Tagged Elections

Arguing to Undo the ACA. Harming Medicare. Do They Go Hand in Hand?

It’s a tried-and-true campaign strategy.

Candidates go on the attack, claiming their opponent will do harm to Medicare. After all, people 65 and older are good about making it to the polls on Election Day. These voters are also generally motivated to protect the federal health insurance program for seniors.

It’s no surprise, then, that in an ad released this month, former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign played the Medicare card.

“Donald Trump is lying about Medicare and Social Security,” an ominous, mature, male voice warns viewers in the ad. He goes on to say that “Trump’s pushing to slash Medicare benefits.”

Clearly, we’ve heard this dire message before — from candidates of both parties through the years.

We issued a skeptical rating of a claim that Trump promised to gut Social Security and Medicare if re-elected, noting that his deferral of payroll taxes did not mention Medicare at all. But Trump has not mentioned cuts to Medicare benefits on the trail, and he’s promised to make cuts to the program in the future. So what is Biden’s claim talking about?

As a rationale for the statement, a Biden campaign spokesperson pointed us to the Trump administration’s support of Republicans’ efforts in a court case, California v. Texas, which seeks to overturn the Affordable Care Act. But the ad does not include any reference or explanation of how the case would affect Medicare benefits.

The legal challenge, brought by a group of Republican attorneys general, is pegged to the 2017 tax bill, which zeroed out the tax that functioned as a penalty for not having health coverage — known as the individual mandate. Without this linchpin tax, the Republicans argue, the entire law should be struck down. They based that on the Supreme Court decision in 2012 that the law was constitutional because the penalty was a valid use of Congress’ ability to levy taxes.

In the current case, lower courts have found the law unconstitutional, and a group of Democratic attorneys general appealed to the Supreme Court.

Oral arguments are scheduled for Nov. 10. The Trump administration filed a brief in support of invalidating the entire law unconstitutional.

Though best known for its vast expansion of health coverage through marketplace plans and Medicaid, the ACA also included a range of consumer protections — such as the ban on discrimination against people with preexisting conditions — and an estimated 165 Medicare-related provisions.

The Biden spokesperson pointed to one, which ended Medicare’s so-called doughnut hole.

We asked experts for their take. Immediately, we found differences in opinion.

That’s a “perfectly fair claim,” said Nicholas Bagley, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School. Closing the doughnut hole matters to many people, he said.

Case Western Reserve University law professor Jonathan Adler took a different view. The argument that Medicare would be affected “is a very aggressive reading of the filing in this case,” he said, referring to the Trump administration’s brief in support of nullifying the ACA.

The next step seemed to be getting a better grasp of what’s at stake.

A Quick Review of the Doughnut Hole, Other Medicare Provisions

The Medicare doughnut hole refers to the gap in Part D prescription drug coverage that begins after a beneficiary spends a set amount — usually a few thousand dollars. Before the ACA, beneficiaries who reached that threshold were responsible for 100% of their medication costs until they spent enough for catastrophic coverage to kick in, which could be more than $1,000 in additional spending. Even with this coverage, beneficiaries were responsible for 5% of their drug expenditures. (If beneficiaries were responsible for 100% of costs today, people with high drug costs would obviously pay a lot more without the ACA provision.)

The ACA would have gradually ended that coverage gap. But, in 2018, Congress adopted changes to expedite the process. As of 2019, the doughnut hole was closed. Adler pointed to that congressional intervention as a step that could keep the doughnut hole closed if the ACA were overturned. Based on this legislative history, the argument could be made that closing the coverage gap was something Congress had an interest in apart from the ACA. Since the doughnut hole is officially closed, some analysts said this provision may not be vulnerable to the upcoming Supreme Court decision on the ACA.

“You can make a lot of claims,” said Gail Wilensky, a former head of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. “That one is really a stretch.”

Other ACA provisions tied to Medicare benefits seem more at risk, such as the one that mandated annual wellness visits and certain preventive services, such as mammograms, bone mass measurement for those with osteoporosis, and depression and diabetes screening, with no patient cost sharing.

“It’s not clear that the administration actively supports any change to the Medicare benefits with the case before SCOTUS,” said Tricia Neuman, KFF senior vice president and executive director of the KFF’s program on Medicare policy. “But if they didn’t explicitly seek to wall off certain provisions, it is at least conceivable — though maybe not likely — that Medicare benefits in the ACA could be collateral damage.” (KHN is an editorially independent program of KFF.)

According to an amicus brief filed by the AARP, the Center for Medicare Advocacy and Justice in Aging in 2016, an estimated 40.1 million Medicare beneficiaries received at least one preventive service and 10.3 million had an annual wellness visit with no copay or deductible.

Other experts pointed to a troubling implication for Medicare: the nullification of the ACA provisions related to costs and slowing the growth of the program’s spending. Those efforts had been credited with extending the solvency of the Health Insurance Trust Fund and slowing the growth in Medicare premiums.

It “would impair the financial fitness” of the trust fund, said Paul Van de Water, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Trump “may not say it is his intent to slash Medicare benefits,” agreed David Lipschutz, associate director of the Center for Medicare Advocacy, but overturning the ACA entirely would “cause chaos writ large.” And, because of the program’s size, that chaos “would upend the financial markets and the entire health care system,” according to the brief filed by Medicare advocates.

What Comes Next Is Complicated

Enter the concept of severability. Many court watchers are quick to say the high court’s decision could go beyond upholding the entire law or declaring it unconstitutional. Instead, the justices could separate or sever parts of it not directly related to the zeroed-out tax penalty, the so-called individual mandate.

Of course, the Trump administration argued in its brief that the interwoven nature of the ACA’s provisions demanded that the entire law be invalidated.

“If you just go on that basis, they are not arguing for severability,” said Van de Water.

But others point out another layer that warrants consideration.

“Everyone who comments on this focuses on the administration’s argument for inseverability,” Adler said. But he said it was more complicated than that.

The Trump administration’s position is “simultaneously that the entire ACA should be invalidated” and also that relief should be provided only where injury to the plaintiffs is shown. (The administration defines the plaintiffs as the two individuals who signed on to the original challenge.)

Another view is that this point in the administration’s argument is not clear-cut, mostly because it gives no hint as to which programs or provisions would fit into the category of harming the plaintiffs.

Ultimately, the fate of the sweeping health law is in the hands of the Supreme Court.

“Legal analysts didn’t anticipate the case getting as far as it has,” said Lipschutz.

But “the White House threw its weight behind the lawsuit,” said Bagley, at the University of Michigan. “So, they own the consequences. Especially in the context of this presidential campaign.”

Our Ruling

An attack ad by the Biden campaign states that Trump is “pushing to slash Medicare benefits” and ties this charge to the administration’s position on the pending legal challenge to the ACA.

The Biden campaign pointed to an ACA provision that sought to close the Medicare doughnut hole to support this claim. It may not be the best example, though, because some experts suggest it may not be as vulnerable as other parts of the law.

Experts outlined a range of other Medicare provisions that either provided new benefits or shored up the program’s financial fitness. If the whole law were to be nullified, as the administration has advocated, these changes could also be erased — a step that would affect benefits and potentially cause premiums to rise.

Overall, the Biden ad seems plausible, even though the link between Trump’s position on the legal challenge and its impact on Medicare benefits is less straightforward than in similar claims we have checked regarding preexisting conditions.

We rate the claim Half True.

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Did Trump Confuse the Public Option With ‘Medicare for All’?

During the final presidential debate, President Donald Trump claimed that 180 million people would lose their private health insurance to socialized medicine if the Democratic presidential nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, is elected president.

“They have 180 million people, families under what he wants to do, which will basically be socialized medicine — you won’t even have a choice — they want to terminate 180 million plans,” said Trump.

Trump has repeated this claim throughout the week, and we thought the linkage of Biden’s proposed health care plan with socialism was something we needed to check out. Especially since Biden opposed “Medicare for All,” the proposal by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) that would have created a single-payer health system run completely by the federal government, and has long been attacked by Republicans as “socialist.”

