Tag: Pharmaceuticals

KFF Health News’ ‘What the Health?’: SCOTUS Rejects Abortion Pill Challenge — For Now 

The Host

A unanimous Supreme Court turned back a challenge to the FDA’s approval and rules for the abortion pill mifepristone, finding that the anti-abortion doctor group that sued lacked standing to do so. But abortion foes have other ways they intend to curtail availability of the pill, which is commonly used in medication abortions, which now make up nearly two-thirds of abortions in the U.S.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration is proposing regulations that would bar credit agencies from including medical debt on individual credit reports. And former President Donald Trump, signaling that drug prices remain a potent campaign issue, attempts to take credit for the $35-a-month cap on insulin for Medicare beneficiaries — which was backed and signed into law by Biden.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of KFF Health News, Anna Edney of Bloomberg News, Rachana Pradhan of KFF Health News, and Emmarie Huetteman of KFF Health News.

Among the takeaways from this week’s episode:

  • All nine Supreme Court justices on June 13 rejected a challenge to the abortion pill mifepristone, ruling the plaintiffs did not have standing to sue. But that may not be the last word: The decision leaves open the possibility that different plaintiffs — including three states already part of the case — could raise a similar challenge in the future, and that the court could then vote to block access to the pill.
  • As the presidential race heats up, President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump are angling for health care voters. The Biden administration this week proposed eliminating all medical debt from Americans’ credit scores, which would expand on the previous, voluntary move by the major credit agencies to erase from credit reports medical bills under $500. Meanwhile, Trump continues to court vaccine skeptics and wrongly claimed credit for Medicare’s $35 monthly cap on insulin — enacted under a law backed and signed by Biden.
  • Problems are compounding at the pharmacy counter. Pharmacists and drugmakers are reporting the highest numbers of drug shortages in more than 20 years. And independent pharmacists in particular say they are struggling to keep drugs on the shelves, pointing to a recent Biden administration policy change that reduces costs for seniors — but also cash flow for pharmacies.
  • And the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest branch of Protestantism, voted this week to restrict the use of in vitro fertilization. As evidenced by recent flip-flopping stances on abortion, Republican candidates are feeling pressed to satisfy a wide range of perspectives within even their own party.

Also this week, Rovner interviews KFF president and CEO Drew Altman about KFF’s new “Health Policy 101” primer. You can learn more about it here.

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

Julie Rovner: HuffPost’s “How America’s Mental Health Crisis Became This Family’s Worst Nightmare,” by Jonathan Cohn.

Anna Edney: Stat News’ “Four Tops Singer’s Lawsuit Says He Visited ER for Chest Pain, Ended Up in Straitjacket,” by Tara Bannow.

Rachana Pradhan: The New York Times’ “Abortion Groups Say Tech Companies Suppress Posts and Accounts,” by Emily Schmall and Sapna Maheshwari.

Emmarie Huetteman: CBS News’ “As FDA Urges Crackdown on Bird Flu in Raw Milk, Some States Say Their Hands Are Tied,” by Alexander Tin.

Also mentioned on this week’s podcast:


To hear all our podcasts, click here.

And subscribe to KFF Health News’ “What the Health?” on SpotifyApple PodcastsPocket Casts, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Biden Plan to Save Medicare Patients Money on Drugs Risks Empty Shelves, Pharmacists Say

Months into a new Biden administration policy intended to lower drug costs for Medicare patients, independent pharmacists say they’re struggling to afford to keep some prescription drugs in stock.

“It would not matter if the governor himself walked in and said, ‘I need to get this prescription filled,’” said Clint Hopkins, a pharmacist and co-owner of Pucci’s Pharmacy in Sacramento, California. “If I’m losing money on it, it’s a no.”

A regulation that took effect in January changes prescription prices for Medicare beneficiaries. For years, prices included pharmacy performance incentives, possible rebates, and other adjustments made after the prescription was filled. Now the adjustments are made first, at the pharmacy counter, reducing the overall cost for patients and the government. But the new system means less money for pharmacies that acquire and stock medications, pharmacists say.

Pharmacies are already struggling with staff shortages, drug shortages, fallout from opioid lawsuits, and rising operating costs. While independent pharmacies are most vulnerable, some big chain pharmacies are also feeling a cash crunch — particularly those whose parent firms don’t own a pharmacy benefit manager, companies that negotiate drug prices between insurers, drug manufacturers, and pharmacies.

A photo of a man in a white pharmacist's coat smiling for a photo.
“It would not matter if the governor himself walked in and said, ‘I need to get this prescription filled,’” says Clint Hopkins, a Sacramento, California, pharmacist. “If I’m losing money on it, it’s a no.”(Joel Hockman)

A top official at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services said it’s a matter for pharmacies, Medicare insurance plans, and PBMs to resolve.

“We cannot interfere in the negotiations that occur between the plans and pharmacy benefits managers,” Meena Seshamani, director of the Center for Medicare, said at a conference on June 7. “We cannot tell a plan how much to pay a pharmacy or a PBM.”

Nevertheless, CMS has reminded insurers and PBMs in several letters that they are required to provide the drugs and other benefits promised to beneficiaries.

Several independent pharmacists told KFF Health News they’ll soon cut back on the number of medications they keep on shelves, particularly brand-name drugs. Some have even decided to stop accepting certain Medicare drug plans, they said.

As he campaigns for reelection, President Joe Biden has touted his administration’s moves to make prescription drugs more affordable for Medicare patients, hoping to appeal to voters troubled by rising health care costs. His achievements include a law, the Inflation Reduction Act, that caps the price of insulin at $35 a month for Medicare patients; caps Medicare patients’ drug spending at $2,000 a year, beginning next year; and allows the program to bargain down drug prices with manufacturers.

More than 51 million people have Medicare drug coverage. CMS officials estimated the new rule reducing pharmacy costs would save beneficiaries $26.5 billion from 2024 through 2032.

Medicare patients’ prescriptions can account for at least 40% of pharmacy business, according to a February survey by the National Community Pharmacists Association.

Independent pharmacists say the new rule is causing them financial trouble and hardship for some Medicare patients. Hopkins, in Sacramento, said that some of his newer customers used to rely on a local grocery pharmacy but came to his store after they could no longer get their medications there.

The crux of the problem is cash flow, the pharmacists say. Under the old system, pharmacies and PBMs reconciled rebates and other behind-the-scenes transactions a few times a year, resulting in pharmacies refunding any overpayments.

