2023 will likely be remembered as the summer Arizona sizzled, Vermont got swamped, and nearly the entire Eastern Seaboard, along with huge swaths of the Midwest, choked on wildfire smoke from Canada. Still, none of that has been enough to prompt policymakers in Washington to act on climate issues.
Meanwhile, at a public court hearing, a group of women in Texas took the stand to share wrenching stories about their inability to get care for pregnancy complications, even though they should have been exempt from restrictions under the state’s strict abortion ban.
This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of KFF Health News, Rachel Cohrs of Stat, Shefali Luthra of The 19th, and Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico.
Among the takeaways from this week’s episode:
- Tensions over abortion access between the medical and legal communities are coming to the fore in the courts, as doctors beg for clarification about bans on the procedure — and conservative state officials argue that the law is clear enough. The risk of being hauled into court and forced to defend even medically justified care could be enough to discourage a doctor from providing abortion care.
- Conservative states are targeting a Biden administration effort to update federal privacy protections, which would make it more difficult for law enforcement to obtain information about individuals who travel outside a state where abortion is restricted for the procedure. Patient privacy is also under scrutiny in Nebraska, where a case involving a terminated pregnancy is further illuminating how willing tech companies like Meta are to share user data with authorities.
- And religious freedom laws are being cited in arguments challenging abortion bans, with plaintiffs alleging the restrictions infringe on their religious rights. The argument appears to have legs, as early challenges are being permitted to move forward in the courts.
- On Capitol Hill, key Senate Democrats are holding up the confirmation process of President Joe Biden’s nominee as director of the National Institutes of Health to press for stronger drug pricing reforms and an end to the revolving-door practice of government officials going to work for private industry.
- And shortages of key cancer drugs are intensifying concerns about drug supplies and drawing attention in Congress. But Republicans are skeptical about increasing the FDA’s authority — and supply-chain issues just aren’t that politically compelling.
Also this week, Rovner interviews Meena Seshamani, director of the Center for Medicare at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services at the Department of Health and Human Services.
Plus, for “extra credit” the panelists suggest health policy stories they read this week that they think you should read, too:
Julie Rovner: Los Angeles Times’ “Opinion: Crushing Medical Debt Is Turning Americans Against Their Doctors,” by KFF Health News’ Noam N. Levey.
Rachel Cohrs: The New York Times’ “They Lost Their Legs. Doctors and Health Care Giants Profited,” by Katie Thomas, Jessica Silver-Greenberg, and Robert Gebeloff.
Alice Miranda Ollstein: The Atlantic’s “What Happened When Oregon Decriminalized Hard Drugs,” by Jim Hinch.
Shefali Luthra: KFF Health News’ “Medical Exiles: Families Flee States Amid Crackdown on Transgender Care,” by Bram Sable-Smith, Daniel Chang, Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez, and Sandy West.
Also mentioned in this week’s episode:
- Stat’s “From Rapid Cooling Body Bags to ‘Prescriptions’ for AC, Doctors Prepare for a Future of Extreme Heat,” by Karen Pennar.
- Politico’s “The Sleeper Legal Strategy That Could Topple Abortion Bans,” by Alice Miranda Ollstein.
KFF Health News’ ‘What the Health?’
Episode Title: Let’s Talk About the Weather
Episode Number: 306
Published: July 20, 2023
[Editor’s note: This transcript, generated using transcription software, has been edited for style and clarity.]
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 20, 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 Alice Miranda Ollstein, of Politico.
Alice Miranda Ollstein: Hello.
Rovner: Rachel Cohrs, of Stat News.
Rachel Cohrs: Hi, everybody.
Rovner: And Shefali Luthra of The 19th.
Shefali Luthra: Hello.
Rovner: Later in this episode we’ll have my interview with Meena Seshamani, director of the Center for Medicare at the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services at the Department of Health and Human Services. She has an update on drug price negotiations, Medicare Advantage payments, and more. But first, this week’s news. So let’s talk about the weather. Seriously, this summer of intense heat domes in the South and Southwest, flash floods in the East, and toxic air from Canadian wildfires almost everywhere below the border has advertised the dangers of climate change in a way scientists and journalists and policymakers could only dream about. The big question, though, is whether it will make any difference to the people who can actually do something about it. I hasten to point out here that in D.C., it’s normal — hot and humid for July, but nothing particularly out of the ordinary, especially compared to a lot of the rest of the country. Is anybody seeing anybody on the Hill who seems at the least alarmed by what’s going on?
Ollstein: Not other than those who normally speak out about these issues. You’re not seeing minds changed by this, even as the reports coming out, especially of the Southwest, are just devastating — I mean, especially for unhoused people, just dying. I was really interested in the story from Stat about doctors moving to start prescribing things to combat heat, like prescribing air conditioners, prescribing cooling packs and other things, really looking at heat as a medical issue and not just a feature of our lives that we have to deal with.
