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KFF Health News' 'What the Health?': Countdown to Shutdown
Episode 315

The Host

Julie Rovner
KFF Health News
Julie Rovner is chief Washington correspondent and host of KFF Health News’ weekly health policy news podcast, “What the Health?” A noted expert on health policy issues, Julie is the author of the critically praised reference book “Health Care Politics and Policy A to Z,” now in its third edition.

Health and other federal programs are at risk of shutting down, at least temporarily, as Congress races toward the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year without having passed any of its 12 annual appropriations bills. A small band of conservative House Republicans are refusing to approve spending bills unless domestic spending is cut beyond levels agreed to in May.

Meanwhile, former President Donald Trump roils the GOP presidential primary field by vowing to please both sides in the divisive abortion debate.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of KFF Health News, Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico, Rachel Cohrs of Stat News, and Tami Luhby of CNN.


Among the takeaways from this week’s episode:

  • The odds of a government shutdown over spending levels are rising. While entitlement programs like Medicare would be largely spared, past shutdowns have shown that closing the federal government hobbles things Americans rely on, like food safety inspections and air travel.
  • In Congress, the discord isn’t limited to spending bills. A House bill to increase price transparency in health care melted down before a vote this week, demonstrating again how hard it is to take on the hospital industry. Legislation on how pharmacy benefit managers operate is also in disarray, though its projected government savings means it could resurface as part of a spending deal before the end of the year.
  • On the Senate side, legislation intended to strengthen primary care is teetering under Bernie Sanders’ stewardship — in large part over questions about how to pay for it. Also, this week Democrats broke Alabama Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s abortion-related blockade of military promotions (kind of), going around him procedurally to confirm the new chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
  • And some Republicans are breaking with abortion opponents and mobilizing in support of legislation to renew the United States President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief — including the former president who spearheaded the program, George W. Bush. Meanwhile, polling shows President Joe Biden is struggling to claim credit for the new Medicare drug negotiation program.
  • And speaking of past presidents, former President Donald Trump gave NBC an interview over the weekend in which he offered a muddled stance on abortion. Vowing to settle the long, inflamed debate over the procedure — among other things — Trump’s comments were strikingly general election-focused for someone who has yet to win his party’s nomination.

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

Julie Rovner: The Washington Post’s “Inside the Gold Rush to Sell Cheaper Imitations of Ozempic,” by Daniel Gilbert.

Alice Miranda Ollstein: Politico’s “The Anti-Vaccine Movement Is on the Rise. The White House Is at a Loss Over What to Do About It,” by Adam Cancryn.

Rachel Cohrs: KFF Health News’ “Save Billions or Stick With Humira? Drug Brokers Steer Americans to the Costly Choice,” by Arthur Allen.

Tami Luhby: CNN’s “Supply and Insurance Issues Snarl Fall Covid-19 Vaccine Campaign for Some,” by Brenda Goodman.

Also mentioned in this week’s episode:

[Editor’s note: This transcript was generated using both transcription software and a human’s light touch. It has been edited for style and clarity.]

Julie Rovner: Hello and welcome back to “What the Health?” I’m Julie Rovner, chief Washington correspondent for KFF Health News. And I’m joined by some of the best and smartest health reporters in Washington. We’re taping this week on Thursday, Sept. 21, at 9 a.m. because, well, lots of news this week. And as always, news happens fast, and things might well have changed by the time you hear this. So here we go. We are joined today via video conference by Tami Luhby of CNN.

Tami Luhby: Good morning.

Rovner: Rachel Cohrs of Stat News.

Rachel Cohrs: Hi, everybody.

Rovner: And Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico.

Alice Miranda Ollstein: Hello.

