Tagged Cost and Quality

‘An Arm and a Leg’: Host Dan Weissmann Talks Price Transparency on ‘Axios Today’


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As we settle into the new year, we have two small doses of good news.

First, a new federal rule could help cut through one health care issue. Host Dan Weissmann talked about the rule — which requires hospitals to make public the prices they negotiate with insurers — in a short conversation with his former public-radio colleague, Niala Boodhoo, for the daily-news podcast “Axios Today.”

You’ll find more detail on that rule in this story from reporter Celia Llopis-Jepsen, whose reporting about a $50,000 “air ambulance” ride formed the core of a recent episode about how consumers get squeezed by insurers on one side and providers on the other.

Later in the episode, a listener describes how he used what he learned from “An Arm and a Leg” to head off an insurance nightmare.

Here’s a transcript for this episode.


“An Arm and a Leg” is a co-production of Kaiser 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 Twitter. And if you’ve got stories to tell about the health care system, the producers would love to hear from you.

To hear all Kaiser Health News podcasts, click here.

And subscribe to “An Arm and a Leg” on iTunesPocket CastsGoogle Play or Spotify.

California Budget Reflects ‘Pandemic-Induced Reality,’ Governor Says

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The coronavirus pandemic doomed Gov. Gavin Newsom’s ambitious plans last year to combat homelessness, expand behavioral health services and create a state agency to control soaring health care costs.

But even as the pandemic continues to rage, California’s Democratic governor said Friday he plans to push forward with those goals in the coming year, due to a rosier budget forecast buoyed by higher tax revenue from wealthy Californians who have fared relatively well during the crisis.

Newsom’s $227.2 billion budget blueprint also prioritizes billions to safely reopen K-12 schools shuttered by the pandemic, $600 payments for nearly 4 million low-income Californians — in addition to federal stimulus payments — and coronavirus relief grants and tax credits for hard-hit small businesses.

However, his 2021-22 fiscal year spending plan does not include additional public health money for local health departments steering California’s pandemic response, which have been chronically underfunded. He vowed to support cities and counties by boosting state testing and contact tracing capacity, speeding vaccination efforts and funding state-run surge hospitals that take overflow patients.

Newsom said Friday his budget reflects a “pandemic-induced reality” with investments aimed at spurring California’s economic recovery by helping businesses and people living in poverty. Wealth and income disparities, he added, “must be addressed.”

But Democrats in control of the state legislature, county leaders and social justice groups say that will be difficult to achieve because Newsom’s spending plan does not sufficiently fund health and social safety-net programs.

And without additional public health money, local leaders worry California will not be able to adequately control the spread of the virus.

“County public health is drowning,” said Graham Knaus, executive director of the California State Association of Counties. “We are triaging right now between testing, contact tracing and vaccination, and it’s impacting the response to the pandemic.”

Newsom’s budget proposal is the first step in a months-long negotiation process with the Democratic-controlled legislature, which has until June 15 to adopt the state budget that takes effect July 1. Lawmakers have become increasingly frustrated with the governor’s response to the pandemic, including his unilateral spending decisions in response to the emergency. Newsom is also facing a burgeoning recall effort, backed by heavyweight Republicans such as former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who is considering challenging Newsom in the 2022 California gubernatorial election.

Newsom said he expects to make some tough calls on spending even though the state anticipates a $15 billion budget surplus for the coming fiscal year, largely because a state fiscal analysis projected deficits in subsequent years.

“While we are enjoying the fruits of a lot of one-time energy and surplus, it’s not permanent and we have to be mindful of over-committing,” Newsom said, explaining why he didn’t include funding to expand Medicaid to more unauthorized immigrants.

Some lawmakers say they will nonetheless press Newsom to use higher-than-expected revenues — and perhaps seek new taxes — to expand health coverage to more Californians.

The following health care proposals factor heavily into Newsom’s 2021-22 budget proposal.

Covid Relief

Newsom committed $4.4 billion in his budget to vaccine distribution, increased testing, contact tracing and other short-term pandemic expenses. Because that spending is related to the public health emergency, the state expects at least 75% to be reimbursed by the federal government and insurance payments.

He also proposed $52 million to fund costs at state-run surge hospitals, including support staff. And he is asking lawmakers to sign off on a covid relief package that would provide funding before the start of the fiscal year in July. It would include $2 billion to help school districts reopen classrooms to in-person instruction beginning in February by paying for protective equipment, ventilation systems and adequate testing. It would also commit billions to economic recovery, such as stimulus payments for individuals, and grants and tax credits for struggling small businesses.

