Tag: California

When College Athletes Kill Themselves, Healing the Team Becomes the Next Goal

If you or someone you know may be experiencing a mental health crisis, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by dialing “988,” or the Crisis Text Line by texting “HOME” to 741741.

In the weeks after Stanford University soccer goalie Katie Meyer, 22, died by suicide last March, her grieving teammates were inseparable even when not training.

Coaches adjusted practices to give the athletes time and space to make sense of losing their friend and team captain. They offered to cancel the spring season, but the players declined, said Melissa Charloe, who started as a Stanford assistant women’s soccer coach the day Meyer died.

“It’s hard because there’s no playbook on how to do this,” Charloe said.

No playbook exists because, until recently, it was relatively uncommon for student-athletes to die by suicide. But at least five NCAA athletes, including Meyer, ended their lives in a two-month period last year. And a 2021 NCAA poll released in May found that student-athletes say they are experiencing more mental health concerns, anxiety, and depression than they reported in surveys conducted before the covid-19 pandemic took hold in 2020.

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death on college campuses. And despite the overall rise in mental health concerns there, universities have been caught off guard when student-athletes have died by suicide. Traditionally, sports psychologists focused on mental health as it related to performance on the field. Their goal was to help athletes improve physically — jump higher, run faster — not navigate mental health crises, largely because of a misperception that college athletes were less susceptible to mental health concerns.

What little research exists about student athletes and mental health is inconsistent and inconclusive. But many experts thought athletes were insulated from risk factors such as depression and social isolation, in part because physical activity is good for mental health and athletes have a steady stream of people around them, including coaches, trainers, and teammates, said Kim Gorman, director of counseling and psychological services at Western Carolina University.

“They’re kind of used to pain — it’s not so foreign to them,” added organizational psychologist Matt Mishkind, deputy director of the Helen and Arthur E. Johnson Depression Center at the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus.

Still, athletes face pressures that their peers in the general student population don’t, such as balancing sports, schoolwork, fears of career-ending injuries, and mistakes that can lead to ridicule that gets amplified on social media. With suicide rates in the general population on the rise and the effects of the pandemic continuing to threaten well-being, high-profile suicides highlight how to deal with the unthinkable — and how to try to prevent it from happening again.

In the wake of such suicides, schools are reevaluating the kind of mental health support they provide. Creating a safe space to talk about grief with someone who understands suicide is a critical first step, said psychologist Doreen Marshall, a vice president at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

“Many professionals are good with grief, but suicide grief can be a little different,” she said, as it often involves guilt and questions about why someone would end their life.

Gina Meyer, Katie’s mother, and her husband, Steve, have developed an initiative, Katie’s Save, to ensure that all students have a trusted advocate to turn to in times of trouble. “We know that the bravest thing you can do is ask for help,” she said.

The Meyers filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Stanford in November alleging that their daughter ended her life after receiving an email from the university about disciplinary action against her. Stanford University spokesperson Dee Mostofi did not answer questions about the case, but Stanford posted a statement on its website saying the Meyers’ suit contains misleading information and the school disagrees with their allegations that it is responsible for Katie’s death.

“Like other colleges and universities across the country, Stanford has seen a sharp increase in demand for mental health counseling and other well-being resources over the last two years,” Mostofi said. “Mental health remains not only an ongoing challenge but our most urgent priority.”

After Meyer died, Stanford provided mental health counselors and a sports psychologist to her teammates, but the players said they lobbied the university to pay for Zoom sessions with a specialist, Kimberly O’Brien, a clinical social worker in the Sports Medicine Division’s Female Athlete Program at Boston Children’s Hospital.

O’Brien has professional and personal experience dealing with sports and suicide: She was an ice hockey player at Harvard in 1998 when one of the athletes in her university house died. “I wasn’t even extremely close to her, but it affected me profoundly,” she said. “There were no resources to deal with it.”

That’s changing. Colleges are trying to hire more mental health therapists to meet increasing and varied needs. Some, including Stanford and Washington State University, are working with The Jed Foundation, which provides suicide prevention programming for high school and college students. And crisis support doesn’t happen just in the student health center: Colleges are establishing campus-wide “postvention” programs to prevent suicide contagion.

After Stanford University soccer goalie Katie Meyer died by suicide in March 2022, her grieving teammates were inseparable. The coaches adjusted practice schedules and asked the team members if they wanted to cancel the season, but they wanted to keep playing. “It’s hard because there’s no playbook on how to do this,” assistant coach Melissa Charloe says. (Tyler Geivett/Stanford Athletics)

Before cross-country runner Sarah Shulze, 21, died by suicide at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in April 2022, the athletics department was expanding its professional mental health support from two staffers to six to help the school’s approximately 800 student-athletes, said David Lacocque, the department’s director of mental health and sport psychology. The department, known until eight months ago as “clinical & sport psychology,” changed its name in part because student-athletes were asking for mental health support.

In addition to scheduled appointments, the sports liaisons attend practices, team meetings, training sessions, and competitions to help normalize mental health concerns.

“Gone are the days when we sit in our office and wait for people to knock on the door and talk to us,” Lacocque said.

