Tagged Courts

Must-Reads Of The Week From Brianna Labuskes

Happy Friday! This week was so busy that I am going to take the unprecedented step and highly recommend you check out our Morning Briefings for the past few days. So many compelling, interesting stories didn’t make the cut for the Breeze, but they’re worth reading.

On to what you may have missed!

Well, this one you probably didn’t miss unless you were in the middle of the woods sans cellphone service: Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed legislation that effectively bans all abortions and criminalizes the procedure. The uproar that followed was immediate and ferocious — especially from 2020 Democrats who all but tripped over each other to denounce it as “shameless” and “outrageous” — but is the bill actually the threat to Roe v. Wade that it so dearly wants to be?

The measure is destined for the courts, certainly, but that doesn’t mean it will make it to SCOTUS. One likely outcome: The justices can simply refuse to take it up, leaving in place the lower courts’ decision (which will probably be that the law is unconstitutional). Chief Justice John Roberts is known for favoring incrementalism over sweeping decisions that would overturn nearly 50 years of precedent on a hot-button social issue.

But you need only four votes to get a case on the docket, which has court-watchers eyeing newbie Justice Brett Kavanaugh. His appointment helped galvanize the anti-abortion movement in the first place, but in the past he’s talked seriously about needing a compelling reason to overturn precedent. So far, he has disagreed with the hard conservatives more than people expected. So, the future for Alabama’s law remains uncertain.

What seems more likely is that the high court will instead look to less extreme, but still restrictive state laws (such as bills dictating the disposal of fetal remains and an 18-hour waiting period after state-mandated ultrasound examinations) that are heading toward them even as we speak.

No matter how it plays out, you can pretty much guarantee this is going to be a Big Deal on the campaign trail.

The New York Times: Alabama Aims Squarely at Roe, but the Supreme Court May Prefer Glancing Blows

The Associated Press: Alabama Law Moves Abortion to the Center of 2020 Campaign

The Wall Street Journal: States’ Abortion Curbs Put Supreme Court to the Test

A smattering of the other (dozens and dozens) of thoughtful stories from the past few days:

• What is it like living in a liberal city in the Deep South during times like this?

The New York Times: Abortion and the Future of the New South

• Missouri wants in on the action this week.

KCUR: How Missouri’s Senate Passed a Restrictive Abortion Bill Overnight

• A vote in deep-blue (and very Catholic) Rhode Island was overshadowed by Alabama’s news, but it highlights how nuanced and complicated the issue can be.

Boston Globe: In Rhode Island, Vote on Abortion-Rights Bill Reveals a Complicated State

• A lot of Senate Republicans are trying their best to nope out of this conversation, like “no thank you, not touching that with a 10-foot pole.”

The Hill: Senate Republicans Running Away From Alabama Abortion Law

• And a really handy look at what’s going on at the state level.

The Washington Post: The Widening Gap in Abortion Laws in This Country


House Democrats took advantage of their newfound power by tying a vote on reining in high drug prices to legislation shoring up the health law. The bill is destined to die, of course, but the move forced their Republican colleagues to go on record voting against something that voters care very, very deeply about.

The New York Times: House Passes Legislation Aiming to Shore Up Health Law and Lower Drug Costs

They also foreshadowed a potential subpoena with letters to Attorney General William Barr. Five powerful committee chairmen said that they’ve been asking since April 8 for documents connected to the Justice Department’s decision to stop defending the health law but haven’t received a sufficient response. They’re giving DOJ two more weeks before they consider “alternative means of obtaining compliance.”

Politico: Dems Tee Up New Document Fight With DOJ Over Obamacare

Meanwhile, a new Sunlight Foundation report found that the Trump administration has been systematically altering and eliminating information on the health law that’s on government websites.

Wired: The Trump Admin Is Scrubbing Obamacare From Government Sites


Surprise medical billing is truly the darling of Capitol Hill recently with all the attention it’s getting. Multiple variations of bipartisan duos and groups are working on introducing legislation to combat the issue. The most recent bill unveiled would protect patients from the surprise costs, and let an outside arbitrator settle any disputes between hospitals and insurers. Other proposals have instead favored a rate-setting method to solve payment issues.

