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KFF Health News' 'What the Health?': Senators Have Mental Health Crises, Too
KHN's 'What the Health?'

Senators Have Mental Health Crises, Too

Episode 286

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.

Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress reacted with compassion to the news that Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) has checked himself into Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for treatment of clinical depression. The reaction is a far cry from what it would have been 20 or even 10 years ago, as more politicians from both parties are willing to admit they are humans with human frailties.

Meanwhile, former South Carolina governor and GOP presidential candidate Nikki Haley is pushing “competency” tests for politicians over age 75. She has not specified, however, who would determine what the test should include and who would decide if politicians pass or fail.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of KHN, Sarah Karlin-Smith of the Pink Sheet, Joanne Kenen of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Politico, and Rachel Roubein of The Washington Post.


Sarah Karlin-Smith
Pink Sheet
Joanne Kenen
Johns Hopkins University and Politico
Rachel Roubein
The Washington Post

Among the takeaways from this week’s episode:

  • Acknowledging a mental health disorder could spell doom for a politician’s career in the past, but rather than raising questions about his fitness to serve, Sen. John Fetterman’s decision to make his depression diagnosis and treatment public raises the possibility that personal experiences with the health system could make lawmakers better representatives.
  • In Medicare news, Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) dropped Medicare and Social Security from his proposal to require that every federal program be specifically renewed every five years. Scott’s plan has been hammered by Democrats after President Joe Biden criticized it this month in his State of the Union address.
  • Medicare is not politically “untouchable,” though. Two Biden administration proposals seek to rein in the high cost of the popular Medicare Advantage program. Those are already proving controversial as well, particularly among Medicare beneficiaries who like the additional benefits that often come with the private-sector plans.
  • New studies on the effectiveness of ivermectin and mask use are drawing attention to pandemic preparedness. The study of ivermectin revealed that the drug is not effective against the covid-19 virus even in higher doses, raising the question about how far researchers must go to convince skeptics fed misinformation about using the drug to treat covid. Also, a new analysis of studies on mask use leaned on pre-pandemic studies, potentially undermining mask recommendations for future health crises.
  • On the abortion front, abortion rights supporters in Ohio are pushing for a ballot measure enshrining access to the procedure in its state constitution, while a lawyer in Florida is making an unusual “personhood” argument to advocate for a pregnant woman to be released from jail.

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

Julie Rovner: Stat’s “Current Treatments for Cramps Aren’t Cutting It. Why Aren’t There Better Options?” by Calli McMurray

Joanne Kenen: The Atlantic’s “Eagles Are Falling, Bears Are Going Blind,” by Katherine J. Wu

Rachel Roubein: The Washington Post’s “Her Baby Has a Deadly Diagnosis. Her Florida Doctors Refused an Abortion,” by Frances Stead Sellers

Sarah Karlin-Smith: DCist’s “Locals Who Don’t Speak English Need Medical Translators, but Some Say They Don’t Always Get the Service,” by Amanda Michelle Gomez and Hector Alejandro Arzate

Also mentioned in this week’s podcast:

KHN’s ‘What the Health?’
Episode Title:
Senators Have Mental Crises, Too
Episode Number: 286
Published: Feb. 23, 2023

Julie Rovner: Hello and welcome back to KHN’s “What the Health?” I’m Julie Rovner, chief Washington correspondent at Kaiser Health News. And I’m joined by some of the best and smartest health reporters in Washington. We’re taping this week on Thursday, Feb. 23, 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 Rachel Roubein of The Washington Post.

Rachel Roubein: Hi. Thanks for having me.

Rovner: Sarah Karlin-Smith of the Pink Sheet.

Sarah Karlin-Smith: Hi, Julie.

Rovner: And Joanne Kenen of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Politico.

Joanne Kenen: Hi, everybody.

Rovner: So, no interview this week, but lots of interesting news, even with Congress in recess and the president out of the country. So we will get right to it. We’re going to start this week with mental health. No, not the mental health of the population, although that remains a very large problem, but specifically the mental health of politicians. I am old enough to remember when a politician admitting to having been treated for any mental health problem basically disqualified them from holding higher office. You young people go Google Tom Eagleton. Now we have Sen. John Fetterman [D-Pa.], who made headlines while campaigning during his stroke recovery, checking himself into Walter Reed for major depression treatment. And the reaction from his colleagues on both sides of the aisle has been unusually compassionate for political Washington. Have we turned a corner here on admitting to having problems not meaning incapable of serving or working?

