Tagged Drug Costs

‘Medicare For All’ Emerges As Early Divide In First Democratic Debate

During Wednesday night’s Democratic presidential primary debate — the first in a two-night event viewed as the de facto launch of the primary season — health policies,  ranging from “Medicare for All” to efforts to curb skyrocketing drug prices, were among the key issues the 10 hopeful candidates onstage used to help differentiate themselves from the pack.

Health care dominated early, with Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Cory Booker (N.J.) using questions about the economy to take aim at pharmaceutical and insurance companies. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) emphasized the difficulties many Americans face in paying premiums.

But the candidates broke ranks on the details and not all of their claims stayed strictly within the lines.

Only two candidates — New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio and Warren — raised their hands in favor of banishing private insurance in favor a government-sponsored Medicare for All approach.

Klobuchar, a single-payer skeptic, expressed concern about “kicking off half of America off their health insurance in four years.” (That’s correct: In 2017, a majority of Americans had private coverage, with 49% getting that insurance through work, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.)

Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who also supports maintaining a private insurance system, outlined his own universal health care plan, based on a so-called “Medicare for America” bill in Congress.

The single-payer talk set off other discussion about the role of health insurance and the cost of care. We fact-checked some of the biggest claims.

Warren: “The insurance companies last year alone sucked $23 billion in profits out of the health care system. $23 billion. And that doesn’t count the money that was paid to executives, the money that was spent lobbying Washington.”

We contacted Warren’s campaign, who directed us to a report from the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, a nonpartisan group of industry regulators. It supports her assessment.

The report says that in 2018, health insurers posted $23.4 billion in net earnings, or profits, compared with $16.1 billion a year prior.

This came up in the context of Warren’s support for eliminating private insurance under a Medicare for All system. However, the financing and price tag of such a system is unclear.

Booker: “The overhead for insurers that they charge is 15%, while Medicare’s overhead is only at 2%.”

This is a flawed comparison. Booker said administrative overhead eats up much more for private carriers than it does for Medicare, the government insurance program for seniors and the disabled. But Medicare piggybacks off the Social Security Administration, which covers costs of enrollment, payments and keeping track of patients.

Also, Medicare relies on private providers for some of its programs, and overhead charges there are higher. Medicare’s overhead is less than that of private carriers, but exact figures are elusive.

The insurance companies’ trade group, America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), reported in 2018 that 18.1% of private health care premiums went to non-health care services. That includes taxes of 4.7% and profits of 2.3%. The Medicare trustees reported that in 2018, total expenses were $740.6 billion, with administrative expenses of $9.9 billion. That comes to 1.3%, less than Booker said.

Warren: “I spent a big chunk of my life studying why families go broke, and one of the number one reasons is the cost of health care, medical bills. And that’s not just for people who don’t have insurance. It’s for people who have insurance.”

Is the No. 1 reason people go broke the cost of health care? We’ve rated similar statements  Half True — partially accurate but lacking important context.

A 2005 study Warren co-authored and a 2009 paper both found that health care expenses were a leading cause of personal bankruptcy. But these claims have come under dispute, in particular from academics who suggest that people may overstate the role medical bills play in their financial problems. Other research suggests a far narrower impact, though that in turn has been criticized for focusing only on adult hospitalizations.

That said, research from the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau found that medical bills are a leading cause of personal debt — in 2014, the CFPB found that nearly 20% of credit reports included a medical debt tradeline.

But Rep.Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii) drew on examples of universal health coverage in other countries to explain why she still supported some private insurance options.

Gabbard: “If you look at other countries in the world who have universal health care, every one of them has some form of a role of private insurance.”

This is correct. Virtually every country with universal health care includes a role for private insurance. Some allow it to cover services not addressed by the national plan. Others allow it as a means to get care faster. Others heavily regulate it as a principal source of coverage.

