Tag: Women’s Health

The Powerful Constraints on Medical Care in Catholic Hospitals Across America

Nurse midwife Beverly Maldonado recalls a pregnant woman arriving at Ascension Saint Agnes Hospital in Maryland after her water broke. It was weeks before the baby would have any chance of survival, and the patient’s wishes were clear, she recalled: “Why am I staying pregnant then? What’s the point?” the patient pleaded.

But the doctors couldn’t intervene, she said. The fetus still had a heartbeat and it was a Catholic hospital, subject to the “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services” that prohibit or limit procedures like abortion that the church deems “immoral” or “intrinsically evil,” according to its interpretation of the Bible.

“I remember asking the doctors. And they were like, ‘Well, the baby still has a heartbeat. We can’t do anything,’” said Maldonado, now working as a nurse midwife in California, who asked them: “What do you mean we can’t do anything? This baby’s not going to survive.”

The woman was hospitalized for days before going into labor, Maldonado said, and the baby died.

Ascension declined to comment for this article.

The Catholic Church’s directives are often at odds with accepted medical standards, especially in areas of reproductive health, according to physicians and other medical practitioners.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ clinical guidelines for managing pre-labor rupture of membranes, in which a patient’s water breaks before labor begins, state that women should be offered options, including ending the pregnancy.

Maldonado felt her patient made her wishes clear.

“Under the ideal medical practice, that patient should be helped to obtain an appropriate method of terminating the pregnancy,” said Christian Pettker, a professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at the Yale School of Medicine, who helped author the guidelines.

He said, “It would be perfectly medically appropriate to do a termination of pregnancy before the cessation of cardiac activity, to avoid the health risks to the pregnant person.”

“Patients are being turned away from necessary care,” said Jennifer Chin, an OB-GYN at UW Medicine in Seattle, because of the “emphasis on these ethical and religious directives.”

They can be a powerful constraint on the care that patients receive at Catholic hospitals, whether emergency treatment when a woman’s health is at risk, or access to birth control and abortions.

A close-up image of a woman standing outside in the woods and looking at the camera.
Michigan resident Kalaina Sullivan wanted to have surgery to permanently prevent pregnancy, but her doctor worked for the Catholic chain Trinity Health, the nation’s fourth-largest hospital system. Sullivan had to travel to North Ottawa Community Health System, an independent hospital near the shores of Lake Michigan, for the surgery.(Kristen Norman for KFF Health News)

More and more women are running into barriers to obtaining care as Catholic health systems have aggressively acquired secular hospitals in much of the country. Four of the 10 largest U.S. hospital chains by number of beds are Catholic, according to federal data from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. There are just over 600 Catholic general hospitals nationally and roughly 100 more managed by Catholic chains that place some religious limits on care, a KFF Health News investigation reveals.

Maldonado’s experience in Maryland came just months before the Supreme Court’s ruling in 2022 to overturn Roe v. Wade, a decision that compounded the impact of Catholic health care restrictions. In its wake, roughly a third of states have banned or severely limited access to abortion, creating a one-two punch for women seeking to prevent pregnancy or to end one. Ironically, some states where Catholic hospitals dominate — such as Washington, Oregon, and Colorado — are now considered medical havens for women in nearby states that have banned abortion.

KFF Health News analyzed state-level birth data to discover that more than half a million babies are born each year in the U.S. in Catholic-run hospitals, including those owned by CommonSpirit Health, Ascension, Trinity Health, and Providence St. Joseph Health. That’s 16% of all hospital births each year, with rates in 10 states exceeding 30%. In Washington, half of all babies are born at such hospitals, the highest share in the country.

“We had many instances where people would have to get in their car to drive to us while they were bleeding, or patients who had had their water bags broken for up to five days or even up to a week,” said Chin, who has treated patients turned away by Catholic hospitals.

Physicians who turned away patients like that “were going against evidence-based care and going against what they had been taught in medical school and residency,” she said, “but felt that they had to provide a certain type of care — or lack of care — just because of the strength of the ethical and religious directives.”

Following religious mandates can be dangerous, Chin and other clinicians said.

A woman with long dark hair and wearing glasses, dark blue scrubs, and a white doctor's coat stands with her arms crossed and looks at the camera.
Chin was part of a larger effort by reproductive rights groups and medical organizations that pushed for a state law in Washington to protect physicians if they act against Catholic hospital restrictions. Washington enacted the bill in 2021.(Dan DeLong for KFF Health News)

When a patient has chosen to end a pregnancy after the amniotic sac — or water — has broken, Pettker said, “any delay that might be added to a procedure that is inevitably going to happen places that person at risk of serious, life-threatening complications,” including sepsis and organ infection.

Reporters analyzed American Hospital Association data as of August and used Catholic Health Association directories, news reports, government documents, and hospital websites and other materials to determine which hospitals are Catholic or part of Catholic systems, and gathered birth data from state health departments and hospital associations. They interviewed patients, medical providers, academic experts, advocacy organizations, and attorneys, and reviewed hundreds of pages of court and government records and guidance from Catholic health institutions and authorities to understand how the directives affect patient care.