Newsom also wants to increase the budget for the Department of Industrial Relations by $23 million to fund up to 113 additional workplace inspectors at the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health to police health order violations at businesses and enforce workplace safety laws.

Transforming Medi-Cal

Spending for Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program for low-income residents, is expected to grow in the coming year because of the economic impact of the pandemic — as is its enrollment. The program has roughly 13 million enrollees, or about one-third of the state population.

In the coming year, Newsom will also press forward with a major overhaul of Medi-Cal, through a project called CalAIM, to provide new benefits emphasizing mental health care and substance use treatment, and pay for some nontraditional costs such as housing assistance. The hope is the program would divert homeless and other vulnerable people away from expensive emergency room care and keep them out of jail.

State Medi-Cal officials estimate the program would cost $1.1 billion for the first year. The state is working with the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to obtain approval for the program.

Newsom also wants to expand Medi-Cal benefits to cover over-the-counter cold medicine and blood glucose monitors for people with diabetes. His budget includes $95 million for a major expansion of telehealth services that would permanently provide higher payments for virtual doctor visits.

Controlling Health Care Costs

Newsom is proposing a new state agency, the Office of Health Care Affordability, which he said would help control health care costs. He budgeted $63 million over the next three years for the office, which would set health care cost targets for the health care industry — along with financial penalties for failing to meet future targets.

Powerful health industry groups said they are still assessing whether they will support the proposal. But some expressed concern last year when Newsom floated the idea. Doctors and hospitals routinely fight proposals in Sacramento that might limit their revenue.

Newsom acknowledged Friday the task would be “tough.”

Battling Homelessness and Food Insecurity

Newsom is proposing a one-time infusion of $1.75 billion to battle homelessness.

Of that, Newsom said, $750 million would help counties purchase hotels and transform them into permanent housing for chronically homeless people. Another $750 million would allow counties to purchase facilities to treat people with mental illness or substance use disorders. And $250 million would help counties purchase and renovate homes for low-income older people.

Newsom’s budget also includes $30 million to help overwhelmed food banks and emergency food assistance programs.

Lawmakers said they plan to negotiate for even more funding for homelessness and safety-net programs.

“We absolutely need to significantly increase our investment to address homelessness because the need is so intense,” said Assembly member David Chiu (D-San Francisco). “And I don’t think there’s a single legislator who isn’t incredibly concerned about the food insecurity we’re seeing: lines around the block for food banks in what should be the wealthiest state in the country.”

Expanding Health Coverage

Newsom did not include money in his proposed budget to expand Medi-Cal to unauthorized immigrants age 65 and older. He had previously promised to fund the proposal, estimated to cost $350 million per year once fully implemented, but he said Friday the state cannot afford to commit to ongoing costs with a projected budget deficit starting in fiscal year 2022-23. California already offers full Medicaid benefits for income-eligible unauthorized immigrants up to age 26.

Some lawmakers and health care advocates countered that providing health insurance for undocumented immigrants would save lives and reduce costs, especially during the pandemic, and vowed to continue to fight for the expansion.

“To say we are disappointed is describing it very lightly,” said Orville Thomas, a lobbyist with the California Immigrant Policy Center. “These are Californians dying and getting sick at disproportionate rates during covid.”

Aunque controlen el Senado, demócratas necesitarán apoyo republicano en temas clave de salud

Ante la pandemia, los demócratas han abogado por ayudas más generosas, más presión sobre las farmacéuticas para que bajen los precios y más atención al racismo sistémico en la atención de salud.

El 20 de enero, con el control del Senado y la Cámara de Representantes, tendrán el poder de elegir qué propuestas de salud se votarán en el Congreso.

Las victorias del reverendo Raphael Warnock y Jon Ossoff en Georgia dieron a los demócratas dos escaños más en el Senado y la ventaja en un Senado dividido 50-50. Cuando la vicepresidenta electa, Kamala Harris, jure el cargo, su voto servirá como desempate, convirtiéndose así en el voto 51 de los demócratas.

Pero este estrecho margen de votos no eliminará el “filibusteo” (discursos obstruccionistas y dilatorios), lo que significa que los demócratas no tendrán suficientes votos para aprobar muchos de sus planes sin los republicanos.

Eso pondrá en peligro muchas propuestas demócratas de salud, como la de ofrecer a los estadounidenses una opción de seguro público patrocinada por el gobierno, y complicará los esfuerzos para aprobar más ayudas para la pandemia.

