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Must-Reads Of The Week From Brianna Labuskes

We’re barreling toward November, folks. (How is it mid-October already?) As you might expect, election stories made up the bulk of the health care news this week. Other great gems and intriguing developments surfaced, though, so let’s get right to it.

Republicans on the campaign trail have been hammered by attack ads over their stance on the health law, with “preexisting conditions protections” — insurance safeguards for patients diagnosed with chronic illness — becoming a catch-all phrase for the most popular parts of the Affordable Care Act. Even the law’s most vocal opponents have been reading tea leaves and softening their stances. That’s why statements from GOP leadership this week that Congress could revisit their “repeal” fight post-midterms may have landed with a thunk.

The New York Times: Republican Candidates Soften Tone on Health Care As Their Leaders Dig In

The Washington Post: Trump Says ‘All Republicans’ Back Protections for Preexisting Conditions, Despite Repeated Attempts to Repeal Obamacare

Democrats are pulling out a tried-and-true talking point that seemed perfectly timed for them as news of the federal deficit reignited Republican talk about cutting entitlement programs. Dems (who have been playing defense over Medicare) seized the opportunity to accuse Republicans of putting the beloved program on the chopping block.

The Associated Press: Dems Shift Line of Attack, Warning of GOP Threat to Medicare

As the parties duke it out on the trail, voters seem to agree on one thing: Our health care system is broken and someone needs to fix it. “It’s crippling people. It’s crippling me,” one voter says in Politico’s deep read that takes us to a Pennsylvania county where the “margins of electoral victories traditionally are as slim as the spectrum of political opinion is vast.”

Politico Magazine: The Great American Health Care Panic

On the state level, a Missouri Democrat opposed to abortion struggles to find her place in the party. And Georgia becomes a preview of the growing political clout of home health aides.

The New York Times: Is It Possible to Be an Anti-Abortion Democrat? One Woman Tried to Find Out

Politico: Home Health Aides Test Political Clout in Georgia Governor’s Race


The Trump administration this week proposed a requirement that pharma add drug prices to TV ads — triggering skepticism. One problem is that ad prices wouldn’t reflect what most people end up paying for a drug at the pharmacy counter.

Politico: Trump Set to Force Drugmakers to Post Prices in Ads

What I found surprising, considering how common those ads are, is that just a few dozen drugmakers run any at all — nearly half are put out by five companies. Those manufacturers would bear the brunt of the new rules.

Stat: Five Drug Makers Will Be Hit Hardest By Trump’s New Proposal on Drug Ads

Trying to think outside the box to rein in high drug prices, several states are considering treating pharma as they would a public utility — with rate-setting bodies to review, approve or adjust medication prices.

Stat: A Growing Number of States Consider Legislation to Treat Pharma As a Utility

And keep an eye on this battle: Minnesota became the first state to sue drugmakers over the price of insulin, but I don’t think it will be the last. The “life-or-death” drug has gotten a lot of attention recently, synthesizing the human toll of high costs into a digestible talking point.

Stat: Minnesota Becomes First State to Sue Major Insulin Makers Over Price-Gouging


Another 4,100 Arkansas beneficiaries were dropped from the state’s Medicaid rolls, and 4,800 more are at risk next month (on top of the original 4,353 people dropped last month) — all because of the state’s new work requirements. For critics of the restrictions, their worst fears are realized, while state and national officials focus on what they call positive outcomes. It’s unclear why so many workers are failing to report their hours, but experts suggest limited internet access and lack of knowledge about the requirements as possibilities.

Modern Healthcare: 4,100 More Arkansans Lose Medicaid Over Work Requirements


Anthem was slammed this week with a $16 million settlement over its massive data breach. (Remember the biggest known health care hack in U.S. history?) That penalty is nearly three times the previous record paid over such a case.

The Associated Press: Insurer Anthem Will Pay Record $16M for Massive Data Breach


I’m not sure whether it’s because I saturate myself in health care stories, but I detect a serious reckoning in the field of medical research. The latest call for retractions involves a prominent cardiologist.