Rovner: Let’s get to some of that news. We will begin on Capitol Hill, where I might make a T-shirt from this tweet from Wednesday from longtime congressional reporter Jake Sherman: “I feel like this is not the orderly appropriations process that was promised after the debt ceiling deal passed.” For those of you who might’ve forgotten, many moons ago, actually it was May, Congress managed to avoid defaulting on the national debt, and as part of that debt ceiling deal agreed to a small reduction in annual domestic spending for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1 (as in nine days from now). But some of the more conservative Republicans in the House want those cuts to go deeper, much deeper, in fact. And now they’re refusing to either vote for spending bills approved by the Republican-led appropriations committee or even for a short-term spending bill that would keep the government open after this year’s funding runs out. So how likely is a shutdown at this point? I would hazard a guess to say pretty likely. And anybody disagree with that?

Ollstein: It’s more likely than it was a week or two ago, for sure. The fact that we’re at the point where the House passing something that they know is dead on arrival in the Senate would be considered a victory for them. And so, if that’s the case, you really have to wonder what the end game is.

Rovner: Yeah, I mean it was notable, I think, that the House couldn’t even pass the rule for the Defense Appropriations Bill, which is the most Republican-backed spending bill, and the House couldn’t get that done. So I mean it does not bode well for the fate of some of these domestic programs that Republicans would, as I say, like to cut a lot deeper. Right?

Cohrs: Democrats are happy, I think, to watch Republicans flail for a while. I think we saw this during the speaker votes. Obviously, a CR [continuing resolution] could pass with wide bipartisan support, but I think there’s a political interest for Democrats going into an election year next year to lean into the idea of the House Republican chaos and blaming them for a shutdown. So I wouldn’t be too optimistic about Democrats billing them out anytime soon.

Rovner: But, bottom line, of course, is that a shutdown is not great for Democrats who support things that the government does. I mean, Tami, you’re watching, what does happen if there’s a shutdown? Not everything shuts down and not all the money stops flowing.

Luhby: No, and the important thing, unlike in the debt ceiling, potentially, was that Social Security will continue, Medicare will continue, but it’ll be very bothersome to a lot of people. There’ll be important things that … potentially chaos at airlines and food safety inspectors. I mean some of them are sometimes considered essential workers, but there’s still issues there. So people will be mad because they can’t go to their national parks potentially. I mean it’s different every time, so it’s a little hard to say exactly what the effects will be and we’ll see also whether this will be a full government shutdown, which will be much more serious than a partial government shutdown, although at this point it doesn’t look like they’re going to get any of the appropriation bills through.

Rovner: I was going to say, yeah, sometimes when they get some of the spending bills done, there’s a partial shutdown because they’ve gotten some of the spending bills done, but I’m pretty sure they’ve gotten zero done now. I think there’s one that managed to pass both the House and the Senate, but basically this would be a full shutdown of everything that’s funded through the appropriations process. Which as Tami points out, the big things are the Smithsonian and the National Zoo close, and national parks close, but also you can’t get an awful lot of government services. Meanwhile, the ill will among House Republicans is apparently rubbing off on other legislation. The House earlier this week was supposed to vote on a relatively noncontroversial package of bills aimed at making hospital insurance and drug prices more transparent, among other things. But even that couldn’t get through. Rachel, what happened to the transparency bill that everybody thought was going to be a slam-dunk?

Cohrs: Well, I don’t think everybody thought it was going to be a slam-dunk given the chaos that we saw, especially in the Democratic Caucus last week, where one out of three chairmen who work on health care in the House endorsed the package, but the other two would not. And they ran into a situation where, with the special rule that they were using to consider the House transparency package, they needed two-thirds vote to pass and they couldn’t get enough Democrats on board to pass it. And I think there were some process concerns from both sides that there was a compromise that came out right after August recess and it hadn’t been socialized properly and they didn’t have their ducks in a row in the Democratic side. But ultimately, I mean, the big picture for me I think was how hard it really is to take on the hospital industry. Because this was the first real effort I think from the House and it melted down before its first vote. That doesn’t mean it’s dead yet, but it was an embarrassment, I think, to everyone who worked on this that they couldn’t get this pretty noncontroversial package through. And when I tried to talk to people about what they actually oppose, it was these tiny little details about a privacy provision or one transparency provision and not with the big idea. It wasn’t ideological necessarily. So I think it was just a reflection on Congress has taken on pharma, they’re working on PBMs this year, but if they really do want to tackle hospital costs, which are a very big part of Medicare spending, it’s going to be a tough road ahead for them.