Queda por ver si los legisladores serán más proclives al compromiso después que una turba pro-Trump invadiera el Capitolio, el 6 de enero, atacando a la policía y dañando propiedad federal. Hubo cinco muertos.

Los estrechos márgenes de los demócratas en el Senado y en la Cámara de Representantes — donde pueden permitirse perder cuatro votos y aun así aprobar una legislación— también darán más influencia a algunos legisladores que, al no estar de acuerdo con los líderes de sus partidos, tendrán un incentivo para impulsar sus propias agendas a cambio de sus votos.

Habrá poco espacio para los desacuerdos intrapartidarios; y los demócratas dejaron claro, durante las primarias presidenciales, que no están todos de acuerdo sobre cómo lograr sus objetivos de salud pública.

En menos de dos semanas, los demócratas dirigirán los comités encargados de establecer la legislación sobre salud y de examinar a los nominados de Biden en esta área.

El control del Comité de Salud, Educación, Trabajo y Pensiones del Senado pasará a la senadora Patty Murray, demócrata de Washington, quien negoció el acuerdo de 2013 con el entonces presidente de la Cámara de Representantes, Paul Ryan, que puso fin a un largo cierre del gobierno, entre otros acuerdos bipartidistas.

En 2019, Murray y el presidente republicano del comité, el senador Lamar Alexander, de Tennessee, introdujeron un amplio paquete legislativo para reducir los costos de salud. Entre sus propuestas se encontraba una iniciativa para bajar los precios de los medicamentos recetados, mediante la eliminación de las lagunas legales que permiten a los fabricantes de medicamentos de marca bloquear a la competencia.

Durante una entrevista, antes de que los demócratas se aseguren el Senado, Murray dijo que el trabajo de su comité se centrará en los problemas que impiden a los estadounidenses recibir un tratamiento médico equitativo y asequible.

La prioridad, dijo, serán las disparidades raciales, evidenciadas por los desproporcionados índices de mortalidad entre las madres de raza negras, y entre las comunidades de color, que sufren los peores impactos de la pandemia de covid-19.

“No todos los que acuden al médico reciben la misma atención, sienten el mismo nivel de comodidad y muchas veces no se les cree”, dijo Murray.

Murray aseguró que presionará a los senadores para que consideren el impacto en las comunidades de color de cada pieza legislativa. “Esa será la cuestión en cada paso que demos”, añadió.

El miércoles 6, pidió a los republicanos que se incorporen a la lucha contra la pandemia “con políticas que ayuden directamente a los que más sufren y que nos ayuden a salir de esta crisis con más fortaleza y justicia”.

“Con una administración Biden-Harris y una mayoría demócrata en el Senado, los desafíos que enfrentamos no serán menores, pero finalmente tenemos la oportunidad de enfrentarlos y comenzar a tomar medidas”, declaró Murray. “Estoy deseando ponerme manos a la obra”.

El Comité de Finanzas del Senado, que supervisa Medicare, Medicaid y las políticas fiscales relacionadas con la salud, estará encabezado por el senador Ron Wyden, demócrata de Oregon.

Si bien el comité HELP también celebrará una audiencia de confirmación para Xavier Becerra, el candidato de Biden a la Secretaría del Departamento de Salud y Servicios Humanos; es el Comité de Finanzas el que votará para avanzar su confirmación.

En diciembre, los republicanos del Senado amenazaron con retrasar la nominación de Becerra antes de que Biden lo anunciara oficialmente. Los republicanos le reprochan a Becerra su falta de experiencia en el campo de la salud, cuestionan su apoyo a un sistema de salud de un solo pagador y se oponen a su defensa del derecho al aborto.

Como fiscal general de California, Becerra se enfrentó a las demandas presentadas por los funcionarios estatales republicanos contra la Ley de Cuidado de Salud A Bajo Precio (ACA).

Pero se espera que la escasa ventaja de los demócratas en el Senado sea suficiente para rechazar las objeciones de los republicanos a la nominación.

El mes pasado, Wyden alabó el compromiso de Becerra para responder a la pandemia, proteger la cobertura de los cuidados de salud y abordar las disparidades raciales; y dijo que esperaba con interés la audiencia de Becerra “para que pueda ponerse a trabajar y empezar a ayudar a la gente durante esta crisis sin precedentes”.

Además, después de meses de denunciar los fracasos de la administración Trump en el manejo de la pandemia, los demócratas controlarán qué proyectos de ley de ayuda se votarán.

