Tag: Health Care Costs

An Arm and a Leg: Wait, Is Insulin Cheaper Now?

Pharmaceutical companies that manufacture insulin made headlines last year when they voluntarily agreed to provide discount cards that lower the monthly cost of insulin for many people to $35. 

But getting your hands on this card — and persuading a pharmacist to accept it — can be a hassle.

In this episode of “An Arm and a Leg,” producer Emily Pisacreta speaks with “insulin activists” and pharmaceutical experts to find out what this change in prices means for people with diabetes and why the fight for affordable insulin isn’t over yet.

Note: “An Arm and a Leg” uses speech-recognition software to generate transcripts, which may contain errors. Please use the transcript as a tool but check the corresponding audio before quoting the podcast.

Dan: Hey there. Right after the holidays, I got an email from a listener named Brianna.It started, “Happy new year Dan! I was just reading the news about the price of insulin going down to $35! Is that for everyone?”

And I was like, Huh. I had a sense that there was some news about the price of insulin, but 35 dollars a month for everyone? That sounded like a BIG reduction. And big news.I googled the latest stories, and I was… not totally sure what I was seeing.

I was definitely seeing some new stories about people paying 35 bucks from here on out. And there seemed to be some federal law involved, and politicians were patting themselves on the back. But it just wasn’t totally clear: Was insulin now 35 dollars for everyone? Did the outrageous price of insulin get solved while I wasn’t looking?

And I mean, I’ve kinda been looking. We’ve done a couple of episodes about the price of insulin already — because insulin is iconic. It represents the wild cost of prescription drugs in this country. More than 8 million Americans take insulin to treat their diabetes – and for some, going without it could actually kill you.

And its price got jacked up so much — huge multiples over like ten years — — that one in four of those people who couldn’t go without… took to rationing: Seeing how much they could go without, short of actually dying.

So I asked our senior producer Emily Pisacreta to take the case.

Emily: I feel more like the senior insulin correspondent, which is fine with me as the resident type 1 diabetic! And a lot has happened since the last time we talked about insulin on this show. We really do need an update.

Dan: This is an “Arm and a Leg”, a show about why healthcare costs so freaking much, and what we can maybe do about it. I’m Dan Weissmann, I’m a reporter and I like a challenge. So our job here is to take one of the most enraging, terrifying, depressing parts of American life, and bring you something entertaining, empowering and useful.

Today we have a question: what’s going on with insulin? Is it $35 now?

Emily: Well, there have been some BIG improvements — bigger than I thought when I started reporting. A lot of people can get their monthly supply of insulin for just $35. But it is oversimplified to say it just costs $35 now. And the people who have been fighting to lower the price of insulin over the past decade? They’re still very pissed. So let me walk you through what changed, what led to those changes, and what’s still unresolved.

Dan: OK!

Emily: For years now, there’s been a giant push from people with diabetes to get the federal government to do something about the high cost of insulin. In 2022, finally something came through. I’m talking about a provision in Inflation Reduction Act.

Dan: Yes– I remember this– the Inflation Reduction Act was a big infrastructure bill that included, like renewable energy subsidies, and– honestly, this is the reason that I remember the bill, because we did an episode about this part–  letting medicare negotiate some drug prices?

Emily: Exactly. It said people on Medicare would be able to get a month’s supply of insulin for no more than $35 out of pocket. But of course that left a big gaping hole. BECAUSE that’s cool for people on Medicare, but what about the rest of us? And the pharma companies were feeling the heat. Here’s President Biden in his State of the Union last year:

President Biden: Big pharma has been unfairly charging people hundreds of dollars, four to $500 a month making record profits. Not anymore. Not anymore.

Emily: By the way, those pharma companies? There’s three of them who make insulin.

That’s the American company Eli Lilly, the Danish company Novo Nordisk, and the French company Sanofi. OK so: not long after  Joe Biden talked about their record profits, the insulin makers were back in the news. …

Eli Lilly was the first to announce they were going to slash prices on several of their most popular insulins, and limit out of pocket spending to $35 a month.

Fox News: This is a big story.

 Next, Novo Nordisk and Sanofi made similar announcements. 

CNN: Millions of Americans are affected by this major news this morning for millions of people suffering from diabetes and high prescription drug costs.

Basically, the insulin manufacturers all said hey, you’re not covered by this Medicare thing? We’re going to bring your copay down to $35 ourselves. So if you have commercial insurance Print out this card, take it to the pharmacy, and your copay will be no more than $35 for a month’s supply of insulin.

Dan: And what if you’re uninsured?

Emily: Well, they have a card for that, too.

Dan: OK so what I’m hearing is you need a card.

DAN: Yes. How do you get one?

Emily: The insulin makers set special phone numbers you can call. Or you can visit their websites, fill out a little form, and download the card.

Dan: Sounds simple, unless I’m missing something?

Emily: In all honesty, I had no problem with those steps. But I wouldn’t assume that’s the case for everyone. And I’m also not rationing insulin right now.

Zoe Witt: When you are rationing insulin, maybe you aren’t even fully rationing insulin yet, but you don’t know how you’re going to get Your next prescription, your next fill of insulin…You are in crisis. Like, you, you do not have the capability to sift through these websites. It’s very confusing. It’s very overwhelming.

Emily: This is someone who frequently speaks to people struggling to afford insulin.

Zoe Witt: my name is Zoe Witt. I work with Mutual Aid Diabetes.

Emily: Mutual Aid Diabetes. That’s an all volunteer group that has banded together to help diabetics get what they need, when they need it. They help people with cash and with free diabetes supplies, including insulin, no questions asked. That means Zoe knows the ins and outs of every obstacle to getting insulin.

Zoe Witt: Our healthcare system is like a whack a mole from hell.

Emily:  And Zoe reminds me: if you’re not taking enough insulin, you probably feel awful. Maybe not even thinking straight. And it can affect your eyes, making it hard to read.

Zoe Witt: It just is unmanageable

Emily: Zoe says they talk with people all the time who are too stressed out or too debilitated to download these cards and use them.  Diabetes folks walk people through the process. And once someone has the card… Mutual Aid Diabetes gives people the 35 bucks, too, if they say they need it. Because $35 can be a barrier for a lot of people. And it’s actually $70 sometimes if you use 2 types of insulin at once, which lots of people do… myself included.

Dan: Wow. OK. But then once people have the cards they typically have no problem?

Emily: Well, your pharmacist has to know what they’re doing, too. So sometimes it means a patient having to educate their pharmacist– or even bring the doctor in to help troubleshoot — which is no picnic. And people with diabetes are always having to deal with insurance roadblocks at the pharmacy, so I don’t want to make anything sound simpler than it is. 

Dan: It’s like a whack a mole from hell!

Emily: Exactly! And the cards don’t solve everything. Especially this: if you have insurance, these cards only apply to the insulin your insurance plan already covers. If you normally need a prior authorization to get the right insulin for you… that is still the case.

Dan: Right. Okay.  like prior authorization is this roadblock to getting all kinds of treatment, that you and your doctor agree that you should have, and your insurance company can say, we disagree. We’re s not authorizing this. And then you’re stuck. 

Emily: Right. 

Dan:But in terms of what the pharma companies. can do to kind of offer you a deal. They’re basically doing it. Is that right? 

Emily: I think that’s fair to say. 

Dan: That’s super interesting. All right. So it’s not solved, but this is a big step forward. And what’s not solved is: some people are still on the hook for the list price for insulin — the price without any discounts or insurance or whatever. But you found big improvements there too, right? 

Emily: Yes! When the companies announced all these discount cards, they announced a whole other big change, too. Slashing the list prices of a bunch of different insulins by up 75%. So a vial that once was north of $300 is now being listed at around $70.

Dan: OK, that sounds like a big improvement.

Emily: It’s a big, big deal. Actual price reductions are what diabetes advocates have been demanding all along. And… while these are still the highest prices in the world for these same insulins, to see them drop from triple to double digits, it’s wild.

Dan: I sense that there’s a “but” here.

Emily: Well, the Big Three didn’t lower the price of every type of insulin, only ones that have been around since the 1990s or early 2000s. Newer insulins that work faster or last longer are not included here.

Dan: And I’m guessing not all insulins work the same way.

