The HostMary Agnes Carey KFF Health News @maryagnescarey Read Mary Agnes' stories Partnerships Editor and Senior Correspondent, oversees placement of KFF Health News content in publications nationwide and covers health reform and federal health policy. Before joining KFF Health News, Mary Agnes was associate editor of CQ HealthBeat, Capitol Hill Bureau Chief for Congressional Quarterly, and a reporter with Dow Jones Newswires. A frequent radio and television commentator, she has appeared on CNN, C-SPAN, the PBS NewsHour, and on NPR affiliates nationwide. Her stories have appeared in The Washington Post, USA Today, TheAtlantic.com, Time.com, Money.com, and The Daily Beast, among other publications. She worked for newspapers in Connecticut and Pennsylvania, and has a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University.
The Biden administration this week pleaded with states to slow the post-pandemic removal of beneficiaries from their Medicaid rolls, as government data shows more than a million Americans have lost coverage since pandemic protections ended in April. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court ruled Medicaid beneficiaries may sue over their care.
In an appearance at the U.S. Capitol, the outgoing chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rochelle Walensky, offered no revelations as House Republicans pressed her about the agency’s response to the covid-19 pandemic. And senators are pushing for action on drug pricing, with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) vowing to hold up nominations to press the Biden administration for drug pricing reform.
This week’s panelists are Mary Agnes Carey of KFF Health News, Rachel Cohrs of Stat, Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico, and Sandhya Raman of CQ Roll Call.
PanelistsRachel Cohrs Stat News @rachelcohrs Read Rachel's stories Alice Miranda Ollstein Politico @AliceOllstein Read Alice's stories Sandhya Raman CQ Roll Call @SandhyaWrites Read Sandhya's stories
Among the takeaways from this week’s episode:
- Asking states to slow the pace of Medicaid disenrollment, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra offered options intended to reduce the number of Americans who lose coverage due to bureaucratic hurdles, such as by allowing community organizations to help people get coverage reinstated. But those options are only guidance for Medicaid programs across the country, and nothing says that states — especially conservative ones that have rushed to trim the number of low-income and disabled people relying on the program — will adopt the administration’s suggestions.
- A deal in the Braidwood Management v. Becerra court case will preserve, for now, the mandate requiring insurance coverage of preventive services for all but the litigants. The threat of a court order halting that coverage mandate nationwide has contributed to growing concerns about the overuse of injunctions allowing a single judge to bring down an entire program or law.
- The Supreme Court ruled that a woman is entitled to sue over the nursing home care her husband received that was covered by Medicaid, setting a precedent that allows beneficiaries to pursue legal action over their care.
- This week, House Republicans pressed CDC Director Walensky about the agency’s response to the pandemic, but, producing few new details, the hearing mostly proved an attempt by Republicans to relitigate concerns over issues like gain-of-function research funding. And Ashish Jha, the White House’s covid coordinator, is preparing to step down without a successor, offering more fodder for the argument that the Biden administration is de-emphasizing covid policy.
- Reports of threats against an Alabama clinic that does not provide abortions illuminate the realities of the post-Dobbs era: Even the state attorney general has taken issue with the clinic’s efforts to provide non-abortion maternal health care — and 40% of Alabama counties already have no access to maternal care.
- And on Capitol Hill, Sanders — head of a key Senate health committee — has said he will hold up reviewing nominations in an effort to pressure the Biden administration to produce a comprehensive drug pricing plan. Meanwhile, another key Senate committee releases its proposal to rein in fees charged by pharmacy benefit managers.
Also this week, KFF Health News’ Julie Rovner interviews Dan Mendelson, chief executive of Morgan Health — the successor project to Haven Healthcare, a joint venture by Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JPMorgan Chase that aimed in 2018 to disrupt how Americans get health coverage but quickly disbanded. Rovner and Mendelson discuss the role of employers in insuring American workers.
Plus, for “extra credit,” the panelists suggest health policy stories they read this week that they think you should read, too:
Mary Agnes Carey: The Washington Post’s “I Lost 40 Pounds on Ozempic. But I’m Left With Even More Questions,” by Ruth Marcus.
Alice Miranda Ollstein: Stat’s “AMA Asks Doctors to De-Emphasize Use of BMI in Gauging Health and Obesity,” by Brittany Trang and Elaine Chen.
Rachel Cohrs: Politico’s “Thousands Lose Medicaid in Arkansas: Is This America’s Future?” by Megan Messerly.
Sandhya Raman: The Markup’s “Suicide Hotlines Promise Anonymity. Dozens of Their Websites Send Sensitive Data to Facebook,” by Colin Lecher and Jon Keegan.
