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KFF Health News' 'What the Health?': New Year, Same Abortion Debate
KFF Health News' 'What the Health?'

New Year, Same Abortion Debate

Episode 328

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.

It’s a new year, but the abortion debate is raging like it’s 2023, with a new federal appeals court ruling that doctors in Texas don’t have to provide abortions in medical emergencies, despite a federal requirement to the contrary. The case, similar to one in Idaho, is almost certainly headed for the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, Congress returns to Washington with only days to avert a government shutdown by passing either full-year or temporary spending bills. And with almost no progress toward a spending deal since the last temporary bill passed in November, this time a shutdown might well happen.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of KFF Health News, Lauren Weber of The Washington Post, Shefali Luthra of The 19th, and Victoria Knight of Axios.


Among the takeaways from this week’s episode:

  • New year, same Congress. It’s likely lawmakers will fall short of their early-year goals to pass necessary spending bills, prompting another government shutdown or yet another short-term extension. And funding for pediatric medical training is among the latest casualties of the clash over gender-affirming care, raising the odds of a political fight over the federal health budget.
  • The emergency abortion care decision out of Texas this week underscores the difficult position health care providers are in: Now, a doctor could be brought up on charges in Texas for performing an abortion in a medical emergency — or brought up on federal charges if they abstain.
  • A new law in California makes it easier for out-of-state doctors to receive reproductive health training there, a change that could benefit medical residents in the 18 states where it is effectively impossible to be trained to perform an abortion. But some doctors say they still fear breaking another state’s laws.
  • Another study raises questions about the quality of care at hospitals purchased by private equity firms, an issue that has drawn the Biden administration’s attention. From the Journal of the American Medical Association, new findings show that those private equity-owned hospitals experienced a 25% increase in adverse patient events from three years before they were purchased to three years after.
  • And “This Week in Medical Misinformation”: Robert F. Kennedy Jr. earned PolitiFact’s 2023 Lie of the Year designation for his “campaign of conspiracy theories.” The anti-vaccination message he espouses has been around a while, but the movement is gaining political traction — including in statehouses, where more candidates who share RFK Jr.’s views are winning elections.

Also this week, Rovner interviews Sandro Galea, dean of the Boston University School of Public Health, about how public health can regain the public’s trust.

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

Julie Rovner: Politico’s “Why Democrats Can’t Rely on Abortion Ballot Initiatives to Help Them Win,” by Alice Miranda Ollstein, Jessica Piper, and Madison Fernandez.

Lauren Weber: The Washington Post’s “Can the Exhausted, Angry People of Ottawa County Learn to Live Together?” by Greg Jaffe.

Victoria Knight: Politico’s “Georgia Offered Medicaid With a Work Requirement. Few Have Signed Up.” by Megan Messerly and Robert King.

Shefali Luthra: Stat News’ “Medical Marijuana Companies Are Using Pharma’s Sales Tactics With Little of the Same Scrutiny,” by Nicholas Florko.

Also mentioned in this week’s episode:

KFF Health News’ ‘What the Health?’
Episode Title: New Year, Same Abortion Debate
Episode Number: 328
Published: Jan. 4, 2024

[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, Happy New Year, 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, Jan. 4, at 10 a.m. As always, news happens fast, and things might have changed by the time you hear this, so here we go. Today we are joined via video conference by Lauren Weber of The Washington Post.

Lauren Weber: Hello, hello.

Rovner: Victoria Knight of Axios News.

Victoria Knight: Hey, everyone.

Rovner: And Shefali Luthra of The 19th.

Shefali Luthra: Hello.

Rovner: An entire panel of KFF Health News alums. I’m pretty sure that is a first. Later in this episode, we’ll have my interview with Boston University School of Public Health dean Dr. Sandro Galea. He has a new and pretty provocative prescription for how public health can regain public trust. But first, there was plenty of news over the holiday break, in addition to my Michigan Wolverines going to the national championship — sorry, Lauren — plenty of health news, that is. So we shall get to it. We will start on Capitol Hill, where Congress is poised to come back into session — apparently no closer to a deal on the appropriations bills that keep the government open than they were when they left for Christmas, and now it’s only two weeks until the latest continuing resolution ends. Victoria, are we looking at a shutdown again?