The New York Times: Harvard Calls for Retraction of Dozens of Studies by Noted Cardiologist


In the miscellaneous must-read file:

• A mysterious polio-like illness that causes sudden paralysis is hitting children in states across the country. The wave of cases is similar to one officials saw in 2014 and 2016, but experts are baffled.

Los Angeles Times: What Is AFM? Everything You Need to Know About the Polio-Like Virus Suddenly Affecting Children Across the U.S.

• I have to admit, this is the headline that most piqued my interest this week. Gene editing is such a hot field, but in the racially charged landscape of the country, scientists are worried their research into genes and genetic diversity will be twisted by hate groups to support their views.

The New York Times: Why White Supremacists Are Chugging Milk (And Why Geneticists Are Alarmed)

• Why hasn’t #WhyIStayed caught on fire like #MeToo? Stigma, for one. But also the #MeToo movement has shown how powerful multiple accusations can be, amplified to the point they can’t be ignored. In a domestic violence situation, it’s often only one survivor speaking out.

The New York Times: Domestic Violence Awareness Hasn’t Caught Up With #MeToo. Here’s Why.

• Viruses don’t always have to be a scary thing. This therapy uses bacteriophages — literally, eaters of bacteria — that inject themselves into germs and cause them to explode. (As this delightful image from the Stat article describes: The viruses can “pop bacteria the way middle schoolers pop zits.”)

Stat: How The Navy Brought a Once-Derided Scientist Out of Retirement — and Into the Virus-Selling Business

• “Pregnant? Don’t want to be? Call Jane.” That’s how a clandestine underground abortion network advertised during the years leading up to Roe v. Wade, according to this retro report from the NYT.

The New York Times: Code Name Jane: The Women Behind a Covert Abortion Network


It turns out, it is now scientifically supported that daylight helps kill germs indoors. So make sure to let the sun in this weekend! And have a good one.

Must-Reads Of The Week From Brianna Labuskes

We’re barreling toward November, folks. (How is it mid-October already?) As you might expect, election stories made up the bulk of the health care news this week. Other great gems and intriguing developments surfaced, though, so let’s get right to it.

Republicans on the campaign trail have been hammered by attack ads over their stance on the health law, with “preexisting conditions protections” — insurance safeguards for patients diagnosed with chronic illness — becoming a catch-all phrase for the most popular parts of the Affordable Care Act. Even the law’s most vocal opponents have been reading tea leaves and softening their stances. That’s why statements from GOP leadership this week that Congress could revisit their “repeal” fight post-midterms may have landed with a thunk.

The New York Times: Republican Candidates Soften Tone on Health Care As Their Leaders Dig In

The Washington Post: Trump Says ‘All Republicans’ Back Protections for Preexisting Conditions, Despite Repeated Attempts to Repeal Obamacare

Democrats are pulling out a tried-and-true talking point that seemed perfectly timed for them as news of the federal deficit reignited Republican talk about cutting entitlement programs. Dems (who have been playing defense over Medicare) seized the opportunity to accuse Republicans of putting the beloved program on the chopping block.

The Associated Press: Dems Shift Line of Attack, Warning of GOP Threat to Medicare

As the parties duke it out on the trail, voters seem to agree on one thing: Our health care system is broken and someone needs to fix it. “It’s crippling people. It’s crippling me,” one voter says in Politico’s deep read that takes us to a Pennsylvania county where the “margins of electoral victories traditionally are as slim as the spectrum of political opinion is vast.”

Politico Magazine: The Great American Health Care Panic

On the state level, a Missouri Democrat opposed to abortion struggles to find her place in the party. And Georgia becomes a preview of the growing political clout of home health aides.

The New York Times: Is It Possible to Be an Anti-Abortion Democrat? One Woman Tried to Find Out

Politico: Home Health Aides Test Political Clout in Georgia Governor’s Race


The Trump administration this week proposed a requirement that pharma add drug prices to TV ads — triggering skepticism. One problem is that ad prices wouldn’t reflect what most people end up paying for a drug at the pharmacy counter.