Nationally, nearly 800,000 people have only Catholic or Catholic-affiliated birth hospitals within an hour’s drive, according to KFF Health News’ analysis. For example, that’s true of 1 in 10 North Dakotans. In South Dakota, it’s 1 in 20. When care is more than an hour away, academic researchers often define the area as a hospital desert. Pregnant women who must drive farther to a delivery facility are at higher risk of harm to themselves or their fetus, research shows.

Many Americans don’t have a choice — non-Catholic hospitals are too far to reach in an emergency or aren’t in their insurance networks. Ambulances may take patients to a Catholic facility without giving them a say. Women often don’t know that hospitals are affiliated with the Catholic Church or that they restrict reproductive care, academic research suggests.

And, in most of the country, state laws shield at least some hospitals from lawsuits for not performing procedures they object to on religious grounds, leaving little recourse for patients who were harmed because care was withheld. Thirty-five states prevent patients from suing hospitals for not providing abortions, including 25 states where abortion remains broadly legal. About half of those laws don’t include exceptions for emergencies, ectopic pregnancies, or miscarriages. Sixteen states prohibit lawsuits against hospitals for refusing to perform sterilization procedures.

“It’s hard for the ordinary citizen to understand, ‘Well, what difference does it make if my hospital is bought by this other big health system, as long as it stays open? That’s all I care about,’” said Erin Fuse Brown, who is the director of the Center for Law, Health & Society at Georgia State University and an expert in health care consolidation. Catholic directives also ban medical aid in dying for terminally ill patients.

People “may not realize that they’re losing access to important services, like reproductive health [and] end-of-life care,” she said.

‘Our Faith-Based Health Care Ministry’

After the Supreme Court ended the constitutional right to abortion in June 2022, Michigan resident Kalaina Sullivan wanted surgery to permanently prevent pregnancy.

A wide shote of a woman standing outside in the woods and looking at the camera.
“I just don’t see why there’s any reason for me to have to follow the rules of their religion and have that be a part of what’s going on with my body,” Sullivan says. (Kristen Norman for KFF Health News)

Michigan voters in November that year enshrined the right to abortion under the state constitution, but the state’s concentration of Catholic hospitals means people like Sullivan sometimes still struggle to obtain reproductive health care.

Because her doctor worked for the Catholic chain Trinity Health, the nation’s fourth-largest hospital system, she had the surgery with a different doctor at North Ottawa Community Health System, an independent hospital near the shores of Lake Michigan.

Less than two months later, that, too, became a Catholic hospital, newly acquired by Trinity.

To mark the transition, Cory Mitchell, who at the time was the mission leader of Trinity Health Muskegon, stood before his new colleagues and offered a blessing.

“The work of your hands is what makes our faith-based health care ministry possible,” he said, according to a video of the ceremony Trinity Health provided to KFF Health News. “May these hands continue to bring compassion, compassion and healing, to all those they touch.”

Trinity Health declined to answer detailed questions about its merger with North Ottawa Community Health System and the ethical and religious directives. “Our commitment to high-quality, compassionate care means informing our patients of all appropriate care options, and trusting and supporting our physicians to make difficult and medically necessary decisions in the best interest of their patients’ health and safety,” spokesperson Jennifer Amundson said in an emailed statement. “High-quality, safe care is critical for the women in our communities and in cases where a non-critical service is not available at our facility, the physician will transfer care as appropriate.”

Leaders in Catholic-based health systems have hammered home the importance of the church’s directives, which are issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, all men, and were first drafted in 1948. The essential view on abortion is as it was in 1948. The last revision, in 2018, added several directives addressing Catholic health institution acquisitions or mergers with non-Catholic ones, including that “whatever comes under control of the Catholic institution — whether by acquisition, governance, or management — must be operated in full accord with the moral teaching of the Catholic Church.”

“While many of the faithful in the local church may not be aware of these requirements for Catholic health care, the local bishop certainly is,” wrote Sister Doris Gottemoeller, a former board member of the Bon Secours Mercy Health system, in a 2023 Catholic Health Association journal article. “In fact, the bishop should be briefed on a regular basis about the hospital’s activities and strategies.”

Now, for care at a non-Catholic hospital, Sullivan would need to travel nearly 30 miles.

“I don’t see why there’s any reason for me to have to follow the rules of their religion and have that be a part of what’s going on with my body,” she said.

Risks Come With Religion

Nathaniel Hibner, senior director of ethics at the Catholic Health Association, said the ethical and religious directives allow clinicians to provide medically necessary treatments in emergencies. In a pregnancy crisis when a person’s life is at risk, “I do not believe that the ERDs should restrict the physician in acting in the way that they see medically indicated.”

“Catholic health care is committed to the health of all women and mothers who enter into our facilities,” Hibner said.

The directives permit care to cure “a proportionately serious pathological condition of a pregnant woman” even if it would “result in the death of the unborn child.” Hibner demurred when asked who defines what that means and when such care is provided, saying, “for the most part, the physician and the patients are the ones that are having a conversation and dialogue with what is supposed to be medically appropriate.”