Also mentioned in this week’s episode:
- KFF Health News’ “Biden Admin Implores States to Slow Medicaid Cuts After More Than 1M Enrollees Dropped,” by Hannah Recht.
- Politico Magazine’s “This Alabama Health Clinic Is Under Threat. It Doesn’t Provide Abortions,” by Alice Miranda Ollstein.
KFF Health News’ ‘What the Health?’
Episode Title: Slow Your Disenroll
Episode Number: 302
Published: June 15, 2023
[Editor’s note: This transcript, generated using transcription software, has been edited for style and clarity.]
Mary Agnes Carey: Hello and welcome back to “What the Health?” I’m Mary Agnes Carey, partnerships editor at KFF Health News, filling in for Julie Rovner this week. I’m joined by some of the best and smartest health reporters in Washington. We’re taping this week on Thursday, June 15, at 10:30 a.m. As always, news happens fast and things might have changed by the time you hear this. So here we go. We’re joined today by video conference by Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico.
Alice Miranda Ollstein: Good morning.
Carey: Rachel Cohrs of Stat.
Rachel Cohrs: Hi, everybody.
Carey: And Sandhya Raman of CQ Roll Call.
Sandhya Raman: Good morning.
Carey: Later in the episode, we’ll have Julie’s interview with Dan Mendelson, CEO of Morgan Health. That’s the successor organization to the ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful effort by JPMorgan Chase, Amazon, and Berkshire Hathaway to remake employee health benefits. But first, let’s go to this week’s news. The Biden administration announced that more than a million Americans have lost their Medicaid coverage since early April as part of the ending of the covid public health emergency. Administration officials said that too many people were losing Medicaid due to red tape. About 4 in 5 people dropped so far either didn’t return paperwork to verify their eligibility or they omitted documents, according to federal and state data from 20 states. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary [Xavier] Becerra has sent a letter to state governors with some ideas on how to help stop this trend. What is he asking states to do?
Raman: So he gave states a few options. He said states could let Medicaid managed care organizations do a renewal on the beneficiaries’ behalf or let states kind of delay some of these cuts to allow for more outreach or let the community organizations in the state help individuals reinstate their coverage if they’ve fallen through some of the gaps here. But I think the thing to keep in mind is that all this is a guidance. All the Medicaid programs are different from each other. So while Becerra says that these are options, it doesn’t mean that any number of states will actually take on any of these opportunities to get more folks back into the program if they’re eligible.
Carey: To your point, some of the biggest drops in the enrollment in Medicaid have been in those more conservative states that are at political odds with the Biden administration. For example, in last week’s podcast, there was a lot of discussion about Arkansas and Indiana. For the panel, what are your thoughts on how state governments will respond to this guidance from HHS?
Ollstein: This is why there was so much anxiety last year when this was all being hashed out in the bill in Congress. Advocacy groups were sounding the alarm that there just weren’t enough guardrails to prevent this from happening. There were carrots; there were incentives for states to go slower and be more deliberate and careful in how they kick ineligible or, you know, can’t-determine-eligibility people off the rolls. But there weren’t a lot of sticks. There were carrots and not a lot of sticks. There weren’t a lot of penalties or repercussions for states that wanted to go as fast as possible and kick as many people off as possible, even if that meant folks falling through the cracks, which is what’s now happening.
Carey: So Sandhya sort of referenced this a moment ago. But I know, I mean, Medicaid is a shared federal-state program, but states, are they legally required to follow any of this guidance? I mean, what happens if a state just doesn’t do anything that’s in the letter? Does it matter?
Raman: I think the issue is that it doesn’t. I mean, there are some requirements that are applied to all programs if it’s in the Medicaid statute and sometimes when states do things that violate that and it ends up going to court. But I think anything here is they still have to follow what has been in the law that had said that after the public health emergency ended, that they could start slowly ripping people off the program. And that’s kind of the issue here.
Carey: Well, we’ll keep our eye on that one. And it sounds like another solution to find its way through the courts. Speaking of the courts, let’s move on to another major news development, and this one is regarding the preventive services coverage under the Affordable Care Act. It’s also known as the ACA. Texas conservatives that challenge the law’s preventive care mandate have reached a tentative compromise with the Justice Department that preserves free coverage for a range of medical services. Alice, I know you wrote about this agreement this week. Could you start us off and take us through the highlights?
