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KFF Health News' 'What the Health?': Biden Budget Touches All the Bases
KHN's 'What the Health?'

Biden Budget Touches All the Bases

Episode 288

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.

President Joe Biden’s fiscal 2024 budget proposal includes new policies and funding boosts for many of the Democratic Party’s important constituencies, including advocates for people with disabilities and reproductive rights. It also proposes ways to shore up Medicare’s dwindling Hospital Insurance Trust Fund without cutting benefits, basically daring Republicans to match him on the politically potent issue.

Meanwhile, five women in Texas who were denied abortions when their pregnancies threatened their lives or the viability of the fetuses they were carrying are suing the state. They charge that the language of Texas’ abortion ban makes it impossible for doctors to provide needed care without fear of enormous fines or prison sentences.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of KHN, Shefali Luthra of The 19th, Victoria Knight of Axios, and Margot Sanger-Katz of The New York Times.


Margot Sanger-Katz
The New York Times

Among the takeaways from this week’s episode:

  • Biden’s budget manages to toe the line between preserving Medicare and keeping the Medicare trust fund solvent while advancing progressive policies. Republicans have yet to propose a budget, but it seems likely any GOP plan would lean heavily on cuts to Medicaid and subsidies provided under the Affordable Care Act. Democrats will fight both of those.
  • Even though the president’s budget includes something of a Democratic “wish list” of social policy priorities, the proposals are less sweeping than those made last year. Rather, many — such as extending to private insurance the $35 monthly Medicare cost cap for insulin — build on achievements already realized. That puts new focus on things the president has accomplished.
  • Walgreens, the nation’s second-largest pharmacy chain, is caught up in the abortion wars. In January, the chain said it would apply for certification from the FDA to sell the abortion pill mifepristone in states where abortion is legal. However, last week, under threats from Republican attorneys general in states where abortion is still legal, the chain wavered on whether it would seek to sell the pill there or not, which caused a backlash from both abortion rights proponents and opponents.
  • The five women suing Texas after being denied abortions amid dangerous pregnancy complications are not asking for the state’s ban to be lifted. Rather, they’re seeking clarification about who qualifies for exceptions to the ban, so doctors and hospitals can provide needed care without fear of prosecution.
  • Although anti-abortion groups have for decades insisted that those who have abortions should not be prosecuted, bills introduced in several state legislatures would do exactly that. In South Carolina, those who have abortions could even be subject to the death penalty. So far none of these bills have passed, but the wave of measures could herald a major policy change.

Also this week, Rovner interviews Harris Meyer, who reported and wrote the two latest KHN-NPR “Bill of the Month” features. Both were about families facing unexpected bills after childbirth. If you have an outrageous or exorbitant medical bill you want to share with us, you can do that here.

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

Julie Rovner: KHN’s “Girls in Texas Could Get Birth Control at Federal Clinics, Until a Christian Father Objected,” by Sarah Varney

Shefali Luthra: The 19th’s “Language for Treating Childhood Obesity Carries Its Own Health Risks to Kids, Experts Say,” by Jennifer Gerson

Victoria Knight: KHN’s “After People on Medicaid Die, Some States Aggressively Seek Repayment From Their Estates,” by Tony Leys

Margot Sanger-Katz: ProPublica’s “How Obamacare Enabled a Multibillion-Dollar Christian Health Care Cash Grab,” by J. David McSwane and Ryan Gabrielson

Also mentioned in this week’s podcast:

KHN’s “What the Health?”
Episode Title:
Biden Budget Touches All the Bases
Episode Number: 288
Published: March 10, 2023

[Editor’s note: This transcript, generated using transcription software, has been lightly edited for style and clarity.]

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 are taping this week on Friday, March 10, at 10 a.m. As always, news happens fast, and things might have changed by the time you hear this. So here we go. Today we are joined via video conference by Shefali Luthra of The 19th.

Shefali Luthra: Hello.

Rovner: Victoria Knight of Axios News.

Victoria Knight: Hi. Good morning.

Rovner: And Margot Sanger Katz of The New York Times.

Margot Sanger Katz: Hello, everybody.

Rovner: Later in this episode we’ll have my “Bill of the Month” interview with Harris Meyer. It’s a twofer this time: two successive bills from two different families related to having a baby. But first, this week’s news. We are taping on Friday this week because President [Joe] Biden released his budget Thursday afternoon, and it felt weird to have a news podcast without talking about the budget. And yes, like most presidential budgets since the 1980s, this one is, quote-unquote, “dead on arrival” on Capitol Hill. But one thing the president’s budget does is provide a pretty-detailed look at the administration’s priorities and policy initiatives. Which health program stuck out to you as getting a publicity, if not an actual funding, boost in this document? Victoria, you were looking at the budget.