It is common for practitioners at any hospital to consult an ethics board about difficult cases — such as whether a teenager with cancer can decline treatment. At Catholic hospitals, providers must ask a board for permission to perform procedures restricted by the religious directives, clinicians and researchers say. For example, could an abortion be performed if a pregnancy threatened the mother’s life?

A woman sits on a wooden bench on a beach and looks off-camera to her left.
Sullivan has seen firsthand the growth of Catholic hospitals in western Michigan. She would now have to travel nearly 30 miles for care at a non-Catholic hospital. (Kristen Norman for KFF Health News)

How and when an ethics consultation occurs depends on the hospital, Hibner said. “That ethics consultation can be initiated by anyone involved in the direct care of that situation — the patient, the surrogate of that patient, the physician, the nurse, the social worker all have the ability to request a consultation,” he said. When asked whether a consultation with an ethics board can occur without a request, he said “sometimes it could.”

How strictly directives are followed can depend on the hospital and the views of the local bishop.

“If the hospital has made a difficult decision about a critical pregnancy or an end-of-life care situation, the bishop should be the first to know about it,” Gottemoeller wrote.

In an interview, Gottemoeller said that even when pregnancy termination decisions are made on sound ethical grounds, not informing the bishop puts him in a bad position and hurts the church. “If there’s a possibility of it being misunderstood, or misinterpreted, or criticized,” Gottemoeller said, the bishop should understand what happened and why “before the newspapers call him and ask him for an opinion.”

“And if he has to say, ‘Well, I think you made a mistake,’ well, all right,” she said. “But don’t let him be blindsided. I mean, we’re one church and the bishop has pastoral concern over everything in his diocese.”

Katherine Parker Bryden, a nurse midwife in Iowa who works for MercyOne, said she regularly tells pregnant patients that the hospital cannot perform tubal sterilization surgery, to prevent future pregnancies, or refer patients to other hospitals that do. MercyOne is one of the largest health systems in Iowa. Nearly half of general hospitals in the state are Catholic or Catholic-affiliated — the highest share among all states.

The National Catholic Bioethics Center, an ethics authority for Catholic health institutions, has said that referrals for care that go against church teaching would be “immoral.”

“As providers, you’re put in this kind of moral dilemma,” Parker Bryden said. “Am I serving my patients or am I serving the archbishop and the pope?”

In response to questions, MercyOne spokesperson Eve Lederhouse said in an email that its providers “offer care and services that are consistent with the guidelines of a Catholic health system.”

Maria Rodriguez, an OB-GYN professor at Oregon Health & Science University, said that as a resident in the early 2000s at a Catholic hospital she was able to secure permission — what she calls a “pope note” — to sterilize some patients with conditions such as gestational diabetes.

Annie Iriye, a retired OB-GYN in Washington state, said that more than a decade ago she sought permission to administer medication to hasten labor for a patient experiencing a second-trimester miscarriage at a Catholic hospital. She said she was told no because the fetus had a heartbeat. The patient took 10 hours to deliver — time that would have been cut by half, Iriye said, had she been able to follow her own medical training and expertise. During that time, she said, the patient developed an infection.

Iriye and Chin were part of an effort by reproductive rights groups and medical organizations that pushed for a state law to protect physicians if they act against Catholic hospital restrictions. The bill, which Washington enacted in 2021, was opposed by the Washington State Hospital Association, whose membership includes multiple large Catholic health systems.

State lawmakers in Oregon in 2021 enacted legislation that beefed up powers to reject health care mergers if they would reduce access to the types of care constrained by Catholic directives. The hospital lobby has sued to block the statute. Washington state lawmakers introduced similar legislation last year, which the hospital association opposes.

Hibner said Catholic hospitals are committed to instituting systemic changes that improve maternal and child health, including access to primary, prenatal, and postpartum care. “Those are the things that I think rural communities really need support and advocacy for,” he said.

Maldonado, the nurse midwife, still thinks of her patient who was forced to stay pregnant with a baby who could not survive. “To feel like she was going to have to fight to have an abortion of a baby that she wanted?” Maldonado said. “It was just horrible.”

KFF Health News data editor Holly K. Hacker contributed to this report.

By Hannah Recht

KFF Health News identified areas of the country where patients have only Catholic hospital options nearby. The “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services” — which are issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, all men — dictate how patients receive reproductive care at Catholic health facilities. In our analysis, we focused on hospitals where babies are born.

We constructed a national database of hospital locations, identified which ones are Catholic or Catholic-affiliated, found how many babies are born at each, and calculated how many people live near those hospitals.

Hospital Universe

We identified hospitals in the 50 states and the District of Columbia using the American Hospital Association database from August 2023. We removed hospitals that had closed or were listed more than once, added hospitals that were not included, and corrected inaccurate or out-of-date information about ownership, primary service type, and location. We excluded federal hospitals, such as military and Indian Health Service facilities, because they are not open to everyone.

