Ohio voters — in a rare August election — turned out in unexpectedly high numbers to defeat a ballot measure that would have made it harder to pass an abortion-rights constitutional amendment on the ballot in November. The election was almost a year to the day after Kansas voters also stunned observers by supporting abortion rights in a ballot measure.
Meanwhile, the percentage of Americans without health insurance dropped to an all-time low of 7.7% in early 2023, reported the Department of Health and Human Services. But that’s not likely to continue, as states boot from the Medicaid program millions of people who received coverage under special eligibility rules during the pandemic.
This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of KFF Health News, Emmarie Huetteman of KFF Health News, Joanne Kenen of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Politico, and Rachel Roubein of The Washington Post.
Among the takeaways from this week’s episode:
- It should not have come as much of a surprise that Ohio voters sided with abortion-rights advocates. Abortion rights so far have prevailed in every state that has considered a related ballot measure since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, including in politically conservative states like Kentucky and Montana.
- Moderate Republicans and independents joined Democrats in defeating the Ohio ballot question. Opponents of the measure — which would have increased the threshold of votes needed to approve state constitutional amendments to 60% from a simple majority — had not only cited its ramifications for the upcoming vote on statewide abortion access, but also for other issues, like raising the minimum wage.
- A Texas case about exceptions under the state’s abortion ban awaits the input of the state’s Supreme Court. But the painful personal experiences shared by the plaintiffs — notable in part because such private stories were once scarce in public discourse — pressed abortion opponents to address the consequences for women, not fetuses.
- The uninsured rate hit a record low earlier this year, a milestone that has since been washed away by states’ efforts to strip newly ineligible Medicaid beneficiaries from their rolls as the covid-19 public health emergency ended.
- The promise of diabetes drugs to assist in weight loss has attracted plenty of attention, yet with their high price tags and coverage issues, one thorny obstacle to access remains: How could we, individually and as a society, afford this?
- Lawmakers are asking more questions about the nature of nonprofit, or tax-exempt, hospitals and the care they provide to their communities. But they still face an uphill battle in challenging the powerful hospital industry.
Also this week, Rovner interviews Kate McEvoy, executive director of the National Association of Medicaid Directors, about how the “Medicaid unwinding” is going as millions have their eligibility for coverage rechecked.
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’ “How the Texas Trial Changed the Story of Abortion Rights in America,” by Sarah Varney.
Joanne Kenen: Fox News’ “Male Health Care Leaders Complete ‘Simulated Breastfeeding Challenge’ at Texas Hospital: ‘Huge Eye-Opener’,” by Melissa Rudy.
Rachel Roubein: Stat’s “From Windows to Wall Art, Hospitals Use Virtual Reality to Design More Inclusive Rooms for Kids,” by Mohana Ravindranath.
Emmarie Huetteman: KFF Health News’ “The NIH Ices a Research Project. Is It Self-Censorship?” by Darius Tahir.
Also mentioned in this week’s episode:
- Politico’s “Abortion Rights Won Big in Ohio. Here’s Why It Wasn’t Particularly Close,” by Madison Fernandez, Alice Miranda Ollstein, and Zach Montellaro.
- KFF Health News’ “Seeking Medicare Coverage for Weight Loss Drugs, Pharma Giant Courts Black Influencers,” by Rachana Pradhan.
- Stat’s “Alarmed by Popularity of Ozempic and Wegovy, Insurers Wage Multi-Front Battle,” by Elaine Chen.
KFF Health News’ ‘What the Health?’
Episode Title: On Abortion Rights, Ohio Is the New Kansas
Episode Number: 309
Published: Aug. 10, 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 a day early this week, on Wednesday, Aug. 9, at 3:30 p.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 Joanne Kenen of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Politico.
Joanne Kenen: Hey, everybody.
Rovner: Rachel Roubein of The Washington Post.
Rachel Roubein: Hi, everybody.
Rovner: And my colleague and editor here at KFF Health News Emmarie Huetteman.
Emmarie Huetteman: Hey, everyone. Glad to be here.