Knight: Yeah. My colleagues at Axios and I spent several hours yesterday morning going through the budget. I think it was really interesting because I think he was trying to toe the line between “we want to save Medicare, make sure it stays solvent,” but also “we want to push some more progressive ideas as well.” So there’s kind of both things in there. Some obvious things: He wants to permanently extend the enhanced tax credits for the ACA [Affordable Care Act] — so, make permanent those subsidies. Those expire, currently, at the end of 2025. He also wanted to do something called Medicaid-like coverage for eligible people in states that haven’t expanded Medicaid. And then he also wants to expand the number of drugs to be negotiated under the IRA [Inflation Reduction Act] and also move up the timeline a little bit. So, just an example: It’s supposed to be 10 drugs to be negotiated in 2026. And now he wants to do 20. Something also really interesting: [He] wants to do like a Netflix-like subscription service for hepatitis C to basically eradicate hepatitis C within the U.S.

Rovner: I thought that was maybe the most interesting thing in this budget because it’s something that we just hadn’t heard of before.

Knight: Yeah.

Rovner: That, basically, I mean, these hepatitis C drugs were really expensive when they first came out and there was concern that Medicaid programs, in particular, were going to have trouble paying for them because many of the people who have hepatitis C are intravenous drug users, and they’re more likely to get hepatitis C — or people in prison. Lots of people on Medicaid who have hepatitis C. And this would basically be a way to pay in advance for the drugs. Is that essentially what they would do?

Knight: Yeah. And I think it’s also interesting that it at least has one Republican senator — Bill Cassidy is super into this idea. He did something similar in Louisiana. I’m not sure there’s other Republicans that are on board for that, but I thought that was really interesting. You know, of course, he was talking about extending the $35 insulin cap to the commercial market. There’s some other stuff about behavioral health, pandemic preparedness. One other thing Shefali will appreciate also, he proposed increasing Title X family planning funding by almost 80% from 2023 levels, which I think — Shefali, maybe you know — [is] one of the highest increases they’ve ever proposed, in a while at least.

Luthra: Yeah, the family planning clinics, interest groups, etc., were very, very happy about this proposal, even if they know it will not become reality. I think their sense was this was a commitment that would be really transformative for them, especially now, when they are so tightly funded.

Rovner: I did notice that for a president who has not technically said that he’s running again, some of these targeted increases were for some of the very important interest groups who have been kind of, I won’t say whining, but complaining. You know, Title X had not gotten big increases since Biden became president. There’s an initiative for more money for home- and community-based care in Medicaid, which is something, again, there’s an active constituency for in the Democratic Party; the “Cancer Moonshot,” you know, which has obviously been something near and dear to President Biden’s heart; also more money … also, the [American] Cancer Society sent out a lot of emails yesterday saying, yay, thanks for proposing this big budget increase. So there does certainly seem to be a lot of touching of the important constituencies, perhaps in anticipation of reelection campaign?

[Three panelists chime in at once.]

Luthra: Julie, you forgot …

Sanger-Katz: I would say …

Knight: And I think he did … Go, Margot!

Rovner: One at a time! [laughing all around] Margot, you go first.

Sanger-Katz: I would say so. And I would also just point out that the Medicare policies in the bill were previewed by the White House a couple of days before the budget release, and they were, like, the main thing. This is what they were leading with. The president had an op-ed in The New York Times describing his Medicare policies, and they put out a fact sheet with a lot of the Medicare policies. And I think it really reflects this notion that improving the solvency of Medicare and also committing to not really cutting the core services of Medicare, that this is a very key political message that the president cares about, that the president wants to run on, and that he thinks is a very useful contrast with what some Republicans have proposed in the past and what he imagines they might want to propose as House Republicans get ready to release their own budget, which faces some difficult constraints because Speaker [Kevin] McCarthy has promised certain members that the budget that they will pass will be a balanced budget. And that’s quite hard to do without touching the big health care programs.

Rovner: Yeah. Republicans have not promised not to touch Medicaid, which now the president has been very careful to say, “It’s not just Medicare and Social Security. I’m not going to let you cut Medicare, the Affordable Care Act either.” All right, Victoria, you wanted to say something?

Knight: I think — it was also interesting that, I do think, the president did want to push forward some of the more progressive policies that … the progressive base care about, such as doing more negotiating of drugs; something Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has talked a lot about is the community health centers program; expanding Medicaid, home- and community-based services; … and the insulin price cap — things that I think the progressive base cares about as well. So I feel like, as you’re saying, that interest groups, but also the different bases and also the groups that care about reproductive health care, they want him to do something after Roe v. Wade. So it definitely was, like, this huge list of trying to cater to everyone.

Rovner: It’s kind of a Democratic wish list.

Sanger-Katz: At the same time, though, I think he did leave out some of the things that were part of the Build Back Better package. In the previous budgets, the president had gone even bigger on things that the progressive base wanted. And you can see a lot of things in this budget where he’s ticking those boxes, as you say. And I think a lot of policies that he has proposed in the past that he wasn’t able to get through the last Congress — but not all. It does seem like this budget is a little more focused on being able to reduce the deficit a little bit less on this very expansive notion of a robust federal government that is spending money to improve people’s lives in quite as many ways as the message that he has been proposing in his previous budgets. You can see, again, I think this is a pivot towards campaign mode, towards his assessment of the current political moment, growing concerns about the deficit and about inflation.

