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Medicare Advantage, the private-sector alternative to original Medicare, now enrolls nearly half of all Medicare beneficiaries. But it remains controversial because — while most of its subscribers like the extra benefits many plans provide — the program frequently costs the federal government more than if those seniors remained in the fully public program. That controversy is becoming political, as the Biden administration tries to rein in some of those payments without being accused of “cutting” Medicare.
Meanwhile, President Joe Biden has signed a bill to declassify U.S. intelligence about the possible origin of covid-19 in China. And new evidence has emerged potentially linking the virus to raccoon dogs at an animal market in Wuhan, where the virus reportedly first took hold.
This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of KHN, Margot Sanger-Katz of The New York Times, Jessie Hellmann of CQ Roll Call, and Joanne Kenen of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Politico.
Among the takeaways from this week’s episode:
The Biden administration recently changed the formula used to calculate how much the federal government pays private Medicare Advantage plans to care for patients with serious conditions, amid allegations that many of the health plans overcharge or even defraud the government. Major insurers are making no secret about how lucrative the program can be: Humana recently said it would leave the commercial insurance market and focus on government-funded programs, like its booming Medicare Advantage plans.
The formula change is intended to rein in excess spending on Medicare — a huge, costly program at risk of insolvency — yet it has triggered a lobbying blitz, including a vigorous letter-writing campaign in support of the popular Medicare Advantage program. On Capitol Hill, though, party leaders have not stepped up to defend private insurers as aggressively as they have in the past. But the 2024 campaign season could hear the parties trading accusations over whether Biden cut Medicare or, conversely, protected it.
The latest maternal mortality rates released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show the problem continued to worsen during the pandemic. Many states have extended Medicaid coverage for a full year after women give birth, in an effort to improve care during that higher-risk period. But other problems limit access to postpartum care. During the pandemic, some women did not get prenatal care. And after the fall of Roe v. Wade, some states are having trouble securing providers — including one rural Idaho hospital, which announced it will stop delivering babies.
The federal government will soon declassify intelligence related to the origins of the covid pandemic. In the United States, the fight over what started the pandemic has largely morphed into an issue of political identity, with Republicans favoring the notion that a Chinese lab leak started the global health crisis that killed millions, while Democrats are more likely to believe it was animal transmission tied to a wet market.
And in drug price news, Sanofi has become the third major insulin maker (of three) to announce it will reduce the price on some of its insulin products ahead of a U.S. government policy change next year that could have cost the company.
Plus, for “extra credit,” the panelists suggest health policy stories they read this week that they think you should read, too:
During a four-hour hearing last week that could eliminate nationwide access to a common and widely used abortion pill, federal Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, of the Northern District of Texas, signaled his conservative Christian beliefs early and often.
Speaking from the bench in a courtroom in Amarillo, Texas, Kacsmaryk repeatedly used language that mimicked the vocabulary of anti-abortion activists. It also reflected the wording of the lawyers seeking to overturn the FDA’s two-decade-old approval of mifepristone, one of the drugs in the two-pill regimen approved for early pregnancy termination.
Each time a lawyer from the Department of Justice, representing the FDA, referred to “medication abortion,” Kacsmaryk returned to the language of conservative Christian activists, using monikers like “chemical abortion” and “mail-in abortion,” phrases at odds with conventional medical terminology.
The stakes in the case, Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine v. U.S. Food and Drug Administration, are high: Abortion rights advocates fear that Kacsmaryk, an appointee of then-President Donald Trump and a former lawyer at the First Liberty Institute, a conservative Christian legal group, could rule within days to force manufacturers to pull mifepristone from the market nationwide. If that happens, clinics and obstetricians and gynecologists across the country will be able to prescribe only misoprostol, the second drug in the two-pill regimen, for miscarriages and early abortion care. Misoprostol is still extremely safe but less effective and comes with more side effects.
The ruling would be unprecedented in the history of approved drugs and could affect the health care of millions of women, even those in states where abortion is still legal.