Karlin-Smith: It’s obviously getting better, but I think as we saw with Fetterman’s coverage during the campaign, it was far from perfect. And I think there was some dissatisfaction that his coverage was in many … sometimes unfair in how his stroke and his stroke recovery and his needs for accommodations were presented in the media. But I do think we are shifting at least somewhat from thinking about, Does this situation make a person fit to serve? to thinking about, OK, what does this person’s experience navigating the health care system perhaps provide that might actually make them a better representative, or understand their constituents’ needs in navigating the health care system, which is a big part of our political agenda?

Kenen: There are very few times when Congress makes nice. I think on rare occasions mental health has done it. I can think of the fight for mental parity. It was a bipartisan pair: Sen. Pete Domenici [R-N.M.] had a daughter with schizophrenia, and Sen. Paul Wellstone [D-Minn.] had … what, was it … a brother?

Rovner: I think it was a sibling, yeah.

Kenen: … with a severe mental illness. I no longer remember whether it was schizophrenia or another severe mental illness. And they teamed up to get mental health parity, which they didn’t get all the way. And there are still gaps, but they got the first, and it took years.

Rovner: And they were a very unlike pair, Domenici was …

Kenen: They were a very unlikely couple.

Rovner: a very conservative Republican. Wellstone was a very liberal Democrat.

Kenen: And their personalities were completely like, you know, one was a kind but grumpy person and one was the teddy bear. And they were a very odd couple in every possible way. And it didn’t make lawmakers talk about themselves at that point, but they did get more open about their family. About 10 or 15 years later, there was a senator’s son died by suicide and he was very open about it. It was really one of the most remarkable moments I’ve ever seen on the Hill, because other people started getting up and talking about loved ones who had died by suicide, including [Sen.] Don Nickles [R-Okla.], who was very conservative, who had never spoken about it before. And it was Sen. Gordon Smith [R-Ore.] whose son had died at the time. And he tried to put it to use and got mental health legislation for college. So these were like, you know, 10 or 15 years apart. But Congress, they don’t treat each other very well. It’s not just politics. They’re often quite nasty across party lines. So this was sort of like the third moment I’ve seen where a little bit of compassion and identification came out. Is it a kumbaya turnaround? No, but it’s good to see kindness, not “he should resign this moment.” I mean, the response was pretty human and humane.

Rovner: And we also had the unique moment with Patrick Kennedy, who was then in the House, son of Sen. Ted Kennedy, who was still in the Senate. And Patrick Kennedy, of course, had had substance abuse issues in addition to his mental health issues. And he actually championed through what turned into the final realization of the mental health parity that Domenici and Wellstone had started. So, I mean, to Sarah’s point, I think, sometimes if the person experiences it themselves, they may be even more able to navigate through to help other people, so …

Kenen: You’re not immune from mental illness if you’re a lawmaker and neither is your family. And there are a number of very sad stories and there are other lawmakers who have lost relatives to suicide. So there’s this additional connection between stroke and depression that I think got a little bit of attention here, because that’s also a thing.

Rovner: Well, all right, then again, it is not all sunshine and roses on the political mental health front. Former South Carolina Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, who’s now running for president, is proposing a mental competency test for politicians over the age of 75. That would, of course, include both Donald Trump and Joe Biden. But this week, Haley extended her proposed mental competency test to the Senate, where there are dozens of members over the age of 75. She specifically called out 81-year-old Bernie Sanders after he called her proposal ageism. Now, it’s pretty clear that Haley is using this to keep herself in the news, and it’s working. But could we actually see mental competency tests rolled out at some point? And who would decide what constitutes competency in someone who’s getting older?

Kenen: Or younger.

Rovner: Or younger, yeah.

Karlin-Smith: Wait, has Joanne solved the aging [mystery]? I think … what Julie said, in terms of who would decide, I think that’s where it gets really dicey. I think, first of all, if you’re going to deal with this, there seems no way you can make it based on age, right? Because competency is not necessarily tied with age. But I think, ethically, I’m not sure our society has any fair way to really determine … and it would just become such a political football that I don’t think anybody wants to deal with figuring out how to do that. Obviously, you don’t want somebody, probably, in office who is not capable of doing the job to a point where they really can’t be productive. But again, as we’ve seen with these other health issues, you also don’t want to exclude people because they are not perfectly in some sort of heightened state of being that, you know, all people are not perfect in capacity at every single moment and deal with struggles. So there’s this fine line, I think, that would be too difficult to sort of figure out how to do that.