Rovner: But also, as you mentioned, Margot, they put out the Medicare part of this in advance, mainly because I feel like the Medicare part of the budget is not so much a part of, you know, the statement of the budget as it is a negotiating position for this whole fight we’re going to have over the debt ceiling in a couple of months, where the Republicans are going to want to demand cuts to programs basically in exchange for not letting the U.S. default on its debts. And what the president has managed to do here is say, “We’re going to lower the price of prescription drugs more, we’re going to tax the rich more. And those two things are going to a) reduce the deficit some and b) shore up the Medicare trust fund. So you can’t accuse me of not dealing with the impending problem of Medicare.” How much of a box does that actually put Republicans in when we start to get to these negotiations?

Sanger-Katz: I don’t know how much of a box it really puts them in for a couple of reasons. One is that some of what he’s proposing is really kind of an accounting gimmick. He’s taking money that is already flowing into the federal budget, that is already part of the dollars and cents of our deficit, and he’s just redirecting them from the general fund into the Medicare trust fund. So it is true that these proposals would extend the solvency of the Medicare Hospital Insurance Trust Fund, which is projected to run into some financial trouble in the coming decade. But it is not true that, like, all of the things that he’s proposing are actually new money. Some of it just comes out of other parts of the budget. It doesn’t change the deficit.

Rovner: So I will point out that that is a time honored way of extending the solvency of trusts.

Sanger-Katz: Oh, sure. I’m not saying that Biden is alone in doing that. But I just think there’s kind of three things he’s doing in this proposal. One of them is not deficit reduction. It’s just kind of moving money around. One is this drug price reduction proposal where he’s trying to get more savings by going more aggressively after more drugs. I think that is a place where he can put Republicans in a box a little bit. They’ve come out in opposition to the drug price negotiation provisions that were part of the Inflation Reduction Act that they passed last year. But those policies are super popular. The public really supports them. They feel like the pharmaceutical companies make too much money. They think that Medicare should be able to negotiate. So I think that’s a very politically shrewd decision that I think does demand potentially a response from Republicans as a possibility for deficit reduction. But then the third thing that he did is he really just raised taxes. You know, these are taxes on the rich; as Biden has been promising all along, he’s not going to raise taxes for people earning under $400,000 a year. So they’ve increased these payroll taxes, they’ve increased some investment taxes. There was kind of a loophole, a category of businesses that were not subject to that tax in the past. And, you know, I think those are basically nonstarters with Republicans. And when Republicans talk about deficit reduction, they often are very, very focused on cutting spending that the federal government does. They are much less interested in increasing taxes. And I do think that the fact that Biden led with this proposal, that he’s so comfortable talking about raising taxes as a core part of his platform, is a sign that the politics of tax cuts have changed a little bit, that that is … if you’re just taxing the rich, it seems like the public will accept that. Democrats seem actually excited about that in certain cases. But I still think tax increases are a hard political row to hoe. I think that it is not something that probably appeals to many Republican politicians. And I also think it’s probably not something that appeals to many Republican voters, either. So I don’t know that it really puts Republicans in a box in a meaningful way because they don’t feel any tension where their supporters will want them to do this thing.

Rovner: Obviously, this is a big fight yet to come. Victoria, you wanted to say something.

Knight: Yeah. I just want to add one thing. We did have, like, the first indicator: The House Freedom Caucus had a press conference this morning, and they didn’t give a lot of details, but they did say they want to restore Clinton-era work requirements for welfare programs. So they didn’t specify Medicaid, but it seems pretty likely that’s probably what they’re talking about. My colleagues and I did talk to some Republicans last week that were indicating they did want work requirements for Medicaid. So I think that seems like the very first. There’s going to be three different groups within the House Republican caucus that are going to release budgets: the Budget Committee, the House Freedom Caucus, the Republican Study Committee. So I think we are going to start seeing the outlines of what they want to do very soon. But that was kind of the first one coming out this morning, so …

Rovner: Yes, underscoring the fact that the Republicans don’t agree on what they want to do …

Knight: No.

Rovner: … which is why we haven’t seen their budget yet.

Knight: Exactly.

Rovner: Although I will point out President Biden’s budget was a month late, too.