For instance, Canada, the model for the principal Medicare For All bill, allows private insurance to address prescription drug coverage, private rooms in hospitals and vision and dental care. (It is not allowed to compete with the government plan.) In England, about 10% of people — mostly wealthier people — elect for private coverage, which can yield faster access to care. Countries such as the Netherlands and Switzerland heavily regulate private coverage.

Beyond Medicare for All, candidates also touched on strategies to bring down drug prices as well as other issues.

Klobuchar: “2,500 drug prices have gone up in double digits since (Donald Trump) took office.”

This is accurate, according to according to a report from Pharmacy Benefits Consultants, an industry group, which listed a number of pharmaceutical products experiencing price increases as high as 1,468% .

And the numbers are even less flattering than Klobuchar would suggest.

An analysis by the Associated Press found that, between January and July 2018, more than 4,400 branded prescription drugs experienced price increases. Meanwhile, data compiled by Rx Savings Solutions found that the list price of more than 3,000 drugs went up this year.

O’Rourke: “In Texas, the single largest provider of mental health care is the county jail system.”

This is correct.

Texas jails are the largest mental health care systems in the state, according to a report from the University of Texas at Austin. The Harris County jail, which includes a 108-bed unit, identifies itself as the largest mental health care facility in Texas.

This is not a Texas-specific issue. According to a 2011 NPR report, it is more common to see Americans getting mental health care in jails and prisons than hospitals or other dedicated treatment facilities.

Election day is 496 days away.

‘An Arm And A Leg’: Why Are Drug Prices So Random? Meet Mr. PBM


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Surely, an old-time, generic drug can’t cost $720 — for a three-month supply?

After a close call with an outrageous Rx tab, host Dan Weissmann tackles the health care cost puzzle he’s been avoiding: figuring out prescription drug prices.

Here’s what he found: Your insurance company is probably in cahoots with a pharmacy benefit manager — and the negotiations that go on between them are trade secrets. No wonder it’s so hard to know what you’ll pay at the drugstore counter!

On Episode 4 of “An Arm and a Leg,” meet the behind-the-scenes negotiator that helps decide how much you pay at the pharmacy counter.


Season 2 is a co-production of Kaiser Health News and Public Road Productions.

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The Values Of Health Care

Julie Rovner, the chief Washington correspondent for Kaiser Health News, joins Margot Sanger-Katz of The New York Times, Joanne Kenen of Politico and Alan Weil of Health Affairs at the Aspen IdeasHealth festival to discuss the politics surrounding the national debate on health care. The panel explores the failed effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, the strong support for coverage guarantees for people with preexisting conditions and for the expansion of Medicaid, and efforts among progressives to move to a “Medicare for All” system. The discussion is available here.

KHN’s ‘What The Health’: Politics Heading Into 2020: Live From Aspen!


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The cost of health care looms as a major issue going into the 2020 campaign. But even as Democratic presidential candidates debate ways to bring down prices and expand insurance to more Americans, Democrats and Republicans in Congress are trying to pass legislation to address the price of prescription drugs and put an end to “surprise” out-of-network medical bills.

Chris Jennings and Lanhee Chen know about both. Jennings, president of Jennings Policy Strategies, has been a health adviser to Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Lanhee Chen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a director in the public policy program at Stanford University. He has advised Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Marco Rubio and others.

This week’s panelists for KHN’s “What the Health?” — recorded at the Aspen Ideas: Health festival — are Julie Rovner of Kaiser Health News, Joanne Kenen of Politico and Margot Sanger-Katz of The New York Times.

Among the takeaways from this week’s podcast:

  • The term “health care costs” means different things to different people. For most of the public, it refers to the amount they must pay out-of-pocket for premiums, deductibles and services. For policymakers, it often means the total amount the U.S. spends on the health care system. That often creates a disconnect.
  • Even small changes to the way drugs are priced and ending surprise medical bills might end up satisfying many members of the public, although those adjustments might have a minimal effect on overall health spending.
  • Republicans are as divided as Democrats on health care. That is the main reason Republicans did not repeal the Affordable Care Act in 2017 and why there has been no major Republican replacement proposal since then.
  • Many of the Democrats running for president, meanwhile, continue to advocate for a “Medicare for All” program run by the government, although many are hedging their bets by supporting other, less sweeping proposals to expand coverage, as well.

