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KFF Health News' 'What the Health?'

The Abortion Pill Goes Back to Court

Episode 298

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KFF Health News' 'What the Health?': The Abortion Pill Goes Back to Court

The Host

Julie Rovner KFF Health News @jrovner Read Julie's stories. 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.

The fate of the abortion pill mifepristone remains in jeopardy, as an appellate court panel during a hearing this week sounded sympathetic to a lower court’s ruling that the FDA should not have approved the drug more than two decades ago. No matter how the appeals court rules, the case seems headed for the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, in the partisan standoff over raising the nation’s debt ceiling, a key sticking point has emerged: whether to add a work requirement to the state-federal Medicaid program. Republicans are adamant about adding one; Democrats point out that, in the few states that have tried them, red tape has resulted in eligible people wrongly losing their health coverage.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of KFF Health News, Sandhya Raman of CQ Roll Call, Rachel Roubein of The Washington Post, and Victoria Knight of Axios.


Sandhya Raman CQ Roll Call @SandhyaWrites Read Sandhya's stories. Rachel Roubein The Washington Post @rachel_roubein Read Rachel's stories. Victoria Knight Axios @victoriaregisk Read Victoria's stories.

Among the takeaways from this week’s episode:

  • Hopes among abortion rights advocates for continued access to mifepristone dimmed as the three judges on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals signaled they are skeptical of the FDA’s decades-old approval of the drug and of the Biden administration’s arguments defending it. Lawyers debated whether the Texas doctors challenging the drug had been harmed by it and thus had standing to sue. If the original ruling effectively revoking the drug’s approval is allowed to stand, the case could open the door to future legal challenges to the approval of controversial drugs.
  • Two more states in the South are moving to restrict abortion, further cutting access to the procedure in the region. In North Carolina, a new Republican supermajority in the state legislature enabled the passage this week of a new, 12-week ban, as lawmakers in South Carolina consider a six-week ban.
  • In Congress, the top Senate Republican said he will not back one senator’s months-long effort to hold up Pentagon nominations over a policy that supports troops and their dependents who must travel to other states to obtain an abortion.
  • Envision Healthcare — which spent big in 2019 to fight legislation prohibiting some surprise medical bills — has filed for bankruptcy protection more than a year after the law took effect and cut into its bottom line. But a federal lawsuit from a group of emergency room physicians against Envision may move forward. The lawsuit claims the private equity-backed company is in violation of a California law banning corporate control of medical practices, and it could carry major consequences for the growing number of practices backed by private equity firms across the country.
  • Monica Bertagnolli has been nominated to lead the National Institutes of Health. Currently the director of the National Cancer Institute, she will need to be confirmed by the Senate, which hasn’t confirmed an NIH chief since before the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010. Meanwhile, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ stewardship of a key health committee is causing delays on even bipartisan efforts.

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

Julie Rovner: The Washington Post’s “A 150-Year-Old Law Could Help Determine the Fate of U.S. Abortion Access,” by Dan Diamond and Ann E. Marimow.

Victoria Knight: The New York Times’ “World Health Organization Warns Against Using Artificial Sweeteners,” by April Rubin.

Rachel Roubein: CBS News’ “Thousands Face Medicaid Whiplash in South Dakota and North Carolina,” by Arielle Zionts of KFF Health News.

Sandhya Raman: CQ Roll Call’s “A Year After Dobbs Leak, Democrats Still See Abortion Driving 2024 Voters,” by Mary Ellen McIntire and Daniela Altimari.

Also mentioned in this week’s episode:

KFF Health News’ “ER Doctors Vow to Pursue Case Against Envision Despite Bankruptcy,” by Bernard J. Wolfson.

click to open the transcript Transcript: The Abortion Pill Goes Back to Court

KFF Health News’ ‘What the Health?’

Episode Title: The Abortion Pill Goes Back to Court

Episode Number: 298

Published: May 18, 2023

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

Julie Rovner: Hello and welcome back to “What the Health?” I’m Julie Rovner, chief Washington correspondent at KFF Health News. And I’m joined by some of the best and smartest health reporters in Washington. We’re taping this week on Thursday, May 18, 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: Victoria Knight of Axios.