The Hill: Bipartisan Senators Unveil Measure to End Surprise Medical Bills

The Hill: Dem House Chairman, Top Republican Release Measure to End Surprise Medical Bills


Attorneys general from 44 states have filed suit against pharma companies over allegations that “the generic drug industry perpetrated a multibillion-dollar fraud on the American people.” The lawsuit implicates 20 pharma firms following an investigation into allegations that the companies sought not only to maintain their “fair share” of the generic drug market through agreements with one another but also to “significantly raise prices on as many drugs as possible.”

The Associated Press: States Bring Price Fixing Suit Against Generic Drug Makers


Washington state took a big step this week in approving the creation of a public option — which would essentially look like a state-sponsored health plan. But now comes the hard part: making it work.

And don’t call it a game changer quite yet, experts say. Even sponsors of the legislation acknowledge the state plans may save consumers only 5-10% on their premiums. Still, the rollout will likely be watched closely as the progressive universal health care push grows stronger.

Politico: 5 Key Questions About the Country’s First Public Option

NPR: Washington State to Create ‘Public Option’ Health Care Plans

(If you feel like you need a refresher on all these terms — join the crowd, amiright? this one from NYT’s Margot Sanger-Katz is great.)


Rural hospitals, which sometimes fight literally hour by hour to afford to stay open, are in a crisis in this country, as evidenced by two amazing pieces this week on what happens to a town when one dies.

“If we aren’t open, where do these people go?” asked one hospital worker in The Washington Post’s coverage.

“They’ll go to the cemetery,” another employee answered. “If we’re not here, these people don’t have time. They’ll die along with this hospital.”

The Washington Post: ‘Who’s Going to Take Care of These People?’

Kaiser Health News: Dealing With Hospital Closure, Pioneer Kansas Town Asks: What Comes Next?

But I found a flicker of hope in a lovely story about how a one-room clinic in North Carolina just marked its 100th year.

North Carolina Health News: One Hundred Years in a Rural Clinic


Think this measles outbreak is big? (It is, by the way!) How about the one in 1990, which had more than 27,000 cases? In the past few months, I’ve read and written about the record 963 cases from 1994 more times than you can count but had no idea that just four years earlier it was that much higher. If you’re as intrigued as I was about how that changed, dive into NPR’s historical look at what exactly was going on at the time, and how public officials made so much progress so quickly.

NPR: How a Measles Outbreak Was Halted in the 1990s


In the miscellaneous file for the week:

• There’s a pretty serious debate going on right now about fair distribution of donated livers. A new rule that went into effect this week and then was immediately blocked by a judge would give the organ to the sickest patient within 500 nautical miles. But advocates in the Midwest and South say that’s unfair.

The Washington Post: Liver Transplant Rules Spark Open Conflict Among Transplant Centers

• The U.S. birth rate has fallen again to the lowest in three decades. Some say that means the sky is falling; others are unconcerned.

The Associated Press: US Births Lowest in 3 Decades Despite Improving Economy

• Despite there being thousands of children in the country with a terminal diagnosis, only three hospice facilities in the U.S. are designed specifically for them.

The New York Times: Where Should a Child Die? Hospice Homes Help Families With the Unimaginable

• Can we learn about trauma from an island of monkeys that was devastated by Hurricane Maria?

The New York Times: Primal Fear: Can Monkeys Help Unlock the Secrets of Trauma?

• Many of our gun safety discussions focus on buying the weapons, but teaching about proper storage can make a bigger difference than you’d necessarily expect.

The New York Times: The Potentially Lifesaving Difference in How a Gun Is Stored


Whew! You made it both through this hefty Breeze and the week itself. Take it easy this weekend as a reward!

‘Sham’ Sharing Ministries Test Faith Of Patients And Insurance Regulators

Sheri Lewis, 59, of Seattle, needed a hip transplant. Bradley Fuller, 63, of nearby Kirkland, needed chemotherapy and radiation when the pain in his jaw turned out to be throat cancer. And Kim Bruzas, 55, of Waitsburg, hundreds of miles away, needed emergency care to stop sudden —and severe — rectal bleeding.

Each of these Washington state residents required medical treatment during the past few years, and each thought they had purchased health insurance through an online site.

But when it was time to pay the bills, they learned that the products they bought through Aliera Healthcare Inc. weren’t insurance at all — and that the cost of their care wasn’t covered.