To hear all our podcasts, click here.

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Must-Reads Of The Week From Brianna Labuskes

Happy Friday! The jury is still out whether we’re all growing horns out of the back of our heads because of how much we use smartphones, but apparently humans on the whole are somewhat decent people when it comes to finding wallets with cash in them. Now buckle up, because our cups have runneth over this week in terms of truly excellent health stories.

We’ll start, though, with what to look out for next week: President Donald Trump is expected to issue an executive order that would compel hospitals, insurers and others in the health industry to reveal closely guarded information about the true cost of procedures, according to The Wall Street Journal. This is the order that certain players in the health field have been dreading. It’s unclear how aggressive the administration will be with the rule, considering the rumblings of discontent already rippling through D.C. But a whopping 88% of people in a recent survey said they support such a policy — so the president is not exactly going out on a limb with voters.

The Wall Street Journal: Trump to Issue Executive Order on Health-Care Price Transparency


Speaking of voters, this executive order comes closely on heels of the official kickoff for Trump’s reelection campaign, which took place on Tuesday in Florida. The president has been searching for ways to win back ground against Democrats on the topic of health care — and promised to issue a plan within the next month or two that would counter the buzzy “Medicare for All.”

Many Republicans, though, kind of wish Trump would channel “Frozen” and let it go. With polls showing voters favor Democrats’ stance on health care, Republicans want the president to focus on issues where they think they have an edge, such as immigration.

The New York Times: Trump Wants to Neutralize Democrats on Health Care. Republicans Say Let It Go.

The New York Times: Trump, At Rally in Florida, Kicks Off His 2020 Re-Election Bid

Adding to the prevailing narrative that health care is a winning issue for the Dems, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is using the topic to divert attention away from the more volatile talk of impeachment. “When we won the election in November, it was health care, health care, health care,” Pelosi said earlier in the week. She also promised that Democrats would fight relentlessly against Trump’s attempts to chip away at the health law.

In short, you can pretty much guarantee health care is going to play a central role in the 2020 races.

Bloomberg: Impeach Trump? Pelosi’s Dems Prefer Health Care Focus for 2020

Meanwhile, The New York Times interviewed many of the Democratic candidates about their stances on different issues, including health care. While they all agree something needs to be done about the country’s system, what that looks like becomes a dividing line in a crowded field.

The New York Times: 2020 Democrats on Health Care


A federal appeals court handed the Trump administration a win this week when a panel of three Republican-appointed judges ruled that new rules prohibiting federal family-planning grants to health clinics offering on-site abortions or referrals for the procedure can go into effect. The changes — which are largely thought to be targeting Planned Parenthood and are called a “gag rule” by opponents — have provoked fierce backlash among abortion rights groups that say the implementation of such restrictions will be devastating to women who rely on the clinics for health care. Although the decision isn’t the final say on the matter, the judges predicted the administration will prevail in this case.

The Washington Post: Trump Administration’s Abortion ‘Gag Rule’ Can Take Effect, Court Rules

Meanwhile, a look at two abortion clinics 20 minutes apart highlights the great divide evident around the country as state-level laws stand in stark contrast to one another.

The Wall Street Journal: Two Abortion Clinics, 20 Minutes and a Legal Universe Apart


Politico lifts the curtain on the ever-deepening quarrel between White House aides and HHS Secretary Alex Azar. “Alex is outnumbered and keeps losing,” an individual familiar with the simmering tensions told reporters. With Trump’s focus on health issues as he launches his campaign, the discord threatens to derail progress on key administration agenda items like high drug prices.