Now, PBM clawbacks happen immediately, with every filled prescription, reducing pharmacies’ cash on hand. That has made it particularly difficult, pharmacists say, to stock brand-name drugs that can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars for a month’s supply.

Some patients have been forced to choose between their pharmacy and their drug plan. Kavanaugh Pharmacy in Little Rock, Arkansas, no longer accepts Cigna and Wellcare Medicare drug plans, said co-owner and pharmacist Scott Pace. He said the pharmacy made the change because the companies use Express Scripts, a PBM that has cut its reimbursements to pharmacies.

“We had a lot of Wellcare patients in 2023 that either had to switch plans to remain with us, or they had to find a new provider,” Pace said.

A photo of a man smiling in front of shelves of prescriptions indoors.
Pharmacist Scott Pace, of Little Rock, Arkansas, no longer accepts two Medicare drug plans because of low reimbursements.(Kori Gordon)

Pace said one patient’s drug plan recently reimbursed him for a fentanyl patch $40 less than his cost to acquire the drug. “Because we’ve had a long-standing relationship with this particular patient, and they’re dying, we took a $40 loss to take care of the patient,” he said.

Conceding that some pharmacies face cash-flow problems, Express Scripts recently decided to accelerate payment of bonuses for meeting the company’s performance measures, said spokesperson Justine Sessions. She declined to answer questions about cuts in pharmacy payments.

Express Scripts, which is owned by The Cigna Group, managed 23% of prescription claims last year, second to CVS Health, which had 34% of the market.

In North Carolina, pharmacist Brent Talley said he recently lost $31 filling a prescription for a month’s supply of a weight control and diabetes drug.

To try to cushion such losses, Talley’s Hayes Barton Pharmacy sells CBD products and specialty items like reading glasses, bath products, and books about local history. “But that’s not going to come close to making up the loss generated by the prescription sale,” Talley said.

His pharmacy also delivers medicines packaged by the dose to Medicare patients at assisted living facilities and nursing homes. Reimbursement arrangements with PBMs for that business are more favorable than for filling prescriptions in person, he said.

A photo of a man in a button-up shirt and tie smiling for a photo indoors.
Brent Talley, a Raleigh, North Carolina, pharmacist, says that, while his store sells a variety of specialty items, “that’s not going to come close to making up the loss generated by the prescription sale.”(Elizabeth Talley)

When Congress added drug coverage to Medicare in 2003, lawmakers privatized the benefit by requiring the government to contract with commercial insurance companies to manage the program.

Insurers offer two options: Medicare Advantage plans, which usually cover medications, in addition to hospital care, doctor visits, and other services; as well as stand-alone drug plans for people with traditional Medicare. The insurers then contract with PBMs to negotiate drug prices and pharmacy costs with drug manufacturers and pharmacies.

The terms of PBM contracts are generally secret and restrict what pharmacists can tell patients — for example, if they’re asked why a drug is out of stock. (It took an act of Congress in 2018 to eliminate restrictions on disclosing a drug’s cash price, which can sometimes be less than an insurance plan’s copayment.)

The Pharmaceutical Care Management Association, a trade group representing PBMs, warned CMS repeatedly “that pharmacies would likely receive lower payments under the new Medicare Part D rule,” spokesperson Greg Lopes said. His group opposes the change.

Recognizing the new policy could cause cash-flow problems for pharmacies, Medicare officials had delayed implementation for a year before the rule took effect, giving them more time to adjust.

“We have heard pharmacies saying that they have concerns with their reimbursement,” Seshamani said.

But the agency isn’t doing enough to help now, said Ronna Hauser, senior vice president of policy and pharmacy affairs at the National Community Pharmacists Association. “They haven’t taken any action even after we brought potential violations to their attention,” she said.

Weight-Loss Drugs Are So Popular They’re Headed for Medicare Negotiations

The steep prices — and popularity — of Ozempic and similar weight-loss and diabetes drugs could soon make them a priority for Medicare drug price negotiations. List prices for a month’s supply of the drugs range from $936 to $1,349, according to the Peterson-KFF Health System Tracker.

The Inflation Reduction Act President Biden signed in 2022 paved the way for the federal program to negotiate prices directly with drugmakers for the first time. But for now, the high price of Ozempic, Trulicity and other drugs in the class known as GLP-1 agonists have put them out of reach for many low-income patients.

Novo Nordisk’s Ozempic and Wegovy could be eligible for negotiation as early as 2025, said Juliette Cubanski, deputy director of the Program on Medicare Policy at KFF. Lilly’s Trulicity may follow the next year.

Medicare shelled out $5.7 billion in 2022 for three popular GLP-1 drugs, up from $57 million in 2018, according to research by KFF. The “outrageously high” prices have “the potential to bankrupt Medicare, Medicaid, and our entire health care system,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who chairs the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, wrote in a letter to Novo Nordisk in April.

That spending will continue to skyrocket as the benefits of these drugs pile up. Medicare can’t cover the drugs for weight loss alone, but the program does cover them when prescribed to treat diabetes. Wegovy, a version of Ozempic, has also been approved to treat heart disease and the compound has shown promise in treating kidney disease.

The drugs are likely choices for Medicare haggling, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

But just how much will prices come down?

We’ll learn whether Medicare is a good bargainer in September, when the negotiated prices of the first 10 drugs selected for the process are published, Cubanski said.

While the negotiations will initially help only Medicare beneficiaries, other patients could see a benefit once prices are made public and drugmakers start feeling pressure. That’s what happened after the Inflation Reduction Act capped insulin prices for Medicare enrollees at $35 a month.

Another wild card? The winner of the November election. Biden’s been touting Medicare drug price negotiations on the campaign trail.

Trump talked a lot about driving down drug prices in his first term, but he eventually backed off letting Medicare negotiate. It’s unclear whether Trump would take on drugmakers — or his own party — during a second term.

Congressional Republicans voted against the IRA and some have put forward proposals to repeal it.


This article is not available for syndication due to republishing restrictions. If you have questions about the availability of this or other content for republication, please contact NewsWeb@kff.org.


How a Friend’s Death Turned Colorado Teens Into Anti-Overdose Activists

Gavinn McKinney loved Nike shoes, fireworks, and sushi. He was studying Potawatomi, one of the languages of his Native American heritage. He loved holding his niece and smelling her baby smell. On his 15th birthday, the Durango, Colorado, teen spent a cold December afternoon chopping wood to help neighbors who couldn’t afford to heat their homes.