Sanger-Katz: Can I just say one thing about the Republican budget? Because I actually spent a lot of time looking at various budget proposals and trying to examine this goal that the Republicans have of balancing the budget. Just like: How hard is it to balance the budget? And it turns out that it’s extremely hard. It’s sort of hard in a normal year. But in this post-covid era, when spending has been so elevated for so long, balancing the budget within a decade is just really, really, really hard. If you do it without raising taxes, which Republicans say they don’t want to raise taxes; if you do it without cutting defense spending, which Republicans say they don’t want to cut defense spending; if you do it without cutting Medicare or Social Security, which recently McCarthy has said he does not want to do — you end up just … this is just the basic math … having to cut everything else by 70%. That’s 7-0%. That is not the kind of cut that you can achieve even by imposing a work requirement on Medicaid, a work requirement on food stamps, and other kinds of policies that Republicans have proposed in the past. That is like deeply, deeply reducing the role of the federal government, you know, cutting Medicaid in more than half. Larry Levitt [KFF’s executive vice president for health policy] pointed out earlier this week reducing Medicaid spending by 70% probably means 50 million fewer people would have Medicaid coverage. And that’s just Medicaid. You’re talking about basically everything that the government does — environmental protection, law enforcement, military pensions, just about any program that you can think about in the government that’s not Medicare, Social Security, or direct defense spending. Seventy percent cut is quite hard to do. And so I am very curious to see what these budgets look like. I can tell you, having looked at some of the previous Republican proposals, that those all relied on some reductions to Medicare and Social Security because those programs represent such a large percentage of federal spending that if you don’t cut those at all, there’s just not a lot of dollars left. And in my reporting on this question, it does seem like one thing that the Republican Budget Committee is very likely to do is to use very aggressive assumptions about the economic growth that their policies will unleash. And so the idea is that if the economy grows by so much, then tax revenue, what increase all by itself, because people will be earning more money, and so that will enable them to balance the budget in 10 years without having to actually reduce the deficit by as much as independent scorekeepers like the Congressional Budget Office think would be necessary.

Rovner: Although I would point out that every time we’ve had one of these big tax cuts that Republicans say it’s going to grow the economy enough to pay for it, it has not grown the economy enough to pay for it.

Sanger-Katz: Indeed! You know, cutting everything that the government does by 70% probably actually would have a negative impact on the economy. People would be losing money. They would be losing their government jobs. These would be very large economic impacts that probably most economists do not think would lead to economic growth.

Rovner: Yeah, well, we will see. I will put, Margot, the nice story you did with your colleagues demonstrating all of this in chart form in the show notes. OK. Let us turn to abortion. We will start with Walgreens, poor Walgreens, caught in the maw of the abortion wars. In January, the FDA said that brick-and-mortar pharmacies for the first time could start dispensing the abortion pill, mifepristone, whose distribution had been tightly regulated since it was first approved more than 20 years ago. Almost immediately, both CVS and Walgreens, the country’s largest and second-largest pharmacy chains, announced they would apply for FDA certification to distribute the pills in states where abortion is still legal. Then, last month, 20 Republican state attorneys general, including at least four in states where abortion is still legal, warned CVS and Walgreens that if they send the pills by mail, they could be in violation of the 1873 Comstock Act, which we have talked about here before, which prohibited the mailing of items considered, air quotes, “obscene,” which at the time included information about birth control. Cut to last week when Walgreens appeared to cave to the pressure and the threat of legal action, saying it would not sell the pill in states where it’s illegal, not actually naming those states. Then, after a huge backlash, it tried to walk back its position a little, mostly leaving lots of questions. Shefali, what is your take on what Walgreens is and isn’t going to do now vis-a-vis mifepristone? They’ve kind of said both things.

Luthra: I think there’s a lot of layers here, but I want to go back to January for a moment, when we got that news from Walgreens and CVS so quickly that they would participate in providing mifepristone. Frankly, a lot of these folks that I spoke to were very surprised that [the pharmacies] reacted so quickly because carrying mifepristone in stock opens you up to really intense harassment, boycotts, protests from the anti-abortion movement. And we did see right away many of the premier anti-abortion movements calling for boycotts of Walgreens and CVS, for protests, etc. They have been organizing protests outside pharmacies right now. And there has been pressure from the beginning from governors like [Florida] Gov. Ron DeSantis instructing pharmacies not to stock the press down. The fact that Walgreens ultimately has caved in these states with hostile governments wasn’t surprising. If anything, it was surprising that it took quite so long. I am incredibly curious to see what happens with CVS and Rite Aid, the other two pharmacies that are now getting caught in the crosshairs, facing really intense pressure from lawmakers and politicians who support abortion access and also those who don’t. We saw in New York this week, the governor and the attorney general called on pharmacies to continue carrying mifepristone. Frankly, I’m skeptical that that really matters because there is no reason not to carry mifepristone in New York, a state where the government is very friendly to abortion.

Rovner: And we should point out, because this is my biggest frustration: Nobody’s actually doing it yet because nobody’s gotten certified yet.

Luthra: Correct.

Rovner: They’re not — all these headlines that said, “Walgreens is going to stop doing this.” It’s like, no, they’re going to not start doing this. Sorry.

Luthra: And we have no idea when they will get certified how long it would take. We have no idea, frankly, if mifepristone will still be able to be distributed in the country at that point, because we are still waiting on the ruling from this judge in Texas. We simply have so many open questions. And at this point, this really is more of an avenue for people to make statements about how they feel about abortion access, than it is actually affecting people’s ability to get care. The other statement grandstanding that I have been really struck by is what we’ve seen from the California governor, Gavin Newsom, who really does love to talk a lot about his pro-abortion rights bona fides, even if those statements don’t translate much into actual impact or policy. And what we saw this week was his promise that California wouldn’t do business with Walgreens if they wouldn’t stock mifepristone.

Rovner: And this is not just an idle threat in California, right? There’s a huge contract that he now says he’s not going to renew.

