Tagged HHS

Must-Reads Of The Week From Brianna Labuskes

Happy Friday! Also known as the day President Donald Trump is getting his second annual physical. Last year, Dr. Ronny L. Jackson attributed the president’s “excellent health” to good genes and God. Will this year be different with a new physician?

The headliner from this week was obviously the State of the Union address, so let’s get right to it.

Trump’s pledge to end the HIV epidemic was greeted with cautious optimism — laced with a heavy dose of skepticism. The administration’s plan involves targeting HIV hot spots and increasing access to medications that treat and prevent the disease. However, the lack of specific details in Trump’s address have HIV advocates nervous. “To date, this administration’s actions speak louder than words and have moved us in the wrong direction,” said AIDS United.

The Associated Press: Trump Launching Campaign to End HIV Epidemic in US by 2030

Kaiser Health News: Trump Pledges To End HIV Transmission By 2030. Doable, But Daunting.

When it comes to high drug prices, Trump had very simple instructions for Congress: “Do more.” The response, as you can imagine, was mixed. Some Democrats saw it as an invitation to work on an issue that could be one of the few bipartisan successes emerging from the current Congress. Others don’t have any interest in getting on board with the president’s policies — which include capping U.S. drug payments based on prices paid abroad.

Stat: Democrats Can’t Decide How to React to Trump’s Call for ‘More’ on Drug Pricing

Meanwhile, in his address, Trump used a pretty wonky (as in, in the weeds) metric to praise his administration’s efforts on bringing down drug prices. The consumer price index, at best, doesn’t tell the full story of costs, and experts say that, given how complicated the system has become (i.e. with rebates), it has outlived its usefulness.

Stat: Trump Claims Drug Prices Have Fallen. But He’s Cherry-Picking That Data

Recent controversies over abortions provided Trump the perfect opportunity, as he starts to gear up for 2020, to give a little love to a highly valued segment of his base. Virginia’s governor had made comments last week that led to accusations that he supported infanticide; and New York just passed a bill that protects against efforts to roll back Roe v. Wade. Trump used those incidents as a springboard to call on Congress to ban “late-term abortions.” And the language he used in the speech — “All children — born and unborn — are made in the holy image of God” — is being seen as a play for evangelical voters.

The Associated Press: With Anti-Abortion Push, Trump Woos Evangelicals Again

Doctors weighed in on the debate with this reality check: Clinically, there is no such thing as a “late-term abortion.” See what else they say the president got wrong.

The New York Times: What Is Late-Term Abortion? Trump Got It Wrong

Childhood cancer also got a shout-out in the SOTU. Although it has an 80 percent cure rate, scientists say that number is skewed by the tremendous progress that’s been made against childhood leukemia. Other pediatric cancers have a long way to go. (And so they are welcoming the $500 million with open arms and a distinct list of ideas.)

Stat: Scientists Have Ideas to Spend Trump’s Money for Childhood Cancer

Former Rep. John Dingell died on Thursday at age 92. Lawmakers and politicians praised the country’s longest-serving congressman, calling him a “beloved pillar of the Congress” who is leaving behind “a towering legacy.” One common thread in the heartfelt messages was the impact he had on America’s health care. “He had a long tradition of introducing legislation on the first day of each new Congress to guarantee health care for every single American,” former President Barack Obama wrote. “Because of him, we’ve come closer to that vision than ever before. And when we finally achieve it — and we will — we’ll all owe him our gratitude.”

The Washington Post: Colleagues, friends remember John Dingell, an ‘American legend’ and ‘beloved pillar of Congress’

Fresh off their midterm victories, Democrats are wasting no time setting up hearings to secure protections for people with preexisting conditions. Any legislation would be mostly symbolic because it would face an all-but-certain death in the Republican-controlled Senate, but it solidifies talking points that have been successful for Democrats recently.

The New York Times: Democrats Unite to Begin Push to Protect Pre-Existing Condition Coverage

If you’re confused about Trump’s rebate proposal join the (very crowded) club. But here’s the bottom line: Most patients will pay a little more since their premiums will go up (because insurers would no longer be able to apply rebate money from the drugs to lower premiums). However, people who take outrageously expensive medication will get relief. Experts say the trade-off is worth it.

The New York Times: How Trump’s Latest Plan to Cut Drug Prices Will Affect You

How does a drug that, until December, was free to patients now have a $375,000 price tag? Paint Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) … curious … to say the least.

Stat: Sanders Calls Price of a Rare Disease Drug ‘Immoral Exploitation’

Court watchers were eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision on a Louisiana admitting-privileges law — the first real gauge of how the new dynamics of the court will play out with abortion decisions. The Louisiana restrictions are quite similar to ones knocked down in a 2016 ruling, but the court is also more conservative than it was at that time. For now, Chief Justice John Roberts disappointed his conservative colleagues by joining with the liberal justices in issuing a stay on the law. The decision likely means the court will take up the issue in its next term, which starts in October.