Victoria Knight: Hi. Good morning.

Rovner: And Sandhya Raman of CQ Roll Call.

Sandhya Raman: Hi, and good morning, everyone.

Rovner: Lots and lots of health news this week, so we will dive right in. We’re going to start with abortion because there is so much breaking news on that front. On Wednesday, a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans held a hearing on the Biden administration’s appeal of a Texas ruling that the FDA was wrong when it approved the abortion pill mifepristone more than 22 years ago. The panel, which was randomly chosen from an already pretty conservative slate there in the 5th Circuit, appeared to be even more anti-abortion than most of the judges on that bench. So, Sandhya, you listened to this whole thing. What, if anything, did we glean from this hearing?

Raman: I think we gleaned a lot of things and a lot of things I think we have predicted from the start. I think going into this, looking at the various judges’ records, they have ruled on anti-abortion cases in the past in the favor of that. You take that in with a grain of salt. And from watching the arguments, it seemed like they were fairly skeptical of the challenge and FDA’s approval of mifepristone and the subsequent regulations. You could kind of see through the questioning the kinds of things that they were asking and just pretty skeptical of just a lot of the things that were being said by DOJ [the Department of Justice] and by Danco there yesterday. So —

Rovner: Yeah, we should say that the lawyer for the FDA had one sort of round of presentation and questions. And then the lawyer from Danco, the company that makes mifepristone, had another. And they were pretty tough on both of them.

Raman: Yeah, and I thought it was interesting because when we were listening to the arguments, the DOJ lawyer and the Danco lawyer were kind of arguing a lot of the time just that there shouldn’t be standing, that there isn’t necessarily proof in any of the filings that any of the doctors that that were suing have really had harm due to the FDA’s role. It was kind of down the road. I think one thing that Harrington, the judge for the DOJ, had said, that was the FDA approving a drug does not mean that anyone has to prescribe it, it does not mean anyone has to take it, that the fact that if you were treating someone after the fact, that’s a few steps down the line. And so that was kind of like a messaging thing that they were doing kind of over and over again. And then when we got to the Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing the conservative doctors, Erin Hawley had said, you know, they are affected both physically and she said emotionally, which was interesting, kind of looking at that. And so it’ll depend on how the judges rule. I think that there were definitely some signs throughout the arguments about this not being as unprecedented and that the FDA is not untouchable in terms of the courts weighing in on regulation.

Rovner: If you were just listening to it, you didn’t sort of know all of this. And remember, these were two Trump-appointed judges and a George W. Bush-appointed judge who has a history of ruling in favor of anti-abortion efforts. But they were saying that, “Well, people sue the FDA all the time. You know, what’s the difference here?” Well, the difference here is nobody has ever sued the FDA saying that they were wrong to approve something 20 years ago. Nobody’s ever tried to get a drug taken off the market that way. There’s obviously lots of litigation against the FDA for the way it does some of its thing. I mean, it’s often little things and then people sue each other with the FDA caught in the middle — drugmakers and lots of patent suits. I was surprised that the appeals court judges took issue with what everybody I think acknowledges is a correct claim that this is unprecedented and this could open the door to other challenges to other drugs for any reason — you know, someone doesn’t like them. I mean, these doctors are not saying that they’ve prescribed this drug and women have taken it and had bad reactions. They’re saying that possibly, if someone takes it and has a bad reaction, that they would have to treat that person and that that would harm their conscience, even though, as the lawyers made it clear, no one has ever forced these doctors to take care of anyone against their conscience because there are already laws that protect against that. So it was very roundabout in a lot of ways.

Raman: I think one thing that they had mentioned was that, you know, some of the cases cited in the filings were, you know, someone had taken an imported version of a mifepristone, not the one that Danco made, and then someone else had been recommended not to take the drug but still took the drug and then had side effects related to that. But there is another thing that kind of stuck out to me, was when Judge [James] Ho had asked would the FDA adhere to whatever the final court decision was? And that was a little striking to me. And then the FDA had said, you know, we will. And they cited that they had signed an affidavit last year saying that they’re going to agree to whatever the final decision is. But there were a lot of parts of the case that were just very unusual compared to the other cases that I have watched on this or any other part of health care, I think.