Rovner: Well, emergency rooms are full of patients. You can now burn yourself walking on the sidewalk in Arizona. You know, last summer was not a great summer for a lot of people, particularly in California and in western Canada. But this year, it’s like everywhere across the country, everybody’s having something that’s sort of, oh, a hundred-year something or a thousand-year something. And yet we just sort of continue on blithely.
Ollstein: And just quickly, what really hits me is how much of a vicious cycle it can create, because the more people use air conditioners, those give off heat and make the bigger situation worse. So making it better for yourself makes it worse for others. Same with driving. You know, the worse the weather is, the more people have to drive rather than bike or walk or take public transit. And so it gets into this vicious cycle that can make it worse for everyone and create these so-called heat islands in these cities.
Rovner: All right. Well, let us move on to a more familiar topic: abortion and reproductive health. In case you’re wondering why it’s hard to keep track of where abortion is legal, where it’s banned, and where it’s restricted, let’s talk about Iowa. When we last checked in, last week, state lawmakers had just passed a near-total ban after the state Supreme Court deadlocked over a previous ban and the Republican governor, Kim Reynolds, was poised to sign it. Then what happened?
Luthra: The governor signed the ban right as the hearing for the ban concluded in which Planned Parenthood and another abortion clinic in the state sued, arguing, right, that this is the exact same as the law that was just struck down and therefore should be struck down again. And this judge said that he wouldn’t rush to his ruling. He wanted to, you know, give it the time that it deserved so he wouldn’t be saying anything on Friday, which meant as soon as the law was signed, it took effect. It was in effect for maybe a little over 72 hours, essentially through the weekend. And then on Monday, the judge came and issued a ruling blocking the law. And even that is temporary, right? It only lasts as long as this case is proceeding. And one of the reasons Republicans came back and passed this ban is they are hopeful that something has changed and that this time around the state Supreme Court will let the six-week ban in Iowa stand, which really just would have quite significant implications for the Midwest, where it’s been kind of slower to restrict abortion than the South has been because of the role the courts have played in Ohio, in Iowa, blocking abortion bans, and we could very soon see restrictions in Iowa, in Indiana, potentially in Ohio, depending on how the election later this year goes. And it will look like a very different picture than it did even six months ago.
Rovner: And for the moment, abortion is legal in Iowa, right?
Rovner: Up to 20 weeks?
Luthra: Up to 20, 22, depending on how you count.
Rovner: But as you say, that could change any day. And it has changed from day to day as we’ve gone on. Well, if that’s not confusing enough, there are a couple of lawsuits that went to court in Texas and Missouri, and neither of them is actually challenging an abortion ban. In Texas, women who were pregnant and unable to get timely care for complications are suing to clarify the state’s abortion ban so patients don’t have to literally wait until they are dying to be treated. And in Missouri, there’s a fight between two state officials over how to describe what a proposed state ballot measure would do, honestly. So what’s the status of those two suits? Let’s start with Texas. That was quite a hearing yesterday.
Luthra: It is really devastating to watch. And the hearing continues today, Thursday. And we are hearing from these women who wanted to have their pregnancies, developed complications where they knew that the fetus would not be viable, could not get care in the state. One of them who came to the State of the Union earlier this year, she had to wait until she was septic before she could get care. Another woman traveled out of state. Another one had to give birth to a baby that died four hours after being born, and she knew that this baby wouldn’t live. And it’s really striking to watch just how obviously difficult it is for these women to relive this thing that happened to them, clearly one of the worst things in their lives, maybe the worst thing. And the state’s arguments are very interesting, too, because they appear to be trying to suggest that it is actually not that the law is unclear, but that doctors are just not doing their jobs and they should do, you know, the hard work of medicine by understanding what exceptions mean and interpreting laws that are always supposed to be a little ambiguous.
Ollstein: So when states were debating abortion bans and really Republicans were tying themselves in knots over this question of exemptions — How should the exemptions be worded? Should there be any exemptions at all? Who should they apply to? — a lot of folks on the left were yelling at the time that that’s the wrong conversation, that exemptions are unworkable; even if you say on paper that people can get an abortion in a medical emergency, it won’t work in practice. And this is really fodder for that argument. This is that argument playing out in real life, where there is a medical exemption on the books, and yet all of these women were not able to get the care they needed, and some have suffered permanent or somewhat permanent repercussions to their health and fertility going forward. As more states debate their own laws, and some states with bans have even tried to go back and clarify the exemptions and change them, I wonder how much this will impact those debates.
