The Supreme Court this week agreed to hear a case that could further restrict abortion — even in states where it remains legal. The case to determine the fate of the abortion pill mifepristone is the first major abortion case to come before the court since its overturn of Roe v. Wade in 2022. It could also set a precedent for judges to second-guess scientific rulings by the FDA.
Meanwhile, legislation is finally moving in the House and Senate to renew a long list of health programs that technically expired at the end of the last fiscal year, on Sept. 30. But the bills to fund community health centers and build on programs to fight the opioid epidemic are unlikely to become law until January, at the soonest.
This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of KFF Health News, Riley Griffin of Bloomberg News, Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico, and Lauren Weber of The Washington Post.
Among the takeaways from this week’s episode:
- The Supreme Court will consider a case challenging access to mifepristone, opting to review FDA decisions in recent years governing the loosening some requirements for distribution and use of the so-called abortion pill — such as the agency’s call allowing pregnant people to obtain the drug without a doctor’s visit. While the drug’s overall approval is not in question in this case, the drug industry argues undermining the FDA’s authority could open the floodgates for challenges to other pharmaceuticals and have a chilling effect on drug development.
- Legal experts say the Texas high court’s ruling blocking the abortion of a pregnant woman whose fetus has a fatal condition calls into question whether doctors are able to identify any medically necessary circumstance under existing legal exceptions. And, in other court news, the Supreme Court will let stand a Washington state law banning conversion therapy.
- On Capitol Hill, lawmakers are bundling an assortment of bipartisan, generally unrelated health measures so they can be approved, possibly as part of a government spending package in January. But can this Congress — which has proved unproductive even by recent standards — finish its work in a presidential election year?
- One piece of legislation under consideration would address the opioid epidemic, renewing grants for state efforts to prevent and treat opioid use disorder. The epidemic has taken a toll, but it is not the only problem contributing to a troubling drop in U.S. life expectancy.
- And cyberattacks are on the upswing in health care, with new revelations about an attack that targeted the Department of Health and Human Services at the onset of the pandemic.
Also this week, Rovner interviews University of Maryland professor and social media superstar Jen Golbeck about her new book, “The Purest Bond,” which lays out the science of the human-canine relationship.
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 “They Watched Their Husbands Win the Heisman — Then Lost Them to CTE,” by Kent Babb.
Alice Miranda Ollstein: Politico’s “A Deadly Delivery Highlights ‘Falsified’ Heat Records at USPS,” by Ariel Wittenberg.
Lauren Weber: The Washington Post’s “Applesauce Lead Cases in Kids Surge Amid Questions on FDA Oversight,” by Amanda Morris, Teddy Amenabar, Laura Reiley, and Jenna Portnoy.
Riley Griffin: Bloomberg News’ “The Next Blockbuster Drug Might Be Made in Space,” by Robert Langreth.
Also mentioned in this week’s episode:
- The American Prospect’s “The Life-and-Death Cost of Conservative Power,” by Paul Starr.
- Bloomberg Businessweek’s “The Untold Story of a Massive Hack at HHS in Covid’s Early Days,” by Jordan Robertson and Riley Griffin.
KFF Health News’ ‘What the Health?’
Episode Title: Abortion and SCOTUS, Together Again
Episode Number: 326
Published: Dec. 14, 2023
[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, Dec. 14, at 10 a.m. As always, news happens fast, and things might’ve 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: Good morning.
Rovner: Lauren Weber of The Washington Post.
Lauren Weber: Hello, hello.
Rovner: And we welcome to the podcast for the first time Riley Griffin of Bloomberg News.
Riley Griffin: Thanks for having me.
Rovner: Later in this episode, we’ll have my interview with University of Maryland professor Jen Golbeck, who is probably better known to anyone on social media as “GR Mom,” the woman who takes in half a dozen special-needs golden retrievers at a time. She’s co-author of a new book called “The Purest Bond” that explains why our love for dogs is not just all in our heads. But first, this week’s news.
We will start with abortion this week. In news, Alice, that you anticipated last week, the Supreme Court has decided to hear a case out of Texas regarding the abortion pill mifepristone. Depending on how the court rules, it could make abortion less available even in states where it remains legal. But Alice, this might not be as consequential as it looks at first blush because they didn’t take the case that could have impacted the overall approval of the drug, right?
Ollstein: That’s right. So they’re basically taking up what the 5th Circuit decided, not what the district court decided. The district court, as we remember very dramatically, decided that FDA approval of mifepristone decades ago was done incorrectly and would have moved to effectively ban the drug nationwide. What’s at issue before the Supreme Court are subsequent FDA decisions to make the pill more easily accessible, but those are really important and sweeping. I mean, I feel like the mail delivery piece is getting a lot of attention, but it’s not just that.