Catholic Affiliation

To identify Catholic hospitals, we used the Catholic Health Association’s member directory. We also counted as Catholic a handful of hospitals that are not part of this voluntary membership group but explicitly follow the Ethical and Religious Directives, according to their mission statements, websites, or promotional materials.

We also tracked Catholic-affiliated hospitals: those that are owned or managed by a Catholic health system, such as CommonSpirit Health or Trinity Health, and are influenced by the religious directives but do not necessarily adhere to them in full. To identify Catholic-affiliated hospitals, we consulted health system and hospital websites, government documents, and news reports.

We combined both Catholic and Catholic-affiliated hospitals for analysis, in line with previous research about the influence of Catholic directives on health care.

Births

To determine the share of births that occur at Catholic or Catholic-affiliated hospitals, we gathered the latest annual number of births by hospital from state health departments. Where recent data was not publicly available, we submitted records requests for the most recent complete year available.

The resulting data covered births in 2022 for nine states and D.C., births in 2021 for 23 states, births in 2020 for nine states, and births in 2019 for one state. We used data from the 2021 American Hospital Association survey, the latest available at the time of analysis, for the eight remaining states that did not provide birth data in response to our requests. A small number of hospitals have recently opened or closed labor and delivery units. The vast majority of the rest record about the same number of births each year. This means that the results would not be substantially different if data from 2023 were available.

We used this data to calculate the number of babies born in Catholic and Catholic-affiliated hospitals, as well as non-Catholic hospitals by state and nationally.

We used hospitals’ Catholic status as of August 2023 in this analysis. In 10 cases where the hospital had already closed, we used Catholic status at the time of the closure.

Because our analysis focuses on hospital care, we excluded births that occurred in non-hospital settings, such as homes and stand-alone birth centers, as well as federal hospitals.

Several states suppressed data from hospitals with fewer than 10 births due to privacy restrictions. Because those numbers were so low, this suppression had a negligible effect on state-level totals.

Drive-Time Analysis

We obtained hospitals’ geographic coordinates based on addresses in the AHA dataset using HERE’s geocoder. For addresses that could not be automatically geocoded with a high degree of certainty, we verified coordinates manually using hospital websites and Google Maps.

We calculated the areas within 30, 60, and 90 minutes of travel time from each birth hospital that was open in August 2023 using tools from HERE. We included only hospitals that had 10 or more births as a proxy for hospitals that have labor and delivery units, or where births regularly occur.

The analysis focused on the areas with hospitals within an hour’s drive. Researchers often define hospital deserts as places where one would have to drive an hour or more for hospital care. (For example: [1] “Disparities in Access to Trauma Care in the United States: A Population-Based Analysis,” [2] “Injury-Based Geographic Access to Trauma Centers,” [3] “Trends in the Geospatial Distribution of Inpatient Adult Surgical Services Across the United States,” [4] “Access to Trauma Centers in the United States.”)

We combined the drive-time areas to see which areas of the United States have only Catholic or Catholic-affiliated birth hospitals nearby, both Catholic and non-Catholic, non-Catholic only, or none. We then joined these areas to the 2021 census block group shapefile from IPUMS NHGIS and removed water bodies using the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Hydrography Dataset to calculate the percentage of each census block group that falls within each hospital access category. We calculated the number of people in each area using the 2021 “American Community Survey” block group population totals. For example, if half of a block group’s land area had access to only Catholic or Catholic-affiliated hospitals, then half of the population was counted in that category.

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

The Host

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

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

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

Among the takeaways from this week’s episode:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also mentioned on this week’s podcast:


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.

KFF Health News’ ‘What the Health?’: To End School Shootings, Activists Consider a New Culprit: Parents

The Host

For the first time ever, a jury has convicted a parent on charges related to their child’s crime: A Michigan mother of a school shooter was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter. What remains unclear is whether this case succeeded because of compelling evidence of negligence by the shooter’s mother or if this could become a new avenue for gun control advocates to pursue.

Meanwhile, a prominent publisher of medical journals has retracted two articles that lower-court judges used in reaching decisions that the abortion pill mifepristone should be restricted. The case is before the Supreme Court, with oral arguments scheduled for March 26.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of KFF Health News, Sarah Karlin-Smith of the Pink Sheet, Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico, and Rachana Pradhan of KFF Health News.

Among the takeaways from this week’s episode:

  • Sage Journals, a major medical publisher, has retracted two studies central to abortion opponents’ arguments in a federal court case over access to the abortion pill mifepristone. Although the retraction came before next month’s Supreme Court hearing on the case, the now-discredited studies have permeated the public debate over mifepristone.
  • Florida’s Supreme Court has until April 1 to stop a measure about the availability of abortion from appearing on the November ballot. The decision could be pivotal in determining abortion access in the South, as Florida’s current 15-week ban (compared with near-total bans in surrounding states) has made it a regional destination for abortion care.
  • In Medicaid news, the nation is about halfway through the “unwinding,” the redetermination process states are undergoing to strip ineligible beneficiaries from the program’s rolls. Although the process will amount to the biggest purge of the Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program rolls in a one-year period, it is expected that, when all is said and done, overall enrollment will look much as it did before the pandemic — though how many people are left uninsured remains to be seen.
  • In the states, Georgia is suing the Biden administration to extend its Medicaid work-requirement program. Meanwhile, some states are using Medicaid funding to address housing issues. Despite evidence that addressing housing insecurity can improve health, it is also clear that state budgets would need to be adjusted to meet those needs.
  • And in “This Week in Health Misinformation,” PolitiFact awarded a “Pants on Fire!” rating to the claim — in a fundraising ad for Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.) — that Anthony Fauci, former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, “brought COVID to Montana” a year before it spread through the U.S., among other spurious claims.

