As this election year begins in earnest, making it harder for Congress to pass bills, lawmakers on Capitol Hill are still struggling to fund the government for the fiscal year that began last October. And many health priorities hang in the balance.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is again wading into the abortion debate, accepting a case out of Idaho that pits a federal law requiring emergency care, including for pregnant women, against the state’s strict abortion ban.
This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of KFF Health News, Sarah Karlin-Smith of the Pink Sheet, Tami Luhby of CNN, and Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico.
Among the takeaways from this week’s episode:
- In Washington, lawmakers have reportedly reached a deal that could pave the way for passing necessary government spending bills. But it is unlikely they will pass a full package before the current extensions end, leaving many federal health programs hanging. And ahead of next week’s Iowa caucuses, it bears asking what Republicans would do in health if the party reclaims the White House.
- The Supreme Court is again stepping into the fray over abortion rights, choosing to review the conflict between Idaho’s abortion ban and a federal law requiring emergency medical care. It is notable that justices did not have to take this case and, by swooping in now, are setting up another major abortion ruling before the 2024 election.
- The Biden administration announced it will scale back so-called conscience protections for health providers that the Trump administration sought to beef up. The back-and-forth over the policy — which was created during the George W. Bush administration — reinforces the importance of pressing presidential candidates about what they would do administratively on abortion policy, rather than asking what bills they might sign into law.
- News out of Florida this week: Newly introduced legislation there would, among other things, classify abortion as a felony and penalize those outside the state involved in the sale or distribution of abortion pills if they are “likely to be used in Florida” — a concerning example of a state effort to regulate access to abortion nationwide.
- And the FDA approved Florida’s request to import drugs from Canada, a change for which Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis is taking credit — though both President Joe Biden and former president Donald Trump could also claim some of that credit. But there are a lot of hurdles left before the state receives its first shipments, and due to the way the policy will be implemented, it may not save the state much money anyway.
“This Week in Health Misinformation” highlights Olympic gold medalist and medical crowdfunding beneficiary Mary Lou Retton, who said this week she could not afford health insurance before her headline-grabbing bout of pneumonia because her preexisting conditions made having insurance too expensive. But a decade into the existence of the Affordable Care Act, the fact is that patients can no longer be penalized on the insurance market for preexisting conditions — and, as the record 20 million Americans who enrolled in ACA coverage this year may attest, there are plenty of federal subsidies available to help afford insurance, too.
Also this week, Rovner interviews American Medical Association President Jesse Ehrenfeld, whose focus is helping the nation’s physicians navigate a rapidly changing health care system.
Plus, for “extra credit,” the panelists suggest health policy stories they read this week that they think you should read, too:
Julie Rovner: CNN’s “Bottled Water Contains Thousands of Nanoplastics So Small They Can Invade the Body’s Cells, Study Says,” by Sandee LaMotte. Also, ScienceAlert’s “It Turns Out Paper Straws Might Pose a Serious Problem Too,” by Carly Cassella. Also, The Washington Post’s “How Plastic Hides in Supposedly Eco-Friendly Laundry Products,” by Michael J. Coren.
Tami Luhby: KFF Health News’ “Most People Dropped in Medicaid ‘Unwinding’ Never Tried to Renew Coverage, Utah Finds,” by Phil Galewitz.
Alice Miranda Ollstein: Stat’s “Texas Taxpayers Wanted to Help the Poor Get Health Care. Instead They’re Funding a Medical School at a Wealthy University,” by Rachel Cohrs.
Sarah Karlin-Smith: The New York Times’ “The F.D.A. Warned an Asthma Drug Could Induce Despair. Many Were Never Told,” by Christina Jewett and Benjamin Mueller.
KFF Health News’ ‘What the Health?’
Episode Title: 329
Episode Number: All About the (Government) Funding
Published: Jan. 11, 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, 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. 11, at 10 a.m. As always, news happens fast, and things might have changed by the time you hear this, so here we go. We are joined today via video conference by Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico.
Alice Miranda Ollstein: Hello.
Rovner: Sarah Karlin-Smith of the Pink Sheet.
Sarah Karlin-Smith: Hi, everybody.
Rovner: And Tami Luhby of CNN.
Tami Luhby: Good morning.
Rovner: Later in this episode, we’ll have my interview with Jesse Ehrenfeld, this year’s president of the American Medical Association. It’s a bumpy time to be a doctor, and the AMA is more relevant than it’s been for quite a few years. But first, this week’s news. So we heard over the weekend that House and Senate negotiators reached a deal on top-line spending ceilings for defense and non-defense discretionary spending.
Actually, they were kind of the top lines, I believe, that they agreed to last summer, and then the House Republicans tried to change. That is all well and good, and it is definitely a prerequisite for passing full-year appropriations bills, but that’s not going to happen between now and Jan. 19, when the first of two temporary spending bills expires. So what do we expect to happen?
