The HostJulie 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.
It took more than two years, but the Biden administration has finally kept a promise made by then-candidate Joe Biden to roll back the Trump administration’s expansion of short-term, limited-duration health plans. The plans have been controversial because, while they offer lower premiums than more comprehensive health plans, they offer far fewer benefits and are not subject to the consumer protections of the Affordable Care Act.
Also this week, the FDA for the first time approved the over-the-counter sale of a hormonal birth control pill. With more states imposing restrictions on abortion, backers of the move say making it easier to prevent pregnancy is necessary now more than ever.
This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of KFF Health News, Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico, Amy Goldstein of The Washington Post, and Rachel Cohrs of Stat.
PanelistsAlice Miranda Ollstein Politico @AliceOllstein Read Alice's stories Amy Goldstein The Washington Post @goldsteinamy Read Amy's Stories Rachel Cohrs Stat News @rachelcohrs Read Rachel's stories
Among the takeaways from this week’s episode:
- The FDA’s much-anticipated approval of the first over-the-counter hormonal birth control pill followed the advice of its outside advisory committee. The pill, Opill, will be available on shelves without age restrictions.
- The Biden administration announced moves to limit so-called junk plans on insurance marketplaces. The Trump administration had dropped many restrictions on the plans, which were originally intended to be used for short-term coverage gaps.
- As the nation continues to settle into a post-Dobbs patchwork of abortion laws, the Iowa Legislature approved a six-week ban on the procedure. And an Idaho law offers a key test of cross-border policing of abortion seekers, as other states watch how it unfolds.
- In other news, Georgia’s Medicaid work requirements took effect July 1, implementing new restrictions on who is eligible for the state-federal program for people with low incomes or disabilities. And the Supreme Court’s decision on affirmative action has the potential to shape the health care workforce, which research shows could have implications for the quality of patient care and health outcomes.
Also this week, Rovner interviews KFF Health News’ Bram Sable-Smith, who reported and wrote the latest KFF Health News-NPR “Bill of the Month” feature, about a patient who lacked a permanent mailing address and never got the hospital bills from an emergency surgery — but did receive a summons after she was sued for the debt. 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: KFF Health News’ “Doctor Lands in the Doghouse After Giving Covid Vaccine Waivers Too Freely,” by Brett Kelman.
Rachel Cohrs: ProPublica’s “How Often Do Health Insurers Say No to Patients? No One Knows,” by Robin Fields, and Stat’s “How UnitedHealth’s Acquisition of a Popular Medicare Advantage Algorithm Sparked Internal Dissent Over Denied Care,” by Casey Ross and Bob Herman.
Amy Goldstein: The New York Times’ “Medicare Advantage Plans Offer Few Psychiatrists,” by Reed Abelson.
Alice Miranda Ollstein: The Wall Street Journal’s “America Is Wrapped in Miles of Toxic Lead Cables,” by Susan Pulliam, Shalini Ramachandran, John West, Coulter Jones, and Thomas Gryta.
Also mentioned in this week’s episode:
- Stat’s “How One Medical School Became Remarkably Diverse — Without Considering Race in Admissions,” by Usha Lee McFarling.
- The New York Times’ “With End of Affirmative Action, a Push for a New Tool: Adversity Scores, by Stephanie Saul.
KFF Health News’ ‘What the Health?’Episode Title: The Long Road to Reining In Short-Term PlansEpisode Number: 305Published: July 13, 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 for KFF Health News. And I’m joined by some of the best and smartest health reporters in Washington. We’re taping this week on Thursday, July 13, 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 Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico.
Alice Miranda Ollstein: Good morning.
Rovner: Rachel Cohrs of Stat News.
Rachel Cohrs: Hi, everybody.
Rovner: And Amy Goldstein of The Washington Post.
Goldstein: Good to be with you.