Rovner: As we like to point out, every single member of Congress has a hospital in their district, and they are quick to let their members of Congress know what they want and how they want them to vote on things. Before we move on, where are we on the PBM legislation? I know there was a whole raft of hearings this week on doing something about PBMs. And my inbox is full of people from both sides. “The PBMs are making drug prices higher.” “No, the PBMs are helping keep drug prices in check.” Where are we with the congressional effort to try and at least figure out what the PBMs do?

Cohrs: Yeah, I think there is still some disarray at this point. I would watch for action in December or whenever we actually have a conversation about government funding because some of these PBM bills do save money, which is the golden ticket in health care because there are a lot of programs that need to be paid for this year. So Congress will continue to debate those over the next couple of weeks, but I think everyone that I talk to is expecting potential passage in a larger package at the end of the year.

Rovner: So speaking of things that need to be paid for, the saga of Sen. Bernie Sanders and the reauthorization of some key primary care programs, including the popular community health center program, continues. When we left off last July, Sen. Sanders, who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee [HELP], tried to advance a bill to extend and greatly expand primary care programs without negotiating with his ranking Republican on the committee, Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy, who had his own bill to renew the programs. Cassidy protested and blocked the bill’s movement and the whole enterprise came to a screeching halt. Last week, Sanders announced he’d negotiated a bipartisan bill, but not with Cassidy, rather with Kansas Republican Roger Marshall, who chairs the relevant subcommittee. Cassidy, however, is still not pleased. Rachel, you’re following this. Sanders has scheduled a markup of the bill for later today. Is it really going to happen?

Cohrs: Well, I think things are on track and the thing to remember about a markup is it passes on a majority. So as long as Sen. Sanders can keep his Democratic members in line and gets Sen. Marshall, then it can pass committee. But I think there are some concerns that other Republicans will share with Sen. Cassidy about how the bill is paid for. There are a lot of ambitious programs to expand workforce training, have debt forgiveness, and address the primary care workforce crisis in a more meaningful way. But the list of pay-fors is a little undisciplined from what I’ve seen, I would say.

Rovner: That’s a good word.

Cohrs: Sen. Sanders is pulling some pay-fors from other committees, which he can’t necessarily do by himself, and they don’t actually have estimates from the Congressional Budget Office for some of the pay-fors that they’re planning to use. They’re just using internal committee math, which I don’t think is going to pass muster with Republicans in the full Senate, even if it gets through committee today. So I think we’ll see some of those concerns flare up. It could get ugly today compared with HELP markups of the past of community health center bills. And there are certainly some concerns about the application of the Hyde Amendment too, and how it would apply to some of this funding as it moves through the appropriations process.

Rovner: That’s the amendment that bans direct government funding of abortion, and there’s always a fight about the Hyde Amendment, which are reauthorizing these health programs. But I mean, we should point out, I mean this is one of the most bipartisanly popular programs, both the community health center program and these programs that basically give federal money to train more primary care doctors, which the country desperately needs. I mean, it’s something that pretty much everybody, or most of Congress, supports, but Cassidy has what, 60 amendments to this bill. I guess he’s really not happy. Cassidy who supports this in general just is unhappy with this process, right?

Cohrs: I think his concern is more that the legislation is half-baked, not that he’s against the idea of it. And Sen. Cassidy did sign on to a more limited House proposal as well, just saying, we need to fund the community health centers, we need to do something. This isn’t ready for prime time. We could see further negotiations, but the time is ticking for this funding to expire.