McKinney almost made it to his 16th birthday. He died of fentanyl poisoning at a friend’s house in December 2021. His friends say it was the first time he tried hard drugs. The memorial service was so packed people had to stand outside the funeral home.

Now, his peers are trying to cement their friend’s legacy in state law. They recently testified to state lawmakers in support of a bill they helped write to ensure students can carry naloxone with them at all times without fear of discipline or confiscation. School districts tend to have strict medication policies. Without special permission, Colorado students can’t even carry their own emergency medications, such as an inhaler, and they are not allowed to share them with others.

“We realized we could actually make a change if we put our hearts to it,” said Niko Peterson, a senior at Animas High School in Durango and one of McKinney’s friends who helped write the bill. “Being proactive versus being reactive is going to be the best possible solution.”

Individual school districts or counties in California, Maryland, and elsewhere have rules expressly allowing high school students to carry naloxone. But Jon Woodruff, managing attorney at the Legislative Analysis and Public Policy Association, said he wasn’t aware of any statewide law such as the one Colorado is considering. Woodruff’s Washington, D.C.-based organization researches and drafts legislation on substance use.

Naloxone is an opioid antagonist that can halt an overdose. Available over the counter as a nasal spray, it is considered the fire extinguisher of the opioid epidemic, for use in an emergency, but just one tool in a prevention strategy. (People often refer to it as “Narcan,” one of the more recognizable brand names, similar to how tissues, regardless of brand, are often called “Kleenex.”)

The Biden administration last year backed an ad campaign encouraging young people to carry the emergency medication.

Most states’ naloxone access laws protect do-gooders, including youth, from liability if they accidentally harm someone while administering naloxone. But without school policies explicitly allowing it, the students’ ability to bring naloxone to class falls into a gray area.

Ryan Christoff said that in September 2022 fellow staff at Centaurus High School in Lafayette, Colorado, where he worked and which one of his daughters attended at the time, confiscated naloxone from one of her classmates.

“She didn’t have anything on her other than the Narcan, and they took it away from her,” said Christoff, who had provided the confiscated Narcan to that student and many others after his daughter nearly died from fentanyl poisoning. “We should want every student to carry it.”

Boulder Valley School District spokesperson Randy Barber said the incident “was a one-off and we’ve done some work since to make sure nurses are aware.” The district now encourages everyone to consider carrying naloxone, he said.

Zoe Ramsey, a high school senior from Durango, Colorado, testified before state lawmakers in February 2024 about a bill to clarify that students may carry naloxone, a drug that can reverse opioid overdoses. (Rae Ellen Bichell/KFF Health News)

Community’s Devastation Turns to Action

In Durango, McKinney’s death hit the community hard. McKinney’s friends and family said he didn’t do hard drugs. The substance he was hooked on was Tapatío hot sauce — he even brought some in his pocket to a Rockies game.

After McKinney died, people started getting tattoos of the phrase he was known for, which was emblazoned on his favorite sweatshirt: “Love is the cure.” Even a few of his teachers got them. But it was classmates, along with their friends at another high school in town, who turned his loss into a political movement.

“We’re making things happen on behalf of him,” Peterson said.

The mortality rate has spiked in recent years, with more than 1,500 other children and teens in the U.S. dying of fentanyl poisoning the same year as McKinney. Most youth who die of overdoses have no known history of taking opioids, and many of them likely thought they were taking prescription opioids like OxyContin or Percocet — not the fake prescription pills that increasingly carry a lethal dose of fentanyl.

“Most likely the largest group of teens that are dying are really teens that are experimenting, as opposed to teens that have a long-standing opioid use disorder,” said Joseph Friedman, a substance use researcher at UCLA who would like to see schools provide accurate drug education about counterfeit pills, such as with Stanford’s Safety First curriculum.

Allowing students to carry a low-risk, lifesaving drug with them is in many ways the minimum schools can do, he said.

“I would argue that what the schools should be doing is identifying high-risk teens and giving them the Narcan to take home with them and teaching them why it matters,” Friedman said.

Writing in The New England Journal of Medicine, Friedman identified Colorado as a hot spot for high school-aged adolescent overdose deaths, with a mortality rate more than double that of the nation from 2020 to 2022.

“Increasingly, fentanyl is being sold in pill form, and it’s happening to the largest degree in the West,” said Friedman. “I think that the teen overdose crisis is a direct result of that.”

Gavinn McKinney died of fentanyl poisoning at a friend’s house in December 2021. McKinney was part of the Thunder Clan of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. He also had Kickapoo and Assiniboine heritage. (Trennie Burch)

If Colorado lawmakers approve the bill, “I think that’s a really important step,” said Ju Nyeong Park, an assistant professor of medicine at Brown University, who leads a research group focused on how to prevent overdoses. “I hope that the Colorado Legislature does and that other states follow as well.”

Park said comprehensive programs to test drugs for dangerous contaminants, better access to evidence-based treatment for adolescents who develop a substance use disorder, and promotion of harm reduction tools are also important. “For example, there is a national hotline called Never Use Alone that anyone can call anonymously to be supervised remotely in case of an emergency,” she said.

Taking Matters Into Their Own Hands

Many Colorado school districts are training staff how to administer naloxone and are stocking it on school grounds through a program that allows them to acquire it from the state at little to no cost. But it was clear to Peterson and other area high schoolers that having naloxone at school isn’t enough, especially in rural places.

“The teachers who are trained to use Narcan will not be at the parties where the students will be using the drugs,” he said.

And it isn’t enough to expect teens to keep it at home.

“It’s not going to be helpful if it’s in somebody’s house 20 minutes outside of town. It’s going to be helpful if it’s in their backpack always,” said Zoe Ramsey, another of McKinney’s friends and a senior at Animas High School.

“We were informed it was against the rules to carry naloxone, and especially to distribute it,” said Ilias “Leo” Stritikus, who graduated from Durango High School last year.

But students in the area, and their school administrators, were uncertain: Could students get in trouble for carrying the opioid antagonist in their backpacks, or if they distributed it to friends? And could a school or district be held liable if something went wrong?

He, along with Ramsey and Peterson, helped form the group Students Against Overdose. Together, they convinced Animas, which is a charter school, and the surrounding school district, to change policies. Now, with parental permission, and after going through training on how to administer it, students may carry naloxone on school grounds.