Rovner: Later in this episode, we’ll have my interview with KFF Health News’ Bram Sable-Smith, who wrote the latest KFF Health News-NPR “Bill of the Month.” The hospital that provided care to this month’s patient couldn’t find her to send her a bill, but the debt collectors sure could. But first, this week’s news. Actually, it’s more like the last month’s news because we actually haven’t talked about news in a while. So we’re going to try to hit a bunch of items in sort of a lightning round. Let’s start with something we knew was coming. We just didn’t know exactly when. Last week, the Biden administration finally cracked down on short-term health plans. Those are the ones that are not subject to the strict rules of the Affordable Care Act. Amy, you wrote about this. What are short-term plans, and why have they been so controversial?
Goldstein: Well, short-term plans — they’re called short-term limited-duration plans, and really terrible argot, but that’s their name. They’ve been around as an alternative to plans that are meeting the rules of the Affordable Care Act. They were originally designed for people to use as small bridges between, say, when they lost a job and they were about to get a new job and they needed something in the interim to provide health coverage. Republicans, during the time that they were trying very hard several years ago to get rid of as much as the Affordable Care Act as they could — they didn’t succeed at a lot of that, but they did succeed during the Trump administration at lengthening the time that people could have these plans. So they extended them from what had been a three-month maximum during the latter part of the [Barack] Obama administration to 12 months, and then they were renewable for up to three years. And Democrats began calling these “junk plans,” saying that people didn’t exactly know what they were buying, that the premiums were low but the benefits were small and if people got sick and really needed a lot of care they could be stuck paying for a lot of it on their own.
Rovner: And these were the very plans that the ACA was kind of designed to get rid of, right, where people would say, I have this great health plan, it only costs me $50 a month — but by the way, it only provides $500 worth of care.
Goldstein: Well, there’s that. And the other thing that the ACA was designed to do is treat people with preexisting conditions equally. And these plans do not have to do that. Some do, but they’re not required to. So President [Joe] Biden, since he was candidate Biden running for the 2020 election, has been saying for quite a while that he was going to knock down the duration of these plans, and some of his fellow Democrats have been leaning on him: “Why haven’t you done it yet?” And last week, he finally did. He didn’t bring it exactly to where the Obama administration had it, but he brought them down to three months with a one-month extension, so a total of four months.
Rovner: And I guess the resistance here is that they’re still kind of popular, right, for people who think they would rather pay very low premiums for very few benefits?
Goldstein: Well, the catch is that we don’t really know how popular they are because there aren’t very reliable data on how many people have these. But the presumption is that some people like them.
Rovner: All right, well we will see what happens with this time they’re trying to crack down. Let us move on to abortion and reproductive rights. We will start with the breaking news. The Food and Drug Administration just this morning approved Opill, which is the first over-the-counter birth control pill. Alice, we’ve known this was coming, right?
Ollstein: Yes, we did. We thought it would be a little later in the summer. But the decision itself reflects what the FDA’s outside advisory panel strongly recommended, which is to make these pills available over the counter without a prescription and without an age restriction, which was one looming question over this process.
Rovner: Yeah, I guess, Rachel, I mean, the issue here has been can women be trusted enough to know when they shouldn’t take birth control pills because they are contraindicated for some people?
Rachel Cohrs: Right. And I think that certainly it’s important to read through the information. There’s a question as to whether women will do that. And one part of the release that stood out to me is that the specific type of pill that this is requires women to take it around the same time every day, which is not necessarily the case for all birth control pills. And I think there’s a little bit more flexibility than there used to be with this kind of pill. But it is just important that all of this communication happens. And if there’s not a doctor or pharmacist in the middle, I think it will be kind of interesting to see how this plays out in the real world.