Student-athletes can also seek free help from the university’s mental health professionals or providers in the community under contract with the University of Wisconsin athletics department. And some women’s cross-country athletes at the school now keep an eye on their teammates when coaches aren’t around, letting the team’s liaison know if they’re concerned about someone’s mental health.

“We don’t want anyone slipping between the cracks,” said teammate Maddie Mooney. “It’s a hard time for everybody, and everybody grieves at different paces and processes things differently.”

Teammate Victoria Heiligenthal, who shared a house with Shulze, said she avoided talking to campus counselors for months after her close friend died. “I only wanted to be alone or be with my friends who really understood the situation,” she said.

Heiligenthal couldn’t bear to stay in the home where she and Shulze had lived, so the university put her and Mooney up in a hotel for a week, and then she stayed awhile at Mooney’s apartment. Once back in her own place, teammates, coaches, training staff, and psychologists checked in on her and Mooney.

But the real game changer for the two was connecting last spring with Stanford soccer players Sierra Enge and Naomi Girma (who now plays professionally). Enge reached out after seeing something Mooney posted on Instagram. Since then, the four have met via Zoom. They have also talked with O’Brien and will join her on a mental health panel at a conference in Boston in June to talk about their experiences of losing a teammate to suicide.

“It was powerful hearing the parallels,” Heiligenthal said. “It made you realize Maddie and I weren’t alone; there were others who were experiencing similar things to us.”

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Stanford, athletes honored their late teammates last fall by raising mental health awareness. At a major meet in October, the Wisconsin runners painted green ribbons on the course, put ribbons in race packets, and contributed to a video. At Stanford’s game against UCLA in November, spectators wore green ribbons to highlight the importance of addressing mental health issues.

Stanford won the game, handing UCLA its first loss of the season. The victory was bittersweet. A year earlier, Meyer had spearheaded the team’s first mental health awareness game.

Journalists Delve Into Insulin Costs and Prior Authorization Policy

KHN senior correspondent Angela Hart discussed California’s contract with Civica to make lower-cost insulin on KQED’s “Forum” on March 23. She also discussed California’s potential plan to use Medicaid funding to cover up to six months of rent for low-income enrollees on KCBS’ “State of California” on March 22.

KHN South Carolina correspondent Lauren Sausser discussed prior authorization on WNHN’s “The Attitude With Arnie Arnesen” on March 21.

KHN Montana legislative fellow Keely Larson discussed Montana’s vaccine exemption legislation on the Montana Free Press’ “The Session” on March 20.

KHN Midwest correspondent Bram Sable-Smith discussed insulin costs on NPR’s “Weekend Edition Saturday” on March 18.

California’s Plan for Cheaper Insulin Collides With Big Pharma’s Price Cuts

The state awarded a $50 million contract to produce less costly treatments, but moves by major suppliers might undercut the initiative before any new product emerges.

Prescription for Housing? California Wants Medicaid to Cover 6 Months of Rent

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Gov. Gavin Newsom, whose administration is struggling to contain a worsening homelessness crisis despite record spending, is trying something bold: tapping federal health care funding to cover rent for homeless people and those at risk of losing their housing.

States are barred from using federal Medicaid dollars to pay directly for rent, but California’s governor is asking the administration of President Joe Biden, a fellow Democrat, to authorize a new program called “transitional rent,” which would provide up to six months of rent or temporary housing for low-income enrollees who rely on the state’s health care safety net — a new initiative in his arsenal of programs to fight and prevent homelessness.

“I’ve been talking to the president. We cannot do this alone,” Newsom told KHN.

The governor is pushing California’s version of Medicaid, called Medi-Cal, to fund experimental housing subsidies for homeless people, betting that it’s cheaper for taxpayers to cover rent than to allow people to fall into crisis or costly institutional care in hospitals, nursing homes, and jails. Early in his tenure, Newsom proclaimed that “doctors should be able to write prescriptions for housing the same way they do for insulin or antibiotics.”

But it’s a risky endeavor in a high-cost state where median rent is nearly $3,000 a month, and even higher in coastal regions, where most of California’s homeless people reside. Experts expect the Biden administration to scrutinize the plan to use health care money to pay rent; and also question its potential effectiveness in light of the state’s housing crisis.

“Part of the question is whether this is really Medicaid’s job,” said Vikki Wachino, who served as national Medicaid director in the Obama administration. “But there is a recognition that social factors like inadequate housing are driving health outcomes, and I think the federal government is open to developing approaches to try and address that.”

Bruce Alexander, a spokesperson for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, declined to say whether the federal government would approve California’s request. Yet, Biden’s Medicaid officials have approved similar experimental programs in Oregon and Arizona, and California is modeling its program after them.

California is home to an estimated 30% of the homeless people in the U.S., despite representing just 12% of the country’s overall population. And Newsom has acknowledged that the numbers are likely far greater than official homeless tallies show. Top health officials say that, to contain soaring safety-net spending and help homeless people get healthy, Medi-Cal has no choice but to combine social services with housing.