Lewis and the others had enrolled in what Aliera officials claimed was a health care sharing ministry (HCSM) — faith-based co-ops in which members agree to pay one another’s medical bills.

But Washington insurance officials this week said the firm doesn’t meet the definition of a sharing ministry and described Aliera’s products as a “sham” aimed at misleading consumers. Other states, including Texas and New Hampshire, are poised to take similar action.

Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler on Monday ordered Aliera, which operates Trinity Healthshare Inc., both of Delaware, to halt operations in Washington, alleging the firm was selling health insurance illegally and engaging in deceptive business practices.

Aliera falsely represented itself as a sharing ministry, which would be exempt from insurance regulations, an investigation found. Though he wouldn’t name them, Kreidler said he’s investigating two additional firms over similar concerns.

“They don’t have the direct affiliation with a particular religious group, a church, a pastor,” Kreidler said. “These appear to be ones that come in with an opportunity here to make money.”

In a statement, Aliera officials disputed Kreidler’s conclusions. The company has 90 days to request a hearing.

“Aliera has never misled consumer and sales agents about its health plans,” the statement said. “For example, our website, marketing materials and other communications clearly state that Trinity’s health sharing products are not insurance. Most importantly, they have never been represented as insurance.”

The Washington order followed complaints from nearly two dozen people, including Lewis, a dance teacher who was told her planned hip surgery wouldn’t be covered.

Across the U.S., several state insurance regulators report similar concerns.

Texas insurance officials have scheduled a hearing to consider a similar order against Aliera, which has 100,000 members nationwide and reported revenue of $180 million in 2018, documents showed.

New Hampshire insurance officials on Tuesday warned consumers about Aliera, saying they were concerned about “potential fraudulent or criminal activity.” Officials in at least five other states told Kaiser Health News they are reviewing firms operating as “illegitimate” health care sharing ministries.

Aliera is operated by Shelley Steele of Marietta, Ga., and her husband, Timothy Moses, who was convicted in 2006 of federal securities fraud and perjury. He was sentenced to 6½ years in prison and ordered to repay more than $1 million to victims.

Nationwide, nearly 1 million people are enrolled in more than 100 sharing ministries in at least 29 states, according to the Alliance of Health Care Sharing Ministries. But that’s just an estimate, said James Lansberry, executive vice president of Samaritan Ministries International of Peoria, Ill. No comprehensive data is available.

“We try to track what’s going on out there,” Lansberry said. “Anyone claiming to be a health care sharing ministry could spill over onto our reputation.”

Samaritan is among what have been the three top players in the sharing ministries field. The oldest, founded in 1993, is the Medi-Share program of Melbourne, Fla., operated by Christian Care Ministry. The third is Christian Healthcare Ministries of Barberton, Ohio. All are explicitly religious and emphasize faith as the basis for members to share medical burdens.

Those groups originally were certified by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and required to meet specific criteria. Consumers who enrolled were shielded from the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate that required they show proof of insurance or pay a fine.

But CMS no longer certifies HCSMs and, since Congress zeroed out the mandate’s penalty in 2017, a new crop of companies, including Aliera, has sprung up. That worries some of the traditional ministries.

“HCSMs must operate with integrity, transparency, full compliance with the law, and enforcement of the law,” officials with Medi-Share, which has 415,000 members nationwide, said in a statement. “Anything outside of that violates the true spirit of the HCSM community.”

Washington investigators found that Aliera’s marketing materials rarely mention religious or ethical motivations, and they don’t meet government requirements.

Many of these entities mimic the marketing, structure and language of ACA-compliant health insurance plans — but offer none of the protections, said JoAnn Volk and Justin Giovannelli, researchers at the Georgetown University Center on Health Insurance Reforms, who wrote about the issue last summer.

“The way they advertise and the services they are providing, it sounds a heck of a lot like health insurance,” Giovannelli said. “They’re letting folks believe they have a product that has a promise to pay.”

Sheri Lewis teaches a body-rolling class at Balance Physical Therapy in Issaquah, Wash. Lewis, who was enrolled in a health care sharing ministry, found out that the hip transplant she desperately needed was not covered. She got the procedure in Tijuana, Mexico, with the help of a GoFundMe account.(Dan DeLong for KHN)

That’s exactly what Lewis thought.

“It looked like Aliera was health insurance to me,” she said.