Rovner: Well, while this could definitely help people prevent pregnancy who don’t want to get pregnant, there’s certainly a lot of action still in the states around abortion. We’re going to start in Iowa, which since the last time we spoke has done basically a 360 on abortion. Last month, the state Supreme Court deadlocked on whether to reinstate a 2018 ban on almost all abortions. That left a lower court order blocking the ban intact, so abortion remained legal in Iowa. But anti-abortion Gov. Kim Reynolds refused to take no for an answer. She called a special session of the state legislature, which on Tuesday essentially repassed the 2018 ban. It’s supposed to take effect as soon as the governor signs it, which could be as soon as Friday. But first it goes back to court, right, Alice?
Ollstein: Right. As with all of these things, there’s just a lot of back-and-forth before it’s final. Groups have already filed a lawsuit. And, you know, because the courts’ sort of mixed treatment of the previous version of this, we sort of don’t know what’s going to happen. But the law could go into effect and then be blocked by courts later or it could be blocked before it goes into effect. There’s a lot of different ways this could go, but this is one of several states where new restrictions are coming online. We’re more than a year out from the Dobbs decision now, and things are not settled at all. Things are still flipping back and forth in different states.
Rovner: Yeah, there’s a lot of states where old restrictions came into effect and then were blocked and now they’re putting new restrictions and they might be blocked. Well, turning to another “I” state, this time Idaho, where the legislature this spring passed a first-in-the-nation bill attempting to criminalize the act of helping a minor cross state lines for an abortion, even if the abortion is legal in the state the minor travels to. Now, abortion rights supporters have filed a first-in-the-nation lawsuit to block the first-in-the-nation law. This could have really big ramifications. This is different from a lot of what’s going on in a lot of the other states, right?
Ollstein: Yeah. Over the last year, there’s been a lot of fear on the left of states reaching across their borders to try to police abortion. And it hasn’t really happened yet that we have seen. And so this, I think, is a key test of whether more states will attempt to go in this direction. You know, a lot of blue states passed sort of shield laws for patients, for providers, for data, out of fear that more red states would attempt more cross-border policing. But that really hasn’t materialized broadly yet.
Rovner: I remember Missouri was the one that was talking about it, right, to make it a crime if —
Rovner: I know they didn’t do it, but they were talking about if women went particularly to Illinois, which is now one of these abortion havens, and came back, they would try to prosecute them, although that never really came to be.
Ollstein: Exactly. And so it’s interesting that even really conservative states with big Republican majorities, most have not gone down this road yet. And so I imagine a lot of them are watching how this case goes.
Rovner: Well, as long as we’re talking about states that start with “I,” let’s turn to Indiana, where Planned Parenthood reports that all of their appointments for abortions are taken between now and when that state’s near-total ban takes effect in a few weeks. This points out something I think often gets missed in these sort of score card maps of states that have bans and restrictions, which is there’s a lot of states where abortion is technically still legal but realistically not available, right?
Ollstein: The difference between being technically legal and available is nothing new. This was true prior to Dobbs as well. There were lots of states that only had one abortion clinic for the entire state. There were, like, six of those. And so, you know, you may have the right to have the procedure on paper, but if there’s only one place you could go and you’re not able to physically get there or they don’t have an appointment within the time window you need, you’re out of luck; that right isn’t, you know, meaningful for you. And so that’s becoming, you know, more true as abortion access is eliminated in a lot of the country and more and more people are depending on fewer and fewer states.
Rovner: And fewer and fewer clinics in fewer and fewer states. Well, finally, an update on the one-man nomination blockade by Alabama Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville, who we talked about in March. He has stopped approval of basically all Defense Department personnel moves, including routine promotions, in protest of the Biden administration’s policy of providing leave and travel expenses for servicewomen to get abortions if they’re stationed in states where it’s illegal. Now, for the first time in more than 150 years, the Marine Corps has no approved commandant. Any idea which side’s going to back down here? Rachel, this is backing up the entire legislative calendar in the Senate, right?