Statewide, 5% of Medi-Cal patients account for a staggering 44% of the program’s spending, according to state data. And many of the costliest patients lack stable housing: Nearly half of patients experiencing homelessness visited the emergency room four times or more in 2019 and were more likely than other low-income adults to be admitted to the hospital, and a large majority of visits were covered by Medi-Cal, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

“What we have today doesn’t work,” said Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency, explaining his argument that housing is a critical component of health care. “Why do we have to wait so long for people to be so sick?”

Stephen Morton moved into his Laguna Woods apartment in Orange County in December 2021. He says his health has improved and that he has been able to drop one of his diabetes medications.(Heidi de Marco / KHN)

The federal government has already approved a massive social experiment in California, known as CalAIM, which is transforming Medi-Cal. Over five years, the initiative is expected to pour $12 billion into new Medi-Cal services delivered outside of traditional health care. In communities across the state, it is already funding services for some low-income patients, including paying rental security deposits for homeless people and those facing eviction; delivering prepared healthy meals for people with diabetes; and helping formerly incarcerated people find jobs.

The transitional rent program would add another service to those already available, though only a sliver of the 15.4 million Medi-Cal enrollees actually receive those new and expensive social services.

Rent payments could begin as soon as 2025 and cost roughly $117 million per year once fully implemented. And while state officials say anyone who is homeless or at risk of becoming homeless would be eligible, not everyone who qualifies will receive new services due to capacity limits. Among those who stand to benefit are nearly 11,000 people already enrolled in Medi-Cal housing services.

“The ongoing conversation is how do we convince the federal government that housing is a health care issue,” said Mari Cantwell, who served as Medi-Cal director from 2015 to 2020. “You have to convince them that you’re going to save money because you’re not going to have as many people showing up at the emergency room and in long-term hospitalizations.”

Health care experiments in California and around the country that funded housing supports have demonstrated early success in reducing costs and making people healthier. But while some programs paid for housing security deposits or participants’ first month of rent, none directly covered rent for an extended period.

“Without that foundational support, we are playing in the margins,” Newsom said.

State health officials argue that paying for six months of rent will be even more successful at reducing health care costs and improving enrollees’ health, but experts say that, to work, the initiative must have strict accountability and be bundled with an array of social services.

Stephen Morton has major health problems, including chronic heart disease, diabetes, and asthma. California wants to tap federal health care funding to cover rent for formerly homeless people. (Heidi de Marco / KHN)

In a precursor to the state’s current initiative, California experimented with a mix of housing assistance programs and social services through its “Whole Person Care” pilot program. Nadereh Pourat, of the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, evaluated the program for the state concluding that local trials reduced emergency visits and hospitalizations, saving an average of $383 per Medi-Cal beneficiary per year — a meager amount compared with the program’s cost.

Over five years, the state spent $3.6 billion serving about 250,000 patients enrolled in local experiments, Pourat said.

And a randomized control trial in Santa Clara County that provided supportive housing for homeless people showed reductions in psychiatric emergency room visits and improvements in care. “Lives stabilized and we saw a huge uptick in substance use care and mental health care, the things that everybody wants people to use to get healthier,” said Dr. Margot Kushel, director of the University of California-San Francisco’s Center for Vulnerable Populations at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center, who worked on the study.

But insurers implementing the broader Medi-Cal initiative say they are skeptical that spending health care money on housing will save the system money. And health care experts say that, while six months of rent can be a bridge while people wait for permanent housing, there’s a bigger obstacle: California’s affordable housing shortage.

“We can design incredible Medicaid policies to alleviate homelessness and pay for all the necessary supportive services, but without the adequate housing, frankly, it’s not going to work,” Kushel said.

Newsom acknowledges that criticism. “The crisis of homelessness will never be solved without first solving the crisis of housing,” he said last week, arguing California should plow more money into housing for homeless people with severe mental health conditions or addiction disorders.

He will ask the legislature to put before voters a 2024 ballot initiative that would infuse California’s mental health system with at least 6,000 new treatment beds and supportive housing units for people struggling with mental health and addiction disorders, many of whom are homeless. The proposed bond measure would generate from $3 billion to $5 billion for psychiatric housing and treatment villages aimed at serving more than 10,000 additional people a year. The initiative also would ask voters to set aside at least $1 billion a year for supportive housing from an existing tax on California millionaires that funds local mental health programs. 

“People who are struggling with these issues, especially those who are on the streets or in other vulnerable conditions, will have more resources to get the help they need,” Newsom said.

Stephen Morton lived in shelters and sometimes in his car for almost two years before finding permanent housing. (Heidi de Marco / KHN)

For transitional rent, six months of payments would be available for select high-need residents enrolled in Medi-Cal, particularly those who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless — and those transitioning from more costly institutions such as mental health crisis centers, jails and prisons, and foster care. Medi-Cal patients at risk of inpatient hospitalization or who frequent the emergency room would also be eligible.

“It’s a pretty big challenge; I’m not going to lie,” said Jacey Cooper, the Medi-Cal director. “But we know that people experiencing homelessness cycle in and out of emergency rooms, so we have a real role to play in both preventing and ending homelessness.”