Rovner: Yeah, I mean, if you just say that doctors are being, you know, cowards basically by not providing this care, think of it from the doctor’s point of view, and now we see why hospital lawyers are getting involved. Even if there’s a legitimate medical reason, they could get dragged into court and have to pay tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees just to prove that their medical judgment was correct. You can kind of see why doctors are a little bit reluctant to do that.
Ollstein: And just to stress, these laws were not written by doctors. These laws were written by politicians, and they include language that medical groups have pointed out doesn’t translate to the actual practice of medicine. Some of these bans’ exceptions’ language use terms like irreversible, and they’re like, “That’s not something we say in medicine. That doesn’t fit with our training. We don’t think in terms of that.” Also, terms like life-threatening: It’s like, OK, well, is it imminently life-threatening? And even then, what does that mean? How close does someone need to be to losing their life in order to act?
Rovner: And pregnancy itself is life-threatening.
Ollstein: Right. Or something could be life-threatening in a longer-term way, you know, down the road. Other conditions like diabetes or cancer could be life-threatening even if it won’t kill you today or tomorrow. So this is a real battle where medicine meets law.
Rovner: Well, in Missouri, it’s obviously not nearly as dramatic, but it’s also — you can see how this is playing out in a lot of these states. This is basically a fight between the state attorney general and the state auditor over how much an abortion ban might end up costing the state. They’re really sort of fighting this as hard as they can. It’s basically to make it either more or less attractive to voters, right?
Ollstein: It’s similar to some of the gambits we saw in Michigan to keep the measure off the ballot or put it on the ballot in a way that some would say would be misleading to voters. So I think you’re seeing this more and more in these states after so many states, including pretty conservative states, voted in favor of abortion rights last year. You know, the right is afraid of that continuing to happen, and so they’re looking at all of these technical ways — through the courts, through the legislatures, whatever means they can — to influence the process. And Democrats cry that this is antidemocratic, not giving people a say. Republicans claim that they’re preventing big-money outside groups from influencing the process. And I think this is going to be a huge battle. Missouri and Ohio are up next in terms of voting. And after that, you have Florida and Nevada and a bunch of other states in the queue. And so this is going to continue to be something we’re discussing for a while.
Luthra: And to flag the case in Ohio, what’s happening there, right, is the state is having voters vote onto whether to make it harder to pass constitutional amendments. There’s an election in August that would raise the threshold to two-thirds. And what we know from all of the evidence why they don’t typically have August referenda in Ohio is because the turnout is very, very low, and they are expecting that to be very low. And they’ve made it explicit that the reason they want to make it harder to pass constitutional amendments is, in fact, the concern around Ohio’s proposed abortion protection.
Rovner: Of course, that’s what they said about Kansas last year, that people wouldn’t vote because it was in the summer, so — but this is a little bit more obtuse. This is whether or not you’re going to change the standard for passing constitutional change that would enshrine abortion. So, yeah, clearly —
Luthra: It’s hard to get people excited about votes on voting.
Rovner: Yeah, exactly. An underlying theme for most of this year has been efforts by states that restrict or ban abortion to try to prevent or at least keep tabs on patients who leave the state to obtain a procedure where it is legal. Attorneys general in a dozen and a half states are now protesting a Biden administration effort to protect such information under HIPAA, the medical records privacy provisions of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. Alice, you’ve written about this. What would the HIPAA update do, and why do the red states oppose it?
Ollstein: The HIPAA update, which was proposed in April, and comment closed in June, and so we’re basically waiting for a final rule — at some point, you know, it can take a while — but it would make it harder for either law enforcement or state officials to obtain medical information about someone seeking an abortion, either out of state or in state under one of these exemptions. This would sort of beef up those protections and require a subpoena or some form of court order in order to get that data. And you have sort of an interesting pattern playing out, which you’ve seen just throughout the Biden administration, where the Biden administration hems and haws and takes an action related to abortion rights and the left says it’s not good enough and the right says it’s wild overreach and unconstitutional and they’re going to sue. And so that’s what I was documenting in my story.
Rovner: Is it 18 red states saying —
Ollstein: Nineteen, yes, yeah.
Rovner: Nineteen red states saying that this is going too far.
Ollstein: They say they want to be able to obtain that data to see if people are breaking the law.
Rovner: Well, Shefali, you wrote this week about sort of a related topic, whether states can use text or social media messages as evidence of criminal activity. That sounds kind of chilling.