Kenen: And you could be fine one day and not fine the next. If you have a disease [of] cognitive decline that’s gradual, you know, when do you pick it up? When do you define it? And then you can have something very sudden like a car crash, a stroke and any number of things that can cause cognitive damage immediately.

Rovner: Now, we didn’t know then, but we know now that Ronald Reagan had the first stages of dementia towards the end of his second term. Sorry, Rachel, you wanted to say something?

Roubein: We’ve seen careful reporting around — I think, about like the San Francisco Chronicle story last year — about [Sen.] Dianne Feinstein [D-Calif.], which essentially looked at this. There were some questions around [Sen.] Thad Cochran [R-Miss.], as well. And it’s something journalists have looked at pretty carefully by talking to other senators and those who know the lawmakers well to see how they are essentially.

Kenen: And Strom Thurmond, who was, to a layperson, like all the reporters covering the Hill, it was clear that … he served until he was, what, 98 or something? You know, it was very clear that half the time he was having struggles.

Rovner: And I remember so many times that there would be the very old senators on the floor who would basically be napping on the floor of the Senate.

Kenen: That might be a sign of mental health.

Rovner: Yeah, that’s true. But napping because they couldn’t stay awake, not just curling up for a nap. But, I mean, it’s an interesting discussion. You know, as I say, I’m pretty sure that Nikki Haley is doing it to try and poke at both Biden and Trump and keep herself in the news. And, as I say, it’s working.

Kenen: But I think there’s a question of fitness that I think has come up over and over again. I mean, Paul Tsongas was running for president, what, the Nineties and said he was over his lymphoma or luekemia.

Rovner: I think he had lymphoma. Yeah.

Kenen: He said he was fine, and it turns out he wasn’t. And he actually died quite young, quite soon after not getting the nomination. So there are legitimate issues of fitness, mental and physical, for the presidency. I would think that there’s a different standard for senators just because you’re one out of 100 instead of one out of one. I think there is a tradition, which Trump didn’t really follow. There is a tradition of disclosure, but it’s not foolproof. And Trump certainly just had — remember, he had that letter from his doctor who also didn’t live much longer after that, saying he was the most fit president in history, Like, just don’t get me started, but basically said he was a greek god. So there are legitimate concerns about fitness, but it’s hard to figure out. I mean, it was really hard to figure out in Congress how to do that.

Rovner: Yeah, I think the “who decides” what will be the most difficult part of that, which is probably why they haven’t done it yet. All right. Well, turning to policy, two weeks ago, we talked about the coming Medicare wars with President Biden taking aim at Republicans in his State of the Union speech, and particularly, although he didn’t name him, with Florida Sen. Rick Scott, who last year as head of the Republican Senate Campaign Committee, released a plan that would have sunset every federal program, including Medicare and Social Security, every five years. And they would cease to be unless Congress re-approved them. We know how much trouble Congress has doing anything. This horrified a whole lot of Republicans, who not only have been on the wrong end politically of threatening Medicare — and paid a price for it at the ballot box — but who themselves have used it as a weapon on Democrats. See my column from last week, which I will put in the show notes. So now, kind of predictably, Sen. Scott has succumbed and proposed a new plan that would sunset every federal program except Medicare and Social Security. But I imagine that’s not going to end this particular political fight, right? The Democrats seem to have become a dog with a bone on this.

Roubein: Yeah. And it’s known as “Mediscare” for a reason, right? It’s something both political parties use and try and weaponize. I mean, I think one of the really big questions for me when I kept on hearing this, like what? Cuts to Medicare, what does that actually mean in practice? Some experts said that it might simply mean slowing the rate of growth in the program compared to what it would have been, which doesn’t necessarily impact people’s benefits. It can; it depends how it’s done. But I mean, we’ve seen this political fight before. It happened during the Affordable Care Act and afterwards, the effect of cutting Medicare Advantage plan payments, etc., didn’t really make plans less generous. They continued to be more generous. So it’s something that we’ll continue to see Biden talk about because the administration thinks that it plays well among seniors.

Rovner: But even as Bernie Sanders pointed out this week, we’re going to have to deal with Medicare and Social Security eventually. They can’t continue on their current path because they will both run out of money at some point unless something gets changed. But right now, it seems that both sides are much happier to use it as a cudgel than to actually sit down and figure out how to fix it.

