DACA, that’s the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration program, access to subsidized coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

These are about 100,000 so-called Dreamers, those who are not here legally but were brought over as children. In general, those who are not in the country legally are not able to access Affordable Care Act coverage. That was a gigantic fight when the Affordable Care Act was being passed. In some ways, though, I feel like this addition of Dreamers to the ACA is an acknowledgement that they’re not going to get full legal status anytime soon, which has also been a fight that’s been going on for years and years.

Kenen: Yes. And I was wondering, like, who’s going to sue to stop this or introduce legislation? I mean, somebody will do something. I’m not sure what yet. I mean, I would be surprised if nobody tries to block this because there’s obviously controversy about normalizing the status of the Dreamers or the DACA population and it’s been going on for years. We’ll see. I mean, it’s just another, I mean, immigration is such a flash point in this year’s election. Maybe people will say, “OK, this portion of the Dreamers has legal status and they can get health insurance” and people won’t fight about it. But usually nowadays people fight about — I mean, if the intersection of health care and immigration, I would think somebody will fight about it.

Rovner: Yeah. I would, too. And also, I mean obviously the people who are preventing legislation from getting through to legalize the Dreamers’ status, there seems to be, I believe, there is overwhelming support in both houses, but not quite enough to get it through. I suspect those people on the other side might not be very happy about this. Well, finally this week in business, or more specifically this week in private equity in health care, the multistate hospital chain Steward Health [Care] filed for bankruptcy this week, putting up for sale all 31 of its hospitals, which normally wouldn’t be really big news. Lots of hospitals are having trouble keeping their doors open. But in this case, we’re talking about a chain that was pretty large and stable until it was bought by Cerberus Capital Management, a private equity firm.

Cerberus sold off the land the hospitals were on, requiring them to pay rent to yet another company, and then Cerberus got out. The details of the many transactions that took place are still kind of murky, but it appears that many investors did quite well, including acquisitions of some private yachts, while the hospitals, well, did not do so well. This all has yet to play out fully. But this seems to be pretty much how private equity often works, right? They buy something, take the profit that they can, and leave the rest to the whims of the marketplace, or in this case billions of dollars in debt now owed by these hospitals.

Weber: Yeah. I mean, I think when you look at private equity the question is always when is the multipliers going to run out? Like, when are you going to run out of things to sell to get the multipliers out? And the question is, when you do this with health care, you know, we’ve seen some emerging research show that the patient outcomes for private equity-owned health care systems can be impacted by infection rates and so on. And I mean, I thought it was particularly interesting at the end of this Wall Street Journal story, they also noted how UnitedHealthcare, there is some investigations over —

Rovner: They’re tangentially involved.

Weber: They’re tangentially involved, but the government appeared — the story seems to allude to the government is interested in whether there’s some antitrust concerns on selling the doctors’ practices, which is obviously an ongoing issue as well as we talk about health care and acquisitions and consolidation in the country. So, 31 hospitals’ being insolvent is a lot of hospitals in a lot of states.

Rovner: Yeah. And I mean, the idea, I think, was that one of the ways they were going to pay off some of their debts was by selling the doctor practices to United. United, of course, now under the microscope for antitrust, might not be such an eager buyer, which leaves Steward holding the bag again with all of this debt. They owe literally billions of dollars to this company that now owns the land that their hospitals are on. It is quite the saga.

Kenen: It’s very complicated. I mean, I had to read everything more than once to understand it, and I’m not sure I totally understood all of it. It’s also sort of like the, you know, if you were writing, if you were teaching business school about what can go wrong when private equity buys a health system, this would be your final exam question. It is very complicated, extremely damaging, and the critics of PE in health care — I mean this is everything they warn about. And I would also, since all of us are journalists, I mean the same thing is going on with private equity in owning newspapers or newspaper chains: wreckage. Not everyone is a bad actor. There’s wreckage in health care and there’s wreckage in the media.

Rovner: Yeah. We will watch this one to see how it plays out. All right, that is this week’s news. Now we will play my “Bill of the Month” interview with Katheryn Houghton and then we will be back with our extra credits. I am pleased to welcome to the podcast my KFF Health News colleague, in person, here in our Washington, D.C., studio, Katheryn Houghton, who reported and wrote the latest KFF Health News-NPR “Bill of the Month.” It’s about an out-of-network surgery the patient knew would be expensive, but not how expensive it would be. Welcome, Katheryn.

Houghton: Hi.

