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The State of the Union Is ... Busy

Episode 337

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KFF Health News' 'What the Health?': The State of the Union Is … Busy

The Host

Julie Rovner KFF Health News @jrovner Read Julie's stories. 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.

President Joe Biden is working to lay out his health agenda for a second term, even as Congress races to finish its overdue spending bills for the fiscal year that began last October.

Meanwhile, Alabama lawmakers try to reopen the state’s fertility clinics over the protests of abortion opponents, and pharmacy giants CVS and Walgreens announce they are ready to begin federally regulated sales of the abortion pill mifepristone.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of KFF Health News, Sarah Karlin-Smith of the Pink Sheet, Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico, and Sandhya Raman of CQ Roll Call.

Panelists

Sarah Karlin-Smith Pink Sheet @SarahKarlin Read Sarah's stories. Alice Miranda Ollstein Politico @AliceOllstein Read Alice's stories. Sandhya Raman CQ Roll Call @SandhyaWrites Read Sandhya's stories.

Among the takeaways from this week’s episode:

  • Lawmakers in Washington are completing work on the first batch of spending bills to avert a government shutdown. The package includes a bare-bones health bill, leaving out certain bipartisan proposals that have been in the works on drug prices and pandemic preparedness. Doctors do get some relief in the bill from Medicare cuts that took effect in January, but the pay cuts are not canceled.
  • The White House is floating proposals on drug prices that include expanding Medicare negotiations to more drugs; applying negotiated prices earlier in the market life of drugs; and capping out-of-pocket maximum drug payments at $2,000 for all patients, not just seniors. At least some of the ideas have been proposed before and couldn’t clear even a Democratic-controlled Congress. But they also keep up pressure on the pharmaceutical industry as it challenges the government in court — and as Election Day nears.
  • Many in public health are expressing frustration after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention softened its covid-19 isolation guidance. The change points to the need for a national dialogue about societal support for best practices in public health — especially by expanding access to paid leave and child care.
  • Meanwhile, CVS and Walgreens announced their pharmacies will distribute the abortion pill mifepristone, and enthusiasm is waning for the first over-the-counter birth control pill amid questions about how patients will pay its higher-than-anticipated list price of $20 per month.
  • Alabama’s governor signed a law protecting access to in vitro fertilization, granting providers immunity from the state Supreme Court’s recent “embryonic personhood” decision. But with opposition from conservative groups, is the new law also bound for the Alabama Supreme Court?

Also this week, Rovner interviews White House domestic policy adviser Neera Tanden about Biden’s health agenda.

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

Julie Rovner: NPR’s “How States Giving Rights to Fetuses Could Set Up a National Case on Abortion,” by Regan McCarthy.

Sarah Karlin-Smith: Stat’s  “The War on Recovery,” by Lev Facher.

Alice Miranda Ollstein: KFF Health News’ “Why Even Public Health Experts Have Limited Insight Into Stopping Gun Violence in America,” by Christine Spolar.

Sandhya Raman: The Journal’s “‘My Son Is Not There Anymore’: How Young People With Psychosis Are Falling Through the Cracks,” by Órla Ryan.

Also mentioned on this week’s podcast:

click to open the transcript Transcript: The State of the Union Is … Busy

KFF Health News’ ‘What the Health?’Episode Title: The State of the Union Is … BusyEpisode Number: 337Published: March 7, 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, March 7, at 9 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 Sandhya Raman, of CQ Roll Call.

Raman: Good morning.

Rovner: Later in this episode we’ll have my interview with White House domestic policy adviser Neera Tanden about the Biden administration’s health accomplishment so far and their priorities for 2024. But first, this week’s news. It is a big week here in the nation’s capital. In addition to sitting through President Biden’s State of the Union address, lawmakers appear on the way to finishing at least some of the spending bills for the fiscal year that began last Oct. 1. Good thing, too, because the president will deliver to Congress a proposed budget for the next fiscal year that starts Oct. 1, 2024, next Monday. Sandhya, which spending bills are getting done this week, and which ones are left?