Luthra: Yeah, and this is, I think, a really interesting question. We saw it in this case in Nebraska, where a sentencing for one of the defendants is happening today in fact. And I want to be careful in how I talk about this because it concerns a pregnancy that was terminated in April of 2022, before Roe was even overturned. But it sort of offered this test case, this preview for: If you do have law enforcement going after people who have broken a state’s abortion laws, how might they go about doing that? What statutes do they use to prosecute? And what information do they have access to? And the answer is potentially quite a lot. Organizations like Meta and Google are quite cooperative when it comes to government requests for user data. They are quite willing to give over history of message exchanges, history of your searches, or of, you know, where you were tracked on Google Maps. And the bigger question there is how likely are we to see individual prosecutors, individual states, going after patients and their families, their friends for breaking abortion laws? Right now, there’s been some hesitation to do that because the politics are so terrible. But if they do go in that direction, people’s internet user data is, in most states, unprotected. There is no federal law protecting, you know, your Facebook messages. And it could be quite a useful piece of information for people trying to build a case, which should raise concern for anyone trying to access care.
Rovner: Yeah, this is exactly why women were taking their period-tracking apps off of their phones, to worry about the protection of quite personal information. Well, finally this week on the abortion front, we have talked so, so much about how conservative Christians complain that various abortion and even birth control laws violate their religious beliefs. Well, now representatives of several other religions, including Judaism and even some of the more liberal branches of Christianity, say that abortion bans violate their right to practice their religion. This is going on in a bunch of different states. I think the first one we talked about was Florida, I think a year ago. Are any of these lawsuits going anywhere? Do we expect this to end up before the Supreme Court at some point?
Ollstein: So most of them are in state court, not federal. I mean, it’s always possible it could go to the Supreme Court. A couple of them are in federal court and a couple of them have already reached the appeals court level. But the experts I talked to for my story on this said this is mainly going to have an impact in state courts and how they interpret state constitutions. A lot of states have stronger language around religious protections than the federal Constitution, including some laws that pretty conservative state leaders passed in the last few years, and I doubt they expected that same language would be cited to defend abortion rights. But here we are. And yeah, a Missouri court recently ruled that the lawsuit can go forward, the religious challenge to the state’s abortion ban. It’s a coalition of a bunch of different faith leaders bringing that challenge. And in Indiana, they won a preliminary ruling on that case. And there are others pending in Kentucky, Florida, a bunch of other states. And so, yeah, I think this definitely has legs.
Rovner: Yeah, we’re all learning an awful lot about court procedure in lots of different states. Let us move to Capitol Hill, where Congress is in its annual July race to the August recess. Seriously, this is actually a month in which Congress typically does get a lot done. Maybe not so much this year. One perhaps unexpected holdup in the U.S. Senate is where the confirmation of Monica Bertagnolli, President Biden’s nominee to head the National Institutes of Health, is being held up not by a Republican but by two Democrats: health committee chair Bernie Sanders, another member of the committee, Elizabeth Warren. Rachel, what is going on with this?
Cohrs: Sen. Bernie Sanders has long wanted the Biden administration to be more aggressive on drug pricing. And there is one issue in particular that Sen. Sanders has wanted the NIH specifically to use to challenge drug companies’ patents or at least put some pricing protections in there for drugs that are developed using publicly funded research. And the laws that the NIH potentially could use to challenge these companies for high-priced medications have never been used in this way. And Sen. Sanders is using his bully pulpit and the main leverage he has, which is over nominations, to get the White House’s attention. And I think the White House’s position here is that they have done more than any administration in the past 20 years to lower drug prices.
Rovner: Which is true.
Cohrs: It is true. And — but Sen. Sanders still is not satisfied with that and wants to see commitments from the White House and from NIH to do more.
Rovner: And Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
Cohrs: Sen. Elizabeth Warren, yes, who my colleague Sarah Owermohle first reported had some concerns over the revolving door at NIH and wanted a commitment that the nominee wouldn’t go to lobby or work for a large pharmaceutical company for four years after leaving the position, and I don’t know that she’s agreed to that yet. So I don’t see where this resolves. It’s tough, because we’re looking so close to an election, and I think there are big questions about what breaks this logjam. But it certainly has slowed down what looked like a very smooth and noncontroversial nomination process.
Rovner: Yeah, I mean, obviously, you know, we’ve seen many, many times over the years nominations held up for other reasons — I mean, basically using them as leverage to get some policy aim. It’s more rare that you see it on the president’s own party but obviously, you know, not completely unprecedented. Certainly in this case we have a lot of things to be worked out there. Well, Sen. Sanders also seems to be threatening the reauthorization of one of his very pet programs, the bipartisanly popular community health centers. His staff this week put out a draft bill and announced a markup before sharing it with Republicans on the committee. Now Ranking Member Bill Cassidy, who also supports the community health centers program — almost everybody in Congress supports the community health centers program — Cassidy complains there’s no budget score, that the bill includes programs from outside the committee’s jurisdiction, and other details that can be very important. Is Sanders trying to make things partisan on purpose, or is this just sloppy staff work?