“One conservative judge is impacting the rights of women in California and New York,” said Greer Donley, an associate professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh Law School and expert on reproductive health law. “The endgame is to stop as many abortions as possible by any means necessary.”
When the conservative majority on the Supreme Court eliminated the federal right to abortion, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, a Catholic, wrote that the court was not outlawing abortion throughout the United States. “On the contrary,” Kavanaugh wrote, “the Court’s decision properly leaves the question of abortion for the people and their elected representatives in the democratic process.”
But in the nine months since the announcement of the decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Christian legal groups have made their strategy clear: eliminate abortion nationwide by filing lawsuits in federal courts that make scientific claims, unsupported by mainstream medical organizations, to raise doubts about the safety of abortion pills and contraception.
These legal decisions, which conservatives might once have decried as “judicial activism,” are partially necessary because abortion rights continually poll positively, with voters even in solidly conservative states like Kansas and Kentucky refusing to enact bans.
“After Dobbs, there have been more and more efforts to move things away from the popular majority and into the hands of judges like Kacsmaryk,” said Mary Ziegler, a law professor and abortion historian at the University of California-Davis School of Law. “Because voters are not sold on fetal rights and because the only way to a national ban on abortion is likely to come from the conservative courts,” she said.
Ziegler added of anti-abortion campaigners, “They don’t want solutions that work only in Tennessee and Texas.”
The strategy of casting doubt on established and accepted science is not new in conservative circles, nor is it limited to abortion.
For decades, conservative Christian legal groups have introduced scientific uncertainty where there had been none: Claims that abortion causes breast cancer or infertility are unsupported by medical and scientific research but nevertheless made their way into state laws, requiring physicians in certain states to tell patients about risks from abortion that do not exist.
And in a recent opinion that ended birth control access for teens without parental consent in Texas, the same judge as in the mifepristone case — Kacsmaryk — exaggerated the health risks of prescription birth control in his decision, asserting that states have an interest in protecting the health of girls.
“Several popular methods of birth control carry serious side effects,” Kacsmaryk wrote, later quoting from Planned Parenthood educational material that read, “Complications are rare, but they can be serious. In very rare cases, they can lead to death.”
That case, Deanda v. Becerra, was filed by a Christian father who cited religious objections to a federal family planning program. And in the mifepristone case, fundamentalist Christian groups have argued that the drug is unsafe, despite ample research and decades of use testifying to the contrary.
Alliance Defending Freedom, which describes itself as the world’s largest legal organization committed to protecting “God’s design for marriage and family,” is pushing to outlaw abortion pills. Erik Baptist, an attorney for the group, said in a statement following the March 15 hearing that the “the FDA’s approval of chemical abortion drugs over 20 years ago has always stood on shaky legal and moral ground.”
He added, “It’s time for the government to do what it’s legally required to do: protect the health and safety of vulnerable women and girls.”
Conservative legal groups like ADF have been savvy about exploiting small wins in the courts and building on them, such as the 2007 decision Gonzales v. Carhart, which upheld a federal ban on a rarely used method of abortion.
The decision had minimal practical impact, as the procedure in question was rarely performed, but it established an important legal principle: When scientific uncertainty arises in legal disputes — is a medical procedure, device, or medication safe or not? — legislatures get to decide.
“The court said when there is scientific uncertainty the tiebreaker goes to the legislature,” said Ziegler.
In the courtroom, Baptist acknowledged that no court had ever ordered the FDA to remove a drug from the market over the agency’s objections, and legal observers say there remains a huge question whether the court can order the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, who oversees the FDA, to do so.
But Laurie Sobel, an associate director for women’s health policy at KFF, who listened to the hearing in a Dallas courtroom, said anti-abortion attorneys argued that the mailing of abortion medications strips states of their ability to protect women and children. (The hearing, which Kacsmaryk did not, initially, publicly announce, was not streamed to the public, and the court has yet to release a transcript.)