Public health experts say the problem will continue to explode without creative thinking about how to fund housing in health care, but they warn the state must be wary of potential abuses of the program.

“It has to be designed carefully because, unfortunately, there are always people looking to game the system,” said Dr. Tony Iton, a public health expert who is now a senior vice president at the California Endowment. “Decisions must be made by clinicians — not housing organizations just looking for another source of revenue.”

For Stephen Morton, who lives in the Orange County community of Laguna Woods, the journey from homelessness into permanent housing illustrates the amount of public spending it can take for the effort to pay off.

Morton, 60, bounced between shelters and his car for nearly two years and racked up extraordinary Medi-Cal costs due to prolonged hospitalizations and repeated emergency room trips to treat chronic heart disease, asthma, and diabetes.

Medi-Cal covered Morton’s open-heart surgery and hospital stays, which lasted weeks. He landed temporary housing through a state-sponsored program called Project Roomkey before getting permanent housing through a federal low-income housing voucher — an ongoing benefit that covers all but $50 of his rent.

Since getting his apartment, Morton said, he’s been able to stop taking one diabetes medication and lose weight. He attributes improvements in his blood sugar levels to his housing and the healthy, home-delivered meals he receives via Medi-Cal.

“It’s usually scrambled eggs for breakfast and the fish menu for dinner. I’m shocked it’s so good,” Morton said. “Now I have a microwave and I’m indoors. I’m so grateful and so much healthier.”

Stephen Morton receives weekly deliveries of medically tailored meals as part of a Medi-Cal initiative. Since getting his apartment, Morton says he’s been able to stop taking one diabetes medication and lose weight. (Heidi de Marco / KHN)

This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.

California Picks Generic Drug Company Civica to Produce Low-Cost Insulin

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Gov. Gavin Newsom on Saturday announced the selection of Utah-based generic drug manufacturer Civica to produce low-cost insulin for California, an unprecedented move that makes good on his promise to put state government in direct competition with the brand-name drug companies that dominate the market.

“People should not be forced to go into debt to get lifesaving prescriptions,” Newsom said. “Californians will have access to some of the most inexpensive insulin available, helping them save thousands of dollars each year.”

The contract, with an initial cost of $50 million that Newsom and his fellow Democratic lawmakers approved last year, calls for Civica to manufacture state-branded insulin and make the lifesaving drug available to any Californian who needs it, regardless of insurance coverage, by mail order and at local pharmacies. But insulin is just the beginning. Newsom said the state will also look to produce the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone.

Allan Coukell, Civica’s senior vice president of public policy, told KHN that the nonprofit drugmaker is also in talks with the Newsom administration to potentially produce other generic medications, but he declined to elaborate, saying the company is focused on making cheap insulin widely available first.

“We are very excited about this partnership with the state of California,” Coukell said. “We’re not looking to have 100% of the market, but we do want 100% of people to have access to fair insulin prices.”

As insulin costs for consumers have soared, Democratic lawmakers and activists have called on the industry to rein in prices. Just weeks after President Joe Biden attacked Big Pharma for jacking up insulin prices, the three drugmakers that control the insulin market — Eli Lilly and Co., Novo Nordisk, and Sanofi — announced they would slash the list prices of some products.

Newsom, who has previously accused the pharmaceutical industry of gouging Californians with “sky-high prices,” argued that the launch of the state’s generic drug label, CalRx, will add competition and apply pressure on the industry. Administration officials declined to say when California’s insulin products would be available, but experts say it could be as soon as 2025. Coukell said the state-branded medication will still require approval from the FDA, which can take roughly 10 months.

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, which lobbies on behalf of brand-name companies, blasted California’s move. Reid Porter, senior director of state public affairs for PhRMA, said Newsom just “wants to score political points.”

“If the governor wants to impact what patients pay for insulins and other medicines meaningfully, he should expand his focus to others in the system that often make patients pay more than they do for medicines,” Porter said, blaming pharmaceutical go-between companies, known as pharmacy benefit managers, that negotiate with manufacturers on behalf of insurers for rebates and discounts on drugs.

The Pharmaceutical Care Management Association, which represents pharmacy benefit managers argued in turn that it’s pharmaceutical companies that are to blame for high prices.

Drug pricing experts, however, say pharmacy benefit managers and drugmakers share the blame.

Newsom administration officials say that inflated insulin costs force some to pay as much as $300 per vial or $500 for a box of injectable pens, and that too many Californians with diabetes skip or ration their medication. Doing so can lead to blindness, amputations, and life-threatening conditions such as heart disease and kidney failure. Nearly 10% of California adults have diabetes.

Civica is developing three types of generic insulin, known as a biosimilar, which will be available both in vials and in injectable pens. They are expected to be interchangeable with brand-name products including Lantus, Humalog, and NovoLog. Coukell said the company would make the drug available for no more than $30 a vial, or $55 for five injectable pens.

Newsom said the state’s insulin will save many patients $2,000 to $4,000 a year, though critical questions about how California would get the products into the hands of consumers remain unanswered, including how it would persuade pharmacies, insurers, and retailers to distribute the drugs.