Cohrs: Honestly, I can’t answer that question for you, but I don’t think that it’s going to result in a productive outcome for the community health centers. And I think we have in recent years seen significant cooperation between the chair and ranking member, but with Lamar Alexander, with Richard Burr, with Patty Murray, you know, we have seen a lot civility on this committee in the recent past, and that appears to have ended. And I think Sen. Cassidy’s response that he hadn’t seen the legislation publicly was, I think, telling. We don’t usually see that kind of public fighting from a committee chair.
Rovner: He put out a press release.
Cohrs: Right, put out a press release. Yeah. This is not what we usually see in these committees. And it is true that Sen. Sanders’ bill is so much more money than I think is usually given to community health centers in this reauthorization process. I think it’s true that the bill that he dropped touches issues that would anger almost every other stakeholder in the health care system. And I don’t think Sen. Cassidy quite envisioned that. And he introduced his own bill that would have introduced —
Rovner: Cassidy introduced his own bill.
Cohrs: Yes, Sen. Cassidy introduced his own bill last week that would have continued on with what the House Energy and Commerce Committee had passed unanimously earlier this summer to give community health centers a more modest boost in funding for two years.
Rovner: And obviously, there’s some urgency to this because the authorization runs out at the end of September and now we’re in July and they’re going to go away for August. So this is obviously something else that we’re going to need to keep a fairly close eye on. Well, meanwhile, elsewhere, as in at the Senate Finance Committee, which oversees Medicare and Medicaid, we’re starting to see legislation to regulate PBMs — pharmacy benefit managers — or are we? Rachel, we’ve come at this several times this year. How close are we getting?
Cohrs: We’re getting closer. And I think that two key committees are really feeling the heat to get their proposals out there before the end of the year. The first, like you mentioned, was the Senate Finance Committee, which is planning a markup next week, right before senators leave for August recess. They’ve asked for feedback from CBO [the Congressional Budget Office] around the end of August recess so that they’ll be ready to go. But I think it’s no secret that their delay in marking anything up or introducing anything has slowed down this process. And in the House, I know the Ways and Means Committee is trying to put together their own proposal and find time for a markup, whereas the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which also has jurisdiction over many of these issues, is frustrated, because they got their bill introduced, they had all the full regular order of subcommittee and then full committee hearings and then markups, got this bill unanimously out of their committee, and now everyone’s kind of waiting around on these two committees with jurisdiction over the Medicare program to see what they’re going to put together before any larger package can be compiled.
Rovner: Well, you know things are heating up when you start seeing PBM ads all over cable news. So even if you don’t understand what the issue is, you know that it’s definitely in play on Capitol Hill. Well, while we’re on the subject of drug prices, we have another lawsuit trying to block Medicare’s drug price negotiation, this one filed by Johnson & Johnson. Why so many? Wouldn’t these drug companies have more clout if they got together on one big suit, or is there some strategy here to spread it out and hope somebody finds a sympathetic judge?
Ollstein: Yes, I think the latter is exactly what they’re doing, because if they were to all kind of band together, then it would be putting all their eggs in one basket. And this way we see most of the companies have filed in different jurisdictions. I think Johnson & Johnson did file in the same court as Bristol Myers Squibb did, so I think it’s not a perfect trend. But generally what we are seeing is that the trade groups like the [U.S.] Chamber of Commerce and PhRMA [the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America] kind of have their own arguments that they’re making in different venues. The drug manufacturers themselves have their own arguments that they’re making in their own venues, and they’re spreading out across the country in some typically more liberal courts and circuits and some more conservative. But I think that it’s important to note that the Chamber of Commerce so far is the only one that’s asked for a preliminary injunction, in Ohio. That is kind of the motion that, if it’s approved, could potentially put a stop to this program even beginning to go into effect. So they’ve asked for that by Oct. 1.
Rovner: And remember, I guess we’re supposed to see the first 10 drugs from negotiation in September, right?
Cohrs: By Sept. 1, yes.
Rovner: By Sept. 1.
Cohrs: Pretty imminently here.
Rovner: Also happening soon. Well, before we stop with the news this week, I do want to talk briefly about drug shortages. This has come up from time to time, both before and during the pandemic, obviously, when we had supply chain issues. But it seems like something new is happening. Some of these shortages seem to be coming because generic makers of some drugs just don’t find them lucrative enough to continue to make them. Now we’re looking at some major shortages of key cancer drugs, literally causing doctors to have to choose who lives and who dies. Are there any proposals on Capitol Hill for addressing this? It’s kind of flying below the radar, but it’s a pretty big deal.
Cohrs: I think we’ve seen Congressman Frank Pallone make this his pet issue in the reauthorization of PAHPA [Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act], which is the pandemic preparedness bill, which also expires on Sept. 30. So, you know, they have a full plate.