But Jessica Ellsworth, an attorney representing Danco Laboratories, a manufacturer of mifepristone, told the court that abortion remained legal in all states because it was allowed for preventing a patient’s death or serious bodily injury. Using mifepristone is the safest method of abortion, she argued, noting the judge’s decision in the case could ban it in every state.
“If Kavanaugh said, ‘We’re going to send it back to the states to be decided by their elected representatives,’ this is the exact opposite,” said Donley.
Kacsmaryk appeared ready to grant a preliminary injunction in favor of anti-abortion groups, asking ADF’s Baptist what kind of remedy he was seeking.
Baptist responded, “The court has an interest in preventing dangerous drugs from entering the marketplace.” He added, “Any relief you grant must be complete. The harm of chemical drugs knows no bound.”
This week, the eyes of the nation are on Texas, where a federal judge who formerly worked for a conservative Christian advocacy group is set to decide whether the abortion pill mifepristone can stay on the market. Mifepristone is half of a two-pill regimen that now accounts for more than half of the abortions in the United States.
Meanwhile, Novo Nordisk, another of the three large drug companies that dominate the market for diabetes treatments, has announced it will cut the price of many of its insulin products. Eli Lilly announced its cuts early this month. But the push for more affordable insulin from activists and members of Congress is not the only reason for the change: Because of quirks in the way the drug market works, cutting prices could actually save the companies money in the long run.
This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of KHN, Jessie Hellmann of CQ Roll Call, Sarah Karlin-Smith of the Pink Sheet, and Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico.
Among the takeaways from this week’s episode:
The federal judge examining the decades-old approval of mifepristone could issue a decision at any time after a hearing largely behind closed doors, during which he appeared open to restricting access to the drug.
Democratic governors seek to counter the chill of Republican states’ warnings to pharmacies about distributing mifepristone, and a separate lawsuit in Texas seeks to set a precedent for punishing people who aren’t medical providers for assisting someone in obtaining an abortion.
In pandemic news, Congress is moving forward with legislation that would force the Biden administration to declassify intelligence related to the origins of covid-19, while the editor of Cochrane Reviews posted a clarification of its recently published masking study, noting it is “inaccurate” to say it found that masks are not effective.
Top federal health officials sent an unusual letter to Florida’s surgeon general, warning that his embrace of vaccination misinformation is harmful, even deadly, to Americans. While covid vaccines come with some risk of negative health effects, contracting covid carries a higher risk of poor outcomes.
Novo Nordisk’s announcement that it will cut insulin prices puts pressure on Sanofi, the remaining insulin maker that has yet to adjust its prices.
The Veterans Health Administration will cover Leqembi, a new Alzheimer’s drug. The decision comes as Medicare considers whether it will also cover the drug. Experts caution that new drugs shaking up the weight-loss market could prove costly for Medicare.
Washington is eyeing changes to federal rules that would affect the practice of medicine. One change would force health plans to speed up “prior authorization” decisions by health insurers and increase transparency around denials, which supporters say would help patients better access needed care. Another proposal would ban noncompete clauses in contracts, including in health care. Arguments for and against the change both cite the issue of physician burnout — though they disagree on whether the ban would make the problem better or worse.
Plus, for “extra credit,” the panelists suggest health policy stories they read this week that they think you should read, too:
El segundo embarazo de Tamara Etienne estuvo lleno de riesgos y preocupaciones desde el principio, exacerbado porque ya había sufrido un aborto espontáneo.
Como maestra de tercer grado en una escuela pública del condado de Miami-Dade, pasaba todo el día parada. Le pesaban las preocupaciones financieras, incluso teniendo seguro de salud y algo de licencia paga.
Y, como mujer negra, toda una vida de racismo la volvió desconfiada de las reacciones impredecibles en la vida diaria. Estaba agotada por el trato despectivo y desigual en el trabajo. Justamente el tipo de estrés que puede liberar cortisol, que, según estudios, aumenta el riesgo de parto prematuro.