Rovner: Although in fairness to the judges, I mean, there was — a lot of legal experts were saying that the FDA does have enforcement authority to determine what it’s going to enforce and what it isn’t. And Justice [Samuel] Alito, when he actually challenged the Supreme Court’s stay of the original ruling — Justice Alito questioned about whether FDA would even follow if this drug was deemed unapproved. So that’s at least been coming up as a discussion. Let’s move on because it could be weeks or even months before we hear back from this panel, and we will obviously keep watching it. There’s been plenty of action in the states, too, this week — not that surprising because it’s May and lots of state legislatures are wrapping up their sessions for the year. But we should point out that particularly North and South Carolina are acting on abortion because they’ve been two of the last states in the South where abortion had remained both legal and pretty much broadly available. That’s changing as of this week, though, isn’t it?

Roubein: That’s changing in North Carolina, for sure, after this week. The Republicans there have supermajorities as of April; a Democrat in the House switched to the Republican Party. And what they did there is they overrode a veto from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. And this new bill, which the main provisions go into effect July 1, will restrict abortions at 12 weeks in pregnancy. And now in South Carolina, it’s still a little bit to be determined. The House passed a bill last night which would restrict abortions after fetal cardiac activity’s detected — roughly six weeks. Now they’re sending that bill back to the Senate, which had already passed it. But they made some changes. And it’s not clear whether some of the Republican female senators who oppose a near-total ban will be in favor of these changes. So that one’s a bit up in the air.

Rovner: And obviously, the 12 weeks in North Carolina is going to be important because there are a lot of women coming from other states now to North Carolina and clinics are getting backed up. It is a time thing for women to sort of be able to get themselves together, often get child care, get time off from a job, have to find a hotel in most cases, and go to another state. So it’s going to turn out to be an issue.

Roubein: I think one of the provisions abortion rights groups are pointing to there is, because this is a 12-week ban, so roughly 90% of abortions are allowed to continue, but what Democrats really pointed out was that the bill requires an in-person visit 72 hours before obtaining an abortion. So that could kind of restrict people, as you mentioned, Julie, from being able to take that time and come in from out of state in North Carolina, which has become a destination for abortions.

Rovner: All right. Well, I want to circle back to something that’s been going on for a while in the U.S. Senate. We talked about it back in March. Alabama Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville is single-handedly holding up many military promotions to protest a Biden administration policy that allows members of the military in states with abortion bans both time off and travel funds to obtain an abortion in another state. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin says that this — the delayed promotions — is starting to impact the nation’s readiness. Is there any resolution to this in sight? It’s now been going on for, what, a month and a half.

Raman: I think that, you know, we’re getting somewhat closer to it, but it’s hard to tell. I mean, we’ve had Mitch McConnell say that he’s not supporting what Tuberville is doing with the blockade of military nominations, so that could be a little bit more pressure compared to anyone else in the caucus putting that pressure. But I think the other thing that had come up is that there had been a report this week that the administration was going to delay on deciding if Space Force Command was going to move from Colorado to Alabama because of Tuberville. And so I think that, if that is the case — two different pressure points — there might be movement. But it’s been happening for a long time. We’ve had hundreds of nominees delayed. And I think the pushback has not necessarily been fully partisan. Even before we had McConnell speak out, we’ve had other members of — Republican senators kind of say, you know, this is maybe not the best move to do this, so —

Rovner: I mean, given how important Republicans take the military, I get why he’s doing this. It’s a pressure point because it’s a DOD [Department of Defense] policy. But still, it looks funny for a Republican to be holding up something that’s really important to the military.

Raman: Earlier this year, I think it was last month, you know, the Senate had done their procedural vote on a Tuberville resolution on something that was kind of similar, when they had the VA [Department of Veterans Affairs] rule that allows them to provide abortions for, you know, the Hyde exceptions, so rape, incest, life of the mother. And, you know, that didn’t pass on a procedural vote. So maybe something like that could be, like, a bargaining point. But it would require Democrats to say, “Yes, we do want to vote on this.” And I think that the last comments that Tuberville had even said were that, you know, “Until this policy is gone, I don’t want to waiver.” So it might not be a solution, but it could be something.