Politico: ‘They’re All Fighting Him’: Trump Aides Spar With Health Secretary


Major stakeholders have been anxiously watching congressional action on surprise medical bills — an issue most lawmakers agree needs to be addressed but for which there are several approaches. Industry players each have a preferred strategy (such as independent arbitration), but powerful HELP Committee leaders Sens. Alexander Lamar and Patty Murray hadn’t yet settled on theirs. That changed this week when they announced they back a “benchmark” plan, meaning insurers would pay a provider a rate similar to what the plan pays other doctors in the area for the same procedure. Alexander had “intrinsically” supported a different plan previously but changed his mind after the Congressional Budget Office ruled that this one would garner the most federal savings.

Hospitals were not pleased with the direction this is taking, calling the tactic “unworkable.”

Politico: HELP Committee Leaders Back Benchmark for ‘Surprise’ Billing


One of my favorite stories of the week looks at how those much-hated robocalls, which are mostly just a huge nuisance for most of us, become a life-and-death situation for hospitals. While the rest of us can either block or ignore the calls, hospitals don’t have that option. And when the calls come in waves of thousands, they can jam up emergency lines.

The Washington Post: Robocalls Are Overwhelming Hospitals and Patients, Threatening a New Kind of Health Crisis

I know a lot of people are creeped out by the privacy issues of having digital ears listening in on your every move, but there could be a flipside. Researchers want to train Alexa et al. to listen for gasping that could signal someone is experiencing cardiac arrest.

Stat: ‘Alexa, Are You Listening?’ A Research Tool Warns of Cardiac Arrest


Arkansas’ implementation of a Medicaid work requirement was closely watched by other conservative states eager to follow its lead. Advocates were appalled by the tens of thousands of people dropped from coverage, while state leaders and the Trump administration insisted that an improving economy was the reason behind the declining enrollment.

But a new study adds another layer to the debate: The work mandate has done nothing to affect the number of people who are unemployed in the state. So, after all of that, fewer people have insurance and fewer people have jobs.

Modern Healthcare: More Arkansans Uninsured, Unemployed Post-Medicaid Work Requirement


In news that surprised zero people, but should be noted anyway: Drugmakers made official their opposition to the new rules requiring them to include prices in TV ads. They say the requirements violate their freedom of speech rights and will be confusing to patients, since the prices aren’t what most people end up paying for the drugs.

Reuters: U.S. Drugmakers File Lawsuit Against Requiring Drug Prices in TV Ads


In the miscellaneous file this week:

• It often seems as if the anti-vaccination movement is this grassroots thing that has bubbled up through social media. But the tried-and-true “follow the money” method paints a more interesting picture, starting with a wealthy Manhattan couple who pumped millions into the cause over the past several years.

The Washington Post: Meet the New York Couple Donating Millions to the Anti-Vax Movement

• Immigrant children in U.S. custody give bleak accounts to lawyers of their experiences — including reports of toddlers without diapers being cared for by 10-year-old girls. The lawyers involved say that during their interviews the “little kids are so tired they have been falling asleep on chairs and at the conference table.”

The Associated Press: Migrant Children Describe Neglect at Texas Border Facility

• The youth suicide rate appears to have reached the highest since the government began collecting such statistics in 1960 — driven, in part, by a sharp increase among older teenage boys.

Los Angeles Times: Suicide Rates for U.S. Teens and Young Adults Are the Highest on Record

• Firefighters who die of cancer outnumber firefighters who die responding to an emergency “at least ten, 20, 30 to one.” Yet the very cities they risk their lives protecting are turning their backs on them once they become sick. “My city’s workers’ comp carrier initially flat-out said, ‘We don’t cover cancer,’” one firefighter recalled.

CBS News: Firefighters Battle Occupational Cancer: Many Sickened First Responders Are Being Denied Workers’ Comp Benefits


That was a fairly grim file to end The Friday Breeze with, so make sure to check out Stat’s list of 23 of the best health and science books to read this summer to give yourself a little boost to finish off your week. And have a great weekend!