Ollstein: I was up on the Hill yesterday, and it’s a very “what they’re saying vs. what they’re doing” situation. They’re talking a lot about, “We got this top line. We’re moving forward. People are somewhat warming to the idea of another short-term CR [continuing resolution] to give them a little breathing room to get this done.” But then Republicans who were pissed about the entire process voted down an unrelated rule on an unrelated bill just to say, “We’re mad.” So that’s obviously not a good sign for getting big things done quickly in the next few weeks.
An issue I’m tracking is also conservatives who are disgruntled about the level of spending being higher than they wanted, saying, “Well, if we’re going to agree to this, we might as well get some policy wins out of it.” And they’re digging in harder on some of these anti-abortion provisions, other culture war things. I think the health care ones are being somewhat overshadowed right now by the immigration border stuff, but the health care things are still in the mix, for sure.
Rovner: Yeah. The CR that expires first also includes continuing authorizations for a bunch of health programs like community health centers and a delay of a bunch of scheduled Medicare payment cuts. Tami, you’re following WIC [Women, Infants, and Children nutrition program], I know, and food stamps. Do we have any idea what the fate is going to be of these things that will also expire when that first CR expires? Do we expect they’ll continue until Congress decides what to do?
Luhby: Well, actually things are looking a little better for WIC participants in terms of a shutdown, not necessarily in terms of full-year funding. But if the government had shut down in October, the USDA warned that it actually only had a few days left of money to provide for WIC. But if the government does shut down next week, then the USDA has told me that SNAP participants, food stamp participants, and WIC participants can expect to continue to get their benefits for food stamps January and February and for WIC January, February, March.
But separate from that, one of the issues that WIC participants have — and WIC, by the way, is the program that provides funding for pregnant women, new moms, infants, and young children to buy groceries. The WIC program is underfunded because there’s actually a big growth in enrollment. And so, even though the Senate provided some more money in their initial bill, they actually need more than a billion dollars more to continue the program at the current participation levels.
And a lot of folks are warning that if Congress doesn’t provide more money, there could actually be waiting lists for the first time in decades. So it’s a big issue that’s continuing because, as we know, the Republicans are not looking to add more money to nutrition assistance.
Rovner: Jumping ahead, it’s a little bit to the abortion debate. This is the argument that if you’re basically going to force women to have babies, you’re going to need to help support them if the women otherwise would’ve had an abortion because they couldn’t afford it. I think where we are with WIC, I think, is sort of the leading edge of this.
Luhby: And WIC is actually very important to that because it also provides breastfeeding assistance and guidance as well as other supports for new moms.
Rovner: So there were things, though, that didn’t even make it into the CR. One of them is the 3.4% cut in Medicare doctor pay. That took effect Jan. 1. Doctors I know would like to get that rolled back. There’s other things that are hoping to catch a ride on whatever the next vehicle is, right?
Karlin-Smith: I mean, one thing I had been watching is PBM [pharmacy benefit manager] reform. There seemed like there was some bipartisan and bicameral momentum to try and tack that on to the next big moving package. And one positive thing for that is that it does offer some amount of savings that then could be applied to other areas like spending, including potentially helping maybe with some of the Medicare cuts. So that’s something in the mix to look for.
Rovner: Yeah. Something that actually is proceeding on a separate track, right? We don’t expect that to be folded into the appropriations — unless we do. My impression was that was proceeding on its own, at least for the moment.
Karlin-Smith: I think it was proceeding on its own, but there’s been talk of could they fold it into any deal that struck to fund the government, because I think the likelihood that it really does fully clear both the House and Senate on their own is small.
Rovner: Yes, it is an election year. It is harder for Congress to get anything done. Speaking of which, on the campaign trail, the Iowa caucus is next week. Boy, that sort of snuck up on us. Former President [Donald] Trump still seems very likely to win, and he’s once again vowing to undo the Affordable Care Act, which, by the way, hit an all-time enrollment record of 20 million this week. And open enrollment isn’t even quite over. Tami, do we know what Trump would do instead? That seems to be the part. He doesn’t ever say.
Luhby: No. It’s pretty much the same plan that he probably has from 2016 and 2017, which we never really fully learned about. So, no, it’s just going to be replaced with a “better plan” because, in his view, Obamacare is failing, and as we know, [Florida Gov.] Ron DeSantis also jumped on the same bandwagon, saying that he would actually also come up with a better plan, but he needs a few months to think about it.
Rovner: Because it’s always been right about to happen, of course.
Luhby: Well, as you may have heard, health care is complicated.
Rovner: And we’ll see something in two weeks.
Luhby: Right. Along with his block grant proposal for Medicaid that he mentioned at last night’s CNN debate.
Rovner: Yes. I was sort of taken by the comments of how they would fix health care in that debate, because Nikki Haley says, “We can fix it with tort reform and transparency.”
Luhby: Transparency. Yes.
Rovner: Right. Which are nice things, and as we say, almost every week, Congress is working on those things, but they are not going to solve what ails the health care system. All right, let us turn to abortion. Remember last week when I said we were still waiting to hear from the Supreme Court on the emergency petition from Idaho regarding the conflict between its state abortion ban and the federal Emergency Medical Treatment & Active Labor Act, EMTALA?