Last year, Newsom also secured $50 million in seed money to build a facility to manufacture insulin; Coukell said Civica is exploring building a plant in California.

California’s move, though never been tried by a state government, could be blunted by recent industry decisions to lower insulin prices. In March, Lilly, Novo Nordisk, and Sanofi vowed to cut prices, with Lilly offering a vial at $25 per month; Novo Nordisk promising major reductions to bring the price of a particular generic vial to $48; and Sanofi also slashing prices, with one vial pegged at $64.

The governor’s office said it will cost the state $30 per vial to manufacture and distribute insulin and it will be sold at that price. Doing so, the administration argues, “will prevent the egregious cost-shifting that happens in traditional pharmaceutical price games.”

Drug pricing experts said generic production in California could further lower costs for insulin, and benefit people with high-deductible health insurance plans or no insurance.

“This is an extraordinary move in the pharmaceutical industry, not just for insulin but potentially for all kinds of drugs,” said Robin Feldman, a professor at the University of California College of the Law-San Francisco. “It’s a very difficult industry to disrupt, but California is poised to do just that.”

This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.

California’s Covid Misinformation Law Is Entangled in Lawsuits, Conflicting Rulings

Gov. Gavin Newsom may have been prescient when he acknowledged free speech concerns as he signed California’s covid misinformation bill last fall. In a message to lawmakers, the governor warned of “the chilling effect other potential laws may have” on the ability of doctors to speak frankly with patients but expressed confidence that the one he was signing did not cross that line.

Yet the law — meant to discipline doctors who give patients false information about covid-19 — is now in legal limbo after two federal judges issued conflicting rulings in recent lawsuits that say it violates free speech and is too vague for doctors to know what it bars them from telling patients.

In two of the lawsuits, Senior U.S. District Judge William Shubb in Sacramento issued a temporary halt on enforcing the law, but it applies only to the plaintiffs in those cases. Shubb said the law was “unconstitutionally vague,” in part because it “fails to provide a person of ordinary intelligence fair notice of what is prohibited.” His ruling last month clashed with one handed down in Santa Ana in December; in that case, U.S. District Judge Fred Slaughter refused to halt the law and said it was “likely to promote the health and safety of California covid-19 patients.”

The legal fight in the nation’s most populous state is to some extent a perpetuation of the pandemic-era tussle pitting supporters of public health guidelines against groups and individuals who resisted masking orders, school shutdowns, and vaccine mandates.

California’s covid misinformation law, which took effect Jan. 1, is being challenged by vaccine skeptics and civil liberties groups. Among those suing to get the law declared unconstitutional is a group founded by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who has questioned the science and safety of vaccines for years.

But doubts about the law are not confined to those who have battled the scientific mainstream.

Dr. Leana Wen, a health policy professor at George Washington University who previously served as president of Planned Parenthood and as Baltimore’s health commissioner, wrote in an op-ed a few weeks before Newsom signed the law that it would exert “a chilling effect on medical practice, with widespread repercussions that could paradoxically worsen patient care.”

The Northern California affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union has weighed in against the law on free speech grounds, though the national organization has affirmed the constitutionality of covid vaccine mandates.

“If doctors are scared of losing their licenses for giving advice that they think is helpful and appropriate, but they don’t quite know what the law means, they will be less likely to speak openly and frankly with their patients,” said Hannah Kieschnick, an attorney with the ACLU of Northern California.

The law establishes that doctors who give false information about covid to patients are engaging in unprofessional conduct, which could subject them to discipline by the Medical Board of California or the Osteopathic Medical Board of California.

Proponents of the law sought to crack down on what they believe are the most clear-cut cases: Doctors who tout treatments such as ivermectin, an anti-parasitic agent that is unproven as a covid treatment and can be dangerous; who exaggerate the risk of getting vaccinated compared with the dangers of the disease; or who spread unfounded theories about the vaccines, including that they can cause infertility or harm DNA.

But the law lacks such specifics, defining misinformation only as “false information that is contradicted by contemporary scientific consensus contrary to the standard of care.”

Michelle Mello, a professor of law and health policy at Stanford University, said the wording is confusing.

“On a matter like covid, science is changing all the time, so what does it mean to say there is scientific consensus?” she asked. “To me, there are lots of examples of statements that clearly, with no vagueness involved, meet the definition of the kind of conduct that the legislature was going after. The problem is that there are all kinds of other hypothetical things that people can say that don’t clearly violate it.”

Dr. Christine Cassel, a professor of medicine at the University of California-San Francisco, said she expects the law to be applied only in the most flagrant cases. “I trust scientists enough to know where there’s a legitimate dispute,” she said.

Cassel’s view mirrors Newsom’s rationale for signing the legislation despite his awareness of potential free speech concerns. “I am confident,” he wrote in his message to lawmakers, “that discussing emerging ideas or treatments including the subsequent risks and benefits does not constitute misinformation or disinformation under this bill’s criteria.”