Rovner: Which we will talk about next week because they’re marking it up today.
Cohrs: Exactly. Yes. So but what we have seen is that Democrats in the House Energy and Commerce Committee have made this a top priority to at least have something on drug shortages in PAHPA. And I think my colleague John Wilkerson watched a hearing this week and noted that the chair of the committee, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, seemed more open to adding something than she had been in the past. But again, I think it’s kind of uncertain what we’ll see. And Sen. Bernie Sanders did add a couple of drug shortage policies to his version of PAHPA in the HELP Committee [Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions]. So I think we are seeing some movement on at least some policies to address it. But the problem is that the supply chain is not sexy and Republicans are not crazy about the idea of giving the FDA more authority. I think there is just so much skepticism of these public health agencies. It’s a hard systemic issue to crack. So I think we may see something, but it’s unclear whether any of this would provide any immediate relief.
Rovner: Everybody agrees that there’s a problem and nobody agrees on how to solve it. Welcome to Capitol Hill. OK, that is this week’s news. Now we will play my interview with Medicare chief Meena Seshamani, and then we’ll come back and do our extra credit. I am pleased to welcome to the podcast Meena Seshamani, deputy administrator and director of the Center for Medicare at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services at the Department of Health and Human Services. That must be a very long business card.
Meena Seshamani: [laughs]
Rovner: Translated, that means she’s basically in charge of the Medicare program for the federal government. She comes to this job with more than the requisite experience. She is a physician, a head and neck surgeon in fact, a PhD health economist, a former hospital executive, and a former top administrator there at HHS. Meena, welcome to “What the Health?” We are so happy to have you.
Seshamani: Thank you so much for having me, Julie.
Rovner: So, our podcast listeners will know, because we talk about it so much, that the biggest Medicare story of 2023 is the launch of a program to negotiate prescription drug prices and hopefully bring down the price of some of those drugs. Can you give us a quick update on how that’s going and when patients can expect to start to see results?
Seshamani: Absolutely. The new prescription drug law, the Inflation Reduction Act, really has made historic changes to the Medicare program. And to your point, people are seeing those results right now. There is now a $35 cap on what someone will pay out-of-pocket for a month’s supply of covered insulin at the pharmacy, which is huge. I’ve met with people all over the country. Sometimes people are spending up to $400 for a month’s supply of this lifesaving medication. Also, vaccines at no cost out-of-pocket. And a lot of this leads to what you’re mentioning with the drug negotiation program, a historic opportunity for Medicare to negotiate drugs. In January, we put out a timeline of the various pieces that we’re putting in place to stand up this negotiation program. Along that timeline, we have released guidance that describes the process that we will undergo to negotiate, what we’ll think about as we’re engaging in negotiation. And the first 10 drugs for negotiation that are selected will be announced on Sept. 1. And that will then lead into the negotiation process.
Rovner: And as we’ve mentioned — I think it was on last week’s podcast — there’s a lot of lawsuits that are trying to stop this. Are you confident that you’re going to be able to overcome this and keep this train on the tracks?
Seshamani: Well, we don’t generally comment on the lawsuits. I will say that we are implementing this law in the most thoughtful manner possible. From the day that the law was enacted, we have been meeting with drug manufacturers, health plans, patient groups, health care providers, you know, experts in the field, to really understand the complexity of the drug space and what we can do with this opportunity to really improve things, improve access and affordability to have innovative therapies for the cures that people need.
Rovner: Well, while we are on that subject, we — not just Medicare, but society at large — is facing down a gigantic conundrum. The good news is that we’re finally starting to see drugs that can treat or possibly cure such devastating ailments as Alzheimer’s disease and obesity. But those drugs are currently so expensive, and the population that could benefit from them is so large, they could basically bankrupt the entire health care system. How is Medicare approaching that? Obviously, in the Alzheimer’s space, that could be a very big deal.
Seshamani: Well, Julie, we are committed to helping ensure that people have timely access to innovative treatments that can lead to improved care and better outcomes. And in doing this, we take into account what the Medicare law enables coverage for and what the evidence shows. So with Alzheimer’s, CMS underwent a national coverage determination. And consistent with that, Medicare is covering the drug when a physician and clinical team participates in the collection of evidence about how these drugs work in the real world, also known as a registry. And this is very important because it will enable us to gather more information on patient outcomes as we continue to see innovations in this space. And you mentioned obesity. In the Medicare law, there is a carve-out for drugs for weight loss.
Rovner: A carve-out meaning you can’t cover them.
Seshamani: Correct. It says that the Medicare Part D prescription drug program will not cover drugs for weight loss. So we are looking at the increasing evidence. And for example, where there is a drug that is used for diabetes, for example, you know, then it can certainly be covered. And this is an area that we are continuing to partner with our colleagues in the FDA on and that we’d like to partner with the broader community to continue to build the evidence base around benefits for the Medicare population as we continue to evaluate where we want to make sure that people have access.