Well, on Friday, the court not only took the case, it overturned the stay of Idaho’s ban. So, at least for now, doctors cannot even provide abortions in medical emergencies unless the woman is at immediate risk of death. Alice, I assume that gives us a hint of where the court might be going with this case, and I imagine also that similar case out of Texas.
Ollstein: Yeah. So again, with the Supreme Court, you kind of have to read the tea leaves and make educated guesses. They’re obviously very secretive. But people who are following this case closely that I’ve spoken to, they think that both the stay of the lower-court ruling and the fact that they took this case at all is the sign that they’re really gunning for ruling on the side of the state abortion restrictions. Because this is really about the state-federal clash. When state abortion bans run into federal protections for patients in emergency circumstances, and which will prevail in that circumstance. So they didn’t have to take this case. The thinking was there is eventually going to be a circuit split on this issue between the 9th Circuit and the 5th Circuit. But the 9th Circuit hasn’t had a chance to rule yet. And so they could have waited, let this play out, allowed the 9th Circuit to hear the case and issue a decision, that would’ve probably punted this case until after the election. So it’s really interesting that they instead wanted to swoop in, allow Idaho to leapfrog the 9th Circuit, and also insert themselves into this really politically volatile case, and now they’re poised to issue a ruling right before the 2024 election that could have major implications for the whole country.
Rovner: They’re going to hear the mifepristone case before this summer too, right?
Ollstein: Absolutely. And so even people who had sort of assumed on the mifepristone case like, “Oh, the Supreme Court’s going to kind of punt. They’re going to dismiss on standing.” Now, because of how aggressive they’re being in this other case, I have experts telling me, “Well, now I’m not so sure about the mifepristone case. Maybe they don’t care about optics as much as they used to.”
Rovner: Well, also, I think this is this Supreme Court’s theme, of “let states do whatever they want.” Even though federal law is supposed to trump state law, they seem to be reversing that in a rather aggressive fashion.
Ollstein: Yes. A big theme is definitely skepticism of federal rulemaking power. This falls under that same category as well.
Rovner: Well, speaking of federal rulemaking power, those who follow abortion policy in D.C. know that every time an administration changes parties, the so-called Mexico City policy that bans funding to international groups that support abortion rights gets either canceled or restored, depending on which party is in power. Well, now we have another policy that seems to be flip-flopping every time an administration changes. It was a rule first issued at the end of the George W. Bush administration. The so-called conscience rule made it easier for medical professionals and others in health care to decline to provide care that violates their religious or moral beliefs. So not just abortion but transgender care, in some cases, just treating people with AIDS. The Obama administration scaled back the Bush rule, and then the Trump administration broadened it. Then it got blocked by the courts, and now the Biden administration has formally rolled back the Trump changes that never really took effect. Alice, where are we with this?
Ollstein: Like you said, this is a back-and-forth, and I think this is why a lot of the questions being asked of candidates on the campaign trail right now, related to abortion, are the wrong questions. They keep getting asked about what kind of bills they would sign. That’s not the question. The question is what would they do administratively, which they could do so much. They could undo this. They could reverse all kinds of things. I follow the Title X stuff. I follow the Mexico City policy on restrictions on international spending on reproductive health. There’s just so much, obviously — FDA regulation of abortion pills — but these are the things we should be focused [on], not a bill that Congress has shown itself unable to pass even with one-party control of Congress.
Rovner: Nikki Haley keeps correctly saying there aren’t 60 votes for anything in the Senate related to abortion.
Ollstein: Right. But then, she also is saying that to mean a future Republican president couldn’t really do much, and that part is not true. They could do a lot.
Rovner: Exactly. Well, moving on, it’s January, and state legislatures are coming back into session. And we’re seeing some pretty eye-popping bills introduced in Florida, where abortion rights supporters just secured enough signatures to get a referendum protecting abortion rights on the 2024 ballot. Republican state Rep. David Borrero introduced a bill that would not only ban abortion, it would classify it as a third-degree felony with penalties of up to 10 years in prison. It also seeks to reach anyone outside the state who makes, sells, or mails abortion pills if they are, quote, “likely to be used in Florida.” The bill also defines personhood as beginning at the moment of fertilization, which would, among other things, make most birth control illegal and give fetuses constitutional rights. Alice, this bill is obviously not likely to pass, but legislators are playing the long game here by trying to make these things look sort of not out of the ordinary, right?
Ollstein: Yeah, the pill one, I think, is more the one to watch there. I’m curious if other states try to do that as well. Obviously, that runs into legal concerns about regulating interstate commerce, et cetera. But I think that we’ve seen these sort of nation attempts to restrict the movement of both people and medications across state lines, since that is a huge way that people are managing to terminate pregnancies despite bans right now. And so I think there’s only going to be more and more activity in that area to try to close off those remaining outlets for people. But yes, on the personhood front, that’s something that states have been attempting to do for a long time now, obviously more recently. And I think there’s sort of a strategy of, “Let’s just put it in everything we can. Let’s throw it in everything we can. Let’s throw it in bills. Let’s throw it in amicus briefs.” And the hope is to eventually force this issue in court and to get a court to rule on whether the 14th Amendment covers fetuses, basically. Will that happen and when remains to be seen, but there’s definitely an effort to sort of seed it in the landscape.