Rovner: So tell us about this month’s patient, who he is, and what kind of treatment he got.

Houghton: So I spoke with Cass Smith-Collins. He’s a 52-year-old transgender man from Vegas, and he wanted to get surgery to match his chest to his gender identity, so he got top surgery.

Rovner: This was a planned surgery and he knew he was going to go out of network. So what kind of steps did he take in preparation to make sure that the surgery would be at least partially covered by his health insurance?

Houghton: Well, he actually took a really key step that some patients miss, and it’s making sure that you get prior authorization from insurance, so a letter from them saying we’re going to cover this. And he got that. He also talked with his surgeon beforehand, saying what do I need to do to make sure we can submit a claim with insurance? And he signed paperwork saying how that would happen.

Rovner: Then, as we say, the bill came. What went awry?

Houghton: Yeah. Or in this case the reimbursement didn’t come. For Cass’ case there are two key things that kind of went awry here. First off, covered doesn’t necessarily mean the entire bill. So what insurance says is a fair price is not going to match up with what the surgeon always says is a fair price. So when Cass saw that his procedure was covered, it didn’t say the entire amount. It didn’t say how much was covered. The second thing is that that provider agreement that he signed with the surgeon beforehand actually says you’re not guaranteed reimbursement. And that provider agreement also stated there are two different bills here. One is the cost that Cass paid up-front for his surgery, and the other was the bill submitted to insurance.

Rovner: And how much money are we actually talking about here?

Houghton: We’re talking about $14,000. And he expected to get about half of that back.

Rovner: Because he assumed that when he got to his out-of-network maximum the insurance would cover, right?

Houghton: Exactly.

Rovner: And that’s not what happened.

Houghton: Not at all.

Rovner: How much did the surgeon end up charging for the surgery and what did his insurance say about that?

Houghton: If you’re looking at both bills, the surgeon charged more than $120,000 for the surgery and insurance said ah, no, we’re not going to cover that. And it was a little over $4,000 that insurance said, this is the fair price.

Rovner: So that’s a big difference.

Houghton: A very big difference.

Rovner: Was Cass expected to pay the rest?

Houghton: He could have. The agreement that he signed actually said that he could be on the hook for whatever insurance didn’t cover. That being said, he didn’t get a bill this time around.

Rovner: So what eventually happened?

Houghton: So eventually, when KFF Health News started asking questions about this, insurance increased how much that they paid the provider. And with that increased reimbursement, which was $97,000, the provider gave Cass a reimbursement of about $7,000.

Rovner: So he ended up paying about $7,000 out-of-pocket.

Houghton: It was more towards the line of what he was expecting to pay for this.

Rovner: Right. I was just going to say that was about what his out-of-pocket maximum was. But in this case he was kind of just lucky, right?

Houghton: Yes. I mean the paperwork that he signed in advance — it was really confusing paperwork. We had several experts look over this and say, yeah, there are things in this we don’t fully understand what it means.

Rovner: What’s the takeaway here? A lot of people want to go to a particular provider who may be very good at what they do but don’t take insurance. Is there any way that he could have better prepared for this financially or that somebody looking at a similar kind of situation and doesn’t want to end up having someone say, oh, you owe us $80,000?

Houghton: Right. Yeah. So for this case it was really important for Cass to go to a surgeon that he felt like he could trust. And so if you do have that out-of-network provider, there are a few steps you can actually take. There’s still no guarantees, but there are steps. First off, patients should always ask their insurance company what covered actually means. Are you talking the entire bill here? Are you talking just a portion of it? Try to get that outlined. You can also ask your insurance company to spell out the dollar amount that they’re willing to pay for this. That’s a really helpful step. And lastly, on the provider side, you can also say, “Hey, whatever insurance deems as a fair payment, can we count that as the total bill?” You can always ask that. They’re not required, but it’s worth checking.

Rovner: Yeah. So at least you go in with your eyes open knowing what your maximum is going to be.

Houghton: Exactly. Especially if you’re paying out-of-pocket to begin with. You really want to know what is insurance reimbursing for this? What is the provider going to charge me more at the end of this?

Rovner: Well, I’m glad this one had a happy ending. Katheryn Houghton, thank you very much.

Houghton: Thank you so much.

Rovner: OK, we are 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 and in our show notes on your phone or other mobile device. Anna, why don’t you go first this week?