The Trump campaign did not respond to our request asking where the evidence for this claim came from. Experts called it a distortion of Biden’s plan.

Where the Number Comes From

Experts agreed the number of people who have private health insurance either through an employer-sponsored plan or purchased on the Affordable Care Act’s health insurance marketplace is around 180 million people.

KFF, a nonpartisan health policy organization, estimated in 2018 that about 157 million Americans had health insurance through their employer, while almost 20 million had insurance they purchased for themselves. Together, that adds up to about 177 million with private health insurance. (KHN is an editorially independent program of KFF.)

What Does Biden Support?

Biden supports expanding the ACA through several measures, including a public option. Under his plan, this public option would be a health insurance plan run by the federal government that would be offered alongside other private health insurance plans on the insurance marketplace.

“The marketplace is made up of multiple insurers in areas,” said Linda Blumberg, a health policy fellow at the Urban Institute. “Sometimes there are five or more [plans]; sometimes there is only one. Biden is talking about adding a public option in the marketplace. You could pick between these private insurers or you could pick the public option.”

Getting rid of the so-called employer firewall is also part of Biden’s proposal.

This firewall was implemented during the rollout of the ACA. It was designed to maintain balance in the insurance risk pools by preventing too many healthy people who have work-based coverage from opting instead to move to a marketplace plan. And it all came down to who qualified for the subsidies that made these plans more affordable.

Currently, those who are offered a health insurance plan through their employer that meets certain minimum federal standards aren’t eligible to receive these subsidies, which come in the form of tax credits. But that leaves many low-income workers with health care plans that aren’t as affordable or comprehensive as marketplace plans.

Biden’s plan would eliminate that firewall, meaning anyone could choose to get health insurance either through their employer or through the marketplace. That’s where many Republicans argue that we could start to see leakage from private health insurance plans to the public option.

“The problem is healthy people leaving employer plans,” said Joseph Antos, a scholar in health care at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute. That could mean the entire workplace plan’s premiums would go up. “You could easily imagine a plan where it spirals, the premiums go up, and then even more people start leaving the plans to go to the public option.”

Blumberg, though, said that because the marketplace would still include private health insurance plans alongside the public option, it doesn’t mean everyone who chooses to leave their employer plan would go straight to the public option.

She has done estimates based on a plan similar to the one Biden is proposing. She estimates that only about 10% to 12% of Americans would choose to leave their employer-sponsored plans, which translates to about 15 million to 18 million Americans.

KFF also did an estimate and found that 12.3 million people with employer coverage could save money by buying on the exchange under the Biden plan.

But “it’s not clear all of those people would choose to leave their employer coverage, though, as there are other reasons besides costs that people might want to have job-based insurance,” Cynthia Cox, vice president and director of the program on the ACA at KFF, wrote in an email.

Either way, none of the estimates are anywhere close to the 180 million that Trump claimed.

Is This Type of Public Option Socialism?

Overall, experts said no, what Biden supports isn’t socialized medicine.

“Socialized medicine means that the government runs hospitals and employs doctors, and that is not part of Biden’s plan,” Larry Levitt, executive vice president for health policy at KFF, wrote in an email. “Under Biden’s plans, doctors and hospitals would remain in the private sector just like they are today.”

However, Antos said that, in his view, the definition of socialism can really vary when it comes to health care.

“I would argue in one sense, we would already have socialized medicine. We have massive federal subsidies for everybody, so in that sense, we’re already there,” said Antos. “But, if socialized medicine means the government is going to dictate how doctors practice or how health care is delivered, we are obviously not in that situation. I don’t think the Biden plan would lead you that way.”

And in the end, Antos said, invoking socialism is a scare tactic that politicians have been using for years.

“It’s just a political slur,” said Antos. “It’s meant to inflame the emotions of those who will vote for Trump and meant to annoy the people who will vote for Biden.”

Our Ruling

Trump said 180 million people would lose their private health insurance plans to socialized medicine under Biden.

While about 180 million people do have private health insurance, there is no evidence that all of them would lose their private plans if Biden were elected president.

Biden supports implementing a public option on the health insurance marketplace. It would exist alongside private health insurance plans, and Americans would have the option to buy either the private plan or the public plan. While estimates show that a number of Americans would likely leave their employer-sponsored coverage for the public plan, they would be doing that by choice and the estimates are nowhere near Trump’s 180 million figure.

Experts also agree that the public option is not socialized medicine, and it’s ridiculous to conflate Biden’s plan with Medicare for All.

We rate this claim Pants on Fire.

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In Tamer Debate, Trump and Biden Clash (Again) on President’s Pandemic Response

In the second and final debate of the 2020 presidential race, President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden sparred over Trump’s handling of the pandemic and Biden’s plan to reform health care. In stark contrast to the first debate, there was more policy talk. There was also less interrupting.

Trump said a COVID-19 vaccine is “ready” and will be announced “within weeks,” shortly before conceding that it is “not a guarantee.”

Biden said Trump still has no comprehensive plan to deal with the pandemic, even as case counts continue to climb. “We’re about to go into a dark winter, and he has no clear plan,” Biden said.

Trump claimed Biden’s health care plan would lead to “socialized medicine,” conflating Biden’s proposal to introduce a government insurance option with more progressive proposals that would eliminate private insurance. “I support private insurance,” Biden said, promising, “Not a single person with private insurance would lose their insurance under my plan.”

You can read a full fact check for the evening, done in partnership with PolitiFact, here.

Meanwhile, we broke down the candidates’ closing coronavirus and other health-related claims so you can do your part: vote.

Here are the highlights:

Trump: “We are rounding the turn [on the pandemic]. We are rounding the corner.”
False.“Rounding the corner” suggests that significant and sustained progress is being made in the fight against the coronavirus, and that’s not the case, according to the data.

The number of COVID cases is climbing once again, after falling consistently between late July and mid-September. Cases are now at their highest point since early August, with almost 60,000 new confirmed infections a day. That’s only about 10% lower than the peak in late July.

New daily hospitalizations today are lower than in previous spikes, but in the past few weeks there has been a modest increase. The positivity rate, which measures the percentage of tests that come up positive for the virus, has also been going up again in the past few weeks. Higher positivity rates are an indicator of community spread.

The one encouraging change is that, since a peak in August, deaths have fallen fairly consistently. That’s due to a combination of factors, including improved understanding of how to treat the disease. Yet COVID deaths have settled in at about 800 a day, keeping total deaths per week in the U.S. above normal levels.

Trump: His administration has done “everything” Biden suggested to address COVID-19. “He was way behind us.”
We rated a similar claim Pants on Fire. While there are some similarities between Biden’s and Trump’s plans to combat COVID-19, experts told us any pandemic response plan should have certain core strategies. The Trump administration has released no comprehensive plan to battle the disease, except with regard to the development and distribution of vaccines. Trump’s main intervention was implementing travel restrictions, while efforts to roll out a widespread testing plan faced difficulties.

Biden released a public COVID plan; the first draft was published March 12. It included public health measures such as deploying free testing and personal protective equipment, as well as implementing economic measures such as emergency paid leave and a state and local emergency fund.

Trump: “As you know, 2.2 million people were expected to die. We closed the greatest economy in the world to fight this horrible disease that came from China.”
His claim about the estimated deaths rates Mostly False. Trump frequently refers to this number to claim that his administration’s moves saved 2 million lives. However, the number is from a mathematical model that hypothesized what would happen if, during the pandemic in the U.S., neither people nor governments changed their behaviors, a scenario that experts considered unrealistic. The U.S. has the highest death toll from COVID-19 of any country, and one of the highest death rates. Also, credit for shutting down the economy doesn’t go primarily to Trump, but rather to states and local jurisdictions. In fact, Trump encouraged states to open back up beginning in May, even when there were high rates of COVID transmission in those areas.