Politico: Trump Set to Force Drugmakers to Post Prices in Ads

What I found surprising, considering how common those ads are, is that just a few dozen drugmakers run any at all — nearly half are put out by five companies. Those manufacturers would bear the brunt of the new rules.

Stat: Five Drug Makers Will Be Hit Hardest By Trump’s New Proposal on Drug Ads

Trying to think outside the box to rein in high drug prices, several states are considering treating pharma as they would a public utility — with rate-setting bodies to review, approve or adjust medication prices.

Stat: A Growing Number of States Consider Legislation to Treat Pharma As a Utility

And keep an eye on this battle: Minnesota became the first state to sue drugmakers over the price of insulin, but I don’t think it will be the last. The “life-or-death” drug has gotten a lot of attention recently, synthesizing the human toll of high costs into a digestible talking point.

Stat: Minnesota Becomes First State to Sue Major Insulin Makers Over Price-Gouging


Another 4,100 Arkansas beneficiaries were dropped from the state’s Medicaid rolls, and 4,800 more are at risk next month (on top of the original 4,353 people dropped last month) — all because of the state’s new work requirements. For critics of the restrictions, their worst fears are realized, while state and national officials focus on what they call positive outcomes. It’s unclear why so many workers are failing to report their hours, but experts suggest limited internet access and lack of knowledge about the requirements as possibilities.

Modern Healthcare: 4,100 More Arkansans Lose Medicaid Over Work Requirements


Anthem was slammed this week with a $16 million settlement over its massive data breach. (Remember the biggest known health care hack in U.S. history?) That penalty is nearly three times the previous record paid over such a case.

The Associated Press: Insurer Anthem Will Pay Record $16M for Massive Data Breach


I’m not sure whether it’s because I saturate myself in health care stories, but I detect a serious reckoning in the field of medical research. The latest call for retractions involves a prominent cardiologist.

The New York Times: Harvard Calls for Retraction of Dozens of Studies by Noted Cardiologist


In the miscellaneous must-read file:

• A mysterious polio-like illness that causes sudden paralysis is hitting children in states across the country. The wave of cases is similar to one officials saw in 2014 and 2016, but experts are baffled.

Los Angeles Times: What Is AFM? Everything You Need to Know About the Polio-Like Virus Suddenly Affecting Children Across the U.S.

• I have to admit, this is the headline that most piqued my interest this week. Gene editing is such a hot field, but in the racially charged landscape of the country, scientists are worried their research into genes and genetic diversity will be twisted by hate groups to support their views.

The New York Times: Why White Supremacists Are Chugging Milk (And Why Geneticists Are Alarmed)

• Why hasn’t #WhyIStayed caught on fire like #MeToo? Stigma, for one. But also the #MeToo movement has shown how powerful multiple accusations can be, amplified to the point they can’t be ignored. In a domestic violence situation, it’s often only one survivor speaking out.

The New York Times: Domestic Violence Awareness Hasn’t Caught Up With #MeToo. Here’s Why.

• Viruses don’t always have to be a scary thing. This therapy uses bacteriophages — literally, eaters of bacteria — that inject themselves into germs and cause them to explode. (As this delightful image from the Stat article describes: The viruses can “pop bacteria the way middle schoolers pop zits.”)

Stat: How The Navy Brought a Once-Derided Scientist Out of Retirement — and Into the Virus-Selling Business

• “Pregnant? Don’t want to be? Call Jane.” That’s how a clandestine underground abortion network advertised during the years leading up to Roe v. Wade, according to this retro report from the NYT.

The New York Times: Code Name Jane: The Women Behind a Covert Abortion Network


It turns out, it is now scientifically supported that daylight helps kill germs indoors. So make sure to let the sun in this weekend! And have a good one.

Must Reads Of The Week From Brianna Labuskes

Just in case our ever-decreasing anonymity in this tech-driven world hasn’t scared you enough, new studies find that within a few years 90 percent — 90 percent! — of Americans of European descent will be identifiable from their DNA. If you fall into that group, it doesn’t even matter whether you’ve given a DNA sample to one of the popular gene-testing sites (like 23andMe). Enough of your distant relatives have, so there’s a good chance you’re in the system.