Kenen: But one thing that’s interesting is that it wasn’t a big issue in the November elections. The Democrats late in the game tried to draw attention to the Rick Scott proposal. I almost wrote a piece how there was no discussion of Medicare for the first time in years. And just as I was starting to write it, they began talking about it a little bit. So I didn’t write it. But it never stuck. It wasn’t a major issue. And the one race where it really could have been would have been Wisconsin, because that was a tight Senate race — the Democrats really wanted to defeat Ron Johnson, who is to the right of Rick Scott on phasing out Medicare. He’s the only one who endorsed Scott and actually wanted to go further, and it didn’t even really stick there. So it’s sort of interesting that it’s now bubbling up. I mean, yes, we’re into 2024, but we’re not into 2024 the way we’re going to be into 2024. It’s sort of interesting to see that the Democrats are hitting this so far.

Rovner: No, I think that’s because of the debt ceiling.

Kenen: Right. But it’s supposedly off the table for the debt ceiling, which doesn’t mean, as Rachel just said, there are legitimate fiscal issues that Democrats and Republicans both acknowledge. They’re, crudely speaking, Democrats want to raise more money for them, and Republicans want to slow spending. That’s a that’s an oversimplification. But the rhetoric is always throwing Grandma off the cliff. Never Grandpa, always Grandma.

Rovner: Always Grandma.

Kenen: You know, actually, you can do things over a 20-year period. That’s what we did with Social Security. We did raise the age in a bipartisan fashion on Social Security 20 years … took like 20 years to phase it.

Rovner: And I would point out that the only person who really reacted to Rick Scott’s plan when it came out last February was, I think, a year ago this week, was Mitch McConnell.

Kenen: Yeah, he blew a gasket.

Rovner: But he immediately disavowed it. So Mitch McConnell knew what a problem it could turn into and kind of has now. So we have kind of the reverse sides in Medicare Advantage of the fight. That’s the private alternative to traditional Medicare. It’s the darling of Republicans, who touched off the current popularity of the program when they dramatically increased payments for it in 2003, which led to increased benefits and increased profits for insurance companies. They split those — that extra money between themselves and the beneficiaries. And, not surprisingly, increased popularity to the point where a majority of beneficiaries right now are in Medicare Advantage plans rather than traditional Medicare. On the other hand, these plans, which were originally supposed to cut overall Medicare costs, are instead proving more expensive than traditional Medicare. And Democrats would like to claw some of those profits back. But that looks about as likely as Republicans sunsetting Medicare, right? There’s just too many people who are too happy with their extra benefits.

Roubein: I guess we’ve seen two proposals from the administration this year which would change Medicare benefits. Then Republicans are trying to paint this as a cut but are saying it wouldn’t change benefits. But to change Medicare Advantage, one way …

Rovner: To change payments for Medicare Advantage.

Roubein: Yes, exactly. One which essentially would increase the government’s ability to audit plans and recover past overpayments and one which is the annual rate proposal. And there’s some aspects in there that Medicare Advantage plans are on a full-court lobbying press to say these are cuts which the administration is pushing back on really, really hard. So this is another microcosm of this Medicare scare tactics.

Rovner: And they’re all over TV already, commercials that probably don’t mean much to anybody if you’re not completely up on this fight of, like, “Congress is thinking about cutting Medicare Advantage.” No, really? I do laugh every time I see that ad.

Kenen: But, you know, Julie, you’re right that this began as a Republican cause, I mean, they had a similar program in the late ’90s that flopped and they revived it as Medicare Advantage. But it didn’t stay a Republican pet project for long. I mean, Democrats, starting with those in states with a lot of retirees — I’m thinking in Florida, who had Democratic senators at the time. I mean, they jumped on board, too, because people like … there are people who want to stay in traditional Medicare and there are people who jumped on to Medicare Advantage, which has certain advantages. It is less partisan than it began. It has always been more expensive than it was touted to be. And it’s now, we’re heading into 20 years since the legislation was passed, and nothing has really been done to change that trajectory, nothing significant. And I don’t think you’re going to see a major overhaul of it. There may be things that you can do [on] a bipartisan basis that nip. But if you’re nipping at that many billions of dollars, a nip as can be a lot of money.

Rovner: Yeah, that’s the thing about Medicare. Although I would point out also that the reason it flopped in the late 1990s is because Congress whacked the payments for it as part of the Balanced Budget Act. And as they gave the money back, it got more popular again because, lo and behold, extra money means extra benefits and people liked it. So its popularity has been definitely tied to how much the payments are that Congress has been willing to provide for it.

Kenen: And how they market and who they market to.