Rovner: Well, speaking of things that are proving difficult to resolve, let’s talk about the debt ceiling talks. As of today, Thursday, there’s no agreement yet, although President Biden is going to cut his overseas trip short after Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned that the so-called x-date, when the Treasury can no longer pay its bills, could really happen as soon as June 1. One of the big sticking points appears to be work requirements for programs aimed at low-income Americans, which Republicans are demanding and Democrats are resisting. Welfare, now called Temporary Aid to Needy Families, already has work requirements, as does SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program], the current name for food stamps, which leaves Medicaid, which has been a particular sticking point over the last few years. I guess we were all right back in February when Biden and the Republicans seemed to take Medicare and Social Security off the table, and we all predicted the fight would come down to Medicaid. So here we are, yes?

Knight: Yep, we’re at Medicaid. But it does seem like we’re really going back and forth on it. I think the sentiment at first was kind of that this would be the first thing to fall out of a potential deal between Democrats and Republicans because Democrats are really opposed to this. But I don’t know. This week, President Biden made some comments that were a little confusing. It kind of made it sound like he was potentially open to the idea. And then the White House kind of walked that back this week and sent some press releases out that were like, We don’t want to touch Medicaid. And then I believe it was sometime yesterday, on Wednesday, the president said, “Maybe, but nothing of consequence,” when talking about work requirements. And Congress is leaving today. So I think it’s kind of still up in the air, but the door still seems to be open, I guess is kind of the takeaway.

Rovner: There seems to be some concern from Democrats on Capitol Hill that President Biden may give too much away in trying to avoid a debt default. I mean, he’s already sort of after, you know, “We will not negotiate on the debt ceiling, we will not negotiate on the debt ceiling” — I mean, the administration says they’re negotiating on the budget, but they’re negotiating on the debt ceiling, right?

Knight: Yeah. I mean, and it seems that President Biden, the administration, may be open to budget caps as well or cutting spending. And that was kind of something that it seemed like Democrats at first were not open to doing at all. I talked to some appropriators this week, and they’re pretty upset about — Democratic appropriators — they’re pretty upset because they want the debt ceiling and appropriations to be a separate process, and they’re being tied together right now. Yeah, I think they’re somewhat concerned with how the president is negotiating right now.

Rovner: Well, it’s May 18. There’s been no talk yet of a temporary — although I assume at some point we’re going to say, let’s just extend this out a few days, and let’s extend it out a few more days, and we’ll extend it out a few more days. So obviously, we will watch this space. So the mifepristone case is not the only judicial news this week. In that other case out of Texas, challenging the preventive health services part to the Affordable Care Act, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals — lots of news out of New Orleans this week — temporarily stayed the ruling by Judge Reed O’Connor that the ACA unconstitutionally deputized the U.S. Preventive Health Services Task Force from deciding which preventive services should be provided without copays. Long sentence. I hope it makes sense. Reed O’Connor, of course, being the judge who tried unsuccessfully to declare the entire ACA unconstitutional in 2018. What happens now in this case? Nothing changes until it gets resolved, right?

Roubein: Right. Right now I think that just through that, this means that insurers will be required to continue covering services recommended by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force without cost sharing in care.

Rovner: And that includes PrEP for HIV, which is what’s really at issue with these doctors who are suing the FDA — or actually I guess they’re suing HHS [the Department of Health and Human Services] in general — saying that they don’t want to be required to provide these drugs.

Roubein: Yeah, it does include PrEP.

Rovner: So that will continue. I imagine that will also find its way to the Supreme Court. Finally, in not really judicial but court-related news, Envision, the private equity-backed physician staffing firm, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy this week, presumably because the emergency room physician practices it owns can no longer send patients most surprise medical bills. ER bills were among the most common types of surprise bills, when patients would specifically take their emergency to an in-network hospital, only to find that the doctors in the emergency room were all out of network. Is this one small step towards taking some of the profit motive out of health care? I don’t see anybody, like, shedding a lot of tears for Envision declaring bankruptcy here.