Rovner: Sarah, this obviously — not so much the personhood part, although maybe that too — but trying to ban the movement of medication is something that clearly impacts the FDA. They seem to have been pretty quiet about this, but there’s an awful lot that seems to be sort of threatening the basic core procedures of what the FDA does. Are you hearing anybody whispering about this? Is there concern?
Karlin-Smith: I think the mifepristone case at the Supreme Court is a concern for people who watch FDA’s power and regulation, not just because of abortion but because it is seen as depending on how the court decides that case is something that really could touch on all of its regulatory authority as well. Certainly, this provision that Florida is trying to put in is really something where they seem like they’re effectively trying to regulate the abortion pill throughout the entire country and regulate manufacturers. So that would be concerning, again, if that somehow came to pass and was not struck down by courts, as Alice mentioned, for interstate commerce regulation, which is not some power that is usually given to the states, but so, in general, the abortion pill controversy makes anybody who’s impacted by the FDA regulation nervous.
Rovner: Well, meanwhile, the Federal Trade Commission has entered the chat. This week, it barred a tech company from selling data on people’s visits to medical centers and other health facilities. This was not affecting abortion. They were actually just trying to help people figure out where people are and help them sort of get through their medical undertakings. But this seems like kind of a big deal enforcing privacy post-Dobbs. It’s the first one of these I’ve seen. Have you seen any of these, Alice?
Ollstein: I’m in the same camp as you. Yeah. This is sort of the first I’ve seen of this. But as has been the trend over the last couple of years, it’s a very “throw things against the wall and see what sticks” kind of environment, and so you can’t dismiss the outliers because the outliers can very quickly become the norm.
Rovner: This obviously was not a company that was trying to get women’s menstrual data and figure out whether they’re pregnant and whether they’re going to have an abortion. But there is a lot of concern that because there’s so much medical data floating out now in the metaverse, shall we say, that it would not be that hard to do that. And I guess the FTC is trying to plant a flag and say, “Mm-mm, don’t even try.” Although I’m sure people will …
Ollstein: Again, circling back to our previous theme, like, who a presidential administration installs at places like the FTC that you might not think that has anything to do with health care and abortion, but it certainly does. It certainly can. Same with DOJ, Labor Department. A lot of these things touch on reproductive health in ways that aren’t always obvious.
Rovner: That’s right. Well, turning to prescription drug news, the FDA has approved Florida’s request to import cheaper drugs from Canada. But, Tami, you wrote about this. This comes with a long list of caveats, right? It’s not like they just opened the borders and said, “OK, buy what you want.”
Luhby: No, and Florida has also put forth a fairly restricted proposal. It’s only going to be for people in their public payer program, people like inmates and people who are cared for by the county health systems and, later, Medicaid. And it’s also a pretty small list of drugs, drugs for HIV/AIDS and mental illness, and certain ones. But no, there’s a lot of hurdles before the state can actually start importing drugs. There’s going to likely be a lawsuit by PhRMA. They came out pretty strongly against it. They don’t want this, and Canada doesn’t necessarily want this. They said this in 2020 when the Trump administration first indicated that they were going to move in this direction, and then Health Canada on Friday put out a pretty strong statement saying they are clear in its position. “Bulk importation will not provide an effective solution to the problem of high drug prices in the U.S.” So there’s a long path before Florida will be able to actually see this and an even longer path before its general residents will see it. People may think, “Oh, I can go up to CVS now and order my Canadian version of the drug, which will be much cheaper.” And that’s not at all the case.
Rovner: Sarah, this has been going on for more than 20 years — I think I covered it first time in 1998 — because it’s really popular among Republicans and Democrats because it sounds so good. “We’ll just buy cheaper drugs from other countries where they have the same drugs, and they sell them for less money because they have price controls.” But Canada can’t even supply Florida, much less the rest of the country, right?
Karlin-Smith: Right. I think people, sometimes you look at Canada on a map geographically. It’s a very large area, but the population compared to the U.S. is much smaller. So the supply chain that’s feeding Canada is very different. And then you get into why HHS and FDA has usually pushed back against this idea is because they’re concerned about securing the supply-chain safety and making sure people are actually getting what they … think they’re getting and know how to use the drug. And what’s basically happened under starting the Trump administration and then Biden’s kind of continued it is they came up with a pathway to sort of make importation potentially possible. But they put in so many hoops that these states will have to go through and so many processes in place to ensure the safety of it that by the time Florida does all of this, and again, as Tami mentioned, FDA hasn’t cleared any specific drugs for Florida to import yet; each drug product still is going to have to go through a bunch of steps to get that OK. So by the time they do all of that, it doesn’t look like it’s going to save very much money. Florida’s estimating maybe not quite $200 million for the first year and about the same the second year. If you look at just their Medicaid spending in a year on outpatient drugs, it’s like $1.-something billion. So you can see how tiny a savings that is.