These are decisions that, one, approved a generic version of the pill, which made it cheaper and more accessible all over the country. It expanded its use from just the first seven weeks of pregnancy to the first 10 weeks of pregnancy. Those crucial weeks are when a lot of people realize they’re pregnant and make a decision about that. And more recently, allowing retail pharmacies to dispense the pills and, crucially, not requiring an in-person doctor visit to obtain them.
So the companies that make the pills say that if the Supreme Court were to side with the groups challenging these rules, it would be a de facto ban, at least temporarily, while they have to go through relabeling and retooling and everything. And that could take a while. So I think while abortion rights groups are celebrating that the overall approval of the pills is not in question, this is still very, very consequential, and it’s going to be decided just months before the presidential election, keeping this really front and center in people’s minds.
Rovner: Just to confirm though, the Supreme Court has already weighed in and put even what the 5th Circuit did on hold, right?
Rovner: So nothing has changed at the moment from what’s originally available.
Ollstein: That’s right. And so in states that have their own bans, the bills are still banned. In states where they’re protected, they’re still protected, and that will continue until the high court hears and rules on the case.
Rovner: But even though, I mean, the court is not going to take up the case where the lower-court judge said that the FDA shouldn’t have approved this in the first place, this could still be the Supreme Court basically overruling FDA’s judgment about what’s safe and effective, which could have big implications for drugs way beyond mifepristone, right?
Ollstein: That’s what the companies that make the pills and other unrelated pharmaceutical companies have been arguing. They say that this could open the floodgates for anyone with a grievance against any drug to try to challenge it. People are worried about contraception. People are worried about covid shots. Anything that’s generated any level of pushback and controversy, that would greenlight this strategy for them.
And the pharmaceutical industry has also argued that it could put a chilling effect on companies even submitting new drugs for approval, saying, if they don’t have the confidence that a court could come in later and yank away the approval, why would they feel confident in putting this out on the market? So this has the potential to be really disruptive. And I would note it comes at a time when the Supreme Court is overall really questioning deference to federal agency decisions across the board, anything from the Commerce Department to … there was a case about phishing regulations. And so, overall, it’s this “war on the administrative state” effort and this is definitely a piece of it, and it could affect health care in a lot of ways.
Rovner: Riley, you watch the drug industry. First, they were staying out of it, and then they finally decided, oh, we should get a little bit exercise because this could be important. Where are they these days?
Griffin: I think what’s been so novel for me situated here in D.C. is to watch industry lobby conservatives on this agenda. To say, this is about business interests. And if you break this house of cards, what else is going to come crashing down? So Alice made that point, and it’s a really important one. The implications here are far-reaching. And in questioning the FDA’s authority in this space, you are really going so much further, and it calls into question other drugs.
Rovner: So great, we’ll have something to talk about for weeks and weeks to come. Well, still in Texas — why does it seem that all the abortion news comes out of Texas? Last week we talked about Kate Cox, a 31-year-old mom of two, whose fetus was diagnosed at 20 weeks with a birth defect incompatible with life.
When we left off taping last Thursday morning, her lawyers were asking a Texas state judge for permission for her to have an abortion because her doctor said continuing the pregnancy could threaten her health and/or her ability to have more children in the future. Alice, a whole bunch of things happened after that. Catch us up.
Ollstein: People are really seizing on this case because it really calls the question on a lot of the assumptions of our post-Roe legal and health care landscape. And so a lower court ruled in her favor and said she should be able to get an abortion to protect her health and her ability to have another child. They said that the state should be barred from bringing criminal charges against the doctor performing the procedure. So that was all set to go forward.
And then the Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who recently survived an impeachment attempt, I should note, moved to intervene and moved to ask the Texas Supreme Court to stop this abortion from happening. He argued that the woman should not qualify for a medical exemption, and the Texas Supreme Court put a hold on the lower-court ruling and said it needed a little more time to think about it. And then they came back and ruled against the woman and said she should not be allowed to get an abortion. But it was moot in terms of her specific situation because of the threats to her health. She had already been to the emergency room several times at this point, and so she decided to go out of state for the procedure.
When I wrote about this, I tried to look into what are the bigger implications here. And a legal expert said something that really struck me, which is that the entire Dobbs premise is that you could ban so-called elective abortions, but maintain access to medically necessary ones. Sometimes they’re called therapeutic abortions. There’s a lot of weird terminology. And this really calls that question, can you always distinguish between those two?