Ollstein: Sure. So this was teased during oral arguments. The judges at the 5th Circuit [Court of Appeals] said explicitly, “Can’t you guys work something out?” And it turns out they could. So basically what the deal does is the Justice Department is agreeing not to enforce the preventive services mandate against the folks who are suing. So this is a group of conservative employers and some individual workers who say that the requirement to buy insurance that covers things like the HIV prevention drug PrEP violate their rights. And so the Biden administration is agreeing, OK, we won’t force you to buy the insurance that the law says you are required to buy. And in exchange, they agree not to push for the law to be frozen nationwide. So basically, everybody else’s insurance coverage gets to stay the same for now. There was a lot of anxiety about the nationwide injunction on the mandate that the lower judge ordered. So that is going to be on hold for now. The arguments on this case are going to drag on a lot longer, but this means that, for now, nationwide, the roles stay the same.
Carey: So how, if you know, how usual is this, in the middle of litigation, to come up with a deal that protects the people that are suing to stop a law, but it doesn’t affect the rest of the population, at least for now? I mean, is that unusual to kind of cut this kind of deal?
Ollstein: I think there has been a lot of debate recently about nationwide injunctions and the fact that some judges seem to like handing them out like candy. And just because of one person or a few people suing somewhere can bring down an entire law or program for the entire country. And there has been anxiety in the legal world about this getting kind of too common and out of hand. And so I think this is a sign that even very conservative judges like the ones on the 5th Circuit are looking for ways to rein it in and limit impacts.
Carey: Rachel, do you want to jump in? I see you nodding your head.
Cohrs: Yeah, it is just important to think about that trend, you know, as we see so many lawsuits play out. I know we’re seeing lawsuits over the Inflation Reduction Act as well. It’s a tactic that is being used. And I think if there is some more intention by DOJ to try to kind of limit the reach of these injunctions, then I think that is a really interesting trend, looking to other areas as well.
Carey: So that sounds like there’s no threat to the fall ACA enrollment season, that a ruling wouldn’t come before that enrollment season that could threaten preventive services for the entire ACA enrollment population and for those employer-sponsored plans as well.
Ollstein: So the 5th Circuit, after they blessed this deal officially, put out a briefing schedule that runs into November, so even after that, there could be more arguments, there could be an appeal up to the Supreme Court. So, yes, this is definitely running on into next year, if not longer.
Carey: OK. Well, the Supreme Court had a ruling this week that preserves Medicaid recipients’ right to sue , and policy watchers are saying that this is a major, major civil rights victory for Medicaid recipients. Before we were taping, we were chatting about it a little bit. Alice, fill us in here.
Ollstein: I mean, the specifics are that this is about a woman’s right to sue the state over the treatment of her husband in a nursing home. He was given chemical restraints, which is a horrible thing, if you look it up, that worsened his dementia. He was drugged, you know, in order to be easier to control, essentially, which is a very damaging practice. But that was sort of just the narrow issue at play. But this was seen as a major victory for any Medicaid beneficiary’s right to sue over not getting the care that they’re entitled to., and so this could have implications in the future for things like coverage of reproductive health services, including abortion, and other areas as well. So there was a lot of anxiety that this conservative Supreme Court majority would move to limit Medicaid beneficiaries’ rights to bring challenges. And that didn’t happen here.
Carey: It was a7-2 ruling, right?
Ollstein: Yeah. Yeah. It wasn’t as close as people thought.
Carey: There you go. So let’s move our discussion from the courts to Capitol Hill. Outgoing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Rochelle Walensky appeared before a House panel this week to talk about her agency’s response to the covid pandemic. Rachel, you covered the hearing. What were your key takeaways?
Cohrs: I mean, I think my key takeaway is that Republicans are re-litigating some of these comments that were made in early 2021 and that there wasn’t a whole lot of new revelation that came out. Walensky was pretty well prepared to stay on topic. She kind of deflected questions about gain-of-function research at NIH [the National Institutes of Health, a separate division within HHS] and lawsuits around kind of how CDC officials interacted with social media networks and regarding vaccine misinformation. So, I mean, lawmakers brought those things up, and she didn’t really engage on that at all. But she really didn’t give a lot of ground. I mean, there were criticisms of comments she had made about vaccines preventing the spread of covid-19. And I think her position was that her comments were backed by science at the time, and that as the virus has mutated, the truth about covid has changed. So I think she was not apologizing. It was not really engaging with them. And I think it was just kind of this anticlimactic kind of end. I mean, there had been so much buildup. Lawmakers had been requesting her testimony for, like, two months, and it was over and I don’t think she suffered any really significant hits there.
Carey: Were there any sort of agreement on lessons learned from how the CDC and, more broadly, the Biden administration handled its response to the pandemic? I mean, are there lessons learned here? Is there any road map to doing things differently or better next time?
