Happy Friday! If you’ve been able to tear your attention away from the soap opera that is the ever-escalating (and public and messy!) feud between HHS Secretary Alex Azar and CMS Administrator Seema Verma, you’re a better person than I. (But hey, I’m not alone — the White House itself is apparently riveted by the drama).
The week kicked off with reports that Verma had filed a claim for $47,000 worth of jewelry and other property that was stolen while she was on a work trip. Then came the accusations that HHS leaked the story and then came more accusations that Verma leaked the info that eventually brought down former HHS Secretary Tom Price.
They were both called to a meeting at the White House and told to make nice. (Oh, to have been a fly on that wall …). Because as fun as it is to watch the drama unfold, the feud seems to be derailing President Donald Trump’s health agenda during a time when that is a less-than-ideal thing to happen.
OK, onward to the rest of the news of the week before I risk turning into a Page Six gossip column.
House Democrats passed a sweeping drug-pricing bill that would allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices, among other things. Like most bills these days, its purpose is more political than anything else — it will live a full life on the 2020 campaign trail long after it’s killed in the Senate.
It was all around not a great weak for drugmakers. The industry was spitting mad at what they deemed was an “unforced error” from Trump that “was a reflection of the weakness of the negotiating skills of the president.” The error? Trump stripped a 10-year exclusivity provision for biologics from the new trade deal with Mexico and Canada. The blow to pharma is just the latest reminder that they can’t assume any wins just because a Republican is in the White House.
The government’s word was on trial at the Supreme Court this week when the justices heard arguments over the health law’s “risk corridor” program. It was a slice of the financial carrot to get insurers to participate in the risky marketplaces, but then Congress stripped the funds from the budget. Insurers — who say they’re owed $12 billion — were less than pleased. The justices seemed sympathetic to the insurers, with Justice Stephen Breyer summing it up well: “Why doesn’t the government have to pay its contracts just like everybody else?”
And speaking of the health law, the IRS inadvertently ran an experiment on the importance of health coverage when it sent a letter to the nearly 4 million people who were fined because they didn’t have insurance. The letter prompted people to enroll and thus that little letter saved about 700 lives.
Back to the Supreme Court: The justices decided to leave in place a Kentucky law that requires physicians to show and describe ultrasounds to patients seeking abortions. The law requires the physicians to continue with the process even if the patient objects and shows signs of distress.
Side note: The story below is less about abortion and more about congressional committees and their inner workings, but I found it a fascinating read (at least for all you wonkish types out there).
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South Carolina is the latest state to be granted a waiver to add work requirements to its Medicaid program. It’s the 10th one so far, but the move is still notable. That’s because, unlike other states, South Carolina never expanded the Medicaid to begin with. That means that the work-age population on its Medicaid rolls is made up almost entirely by poor mothers. Research also suggests that research found the population subject to the new requirements is disproportionately black.
What a roller-coaster ride this year has been for surprise medical bills. It seemed like low-hanging fruit that even in this particular Congress everyone could agree was bad. But alas, we can always find something to argue about, and progress stalled when lawmakers couldn’t agree on how to solve the problem. Then after months of stagnation, a new deal emerged (which the White House backs). How did they manage that? They actually *gasp* compromised between two of the strategies.
Bills under $750 would be paid at a default price; ones over that could be brought to arbitration, and the final price decision would be binding.
But wait, the ride isn’t over. The House Ways and Means Committee released its own version that would at first let insurers and doctors try to work out payment on their own before an arbitration system kicked in. However it all shakes out, it’s certainly not the easy bipartisan win that was expected.
South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg released a list of clients he worked with during his tenure at McKinsey, a powerhouse consulting firm that has drawn fire lately for its work with the Trump administration’s immigration plans. One of Buttigieg’s clients was Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, which eventually went on to lay off about 10% of its workforce. Buttigieg defended his work for the insurer, saying he was focused on administrative costs and cutting overhead expenses.
There was nothing particularly notable about Dr. Stephen Hahn’s confirmation process, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t include the fact that the Senate approved him as the new FDA commissioner. Hahn during his hearing sidestepped lawmakers’ attempts to pin him down on e-cigarettes, but any concerns about how he’d handle the epidemic weren’t enough to sink his ship.
The FCC approved switching to a three-digit number (988) for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Considering how clunky the old one (800-273-TALK ) was, the change has advocates celebrating. It was interesting that the FCC report had to note that the increase in costs associated with the presumed increase in calls would be offset by avoiding medical expenses such as hospitalizations or emergency department visits.
A group of doctors carried out a three-day protest in front of a Border Patrol regional headquarters in San Diego. They were demanding that the agency offer flu vaccines to detained migrants — an issue made even more relevant by the fact that three children have died in U.S. custody because of the illness. But Border Patrol says it doesn’t make sense to vaccinate all the people who move through the system.
That’s it from me! Have a great weekend.