Emily: Right. Some people can switch between types or brands of insulin easily. For other people, there can be allergies or one works better with their body with another kind. It’s complicated. It’s medicine! AND… there have been some issues with pharmacies actually stocking lower list price insulin. That is a whole ‘nother saga… an episode for another day. But the important thing is… a bunch of insulin is a lot cheaper now.

Dan: Wow. Emily, you said right at the top: The changes here are bigger and better than you realized before you started reporting. 

Emily: Yes but there’s still a lot more to say. 

Right. After the break, we’ll’ hear from you about why these changes happened NOW. And what it means for people with diabetes and really all of us…


So. We have seen some big changes in the last year — including DRUG COMPANIES expanding their discount programs and lowering the sticker prices on insulin, dramatically. Why now? I’m guessing this wasn’t because they had a big change of heart.

Emily: I can’t speak to what’s in pharma’s hearts. But I did talk to someone who knows a lot about pharma’s brain.

Ed Silverman: my name is Ed Silverman, and I work at Stat News, a health and life sciences website,

Emily: I’m a big fan of Stat News

Dan: Me too, man! Their reporting is great.

Emily:  And Ed Silverman. He’s been covering the pharmaceutical industry for almost 30 years. He thinks activism from people with diabetes over the years created political pressure that played a big role in the decision to slash prices. But there was also something kind of hidden at work.

Ed Silverman: It’s not altruism, here was a real mechanism, government mechanism in place that helped change the equation and therefore the thinking back at the companies.

Dan: OK… what is he talking about?

Emily: So, Dan: do you remember the stimulus bill, the American Rescue Plan?

Dan: I’m starting to feel like this episode is a quiz on recent-ish legislation. And I think I’m gonna do pretty well here:.The American Rescue Plan was a trillion dollar stimulus that Joe Biden got passed right after he got into office– am I right?

Emily: OK, hotshot. Do you remember how in part 8 section 9816 they sunsetted the limit on the maximum rebate for single source drugs and innovator multiple source drugs?

Dan:  Um, busted. No. 

Emily: Ok so here’s the deal: it’s obviously kinda wonky so I’ll simplify– in that little section Congress made a tweak to Medicaid, basically raising penalties on drug-makers for jacking up prices too far, too fast. So if you’re a pharma company who has raised the price of a drug by a lot very quickly, which is true of insulin, and a lot of people on Medicaid use your drug, which is also true of insulin, then you have to pay a big penalty. In the case of insulin, that penalty would be more than you’d make selling the insulin to Medicaid. A LOT more: So, unless you bring the price back down, you’re going to owe Medicaid a lot of moolah. And those penalties were set to kick in January 1st 2024.

Dan: So you’re telling me: Part of what the pharma companies did here came right out of a small part of a giant federal law from 2021.

Emily: Yep. And there’s another big wheel turning in the background here. Novo Nordisk and Eli Lilly, two companies who really got their start by selling insulin, now make other diabetes drugs — drugs that are now increasingly used for weight loss. And it’s a bonanza.

GMA: It is literally the hottest drug in the country right now.

Fox News: all people are talking about these days is Ozempic, wegovy. Oh my gosh, this person lost 20 pounds. This person lost 50 pounds.

Ozempic Ad: [Jingle:] “Oh, Oh, Oh, Ozempic!
[Announcer:] Once weekly Ozempic is helping many people with type 2 diabetes like James lower their blood sugar.

Emily: Drugs like Ozempic, Wegovy, Mounjaro. They’ve been in super high demand. And there’s been a ton of hype about their various potential health benefits. For weight loss, for heart health. Scientists are even interested in whether it can help people with substance use disorders. Meanwhile, for Eli Lilly and Novo Nordisk, the returns on these drugs dwarf anything else they’re selling. Novo Nordisk even became the biggest company in Europe – for like a minute… but still.

Dan: OK, this is interesting, but what does it have to do with the price of insulin?

Emily: I’d wondered… maybe these companies can just better afford to buy some political peace by lowering insulin prices, because they are making so much bank on these new drugs, ? Ed Silverman had a take on that.

Ed Silverman: It makes perfect sense that these cash cows, these medicines that are used for diabetes and, weight loss are going to become increasingly important to their bottom line more than other medicines

Emily: More than insulin. And they’re selling so much so fast, they can hardly keep up with demand. Which could end up affecting people who need insulin.

Dan: Wait, how?

Emily:  Look, for example, in November, Novo Nordisk said they were investing 3 and half billion dollars into ramping up production of injection pens for  Wegovy, one of their top drugs in this category. Less than a week later, Novo announced they would be phasing out one of their insulin products  from the US market – an insulin called Levemir. It’s one of the insulins whose prices they just dropped. And… coincidence… Levemir also comes in a pen.

Dan: So Novo Nordisk is phasing out an insulin pen so they can make more Wegovy pens?

Emily: Well, we don’t know that for sure. But Novo Nordisk did tell me that “manufacturing constraints” were part of why they’re dumping Levimir. They said it was one of several reasons and also wrote: “We made this decision after careful consideration and are confident that given the advanced notice, U.S. patients will have access to alternative treatments and can transition to other options.    

Dan: Huh. OK.

Emily: But even if pulling this insulin Levemir off the market had nothing to do with their trouble meeting the demand for their big blockbuster drug… it brings to mind an important question about all the changes we talked about today — whether it’s the copay savings or the lowered list prices. Here’s Ed Silverman.

Ed Silverman there’s no guarantee that the companies will keep these in place. Maybe after time, some of the attention on insulin is diverted and maybe eighteen months from now, one company might quietly roll back some of the Benefits, if you want to use that word, there’s nothing requiring them to maintain the steps they’ve taken.

Emily: I asked all three insulin makers about this. None of them promised there would never be any backsies. Lilly wrote back “Lilly is committed to ensuring all patients can access any Lilly medicine they need” — and touted their efforts to date. Similarly, Sanofi wrote “We continually review our affordability offerings to support our aim that no one should struggle to pay for their insulin. Novo Nordisk’s response was “Novo Nordisk increases the price of some of our medicines each year, in response to changes in the healthcare system, market conditions, and the impact of inflation.” 

Dan: Yeah, that especially does not sound like a pinky-swear, no-backsies kind of response.   

Emily: AND  that’s not much comfort for insulin activists. Folks like Shaina Kasper, who works for T1International. They’re a group that’s been at the forefront of this fight for years.  I Asked her…

Emily-on-tape: So is this issue of high insulin prices just resolved now?

Shaina Kasper: No, it hasn’t been. It’s been really frustrating…

Emily Shaina and others are worried that the announcements from the manufacturers about savings cards and voluntary list price reductions will take the pressure off the government to do something more sweeping. Because for now…

Shaina: The manufacturers really hold all of the power here And if patients are counting on these programs to literally be able to survive, that has life and death consequences

Dan: This question about who holds the power, it reminds me of a story we did a few months ago… the one about how the writer John Green led a kind of online crusade targeting the drug-maker Johnson & Johnson. And how, even though the pressure campaign worked — J & J ended up allowing lower-priced versions of an important tuberculosis drug — activists who worked on the issue were like: It’s a problem that Johnson & Johnson has the power to say yes or no here..

Emily: Exactly. That which pharma giveth, pharma can taketh. At least the way things are set up now. Now I should say, all three companies told me they plan to continue their affordability offerings. But if insulin continues to be the poster child for high drug prices, prices virtually everyone in America agrees are too high…it does raise the question: are voluntary programs from pharmaceutical companies the solution we want? To Zoe from Mutual Aid Diabetes, the answer is no. They find these manufacturer savings cards kind of a bitter pill… no pun intended.

Zoe Witt: there’s certainly no justice in these programs, 

Emily: And zoe for one would say that justice is overdue. 

Zoe Witt: These companies have price gouged us. for years, making obscene amounts of money. Then, presumably, as, we’re often told is the justification for these ridiculous prices, they did research and development for more diabetes drugs, which are Ozempic, Monjoro, etc. And now, these companies, for, the next 15 years, are set to make, billions and billions of dollars, on these drugs,

Emily: I asked the big three insulin manufacturers about what Zoe said – about how angry folks like them are over the cost of insulin. Novo Nordisk saidwe continually review and revise our offerings as well as work with diverse stakeholders to create solutions for differing patient needs. ”  And Sanofi and Lily both said something very similar.