Knight: I was texting a lot of people yesterday trying to feel out the vibes. I think a lot of people think a shutdown seems pretty likely. A reminder that we have another member of Congress that is leaving on the Republican side in the House, so now the Republicans can only lose two votes if they’re trying to pass a bill. So when you have House Freedom Caucus members saying, “Hey, we don’t want to agree to any appropriations bills without doing something about the border,” and Democrats unlikely to agree to any border demands that the Freedom Caucus is wanting, it seems like we may be at a standstill. I know there is some reporting this morning that possibly they may just do another fiscal year continuing resolution until …

Rovner: You mean like the last couple of years we’ve done a full-year CR?

Knight: Yeah, exactly. So …

Rovner: The thing they swore they wouldn’t do.

Knight: And [House] Speaker [Mike] Johnson said, he promised he wouldn’t do that, so it’ll be interesting to see how that all plays out. As far as I’ve heard the latest, there’s no top-line funding number, but it does seem like a shutdown may be looming.

Rovner: Well, assuming there is a spending deal at some point, and the fact that 2024 is an election year where not much gets passed, a lot of lawmakers have a lot of things they would like to attach to a moving spending train, assuming there is a moving spending train. What’s the outlook for the bill that we were talking about all of December on PBMs [pharmacy benefit managers] and health transparency and some extensions of some expiring programs That’s still kicking around, right?

Knight: Yeah. That’s definitely still kicking around. So there are some extenders like for community health centers and averting some cuts to safety-net hospitals. Those are really high priority for lawmakers. I think those will make their way onto any kind of deal most likely. What seems more up in the air is the transparency measures for PBMs and for hospitals and for insurers. That was the big, as you mentioned, the big pass the House in December. The Senate has introduced their own versions of the bill and there’s talk that maybe some of that could ride onto if there is some kind of funding deal, but it’s also possible that maybe it’s more likely to be punted to the lame duck session. So, post-election, when Republicans are trying in the House and Senate Democrats are trying to do their last hurrah before the new Congress comes in. So we’ll see. Latest I heard yesterday there were some negotiations around the transparency stuff, so it’s still possible, but who knows?

Rovner: Congress is the ultimate college student. They don’t do anything until they have a deadline. Meanwhile, we have yet another health program caught up in the culture wars, this time the Children’s Hospital Graduate Medical Education [Payment] program. Because most medical residencies are funded by Medicare and because Medicare doesn’t have a lot of patients in children’s hospitals, this program was created in 1999 to remedy that. Yes, I covered it at the time. Republicans in the House are happy to reauthorize it or just to fund it through the appropriations process, which keeps the money flowing, but only if it bans funding for children’s hospitals that don’t provide gender-affirming care for transgender minors. It appears that has killed the reauthorization bill that was moving for this year. Is that the kind of thing that could also threaten the HHS [Department of Health and Human Services] spending bill?

Knight: Yeah, I mean there are provisions within the HHS bill to ban Medicare, Medicaid paying for gender-affirming care. I don’t know. We haven’t done much debate on the Labor-HHS bill. It’s been the one that’s been put to the side. It hasn’t even gone through the full committee, so we haven’t …

Rovner: In the House, right?

Knight: Yeah, in the House, yes. Yeah. But yeah, I think it’s definitely possible. Just broader picture, this is an issue that Republicans are trying to make a bigger thing that they’re running on in different congressional districts, talking about banning gender-affirming care. So I think even if we don’t see it now, it’s probably something that we’re going to continue seeing.

Rovner: Well, we will obviously talk more as Congress comes back and tries to do things. So new year, same old abortion debate. This week’s big entry is a decision by a panel of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that EMTALA, the federal law that requires hospitals to at least screen and provide stabilizing care to anyone who presents in their emergency room, does not supersede Texas’ abortion ban. In other words, if a pregnant woman needs an abortion to stabilize her condition, she’d also have to meet one of the exceptions in the Texas abortion ban. Given that we don’t really know what the Texas exceptions are, since we’ve had litigation on that, that could be a tall order, right, Shefali?

Luthra: Yes. Doctors have basically said that the Texas exceptions in the state law are unworkable. And I think it’s worth noting that what EMTALA would require and what is in effect in other states with abortion bans is again very narrow. We are talking about the smallest subset of abortions, the smallest subset of medical emergency abortions, because this doesn’t apply to someone with a fetal anomaly who cannot give birth to a viable child. This doesn’t apply to someone who maybe is undergoing chemotherapy and can’t stay pregnant. This is for people who have situations such as sepsis or preterm premature membrane rupture. These are really, really specific instances, and even then, Texas is arguing and the 5th Circuit says, hospitals don’t have to provide care that would by all accounts be lifesaving.