Cohrs: It is. And I think some of the coverage this week has highlighted just how there hasn’t really been a willingness among Republican leadership to really put the pressure on Tuberville. But honestly, I don’t know when this stops for him. Having temporary leadership in all these positions isn’t kind of the impetus for him to say that he’s made his point. And I think there are also questions about — there may be more education required about exactly what the difference is between a temporary leader and a permanently installed leader. Obviously, the decisions that they’re making every day are life-and-death and are different than the leadership positions we see over at something like the NIH [National Institutes of Health], where, you know, I think it is —
Rovner: Which is also held up. But that’s another story.
Cohrs: Right, another story. But I just don’t see where this ends quite yet, unless there’s some will from Republican leadership to really bring him in line. And they just haven’t summoned that yet.
Rovner: I imagine there’ll be a vote on this when they get to the defense bill, right, which —the defense authorization, which is going to come up, I think, in both houses in the coming weeks. I mean, one would think that if there’s a vote and he loses, he might back down. I’m just guessing here. I guess we’ll have to wait and see what happens with that. All right. Well, it’s also been a busy couple of weeks in other social policy. On the one hand, a new federal law took effect that makes it easier for people to get accommodations to be able to do their jobs while pregnant. And Maine is going to start offering paid family and parental leave, although not until 2026. That makes it the 13th state to enact such a policy. On the other hand, Georgia is the first state to implement work requirements for Medicaid. Amy, the last time we discussed this, federal judges had tossed out Medicaid work requirements and Republicans in Congress were unsuccessful in getting those requirements back into the debt ceiling compromise. So how come Georgia gets to do this?
Goldstein: Well, I’ve begun to think of Medicaid work requirements as whack-a-mole, if you remember the arcade game in which you knock down an animal with a mallet only to have it pop up unexpectedly somewhere else. So, as you say, work requirements was something that Republicans were very eager to institute in 2017, 2018, when the Trump administration’s Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services encouraged states to adopt them. And there were basically plans to give people Medicaid at the time, mainly people in Medicaid expansion groups, if they worked or went to school or did community service for at least 80 hours a month. As you say, that was knocked down both by a district court and then a federal circuit court. And it looked like that was that, particularly when the Biden administration came along and undid the Trump administration’s regulation that had allowed states to submit proposals, the waivers for these kinds of plans. Well, lo and behold, Georgia said they wanted to do this. They said they wanted to do it in a little bit different way, because, for the first time ever, Georgia was going to be a partial expansion state for Medicaid, allowing people to get onto Medicaid if they had incomes up to the poverty level but not up to the full expansion poverty level that the ACA allows. And the Biden administration didn’t like that so much. And that partial expansion was to be twinned with work requirements. The Biden administration didn’t —
Rovner: For that expansion group, though, right? Not for everybody.
Goldstein: Just for that partial expansion group. The Biden administration didn’t like that so much. But last summer, a judge in Georgia said, no, she thinks this is OK. And the reason was that, unlike the other states, if this was pegged to a partial expansion, any expansion with work requirements would increase the number of people with Medicaid. So that was sort of in her judge judgment — I shouldn’t say the judge’s judgment — consistent with the purposes of the program. So Georgia has gone ahead, and the beginning of this month they allowed people to start enrolling in something called Georgia Pathways to Coverage. And we’ll have to see how it goes.
Rovner: Yeah. And just to be clear, I mean, Alice, you did some stellar work back a couple of years ago about Arkansas, about people losing coverage because of the work requirements, even if they were working, just because of how hard it was to report the work hours, right?
Ollstein: Absolutely. I mean, it’s kind of what we’re seeing now with the Medicaid unwinding, is that, you know, people just aren’t able to know what’s going on, aren’t able to be reached, fall through the cracks, can’t navigate the bureaucracy, and lose coverage that they should be entitled to. So we saw that happen, and I think to Amy’s point, the administration seems to be taking a very different stance on states like Arkansas, you know, which already had expanded Medicaid and then went to impose a work requirement, whereas Georgia didn’t have it before and this is kind of a compromise because it’s like, well, more people will be insured if we allow this to go forward total, you know, so maybe it’s better than nothing, although a lot of folks on the left are very opposed to the concept of work requirements, citing data that the people who are on Medicaid who can work are already working — the vast, vast, vast majority. And those who are not working, either they are caring for a child or someone with disability, or they themselves have a disability, or they’re a student. You know, there’s all these categories of why folks are unable to work.