Emily: So… in the end– or at least for now– here’s the answer to our listener’s question…. There are more avenues than ever to get a month’s supply of insulin for $35. Great. It may be a lot easier to avoid rationing your insulin now than it was a couple years ago. That’s also really great. But people with diabetes do not think this fight is over.

Dan: So what DO they want?

Emily: Some people still want the federal government to just put a cap on what people pay for insulin, like by law.. Others are working to build alternatives to the existing pharmaceutical industry, like California’s CalRx program.

Dan: Cal Rx… now you’re calling back our story from the last time we talked about insulin.

Emily: Yep, Cal Rx is the state of California’s attempt to enter the insulin market, to introduce some low priced generics and sell them essentially at cost. Other states are joining in. Even if some of these specific plans fall apart — even if California somehow can’t get its government-sponsored insulin to market, even if Pharma rolls back some of the discounts…the past few years have been enormous for people with diabetes. Mostly because they’ve found each other.

Zoe Witt: I was rationing insulin in 2018, I didn’t even know that there was a term for it. I didn’t know other people were doing it. I know a lot of people died that year. And there were multiple occasions where I, in retrospect, definitely almost died. And the one good thing that has, that has happened between now and then is that people have been talking about it and People are now more comfortable telling others that they’re struggling, that they can’t get their insulin.

Emily: Connecting with Mutual Aid Diabetes or other networks to get or give help.

Zoe Witt: We’re all keeping each other alive, like to me, that’s the number one thing that has changed.

Emily: I think that’s a huge lesson here, and a takeaway that’s not new on this show. Keeping each other alive — or even just keeping each other from getting bankrupted by the medical system — is up to us. And while a mutual aid group modeled exactly like Mutual Aid Diabetes may not work for every disease or every drug, Zoe says they’re more than willing to talk to anyone who might be interested in trying.

Zoe Witt: I mean, we’ve even had people ask, like, is there like a mutual aid asthma or something like for inhalers? 

Emily: Their advice? 

Zoe Witt: I think that, you know, to start,  you would want, like,  probably at least, like, five to ten ”ride-or dies,” like, people that are really willing to, like, go the extra mile, 

Dan: Five to ten– that just does not sound like that many! (I mean, I think.) One thing I’m taking away is:  This is a lot of activism over a long time, that eventually had a big effect. Another thing I’m taking away here? Sneaky policy changes — like lifting the Medicaid rebate cap — can make a huge difference. God bless whatever nerds are writing the next little bit of law to sneak into a giant bill, like a hacker with a virus.

Emily: Totally. OK. I gotta take a shot, and eat my lunch.

Dan: Go for it. We’ll be back with a new episode in a few weeks. Till then, take care of yourself.

This episode of an arm and a leg was produced by Emily Pisacreta and me, Dan Weissman and edited by Ellen Weiss. 

Adam Raymonda is our audio wizard. Our music is by Dave Weiner and blue dot sessions. 

Gabrielle Healy is our managing editor for audience. She edits the first aid kit newsletter. 

Bea Bosco is our consulting director of operations. Sarah Ballama is our operations manager. 

And Arm and a Leg is produced in partnership with KFF Health News. That’s a national newsroom producing in depth journalism about healthcare in America and a core program at KFF, an independent source of health policy research, polling and journalism. 

Zach Dyer is senior audio producer at KFF Health News. He’s editorial liaison to this show. 

And thanks to the Institute for Nonprofit News for serving as our fiscal sponsor, allowing us to accept tax exempt donations. You can learn more about INN at INN. org. 

Finally, thanks to everybody who supports this show financially– you can join in any time at arm and a leg show dot com, slash, support — and thanks for listening.

“An Arm and a Leg” is a co-production of KFF Health News and Public Road Productions.

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Say That Again: Using Hearing Aids Can Be Frustrating for Older Adults, but Necessary

It was an every-other-day routine, full of frustration.

Every time my husband called his father, who was 94 when he died in 2022, he’d wait for his dad to find his hearing aids and put them in before they started talking.

Even then, my father-in-law could barely hear what my husband was saying. “What?” he’d ask over and over.

Then, there were the problems my father-in-law had replacing the devices’ batteries. And the times he’d end up in the hospital, unable to understand what people were saying because his hearing aids didn’t seem to be functioning. And the times he’d drop one of the devices and be unable to find it.

How many older adults have problems of this kind?

There’s no good data about this topic, according to Nicholas Reed, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who studies hearing loss. He did a literature search when I posed the question and came up empty.

Reed co-authored the most definitive study to date of hearing issues in older Americans, published in JAMA Open Network last year. Previous studies excluded people 80 and older. But data became available when a 2021 survey by the National Health and Aging Trends Study included hearing assessments conducted at people’s homes.

The results, based on a nationally representative sample of 2,803 people 71 and older, are eye-opening. Hearing problems become pervasive with advancing age, exceeding 90% in people 85 and older, compared with 53% of 71- to 74-year-olds. Also, hearing worsens over time, with more people experiencing moderate or severe deficits once they reach or exceed age 80, compared with people in their 70s.

However, only 29% of those with hearing loss used hearing aids. Multiple studies have documented barriers that inhibit use. Such devices, which Medicare doesn’t cover, are pricey, from nearly $1,000 for a good over-the-counter set (OTC hearing aids became available in 2022) to more than $6,000 for some prescription models. In some communities, hearing evaluation services are difficult to find. Also, people often associate hearing aids with being old and feel self-conscious about wearing them. And they tend to underestimate hearing problems that develop gradually.

Barbara Weinstein, a professor of audiology at the City University of New York Graduate Center and author of the textbook “Geriatric Audiology,” added another concern to this list when I reached out to her: usability.

“Hearing aids aren’t really designed for the population that most needs to use them,” she told me. “The move to make devices smaller and more sophisticated technologically isn’t right for many people who are older.”

That’s problematic because hearing loss raises the risk of cognitive decline, dementia, falls, depression, and social isolation.

What advice do specialists in hearing health have for older adults who have a hard time using their hearing aids? Here are some thoughts they shared.

Consider larger, customized devices. Many older people, especially those with arthritis, poor fine motor skills, compromised vision, and some degree of cognitive impairment, have a hard time manipulating small hearing aids and using them properly.

Lindsay Creed, associate director of audiology practices at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, said about half of her older clients have “some sort of dexterity issue, whether numbness or reduced movement or tremor or a lack of coordination.” Shekinah Mast, owner of Mast Audiology Services in Seaford, Delaware, estimates nearly half of her clients have vision issues.

For clients with dexterity challenges, Creed often recommends “behind-the-ear hearing aids,” with a loop over the ear, and customized molds that fit snugly in the ear. Customized earpieces are larger than standardized models.

“The more dexterity challenges you have, the better you’ll do with a larger device and with lots of practice picking it up, orienting it, and putting it in your ear,” said Marquitta Merkison, associate director of audiology practices at ASHA.

For older people with vision issues, Mast sometimes orders hearing aids in different colors for different ears. Also, she’ll help clients set up stands at home for storing devices, chargers, and accessories so they can readily find them each time they need them.

Opt for ease of use. Instead of buying devices that require replacing tiny batteries, select a device that can be charged overnight and operate for at least a day before being recharged, recommended Thomas Powers, a consultant to the Hearing Industries Association. These are now widely available.

People who are comfortable using a smartphone should consider using a phone app to change volume and other device settings. Dave Fabry, chief hearing health officer at Starkey, a major hearing aid manufacturer, said he has patients in their 80s and 90s “who’ve found that being able to hold a phone and use larger visible controls is easier than manipulating the hearing aid.”

If that’s too difficult, try a remote control. GN ReSound, another major manufacturer, has designed one with two large buttons that activate the volume control and programming for its hearing aids, said Megan Quilter, the company’s lead audiologist for research and development.

Check out accessories. Say you’re having trouble hearing other people in restaurants. You can ask the person across the table to clip a microphone to his shirt or put the mike in the center of the table. (The hearing aids will need to be programmed to allow the sound to be streamed to your ears.)