Take your mind off that by checking out what you may have missed in health care this week.

The biggie, of course, was President Donald Trump’s opinion piece in USA Today about “Medicare-for-all.” (And the rebuttal from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.)

Fact checkers came out in droves to comb through Trump’s arguments and found that nearly every paragraph contained a misleading statement or falsehood.

The Washington Post: Fact-Checking President Trump’s USA Today Op-Ed on ‘Medicare-for-All’

More than shedding any kind of light on the complicated topic, the back-and-forth highlights how much of a role health care is playing in the upcoming midterm elections. Each side has doubled down on its respective talking points (read: preexisting conditions and Medicare-for-all — I warned you you’d get tired of me saying that). In fact, health care is featured so heavily in ads that it trumps the topics of jobs or taxes.

The Wall Street Journal: Health Care Crowds Out Jobs, Taxes in Midterm Ads

(Side note: If you do want some light shed on Medicare-for-all and single-payer systems, check out these great pieces from KHN’s own Shefali Luthra.)

Speaking of midterms, the Democrats’ attempt to block the administration’s expansion of short-term plans (very predictably) failed, with only Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins joining the Democrats. It was never about winning, though. What it did was force Republicans to go on record with a vote that is potentially politically dangerous in the current landscape.

Politico: Senate Democrats Fail to Block Trump’s Short-Term Health Plans

In stark contrast to the sharply partisan discourse, Trump signed two bipartisan health care measures into law this week. The bills banned “gag clauses” on pharmacists, which had prohibited them from offering consumers cheaper options. The legislation won’t directly affect drug prices, but it might mean people will pay less at the register.

The New York Times: Trump Signs New Laws Aimed at Drug Costs and Battles Democrats on Medicare


For the first time, premiums for the most popular level of insurance sold in the health law marketplaces have gone down. The numbers are the latest sign that the marketplace is stabilizing. (Centene’s expansion into new states is another from this week.) CMS Administrator Seema Verma touted the success, saying the news counters any accusations of sabotage. Health experts, however, said those price tags would have been even lower if not for the administration’s actions over the past year.

The Washington Post: Premiums for Popular ACA Health Insurance Dip for the First Time


The Justice Department approved CVS’ $69 billion merger with Aetna, and although the deal still needs approval from state regulators, the green light is a major hurdle cleared. The merger would reshape the health landscape and mark the end of an era for free-standing pharmacy benefit managers. The potential consolidation is just one of many in recent years in a fast-evolving industry — a trend critics worry will lessen competition and drive up prices for consumers.

The New York Times: CVS Health and Aetna $69 Billion Merger Is Approved With Conditions


Hospitals scrambled to ensure patient safety as Hurricane Michael battered Florida and Georgia this week. “It was like hell,” said one doctor who rode out the storm at Bay Medical Center in Panama City, Fla. The hurricane brought with it memories of last year’s power outages that came with Hurricane Irma and were linked to the deaths of several nursing home residents.

The New York Times: Hospitals Pummeled by Hurricane Michael Scramble to Evacuate Patients


Now that the Brett Kavanaugh battle is over and he’s taken a seat on the Supreme Court, Planned Parenthood has gone into planning mode in case anything happens to Roe v. Wade. A key component of the organization’s plan is to shore up networks in states where abortion would likely remain legal (with longer hours for clinics, for example). On the other side, abortion-rights opponents are getting primed for a new high court that’s likely friendlier to them by strategizing what cases would be best to move forward with.

NPR: With Kavanaugh Confirmed, Both Sides of Abortion Debate Gear Up for Battle

How do you fight measures to expand abortion rights in progressive states? Make it about money. A battle in Oregon illustrates a strategy that — although unlikely to be successful — gives opponents of the bills at least a hope of winning.

Politico: Oregon’s Unlikely Abortion Fight Hinges on Taxes


Holes in the court system have allowed state judges to grant full custody of migrant children to American families — without notifying their parents. Federal officials say it should never happen, but oversight of the problem is scattershot and challenging because states handle adoption proceedings differently.