Rovner: So later in this episode, we’ll have my interview with Kate McEvoy, executive director of the National Association of Medicaid Directors. She’s got her pulse on how that big post-public health emergency “Medicaid unwinding” is going. And she’ll share some of that with us. But first, this week’s news. I guess the biggest news of the week is out of Ohio, which, in almost a rerun of what happened in Kansas almost exactly a year ago, voters soundly defeated a ballot issue that would have made it harder for other voters this fall to reverse the legislature’s strict abortion ban. If you’re having trouble following that, so did they in Ohio. [laughs] This time, the fact that the abortion rights side won wasn’t as much of a surprise because every statewide abortion ballot question has gone for the abortion rights side since Roe v. Wade was overturned last year. What do we take away from Ohio? Other than it looked a lot like … the split looked a lot like Kansas. It was almost 60-40.
Kenen: It shows that there’s a coalition around this issue that is bigger than Democrat or Republican. Ohio was the classic swing state that has turned into a conservative Republican-voting state — not on this issue. This was clearly independents, moderate Republicans joined Democrats to … 60-40, roughly, is a pretty big win. Yes, we’ve seen it in other states. It’s still a pretty big win.
Roubein: I agree. And I think one of my colleagues, Patrick Marley, and I spent some time just driving around and traveling Ohio in July. And one of the things that we did find is that — this ballot measure to increase the threshold for constitutional amendments is 60% — it had in some, in many, ways turned into a proxy war over abortion. But, in some ways, both sides also didn’t talk about abortion when they were, you know, canvassing different voters. You know, they use different tools in the toolbox. I was following around someone from Ohio Right to Life and, you know, he very much said, “Abortion is the major issue to me.” But, you know, they tried to kind of bring together the side that supported this. Other issues like legalizing marijuana and raising the minimum wage, and, you know, the abortion rights side was very much a part of, you know, the opposition here. But when some canvassers went out — my colleague Patrick had traveled and followed some, and some, you know, kind of focused on other issues like, you know, voters having a voice in policy and keeping a simple majority rule.
Rovner: Yeah, I think it’s important — for those who have not been following this as closely as we have — what the ballot measure was was to make future ballot measures — and they said they were not going to have them in August anymore, which, this was the last one — in order to amend the constitution by referendum, you would need a 60% majority rather than a 50% majority. And just coincidentally, there is an abortion ballot measure on Ohio’s ballot for November, and it’s polling at about 58%. But, yes, this would have applied to everything, and it was defeated.
Kenen: And it’s part of a larger trend. It began before the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Over the last couple of years, you’ve seen conservative states move to tighten these rules for ballot initiatives. And that’s because more liberal positions have been winning. I mean, Medicaid, the Medicaid expansion on the ballot, has won, and won big. Only one was even close …
Rovner: In very red states!
Kenen: They often won very big in a number of very, very conservative states, places like Idaho and Nebraska. So, you know, there’s always been … the conventional wisdom is that, you know, the political parties are more extreme than many voters, that the Democratic Party is for the left and the Republican Party is for the right. And there are a lot of people who identify with one party or the other but aren’t … who are more moderate or, in this case, more liberal on Medicaid. And Medicaid … what was it, seven states? I think it’s seven. Seven really conservative states. And then the abortion has won in every single state. And there’s a little bit of conversation and it’s … very early. And I don’t know if it’s going to go anywhere, but if I’ve heard it and written a bit about it, conservative lawmakers have heard about it, too, which is there are groups interested in trying to get some gun safety initiatives on ballots. So that’s complicated. And it may not happen. But they’re seeing, I mean, that’s the classic example of both a criminal justice and a public health issue — so we can talk about it — a classic example where the country is much more in the center.
Rovner: Well, let us move to Texas, because that’s where we always end up when we talk about abortion. You may remember that lawsuit where several women who nearly died from pregnancy complications sued the state to clarify when medical personnel are able to intercede without being subjected to fines and/or jail sentences. Well, the women won, at least for a couple of days. A Texas district judge who heard the case ruled in their favor, temporarily blocking the Texas ban for women with pregnancy complications. But then the state appealed, and a Texas appeals court blocked the lower-court judge’s blocking of part of the ban. If you didn’t follow that, it just means that legally nothing has changed in Texas. And now the case goes to the Texas Supreme Court, which has a conservative majority. So we pretty much know what’s going to happen. But whether these women ultimately win or lose their case may not be the most important thing. And, to explain why I’m going to do my extra credit early this week. It’s by my KFF Health News colleague Sarah Varney. It’s called “How the Texas Trial Changed the Story of Abortion Rights in America.” She writes that this trial was particularly significant because it put abortion foes on the defensive by graphically depicting harm to women of abortion bans — rather than to fetuses. And it’s also about the power of people publicly telling their stories. I’ve done a lot of stories over the years about women whose very wanted pregnancies went very wrong, very late. And, I have to tell you, it’s been hard to find these women. And when you find them, it’s been really hard to get them to talk to a journalist. So, the fact that we’re seeing more and more people actually come out publicly, you know, may do for this issue what, you know, perhaps what gay rights, you know, what people coming out as gay did for gay marriage? I don’t know. What do you guys think?