El paquete del mes pasado no incluyó sus demandas de más fondos para los gobiernos estatales y locales, y los republicanos de la Cámara de Representantes bloquearon una iniciativa demócrata que pretendía aumentar los cheques de estímulo de $600 a $2,000.

Los demócratas se han unido en sus demandas de más ayuda, aunque a veces han estado en desacuerdo sobre cómo llevarla a cabo.

En el otoño, con las elecciones cerca y sin ningún acuerdo a la vista, los demócratas moderados, que buscaban ganar su propia elección, presionaron a la presidenta de la Cámara de Representantes, Nancy Pelosi, para que abandonara las negociaciones por un paquete de ayuda de $2,2 billones, que los republicanos calificaron como un fracaso, y aprobara una ayuda más modesta pero desesperadamente necesaria.

“Tanto el liderazgo demócrata, como el republicano, ha metido la pata. Todos son responsables”, declaró a Politico el representante Max Rose, demócrata de Nueva York. “Hagan algo ¡Hagan algo!” Rose perdió la reelección.

Voces más progresistas, como la de la representante Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, demócrata de Nueva York, y el senador Bernie Sanders, independiente de Vermont, han presionado a favor de una ayuda más generosa, con mayores cheques de estímulo.

Más allá de la pandemia, el liderazgo demócrata ha mencionado el precio de los medicamentos como otra área de acción. Pero una de sus propuestas más populares, que autorizaría al gobierno federal a negociar los precios de los medicamentos para quienes están en Medicare, es poco probable que atraiga los votos republicanos que necesitaría.

Cuando los demócratas de la Cámara de Representantes aprobaron una de estas propuestas en 2019, los senadores republicanos aseguraron que ellos nunca la aprobarían.

Los miembros del ala más progresista de los demócratas, por su parte, argumentaron que la propuesta no era suficientemente agresiva.

Sin embargo, después de años de esfuerzos republicanos por socavar ACA, parece probable que la estabilización de la ley pueda cobrar fuerza en un Congreso controlado por los demócratas.

La Cámara de Representantes aprobó, el verano pasado, una legislación destinada a aumentar la cobertura y la asequibilidad, incluyendo la limitación de los costos de los seguros a no más del 8,5% de los ingresos y la ampliación de los subsidios.

Legisladores como Murray y Wyden se han apresurado a señalar que las consecuencias devastadoras de la pandemia, la pérdida de puestos de trabajo y la pérdida de cobertura del seguro, por nombrar sólo dos, han puesto de relieve la necesidad de fortalecer el sistema de salud.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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‘An Arm And a Leg’: How a Former Health Care Executive Became a Health Care Whistleblower


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Former health care executive Wendell Potter spent part of 2020 publishing high-profile apologies for the work he used to do — the lies he said he told the American people for his old employers. These days, he said, he’s also trying to debunk myths he once sold.

“What I used to do for a living was mislead people into thinking that we had the best health care system in the world,” Potter said.

In this episode, Potter talks about his transformation from health care executive to health care whistleblower. His is also a story about the long, messy process of change — whether that’s changing your own life or trying to change a bigger system.

Here’s a transcript of the episode.


“An Arm and a Leg” is a co-production of Kaiser 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 Twitter. And if you’ve got stories to tell about the health care system, the producers would love to hear from you.

To hear all Kaiser Health News podcasts, click here.

And subscribe to “An Arm and a Leg” on iTunesPocket CastsGoogle Play or Spotify.

Even With Senate Control, Democrats Will Need Buy-In From GOP on Key Health Priorities

Democrats have argued for more generous pandemic relief, more pressure on drugmakers to lower prices and more attention to systemic racism in health care. On Jan. 20, with control of the Senate and the House of Representatives, they’ll have the power to choose which health care proposals get a vote in Congress.

The victories of the Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in Georgia last week gave Democrats two more Senate seats and the upper hand in the Senate’s now 50-50 split. After Vice President-elect Kamala Harris takes the oath of office, she will serve as the tiebreaker as needed — in effect, Democrats’ 51st vote.

But that vote count is too small to eliminate the filibuster, meaning Democrats will not have enough votes to pass many of their plans without Republicans. That will likely doom many Democratic health care proposals, like offering Americans a government-sponsored public insurance option, and complicate efforts to pass further pandemic relief.

It remains to be seen how willing lawmakers are to compromise with one another in the aftermath of a pro-Trump mob’s breach of the Capitol on Wednesday. Thursday, Democrats demanded the president’s removal for inciting rioters who disrupted the certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, assaulted Capitol Police officers and damaged federal property. One demonstrator and a police officer were killed, and three demonstrators died of medical emergencies.