Raman: I think the second part, that the lawsuit by the ER doctors against Envision, despite them filing for bankruptcy, is going forward is interesting, and it seems unusual to me, because they’re not asking for monetary damages, but they want, like, a legal finding that the way that the company’s business structure — ownership of the staffing groups — is illegal, and if, like, winning that would ban the practice in the state of California. And so I think if you’re looking at it in terms of, like, things that would happen over the course of time, policywise, that could be something interesting to kind of watch there.

Roubein: I just wanted to hearken back real quick to, like, 2019. In the middle of the surprise billing debate, Envision and another major doctor staffing firm spent significant sums of money to try and sway the surprise billing legislation that the House and the Senate were hashing out.

Rovner: Yeah, they made CNN and MSNBC very rich with their ads.

Roubein: Millions of them.

Rovner: In the ’90s, I covered, you know, this whole corporate practice of medicine thing because I think it’s every state has a law that says that corporations can’t practice medicine; only licensed health professionals can practice medicine. So I’ve always wondered about, you know, what this lawsuit is about anyway. How are these companies actually getting away with doing this? And the answer is maybe they’re not or maybe they won’t. It’s going to be interesting. There’s now so much profit motive and private equity in health care because there’s a lot of money to be made that it’s, I think somebody is actually starting to, you know, call on it. We will definitely see how this plays out. We may not have a “This Week in Private Equity” anymore. Well, let us go back to Capitol Hill, where we finally have a nominee to head the National Institutes of Health, current National Cancer Institute chief Monica Bertagnolli, who is also, ironically, a cancer patient at the moment, although her prognosis is very good, we are told. There hasn’t been a confirmed head of the NIH since Francis Collins stepped down at the end of 2021. Congress hasn’t had to confirm a new head of the NIH since before the passage of the Affordable Care Act. I imagine that Dr. Bertagnolli is going to have to navigate some pretty choppy confirmation waters, even in a Senate where Democrats are nominally in the majority, right?

Knight: Yeah, I spent some time talking to HELP [Health, Education, Labor and Pensions] Committee Republicans last week and this week, and they definitely have some things they want to see out of a new NIH director. They’re definitely concerned about gain-of-function research, potential funding of that type of research, which is supposed to, hypothetically, make viruses more virulent. So several of them said, you know, “We don’t want to see the agency funding that kind of research,” or, “We want restrictions around that kind of research.” They also are concerned with the agency giving a grant to an organization called EcoHealth, which was supposed to have done research in Wuhan that was around gain-of-function-type things. And I think they also, in general, are just concerned with how the NIH and the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] responded to the covid pandemic, and they aren’t happy with some of the decisions they made, what they felt like were mandate — top-down mandates. And so I do think we will see, if we actually get a HELP confirmation hearing any time soon, we’ll see — I think it’s going to be pretty contentious possibly. And as you referenced, I kind of looked into this when I was writing my story, and there really has not been a contentious hearing in a long time. Francis Collins went through a unanimous voice vote when he was confirmed. And then the two previous NIH directors, they kind of sailed through their HELP confirmation hearings. And if you think about it, Francis Collins also has served under both Republican and Democratic presidents. And I wonder if we are coming to a point where that won’t happen anymore with NIH directors.

Rovner: Back when I first started covering the NIH, it was contentious because they were talking about fetal tissue research and stem cell research and stuff that was really controversial. But then Newt Gingrich, when he became speaker of the House, declared that, you know, he wanted the 21st century to be, you know, the century of biomedicine. And he vowed to double the funding for the NIH, which the Republicans did, you know, with the Democrats’ help. So NIH has been this sacred cow, if you will, bipartisanly for at least two decades. And now it’s sort of coming back to being a little bit controversial again. In talking about the debt ceiling and possible budget cuts, I mean, NIH has usually been spared from those. But I’m guessing that if there’s budget caps, NIH is going to be included in those places where we’re going to cut the budget, right?