When Aliera denied her surgery, she had to resort to a GoFundMe site organized by friends to raise nearly $13,000 and then travel to Tijuana, Mexico, to get a hip transplant she could afford.

Fuller, who was diagnosed with throat cancer, said he was stuck with $81,000 in bills for his first month of treatment.

“They started checking my insurance and it didn’t cover nothing,” said the retired commercial electrician.

Fuller, his voice still raspy after radiation, said he had insurance through his union for years, but when the premiums spiked, he went online to find something else.

The person he talked to from Aliera said he could get insurance, no problem, Fuller said. The premium would be $350 a month, rather than the $1,300 fee for a gold plan on the state insurance exchange. “And that was with dental, too,” he added.

Low premiums also attracted Bruzas, who left her well-paid government job in Tacoma, and the insurance it provided, after her husband died in 2015. She moved to a small town in southeastern Washington to care for her parents and went online to find health insurance.

“I just sat down and Googled ‘Obamacare,’” she said. “I got a call back from a lady who said she could help me find coverage.” Bruzas was charged $219 for the first month.

Four days later, she was in the local emergency room with massive rectal bleeding. As she was discharged, hospital officials said they had “never heard of Aliera Healthcare,” she said.

The $10,000 bill was not covered. Bruzas, who works part time at a hardware store, filed for charity care and the debt was reduced to $6,500. She is paying it off slowly, $50 each month.

The Washington patients recalled mentions of “sharing” and vague references to spirituality. But none realized they were signing up for a religious cost-sharing ministry, they said.

“I would have hung up the phone if she would have said, ‘We’re a group, and we’ll review your records and pray for you,’” Bruzas said.

Aliera officials said they make the nature of their products clear.

“Aliera disagrees that Trinity’s inclusive and specific statement of beliefs misleads consumers or violates the applicable regulations governing healthcare sharing ministries,” the statement said.

It’s not clear how states can curb the new sharing ministries. If Aliera ignores his order, Kreidler said, he’ll seek a court injunction to force the groups to cease operations. But several states contacted by KHN said that because the ministries are not health insurance, state insurance officials don’t review or regulate them.

Some users of sharing ministries say the lower-priced products should be available for consumers who understand and accept the risks involved.

But consumers need to pay close attention to details when they sign up for any health plans, said Colorado Insurance Commissioner Michael Conway, who is investigating sharing ministries operating in his state.

“Ask if it’s actually insurance,” he advised. “Ask if there’s a guarantee of coverage. Get into the policy documents. Read the contract they’re agreeing to.”

Trump’s Talk On Preexisting Conditions Doesn’t Match His Administration’s Actions

Delivering remarks on surprise medical billing, which is a concern that has drawn bipartisan interest, President Donald Trump waded into another high-profile health issue: making sure insurance protects people who have preexisting health conditions.

“We will always protect patients with preexisting conditions, very importantly,” Trump said on May 9.

It’s natural Trump would want to make this claim.

Polling from the Kaiser Family Foundation suggests that such protections, which prohibit individual insurance plans from charging people more based on their medical history, are a top priority for Americans and among the most popular provisions of the Affordable Care Act. (KHN is an editorially independent program of the foundation.)

With that context, we decided to put a microscope to the president’s claim.

We asked White House staff to point us to the policies or proposals on which Trump’s statement was based. They declined to provide specifics but reiterated the president’s assertion.

Texas V. Azar, And A Health Policy Vacuum

Interviews with four separate experts, though, suggested that the administration’s stance on a pending lawsuit that seeks to overturn the Affordable Care Act runs counter to Trump’s claim.

The case, known as Texas v. Azar, comes from a group of Republican attorneys general who argue that the entire health law should be struck because the 2017 tax bill gutted Obamacare’s requirement to have insurance, often called the individual mandate. In December, a Texas judge agreed.

The case is now before the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. And, most relevant here, the Department of Justice — that is, the Trump administration’s legal arm — has refused to defend the ACA in these proceedings.

It’s highly unusual for an administration to decline to defend a federal law in court.

“This is a case when the department can make strong arguments in defense of the statute. Refusing to defend in those circumstances is almost unprecedented,” said Nicholas Bagley, a law professor at the University of Michigan.