The Associated Press: Deported Parents May Lose Kids to Adoption

Democrats have been vocal about what they don’t like when it comes to immigration policy. But they have a problem: a lack of cohesion within the party about the correct way forward.

The New York Times: The Democrats Have an Immigration Problem


In the miscellaneous, must-read file:

• A gripping piece takes you into the bowels of a Philadelphia neighborhood dubbed the “Walmart of heroin.” “Drug tourists” come from all over to buy the cheap, pure heroin flowing through the veins of the streets, and some never make it out. (Warning: Make sure you have some time before you start, it will suck you in completely.)

The New York Times: Trapped by the ‘Walmart of Heroin’

• Why were nursing home residents getting extremely pricey therapy in the last weeks of their lives? Bloomberg takes a closer look at these cash-strapped facilities and the questionable decisions made about patients’ rehab.

Bloomberg: Nursing Homes Are Pushing the Dying Into Pricey Rehab

• In good news from the segment of people who were too old to take advantage of the HPV vaccine, the Food and Drug Administration just approved its use for those up to age 45.

The Associated Press: FDA Expands Use of Cervical Cancer Vaccine up to Age 45


As an office of ardent dog lovers, we were distressed to hear the news that therapy dogs in hospitals are little germ machines, leaving behind happiness but also superbugs.

Have a great (hopefully superbug-free) weekend!

Podcast: KHN’s ‘What The Health?’ Falling Premiums And Rising Political Tensions

The Trump administration announced that, for the first time, the average premium for a key plan sold on the federal health law’s insurance marketplaces will fall slightly next year. Federal officials said that changes they have made helped facilitate the reduction, but others argue that it was because more plans are moving back into those federal exchanges and making money.

The news is likely to further inflame the political debate on health care in the run-up to the midterm elections. Democrats and Republicans are battling over which party is more attuned to consumers’ needs on protections for people with preexisting conditions and affordable health care.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump signed two bills this week that would ban efforts to keep pharmacists from telling customers that their prescriptions would be cheaper if they paid in cash, rather than using their insurance. And the Food and Drug Administration this week announced it will ease the process for drugmakers to bring some products to market.

This week’s panelists for KHN’s “What the Health?” are Mary Agnes Carey of Kaiser Health News, Rebecca Adams of CQ Roll Call, Anna Edney of Bloomberg News and Julie Appleby of Kaiser Health News.

Among the takeaways from this week’s podcast:

  • The drop in the average price for ACA plans follows a recent analysis that found insurers are regaining profitability in the individual market.
  • Democrats this week were unsuccessful in their effort to get the Senate to reverse a new policy that eased rules for short-term health plans. The administration argues that these plans help provide a more affordable option for many people, but Democrats complain that they are junk insurance because they don’t have many of the protections offered through the ACA.
  • Trump and members of Congress celebrated a rare moment of bipartisanship on health care when the president signed the two bills restricting gag orders on pharmacists. Despite the goodwill, the much-touted aim of the administration to constrain drug prices has not made much progress.
  • Health care has been a key issue in midterm campaigns, with Democrats hitting hard at their opponents to charge that the GOP would not guarantee ACA protections for people with preexisting conditions. But Republicans are fighting back with personal stories of their own health concerns — and an op-ed by the president on concerns about some Democrats’ plans to expand Medicare.
  • The new policy announced by the FDA this week will apply to complex drugs, which are drugs that are coupled with a device, such as patches or auto-injectors. The agency said it would be more flexible in reviewing materials for approving those devices.

To hear all our podcasts, click here.

And subscribe to What the Health? on iTunesStitcher or Google Play.

Obamacare Premiums Dip For First Time. Some Call It A Correction

After two years of double-digit price hikes, the average premium for individual health coverage on the federal health law’s insurance marketplace will drop by 1.5 percent for 2019, the Trump administration said Thursday.

The announcement marked the first time average premiums have fallen since the exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act went into effect in 2014.

It also comes during a bitter midterm congressional campaign season in which health care is a central issue following last year’s efforts by Republicans to repeal the ACA.