Must-Reads Of The Week From Brianna Labuskes

Happy Friday! Have drug prices gotten so bad that patients are now turning to robbing banks to afford them? It sounds like something out of a movie script, but it’s what a Utah man told police when he was accused of just that. While it’s unverified whether he, in fact, had any prescriptions, it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch for anyone paying attention to the state of drug prices in this country.

On to what you may have missed this week (including one of the wilder health stories I can recall reading in a while).

Lawmakers were busy, busy bees this week with hearings on health care issues.

The moment that drew perhaps the biggest spotlight was almost cinematic: A furious Jon Stewart took members to task in an almost nine-minute display of pointed, nonpartisan outrage over their feet-dragging on health care funding for 9/11 first responders and victims. Why is this “so damn hard?” the comedian asked. Firefighters, police and other first responders “did their jobs with courage, grace, tenacity and humility,” Stewart said. “Eighteen years later, do yours.” A bill allocating money to the fund for 70 years passed the House panel following the hearing.

The Associated Press: Jon Stewart Lashes Out at Congress Over 9/11 Victims Fund

The New York Times: How Jon Stewart Became a Fierce Advocate for 9/11 Responders

Reuters: House Panel Approves Permanent Sept. 11 Victims’ Compensation

But it wasn’t just made-for-TV drama on Capitol Hill this week. There was a flurry of activity related to health care. Here are some of the highlights, including a hearing on universal health coverage, which was heavy on fiery political rhetoric and light on substance:

The Hill: House Democrats Vote to Overturn Trump Ban on Fetal Tissue Research

CNN: Medicare for All Hearing Turns Into a Defense of Obamacare

Modern Healthcare: Arbitration for Surprise Medical Bills Splits House Panel

The Hill: Pelosi to Change Drug-Pricing Plan After Progressive Complaints

The Hill: Democrats Scuttle Attempt to Strike Hyde Amendment From Spending Bill

The Hill: House Panel Launches Investigation Into Juul


Even if “Medicare for All” were to overcome the daunting political hurdles lying in its path, it’s likely it would face so many legal challenges it could be bled out before it’s ever implemented. “There could be a death by a thousand-lawsuits approach,” Georgetown law professor Katie Keith told Politico. Other experts note, though, that there’s a difference between forcing someone to buy a product and banning something, which makes Medicare for All less vulnerable legally than the health law.

Politico: ‘Death by a Thousand Lawsuits’: The Legal Battles That Could Dog ‘Medicare for All’

Over in Chicago at the American Medical Association’s annual meeting, a medical student-led push to get the organization to reverse its decades-long opposition to single-payer health care failed. But, there’s more to it than that! A fabulous thread on Twitter from Bob Doherty of the American College of Physicians explains how the fact that the vote percentages were so close is remarkable in and of itself. The outcome would have been “unimaginable” in years past, he says.

The Hill: Major Doctors Group Votes to Oppose Single-Payer Health Care

And read Doherty’s thread here.


When premiums shot up over the past several years, more and more people turned to health care sharing ministries — which essentially connect people of similar faiths and set up a cost-sharing arrangement among the members. Because these models are not technically insurance, they’re allowed to skirt health law regulations and aren’t regulated by state commissioners. All of that was seen as a point in their favor from supporters at the time they joined them. But now it means that when bills aren’t paid on time, or at all, consumers have little recourse and officials’ hands are tied in holding the organizations responsible for their promises.

The Wall Street Journal: As Sharing Health-Care Costs Takes Off, States Warn: It Isn’t Insurance

Meanwhile, the Trump administration continues to chip away at the health law with its latest rule on health reimbursement arrangements, which will allow small firms to use tax-free accounts to help workers pay for insurance.

The Hill: Trump Officials Issue New Rule Aimed at Expanding Health Choices for Small Businesses


If you took anything away from last week’s drama over former Vice President Joe Biden’s stance on the Hyde Amendment it was probably that it seems the parties are dead set on their positions on abortion. But a look at how the public feels about the issue reveals blurred lines and nuance that doesn’t always fit into pat sound bites and political declarations. Many Americans struggle with the moral complexities surrounding abortion and their opinions can change from one question to the next, depending on the wording.