Rovner: This puts doctors, particularly in Texas, in an untenable situation where if a woman presents, say, with an ectopic pregnancy, which is neither going to produce a live baby and is likely or could definitely kill the woman, if they perform that abortion, they could be brought up on charges in Texas, but if they don’t perform the abortion, they could be brought up on federal charges.

Luthra: And this is the bind that doctors have found themselves in over and over again. And I do want to reiterate that this isn’t actually unique to Texas because even in states where the EMTALA guidance is in effect, doctors and hospitals remain very afraid of coming up against the very onerous abortion penalties that their laws have. I was talking to a physician from Tennessee earlier this week, and she made the point that what your doctor feels safe doing, it comes down to luck in a lot of ways. Which city you happen to live in, which hospital you happen to go to, what the lawyers on that hospital staff happen to think the law says. It’s really untenable for physicians, for hospitals, and more than anyone else for patients.

Rovner: Now, despite Justice [Samuel] Alito’s hope in his Dobbs opinion overturning Roe that the Supreme Court would no longer have to adjudicate this issue, that’s exactly what’s going to happen. There’s already an emergency petition at SCOTUS from Idaho wanting to reverse a 9th Circuit ruling, preventing them from enforcing their abortion ban over EMTALA. In other words, the 9th Circuit basically said, no, we’re going to put this Idaho ban on hold to the extent that it conflicts with EMTALA until it’s all the way through the courts. Not to mention the mifepristone case that could roll back availability of the abortion pill. Is it fair to say that Justice Alito’s reasoning backfired here, or was he being disingenuous when he … did he know this was going to come back to the court?

Luthra: Not one of us can see inside any individual justice’s heart or mind, but I think we can say that anyone who seriously thought that overturning Roe v. Wade, which had been in effect for almost 50 years, would bring up no legal questions to be answered again and again by the courts clearly hadn’t thought this through. I was talking to scholars this week who think that we’ll be spending the next decade answering through the courts all of the new questions that have been instigated by the decision.

Rovner: Yeah, that’s definitely not going to lower their workload. Well, speaking of Idaho, the “Law Dork” blog has an interesting story this week about how the Alliance Defending Freedom — it’s a self-identified Christian law firm that represents mostly anti-abortion and other conservative groups in court — is now providing free representation to the state of Idaho in its effort to keep its state abortion ban in place. ADF is also representing Idaho in a case about bathroom use by transgender people. Now, conservative organizations and states often work together on cases, as do liberal organizations in states, that is not rare. But in this case, ADF is actually representing the state, which poses all kinds of conflicts-of-interest questions, right? Lauren, you’re nodding.

Weber: Yeah, I mean it’s pretty wild to see this kind of overlap. As you pointed out, Julie, it’s not rare for attorney general’s offices to seek outside legal help, that happens all the time. They’re understaffed. There’s a lot of problems they can address. But to fully turn over a case essentially to an ideological group is something different altogether because it also implies that that group is giving a gift to the government. It implies that they may be able to take on more cases because if it’s for free, then who knows? And I want to point out that this group really is at the forefront of many of the battles that we’re seeing play out in health issues legally across the country. I mean, they’re involved in a lot of the gender-affirming care cases and even in dealing with some of the groups that are promoting some of the legislation in places across the country. So this is quite a novel step and something to definitely be on the lookout for as we pay attention to many court cases that are going to play out over the next couple of years.

Rovner: Yeah, this was something I hadn’t really focused on until I saw this story and I was like, “Oh, that is a little bit different from what we’ve seen.” Well, while we were on the subject of doctors and lawsuits and the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, a panel there kept alive a case filed by three doctors against the FDA, charging that it overstepped its authority by recommending that doctors not prescribe ivermectin, an anti-parasite drug, for covid. We’ve talked a lot about how the mifepristone case could undermine FDA’s drug approval process. Obviously, if anyone can sue to effectively get a drug approval reversed, this case could basically stop the FDA from telling the public about evidence-based research, couldn’t it?