Trump: “We cannot lock ourselves in a basement like Joe does.”
We rated a similar claim False. It is one of Trump’s favored shots to say Biden isolated himself in his basement. In the first few months of the pandemic, Biden did run much of his campaign from his Delaware home. He built a TV studio in his basement to interact with voters virtually. But that changed.

In September alone, Biden gave remarks and held events in, among other places, Kenosha, Wisconsin; Lancaster, Pennsylvania; Warren, Michigan; Tampa, Florida; and Charlotte, North Carolina. We counted 14 locations.

Trump: Said of Dr. Anthony Fauci, “I think he’s a Democrat, but that’s OK.”
This is wrong. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is not affiliated with a political party. He hasn’t endorsed any parties or candidates.

Biden: “We are in a circumstance where the president still has no plan, no comprehensive plan.”
This is largely accurate. When Biden claimed during the first debate that Trump “still won’t offer a plan,” we noted the Trump administration’s “Operation Warp Speed” for vaccine development as well as its more detailed plan for vaccine distribution. But the administration has not released a comprehensive plan to address COVID-19.

Trump: “There was a spike in Florida. That is gone. There was a spike in Texas. That is gone. There was a spike in Arizona. It is gone.” 

This is inaccurate. Over the summer, Florida, Texas and Arizona experienced record surges in cases that later eased — but now they are all seeing new surges. Over the past week, The New York Times’ tracker notes, as of Friday, new infections are up 37% in Florida, 13% in Texas and 47% in Arizona, from the average two weeks earlier.

Trump: “When I closed [travel from China], he said I should not have closed. … He said this is a terrible thing, you are a xenophobe; I think he called me racist. Now he says I should have closed it earlier.”

Mostly False. Joe Biden did not directly say he thought Trump shouldn’t have restricted travel from China to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

Biden did accuse Trump of “xenophobia” in an Iowa campaign speech the same day the administration announced the travel restrictions — Jan. 31 — but his campaign said that his remarks were not related and that he made similar comments before the restrictions were imposed. Biden didn’t take a definitive stance on the subject until April 3, when his campaign said he supported Trump’s decision to impose travel restrictions on China.

Trump: “They have 180 million people, families under what he wants to do, which will basically be socialized medicine — you won’t even have a choice — they want to terminate 180 million plans.” 

Pants on Fire. About 180 million people have private health insurance. But there is absolutely no evidence that under Biden’s health care proposal all 180 million would be removed from their insurance plans. Biden supports creating a public option, which would be a government-run insurance program that would exist alongside and compete with other private plans on the health insurance marketplace.

Under Biden’s plan, even people with employer-sponsored coverage could choose a public plan if they wanted to. And estimates show that only a small percentage of Americans would likely leave their employer-sponsored coverage if a public option were available, and certainly not all 180 million. Experts said it is not socialized medicine.

Biden: “Not one single person with private insurance” lost their insurance “under Obamacare … unless they chose they wanted to go to something else.”

This is inaccurate. This is a variation of a claim that earned President Barack Obama our Lie of the Year in 2013. The Affordable Care Act tried to allow existing health plans to continue under a complicated process called “grandfathering,” but if the plans deviated even a little, they would lose their grandfathered status. And if that happened, insurers canceled plans that didn’t meet the new standards.

No one determined with any certainty how many people got cancellation notices, but analysts estimated that about 4 million or more had their plans canceled. Many found insurance elsewhere, and the percentage was small — out of a total insured population of about 262 million, fewer than 2% lost their plans. However, that still amounted to 4 million people who faced the difficulty of finding a new plan and the hassle of switching their coverage.

This story includes reporting by KHN reporters Victoria Knight and Emmarie Huetteman, and Jon Greenberg, Louis Jacobson, Amy Sherman, Miriam Valverde, Bill McCarthy, Samantha Putterman, Daniel Funke and Noah Y. Kim of PolitiFact.

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KHN on the Air This Week

KHN chief Washington correspondent Julie Rovner discussed the impact of the election and the upcoming Supreme Court challenge on the Affordable Care Act with New Hampshire Public Radio’s “The Exchange” and WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show” on Wednesday. Rovner also spoke with Newsy’s “Morning Rush” on Thursday about the roles of health care and COVID-19 in the presidential campaign.


KHN Midwest correspondent Lauren Weber discussed COVID vaccine distribution with “Newsy Reports” on Oct. 16.


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Californians Asked to Pony Up for Stem Cell Research — Again

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — In an election year dominated by a chaotic presidential race and splashy statewide ballot initiative campaigns, Californians are being asked to weigh in on the value of stem cell research — again.

Proposition 14 would authorize the state to borrow $5.5 billion to keep financing the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), currently the second-largest funder of stem cell research in the world. Factoring in interest payments, the measure could cost the state roughly $7.8 billion over about 30 years, according to an estimate from the nonpartisan state Legislative Analyst’s Office.

In 2004, voters approved Proposition 71, a $3 billion bond, to be repaid with interest over 30 years. The measure got the state agency up and running and was designed to seed research.

During that first campaign, voters were told research funded by the measure could lead to cures for cancer, Alzheimer’s and other devastating diseases, and that the state could reap millions in royalties from new treatments.

Yet most of those ambitions remain unfulfilled.

“I think the initial promises were a little optimistic,” said Kevin McCormack, CIRM’s senior director of public communications, about how quickly research would yield cures. “You can’t rush this kind of work.”

So advocates are back after 16 years for more research money, and to increase the size of the state agency.

Stem cells hold great potential for medicine because of their ability to develop into different types of cells in the body, and to repair and renew tissue.

When the first bond measure was adopted in 2004, the George W. Bush administration refused to fund stem cell research at the national level because of opposition to the use of one kind of stem cell: human embryonic stem cells. They derive from fertilized eggs, which has made them controversial among politicians who oppose abortion.

Federal funding resumed in 2009, and thus far this year the National Institutes of Health has spent about $321 million on human embryonic stem cell research.

But advocates for Proposition 14 say the ability to do that research is still tenuous. In September, Republican lawmakers sent a letter to President Donald Trump urging him to cut off those funds once again.

The funding from California’s original bond measure was used to create the new state institute and fund grants to conduct research at California hospitals and universities for diseases such as blood cancer and kidney failure. The money has paid for 90 clinical trials.

A 2019 report from the University of Southern California concluded the center has contributed about $10.7 billion to the California economy, which includes hiring, construction and attracting more research dollars to the state. CIRM funds more than 56,500 jobs, more than half of which are considered high-paying.

Despite the campaign promises, just two treatments developed with some help from CIRM have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration in the past 13 years, one for leukemia and one for scarring of the bone marrow.

But it’s a bit of a stretch for the institute to take credit for these drugs, said Jeff Sheehy, a CIRM board member who does not support the new bond measure. He said the agency funded the researcher whose lab discovered and developed the drugs, but CIRM holds no rights to those drugs and doesn’t receive royalties from them.

The state has received about $518,000 in revenue from licensing other institute-funded discoveries, such as devices, McCormack said.

McCormack also pointed to some promising stem cell therapies still in clinical trials, such as a treatment that has cured 50 children of severe combined immunodeficiency, a genetic disorder often called “bubble baby” disease, and others that have led to “dramatic” improvements in paralysis and blindness, he said.

The campaigns for both bond measures may be giving people unrealistic expectations and false hope, said Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society. “It undermines people’s trust in science,” Darnovsky said. “No one can promise cures, and nobody should.”

Robert Klein, a real estate developer who wrote both ballot measures, disagrees. He was inspired to invest in stem cell research after he lost his youngest son to Type 1 diabetes. He said some of CIRM’s breakthroughs are helping patients right now.

“What are you going to do if this doesn’t pass? Tell those people we’re sorry, but we’re not going to do this?” Klein said. “The thought of other children needlessly dying is unbearable.”

Sheehy, who has served on the agency’s board for 16 years, said he’s proud of the work the institute has done but believes it should be funded through the legislature, not by borrowing more money.