Rovner: Well, another program whose authorization expires at the end of the month is PEPFAR, the international AIDS/HIV program. It’s being blocked by anti-abortion activists among others, even though it doesn’t have anything to do with the abortion. And this is not just a bipartisan program, it’s a Republican-led program. Former President George W. Bush who signed it into law in 2003, had an op-ed this week pushing for the program in The Washington Post. Alice, you’ve been following this one. Is there any progress on PEPFAR?

Ollstein: Yes and no. There’s not a vote scheduled, there’s not a “Kumbaya” moment, but we are seeing some movement. I call it “Establishment Republican Strike Back.” You have some both on- and off-the-Hill Republicans really mobilizing to say, “Look, we need to reauthorize this program. This is ridiculous.” And they’re going against the anti-abortion groups and their allies on Capitol Hill who say, “No, let’s just extend this program just year by year through appropriations, not a reauthorization.” Which they say would rubber-stamp the Biden administration redirecting money towards abortion, which the Biden administration and everybody else denies is happening. And so we confirmed that Chairman Mike McCaul in the House and Lindsey Graham in the Senate are working with Democrats on some sort of reauthorization bill. It might not be the full five years, it might be three years, we don’t really know yet. But they think that at least a multiyear reauthorization will give the program some stability rather than the one-year funding patch that other House Republicans are mulling. So we’re going to see where this goes; obviously, it’s an interesting test for the influence of these anti-abortion groups on Capitol Hill. And my colleague and I also scooped that former President Bush, who oversaw the creation of this program, is quietly lobbying certain members, having meetings, and so we will see what kind of pull he still has in the party.

Rovner: Well, this was one of his signature achievements, literally. So it’s something that I know that … and we should point out, unlike the spending bills, the appropriation bills, if this doesn’t happen by Oct. 1, nothing stops, it’s just it becomes theoretically unauthorized, like many programs are, and it’s considered not a good sign for the program.

Luhby: One thing I also wanted to just bring up quickly, tangentially related to health care, but also showing how bipartisan programs are not getting the support that they did, is the WIC program, which is food assistance for women, infants and children, needs more money. Actually participation is up, but even before that, the House Republicans wanted to cut the funding for it, and that was going to be a big divide between them and the Senate. And now because participation is up, the Biden administration is actually asking for another $1.4 billion for the program. This is a program that, again, has always had support and has been fully funded, not had to turn people away. And now it’s looking that many women and small children may not be able to get the assistance if Congress isn’t able to actually fund the program fully.

Rovner: Yes, they’re definitely tied in knots. Well, Oct. 1 turns out to be a key date for a lot of health care issues. It’s also the day drugmakers are supposed to notify Medicare whether they will participate in negotiations for the 10 high-cost drugs Medicare has chosen for the first phase of the program that Congress approved last year. But that might all get blocked if a federal judge rules in favor of a suit brought by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, among others. Rachel, there was a hearing on this last week, where does this lawsuit stand and when do we expect to hear something from the judge?

Cohrs: So the judge didn’t ask any questions of the attorneys, so they were essentially presenting arguments that we’ve already seen previewed in some of the briefing materials. We are expecting some action by Oct. 1, which is when the Chamber had requested a ruling on whether there’s going to be a preliminary injunction, just because drugmakers are supposed to sign paperwork and submit data to CMS by that Oct. 1 date. So I think we are just waiting to see what the ruling might be. Some of the key issues or whether the Chamber actually has standing to file this lawsuit, given it’s not an actual drug manufacturer. And there was some quibbling about what members they listed in the lawsuit. And then I think they only addressed the argument that the negotiation program violated drugmakers’ due process rights, which isn’t the full scope of the lawsuit. It’s not an indicator of success really anywhere else, but it is important because it is the very first test. And if a preliminary injunction is issued, then it brings everything to a halt. So I think it would be very impactful for other drugmakers as well.