Rovner: Yes. This is one of those things that’s not been partisan. It’s always been sort of the FDA wanting to protect the integrity of the supply chain, whether it’s controlled by Democrats or Republicans versus Democrats and Republicans who would like to find a way to help their constituents get cheaper drugs.
Luhby: One thing also to note that’s going to be interesting, because there’ve been so many people involved in this, we saw Ron DeSantis say yesterday at the debate that he took credit for pushing the federal government and beating the federal government, I think he said, to be allowed to import drugs. But this is also going to be a talking point that Trump and Biden will also be able to say on the campaign. So basically, everyone is probably going to try to take credit for this.
Rovner: Right. Everybody’s going to take credit for something that’s probably only going to happen in a very small way, if it happens at all.
Luhby: If it all happens at all.
Rovner: That’s right. Well, also this week, drug maker Eli Lilly said it is setting up its own telehealth service to help patients access not only its soon-to-be blockbuster weight loss drug Zepbound but also other diabetes and migraine drugs, basically cutting out the doctor or at least cutting out the patient’s regular doctor, if they have one. Sarah, this feels to me like a really big sea change. Is the FDA going to let this happen? Is the AMA going to let this happen?
Karlin-Smith: It’s really interesting. I think the first headline of it makes it seem a little bit more extreme or maybe novel than once you actually look into the details because Lilly’s …
Rovner: Kind of like drug importation.
Karlin-Smith: Right. Although I think more patients maybe will actually be served by this program. But, basically, Eli Lilly is setting up a website that will then connect patients to outside telehealth companies that have the ability to prescribe the drug. Again, these telehealth companies are supposedly prescribing all different drugs, not just Eli Lilly products. The doctor’s supposed to make sure you actually qualify for the product, and so forth. And then Lilly also seems to have developed partnerships with a couple online pharmacy companies that could then directly mail you the product. So Eli Lilly is sort of helping facilitate these connections for patients. But I think probably to avoid various scrutinies by the federal government, they’ve tried to disconnect themselves a few steps, but certainly make the process of getting a drug and their drug easier for patients. Also helping ease the process of getting any copay support or coupons the company offers. So they seem to be kind of taking advantage of a trend that we’ve seen in other areas, with ADHD, like male sexual health products, and so forth, of people wanting to do this through telehealth. And so they’re trying to, I think, get at least a cut of it or at least help steer their product there. But there’s definitely going to be questions, I think, around how you handle advertising and other things for the government to look at.
Rovner: Yeah, it’s definitely a space that, now, we’re going to have to start watching as well as everything else. All right. Well, now it is time for “This Week in Health Misinformation,” which is going to Olympic gold medalist gymnast Mary Lou Retton. Retton, who is now in her mid-50s, contracted a rare form of pneumonia, ended up in the hospital for a month, and became the subject of a crowdfunding effort launched by her daughter because she didn’t have health insurance. Retton, who has been very closed-mouthed about her illness and what happened to the half a million dollars the crowdfunding campaign raised, as is her right, did do an interview this week with the “Today” show on NBC in which she said she couldn’t afford health insurance because her preexisting conditions made it too expensive. For the record, if you’re uninsured, you can still sign up for an Affordable Care Act Plan in most states, and you can’t be charged more due to preexisting conditions. And there are still extra subsidies that we talked about earlier that were implemented during covid that makes insurance even more affordable. Why is it that people don’t know this yet?
Ollstein: Well, as we saw with record-breaking enrollment, a lot of people do know it, but the people who don’t are still loud.
Rovner: We’re 10 years into the ACA!
Ollstein: Yes. It’s funny. I mean, living in D.C. and doing this work, I always try to think about what of all of our reporting actually breaks through around the country. And it’s always interesting to see what does and what doesn’t.
Rovner: I used to stomp around the NPR newsroom when the ACA was just getting up and running, saying, “It is not my job to do the administration’s publicity. It’s really not my job.” But …
Rovner: … they are still working on it.
Luhby: It also may be selective ignorance, because I’m sure if she actually asked anyone about health insurance or called any agent or insurer and said, “Well, I have this preexisting condition,” they may have said, “Well, on the ACA, it doesn’t matter anymore.”
Rovner: Yes. And that if she said she didn’t have the money after her divorce, it’s like those are the people who are eligible for big subsidies. All right. Well, that is this week’s news. Now, we will play my interview with AMA President Jesse Ehrenfeld, and then we will come back and do our extra credits.
I am pleased to welcome to the podcast, in person here in our D.C. studio, Dr. Jesse Ehrenfeld, president of the American Medical Association. Dr. Ehrenfeld is an anesthesiologist, medical school professor, researcher on medical information technology, and director of a statewide health philanthropy in Wisconsin, among other activities. He’s an Afghanistan combat veteran twice over, as well as the first openly gay president of the AMA and a national advocate for LGBTQ+ rights. Dr. Ehrenfeld, thank you so much for coming in. You are a very busy person.
Jesse Ehrenfeld: Well, thanks for having me. It’s great to talk to you today.
Rovner: So I want to start on Capitol Hill, since we’re here in D.C.
Rovner: And Congress is coming back and working on a budget, or so we hear.
Ehrenfeld: We hope they’re working.