Who’s to say? Here, the doctor’s interpretation of which was which clashed with the state’s interpretation of which was which. A lot of states have these so-called “life of the mother” exemptions, and this really shows that they are very difficult to use in practice.
Rovner: I’ve covered this for so many years at the federal level with little wording changes to the Hyde Amendment, and the big fight has always been between exceptions for the life of the mother and for the health of the mother. And the anti-abortion movement has always said, you can’t have a health exception because that would include mental health and it would just include anyone who said she doesn’t want to be pregnant.
So the phrase is always “It’s a loophole you can drive a truck through.” But then you get to these cases where it clearly is women whose water breaks at 20 weeks, it will eventually be life-threatening, but is immediately health-threatening. But a lot of these states don’t have health exceptions because they say that they could be used too broadly, and that’s kind of where they get stuck, right?
Weber: Yeah. I just wanted to chime in and say that I think what’s interesting about this case is this is the first time I’ve heard a lot from folks that aren’t in the media at all, don’t read the media every day, don’t see the flood of stories that this podcast group and folks, probably many of the listeners to this podcast, have seen about abortion coverage. It’s the first time I got a wave of phone calls being like, “Hey, can you explain this to me? What does this mean?” So I think that this story out of Texas, this reality, this lawsuit, has broken through to the rest of the country.
I mean, granted, this is an anecdotal sample size of my family and friends that live in the heart of the country, but I do think this has broken through in a way that many of the other stories that we’ve all written here have not. And so I’m very curious to see how this continues to play out because I do think this is gaining a lot more awareness with these lawsuits. We have this one, and then I know there’s one in Kentucky that I think we’ll see play out in the next couple weeks and months, obviously.
Rovner: Yeah, and I think one of the things that’s really important about this is that we know her name and we know what she looks like because she’s been brave enough to come forward in the middle of this medical crisis and allow them to use her name and do TV interviews. And Alice, I interrupted you.
Ollstein: Oh, yes. A couple things. We haven’t mentioned that this was a non-viable pregnancy. Her fetus was diagnosed with a almost certainly fatal condition. So I think that’s another key piece of it. Other states have an exemption for fetal diagnoses like this where someone can get an abortion. Texas does not. And I talked to some Texas anti-abortion groups who were insistent that she should not be granted an exception and that the “compassionate” thing to do would be to force her to give birth and then watch the child die and mourn it. They were very explicit about that.
And so I think that is also capturing a lot of people’s attention, like Lauren was saying, where they’re fighting for a potential life that is very potential at this point. And you’re hearing a lot of rhetoric from conservatives right now that are insisting that allowing exemption for fatal fetal conditions is akin to eugenics. They say that these fetuses should be given every chance at life, even if that life is very brief and sometimes painful. So I think this is a debate we’ll continue to see play out.
Rovner: Yeah, I was surprised. I mean, Kellyanne Conway, of all people, who’s not just the former Trump aide, a prominent Republican pollster, actually had a tweet this week that suggested this is not great for Republicans. What’s happening to this woman? The fact that it’s so public. Riley, you wanted to say something?
Griffin: Yeah, just another point Alice mentioned, “this potential life,” but the attorneys have also mentioned the potential for future lives … that this woman, it’s not just her health being impacted, but it also could decrease her ability to have children in the future, which is another part of this story that I think is really tugging at people’s heartstrings. And just that the ruling came hours after she made the announcement that she’d left the state to get the procedure. I mean, all of these things combined make for such a poignant story.
And I want to bring in some research that has also recently been published, which suggests she’s not alone. Nearly 1 in 5 people seeking an abortion have traveled out of state, according to the Guttmacher Institute, citing data from the first half of 2023. And experts are saying this is probably an underestimate. And when you do get to those states in places where abortion remains legal, wait times are increasingly long.
So there are so many dynamics at play. It’s not just the states where access is limited and we’re seeing these very difficult rulings come down, but what are the consequences in the places where access remains available? But that flood of folks trying to get these procedures have to make that travel. Sorry, I jumbled my words there, but you understand what I’m saying, or I can try again.
Rovner: The other piece of that, if you play that all the way out, where women are having to travel and they often have other kids, so they have to get someone to watch their kids and they have to get time off of work, and they have trouble getting appointments in other states, and that means that these abortions are happening later in pregnancy, which is, I know, not what the anti-abortion movement wants. And also the later in pregnancy you get, the more risks there are and the more expensive the whole thing gets.