Cohrs: Well, one thing she did bring up was, she said that the CDC didn’t really have visibility into how many people who were hospitalized with covid were also vaccinated. And I think that led to kind of an interesting back-and-forth. I think Republicans were obviously implying that vaccines didn’t work as well as they were initially pitched to. But I think she pivoted that to saying that “CDC would love more data on this. We don’t have the authority to collect it. And doctors are putting all this information into electronic health records and it’s not making its way to public health departments.” And so I think that kind of fits into the administration’s asks for the pandemic preparedness legislation that Congress is kind of working through right now. So I think she pivoted that to ask for more authority for her agency, which I don’t know that Republicans will be particularly enthusiastic about. But I think that was an interesting back-and-forth where she did concede that they just didn’t have a whole lot of information in the moment.
Carey: Would state health departments have to direct hospitals to collect that and then share it with the federal government, if she’s saying she doesn’t have the regulatory authority to do it?
Cohrs: I’m not an expert in this area, I’ll say. But my understanding is that the CDC was collecting information and had to, like, have individual agreements with health departments on how that was going to be collected. They couldn’t mandate that. So I think it would just make it a lot faster and I think give CDC a lot more authority to compel states to report some of this information in real time.
Carey: Sure. No, I know, that’s been one of the most interesting things in watching and reporting and reading all the coverage of how so many things changed with the covid pandemic as [we] received new information. I mean, it was a place we hadn’t been before, but we might be back there again, so. There’s another high-profile covid official who’s stepping down. Dr. Ashish Jha is leaving his post. I think today is actually his last day as the White House covid-19 response coordinator. This departure was announced a while ago, and it’s not a surprise, especially with the end of the public health emergency. But what do these departures mean for the administration’s future plans to handle covid? I mean, what message does it send to the public with these two folks leaving at this time?
Ollstein: I think if folks are already primed to think this administration is not making it a priority, this is more fodder for that viewpoint. You know, you could also note that these folks have been serving a long time in a very difficult role and this is, you know, sort of natural turnover. But I think that, with all of the protections lifting right now, and hearing very little about covid at all from the administration — I mean, the president hasn’t talked about it publicly in months; he didn’t say anything on the day the public health emergency ended, which folks were a little upset about. So you could see this as more evidence that it might not be a priority for them going forward. You know, on the other hand, they are setting up this, like, permanent pandemic office in the White House, although it doesn’t have a leader yet. So it’s a little TBD.
Raman: With Jha, you know, we don’t have someone replacing him in the way we do with a lot of other positions. So it’s going to be the first time in 14 months now that he’s not there, but it’s also, there’s not someone else there. And if you’re quietly removing that role, it just is another layer of saying, you know, this is less of a priority compared to some of the other things as it gets phased out.
Cohrs: I was just going to pop in and say that I think there’s a really interesting opening for Mandy Cohen here at CDC. There is this vacuum of leadership here. You know, the White House hasn’t appointed anyone to fill that spot. Secretary Becerra really hasn’t shown any appetite in leading on covid, and Dr. Fauci is gone, Walensky’s gone — just so many of these, like, old-guard kind of the covid response in the Biden administration have turned over. And my colleague Helen Branswell had a great story, I think that was sharp about how, you know, Mandy Cohen really is prepared, unlike a lot of other CDC directors in the past, to navigate these political dynamics. And I think it is a recognition that the CDC is political and public health is now political, and they can’t ignore that any longer. So I will be curious to see if they elevate her to communicate some more of that information in the absence of Dr. Jha.
Carey: Sure. And can you just remind our listeners who Mandy Cohen is and why she’s expected to get this job, or be nominated for this job?
Cohrs: Yes, she’s a longtime federal and state health official. I think she was in North Carolina, and most recently she was at a ACO [accountable care organization] company working with another former Obama administration official. And the White House, I think — there’s been a lot of reporting; I don’t know that they have officially tapped her yet.
Carey: I don’t think that’s happened yet. No, that has not.
Cohrs: Right. But it doesn’t have to go through a confirmation process. So if they do choose to move forward, I think the process would move pretty quickly to have her in place. So that is what our reporting has shown. Many other outlets have reported the same thing. So I think that’s just kind of the expectation for who’s next in line.
Carey: Well, let’s move on to another topic that appears frequently on this podcast, abortion. It continues to be a major news story around the country. And I’d like to start our discussion with a story that Alice did for Politico Magazine. Here’s the headline: “This Alabama Clinic Is Under Threat. It Doesn’t Provide Abortions.” So, Alice, tell us why a clinic that doesn’t provide abortion is being threatened.