Rovner: I know physicians are facing, again, a cut in Medicare pay, but that’s not the only AMA priority here in Washington at the moment, right?
Ehrenfeld: Well, it’s a big one for us. And, you know, it’s really painful that you turn the clock back, Jan. 1, and 3.37% Medicare cut to physician payments. It’s unconscionable. And so we’re optimistic that we can get a fix, hopefully retroactive, as the omnibus consolidation work goes forward, short of this Jan. 19 deadline coming up. But we can’t have it. Physicians continue to struggle. My parents lost their own primary care physician because of a challenge with their primary care doctor not being able to take Medicare anymore. And what we’re seeing is more and more doctors just stopping seeing new Medicare patients, or opting out of the program entirely. So, every other provider under Medicare is actually fighting for how many increase they’re getting while doctors are getting cut. So we’re hopeful that we can solve this, but it really is something that’s just urgent for us as an association.
Rovner: I thought we took care of this in 2015. I feel like it’s Groundhog Day. I covered it every year from about 2003 to about 2015, and then we solved it briefly.
Ehrenfeld: We solved one problem and replaced it with another, unfortunately. And the doomed SGR did die in 2015 — the unsustainable “sustainable growth rate” problem — that did lead to those year-end patches. And, unfortunately now, though, because of budget neutrality rules and other — we’ll call them “features” — of the program, we’re in the situation again. We do have optimism, though, that we might get some standing inflationary updates. There was the introduction of a bill last session. And we hope that that can be something that does move forward once we get through this time-sensitive issue to deal with the 3.37% cut.
Rovner: So I feel like the physician shortage is kind of like climate change. People have been warning about it for decades, and suddenly it’s here.
Ehrenfeld: It’s here.
Rovner: With people having to wait weeks or sometimes months to see a doctor. Obviously, like with climate change, it’s going to take a while to get out of the hole that we have dug. I know we’ve seen the establishment of several new medical schools, both allopathic and osteopathic, in the past decade. How soon might we be able to see some relief, and what more will it take beyond training more doctors?
Ehrenfeld: Well, we’re opening more medical schools, but we’re not actually training more doctors. And that’s the problem. We haven’t expanded GME [Graduate Medical Education] residency programs. And unfortunately, because, as you know, GME funding through the federal government is tied to a fixed cap, set in the 1990s by Medicare, we’ve opened all these new schools and the students don’t have a place to go to train. So that’s a problem that we need to solve. We’ve had a little tiny, tiny increase these past few years, a couple of hundred spots here and there. We need thousands more training spots open. We need the GME dollars to come from Medicare. We also need to solve some of the issues around how we get international medical graduates here and ready to practice in the U.S. Twenty-five percent of practicing physicians in the U.S. were trained abroad. Most people don’t know that. We already have a huge international workforce, but we do silly things, like we’ll let an international doctor train their residency here, and then we make them go away for two years to their home country before they can come back. There are H-1B visa waiver bills that are circulating around the Conrad 30 extension. We need to do those things as well. Unfortunately, as you’re aware, immigration reform is a challenging issue here in Washington. But there are commonsense solutions that have bipartisan support. And we’re hopeful that we can get some workforce pressure reductions, not just by expanding GME for U.S.-trained individuals, but also those international graduates.
Rovner: Yeah, I feel like people forget that immigration is about more than just people coming across the southern border. There are a lot of skilled-worker issues in the immigration debate.
Ehrenfeld: In lots of industries, health care, technology, other places as well.
Rovner: I know the rise — or should I say the “re-rise” — of prior authorization requirements from insurance companies is something that contributes to physician burnout and the physician shortage by driving doctors out of practice, just from frustration. The Biden administration has a new regulation to limit prior authorization in the pipeline. Assuming that that regulation is finalized soon, how close will that come to fully addressing the problem for your members?
Ehrenfeld: You know, we hope it’ll move the needle a little bit, but we need wholesale reform, and we need to do more than Medicare Advantage plans. Unfortunately, I hear every week from colleagues who are just at their wits’ end, and it’s frustrating. I see it with my own parents. I’m an anesthesiologist. I have a habit now, I ask my patients: “So how long did it take your surgery to get scheduled?” Eh, it’s a couple weeks or a month. I said, “And how long did it take for your insurance company to approve the procedure?” And it’s months. And often what they tell me is they approved it, and then they denied it after they approved it. And they have to go through all of this rigmarole that just doesn’t make sense.
Rovner: You think that Congress is going to need to step in at some point, or is this something that can be worked out?
Ehrenfeld: I think we’re going to have to have regulatory relief from Congress, and we’re pushing for that through our grassroots network. Certainly, we try to bring all the third-party payers together. We have a set of principles that, theoretically, third-party payers have agreed to, and yet they ignore them, and they continue to just harass patients, really to improve their bottom line, but not doing what’s in their best interests.
Rovner: So I want to talk a little bit about physician autonomy. Since the overturn of Roe v. Wade, we’ve seen an increasing level of what I call legislators practicing medicine. Now we have the Supreme Court …
Ehrenfeld: It’s OK if they have an MD.