The New York Times: Supreme Court Blocks Louisiana Abortion Law

Medicaid expansion advocates were ecstatic last year when ballot initiatives proved a successful way to circumnavigate red-state legislatures that had been blocking changes to the program. This week, a bucket of cold water has doused that enthusiasm as lawmakers in both Utah and Idaho scramble to counter the expansion as much as possible. While the proposals — like adding work requirements — gain popularity in red states across the country, the fact it’s happening at all after voters OK’d the expansion highlights the reality that ballot initiatives can do only so much.

The New York Times: In Utah and Idaho, G.O.P. Looks to Curb Medicaid Expansions That Voters Approved

In a startling, horrifying trend, veterans have been killing themselves in VA parking lots in what experts see as a protest against a system that failed them. The latest was a Marine colonel who, dressed in his uniform blues and medals, sat on top of his military and VA records and shot himself with a rifle outside the Bay Pines Department of Veterans Affairs. “It’s very important for the VA to recognize that the place of a suicide can have great meaning. There is a real moral imperative and invitation here to take a close inspection of the quality of services at the facility level,” said Dr. Eric Caine, director of the Injury Control Research Center for Suicide Prevention at the University of Rochester.

The Washington Post: Parking Lot Suicides at Veterans Hospitals Prompt Calls for Better Staff Training, Prevention Efforts

Meanwhile, USA Today released a comprehensive analysis on the quality of VA hospitals versus civilian ones. Some of the scores came back positive (death rates, on the whole, were lower at VA facilities); others that look at preventable infection rates and bedsores hinted at neglect. USAT offers a very cool look-up tool if you want to see how your clinic fared.

USA Today: Death Rates, ER Waits: Where Every VA Hospital Lags, Leads Other Care

An HHS official is arguing that pulling separated migrant children from their sponsor homes to reunite them with their families would do more harm than good psychologically at this point. Jonathan White, an official leading HHS’ reunification efforts, said in a court filing that it would make more sense for the government to focus on children who were still in custody. The ACLU called the position a “shocking concession that it can’t easily find thousands of children it ripped from parents, and doesn’t even think it’s worth the time to locate each of them.”

The Associated Press: US Sees Limitations on Reuniting Migrant Families

In the miscellaneous file for the week:

• There’s a long history of mistrust between the African-American community and medical professionals, and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s photo involving black face pressed sharply against that never-healed wound. (At the time, Northam was graduating from medical school on his way to becoming a pediatrician.)

The Associated Press: Blackface Photo Reopens Long History of Bigotry in Medicine

• Anecdotal evidence was thick on the ground that women were seeking emergency contraception in the wake of Trump’s election victory. Now there are numbers to back it up.

The Hill: Demand for Certain Forms of Contraception Increased After Trump’s Election: Study

• Could an infamous party drug really help quiet suicidal ideation in the midst of an ever-worsening crisis? This fascinating history on the use of ketamine is well-worth the read.

Bloomberg: Ketamine Could Soon Be Used to Treat Suicidal Ideation

• “It’s like throwing a match into a can of gasoline,” experts say of the measles outbreak in the Pacific Northwest. Are they just the norm now? And why were there so many kids who weren’t vaccinated?

The New York Times: ‘A Match Into a Can of Gasoline’: Measles Outbreak Now an Emergency in Washington State

CNN: Measles Rarely Kills in the US — But When It Does, Here’s How 

I was delighted this morning over the fact that scientists had a major breakthrough in creating a way to take insulin in pill form because of … turtles! Last week hedgehogs, this week turtles. I swear the Breeze isn’t turning into an animal news newsletter (or is it?). Have a great weekend!

Trump Pledges To End HIV Transmission By 2030. Doable, But Daunting.

Noting that science has “brought a once-distant dream within reach,” President Donald Trump on Tuesday night pledged to eliminate HIV transmission within 10 years.

“We have made incredible strides, incredible,” Trump said in the annual State of the Union address. “Together, we will defeat AIDS in America and beyond.”

It’s a goal long sought by public health advocates. But even given the vital gains made in drug therapies and understanding of the disease over nearly 40 years, it is not an easy undertaking.

“The reason we have an AIDS epidemic is not just for a lack of the medication,” said Dr. Kenneth Mayer, medical research director at the Boston LGBT health center Fenway Institute. “There are a lot of social, structural, individual behavioral factors that may impact why people become infected, may impact if people who are infected engage in care and may impact or affect people who are at high risk of HIV.”

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who provided details of the initiative after Trump’s announcement, said the administration will target viral hot spots by providing local groups more resources, using data to track the spread of the disease and creating local task forces to bolster prevention and treatment.

Neither Azar nor other federal officials who briefed reporters offered cost estimates for the program.

Azar said the plan seeks to reduce new infections by 75 percent in the next five years and 90 percent in the next decade.

That goal is predicated on growing use of current medications that suppress the virus to such low levels that it is not transmitted during sexual intercourse. PrEP, a drug combination available to individuals with a negative HIV status but may become infected, can reduce their risk of getting the virus by 97 percent, Azar said.”

“This is not the HIV epidemic of the 1990s,” said Terrance Moore, acting executive director of NASTAD, a nonprofit organization that represents officials who administer HIV and hepatitis programs. “We have the tools to end this epidemic.”