Another low-tech option: a hearing aid clip that connects to a piece of clothing to prevent a device from falling to the floor if it becomes dislodged from the ear.

Wear your hearing aids all day. “The No. 1 thing I hear from older adults is they think they don’t need to put on their hearing aids when they’re at home in a quiet environment,” said Erika Shakespeare, who owns Audiology and Hearing Aid Associates in La Grande, Oregon.

That’s based on a misunderstanding. Our brains need regular, not occasional, stimulation from our environments to optimize hearing, Shakespeare explained. This includes noises in seemingly quiet environments, such as the whoosh of a fan, the creak of a floor, or the wind’s wail outside a window.

“If the only time you wear hearing aids is when you think you need them, your brain doesn’t know how to process all those sounds,” she told me. Her rule of thumb: “Wear hearing aids all your waking hours.”

Consult a hearing professional. Everyone’s needs are different, so it’s a good idea to seek out an audiologist or hearing specialist who, for a fee, can provide guidance.

“Most older people are not going to know what they need” and what options exist without professional assistance, said Virginia Ramachandran, the head of audiology at Oticon, a major hearing aid manufacturer, and a past president of the American Academy of Audiology.

Her advice to older adults: Be “really open” about your challenges.

If you can’t afford hearing aids, ask a hearing professional for an appointment to go over features you should look for in over-the-counter devices. Make it clear you want the appointment to be about your needs, not a sales pitch, Reed said. Audiology practices don’t routinely offer this kind of service, but there’s good reason to ask since Medicare started covering once-a-year audiologist consultations last year.

We’re eager to hear from readers about questions you’d like answered, problems you’ve been having with your care, and advice you need in dealing with the health care system. Visit kffhealthnews.org/columnists to submit your requests or tips.

Without Medicare Part B’s Shield, Patient’s Family Owes $81,000 for a Single Air-Ambulance Flight

Debra Prichard was a retired factory worker who was careful with her money, including what she spent on medical care, said her daughter, Alicia Wieberg. “She was the kind of person who didn’t go to the doctor for anything.”

That ended last year, when the rural Tennessee resident suffered a devastating stroke and several aneurysms. She twice was rushed from her local hospital to Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, 79 miles away, where she was treated by brain specialists. She died Oct. 31 at age 70.

One of Prichard’s trips to the Nashville hospital was via helicopter ambulance. Wieberg said she had heard such flights could be pricey, but she didn’t realize how extraordinary the charge would be — or how her mother’s skimping on Medicare coverage could leave the family on the hook.

Then the bill came.

The Patient: Debra Prichard, who had Medicare Part A insurance before she died.

Medical Service: An air-ambulance flight to Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Service Provider: Med-Trans Corp., a medical transportation service that is part of Global Medical Response, an industry giant backed by private equity investors. The larger company operates in all 50 states and says it has a total of 498 helicopters and airplanes.

Total Bill: $81,739.40, none of which was covered by insurance.

What Gives: Sky-high bills from air-ambulance providers have sparked complaints and federal action in recent years.

For patients with private insurance coverage, the No Surprises Act, which went into effect in 2022, bars air-ambulance companies from billing people more than they would pay if the service were considered “in-network” with their health insurers. For patients with public coverage, such as Medicare or Medicaid, the government sets payment rates at much lower levels than the companies charge.

But Prichard had opted out of the portion of Medicare that covers ambulance services.

That meant when the bill arrived less than two weeks after her death, her estate was expected to pay the full air-ambulance fee of nearly $82,000. The main assets are 12 acres of land and her home in Decherd, Tennessee, where she lived for 48 years and raised two children. The bill for a single helicopter ride could eat up roughly a third of the estate’s value, said Wieberg, who is executor.

The family’s predicament stems from the complicated nature of Medicare coverage.

Prichard was enrolled only in Medicare Part A, which is free to most Americans 65 or older. That section of the federal insurance program covers inpatient care, and it paid most of her hospital bills, her daughter said.

But Prichard declined other Medicare coverage, including Part B, which handles such things as doctor visits, outpatient treatment, and ambulance rides. Her daughter suspects she skipped that coverage to avoid the premiums most recipients pay, which currently are about $175 a month.

Loren Adler, a health economist for the Brookings Institution who studies ambulance bills, estimated the maximum charge that Medicare would have allowed for Prichard’s flight would have been less than $10,000 if she’d signed up for Part B. The patient’s share of that would have been less than $2,000. Her estate might have owed nothing if she’d also purchased supplemental “Medigap” coverage, as many Medicare members do to cover things like coinsurance, he said.

Nicole Michel, a spokesperson for Global Medical Response, the ambulance provider, agreed with Adler’s estimate that Medicare would have limited the charge for the flight to less than $10,000. But she said the federal program’s payment rates don’t cover the cost of providing air-ambulance services.

“Our patient advocacy team is actively engaged with Ms. Wieberg’s attorney to determine if there was any other applicable medical coverage on the date of service that we could bill to,” Michel wrote in an email to KFF Health News. “If not, we are fully committed to working with Ms. Wieberg, as we do with all our patients, to find an equitable solution.”

A photo of a woman standing outside in front of a tree.
Wieberg says that her family’s struggle over her mother’s air-ambulance bill makes her wonder why Medicare is split into pieces, with free coverage for inpatient care under Part A but premiums for coverage of other crucial services under Part B.(Lisa Krantz for KFF Health News)

The Resolution: In mid-February, Wieberg said the company had not offered to reduce the bill.

Wieberg said she and the attorney handling her mother’s estate both contacted the company, seeking a reduction in the bill. She said she also contacted Medicare officials, filled out a form on the No Surprises Act website, and filed a complaint with Tennessee regulators who oversee ambulance services. She said she was notified Feb. 12 that the company filed a legal claim against the estate for the entire amount.

Wieberg said other health care providers, including ground ambulance services and the Vanderbilt hospital, wound up waiving several thousand dollars in unpaid fees for services they provided to Prichard that are normally covered by Medicare Part B.

But as it stands, Prichard’s estate owes about $81,740 to the air-ambulance company.

The Takeaway: People who are eligible for Medicare are encouraged to sign up for Part B, unless they have private health insurance through an employer or spouse.

“If someone with Medicare finds that they are having difficulty paying the Medicare Part B premiums, there are resources available to help compare Medicare coverage choices and learn about options to help pay for Medicare costs,” Meena Seshamani, director of the federal Center for Medicare, said in an email to KFF Health News.

She noted that every state offers free counseling to help people navigate Medicare.

In Tennessee, that counseling is offered by the State Health Insurance Assistance Program. Its director, Lori Galbreath, told KFF Health News she wishes more seniors would discuss their health coverage options with trained counselors like hers.

“Every Medicare recipient’s experience is different,” she said. “We can look at their different situations and give them an unbiased view of what their next best steps could be.”

Counselors advise that many people with modest incomes enroll in a Medicare Savings Program, which can cover their Part B premiums. In 2023, Tennessee residents could qualify for such assistance if they made less than $1,660 monthly as a single person or $2,239 as a married couple. Many people also could obtain help with other out-of-pocket expenses, such as copays for medical services.

Wieberg, who lives in Missouri, has been preparing the family home for sale.

She said the struggle over her mother’s air-ambulance bill makes her wonder why Medicare is split into pieces, with free coverage for inpatient care under Part A, but premiums for coverage of other crucial services under Part B.

“Anybody past the age of 70 is likely going to need both,” she said. “And so why make it a decision of what you can afford or not afford, or what you think you’re going to use or not use?”

A photo of a woman standing in front of a house.
Wieberg, who lives in Missouri, has been preparing to sell her mother’s Tennessee home, where she lived for 48 years before her death in October. The family faces an $81,739.40 air-ambulance bill, which Wieberg’s mom incurred before her death. She had only Medicare Part A insurance, which does not cover ambulance services.(Chris Wieberg)

Bill of the Month is a crowdsourced investigation by KFF Health News and NPR that dissects and explains medical bills. Do you have an interesting medical bill you want to share with us? Tell us about it!

If You’re Poor, Fertility Treatment Can Be Out of Reach

Mary Delgado’s first pregnancy went according to plan, but when she tried to get pregnant again seven years later, nothing happened. After 10 months, Delgado, now 34, and her partner, Joaquin Rodriguez, went to see an OB-GYN. Tests showed she had endometriosis, which was interfering with conception. Delgado’s only option, the doctor said, was in vitro fertilization.

