Category: Medicine and Health

‘Forever Chemicals’ Found in Freshwater Fish, Yet Most States Don’t Warn Residents

Bill Eisenman has always fished.

“Growing up, we ate whatever we caught — catfish, carp, freshwater drum,” he said. “That was the only real source of fish in our diet as a family, and we ate a lot of it.”

Today, a branch of the Rouge River runs through Eisenman’s property in a suburb north of Detroit. But in recent years, he has been wary about a group of chemicals known as PFAS, also referred to as “forever chemicals,” which don’t break down quickly in the environment and accumulate in soil, water, fish, and our bodies.

The chemicals have spewed from manufacturing plants and landfills into local ecosystems, polluting surface water and groundwater, and the wildlife living there. And hundreds of military bases have been pinpointed as sources of PFAS chemicals leaching into nearby communities.

Researchers, anglers, and environmental activists nationwide worry about the staggering amount of PFAS found in freshwater fish. At least 17 states have issued PFAS-related fish consumption advisories, KFF Health News found, with some warning residents not to eat any fish caught in particular lakes or rivers because of dangerous levels of forever chemicals.

With no federal guidance, what is considered safe to eat varies significantly among states, most of which provide no regulation.

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Eating a single serving of freshwater fish can be the equivalent of drinking water contaminated with high levels of PFAS for a month, according to a recent study from the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization that tracks PFAS. It’s an unsettling revelation, especially for rural, Indigenous, and low-income communities that depend on subsistence fishing. Fish remain a large part of cultural dishes, as well as an otherwise healthy source of protein and omega-3s.

“PFAS in freshwater fish is at such a concentration that for anyone consuming, even infrequently, it would likely be their major source of exposure over the course of the year,” said David Andrews, a co-author of the study and researcher at EWG. “We’re talking thousands of times higher than what’s typically seen in drinking water.”

Dianne Kopec, a researcher and faculty fellow at the University of Maine who studies PFAS and mercury in wildlife, warned that eating fish with high concentrations of PFAS may be more harmful than mercury, which long ago was found to be a neurotoxin most damaging to a developing fetus. The minimal risk level — an estimate of how much a person can eat, drink, or breathe daily without “detectable risk” to health — for PFOS, a common PFAS chemical, is 50 times as low as for methylmercury, the form of mercury that accumulates in fish, according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. But she emphasized, “They’re both really nasty.”

Just like mercury, PFAS bioaccumulate up the food chain, so bigger fish, like largemouth bass, generally contain more chemicals than smaller fish. Mercury is more widespread in Maine, but Kopec said PFAS levels near contamination sources are concerningly high.

‘Fishing Is a Way of Life’

The Ecology Center, an environmental group in Michigan, educates anglers about consumption advisories and related health impacts. But Erica Bloom, its toxics campaign director, noted that for many people out on the river, “fishing is a way of life.”

Eisenman participated in an Ecology Center community-based study published this year, which tested fish from Michigan’s Huron and Rouge rivers for PFAS that poured out from auto and other industry contamination. Across 15 sites, anglers caught 100 fish samples from a dozen species, and what they found scared him.

“There were no sites that registered zero,” said Eisenman, noting that some had significantly higher levels of chemicals than others. “You need to make a value judgment. I’m going to still eat fish, but I don’t know if that’s a good thing.”

Last year, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine published a sweeping federally funded report that associated PFAS exposure with health effects like decreased response to vaccines, cancer, and low birth weight.

There are thousands of PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, many of them used to make both household and industrial products stain-resistant or nonstick. They’re in fire-retardant foam used for decades by fire departments and the military, as well as in cookware, water-repellent clothing, carpets, food wrappers, and other consumer goods.

In late October, the EPA added hundreds of PFAS compounds to its list of “chemicals of special concern.” This will require manufacturers to report the presence of those PFAS chemicals in their products — even in small amounts or in mixtures — starting Jan. 1.

Sparse Testing Leaves Blind Spots

About 200 miles north of Detroit, in rural Oscoda, Michigan, state officials have warned against eating fish or deer caught or killed near the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base because of PFAS contamination.

“We have a 9-mile stretch of river system in which the state determined way back in 2012 that it wasn’t safe to even eat a single fish,” said Tony Spaniola, an advocate for communities affected by PFAS. He owns a home across a lake from the shuttered military site.

In Alaska, several lakes are designated catch and release only because of PFAS contamination from firefighting foam. A study by the U.S. Geological Survey and Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection released in August led to a warning to avoid eating fish from the Neshaminy Creek watershed.

Nationwide, use of firefighting foam and other PFAS-loaded products by the Department of Defense alone has led to the contamination of at least 359 military bases and communities that need to be cleaned up, with an additional 248 still under investigation as of June.

But many lakes and streams haven’t been tested for PFAS contamination, and researchers worry far more sites hold fish laced with high levels of PFAS.

Federal efforts to curb PFAS exposure have focused mostly on drinking water. Earlier this year, the EPA proposed the nation’s first PFAS drinking water standards, which would limit contamination from six types of chemicals, with levels for the two most common compounds, PFOA and PFOS, set at 4 parts per trillion.

But the EWG researchers found that one serving of fish can be equivalent to a month’s worth of drinking water contaminated with 48 parts per trillion of PFOS.

Store-bought fish caught in the ocean, like imported Atlantic salmon and canned chunk tuna, appear to have lower PFAS levels, according to FDA research.

A biomonitoring project focused on the San Francisco Bay Area’s Asian and Pacific Islander community measured PFAS levels in the blood and found higher amounts of the compounds compared with national levels. The researchers also surveyed participants about their fish consumption and found that 56% of those who ate locally caught fish did so at least once a month.

Eating a fish’s fillet is often recommended, as it accumulates fewer chemicals than organs or eggs, but many participants reported eating other parts of the fish, too.

California is one of many states with no fish consumption advisories in place for PFAS. Jay Davis, senior scientist at the San Francisco Estuary Institute, said that’s in part because of “limited monitoring dollars” and a priority on legacy chemicals like PCBs as well as mercury left over in particularly high concentrations from gold and mercury mining.

Wesley Smith, a senior toxicologist with California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, said the state is reviewing the latest scientific literature but needs more data to develop an advisory that is “neither too restrictive nor too permissive.”

States like New Hampshire, Washington, Maine, and New Jersey have some of the most protective guidance, while other states, such as Maryland and Michigan, lag when it comes to designating fish unsafe to eat.

Advisory levels for at-risk groups — such as children and women of childbearing age — are usually lower, while “do not eat” thresholds for the general population range from 25.7 parts per billion in New Hampshire to 300 ppb in Michigan, 408 ppb in Maryland, and 800 ppb in Alabama.

“That’s wicked outdated to have levels that high and consider that safe for folks to eat,” said Kopec, the University of Maine researcher.

Though it is no longer made in the U.S., PFOS remains the most commonly found — and tested for — PFAS chemical in fish today.

The primary maker of PFOS, 3M, announced it would begin phasing the chemical out in 2000. This year, the company said it would pay at least $10.3 billion to settle a class-action lawsuit brought by public water system operators. But in July, attorneys general from 22 states asked the court to reject the settlement, saying it was insufficient to cover the damages.

The military first documented health concerns surrounding PFAS chemicals in the 1970s yet continued to use firefighting foam made with them. Mandated by Congress, the Defense Department was required to stop buying retardant containing PFAS by Oct. 1 and phase it out altogether by 2024. A recently published study linked testicular cancer among military personnel to PFOS.

Tackling Pollution at the Source

Pat Elder, an activist and director of the environmental advocacy group Military Poisons, has tested water for PFAS up and down the East Coast, including in Piscataway Creek, which drains from Joint Base Andrews, the home of Air Force One.

In 2021, after testing fish from Piscataway Creek, Maryland officials released the state’s sole PFAS fish consumption advisory to date. But Elder worries Maryland has not gone far enough to protect its residents.

“People eat the fish from this creek, and it creates an acute health hazard that no one seems to be paying attention to,” Elder said.

Since then, Maryland’s Department of the Environment has conducted more fish monitoring in water bodies near potential PFAS sources, as well as at spots regularly used by subsistence anglers, said spokesperson Jay Apperson. He added that the state plans to put out more advisories based on the results, though declined to give a timeline or share the locations.

Part of the challenge of getting the word out and setting location-specific consumption advisories is that contamination levels vary significantly from lake to lake, as well as species to species, said Brandon Reid, a toxicologist and the manager of Michigan’s Eat Safe Fish program.

Michigan set its screening values for fish consumption advisories in 2014, and the state is in the process of updating them within the next year, Reid said.

But to see the chemicals dip to healthier levels, the pollution needs to stop, too. There is hope: Andrews, the EWG researcher, compared EPA fish sample data from five years apart and found about a 30% drop on average in PFAS contamination.

Bloom has watched this cycle happen in the Huron River in southeastern Michigan, where PFAS chemicals upstream seeped into the water from a chrome plating facility. While the levels of PFAS in the water have slowly gone down, the chemicals remain, she said.

“It’s very, very hard to completely clean up the entire river,” Bloom said. “If we don’t tackle it at the source, we’re going to just keep having to spend taxpayer money to clean it up and deal with fish advisories.”

KFF Health News’ ‘What the Health?’: Trump Puts Obamacare Repeal Back on Agenda

The Host

Former president and current 2024 Republican front-runner Donald Trump is aiming to put a repeal of the Affordable Care Act back on the political agenda, much to the delight of Democrats, who point to the health law’s growing popularity.

Meanwhile, in Texas, the all-Republican state Supreme Court this week took up a lawsuit filed by more than two dozen women who said their lives were endangered when they experienced pregnancy complications due to the vague wording of the state’s near-total abortion ban.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of KFF Health News, Joanne Kenen of Johns Hopkins University and Politico Magazine, Victoria Knight of Axios, and Sarah Karlin-Smith of the Pink Sheet.