Luthra: So there is a contract. But friend of the podcast and former KHNer Sydney Lumpkin found the contract that Newsom was referring to. You would think it would be a significant amount of money, given how much attention it has gotten. It is a $54 million contract over five years. When you look at the overall market cap of Walgreens, a $30 billion company, it’s not clear exactly how meaningful that actually is compared to the pressure they are facing from lawsuits and the very powerful anti-abortion movement.

Rovner: So, and what … I mean, you referred to this, but what are we thinking that CVS and Rite Aid are going to do — having seen Walgreens literally put through the wringer here on this issue?

Luthra: I think that’s a really good question. I — I mean, coming into this week — had assumed that they would follow the path of Walgreens and do the exact same thing, right? Stock mifepristone, provide it with a doctor’s prescription in states where they are protected and face no legal risks, but perhaps not do so in those states where a) mifepristone is banned, as they have said they would not do. And also in states where, like Kansas, for instance, abortion is legal, but you have a very anti-abortion attorney general. It is quite interesting that they have not said either way what they will do beyond just, well we won’t do it in states where it’s illegal.

Rovner: Yeah, if I was advising CVS at this point, I would tell them to not say a word to anybody until some of this shakes out.

Luthra: Exactly.

Rovner: All right. Well, let us move on to Texas, where there is always abortion news. As Shefali mentioned, we have not had the decision yet on that abortion pill case out of Amarillo, but both sides are still going at it on other issues. Remember all those stories we’ve been chronicling about women with wanted pregnancies gone wrong who couldn’t get medical care until they were literally at death’s door or they went to another state? Well, five of them are suing the state of Texas, saying they should have been allowed to terminate their pregnancies under existing exceptions to the abortion bans, except that doctors and hospitals have been unwilling to risk giant fines and even jail time. The five women — some of whom are still pregnant, some of whom are not — want the state, whose officials continue to claim that these women were eligible for abortions in Texas if their lives were truly at risk, they want the state to clarify those exceptions even more. Is there any chance this happens? They’re not asking for the bans to be lifted. I mean, this is a kind of a unique lawsuit that we’ve not seen before because we’ve not seen that many women in this situation before.

Luthra: I think this is a pretty smart approach. I wouldn’t be surprised if it has better odds of success than, as you mentioned, a request to fully overturn Texas’ abortion bans because the exceptions are really unclear. Doctors do not feel safe talking about abortion, even in cases where it is likely that it would be very beneficial for the pregnant person, for a fetus that has really minimal chance of survival upon birth. One thing that Nancy Northup, the head of CRR [the Center for Reproductive Rights], said to me when I asked her is, depending on how this case goes, it is not at all unlikely that we see similar lawsuits filed in other states with abortion bans with similarly vague “life of the parent” exceptions that are, in reality, impossible to enforce. I think this is going to be the beginning of a very robust series of legal challenges to state abortion bans. And we’ll see better success for abortion rights lawyers in some states than in others — really depending on the makeup of these different states’ supreme courts.

Rovner: Yeah, I mean, it’s funny because over the years I’ve heard obviously lots of warning about this possibility, both from the Center for Reproductive Rights, which, as you say, is pushing this case, and other groups. But nobody could sue because nobody had standing, because it hadn’t happened. It was all theoretical. Well, now it’s happened and we have people to whom it is not theoretical, who are able to go to court and say, hey, this happened to us and it violated our rights and you need to do something about it.

Luthra: And I do want to add just one thing. I mean, it’s — I think we can’t understate just what these people have been through, the women who are suing Texas. I was just really struck by one woman who flew from Texas to Colorado for an abortion that she couldn’t get in state, paid extra for a seat by the airplane in case she went into labor on the flight, and said that she still has PTSD to this day from having to travel while afraid that she might go into labor and could die from it. Like, what these people are going through right now is just … it’s really difficult for us to imagine. And I think we’re just going to hear so many more stories that are really troubling about people whose lives have been so deeply put at risk, and they’re unable to get the care their doctors want to provide.

Rovner: Right. And I say for the 11th time, these are not women who got pregnant by accident and don’t wish to be pregnant. Many of these are women who’ve been through infertility treatment and were desperately anxious to be pregnant, were thrilled when they got pregnant, but whose pregnancy took a bad turn either for the fetus or, in some cases, one of the fetuses of twins, or in some cases the pregnant person themselves. Well, meanwhile, the Texas Republican legislature has been busy proposing even more abortion restrictions. Last week, we talked about a bill that would ban websites that include information about how to get abortion pills and punish internet providers who don’t block those sites. This week, we have a bill giving state officials the upper hand in prosecuting abortion cases in parts of the state where local Democratic prosecutors have suggested they don’t plan to zealously pursue such cases. Another bill would create a special prosecutor whose job would be, among other things, to pursue violations of the state’s abortion bans. Why is Texas such a hotbed of this?