Rovner: Nobody told me when I became a health reporter that I was going to have to learn every step of the civil judicial process, and yet here we are. Well, while we are still on the subject of drug prices, a new poll from the AP and the NORC finds that while the public, Republicans and Democrats, still strongly support Medicare being able to negotiate the price of prescription drugs, President [Joe] Biden is getting barely any credit for having accomplished something that Democrats have been pushing for for more than 20 years. Most respondents in the survey either don’t think the plan goes far enough, because, as we point out, it’s only the first 10 drugs, or they don’t realize that he’s the one that helped push it over the finish line. This should have been a huge win and it’s turning out to be a nothing. Is that going to change?

Ollstein: It’s kind of a “Groundhog Day” of the Obamacare experience in which they pass this big, huge reform that people had been fighting for so long, but they’re trying to campaign on it when people aren’t really feeling the effects of it yet. And so when people aren’t really feeling the benefit and they’re hearing, “Oh, we’re lowering your drug prices.” But they’re going to the pharmacy and they’re paying the same very high amount, it’s hard to get a political win from that. The long implementation timeline is against them there. So there are some provisions that kick in more quickly, so we’ll have to see if that makes any kind of difference. I think that’s why you hear them talk a lot about the insulin price cap because that is already in effect, but that hits fewer people than the bigger negotiation will theoretically hit eventually. So it’s tough, and I think it leaves a vacuum where the drug industry and conservatives can fearmonger or raise concerns and say, “This will make drugs inaccessible and they won’t submit new cures for approval.” And all this stuff. And because people aren’t feeling the benefits, but they’re hearing those downsides, yeah, that makes the landscape even tougher for Democrats.

Luhby: This is very much the pattern that the Biden administration has had with a lot of its achievements or successes because it’s also not getting any credit for anything in the economy. The job market is relatively strong still, the economy is relatively strong. Yes, we have high inflation and high prices, even though that’s moderated, prices are still high, and that’s what people are seeing. Gas prices are now up again, which is not good for the administration. But they’re touting their Bidenomics, which also includes lowering drug prices. But generally polling shows, including our CNN polling shows, that people do not think the economy is doing well and they’re not giving Biden any credit for anything.

Cohrs: I think part of the problem is that … it’s different from the Affordable Care Act where it was health care, health care, health care for a very long time. This is lumped into a bill called the Inflation Reduction Act. I think it got lumped in with climate, got looped in with tax. And the media, we did our best, but it was hard to explain everything that was in the bill. And Medicare negotiation is complicated, it’s wonky, and I don’t know that people fully understood everything that was in the Inflation Reduction Act when it passed and they capitulated to Sen. [Joe] Manchin for what he wanted to name it. And so I think some of that got muddled when it first passed and they’re kind of trying to do catch-up work to explain, again, like Alice said, something that hasn’t gone into effect, which is a really tough uphill climb.

Rovner: This has been a continuing frustration for Democrats, which is that actually getting legislation done in Washington always involves some kind of compromise, and it’s always going to be incremental. And the public doesn’t really respond to things that are incremental. It’s like, “Why isn’t it bigger? Why didn’t they do what they promised?” And so the Republicans get more credit for stopping things than the Democrats get for actually passing things. Right. Well, let us turn to abortion. The breaking news today is that the Senate is finally acting to bust the blockade Alabama Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville has had on military promotion since February to protest a Defense Department policy allowing service people leave to travel to other states for abortions. And Tuberville himself is part of this breakage, right, Alice? And it’s not a full breakage.

Ollstein: Right. And there have also been some interesting interviews that maybe raise questions on how much Tuberville understands the mechanics of what he’s doing because he said in an interview, “Oh, well, the people who were in these jobs before, they’ll just stay in it and it’s fine.” And they had to explain, “Well, statutorily, they can’t after a certain date.” And he seemed surprised by that. And now you’re seeing these attempts to go around his own blockade, and Democrats to go around his blockade. In part, for a while, Democrats were really not wanting to do that, schedule these votes, until he fully relented because they thought that would increase the pressure.

Rovner: They didn’t want to do it nomination by nomination for the big-picture ones because they were afraid that would leave behind the smaller ones.