Among the takeaways from this week’s episode:

  • The FDA recently approved another promising weight loss drug, offering another option to meet the huge demand for such drugs that promise notable health benefits. But Medicare and private insurers remain wary of paying the tab for these very expensive drugs.
  • Speaking of expensive drugs, the courts are weighing in on the use of so-called copay accumulators offered by drug companies and others to reduce the cost of pricey pharmaceuticals for patients. The latest ruling called the federal government’s rules on the subject inconsistent and tied the use of copay accumulators to the availability of cheaper, generic alternatives.
  • Congress will revisit government spending in January, but that isn’t soon enough to address the end-of-the-year policy changes for some health programs, such as pending cuts to Medicare payments for doctors.
  • “This Week in Medical Misinformation” highlights a guide by the staff of Stat to help lay people decipher whether clinical study results truly represent a “breakthrough” or not.

Also this week, Rovner interviews KFF Health News’ Rachana Pradhan, who reported and wrote the latest “Bill of the Month” feature, about a woman who visited a hospital lab for basic prenatal tests and ended up owing almost $2,400. If you have an outrageous or baffling medical bill you’d like to share with us, you can do that here.

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

Julie Rovner: KFF Health News’ “Medicaid ‘Unwinding’ Makes Other Public Assistance Harder to Get,” by Katheryn Houghton, Rachana Pradhan, and Samantha Liss.

Joanne Kenen: KFF Health News’ “She Once Advised the President on Aging Issues. Now, She’s Battling Serious Disability and Depression,” by Judith Graham.  

Victoria Knight: Business Insider’s “Washington’s Secret Weapon Is a Beloved Gen Z Energy Drink With More Caffeine Than God,” by Lauren Vespoli.

Sarah Karlin-Smith: ProPublica’s “Insurance Executives Refused to Pay for the Cancer Treatment That Could Have Saved Him. This Is How They Did It,” by Maya Miller and Robin Fields.

Also mentioned in this week’s episode:

To hear all our podcasts, click here.

And subscribe to KFF Health News’ “What the Health?” on SpotifyApple PodcastsPocket Casts, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

In Congress, Calls Mount for Social Security to Address Clawbacks

An investigation by KFF Health News and Cox Media Group gained further traction on Capitol Hill this week as additional members of Congress formally demanded answers from the Social Security Administration about billions of dollars it mistakenly paid to beneficiaries — and then ordered they repay.

Two members of a Senate panel that oversees Social Security sent a letter to the agency’s acting commissioner, Kilolo Kijakazi, urging her to do more to prevent overpayments and “limit harm to vulnerable beneficiaries” when trying to recover the money.

As KFF Health News and Cox Media Group television stations jointly reported in September, the Social Security Administration routinely sends notices to beneficiaries saying they received benefits to which they weren’t entitled — and demanding they pay the government back, often within 30 days.

In the 2022 federal fiscal year, for example, the agency sent overpayment notices to more than 1 million people, Kijakazi told Congress in mid-October.

Alleged overpayments can continue for years before the government notifies a recipient and seeks repayment. By then, the amount a beneficiary allegedly owes the government can reach tens of thousands of dollars or more. People living check to check likely would have spent the money.

To recoup money owed, the government can reduce or stop people’s monthly benefit checks.

“[W]e have been deeply concerned by stories from our constituents and recent reports of the extreme financial hardship placed upon beneficiaries who are asked to quickly repay in full or whose payments are halted, reduced, or reclaimed as the agency attempts to correct improper payments, many of which occurred due to agency error,” Sens. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.) wrote in a Nov. 28 letter to Kijakazi.

Citing the news organizations’ reporting, the senators asked what Kijakazi is doing to prevent harm to beneficiaries and what Congress can do.

Hassan and Cassidy are on the Senate Finance Committee’s Subcommittee on Social Security, Pensions, and Family Policy.

Meanwhile, Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) sent Kijakazi a letter on Nov. 17 calling the agency’s actions “unacceptable.”

“If anyone intentionally defrauded the system or lied to receive payments at other taxpayers’ expense, they should absolutely be held accountable and repay this debt to taxpayers,” Scott wrote. “But it’s completely wrong for the federal government to go after well-intentioned Americans who did all the right things and trusted that their government was doing the right thing, too.”

Many of the people affected are disabled, low-income, or both and are enrolled in the Social Security Administration’s Disability Insurance or Supplemental Security Income programs.

In the 2022 fiscal year, the agency issued an estimated $4.6 billion in SSI overpayments, which represented 8% of payments in that program, according to the agency’s latest annual financial report.

Kijakazi recently told a House subcommittee the 8% was “a small percentage.”

In other programs administered by the agency, there were an estimated $6.5 billion in overpayments in fiscal 2022, which amounted to one-half of 1%. Kijakazi called that overpayment rate “extremely low.”

During the 2023 fiscal year, which ended on Sept. 30, the agency recovered $4.9 billion in overpayments, according to a recent statement by Social Security’s inspector general. At the end of that period, an additional $23 billion of accumulated overpayments remained uncollected, the statement said.

Since KFF Health News and Cox Media Group TV stations published and broadcast news reports on overpayment clawbacks in September, several members of the House and Senate have written to the Social Security Administration calling for change or answers.

“Many of these overpayment notices come as a complete surprise to SSA beneficiaries, leaving them confused, shocked, and scared that they cannot pay what SSA says they owe,” Rep. Ruben Gallego, an Arizona Democrat and Senate candidate, said in a Sept. 29 letter. “And, because of an indefinite ‘look-back period’, SSA can collect funds from a recipient for an error going back decades,” he added.

Asked about the latest letters from lawmakers, Social Security spokesperson Nicole Tiggemann said the agency “will respond directly to the requestors.”

Kijakazi said in October that she ordered a “top-to-bottom” review of how the agency handles overpayments.

Under federal law, the agency must seek recovery of overpaid amounts unless circumstances warrant waiving the debts, Kijakazi said in recent testimony to Congress. There’s no time limit on efforts to collect the debts, she said.

In their letter to the acting commissioner, Cassidy and Hassan asked what the agency is doing to make it less burdensome for beneficiaries to appeal or seek a waiver when an overpayment is the government’s fault.

In response to questions for this article, Tiggemann, the Social Security spokesperson, said, “We will examine our policies and procedures — including our regulations — to determine where administrative updates to the overpayment recovery and waiver process may reduce the complexity and burden for the people we serve.”

Scott, the Florida Republican, asked if the review Kijakazi announced in October would be disclosed to the public. In a written response to questions for this article, the Social Security spokesperson didn’t say.

Do you have an experience with Social Security overpayments you’d like to share? Click here to contact our reporting team.

Adultos mayores, detectives contra avisos engañosos de Medicare Advantage

Después de una ofensiva sin precedentes contra las publicidades engañosas de las aseguradoras que venden planes privados de Medicare Advantage y de medicamentos, la administración Biden espera utilizar un arma especial para asegurarse que las empresas sigan las nuevas reglas: esa arma eres tú.

Funcionarios de los Centros de Servicios de Medicare y Medicaid (CMS) le han pedido a las personas mayores y a otros miembros de la comunidad que sean detectives contra el fraude, denunciando tácticas de venta engañosas al 800-MEDICARE, la línea de información las 24 horas de la agencia.

Entre los productos sospechosos se encuentran las tarjetas postales diseñadas para que parezcan del gobierno y los anuncios de televisión con famosos que prometen prestaciones y tarifas bajas que sólo están disponibles para algunas personas en ciertos condados.

Las nuevas normas, vigentes desde el 30 de septiembre, describen lo que las aseguradoras pueden decir en anuncios y otros materiales promocionales, y durante el proceso de inscripción.

Las campañas publicitarias de las aseguradoras se lanzan cada otoño, cuando los adultos mayores pueden comprar pólizas que comienzan el 1 de enero. Las personas con cobertura tradicional de Medicare pueden añadir o cambiar un plan de medicamentos recetados o inscribirse en un plan Medicare Advantage, que combina cobertura médica y de fármacos.

Aunque los planes privados Advantage ofrecen prestaciones adicionales no disponibles en el Medicare tradicional, algunos servicios requieren autorización previa y los beneficiarios están limitados a una red de proveedores de salud que puede cambiar en cualquier momento.

Los beneficiarios de Medicare tradicional pueden acudir a cualquier proveedor. La temporada de inscripción abierta termina el 7 de diciembre.

Los planes Medicare Advantage que cruzan alguna línea no son la única razón para estar atentos a los fraudes comerciales. La información precisa del plan puede ayudar a evitar trampas en la inscripción.

Aunque, en general, las aseguradoras y los profesionales que abogan por las personas mayores han acogido con satisfacción las nuevas normas de veracidad en la publicidad, que se cumplan es el gran reto.

Esperar que los beneficiarios controlen los argumentos de venta de las aseguradoras es pedir demasiado, afirmó Semanthie Brooks, trabajadora social y defensora de los adultos mayores en el noreste de Ohio. Lleva casi dos décadas ayudando a beneficiarios de Medicare a analizar sus opciones. “No creo que los afiliados deban hacer de policías”, dijo.

Elegir un plan de Medicare Advantage puede ser abrumador. En Ohio, por ejemplo, hay 224 y 21 planes de medicamentos para elegir que entrarán en vigencia el año que viene. La elegibilidad y las prestaciones varían según los condados.

“Los CMS deberían estudiar cómo educar a las personas para que cuando oigan hablar de las servicios en televisión, entiendan que se trata de un anuncio promocional y no necesariamente de una prestación que podrían utilizar”, señaló Brooks. “Si no se dan cuenta de que estos anuncios pueden ser fraudulentos, entonces no sabrán que deben denunciarlos”.

La agencia confía en los beneficiarios para ayudar a mejorar los servicios, declaró por escrito a KFF Health News Meena Seshamani, directora de Medicare en los CMS. “Las voces de las personas a las que servimos hacen que nuestros programas sean más fuertes”, dijo.