“Lo experimento todo el tiempo, no camino sola, o lo hago con alguien a quien debo proteger. Sí, el nivel de cortisol en mi cuerpo es incontable”, expresó.
A los dos meses de embarazo, las náuseas implacables cesaron de repente. “Empecé a sentir que mis síntomas de embarazo estaban desapareciendo”, dijo. Entonces comenzó un extraño dolor de espalda.
Etienne y su esposo corrieron a la sala de emergencias, donde confirmaron que corría un grave riesgo de aborto espontáneo. Una cascada de intervenciones médicas —inyecciones de progesterona, monitoreo fetal en el hogar y reposo en cama— salvó a la niña, que nació a las 37 semanas.
Aproximadamente uno de cada 10 nacimientos vivos en 2021 ocurrió antes de las 37 semanas de gestación, según un informe de March of Dimes publicado en 2022. En comparación, investigaciones recientes citan tasas de nacimientos prematuros del 7,4% en Inglaterra y Gales, del 6% en Francia y del 5,8% en Suecia.
En su informe, March of Dimes encontró que las tasas de nacimientos prematuros aumentaron en casi todos los estados de 2020 a 2021. Vermont, con una tasa del 8%, tuvo la calificación más alta del país: una “A-”. Los resultados más sombríos se concentraron en los estados del sur, que obtuvieron calificaciones equivalentes a una “F”, con tasas de nacimientos prematuros del 11,5% o más.
Mississippi (15 %), Louisiana (13,5 %) y Alabama (13,1 %) fueron los estados con peor desempeño. El informe encontró que, en 2021, el 10,9% de los nacidos vivos en Florida fueron partos prematuros, por lo que obtuvo una “D”.
Eso incluye Florida, donde los legisladores republicanos han promulgado leyes contra el aborto, incluida la prohibición de realizarlo después de las 15 semanas de gestación.
Florida es uno de los estados menos generosos cuando se trata de seguro médico público. Aproximadamente una de cada 6 mujeres en edad fértil no tiene seguro, lo que dificulta mantener un embarazo saludable. Las mujeres de Florida tienen el doble de probabilidades de morir por causas relacionadas con el embarazo y el parto que las de California.
“Me quita el sueño”, dijo la doctora Elvire Jacques, especialista en medicina materno-fetal del Memorial Hospital en Miramar, Florida.
Jacques explicó que las causas de los partos prematuros son variadas. Alrededor del 25% se inducen médicamente, por condiciones como la preeclampsia. Pero la investigación sugiere que muchos más tendrían sus raíces en una misteriosa constelación de condiciones fisiológicas.
“Es muy difícil identificar que una paciente tendrá un parto prematuro”, dijo Jacques. “Pero sí puedes identificar los factores estresantes en sus embarazos”.
Los médicos dicen que aproximadamente la mitad de todos los nacimientos prematuros debido a factores sociales, económicos y ambientales, y al acceso inadecuado a la atención médica prenatal, se pueden prevenir.
En el Memorial Hospital en Miramar, parte de un gran sistema de atención médica pública, Jacques recibe embarazos de alto riesgo referidos por otros obstetras del sur de Florida.
En la primera cita les pregunta: ¿Con quién vives? ¿Donde duermes? ¿Tienes adicciones? ¿Dónde trabajas? “Si no supiera que trabajan en una fábrica paradas cómo les podría recomendar que usaran medias de compresión para prevenir coágulos de sangre?”.
Jacques instó al gerente de una tienda a que permitiera a su empleada embarazada trabajar sentada. Persuadió a un imán para que le concediera a una futura mamá con diabetes un aplazamiento del ayuno religioso.
Debido a que la diabetes es un factor de riesgo importante, a menudo habla con los pacientes sobre cómo comer de manera saludable. Les pregunta: “De los alimentos que estamos discutiendo, ¿cuál crees que puedes pagar?”.