Rovner: Absolutely, which is a whole ’nother issue. But I want to do a covid check-in this week because it’s been a while. First, we have a study from Duke University published in this week’s Journal of the American Medical Association showing that using the deworming drug ivermectin, even at a higher dose and for a longer time, still doesn’t work against covid. This was a decent-sized, double-blind, randomized, controlled trial over nine months. Why is this such a persistent desire of so many people and even doctors to use this drug that clearly doesn’t work?

Karlin-Smith: You know, there’s been a lot of misinformation out there, particularly spread by the right and people that have not just, in general, trusted the government during covid and felt like this drug worked. And for whatever reason, they were being convinced that there was a government effort to kind of repress that. What’s interesting to point out, you know, you mentioned the trial being run at Duke. This was actually a part of a big NIH [National Institutes of Health] study to study various drugs for covid. So even NIH has been willing to actually do the research and to prove whether the drug does or doesn’t work. One of the issues this raises is this was one of many studies at this point that has shown the drug doesn’t work. In this one they even were willing to test, OK, a lower dose didn’t work. Let’s test a higher dose. Again, it fails. And the question becomes is, is there any amount of data or trials that can convince people who have, again, gone through this process where they’ve been convinced by this misinformation to believe it works and that the government is lying to them? Is there any way to convince them, with this type of evidence, it doesn’t work? And then what are the ethics of doing this research on people? Because you’re wasting government resources. You’re wasting resources in general. You’re wasting time, money. You’re giving people a drug in the trial when they could be getting another drug and that might actually work. So it’s really complicated because, again, I’m not sure you can convince the true ivermectin fans. I’m not sure there’s any amount of this type of scientific evidence that’s going to convince them that it doesn’t work for covid.

Rovner: But while we are talking about scientific studies about covid, a controversial meta-analysis from the esteemed Cochrane Review found basically no evidence that masks have done anything to prevent the spread of covid. But this is another study that seems to have been wildly misinterpreted. It didn’t find … what it looked like was not necessarily what we think. A lot of it turned out to be studies that were seeing whether flu, whether masks prevented against flu, rather than against covid. I mean, have we ended the whole idea of mask wearing and maybe not correctly?

Kenen: This was a meta-analysis for Cochrane, which is really basically … I mean, I think Sarah probably knows more about Cochrane than the rest of us, but their reviews are meaningful and taken seriously and they’re usually well done. The studies that they use in this meta-analysis didn’t ask the question that the headlines said it asked. And also, I mean, I don’t totally understand why they did it, because a) as Julie just pointed out, there was something like 78 studies, 76 of which were done before covid. So, you know, a) that’s a problem. And b), it didn’t actually measure who was wearing a mask. It was like, OK, you’re told to wear a mask or maybe you’re required to wear a mask if you’re working in a hospital while you’re in the hospital. But then you go out to a bar that night and you’re not wearing … I mean, it didn’t really look at the totality of whether people were actually wearing masks properly, consistently. And therefore, why use this flu data to answer questions about masking? And secondly, I also think it always is worth reminding people that, you know, no one ever said masks were the be-all and end-all. It was a component — you know, masking, handwashing, vaccination, distancing, testing, all the things that we didn’t do right. Ventilation … I mean, all that. There’s a long list of things we didn’t do right; masking was one of many. This is not going to help if we ever need masks for any disease again in the future. It did not advance this public health strategy — they call it, like, they like to talk about Swiss cheese, that any one step has holes in it. So you use a whole lot of steps and you don’t have any more holes in your Swiss cheese. It’s going to make it harder if we ever need them.

Rovner: Yeah. Well, notwithstanding scientific evidence now, we have two Republican state lawmakers in Idaho who have introduced a bill that would make any mRNA vaccines illegal to administer in the state, not just to people, but to, quote, “any mammal” with violators subject to jail time. And if I may read the subhead of the story about this … at the science website Ars Technica, quote, “It’s not clear if the two lawmakers know what messenger RNA is exactly.” In a normal world, I would say this is just silly and it couldn’t pass. But we’re not in a normal world anymore, right? I mean, we could actually see Idaho ban mRNA technology, which is used, going to be used for a lot more than covid.