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

Julie Rovner: Alabama Daily News’ “Alabama Lawmakers Briefed on New ‘ALL Health’ Insurance Coverage Expansion Plan,” by Alexander Willis.

Alice Miranda Ollstein: Stat’s “FDA Urged to Move Faster to Fix Pulse Oximeters for Darker-Skinned Patients,” by Usha Lee McFarling.

Sarah Karlin-Smith: The Atlantic’s “GoFundMe Is a Health-Care Utility Now,” by Elisabeth Rosenthal.

Rachana Pradhan: North Carolina Health News’ “Atrium Health: A Unit of ‘Local Government’ Like No Other,” by Michelle Crouch and Charlotte Ledger.

Also mentioned on this week’s podcast:


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

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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Adolescentes en Texas podían obtener control de la natalidad en clínicas federales, hasta que un padre cristiano lo objetó

AMARILLO, Texas – En el vasto Panhandle de Texas, azotado por un viento y sol implacables, las mujeres deben conducir durante horas para llegar a Haven Health, una clínica en Amarillo.

Haven es una de las más de 3,200 clínicas federales de planificación familiar en todo el país, que atiende a los hablantes de inglés y español, proporcionando anticoncepción, pruebas de embarazo e infecciones de transmisión sexual, y detección de cáncer de cuello uterino. Todo a bajo costo o sin cargo para pacientes que están ansiosos, son pobres, o ambas cosas.

Esos pacientes incluyen adolescentes menores de 18 años, que buscan píldoras anticonceptivas o anticoncepción de acción prolongada.

Pero bajo una sorprendente decisión judicial emitida en diciembre, un juez federal dictaminó que estas clínicas violan la ley estatal de Texas y los derechos constitucionales federales, cortando de raíz una fuente vital de atención médica para mujeres jóvenes en el estado.

Defensores de la salud de las mujeres y proveedores de atención médica han denunciado la decisión del juez conservador designado por el presidente Donald Trump, que está en el centro de otros casos de derechos reproductivos. Dicen que es demasiado amplia y sin precedentes. (El fallo se aplica a las regulaciones nacionales, pero por ahora se sigue solo en Texas).

“Ni siquiera podemos proporcionar anticonceptivos para un problema ginecológico”, dijo Carolena Cogdill, directora ejecutiva de Haven Health, quien dijo que el fallo del juez federal de distrito Matthew Kacsmaryk ha tenido un efecto escalofriante en la atención.

“Recibimos a una joven que tenía un sangrado anormal y queríamos recetarle anticonceptivos para ayudar a controlar ese sangrado. Y no pudimos hacerlo porque tenía 16 años”. La paciente había dicho que su madre no entendería, creyendo que su hija “iba a salir y tener relaciones sexuales”, dijo Cogdill.

La ley de Texas ha exigido durante mucho tiempo que las adolescentes tengan el permiso de los padres para obtener anticonceptivos recetados. Pero bajo el programa federal Título X, ciertas clínicas podrían proporcionar anticonceptivos sin el consentimiento de los padres. Establecido en 1970, Título X evolucionó a partir de la era de la “Guerra contra la Pobreza” y fue aprobado con un amplio apoyo bipartidista.

La legislación fue firmada por el entonces presidente republicano Richard Nixon, para brindar servicios de planificación familiar a personas de bajos ingresos, incluidos menores, con el objetivo de reducir el embarazo adolescente.

Pero en julio de 2022, semanas después de que la Corte Suprema revocara la protección constitucional para el aborto en Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Alexander R. Deanda, padre de tres hijas adolescentes que vive en Amarillo, demandó al Departamento de Salud y Servicios Humanos. Argumentó que el gobierno había violado su derecho constitucional a liderar la crianza de sus hijas.

En su demanda, Deanda, quien es cristiano, dijo que estaba “criando a cada una de sus hijas de acuerdo con la enseñanza cristiana sobre cuestiones de sexualidad” y que no podía tener “la seguridad de que sus hijas no podrán acceder a anticonceptivos recetados” que “facilitan la promiscuidad sexual y el sexo pre-matrimonial”.

En su opinión, Kacsmaryk estuvo de acuerdo y escribió que “el uso de anticonceptivos (al igual que el aborto) viola los principios tradicionales de muchas religiones, incluidas las prácticas de los demandantes de fe cristiana”.

Además, Kacsmaryk, quien también es cristiano, dijo que la existencia de clínicas federales que operan en Texas, donde la ley estatal requiere el permiso de los padres para que las adolescentes reciban anticonceptivos, representaba un “daño inmediato”.