Rovner: [laughs] That’s true. Now we have the Supreme Court — none of whom have an MD as far as I know — about to decide whether doctors facing women with pregnancy emergencies should obey state abortion bans, the federal EMTALA law, or their medical ethics, all of which may conflict. What’s the AMA doing to help doctors navigate these very choppy and changing legal waters?
Ehrenfeld: “Choppy” is a good word for it. It’s confusing. And since the decision, the Dobbs decision, came out, we have been working with all of our state and federation partners to try to help physicians navigate this. And I can tell you, it’s unbelievable that now physicians are having to call their attorneys, the hospital legal counsel to figure out what they can and can’t do. And obviously, this is not a picture that is a picture that supports women’s health. So we are optimistic that we might get a positive ruling with this EMTALA decision on the Supreme Court. But, obviously, there’s a long way that we need to go to make sure that we can maintain access for reproductive care.
Rovner: You’re younger than I am, but when I was growing up and covering this, the AMA didn’t want to talk about abortion because it was controversial. And now, certainly in the last five or 10 years, the AMA has come out. Do you think that’s something that has dawned on the rest of the members of the AMA that this is not necessarily about abortion, this is about the ability to practice medicine?
Ehrenfeld: Well, you know, look, if you look at some of these socially charged restrictive laws, whether it’s in transgender health or abortion access, or other items, we take the same foundational approach, which is that physicians and patients ought to be making their health care decisions without legislative interference.
Rovner: So it’s not just abortion and reproductive health where lawmakers are trying to dictate medical practice but also care for transgender kids and adults and even treatment for covid and other infectious diseases. How big a priority is this for the AMA, and what are you doing to fight the sort of “pushing against” scientific discourse?
Ehrenfeld: Well, we will always stand up for science. And it’s so important that as an association we do that. Our foundation in 1847 was to get rid of quackery and snake oil salesmen in medicine. And yet here we are trying to do some of those same things with misinformation, disinformation. And obviously, even if you look at the attack on PrEP, preexposure prophylaxis for HIV prevention — you know, an important part of the Affordable Care Act, right? Making it basically zero out-of-pocket cost for many Americans — those things are just unconscionable. We have treatments. We know that they work. We ought to make sure that patients and their physicians can have access to them.
Rovner: What about doctors who are pushing things that you know to be not helpful?
Ehrenfeld: We call them out, and we would encourage others to call them out. If somebody is trying to sell something that’s inappropriate or do something that doesn’t follow the evidence, we need to call it for what it is, which is inappropriate.
Rovner: It’s not just legislators who want to practice medicine these days. We also have the rise of artificial intelligence, which I know promises both huge advances …
Ehrenfeld: I’m real, by the way.
Rovner: [both laugh] Yes, I can attest that you’re real. At least you seem real. But, obviously, our artificial intelligence can portend huge advances and also other issues, not all of which are good. How is the AMA trying to push the AMA more towards the former, the good things, and less towards the latter, the unintended consequences?
Ehrenfeld: Well, we’re really excited about it. I’m excited about it. I have an informatics background. So, you know, I believe that there is so much power that these technologies and tools can bring, but we need to make sure that the technology is an asset, not a burden. And we have all lived through the painful rollout of electronic health records where that just was not the case. So we did survey — we do routine surveys, data that’s a nationally representative sample — in August of this year, it’s on our website. An equal number of physicians are excited about AI as they are terrified about AI, anxious, concerned, right? And we need to make sure that we have the right regulatory framework. We’re very appreciative of the ONC [Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology] rule that came out, out of HHS [the Department of Health and Human Services], at the end of last year. Certainly, the Biden administration’s, whole of government’s approach we think is important, but that is no substitution for regulation. And we need to make sure that we have appropriate regulation. The FDA doesn’t have the framework that they need. The system set up in the ’60s and ’70s for drugs and biologics and devices hasn’t held up. So we know that there have to be changes. We just need to make sure that those changes only let safe and effective algorithms, AI tools, AI-powered products come to the marketplace.
Rovner: Dr. Ehrenfeld, that’s all the time we have. Thank you so much for joining us.
Ehrenfeld: Oh, thanks for having me. It’s been a treat.
Rovner: OK, we are back. 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. Tami, why don’t you go first this week?
Luhby: OK. Well, my extra credit is titled “Most People Dropped in Medicaid ‘Unwinding’ Never Tried to Renew Coverage, Utah Finds,” by KFF Health News’ Phil Galewitz. And as many of our podcast listeners know, states are reviewing the eligibility of their residents in Medicaid and terminating the coverage of those they deem ineligible. Roughly 14.4 million people have been disenrolled. And the big question is, what has happened to them? Did they return to Medicaid? Did they find coverage elsewhere, or did they become uninsured? And that’s the question that many actually Medicaid directors have been unable to answer.