Plaintiffs in the Santa Ana case, two doctors who have sometimes diverged from public health guidelines, appealed Slaughter’s ruling allowing the law to stand. The case has been combined in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals with another case in which a San Diego judge declined to rule on a similar request to temporarily halt the law.

Newsom spokesperson Brandon Richards said in early February that the administration would not appeal the two Sacramento cases in which Shubb issued the narrow injunction. The plaintiffs’ lawyers had expected the state to appeal the decision, thinking all four lawsuits would then be decided by the appeals court, providing greater clarity for all parties.

Richard Jaffe, lead attorney in one of the Sacramento cases — brought by a doctor, Kennedy’s Children’s Health Defense, and a group called Physicians for Informed Consent — said Newsom’s decision not to appeal is “just going to increase the level of chaos in terms of who the law applies to.”

But the Newsom administration has decided to wait for the appeals court to rule on the other two judges’ decisions that left the law intact for now.

Jenin Younes, a lawyer with the New Civil Liberties Alliance who is lead counsel in the other Sacramento case in which Shubb issued his injunction, said Newsom may be calculating that “you’re in a stronger position going up on a win than on a loss.”

A victory for Newsom in the appeals court, Jaffe and others said, could dampen the impact of the two Sacramento cases.

Opponents of California’s covid misinformation law question why it is needed at all, since the medical boards already have authority to discipline doctors for unprofessional conduct. Yet only about 3% of the nearly 90,000 complaints the Medical Board of California received over a decade resulted in doctors being disciplined, according to a 2021 investigation by the Los Angeles Times.

That could be good news for doctors who worry the new law could constrain their ability to advise patients.

“I don’t see medical boards being particularly vigorous in policing physicians’ competence in general,” said Stanford’s Mello. “You have to be really bad to get their attention.”

This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.

Two Counties Square Off With California Over Mental Health Duties

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Sacramento and Solano counties are in a standoff with the state over mental health coverage for a portion of Medicaid patients in those counties — a dispute that threatens to disrupt care for nearly 50,000 low-income residents receiving treatment for severe mental illness.

The Department of Health Care Services, which administers Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program, says Sacramento and Solano counties must take over managing and providing specialty mental health care for thousands of Medi-Cal patients enrolled in Kaiser Permanente plans. It insists on shifting the responsibility because California’s remaining 56 counties already operate this way. State officials argue the switch would simplify the state’s disjointed mental health system and is needed to implement a larger transformation of Medi-Cal, an initiative known as CalAIM.

State health officials gave counties until March 15 to accept Kaiser Permanente patients, so California can properly transfer their specialty mental health care to counties by July 1. But the two counties are rebuffing the transfer, arguing that without more funding they can’t adequately care for a major influx of Medi-Cal patients with severe mental health conditions, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Medi-Cal officials, meanwhile, are threatening steep penalties or potentially terminating mental health contracts with those counties.

Local officials warn that if the state follows through with its plan, about 39,000 patients in Sacramento County and about 8,000 in Solano County could see their care disrupted and, for instance, may be forced to find a new psychiatrist.

“For someone who has schizophrenia or another serious mental health disorder, it has taken a long time to build a trusted relationship with their provider, and now they are going to see that care disrupted or have to find a different provider,” said Debbie Vaughn, assistant county administrator for Solano County. “There will be risks of people going into crisis.”

Ryan Quist, director of behavioral health services for Sacramento County, said the counties need not only more funding, but also more time to transfer the patients’ care. “The state is playing chicken with their lives,” he said.

Under state law, counties are responsible for administering and delivering specialty care to Medi-Cal patients with severe mental illness. Medi-Cal managed-care insurers are responsible for providing treatment for mild or moderate mental health conditions, such as anxiety or low-level depression.

But under a decades-old arrangement between the state and the counties of Sacramento and Solano, California has been paying Kaiser Permanente to provide all mental health care for the health care giant’s Medi-Cal enrollees. Now the state is dissolving that arrangement, forcing roughly 7,000 specialty mental health patients in those two counties to move out of Kaiser Permanente and into county-run mental health plans.

State officials argue that the two counties are legally obligated to provide care for Medi-Cal patients with severe mental illness and that county behavioral health agencies would be the ones putting patients in danger if the counties continue refusing the shift. Medi-Cal patients enrolled in health plans other than Kaiser Permanente get their specialized mental health care directly from counties.

“Sacramento and Solano counties’ failure to engage in this process places Medi-Cal members at risk of losing access to critical Medi-Cal entitlement services,” said Tony Cava, a spokesperson for the Department of Health Care Services. “DHCS will have no choice but to take action if the counties continue to refuse to fulfill their obligations.”

The state is considering sanctions or terminating the counties’ contracts, but Cava said that “contract termination is not DHCS’ preferred approach.” He declined to elaborate, adding only that the agency would “identify solutions to continue coverage” for Kaiser Permanente patients.

He said transferring patients to the counties will provide “a more consistent and seamless health system by reducing complexity and increasing flexibility.”

Counties currently receive a portion of state sales tax revenue and vehicle license fees to fund specialty mental health care, but under the agreement in Sacramento and Solano, the state has been paying Kaiser Permanente from its general fund to serve a portion of the insurer’s overall Medi-Cal enrollees’ mental health needs.