Kenen: Well, I think these stories have been really compelling, but they’re also, they’re the most dramatic and maybe easiest to push back. But it’s, you know, there’s a whole lot of other reasons women want abortions. And the focus — and it’s life and death, so the focus, quite rightfully, has to be on these really extreme cases. But that’s not … it’s still in some ways shifting attention from the larger political discussion about choice and rights. But, clearly, some of these states, we’ve seen so many stories of women who, their lives are at stake, their doctors know it, and they just don’t think they have the legal power; they’re afraid of the consequences if they’re second-guessed. There are tremendous financial and imprisonment [risks] for a doctor who is deemed to have done an unnecessary abortion. And this idea that’s taken hold … among some conservatives is that there’s never a need for a medical abortion. And that’s just not true.
Rovner: And yet, I mean, what this trial and a lot of things in Sarah’s piece too point out is that that line between miscarriage and abortion is really kind of fuzzy in a lot of cases. You know, if you go to the hospital with a miscarriage and they’re going to say, “Well, did you initiate this miscarriage?” And we’ve seen women thrown in jail before for losing pregnancies, with them saying, “You know, you threw yourself down the stairs to end this pregnancy.” That actually happened, I think it was in Indiana. So this is —
Kenen: And miscarriage is very common.
Rovner: That was what I was saying.
Kenen: Early miscarriage is very common. Very, very common.
Huetteman: One of the things that’s so striking about the past year, since Dobbs overturned Roe v. Wade ,is that we’ve seen this kind of national education about what pregnancy is and how dangerous it can be and how care needs to really be flexible to meet those sorts of challenges. And this actually got me thinking about something that another familiar voice on this podcast, Alice Miranda Ollstein, and some colleagues wrote this morning about the Ohio outcome, which is they pointed out that the anti-abortion movement really hasn’t evolved in terms of the arguments that they’re making in the past year about why abortion should continue to be less and less available. Meanwhile, we’ve got these, like, really incredible, really emotional, moving stories from women who have experienced this firsthand. And that’s a hard message to overcome when you’re trying to reach voters in particular.
Rovner: And it’s interesting; both sides like to take — you know, they all go to the hardest cases. So, for years and years, the anti-abortion side has, you know, has gone to the hardest cases. And that’s why they talk about abortion in the ninth month up till birth, which isn’t a thing, but they talk about it. And you know, now the abortion rights side has some hard cases now that abortions are harder to get. Well, while we are on the subject of Texas lawsuits, States Newsroom — and thank you for sending this my way, Joanne — has a story reporting that the publisher of the scientific paper that both the lower court judge and the appeals court judges used to conclude that the abortion drug mifepristone causes frequent complications — it does not — is being reviewed for potential scientific misconduct. The paper comes from the Charlotte Lozier Institute, which is the research arm of the anti-abortion group the Susan B. Anthony List. Sage, which is the publisher of the journal that the paper appeared in, has posted something called an expression of concern, saying that the publisher and editor, quote, “were alerted to potential issues regarding the representation of data in the article and author conflicts of interest. SAGE has contacted the authors of this article and an investigation is underway.” This was sort of a whistleblower by a pharmacist who looked at the way the data in this paper was put together and says, “No, that’s really very misleading.” I don’t think I’ve ever seen this, though; I’ve never seen a scientific paper that’s now being questioned for its political bent, a peer-reviewed scientific paper. I mean, this could change a lot of things, couldn’t it?
Kenen: Well, not if people decide that they still think it’s true. I mean, look at — you know, the vaccine autism paper was retracted. That wasn’t initially political. It’s become more political over the years; it wasn’t political at the time. That was retracted. And people have been jumping up and down screaming, “It was retracted! It was retracted!” And, you know, millions of people still believe it. So, I mean, legally, I’m not sure how much it changes. I mean, I thought we had all heard that there were flaws in this study. This article was good because I hadn’t been aware of how deeply flawed and in all the many ways it was flawed. And also the whistleblower yarn was interesting. I’m not sure how much it changes anything.