Las quejas de los beneficiarios motivaron la intervención del gobierno. “Es por eso que, después de escuchar a nuestra comunidad, tomamos nuevas medidas para proteger a las personas con Medicare del marketing confuso y potencialmente engañoso”, agregó.

Aunque alrededor de 31 millones de los 65 millones de personas con Medicare están inscritas en Medicare Advantage, esta gran cantidad de personas podría no ser suficiente para controlar el tsunami de publicidad en la televisión, la radio, Internet y el papel que llega a los buzones.

El año pasado hubo más de 9,500 anuncios diarios durante el período de comercialización de planes de nueve semanas, según un análisis de KFF. Más del 94% de los anuncios televisivos estaban patrocinados por aseguradoras, brokers y empresas de marketing, frente a sólo un 3% del gobierno federal que promocionaba el programa tradicional de Medicare.

Según los investigadores, durante una hora del noticiero de Cleveland en diciembre, los telespectadores vieron nueve anuncios de Advantage.

Por primera vez, los CMS pidieron este año a las compañías de seguros y de marketing que les presentaran sus anuncios televisivos de Medicare Advantage, para asegurarse de que cumplían las nuevas normas.

Entre el 1 de mayo y el 30 de septiembre, los funcionarios revisaron 1,700 anuncios, y rechazaron más de 300 por considerarlos engañosos, según informes de la prensa. También se rechazaron otros 192 anuncios, de un total de 250, de empresas de marketing. La agencia no reveló si se analizaron otros medios.

Las nuevas restricciones se aplican también a los vendedores, ya sea en un anuncio, en material escrito o en una conversación cara a cara.

Según una norma nueva e importante, el vendedor debe explicar en qué se diferencia el nuevo plan del actual seguro médico de una persona antes de que se pueda realizar cualquier cambio.

Esa información podría haber ayudado a una mujer de Indiana que perdió la cobertura de sus medicamentos recetados, que le cuestan más de $2,000 al mes, indicó Shawn Swindell, supervisor de voluntarios del Programa Estatal de Asistencia sobre Seguros de Salud para 12 condados del centro-este del estado.

Un representante inscribió a la mujer en un plan de Medicare Advantage sin decirle que no incluía cobertura de medicamentos porque el plan está dirigido a veteranos que pueden obtener esa cobertura a través del Departamento de Asuntos de Veteranos en lugar de Medicare. La mujer no es veterana, añadió Swindell.

En Nueva York, el Centro de Derechos de Medicare recibió una queja de un hombre que solo quería inscribirse para obtener una tarjeta de débito prepagada para comprar productos farmacéuticos no recetados, contó Emily Whicheloe, directora de educación de la organización. No sabía que el vendedor lo inscribiría en un nuevo plan de Medicare Advantage que ofrecía la tarjeta. Whicheloe reparó el error pidiendo a los CMS que permitieran al hombre volver a su plan Advantage anterior.

Las tarjetas de débito forman parte de la vertiginosa gama de ventajas adicionales no médicas que ofrecen los planes Medicare Advantage, junto con el transporte a las citas médicas, las comidas a domicilio y el dinero para servicios públicos, comestibles e incluso artículos para mascotas. El año pasado, los planes ofrecieron un promedio de 23 prestaciones adicionales, según los CMS. Sin embargo, algunas aseguradoras han comunicado a la agencia que sólo un pequeño porcentaje de pacientes las utiliza, aunque el uso real no se reporta.

Este mes, los CMS propusieron normas adicionales sobre Advantage para 2025, incluida una que obligaría a las aseguradoras a informar a sus afiliados sobre los servicios disponibles que aún no hayan utilizado. Los recordatorios “garantizarán que la gran inversión federal de dinero de los contribuyentes en estos beneficios llegue realmente a los beneficiarios y no se utilice principalmente como una estratagema de marketing”, según señalan las autoridades en una hoja informativa.

Por lo general, los afiliados a Medicare Advantage permanecen vinculados a sus planes durante todo el año, salvo raras excepciones, como el traslado fuera del área de servicio o la quiebra del plan.

Pero hace dos años, los CMS agregaron una vía de escape: las personas pueden abandonar un plan al que se han afiliado basándose en información engañosa o inexacta, o si descubren que las prestaciones prometidas no existen o no pueden ver a sus proveedores. Esta excepción también se aplica cuando representantes del plan, sin escrúpulos, ocultan información e inscriben a personas en una póliza Advantage sin su consentimiento.

Otra nueva norma, que debería evitar que las inscripciones salgan mal, prohíbe a los planes promocionar prestaciones que no están disponibles en el lugar donde vive el potencial afiliado. Las promesas vacías se han convertido en una fuente creciente de quejas de los clientes del Programa de Información sobre Seguros de Salud para Mayores de Louisiana, según Vicki Dufrene, su directora estatal. “Iban a tener todas estas opciones y estos extras, y cuando llega el momento, no tienen ni opciones ni extras, pero el vendedor siguió adelante y les inscribió en el plan”.

Así que esperamos ver más cláusulas de exención de responsabilidad en anuncios y correos como esta carta no solicitada que un plan Aetna Medicare Advantage envió a una mujer de Nueva York: “Las características y la disponibilidad del plan pueden variar según el área de servicio”, dice una advertencia incluida en letra chica. “El formulario y/o la red de farmacias pueden cambiar en cualquier momento”, continúa, refiriéndose a la lista de medicamentos cubiertos. “Recibirá un aviso cuando sea necesario”.

Sin embargo, las normas siguen permitiendo a las aseguradoras presumir de sus calificaciones de los CMS —cinco estrellas es la máxima—, aunque estas no reflejen el rendimiento del plan mencionado en un anuncio o mostrado en el sitio web del gobierno para encontrar planes de Medicare.

“No hay forma de que los consumidores sepan con qué exactitud la calificación por estrellas refleja el diseño específico del plan, la red de proveedores concreta o cualquier otro aspecto específico de una póliza en su condado”, afirmó Laura Skopec, investigadora del Urban Institute y coautora de un estudio reciente sobre el sistema de calificación.

Y como los datos de las calificaciones pueden tener más de un año de antigüedad y los planes cambian cada año, las publicadas este año no se aplican a los planes de 2024 que ni siquiera han empezado, a pesar de las afirmaciones en sentido contrario.

Cómo detectar argumentos de venta engañosos de Medicare Advantage y planes de medicamentos (y qué hacer al respecto)

Los Centros de Servicios de Medicare y Medicaid tienen nuevas reglas que toman medidas enérgicas contra la publicidad y promoción engañosas o inexactas de Medicare Advantage y los planes de medicamentos. Hay que tener cuidado con los avisos que:

  • Los beneficios sugeridos están disponibles para todos los que se registren cuando solo algunas personas califican.
  • Menciona los beneficios que no están disponibles en el área de servicio donde se anuncian.
  • Utiliza superlativos como “la mayoría” o “mejor”, a menos que estos datos estén respaldados por datos del año actual o anterior.
  • Reclama ahorros poco realistas, como $9,600 en ahorros en medicamentos, que se aplican sólo en circunstancias excepcionales.
  • Habla de cobertura sin nombrar el plan.
  • Muestra el nombre oficial de Medicare, la tarjeta de membresía o el logotipo sin la aprobación de los CMS.
  • Contacta al miembro de un plan Advantage o de medicamentos sobre otros productos sin autorización.
  • Finge ser del programa Medicare administrado por el gobierno, que no realiza llamadas de ventas no solicitadas a los beneficiarios.

Si crees que una empresa está violando las nuevas reglas, comuníquese con CMS al 800-MEDICARE, su línea directa de información las 24 horas. Si cree que eligió un plan basándose en información inexacta y desea cambiar de plan, comuníquese con CMS o con su Programa estatal de asistencia sobre seguros médicos: o al 877-839-2675. Para obtener más información sobre cómo protegerse de las infracciones de marketing, visite

Desantis, Newsom to Tangle Over Hot-Button Health Issues

Florida’s Republican presidential hopeful, Ron DeSantis,and Democratic firebrand Gavin Newsom of California square off today in a contest of governors that can best be described as the debate to determine ¿quién es más macho? — who is more manly — about protecting your freedoms. 

Both men have led their respective states since 2019, and they’ve lately been engaged in an escalating feud. While Newsom isn’t running for president himself — yet — he’s a key surrogate for President Biden. Fox News is playing up the faceoff, which it’ll host, as “The Great Red Vs. Blue State Debate.” 

The debate promises to put America’s culture wars front-and-center. Abortion. Homelessness. Transgender health care. The coronavirus pandemic response. Health coverage for undocumented immigrants. Even drag shows, DEI and Disney’s First Amendment rights.

Though conservative TV host Sean Hannity is moderating the 90-minute showdown in Alpharetta, Ga., seemingly a home-field advantage for DeSantis, Newsom is relishing the confrontation after goading Florida’s governor into going head-to-head. 

Both men use each other’s states as punching bags. DeSantis portrays Newsom as too liberal for America, presiding over a failed state where homelessness and crime are rampant, citizens are forced to mask up and get vaccinated, and access to abortion and public assistance like Medicaid is too easy, breaking society morally and financially.

In a fundraising video for his presidential campaign, DeSantis called California “the petri dish for American leftism,” adding that “everything Biden is doing — they would accelerate and they would cause this country to collapse. That is not the future that we need. Florida shows a model for revival, a model based on freedom.”

Newsom has blasted DeSantis as a “small pathetic man” and argues that small-d democracy itself is at stake in the presidential election. His political operation paid for an ad on Florida’s airwaves this year in which Newsom told Sunshine State residents: “Freedom — it’s under attack in your state.”

He has knocked DeSantis’s education policies that restrict teaching gender and sexuality to schoolchildren as well as laws the Florida governor pushed through the legislature banning abortion after six weeks and limiting gender transition-related health care. 