Rovner: But in this expansion group, one would assume that if they’re earning up to the federal poverty line, they have some source of income. So one would assume that many of them are working. But I think it’ll be really interesting for researchers to watch to see, you know, a sort of a proof of concept in either direction with this.
Goldstein: And let me quickly mention a couple of things. Georgia’s rules are actually in some ways the same as what other states had tried to do previously. But in other ways, this is the strictest set of work requirements that anyone has tried in a couple of ways: People have to meet these work requirements up to age 64, which is older than other states had done for the most part. There’s also no exemption if you’re taking care of a child or taking care of an older family member. So how well people, in addition to the bureaucratic hoops that Alice was talking about, which are of grave concern to some of the people who oppose this in Georgia — there’s also a question of who’s going to actually be able to qualify for this.
Rovner: While we are on the subject of court decisions, one of the odd court decisions that I think has happened over the past few weeks is a federal district court decision out of Louisiana barring many officials in the Biden administration, including the surgeon general and the head of the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], from talking to social media sites, particularly about things like medical misinformation. This feels like something I had not seen before in terms of actually trying to ban the administration from talking to private companies based on First Amendment concerns, which is what this is.
Cohrs: Right. Well, I mean, the First Amendment protects speech from interference from the government —
Cohrs: — which has always been, you know, this gray area with these independent platforms. And I think this issue, you know, has obviously become highly politicized. It came up several times when Rochelle Walensky, the former CDC director, was testifying on the Hill. So I think certainly we’ve seen this trend overall in these highly political court decisions and this strategy that certain litigants are taking where they’re trying to find defendants in a certain jurisdiction that’s going to be advantageous to them. So it will certainly be interesting to see how this plays out in the future and makes its way through the court system, but certainly is an eye-popping precedent. Like you mentioned, we don’t usually see something like this.
Rovner: And I wanted to mention, I think also because this is yet another of these judges that the right has found that are likely to agree with them. Like we’ve seen now: The judges in Texas, we now have one in Louisiana. Sort of kind of watch that docket. While we are still on the subject of courts, 2023 was the first year in the last decade or so that there was not a major health-related decision in the last big cases decided by the Supreme Court. But it seems like one of those non-health cases, the one essentially striking down affirmative action, might have some major implications for health care after all, particularly for medical education, right?
Cohrs: Yes. Some of my colleagues did some I think great follow-up reporting on this. And I think the idea is that there has been research that has shown that when patients are able to see a doctor of their same racial background, that it does have positive implications for their care. And there has also been studies of schools where there have been bans on race-conscious admissions showing that there is a decrease in medical school students from underrepresented backgrounds traditionally. And so I think that cause and effect is concerning for people, that if there are fewer medical students — there already aren’t a representative amount — from underrepresented groups, that could trickle down to, again, just exacerbating so many of these inequities that we see in health care provision. I know there was just a big study on the maternal mortality outcomes that came out recently as well. And I think all of these things are tied together. And I think Axios reported on one interesting potential loophole, was using proxy measures, like where someone went to school or their parents’ background, something like that, to try to ensure diversity from that lens. But I think it certainly is going to make these medical schools recalculate how they’re doing admissions and make some hard choices about how to maintain diversity that can be beneficial for patients.