“The promise was that it would pay for itself and it hasn’t,” Sheehy said. “We can’t really afford it, and this is the worst way to pay for it.”

Even if CIRM isn’t turning a profit, some researchers and private companies are benefiting from the public money. Take the company Forty Seven Inc., named after a human protein and co-founded by Irving Weissman, director of Stanford University’s stem cell research program. The state stem cell agency awarded more than $15 million to Forty Seven, and $30 million to Weissman at Stanford for research.

That money fueled research that uncovered a promising treatment for several different cancers. Gilead Sciences, the pharmaceutical giant, bought Forty Seven in 2018 for $4.9 billion. Of that, $21.2 million went back to CIRM to pay back Forty Seven’s research grants, with interest.

“Gilead will make far more than that if it turns out to be lucrative,” said Ameet Sarpatwari, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School who studies drug development.

Because this kind of work is both expensive and risky, private companies are reluctant to pay for early research, when scientists have no idea if their work will yield results, let alone profits, Sarpatwari said. So the state pays for this work, and drug companies come in to finance later-stage research once a molecule looks promising — and ultimately reap the profits.

Case in point: Fedratinib, one of the two FDA-approved drugs funded partly by CIRM, can cost about $20,000 for 120 capsules, according to GoodRx.

“We’re socializing the risk of drug development and privatizing the gains,” Sarpatwari said.

On paper, the institute has stricter pricing regulations than the NIH, which does not require that drugs developed with public money are accessible to the public. In California, companies have to submit plans for how uninsured patients will get medicine and are required to sell those medications to the state’s public health programs at a specified rate.

But in practice, the regulations have never really been tested.

Proposition 14 would add a new rule. It would take the money California makes from royalties and use it to help patients afford those treatments. It also benefits drug companies: Whatever revenue the state makes from these drugs will go back to the companies in the form of state-financed patient subsidies.

The measure also would establish a new working group (complete with 15 new, full-time staffers) that would help make clinical trials more affordable for patients by paying for lodging and transportation to the trials.

And it would increase the size of CIRM’s governing board from 29 to 35. This contradicts recommendations from the Institute of Medicine, which suggested shrinking the board to avoid conflicts of interest. Klein argues the extra board positions are necessary to represent different regions and areas of expertise.

Ultimately, California voters must weigh the possibility of new treatments against the cost of financing them with debt.

“We want to develop new therapies, and initiatives like what California is doing are well positioned to do that,” Sarpatwari said. “But at the end of the day, they’re only as good as people being able to access them affordably.”

This KHN story first published on California Healthline, a service of the California Health Care Foundation.

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Biden’s Big Health Agenda Won’t Be Easy to Achieve

If Joe Biden wins the presidency in November, health is likely to play a high-profile role in his agenda. Just probably not in the way he or anyone else might have predicted.

Barring something truly unforeseen, it’s fairly certain that on Jan. 20 the U.S. will still be in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic — and the economic dislocation it has caused. Coincidentally, that would put a new President Biden in much the same place as President Barack Obama at his inauguration in 2009: a Democratic administration replacing a Republican one in the midst of a national crisis.

Obama had only a financial crisis to deal with. Still, Biden would have a couple of advantages his Democratic predecessor lacked, including the fact that, as vice president, he helped guide the country through that financial meltdown. He’s also had time to plan how to address the crisis, which was not the case in 2009, when the economy was in freefall just as the new administration was taking office.

But like Obama before him, Biden will face a long must-do list on taking office. He will have to tackle the pandemic and economic crisis before he can turn to some of the big health changes he’s promised, such as expanding the reach of the Affordable Care Act, creating a “public option” that would allow every American to enroll in a government-sponsored plan and lowering the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 60.

And even if Democrats do retake the Senate majority and keep control of the House, it is unlikely the majority in either chamber will be as large as in 2009, when Obama had 60 Senate votes.

Still, no matter what the partisan makeup of Congress, “priority one is to get the COVID response going,” said Len Nichols, a professor of health policy at George Mason University.

Biden’s COVID plan includes taking major responsibility for the pandemic back from the states. His federal response would include more money for, and coordination of, testing and contact tracing; ensuring adequate protective equipment for health professionals; and assuring the public that new treatments and vaccines will be based on science, not politics.

In an updated version of his plan, Biden has also promised that one of his first calls if he is elected will be to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, who has been derided by President Donald Trump. “Dr. Fauci will have full access to the Oval Office and an uncensored platform to speak directly to the American people — whether delivering good news or bad,” says Biden’s website.

Biden’s COVID plan also addresses the economy — including calls for emergency paid leave for workers dislocated by the pandemic and more financial aid for workers, families and small businesses.

“If we’ve learned anything, it is that the health sector and the economy are not two separate spheres. They are connected,” said Nichols. “I think health care and the economy are complementary and will be for the foreseeable future.”

Assuming Biden gets beyond the pandemic and recession, he could move onto some of his bigger health promises, including expanding eligibility for Medicare, creating a “public option” health plan and boosting premium subsidies for the ACA.

Biden took heat throughout the primaries for his “moderate” approach to improving health insurance access and costs, compared with the “Medicare for All” plans for a government-run system supported by his top rivals, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). But that doesn’t mean his far less sweeping approach would be easy to get through Congress.

“There’s a really big difference when you’re running the government than when you’re running for office,” said Dan Mendelson, a former Clinton administration health official and founder of the health consulting firm Avalere Health.

Many of Biden’s proposals, including a public option and larger subsidies to help low- and middle-income people pay for insurance, are the very things that an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress could not pass as part of the original Affordable Care Act in 2010. Conservative Democratic senators objected to the plan.

“We pushed,” Obama said in a recent interview on the podcast “Pod Save America,” talking about the public option. “I needed 60 votes to get it through the Senate. Joe Lieberman, Ben Nelson and a couple others said, ‘I’m not voting for a public option.’”

Mendelson said another big obstacle is that for all the detail Biden has in his health plan, concepts like the public option “are not well-defined, and there are many different theories of what it should be and where it should be fielded. There’s no common vision about what it really means.”

The same thing is true, he added, for something that seems as simple as reducing the Medicare eligibility age. “More than half these people have commercial insurance,” he said. “What will happen to them?”

Grace-Marie Turner, of the conservative Galen Institute, suggested Biden — or Trump, if he’s reelected — might be better served by pursuing one of the more bipartisan health issues that already have broad support from the public, like prescription drug prices or “surprise” medical bills patients receive after getting care from a doctor outside their insurance network while being treated at an in-network facility. “It would be a big statement,” she said. “Whoever wins would then have the wind at their back.”

But even those issues have a way of getting complicated. Both Democrats and Republicans say they want to bring down drug prices, but Republicans are vehemently against one of the Democrats’ preferred ways of doing that: by allowing Medicare to negotiate with drugmakers. And surprise medical billing has so far defied efforts to fix it, as Congress seems unable to choose between health insurers and health providers, who each want the other to bear the additional costs.

As always, even when health is at the top of the agenda, it proves difficult to address.

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Despite Pandemic Threat, Gubernatorial Hopefuls Avoid COVID Nitty-Gritty

Just 15 days ahead of the election, Montana Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney laid out his ideas on how he’d handle the COVID-19 pandemic if elected governor. Details were few, but the Democrat’s plan became one of only a handful being offered by candidates in the 11 U.S. governor’s races about how they’ll approach what’s certain to be the dominant issue of their terms, should they win.

While much of the nation’s focus is on who will be president come January, voters who are deciding the next occupant of their governor’s mansion are also effectively choosing the next leader of their state’s COVID-19 response. The virus has made governors’ power highly visible to voters. As the states’ top executives, they decide whether to issue mask mandates, close businesses and order people to stay home.