El acceso a una atención asequible separa a Florida de estados como California y Massachusetts, que tienen licencia familiar paga y bajas tasas de residentes sin seguro; y a Estados Unidos de otros países, dicen expertos en políticas de salud.
En países con atención médica socializada, “las mujeres no tienen que preocuparse por el costo financiero de la atención”, apuntó la doctora Delisa Skeete-Henry, jefa del departamento de obstetricia y ginecología de Broward Health en Fort Lauderdale. Y tienen licencias por maternidad pagas.
Sin embargo, a medida que aumentan los nacimientos prematuros en Estados Unidos, la riqueza no garantiza mejores resultados.
Nuevas investigaciones revelan que, sorprendentemente, en todos los niveles de ingresos, las mujeres negras y sus bebés experimentan resultados de parto mucho peores que sus contrapartes blancas. En otras palabras, todos los recursos que ofrece la riqueza no protegen a las mujeres negras ni a sus bebés de complicaciones prematuras, según el estudio, publicado por la Oficina Nacional de Investigación Económica.
Jamarah Amani es testigo de esto como directora ejecutiva de Southern Birth Justice Network y defensora de la atención de parteras y doulas en el sur de Florida. A medida que evalúa nuevos pacientes, busca pistas sobre los riesgos de nacimiento en los antecedentes familiares, análisis de laboratorio y ecografías. Y se centra en el estrés relacionado con el trabajo, las relaciones, la comida, la familia y el racismo.
“Las mujeres negras que trabajan en ambientes de alto estrés, incluso si no tienen problemas económicos, pueden enfrentar un parto prematuro”, dijo.
Recientemente, cuando una paciente mostró signos de trabajo de parto prematuro, Amani descubrió que su factura de electricidad estaba vencida, y que la empresa amenazaba con cortar el servicio. Amani encontró una organización que pagó la deuda.
De los seis embarazos de Tamara Etienne, dos terminaron en aborto espontáneo y cuatro fueron de riesgo de parto prematuro. Harta de la avalancha de intervenciones médicas, encontró una doula y una partera locales que la ayudaron en el nacimiento de sus dos hijos más pequeños.
“Pudieron guiarme a través de formas saludables y naturales para mitigar todas esas complicaciones”, dijo.
Sus propias experiencias con el embarazo dejaron un profundo impacto en Etienne. Desde entonces, ella misma se ha convertido en una doula.
Tamara Etienne’s second pregnancy was freighted with risk and worry from its earliest days — exacerbated by a first pregnancy that had ended in miscarriage.
A third-grade teacher at an overcrowded Miami-Dade County public school, she spent harried days on her feet. Financial worries weighed heavy, even with health insurance and some paid time off through her job.
“I’m experiencing it every day, not walking alone, walking with someone I have to protect,” she said. “So the level of cortisol in my body when I’m pregnant? Immeasurable.”
Two months into the pregnancy, the unrelenting nausea suddenly stopped. “I started to feel like my pregnancy symptoms were going away,” she said. Then strange back pain started.
Etienne and her husband rushed to an emergency room, where a doctor confirmed she was at grave risk for a miscarriage. A cascade of medical interventions — progesterone injections, fetal monitoring at home, and bed rest while she took months off work — saved the child, who was born at 37 weeks.
About 1 in 10 live births in 2021 occurred before 37 weeks of gestation, according to a March of Dimes report released last year. By comparison, research in recent years has cited preterm birth rates of 7.4% in England and Wales, 6% in France, and 5.8% in Sweden.
In its 2022 report card, the March of Dimes found the preterm birth rates increased in nearly every U.S. state from 2020 to 2021. Vermont, with a rate of 8%, merited the nation’s highest grade: an “A-.” The grimmest outcomes were concentrated in the Southern states, which largely earned “F” ratings, with preterm birth rates of 11.5% or higher. Mississippi (15%), Louisiana (13.5%), and Alabama (13.1%) were the worst performers. The March of Dimes report found 10.9% of live births in Florida were delivered preterm in 2021, earning the state a “D” rating.