Rovner: Well, I’m thinking not in terms of this case. And by the way, I think we didn’t say this, that the study was of emergency room visits by women who’d had either surgical or medical abortions. And the contention was that medical abortions were more dangerous than surgical abortions because more women ended up in the emergency room. But as several people have pointed out, more people ended up in the emergency room after medical abortions because there have been so many more medical abortions over the years. I mean, you don’t actually have to be a data scientist to see some of the problems.
Kenen: Right. And some of them also weren’t that — really, were nervous, and they didn’t know what was normal and they went to the ER because they were scared and they really were safe. They were not — they didn’t need — you know, they just weren’t sure how much pain and discomfort or bleeding you’re supposed to have. And they went and they were reassured and were sent home. So it’s not even that they really had a medical emergency or that they were harmed.
Rovner: Or that they had a complication.
Kenen: Right. There were many flaws pointed out with this research.
Rovner: But my broader question is, I mean, if people are going to start questioning the politics of scientific papers, I mean, I could see the other side going after this.
Kenen: Well, there’s climate science, too, that’s bad. I mean, I don’t think this is actually unique. I think it’s egregious. But there were studies minimizing the risk of smoking, which was also a political business, commercial. Climate is certainly political. I mean, I think this is sort of the most politicized and most acute example, but I don’t think it’s the only one.
Roubein: And I think, Julie, as you’d mentioned, I think when [U.S. District Judge] Matthew Kacsmaryk in Texas came down with his decision — you know, for instance, there are media outlets — that my colleagues at the Post did a story just kind of unpacking some of the kind of flaws and some of the studies that were used to make, you know, a court decision.
Rovner: Yeah, to give the judge what he assumes to be evidence that this is a dangerous drug. So it’s — yeah.
Kenen: Which he came in believing, we know, from the profiles of him and his background.
Rovner: Right. All right, well, let us move on. The official Census Bureau estimate of how many people lack health insurance won’t be out until next month. But the Department of Health and Human Services is out with a report based on that other big federal population survey that shows the uninsured rate early this year was at its lowest level since records started being kept, which I think was in the 1980s: 7.7%. Now, that’s clearly going to be the high point for the fewest number of people uninsured, at least for a while, because clearly not all of the millions of people who are losing or about to lose their Medicaid coverage are going to end up with other insurance. But I remember — Joanne, you will, too — when the rate was closer to 18% … was a huge news story, and the thing that triggered the whole health reform debate in the first place. I’m surprised that there’s been so little attention paid to this.
Kenen: Because, you know … [unintelligible] … it’s so yesterday. And also, as you alluded to, you know, we’re in the middle of the Medicaid unwinding. So the numbers are going up again now. And we don’t know. We know that it’s a couple of million people. I think 3 million might be the last —
Rovner: I think it’s 4 [million], it’s up to 4.
Kenen: Four, OK. And some of them will get covered again and some of them will find other sources of coverage. But right now, there’s an uptick, not a downtick.
Roubein: And I think when you look at just, like, estimates of what the insured and the uninsured rates would be in 2030, like, the CMS’ [Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services] analysis, one of the other questions is, you know, whether the enhanced Obamacare subsidies continue past 2025. So there’s Medicaid and then there’s also some other kind of question marks and cliffs coming up on how and whether it will fluctuate.
Rovner: No, it’s worth watching. And remember, when the census numbers come out, those will be for 2022. Well, moving on, we have two stories this week looking at the potential cost of those breakthrough obesity drugs, but through two very different lenses. One is from my KFF Health News colleague Rachana Pradhan, details how the makers of the current “it” drug, Ozempic, which is Novo Nordisk, in an effort to get the votes to lift the Medicare payment ban on weight loss drugs, is quietly contributing large amounts of money to groups like the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute. It’s sort of a backdoor lobbying that’s pretty age-old, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. The other story, by Elaine Chen at Stat, looks at how health insurers are pushing back hard against the off-label use of diabetes medications that also work to help people lose weight. They’re doing things like allowing the more expensive weight loss drugs only if people have tried and failed other methods or disallowing them if the other methods had been slightly successful. So, if you take a lesser drug and you lose enough weight, they won’t let you take the better drug because, look, you lost weight on the other drug. We’ve talked about this, obviously, before: These drugs, on the one hand, have the potential to make a lot of people both healthier and happier. There’s a study out this week that shows that Mounjaro, the Eli Lilly drug, actually reduces heart disease by 20%.