Sandhya Raman: We’re about half-and-half as of last night. The House is done with their six-bill deal that they released. Congress came to a bipartisan agreement on Sunday and released then, so the FDA is in that part, in the agriculture bill. We also have a number of health extenders that we can …

Rovner: Which we’ll get to in a second.

Raman: Now it’s on to the Senate and then to Biden’s desk, and then we still have the Labor HHS [Department of Labor and Department of Health and Human Services] bill with all of the health funding that we’re still waiting on sometime this month.

Rovner: Yeah, it’s fair to say that the half that they’re getting done now are the easy ones, right? It’s the big ones that are left.

Ollstein: Although, if they were so easy, why didn’t they get them done a long time ago? There have been a lot of fights over policy riders that have been holding things up, in addition to disagreements about spending levels, which are perennial of course. But I was very interested to see that in this first tranche of bills, Republicans dropped their insistence on a provision banning mail delivery of abortion pills through the FDA, which they had been fighting for for months and months and months, and that led to votes on that particular bill being canceled multiple times. It’s interesting that they did give up on that.

Rovner: Yes. I shouldn’t say these were the easy ones, I should say these were the easier ones. Not that there’s a reason that it’s March and they’re only just now getting them done, but they have until the 22nd to get the rest of them done. How is that looking?

Raman: We still have not seen text on those yet. If they’re able to get there, we would see that in the next week or so, before then. And it remains to be seen, that traditionally the health in Labor HHS is one of the trickiest ones to get across the finish line in a normal year, and this year has been especially difficult given, like Alice said, all of the different policy riders and different back-and-forth there. It remains to be seen how that’ll play out.

Rovner: They have a couple of weeks and we will see. All right, well as you mentioned, as part of this first spending minibus, as they like to call it, is a small package of health bills. We talked about some of these last week, but tell us what made the final cut into this current six-bill package.

Raman: It’s whittled down a lot from what I think a lot of lawmakers were hoping. It’s pretty bare-bones in terms of what we have now. It’s a lot of programs that have traditionally been added to funding bills in the past, extending the special diabetes program, community health center funding, the National Health Service Corps, some sexual risk-avoidance programs. All of these would be pegged to the end of 2024. It kind of left out a lot of the things that Congress has been working on, on health care.

Rovner: Even bipartisan things that Congress has been working for on health care.

Raman: Yeah. They didn’t come to agreement on some of the pandemic and emergency preparedness stuff. There were some provisions for the SUPPORT Act — the 2018 really big opioid law — but a lot of them were not there. The PBM [pharmacy benefit managers] reform, all of that, was not, not this round.

Rovner: But at least judging from the press releases I got, there is some relief for doctor fees in Medicare. They didn’t restore the entire 3.3% cut, I believe it is, but I think they restored all but three-quarters of a percent of the cut. It’s made doctors, I won’t say happy, but at least they got acknowledged in this package and we’ll see what happens with the rest of them. Well, by the time you hear this, the president’s State of the Union speech will have come and gone, but the White House is pitching hard some of the changes that the president will be proposing on drug prices. Sarah, how significant are these proposals? They seem to be bigger iterations of what we’re already doing.

Karlin-Smith: Right. Biden is proposing expanding the Medicare Drug [Price] Negotiation program that Congress passed through the Inflation Reduction Act. He wants to go from Medicare being able to negotiate eventually up to 20 drugs a year to up to 50. He seems to be suggesting letting drugs have a negotiated price earlier in their life, letting them have less time on the market before negotiation. Also, thinking about applying some of the provisions of the IRA right now that only apply to Medicare to people in commercial plans, so this $2,000 maximum out-of-pocket spending for patients. Then also there are penalties that drugmakers get if they raise prices above inflation that would also apply to commercial plans. He’s actually proposed a lot of this before in previous budgets and actually Democrats, if you go back in time, tried to actually get some of these things in the initial IRA and even with a Democratic-controlled capital, could not actually get Democratic agreement to go broader on some of the provisions.

Rovner: Thank you, Sen. [Joe] Manchin.