Ollstein: Yeah. So when abortion became illegal in Alabama from conception, with no exemptions for rape and incest, abortion clinics either closed their doors, some picked up and moved to other states, but some, like the one I profiled, West Alabama Women’s Center, decided to stay and pivot to nonabortion services. And they have found it’s still a very hostile landscape and they very well might go out of business themselves in the coming months. They’re running into legal threats. The state attorney general has suggested that he views the kind of abortion-adjacent care they provide, you know, such as letting people know what their options are in terms of ordering pills or traveling to another state — that he might consider that aiding and abetting an abortion under the state’s criminal law. And so they are bracing for that at all times. At the same time, they have also really struggled financially. Most of their revenue in the past was from abortions, and they mainly serve a population now that struggles to pay for services and is often uninsured. The state has not expanded Medicaid, and so lots and lots of low-income people are uninsured. And so it’s just showing that what it means to be under threat in the post-Dobbs era is really different than what it meant to be under threat in the pre-Dobbs era and just how sparse the health care landscape is at all. There are just so few providers, hospitals in these areas, lots of places going out of business. And if clinics like this and other red-state clinics can’t survive, there’s going to be a lot of health care consequences.
Carey: I think in your story you said that 40% of the state was considered a maternal health desert.
Ollstein: Yeah. Right. Which means no access in those counties. And even more of the state is considered low-access, and so people are really struggling to find anywhere to go. A lot of rural hospitals have closed entirely. A lot are on the brink of closure. Some have closed their maternal care units. And so there’s just fewer and fewer options, especially fewer and fewer options for people to feel safe going to if they have an abortion either out of state or at home with pills and need follow-up care. Folks are afraid to go to a regular provider or hospital over fear of being reported to law enforcement, which is actually happening in a lot of places.
Carey: We just talked about the South. Let’s move to the Midwest. In Ohio, voters are going to head to the polls in August to weigh in on a proposal that, if passed, would require at least 60% of voters to pass any amendment to the state’s constitution. And that’s up from the current requirement of a simple majority. There would also be new, higher requirements on the number of signatures needed to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot. A Republican lawmaker in favor of the changes said they were aimed at blocking an abortion rights question that abortion rights supporters had hoped to get on the November ballot. So that’s Ohio. So in Indiana, there’s a separate issue. A class-action lawsuit asserts that the state’s abortion ban violates Hoosiers’ religious freedom. That lawsuit, which was filed by the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union], says that Indiana’s abortion ban violates a religious freedom law that was once championed by former Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who we know served as vice president to Donald Trump and is now challenging former President Trump and other Republicans for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination. Thoughts from the panel on these developments?
Raman: I think what’s happening in Ohio is pretty interesting because, you know, we’ve had other states before kind of try to change the threshold for passing something by ballot. And a lot of times it’s not said explicitly, but advocates have said that it’s targeting some measure, whether it’s Medicaid expansion or something else. And here we have a representative and the secretary of state kind of being pretty clear that it is about abortion in this case. And I think it being the secretary of state is especially interesting, because the secretary of state is who is certifying ballot measures and who you would look to for being the person in charge of that and making sure, you know, the t’s are crossed, the i’s dotted. So what happens there will be pretty interesting because that’s kind of an unusual play. And already we’re looking at an August ballot versus traditionally the November ballot. And a lot of times when things are pushed for a different date versus, like, traditional election day, it’s kind of, see if we can get a different turnout or kind of discourage people that might vote one way or the other. So it’ll be interesting to see how this kind of plays out in August or if there are changes before then.
Ollstein: And as for Indiana, I mean, this is one of a bunch of cases around the country where religious people are challenging abortion bans as infringing on their beliefs and right to practice. It’s sort of flipping the assumption on its head. You know, you have a lot of religious support of abortion bans. And this is showing that there are folks on the other side as well within the faith community. And it’s especially interesting in Indiana because they’re challenging one law signed by Mike Pence — the state’s pre-Dobbs abortion ban — by using another law signed by Mike Pence, which is the state’s RFRA law [Religious Freedom Restoration Act], the religious freedom law, and saying that, you know, the state law imposes one particular religion’s view of when life begins and when abortion is or is not acceptable. And that’s not shared by all people of faith. And in Judaism, a child is not a child until it takes its first breath, and that conflicts with abortion bans that are much earlier in pregnancy that sort of posit that it is a child and a life before that. So this will be really interesting to watch.