“When she told me that, she broke me inside,” Delgado said, “because I knew it was so expensive.”

Delgado, who lives in New York City, is enrolled in Medicaid, the federal-state health program for low-income and disabled people. The roughly $20,000 price tag for a round of IVF would be a financial stretch for lots of people, but for someone on Medicaid — for which the maximum annual income for a two-person household in New York is just over $26,000 — the treatment can be unattainable.

Expansions of work-based insurance plans to cover fertility treatments, including free egg freezing and unlimited IVF cycles, are often touted by large companies as a boon for their employees. But people with lower incomes, often minorities, are more likely to be covered by Medicaid or skimpier commercial plans with no such coverage. That raises the question of whether medical assistance to create a family is only for the well-to-do or people with generous benefit packages.

“In American health care, they don’t want the poor people to reproduce,” Delgado said. She was caring full-time for their son, who was born with a rare genetic disorder that required several surgeries before he was 5. Her partner, who works for a company that maintains the city’s yellow cabs, has an individual plan through the state insurance marketplace, but it does not include fertility coverage.

Mary Delgado sits on a couch in her home with one arm around her young son, Joaquin (left). She holds her one-year-hold daughter, Emiliana, in her other arm. Mother and son smile at the camera, while Emiliana sleeps.
Years after she had her first child, Joaquin (left), Mary Delgado found out that she had endometriosis and that IVF was her only option to get pregnant again. The news from her doctor “broke me inside,” Delgado says, “because I knew it was so expensive.” Delgado, who is on Medicaid, traveled more than 300 miles round trip for lower-cost IVF, and she and her partner, Joaquin Rodriguez, used savings they’d set aside for a home. Their daughter, Emiliana, is now almost a year old.(Joaquin Rodriguez)

Some medical experts whose patients have faced these issues say they can understand why people in Delgado’s situation think the system is stacked against them.

“It feels a little like that,” said Elizabeth Ginsburg, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Harvard Medical School who is president-elect of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, a research and advocacy group.

Whether or not it’s intended, many say the inequity reflects poorly on the U.S.

“This is really sort of standing out as a sore thumb in a nation that would like to claim that it cares for the less fortunate and it seeks to do anything it can for them,” said Eli Adashi, a professor of medical science at Brown University and former president of the Society for Reproductive Endocrinologists.

Yet efforts to add coverage for fertility care to Medicaid face a lot of pushback, Ginsburg said.

Over the years, Barbara Collura, president and CEO of the advocacy group Resolve: The National Infertility Association, has heard many explanations for why it doesn’t make sense to cover fertility treatment for Medicaid recipients. Legislators have asked, “If they can’t pay for fertility treatment, do they have any idea how much it costs to raise a child?” she said.

“So right there, as a country we’re making judgments about who gets to have children,” Collura said.

The legacy of the eugenics movement of the early 20th century, when states passed laws that permitted poor, nonwhite, and disabled people to be sterilized against their will, lingers as well.

“As a reproductive justice person, I believe it’s a human right to have a child, and it’s a larger ethical issue to provide support,” said Regina Davis Moss, president and CEO of In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda, an advocacy group.

But such coverage decisions — especially when the health care safety net is involved — sometimes require difficult choices, because resources are limited.

Even if state Medicaid programs wanted to cover fertility treatment, for instance, they would have to weigh the benefit against investing in other types of care, including maternity care, said Kate McEvoy, executive director of the National Association of Medicaid Directors. “There is a recognition about the primacy and urgency of maternity care,” she said.

Medicaid pays for about 40% of births in the United States. And since 2022, 46 states and the District of Columbia have elected to extend Medicaid postpartum coverage to 12 months, up from 60 days.

Fertility problems are relatively common, affecting roughly 10% of women and men of childbearing age, according to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Traditionally, a couple is considered infertile if they’ve been trying to get pregnant unsuccessfully for 12 months. Last year, the ASRM broadened the definition of infertility to incorporate would-be parents beyond heterosexual couples, including people who can’t get pregnant for medical, sexual, or other reasons, as well as those who need medical interventions such as donor eggs or sperm to get pregnant.

The World Health Organization defined infertility as a disease of the reproductive system characterized by failing to get pregnant after a year of unprotected intercourse. It terms the high cost of fertility treatment a major equity issue and has called for better policies and public financing to improve access.

No matter how the condition is defined, private health plans often decline to cover fertility treatments because they don’t consider them “medically necessary.” Twenty states and Washington, D.C., have laws requiring health plans to provide some fertility coverage, but those laws vary greatly and apply only to companies whose plans are regulated by the state.

In recent years, many companies have begun offering fertility treatment in a bid to recruit and retain top-notch talent. In 2023, 45% of companies with 500 or more workers covered IVF and/or drug therapy, according to the benefits consultant Mercer.

But that doesn’t help people on Medicaid. Only two states’ Medicaid programs provide any fertility treatment: New York covers some oral ovulation-enhancing medications, and Illinois covers costs for fertility preservation, to freeze the eggs or sperm of people who need medical treatment that will likely make them infertile, such as for cancer. Several other states also are considering adding fertility preservation services.

In Delgado’s case, Medicaid covered the tests to diagnose her endometriosis, but nothing more. She was searching the internet for fertility treatment options when she came upon a clinic group called CNY Fertility that seemed significantly less expensive than other clinics, and also offered in-house financing. Based in Syracuse, New York, the company has a handful of clinics in upstate New York cities and four other U.S. locations.

Though Delgado and her partner had to travel more than 300 miles round trip to Albany for the procedures, the savings made it worthwhile. They were able do an entire IVF cycle, including medications, egg retrieval, genetic testing, and transferring the egg to her uterus, for $14,000. To pay for it, they took $7,000 of the cash they’d been saving to buy a home and financed the other half through the fertility clinic.

She got pregnant on the first try, and their daughter, Emiliana, is now almost a year old.

Delgado doesn’t resent people with more resources or better insurance coverage, but she wishes the system were more equitable.

“I have a medical problem,” she said. “It’s not like I did IVF because I wanted to choose the gender.”

One reason CNY is less expensive than other clinics is simply that the privately owned company chooses to charge less, said William Kiltz, its vice president of marketing and business development. Since the company’s beginning in 1997, it has become a large practice with a large volume of IVF cycles, which helps keep prices low.

At this point, more than half its clients come from out of state, and many earn significantly less than a typical patient at another clinic. Twenty percent earn less than $50,000, and “we treat a good number who are on Medicaid,” Kiltz said.

Now that their son, Joaquin, is settled in a good school, Delgado has started working for an agency that provides home health services. After putting in 30 hours a week for 90 days, she’ll be eligible for health insurance.

One of the benefits: fertility coverage.

Southern Lawmakers Rethink Long-Standing Opposition to Medicaid Expansion

As a part-time customer service representative, Jolene Dybas earns less than $15,000 a year, which is below the federal poverty level and too low for her to be eligible for subsidized health insurance on the Obamacare marketplace.

Dybas, 53, also does not qualify for Medicaid in her home state of Alabama because she does not meet the program requirements. She instead falls into a coverage gap and faces hundreds of dollars a month in out-of-pocket payments, she said, to manage multiple chronic health conditions.

“I feel like I’m living in a state that doesn’t care for me,” said Dybas, a resident of Saraland, a suburb of Mobile.

Alabama is one of 10 states that have refused to adopt the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid, the government health insurance program for people who are low-income or disabled.

But lawmakers in Alabama and some other Southern states are reconsidering their opposition in light of strong public support for Medicaid expansion and pleas from powerful sectors of the health care industry, especially hospitals.

Expansions are under consideration by Republican legislative leaders in Georgia and Mississippi, in addition to Alabama, raising the prospect that more than 600,000 low-income, uninsured people in those three states could gain coverage, according to KFF data.

Since a 2012 Supreme Court ruling rendered the ACA’s Medicaid expansion optional, it has remained a divisive issue along party lines in some states. Political opposition has softened, in part because North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature voted last year to expand the program. Already, more than 346,000 residents of the Tar Heel State have gained coverage.