Karlin-Smith: So I think the thing that really interests me about reading about this, and I’d be interested to hear what legal scholars think about this, but I was wondering if there’s a parallel here between this and what’s going on with the abortion pill in Republican states and what the courts may do with that, because it seems to me like there’s probably should be some kind of federal preemption that would kick in here, which is that vaccines are regulated, approved by this technology, by the federal government. Yes, there’s some practice of medicine where states have control from the federal government. But this seems like a case where, and in the past, when states have tried to get into banning FDA-approved products in this way, courts … have pushed back and said, you can’t do this. And I would say, I don’t think this Idaho law would hold up if it gets passed. But now we have this issue going on with the abortion pill, and it seems like there could be this major challenge by the courts to FDA’s authority. So you do sort of wonder, is this another example of what could happen if this authority gets challenged by the states? And, like you said, we are in this different world where maybe three years ago I would say, well, you know, even if Idaho can pass this, of course, this isn’t going to come to practice. But I do wonder, as we’re watching some of these other legal challenges to FDA-approved technologies, what it could mean down the line.

Kenen: I mean, remember, it also … with ivermectin, there are state legislatures that have actually protected patients’ rights to get ivermectin.

Rovner: And doctors’ rights to provide it.

Kenen: Right. And I know more than half the states had legislation. I don’t know how many actually passed it. I don’t remember. But I mean, it was a significant number of states. So these are … all these things that we’re talking about are related — you know, who gets to decide based on what evidence or lack thereof.

Rovner: So if there’s a reason that I brought these three things up, because after all this, a federal judge in California has temporarily blocked enforcement of a new state law that would allow the state medical board to sanction doctors who spread false or misleading information about covid vaccines and treatments. One of the plaintiffs told The New York Times that the law is too vague, quote “Today’s quote-unquote, ‘misinformation’ is tomorrow’s standard of care, he said.” Which is absolutely true. So how should we go about combating medical misinformation? I mean, you know, sometimes people who sound wacky end up having the answer. You know, you don’t want to stop them, but you also don’t want people peddling stuff that clearly doesn’t work.

Kenen: In addition to state boards, there are large medical societies that are — I don’t know how far they’ve gone, but they have said that they will take action. I’m sure that any action they take either will or has already ended up in court. So there are multiple ways of getting at misinformation. But, you know, like Sarah said it really well, there are people who’ve made up their mind and nothing you do is going to stop them from believing that. And some of them have died because they believe the wrong people. So I don’t think we’re going to solve the misinformation problem on this podcast. Or even off — I don’t think the four of us …

Rovner: If only we could.

Kenen: Even if we were off the podcast! But it’s very complicated. I — a lot of my work right now is centered on that. The idea that courts and states are coming down on the wrong side, in terms of where the science stands right now, understanding that science can change and does change. I mean, whether another version of that law could get through the California courts, I mean, there are apparently some broad drafting problems with that law.

Rovner: It hasn’t been struck down yet. It’s just been temporarily blocked while the court process continues. We’ll see. All right. Well, let’s move on to abortion since we’ve been kind of nibbling around the edges. Rachel, you wrote about a group of abortion rights-supporting Democratic governors organizing to coordinate state responses to anti-abortion efforts. What could that do?

Roubein: Yeah, so it’s news this week. It’s called the Reproductive Freedom Alliance. And essentially the idea is so governors can have a forum to more rapidly collaborate, compare notes on things like executive orders that are aimed at expanding and protecting abortion bills, moving through the legislature, budgetary techniques. And as we’re talking about lawsuits, I mean, talk to some governors and you know that the Texas lawsuit from conservative groups seeking to revoke the FDA’s approval of a key abortion pill is top of mind in this new alliance. Kind of the idea is to be able to rapidly come together and have some sort of response if the outcome of that case doesn’t go their way or other major looming decisions. I think it’s interesting. They are billing themselves as nonpartisan. But, you know, only Democratic governors have signed up here.

Rovner: Well, we could have had Larry Hogan and the few moderate Republicans that are left.

Roubein: Yes, Charlie Baker.

Rovner: If they were still … Charlie Baker.

Roubein: Sununu.

Rovner: If they were still there, which they’re not.

Roubein: I mean, I think the other interesting thing about this is if … you looked at 2024, and if a Republican’s in the White House in 2025, they might try and roll back actions Biden has done. So I could foresee a Democratic governors alliance trying to attempt to counteract that in a way that states can.

Rovner: Well, also, on the abortion rights front, supporters in Ohio are trying to get a measure on the ballot that would write abortion rights into the state constitution. This has worked in other red and purple states like Kansas and Michigan. But Ohio? A state that’s been trending redder and redder. It was the home of the first introduced six-week abortion ban five or six years ago. How big a message would that send if Ohio actually voted to protect abortion rights in its constitution? And does anybody think there’s any chance that they would?