Weber: This case is quite wild. I mean, as someone that covers misinformation and disinformation and has extensively covered the ivermectin sagas over the last couple of years, the idea that the FDA cannot come out and say, “Look, this drug is not recommended,” it would be a severe restricting of its authority. I mean, government agencies are known to give advice, which does not always have to be neutral. Historically, that is what has been considered just the status quo legally. And so for the court to restrict the FDA’s authority in this way — if this does, it’s obviously still up for appeal, so who knows? But if it were to be successful, essentially everything the FDA ever put out would have to say, “But go talk to your physician,” which would lead to a little bit more of a wild, wild West when it comes to evidence-based medicine as we know it today.

Rovner: Back on the abortion beat, the news isn’t all about bans in California. The new year is bringing several new laws aimed at making abortion easier to access. Shefali, tell us about some of those.

Luthra: California is really interesting because they really position themselves as the antithesis of states banning abortion. And the law that you’re discussing here, Julie, this is part of a real concern that a lot of physicians have, which is that in states with abortion bans, it’ll be harder for medical residents to be trained in appropriate health care. That means providing abortion care. It means providing comprehensive OB-GYN care in general, right? Miscarriage management, you learn how to do that in part by providing abortions. California has implemented a law this year that would try to help more out-of-state doctors come to California to get trained in how to provide this kind of care.

I think where this gets tricky and where doctors I’ve spoken to remain concerned, confused, it’s not a panacea, is the concern about whether any single state in and of itself can do enough to rectify what is happening in 18 states across the country. That’s a very, very tall order, and it comes with other concerns of: Will residents feel safe, able to come to California? Will their institutions want to send them? These are all open questions, and I think this California law, this project that they’re taking on, is incredibly interesting. I think it’ll take some time for us to see both what the impact is and what the kinks and challenges are that emerge along the way.

Rovner: I was also interested in a California law that says that California officials don’t have to cooperate with out-of-state investigations into doctors prescribing abortion pills or gender-affirming care.

Luthra: This is, again, really interesting, and I mean, I think what we are going to see is individual state laws continuing to run up against each other and questions over whose authority applies in what situations. This has come up for doctors constantly, right? The ones who live in states with abortion protections but want to provide care in other states. What happens if they are flying across the country and have a layover in a state with an abortion ban? What happens if they have a medical emergency in a state that they have maybe broken the law of, whose law applies there? These are things that have left a lot of doctors really concerned. I know I’ve spoken to physicians who say that even despite the legal protections in their states, in a state like California for instance, they still don’t feel safe actively breaking another state’s laws. And again, this is just one of those questions we’re going to keep watching and seeing play out. Who ultimately is able to decide what happens and what role would the federal government eventually have to play?

Rovner: I think these were things, these were the kinds of questions that I don’t think the Supreme Court really considered when they overturned Roe. There’s so many ramifications that we just didn’t expect. I mean, there were some that we did, but this seems to be an extent that it’s gone to that was not anticipated.

Luthra: It’s just a whole mess of, if not undesired, then perhaps unanticipated or not fully planned-for questions and concerns that are now emerging.

Rovner: So I wanted to call out a survey in the Journal of the American Medical Association about reproduction more broadly, not about abortion. How hard it is for medical students and young doctors to build families early in their careers — a time when most people are building their families. Medical training takes so long in many cases that women, in particular, may find it much more difficult or impossible to get pregnant if they wait until after their training is done. And the pace of medical care delivery and the patriarchal structure of most medical practice frowns on women doing things like getting pregnant and having babies and trying to raise children. I vividly remember a doctor retreat I spoke at in 2004 when a 30-something OB-GYN said that when she got pregnant, her residency adviser accused her of wasting a residency spot that could have gone to someone who wasn’t going to take time out of their career. I think things have progressed since then, but apparently not all that much, according to this survey.

Luthra: And this, I think, is really interesting because especially after the covid pandemic, we saw obviously, health care workers leave the field in droves. We saw more women leave the field than men. And what that spoke to was, in part, that working through covid was really taxing. Women were more often in positions that were on the front lines, but what it also spoke to is that the culture of medicine has long been very unfriendly toward the family-building burdens that often fall on women, and that hasn’t gotten better. If anything, it’s gotten worse because child care is even harder to come by. Moms, in particular, have way more to juggle and to balance than they once did. And the support, it’s not even fair to say it hasn’t caught up. It was never there to begin with.