So Phil’s story looks at a first-of-its-kind study conducted in October by Utah’s Medicaid agency. And in Utah, 94% of those disenrolled were dropped for procedural reasons, such as not returning their paperwork, rather than being deemed ineligible. And the study found that 57% of respondents did not attempt to renew their Medicaid coverage. Thirty-nine percent shifted to employer plans, and 15% signed up for Affordable Care Act coverage. So they remained insured, but 30% became uninsured. The story also shows that many Medicaid enrollees said that they had trouble reapplying for Medicaid coverage. They didn’t get the documents. They didn’t have the necessary paperwork. They couldn’t get their questions answered. And these are all things that we’ve heard about anecdotally, but the Utah study and Phil’s story actually put some numbers to it. And interestingly, Utah officials also confirmed that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is conducting two audits of the state’s Medicaid unwinding. So we’ll see what happens and what we find out from Utah may inform us about what’s happening in the rest of the country.
Rovner: Yes, we have noted before that HHS has been very close-mouthed about how it is trying to get states to maintain coverage for these people who are, if not eligible for Medicaid anymore, eligible for something else. Alice, you have kind of a related story, so why don’t you go next?
Ollstein: Yeah, I have something from our own Rachel Cohrs at Stat. It’s called “Texas Taxpayers Wanted to Help the Poor Get Health Care. Instead They’re Funding a Medical School at a Wealthy University.” It’s a great accountability story about how taxpayers were convinced to put up tens of millions of dollars that they thought was going to provide care for very poor people in the area around Austin, Texas. And instead, basically, none of that money is going to … directly to provide that care to people. And instead, it’s gone to build fancy buildings at this medical school, and overhead, and recruiting faculty. And the school and hospital insist that all of this trickles down eventually to patients. But it’s not what taxpayers feel they were promised. And so they’re getting upset about that.
Rovner: It is a very nice medical school. Sarah.
Karlin-Smith: I looked at a New York Times story from Christina Jewett and Benjamin Mueller, “The F.D.A. Warned an Asthma Drug Could Induce Despair. Many Were Never Told,” and it’s about Singulair, a now generic asthma medicine. Over 20 years after it was first approved, FDA added what’s known as its strictest warning, a black box warning, warning of very serious mental health side effects, including suicidal thoughts. And The New York Times investigation seems to have found out that really these messages are not reaching doctors. They’re not reaching patients, or parents, and many young kids who are taking this medicine. And that has led to many ill effects, including some very young people who have died by suicide. And it’s a really good dive into the challenges that FDA faces and kind of translating their regulatory action into something that then gets communicated to a doctor, and then a doctor translates to a patient. In many ways, it’s not that surprising a story to me because I think it’s kind of well known that not a lot of people read drug labels and then certainly not on an individual level, but even on a doctor level. And I think a lot of the risk-benefit conversations that FDA envisions happen between doctors and patients before people take drugs don’t actually happen in the real world. I once actually had a doctor who told me, “This medicine has a box warning, but don’t worry about it.” Which I always find as a pretty funny story as a drug reporter. And it just also raises a lot of issues, this story, about how drugs are studied on children and what’s done to make sure that as a drug goes generic, the safety is still being monitored, and somebody is responsible again for ensuring people are aware of new safety updates. So it’s a really good dive. I think the thing I was most struck by, though, is I think the solutions perhaps here are not ones that would be very popular in the U.S., which is that by design, the FDA does not regulate the practice of medicine. And, in most cases, I don’t think Americans would want FDA pushing the boundaries much further to get at the safety hurdles this story maybe flags.
Rovner: Yeah. More along our theme of the federal government and its role in society. Well, my extra credit this week is actually a collection of stories. It’s sparked by the headline on this month’s issue of Consumer Reports, which is “How to Eat Less Plastic.” The first story is from CNN reporting on a study in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences called “Bottled Water Contains Thousands of Nanoplastics So Small They Can Invade the Body’s Cells, Study Says.” And it basically says that plastic sheds just like skin cells do. So anything you eat or drink that’s stored or wrapped in plastic is going to get into whatever it is you’re putting into your body. If that’s not enough to give you pause, my second story is from ScienceAlert, which is a website, called “It Turns Out Paper Straws Might Pose a Serious Problem Too.” And it’s about a study that found that many paper straws contain those forever chemicals we keep hearing about, called PFAS, which, of course, are also in many plastics. Finally, if that’s not enough plastic for you, here’s a story from The Washington Post called “How Plastic Hides in Supposedly Eco-Friendly Laundry Products.” Basically, those laundry sheets that can replace the use of all those plastic bottles that we keep seeing ads for? Apparently, even many of those sheets that claim to be, quote, “plastic-free” contains something called polyvinyl alcohol, which is, you guessed it, a plastic that’s been found in drinking water and breast milk. I think the message here is everything you do is probably bad for you in some way, so be humble and do the best you can.
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 our technical guru, Francis Ying, and our editor, my fellow happy Michigan Wolverine this week, Emmarie Huetteman. As always, you can email us your comments or questions. We’re at email@example.com, or you can still find me at X, @jrovner, or @julierovner at Bluesky and @julie.rovner at Threads. Sarah, where are you these days?
Luhby: The best place to find me is cnn.com.
Rovner: There you go. Alice.
Rovner: We will be back in your feed next week. Until then, be healthy.
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