Initially, the Trump administration’s position on the lawsuit focused on the individual mandate, arguing that without it the ACA’s preexisting condition protections should be struck down, too. In filing a brief to the appellate court, though, the DOJ joined the plaintiffs to argue the law should be scrapped entirely. This outcome would also eliminate the law’s protections for people with preexisting health conditions.

In that context, “there is real cause for skepticism” about Trump’s assertion, said Wendy Netter Epstein, a law professor at DePaul University.

The most generous assessment came from Jonathan Adler, a health law expert at Case Western Reserve University. Adler has supported previous Obamacare challenges, but he argued that this one is legally unsound.

He agreed that the White House’s actual actions are “at odds with the president’s promise.”

But, Adler said, the structure of Trump’s claim — promising what his administration “will” do, rather than commenting on what it has done — leaves open the possibility of taking other steps to keep preexisting condition protections in place.

That’s true, other experts acknowledged. So far, the White House has postponed a legislative push until after the 2020 election — leaving a vacuum if the courts do wipe out the health law.

And, the GOP bills the White House has supported to date — including the so-called Graham-Cassidy legislation first proposed in 2017, which the administration again endorsed in its 2019 budget proposal — would fall short, multiple experts said.

Unlike the ACA, Graham-Cassidy allows states to redefine which core benefits — a list that includes protections for people with health problems — insurance plans must cover, which would make those specific protections optional. (For more on Graham-Cassidy, here’s another PolitiFact check from last fall.)

Plus, experts said, even if the White House had a plan, the odds of it gaining passage are slim with a divided Congress.

That makes safeguarding the ACA in court “the only show in town” if the administration is serious about protecting consumers who have preexisting conditions, Bagley said.

There’s one loophole that conservatives — the White House included — might lean on, suggested Sabrina Corlette, a professor at Georgetown University’s Health Policy Institute. It relies on what people mean when they talk about “protections.”

Some experts also point out that the administration has issued regulations that run contrary to Trump’s claim. In particular, it recently issued a rule loosening restrictions on the length of so-called short-term health plans, which supporters said would bring a more affordable option to the individual insurance market. But these plans, which, because of the rule change, can last a year instead of three months, are considered bare-bones and are not required to provide preexisting condition protections.

Our Ruling

Trump said his administration will “always protect patients with preexisting conditions.”

But the White House’s policy trajectory does exactly the opposite. The DOJ’s stance, which reflects a policy in place at the same moment the president made this claim, would eliminate the only law guaranteeing that people with preexisting conditions both receive health coverage and do not have to pay more for it.

And on the regulatory front, the administration has advanced a health insurance option that is not required to include these protections.

Furthermore, the administration has not put forth any plan that might keep those guarantees in place. Every replacement health bill it has endorsed has offered protections less generous than those offered by the ACA. And it has taken further steps that could make it harder for people with preexisting conditions to get affordable coverage.

This statement is not accurate and makes a claim in direct opposition to what’s actually happening. We rate it False.

Purdue Continued Pitching OxyContin Despite Concerns Raised By Sales Reps, New Suit From Pennsylvania Alleges

The suit says Purdue drug representatives have made 531,000 detailing calls on doctors in the state since 2007, when the company settled with Pennsylvania and 25 other states agreeing to stop identifying illegal diversion of its OxyContin and to promote it only for federally approved uses. The company is facing a barrage of legal challenges from local counties, states and other parties eager to hold it accountable for the role it played in the opioid epidemic.

Supreme Court Grants Whistleblowers More Time To Bring Cases Against Health Care Companies

Up until now due to different circuit court interpretations the False Claim Act statute of limitations has varied across the country in cases where the federal government has not intervened. The justices said whistleblowers are not considered to be U.S. officials and are not limited by the original six-year statute of limitations that starts at the time of the alleged violation. The Supreme Court justices also released unusual explanatory statements about their death penalty decisions.

House Democrats Foreshadow Possible Subpoena With Letters To Barr About DOJ’s Decision Not To Defend Health Law

In letters to Attorney General William Barr and White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, five House chairmen say they’ve been asking since April 8 for documents connected to the decision to stop defending the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, as well as testimony from four key officials involved in the effort.