Weber: And just to add on that, I mean, I find it — that study is great, and I will say I have family members that struggle with this currently. It’s wild to me that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a 12-week parental leave, and you possibly couldn’t finish your residency or qualify for a surgery residency if you take more than six weeks. I mean, I think that, in itself, that factoid really says exactly what Shefali was getting at. The culture of medicine is not at all friendly to folks that are considering this whatsoever.

Rovner: There’s so many women in medicine now. Now it’s making a problem not just for the women in medicine, but for everybody who wants medical care. So maybe that will get some attention paid to it. Moving on to “This Week in Private Equity,” we have another study from the Journal of the American Medical Association. It found that hospitals that were bought by private equity firms had a 25% increase in adverse events in the three years following their acquisition. Adverse events include things like falls, hospital-acquired infections, and other harm that, in theory, could or should have been prevented. It’s not really hard to connect the dots here, right? Private equity wants to raise more money, and that tends to want to cut staff, so bad things happen. I see you nodding, Victoria.

Knight: Yeah, I mean, I think this is an ongoing issue. It’s something that the Biden administration has said they want to look into, just decreasing quality of care in places that are taken over by private equity. I’m not sure there’s a really good solution to it at this point in time. And I think it also speaks to the broader issues of consolidation among the health care industry and the business of health care and what that means in regards to quality for patients. But yeah, I think this study is just another piece in building up a case of why sometimes private equity doesn’t always seem to equate to the best care for patients.

Luthra: If we go back in time a little bit, there is more evidence that shows the role that private equity has played in not only reduction in quality of care, but in the opposition between the health care industry and consumers. And the example I’m thinking of is air ambulances and surprise billing by those ER staffing firms, all of which were eventually owned by private equity firms that have their own set of incentives that is at odds with the goal of providing care that people can afford and can access, and that keeps them healthy.

Rovner: Indeed. Well, following “This Week in Private Equity,” we have “This Week in Health Misinformation.” My winner this week is Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who was awarded the “Lie of the Year” from PolitiFact for not just his repeated and repeatedly debunked claims about vaccines, but other fanciful conspiracy theories about covid-19, mass shootings, and the rise in gender dysphoria. I will post the link so I don’t have to repeat all of those things here. Which brings us to the story I asked Lauren here to talk about, how the anti-vax movement is quietly gaining a foothold in state houses. Lauren, tell us what you found.

Weber: Well, I found that it’s becoming very politically advantageous, to some extent. Political clout around anti-vaccine movement is growing. So you’re seeing more and more state legislators get elected that have anti-vaccine or vaccine-skeptical views. And I went down to Baton Rouge and 29 folks that were supported by Stanford Health Freedom, which is against vaccine mandates, got elected in this year’s off-cycle elections. So who knows what will happen next year, but you’re already seeing this reflected in other states. In Iowa, legislators this year stopped the requirement that you can talk about the HPV vaccines in schools. In Tennessee, home-schooled kids no longer have vaccine requirements. In Florida, they banned any possible requiring of covid vaccines, which experts said they worry if you just strike “covid” from that, that could lead to the banning of other requirements for vaccines. You’re seeing this momentum grow, and as you mentioned, Julie, RFK Jr. has played a role in this.

As I talk about in my story, back in 2021, he went down to Louisiana and really riled up some anti-vaccine fever in a legislative hearing about the covid vaccine. And so it’s a combination of things. People are reacting to a lot of misinformation that was spread during covid about the covid vaccine. And that distrust of the covid vaccine is seeping into childhood vaccinations. I mean, this year we saw data that came out that said in the 2022-2023 school year, we saw the highest rate of exemption rates for kindergartners getting their vaccinations. That’s a bad trend for the United States when it comes to herd immunity to protect against things like measles or other preventable diseases. So we will see how the next year plays out legislatively, but as it stands right now, I expect to see much more anti-vaccine movement in the statehouses in 2024.

Rovner: I’ve been covering the anti-vax movement for, I don’t know, 25, 30 years. There’s always been an anti-vax movement. It’s actually this combination of people on the far left and people on the far right, they tend to both be anti-vax, but I think this is the first time we’ve really seen it come into actual legislating way. In fact, the trend over the last couple of years has been to get rid of things like religious exemptions for families getting their children vaccinated in order to attend public school. So now we’re expecting to see the reverse, right?