Administration officials claimed credit for the price drop, saying it was due to their actions to make changes to the law. Health policy experts said it was a reaction to insurers’ huge profits following hefty premium increases on plans offered this year.

The federal exchange covers about 9 million people in 39 states. The other states and the District of Columbia have their own online marketplaces and were not included in the report.

The analysis by federal officials looked at the price of the second-lowest silver plan for a 27-year-old nonsmoker on the marketplaces. Those silver plans are used by the ACA to set subsidies.

Open enrollment for 2019 runs from Nov. 1 through Dec. 15.

Charles Gaba, a Michigan-based blogger who tracks ACA sign-ups, noted that the numbers released by the administration were just one snapshot of the marketplace.

He said premiums next year will “still be a whopping 30% higher than they were in 2017, with the vast bulk of that due specifically to sabotage actions taken by the Trump Administration and Congressional Republicans.”

Before the 2010 health law passed, it was typical for individual health insurance rates to increase yearly, largely because people needing the insurance had above-average health risks.

The health law’s marketplace was designed to allow shoppers to easily compare rates for policies that had to meet federal benefit requirements, such as covering mental health and pregnancy care.

Under President Barack Obama, insurance rates on the marketplace rose 1 percent for plans available in 2015 and 8 percent in 2016. But, just as Obama was leaving office, rates rose 20 percent for 2017 plans. Premiums for plans in 2018 soared 34 percent, following changes made by the Trump administration that included dropping subsidies paid to insurers to help cover the cost of out-of-pocket expenses they shoulder for low-income customers.

“Premiums would have dropped more on average if not for harmful Trump administration actions,” said Sarah Lueck, senior policy analyst for the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. She cited decisions to expand the use of plans that don’t provide all ACA patient protections and the dramatic cut in outreach and enrollment assistance for consumers.

The vast majority of consumers buying on the exchange have been shielded from rate hikes because their incomes are low enough to qualify for federal subsidies. But the marketplace price hikes have become a political lightning rod — bolstering the arguments from Trump and congressional Republicans to repeal the health law.

Administration officials said a decision they made allowing seven states to set up reinsurance programs helped insurance companies lower premiums.

Seema Verma, administrator of the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, also pointed to new regulations allowing insurers to sell short-term policies. These policies can be renewed for up to three years and don’t have to meet federal minimum benefit rules. She said that caused carriers to drop rates on the exchange to be more competitive.

Those new plans are not yet available and are not included in the marketplace rates.

Despite the drop in prices, Verma said, premiums are still high. “To open the markets to more Americans … as well as the millions who are priced out of the market, the law needs to change,” she said.

Verma, like Trump, has repeatedly called for the health law to be repealed, but she did not repeat that call on Thursday.

During a briefing with reporters, she was asked about policy experts who say flat or declining rates for 2019 come mainly because insurers raised premiums so much in 2018 in response to Trump administration actions. She replied, “We heard a lot of predictions that didn’t turn out to be true.”

Cynthia Cox, who monitors the marketplaces for the Kaiser Family Foundation, wrote on Twitter: “One big reason insurers are lowering premiums: Individual market insurers are currently so profitable it would be hard for many companies to justify a rate increase.”

Those profits are also driving new companies into the Obamacare marketplace in several states, she said. (Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the foundation.)

Cox said some efforts by the Trump administration have made the marketplace more attractive to insurers, such as cutting in half the open-enrollment period and approving some states’ reinsurance plans. That green light allows states to help insurers pay for extremely costly patients so that premiums for the overall patient pool can remain relatively modest.

Rates still vary dramatically by state. For example, average premiums are dropping 26 percent in Tennessee but rising 16 percent in Delaware.

The drop in rates is good news for people buying unsubsidized coverage — those with incomes over 400 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $49,000 for an individual.

Consumers will get less assistance this fall in shopping for exchange plans. The Trump administration cut millions of dollars in funding to the program that pays groups to work with people needing help selecting coverage.

Nonetheless, Verma said the falling premiums show the administration has been defying its critics.

“While some have publicly been accusing us of sabotage, the reality is we have been working hard to mitigate damage caused by Obamacare,” she said. “Our actions have succeeded.”