Luthra: It’s always Texas. Texas is the biggest state in the country to have banned abortion, right? Most of the people who are traveling out of state — well, maybe not most, but the plurality — are Texans, because just so many people live there. And if we think about it, Roe v. Wade, as a case, it came from Texas. SB 8, the first law that allowed a state to circumvent Roe and ban abortions [at] anything after six weeks, that was a Texas law. This is a place where lawmakers really believe that they can be a fertile testing ground for the future of abortion restrictions. Between them and Missouri, I think, that is where we will see the bulk of innovative new ways to further restrict access.

Rovner: Well, speaking of big states that are banning or thinking about banning abortion, you wrote about Florida this week, which already has a ban on abortions after 15 weeks [and is] now considering a ban after six weeks. Florida is kind of a pivotal state in all this, right?

Luthra: Florida, third-biggest state in the country. And if we look at the map of the U.S. South and particularly the Southeast, Florida is just critical. Between Florida and North Carolina, that is where people across the region are going for abortions. And Florida has more than 60 clinics compared to, you know, around a dozen in North Carolina. If abortion there is banned after six weeks, there will be thousands of people who are displaced. They will probably have to go to North Carolina, while abortion is legal there, to Virginia and then to Illinois. And that is just really too far for so many people to travel. There just aren’t realistic options once you take Florida off the map.

Rovner: Well, finally, a bill has been introduced in the South Carolina legislature that could potentially subject patients who get abortions to the death penalty. Now, I am old enough to remember last year, when anti-abortion groups insisted they didn’t want to punish women who had abortions, just those who provide or facilitate them. I guess that’s not the case anymore.

Luthra: And I think we need to see where this bill goes. It is not the only state, either, where we are seeing legislation proposed that would treat abortion as murder or as homicide. There was a bill in Louisiana just last summer that failed on that front. But we have seen bills introduced in Tennessee, in Georgia, in so many others that I cannot remember now. But it’s a long list. I think what’s interesting is, so far, none of these bills have actually moved forward. And it’s still obviously early in the session. But what I’m curious about is, is this chipping away at the resistance toward these kinds of really strict abortion bans? And is this the first step in a multiyear effort to redirect who is punished for getting an abortion to switch from the doctors, the health care providers, to the pregnant people themselves, which has always been sort of this Rubicon the movement has been afraid to cross.

Rovner: Yeah, I remember in 2016 Chris Matthews was interviewing then-candidate Donald Trump and sort of got Donald Trump to say, you know, yes, the woman should be punished. And the anti-abortion movement came at him, like, no, no, no, that’s not what we say. That’s not what we want. And now it’s, you know, seven, eight years later and that’s not necessarily what people are saying. So, we will see how that goes. OK. That’s the news for this week. Now, we will play my “Bill of the Month” interview with Harris Meyer and then we’ll come back and do her extra credits.

We are pleased to welcome to the podcast Harris Meyer, who reported and wrote the last two KHN-NPR “Bill of the Month” stories, which are kind of related. Harris, welcome to “What the Health?”

Harris Meyer: Thanks very much, Julie.

Rovner: So, both of these bills have to do with something very common and very treacherous to your financial health: having a baby. Let’s start with baby No. 1, a now-3-year-old named Joey Trumble. Where is she from? Why was she in the hospital for 36 days?

Meyer: Joey was born prematurely in December 2019. Her mother, Brenna Kearney, is a writer in Chicago, and she was diagnosed with preeclampsia, and her doctors ordered her hospitalized at Northwestern. And then she developed a worse form of preeclampsia called HELLP syndrome. But anyway, the baby was born healthy but premature. And the baby, Joey, was treated at Northwestern Prentice, but without the knowledge of the parents the doctors who were treating her came over from next door from Lurie Children’s, and her hospital, Northwestern, was in network for her health plan. But Lurie Children’s doctors were out of network. They did not know that. So after her baby was sent home — it had about a month, 36 days, of hospitalization — the family got a bill of about $12,000, which was unexpected.

Rovner: That’s right. And we should point out that the baby was covered, right, under the mother’s health insurance.

Meyer: Correct.

Rovner: And yet they still got a bill for $12,000.

Meyer: That’s right. The hospitalization was covered. And, to their surprise, the doctors, the neonatologist from Lurie who treated the baby, were not covered in network. And so Brenna spent the next year contesting these charges. And they were never told that the doctors were out of the network. But she had found out that there was a 2011 Illinois law, which was in effect, which prohibited this kind of out-of-network billing for neonatology services.

Rovner: That’s right. And we should point out that this was before the federal No Surprises Act took effect, because this was late 2019.

Meyer: Correct.

Rovner: But there was a state law that should have applied.

Meyer: There was a state law. Illinois was a pioneer in this. So she cited that law to Blue Cross Blue Shield Illinois and to Lurie Children’s, and they said they knew nothing about it. So the bill was sent to collections about a year later, and she was able to get Blue Cross, finally, and, a year after the birth, to cover the Lurie doctor charges fully. However, in December, three years after she gave birth, she finds out she’s being billed again, after she thought the whole ordeal was over — many years after. And she finds out that Blue Cross of Illinois had taken the money back and now Lurie was coming after her and her husband again for the out-of-network charges. And that’s when she came to Kaiser Health News, and I made calls to Lurie, to Blue Cross of Illinois, and to Northwestern. And after my calls, Lurie agreed to drop the charges. But now a state senator, the Illinois Department of Insurance, and the Illinois attorney general are looking into this to see if there was a long pattern of violations by Lurie of this 2011 state law. And Brenna actually has been contacted now by three other women who experienced similar out-of-network bills from Lurie. So we’ll see what happens with that.