That includes Florida, where Etienne lives, and where Republican lawmakers have enacted a series of anti-abortion laws, including a ban on abortion after 15 weeks of gestation. Florida is one of the least generous states when it comes to public health insurance. About 1 in 6 women of childbearing age in Florida are uninsured, making it more difficult to begin a healthy pregnancy. Women are twice as likely to die from pregnancy and childbirth-related causes in Florida than in California.
“I lose sleep over this,” said Dr. Elvire Jacques, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist at Memorial Hospital in Miramar, Florida. “It’s hard to say, I expect [better birth outcomes] when I’m not investing anything from the beginning.”
The causes of preterm births are varied. About 25% are medically induced, Jacques said, when the woman or fetus is in distress because of conditions like preeclampsia, a pregnancy-related hypertensive disorder. But research suggests that far more early births are thought to be rooted in a mysterious constellation of physiological conditions.
“It’s very hard to identify that a patient will automatically have a preterm birth,” Jacques said. “But you can definitely identify stressors for their pregnancies.”
Physicians say that roughly half of all preterm births are preventable, caused by social, economic, and environmental factors, as well as inadequate access to prenatal health care. Risk factors include conditions such as diabetes and obesity, as well as more-hidden issues like stress or even dehydration.
At Memorial Hospital in Miramar, part of a large public health care system, Jacques takes on high-risk pregnancies referred from other OB-GYNs in South Florida.
When meeting a patient for the first time she asks: Who else is in your household? Where do you sleep? Do you have substance abuse issues? Where do you work? “If you don’t know that your patient works in a factory [standing] on an assembly line,” she said, “then how are you going to tell her to wear compression socks because that may help her prevent blood clots?”
Jacques has urged a store manager to let her pregnant patient sit while working. She persuaded an imam to grant a mom-to-be with diabetes a reprieve from religious fasting.
Because diabetes is a major risk factor, she often talks with patients about eating healthfully. For those who eat fast food, she asks them to try cooking at home. Instead of, “Can you pay for food?” she asks, “Of the foods we’re discussing, which one do you think you can afford?”
Access to affordable care separates Florida from states like California and Massachusetts — which have paid family leave and low rates of uninsured residents — and separates the U.S. from other countries, health policy experts say.
In countries with socialized health care, “women don’t have to worry about the financial cost of care,” said Dr. Delisa Skeete-Henry, chair of the obstetrics and gynecology department at Broward Health in Fort Lauderdale. “A lot of places have paid leave, [and pregnant patients] don’t have to worry about not being at work.”
Yet, as preterm births rise in the U.S., wealth does not ensure better pregnancy outcomes.
Startling new research shows that at every U.S. income level, Black women and their infants experience far worse birth outcomes than their white counterparts. In other words, all the resources that come with wealth do not protect Black women or their babies from preterm complications, according to the study, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Jamarah Amani has seen this firsthand as executive director of the Southern Birth Justice Network and an advocate for midwifery and doula care in South Florida. As she evaluates new clients, she looks for clues about birth risks in a patient’s family history, lab work, and ultrasounds. She homes in quickly on stress related to work, relationships, food, family, and racism.
“I find Black women working in high-stress environments, even if they are not financially struggling, can face preterm birth,” she said. She develops “wellness plans” that include breathing, meditation, stretching, and walking.
Recently, when a patient showed signs of preterm labor, Amani discovered that her electricity bill was overdue and the utility was threatening to cut service. Amani found an organization to pay off the debt.
Of Tamara Etienne’s six pregnancies, two ended in miscarriage and four were threatened by preterm labor. Fed up with the onslaught of medical interventions, she found a local doula and midwife who helped guide her through the birth of her two youngest children.
“They were able to walk me through healthy, natural ways to mitigate all of those complications,” she said.
Her own pregnancy experiences left a profound impact on Etienne. She has since become a fertility doula herself.
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:
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.
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”.
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.”
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:
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.”
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!