Jury Awards Couple $2 Billion In Damages In Third Verdict Linking Roundup Weed Killer To Plaintiffs’ Cancer

The couple, Alva and Alberta Pilliod, used Roundup on their Northern California property for decades. They both have been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The trial unfolded much like the earlier two, with sparring over scientific studies, the credibility of expert witnesses and the relative importance of a WHO decision that glyphosate, the primary ingredient in Roundup, is likely carcinogenic to humans. The EPA’s officials stance on the product is that it’s safe.

Opioid Litigation Divides Sackler Family Over How To Respond To Charges It Bears Responsibility For Deadly Epidemic

As communities seek billions in settlements, the family that owns OxyContin-maker Purdue Pharma is reportedly growing uneasy about defense tactics and charges of misleading marketing. Other news on the drug epidemic looks at a new CDC report on cocaine and meth deaths and unethical practices by a Delaware physician.

Untangling The Inflammatory Rhetoric Around Abortion Bills In Georgia, Alabama

The abortion bills are not simple, especially Georgia’s, which experts say sends you “down a rabbit hole” and that you “have to be a lawyer to understand.” But fear and confusion over the measures has distorted some of the facts of the bills. Meanwhile, the legislation is part of a wave a similar restrictive measures under consideration throughout the south and Midwest.

44 States Sue Pharma Companies Over Alleged Conspiracy To Inflate Generic Drug Prices By As Much As 1,000%

In court documents, the state prosecutors lay out a brazen price-fixing scheme involving more than a dozen generic drug companies, including Teva, Pfizer, Novartis and Mylan. A key element of the scheme was an agreement among competitors to cooperate on pricing so each company could maintain a “fair share” of the generic drug markets, the complaint alleges.

Must-Reads Of The Week From Brianna Labuskes

Happy Friday! As if those sky-high medical bills weren’t bad enough, apparently California teachers also must pay substitutes to cover for them — even while undergoing treatment for breast cancer.

Which is the perfect segue into what you may have missed this week (almost like I planned it).

President Donald Trump waded into the turf wars among doctors, hospitals and insurers Thursday when he called for an end to surprise medical bills. The issue has been gaining attention across the country as stories about $48,512 cat bites and $109,000 heart attacks resonate with voters who are sick of paying an arm, a leg and a mortgage for health care even when they have insurance.

It’s not exactly a controversial issue — it’s listed as a top concern among voters, and lawmakers are lining up in droves to sign their names to any potential legislation. But, as is often the case with health care costs, the devil’s in the details. The costs don’t just disappear because the president doesn’t want patients to have to pay them. Physician groups tend to favor arbitration, while insurers argue that method is flawed because it still relies on bill charges. Instead, the industry wants set prices, with rates in line with what they would consider reasonable for the procedures. Each side hates the other’s opinion. So … good luck to the lawmakers who have to balance those two big interest groups!

The New York Times: Trump Said He Wanted to Work With Democrats on Surprise Medical Bills. Then He Attacked Democrats.

(FWIW: Two stories of the patients who were featured at the White House event were previously highlighted in KHN and NPR’s “Bill of the Month” series. Check them out here.)


Kicking off a veritable blitz of bills, House Democrats voted on legislation that would ban the Trump administration from granting states waivers for health law regulations. Over the next couple of weeks, Dems are expected to go hard on their campaign promises to shore up the bruised and battered health law. Some of the topics of those bills: short-term “junk insurance” plans, outreach funding, “reinsurance” payments, drug rebates and more.

The New York Times: With Insurance Bill Passage, House Democrats Begin Health Care Blitz

Speaking of waivers, Tennessee is set to ask for one to shift its Medicaid program into a block grant model. Block grants — aka Republicans’ longtime dream system — as an idea have a long history riddled with controversy and criticism, and the request, if granted, is all but certain to draw a court challenge. Now the question is: How far is CMS ready to go in pushing the envelope on Medicaid changes? Especially when other waivers are getting knocked down left and right in court?

Modern Healthcare: Tennessee Will Test CMS’ Willingness to Block-Grant Medicaid

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is proposing a change to the formula to calculate poverty. That may seem fairly dry, but since government assistance (like Medicaid and food stamps) is tied to that line, millions could lose health care coverage and/or have to go hungry.

The New York Times: Trump Administration Seeks to Redefine Formula for Calculating Poverty


Pharma companies are going to start to have to include list prices in their TV ads under a new rule that’s central to the Trump administration’s war on high drug costs. While most people think, in general, it’s a good step, many doubt it will accomplish much. It’s not as if sick consumers can then go negotiate a different price, as they would with cars.