Edney: Sure. So mine is from ProPublica by Anna Maria Barry-Jester and it’s “Facing Unchecked Syphilis Outbreak, Great Plains Tribes Sought Federal Help. Months Later, No One Has Responded.” And I think we have even heard over the last few years the story of syphilis rates rising and in this specific look at the Great Plains, there are Native Americans there, that the syphilis rates are even worse. And this is resulting in deaths of babies, like wanted children. And it seems like the federal government has been pretty lackluster in its response, to put it mildly, sending a few CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] workers for a couple of weeks, and the tribes have been asking for basically a national emergency so they can get more help. And they’ve gone straight to HHS [Health and Human Services] Secretary [Xavier] Becerra, and at least in the last several weeks as this was being reported, they haven’t gotten any response or any help. So I think it’s an important story to spread far and wide.

Rovner: It is. Joanne?

Kenen: There was a very interesting op-ed in The New York Times this week by Dr. Carl Elliott, who is a physician and bioethicist at the University of Minnesota: “In Medicine, the Morally Unthinkable Too Easily Comes to Seem Normal.” It’s a little hard to summarize, but it’s very subtle. It’s the culture of medicine, of being a medical student or a resident, and the things you see, so much of what you see, shocks you anyway because it’s something you have to get used to. But there are outrages. He begins, the opening anecdote is a woman is unconscious and anesthetized before her surgery and the doctor in charge invites all the med students to come and like, “Oh, why don’t you come touch her cervix? She’ll never know. See what it’s like.”

And to that, to really the larger, even larger questions about how did Willowbrook [State School] survive for all those years? How did the Tuskegee studies go on for all those years? You know, at what point, what are the sort of cultural and peer pressure and dynamics of these outrages, big and large, becoming normalized? And, you know, as we know, like recently HHS just said you have to have a written consent for a pelvic exam, particularly if you’re going to be unconscious. But that’s only one example — it was a very disturbing piece actually.

Rovner: Yeah. It really was. Lauren?

Weber: I chose Nicholas Florko’s piece on how “NYU Professors Who Defended Vaping Didn’t Disclose Ties to Juul, Documents Show,” in Stat. Great piece. He dug through a bunch of the Juul legal documents that have been revealed to show how two prominent NYU public health professors were communicating with Juul about their comments in both a congressional hearing and then public comments to many, many journalists defending vaping and saying that, you know, it had public health benefits because it got people off of cigarettes. And it raises up a lot of thorny questions about conflict of interest. These public health officials say they were not paid by Juul, but they did accept dinners. And the question is, you know, a lot of the studies they submitted, one of them they even sent to Juul. It’s a lot of thorny questions about academic review and disclosures. It’s a great piece, too, and a warning for all journalists of who are you interviewing, what are their ties, and what are the disclosures that they may or may not be sharing? It was a great story.

Rovner: Yeah. Super thought-provoking. I will say, every time I speak — and we don’t take money for speaking — all of my speeches are for free. But I constantly, you know, they now have to fill out that, “Do you have any conflicts of interest?” And it’s like, no, I don’t take any money from any industry. But it’s all basically self-reported, and I think that’s one of the big problems with this whole issue. Well, my story this week is from The Nation. It’s by Amy Littlefield. It’s called “The Abortion Pill Underground.” And it’s not the first story like this, but it’s a very comprehensive look at the fight that’s shaping up between blue states that are passing shield laws to protect doctors who are providing abortion medication to patients in red states where, as we discussed earlier, prosecutors would like to reach back to punish those blue-state providers. It’s a fairly small group of providers operating in what is still a legally gray area.

As we mentioned, this is all still under — in court, in various places at various levels — but I do think it’s one of the next big battles that are shaping up in reproductive health. It’s a really good piece. OK, that is our show. As always, if you enjoy the podcast, you can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. We’d appreciate it if you left us a review; that helps other people find us, too. Special thanks as always to our technical guru, Francis Ying, and our editor, Emmarie Huetteman. As always, you can email us your comments or questions. We’re at, or you can still find me at Twitter, @jrovner, or @julierovner at Bluesky and @julie.rovner at Threads. Joanne, are you hanging anywhere on social media?

Kenen: A little bit on Twitter @JoanneKenen, not even that much. But more on Threads @joannekenen1.

Rovner: Anna?

Edney: @annaedney on Twitter and @anna_edneyreports on Threads.

Rovner: Lauren?

Weber: Still only on Twitter, @LaurenWeberHP. HP is for health policy.

Rovner: Don’t apologize. You can find us all if you really want to. We will be back in your feed next week. Until then, be healthy.


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