So it’s just the whole thing is piling on each other. But I think, Riley, something you said that I think I keep highlighting and want to keep highlighting, most of the women we’ve been talking about individually are women who got pregnant because they wanted to have a baby. These are not women who weren’t using birth control and like, oops, I got pregnant. Kate Cox wants to have more children. This was a very wanted pregnancy. … I think one of the things we’re discovering through all of this is that more pregnancies go wrong than people realize. It’s just that when pregnancies go wrong, people tend not to want to talk about it. It’s painful and awful, and it’s not like having your appendix out. So I think we’re kind of, as a population, discovering that pregnancy is fairly fraught. For every baby that’s born happy and healthy, there are a lot of pregnancies that just don’t work the way they’re supposed to.
Ollstein: And I also have seen a lot of chatter saying, “This is the new frontier. We’re going to see this wave of individual women suing for the right to have an abortion.” And I don’t think that’s true. Kate Cox’s lawyers don’t think that’s true. Most women in this circumstance can’t do this or are not willing to be the public face of a lawsuit and get all kinds of threats and harassment.
And a lot of people aren’t able physically to wait for a court to rule. Even Kate Cox wasn’t. And so the idea that there’s going to be so many people who are actively pregnant and seeking an abortion and have the resources to find an attorney willing to represent them and are willing to go through this, I think I’m hearing that that is not likely at all, that this is somewhat of an outlier.
Rovner: While we were talking about asking permission for courts, the Supreme Court this week declined to review a challenge to a Washington state law that banned so-called conversion therapy. I’m still having trouble wrapping my head around this because it’s like a quadruple negative, but what is conversion therapy and where are we now that the appeals court ruling is being allowed to stand?
Weber: I think a lot of people don’t realize this, but there was actually a report that just came out from The Trevor Project. Conversion therapy is a process in which people try to, they call it, convert LGBTQ folks to have heterosexual relationships, and there could be a wide array of what that means. It involves sometimes psychological therapy, sometimes physical therapy, all kinds of things. Many, many states have banned this because science has shown it is not an effective treatment and can lead to mental health effects.
But I think why this ruling is important is that, as I was saying, The Trevor Project has identified there’s over 1,300 practitioners of conversion therapies across the country. Even though this is banned in so many states, this is a practice that goes on and on and on, despite what seems to be a lot of negative health impacts of it. So the fact that the Supreme Court decided not to take this up at all is considered very much a win for the LGBTQ community, especially considering the fact that this does still go on in many, many states.
Rovner: At least … that’s one thing that’s off the table, at least for the very moment. Well, let us go back to Capitol Hill, where lawmakers are actually passing stuff, albeit so late in the session that these policies are unlikely to make it over the finish line until 2024.
The House Monday night passed a bill that includes a bunch of things we’ve been talking about all year: site-neutral payments in Medicare to prevent hospital outpatient departments from charging multiples more to Medicare than non-hospital affiliated facilities; banning some pricing practices by pharmacy benefit managers; clarifying and extending some price transparency rules for hospitals and insurers, particularly those not making their prices public even though it is now required by law; funding community health centers; and stopping some scheduled cuts to hospitals that serve a high proportion of low-income patients.
Yes, that’s a whole lot of things that don’t necessarily go together, but this is how Congress works. All of these things were supposed to happen before the start of the new fiscal year, Oct. 1. Now, let me check, it is the second week of December. These are pretty bipartisan policies, most of them. What the heck took them until December to get this through?
Ollstein: This has been, even by Congress’ standards, a historically unproductive Congress. We spent a lot of the year battling over who should be the House speaker, for instance. That took up a lot of time. They took a really long summer recess, and there’s been all kinds of back and forth over just keeping the government funded. So that has not left a lot of room for basic policymaking. And there’s the fear that heading into next year — a lot of this stuff is getting punted into next year — that only gets harder in an election year. They’re in session less time. There’s less of an incentive to compromise. People are really retreating into their corners. And so it’s not a great outlook, even for things that really are popular on both sides of the aisle.
I will say, on the site-neutral payments piece, that’s been a long-time goal for a lot of people. And what’s being debated now is seen by some as inadequate, way not enough. It’s only a narrow set of drugs within Medicare. People would like this to be implemented way more broadly.
But you also have the hospital industry really mobilizing against it and saying, “You know all those rural hospitals that are closing down and going out of business? That’s going to get worse if you do this.” And as we know, hospitals are often the biggest employer in a lot of congressional districts, and so that could make this hard to pass as well.