“Your Republican leaders, they’re banning books, making it harder to vote, restricting speech in classrooms,” Newsom said in his ad. “Even criminalizing women and doctors. Join us in California, where we still believe in freedom.”

Newsom’s health and education policies are largely the opposite of DeSantis’s. He’s expanded access to gender-affirming care for children and adults, and is expanding Medicaid beginning Jan. 1 to cover lower-income undocumented immigrants. Backed by the Democratic-controlled state legislature, Newsom led an effort in 2022 to enshrine the right to abortion in the state constitution, and he’s fought to block local school districts from restricting access to certain books.

While DeSantis directs resources to the presidential campaign, where he’s struggling to maintain his second-place standing in the GOP primary behind front-runner Donald Trump, Newsom struck again this month with another Florida ad buy, this time centered on reproductive health and abortion access. 

The ad alleges that DeSantis has criminalized doctors and women seeking an abortion after six weeks and argues that they could be arrested “by order of Governor Ron DeSantis.”

Both men face a monumental test in their debate. Newsom must demonstrate his loyalty to Biden, the Democratic Party leader and the actual candidate next November, while scoring points against DeSantis.

DeSantis, a wooden public speaker who struggles to connect with his audiences, has faced some criticism in Republican circles for a lackluster campaign. He’s got to persuade GOP voters that he’s a formidable option to Trump, without any major gaffes. 

The proxy battle could shape not only next year’s presidential contest, but the 2028 field of White House contenders as well.

One other hot-button issue we’re watching for is homelessness, considering nearly one-third of all homeless Americans live in California. Expect DeSantis to hammer Newsom over Californians fleeing for cheaper living elsewhere — including to Florida. Newsom, meanwhile, will play up the unprecedented investment he’s spearheaded to combat the humanitarian crisis (without clear results as of yet).

This article is not available for syndication due to republishing restrictions. If you have questions about the availability of this or other content for republication, please contact

Uncle Sam Wants You … to Help Stop Insurers’ Bogus Medicare Advantage Sales Tactics

After an unprecedented crackdown on misleading advertising claims by insurers selling private Medicare Advantage and drug plans, the Biden administration hopes to unleash a special weapon to make sure companies follow the new rules: you.

Officials at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services are encouraging seniors and other members of the public to become fraud detectives by reporting misleading or deceptive sales tactics to 800-MEDICARE, the agency’s 24-hour information hotline. Suspects include postcards designed to look like they’re from the government and TV ads with celebrities promising benefits and low fees that are available only to some people in certain counties.

The new rules, which took effect Sept. 30, close some loopholes in existing requirements by describing what insurers can say in ads and other promotional materials as well as during the enrollment process.

Insurance companies’ advertising campaigns kick into high gear every fall, when seniors can buy policies that take effect Jan. 1. People with traditional government Medicare coverage can add or change a prescription drug plan or join a Medicare Advantage plan that combines drug and medical coverage. Although private Advantage plans offer extra benefits not available under the Medicare program, some services require prior authorization and beneficiaries are confined to a network of health care providers that can change anytime. Beneficiaries in traditional Medicare can see any provider. The open enrollment season ends Dec. 7.

Catching Medicare Advantage plans that step out of line isn’t the only reason to keep an eye out for marketing scams. Accurate plan information can help avoid enrollment traps in the first place.

Although insurers and advocates for older adults have generally welcomed the new truth-in-advertising rules, compliance is the big challenge. Expecting beneficiaries to monitor insurance company sales pitches is asking a lot, said Semanthie Brooks, a social worker and advocate for older adults in northeast Ohio. She’s been helping people with Medicare sort through their options for nearly two decades. “I don’t think Medicare beneficiaries should be the police,” she said.

Choosing a Medicare Advantage plan can be daunting. In Ohio, for example, there are 224 Advantage and 21 drug plans to choose from that take effect next year. Eligibility and benefits vary among counties across the state.

“CMS ought to be looking at how they can educate people, so that when they hear about benefits on television, they understand that this is a promotional advertisement and not necessarily a benefit that they can use,” Brooks said. “If you don’t realize that these ads may be fraudulent, then you won’t know to report them.”

The agency relies on beneficiaries to help improve services, Meena Seshamani, CMS’ Medicare director, told KFF Health News in a written statement. “The voices of the people we serve make our programs stronger,” she said. Beneficiary complaints prompted the government’s action. “That’s why, after hearing from our community, we took new critical steps to protect people with Medicare from confusing and potentially misleading marketing.”

Although about 31 million of the 65 million people with Medicare are enrolled in Medicare Advantage, even that may not be enough people to monitor the tsunami of advertising on TV, radio, the internet, and paper delivered to actual mailboxes. Last year more than 9,500 ads aired daily during the nine-week marketing period that started two weeks before enrollment opened, according to an analysis by KFF. More than 94% of the TV commercials were sponsored by health insurers, brokers, and marketing companies, compared with only 3% from the federal government touting the original Medicare program.

During just one hourlong Cleveland news program in December, researchers found, viewers were treated to nine Advantage ads.

For the first time, CMS asked insurance and marketing companies this year to submit their Medicare Advantage television ads, to make sure they complied with the expanded rules. Officials reviewed 1,700 commercials from May 1 through Sept. 30 and nixed more than 300 deemed misleading, according to news reports. An additional 192 ads out of 250 from marketing companies were also rejected. The agency would not disclose the total number of TV commercials reviewed and rejected this year or whether ads from other media were scrutinized.

The new restrictions also apply to salespeople, whether their pitch is in an ad, written material, or a one-on-one conversation.

Under one important new rule, the salesperson must explain how the new plan is different from a person’s current health insurance before any changes can be made.

That information could have helped an Indiana woman who lost coverage for her prescription drugs, which cost more than $2,000 a month, said Shawn Swindell, the State Health Insurance Assistance Program supervisor of volunteers for 12 counties in east-central Indiana. A plan representative enrolled the woman in a Medicare Advantage plan without telling her it didn’t include drug coverage because the plan is geared toward veterans who can get drug coverage through the Department of Veterans Affairs instead of Medicare. The woman is not a veteran, Swindell said.

In New York, the Medicare Rights Center received a complaint from a man who had wanted to sign up just for a prepaid debit card to purchase nonprescription pharmacy items, said the group’s director of education, Emily Whicheloe. He didn’t know the salesperson would enroll him in a new Medicare Advantage plan that offered the card. Whicheloe undid the mistake by asking CMS to allow the man to return to his previous Advantage plan.

Debit cards are among a dizzying array of extra nonmedical perks offered by Medicare Advantage plans, along with transportation to medical appointments, home-delivered meals, and money for utilities, groceries, and even pet supplies. Last year, plans offered an average of 23 extra benefits, according to CMS. But some insurers have told the agency only a small percentage of patients use them, although actual usage is not reportable.

This month, CMS proposed additional Advantage rules for 2025, including one that would require insurers to tell their members about available services they haven’t used yet. Reminders will “ensure the large federal investment of taxpayer dollars in these benefits is actually making its way to beneficiaries and are not primarily used as a marketing ploy,” officials said in a fact sheet.

Medicare Advantage members are usually locked into their plans for the year, with rare exceptions, including if they move out of the service area or the plan goes out of business. But two years ago, CMS added an escape hatch: People can leave a plan they joined based on misleading or inaccurate information, or if they discovered promised benefits didn’t exist or they couldn’t see their providers. This exception also applies when unscrupulous plan representatives withhold information and enroll people in an Advantage policy without their consent.

Another new rule that should prevent enrollments from going awry prohibits plans from touting benefits that are not available where the prospective member lives. Empty promises have become an increasing source of complaints from clients of Louisiana’s Senior Health Insurance Information Program, said its state director, Vicki Dufrene. “They were going to get all these bells and whistles, and when it comes down to it, they don’t get all the bells and whistles, but the salesperson went ahead and enrolled them in the plan.”

So expect to see more disclaimers in advertisements and mailings like this unsolicited letter an Aetna Medicare Advantage plan sent to a New York City woman: “Plan features and availability may vary by service area,” reads one warning packed into a half-page of fine print. “The formulary and/or pharmacy network may change at any time,” it continues, referring to the list of covered drugs. “You will receive notice when necessary.”

However, the rules still allow insurers to boast about their ratings from CMS — five stars is the top grade — even though the ratings do not reflect the performance of the specific plan mentioned in an ad or displayed on the government’s Medicare plan finder website. “There is no way for consumers to know how accurately the star rating reflects the specific plan design, specific provider network, or any other specifics of a particular plan in their county,” said Laura Skopec, a senior researcher at the Urban Institute who recently co-authored a study on the rating system.

And because ratings data can be more than a year old and plans change annually, ratings published this year don’t apply to 2024 plans that haven’t even begun yet — despite claims to the contrary.

How to spot misleading Medicare Advantage and drug plan sales pitches (and what to do about it)

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has new rules cracking down on misleading or inaccurate advertising and promotion of Medicare Advantage and drug plans. Watch out for pitches that:

  • Suggest benefits are available to all who sign up when only some individuals qualify.
  • Mention benefits that are not available in the service area where they are advertised (unless unavoidable because the media outlet covers multiple service areas).
  • Use superlatives like “most” or “best” unless claims are backed up by data from the current or prior year.
  • Claim unrealistic savings, such as $9,600 in drug savings, which apply only in rare circumstances.
  • Market coverage without naming the plan.
  • Display the official Medicare name, membership card, or logo without CMS approval.
  • Contact you if you’re an Advantage or drug plan member and you told that plan not to notify you about other health insurance products.
  • Pretend to be from the government-run Medicare program, which does not make unsolicited sales calls to beneficiaries.

If you think a company is violating the new rules, contact CMS at 800-MEDICARE, its 24-hour information hotline. If you believe you chose a plan based on inaccurate information and want to change plans, contact CMS or your State Health Insurance Assistance Program: or 877-839-2675. For more information about protecting yourself from marketing violations, go to

FTC Chief Gears Up for a Showdown With Private Equity

A recent Federal Trade Commission civil lawsuit accusing one of the nation’s largest anesthesiology groups of monopolistic practices that sharply drove up prices is a warning to private equity investors that could temper their big push to snap up physician groups.