Karlin-Smith: That said, I think it is significant that Biden is still pressing on this, even if they would really need big Democratic majorities and more progressive Democratic majorities to get this passed, because it’s keeping the pressure on the pharmaceutical industry. There were times before the IRA was passed where people were saying, “Pharma just needs to take this hit, it’s not going to be as bad as they think it is. Then they’ll get a breather for a while.” They’re clearly not getting that. The public is still very concerned about drug pricing, and they’re both fighting the current IRA in court. Actually, today there’s a number of big oral arguments happening. At the same time, they’re trying to get this version of the IRA improved somehow through legislation. All at the same time Democrats are saying, “Actually, this is just the start, we’re going to keep going.” It’s a big challenge and maybe not the respite they thought they might’ve gotten after this initial IRA was passed.

Rovner: But as you point out, still a very big voting issue. All right, well I want to talk about covid, which we haven’t said in a while. Last Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officially changed its guidance about what people should do if they get covid. There’s been a lot of chatter about this. Sarah, what exactly got changed and why are people so upset?

Karlin-Smith: The CDC’s old guidance, if you will, basically said if you had covid, you should isolate for five days. If you go back in time, you’ll remember we probably talked about how that was controversial on its own when that first happened, because we know a lot of people are infectious and still test positive for covid much longer than five days. Now they’re basically saying, if you have covid, you can return to the public once you’re fever-free for 24 hours and your symptoms are improving. I think the implication here is, that for a lot of people, this would be before five days. They do emphasize to some degree that you should take precautions, masking, think about ventilation, maybe avoid vulnerable people if you can.

But I think there’s some in the public health world that are really frustrated by this. They feel like it’s not science- and evidence-based. We know people are going to be infectious and contagious in many cases for longer than periods of time where the CDC is saying, “Sure, go out in public, go back to work.” On the flip side, CDC is arguing, people weren’t really following their old guidance. In part because we don’t have a society set up to structurally allow them to easily do this. Most people don’t have paid sick time. They maybe don’t have people to watch their children if they’re trying to isolate from them. I think the tension is that, we’ve learned a lot from covid and it’s highlighted a lot of the flaws already in our public health system, the things we don’t do well with other respiratory diseases like flu, like RSV. And CDC is saying, “Well, we’re going to bring covid in line with those,” instead of thinking about, “OK, how can we actually improve as a society managing respiratory viruses moving forward, come up with solutions that work.”

I think there probably are ways for CDC to acknowledge some of the realities. CDC does not have the power to give every American paid sick time. But if CDC doesn’t push to say the public needs this for public health, how are we ever going to get there? I think that’s really a lot of the frustration in a lot of the public health community in particular, that they’re just capitulating to a society that doesn’t care about public health instead of really trying to push the agenda forward.

Rovner: Or a society that’s actively opposed to public health, as it sometimes seems. I know speaking for my NF1, I was sick for most of January, and I used up all my covid tests proving that I didn’t have covid. I stayed home for a few days because I felt really crappy, and when I started to feel better, I wore a mask for two weeks because, hello, that seemed to be a practical thing to do, even though I think what I had was a cold. But if I get sick again, I don’t have any more covid tests and I’m not going to take one every day because now they cost $20 a pop. Which I suspect was behind a lot of this. It’s like, “OK, if you’re sick with a respiratory ailment, stay home until you start to feel better and then be careful.” That’s essentially what the advice is, right?

Ollstein: Yeah. Although one other criticism I heard was specifically basing the new guidance on being fever-free, a lot of people don’t get a fever, they have other symptoms or they don’t have symptoms at all, and that’s even more insidious for allowing spread. I heard that criticism as well, but I completely agree with Sarah, that this seems like allowing public behavior to shape the guidance rather than trying to shape the public behavior with the guidance.

Rovner: Although some of that is how public health works, they don’t want to recommend things that they know people aren’t going to do or that they know the vast majority of people aren’t going to do. This is the difficulty of public health, which we will talk about more. While meanwhile, speaking in Virginia earlier this week, former President Donald Trump vowed to pull all federal funding for schools with vaccine mandates. Now, from the context of what he was saying, it seemed pretty clear that he was talking only about covid vaccine mandates, but that’s not what he actually said. What would it mean to lift all school vaccine mandates? That sounds a little bit scary.