Knight: Yeah, absolutely. I have been talking to a Republican House appropriator over the NIH. Robert Aderholt told me that, yes, they expect a cut in their budget because Defense and NIH, Labor, HHS are usually the biggest bills. And he told me Defense probably isn’t getting cut very much, so we’re expecting to get cut. So obviously, you know, it’s a messaging bill in the House, but I think the expectation is that they’re going to propose that. The Senate seemed pretty set on keeping NIH funding what it was. They had an NIH appropriations hearing recently. So, I mean, there’s going to be some difference between those two chambers. But I think it does seem likely, especially with all the debt ceiling stuff, that cuts are possible.

Rovner: So that’s NIH. In the meantime, now we have an opening at the CDC because Rochelle Walensky announced her resignation. Have we heard any inklings about who wants to step into that very hot seat?

Roubein: I can point to some reporting from my colleagues at the Post, Dan Diamond and Lena H. Sun. At the time, the day that Walensky announced that she’d be stepping down June 30, they had wrote that White House officials had, you know, been preparing for a little while for a potential departure and had begun gauging interest in the position. And some people that Dan and Lena named that the administration had approached is former New York City Health Commissioner Dave A. Chokshi, former North Carolina Health Secretary Mandy Cohen, and the California health state secretary. Now, we don’t know ultimately what the White House, President Biden, is going to do. I do think it’s worth pointing out that the new CDC director won’t have to be Senate-confirmed; that was passed in the big sweeping government funding bill, that a CDC director would need to be confirmed, but starting January 20, 2025. So, you know, sounds like something, you know, Democrats might have been interested in doing, kind of pushing that out. So, yeah.

Rovner: The CDC is, you know, sort of the one big Department of Health and Human Services job that does not come up for Senate confirmation. Obviously, that is being changed, but it’s not being changed yet. Well, both of these confirmations, mostly the NIH one at this point, comes up before the Senate HELP Committee, Victoria, as you pointed out. Chairman Bernie Sanders there is having — what shall we call them? — some growing pains as chairman of a committee with a heavy legislative workload. What’s the latest here? He’s still kind of working on getting some of these bipartisan bills through, isn’t he?

Knight: Yeah, there is a little bit of a snafu at a recent HELP Committee hearing where Ranking Member Bill Cassidy was not happy that Sen. Sanders was bringing up some amendments that he wasn’t aware of or that they had kind of agreed to table at some point and then he brought them back up during a hearing or during a markup, and so they ended up having to delay the markup itself and do it the next week. And these were bipartisan bills. So it was really just a process issue; it wasn’t so much the subject of the bills. And they kind of worked it out and were able to pass the bills out of the committee, or most of the bills out of the committee, the next week after that happened. So I think that Sen. Sanders is figuring out how to run the HELP Committee. What I’ve kind of heard is that he is somewhat more interested in labor issues than health, and so his focus is not maybe as much on health. And I think you can see that sometimes. Also, when you talk to Sen. Sanders, he’s very much a big-picture guy and isn’t so much in the process weeds often, whereas Sen. Cassidy loves the process.

Rovner: So we’re noticing.

Knight: Yeah, Sen. Cassidy loves the process. So they’re an interesting duo, I think.

Rovner: Yeah, I mean, I was interested that this week, you know, Sen. Sanders was among those there reintroducing the “Medicare for All” bill that obviously has no future in the immediate future. But at the same time, community health centers are up for reauthorization this year. And that has always been a pet issue, even when he was House member, you know, Rep. Sanders. This is one of the issues that I know he cares a lot about. And now he’s in charge of making sure that it gets reauthorized. So he’s got sort of these competing big-picture stuff and, not smaller, but smaller than the big-picture stuff that he really cares about. I’ll be curious to see what he’s able to do on that front. I assume there’s no word on that yet, even though the authorization ends Sept. 30, right?

Raman: The sense that I’ve gotten from talking to folks is that community health centers is higher up the totem pole than some of the other issues on the must-pass list. I mean, we still have to deal with the debt ceiling and everything related there. But I think that there has been a little bit more progress then. I mean, this week, at least in the House, Energy and Commerce had marked up their bill that had community health center funding in there. So I think there’s a little bit more push on that end because they’re, you know, fairly bipartisan, have seen interest across the board on that. So I think that they are making some progress there. It’s just that there’s so many other factors right now, and that makes it pretty tricky.