Gay and bisexual men made up two-thirds of the nearly 40,000 new HIV cases in 2017, but one clear signal of that difference in the epidemic today is the geography. The nation’s HIV hotbeds are no longer located just in coastal metropolitan areas. In 2017, more than half of the new cases were diagnosed in Southern states.

HHS said it will focus its efforts on the heart of the epidemic: 48 counties across 19 states; the District of Columbia; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and rural areas in seven states, many of which are in the South.

The new federal initiative would expand PrEP access in community health clinics for low-income patients and quickly refer any new clinic patients with HIV to specialized care.

Medications alone are not the answer. Lawmakers must have the political will to move forward with policies based in science, said Moore. Existing programs do not provide enough infrastructure to achieve this goal, he added.

“You can’t be simultaneously attacking and undermining the needs of these communities, while claiming that you want to support them and end the AIDS epidemic,” said Scott Schoettes, HIV project director for the LGBT advocacy group Lambda Legal.

The Trump administration has pursued policies that may hinder the president’s goal. And efforts in the South face additional challenges, like higher levels of poverty, difficulty providing health care in rural areas and historical racial tension.

“I don’t think that these things are things that we cannot overcome,” said Greg Millett, vice president and director of public policy at the HIV research foundation amfAR. “But I also think that we need to be very clear about what the obstacles are and to start thinking now innovatively about how we’re going to be able to obviate them.”

Here are some of the challenges that experts said the president’s plan could face.

Health Insurance

Insurance coverage plays a crucial role in keeping HIV patients healthy.

Comprehensive insurance helps patients access the expensive medications needed to keep the virus under control and vital tests to check on virus levels and white blood cell counts — key health indicators. HIV patients are also often susceptible to infections because the virus compromises the immune system. And they tend to have higher rates of mental health conditions, which could affect their ability to adhere to HIV medication if left untreated.

The Affordable Care Act opened up coverage for thousands of HIV patients with its guarantee of insurance for people with preexisting conditions, but many Republican officials are still calling for the law’s repeal.

In addition, the ACA’s Medicaid expansion led to a substantial jump in the number of people with AIDS who got that coverage, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. But many states, especially in the South, have not expanded Medicaid. (Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the foundation.)

A federal judge in Texas in December ruled the ACA unconstitutional in a lawsuit waged by a faction of conservative states and supported by the president.

“If you’re not going to provide it through the Affordable Care Act,” Schoettes said, “then there needs to be something that’s as comprehensive in terms of getting people care.


Although the federal government provides some housing assistance for people with HIV, it does not fill the need.

Those who are homeless or have unstable housing have lower access to HIV medications and poorer treatment outcomes.

A study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that among individuals living with HIV in certain impoverished urban areas across the country, the lower the household income, the higher the rate of HIV in the area. 

The federal government provides assistance through a program called Housing Opportunities for Persons With AIDS, known as HOPWA. In 2016, HOPWA changed its  funding formula to better allocate its resources to Southern areas hardest hit by HIV.

However, some of these HOPWA programs have waiting lists that can extend years. The nation is also experiencing an affordable housing shortage, which further limits options for low-income individuals living with HIV and their families.

Stigma And Mistrust

Experts continue to cite stigma as a key obstacle for treatment. Twenty-six states have laws that penalize an HIV patient for exposing someone to the virus, including 19 that require people who are aware they are infected to notify sexual partners and 12 that mandate disclosure to needle-sharing partners, according to the CDC.

The problems extend to doctors and medical staff. One study, published in 2016, found widespread stigma against HIV patients among health care staff in Alabama and Mississippi, especially among whites and men.

Gina Brown, a community engagement manager for the Southern AIDS Coalition, in part blames the culture of the South, where religious beliefs often clash with gay culture, for perpetuating these problems. “We are still in Bible Belt country, where religion plays a huge part in how we talk about sex or not talk about sex,” she said.

But federal policies, such as the Trump administration’s ban on transgender men and women serving in the military, also play a role.

Federal officials acknowledged these difficulties and affirmed the program would not discriminate against transgender patients.

In addition, minority communities hard hit by the HIV epidemic harbor lingering distrust toward the medical system due to historical abuses such as the Tuskegee syphilis trials, said Mayer.

Injection Drug Use

The scourge of addiction has killed tens of thousands across the nation, spread hepatitis C and is now leading to spikes in HIV transmission, as drug users share needles. In 2015, Scott County, Ind., sought to combat an HIV outbreak fueled by injected opioid use that infected 215 people. Drug use has also been connected to multiple HIV clusters in Massachusetts and Kentucky.

HHS reported that injection drug users accounted for 1 in 10 new HIV cases in 2016.

Expanding syringe exchange programs across the country could minimize this problem, experts said.

“Unfortunately, in the United States we haven’t done as good a job as other Western countries in making sure that those programs are widely available for those Americans who need them,” said Millett.

The CDC and HHS consider syringe exchange programs effective interventions, but some cities, such as Charleston, W.Va., that implemented the programs have now shut them down because of neighborhood complaints, funding concerns and opposition from citizens who object to providing injection equipment.

Federal funds can be used to support this intervention, but these dollars cannot go directly toward purchasing needles.