Rovner: The same thing with the PBM [pharmacy benefit manager] reforms, and you’ve got the drug industry and you’ve got the hospital industry. So even though these things are “bipartisan,” that doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty of opposition out there, which I guess kind of answers my question of why this took so long. I imagine we expect this — now that it’s in a package — to go on the next government funding bill, which should be in January, right? That’s what we’re looking for?
Weber: Yes, it should go in the next government possible spending bill, but who knows? Are we headed towards another shutdown when that happens? I mean, we’ll have to see. And I just want to echo what Alice said. I mean, not doing a lot of lawmaking this year does have real consequences. I mean, when we talk about these site-neutral payments — I’ll never forget when I was at KHN [KFF Health News], I wrote a story about a seamstress who had rheumatoid arthritis, and she went to the same doctor’s office every time to get arthritis shots. Very normal treatment, right? Her doctor’s office moved up one floor and her bill went up 10 times. Her shots went from $30 to $300 because they were then considered an in-hospital facility. So when we talk about things like site-neutral payments, which are jargony words, they disguise what happens to everyday Americans and the actual cost — literal cost, physical and emotional and financial — of legislation like this not making it through.
Rovner: And I think the biggest irony is that when you look at public opinion polls, Democrats and Republicans are so divided on so many things, but one of the things that they are not divided on at all is that health care costs too much and the Congress should be doing things to make health care cost less. So these are things that, if they can get them over the finish line, would actually be popular.
Well, speaking of things Congress was supposed to do before the start of the fiscal year, Riley, you’re watching the progress of another bill we’ve been following, the SUPPORT [Substance Use Disorder Prevention that Promotes Opioid Recovery and Treatment for Patients and Communities] Act, that authorized programs to fight the opioid epidemic. Remember the opioid epidemic? What’s the status of that bill?
Griffin: Yeah, great question. So more than two months ago, provisions from a major 2018 opioid law, the SUPPORT Act, which provides grants for states to pay prevention, treatment, and recovery services for people with opioid use disorders, expired. But on Tuesday, the House and Senate HELP Committee advanced that legislation in an effort to expand treatment for opioid use disorder amid the ongoing epidemic. And, as you’d mentioned, this is known as the Support for Patients and Communities Reauthorization Act and the Modernizing Opioid Treatment Access Act.
And we saw the House overwhelmingly vote to reauthorize the law. And, meanwhile, the Senate HELP Committee also approved its version of the bill, setting up consideration by the full Senate and likely enactment of a new law quite soon. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont said that passing this $4.3 billion piece of legislation to reauthorize and expand the SUPPORT Act would be a huge success and will do a lot to increase the number of substance abuse counselors and mental health professionals.
Rovner: But again, not likely before the end of the year, this bill that should have been done before Oct. 1.
Griffin: Precisely. But again, also a place where you see that bipartisan support. I mean, the opioid epidemic is something that is coming up on the debate stage. Fentanyl is a buzzword that is being used by Democrats and Republicans alike. And not just to talk about the state of affairs here in the United States, where more than 100,000 people die every year of overdose-related deaths, but also to talk about immigration reform and China, right? These topics have all become a swirling part of the discourse on the opioid epidemic, and it’s something to watch going into the 2024 election.
Rovner: Yes. Something else that is linked to the whole opioid epidemic is this concern about life expectancy. We’ve had some new statistics on life expectancy, which is creeping back up now that deaths from covid are falling off, but not as fast as in many other industrialized countries. Women’s life expectancy is still substantially longer than men’s. What is up with this and what is holding the U.S. back? Why is our life expectancy still so much worse than people across the pond?
Weber: I think there’s a lot of things at play in the U.S. and a lot of it has to do … right now, we’re seeing it creep up because of the covid numbers. But what covid exposed was an absolute failure of primary care across the United States, an absolute failure of public health, an absolute failure to confront the fact that the vast majority of the reason that our life expectancy is so much worse than other countries is because of our chronic disease problem that is not getting dealt with.
And frankly, post-covid, it’s not like we’ve seen some sort of ginormous wake-up call overhaul either. I mean, this is the reality that we’re continuing to live in. So while it is heartening to see that the life expectancy numbers are changing a little bit because the covid death rates have gone down, I think the U.S. still has to grapple with the fact that we live in a country that is not addressing these issues. And I mean, I’ve talked about this on this podcast, but to reiterate again, politics does play into this.
As you see, there are … red states’ life expectancies are typically lower than blue states’ life expectancies. And that’s due in part to the fact that in the 1980s, Reagan and Congress allowed the states to decide how they were going to spend their public health and safety-net dollars in different ways, and we’ve seen that play out in this grand experiment over the last couple decades. And, again, doesn’t seem to be much reckoning with that either. So I think these life expectancy trends, where the U.S. lags behind other countries, are going to continue.