Rovner: The ironic thing about Congress — it’s summertime when everybody else sort of kicks back. — that’s when Congress kicks into gear. So a lot, I imagine, is going to happen in June and July. All right. That is this week’s news. Now it is 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?

Knight: Sure. My extra credit this week is called “World Health Organization Warns Against Using Artificial Sweeteners.” It was published in The New York Times. Basically, the WHO said this week that artificial sweeteners aren’t effective in reducing body fat and could actually increase the risk of Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. They looked at the available evidence, and it’s just a set of guidelines that they’re issuing. It’s not binding to anything. You know, every country can kind of make their own decision based on this. But I think it was an interesting marker. If you look at the influx of all these artificial sweeteners over time that have kind of become a mainstream part of our diet, they’re available in a bunch of different things that you can get at the store, and people often turn to them when they’re trying to reduce sugar. And now this large body is saying they may actually worsen your health, not help you, and not even reduce fat. So I think that was just kind of interesting. The FDA did not respond to The New York Times’ request for the story, so I’m not sure their stance on this, but just something to note.

Rovner: I was interested that the WHO did that. It seemed sort of very not WHO-ish, but also interesting. Sandhya, why don’t you go next.

Raman: All right, so my extra credit this week is called “A Year After Dobbs Leak, Democrats Still See Abortion Driving 2024 Voters.” And it’s from my colleagues “What the Health?” alum Mary Ellen McIntire and Daniela Altimari. And they take a look at how Democrats are kind of seeing how abortion messaging isn’t fading a year after — almost — the Dobbs decision, are kind of doubling down on focusing on that. President Biden and Vice President Harris were both at the EMILYs List gala this week honoring Nancy Pelosi. And it also comes amid a lot of the state action we talked about earlier of a lot of abortion bans going into place. And so they have a good look at that that you can read.

Rovner: Rachel.

Roubein: My extra credit is called “Thousands Face Medicaid Whiplash in South Dakota and North Carolina,” by Arielle Zionts from KFF Health News. And she takes a look at the unwinding of keeping people on the Medicaid program, particularly in South Dakota and North Carolina, where the dynamic is really interesting, because both states have recently passed Medicaid expansion. So officials are kind of going through the Medicaid rolls beforehand. So some people who could be eligible soon may be getting kicked off, only to need to reapply, or officials need to tell them that they can reapply. So I thought it was a really interesting look on how this is playing out.

Rovner: Yeah, it is. I mean, talk about head-explodingly confusing for people; it’s like, “You’re not eligible now, but you will be in three weeks. So just kind of sit tight and don’t go to the doctor for the next couple of weeks,” basically where they are. Well, my story is from The Washington Post, and it’s called “A 150-Year-Old Law Could Help Determine the Fate of U.S. Abortion Access,” by Dan Diamond and Ann Marimow. And it’s about the Comstock Act, which we have talked about before. It’s a Reconstruction-era law pushed through Congress by an anti-vice crusader, Anthony Comstock, who I learned this week was not actually a member of Congress. He was just an interested party. The law purports to ban the mailing of all sorts of lewd and lascivious items, including those intended to be used for abortion. Abortion opponents are trying to resurrect the law, which has never been formally repealed. But it turns out that Comstock wasn’t actually all that anti-abortion. In a newly resurrected interview that Comstock did with Harper’s Weekly in 1915, he said he never intended for the law to interfere with the practice of medicine by licensed doctors, including for abortion. Quote, “A reputable doctor may tell his patient, in his office what is necessary, and a druggist may sell on a doctor’s written prescription drugs which he would not be allowed to sell otherwise.” That’s how Comstock is quoted as saying. Um, wow. It’s just another weird twist in an already very twisty story. But let’s keep track of the Comstock Law going forward. All right. 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 Or you can tweet me. I’m still there. I’m at @jrovner. Sandhya?

Raman: @SandhyaWrites.

Rovner: Rachel.

Roubein: @rachel_roubein.

Rovner: Victoria.

Knight: @victoriaregisk.

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


Francis Ying Audio producer Emmarie Huetteman Editor

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