Rovner: But are you thinking sort of generally about what to do about these drugs that cost sometimes tens of thousands of dollars a year, hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, that half the population could benefit from? I mean, that cannot happen, right, financially?
Seshamani: Well, Julie, this is where the new provisions in the new drug law really come into play. Thinking from access for people for the high-cost drugs, I think we all know what a financial strain the high cost of drugs have created for our nation’s seniors, where now, in 2025, there will be a $2,000 out-of-pocket cap, that people will not have to pay out-of-pocket more than $2,000, which enables them to access drugs. And on the other side, as we talked about with drug negotiation, where for drugs that have been in the market for seven years or 11 years, if they are high-cost drugs, they could potentially be selected for negotiation where we can then, you know, as we laid out in the guidance that we put out, look at what is the benefit that this drug provides to a population? What are the therapeutic alternatives? And then also consider things like what’s the cost of producing that drug and distributing it? How much federal support was given for the research and development of that drug? And how much is the total R & D costs? So I think that there are several tools that we’ve been given in the Inflation Reduction Act that demonstrate how we are continuing to think about how we can ensure that Medicare is delivering for people now and in the future.
Rovner: Well, speaking of things that are popular but also expensive, let’s talk briefly about Medicare Advantage. More and more beneficiaries are opting for private plans over traditional, fee-for-service Medicare. But the health plans have figured out lots of ways to game the system to make large profits basically at taxpayers’ expense. Is there a long-term plan for Medicare Advantage or are we just going to continue to play whack-a-mole, trying to plug the loopholes that the plans keep finding?
Seshamani: You know, as now we have 50% of the population in Medicare Advantage, Medicare Advantage plays a critical role in advancing our vision for the Medicare program around advancing health equity, expanding access to care, driving innovation, and enabling us to be good stewards of the Medicare dollar. And that vision that we have is reflected in all of the policies that we have put forward to date. And I might add that those policies really have been informed by engagement with everyone who’s interested in Medicare Advantage. We did a request for comment and got more than 4,000 suggestions from people. This has now come out in recent policies like cracking down on misleading marketing practices so that people can get the plan that best suits their needs; ensuring clear rules of the road for prior authorization and utilization management so we can make sure that people are accessing the medically necessary care that they need; things like improving network adequacy, particularly in behavioral health, so people can access the health care providers in the networks of the plans; and then the work that we’re doing around payment, to make sure that we’re paying accurately, updating the years that we use for data, looking at the coding patterns of Medicare Advantage. And again, this is all work that is important to make sure that the program is really serving the people in the Medicare program.
Rovner: So, as you know, we’ve done big investigative projects here at KFF Health News about both medical debt and nonprofit hospitals not living up to their responsibilities to the community. As the largest single payer of hospitals, what is Medicare doing to try and address requirements for charity care, for example?
Seshamani: Well, the. IRS oversees the requirements for community benefit, which is how hospitals maintain or get a nonprofit status. We have certainly worked with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Department of Treasury on, for example, issuing a request for information, seeking public comment on, you know, medical credit cards. But even beyond that, I think this is an example of where we need to bring more payment accuracy and transparency in the health care system. So, for example, we have recently just proposed strengthening hospital price transparency so that people can know what is the cost of services, standard charges that hospitals provide. We also are adding quality measures to hospitals, particularly around issues around health equity, making sure that hospitals are screening patients for social needs. And we’re also tying increasingly our payment programs to making sure that those underserved populations are receiving excellent care, so again, really trying to drive transparency, quality, and access through all of the work that we’re doing with hospitals.
Rovner: But can you leverage Medicare’s power? Obviously, you know, that was what created EMTALA [the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act], was leveraging Medicare’s power. Can you leverage it here to try and push some of these hospitals to do things they seem reluctant to do?
Seshamani: Where we have our levers in the Medicare program, we absolutely are working with hospitals around issues of equity, so as I mentioned, you know, really embedding equity not only in our quality requirements but also in hospital operations — for example, that as part of their operations they need to be looking at health equity. You know, where we are looking at how they are providing care and addressing issues of patient safety. So, we continue to look into all of these angles, and where we can support good practices. For example, we just proposed in our inpatient prospective payment system rule that when hospitals are taking care of homeless patients, that can be considered in their payment, because we have found through our analyses that additional resources are being used to make sure that those patients are supported for all of their needs, and we’re encouraging hospitals to code for these social needs so that we can continue to assess with them where resources and supports are needed to provide the kind of care that we all want for our populations.