Rovner: One thing that I think has come up in all of these discussions is the fact that the University of California-Davis has done an interesting job of creating a very diverse medical school class, even though race-conscious admissions have been banned in California for years. So I think a lot of schools are going to be looking sort of to see what UC Davis has done and perhaps emulate that. And I will put one of the UC Davis stories in the show notes for everybody. All right. Finally in this week’s news, the drug industry has filed a lawsuit challenging the Medicare drug price negotiation program that’s just now starting to get off the ground. Rachel, you wrote about this. How does pharma think it can block price-setting for Medicare that Medicare does for pretty much everything else that Medicare pays for? They set prices for hospitals and doctors and medical equipment. Why are drugmakers thinking that they’re special?
Cohrs: Right. So, again, this is four lawsuits as well, not just one: two from two trade groups and two drugmakers. And they’re each kind of using different arguments. But I think the big picture here is if the government called it price-setting, I don’t think pharma would have as much of an argument, but they’re calling it a negotiation. And I think one of the drugmakers’ key claims is that by signing these contracts to enter into this process, they’re tacitly admitting that this price that they come up with in this process is, quote-unquote, “fair.” And, you know, they don’t want to agree to that because then it makes the price that they’re charging everyone else look unfair on the other side of the coin. And I think there’s also these really high penalties for these companies who decide not to participate; I mean, tens of millions of dollars on the first day is the kind of number that we’re seeing for some of these companies that have filed lawsuits. And I think there’s also the option for them to take all of their drugs off of the market. But I think there’s a question with the timeline of whether they could have even done that before the law was passed. So the big picture from the drugmaker side of things is that the penalties are so high for them not to participate and that the government is framing this as a negotiation when it really is just price-setting, like Medicare does in so many other areas. So I think one interesting development that happened this week was that the [U.S.] Chamber of Commerce filed a motion for a preliminary injunction, which could make all of these lawsuits move much faster and really put a stop to the program. We hadn’t seen either of these lawsuits request a motion like that. And I think they requested a ruling by Oct. 1, which is when the first kind of round of 10 drugmakers would have had to sign their contracts with Medicare. So I think this certainly is picking up speed and urgency as we’re moving toward that Sept. 1 selection date.
Rovner: I didn’t even notice. Are these lawsuits all filed here in Washington, D.C., or —
Cohrs: No, they are not. As we’ve seen, the drugmakers are very strategic in where they filed. I think Merck did file in D.C., but the chamber filed in Ohio; it had some of their local chapters join in as well. I think we saw another company file in New Jersey. So I think they are kind of hedging their bets and trying to get rulings from as many different jurisdictions as they can.
Rovner: Find a judge who’s willing to slap an injunction on this whole thing.
Rovner: Which we will talk about when and if it happens. All right. That is this week’s news, or at least as much as we have time to get to. Now, we will play my “Bill of the Month” interview with Bram Sable-Smith, and then we will be back with our extra credits. We are pleased to welcome back to the podcast Bram Sable-Smith, who reported and wrote the latest KFF Health News-NPR “Bill of the Month.” Bram, so nice to see you again.
Bram Sable-Smith: Always a pleasure to be here.
Rovner: So, this month’s patient was, like a lot of young people, an uninsured 23-year-old when she ended up in the emergency room. Tell us who she is and what kind of medical care she needed and got.
Sable-Smith: Yeah, that’s right. Her name was Bethany Birch. And, in addition to being uninsured, she was also unemployed at the time, and she had had pain in her diaphragm for eight months. It prevented her from eating. She lost about 25 pounds in that time. And when she went to the emergency room, she found out she needed her gallbladder removed.
Rovner: And got it, right?
Sable-Smith: And got it. Yeah, she got that surgery almost immediately. Because she hadn’t been eating food — her food resistance — it meant she could get in for surgery right away.
Rovner: And that cured her? Yes?
Sable-Smith: It did cure her. Yes, she felt a lot better.
Rovner: So now we’re talking about the bill. The hospital tried to send her the bill, but apparently it couldn’t find her. Is this a common thing, and why couldn’t they find her? One presumes she gave them an address when she presented at the emergency room.