Under the shift, California would stop distributing general-fund money to the counties. Instead, counties would receive a greater share of existing sales tax and vehicle license fee revenues set aside by a 2011 arrangement. But Kaiser Permanente’s specialty mental health patients, the counties argue, were not under their purview at the time that agreement was reached, underscoring their legal argument that the state should cover the costs of their care.

The state is offering an additional $11.6 million a year to Sacramento and $7.7 million a year to Solano, which would draw down additional federal funding. That money would be siphoned from revenue other counties rely on for behavioral health treatment.

“The insult to injury is this takes money from other counties,” said Michelle Doty Cabrera, executive director of the County Behavioral Health Directors Association, “and across California we’re seeing a greater demand for services, especially after the pandemic.”

Sacramento County wants $36 million more each year to cover a 16% increase in patients, or 4,836 people. Solano County seeks nearly $17 million more each year for increasing its load by 50%, or 2,091 patients.

Behavioral health officials say counties are also struggling to recruit and retain mental health professionals willing to serve Medi-Cal patients.

“Our system is already bursting at the seams,” said Le Ondra Clark Harvey, CEO of the California Council of Community Behavioral Health Agencies, which represents local mental health providers.

State officials believe that both counties have an adequate number of mental health providers, with the small exception of Sacramento County’s need for two to three additional psychiatrists to serve kids.

Kaiser Permanente told KHN that it did not ask to move patients out of its network of care and that it told the state it wanted to continue serving them. Yet it ultimately agreed to transfer care to the counties.

“While we had expressed our preference to continue to provide specialty care to this vulnerable population,” said spokesperson Gerri Ginsburg, “we respect the state’s long-term objectives.”

This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.

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Decisiones financieras de los hospitales juegan un papel en la escasez de camas pediátricas para pacientes con VRS

La grave escasez de camas pediátricas que azota a la nación este otoño es en parte producto de las decisiones financieras tomadas por los hospitales durante la última década, como cerrar las salas infantiles, que a menudo operan en números rojos, y ampliar la cantidad de camas disponibles para proyectos más rentables como reemplazos articulares y atención del cáncer.

Para hacer frente a la avalancha de niños enfermos por una convergencia radical de virus desagradables, especialmente el virus respiratorio sincitial (VRS), la influenza y el coronavirus, los centros médicos de todo el país han desplegado carpas de triage, retrasado cirugías electivas y trasladado fuera del estado a menores gravemente enfermos.

Un factor importante en la escasez de camas es una tendencia de muchos años entre los hospitales de eliminar las unidades pediátricas, que tienden a ser menos rentables que las de adultos, dijo Mark Wietecha, director ejecutivo de la Children’s Hospital Association.

Los hospitales optimizan los ingresos tratando de mantener sus camas llenas al 100 %, y llenas de pacientes con condiciones que las aseguradoras reembolsan bien.

“Realmente tiene que ver con los dólares”, dijo el doctor Scott Krugman, vicepresidente de pediatría del Hospital Pediátrico Herman and Walter Samuelson en Baltimore. “Los hospitales dependen de procedimientos de alto volumen y alto reembolso de seguros que paguen bien para ganar dinero”.

El número de unidades pediátricas para pacientes internados en los hospitales cayó un 19% entre 2008 y 2018, según un estudio publicado en 2021 en la revista Pediatrics. Solo este año, los hospitales han cerrado unidades pediátricas en Boston y Springfield, Massachusetts; Richmond, Virginia; y Tulsa, Oklahoma.

El aumento actual de enfermedades respiratorias peligrosas para los niños es otro ejemplo de cómo covid-19 ha alterado el sistema de atención médica. Los bloqueos y el aislamiento que marcaron los primeros años de la pandemia dejaron a los niños en gran medida sin exposición, y aún vulnerables, a virus distintos al covid durante dos inviernos, y los médicos ahora están tratando esencialmente enfermedades respiratorias de varios años.

La pandemia también aceleró los cambios en la industria de la atención de salud que han dejado a muchas comunidades con menos camas de hospital disponibles para niños gravemente enfermos, junto con menos médicos y enfermeras para atenderlos.

Cuando las unidades de cuidados intensivos se inundaron con pacientes mayores con covid en 2020, algunos hospitales comenzaron a usar camas infantiles para tratar a adultos. Muchas de esas camas pediátricas no se han repuesto, dijo el doctor Daniel Rauch, presidente del comité de atención hospitalaria de la Academia Estadounidense de Pediatría.

“Simplemente no hay suficiente espacio para todos los niños que necesitan camas”, dijo la doctora Megan Ranney, quien trabaja en varios departamentos de emergencia en Providence, Rhode Island, incluido el Hasbro Children’s Hospital. La cantidad de niños que buscaron atención de emergencia en las últimas semanas fue un 25% más alta que el récord anterior del hospital.

“Tenemos médicos que limpian las camas para que podamos acomodar a los niños más rápido”, dijo Ranney, vicedecana de la Escuela de Salud Pública de la Universidad Brown.