The New York Times: Politicians Draw Clear Lines on Abortion. Their Parties Are Not So Unified.

A new poll does show, however, that despite the ever-increasing threat to Roe v. Wade a strong majority of Americans don’t want to see it overturned.

NPR: Abortion Poll: Majority Wants to Keep Abortion Legal, but With Restrictions


Actress Jessica Biel ignited a firestorm of criticism after speaking out about a controversial California bill that would give a state official the final say on medical exemptions from vaccines. Once the blaze was lit, Biel tried to clarify that her issue was not with the vaccines themselves, but rather with the legislation introducing bureaucrats into the process. California’s governor has even hinted at similar concerns. The blowback, though, highlights how inherently inflammatory the topic has become as measles cases continue to climb across the country.

The New York Times: Here Is What Jessica Biel Opposes in California’s Vaccine Bill

In New York — the state at the heart of the record-busting measles outbreak — lawmakers passed a bill banning religious exemptions to vaccines. The governor signed it minutes later.

The Associated Press: New York Set to Cut Religious Exemption to Vaccine Mandates


I have kept you on tenterhooks long enough! One of the wilder health stories I’ve read in a long time comes from gruesomely fascinating Arizona Republic reporting. It’s a look into the thriving for-profit world of whole-body donations following death. Critics deem the practice as no better than “back alley grave robbing.” “There’s a price list for everything from a head to a shoulder, like they are a side of beef. They make money, absolutely, because there’s no cost in getting the bodies,” lawyer Michael Burg told The Arizona Republic. Supporters, however, see it as an affordable way to dispose of the remains of loved ones (which can actually be very expensive for low-income families).

Either way, it garnered my favorite quote of the week, asked by one potential donor: “Will I have a head in heaven?”

The Arizona Republic: Arizona Is a Hotbed for the Cadaver Industry, and Potential Donors Have Plenty of Options

The Arizona Republic: Despite 2-Year-Old State Law, Arizona’s Body Donation Industry Still Unregulated


In a move that left Flint, Mich., residents stunned and frustrated, prosecutors dropped all criminal charges against officials over the city’s water contamination crisis. Although prosecutors said the old investigation was bungled and there will be new charges, the announcement came like a fist to the jaw to people who already have had their faith in the government shattered.

Detroit Free Press: All Flint Water Crisis Criminal Charges Dismissed by AG’s Office


In the miscellaneous file this week:

• If you ever think you’re having a bad day at work, read this story about how an employee’s small photocopier mishap triggered a series of events that undermined a pair of late-stage clinical trials and ultimately scrapped a development deal between pharma companies.

Stat: How a Mishap at a Photocopier Derailed Clinical Trials and a Development Deal

• I am fascinated by the anatomy of pandemics, and this is a great tick-tock of the start of the last one. They don’t play out as they would in Hollywood, but, to me, the reality is even more interesting (I can’t be the only one, right?!).

Stat: The Last Pandemic Was a ‘Quiet Killer.’ Ten Years After Swine Flu, No One Can Predict the Next One

• World health officials have been begging farmers to stop using antibiotics on healthy farm animals in an effort to combat the ever-looming threat of resistance (which, as you know, terrifies yours truly). The farmer,s though, also have drugmakers whispering in their ears — despite a public facade from pharma of wanting to help combat the problem.

The New York Times: Warning of ‘Pig Zero’: One Drugmaker’s Push to Sell More Antibiotics

• Are you a sufferer of “white coat hypertension”? You might think it’s just because you get stressed out when you visit the doctor (join the club!), but a study shows that those anxiety-induced numbers are linked to an increased risk of a cardiac event.

Stat: Those With ‘White Coat Hypertension’ More Likely to Die From Cardiac Events


That’s it from me! Have a great and restful weekend. (Truly, insomnia can kill!)