Weber: Yeah, as you said, this is a horseshoe political issue that it’s been far left, far right, but now it’s really seeped into the far-right conservative consciousness in a way that has become a political advantage for some candidates. And so you’re seeing stuff that would previously be, not even make it to the floor for a vote, have to be vetoed, make it out of a committee, where previously some of these things would’ve looked at the signs and said, this is just not true. Now there’s more political power behind the ideology of some of these anti-mandate freedom pushes. So it’s really going to be something to track in this upcoming year.

Rovner: I think the other trend we’re seeing is actual health officials talking about these kinds of things, led by the Florida Surgeon General, Dr. [Joseph] Ladapo. He’s now moved on beyond recommending that young men not get the covid vaccine, right?

Weber: Yeah. So yesterday he sent out a health bulletin, and I just want to take a step back to say this is incredibly unprecedented because this is a state health officer sending out a bulletin to the state saying that he does not recommend anyone … he wants to halt the use of mRNA covid vaccinations. Now, that is not a position that any other state health officer has taken. It’s not a position that any national health agency has taken. He made it based on claims that have been debunked. He primarily based it on a study that several of the experts I talked to said it is not one that they would base assumptions on.

His claims were implausible, but needless to say, I mean, he’s the health director for the third-largest state in the union. I mean, his words carry weight, and his political patron is Ron DeSantis. Now, DeSantis has not commented publicly yet on this, but oftentimes it seems that they both have worked hand in hand to fight against vaccine mandates and to cause a ruckus around things like this. So it needs to be seen the politicization of this as this continues to play out.

Rovner: Well, that is a wonderful segue into our interview this week with Dr. Sandro Galea about the future of public health. So we will play that now and then we will come back and do our extra credits.

I am pleased to welcome to the podcast Dr. Sandro Galea, dean of the Boston University School of Public Health. Longtime listeners will know I’ve been concerned about the state of public health since even before the pandemic. Dr. Galea has a new book of essays called “Within Reason: A Liberal Public Health for an Illiberal Time” that takes a pretty provocative look at what’s gone wrong for public health and how it might win back the support of the actual public. Dr. Galea, thank you so much for joining us.

Sandro Galea: Thank you for having me.

Rovner: So I want to start with your diagnosis of what it is that ails public health in 2024.

Galea: Well, I suppose I start from the data, and the data show that there is a tremendous loss of trust in science broadly, in public health more specifically. Data from Pew that came out just a few months ago show, really, a 25-point drop in trust in medicine and in health from before the pandemic. So the question becomes why is that? What’s going on? And what I try to do in the book is to identify a number of things that I think have really hurt us, and I could numerate those. No. 1, it is we took a very narrow approach to our perception of what should have been done without leaving space for a plurality of voices that weigh different inputs differently.

No. 2, that through the mediation of social media as a way of extending our voice, we were perhaps inhabited false certitude much more than we ever meant to or much more than we do when we think about our science. And No. 3, we allowed ourselves to become politicized in a way that’s unhealthy. Perhaps partisanized is an even better term because public health is always political, but we allowed ourselves to become blue versus red, and that doesn’t serve anybody because public health should be there to serve the whole public. And I think those three big buckets, obviously in the book I write about them in much more detail, but I think they capture the fundamental problems that then have resulted in this loss of trust we face right now.

Rovner: So I’ve had experts note that the lack of public trust in public health isn’t necessarily because of anything the public health community has done. It’s because of a broader pushback against elites and people in power of all kinds. Do you think that’s the case, or has public health also contributed to its own, I won’t say downfall, but lack of status?

Galea: I feel like the answer to that is “and,” meaning that, yes, there’s no question that there are forces that have tried to undermine public health, forces that tried to undermine science. And in the book, I’m very clear that I do realize there are outside forces that have had mal intent, that they have not acted in good faith and they have tried to undermine public health and science, but that’s not what the book is about. I say that is there, I recognize it’s there, but I wanted to write about public health from within public health. It would be shortsighted of us not to realize that we are contributing to how public perceives us. In many respects, I feel like we should have the agency and the confidence to say, well, there are things that we are doing that we should look at. And now, after the acute phase of the pandemic, is the time to look at that.

I was clear in my other writing that I did not write this book in 2021 or 2022 intentionally, because it was too close. But I feel like now that we’re over the acute phase of the pandemic, now is the time to ask hard questions and to say, “What should we be learning?” And I do that in the book, very much looking forward. I’m not naming names, I’m not pointing fingers. All I’m simply saying is we now have the benefit of time passing. Let us see what we should have done better so we can learn how to be better in future.