Sable-Smith: She did give them an address, but by the time she was discharged, she had lost her housing. Her home situation was unstable. So just that brief visit to the hospital, by the time she left, she had no more house to live in. And she did end up crashing with her family for several months. And, eventually, she did update her address with the post office. But by the time she had done that, it was after the hospital had sent the three bills to her for her visit.
Rovner: So the hospital doesn’t get any response, and they do what we know hospitals do. They sued for nonpayment. And the debt collection firm did manage to find her. So then what happened?
Sable-Smith: Well, she went to court, and like so many people who end up in court with medical debt, she did not have a lawyer representing her. She met with a representative from the debt collection firm, and she worked out a payment plan to pay her bill, plus court costs, in $100 monthly installments. But at the time, Tennessee had a default interest rate on judgments like the one that Bethany had of 7%. So the judge tacked on a 7% interest rate to her bill.
Rovner: So, yeah, and that was presumably a lot for her to carry. What finally happened with the bill?
Sable-Smith: Well, she paid her $100 monthly payments for over four years. It totaled about $5,200 she paid in that time. But at the same time, the interest rate was accruing. And so she owed an additional $2,700 on top of the initial bill that she had gotten. From her perspective, it was just impossible. She wasn’t digging out of this debt. So she started getting help from a family friend, who’s a billing expert, who took on her case. They asked the hospital and the debt collection firm to settle her debt because she had already paid so much. But they were unsuccessful in doing so. They sent their bill to us. We started reporting the story. Then they asked again to settle her debt by paying an additional $100 on top of what she had already paid. And this time they agreed. And so she settled her debt and she got a balance-zero statement.
Rovner: Amazing how just one phone call from us can do some work. Now, as somebody who is unemployed and, as you pointed out, uninsured at the time she got the care, Bethany should have been eligible for the hospital’s financial assistance policy. Why didn’t she get help before the debt ballooned with court costs and all that interest?
Sable-Smith: Well, the simple answer is that she never applied. But, as we know, it’s much more complicated than that. So given her status as single, uninsured, unemployed, it’s very possible that she would have qualified for financial help, maybe even for free care altogether. But the onus was on her as a patient to apply. And we know her situation was unstable. You know, she went through a period of homelessness. She didn’t have a lot of expendable money at the time. It’s a long process to apply for these programs. There’s a lot of forms. It can be cumbersome. And that prevents a lot of people from applying to these programs. So advocates push for something called presumptive eligibility, where the hospital takes the onus of applying away from patients and they automatically put them through the process. And this hospital that Bethany went to, they actually have switched to that presumptive eligibility model, just not in time to help her case.
Rovner: So what’s the takeaway here? I guess everybody has to be a proactive patient, not just with your medical care, but especially with your bills. What happens to a patient who finds themselves in a similar situation?
Sable-Smith: Well, you know, from a consumer standpoint like that, one takeaway is to ask for financial help. A lot more people qualify than you might think. You might not think you qualify, but it’s very possible you could. And then from a policy perspective, hospitals switching to presumptive eligibility — that’s something that they’re able to do. And also, some states have pushed to ban or even limit interest payments on this kind of medical debt. So that’s something that other people are considering as well.
Rovner: Or you can write to us, and we will show you how in our show notes.
Sable-Smith: That’s always a possibility, too.
Rovner: Bram Sable-Smith, thank you so much.
Sable-Smith: Yeah, thanks for having me.
Rovner: OK, we’re back, and 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 kffhealthnews.org and in our show notes on your phone or other mobile device. Rachel, why don’t you go first?
Cohrs: OK, I’m cheating a little bit and I’m doing a double feature. So the first story for my extra credit is headlined “How Often Do Health Insurers Say No to Patients? No One Knows.” It’s in ProPublica by Robin Fields, and I think it’s just a great feature on the idea that Obamacare entitled the government and patients to more information about how often insurers deny care to patients. And the government hasn’t really pursued that information. And even, like, state health insurance commissions aren’t providing the information they’re collecting. And Robin just had such a difficult time getting any sort of information from anyone, even though we’re legally entitled to it. So I thought that was just kind of a great highlight of this next area of criticism of the health insurance industry, which, and I think that —
Rovner: I would say, all this focus on premiums and not as much focus on what you actually get for those premiums.