Roubein: I think it’s interesting when you look at Kentucky and Kansas, which their ballot measures were different. It was for the state constitution to say that there was no right to an abortion, but abortion rights …

Rovner: There was a negative they defeated saying there was no right.

Roubein: Yeah. I mean, abortion groups really think the public is on their side here. And anti-abortion leaders do think that ballot measures aren’t … like, fighting ballot measures isn’t their best position either. So I think it’ll be interesting to see. Something that caught my eye with this is that the groups are trying to get it on the 2023 general election ballot. And right now what some Republican lawmakers are trying to do to counteract not just abortion ballot measures, but more progressive ballot measures, which is to try and increase the threshold of passage for a ballot measure. And there’s a bill in the Ohio legislature that would increase passage for enshrining anything into the state constitution to 60% support. But that would have to go to the people, too. So essentially, the timing here could counteract to that. So.

Rovner: Yeah, and as we saw in Kansas, if you have this question at a normally … off time for a big turnout, you can turn out your own people. So I assume they’re doing that very much on purpose. They don’t want it to be on the 2024 ballot with the president and Senate race in Ohio and everything else. All right. Well, one more on the abortion issue. Moving to the other side. A Florida lawyer is petitioning to have a pregnant woman who’s been accused, although not convicted, of second-degree murder released from jail because her fetus is being held illegally. Now, it’s not entirely clear if the lawyer is actually in favor of so-called personhood or it’s just trying to get his client, the pregnant woman, out of jail. But these kinds of cases can eventually have pretty significant ramifications, right? If a judge were to say, I’m going to release this woman because the fetus hasn’t done anything wrong.

Kenen: Well, there’s going to be an amendment to the personhood amendment saying, except when we don’t like the mother, right? I mean, she’s already almost at her due date. So it probably is going to be moot. There’s an underlying question in this case about whether she’s been getting good prenatal care, and that’s a separate issue than personhood. I mean, if the allegations are correct and she has not gotten the necessary prenatal care, then she certainly should be getting the necessary prenatal care. I don’t think this is going to be ruled on in time — I think she’s already in her final month of pregnancy. So I don’t think we’re going to see a ruling that’s going to create personhood for fetal inmates.

Rovner: She’ll have the baby before she gets let out of jail.

Kenen: I think other lawyers might try this. I mean, I think it’s legal chutzpah, I guess. If one lawyer came up with it, I don’t see why other lawyers won’t try it for other incarcerated pregnant women.

Rovner: Yeah. And you could see it feeding into the whole personhood issue of, you know, [does] the fetus have its own set of individual rights, you know, apart from the pregnant woman who’s carrying it? And it’s obviously something that’s that we’re going to continue to grapple with, I think, as this debate continues. All right. That is the news for this week. Now 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. Sarah, why don’t you go first this week?

Karlin-Smith: I took a look at a story in the DCist. It’s called “Locals Who Don’t Speak English Need Medical Translators, but Some Say They Don’t Always Get the Service.” It was by Amanda Michelle Gomez and Hector Alejandro Arzate, and it basically takes a look at a lack of medical translators who can help patients who don’t speak English in the D.C. area and the harm that can be caused when patients don’t have that support, whether they’re in the hospital or at medical appointment, focusing on a woman who basically said she wasn’t getting food for three days and actually left the hospital to provide her food and she was undergoing … cancer treatment and in there for an emergency situation. It also highlights a federally funded facility in D.C. that is trying to support patients in the area with translators, but some of the health policy challenges they face, such as, you know, there’s reimbursement for basically accompanying a patient to an appointment, but there’s out-of-appointment care that patients need. Like if you’re sent home with instructions in English and there’s difficulty funding that care. And I mean, I just think the issue is important and fascinating because people who cover health policy, I think, tend to realize sometimes, even if you have an M.D. and a Ph.D. in various aspects of this system, it can be very hard to navigate your care in the U.S., even if you are best positioned. So to add in not speaking a language and, in this case, having had experience trying to help somebody who spoke a language much less more commonly spoken in the U.S. You know, I was thinking, well, she spoke Spanish, you know, how bad could it be? A lot of people in the U.S. often are bilingual and Spanish is a common language that you might expect lots of people in a medical facility to know. So I think, you know, again, it just shows the complexities here of even when you’re best positioned to succeed, you often have trouble succeeding as a patient. And when you add in other factors, we really set people up for pretty difficult situations.