Rovner: Last question, and I know that this is big, so it’s almost unfair. One of the reasons we know that it’s getting so expensive to manage medical costs is the increasing involvement of private equity in health care. What’s the Biden administration doing to address this growing profit motive?
Seshamani: Yeah, Julie, I’ll come back to, you know, what I alluded to before around transparency. We are really committed to transparency in health care, and we are continuing to focus on gathering data that sheds light on what is happening in the health care market so that we can be good stewards of the taxpayer dollar. So I mentioned our work in hospital price transparency, where we have streamlined the enforcement process; we have proposed to require standard ways that hospitals are reporting their charges and standard locations where they have to put a footer on the hospital’s homepage so that people can find that data easily. In Medicare Advantage, we are requiring more reporting for the medical loss ratio for plans to report spending on supplemental benefits like dental, vision, etc. And we really want to hone in on where else we can gather more data to be able to enable all of us to see what is happening in this dynamic health care market; what’s working? What isn’t? And so we’re very interested in getting ideas.from everyone of where more data can be helpful to enable us to then enact policies that can make sure that the health care industries and the market are really serving people in the most effective way possible.
Rovner: Well, you’ve got a very big job, so I will let you get back to it. Thank you so much, Meena Seshamani.
Seshamani: Thank you 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. Shefali, why don’t you go first this week?
Luthra: Sure. So mine is from KFF Health News by a dream team, Bram Sable-Smith, Daniel Chang, Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez, and Sandy West. The headline is “Medical Exiles: Families Flee States Amid Crackdown on Transgender Care.” And I mean, it’s exactly what it sounds like. It’s this really person-grounded, quite deeply reported story about how restrictions on gender-affirming health care, especially for young people, are forcing families to leave their homes. And this is a really tough thing for people to do, you know, leave somewhere where you’ve lived for 10 years or longer and go somewhere where you don’t have ties. Moving is quite expensive. And I think this is a really important look at something that we anecdotally know is happening, haven’t seen enough really great deep dives on, and is something that potentially will happen more and more as people are forced to leave their homes if they can afford to do so because they don’t feel safe there anymore.
Rovner: Yeah, and this is the issue of doing these social issues state by state by state, just what’s happening now. Alice.
Ollstein: So I chose a piece from The Atlantic called “What Happened When Oregon Decriminalized Hard Drugs,” by Jim Hinch. It was really fascinating. On the one side, they say this is evidence that the policy has failed, that decriminalizing possession of small amounts of cocaine, heroin, all hard drugs, has been a failure because overdoses have actually gone up since then. But other experts quoted in this article say that, look, we tried the punitive war on drugs model for decades and decades and decades before declaring it a failure; how can we evaluate this after just a few years? It just takes more time to make this transition and takes more time to, you know, ramp up treatment and services for people, and because this happened three years ago, it was disrupted by the pandemic and, you know, services were not able to reach people, etc. So a really fascinating look.
Rovner: Yes, it’s quite the social experiment that’s going on in Oregon. Rachel.
Cohrs: So mine is from The New York Times, a group of reporters and a new series called “Operating Profits.” And the headline is “They Lost Their Legs. Doctors and Health Care Giants Profited.” And I think I’m just really excited to see more about this line of reporting about overutilization in health care and how certain payment incentives — I mean, they made a story about payment incentives in hospital outpatient departments and how pay rates change really personal and interesting, and it’s important. So, I mean, all these really dense rules that we’re seeing drop this summer do really have implications for patients. And there are bad actors out there who are kind of capitalizing on that. So I felt it was like really responsible reporting, mostly focused on one physician who, you know, was doing procedures that he shouldn’t have and other doctors ultimately were left to clean up the damage for these patients. And they had amputations that they maybe shouldn’t have had, which is such a serious and devastating consequence. I thought that was very important reporting, and I’m excited to see what’s next.
Rovner: Yeah, I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of the series. Well, my story this week is in the Los Angeles Times from my KFF Health News colleague Noam Levey, who’s been working on a giant project on medical debt. It’s called “Crushing Medical Debt Is Turning Americans Against Their Doctors.” And it points out something I hadn’t really thought about before, that outrageous and unexpected bills are undermining public confidence in medical providers and the medical system writ large. And so far, nobody’s doing very much about it. To quote from Noam’s piece, “Hospitals and doctors blame the government for underpaying them and blame insurers for selling plans with unaffordable deductibles. Insurers blame providers for obscene prices. Everyone blames drug companies.” Well, it’s going to take a lot of time to dig out of this hole, but probably it would help if everybody stopped digging. 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 email@example.com. Or you can tweet me. I’m still @jrovner, and I’m on Threads @julie.rovner. Shefali.
Luthra: I’m @shefalil.
Cohrs: I’m @rachelcohrs.
Rovner: We will be back in your feed next week. Until then, be healthy.
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