As Ben Wakana, the executive director of Patients for Affordable Drug Prices, told NPR: “Drug companies have been shamed about their price increases for years. They appear to be completely comfortable with the shame as long as it is bringing them in the billions of dollars a year that they make from their outrageous prices.”

NPR: New Rule for Drugmakers: Disclose Drugs’ List Prices in TV Ads

Drug prices were a hot topic this week (and most weeks, amiright?), with the Senate Finance Committee holding a hearing on the idea of setting an international price index. Other countries set lower prices and “we look like chumps,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.).

Modern Healthcare: GOP Senators Warn Drug Price Controls Could Come

And, yup, there’s still more news: Despite HHS Secretary Alex Azar’s concerns about safety, Trump backed Florida’s plan to import drugs from other countries. The kicker here: Florida will surely be a battleground state in the 2020 election, and drug prices routinely top voters’ list of concerns. The potential for a winning talking point is huge.

The Associated Press: Trump Backs Fla. Plan to Import Lower-Cost Meds From Abroad


In somewhat tangential news, Gilead announced it will donate its drug that reduces the risk of HIV transmission for up to 200,000 people a year. The price of the life-changing medication has long been a barrier to the goal of ending HIV transmissions, and many advocates were thrilled with the decision. Still, others were disappointed, saying that will cover only a fifth of what the country needs.

The Associated Press: Drugmaker Will Donate Meds for US Push to End HIV Epidemic

But everyone was cheering a new study out of Europe. Out of nearly 1,000 gay male couples where one partner had HIV and was taking antiretroviral drugs, there were zero cases of HIV transmission even without the use of condoms.

Reuters: AIDS Drugs Prevent Sexual Transmission of HIV in Gay Men


Fed up with the strategy to slowly chip away at abortion rights, Alabama lawmakers are poised to go all in. The legislation (which was almost up for a vote this week, but was delayed because of a ruckus over rape and incest amendments) would effectively ban all abortions and criminalize the act of performing the procedure. The supporters of the bill aren’t being coy at all about their intention: They want to challenge Roe v. Wade with a simple, “clean bill” on the legality of abortions.

The New York Times: As States Race to Limit Abortions, Alabama Goes Further, Seeking to Outlaw Most of Them

And over in Georgia, abortion rights advocates have one message to Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who just signed a heartbeat bill: “We will see you, sir, in court.”

The Associated Press: Opponents of Georgia Abortion Ban Promise Court Challenge


On a sad note: Legendary New York Times reporter Robert Pear passed away this week from complications of a stroke. Although I did not have the pleasure of meeting or working with him, his byline became a familiar friend of mine. He has shaped my world for the past several years with the stories he continuously broke. It is a loss for journalism, for health care and for the people he helped through the light he shined on Washington.

His last story is a perfect example of that: looking at legislation that carried promises of helping people with preexisting conditions but failed to live up to them.

The New York Times: Robert Pear, Who Covered Washington for 45 Years, Dies at 69

The New York Times: Republicans Offer Health Care Bills to Protect Patients (and Themselves)


In the miscellaneous files of the week:

• Traditionally, HHS has received, on average, one complaint related to “conscience” violations from health care workers per year. Last year, that rose to 343. What on earth happened? (Hint: It does not mean the problem actually worsened.)

NPR: Why Are Health Care Workers’ Religious and Moral Conscience Complaints Rising?

• It might seem like the anti-vaccination movement is a new phenomenon spurred on by social media, but there’s a long history of resistance in the country. And it’s not as random as it might appear at first. Usually, it’s tied to time periods that are marked by great resentment toward government.

Los Angeles Times: Why the Measles Outbreak Has Roots in Today’s Political Polarization

• Stories about student heroes stopping mass shooters and dying in the process highlight just how grim our reality has become as young people find themselves thrust into violence.

The New York Times: Colorado School Shooting Victim Died Trying to Stop the Gunman

• Not only is the United States’ maternal mortality rate abysmal, a new study finds that many of those deaths — 60%! — are preventable. What’s more, African American and American Indian/Alaska Native women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy and childbirth than white women.

USA Today: Pregnancy and Childbirth Deaths Are Largely Preventable, CDC Says

• Beneath the bright, tantalizing promises of the stem cell industry (targeted at the most desperate patients) festers a dark underbelly of greed and profit.