Kenen: In people who have heart disease.
Rovner: Right, in people who have heart disease.
Kenen: It’s not lowering everybody’s risk.
Rovner: But still, I mean, everybody’s — well, I mean, there are medical indications for using these drugs for weight loss. But if everybody who wants them could get them, it would literally break the bank. Nobody can afford to give everybody who’s eligible for these drugs these drugs. Is the winner here going to be the side with the most effective lobbying, or is that too cynical?
Huetteman: Isn’t that always the winner? Speaking of cynical.
Rovner: Yeah, in health care.
Kenen: Well, I mean, I also think there’s questions about, like, these drugs clearly are really wonderful for people who they were designed for; you don’t have to be on insulin. They’re having not just weight loss and diabetes. There are apparently cardiac and other — you know, these are probably really good drugs. But there are a lot of people who do not have diabetes or heart disease who want them because they want to lose 20 pounds. And some of them are being told you have to take it for the rest of your life. I mean, I just know this anecdotally, and I’m sure we all know it anecdotally.
Rovner: Right. It’s like statins.
Rovner: Or blood pressure medication. If you stop taking your blood pressure medication, your blood pressure goes back up.
Kenen: Right. So, I mean, should the goal for the weight loss be, “OK, this is going to help you take off that weight and then you’re going to have to maintain it through diet and exercise and healthy lifestyle,” blah, blah, blah, which is hard for people. We know that. Or are we putting healthy people on a really expensive drug that changes an awful lot of things about their body indefinitely? We don’t have safety data for lifelong use in otherwise healthy people. So, you know, I’m always a little worried because even the best clinical trial is small compared to the entire — it’s small and it’s time-limited. And maybe these drugs are going to turn out to be absolutely phenomenal and we’re going to all live another 20 healthy years. But maybe not, you know. Or maybe they’re going to be really great for a certain subpopulation, but, you know, we’re not going to want to put it in the water supply. So, I still think that there’s this sort of pell-mell rush. And I think it’s partly because there’s a lot of money at stake. And it’s also, like, most people who are overweight have tried to lose it, and it’s very difficult to lose and maintain weight. So, you know, people want an easier way to do it. And I think the other thing is right now it’s an injection. There are side effects for some people on discomfort. There probably will be an oral version, a pill, sometime fairly soon, which will open — you know, there are people who don’t want to take a shot who would take a pill. It also means you might be able to tell — I mean, I don’t know the science of the pills, but it would make sense to me that you could take a lower dose, you know, maybe ease into it without the side effects, or could you stay on it longer with fewer problems? I mean, we’re just the very beginning of this, but it’s a huge amount of money.
Rovner: Yeah. You could see — I mean, my big question, though, is why can’t we force the drugmakers to lower the price? That would, if not solve the problem, make it a lot better. I mean, really, we’re going to have to wait until there is generic competition?
Kenen: It’s not just this.
Kenen: I mean, it’s all sorts of cancer treatments and it’s hepatitis treatments. And it’s, I mean, there’s a lot of expensive drugs out there. So, this one just has a lot of demand because it makes you skinny.
Rovner: Well, that was the thing. We went through this with the hepatitis C drugs, which were really super expensive. It’s much more like that.
Kenen: Well, they seemed super expensive at the time —
Rovner: Not so much anymore.
Kenen: — but maybe for a thousand dollars, in retrospect.
Rovner: All right. Well, let’s move on. So, speaking of powerful lobbies, let’s talk about hospitals. Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley and Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren — now, there is an unlikely couple — are among those asking the IRS to more carefully examine tax-exempt hospitals to make sure they’re actually benefiting the community in exchange for not paying taxes, which is supposed to be the deal. Now, Sen. Grassley has been on this particular hobbyhorse for many, many years, I think probably more than 20, but not much ever seems to come of this. I can’t tell you how many workshops I’ve been to on, you know, how to measure community benefits that tax-exempt hospitals are providing. Any inkling that this time is going to be any different?
Roubein: Well, hospitals don’t tend to be sort of the losers. They try and kind of frame themselves as, like, “We’re your sort of friendly neighborhood hospital,” and every — I mean, every congressman, most congressmen have, you know, hospitals in their district. So they they get lobbied a lot, though, you know — I mean, this is a different issue, but particularly on the House side, hospitals are facing site-neutral payments, which if that actually went through Congress would be a loss. So yeah, but lawmakers have found it in general hard to take on the hospital industry.