Democrats’ slim margins in the Senate and the House — where they can afford to lose only four votes and still pass legislation — will also give individual lawmakers more leverage, handing those who disagree with party leaders an incentive to push their own priorities in exchange for their votes. There will be little room for intraparty disagreements, and Democrats made it clear during the presidential primaries that they disagree about how to achieve their health care goals.

In less than two weeks, Democrats will lead the committees charged with marking up health care legislation and vetting Biden’s health nominees.

The change will hand control of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee to Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who brokered the 2013 agreement with then-House Speaker Paul Ryan that ended a long government shutdown, among other bipartisan deals.

In 2019, Murray and the committee’s Republican chairman, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, introduced a wide-ranging package to lower health costs for consumers. Among its proposals was an initiative to lower prescription drug prices by eliminating loopholes that allow brand-name drugmakers to block competition.

In an interview before Democrats secured the Senate, Murray said her committee work will be focused on the problems that prevent all Americans from receiving equitable, affordable treatment in health care. Racial disparities, evidenced by disproportionate mortality rates among Black mothers and among communities of color suffering the worst impacts of the pandemic, will be a priority, she said.

“Not everybody goes into the doctor and gets the same advice, feels the same comfort level and is believed,” Murray said.

Murray said she will press for senators to consider how any piece of legislation will affect communities of color. “It will be the question I ask about every step we take,” she said.

On Wednesday, she called out Republicans for standing in the way of fighting the pandemic “with policies that would directly help those struggling the most and would help us build back from this crisis stronger and fairer.”

“With a Biden-Harris Administration and a Senate Democratic majority, the challenges we face won’t get any less tough — but we’ve finally got the opportunity to face them head on and start taking action,” Murray said in a statement. “I can’t wait to start getting things done.”

The Senate Finance Committee, which oversees Medicare, Medicaid and health-related tax policies, will be run by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). While the HELP committee will also hold a confirmation hearing for Biden’s nominee for secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Xavier Becerra, it is the Finance Committee that will vote to advance his confirmation.

Senate Republicans signaled they would delay considering Becerra’s nomination before Biden officially announced his name last month. Calling him unqualified due to his lack of a health care background, they questioned his support for a single-payer health care system and opposed his efforts to preserve abortion rights. As California’s attorney general, Becerra led efforts to fight lawsuits brought by Republican state officials against the Affordable Care Act.

But Democrats’ slim edge in the Senate is expected to be enough to drown out Republicans’ objections to the nomination. Last month, praising Becerra’s commitment to responding to the pandemic, protecting health care coverage and addressing racial disparities, Wyden said he looked forward to Becerra’s hearing “so he can get on the job and start helping people during this unprecedented crisis.”

Also, after months of decrying the Trump administration’s failures managing the pandemic, Democrats will control which relief bills get a vote.

Last month’s package did not include their demands for more funding for state and local governments, and House Republicans blocked a Democratic effort to increase stimulus checks to $2,000, from $600.

Democrats have been united in their calls for more assistance, though they have disagreed at times about how to push for it.

In the fall, with the election approaching and no deal in sight, moderate Democrats in tough races pushed for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to abandon negotiations for a $2.2 trillion relief package that Republicans called a nonstarter in favor of passing more modest but desperately needed relief.

“Every member of the leadership team, Democrats and Republicans, have messed up. Everyone is accountable,” Rep. Max Rose (D-N.Y.) told Politico. “Get something done. Get something done!” He lost his bid for reelection.

More progressive voices like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have been a force for more generous aid, particularly larger stimulus checks.

Beyond the pandemic, top Democrats have mentioned drug pricing as another area ripe for action. But one of their most popular proposals, which would authorize the federal government to negotiate drug prices for those on Medicare, is unlikely to attract the Republican votes it would need. When House Democrats passed one such proposal in 2019, Senate Republicans vowed it would never pass.

Members of Democrats’ more progressive wing, for their part, argued the proposal may not go far enough.

After years of Republican efforts to undermine the Affordable Care Act, though, it looks likely that efforts to stabilize the law could gain more traction under a Democratic-controlled Congress. The House passed legislation last summer aimed at increasing coverage and affordability, including by capping insurance costs at no more than 8.5% of income and expanding subsidies.

Lawmakers like Murray and Wyden have been quick to point out that the pandemic’s devastating consequences — lost jobs and lost insurance coverage, to name just a couple — have only underscored the need to strengthen the health care system.