Raman: That would basically affect almost every public school district nationwide. But even if it’s just covid shots, I think that’s still a little bit of a shift. You see Trump not taking as much public credit anymore for the fact that the covid vaccines were developed under his administration, Operation Warp Speed, that started under the Trump administration. It’s a little bit of a shift compared to then.

Rovner: I’m old enough to remember two cycles ago, when there were Republicans who were anti-vaccine or at least anti-vaccine curious, and the rest of the Republican Party was like, “No, no, no, no, no.” That doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. Now it seems to be much more mainstream to be anti-vax in general. Cough, cough. We see the measles outbreak in Florida, so we will clearly watch that space, too.

All right, moving on to abortion. Later this month, the Supreme Court will hear oral argument in the case that could severely restrict distribution of the abortion pill mifepristone. But in the meantime, pharmacy giants, CVS and Walgreens have announced they will begin distributing the abortion pill at their pharmacies. Alice, why now and what does this mean?

Ollstein: It’s interesting that this came more than a year after the big pharmacies were given permission to do this. They say it took this long because they had to get all of these systems up in place to make sure that only certified pharmacists were filling prescriptions from certified prescribing doctors. All of this is required because when the Biden administration, when the FDA, moved to allow this form of distribution of the abortion pill, they still left some restrictions known as REMS [risk evaluation and mitigation strategies] in place. That made it take a little more time, more bureaucracy, more box checking, to get to this point. It is interesting that given the uncertainty with the Supreme Court, they are moving forward with this. It’s this interesting state-versus-federal issue, because we reported a year ago that Walgreens and CVS would not distribute the pills in states where Republican state attorneys general have threatened them with lawsuits.

So, they’ve noted the uncertainty at the state level, but even with this uncertainty at the federal level with the Supreme Court, which could come in and say this form of distribution is not allowed, they’re still moving forward. It is limited. It’s not going to be, even in blue states where abortion is protected by law, they’re not going to be at every single CVS. They’re going to do a slower, phased rollout, see how it goes. I’m interested in seeing if any problems arise. I’m also interested in seeing, anti-abortion groups have vowed to protest these big pharmacy chains for making this medication available. They’ve disrupted corporate meetings, they’ve protested outside brick-and-mortar pharmacies, and so we’ll see if any of that continues and has an effect as well.

Rovner: It’s hard to see how the anti-abortion groups though could have enough people to protest every CVS and Walgreens selling the abortion pill. That will be an interesting numbers situation. Well, in a case of not-so-great timing, if only for the confusion potential, also this week we learned that the first approved over-the-counter birth control pill, called Opill, is finally being shipped. Now, this is not the abortion pill. It won’t require a prescription, that’s the whole point of it being over-the-counter. But I’ve seen a lot of advocacy groups that worked on this for years now complaining that the $20 per month that the pill is going to cost, it’s still going to be too much for many who need it. Since it’s over-the-counter, it’s not going to be covered by most insurance. This is a separate issue of its own that’s a little bit controversial.

Karlin-Smith: You can with over-the-counter drugs, if you have a flexible spending account or an HSA or something else, you may be able to use money that’s somehow connected to your health insurance benefit or you’re getting some tax breaks on it. However, I think this over-the-counter pill is probably envisioned most for people that somehow don’t have insurance, because we know the Affordable Care Act provides birth control methods with no out-of-pocket costs for people. So if you have insurance, most likely you would be getting a better deal getting a prescription and going that route for the same product or something similar.

The question becomes then, does this help the people who fall in those gaps who are probably likely to have less financial means to begin with? There’s been some polling and things that suggest this may be too high a price point for them. I know there are some discounts on the price. Essentially if you can buy three months upfront or even some larger quantities, although again that means you then have to have that larger sum of money upfront, so that’s a big tug of war. I think the companies argue this is pretty similar pricing to other over-the-counter drug products in terms of volume and stuff, so we’ll see what happens.

Rovner: I think they were hoping it was going to be more like $5 a month and not $20 a month. I think that came as a little bit of a disappointment to a lot of these groups that have been working on this for a very long time.