ProPublica: The Birth-Tissue Profiteers


Have a great weekend, and remember, as National Nurses Week wraps up, to hug (or otherwise appropriately thank) the nurses in your life. Their job can be quite tough.

Podcast: KHN’s ‘What The Health?’ ‘Conscience’ Rules, Rx Prices and Still More Medicare


Can’t see the audio player? Click here to listen on SoundCloud.


In a new set of rules, the Trump administration wants to let not just doctors but almost any health care worker or organization decline to provide, participate in or refer patients for any health service that violates their conscience or religion.

Also this week, the Trump administration is ordering prescription drugmakers to include list prices in their television ads for nearly all products.

And there’s yet another entry in the growing group of bills aimed at overhauling the nation’s health system. This one is “Medicare for America.”

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of Kaiser Health News, Joanne Kenen of Politico, Jen Haberkorn of the Los Angeles Times and Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico.

Also, Rovner interviews Joan Biskupic, author of “The Chief: The Life and Turbulent Times of Chief Justice John Roberts.” Biskupic talks about the behind-the-scenes negotiations that led to the 2012 decision upholding the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act.

Among the takeaways from this week’s podcast:

  • Robert Pear, who died this week, was the dean of health policy reporters and will be remembered not just for the many front-page stories he produced for The New York Times, but also as a generous and kind colleague who helped mentor many reporters new to the beat.
  • The Trump administration’s announcement last week of new regulations to protect health care workers from having to do anything they believe violates their religious beliefs is a stronger policy than past Republicans have adopted. But it follows other efforts to expand past conservative policies, such as the current administration’s more stringent Title X family planning rules.
  • The administration’s new rule requiring drugmakers to add list prices to their TV ads could confuse some consumers, since few of them actually pay that price. Their insurers often negotiate better prices, and other factors, such as geography and type of pharmacy, affect the consumer’s bottom line.
  • President Donald Trump this week told Health and Human Services officials to work with Florida on its plan to import drugs from Canada to take advantage of lower prices there. HHS Secretary Alex Azar said he would see if it can be done without jeopardizing the safety of the drugs. That is the rub that his predecessors have used to stop importation efforts, dating to the 1990s.
  • The increasing interest in Democratic proposals such as “Medicare for All,” which would set up a government-run health care system, and “Medicare for America,” which would offer a government-run option for consumers and businesses, suggests that a public option is not the political hot potato it was during the debate setting up the ACA. It’s also not clear whether consumers are ready to give up their current insurance.
  • Tennessee is getting ready to ask federal officials for a major change in its Medicaid system. The state wants to switch to a block grant, in which its federal funding would be limited but would come with much more flexibility for spending. The proposal is likely to end up in court because advocates for the poor argue the change would cut off services to some people and would violate laws that have defined Medicaid.

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

Julie Rovner: CNBC’s “Insiders Describe Aggressive Growth Tactics at uBiome, the Health Start-Up Raided by the FBI Last Week,” by Christina Farr, and “Health Tech Start-Up uBiome Suspends Clinical Operations Following FBI Raid,” by Christina Farr and Angelica LaVito

Joanne Kenen: ProPublica and the New Yorker’s “The Birth-Tissue Profiteers,” by Caroline Chen

Jen Haberkorn: The Los Angeles Times’ “Health Insurance Deductibles Soar, Leaving Americans With Unaffordable Bills,” by Noam N. Levey

Alice Miranda Ollstein: Bloomberg News’ “Trump May Redefine Poverty, Cutting Americans From Welfare Rolls,” by Justin Sink

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In Upcoming Opioid Case, Lawyers Want To Expose Darker Underbelly Of Johnson & Johnson’s Family-Friendly Image

The upcoming trial will be the first in the United States to result from about 2,000 lawsuits seeking to hold painkiller manufacturers responsible for contributing to the opioid epidemic. In the trial that will be televised live, Oklahoma state lawyers will argue that, until 2016, two of the company’s subsidiaries grew, improved and provided the narcotic ingredients for much of the U.S. prescription opioid supply, failing to intervene as the drugs’ damage grew, and that it targeted children with its marketing. In other news on the drug crisis: jails and addiction medication, nurses’ authority, overdose deaths and more.