Over the past three years, FTC and Department of Justice officials have signaled they would apply more scrutiny to private equity acquisitions in health care, including roll-up deals in which larger provider groups buy smaller groups in a local market.

Nothing happened until September, when the FTC sued U.S. Anesthesia Partners and the private equity firm Welsh, Carson, Anderson & Stowe in federal court in Houston, alleging they had rolled up nearly all large anesthesiology practices in Texas. In the first FTC legal challenge against a private equity purchase of medical practices, the federal agency targeted one of the most aggressive private equity firms involved in building large, market-dominating medical groups.

In an interview, FTC Chair Lina Khan confirmed that her agency wants to send a message with this suit. Welsh Carson and USAP “bought up the largest anesthesiology practices, then jacked up prices and entered into price-setting and market-allocation schemes,” said Khan, who was appointed by President Joe Biden in 2021 to head the antitrust enforcement agency, with a mandate to combat health care consolidation. “This action puts the market on notice that we will scrutinize roll-up schemes.”

The large and growing volume of private equity acquisitions of physician groups in recent years has raised mounting concerns about the impact on health costs, quality of care, and providers’ clinical autonomy. A JAMA Internal Medicine study published last year found that prices charged by anesthesiology groups increased 26% after they were acquired by private equity firms.

“Now we’re seeing that scrutiny with this suit,” said Ambar La Forgia, an assistant professor of business management at the University of California-Berkeley, who co-authored the JAMA article. “This suit will cause companies to be more careful not to create too much local market power.”

The FTC’s lawsuit alleges that USAP and Welsh Carson engaged in an anti-competitive scheme to gain market power and drive up prices for hospital anesthesiology services. The FTC also accuses USAP and Welsh Carson — which established the medical group in 2012 and has expanded it to eight states — of cutting deals with competing anesthesiology groups to raise prices and stay out of one another’s markets.

USAP now controls 60% of Texas’ hospital anesthesia market, and its prices are double the median rates of other anesthesia providers in the state, according to the lawsuit. Learning that USAP would boost rates following one acquisition, a USAP executive wrote, “Awesome! Cha-ching,” the civil complaint said.

In a written statement, Welsh Carson, which also holds sizable ownership shares in radiology, orthopedic, and primary care groups, called the FTC lawsuit “without merit in fact or law.” It said USAP’s commercial rates “have not exceeded the rate of medical cost inflation for close to 10 years.”

The New York firm also said its investment in USAP “has allowed independent anesthesiologists to deliver superior clinical outcomes to underserved populations” and that the FTC’s action will harm clinicians and patients. Welsh Carson declined a request for interviews with its executives.

“This is a pretty common roll-up strategy, and some of the big private equity companies must be wondering if more FTC complaints are coming,” said Loren Adler, associate director of the Brookings Schaeffer Initiative on Health Policy. “If the FTC is successful in court, it will have a chilling effect.”

Since the FTC filed the USAP lawsuit, Khan said, the agency has received information from people in other health fields about roll-ups it should scrutinize. “We have limited resources, but it’s an area we are interested in,” she said. “We want to focus on where we see the most significant harm.”

In physician acquisition deals, PE firms typically use mostly borrowed money to acquire a controlling interest in a large medical group, pay the physician owners a substantial upfront sum in exchange for sharply cutting their future compensation, and install a management team. Then they seek to acquire smaller groups in the same geographic market and bolt them onto the original medical group for more bargaining clout and operating efficiencies.

The PE firm’s goal is to garner at least 20% dividends a year and then sell the group to another investor for at least three times the purchase price in three to seven years. Critics say this short-term investment model spurs the investors and medical groups to boost prices and cut staffing to generate large profits as fast as possible.

“Private equity is trying to extract value quickly and sell the company for a profit, so there’s a lot more incentive to increase prices quickly and extract higher revenue,” La Forgia said.

In the two years after a sale, PE-owned practices in dermatology, gastroenterology, and ophthalmology charged insurers 20% more per claim on average than did practices not owned by private equity, according to a JAMA study published last year.

There are similar concerns about hospital systems acquiring physician practices, which also have raised prices. “The evidence shows that both private equity and hospital acquisitions of physician practices are bad for consumers, and scrutiny should be applied to all acquirers,” Adler said.

Critics warn that private equity roll-ups of medical groups can jeopardize quality of care, too. Chris Strouse, a Denver anesthesiologist who served on USAP’s national board of directors but left the company’s Colorado group out of disapproval in 2020, cited patient safety issues arising from short staffing and mismanagement. He said USAP would schedule shifts so that three or four providers would hand off to each other a single surgical procedure, which he said is risky. In addition, USAP frequently asked anesthesiologists to work the day after working a 24-hour on-call shift, he said. “The literature shows that’s outside the safety range,” he said. As a result, many providers have left USAP, he added.

The FTC has long been lax in monitoring roll-ups of physician groups, in part because federal law does not require public reporting of these deals unless they exceed $111.4 million in value, a threshold adjusted over time. Lowering the threshold would require congressional action. As a result, regulators may be unaware of many deals that lead to gradual market concentration, which allows providers to demand higher prices from insurers and employer health plans.

Recognizing that problem, the FTC proposed in June to beef up its reporting requirements for companies planning mergers, in hopes of spotting previous acquisitions of smaller groups that could lead to excessive market power and higher prices. In addition, in a draft of their merger review guidelines, issued in July, the FTC and the Department of Justice said they would consider the cumulative effect of a series of smaller acquisitions.

“The ways PE firms are making serial acquisitions, each individual acquisition is under the radar, but in aggregate they roll up the whole market,” Khan said. “Between the merger reporting form and the new merger guidelines, we want to be able to better catch unlawful roll-up schemes. … This would enable us to stop roll-ups earlier.”

But Brian Concklin, a lawyer with the law firm Clifford Chance, whose clients include private equity firms, said the FTC’s proposed reporting requirements would hamper many legitimate mergers. “The notion that they need all that information to catch deals that lessen competition seems overblown and false, given that the vast majority of these deals do not lessen competition,” he said. “It will be a substantial burden on most if not all clients to comply.”

Researchers and employer groups, however, were encouraged by the FTC’s action, though they fear it’s too little, too late, because consolidation already has reduced competition sharply. Some even say the market has failed and price regulation is needed.

“Providers have been able to extort higher prices on services with no improvement in quality or value or access,” said Mike Thompson, CEO of the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions. “The FTC stepping up its game is a good thing. But this horse is out of the barn. If we don’t have better enforcement, we won’t have a marketplace.”

An Arm and a Leg: To Get Health Insurance, This Couple Made a Movie

Last fall, Ellen Haun and Dru Johnston were hustling to get their health insurance sorted out for 2023. The Hollywood couple are members of SAG-AFTRA, the union representing actors and writers. Members have to earn about $26,000 a year on union projects to be eligible for union insurance.

And Haun was about $800 short.

When she couldn’t book the gigs she needed, Haun, with husband Johnston’s help, came up with a plan: to crowdfund enough money to make their own movie starring Haun, called “Ellen Needs Insurance.”

In this episode of “An Arm and a Leg,” host Dan Weissmann speaks with Haun and Johnston about their short film, how they were affected by the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike, and their ongoing quest to stay insured.

Note: “An Arm and a Leg” uses speech-recognition software to generate transcripts, which may contain errors. Please use the transcript as a tool but check the corresponding audio before quoting the podcast.

Dan: Hey there. OK, here’s something I never expected to say — I’ve got a funny, kind of sweet story about health insurance. OK, maybe sweet and sour. Here it is …

As we record this, it’s November, which means it’s open enrollment for lots of people — time to get next year’s health insurance figured out, both on the Obamacare exchanges and at lots of workplaces. A year ago, Ellen Haun and her husband Dru Johnston were HUSTLING to get their health insurance set up for 2023. In the most creative possible way … by crowdfunding a creative project. They posted a video of course.

Ellen: Hi, I’m Ellen, and I need health insurance. 

Dru: And I’m Dru, and I also need health insurance.

Dan: Ellen and Dru work in Hollywood — acting and writing — and folks in that industry get their insurance through the unions. But only if they’ve racked up enough wages for union work over a 12-month period. They’d been on Ellen’s insurance through the actors’ union, SAG. But last fall, as they explained in their crowdfunding video, that union insurance wasn’t looking like a sure thing for the coming year.

Dru: Right now, Ellen is $804 short. So we’re making a short film. 

Ellen: And that short film is called “Ellen Needs Insurance.”

Dan: The video outlined their plan: to employ not just Ellen but other actors who also needed a little help getting over the finish line to qualify.

Dru: Also, which brings up the next point, are you an actor that’s close to hitting your health insurance? Then please get in touch.

Ellen: Yes, we want to cast you. We want you to have insurance.

Dru: And if we raise more money than our goal, we will use all of that only

towards casting more actors and getting them insurance. 

Ellen: We’ll add parts. We don’t care.

Dru: Yeah, this isn’t Shakespeare. This is a script we wrote. We’ll add parts.

Ellen: We can … We’ll make them up.

Dan: That was a year ago. And spoiler: They did make the film. Of course now they need insurance for 2024. And Ellen’s union spent a lot of 2023 on strike, which has narrowed down the opportunities to earn that insurance again. So… I wanted to talk with them!

[“An Arm and a Leg” theme music plays.]

This is “An Arm and a Leg” — a show about why health care costs so freaking much, and what we can maybe do about it. I’m Dan Weissmann. I’m a reporter, and I like a challenge.

So the job we’ve picked here is to take one of the most enraging, terrifying, depressing parts of American life, and bring you something entertaining, empowering and useful.

[“An Arm and a Leg” theme music ends.]