Ollstein: Just quickly, the jury is also still out on insurance coverage, including advocacy groups are also pressuring public insurance, Medicaid, to come out and say they’ll cover it as well. So we’ll keep an eye on that.

Rovner: Yeah, although Medicaid does cover prescription birth control. All right, well let us catch up on the IVF [in vitro fertilization] controversy in Alabama, where there was some breaking news over last night. When we left off last week, the Alabama Legislature was trying to come up with legislation that would grant immunity to fertility clinics or their staff for “damaging or killing fertilized embryos,” without overtly overruling the state Supreme Court decision from February that those embryos are, “extrauterine children.” Alice, how’s that all going?

Ollstein: Well, it was very interesting to see a bunch of anti-abortion groups come out against the bill that Alabama, mostly Republicans, put together and passed and the Republican governor signed it into law. The groups were asking her to veto it; they didn’t want that kind of immunity for discarding or destroying embryos. Now what we will see is if there’s going to be a lawsuit that lands this new law right back in front of the same state Supreme Court that just opened this whole Pandora’s box in the first place, that’s very possible. That’s one thing I’m watching. I guess we should also watch for other states to take up this issue. A lot of states have fetal personhood language, either in their constitutions or in statute or something, so really any of those states could become the next Alabama. All it would take is someone to bring a court challenge and try to get a similar ruling.

Rovner: I was amused though that the [Alabama] Statehouse passed the immunity law yesterday, Wednesday during the day. But the Senate passed it later in the evening and the governor signed it. I guess she didn’t want to let it hang there while these big national anti-abortion groups were asking her to veto it. So by the time I woke up this morning, it was already law.

Ollstein: It’s just been really interesting, because the anti-abortion groups say they support IVF, but they came out against the Democrats’ federal bill that would provide federal protections. They came out against nonbinding House resolutions that Republicans put forward saying they support IVF, and they came out against this Alabama fix. So it’s unclear what form of IVF, if any, they do support.

Rovner: Meanwhile, in Kentucky, the state Senate has overwhelmingly passed a bill that would permit a parent to seek child support retroactively to cover pregnancy expenses up until the child reaches age 1. So you have until the child turns 1 to sue for child support. Now, this isn’t technically a “personhood” bill, and it’s legit that there are expenses associated with becoming a parent even before a baby is born, but it’s skating right up to the edge of that whole personhood thing.

It brings me to my extra credit for this week, which I’m going to do early. It’s a story from NPR called, “How States Giving Rights to Fetuses Could Set Up a National Case on Abortion,” by Regan McCarthy of member station WFSU in Tallahassee. In light of Florida’s tabling of a vote on its personhood bill in the wake of the Alabama ruling last week, the story poses a question I hadn’t really thought about in the context of the personhood debate, whether some of these partway recognition laws, not just the one in Kentucky, but there was one in Georgia last year, giving tax deductions for children who are not yet born as long as you could determine a heartbeat in the second half of the year, because obviously in the first half of the year the child would’ve been born.

Whether those are part of a very long game that will give courts the ability to put them all together at some point and declare not just embryos but zygotes children. Is this in some ways the same playbook that anti-abortion forces use to get Roe [v. Wade] overturned? That was a very, very long game and at least this story speculates that that might be what they’re doing now with personhood.

Ollstein: Some anti-abortion groups are very open that it is what they want to do. They have been seeding the idea in amicus briefs and state policies. They’ve been trying to tuck personhood language into all of these things to eventually prompt such a ruling, ideally from the Supreme Court and, in their view. So whether that moves forward remains to be seen, but it’s certainly the next goal. One of many next goals on the horizon.

Rovner: Yes, one of many. All right, well moving on. Last week I called the cyberattack on Change Healthcare, a subsidiary of UnitedHealth Group, the biggest under-covered story in health care. Well, it is not under-covered anymore. Two weeks later, thousands of hospitals, pharmacies, and doctor practices still can’t get their claims paid. It seems that someone, though it’s not entirely clear who, paid the hackers $22 million in ransom. But last time I checked the systems were still not fully up. I saw a letter this morning from the Medicaid directors worrying about Medicaid programs getting claims fulfilled. How big a wake-up call has this been for the health industry, Sarah? This is a bigger deal than anybody expected.

