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KHN’s ‘What the Health?’: A Little Good News and Some Bad on COVID-19


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For the first time in a long time, there is some good news about the coronavirus pandemic: Although cases continue to climb, fewer people seem to be dying. And there are fewer cases than expected among younger pupils in schools with in-person learning. But the bad news continues as well — including a push for “herd immunity” that could result in the deaths of millions of Americans.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is doubling down on efforts to allow states to require certain people with low incomes to prove they work, go to school or perform community service in order to keep their Medicaid health benefits. The administration is appealing a federal appeals court ruling to the Supreme Court and just granted Georgia the right to impose a work requirement.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of Kaiser Health News, Margot Sanger-Katz of The New York Times, Paige Winfield Cunningham of The Washington Post and Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico.

Among the takeaways from this week’s podcast:

  • Opinions seem to be slowly shifting on opening schools around the country. As fall approached, many people were hesitant to send their children back to school because they feared a resurgence of coronavirus infections, but early experiences seem to show that there has been little transmission among young kids in classrooms.
  • Even with good results in those school districts that have reopened, however, the debate about whether schools should be conducting in-person learning is quite polarized. President Donald Trump repeatedly calls for all schools to resume, while groups, such as unions representing teachers and other employees, are more likely to be calling for continued online learning.
  • California, which had a strong resurgence of the virus during the summer, is seeing signs of success in fighting back. The state has been among the most aggressive in shutting down normal activities to reduce case levels. It devised a county-specific method to determine closures, restrictions and reopenings — and it appears to be working.
  • A proposal by some researchers to move the country toward a “herd immunity” plan, in which officials would expect the virus to spread among the general population while also trying to protect the most vulnerable — such as people living in nursing homes — is gaining support among some of Trump’s advisers. Public health advocates are raising alarms because it would likely lead to hundreds of thousands more deaths. They also fear the administration’s focus on restoring normalcy would by default move in this direction.
  • Federal researchers this week announced that nearly 300,000 excess deaths have been recorded this year and much of it is attributed to COVID-19 or the lack of other health care by people who could not or did not seek treatments because they were frightened by the pandemic.
  • With the Senate poised to confirm Amy Coney Barrett, who opposes abortion, to the Supreme Court within days, the fate of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision is in question. If the court overruled that decision, abortion policies would likely fall back to individual states. A recent report on the effects of such a scenario finds that a huge swath of the South and the Midwest would be left without a local facility offering abortion services.

Plus, for extra credit, the panelists recommend their favorite health policy stories of the week they think you should read too:

Julie Rovner: Cook’s Illustrated’s “The Best Reusable Face Masks,” by Riddley Gemperlein-Schirm, and The Washington Post’s “Consumer Masks Could Soon Come With Labels Saying How Well They Work,” by Yeganeh Torbati and Jessica Contrera

Margot Sanger-Katz: The Hill’s “Republicans: Supreme Court Won’t Toss ObamaCare,” by Peter Sullivan

Paige Winfield Cunningham: The Wall Street Journal’s “Some California Hospitals Refused Covid-19 Transfers for Financial Reasons, State Emails Show,” by Melanie Evans, Alexandra Berzon and Daniela Hernandez

Alice Miranda Ollstein: ProPublica’s “Inside the Fall of the CDC,” by James Bandler, Patricia Callahan, Sebastian Rotella and Kirsten Berg


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Outnumbered on High Court Nomination, Democrats Campaign for a Different Vote

Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee know that, barring something unexpected, they lack the votes to block President Donald Trump from installing his third justice in four years on the Supreme Court and creating a 6-3 conservative majority.

They also know that, in a normal year, by mid-October Congress would be out of session and members home campaigning. But 2020 is obviously no normal year. So, while the rest of Congress is home, Democratic Judiciary members are trying something very different in the hearings for nominee Amy Coney Barrett. Rather than prosecuting their case against Barrett, currently a federal appeals court judge, they are refighting the war that helped them pick up seats in 2018 — banging on Republicans for trying to eliminate the Affordable Care Act.

Conveniently, the ACA is relevant to the Supreme Court debate because the justices are scheduled to hear a case that could invalidate the law on Nov. 10 — exactly a week after Election Day.

As California Sen. Kamala Harris, a member of the Judiciary Committee and the Democratic vice presidential candidate, put it to Barrett on Tuesday, “Republicans are scrambling to confirm this nominee as fast as possible because they need one more Trump judge on the bench before Nov. 10th to win and strike down the entire Affordable Care Act. This is not hyperbole. This is not hypothetical. This is happening.”

Said Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), also on Tuesday: “We really believe the Supreme Court’s consideration of that case is going — could literally change America for millions of people.”

To be sure, Republicans too were playing to their electorate during the questioning of Barrett, as they expounded on her conservative credentials on issues such as gun rights.

Nonetheless, Democrats were uniformly disciplined in their assault on her potential vote in the ACA case. They chided both Barrett and the Republicans who are rushing her nomination to the floor literally days before a presidential election. In addition, Democrats criticized Republicans for spending time on a nonemergency nomination while continuing to ignore the need for financial and other relief for the COVID-19 pandemic.

And they raised what in more normal times would be the featured talking point for Democrats: the threat to abortion and other reproductive rights from Barrett, who before her elevation to the federal bench publicly opposed abortion and taught law at Notre Dame, one of the nation’s preeminent Catholic universities.

“For many people, and particularly for women, this is a fundamental question,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the committee’s top Democrat.

Barrett, like every other Supreme Court nominee for the past three decades, declined to offer positions that could suggest which way she might rule on hot-button issues, including abortion and the ACA.

She repeatedly cited what has come to be called the “Ginsburg rule” — after the justice she would replace, Ruth Bader Ginsburg — saying “no hints, no previews, no forecasts.”

Still, Democrats suggested that she may have tipped her hand on the Affordable Care Act case. In pointing out that the issues in the case, now known as California v. Texas, are different from the previous cases upholding the health law in 2012 and 2015, she said the current case will turn on “severability.”

She was referring to the question of whether, if one portion of a law is found to be unconstitutional, the rest of the law can stand without it. In the current ACA case, a group of Republican attorneys general — and the Trump administration — are arguing that when Congress reduced the ACA’s penalty for not having insurance to zero, the requirement to be covered no longer had a tax attached, and therefore the law is now unconstitutional. They based their argument on Chief Justice John Roberts’ 2012 conclusion that the ACA was valid because that penalty was a constitutionally appropriate tax.

The law’s opponents say the rest of the law cannot be “severed” and must therefore fall, too. A federal district judge in Texas agreed with them.

But merely saying the case turns on severability suggests that Barrett has already prejudged major parts of the case, Democrats said. Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) noted, “You don’t get to the question of severability if you haven’t already determined the question of constitutionality.”

Barrett insisted repeatedly that despite an article she wrote in 2017 suggesting that the 2012 case upholding the law was wrongly decided, “I have no animus to nor agenda for the ACA,” as she told Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) on Wednesday.

In their rare show of unity of message, Democrats made clear that their primary audience in these hearings was not their Senate colleagues, but the voting public. While this battle looks lost, they hope to win the War of Nov. 3.

HealthBent, a regular feature of KHN, offers insight and analysis of policies and politics from KHN’s chief Washington correspondent, Julie Rovner, who has covered health care for more than 30 years.

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