Rovner: Yeah, it was kind of eye-opening. Rachel.

Roubein: My extra credit is titled “Her Baby Has a Deadly Diagnosis. Her Florida Doctors Refused an Abortion,” and it’s by Frances Stead Sellers from The Washington Post. I chose the story because it gives this rare window into how an abortion ban can play on the ground when a fetus is diagnosed with a fatal abnormality. So Frances basically chronicles how one woman in Florida, Deborah Dorbert, and her husband, Lee, were told by a specialist when she was roughly 24 weeks pregnant that the fetus had a condition incompatible with life, and the couple decided to terminate the pregnancy. But they say they were ultimately told by doctors that they couldn’t due to a law passed last year in Florida that banned most abortions after 15 weeks. And so that new law does have exceptions, including allowing later termination if two physicians certify in writing that the fetus has a fatal fetal abnormality. So it’s not clear exactly how or why the Dorberts’ doctors said that they couldn’t or how they applied the law in this situation.

Rovner: Yeah, I feel like this is maybe the 10th one of these that I’ve read of women who have wanted pregnancies and wanted babies and something goes wrong with the pregnancy, and an abortion ban has prevented them from actually getting the care that they need. And I just wonder if the anti-abortion forces have really thought this through, because if they want to encourage women to get pregnant, I know a lot of women who want babies, who want to get pregnant, want to have a baby, but they’re worried that if something goes wrong, that they won’t be able to get care. You know, this question of how close to death does the pregnant woman have to be for the abortion to, quote-unquote, “save her life”? We keep seeing it now in different states and in different iterations. Sorry, it’s my little two cents. Joanne.

Kenen: My extra credit is from The Atlantic’s Katherine J. Wu. And the headline is “Eagles Are Falling, Bears Are Going Blind.” It’s about bird flu or avian flu. It does not say it couldn’t jump to humans. It does say it’s not likely to jump to humans, but that we have to be better prepared, and we have to watch it. But it really made the interesting point that it is much more pervasive among not just birds, but other animals than prior, what we and laypeople call “bird flu.” And it’s going to have — 60, something like 60 million U.S. birds have died. It is affecting Peruvian sea lions, grizzly bears, bald eagles, all sorts of other species, mostly birds, but some mammals. And it’s going to have a huge impact on wildlife for many years to come. And, you know, the ecological environment, our wildlife enviornments. And it’s a really interesting piece. I hadn’t seen that aspect of it described. And if you think — and eggs are going to stay expensive.

Karlin-Smith: I was going to say this morning, I actually saw that in Cambodia reported one of the first deaths in this recent wave, of a person with this bird flu. So the question, I guess, is in the past, it hasn’t easily spread from person to person. And so that would be like the big concern where you’d worry about really large outbreaks.

Rovner: Yeah, because we don’t have enough to worry about right now.

Kenen: We should be watching this one. I mean, this is a different manifestation of it. But we do know there have been isolated cases like the one Sarah just described where, you know, people have gotten it and a few people have died, but it has not easily adapted. And of course, if it does adapt, that’s a different story. And then … in what form does it adapt? Is it more like the flu we know, or, I mean, there are all sorts of unanswered questions. Yes, we need to watch it. But this story was actually just so interesting because it was about what it’s doing to animals.

Rovner: Yeah, it is. The ecosystem is more than just us. Well, my story is from Stat News by Calli McMurray, and it’s highly relevant for our podcast. It’s called “Current Treatments for Cramps Aren’t Cutting It. Why Aren’t There Better Options?” And yes, it’s about menstrual cramps, which affect as many as 91% of all women of reproductive age. Nearly a third of them severely. Yet there’s very little research on the actual cause of cramps and current treatments, mostly nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or birth control pills, don’t work for a lot of people. As someone who spent at least a day a month of her 20s and 30s in bed with a heating pad, I can’t tell you how angry it makes me that this is still a thing with all the other things that we have managed to cure in medicine.

OK. That is our show for this week. As always, if you enjoy the podcast, you can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. We’d appreciate it if you left us a review; that helps other people find us, too. Special thanks, as always, to our ever-patient producer, Francis Ying. Also, as always, you can email us your comments or questions. We’re at whatthehealth — all one word — Or you can tweet me. I’m @jrovner. Joanne?

Kenen: @JoanneKenen

Rovner: Rachel.

Roubein: @rachel_roubein

Rovner: Sarah.

Karlin-Smith: @SarahKarlin

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


Francis Ying
Audio producer
Emmarie Huetteman

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