“Las clínicas del Título X están abiertas la mayoría de los días y, por lo tanto, presentan un riesgo continuo, continuo e inminente”, escribió el juez.

La decisión, que hace referencia al catecismo católico y a textos religiosos del siglo IV, sorprendió a expertos legales como Elizabeth Sepper, profesora de derecho en la Universidad de Texas en Austin, quien dijo que esta narrativa era parte de la creciente influencia de la teología cristiana conservadora en los tribunales.

“Estamos viendo cada vez más argumentos religiosos que llegan a los tribunales disfrazados de argumentos legales”, dijo Sepper. “Creo que estamos viendo un movimiento que comenzó con una exención religiosa, diciendo ‘Permítanme estructurar mi atención médica para que se adapte a mi moral’, y ahora se está avanzando hacia una agenda que dice, ‘Permítanme estructurar toda la atención médica de acuerdo con mi moral’”.

Ni Deanda ni su abogado, Jonathan Mitchell, el artífice de la prohibición del aborto en Texas antes de Dobbs, respondieron a las solicitudes de comentarios.

Los efectos del embarazo adolescente en la vida de una mujer pueden ser profundos. La mitad de las madres adolescentes reciben un diploma de escuela secundaria a los 22 años, en comparación con el 90% de las mujeres jóvenes que no dan a luz en la adolescencia. Los nacimientos de adolescentes pueden conducir a malos resultados para la próxima generación: los hijos de madres adolescentes tienen más probabilidades de abandonar la escuela secundaria y terminar en la cárcel o prisión durante la adolescencia.

El doctor Stephen Griffin, profesor asistente en la Universidad Tecnológica de Texas en Lubbock, y obstetra y ginecólogo, describió el acceso a los métodos anticonceptivos para las mujeres jóvenes como un “problema de seguridad”, y agregó que muchos padres subestiman la actividad sexual de sus adolescentes.

“Sabemos que las personas que se identifican como asistentes regulares a la iglesia tienen más probabilidades de subestimar el comportamiento arriesgado de sus hijos en términos de sexo”, dijo Griffin. “Y que los padres que sienten que tienen líneas abiertas de comunicación con sus hijos” también subestiman el riesgo.

Texas tiene una de las tasas más altas de embarazo adolescente en la nación y la tasa más alta de embarazo adolescente recurrente: más de 1 de cada 6 adolescentes que dieron a luz en Texas en 2020 ya tenían un hijo.

Expertos en salud dicen que es probable que la decisión judicial que prohíbe el acceso a la anticoncepción aumente esos números, siguiendo los pasos de otras restricciones a la atención de la salud reproductiva en el estado.

“El aborto es ilegal en Texas. Los niños no reciben educación sexual integral en las escuelas. Un gran [número] de personas en Texas viven sin seguro médico”, dijo Stephanie LeBleu, directora interina de Every Body Texas, que administra las más de 150 clínicas del Título X del estado. “Así que hace que sea muy difícil obtener servicios de salud sexual”.

La administración Biden apeló la decisión de Texas en febrero. Mientras tanto, LeBleu dijo que aquí no queda ninguna red de seguridad para los adolescentes.

“Les roba su humanidad”, dijo. “Les roba potencialmente su futuro. Y les roba su autonomía corporal, y creo que los jóvenes son más que capaces de tomar decisiones sobre su propia atención médica”.

Décadas de investigación muestran que es más probable que los adolescentes busquen atención de salud sexual si pueden hacerlo de manera confidencial. Pero para los tejanos como Christi Covington, la creencia es que la ley no debería hacer excepciones, ni siquiera en los casos más difíciles.

Covington vive en Round Rock, un suburbio de Austin. Se crió en una gran familia evangélica y está transmitiendo esas enseñanzas a sus tres hijos. Dejando de lado las objeciones religiosas al control de la natalidad, dijo que se debe respetar la unidad familiar.

“Dios diseñó el mundo para que haya padres y luego tenemos nuestra descendencia y que los padres cuiden a esos niños, y eso está diseñado”, dijo. “Y lo vemos reflejado en la naturaleza”.

En cuanto al control de la natalidad, dijo, “se siente como una curita”.

“Démosles control de la natalidad, y entonces no tendremos que lidiar con lo que está sucediendo en nuestra sociedad, donde estas adolescentes quedan embarazadas tan rápido y tan fácilmente”, dijo Covington.

Agregó que ya está obligada a dar permiso para el cuidado de la salud de sus hijos, incluidas las vacunas. “Honestamente, tengo que dar mi consentimiento en todas partes para la otra atención médica de mis hijos”, dijo. “¿Por qué decidiríamos que esta área está exenta?”.

Pero Rebecca Gudeman, directora sénior de salud del National Center for Youth Law, dijo que el 60% de los adolescentes involucran a sus padres en estas decisiones.

“Lo hacen no porque la ley les exija hacerlo, sino porque es lo que quieren hacer”, dijo Gudeman.