Karlin-Smith: There’s certainly been cyberattacks on parts of the health system before in hospitals. I think the breadth of this, because it’s UnitedHealth [Group], is really significant. Particularly, because it seems like some health systems were concerned that the broader United network of companies and systems would get impacted, so they sort of disconnected from things that weren’t directly changed health care, and that ended up having broader ramifications. It’s one consequence of United being such a big monolith.

Then the potential that United paid a ransom here, which is not 100% clear what happened, is very worrisome. Again, because there’s this sense that, that will then increase the — first, you’re paying the people that then might go back and do this, so you’re giving them more money to hack. But also again, it sets up a precedent, that you can hack health systems and they will pay you. Because it is so dangerous, particularly when you start to get involved in attacking the actual systems that provide people care. So much, if you’ve been in a hospital lately or so forth, is run on computer systems and devices, so it is incredibly disruptive, but you don’t want to incentivize hackers to be attacking that.

Rovner: I certainly learned through this how big Change Healthcare, which I had never heard of before this hack and I suspect most people even who do health policy had never heard of before this attack, how embedded they are in so much of the health care system. These hackers knew enough to go after this particular system that affected so much in basically one hack. I’m imagining as this goes forward, for those who didn’t listen to last week’s podcast, we also talked about the Justice Department’s new investigation into the size of UnitedHealth [Group], an antitrust investigation for… It was obviously not prompted by this, it was prompted by something else, but I think a lot of people are thinking about, how big should we let one piece of the health care system get in light of all these cyberattacks?

All right, well we’ll obviously come back to this issue, too, as it resolves, one would hope. That is the news for this week. Now we will play my interview with White House domestic policy adviser Neera Tanden, and then we will come back with our extra credits.

I am so pleased to welcome to the podcast Neera Tanden, domestic policy adviser to President Biden, and director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. For those of you who don’t already know her, Neera has spent most of the last two decades making health policy here in Washington, having worked on health issues for Hillary Clinton, President Barack Obama, and now President Joe Biden. Neera, thank you so much for joining us.

Neera Tanden: It’s really great to be with you, Julie.

Rovner: As we tape this, the State of the Union is still a few hours away and I know there’s stuff you can’t talk about yet. But in general, health care has been a top-of-mind issue for the Biden administration, and I assume it will continue to be. First, remind us of some of the highlights of the president’s term so far on health care.

Tanden: It’s a top concern for the president. It’s a top issue for us, but that’s also because it’s really a top issue for voters. We know voters have had significant concerns about access, but also about costs. That is why this administration has really done more on costs than any administration. This is my third, as you noted, so I’m really proud of all the work we’ve done on prescription drugs, on lowering costs of health care in the exchanges, on really trying to think through the cost burden for families when it comes to health care.

When we talk about prescription drugs, it’s a wide-ranging agenda, there are things or policies that people have talked about for decades, like Medicare negotiating drug prices, that this president is the first president to truly deliver on, which he will talk about in the State of the Union. But we’ve also innovated in different policies through the Inflation Reduction Act, the inflation rebates, which ensure that drug companies don’t raise the price of drugs faster than inflation. When they do, they pay a rebate both to Medicare but also ultimately to consumers. Those our high-impact policies that will really take a comprehensive approach on lowering prices.

Rovner: Yet for all the president has accomplished, and people who listen to the podcast regularly will know that it has been way more than was expected given the general polarization around Washington right now. Why does the president seem to get so little credit for getting done more things than a lot of his predecessors were able to do in two terms?

Tanden: Well, I think people do recognize the importance of prescription drug coverage. And health care as an issue that the president — it’s not my place to talk about politics, but he does have significant advantages on issues like health care. That I think, is because we’ve demonstrated tangible results. People understand what $35 insulin means. What I really want to point to in the Medicare negotiation process is, Sept. 1, Medicare will likely have a list of drugs which are significantly lower costs, that process is underway. But my expectation, you know I’m not part of it, that’s being negotiated by CMS [Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services] and HHS, but we expect to have a list of 10 drugs that are high-cost items for seniors in which they’ll see a price that is lower than what they pay now. That’s another way in which, like $35 insulin, we’ll have tangible proof points of what this administration will be delivering for families.