Rovner: One of the things I think that frustrated me as a journalist, as somebody who communicates to a lay audience for a living, is that public health and science in general during the pandemic seemed unable to say that yes, as we learn more, we’re going to change what we recommend. It becomes, to the public, well, they said this and now they’re saying that, so they were wrong. Does public health need to show its work more?

Galea: This is the term that I use, which is false certitude, which is that we conveyed confidence when we should not have conveyed confidence. Now, there are many reasons for that. Things were happening quickly. It was a fast-moving pandemic. Everybody was scared. And, also, our communication was mediated through social media, which was a new medium for communication of public health. And that does not leave space for the asterisk, for the caveat. And I think our mistake was not recognizing how much harm it was going to do and not being upfront about this is what we know today, but tomorrow we may know more, and we may then have to change our recommendations. And as one pauses and thinks about how should we do better, surely this is front and center to learn how to communicate by saying, “Today, based on what we know, this is what we think is best, but we reserve the right to come back tomorrow and be clear, tell you that the data have changed, hence the recommendations have changed.”

Rovner: Do you think public health has been slow to embrace things like social media? I mean, there are organizations on social media. I think one that comes to mind is the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the National Park Service. I mean that they’re very cheeky, but they get out really important information in a very quick and understandable way. Is that something that public health needs to be doing better?

Galea: Perhaps. I’m not sure I’m willing to say that public health is any worse than the National Park Service on social media. I think we are all, as a society, struggling with communicating important facts rapidly in a time of crisis. One analogy, which I use in the book, is the analogy to 9/11, meaning in 9/11, it was the first national crisis that was lived through in a time of 24/7 cable news. And as a result, there was a lot of noise on cable news that was happening that was distorting how we dealt with the event. Similarly, covid-19 was the first national crisis that was lived through the lens of social media, and we did not really know how to use it. So, at the same time as I’m labeling this as a real challenge that public health faced, I’m also trying to understand and have the compassion to realize that in public health we were struggling to learn how to do this as everybody else was.

Rovner: So let’s turn to the future. What should public health do first to try and regain some of the trust that it’s lost?

Galea: Well, I suppose first we should be having this conversation, and I’m grateful to you for having a conversation, but I actually mean that, at a large scale, I actually think that I meant my book to be a place marker. And I say in it clearly, I expect people will disagree with elements of the book, and that’s OK. And I hope that the book encourages others to write their books that talks about the things, how they see it. Because I do think that this conversation should open up space for public health to say, what are the things that we didn’t do well? What are the things that we should do better? Because from that is going to emerge a new consensus about how we should act.

If the only thing that emerges is simply this, what you and I just talked about, which is communicating with due humility, recognizing the complexity of rapidly evolving facts, and being clear with the population that things may change. If that’s the only thing that emerges, we’ve already made progress. So I think the first thing that should happen is having the conversation, opening this up, being honest that there are things that public health did that it should do better. That is going to lead us to a new consensus about how we should do better.

Rovner: And beyond the conversation, is there one thing that you wish that policymakers could do that could help public health regain its prominence and its trust? I mean, there really is no other word here.

Galea: I think the one thing that I would want to see in policy is a moving away from abolishing of the notion that we can “follow the science.” One of my least favorite things that happened during the pandemic was this notion that we could “follow the science.” Now, why do I say that? I’m a scientist! But I say that because “follow the science” implies that science leads to linear answers, to linear solutions. And that phrase, “follow the science,” became a fig leaf for policymakers, saying, “Well, the science says we should do X, therefore we’re going to do X.” That is simply false. Policymaking should rest on multiple inputs, science being one of them, but also values, but also the importance of other sectors of the economy.

And I would like us to see as a society being honest about that, that policymaking shouldn’t take science into account centrally. I agree with that. As I said, it’s my bread and butter, it’s what I do. But to pretend that science has the answer is simply wrong. We elect people in elected positions, and there are people who are appointed in decision-making positions in other circumstances. It is their job to weigh all the inputs, science being one of those inputs.

Rovner: Well, Dr. Galea, thank you so much. I will do my part to keep the conversation going. I’m sure you will do yours as well.

Galea: I will. And thank you for doing the part you’re doing.