Carey: Sure. We’ll be watching all these cases very closely. But we’re going to turn now to another topic that’s important to millions of Americans, and that’s the cost of prescription drugs. Sen. Bernie Sanders — he’s a Vermont independent who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, also known as the HELP Committee — he’s vowed not to move forward with any Biden administration health nominees, including the president’s pick to head the National Institutes of Health. That’s Dr. Monica Bertagnolli. Sen. Sanders is saying he’s going to keep this hold on until he sees a comprehensive plan from the White House on how to lower drug prices. What is he upset about specifically? And is he going to have other senators — have they joined him? Do you think that will be in the cards, or is this kind of a one-man band here?
Cohrs: My take on this is that he knows he can’t get the votes in Congress, so this is kind of his only option, is to try to pressure the administration to do it. And the only lever he has is nominees, so he’s using that. I don’t know how long he’ll hold out on this. I mean, it is — basically he’s arguing that the public has invested research dollars to help develop kind of the basic science that’s the foundation for a lot of important medications. And right now, the government isn’t really getting enough return on that investment. And there’s no requirement that companies that end up actually manufacturing these drugs and bringing them to market would price them in a fair, reasonable way. And so, I think his staff put out a report as well, with a release to the Post, making that argument, that the NIH could have leverage here if they chose to, and that in the past there have been clauses in contracts that could have given the government some leverage to go after these companies more aggressively but they’re just choosing not to. And so far, the Biden administration has shown no appetite to go after companies’ patents because of pricing issues. It’s never been done before. But I think, you know, Sen. Sanders realizes that he has an opening here, and he’s using the bully pulpit as much as he can. But I think ultimately I don’t see how this is resolved. And I think given that the Biden administration has overseen the passage of the most significant drug pricing reform in 20 years — which doesn’t fix all the problems, will say that. I think Sen. Sanders sent a letter about —
Carey: It’s in the Inflation Reduction Act, right?
Cohrs: Yes. Yes. The Inflation Reduction Act.
Carey: Which he voted for, OK.
Cohrs: Yes, he did vote for that. But I think there are outstanding issues about new medications especially that he’s trying to highlight here and saying, The problem isn’t fixed. We need to do more.
Carey: And so separately, a bipartisan group of Senate Finance Committee members have unveiled a proposal that they said would reform pharmacy benefit managers, or PBMs. That’s another entity we talk a lot about on the podcast. And the belief is that this measure would lower the cost of drugs. Rachel, I know that you have been covering this plan. Can you tell us about it?
Cohrs: I don’t know that this would lower the cost of drugs necessarily, and I think it’s more limited than the lawmakers who are sponsoring it have claimed it is. I think the problem that it’s trying to solve is that the payments between drugmakers and PBMs, and PBMs and the insurance companies or the employees that they’re working for, have traditionally been tied to a drug’s price. And so, just kind of like the — if anyone’s familiar with the medical loss ratio from the Affordable Care Act — it’s a similar idea, that if the price is higher, then there’s a bigger piece of the pie for everyone, percentagewise. So this bill aims to delink some of the fees in contracts with PBMs from the price of drugs. Now, this doesn’t change the rebates that drugmakers and PBMs negotiate on themselves, doesn’t touch that at all. It’s just fees. So I think it’s kind of hard to know how these work. You know, we don’t have them. They’re not public, but I think they’re trying to get at regulating this space a little bit more and trying to align those incentives a little bit better to make sure PBMs aren’t preferring more expensive medications for their own gain.
Carey: And what’s been the response from the PBM industry?
Cohrs: It is pretty fresh, but I think in general they have argued that the reason for high prices is drugmakers, because they set the prices. And I think this has been a food fight that’s been going on for a very long time. But I think lawmakers are kind of coming around to the idea of doing some sort of reform to the PBM industry. We’ll just have to wait and see what that ends up looking like.
Carey: All right. Well, we’ll keep our eyes on that one as well. And that’s this week’s news. Now we’re going to play Julie Rovner’s interview with Dan Mendelson of Morgan Health, and then we’ll be back with our extra credits.
Julie Rovner: I am pleased to welcome to the podcast Dan Mendelson, CEO of Morgan Health, a new business unit of the financial services giant JPMorgan Chase. Morgan Health’s goal is to improve health care for the company’s more than a quarter of a million employees and dependents, as well as everyone else with employer-provided insurance. If that sounds familiar, that’s because Morgan Health is the successor organization to Haven Healthcare. That was the high-profile 2018 project of JPMorgan, Amazon, and Berkshire Hathaway to remake the U.S. health care system from the ground up, led by one of the nation’s leading health care thinkers, surgeon, author, and policy wonk Atul Gawande. Today, Gawande is running global health programs at the U.S. Agency for International Development. Haven is no more. And if you listened to our special 300th episode earlier this month, our experts came down pretty hard on employers’ contributions to fixing what ails the health care system. So I’ve asked Dan here to talk about what is going on. Welcome, Dan.