Rovner: There’s now a record number of people who have health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, which I remember you also worked on. But in surveys, as you noted, voters now say they’re less worried about coverage and more worried about not being able to pay their medical bills even if they have insurance. I know a lot of what you’re doing on the drug side is limited to Medicare. Now, do you expect you’re going to be able to expand that to everybody else?

Tanden: First and foremost, our drug prices will be public, as you know. And as you know, prices in Medicare have been able to influence other elements of the health care system. That is really an important part of this. Which is that again, those prices will be public and our hope is that the private sector adopts those prices, because they’re ones that are negotiated. We expect this to affect, not just seniors, but families throughout the country.

There are additional actions we’ll be taking on Medicare drug negotiation. That will be a significant portion of the president’s remarks on health care, not just what we’ve been able to do in Medicare drug negotiation, but how we can really build on that and really ensure that we are dramatically reducing drug costs throughout the system. I look forward to hearing the president on that topic.

Rovner: I know we’re also going to get the budget next week. Are there any other big health issues that will be a priority this year?

Tanden: The president will have a range of policies on issues like access to sickle cell therapies, ensuring affordable generic drugs are accessible to everybody, ensuring that we are building on the Affordable Care Act gains. You mentioned this, but I just really do want to step back and talk about access under the Affordable Care Act. Because I think if people started off at the beginning of this administration and said the ACA marketplaces close to double, people would’ve been shocked. You know this well, a lot of people thought the exchanges were maximizing their potential. There are a lot of people who may not be interested in that, but the president had, in working with Congress, made the exchanges more affordable.

We’ve seen record adoption: 21 million people covered through the ACA exchanges today, when it was 12 million when we started. That’s 9 million more people who have the security of affordable health care coverage. I think it’s a really important point, which is, why are people signing up? Because it is a lot more affordable? Most people can get a very affordable plan. People are saving on average $800, and that affordability is crucial. Of course we have to do more work to reduce costs throughout the health care system. But it’s an important reminder that when you lower drug costs, you also have the ability to lower premiums and it’s another way in which we can drive health care costs down. I would be genuinely honest with you, which is, I did not think we would be able to do all of these things at the beginning of the administration. The president has been laser-focused on delivering, and as you know from your work on the ACA, he did think it was a big deal.

Rovner: I have that on a T-shirt.

Tanden: A lot of people have talked about different things, but he has been really focused on strengthening the ACA. He’ll talk about how we need to strengthen it in the future, and how that is another choice that we face this year, whether we’re going to entertain repealing the ACA or build on it and ensure that the millions of people who are using the ACA have the security to know that it’s there for them into the future. Not just on access, but that also means protections for preexisting conditions, ensuring women can no longer be discriminated against, the lifetime annual limits. There’s just a variety of ways that ACA has transformed the health care system to be much more focused on consumers.

Rovner: Last question. Obviously reproductive health, big, big issue this year. IVF in particular has been in the news these past couple of weeks, thanks to the Alabama Supreme Court. Is there anything that President Biden can do using his own executive power to protect access to reproductive health technology? And will we hear him at some point address this whole personhood movement that we’re starting to see bubble back up?

Tanden: I think the president will be very forceful on reproductive rights and will discuss the whole set of freedoms that are at stake and reproductive rights and our core freedom at stake this year. You and I both know that attacks on IVF are actually just the effectuation of the attacks on Roe. What animates the attacks on Roe, would ultimately affect IVF. I felt like I was a voice in the wilderness for the last couple of decades, where people were saying … They’re just really focused on Roe v. Wade. It won’t have any impact on IVF or [indecipherable] they’re just scare tactics when you talk about IVF.

Obviously the ideological underpinnings of attacks on Roe ultimately mean that you would have to take on IVF, which is exactly what women are saying. I think the president will speak forcefully to the attacks on women’s dignity that women are seeing throughout this country, and how this ideological battle has translated to misery and pain for millions of women. Misery and pain for their families. And has really reached the point where women who are desperate to have a family are having their reproductive rights restricted because of the ideological views of a minority of the country. That is a huge issue for women, a huge issue for the country, and exactly why he’ll talk about moving forward on freedoms and not moving us back, sometimes decades, on freedom.