All but two races for governor feature incumbents running for reelection: Montana’s Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock can’t run again because of term limits and Utah’s Republican Gov. Gary Herbert decided not to run for another term. In several other competitive races for governor this year, such as those in North Carolina and Missouri, opponents clash on the role of state mandates in slowing the virus. Still, COVID-19 often fades into the backdrop of many long-standing platforms or primarily comes up as candidates talk about the need to revive the economy.

Cooney’s proposal, released Monday, suggested using the National Guard to transport patients in extreme weather and subsidizing heating bills to help those quarantining at home. But other parts vaguely described how he would “develop a robust plan” to come.

His opponent, Republican U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, has acknowledged the health crisis but has focused primarily on the economy, saying the state has to “cure the economic pandemic” the virus caused.

Rep. Greg Gianforte, Mike Cooney’s Republican opponent, joins President Donald Trump at a rally at the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport on Nov. 3, 2018, in Belgrade, Montana.(William Campbell/Corbis via Getty Images)

Bryce Ward, a health economist with the University of Montana, said Cooney’s list was one of the first times he’s seen long-term planning for COVID-19 come up in what appears to be the nation’s tightest governor’s race. But, he added, neither Montana candidate has offered a concrete plan to deal with the dual crises that risk public health when people gather and businesses’ bottom lines when they don’t. Meanwhile, the state’s number of COVID-19 cases climbs and its economy suffers.

“Whoever wins, this is going to be the bulk of their term,” Ward said. “How are the candidates going to keep people afloat as long as they can? What are we doing in terms of planning for what we think our post-COVID world is going to look like?”

An October KFF poll found 29% of registered voters said the economy was the most important issue in choosing a president, while 18% said the coronavirus outbreak was their top issue. Republican voters were more likely to pick the economy, the survey found, and Democrats were more likely to pick the coronavirus. (KHN is an editorially independent program of KFF.)

“There are voters that feel that the government needs to lead, and there are voters that feel that the government is utilizing a pandemic to become too invasive,” said Capri Cafaro, a former Democratic Ohio state senator now teaching in American University’s public administration and policy department. “People are not necessarily making their decisions on ‘Did you do contact tracing? Are you going to slow the spread?’”

Among the incumbent governors seeking reelection this year, most of their campaigns’ focus on COVID-19 has been on how well they’ve responded to the crisis. Several pledge more of what they’ve been doing. “We’ll continue to follow the science and wear masks,” Delaware Democratic Gov. John Carney said in a recent debate.

Meanwhile, their challengers generally seek to cast the incumbents as mismanaging their states’ response and promising to undo what’s been done. Those who have put out actual plans to handle the pandemic are Democratic challengers to Republican governors, and their plans are similar to what Cooney released — some specific ideas and promises to fill in the gaps later.

In Missouri, Democratic challenger Nicole Galloway, who is the state auditor, made health care the center of her campaign and released a plan to respond to the virus with a statewide mask mandate and a limit on when public school classes can meet in person based on the community’s rate of infection.

Republican Gov. Mike Parson is the apparent front-runner in that state’s race. He has pledged to lead “the greatest economic comeback that we’ve ever seen in Missouri history.” The former Polk County sheriff also has focused on supporting law enforcement amid backlash against police brutality and racial injustice.

Curbing the coronavirus has taken a back seat to boosting the economy in Parson’s campaign. And, as governor, Parson has refused to issue a statewide mask mandate, despite a White House recommendation to do so. In late September, the governor and his wife tested positive for COVID-19. Parson has returned to work, which includes traveling across the state.

One of the more heated races is in North Carolina, where Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper is defending his seat against a challenge by his lieutenant governor, Republican Dan Forest. Forest sued Cooper this year to challenge the governor’s authority to impose COVID-related restrictions by executive order.

Forest dropped the lawsuit in August after a judge made a preliminary ruling against his case, then said on Twitter, “I did my part. If y’all want your freedoms back you’ll have to make your voices heard in November.”

Cooper’s campaign called the lawsuit “a desperate tactic to garner attention” for Forest’s political campaign. Since then, the governor has slowly eased COVID restrictions, updating an executive order to allow a limited number of people in bars, sporting events, movie theaters and amusement parks. Cooper is leading the race in recent polls.

Back in Montana, the pandemic surfaced in the gubernatorial campaign after health officials announced on Oct. 16 that a Helena concert, which Gianforte attended, was linked to several COVID-19 cases. More than 100 health professionals blasted him in an open letter for flouting local health restrictions, going maskless and making light of safety precautions at campaign events. Cooney called on him to suspend his campaign events until tested. Gianforte’s campaign has said he’s taking proper precautions and accused Cooney of politicizing a public health issue.

Cooney has said he’ll keep Montana’s COVID-19 response on the track he is helping set as lieutenant governor, with science guiding that work. Gianforte, who built a tech startup in Bozeman, has touted his business experience as proof he can lead Montana’s comeback. Both have said more needs to be learned about this virus and have pitched themselves as the one to steer the state’s economy through the crisis.

Ward, the University of Montana health economist, said the details are missing, such as how the winner will support businesses through the winter without federal aid. Or what the new governor would cut from the state budget if the economic crisis hits its coffers.

The state has a public mask mandate and a plan for reopening the economy with no apparent thresholds or timelines. The option for stricter rules has been left to county governments as the state sees its largest COVID surge yet.

Jeremy Johnson, a political scientist at Carroll College in Helena, said the initial lack of detailed pandemic policy in the state’s race could be attributed to both candidates trying to win over swing voters with safe themes. President Donald Trump won Montana in 2016 by 20 points, but the state has also had a Democratic governor for 16 years. While polls show Gianforte leading Cooney slightly, election handicappers Real Clear Politics and the Cook Political Report still consider the race a toss-up.

Yet as Election Day nears, the question of how to address the pandemic only looms larger. Montana’s case count is rising, adding to its total of more than 23,000 cases in the state of roughly 1 million.

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Health Care Groups Dive Into Property Tax Ballot Fight, Eyeing Public Health Money

SACRAMENTO — A November ballot initiative to raise property taxes on big-business owners in California is drawing unconventional political support from health care power players and public health leaders.

They see Proposition 15 as a potential savior for chronically underfunded local health departments struggling to respond to the worst public health crisis in more than a century. The initiative would change California’s property tax system to tax some commercial properties higher than residential properties, which backers say could generate billions to help local governments pay for critical public health infrastructure and staffing.

Without such additional state or federal funding, local governments could be forced to make deeper budget cuts in health and other departments next year as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to strain city and county finances.

“When you’re talking about health care, you’re talking about money,” said Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access California, a Sacramento-based consumer advocacy group. “This is the major revenue measure on the ballot this year, and it’s an opportunity to fund public health at the place where the main responsibility for public health lies — at the county level.”

At least that’s how health care advocates are casting the tax hike. But there’s no guarantee that if the measure passes counties would use new revenue to address COVID-19 or other health care needs. And some rural counties fear they would lose money if the ballot measure passes, which could undercut public health efforts.

Support within the health care and local government worlds is not unanimous. The powerful California Hospital Association opposes the measure because it would result in higher taxes on private and investor-owned hospitals, said spokesperson Jan Emerson-Shea. Nonprofit hospitals, including those run by Sutter Health, Kaiser Permanente and Dignity Health, are exempt from paying property taxes despite their regular high revenue. They would remain exempt under the initiative. (KHN, which produces California Healthline, is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.)

“This new tax will mean millions of dollars will be taken away from patient care, in perpetuity,” Emerson-Shea said.

Proposition 15 would amend California’s landmark 1978 property tax initiative, Proposition 13, which capped commercial and residential property tax rates at 1% of assessed value at the time of purchase, and limited annual increases thereafter to 2%. The drop in property taxes as a result of the initiative decimated a major revenue source for public schools and social welfare programs, leaving many underfunded.

Voters are now being asked to allow higher taxes for business owners with commercial holdings valued at more than $3 million. If passed, the measure could generate up to $11.5 billion a year, according to the nonpartisan state Legislative Analyst’s Office. It would not apply to residential properties.