Rovner: Yeah, very much so.
Kenen: Yeah. I mean, I think that we think of nonprofits and for-profits as, they’re different, but they’re not as different as we think they are, in that, you know, nonprofits are getting a tax break and they have to reinvest their profits. But it doesn’t mean they’re not making a lot of money. Some of them are. I mean, some of them have, you know, we’ve all walked into fancy nonprofits with, you know, fancy art and marble floors and so on and so forth. And we’ve all been in nonprofits that are barely keeping their doors open. So it’s your tax status. It’s not really, you know, your ethical status or the quality of care. I mean, there’s good nonprofits, there’s good for-profits. You know, this whole thing is like, if I were a hospital, I would be getting this huge tax break, and what am I doing to deserve it? And that’s the question.
Rovner: And I think the argument is, you know, that the 7.7% uninsured we were talking about, that hospitals are supposed to be providing care as part of their community benefit that the federal government now is ending up paying for. I think that’s sort of the frustration. If nonprofit hospitals were doing what they were supposed to do, it would cost federal and state governments less money, which always surprises me because this is not gone after more. I mean, Grassley has spent his whole career working on various types of government fraud. So this is totally in line for him. But it’s never just seemed to be a big priority for any administration.
Huetteman: There’s a little bit of an X factor here. Look at the fact that Grassley and Warren are talking about this publicly now. Maybe I’m just really optimistic from all the journalism we’ve been doing about projects like “Bill of the Month.” But the reality is that a lot of people are now seeing reporting that’s showing to them what nonprofit hospitals are actually doing when it comes to pursuing patients who don’t pay bills. And what it means to have community benefit comes into question a lot when you talk about wage garnishment, suing patients who are low-income for their medical debt. These are things that journalists have uncovered over and over again, happening at — ding, ding, ding — nonprofit hospitals. It’s harder to argue that hospitals are just doing their best for people when you have these stories of poor people who are losing their homes over unpaid medical bills, for instance. And I think that right now, when we’re in this political moment where health care costs are so, so potent to people and so important, I mean, could we see that this will actually be more effective, that we’re heading towards something that’s more effective? Maybe.
Rovner: Well, repeats the journalist, as we all are, the power of storytelling. Definitely the public is primed. I imagine that’s why they’re doing it now. We’ll see what comes of it.
Kenen: think the public is primed for bad practices. I’m not sure how many patients understand if the hospital they go to is a nonprofit or a for-profit. I think the public understands that everything in health care costs too much and that there are bad actors and greed. There’s a difference between profit and greed, and I think many people would say that we’re now in an era of greed. And not everybody in the health care sector — before anybody calls us up and shouts, “Not everybody who provides care is greedy” — but we’ve seen, you know, it is clearly out there. You know, you had Zeke Emanuel on a couple of weeks ago. Remember what he said, that, you know, 10 years ago, some people still liked their health care and now nobody likes their health care, rich or poor.
Rovner: Yeah, he’s right. All right. Well, that is this week’s news. Now, we’ll play my interview with Kate McEvoy of the National Association of Medicaid Directors about how the Medicaid unwinding is going. And one note before you listen: Kate frequently refers to the federal CMCS, which is not a misspeak; it stands for the Center for Medicaid and CHIP Services, which is the branch of CMS, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, that deals with Medicaid. So, here’s the interview:
I am pleased to welcome to the podcast Kate McEvoy, executive director of the National Association of Medicaid Directors, which is pretty much exactly what the name says, a group where state Medicaid officials can share information and ideas. Kate, welcome to “What the Health?”
Kate McEvoy: Good afternoon. Thanks for having me.
Rovner: Obviously, the Medicaid unwinding, which we have talked about a lot on the podcast, is Topic A for your members right now. Remind us again which Medicaid recipients are having their coverage eligibility rechecked? It’s not just those in the expansion group from the Affordable Care Act, right?
McEvoy: It’s not, no. Each and every person served by the country nationwide has to be reevaluated from an eligibility standpoint this year.
Rovner: What do we know about how it’s going? We’re seeing lots of reports that suggest the vast majority of people losing coverage are for paperwork reasons, not because they’ve been found to be no longer eligible. I know you recently surveyed your members. What are they telling you about this?