Rovner: So sort of a happy ending to that one. Let’s move to baby No. 2, or, more accurately, his mother. Who is she and what happened to her?

Meyer: OK. This was last June. Danielle Laskey is a school nurse, an RN, in Seattle. She was on vacation with the family. And at 26 weeks pregnant she felt that her water broke. Her doctors in Seattle ordered her to come back and said, you’d better come in. And her doctors were at Swedish Maternal & Fetal Specialty Center in Seattle, which was in network for her Blue Shield health plan. And when she got there, they said, yes, your water broke. You were at risk for the same complication from your first pregnancy three years ago. We want you to go to Swedish Medical Center across the street immediately, and we want you to stay there until you give birth, and we’ll monitor you. So she was in the hospital for seven weeks until she gave birth in August of last year.

Rovner: Oh, so just for context, Swedish is one of the big hospitals in Seattle, right?

Meyer: Yes, absolutely. And it’s one of the specialty facilities for this particular uncommon complication, which is called placenta accreta. Anyway, she was there for seven weeks. And again, she and her husband were not told that the hospital was out of network. But it turns out that Swedish, even though her doctors were — her Swedish doctors were in network for her health plan, it turns out that Swedish Medical Center was out of network, and she found out. Then the baby was born. The baby was in the hospital, the baby boy, for about a month. And then, meanwhile, after the baby was born, she experienced symptoms again, and she was rehospitalized for a day to have this placenta condition treated. Both those hospitalizations — you know, she and her husband, who’s a psychiatrist, thought they were emergencies. The doctors regarded them as emergencies. But yet afterward, the Regence Blue Shield and Swedish decided they were not emergencies. And so, guess what? The family was hit with over $100,000 in out-of-network bills for the two Swedish hospitalizations.

Rovner: And this was after the federal law took effect, right? This was last year.

Meyer: The federal law and a Washington state law were both in effect at that point, which say that you cannot apply out-of-network charges in an emergency situation. So, at first, Blue Shield said that it was not an emergency and it didn’t come under the law. And Swedish Medical Center was going to take the family to collections. The family appealed to Regence Blue Shield. Regence in January granted the appeal for the first hospitalization, erasing $100,000 or so of the charges. But the second hospitalization, $15,000 bill, was still in effect. And then they contacted Kaiser Health News. I contacted Regence Blue Shield and Swedish, and then the charges were dropped for the second hospitalization.

Rovner: Amazing how that happens.

Meyer: Yeah, well, it’s not a solution. So the twist on this one is that Regence Blue Shield said we decided it was an emergency and that it wasn’t proper that the doctors were in network but the hospital wasn’t, so we’re going to consider this an in network and erase the charges. But they said Regence Blue Shield had a contract with Swedish, which made Swedish a quote-unquote “participating provider”; therefore, the federal and state laws do not apply to that situation, and the hospital was allowed to charge the out-of-network charge. We’re going to erase it for this case, but the law does not apply to that situation.

Rovner: I confess, if I’m in a hospital and they say they’re a participating provider, I’m going to assume that means they’re in network. And in this case, it doesn’t, right?

Meyer: Right. It’s a very strange twist that my experts had never encountered before. I took the issue to the federal agency CMS, which administers the No Surprises Act, and they said that they’re going to look into this and HHS, Treasury Department, and Department of Labor are all going to have to look into this to see if this could be fixed through an agency guidance or whether this would require a congressional action to fix this apparent loophole in the law.

Rovner: Creativity. So what’s the takeaway here for both women and particularly for pregnant women who know at some point they’re likely to be in the hospital? You can’t ask every single person who touches you whether they’re in your network. And isn’t that what state and the federal law are supposed to guard against? These are the exact things that we assumed would be taken care of. Right?

Meyer: Right. Well, first of all, the family, the patient, and their loved ones need to ask the hospital and the insurer to tell them their rights under the No Surprises Act and make sure that both the insurer and the provider are following the letter of those federal and state laws. Second, if they do get, God forbid, a out-of-network bill, they need to immediately appeal that to the insurance company, and there’s a two-level appeal process. The second level, they get an independent review. And then, at the same time, they need to file a report or a complaint with the state attorney general’s office, the state department of insurance, and maybe even contact state legislators. There also are private agencies or private companies with nurses and lawyers, etc., that will help families, for a fee, address issues like this. Hopefully it shouldn’t require that, but sometimes it may. And of course, then there’s Kaiser Health News. You can file your “Bill of the Month” complaint through the portal, which we can’t deal with hundreds of thousands of cases, obviously.