Ellen and Dru met at a wedding.

Ellen: I was friends with the bride and Drew was friends with the groom. And at the bachelorette party, Emily had been, like, talking about all the single guys that were going to be at the wedding, but she had forgot to include Dru on that list. So I was like, just, I was like, why is this guy talking to me so much? He’s probably got a girlfriend somewhere.

Dru: Turns out I didn’t. And then, uh, we ended up, uh, starting to date almost immediately after that wedding.

Dan: By then, Ellen was earning enough as an actor to qualify for health insurance, starting with an ad for Xfinity Internet and a recurring role as a law student on “How to Get Away with Murder.”

Viola Davis: Ms. Chapin, can you tell us what the Fifth Amendment is?

Ellen: The Fifth Amendment? Um, right.

It, um, assures your right to protection from self incrimination.

Viola Davis: Are you asking me?

Ellen: No, that’s my answer.

Viola Davis: And it’s a correct one.

Dan: Getting that insurance was a big professional milestone. More than 85 percent of SAG members do not book enough union work to qualify– it takes about 26 thousand dollars across a one-year period. (And, you know, of course most actors, Ellen included, pick up other work on the side, or even hold down a day job.) For most of the last few years, Ellen had no worries about making enough money to qualify for insurance. She’d been getting paid for a commercial that ran and ran, because it was so terrific. You may have seen it. Even I have seen it … and I kinda never watch TV. Ellen plays BOTH parts in it. She’s call center employee

Claire in Phoenix: This is Claire in Phoenix, can I help you? 

Dan: And she’s a woman who’s dialed in for customer support. 

Ellen as customer: Yes.

Claire in Phoenix: Great.

Ellen as customer: Correct.

Claire in Phoenix: Ma’am. This isn’t an automated computer.

Ellen as customer: Operator?

Claire in Phoenix: Ma’am? I’m here. I’m live.

Ellen as customer: Wait, you’re real?

Claire in Phoenix: Yeah! With Discover Card, you can talk to a real person.

Dan: Ellen had been getting a “holding fee” — to keep her from auditioning for commercials for competitors.

Ellen: And I kind of knew in the back of my mind that like, okay, eventually this holding fee is going to go away because this commercial isn’t running anymore.

Dan: And then last June, she got the call.

Ellen: My agent was like, Hey, they’re releasing you from the holds. Uh, you’re not getting that payment. You, um, you’re free to audition for other commercials.

And I was like, okay, but what about that health insurance?

Dan: This was in June. She needed to make another 6 thousand dollars, by the end of December, to keep her insurance.

Ellen: And I thought, okay, I’ve got half the year. Like that’s just booking like one other commercial.

Dan: But that wasn’t a sure thing. She’d done it for years and years, but she wanted to hedge her bets. She experimented with working as an extra.

Ellen: And I was getting like, pretty consistent work, but also background work does not pay very well.

Dan: $187 a day. More if there’s overtime, but still. It’s not that it’s not that much, especially if you’re trying to chip away at like a 6,000 balance.

I was like, I don’t know if I’m going to make this, um, I knew that it was definitely going to be down to the wire. So that’s when I was like, you know what, maybe we should think about making a movie about this.

Dan: Actually, this was an idea that had kind of been on Dru’s shelf for a few years. As a comedy writer for a TV talk show, Dru had gotten his insurance from the screenwriter’s union, the WGA. And then in 2018 the show got canceled. Lucky for Drew, he was married to Ellen by then, so they put him on her SAG insurance. And then after that saga had ended, he had a fun idea.

Dru: I was like, oh, you know what I should have done is I should have just made a web series called, “Dru Needs Insurance.” And then I was like, well, it’s too late. I guess that’s an idea that I’m never going to have to do. And then flash forward.

Dan: They’re in the same boat! all over again.

Except now, it’s Ellen who’s short, and nothing to fall back on. I asked if they remembered the day when they decided to try making the film. Dru was like, …

Dru: It was in the OBGYN’s office.

Dan: Yeah. They were pregnant! This was the first doctor visit.

Dru: We had gone to the ultrasound. We saw the baby. We heard the heartbeat. We were like, well, that we were having the baby. It’s coming.

Dan: Now they were gonna see the doctor, talk about next steps.

Dru: And we had about 20 minutes in that waiting room, just sitting there kind of going like, okay, our life’s gonna change.

We got to make some, some choices, or we got to, like, figure out, like, what room are we going to use? All that stuff. But also in the middle of that, we were like, oh, also our health insurance is going … is set to run out.

Dan: Actually, it was going to run out exactly one month before the baby’s due date.

Dru: And I was like, well, shit, we need that health insurance. Um, and, and that’s when Ellen said, I think I need to make a movie and we need to do that.

Dan: So they did! They banged out a script — and brought a friend’s production company on board. (The union doesn’t let you just pay yourself directly.) Which brings us to the point in the story when they made that crowdfunding video

[Bouncy music plays in the background.]

Dru: It’s a comedy about an actress named Ellen, and the things she does to get insurance.

Ellen: Things like begging my agent for a job, praying to the gods for a surprise residual check, and even background work.

Also, the movie’s just about how hard it is to navigate insurance in this country.

[Bouncy music ends.

Dan: How’d it come out? That’s next.

This episode of “An Arm and a Leg” is produced in partnership with KFF Health News. That’s a nonprofit newsroom covering health care in America. Their journalism is terrific– wins all kinds of awards every year– and I’m honored to work with them.

Dan: So, Ellen and Dru did raise the money: more than 33 thousand dollars. They actually did beat their goal. The movie is delightfully meta. It starts with Ellen-the-character in her kitchen in the middle of a conversation with her best friend …

Best Friend: Why can’t you just pay the difference?

Ellen: Oh yeah, I tried. But I called and they told me that’s not allowed.

Best Friend: I thought that was the whole thing about health insurance in this country. You have to pay for it.

Ellen: Apparently, not when you want to. If I want to keep my health insurance, I have to book another SAG job by the end of the year.

Best Friend: Couldn’t you cast yourself in something?

Ellen: Like in what, my own movie? Yeah. I mean, I’d have to get funding,

write a script, hire a production team, get a payroll company, …

Dan: So just like the real Ellen did, movie-Ellen decides to go all out to book another commercial. And if you ever thought it might be fun to take a crack at a career in acting, the audition scene — with Ellen and a casting director — that might dissuade you.

Casting director: Alright, we’ll start on action and, uh, remember, this determines whether or not you can see a doctor in the next year.

Dan: Soon, we see Ellen looking up COBRA — which you may have looked up yourself, like if you ever left a job without your next gig — and your next insurance — lined up.

COBRA pitch: Losing your health insurance?

Don’t worry. It happens all the time. Cobra is here for you. …

Dan: And if you’ve looked at it, you know: COBRA is EXPENSIVE. Like, average employer coverage for a family costs more than 20 thousand dollars a year. So that’s the price range for COBRA.

COBRA pitch: The fact that it’s named after a deadly and venomous snake is just part of the fun, and has nothing to do with the fact that it feels like death. You made less money, and now you have to pay more.

Dan: On her agent’s advice, Ellen tries background work, another case of art imitating life. And, in a scene that really highlights some of the peculiarities about how all of this works,  she debriefs with her friend, over drinks at a bar.

Best Friend: How is it?

Ellen: It’s not as bad as I thought, but it does not pay very well. You get a

lot more if you have a line.

Dan: And suddenly, another patron in the bar leans into the conversation… Bar patron: Excuse me, did you say you get more money if you have a line?

Ellen: Yeah.

Bar patron: Got it.

Dan: And another patron. Bar patron: Just one line?

Ellen: Yeah.

You get more if you have more than five lines, too.

Bar patron: Wow. Wow.

Dan:Now it’s everybody in the bar.

Bar patrons: Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow.

Dan: The bit about a pay bump is real, of course. Including the bump for more-than-five-lines. And just to expand on that for a minute here – Dru experienced the downside of that rule — ridiculously, painfully — when he did a one-shot appearance on Orange Is the New Black. It was a big meaty scene, but somehow wasn’t more than five lines.

Dru: I was a lawyer and every line was about a half of a page of just legalese

Dru as Lawyer: based on copious witness testimony, the U. S. attorney has charged you and four others

[DUCKS UNDER: with inciting the riot. They allege that you created and maintained a secret riot bunker, and there’s also evidence that directly implicates you in the kidnapping and false imprisonment of Officer Desmond Piscatella…]

Dan: But that’s how a “line” gets defined in this situation: As long as nobody interrupts you, a monologue is just one line. A role with five lines or less gets called an “under-five”

Dru: And I was like, this is an under five? I was like, okay, well, there we go. I’ll just lecture for two pages.

Dru as Lawyer: I’ve negotiated a plea deal for you. If you admit to the riot charges, they’re willing to drop everything else. This is very good.

Dan: We have still not gotten to the end of Dru’s first line in this scene Dru as Lawyer: It’ll garner you the shortest possible sentence.

Dru as Lawyer: Do you understand?

Dan: Back in the film, the Ellen character is still freaking out when she shows up for a doctor’s appointment.

Dr Receptionist: Has your insurance changed?

Ellen: No, but it might soon, so I wanted to make sure that you all would still take it.

Dr. Receptionist: Well, we take most insurances, so I’m sure we’ll be fine.

Ellen: Great. Um, I was looking on the California Insurance Exchange. Dr Receptionist: Uh, no.

Ellen: Excuse me?

Dr. Receptionist: No, we, we don’t take that.

Dan: And in the doctor’s office– in another echo of Ellen and Dru’s story– Ellen-the-character gets an ultrasound.

Ellen: Congratulations.

Dan: And she flashes back to the first scene, with her friend…

Best Friend: Couldn’t you cast yourself in something?

Ellen: Like in what? My own movie? (echos) My own movie?

Dan: And of course, that’s where she decides. She’s gonna do this. On her way out, she tells the receptionist…

Ellen: My insurance is not going to change. You can count on it. 