And lawmakers in nearby states are taking notice.

“There has certainly been a lot of discussion of late about Medicaid expansion,” said Georgia House Speaker Jon Burns, a Republican, in a speech to the state chamber of commerce shortly after the legislative session began on Jan. 8.

“Expanding access to care for lower-income working families through a private option — in a fiscally responsible way that lowers premiums — is something we will continue to gather facts on in the House,” Burns said.

In addition to Georgia, state House speakers in Alabama and Mississippi have indicated a new willingness to consider coverage expansion. All three states have experienced a large number of hospital closures, particularly in rural areas.

Medicaid expansion has become “politically safer to consider,” said Frank Knapp, president of South Carolina’s Small Business Chamber of Commerce. In his state, Republican lawmakers are weighing whether to appoint a committee to study expansion.

It’s the kind of momentum some health policy analysts view as a favorable shift in the political discourse about expanding access to care. And it comes as a new crop of conservative leaders grapple with their states’ persistently high rates of poor, uninsured adults.

An additional incentive: Under President Joe Biden’s 2021 American Rescue Plan Act, the federal government pays newly expanded states an additional 5 percentage points in the matching rate for their regular Medicaid population for two years, which would more than offset the cost of expansion for that period.

But even as new discussions take place in legislatures that once froze out any talk of Medicaid expansion, considerable obstacles remain. Republican Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, for example, still opposes expansion. And several nonexpansion states appear to have little to no momentum.

“A lot of things need to come together in any given state to make things move,” said Robin Rudowitz, director of the Program on Medicaid and the Uninsured at KFF.

Under Medicaid expansion, adults earning up to 138% of the federal poverty level, or about $35,600 for a family of three, qualify for coverage.

Expansion has reduced uninsured rates in rural areas, improved access to care for low-income people, and lowered uncompensated care costs for hospitals and clinics, according to KFF analyses of studies from 2014 to 2021. In states that have refused to expand Medicaid, all of those challenges remain acute.

Alabama’s legislative session began Feb. 6. Republican House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter has suggested that he’s open to debating options for increased coverage. So many hospitals are in “dire straits,” he said at a Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce meeting in January. “We’ve got to have the conversation.”

Expansion could make as many as 174,000 uninsured people in Alabama eligible for coverage, according to KFF data. Still, Ledbetter prefers a public-private partnership model, and has looked at Arkansas’ program, which uses federal and state money to pay for commercial insurance plans on the Obamacare marketplace for people who would be eligible for Medicaid under expansion.

In Alabama, lawmakers have introduced a plan that would levy a state tax on gaming revenue and could help fund health insurance coverage for adults with annual incomes up to 138% of the federal poverty level.

Robyn Hyden, executive director of advocacy group Alabama Arise, which supports Medicaid expansion, has seen progress on efforts to increase coverage. “The devil’s going to be in the details,” she said.

Mississippi’s new House speaker, Jason White, a Republican, has said he wants to protect hospitals and keep residents from seeking regular care through the emergency room. More than 120,000 uninsured people in Mississippi would become newly eligible for Medicaid under expansion, according to KFF data.

White told KFF Health News in a written statement that improving access to health care is a priority for business leaders, community officials, and voters.

“The desire to keep Mississippians in the workforce and out of the emergency room transcends any political party and is a vital component to a healthy workforce and a healthy economy,” he said. State legislators are determined to work with Reeves on the issue, he said.

Burns, the Georgia House speaker, has said that he’s open to a proposal for an Arkansas-style plan. Republican Gov. Brian Kemp said he would reserve comment until after the legislative process, according to spokesperson Carter Chapman.

He emphasized Kemp’s commitment to his recently launched plan requiring low-income adults to work, volunteer, or receive schooling or vocational training for 80 hours a month in exchange for Medicaid coverage. As of mid-January, the cumulative enrollment was right around 3,000. Expansion could make at least 359,000 uninsured people in Georgia newly eligible for Medicaid, according to KFF data.

In South Carolina, Republican lawmakers are considering legislation that would allow them to form a committee to study expansion. State Sen. Tom Davis, a Republican from Beaufort who sponsored the bill and previously opposed expanding Medicaid, said he’s not endorsing or opposing Medicaid expansion at this time.

“We need to have a debate,” Davis said during a committee meeting in January.

The state legislature would likely have to work with Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican, who, according to spokesperson Brandon Charochak, remains opposed to Medicaid expansion.

North Carolina started enrolling residents under its expansion Dec. 1. They included Patrick Dunnagan, 38, of Raleigh. The former outdoor guide said he hasn’t been able to work for years because of kidney disease and chronic pain.

He has relied on financial support from his family and said his medical debt stands at more than $5,000. Medicaid coverage will provide financial security.

Dunnagan said people with chronic health conditions in nonexpansion states “are accumulating medical debt and not getting the care they need.”

Bills proposed in Texas’ legislature didn’t get a vote last year. And the state doesn’t allow voter-initiated referendums, which have been a route to expansion in some Republican-led states. An estimated 1.2 million uninsured people would be eligible for coverage — more than in any other state still holding out — if Texas expanded.

Republican lawmakers in Tennessee and Florida have said they won’t allow Medicaid expansion. In Florida, advocates have launched a petition drive for a ballot initiative, but the earliest it could go to voters is 2026.

In Kansas, Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, is once again pressing her state’s Republican-controlled legislature to adopt Medicaid expansion, calling it a “commonsense proposal” that would lower health care costs for all consumers and protect rural hospitals. But the state’s House speaker remains opposed to Medicaid expansion.

Advocates believe it’s only a matter of time before Medicaid expansion happens nationwide as opposition eases and people continue to suffer the consequences of being uninsured.

For Dybas in Alabama, the prospect of gaining coverage is enough to make her consider relocating. In Minnesota, where she once lived, “I wouldn’t have this problem,” Dybas said.

Perhaps, as in Arkansas, conservatives will adopt models that rely more heavily on commercial insurance.

But many holdout states in the South — where death rates for heart disease, cancer, and diabetes are mostly worse than in other states — see growing disparities between the health of their citizens and those of neighboring states that have expanded, said Lucy Dagneau, a senior director for the American Cancer Society’s advocacy arm, the Cancer Action Network. The group lobbies state legislatures for expanded insurance coverage.

“There will be a tipping point for all these states,” she said.

KFF Health News South Carolina correspondent Lauren Sausser and senior correspondent Renuka Rayasam contributed to this report.

Patients See First Savings From Biden’s Drug Price Push, as Pharma Lines Up Its Lawyers

Last year alone, David Mitchell paid $16,525 for 12 little bottles of Pomalyst, one of the pricey medications that treat his multiple myeloma, a blood cancer he was diagnosed with in 2010.

The drugs have kept his cancer at bay. But their rapidly increasing costs so infuriated Mitchell that he was inspired to create an advocacy movement.

Patients for Affordable Drugs, which he founded in 2016, was instrumental in getting drug price reforms into the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act. Those changes are kicking in now, and Mitchell, 73, is an early beneficiary.

In January, he plunked down $3,308 for a Pomalyst refill “and that’s it,” he said. Under the law, he has no further responsibility for his drug costs this year — a savings of more than $13,000.

The law caps out-of-pocket spending on brand-name drugs for Medicare beneficiaries at about $3,500 in 2024. The patient cap for all drugs drops to $2,000 next year.

“From a selfish perspective, I feel great about it,” he said. But the payment cap will be “truly life-changing” for hundreds of thousands of other Medicare patients, Mitchell said.

President Joe Biden’s battle against high drug prices is mostly embodied in the IRA, as the law is known — a grab bag of measures intended to give Medicare patients immediate relief and, in the long term, to impose government controls on what pharmaceutical companies charge for their products. The law represents the most significant overhaul for the U.S. drug marketplace in decades.

With Election Day on the horizon, the president is trying to make sure voters know who was responsible. This month, the White House began a campaign to get the word out to seniors.

“The days where Americans pay two to three times what they pay for prescription drugs in other countries are ending,” Biden said in a Feb. 1 statement.

KFF polling indicates Biden has work to do. Just a quarter of adults were aware that the IRA includes provisions on drug prices in July, nearly a year after the president signed it. He isn’t helped by the name of the law, the “Inflation Reduction Act,” which says nothing about health care or drug costs.