Durango School District 9-R spokesperson Karla Sluis said at least 45 students have completed the training.

School districts in other parts of the nation have also determined it’s important to clarify students’ ability to carry naloxone.

“We want to be a part of saving lives,” said Smita Malhotra, chief medical director for Los Angeles Unified School District in California.

Gavinn McKinney’s mother, whose name is being withheld because they are part of a state confidentiality program for survivors of domestic violence, at the Colorado state Capitol for a hearing in February on a bill to clarify that students in the state may carry naloxone.( Rae Ellen Bichell/KFF Health News)

Los Angeles County had one of the nation’s highest adolescent overdose death tallies of any U.S. county: From 2020 to 2022, 111 teens ages 14 to 18 died. One of them was a 15-year-old who died in a school bathroom of fentanyl poisoning. Malhotra’s district has since updated its policy on naloxone to permit students to carry and administer it.

“All students can carry naloxone in our school campuses without facing any discipline,” Malhotra said. She said the district is also doubling down on peer support and hosting educational sessions for families and students.

Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland took a similar approach. School staff had to administer naloxone 18 times over the course of a school year, and five students died over the course of about one semester.

When the district held community forums on the issue, Patricia Kapunan, the district’s medical officer, said, “Students were very vocal about wanting access to naloxone. A student is very unlikely to carry something in their backpack which they think they might get in trouble for.”

So it, too, clarified its policy. While that was underway, local news reported that high school students found a teen passed out, with purple lips, in the bathroom of a McDonald’s down the street from their school, and used Narcan to revive them. It was during lunch on a school day.

“We can’t Narcan our way out of the opioid use crisis,” said Kapunan. “But it was critical to do it first. Just like knowing 911.”

Now, with the support of the district and county health department, students are training other students how to administer naloxone. Jackson Taylor, one of the student trainers, estimated they trained about 200 students over the course of three hours on a recent Saturday.

“It felt amazing, this footstep toward fixing the issue,” Taylor said.

Each trainee left with two doses of naloxone.

This article was produced by KFF Health News, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation. 

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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Watch: Walgreens Stops Sale of Abortion Pill in 21 States Under GOP Threat of Legal Action

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Walgreens has announced it will stop dispensing the abortion pill mifepristone in 21 states where Republican attorneys general threatened legal action against the company, which is the nation’s second-largest pharmacy chain.

KHN senior correspondent Sarah Varney joined PBS NewsHour co-anchor Amna Nawaz in a report on the move and its ramifications for women in those states, many of which have outlawed or severely restricted abortion. In four — Alaska, Iowa, Kansas, and Montana — Walgreens could legally sell the pills but has said it will not. 

Other pharmacies such as CVS, Rite Aid, Costco, Walmart, and Kroger also face legal action.

To otherwise obtain the medication, Varney said, women could seek “a telehealth appointment with someone outside of the state” or “you could order from an online pharmacy.” 

But, she noted, the move by Walgreens restricts access to the drug for “women in what is typically a very time-sensitive situation.”

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.


Readers and Tweeters Urgently Plea for a Proper ‘Role’ Call in the ER

Letters to the Editor is a periodic feature. We welcome all comments and will publish a selection. We edit for length and clarity and require full names.


How Physician Assistants and Nurse Practitioners Enhance Health Care

The story of one patient’s ER experience does not at all capture the complexities of an emergency department serving the needs of a stochastic patient population.

Given the reach of KHN, it is disappointing to read stories that inch closer to tabloid-level reporting (“Doctors Are Disappearing From Emergency Rooms as Hospitals Look to Cut Costs,” Feb. 13).

Having spent most of my career working in and operationalizing emergency departments, I can assure you that there are plenty of opportunities to optimize the delivery of care and reduce unnecessary waste and cost while maintaining excellent outcomes. The salient point that you make “it’s all about the money” is too simplistic given the complexities.

Advanced practice providers (APPs) collectively describe nurse practitioners (NPs), physician assistants (PAs), certified registered nurse anesthetists (CRNAs), and certified nurse midwives (CNMs). The term “midlevel practitioner” is outdated.

The archaic paternalistic approach to health care has long been overdue for change. Post-pandemic, it is critical to pivot from “the way it has always been done,” and that includes embracing new models of care.

Physicians and APPs provide excellent care to their patients and operate with different scopes of practice, training, and licensure. Therefore, most of us find working together in team-based models to be highly effective in ensuring that patients see the right care provider for the right health problem.

I found this reporting to be superficial and even offensive to nurse practitioners, like myself, who provide just as high quality care to patients as our physician colleagues.

I welcome the opportunity for dialogue about the value of nurse practitioners and physician assistants.

— Cindi Warburton, Spokane, Washington


— Mark Williams, Sacramento, California


I heard your NPR-partnered story on emergency rooms being managed by private equity and using fewer doctors and more nurse practitioners and physician assistants as midlevel practitioners.

But I prefer midlevel practitioners and medical residents, if their skills are relevant to me. They tend to be more careful in telling me what I should know and in entering records.

The professionally senior doctors (by years of experience and specialty, but I don’t know about board certification) tend to use record-keeping to support higher insurance reimbursement and then they don’t seem to believe what anyone else writes in the records, or don’t bother looking. Furthermore, they’re less likely to tell me what circumstances should prompt me to seek out a doctor or an ER, but if anything goes so wrong or becomes so advanced that I need even more care, they’re happy to provide it.

Doctors often categorically object to nurse practitioners, and state regulations reflect that.

— Nick Levinson, Brooklyn, New York



The recent KHN article “Doctors Are Disappearing From Emergency Rooms as Hospitals Look to Cut Costs” failed to address a critical consideration in the complexities of health care delivery today: the challenge of providing care to patients when they need it at a time when demand for care is on the rise, and the health care workforce is experiencing staggering levels of decline.

Today, 99 million Americans lack adequate access to primary care. By 2026, there will be a shortage of up to 3.2 million health care workers. As a physician associate/physician assistant for more than 20 years, I am kept up at night because of this perfect storm on the horizon — worried for my patients and their ability to access the care they need. Timely access to a trusted and qualified health care provider is never more pressing than during an emergency, when patients are at their most vulnerable, and delay in care can be a matter of life or death.