Algunos jóvenes, dijo, simplemente no pueden involucrar a sus padres o tutores, incluidas parejas como Victoria y Richard Robledo, quienes comenzaron a salir y tener relaciones sexuales cuando ambos eran menores de edad. Victoria dijo que en esos primeros días decidió obtener un control de la natalidad, pero no podía acudir a su madre, una católica devota, en busca de consejo.

“Éramos un hogar hispano típico”, recordó Victoria. “Y, por lo general, en hogares como el mío, no quieren hablar de novios, sexo ni nada de eso”.

Pero Victoria encontró una clínica a menos de una milla de su escuela secundaria y pudo obtener anticonceptivos sin costo. La pareja ahora está casada, vive en Clovis, Nuevo México, al otro lado de la frontera estatal, y tiene dos hijos.

Victoria dijo que poder protegerse del embarazo cuando era adolescente cambió el curso de su vida, permitiéndole ir a la universidad y a su esposo unirse al ejército.

“No nos preocupaba el hecho de que pudiéramos tener un hijo”, dijo. “Ambos pudimos salir y vivir nuestras propias vidas”.

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.”

March Medicaid Madness

The Host

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

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

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

Among the takeaways from this week’s episode:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also mentioned in this week’s podcast:


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Surprise-Billing Law Loophole: When ‘Out of Network’ Doesn’t Quite Mean Out of Network

It was the first day of her family’s vacation in the San Juan Islands last June when Danielle Laskey, who was 26 weeks pregnant, thought she was leaking amniotic fluid.

A registered nurse, Laskey called her OB-GYN back home in Seattle, who said to seek immediate care. Staff members at a nearby emergency department found no leakage. But her OB-GYN still wanted to see her as soon as possible.

Laskey and her husband, Jacob, made the three-hour trip to the Swedish Maternal & Fetal Specialty Center-First Hill. Laskey had sought the clinic’s specialized care for this pregnancy, her second, after a dangerous complication with her first: The placenta had become embedded in the uterine muscles.

Back in Seattle, doctors at the clinic found Laskey’s water had broken early, posing a serious risk to her and the fetus, and ordered her immediate admission to Swedish Medical Center/First Hill. She delivered her son after seven weeks in the hospital. Though she was treated for multiple postpartum complications, she was well enough to be discharged the next day. Her son, who is healthy, went home a month later.

Laskey soon developed a fever and body aches, and she was told by her OB-GYN to go to Swedish’s emergency department. She said doctors there wanted to admit her when she arrived Aug. 20 and scheduled a procedure for Aug. 26 to remove a fragment of placenta that her body had not eliminated on its own.

Laskey, who had already spent weeks away from her 3-year-old daughter, chose to go home. She returned for the procedure, which went well, and she was home the same day.

Then the bills came.

The Patient: Danielle Laskey, 31, was covered by a state-sponsored plan offered by her employer, a local school district, and administered by Regence BlueShield.

Medical Service: In-patient hospital services for 51 days, plus a one-day stay that included a second placenta removal procedure.

Service Provider: Swedish Medical Center/First Hill, part of Providence Health & Services, a large, nonprofit, Catholic health system.

Total Bill: Swedish, through Regence, billed about $120,000 in cost sharing for Laskey’s initial hospitalization and about $15,000 for her second visit and procedure.

What Gives: The specialized clinic caring for Laskey before her hospital admission was in her insurance plan’s network. The clinic’s doctors admit patients only to Swedish Medical Center, one of the Seattle area’s only specialized providers for Laskey’s condition — which, given that connection, she assumed was also in the network.

So after being urgently admitted to Swedish, Laskey believed her bills would be largely covered, with the couple expected to pay $2,000 at most for their portion of in-network care because of her plan’s out-of-pocket cost limit.

It turned out Swedish was out of network for Laskey’s plan and, at first, Regence determined that Laskey’s hospitalizations were not emergencies. In November, a Regence case manager initially told Jacob that Laskey’s lengthy hospitalization was an emergency admission and out-of-network charges would not apply. But then she called back and said the charges would apply after all, because Laskey had not come in through the emergency department.

Both Washington state and federal laws prohibit insurers and providers from billing patients for out-of-network charges in emergency situations. The couple said neither Swedish nor Regence told them before or during the two hospitalizations that Swedish was out of network, and that they never knowingly signed anything agreeing to accept out-of-network charges.

Jacob, who works as a psychiatrist at a different hospital, said he mentioned the surprise-billing laws to the case manager, but she replied that the laws did not apply to his family’s situation.

It was only after Regence was contacted by KHN that the insurer explained its reasoning to the reporter: Regence said the Swedish hospital, while out of network for Danielle, had a broader contract with the insurer as a “participating provider” and so the insurer was not in violation of surprise-billing laws by approving Swedish’s out-of-network coinsurance charges.

The broader contract allowed Swedish to bill members of any Regence plan who receive out-of-network services there 50% coinsurance — the patient’s portion of the overall cost the insurer allows the provider to charge — with no out-of-pocket maximum for the patient.