Biden’s own estimate of drug price inflation is quite conservative: U.S. patients sometimes pay more than 10 times as much for their drugs compared with people in other countries. The popular weight loss drug Wegovy lists for $936 a month in the U.S., for example — and $83 in France.

Additional sections of the law provide free vaccines and $35-a-month insulin and federal subsidies to patients earning up to 150% of the federal poverty level, and require drugmakers to pay the government rebates for medicines whose prices rise faster than inflation. But the most controversial provision enables Medicare to negotiate prices for certain expensive drugs that have been on the market for at least nine years. It’s key to Biden’s attempt to weaken the drug industry’s grip.

Responding to Pressure

The impact of Medicare’s bargaining over drug prices for privately insured Americans remains unclear. States have taken additional steps, such as cutting copays for insulin for the privately insured.

However, insurers are increasing premiums in response to their higher costs under the IRA. Monthly premiums on traditional Medicare drug plans jumped to $48 from $40 this year, on average.

On Feb. 1, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services sent pharmaceutical makers opening bids for the first 10 expensive drugs it selected for negotiation. The companies are responding to the bids — while filing nine lawsuits that aim to kill the negotiations altogether, arguing that limiting their profits will strangle the pipeline of lifesaving drugs. A federal court in Texas dismissed one of the suits on Feb. 12, without taking up the substantive legal issue over constitutionality.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office predicted the IRA’s drug pricing elements would save the federal government $237 billion over 10 years while reducing the number of drugs coming to market in that period by about two.

If the government prevails in the courts, new prices for those 10 drugs will be announced by September and take effect in 2026. The government will negotiate an additional 15 drugs for 2027, another 15 for 2028, and 20 more each year thereafter. CMS has been mum about the size of its offers, but AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot on Feb. 8 called the opening bid for his company’s drug Farxiga (which earned $2.8 billion in U.S. sales in fiscal year 2023) “relatively encouraging.”

Related Biden administration efforts, as well as legislation with bipartisan support, could complement the Inflation Reduction Act’s swing at drug prices.

The House and Senate have passed bills that require greater transparency and less self-serving behavior by pharmacy benefit managers, the secretive intermediaries that decide which drugs go on patients’ formularies, the lists detailing which prescriptions are available to health plan enrollees. The Federal Trade Commission is investigating anti-competitive action by leading PBMs, as well as drug company patenting tricks that slow the entry of cheaper drugs to the market.

‘Sending a Message’

Months after drug companies began suing to stop price negotiations, the Biden administration released a framework describing when it could “march in” and essentially seize drugs created through research funded by the National Institutes of Health if they are unreasonably priced.

The timing of the march-in announcement “suggests that it’s about sending a message” to the drug industry, said Robin Feldman, who leads the Center for Innovation at the University of California Law-San Francisco. And so, in a way, does the Inflation Reduction Act itself, she said.

“I have always thought that the IRA would reverberate well beyond the unlucky 10 and others that get pulled into the net later,” Feldman said. “Companies are likely to try to moderate their behavior to stay out of negotiations. I think of all the things going on as attempts to corral the market into more reasonable pathways.”

The IRA issues did not appear to be top of mind to most executives and investors as they gathered to make deals at the annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco last month.

“I think the industry is navigating its way beyond this,” said Matthew Price, chief operating officer of Promontory Therapeutics, a cancer drug startup, in an interview there. The drugs up for negotiation “look to be assets that were already nearing the end of their patent life. So maybe the impact on revenues is less than feared. There’s alarm around this, but it was probably inevitable that a negotiation mechanism of some kind would have to come in.”

Investors generally appear sanguine about the impact of the law. A recent S&P Global report suggests “healthy revenue growth through 2027” for the pharmaceutical industry.

Back in Washington, many of the changes await action by the courts and Congress and could be shelved depending on the results of the fall election.

The restructuring of Medicare Part D, which covers most retail prescription drugs, is already lowering costs for many Medicare patients who spent more than $3,500 a year on their Part D drugs. In 2020 that was about 1.3 million patients, 200,000 of whom spent $5,000 or more out-of-pocket, according to KFF research.

“That’s real savings,” said Tricia Neuman, executive director of KFF’s Medicare policy program, “and it’s targeted to people who are really sick.”

Although the drug industry is spending millions to fight the IRA, the Part D portion of the bill could end up boosting their sales. While it forces the industry to further discount the highest-grossing drugs, the bill makes it easier for Medicare patients to pick up their medicines because they’ll be able to afford them, said Stacie Dusetzina, a Vanderbilt University School of Medicine researcher. She was the lead author of a 2022 study showing that cancer patients who didn’t get income subsidies were about half as likely to fill prescriptions.

States and foundations that help patients pay for their drugs will save money, enabling them to procure more drugs for more patients, said Gina Upchurch, the executive director of Senior PharmAssist, a Durham, North Carolina-based drug assistance program, and a member of the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission. “This is good news for the drug companies,” she said.

David Mitchell stands facing the camera. He is leaning up against a bookshelf.
David Mitchell, a multiple myeloma patient since 2010, stands in his home office. Mitchell founded Patients for Affordable Drugs, an advocacy group that helped push through the Biden administration’s measures to control drug prices.(Arthur Allen/KFF Health News)

Relief for Patients

Lynn Scarfuto, 73, a retired nurse who lives on a fixed income in upstate New York, spent $1,157 for drugs last year, while most of her share of the $205,000 annual cost for the leukemia drug Imbruvica was paid by a charity, the Patient Access Network Foundation. This year, through the IRA, she’ll pay nothing because the foundation’s first monthly Imbruvica payment covered her entire responsibility. Imbruvica, marketed jointly by AbbVie and Janssen, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, is one of the 10 drugs subject to Medicare negotiations.

“For Medicare patients, the Inflation Reduction Act is a great, wonderful thing,” Scarfuto said. “I hope the negotiation continues as they have promised, adding more drugs every year.”

Mitchell, a PR specialist who had worked with such clients as the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and pharmaceutical giant J&J, went to an emergency room with severe back pain in November 2010 and discovered he had a cancer that had broken a vertebra and five ribs and left holes in his pelvis, skull, and forearm bones. He responded well to surgery and treatment but was shocked at the price of his drugs.

His Patients for Affordable Drugs group has become a powerful voice in Washington, engaging tens of thousands of patients, including Scarfuto, to tell their stories and lobby legislatures. The work is supported in part by millions in grants from Arnold Ventures, a philanthropy that has supported health care policies like lower drug prices, access to contraception, and solutions to the opioid epidemic.

“What got the IRA over the finish line in part was angry people who said we want something done with this,” Mitchell said. “Our patients gave voice to that.”

Arnold Ventures has provided funding for KFF Health News.

KFF Health News’ ‘What the Health?’: Biden Wins Early Court Test for Medicare Drug Negotiations

The Host

A federal judge in Texas has turned back the first challenge to the nascent Medicare prescription-drug negotiation program. But the case turned on a technicality, and drugmakers have many more lawsuits in the pipeline.

Meanwhile, Congress is approaching yet another funding deadline, and doctors hope the next funding bill will cancel the Medicare pay cut that took effect in January.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of KFF Health News, Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico, Rachel Cohrs of Stat, and Lauren Weber of The Washington Post.

Among the takeaways from this week’s episode:

  • Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), chair of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, announced she would retire at the end of the congressional session, setting off a scramble to chair a panel with significant oversight of Medicare, Medicaid, and the U.S. Public Health Service. McMorris Rodgers is one of several Republicans with significant health expertise to announce their departures.
  • As Congress’ next spending bill deadline approaches, lobbyists for hospitals are feverishly trying to prevent a Medicare provision on “site-neutral” payments from being attached.
  • In abortion news, anti-abortion groups are joining the call for states to better outline when life and health exceptions to abortion bans can be legally permissible.
  • Senate Finance Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) is asking the Federal Trade Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission to investigate a company that collected location data from patients at 600 Planned Parenthood sites and sold it to anti-abortion groups.
  • And in “This Week in Health Misinformation”: Lawmakers in Wyoming and Montana float bills to let people avoid getting blood transfusions from donors who have been vaccinated against covid-19.