There is no easy answer to this impending workforce crisis, but one thing is clear: We can meet patient needs only if every member of today’s health care team is respected for the contributions they bring and can practice to the fullest extent of their education and training.

The fact is, without PAs, patients’ access to care would suffer. PAs account for more than 500 million patient visits each year. For many patients, PAs serve as primary care providers. And in some communities, PAs are the only health care providers. Let’s not lose sight of the countless stories we have all read in the media about community hospitals and clinics closing.

This article failed to take into account any research that shows the value and quality of PA-delivered care. For example, a 2021 study published by PLOS ONE looked at 39 studies across North America, Europe, and Africa between 1977 and 2021. In 33 of the 39 studies, researchers found care provided by a PA was comparable or better than care delivered by a physician. In 74% of the studies, resource and labor costs were lower when care was delivered by a PA versus a physician.

The quality of PA-delivered care can also be seen when looking at the ratio of liability claims. The ratio of claims to PAs averaged one claim for every 550 PAs. Compare this to the physician ratio, which averaged 1 claim for every 80 physicians.

Hiring PAs to practice in emergency medicine is not about “replacing” physicians, nor does it diminish the quality of care. Utilizing PAs in emergency medicine is about equipping health care teams with a wide range of highly educated and trained clinicians who can work together to ensure patients get the safe, high-quality care they need.

Let us stay focused on the reason why PAs, nurse practitioners, and physicians went into medicine in the first place: to care for people! Patient-centered, team-based care is about every single one of us contributing our knowledge, experience, and expertise to ensure the best outcomes for patients.

— Jennifer M. Orozco, American Academy of Physician Associates president and board chair, Chicago


— Whitney Schmucker, New York City


KHN should not be using the term “midlevel providers.” It’s a derogatory term used by doctors to belittle advanced practice providers (nurse practitioners and physician associates).

— Danielle Franklin, Minneapolis


— Gregg Gonsalves, New Haven, Connecticut


Nurse practitioners are essential providers in our nation’s current and future health care system. In an effort to highlight concerns related to health facility ownership models, the recent article “Doctors Are Disappearing From Emergency Rooms as Hospitals Look to Cut Costs” incorrectly represents the care provided by NPs in emergency rooms.

In fact, a recent study examining advanced practice providers (APPs), including NPs, in the ER found increasing APP coverage had no impact on flow, safety, or patient experiences in the emergency department. Additional research concluded that after controlling for patient severity and complexity, APPs diagnostic testing and hospitalization rates did not differ from physicians in patients presenting to the emergency department with chest and abdominal pain.

Prepared at the master’s or doctoral level, NPs provide primary, acute, chronic, and specialty care to patients of all ages and backgrounds. NPs practice in nearly every health care setting including hospitals, clinics, Veterans Health Administration and Indian Health Service facilities, emergency rooms, urgent care sites, private physician or NP practices, skilled nursing facilities and nursing facilities, schools, colleges and universities, retail clinics, public health departments, nurse-managed clinics, homeless clinics, and home health care settings. Collectively, NPs deliver high-quality care in more than 1 billion patient visits each year.

Grounded in 50 years of research and evidence-based practice, NPs deliver high-quality care, consistent with their physician counterparts. Results from a study of over 800,000 patients at 530 Veterans Affairs facilities found that patients assigned to NP primary care providers were less likely to utilize additional services, had no difference in costs, and experienced similar chronic disease management compared with physician-assigned patients. Furthermore, a comprehensive summary of studies examining NP quality of care from the American Enterprise Institute underscores the benefits of NP-led care.

Today, NPs represent 355,000 solutions to our nation’s health care needs. Patients deserve access to these high-quality health care providers wherever they seek care.

— April N. Kapu, president of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners, Austin, Texas


— Dr. Sarabeth Broder-Fingert, Boston


Ophthalmologists and Optometrists Aren’t Interchangeable

Increasing Americans’ access to care is critical. However, loosening the scope of practice for certain types of care can be counterproductive and potentially risky for patients (“Montana Considers Allowing Physician Assistants to Practice Independently,” Feb.10).

A small handful of states, for example, have loosened scope-of-practice laws for laser eye surgery, which, if done incorrectly, could lead to serious complications that can damage a person’s vision. Over the course of their medical school education, internships, and residencies, ophthalmologists must complete thousands of hours of training before being allowed to perform laser eye surgeries on their own.

Unfortunately, some states permit optometrists, who are not medical doctors, to perform laser eye surgeries as long as they complete a 16- to 32-hour course. As one might expect, the likelihood of a patient needing additional surgery is significantly higher — more than double — when initial surgeries are performed by an optometrist instead of an ophthalmologist. It is little wonder, then, why states like California have successfully blocked efforts to loosen the scope of practice for laser eye surgery.

Despite the potential risks, and no evidence of documented access issues, the Department of Veterans Affairs updated its community care guidelines last year to allow optometrists in this small number of states to perform laser eye surgery on veterans in community care settings. Worse still, the VA is developing its National Standards of Practice, which many fear would let optometrists in VA facilities nationwide perform laser eye surgery on America’s veterans. To defend our veterans and prevent them from suffering adverse outcomes, it is critical for the VA to maintain patient protections that ensure only medical doctors with the requisite education and training can perform invasive eye surgeries.

Ophthalmologists and optometrists both play important roles in a patient’s collaborative care team, but their duties and skill sets are not interchangeable. Loosening the scope of practice for laser eye surgeries will not serve patients well. Our veterans defended us; now the VA must protect them.

— Dr. Daniel J. Briceland, president of the American Academy of Ophthalmology, Sun City West, Arizona


— David Johnson, Chicago


We were disappointed that the article by Keely Larson about Montana’s consideration of a change in physician assistant regulation failed to note that the vast majority of research on the quality of care provided by physician assistants and nurse practitioners demonstrates that they have similar quality of care to physicians when practicing in their area of expertise. There are numerous literature reviews published in peer-reviewed journals on this topic, which should have been noted in the story. The author selected a single working paper that focuses on quality of care in emergency departments in a single health system (the Department of Veterans Affairs) that is not representative of the settings in which most physician assistants and nurse practitioners work. The individual cited, Dr. Yiqun Chen, extrapolated her working paper to the entire profession of physician assistants (who were not included in her study), which is a significant overreach.

We are accustomed to KHN stories being well researched and balanced. This story missed the mark and does not reflect well on the quality KHN aims to achieve.