Dan Mendelson: My pleasure.
Rovner: So, Dan may not have as high a public profile as Atul Gawande, but he has broad and long experience in health policy, from overseeing federal health programs at the Office of Management and Budget during the Bill Clinton administration to founding and growing Avalere Health, a successful health care consulting and advisory group. Dan, why did this job appeal to you and what made you think you could succeed where so many have tried before and failed, including very recently?
Mendelson: Look, this is a collaborative effort, and we’re working closely with a whole range of stakeholders from insurers to providers. I mean, the work that we’re doing in Columbus, for example, is with a really innovative primary care practice called Central Ohio Primary Care that has broad experience in delivering value through accountable care models in Medicare. So, I’d say that our belief that we will succeed really comes from the fact that we’re taking a very collaborative approach with other stakeholders in the health care system.
Rovner: Let’s start at the very beginning. Why are employers interested in the nation’s health care system and how it works? For most of them, it’s not their main line of business.
Mendelson: Well, I’d say that employers feel an obligation to provide insurance for their employees, and it’s an important benefit, and it’s one that employees expect. And it’s also an opportunity for employers to provide for the health and well-being of their employees.
Rovner: So employers really did used to drive a lot of health care innovation, probably coming only after Medicare in terms of shifting actual health care delivery. But they seem to have taken a back seat lately. What changed?
Mendelson: Well, look, you know, you had employers really active in the quality movement, and NCQA came out of employer interest, for example. So there really was kind of a head of steam. But it did wane. And I think that anyone who’s looking at the scene sees that Medicare and Medicaid have made a lot of progress with respect to driving accountable care and quality, whereas, at this point, there’s really … most of what’s happening through employers is fee for service. And it’s really problematic in terms of driving the quality agenda.
Rovner: And NCQA, that’s …?
Mendelson: National Commission for Quality Assurance.
Rovner: Thank you. The National Commission for Quality Assurance. Yeah, which used to be a big deal. And you’re right, I think most of what we’re seeing is now going on in the Medicare and Medicaid space. I feel like, you know, the millions of people who have employer-provided insurance right now have three main problems: the increasing unaffordability of care, with large and growing deductibles and copays; the increasing time and effort it takes to figure out what is and isn’t covered, and fighting for things that aren’t covered to be covered sometimes; and the fragmentation of the delivery system, making what was already hard to navigate very nearly impenetrable for some people, including people who are sick. I assume you’re trying to address all of those.
Mendelson: Yeah, we’re focused on quality and improving the quality of services, for sure. We’re focused on affordability. And then the one that you didn’t mention is health equity, which is one of the most difficult aspects of health care in America today, and certainly our focus as well. I mean, we see inequity in the health care system in the employer space, as well as in Medicare and Medicaid. So that’s also a target for us.
Rovner: What kind of steps are you taking to fix some of these problems? I mean, I know it’s what people get frustrated most with. It’s, like, they have insurance, but they feel like they can’t use it very well.
Mendelson: Yes. So, the way that we’re structured, there are three things that we’re doing to address these issues. And I’d say that we see our efforts as very collaborative. So we don’t believe that we alone can fix these problems, but rather what we’re doing is really driving innovation and trying to get employers, more broadly, focused on innovation in health care. So there are three ways that we’re doing this. First is that we’re investing, from the JPMorgan Chase balance sheet, in innovative health care companies that are proven to drive quality, improve quality, reduce costs, and better health equity. So that’s the first piece. And we can talk a little bit about some of the investments that we’ve made in the first two years of our operation.
Rovner: Give me one example of a company that’s doing that that you’re investing in.
Mendelson: Yes. An example is apree health. apree is a company that offers a[n] accountable care product to employers. And we’re using apree in Columbus, where we have 40,000 employees and dependents, and we’re now offering their services to our employees as an option to drive better health care.
Rovner: What do you see as the biggest challenge in health care going forward, particularly from the employer point of view?
Mendelson: Well, look, we’ve talked about a number of the issues. I’d say that, you know, we’re focused broadly on accountable care — and “accountable care” meaning making sure that there is a focus on quality and cost that is being held by an organization that can really take responsibility for care. So, to me, it’s really about alignment of incentives and making sure that those incentives are aligned not only in the employer sector but also across in the public programs.
Rovner: So you’re involved in private equity and, you know, the track record of private equity in health care, which was supposed to be an effort to get incentives aligned, hasn’t always worked out so well. I mean, in a lot of cases we’ve seen private equity just sucking money out of the health care system rather than putting it back in.