Rovner: Yeah, I wanted to actually call out a piece that Paul Starr at Princeton wrote about these red state-blue state differences because a lot of them we had talked about. Red states had earlier death rates because of the opioid epidemic and fentanyl and these deaths of despair.
But, actually, what the research that Paul Starr looked at was more what you’re saying, Lauren, which is that the states that enrolled children in Medicaid earlier are having better outcomes now, 30, 40, 50 years later, than the states that didn’t. And, also, the states that had restrictive gun laws are having longer life expectancies than states that didn’t. Riley, you’re nodding your head.
Griffin: It’s an amazingly unique American paradox to see greater spending on health care and yet shorter lives compared to other countries. Wealthy nations which spend half per person on health care compared to the United States are seeing their citizens outlive Americans by an average of more than five years. I mean, that data when you put it together is just so jarring. And it, as Lauren has been saying, has been cementing itself before the covid pandemic, which obviously had such a devastating toll.
But as we start to see that trend shift, where in 2022 life expectancy at birth was 77.5 years compared to 76.4 the year prior, that change is largely due to a decrease in covid deaths. We’re still seeing deaths from flu, pneumonia, fetal and infant conditions continue to rise. So the infectious disease front doesn’t look good in other spaces. And as you mentioned, Lauren, these chronic diseases that really set the U.S. apart from its peers, GDP-size-wise, is just so jarring.
Rovner: Finally, this week, because there isn’t already enough for us to worry about with the health system, cyberattacks appear on the upswing. Every week we hear about hospital IT systems literally being held for ransom and hacks into databases with our very most sensitive personal information, like 23andMe. Riley, you have a story about a hack at HHS [the Department of Health and Human Services] that was more serious than we thought.
Griffin: Yeah, thank you for allowing me to speak about this story. So my colleague Jordan Robertson and I investigated a cyberattack that hit HHS at the very outset of the pandemic. And at the time, we found that it was downplayed by department leadership. So only years later, it’s three-plus years down the road, we’ve learned through on-record interviews and other discussions that it was actually quite an unusual and rather concerning case. Some of the officials described the attack as an attempt by a nation-state to break into the department managing the U.S. covid response just as HHS’ IT staff were temporarily loosening security to its more than 80,000 employees so that they could log in remotely. They used a common technique, which is called a DDoS, or a distributed denial-of-service attack, where hackers disrupt a computer network by flooding it with traffic.
Now, typically when people think of this kind of attack, it’s meant to overwhelm and then shut down the system. But what we learned through interviews with these officials is that it was more of an act of espionage. Rather than shutting down the system, it was intended to map HHS’ network. So a pretty concerning story to say the least. And another novel part of this is that the officials, the Chief Information Officer Jose Arrieta and Chief Information Security Officer Janet Vogel, said the attack began ramping up as early as October of 2019.
So a lot of strange pieces at play. Those two officials attribute the attack to China, though HHS has said it did not come to that conclusion. And the Office of Inspector General complicated the picture further by saying that they actually found it was connected to a person, an entity in Ukraine. So not all the questions are yet answered, but I think the takeaway from this story is that when a cyberattack hits, not everything is as it seems.
Rovner: Yeah, OK. All right, one more thing that we will consider on our watch list. All right, well, that is this week’s news. Now we will play my interview with Jen Golbeck about her book on the science of dog love, and then we’ll come back and do our extra credits.
I am so excited to welcome to the podcast Jen Golbeck, a computer science professor at the University of Maryland who studies the internet for a living. She does serious research about some pretty grim corners of the online community, which we will talk about in a moment. But she’s probably better known on social media as “GR Mom,” head wrangler of The Golden Ratio media universe that brings the joy of her ever-changing pack of special-needs golden retrievers to her hundreds of thousands of followers every day, myself included, I have to say. Jen, thanks so much for being here.
Jen Golbeck: My pleasure. Thank you.
Rovner: So we’ll get to your new book, “The Purest Bond,” in a moment. But first, I know you spent a lot of time tracking the behavior of some of the most unpleasant and reprehensible people online. Is that part of why you started your little social media corner of happiness?
Golbeck: Yes. So I am very on social media. I’m a computer scientist by training. And after [President Donald] Trump got elected, everybody was angry online. Regardless of who you voted for, everyone was angry. And I just found myself needing an escape from that and I couldn’t really find it. And at the time, I had four golden retrievers and I was like, you know what? That can’t get much happier, so let’s just start putting pictures of them up.