— Joanne Spetz, Janet Coffman, and Ulrike Muench, the University of California-San Francisco


— Dr. Mehmet Oz, Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania


At the Crux of Nursing Home Staffing Crunch: Compensation

I doubt it is possible to staff nursing facilities with qualified and caring staff when the compensation is quite poor and the work environment is very challenging (“Wave of Rural Nursing Home Closures Grows Amid Staffing Crunch,” Jan. 25). It is more a system problem than a staffing problem and will not get “fixed” without some serious changes.

— Dr. Jack Page, Durham, North Carolina


— Benjy Renton, Washington, D.C.


Participating in the Mental Illness Stigma

I wonder what is behind the pressure to persuade us to say there is a stigma to mental health issues (“Public Health Agencies Turn to Locals to Extend Reach Into Immigrant Communities,” Feb. 10)? I wonder why we so easily comply?

— Harold A. Maio, retired mental health editor, Fort Myers, Florida


— Andrzej Klimczuk, Bialystok, Poland


Remote Fitness Must Not Replace the Value of Physical Therapy

If we’ve learned anything in recent years, it’s how vital technology is in allowing us to stay connected virtually, especially when it comes to health care. However, the online world cannot safely and adequately replace everything.

The recent article “Rural Seniors Benefit From Pandemic-Driven Remote Fitness Boom” (Jan.17) details how many older Americans living in rural areas rely on virtual fitness classes to remain physically active. While this is an important and effective option for some seniors, remote fitness classes cannot and should not replace clinically directed physical therapy.

Physical therapy helps patients remain strong and independent by managing pain, preventing injury, and improving mobility, flexibility, and balance under the supervision of a professionally trained physical therapist. It’s especially important at a time when senior deaths from falls are on the rise. Evidence shows that when seniors underwent an exercise intervention from a trained health care professional, it lowered their risk of a fall by 31%.

Not only is it effective in rehabilitating patients, but it is also an affordable, lower-cost alternative to invasive surgeries and pharmacological treatments, saving our health care system millions. And now, with the emergence of remote therapeutic monitoring, physical therapists can more easily reach patients in rural communities to ensure they are reaching their clinical goals through safe, at-home therapy exercises.

Physical therapists undergo years of education and training to provide the best, safest care for their patients. And while I applaud seniors for embracing online fitness classes and staying active, I also encourage them to recognize when clinically supervised physical therapy is needed to protect their safety and health.

— Nikesh Patel, executive director of the Alliance for Physical Therapy Quality and Innovation (APTQI), Washington, D.C.


— Eric Weinhandl, Victoria, Minnesota


Tallying Bad Pennies

Did Your Health Plan Rip Off Medicare?” (Jan. 27) was a highly misleading article. On a per-enrollee per-year basis, over- and under-payments amounted to literally pennies. If you must pile on, focus on the few bad apples.

— Jon M. Kingsdale, Boston


— Inger Burnett-Zeigler, Chicago


How Much Did They Know and When Did They Know It?

Great story by Harris Meyer about Prentice and Lurie hospitals (“A Baby Spent 36 Days in an In-Network NICU. Why Did the Hospital Next Door Send a Bill?” Jan. 30). I was practicing as an anesthesiologist in Illinois in 2011 when the bill became law banning out-of-network balance billing for hospital-based docs. Of course we knew about the advent of the law: We had to enter into contracts to be in network, contracts that materially reduced all our doctors’ incomes!

It is impossible for me to believe that a professional operating a billing service in 2020 for Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago didn’t know about this 2011 law. I don’t believe them for a moment.

Thanks for the great article.

— Ron Meyer, Wilmette, Illinois


— Regina Phelps, San Francisco


Leaving a Bad Taste in My Mouth

In every article I’ve read about Paxlovid, including yours (“What Older Americans Need to Know About Taking Paxlovid,” Dec. 18), not one mentions the horrible metallic taste these pills have. I was prescribed Paxlovid after contracting covid-19. I’m 71 years old. It’s beyond my reasoning that in this day and age a pharmaceutical manufacturer can’t put a neutral coating on the pills. This awful taste stays with you day and night for the five days of use. I even had a friend who had to stop taking them as she was losing sleep over the horrible taste. My reference to friends is: “It’s like sucking on a wrench.” I’m sure this issue isn’t confined to us seniors, but it would be nice to read some recognition of a problem with this medication.

By the way, my workaround, which definitely helps but is hardly a solution, is to swallow the pills down with a swig of cranberry juice.

— Don Dugan, Brookfield, Wisconsin


— Olav Mitchell Underdal, Irvine, California


Admiration for Abortion Doulas

I admire and respect individuals willing to provide aid and comfort to others who are going through either the traditional birth process or a hard decision to end a pregnancy (“In North Carolina, More People Are Training to Support Patients Through an Abortion,” Jan. 5). Kudos to news groups for increasing awareness of individuals and organizations providing valuable services for their fellow citizens.

— Michael Walker, Black Mountain, North Carolina


— Dr. Darrell Gray II, Owings Mills, Maryland


Thinking Outside the Traditional Medicine Box

Katheryn Houghton missed out on sharing info on traditional methods, especially acupuncture (“Why People Who Experience Severe Nausea During Pregnancy Often Go Untreated,” Jan. 13). Also ginger, as in ginger tea, and peppermint. Peppermint oil (sniffed) or tea. I am an advocate for people with cancer.

— Ann Fonfa, founder of the Annie Appleseed Project, Delray Beach, Florida


— Catherine Arnst, New York City


A Cartoon Blooper?

The “Gender reveal?” political cartoon (Feb. 14) was confusing, unfunny, and inaccurate. How is this “political”? (It isn’t.) What makes gender reveals funny? (They’re not.) Most importantly, such reveals — an anachronistic cultural tradition that should be done away with anyway — are “sex reveals,” not “gender reveals.” (Biology is based on anatomy at birth, while gender is self-determined later in life and is fluid over time.) Even sex reveals are problematic, as they assume two biological sexes. (Some estimates indicate nearly 2% of individuals are born intersex, with their sexual anatomy not fitting into categories of either female or male.)

With anti-trans and anti-drag queen legislation being proposed and codified seemingly daily, now is not the time to poke fun at, nor inaccurately represent, the construct of gender. (It’s never the time.)