McEvoy: So, I first want to say this is an unprecedented task and it’s obviously historically significant for everyone served by the program. The volume of the work, and also the complexity, makes it a challenging task for all states and territories. But what we are seeing to date is a few things. First, we have seen an incredible effort on the part of states and territories to saturate really every means of communicating with their membership, really getting out that message around connecting with the programs, especially if an individual has moved during the period of the pandemic, which is very typical for people served by Medicaid. So that saturation of messaging and use of new means of connecting with people, like texting, really does represent a tremendous advance for the Medicaid program that has traditionally relied on a lot of complex, formal, legal notices to people. So that seems like a very positive thing. What we are seeing, and this is not unexpected, is that, you know, for reasons related to complex life circumstances and competing considerations, many people are not responding to those notices, no matter how we are transmitting those messages. And so that is a piece that is of great interest and concern to all of us, notably Medicaid directors wanting to make sure that eligible folks do not lose coverage simply because they are not responsive to the requests for more information. So we’re at a point where we’re beyond that initial push around messaging and now are really focused on means of protecting people who remain eligible, either through automatic review of their eligibility — the ex parte process — or by restoring them through such means as reconsideration. That’s really the main focus right now.
Rovner: And there’s that 90-day reconsideration window. Is that … how does that work?
McEvoy: So the federal law gives this period of 90 days to families and children within which they can be renewed with very little effort, essentially removing the responsibility to complete a new application. We also have long-standing help to people called “presumptive eligibility.” So if someone goes to a federally qualified health center or, more unfortunately, goes to the hospital, many of those types of providers can restore someone’s eligibility. So those are important protective pieces. We also know from the survey that you mentioned of our membership that many states and territories are extending those reconsideration protections to all coverage groups — also including older adults and people with disabilities.
Rovner: So are there any states that are doing anything that’s different and innovative? I remember when CHIP [the federal Children’s Health Insurance Program] was being stood up — and boy, that was a long time ago, like 1999 — South Carolina put flyers in pizza boxes, and some other state put flyers in sneaker boxes for back-to-school stuff. Are there better ways to maybe get ahold of these people?
McEvoy: So I think the answer is: a lot of different channels. Our colleagues in Louisiana have a partnership with Family Dollar stores to essentially feature this information on receipts. There’s a lot of work at pharmacy counters. Some of the big chain pharmacies have QR codes and other means of prompting people around their Medicaid eligibility. There’s going to be a big push for the back-to-school effort. And I think CMS and states are really interested, particularly in ensuring that children do not lose coverage even if their parents have regained employment and they’re no longer eligible. Another thing that’s going on is a lot of innovation in the means of enabling access to information. So many states have put in place personal apps through which people can track their own eligibility. There’s interest and some uptake of the so-called pizza-tracker function — so you can kind of see where you’re situated in that pipeline — and also a lot of use of automation to help call people back if they’re trying to get to state call centers. So really, all of those types of strategies … we’re seeing a huge amount of effort across the country.
Rovner: How’s the cooperation going with the Department of Health and Human Services? I know that … they seem to be not happy with some states. Are they being helpful, in general?
McEvoy: They’re being extraordinarily helpful. I would say that we often talk about Medicaid representing a federal-state equity partnership, and we’ve seen that manifest from the beginning of the first notice of the certainty around the start of the unwinding. CMCS has consistently offered guidance to states. They work with states using a mitigation approach as opposed to moving rapidly to compliance. We feel mitigation is the best way of essentially working out the strategies that are going to best protect continuing eligibility for people at the state level. And we really appreciate CMS’ efforts on that. We understand they do have to ensure accountability across the country, and we’re mutually committed to that.
Rovner: You better explain mitigation strategies.
McEvoy: Yeah, so this is a year where we are calling the question on eligibility standards that help ensure that the pathway to Medicaid coverage is a smooth one, and also that there is continuity of coverage. So, for any state that wasn’t yet meeting all those standards, CMCS essentially entered into an agreement with the state or territory to say, here is how you will get there. And that could have involved some means of improving the automatic renewals for Medicaid. It could have meant relying on an integrated eligibility processes. There are a lot of different tools and strategies that were put in place, but essentially that is a path to every state and territory coming into full compliance.
Rovner: Is there anything unexpected that’s happening? I know so much of this was predicted, and it was predicted that the states that went first that, you know, were really in a hurry to get extra people off of their rolls seem to be doing just that: getting extra people off of their rolls. Are you surprised at the differences among states?