So it was as much therapy for me as anything else, but it really ended up resonating with people and bringing together this wonderful community of people. And anybody who’s not nice, we block and keep them out of there. Things have not necessarily gotten better, but different, since 2016, 2017, and people still need that escape, including me. So yeah, it’s been a real balm in contrast to my regular research work to do that.
Rovner: Which is, you should say, looking at how hate spreads online. Is that a lot of what you do?
Golbeck: That’s pretty close, yeah. I think my technical term I use is malicious online behaviors. So we look at hate speech and extremism, misinformation, conspiracy theories, all that kind of stuff. So dogs are a really nice antidote to that.
Rovner: So with all the terrible things that go on online, I’m fascinated by the devotion of little groups of people who share interests and love to interact with each other. I still obviously have to be on Twitter, or whatever it’s called now, for my job. And I remember when I first met Matt Nelson, actually at your live show, who’s the creator of WeRateDogs (dogrates), I thanked him for making the online hellscape just a little bit less hellish. Do we underestimate how much online relationships can benefit people as much as cause mischief?
Golbeck: Yeah. The research on this is so interesting. Because since Facebook became a thing, we’ve been really interested in what’s the impact, the psychological impact, of social media? And the answer is always it’s super mixed, which is a kind of an academic cop-out answer, but totally true. There’s all kinds of ways that, obviously, the internet can harm people, and we see that now especially with Instagram and girls with eating disorders and body image issues. We know that generally people who spend a lot of time on social media are less happy than people who don’t.
So there are unquestionably some negative impacts, but it’s a little bit easy to forget, and some people weren’t even alive, when we didn’t have access to communities online and how profoundly isolating life could be and how difficult it was to get access to anything, especially social support. So now you can be in a very rural isolated space and very different from what the social mores of your community would dictate you should be. And that’s something where, in the 1990s, you probably would’ve ended up very lonely and depressed and totally unsupported. And with the internet, you’re not. You can find all kinds of people in exactly the same position as you and get that social support. And that’s an extreme example of what we find, which is you can form real relationships online. And that’s why I tend to resist this distinction between the real world and online. The real world absolutely exists online, and I’ve found lots of real friends who I’ve met offline, but also just keep up relationships with online, and it’s so important.
Rovner: So you and your husband, Ingo, don’t just take in rescue golden retrievers, you take in rescue golden retrievers that are often older and sicker and who have been the most neglected and the most mistreated. Was that something intentional or did it just happen?
Golbeck: It a little bit evolved that way. I got to say, I am always drawn to the seniors, and when I started fostering really wanted to get some seniors. That’s not most of the dogs that come into rescue, actually. It’s usually young dogs who people got and weren’t prepared for, and we fostered 20 of those dogs, too. But, eventually, we did get a pair of seniors. I always thought three dogs was too many, so we would have three with a foster. But I was like, I’ll never actually have three dogs. And then we got this bonded pair. Both were seniors, and so there were four dogs. And as soon as they showed up at my house, I was like, oh, they have always lived here. Now I have four dogs. What am I going to do? And it was great, of course. And about a year later, the rescue was like, “We have this 13-year-old and her people don’t want her. Will you take her?” And I asked my husband, I’m like, “What do you think about five dogs?” And he said, “What’s the difference between four and five? It’s fine.” So then we had five kind of old dogs, or old rescues, three of them were old rescues.
And I think, eventually, the rescue group started realizing that I’d just say yes to whatever they would give me. And so the dogs that they were having a hard time finding someone to take, I’d be like, “Yeah, sure, send them over.” It’s been so rewarding, though, to take these dogs who need a lot of love and attention and care and who haven’t been getting it and being able to give them the love and support and medical care that they need. It’s really rewarding. So I was interested, and then we stumbled our way into something that’s turned into a mission for both of us.
Rovner: So I know a lot has been written over the years about the science of how pets can improve human health and vice versa. I actually looked it up. I wrote my first pet therapy story in 1982. I was 5. No, seriously, it was my first job out of college. But you’ve done something with this book that I haven’t really seen before. You’ve merged a lot of the scientific study with some actual practical advice for pet owners. I assume that was very much on purpose.
Golbeck: Yeah. We didn’t want this to be a self-help book or a dog-training book. At the same time, there’s a lot of things that people want to know as they’re discovering the science of how they bond with their dogs. And so we try to work a little bit of tips in there, along with a lot of science and then stories from people who have really seen those benefits in their everyday relationship with their dogs.