— Steff Du Bois, licensed clinical psychologist, Chicago



Keeping Marijuana Candy Away From Children

As an emergency room doctor, I was disappointed by the recent “KHN Health Minute” story trivializing a growing public health risk by suggesting parents “lock up their marijuana gummies” to avoid poisoning their children (“Listen to the Latest ‘KHN Health Minute,’” Feb. 16).

For background on why I, and other doctors, are concerned, I encourage you to read “Marijuana Candy: Poisoning and Lack of Protection for Children.”

— Dr. Roneet Lev, San Diego


— Halee Fischer-Wright, Denver


A Suggestion for Extra-Credit Reading

In response to the recent “What the Health?” podcast episode “As US Bumps Against Debt Ceiling, Medicare Becomes a Bargaining Chip” (Jan. 19), please have Julie Rovner read Stephanie Kelton’s book “The Deficit Myth.” She needs to understand why taxes pay for nothing. I consider Kelton’s book the most important on economics and how government budgets and financing work in the modern world.

— Mark Schaffer, Las Vegas


— Iqbal Atcha, Hanover Park, Illinois


Investing in ‘Practice-Ready’ Nurses to Bolster Workforce

The Connecticut Center for Nursing Workforce Inc. has created a best-practice plan to address these issues (“Senators Say Health Worker Shortages Ripe for Bipartisan Compromise,” Feb. 17). As nursing is the largest health care workforce role and a critical infrastructure within the state, nurses are a significant contributor to the fiscal, physical, and mental health of Connecticut, and a profession that can provide economic stability to its workers and families. Over 10,000 qualified nursing students were denied admission to registered nursing programs in 2021 due to full-time and part-time faculty shortages, lack of student clinical placements, and capacity of capstone experiences in specialty areas.

To produce “practice-ready” nurses, investment needs to be made in increasing the number of nursing faculty lines, both full-time (classroom) and part-time (clinical) experiences, simulation capacity and expertise, operations staff, and transition to practice resources.

Today, this is more challenging than ever, due to the impact of covid-19 on our nursing workforce, the natural attrition of our older nurses, early departure of new nurses causing a severe nursing shortage in the state, and the cost of “travel” nurses that is crippling the budgets of our health care facilities and not sustainable over the long term.

Nursing schools are competing for the same nursing human capital as our practice settings yet offer 30% less compensation for faculty roles as compared to clinical practice roles.

As a solution, it is critical to:

  1. Engage nursing schools to identify the demand for full-time and part-time faculty lines and staff.
  2. Develop a nurse faculty marketing campaign for associate, baccalaureate, accelerated registered nurse programs, and master’s degree in nursing programs for both full-time and part-time roles.
  3. Capitalize on the expertise of clinical nurses for the role of part-time clinical nurse faculty.
  4. Engage health care facilities to determine current nurse vacancies, future staffing needs, and onboarding/“transition to practice” gaps to best inform educational institutions as to the programs needed to be continued, expanded, or dissolved; thereby, maximizing education capacity, resources, faculty, and staff.

— Marcia Proto, executive director for the Connecticut Center for Nursing Workforce Inc., North Haven, Connecticut


— RJ Connelly III, Pawtucket, Rhode Island


Missing Pieces in the Covid Data Puzzle

It is misinformation to state that covid-19 deaths were counted when the opposite was true, and deaths were underreported due to political reasons, and reasons of expediency (“FDA Experts Are Still Puzzled Over Who Should Get Which Covid Shots and When,”) Jan. 27. For example, my father-in-law tested positive for covid before entering the hospital, and then repeatedly tested positive for covid while in the hospital so that he could not be released, and he died in the hospital, and covid was not listed as a cause of death on his death certificate. I have reason to believe that my own father died of covid in May 2020, during an election year, and covid was not listed as a cause of death on his death certificate. These men were not merely statistics, but left behind families who are still in turmoil and grief.

In public, people should wear masks all the time regardless of vaccination status, but, at the same time, be updated on vaccinations and boosters, and, at the same time, socially distance, and, at the same time, wash hands frequently and thoroughly. While all these measures should be taken simultaneously, everyone wearing masks is the easiest way to monitor compliance, and eliminates problems in determining someone else’s vaccination status, or determining whether the efficacy of their vaccines may have waned, or in determining whether they tested positive for covid, and failed to quarantine.

When, previously, the science was that vaccines and booster efficacy waned after three to six months, it should not be touted now to get the vaccine or booster only once a year.

The goal post should never have been moved to merely keeping people out of the hospital, but the goal should be to prevent people contracting covid, and to eradicate this scourge once and for all.

— Edward H. Bonacci Jr., Apex, North Carolina

One Texas Judge Will Decide Fate of Abortion Pill Used by Millions of American Women

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AMARILLO, Texas — Federal judges in Texas have delivered time and again for abortion opponents.

They upheld a state law that allows for $10,000 bounties to be placed on anyone who helps a woman get an abortion; ruled that someone opposed to abortion based on religious beliefs can block a federal program from providing birth control to teens; and determined that emergency room doctors must equally weigh the life of a pregnant woman and her embryo or fetus.

Now abortion rights advocates — galvanized by the reversal of Roe v. Wade — are girding for another decision from a Texas courtroom that could force the FDA to remove a widely used abortion pill from pharmacies and physicians’ offices nationwide.

The wide-ranging lawsuit, brought by a conservative Christian legal group, argues that the FDA’s approval process more than two decades ago was flawed when it authorized the use of mifepristone, which stops the development of a pregnancy and is part of a two-drug regimen used in medication abortions.

“The FDA has one job, which is just to protect Americans from dangerous drugs,” said Denise Harle, senior counsel with the Alliance Defending Freedom, part of a conservative coalition that brought the suit in federal district court in Amarillo, Texas. “And we’re asking the court to remove that chemical drug regimen until and unless the FDA actually goes through the proper testing that it’s required to do.”

A decision in the case was expected as soon as Friday. If successful, the lawsuit would force federal officials to rescind mifepristone’s approval, and manufacturers would be unable to ship the drug anywhere in the United States, including to states like California, Massachusetts, Illinois, and New York where abortion remains legal.

Abortion rights supporters and medical groups have pushed back on the lawsuit’s claims. Twelve leading medical organizations, including the American Medical Association and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, say medication abortion is effective and safe.

Indeed, decades of research show the risk of major complications from taking abortion pills is less than 0.4% — safer than such commonly used drugs as Tylenol or Viagra.