Cohrs: Exactly. So true. I think there’ve been some high-profile examples, great reporting. And I thought that meshed well with some reporting from my colleagues Casey Ross and Bob Herman, who wrote a follow-up to some of their prior reporting titled “How UnitedHealth’s Acquisition of a Popular Medicare Advantage Algorithm Sparked Internal Dissent Over Denied Care.” Again, looking at how algorithms in this one privatized Medicare program, which is growing in size and enrollment across the country, was actually overruling clinicians’ decisions about how long patients should be receiving care in facilities. And if the algorithm says they should be done, then they’re done. And I think it definitely sparked some concerns from people in the company who were willing to speak to them just because they were so concerned about this trend.
Ollstein: I have a very impressive investigation from The Wall Street Journal. There are five bylines, and we will post the link. This is about lead-covered telecom cables owned by AT&T, Verizon, other companies that have been left to decay and leach into the environment all around the country. This documents how the companies knew about them but have not moved to clean them up and get rid of them. They are impacting water sources. They are near playgrounds where children are, and it goes into the very disturbing health impacts of lead exposure. This is something the country has made a lot of progress on when it comes to paint and other sources, but obviously we still have a long way to go.
Rovner: Yeah, because there’s not enough things to be worried about environmentally, here is something else. It is very good reporting.
Goldstein: My extra credit this week is from The New York Times, by Reed Abelson, with the headline “Medicare Advantage Plans Offer Few Psychiatrists.” And this isn’t a giant story, but I think it is at the nexus of two very important questions: one, the long-standing question of whether privatized Medicare is better or worse for people who are older Americans on Medicare than the traditional version of Medicare; and the question of are people getting enough access to mental health care? And I guess what struck me is that there’s been so much attention lately to the question of access to mental health services for younger Americans, and this looked at the question of access to mental health services for older Americans. And what this story, based on a study, talks about is that the study found that more than half of the counties, the researchers who did this study found, is that those counties did not have a single psychiatrist participating in Medicare Advantage and that a lot of these plans have what’s called “narrow” or “skinny” networks, where a very small fraction of the available psychiatrists in a community were in that plan’s network. Now, [there are] people who are criticizing that study saying, well, you can’t look at just psychiatrists; there are other people who provide competent mental health care. But I think it just raises the question of who is getting what they need.
Rovner: Indeed. Well, my story this week is also about just plain good reporting. It’s called “Doctor Lands in the Doghouse After Giving Covid Vaccine Waivers Too Freely.” It’s by Brett Kelman of KFF Health News. But it’s about some old-fashioned reporting by another outlet, Nashville’s NewsChannel 5. It seemed that during the height of the covid vaccine rollout, when lots of places were requiring proof of vaccines and lots of people didn’t want to get them, the doctor in question, named Robert Coble, was providing waivers through a website without much —OK, any — oversight. How did they prove it? By obtaining a waiver for a reporter’s black Labrador retriever, Charlie. Earlier this spring, Coble quietly surrendered his medical license to the state Department of Health. Journalism works. 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 producer, Francis Ying. Also as always, you can email us your comments or questions. We’re at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can still tweet me. I’m @jrovner. I’m on Threads too, @julie.rovner.
Goldstein: I’m @goldsteinamy.
Rovner: We will be back in your feed next week. Until then, be healthy.
CreditsFrancis Ying Audio producer Emmarie Huetteman Editor
To hear all our podcasts, click here.KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.
Some elements may be removed from this article due to republishing restrictions. If you have questions about available photos or other content, please contact email@example.com.