Forty percent of annual revenue would be distributed to K-12 schools and community colleges, with 60% sent to cities and counties. Nothing in the measure would require new local revenue to be spent on health care, but supporters say it’s their best hope after losing $134 million in state public health money this year as one-time funding for specific programs expired. At the same time, slammed by a projected $54 billion deficit, Gov. Gavin Newsom and state lawmakers declined this year to increase funding for local health departments to combat COVID-19 and rebuild public health infrastructure.

Sponsors of Proposition 15, including the California Teachers Association and the Service Employees International Union California, argue it’s an overdue change that would tax wealthier enterprises in exchange for funding vital school and health care programs. They point out that the initiative, supported by Newsom and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, would require schools and local governments to disclose all new revenue they receive and how money is spent.

If passed, money from the measure would begin flowing to schools and counties in 2022 at the earliest.

Opponents of the measure, including the California Chamber of Commerce, the California Republican Party and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, say hiking taxes on commercial property owners would harm struggling businesses hit hard by COVID-related closures.

“This is being pushed as a panacea cure-all, but at the end of the day, there is no accountability for where these funds go,” said Michael Bustamante, a spokesperson for the “No on Prop 15” campaign. “There are, without question, an infinite number of needs, but there is no specificity with what it can or can’t be spent on.”

Kat DeBurgh, executive director of the Health Officers Association of California, which represents the state’s 61 local health officers and has not taken a position on the initiative, said ongoing, unrestricted revenue could actually benefit counties by allowing them to spearhead public health programs that address local needs.

At present, counties are limited in what they can do with their public health dollars, she said. Most additional funding in recent years has largely been earmarked for specific programs or diseases, such as hepatitis C and HIV, and counties are not allowed to spend it on their COVID-19 response or other public health activities.

“Maybe your community’s highest priority is not something easily funded by one of these grants. Many rural areas in our state don’t have access to clean drinking water, for example,” DeBurgh said. “And our greatest demand — more public health workers — can’t be funded with grants or one-time money.”

Health care leaders also argue the initiative could help support community clinics and public hospitals that provide care for uninsured people, who have also suffered financially during the pandemic.

“What we’re really trying to avoid is having to balance the budget on the backs of people who need services,” said Jodi Hicks, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California. “Our public health system has clear inequities that we need to address, and additional funding can help fill in the gaps at the county level.”

Hicks said Planned Parenthood, which provides sex education in California public schools, is supporting the initiative not only to improve public health, but also because she worries programs like sex education will be on the chopping block as the state experiences unprecedented job and economic losses.

“Those types of programs are the first to get cut when there’s not enough funding,” she said.

Small, rural counties could also lose funding, county assessors said.

While the initiative would likely raise taxes on large commercial property owners who have seen their land and property appreciate in value over the years, it would eliminate property taxes for other business assets, such as machinery and equipment, for the first $500,000 in value.

Counties that haven’t seen land values climb as high as those in coastal regions like the Bay Area may not collect more property taxes while also losing revenue from the tax cut on other business assets.

Chuck Leonhardt, the elected assessor for rural Plumas County, projects that his county could be one of the losers.

“This would take $90 million in assessed value from our tax roll at the beginning, and then I’d have to reassess 2,000 commercial properties,” he said. “Many of us rural counties don’t feel we’ll benefit from doing these reappraisals and my expectation is we could lose some money.”

Even among supporters in public health, some fear that any potential windfall for counties would be allocated based on the whims of local politics.

“Even though I support it, I am skeptical that this money will go to the public health programs and basic infrastructure we so desperately need because public health has no constituency,” said Bruce Pomer, a public health expert and chief lobbyist for the California Association of Public Health Laboratory Directors.

He pointed to Sacramento County, where the sheriff’s department received a larger share of the $181 million in federal COVID-19 relief money than the county public health department.

“I’m worried we’ll see the same thing we saw with Sacramento County,” Pomer said.

This KHN story first published on California Healthline, a service of the California Health Care Foundation.

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Al sopesar los temas de salud, la mayoría de los votantes se inclinan hacia Biden

Al menos la mitad de los votantes prefiere el enfoque de la atención médica del ex vicepresidente Joe Biden al del presidente Donald Trump, lo que sugiere que la preocupación por reducir los costos y manejar la pandemia podría influir en el resultado de esta elección, según revela una nueva encuesta.

Los hallazgos, de la encuesta mensual de KFF, indican que los votantes no confían en las garantías del presidente de que protegerá a las personas con condiciones preexistentes de las compañías de seguros si la Corte Suprema anulara la Ley de Cuidado de Salud a Bajo Precio (ACA).

Un mes antes de que el tribunal escuche los argumentos de los fiscales generales republicanos y la administración Trump a favor de revocar la ley, la encuesta muestra que el 79% del público no quiere que el Supremo cancele las protecciones de cobertura para los estadounidenses con afecciones preexistentes. La mayoría de los republicanos, el 66%, dijo que no quiere que se anulen esas garantías.

Además de dejar a unos 21 millones de estadounidenses sin seguro, revocar ACA podría permitir a las compañías de seguros cobrar más o negar cobertura a las personas porque tienen condiciones preexistentes, una práctica común antes que se estableciera la ley, y que un análisis del gobierno reveló en 2017 que podría afectar hasta a 133 millones de estadounidenses.

Casi 6 de cada 10 personas dijeron que tenían un familiar con una condición preexistente o crónica, como diabetes, hipertensión, o cáncer, y aproximadamente la mitad dijo que les preocupa que un ser querido no pueda pagar la cobertura, o la pierda por completo, si se anulara la ley.

La encuesta revela una preferencia sorprendente por Biden sobre Trump cuando se trata de proteger a las personas con condiciones preexistentes, un tema que el 94% de los votantes dijo que ayudaría a decidir por quién votar. Biden tiene una ventaja de 20 puntos: un 56% prefiere su enfoque, contra un 36% para Trump.

De hecho, el sondeo muestra una preferencia por Biden en todos los problemas de atención médica que se plantean, incluso entre los mayores de 65 años y en temas que Trump ha dicho que eran sus prioridades mientras estuviera en el cargo, lo que indica que los votantes no están satisfechos con el trabajo del presidente para reducir los costos de la atención médica, en particular. El apoyo a los esfuerzos de Trump para reducir el precio de los medicamentos recetados ha disminuido, y los votantes ahora prefieren el enfoque de Biden, del 50% al 43%.

La mayoría de los votantes dijeron que prefieren el plan de Biden para lidiar con el brote de COVID-19, 55% a 39%, y para desarrollar y distribuir una vacuna para COVID, 51% a 42%. Trump ha delegado en gran medida la gestión de la pandemia a los funcionarios estatales y locales, al tiempo que prometió que los científicos desafiarían las expectativas y producirían una vacuna antes del día de las elecciones.

Cuando se les preguntó qué tema era más importante para decidir por quién votar, la mayoría de los encuestados señaló a la atención médica. El 18% eligió el brote de COVID-19 y el 12% mencionó el cuidado de salud en general. Casi una proporción igual, el 29%, optó por la economía.

La encuesta se realizó del 7 al 12 de octubre, después del primer debate presidencial y el anuncio de Trump de que había dado positivo para COVID-19. El margen de error es más o menos 3 puntos porcentuales para la muestra completa y 4 puntos porcentuales para los votantes.

(KHN es un programa editorialmente independiente de KFF).

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Majority of Voters Tilt Toward Biden as Health Issues Weigh Heavily

At least half of voters prefer former Vice President Joe Biden’s approach to health care over President Donald Trump’s, suggesting voter concern about lowering costs and managing the pandemic could sway the outcome of this election, a new poll shows.

The findings, from KFF’s monthly tracking poll, signal that voters do not trust assurances from the president that he will protect people with preexisting conditions from being penalized by insurance companies if the Supreme Court overturns the Affordable Care Act. (KHN is an editorially independent program of KFF.)