McEvoy: I think that there have definitely been differences among states in terms of the tools they have used from a system standpoint, but I don’t see any differences in terms of retention of eligible people. That remains a shared goal across the entire country. And again, this is a watershed point where we have the opportunity to bring everyone to the same standards, ongoing, so that we help to prevent some of the heartache of the eligibility process for folks ongoing.
Rovner: Anything else I didn’t ask?
McEvoy: Well, I think that piece around the reconsideration period is particularly important. We are struck by there being probably less literacy around that option, and that’s something we want to continue to promote. The other piece I’d wind up by saying is that the Medicaid program is always available for people who are eligible. So in the worst-case scenario in which an otherwise eligible person loses coverage, they can always come back and be covered. This is in contrast to private insurance that may have an annual open enrollment period. Medicaid, as you know, is available on a rolling basis, and we want to keep reinforcing that theme so that no one goes with a gap in coverage.
Rovner: Kate McEvoy, thank you very much. And I hope we can call you back in a couple of months.
McEvoy: I would be very happy to hear from you.
Rovner: OK. We are 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. I did mine already. Emmarie, why don’t you go next?
Huetteman: My story this week comes from KFF Health News, my colleague Darius Tahir. He has a story called “The NIH Ices a Research Project. Is It Self-Censorship?” Now, the story talks about the fact that the former head of NIH Francis Collins, was, as he was leaving, announcing an effort to study health communications. And we’re talking about not just doctor-to-patient communications, but actually also how mass communications impact American health. But as Darius found out, the acting director quietly ended the program as NIH was preparing to open its grant applications. And officials who spoke with us said that they think political pressure over misinformation is to blame. Now, we don’t have to look too far for examples of conservative pressure over misinformation and information these days. In particular, there’s a notable one from just last month out of a Louisiana court, the federal court decision that blocked government officials from communicating with social media companies. You really don’t have to look too far to see that there’s a chilling effect on information. And we’re talking about the NIH was going to study or rather fund studies into communication and information. Not misinformation, information: how people get information about their health. So it’s a pretty interesting example and a really great story worth your read.
Rovner: And I’ve done nothing but preach about public health communication for three years now.
Kenen: It’s a very good story.
Rovner: Yeah, it was a really good story. Rachel, you’re next.
Roubein: All right. This story is called “From Windows to Wall Art, Hospitals Use Virtual Reality to Design More Inclusive Rooms for Kids,” by Stat News, by Mohana Ravindranath. And I thought this story was really interesting because she kind of dived into what Mohana called “a budding movement to make architecture more inclusive” for the people and patients who are spending a lot, a lot of time in hospital walls. And what some researchers are doing is using virtual reality to essentially gauge how comfortable children who are patients are in hospital rooms. And she talked to researchers at Berkeley who were using these, like, virtual reality headsets to kind of study and explore mocked-up hospital rooms. And, I didn’t know a ton about this field. I mean, apparently it’s not new, but it’s this kind of growing sort of movement to make patients more comfortable in the space that they’re inhabiting for perhaps long periods of time.
Rovner: I went to a conference on architecture, hospital architecture, making it more patient-centered, 10 years ago. But my favorite thing that I still remember from that is they talked about putting art on the ceiling because people are either in bed or they’re in gurneys. They’re looking up at the ceiling a lot. And ceilings are scary in hospitals. So that was one of the things that I took away from that. OK, Joanne, now it’s your turn.
Kenen: OK. This is from Fox News. And yes, you did hear that right. It’s by Melissa Rudy, and the headline is “Male Health Care Leaders Complete ‘Simulated Breastfeeding Challenge’ at Texas Hospital: ‘Huge Eye-Opener’.” So at Covenant Health, they had a bunch of high-level guys in suits pretend they were nursing and/or pumping mothers, and they had to nurse every three hours for 20 minutes at a time. And they found it was quite difficult and quite cumbersome and they didn’t have enough privacy. And as one of them said, “There was no way to multitask.” But trust me, if you have two kids, you have to figure that out, too. So it was a really good story.
Rovner: Some of these things that we feel like should be required everywhere, but it was a great read; it was a really good story. 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 this week to Zach Dyer, sitting in for the indefatigable Francis Ying. And as always, you can email us your comments or questions. We’re at email@example.com. Or you can tweet me or X me or whatever; I’m @jrovner. And also on Bluesky and Threads. Rachel?
Roubein: @rachel_roubein — that’s on Twitter.
Huetteman: And I am @emmarieDC.
Rovner: We will be back in your feed next week. Until then, be healthy.
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