Ollstein: Exactly. But this is dragging on so long that I think you’re seeing some frustration and desire to do something, even if it’s not fully resolving the standoff.

Rovner: And I’m seeing frustration from other Republicans. Again, the idea of a Republican holding up military promotions for six months is something that was not on my Republican Bingo card five years ago or even two years ago. I’m sure he’s not making a lot of his colleagues very happy with this. So on the Republican presidential campaign trail, abortion continues to be a subject all the candidates are struggling with — all of them, it seems, except former President Donald Trump, who said in an interview with NBC on Sunday that he alone can solve this. Francis, you have the tape.

Donald Trump: We are going to agree to a number of weeks or months or however you want to define it, and both sides are going to come together, and both sides, and this is a big statement, both sides will come together and for the first time in 52 years, you’ll have an issue that we can put behind us.

Rovner: OK. Well, Trump — who actually seemed all over the place about where he is on the issue in a fairly bald attempt to both placate anti-abortion hardliners in the party’s base and those who support abortion rights, whose votes he might need if he wants to win another election — criticized his fellow Republicans, who he called, “inarticulate on the subject.” I imagine that’s not going over very well among all of the other Republican candidates, right?

Ollstein: We have a piece up on this this morning. One, Trump is clearly acting like he has already won the primary, so he is trying to speak to a general audience, as you noted, and go after those votes in the middle that he may need and so he’s pitching this compromise. And we have a piece that the anti-abortion groups are furious about this, but they don’t really know what to do about it because he probably is going to be the nominee and they’re probably going to spend tens of millions to help elect him if he is, even though they’re furious with these comments he’s making. And so it’s a really interesting moment for their influence. Of course, Trump is trying to have it both ways, he also is calling himself the most pro-life president of all time. He is continually taking credit for appointing the justices to the Supreme Court who overturned Roe v. Wade.

Rovner: Which he did.

Ollstein: Exactly.

Rovner: Which is true.

Ollstein: Which he definitely did. But he is not toeing the line anymore that these groups want. These groups want him to endorse some sort of federal ban on abortion and they want him to praise states like Florida that have passed even stricter bans. He is not doing that. And so there’s an interesting dynamic there. And now his primary opponents see this as an opening, they’re trailing him in the polls, and so they’re trying to capitalize on this. [Gov. Ron] DeSantis and a bunch of others came out blasting him for these abortion remarks. But again, he’s acting like he’s already won the primary, he’s brushing it off and ignoring them.

Rovner: I love how confident he is though, that there’s a way to settle this — really, that there is a compromise, it’s just nobody’s been smart enough to get to it.

Ollstein: Well, he also, in the same interview, he said he’ll solve the Ukraine-Russia war in a day. So I mean, I think we should consider it in that context. It was interesting when I talked to all these different anti-abortion groups, they all said the idea of cutting some sort of deal is ludicrous. There is no magic deal that everybody would be happy about. If anything …

Rovner: And those on the other side will say the same thing.

Ollstein: Exactly. How could you watch what’s happened over the past year or 30 years and think that’s remotely possible? However, they did acknowledge that him saying that does appeal to a certain kind of voter, who is like, “Yeah, let’s just compromise. Let’s just get past this. I’m sick of all the fighting.” So it’s another interesting tension.