Rovner: What’s been the response?
Golbeck: It’s interesting. I was like, I don’t know that all of this is super surprising. There are some surprising results in there. At the same time, what we’re basically saying is that dogs make us feel good and they love us back and we love them a whole lot. And I think anybody who has a dog knows that that’s true. And the response has been consistently people saying, “I was so excited to see my experience reflected in there.”
So we have, for example, a chapter about dogs in the community and how if you have a dog, you meet everybody in your neighborhood by walking your dog. And you don’t even know their names. You maybe know their dogs’ names. And people are like, “Oh yeah, that’s totally it.” But they also feel really validated because we have these feelings about our relationship with our dogs, and some people tell us that we’re crazy. Some people say that we’re making it up. And what people are finding in the book is that there’s actually a ton of really rigorous scientific research to support them having those feelings that they already have. So it’s this great way of being like, “Yes, I’m not crazy. My dog really does love me back. This really is as deep as I feel like it is.” So that’s been a great response that I wasn’t necessarily expecting that’s what it would be.
Rovner: Well, good. Well, Jen Golbeck, thank you for the book. Thank you for all you do. Thank you for what you do for golden retrievers and for the rest of us dog lovers out in the community.
Golbeck: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
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. Alice, why don’t you go first this week?
Ollstein: Yes. I chose a really upsetting and important investigation by my colleague Ariel Wittenberg. It hits at the intersection of health, labor, climate. It’s about mail carriers around the country who are dying from heat exposure. This is actually killing more male carriers than car crashes or dog bites or any of the things you think of being the hazards of that job. And not only is this happening amid soaring temperatures in the summers in a lot of places in the South, but the Postal Service is not following its own rules for training workers on how to notice the signs of dangerous heat exposure and take steps to protect themselves. And not only are they lying, according to these documents she obtained about having done these trainings, they are pressuring these workers to move faster, to not take breaks because of the competition from other private delivery services like Amazon. So really, really important piece.
Rovner: Yeah, and I think also important for everybody who works outside, with climate change. Riley, why don’t you go next?
Griffin: Yes, my colleague Robert Langreth also has a story in this week’s Bloomberg Businessweek issue, and it is titled “The Next Blockbuster Drug Might Be Made in Space.” It’s a fun one. It describes how companies, including Big Pharma names like Eli Lilly, are using microgravity to develop drugs and improve formulations of existing blockbusters. So it’s a fun read. You can find it in print or online.
Rovner: Not everything in tech is bad. Lauren.
Griffin: Not everything is bad.
Weber: I’m continuing the trend of shouting-out my colleagues this week. So a bunch of my colleagues had an investigation titled “Applesauce Lead Cases in Kids Surge Amid Questions on FDA Oversight.” And so we’ve all heard about these applesauce packets for toddlers and babies that were contaminated with lead, but the official FDA numbers say it’s only like 60-something cases, but my colleagues called around the state health departments and they believe it’s at least suspected in over 118 cases, potentially more, which leads to the question of how widespread is all of this.
It lends itself to the questions of: Is the FDA’s oversight enough, especially when it comes to baby food? This is not the first baby food issue we’ve obviously had in the last couple years. It really is just a horror story for everyone. I mean, you’re just trying to feed your kids stuff that they like and then they’re sucking on something that could damage their brain development and hurt them for years to come. Really heart-rending storyline, and my colleagues did a great job showing that this is much further-reaching than has been previously disclosed.
Rovner: So another continuing theme of this year, the FDA’s regulation of food as opposed to the FDA’s regulation of drugs and how that sometimes falls by the wayside. Well, my story is also from The Washington Post, by Kent Babb. It’s called “They Watched Their Husbands Win the Heisman — Then Lost Them to CTE.” And it’s a really wrenching story about how the very best players in college football have something else in common besides athletic talent: That, over the years, more and more have joined the not-so-exclusive club of ex-players with brain injuries and related behavioral … excuse me. Over the years, more and more have joined the not-so-exclusive club of ex-players with brain injuries and related behavioral issues.
It’s the serious dark side of a sport that is so beloved in the United States, including by me, and that deserves not just a hard look but action to prevent some of these horrendous aftereffects.
OK, that is our show. 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 Francis Ying for his technical expertise and amazing patience. As always, you can email us your comments or questions. We’re at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can still find me at X, @jrovner, or @julierovner at Bluesky and Threads. Alice.
Weber: I’m @LaurenWeberHP on X and clearly need to improve the rest of my social media profiles.
Rovner: We will be back in your feed next week. Until then, be healthy.
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