Mendelson: Look, as an investor, what we’re focused on is finding companies that are driving innovation and helping them succeed. And we’re putting our capital behind these companies, but we’re also really spending the time with them to make sure that they can be effective. And so, you know, we’ve done five investments over the course of two years, and they’re not only in accountable care, but also making sure that there’s good primary care in the system, driving better digital care, shifting expensive care from inpatient and outpatient settings into the home. So these are all facets of how employer-sponsored health care needs to be improved, and that’s the focus of our investing.
Rovner: So what does it look like when you get it all fixed?
Mendelson: When we get it all fixed …? I mean, look, I think we’re going to be at this for quite some time. But it’s really important for employers to articulate their needs and to make sure that those who are offering insurance for their employees are actually being attentive to not only cost but also quality and health equity. And I think that the facet that we’re really looking for is to make sure that health care improves and that these improvements are coming along not only in the public programs but also in the employer sector.
Rovner: Dan Mendelson, thank you so much for joining us.
Mendelson: My pleasure.
Carey: All right. We’re back, and it’s time for our extra credit segment. That’s when we each recommend a story that we read this week and we think you should read it, too. As always, don’t worry if you miss it. We’ll post the links on the podcast page at kffhealthnews.org and in the show notes on your phone or other mobile device. So, Alice, why don’t you go first this week?
Ollstein: Sure. I chose a piece in Stat by Brittany Trang and Elaine Chen. It’s called “AMA Asks Doctors to De-Emphasize Use of BMI in Gauging Health and Obesity.” I’ve heard in the medical community there has been a lot of discussion about moving away from using the BMI [body mass index] to evaluate people’s health. It was created to track population-level statistics and was never intended to be used to gauge individual health. It was not invented by someone with a medical background at all. And so people have been saying that, you know, it’s inaccurate and it leads to a lot of stigma. And so it’s interesting to see that sort of bubble up to this very mainstream, leading health care organization saying, “Look, you can’t just rely on the BMI. You also have to look at all these other factors.” Because extremely fit NFL players have really high BMIs, you know. You can’t — someone’s size does not necessarily determine their health. You can have people of all sizes be healthy or unhealthy. So this was encouraging to see.
Carey: Great. And for folks interested in more on that, we have a lot of coverage on that at kffhealthnews.org, so check that out. Rachel, why don’t you go next?
Cohrs: Sure. My piece this week is by one of Alice’s colleagues in Politico, Megan Messerly, and the headline is “Thousands Lose Medicaid in Arkansas: Is This America’s Future?” And she kind of got out beyond the Beltway and just spent some time in Arkansas really talking to everyday people who were having trouble staying on Medicaid. And I think it’s easy to get caught up in just talking about numbers and talking about policies and all of that. But I think she really brought to life the issues and the barriers that some people are facing in Arkansas, which really is the center of these disenrollments that we’re seeing right now. So I think it was really timely, really well done, very much put the human face on both the people who are getting disenrolled, but also kind of some of the on-the-ground efforts to stop that from happening and just kind of the challenges that they are working on with these compressed timelines. I thought it was really well done.
Carey: Yeah, it’s a great story. Sandhya.
Raman: My extra credit this week is called “Suicide Hotlines Promise Anonymity. Dozens of Their Websites Send Sensitive Data to Facebook.” It’s by Colin Lecher and Jon Keegan for The Markup in partnership with Stat. And I thought this was just a really interesting piece that investigated whether crisis center websites that were using Meta Pixel, which is like a piece of code that tracks user behavior for advertising that a lot of sites use — and just, like, the worry here is sharing sensitive information to Facebook, especially when it is personally identifiable. And with the crisis center, it’s much, much more sensitive data than, you know, maybe, like, shopping habits. And so they looked at data from 186 local call center websites. And I will let you read to see how many of them were using this.
Carey: Mine is from Ruth Marcus at The Washington Post. And it’s called “I Lost 40 Pounds on Ozempic. But I’m Left With Even More Questions.” In this article, she talks about her lifelong struggle to lose weight, to keep it off, but how those pounds always find their way back. And Marcus explores the history and the science behind the weight loss drugs. And she also takes on societal debate over obesity itself: Do we think of it as a personal failing, or is it a disease, a chronic condition whose underpinnings are in genetics and brain chemistry? It is a great read. All right. That’s our show for the week. And as always, if you enjoy the podcast, you can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. We’d appreciate it if you left a review; that helps other people find us too. Special thanks, as always, to the amazing Francis Ying, our producer. You can email us with your comments or questions. We’re at email@example.com. Or you can tweet me. I’m @maryagnescarey.
Carey: And Sandhya.
Carey: We’ll be back in your feed next week. Until then, be healthy.
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