Rovner: Well, Neera Tanden, you have a lot to keep you busy. I hope we can call on you again.

Tanden: There’s few people who know the health care system as well as Julie Rovner, so it’s just a pleasure to be with you.

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. I already did mine. Sandhya, why don’t you go next?

Raman: My extra credit this week is called “My Son Is Not There Anymore: How Young People With Psychosis Are Falling Through the Cracks,” and it’s by Órla Ryan for The Journal. This was a really interesting story about schizophrenia in Ireland and just how the earlier someone’s symptoms are treated the better the outcome. But a lot of children and minors with psychosis and schizophrenia struggle to get access to the care they need and just fall through the cracks of being transferred from one system to another, especially if they’re also dealing with disabilities. If some of these symptoms are treated before puberty, the severity is likely to go down a lot and they’re much less likely to experience psychosis. She takes a really interesting look at a specific case and some of the consequences there.

Rovner: I feel like we don’t look enough at what other countries health systems are doing because we could all learn from each other. Alice, why don’t you go next?

Ollstein: I have a piece by KFF Health News called “Why Even Public Health Experts Have Limited Insight Into Stopping Gun Violence in America.” It’s looking at the toll taken by the long-standing restrictions on federal funding for research into gun violence, investigating it as a public health issue. Only recently this has started to erode at the federal level and some funding has been approved for this research, but it is so small compared to the death toll of gun violence. This article sort of argues that lacking that data for so many years is why a lot of the quote-unquote “solutions” that places have tried to implement to prevent gun violence, just don’t work. They haven’t worked, they haven’t stopped these mass shootings, which continue to happen. So, arguing that, if we had better data on why things happen and how to make it less lethal, and safe, in various spaces, that we could implement some things that actually work.

Rovner: Yeah, we didn’t have the research just as this problem was exploding and now we are paying the price. Sarah.

Karlin-Smith: I looked at the first in a Stat News series by Lev Facher, “The War on Recovery: How the U.S. Is Sabotaging Its Best Tools to Prevent Deaths in the Opioid Epidemic.” It looks at why the U.S. has had access to cheap effective medicines that help reduce the risk of overdose and death for people that are struggling with opioid-use disorder haven’t actually been able, in most cases, to get access to these drugs, methadone and buprenorphine.

The reasons range from even people not being allowed to take the drugs when they’re in prison, to not being able to hold certain jobs if you’re taking these prescription medications, to Narcotics Anonymous essentially banning people from coming to those meetings if they use these drugs, to doctors not being willing or open to prescribing them. Then of course, there’s what always seems to come up these days, the private equity angle. Which is that methadone clinics are becoming increasingly owned by private equity and they’ve actually pushed back on and lobbied against policies that would make it easier for people to get methadone treatment. Because one big barrier to methadone treatment is, right now you largely have to go every day to a clinic to get your medicine, which it can be difficult to incorporate into your life if you need to hold a job and take care of kids and so forth.

It’s just a really fascinating dive into why we have the tools to make what is really a terrible crisis that kills so many people much, much better in the U.S. but we’re just not using them. Speaking of how other countries handle it, the piece goes a little bit into how other countries have had more success in actually being open to and using these tools and the differences between them and the U.S.

Rovner: Yeah, it’s a really good story. All right, 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, Emmarie Huetteman. As always, you can email us your comments or questions. We’re at whatthehealth@kff.org, or you can still find me at X, @jrovner, or @julierovner at Bluesky or @julie.rovner at Threads. . Sarah, where are you these days?

Karlin-Smith: Trying mostly to be on Blue Sky, but on X, Twitter a little bit at either @SarahKarlin or @sarahkarlin-smith.

Rovner: Alice.

Ollstein: @alicemiranda on Blue Sky, and @AliceOllstein on X.

Rovner: Sandhya.

Raman: @SandhyaWrites on X and on Blue Sky.

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

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