Rovner: Yeah. And I love how Trump always says the quiet part out loud, which is that this is not a great issue for Republicans and they’re not talking about it right. It’s like Republicans know this is a not-great issue for Republicans, but they don’t usually say that in an interview on national television. That is Trump, and this will continue. Well, finally this week I wanted to talk about what I am calling the dark underbelly of the new weight loss drugs. This is my extra credit this week. It’s a Washington Post story by Daniel Gilbert called “Inside the Gold Rush to Sell Cheaper Imitations of Ozempic.” It’s about the huge swell of sometimes not-so-legitimate websites and wellness spas selling unapproved formulations of semaglutide and tirzepatide — better known by their brand names Ozempic, Wegovy, and Mounjaro — to unsuspecting consumers because the demand for these diabetes drugs is so high for people who want to lose weight. The FDA has declared semaglutide at least to be in shortage for the people it was originally approved for, those with Type 2 diabetes. But that designation legally allows compounding pharmacies to manufacture their own versions, at least in some cases, except to quote the piece, “Since then, a parallel marketplace with no modern precedent has sprung up attracting both licensed medical professionals and entrepreneurs with histories ranging from regulatory violations to armed robbery.” Meanwhile, and this is coming from a separate story, both Eli Lilly and Novo Nordisk, the manufacturers of the approved versions of the drugs, are suing companies they say are selling unapproved versions of their drug, including, in some cases, drugs that actually pretend to be the brand name drug that aren’t. This is becoming really a big messy buyer-beware market, right? Rachel, you guys have written about this.

Cohrs: It has. Yeah, my colleagues have done great coverage, including I think the lawsuit by manufacturers of these drugs who are seeing their profits slipping through their fingers as patients are turning to these alternatives that aren’t necessarily approved by the FDA. And I think there are also risks because we have seen some side effects from these medications; they range from some very serious GI symptoms to strange dreams. There’s just a whole lot going on there. And I think it is concerning that some patients are getting ahold of these medications, which are expensive if you’re buying them the traditional way. And again, for weight loss, I think some of these medications are still off-label, they’re not FDA-approved. So if they’re getting these without any supervision from a medical provider or somebody who they can ask when they have questions that come up and are monitoring for some of these other side effects, then I think it is a very dangerous game for these patients. And I think it’s just a symptom of this outpouring of interest and the regulators’, I think, failure to keep up with it. And there’s also some supply concerns. So I think it’s just this perfect storm of desperation from patients and the bureaucracy struggling to keep up.

Rovner: Yeah. One of the reasons I chose the story is I really feel like this is unprecedented. I mean, I suppose it could have been predicted because these drugs do seem to be very good at what they do and they are very expensive and very hard to get, so not such a surprise that not-so-honest people might spring up to try and fill the void. But it’s still a little bit scary to see people selling heaven only knows what to people who are very anxious to take things.

Luhby: And in related news, there are more doctors who are interested in obesity medicine now, so everyone is trying to cash in.

Rovner: Yeah, I mean, eventually I imagine this will sort itself out. It’s just that at the beginning when it’s so popular, although I will still … I keep thinking this, is the solution to really throw this much money at it or to try to figure out how to make these drugs cheaper? If it’s going to be such a societal good, maybe we should do something about the price. Anyway, that is my extra credit in this week’s news. Now we will take a quick break and then we’ll come back with the rest of our extra credits.

Hey, “What the Health?” listeners, you already know that few things in health care are ever simple. So, if you like our show, I recommend you also listen to “Tradeoffs,” a podcast that goes even deeper into our costly, complicated, and often counterintuitive health care system. Hosted by longtime health care journalist and friend Dan Gorenstein, “Tradeoffs” digs into the evidence and research data behind health care policies and tells the stories of real people impacted by decisions made in C-suites, doctors’ offices, and even Congress. Subscribe wherever you listen to your podcasts.

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 and in our show notes on your phone or other mobile device. Tami, why don’t you go first this week?

Luhby: Sure. Well, this week I chose a good story by one of my colleagues, Brenda Goodman. It’s titled “Supply and Insurance Issues Snarl Fall Covid-19 Vaccine Campaign for Some.” And we’ve all been hearing this, I heard this from a friend of mine who’s a doctor, we know Cynthia Cox at KFF tweeted about this. And that even though the new vaccines are ready and the Biden administration has been pushing people to go get them, and many people are eager to get them, they’re not so easy to get. Either because drugstores are running out, that’s what happened to my friend. She went in and said there just wasn’t any supply available. Or for some other people, they’re supposed to be free for most Americans, but the insurance companies haven’t caught up with that yet. So they go in and either they’re denied or the pharmacy tells them that they have to pay potentially $200 for the vaccines. So the problem here is that there’s already an issue with getting vaccines and people getting vaccinated in this country and then putting up extra hurdles for them will only cause more problems and cause fewer people to get vaccinated because some people may not come back.