Rovner: But we can help at least a few. And Harris Meyer, you helped two. So thank you very much. And thank you for joining us.

Meyer: Thank you, Julie.

Rovner: OK, we’re back. And 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. Victoria, why don’t you go first this week? You got one of my favorites.

Knight: My extra credit is called “They Could Lose the House — to Medicaid,” by Tony Leys, and it is published on NPR but is a KHN story. It’s about a family in Iowa who found out, after the mother in the family died, that they could lose their house because she was getting services through Medicaid. She had dementia, and so she needed really intensive at-home family care. Then after she died, they got a letter from the Iowa Department of Human Services — just a month after she died, so not long after — saying that the state was trying to recoup the money that they had spent on her care. So it was almost over $200,000 that they were asking for. And what was really upsetting is this family home was going to be the inheritance for the daughter. And so now they’re kind of like, what are we going to do? Thankfully, they don’t have to do anything with the house until something happens to the father. So it’s not gone immediately. But this is basically something that some states do. It’s called estate recovery programs. And if people use Medicaid in those states, the states have the ability to come back later … whether it’s, like, a house or they can ask for funds that these families used for Medicaid. So it’s really illuminating. I had no idea this was something that happened, and it varies by state to state. But in Iowa, this is something that they kind of pursue very aggressively.

Rovner: I remember when Congress made this a possibility, I think it was back in 1995. It’s been around, the possibility of states recouping Medicaid money for a long time. But as you point out, not all states do it. And it’s usually a surprise when states do do it. People still really don’t know about it. Shefali.

Luthra: So my story is from my 19th colleague, Jennifer Gerson. The headline is “Language for Treating Childhood Obesity Carries Its Own Health Risks to Kids, Experts Say.” And what Jen did, which I think is really smart and important, is she looked at the new clinical guidelines we got from the American Academy of Pediatrics. And those were meant to improve how we evaluate and treat obesity in children. And what she gets into is that there are a lot of children’s health experts, especially mental health experts, who are deeply concerned about what the impacts of these new guidelines could be, how they might exacerbate weight stigma, and how the long-term ramifications of some of the treatment guidelines could actually have worse outcomes for young people as a result, by building on weight stigma, which could lead to different kinds of unhealthy behaviors, could lead to mental health harms that could have much longer term repercussions, possibly more, in fact, dangerous than the actual problems that these guidelines are trying to treat. And one thing that Jen notes I think is really important is that the implications of weight stigma, in particular, are especially harmful for young girls who, as we know, are already facing so many mental health crises in general right now. I thought this was a really important look at a potentially really troubling unintended consequence, and I’m really glad Jen wrote about it.

Rovner: Yeah, I had no idea. It was a very counterintuitive but really interesting piece. Margot, what do you have this week?

Sanger-Katz: I wanted to suggest an article in ProPublica called “How Obamacare Enabled a Multibillion-Dollar Christian Health Care Cash Grab,” by J. David McSwane and Ryan Gabrielson which is just this wonderful historic dive into how the Affordable Care Act ended up allowing something called Christian health ministries to provide an alternative to health insurance. As we all know, the Affordable Care Act basically said, if you’re going to offer health insurance, it has to meet certain minimum guidelines in terms of what it covers and how it works. And these Christian health sharing ministries are just this huge, huge exception where basically it’s just, you know, groups of religiously affiliated people can get together and just pay for each other’s health care or not, depending on what they want to do. There has been a lot of reporting over the years about the degree to which these plans are kind of scammy or poorly run or are not paying for needed health care for their members who think that they are an alternative to insurance. And so this piece is just fun because it looked at the lobbying that generated this strange policy.

Rovner: Yeah. You know, I remember when they got the Christian sharing ministries exception into the ACA and not really knowing where it came from. Well, this story explains exactly where it came from. So it is quite an eye-popping read. Mine is from my KHN colleague Sarah Varney, and it’s called “Girls in Texas Could Get Birth Control at Federal Clinics, Until a Christian Father Objected. Now, for decades, underage girls have been able to get contraception from federally funded Title X family planning clinics without parental permission. An effort by the Reagan administration in the early 1980s, dubbed the “Squeal Rule,” which would have required that parents be notified after the fact, was struck down in federal court and the Reagan administration did not appeal it. And no, I was not there to cover that at that time. I did look it up. A couple of months ago, Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk — yes, that Judge Kacsmaryk, who will any day now rule on whether the FDA approval of the abortion pill should be revoked — ruled in favor of a father in Texas, not a father whose daughters did or said they wanted to obtain contraception from a Title X clinic. But the father complained that the very possibility that his daughters could get birth control without his consent rendered that portion of the law — which has been in effect since Title X, was signed by Richard Nixon in 1970 — unconstitutional. And of course, the judge agreed with him. So for now, the ruling only applies in Texas. But lest you think they’re not coming for your birth control, think again.

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. Shefali?

Luthra: I’m @shefalil

Rovner: Victoria.

Knight: @victoriaregisk

Rovner: Margot.

Sanger-Katz: @sangerkatz

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


Francis Ying
Audio producer
Stephanie Stapleton

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