Coming a month before the court will hear arguments from Republican attorneys general and the Trump administration that the health law should be overturned, the poll shows 79% of the public does not want the court to cancel coverage protections for Americans with preexisting conditions. A majority of Republicans, 66%, said they do not want those safeguards overturned.

In addition to leaving about 21 million Americans uninsured, overturning the ACA could allow insurance companies to charge more or deny coverage to individuals because they have preexisting conditions — a common practice before the law was established, and one that a government analysis said in 2017 could affect as many as 133 million Americans.

Nearly 6 in 10 people said they have a family member with a preexisting or chronic condition, such as diabetes or cancer, and about half said they worry about a relative being unable to afford coverage, or lose it outright, if the law is overturned.

The poll reveals a striking preference for Biden over Trump when it comes to protecting preexisting conditions, an issue that 94% of voters said would help decide who they vote for. Biden has a 20-point advantage, with voters preferring his approach 56% to 36% for Trump.

In fact, it shows a preference for Biden on every health care issue posed, including among those age 65 and older and on issues that Trump has said were his priorities while in office — signaling voters are not satisfied with the president’s work to lower health care costs, in particular. Support for Trump’s efforts to lower prescription drug costs has been slipping, with voters now preferring Biden’s approach, 50% to 43%.

A majority of voters said they prefer Biden’s plan for dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak, 55% to 39%, and for developing and distributing a vaccine for COVID-19, 51% to 42%. Trump has largely left it up to state and local officials to manage the outbreak, while promising that scientists would defy expectations and produce a vaccine before Election Day.

Asked which issue is most important to deciding whom to vote for, most pointed to health care issues, with 18% choosing the COVID-19 outbreak and 12% saying health care overall. Nearly an equal share, 29%, selected the economy.

The survey was conducted Oct. 7-12, after the first presidential debate and Trump’s announcement that he had tested positive for COVID-19. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points for the full sample and 4 percentage points for voters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pence Said Biden Copied Trump’s Pandemic Response Plan. Pants on Fire!

During last week’s vice presidential debate, moderator Susan Page, USA Today’s Washington bureau chief, asked Vice President Mike Pence about the U.S. COVID-19 death toll. Pence replied by touting the Trump administration’s actions to combat the pandemic, such as restrictions on travel from China, steps to expand testing and efforts to accelerate the production of a vaccine.

Pence also took a jab at Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, a strong critic of the Trump pandemic response. “The reality is, when you look at the Biden plan, it reads an awful lot like what President Trump and I and our task force have been doing every step of the way,” said Pence. “And, quite frankly, when I look at their plan,” he added, “it looks a little bit like plagiarism, which is something Joe Biden knows a little bit about.”

(Pence’s gibe about plagiarism is likely a reference to Biden copying phrases from a British politician’s speeches during his first run for president in 1987, an issue that caused him to drop out of the race. In 2019, the Biden campaign acknowledged it had inadvertently lifted language in its climate and education plans without attributing the sources.)

Because COVID-19 continues to spread throughout the United States, with nearly 8 million cases and upward of 215,000 deaths, we decided to examine both the Trump and Biden plans to curb the pandemic and investigate whether Pence was on target in his charge that the Biden plan is rooted in Trump’s ideas.

We reached out to both presidential campaigns for their candidates’ COVID-19 plans. The Trump campaign did not respond to our request, but we looked at a campaign website timeline of administration actions on COVID-19, as well as a coronavirus fact sheet from the White House. The Biden campaign sent us a link to Biden’s COVID-19 plan.

At first glance, there are obvious similarities. Both declare goals like vaccine development and expanding public availability of COVID-19 tests.

“Most pandemic response plans should be at their core fairly similar, if they’re well executed,” said Nicolette Louissaint, executive director of Healthcare Ready, a nonprofit organization focused on strengthening the U.S. health care supply chain.

But public health experts also pointed to significant philosophical differences in how the plans are put into action.

“You ought to think about it as two groups of people trying to make a car,” said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. “They have to have four wheels, probably have to have a bumper, have some doors,” he said. It is how you build the car from that point forward that determines what the end product looks like.

What Trump Has Done

As Pence pointed out, the Trump administration has focused its efforts to combat COVID-19 along a couple of lines.

The administration formed the White House coronavirus task force in January and issued travel restrictions for some people traveling from China and other countries in February. Federal social distancing guidelines were issued in March and expired on April 30. The administration launched Operation Warp Speed in April, with the goal of producing and delivering 300 million doses of a coronavirus vaccine beginning in January 2021. A more detailed logistics plan to distribute a vaccine was issued later. Trump activated the Defense Production Act for certain protective equipment and ventilators. His administration also has talked about efforts to expand COVID-19 testing in partnership with the private sector, as well as initiatives to help cover costs for COVID-19 treatments and make tests free of charge.

Importantly, the administration also shifted significant decision-making responsibility to states, leaving the development of testing plans, procurement of personal protective equipment and decrees on stay-at-home orders and mask mandates to the discretion of the governor or local governments. Despite that, Trump still urged states to reopen beginning in May, though in many areas cases of COVID-19 remained high.

What Biden Proposes to Do

Biden’s plan would set out strong national standards for testing, contact tracing and social distancing — words that echo the Trump plan. It proposes working with states on mask mandates, establishing a “supply commander” in charge of shoring up PPE, aggressively using the Defense Production Act and accelerating vaccine development.

It also outlines plans to extend more fiscal relief, provide enhanced health insurance coverage, eliminate cost sharing for COVID treatments, reestablish a team on the National Security Council to address pandemic response and to maintain membership inthe World Health Organization. Trump announced earlier this summer that the U.S. would begin procedures to withdraw from the WHO, effective as of July 6, 2021.

Biden has said he would follow scientific advice if indicators pointed to a need to dial up social distancing guidelines in light of another wave of COVID-19 cases.

What’s the Same, What’s Different

Dr. Rachel Vreeman, director of the Arnhold Institute for Global Health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, noted in an email that a key likeness is that the two plans “sometimes used similar words, such as testing, PPE and vaccines.”

But “the overall philosophy from the start, from the White House and from Trump, has been to let states and local governments deal with this problem,” said Josh Michaud, associate director for global health policy at KFF. “Biden would have a much more forceful role for the federal government in setting strategy and guidelines in regards to the public health response.” (KHN is an editorially independent program of KFF.)

Even Pence pointed out this philosophical difference during the debate, saying that Democrats want to exert government control while Trump and Republicans left health choices up to individual Americans.

Vreeman and others pointed to another contrast — that the Trump administration has yet to issue a comprehensive COVID-19 response plan.

“What plan? I would really love it if someone could show me a plan. A press release is not a plan,” said Dr. Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University.

Wen is right that the Trump administration has not issued a detailed plan, such as Biden’s document. The Trump administration has, however, offered a road map for how vaccines would be distributed.

Behavior Matters, Too

Another major distinction emerged in the way the candidates have communicated the threat of the coronavirus to the public and reacted to public health guidelines, such as those issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

During most public outings and campaign rallies, Trump has chosen not to wear a mask — even after he tested positive and was treated for COVID-19. He has been known to mock others, including reporters and Biden, for wearing masks. And, Trump and members of his administration have not adhered to social distancing guidelines at official events. The White House indoor reception and outdoor Rose Garden event held to mark the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court – at each one, few attendees followed these precautions – have been associated with the transmission of at least 11 cases of coronavirus, according to a website tracking the cases from public reports. There are also multiple reported cases among White House and Trump campaign staff members.

Throughout the pandemic, Trump has downplayed the threat of COVID-19, touted unproven treatments for the disease such as bleach, hydroxychloroquine or UV light, questioned the effectiveness of face masks and criticized or contradicted public health officials’ statements about the pandemic.

In comparison, Biden has worn masks during his public campaign events and has encouraged Americans to do so as well. His events strictly adhere to public health guidelines, including wearing masks, social distancing and limiting the number of attendees.

The two candidates’ approaches to listening to scientists are also different.