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

Luthra: Sure. My story is from Stat by Nicholas Florko. The headline is “Medical Marijuana Companies Are Using Pharma’s Sales Tactics With Little of the Same Scrutiny.” And I think this is such a smart investigation, and I’m so grateful that Nicholas wrote it. It really gets into the fact that medical marijuana is a tremendous industry now, right? It’s not just in the Colorados or the Californias or Massachusetts that you think of. It’s all over the country and it’s a huge business. And because it’s so new, it hasn’t gotten the same scrutiny in terms of how it markets its products to consumers, the relationship it has with providers, et cetera. I think this is just a really important topic, and it’s something that we should all be paying attention to as the industry continues to grow in the coming years.

Rovner: Indeed. Victoria?

Knight: Yeah. So my extra credit this week is a Politico story by Megan Messerly and Robert King titled “Georgia Offered Medicaid With a Work Requirement. Few Have Signed Up.” And so it’s talking about just the rollout of Georgia implementing a work requirement for their Medicaid program, which they did expand Medicaid, but they included a work requirement. So I thought this was just really stunning. It said through the first four months, only 1,800 people have enrolled when the governor, Brian Kemp, expected 31,000 people to sign up.

Rovner: Contrast that with North Carolina, which expanded Medicaid without the work requirement and got, like, 200,000 people to sign up.

Knight: Yeah. So that’s just a stunning number. And they’re talking about in the story there. They’re not sure why all the reasons are, but part of it is that there is a lot of paperwork involved. And so I think it was just a really interesting example. Obviously, we have seen work requirements play out before, but we haven’t seen it in a while. And so it’s interesting to see how difficult it can be for people to access Medicaid if this is put in place. And I also think it’s important to remind people that last year, in 2023, during the debt ceiling debate, Republicans did for a while talk about wanting to implement work requirements in Medicaid again. And so, if this was something that they put into place, it would mean probably a lot of people would drop off the rolls. So it’s an idea that resurfaces. So just important to remember that.

Rovner: Indeed. Lauren.

Weber: I was obsessed with Greg Jaffe story from The Washington Post titled “Can the Exhausted, Angry People of Ottawa County Learn to Live Together?” And it’s this incredible portrait of this Michigan county where the county public health officer, Adeline Hambley, has come under tremendous pressure and threat from the conservative county board. And this is a story we have seen play out in different iterations all around the country in the wake of covid. It’s the “we don’t believe in masks, we don’t believe in shutdowns” versus the county public health folks who are trying to follow the science and how does that play out at a people level, which Greg just does a fantastic way of showing. And it’s interesting, the board was so fed up with her and making such political statements that they offered her $4 million to quit. Now this fell apart because the county doesn’t seem to have the money that would affect them, et cetera.

But it just goes to show how deep the divisions are between what used to be a very non-politicized, normal government job of being a public health officer who keeps your water safe and tries to keep you from catching bad diseases at restaurants, to the post-covid era, where [they’re] just absolutely vilified and hated, really, it seems in some of these comments in the story — so much so that they would be paid this much money to quit. So I think this speaks a lot to the tension that we see in America around public health today, and I really recommend everybody to give it a read.

Rovner: Yeah, it’s a really remarkable story. Well, my extra credit this week is from our podcast pal Alice [Miranda] Ollstein, along with her colleagues Jessica Piper and Madison Fernandez at Politico. It’s called Why Democrats Can’t Rely on Abortion Ballot Initiatives to Help Them Win.” And it’s a warning for Democrats not to get too smug about the popularity and success of abortion rights ballot measures around the country. They dug into the numbers and found that in many of those states, the very same voters who supported the abortion rights measures also turned around and voted for Republican candidates. As usual, in politics, things are rarely as simple as they seem.

All right, that is our show for this first week of 2024. 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 technical guru, Francis Ying, and our editor, my fellow Wolverine, Emmarie Huetteman. As always, you can email us your comments or questions. We’re at, or you can still find me at X, @jrovner, or @julierovner at Bluesky and @julie.rovner at Threads. Shefali, where are you these days?

Luthra: I am @shefalil on X and Blue Sky, and then on Threads, I’m @shefali.luthra.

Rovner: Victoria.

Knight: I’m @victoriaregisk on X and Threads.

Luthra: Lauren.

Weber: And then I’m @LaurenWeberHP on X and clearly still need to work on my social media game.

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


Francis Ying
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Emmarie Huetteman

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