What’s the difference between a hospital that’s “in network” and one that’s a “participating provider”? In this case, by contracting with Regence as an out-of-network but also participating provider, Swedish straddled the line between being in and out of network — designations that traditionally indicate whether a provider has a contract with an insurer or not.

Setting the terms with an insurer for providing its members emergency or other care appears to allow hospitals to sidestep new surprise-billing laws that prevent out-of-network providers from charging high, unpredictable rates in emergencies, according to government and private-sector medical billing experts.

Experts said they had not heard of out-of-network providers evading surprise-billing laws by being contracted as “participating providers” until KHN asked about Laskey’s case.

Ellen Montz, director of the Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, said that under the federal No Surprises Act the definition of a “participating” emergency facility that’s subject to the law’s surprise billing protections depends on whether the facility has a contract with the insurer specifying the terms and conditions under which an emergency service is provided to a plan member.

Matthew Fiedler, a senior fellow at the University of Southern California-Brookings Schaeffer Initiative for Health Policy who studies out-of-network billing, said Laskey’s case seems to fall into a “weird” gray area of the state and federal laws protecting patients from out-of-network charges in emergency situations.

If there had been no contract between Regence and Swedish, the laws clearly would have prohibited those charges. But since there was a contract specifying a 50% coinsurance rate when Swedish was out of network for a particular Regence plan, those laws legally may not apply, Fiedler said.

After he declined to apply for the hospital’s financial assistance program, Jacob said Swedish also notified the couple in November that they had two months to pay or be sent to collections.

Natalie Kozimor, a spokesperson for Providence Swedish, said the hospital disagreed with “some of the details and characterizations of events” presented by the Laskeys, though she did not specify what those were. She said Swedish assisted Danielle with her appeal to Regence.

“We had no luck with Swedish taking any role or responsibility with regard to our billing or advocating on our behalf,” Jacob said. “They basically just referred us to their financial department to put us on a payment plan.”

A photo shows a woman taking care of an infant baby lying on a padded floor mat.
Danielle Laskey at her home just outside Seattle, with her infant son.(Ryan Henriksen for KHN)

The Resolution: In December, the couple appealed Regence’s approval of Swedish’s out-of-network charges for the 51-day hospitalization, claiming it was an emergency and that there was no in-network hospital with the expertise to treat her condition. They also filed a complaint with the state insurance commissioner’s office.

The office told KHN that the “participating provider” contract does not override the laws barring out-of-network charges in emergency situations. “Danielle had an emergency and Regence acknowledges it was an emergency, so she cannot be balance-billed,” said Stephanie Marquis, public affairs director for the Washington state Office of the Insurance Commissioner.

On Jan. 13, Regence said it would grant the Laskeys’ appeal to cover the first hospitalization as an in-network service, erasing the biggest part of Swedish’s bill but still leaving the family on the hook for the $15,000 bill for Danielle’s second visit and procedure.

On Jan. 27, two days after KHN contacted Regence and Swedish about Danielle Laskey’s case, a Regence representative called and informed her that her second hospitalization also would be reclassified as an in-network service.

Ashley Bach, a Regence spokesperson, confirmed to KHN that both stays now will be covered as emergency, in-network services, eliminating Swedish’s coinsurance charges. But in what appears to be contrary to the insurance commissioner’s stance, he said the bills had not violated state or federal laws prohibiting out-of-network charges in emergency situations because of the contract with Swedish covering all its plans.

“Under the Washington state and federal balance-billing laws, the definitions of whether a provider is considered in network hinges on whether there is a contract with a specific provider,” Bach said.

The Takeaway: More than a year after the federal surprise-billing law took effect, patients can still get hammered by surprise bills resulting from health plans’ limited provider networks and ambiguities about what is considered emergency medical care. The loopholes are out there, and patients like Laskey are just discovering them.

Washington state Rep. Marcus Riccelli, chair of the House Health Care and Wellness Committee, said he will ask the state’s public and private insurers what steps they could take to avoid provider network gaps and out-of-network billing surprises like this. He said he will also review whether there is a loophole in state law that needs to be closed by the legislature.

Fiedler said policymakers need to consider addressing what looks like a major gap in the new laws protecting consumers from surprise bills, since it’s possible that other insurers across the country have similar contracts with hospitals. “Potentially this is a significant loophole, and it’s not what lawmakers were aiming for,” he said.

Congress might have to fix the problem, since the federal agencies that administer the No Surprises Act may not have authority to do anything about it, he added.

Bruce Alexander, a CMS spokesperson, said the Departments of Health & Human Services, Labor, and Treasury are looking into this issue. While the agencies can’t predict whether a new rule or guidance will be needed to address it, he said, “they remain committed to protecting consumers from surprise medical bills.”

In the meantime, patients, even in emergencies, should ask their doctors before a hospital admission whether the hospital is in their plan network, out of network, or (watch for these words) a “participating provider.”

As the Laskeys discovered, hospital billing departments may offer little help in resolving surprise billing. So, while it is worth contesting questionable charges to the provider, it’s also usually an option to quickly appeal to your state insurance department or commissioner.

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

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