Rovner: Talk about something that should have been predictable. The distributors knew it was going to be available and pretty much when, and the insurance companies knew it was going to be available and pretty much when, and yet somehow they seem to have not gotten their act together when the predictable surge of people wanting to get the vaccine early came about. Alice, you wanted to add something?

Ollstein: Just anecdotally, the supply and the demand are completely out of whack. My partner is back home in Alabama right now and he was at a pharmacy where they were just wandering around asking random people, “Will you take the shot? Will you take the shot?” And a bunch of people were saying, “No.” And meanwhile, here in D.C., myself and everyone I know is just calling around wanting to get it and not able to. And so you think we’d have figured this out better after so many years of this.

Rovner: Well, I have an appointment for tomorrow. We’ll see if it happens. Rachel, why don’t you go next?

Cohrs: Sure. I chose a KFF Health News story by Arthur Allen, and the headline is “Save Billions or Stick With Humira? Drug Brokers Steer Americans to the Costly Choice.” And I just love a story where it’s off the news cycle a little bit and we see this big splashy announcement. And I think Arthur did a great job of following up here and seeing what actually was happening with formulary placement for Humira and the new biosimilars that just came on the market.

Rovner: Yep. Remind us what Humira is?

Cohrs: Oh, yeah. So it’s one of the most profitable drugs ever. The company that makes it, AbbVie, had created this big patent thicket to try to prevent it from competition for a very long time, but this year saw competition that had been on the market in Europe finally come online in the U.S. So again, a big change for AbbVie, for the market. But I think there was concern about whether people would actually switch to these new medications that have lower prices. But again, as it gets caught up and spit out of our drug supply chain, there are a whole lot of incentives that don’t necessarily result in the cheaper medication being prescribed. And Arthur found that Express Scripts and Optum, which are two of the three biggest pharmacy benefit managers, have the biosimilar versions of Humira at the same price as Humira. So that doesn’t really create a lot of incentive for people to switch. So I think it was just great follow-up reporting and we don’t really have a lot of visibility into these formularies sometimes. So I think it was a illuminating piece.

Rovner: Yeah. And the mess that is drug pricing. Alice.

Ollstein: So I also chose a great piece by my colleague Adam Cancryn and it’s called “The Anti-Vaccine Movement Is on the Rise. The White House Is at a Loss Over What to Do About It.” It’s part of a series we’re doing on anti-vax sentiment and its impacts. And this is just going into how the Biden administration really doesn’t have a plan for combating this, even as it’s posing a bigger and bigger public health threat. And some of their attempts to go after misinformation online were stymied in court and they also are struggling with not wanting to elevate it by debunking it — that that age-old tension of, is it better to just ignore it or is it better to combat it directly? A lot of this is also tying into RFK Jr.’s presidential bid and how much to acknowledge that or not. But the impact is that they’re not really taking this on, even as it’s getting worse and worse in the country.

Rovner: And I got a bunch of emails this week about the anti-vax movement spreading to pets — that people are now resisting getting their dogs and cats vaccinated. Seriously. I mean, it is a serious problem. Obviously, if people stop getting rabies vaccines, that could be a big deal. So something else to watch. All right. Well, I already did my extra credit. So that is it 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 indefatigable engineer, Francis Ying. Also, as always, you can email us your comments or questions. We’re at Or you can tweet me; I’m still @jrovner on X and on Bluesky. Tami?

Luhby: You can tweet me at @Luhby. I sometimes check it still.

Rovner: Rachel.

Cohrs: I’m on X @rachelcohrs.

Rovner: Alice.

Ollstein: I’m @AliceOllstein.

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


Francis Ying
Audio producer
Emmarie Huetteman

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