Dr. Receptionist: Um, okay.

Dan: When I saw the movie, I did not know that Ellen Haun had been pregnant when they made it.

Dru: We never brought it up in crowdfunding. But then when we were making the movie, we were like, let’s just use real life. Not only was it real, it felt like the easiest way to explain it.

Dan: They shot the movie over three days in December 2022. Making this film on $33,000 and change was a feat on its own. They paid 15 actors, and a crew. There was a location to rent, and equipment…

Ellen: You’ve got to pay for food to feed your cast and crew. And especially, you know, everyone is kind of working a little bit under their rate so you want to buy them good food.

Dan: You’ve heard some of the results. I won’t spoil the rest. It’s a very-enjoyable 13 minutes. We’ll have a link wherever you’re listening to this. With the movie wrapped by New Years, Ellen qualified for her insurance, so she was on it when their baby Bruce was born a few weeks early.

Ellen: We spent three weeks in the NICU and the entire time that we were in the hospital with him, we just kept saying, I’m so glad we have insurance. I’m so glad we have insurance. I’m so glad we have insurance.

Dan: Just a few weeks after Bruce was born, Dru’s union– the Writer’s Guild– went on strike. Then Ellen’s union went on strike too.

Ellen: We took Bruce to his very first picket when he was like two months old. And I’ve been going, like, about, once a week to, to picket with him. So everybody knows him at 

the Disney Picket location. He’s a little union baby.

Dru: We say the joke, he went straight from labor to labor action.

Dan: No joke, though: the SAG strike meant there was less work for actors in 2023– fewer chances to earn money and qualify for insurance. The health plan extended a grace period to keep folks from getting cut off, and a new law in California lets workers who are on strike get subsidized insurance from the state’s Obamacare exchange. Meanwhile, Ellen managed to book another commercial — only TV shows and movies were targeted by the strike, not ads — so their family is set for next year too. 

It’s a happy ending … for now. 

But this seems like an exhausting merry-go-round to stay on for the rest of your life. I asked Ellen and Dru how they felt about it.

Ellen: So something that has been nice about the strike has been talking to a bunch of our friends about how hard it’s gotten over the last several years to make a living doing this.

I was like in my late twenties when I got the SAG health insurance for the first time. I thought, like, “Great.” Like, “this is it.”

Dan: That was almost ten years ago. But somehow getting consistent work actually got harder over time. And that felt personal.

Ellen: It was like feeling, like, emotionally, like there’s something wrong with me that I am not making the amount of money that I made earlier in my career. And so, honestly, that has been a nice part of the strike has been realizing that, hey, this is happening to all of us. It’s not just happening to me. It’s really hard.

Dan: But it’s not just hard for actors and writers.

Dru: My brother works in tech. Right. And like, I think the nature of employment, across many industries has changed. And like, there isn’t really that same job security that there used to be when, like, my parents were coming up.

Dan: Dru thinks back to the time, years ago, when he first quit his day job, to write and perform full-time. It was touch and go at first. Like, week to week, it could feel precarious.

Dru: I had a kind of a down week and I was like, maybe it’s time to get a real day job like my brother. And right that week, he got laid off. He’s found another job, he’s figured it out, but it was that moment where I was like, oh, there’s no job that you can just get and be like, now I’m set with health insurance. So that’s a long answer to say, I don’t think we’re leaving the entertainment industry anytime soon.

Ellen: Yeah, we’ve kind of put all of our chips on the table.

Dan: And like Dru said: Fewer of us these days have jobs where we don’t have to worry about where our health insurance is coming from, or if it’s gonna be any good. I mean, if more of us had that kind of security, I would literally never have started making this show. There would be no reason to make it. But of course, five years in, I do not expect to run out of material.

As we publish this episode, we’ve also just put out an installment of our First Aid Kit newsletter, this one sums up and updates all our best advice about how to pick the least-crappy health insurance for you.

I’ve learned a lot in five years. And we’re able to share what we’ve learned because you’ve been supporting us. And if you can, this is the absolute best moment to pitch in, because right now, every dollar you give — up to a thousand dollars per person! — get matched. Thanks to NewsMatch from the Institute for Nonprofit News, every dollar you give us counts for double. The place to go is arm and a leg show, dot com, slash support. That’s

We’ll be back in three weeks with part one of a big investigative story we’ve been working on … pretty much all year. Talk about learning a ton. It’s been a wild ride. We’ve been able to do that — and we’ll be able to share the results with you– because of your support, and I am super-thankful. I’ll leave you with that address one more time: arm and a leg show dot com, slash, support. Thanks! I’ll catch you in three weeks. Till then, take care of yourself.

This episode of “An Arm and a Leg” was produced by Emily Pisacreta and me, Dan Weissman and edited by Ellen Weiss.

Daisy Rosario is our consulting managing producer. 

Adam Raymonda is our audio wizard. 

Our music is by Dave Winer and Blue Dot Sessions.

Gabrielle Healy is our managing editor for audience. She edits the First Aid Kit Newsletter.

Bea Bosco is our consulting director of operations. 

Sarah Ballema is our operations manager.

“An Arm and a Leg” is produced in partnership with KFF Health News — formerly known as Kaiser Health News. That’s a national newsroom producing in-depth journalism about healthcare in America, and a core program at KFF — an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. You can learn more about KFF Health News at:

Zach Dyer is senior audio producer at KFF Health News. He is editorial liaison to this show.

Big thanks to the Institute for Nonprofit News for serving as our fiscal sponsor, allowing us to accept tax-exempt donations. You can learn more about INN at

And now for one of my favorite parts of the gig … giving a shout out to some of the people who’ve come aboard to support this show in the last few weeks. Thanks at this time to our supporters (Dan lists donors.) Thank you so much! 

“An Arm and a Leg” is a co-production of KFF Health News and Public Road Productions.

To keep in touch with “An Arm and a Leg,” subscribe to the newsletter. You can also follow the show on Facebook and X, formerly known as Twitter. And if you’ve got stories to tell about the health care system, the producers would love to hear from you.

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Medicare Advantage Increasingly Popular With Seniors — But Not Hospitals and Doctors

A hospital system in Georgia. Two medical groups in San Diego. Another in Louisville, Kentucky, and nearly one-third of Nebraska hospitals. Across the country, health care providers are refusing to accept some Medicare Advantage plans — even as the coverage offered by commercial insurers increasingly displaces the traditional government program for seniors and people with disabilities.

As of this year, commercial insurers have enticed just over half of all Medicare beneficiaries — or nearly 31 million people — to sign up for their plans instead of traditional Medicare. The plans typically include drug coverage as well as extras like vision and dental benefits, many at low or even zero additional monthly premiums compared with traditional Medicare.

But even as enrollment soars, so too has friction between insurers and the doctors and hospitals they pay to care for beneficiaries. Increasingly, according to experts who watch insurance markets, hospital and medical groups are bristling at payment rates Medicare Advantage plans impose and at what they say are onerous requirements for preapproval to deliver care and too many after-the-fact denials of claims.

The insurers say they’re just trying to control costs and avoid inappropriate care. The disputes are drawing more attention now, during the annual open enrollment period for Medicare, which runs until Dec. 7.

Stuck in the middle are patients. People whose preferred doctors or hospitals refuse their coverage may have to switch Medicare Advantage plans or revert to the traditional program, although it can be difficult or even impossible when switching back to obtain what is called a “Medigap” policy, which covers some of the traditional plan’s cost-sharing requirements.

For example, more than 30,000 San Diego-area residents are looking for new doctors after two large medical groups affiliated with Scripps Health said they would no longer contract with Medicare Advantage insurers.

“The insurance companies running the Medicare Advantage plans are pushing physicians and hospitals to the edge,” said Chip Kahn, president and CEO of the Federation of American Hospitals, which represents the for-profit hospital sector.

The insurance industry’s lobbying arm, AHIP, said in a February letter to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services that prior approvals and other similar reviews protect patients by reducing “inappropriate care by catching unsafe or low-value care, or care not consistent with the latest clinical evidence.”

AHIP spokesperson David Allen said in an email that Medicare Advantage plans are growing in enrollment because people like them, citing surveys conducted by an AHIP-backed coalition.

The vast majority, he wrote, said they were satisfied with their plans and the access to care they provide.

The disputes so far don’t appear to center on any particular insurer, region, or medical provider, although both UnitedHealthcare and Humana Inc. — the two largest Medicare Advantage insurers — are among those that have had contracts canceled.

Baptist Health in Louisville, Kentucky, said in a statement that all nine of its hospitals, along with its clinics and physician groups, would cut ties with Advantage plans offered by UnitedHealthcare and Wellcare Health Plans Inc. beginning in January unless they reach an agreement.

“Many Medicare Advantage plans routinely deny or delay approval or payment for medical care recommended by a patient’s physician,” Baptist Health said in its statement.

The system’s medical group, with nearly 1,500 physicians and other providers, left Humana’s network in September.

In a similar move, Brunswick, Georgia-based Southeast Georgia Health System, which includes two hospitals, two nursing homes, and a physician network, warned this fall that it would end its contract with Centene Corp.’s Wellcare Medicare Advantage plans in December, citing what it said was years of “inappropriate payment of claims and unreasonable denials.”

In some cases, health systems’ threats to abandon Advantage plans — as well as insurers’ threats not to include providers in their networks — are negotiating tactics, intended as leverage to win concessions on payment rates or other issues. And some have been resolved. Ohio’s Adena Regional Medical Center, for example, said in September it would drop Medicare Advantage plans offered by Elevance Health, formerly known as Anthem Inc., but reinstated them following additional negotiations.

Still, some hospital and policy experts say the conflicts may be the beginning of a trend.

“This seems different,” said David Lipschutz, associate director and senior policy attorney at the Center for Medicare Advocacy, who said hospitals and doctors are becoming “much more vocal” about their frustration with some cost-control efforts by Medicare Advantage insurers.