Plus, for “extra credit,” the panelists suggest health policy stories they read this week that they think you should read, too:

Julie Rovner: Stateline’s “Government Can Erase Your Medical Debt for Pennies on the Dollar — And Some Are,” by Anna Claire Vollers.

Alice Miranda Ollstein: Politico’s “‘There Was a Lot of Anxiety’: Florida’s Immigration Crackdown Is Causing Patients to Skip Care,” by Arek Sarkissian.

Rachel Cohrs: Stat’s “FTC Doubles Down in Welsh Carson Anesthesia Case to Limit Private Equity’s Physician Buyouts,” by Bob Herman. And Modern Healthcare’s “Private Equity Medicare Advantage Investment Slumps: Report,” by Nona Tepper.

Lauren Weber: The Wall Street Journal’s “Climate Change Has Hit Home Insurance. Is Health Insurance Next?” by Yusuf Khan.

Also mentioned on this week’s podcast:

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Biden Budget Touches All the Bases

The Host

President Joe Biden’s fiscal 2024 budget proposal includes new policies and funding boosts for many of the Democratic Party’s important constituencies, including advocates for people with disabilities and reproductive rights. It also proposes ways to shore up Medicare’s dwindling Hospital Insurance Trust Fund without cutting benefits, basically daring Republicans to match him on the politically potent issue.

Meanwhile, five women in Texas who were denied abortions when their pregnancies threatened their lives or the viability of the fetuses they were carrying are suing the state. They charge that the language of Texas’ abortion ban makes it impossible for doctors to provide needed care without fear of enormous fines or prison sentences.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of KHN, Shefali Luthra of The 19th, Victoria Knight of Axios, and Margot Sanger-Katz of The New York Times.

Among the takeaways from this week’s episode:

  • Biden’s budget manages to toe the line between preserving Medicare and keeping the Medicare trust fund solvent while advancing progressive policies. Republicans have yet to propose a budget, but it seems likely any GOP plan would lean heavily on cuts to Medicaid and subsidies provided under the Affordable Care Act. Democrats will fight both of those.
  • Even though the president’s budget includes something of a Democratic “wish list” of social policy priorities, the proposals are less sweeping than those made last year. Rather, many — such as extending to private insurance the $35 monthly Medicare cost cap for insulin — build on achievements already realized. That puts new focus on things the president has accomplished.
  • Walgreens, the nation’s second-largest pharmacy chain, is caught up in the abortion wars. In January, the chain said it would apply for certification from the FDA to sell the abortion pill mifepristone in states where abortion is legal. However, last week, under threats from Republican attorneys general in states where abortion is still legal, the chain wavered on whether it would seek to sell the pill there or not, which caused a backlash from both abortion rights proponents and opponents.
  • The five women suing Texas after being denied abortions amid dangerous pregnancy complications are not asking for the state’s ban to be lifted. Rather, they’re seeking clarification about who qualifies for exceptions to the ban, so doctors and hospitals can provide needed care without fear of prosecution.
  • Although anti-abortion groups have for decades insisted that those who have abortions should not be prosecuted, bills introduced in several state legislatures would do exactly that. In South Carolina, those who have abortions could even be subject to the death penalty. So far none of these bills have passed, but the wave of measures could herald a major policy change.

Also this week, Rovner interviews Harris Meyer, who reported and wrote the two latest KHN-NPR “Bill of the Month” features. Both were about families facing unexpected bills after childbirth. If you have an outrageous or exorbitant medical bill you want to share with us, you can do that here.

Plus, for “extra credit,” the panelists suggest health policy stories they read this week that they think you should read, too:

Julie Rovner: KHN’s “Girls in Texas Could Get Birth Control at Federal Clinics, Until a Christian Father Objected,” by Sarah Varney

Shefali Luthra: The 19th’s “Language for Treating Childhood Obesity Carries Its Own Health Risks to Kids, Experts Say,” by Jennifer Gerson

Victoria Knight: KHN’s “After People on Medicaid Die, Some States Aggressively Seek Repayment From Their Estates,” by Tony Leys

Margot Sanger-Katz: ProPublica’s “How Obamacare Enabled a Multibillion-Dollar Christian Health Care Grab,” by J. David McSwane and Ryan Gabrielson

Also mentioned in this week’s podcast:

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Journalists Discuss Insulin Prices, Gun Violence, Distracted Driving, and More

Midwest KHN correspondent Bram Sable-Smith discussed the Eli Lilly news on insulin prices on “PBS NewsHour” and insulin prices on Slate’s “What Next” on March 1.

KHN contributor Andy Miller discussed Georgia’s legislative wrap-up including Medicaid work requirements on Georgia Public Broadcasting’s “Lawmakers” on Feb. 28. He also discussed health care for foster children on WUGA’s “The Georgia Health Report” on Feb. 3.

Senior KHN correspondent Julie Appleby discussed how the end of the public health emergency will affect costs for covid-19 vaccines, treatments, and masks on KMOX’s “Health Matters” on Feb. 25.

KHN correspondent Cara Anthony discussed the youngest victims of gun violence and those who dig their graves on America’s Heroes Group on Feb. 25.

KHN contributor Eric Berger discussed distracted driving laws and why Missouri still doesn’t have one on St. Louis Public Radio’s “St. Louis on the Air” on Feb 24.

March Medicaid Madness

The Host

With Medicare and Social Security apparently off the table for federal budget cuts, the focus has turned to Medicaid, the federal-state health program for those with low incomes. President Joe Biden has made it clear he wants to protect the program, along with the Affordable Care Act, but Republicans will likely propose cuts to both when they present a proposed budget in the next several weeks.

Meanwhile, confusion over abortion restrictions continues, particularly at the FDA. One lawsuit in Texas calls for a federal judge to temporarily halt distribution of the abortion pill mifepristone. A separate suit, though, asks a different federal judge to temporarily make the drug easier to get, by removing some of the FDA’s safety restrictions.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of Kaiser Health News, Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico, Rachel Cohrs of STAT News, and Lauren Weber of The Washington Post.

Among the takeaways from this week’s episode:

  • States are working to review Medicaid eligibility for millions of people as pandemic-era coverage rules lapse at the end of March, amid fears that many Americans kicked off Medicaid who are eligible for free or near-free coverage under the ACA won’t know their options and will go uninsured.
  • Biden promised this week to stop Republicans from “gutting” Medicaid and the ACA. But not all Republicans are on board with cuts to Medicaid. Between the party’s narrow majority in the House and the fact that Medicaid pays for nursing homes for many seniors, cutting the program is a politically dicey move.
  • A national group that pushed the use of ivermectin to treat covid-19 is now hyping the drug as a treatment for flu and RSV — despite a lack of clinical evidence to support their claims that it is effective against any of those illnesses. Nonetheless, there is a movement of people, many of them doctors, who believe ivermectin works.
  • In reproductive health news, a federal judge recently ruled that a Texas law cannot be used to prosecute groups that help women travel out of state to obtain abortions. And the abortion issue has highlighted the role of attorneys general around the country — politicizing a formerly nonpartisan state post. –And Eli Lilly announced plans to cut the price of some insulin products and cap out-of-pocket costs, though their reasons may not be completely altruistic: An expert pointed out that a change to Medicaid rebates next year means drugmakers soon will have to pay the government every time a patient fills a prescription for insulin, meaning Eli Lilly’s plan could save the company money.

Plus, for “extra credit,” the panelists suggest health policy stories they read this week that they think you should read, too:

Julie Rovner: The New York Times’ “A Drug Company Exploited a Safety Requirement to Make Money,” by Rebecca Robbins.

Alice Miranda Ollstein: The New York Times’ “Alone and Exploited, Migrant Children Work Brutal Jobs Across the U.S.,” by Hannah Dreier.

Rachel Cohrs: STAT News’ “Nonprofit Hospitals Are Failing Americans. Their Boards May Be a Reason Why,” by Sanjay Kishore and Suhas Gondi.

Lauren Weber: KHN and CBS News’ “This Dental Device Was Sold to Fix Patients’ Jaws. Lawsuits Claim It Wrecked Their Teeth,” by Brett Kelman and Anna Werner.

Also mentioned in this week’s podcast:

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