“Biden has said he is going to look at science and value the best scientists,” said Benjamin. “The Trump administration has not walked the talk; they have said one thing and done something else. If you go on the Trump administration website, you see guidelines that they didn’t follow themselves.”

In the end, the Biden campaign has the distinction of being able to learn from the Trump administration’s early missteps, said the experts.

There’s also a reality check: if Biden wins and attempts to implement his COVID-19 plan, it’s important to consider that no matter how well thought out it looks on paper, he may not be able to accomplish everything.

“There’s a lot of words in this plan,” said Joseph Antos, a resident scholar in health care policy at the American Enterprise Institute. “But until you’re in the job, a lot of this doesn’t really matter.”

Our Ruling

Pence claimed the Biden plan to address COVID-19 was similar to the Trump administration’s plan “every step of the way.”

A cursory, side-by-side look at the Trump administration’s COVID-19 actions — no actual comprehensive plan has been released — and the Biden plan indicates some big picture overlap on securing a vaccine and ramping up testing. But that’s where the similarities end.

Biden’s plan includes proposed actions the Trump administration has not pursued. It also is focused on federal rather than state authority, a significant distinction Pence himself pointed out during the debate.

Additionally, the candidates’ behaviors toward COVID-19 and views on science have been diametrically opposed, with Trump eschewing the use of face masks and social distancing, and Biden closely adhering to both.

Pence’s statement ignores critical facts and realities, making it inaccurate and ridiculous.

We rate it Pants On Fire.

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With Senate Control at Stake, Trump and COVID Haunt Ernst’s Fight to Keep Her Seat

The week that Iowa reported its 90,000th confirmed case of COVID-19, Sen. Joni Ernst sat behind a plexiglass partition and told a debate audience watching from home what she thinks about masks.

“Even though they’re homemade, they work,” said Ernst, an Iowa Republican, showing off a mask emblazoned with the logo of Iowa State University, the largest university in the state.

But what about requiring people to wear masks when they cannot safely distance themselves? On that, she sided with the state’s Republican governor and President Donald Trump, contradicting evidence that states with mask mandates have seen bigger drops in coronavirus cases than those without: “We know that it doesn’t work,” she asserted about mandates.

Trump and COVID-19 loom large in this race and they are putting Ernst in a precarious position. In less than six years, she has gone from being a rising star — who was reportedly under consideration to become Trump’s vice presidential running mate in 2016 — to running neck and neck against a political newcomer, businesswoman Theresa Greenfield. The race is critical to the Republicans’ hopes of keeping control of the Senate.

Part of her problem is Trump. A Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa poll last month showed more than 1 in 3 Iowa voters think Ernst’s relationship to Trump is “too close.”

Art Cullen, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who runs The Storm Lake Times in northwestern Iowa, recently wrote: Ernst “is in lockstep with Trump and McConnell on nearly every issue,” referring to the Senate’s Republican majority leader, Mitch McConnell. “Iowans don’t like that. They like mavericks.”

But another part of her problem is how the Trump administration has mishandled the response to the pandemic. Iowa suffered from some of the nation’s bigger COVID-19 outbreaks, with the state reporting in recent days record numbers of hospitalizations. It has been bad enough that last week the White House coronavirus task force called on Iowa to institute a statewide mask mandate.

Candidate Theresa Greenfield, center, speaks with attendees during a campaign event in Waverly, Iowa, on Oct. 5.(Rachel Mummey/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Greenfield is capitalizing on Ernst having toed the party line on downplaying the COVID-19 threat. The Register poll found that Greenfield, who is campaigning on the ideas that Ernst has done too little to protect Iowans during the pandemic and been too friendly to corporate donors, had a slight edge over the incumbent senator, 45% to 42%. That result is well within the poll’s margin of error. A Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday also found Greenfield has a slight lead over Ernst, 50% to 45%, just outside the poll’s 2.8-point margin of error. Political analysts say the race is a toss-up.

It doesn’t help Ernst that Trump has lost strength in Iowa. Polls show the president, who won the Iowa vote by more than 9 percentage points in 2016, is in a dead heat with the Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden.

And that decline could very well be because of COVID-19. A New York Times analysis released this summer showed voter support for Biden grew by about 2.5 percentage points locally when a county experienced “extremely high levels” of COVID-19 fatalities — similar to the way support for elected officials drops during wartime in areas that have lost troops.

Those deaths were costing Republicans running for the Senate “as much as they are costing the president,” the analysis found.

In August, Ernst fanned the flames of a conspiracy theory amplified by Trump and at least one other vulnerable Republican that only 10,000 Americans had died of COVID-19. (More than 185,000 had died at that point.) She said at a campaign event in Waterloo, Iowa, that she was “so skeptical” of the official death toll and raised the possibility that doctors were inflating the numbers for financial gain.

Her comments sparked a sharp backlash and, a few days later, she released a statement concurring with the official death toll from public health experts. The Ernst campaign did not respond to an interview request for this story.

In a statement last week, Greenfield said elected officials must listen to public health experts and set clear examples to help Iowans take the crisis seriously. “By pointing fingers and playing politics, not passing the relief Iowans urgently need, and refusing to apologize for her dangerous comments about the Covid-19 death toll, Senator Ernst has failed to put Iowa first during this pandemic,” she said.

Last spring the virus spread through the state’s meatpacking plants, potentially exposing thousands after Trump ordered the plants to stay open. In early October the state’s fourth-largest city, Sioux City, ranked in the top 10 of affected metropolitan areas nationwide, with about 64.3 cases per 100,000 residents.

Students returning to Iowa State University and the University of Iowa in August sparked two of the largest outbreaks nationwide at that time, prompting an editorial in the University of Iowa’s student newspaper: “The University of Iowa is not safe.”

Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican who has refused calls to impose a mask mandate, closed bars in six counties for less than three weeks before working to loosen quarantine restrictions — against the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

About 15% of likely voters in Iowa said COVID-19 is the most important issue, although just 1% of Republican voters said the pandemic is their top concern, according to a recent Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa poll. The most important issue is the economy, 31% of likely voters say.

Iowa has borne the blow of Trump’s trade disputes, with farmers forced to accept millions in federal bailout money after a tit-for-tat tariff war with China and other nations cut off crop exports.

Leonard Foster of Mason City, Iowa, 82, spoke of a neighbor who was struggling to sell his grain and cattle because of the disputes. The future of Social Security and Medicare are his biggest concerns, though he said he also worries about his children and grandchildren contracting COVID-19. A lifelong Democrat who had voted for Chuck Grassley, Iowa’s other Republican senator, he is not planning to back Ernst.

“She’s agreeing with Trump too much, as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

Ernst faces pressing questions about her party’s failure to agree on a replacement for the Affordable Care Act. The Supreme Court will hear a case next month that could overturn the law, an outcome that looks more likely if Trump’s latest nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, is seated in time to participate. Ernst has insisted she supports the ACA’s popular protections for preexisting conditions as critics point out that her past votes to repeal the law would have eliminated those protections.

Congress’ failure to renew aid for struggling businesses and families has left some Iowans feeling, at best, that the government is not doing enough and, at worst, that politicians like Trump are hampering economic recovery.

Melissa Warren of Wellman, Iowa, said her husband has been sick with COVID symptoms and unable to work since March. Though he was hospitalized for pneumonia and remains ill, she said he has not tested positive for the virus. That disqualifies him from the few federal protections against COVID-19 bills.

Their high-deductible insurance plan is expensive, and he does not qualify for other benefits. After visits to specialists like cardiologists and pulmonologists, the medical bills are piling up, Warren said.

A Methodist pastor who works with low-income communities, Warren described presiding over one of the first funerals in Iowa for a COVID victim and the fear and pain of a family that could not even gather to grieve due to public health restrictions.

“Watching, for example, the president choosing to not wear masks, to give information that’s incorrect, has been very devastating for communities trying to build themselves up and care for one another,” she said in an interview before the announcement of Trump’s own diagnosis.

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