No hay mucho dinero en el tratamiento de niños. Alrededor del 40% de los niños estadounidenses están cubiertos por Medicaid, un programa federal y estatal conjunto para pacientes de bajos ingresos y personas con discapacidades. Las tarifas básicas de Medicaid suelen ser más de un 20% inferiores a las que paga Medicare, el programa de seguro del gobierno para adultos mayores, y son aún más bajas en comparación con los seguros privados.

Si bien la atención especializada para una variedad de procedimientos comunes para adultos, desde reemplazos de rodilla y cadera hasta cirugías cardíacas y tratamientos contra el cáncer, genera importantes ganancias para los centros médicos, los hospitales se quejan de que generalmente pierden dinero en la atención pediátrica de pacientes hospitalizados.

Cuando Tufts Children’s Hospital cerró 41 camas pediátricas este verano, los funcionarios del hospital aseguraron a los residentes que los pacientes jóvenes podrían recibir atención en el cercano Boston Children’s Hospital. Ahora, Boston Children’s está retrasando algunas cirugías electivas para dejar espacio a los niños que están gravemente enfermos.

Rauch señaló que los hospitales infantiles, que se especializan en el tratamiento de enfermedades raras y graves como el cáncer pediátrico, la fibrosis quística y los defectos cardíacos, simplemente no están diseñados para manejar la avalancha de niños gravemente enfermos de esta temporada con virus respiratorios.

Incluso antes de la trifecta viral del otoño, las unidades pediátricas se esforzaban por absorber un número creciente de jóvenes con angustia mental aguda.

Abundan las historias de niños en crisis mentales que se quedan en el limbo durante semanas en las salas de emergencia mientras esperan ser transferidos a una unidad psiquiátrica pediátrica. En un buen día, dijo Ranney, el 20% de las camas de la sala de emergencias pediátrica del Hasbro Children’s Hospital están ocupadas por niños que experimentan problemas de salud mental.

Con la esperanza de aumentar la capacidad pediátrica, el mes pasado, la Academia Estadounidense de Pediatría se unió a la Asociación de Hospitales Infantiles para pedir a la Casa Blanca que declare una emergencia nacional debido a infecciones respiratorias infantiles y proporcione recursos adicionales para ayudar a cubrir los costos de la atención.

La administración Biden ha dicho que la flexibilidad que se les ha dado a los sistemas hospitalarios y a los proveedores durante la pandemia para eludir ciertos requisitos de personal también se aplica al VRS y la gripe.

El Doernbecher Children’s Hospital de Oregon Health & Science University ha cambiado a “estándares de atención de crisis”, lo que permite que las enfermeras de cuidados intensivos traten a más pacientes de los que normalmente se les asignan. Mientras tanto, los hospitales en Atlanta, Pittsburgh y Aurora, Colorado, han recurrido al tratamiento de pacientes jóvenes en carpas desbordadas en estacionamientos.

El doctor Alex Kon, pediatra de cuidados intensivos en el Centro Médico Comunitario en Missoula, Montana, dijo que los proveedores han hecho planes para cuidar a los niños mayores en la unidad de cuidados intensivos para adultos y desviar las ambulancias a otras instalaciones cuando sea necesario. Con solo tres UCI pediátricas en el estado, eso significa que los pacientes jóvenes pueden volar hasta Seattle o Spokane, Washington o Idaho.

Hollis Lillard llevó a su hijo de 1 año, Calder, a un hospital del ejército en el norte de Virginia el mes pasado después de experimentar varios días de fiebre, tos y dificultad para respirar. Pasaron siete horas angustiosas en la sala de emergencias antes de que el hospital encontrara una cama abierta y los trasladaran en ambulancia al Centro Médico Militar Nacional Walter Reed en Maryland.

Con la terapia adecuada y las instrucciones para el cuidado en el hogar, el virus de Calder fue fácilmente tratable: se recuperó después de que le administraran oxígeno y lo trataran con esteroides, que combaten la inflamación, y albuterol, que controla los broncoespasmos. Fue dado de alta al día siguiente.

Aunque las hospitalizaciones por VRS están disminuyendo, las tasas se mantienen muy por encima de la media para esta época del año. Y es posible que los hospitales no tengan mucho alivio.

Las personas pueden infectarse con este virus más de una vez al año, y Krugman se preocupa por un resurgimiento en los próximos meses. Debido al coronavirus, que compite con otros virus, “el patrón estacional habitual de virus se ha ido por la ventana”, dijo.

Al igual que el VRS, la influenza llegó temprano esta temporada. Ambos virus suelen alcanzar su punto máximo alrededor de enero. Tres cepas de la gripe están circulando y han causado aproximadamente 8,7 millones de casos, 78,000 hospitalizaciones y 4,500 muertes, según los Centros para el Control y la Prevención de Enfermedades (CDC).

Krugman duda que la industria de la atención de salud aprenda lecciones rápidas de la crisis actual. “A menos que haya un cambio radical en la forma en que pagamos la atención hospitalaria pediátrica”, dijo Krugman, “la escasez de camas solo empeorará”.

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