“We’ve got 23 years of data domestically that shows how safe medication abortion is, and it’s been used internationally for decades,” said Amy Hagstrom Miller, chief executive of Whole Woman’s Health, a medical organization with clinics in several states. “It’s much safer than somebody being forced to carry a pregnancy against their will.”

About 5 million women in the United States, federal data shows — and millions more across the world — have safely used abortion pills. They can be taken up to 10 weeks into a pregnancy and are also used by OB-GYNs to manage early miscarriages. All told, more than half of all abortions in the U.S. are a result of medication rather than a medical procedure, according Guttmacher Institute research.

Medication abortion involves taking two pills: mifepristone, which blocks the pregnancy hormone, progesterone; and misoprostol, which induces a miscarriage. Both drugs have long and safe track records: Misoprostol was approved in 1988 to treat gastric ulcers, with mifepristone earning approval in 2000 to end early pregnancy.

By filing its lawsuit in Amarillo, the Alliance Defending Freedom was almost guaranteed to draw U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, a President Donald Trump appointee who worked as deputy general counsel at First Liberty Institute, a conservative nonprofit advocating for religious liberty, before being confirmed to the federal judiciary in 2019.

Civil rights groups universally opposed Kacsmaryk’s nomination to the Northern District of Texas. U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, said during the confirmation process that Kacsmaryk showed “alarming bias against LGBTQ Americans and disregard for Supreme Court precedents.”

“He’s made statements in opposition to reproductive rights, linking up reproduction to the feminist movement and making anti-feminist statements,” said Elizabeth Sepper, a law professor at the University of Texas-Austin, adding that the Supreme Court’s decision last summer in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned Roe, allowed the suit against the FDA to proceed. “Prior to Dobbs, the right to abortion would have stood in the way of this lawsuit. But now the conservative legal movement feels empowered.”

The lawsuit is the latest effort by opponents of abortion rights to stymie the use of abortion pills, which many people seeking abortion prefer because it allows them to control their own health care and affords privacy for a process that involves cramping and bleeding, similar to a miscarriage.

“When you have medication abortion, part of the process happens at home. And a lot of people like that,” said Hagstrom Miller, of Whole Woman’s Health. “People can be at home with their loved ones and can sort of schedule the passing of the pregnancy around their work schedule or their child care schedule.”

Harle, however, said that the FDA used a provision to approve the drug that should be used only for medications that treat illness, and that pregnancy is not an illness, but a condition.

“They didn’t meet the standards of federal law,” she said.

Mifepristone’s approval was investigated in 2008 — during the Republican administration of George W. Bush — by the Government Accountability Office, a congressional watchdog, which found that the process was consistent with FDA regulations.

“It’s hard to think of a drug that’s been under more scrutiny than mifepristone,” said I. Glenn Cohen, a Harvard Law School professor and one of 19 FDA scholars who filed an amicus brief opposing the lawsuit. “We don’t think there’s a problem here statutorily or medically. It’d be very dangerous to allow a single judge sitting in Amarillo to essentially order a drug that’s used by many women in America off the market.”

But Harle said that no amount of scientific data would be enough to convince her that mifepristone should be on the market.

“I think chemical abortion does great harms to women and their unborn children,” she said. “And that’s what this lawsuit is really about.”

Abortion care providers like Hagstrom Miller are bracing for the ruling. “I think people know that what happens in Texas doesn’t stay in Texas,” she said. “Some of the most progressive states in the country will face restrictions if this lawsuit is successful.”

If that’s the case, her clinics and OB-GYNs across the country will be forced to use only misoprostol for miscarriage and early abortion care, something that will reduce the efficacy of the method: While taking the two pills together is 99.6% effective in terminating early pregnancy, misoprostol alone — although still extremely safe — is about 80% effective.

Hagstrom Miller also notes that side effects from misoprostol can be more intense, including nausea, diarrhea, and severe cramping and bleeding.

“And that matters, right?” she said. “People should have access to the highest level of medical care.”

The Kids Are Not OK

The Host

Teen girls “are experiencing record high levels of violence, sadness, and suicide risk,” according to a new survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2021, according to the survey, nearly 3 in 5 U.S. teen girls reported feeling “persistently sad or hopeless.”

Meanwhile, a conservative judge in Texas has delayed his ruling in a case that could ban a key drug used in medication abortion. A group of anti-abortion doctors is suing to challenge the FDA’s approval decades ago of the abortion pill mifepristone.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of KHN, Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico, Joanne Kenen of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Politico, and Sandhya Raman of CQ Roll Call.

Among the takeaways from this week’s episode:

  • American teenagers reported record rates of sadness in 2021, with especially high levels of depression in girls and teens identifying as LGBTQ+, according to a startling CDC report. Sexual violence, mass shootings, cyberbullying, and climate change are among the intensifying problems plaguing young people.
  • New polling shows more Americans are dissatisfied with abortion policy than ever before, as a U.S. district court judge in Texas makes a last call for arguments on the fate of mifepristone. The case is undermining confidence in continued access to the drug, and many providers are discussing using only misoprostol for medication abortions. Misoprostol is used with mifepristone in the current two-drug regimen but is safe and effective, though slightly less so, when used on its own.
  • There are big holes in federal health privacy protections, and some companies that provide health care, like mental health services, exploit those loopholes to sell personal, identifying information about their customers. And this week, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin of Virginia blocked a state law that would have banned search warrants for data collected by menstrual tracking apps.
  • California plans to manufacture insulin, directly taking on high prices for the diabetes drug. While other states have expressed interest in following suit, it will likely be up to wealthy, populous California to prove the concept.

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

Julie Rovner: NPR’s “Is the Deadly Fungi Pandemic in ‘The Last of Us’ Actually Possible?” by Michaeleen Doucleff

Alice Ollstein: The New York Times’ “Childbirth Is Deadlier for Black Families Even When They’re Rich, Expansive Study Finds,” by Claire Cain Miller, Sarah Kliff, and Larry Buchanan; interactive produced by Larry Buchanan and Shannon Lin

Joanne Kenen: NPR’s “In Tennessee, a Medicaid Mix-Up Could Land You on a ‘Most Wanted’ List,” by Blake Farmer

Sandhya Raman: Bloomberg Businessweek’s “Zantac’s Maker Kept Quiet About Cancer Risks for 40 Years,” by Anna Edney, Susan Berfield, and Jef Feeley

Also mentioned in this week’s podcast:


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