“There have been serious problems with payment suspensions and reviews that annoy the providers. I would not be surprised if we start to see more of this pushback” as the Medicare market becomes more concentrated among a handful of insurers, said Don Berwick, president emeritus and senior fellow at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement and a former CMS administrator.

While availability varies from county to county, Medicare beneficiaries can choose on average among 43 plans, according to KFF. UnitedHealthcare and Humana account for about half of the nationwide enrollment in Advantage plans.

Studies show that Medicare Advantage costs taxpayers more per beneficiary than the traditional program. But the plans enjoy the backing of many lawmakers, especially Republicans, because of their popularity.

The Health and Human Services Department’s inspector general reported last year that some Advantage plans have denied coverage for care that should have been provided under Medicare’s rules.

The report examined prior authorization requests — a requirement to seek insurers’ OK before certain treatments, procedures, or hospital stays — and claims denials, where insurers refuse to pay for all or part of care that’s already been performed.

Lawmakers have recently demanded additional information from Advantage insurers about the factors they use to make such determinations.

CMS proposed a rule this month to cap commissions for brokers who sell Medicare Advantage plans and require more detail on how the plans’ prior approval programs affect certain low-income enrollees and people with disabilities.

Lipschutz said the HHS inspector general’s study may have encouraged hospitals and doctors to be more outspoken.

The inspector general’s office found that 13% of the denied requests for treatment it reviewed and 18% of denied claims were for care that should have been covered. Responding in part to that report, the Biden administration issued a rule set to take effect in January that requires Medicare Advantage plans to provide “the same medically necessary care” as the traditional program. Every Advantage insurer must also annually review its own policies to make sure they match those in the traditional program.

The American Hospital Association, while lauding the administration’s action, questioned whether it would be enough. In a letter sent last month to CMS, the hospital lobbying group said its members “have heard from some [insurers] that they either do not plan to make any changes to their protocols” or “have made changes to their denial letter terminology or procedures in a way that appears to circumvent the intent of the new rules.” The letter urged “rigorous oversight” by CMS.

Allen, the AHIP spokesperson, did not respond to a request to comment on the AHA letter.

El daño colateral de la crisis de Medicaid: miles están perdiendo beneficios de alimentos

Una hora antes del amanecer, Shelly Brost caminó una milla bajo la lluvia helada hasta la oficina de asistencia pública de Missoula, en Montana. Se le estaba acabando el tiempo para demostrar que aún calificaba para recibir ayuda para comprar alimentos, después de intentar en vano comunicarse por teléfono.

En dos ocasiones, intentó usar la línea de ayuda de Montana para completar una entrevista requerida para recertificar sus beneficios del Programa de Asistencia Nutricional Suplementaria (SNAP, conocido antes como Food Stamps o estampillas de alimentos). Cada vez, la llamada se cortó después de más de una hora en espera.

“Estaba lista para llorar”, dijo Brost, parada en la larga fila, esperando que la oficina abriera en una mañana reciente de noviembre. “Tengo a un niño de 13 años que está hambriento”.

Las familias de bajos ingresos que necesitan servicios como ayuda alimentaria y dinero en efectivo, se han convertido en daños colaterales en la carrera burocrática para determinar si decenas de millones de personas aún califican para Medicaid. Esto después que finalizara en la primavera el período de gracia durante la pandemia, en el que se prohibió anular inscripciones.

Estas son personas cuyas solicitudes y formularios de renovación se han retrasado o perdido, o que, como Brost, no pueden comunicarse con los abrumados trabajadores del centro de llamadas del gobierno.

El impacto para las familias de bajos ingresos es una consecuencia que el proceso para expulsar a beneficiarios de Medicaid pasó por alto. Desde abril, millones han perdido la cobertura, y millones más están en camino de perderla.

“Este desmantelamiento de Medicaid ha creado enormes problemas para el personal administrativo”, dijo Leighton Ku, director del Centro de Investigación de Políticas de Salud en la Escuela de Salud Pública Milken de la Universidad George Washington.

La mayoría de los estados dependen de los mismos trabajadores y sistemas informáticos para analizar la elegibilidad para Medicaid y SNAP, según el Centro de Prioridades y Políticas Presupuestarias.

La dificultad para inscribirse en otros beneficios de asistencia públicos varía, dependiendo de cómo cada estado configure sus programas y cuán bien estén dotadas las agencias para manejar el trabajo adicional causado por las recalificaciones de Medicaid.

Históricamente, las personas que buscan ayuda pública han enfrentado largos períodos de espera en los centros de llamadas y opciones limitadas de apoyo en persona. Estos problemas de larga data se han agravado a medida que un número récord de beneficiarios de Medicaid buscan asistencia con la inscripción.

Por ejemplo, abogados y organizaciones que ayudan a los que solicitan beneficios de alimentos en Montana, Missouri y Virginia, dijeron que las solicitudes han desaparecido sin respuesta, y a menudo los trabajadores que determinan la elegibilidad no responden.

“Nuestros clientes ya están viviendo al límite, y esto simplemente los puede terminar de demoler”, dijo Megan Dishong, directora adjunta de la Asociación de Servicios Legales de Montana.

La inscripción en el programa SNAP es aproximadamente la mitad que la de Medicaid. En abril, casi 42 millones de estadounidenses recibieron asistencia alimentaria, en comparación con los 87.4 millones inscritos en el programa de salud.

SNAP en sí ha experimentado cambios importantes este año; una norma que aumentó los beneficios durante la pandemia expiró y se reinstauraron los requisitos de trabajo. Según los datos federales más recientes, la inscripción disminuyó en 1 millón de enero a agosto, mucho menos que la disminución en la inscripción de Medicaid que comenzó en abril.

Sin embargo, las fuentes oficiales de datos no capturan los retrasos y otras dificultades que enfrentan las personas para obtener beneficios.

En Virginia, donde las oficinas locales del Departamento de Servicios Sociales del estado manejan las solicitudes de Medicaid y SNAP, “he tenido varios clientes que han presentado solicitudes y simplemente se han perdido”, dijo Majesta-Doré Legnini, de Equal Justice Works en el Legal Aid Justice Center que trabaja en temas de SNAP.

Un cliente que solicitó ayuda por primera vez no recibió noticias durante tres meses y tuvo que volver a presentar la solicitud. Otro obtuvo beneficios después de dos meses y medio, luego de haber sufrido retrasos en el procesamiento de la solicitud, una carta de denegación y una apelación.

Una familia con estatus migratorio mixto, donde los niños calificaban para recibir beneficios, no los obtuvo por ocho meses, después que fueran expulsados erróneamente del programa y experimentaran retrasos después de volver a presentar la solicitud.

Virginia debería procesar cada solicitud en un plazo de 30 días. “La mayoría de mis clientes tienen niños menores de 15 años”, dijo Legnini, “y muchos dicen que tienen problemas para conseguir suficiente comida para alimentar a sus hijos”.

En Missouri, una demanda federal presentada antes que comenzara el proceso de expulsiones de Medicaid alega que un sistema disfuncional impide que los residentes de bajos ingresos obtengan ayuda alimentaria. A más de la mitad de los solicitantes del estado se les denegó ayuda en julio porque no pudieron completar una entrevista, no porque no fueran elegibles, según un documento presentado en el caso.

Ahora, con Missouri reevaluando la inscripción de Medicaid de más de 1 millón de beneficiarios, defensores dicen que esas fallas sistémicas se han convertido en una grave crisis para los más vulnerables.

Por su parte, oficiales de Montana han dicho que el proceso de revisar la elegibilidad se suma a un sistema ya problemático.

En septiembre, Charlie Brereton, director del Departamento de Salud Pública y Servicios Humanos de Montana, informó a los legisladores que el estado estaba trabajando para mejorar su línea de ayuda de asistencia pública, “que, francamente, ha estado plagada de algunos desafíos y problemas durante muchos, muchos años”.

Brereton dijo que se aumentaron los salarios de los coordinadores de clientes para cubrir trabajos en persona. El estado contrató a unos 50 trabajadores de agencias nacionales para fortalecer el personal del centro de llamadas, y creó una espera separada en su línea para las personas que solicitan ayuda temporal para alimentos o dinero en efectivo.

Jon Ebelt, vocero del Departamento de Salud de Montana, no respondió directamente sobre cuánto es la espera en línea para SNAP y asistencia de dinero en efectivo, pero dijo que las solicitudes “se están procesando de manera oportuna”.

Las personas que intentan utilizar el sistema del estado dijeron que las esperas largas persistían en noviembre.

Desde abril, casi 5,000 habitantes de Montana están recibiendo menos beneficios de SNAP. Pero eso no necesariamente significa que menos personas califiquen, dijo Lorianne Burhop, directora de política del Montana Food Bank Network.

Los clientes sin acceso a Internet, con minutos de teléfono limitados o sin la capacidad de viajar a una oficina de asistencia pública pueden no poder sortear los obstáculos para mantener sus beneficios.

“Hemos visto números consistentemente altos en los bancos de alimentos, mientras que con SNAP, hemos visto una disminución gradual”, dijo Burhop. “Creo que hay que considerar el acceso como un factor que impulsa esa baja”.

En Missoula, DeAnna Marchand estaba en espera en la línea de ayuda de Montana cuando se acercaba una fecha límite en noviembre. Enfrentaba múltiples cortes: uno para recertificar la asistencia alimentaria para ella y su nieto, otro para demostrar que aún calificaba para el programa de Medicaid que paga por su cuidador en el hogar, y un tercero para mantener el Medicaid de su nieto.

“No sé lo que quieren”, dijo Marchand. “¿Cómo se supone que debo obtener todo eso si no puedo hablar con alguien?”.

Después de media hora, siguió las indicaciones para programar una devolución de llamada. Pero una voz automatizada dijo que los espacios estaban llenos y transfirió la llamada de nuevo a espera. Una hora después, la llamada se cortó.