Public Health

KHN’s ‘What the Health?’: Congress Races the Clock

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The lame-duck Congress is making slow progress on its long to-do-before-the-end-of-the-year list. Democrats agreed to lift the covid-19 vaccine mandate for the military as part of the big defense authorization bill, but efforts to ease federal restrictions on marijuana didn’t succeed.

Meanwhile, the fight against high drug prices has spread to employers, which are trying a variety of strategies to spend less on prescription drugs while still giving workers access to needed medications.

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

Among the takeaways from this week’s episode:

  • The race to the holiday break is on, with no agreement so far on spending as current government funding is set to expire on Dec. 16. Although another continuing resolution is expected, it would likely leave out measures such as addressing mental health, so lawmakers would need to start over next year. The annual defense authorization bill is also in the works and would end the military’s covid vaccine mandate.
  • In the wake of the infant formula shortage, an FDA advisory group report this week said the agency’s work on food regulation needs a major overhaul, especially when it comes to enforcement power and leadership.
  • In drug pricing news, Americans can expect to see the costs of covid testing, vaccines, and treatments rise as federal subsidies run out and leave the pandemic response subject to the same cost and access disparities common to the nation’s health care system. Meanwhile, entrepreneur Mark Cuban’s discount prescription drugs company is teaming up with EmsanaRx, a nonprofit pharmacy benefit manager — thereby cutting out for-profit PBMs in another attempt to cut costs for patients.
  • Health care providers are pushing Congress to stop a long-planned cut in Medicare payments, while a new report from KFF shows the three largest for-profit hospital chains are seeing operating margins that exceed pre-pandemic levels. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services also issued new rules this week on “prior authorization” that providers say could temper the bureaucratic hassle of dealing with Medicare. And private equity firms are getting into the game of running clinical trials, while in insurance, UnitedHealth Group is buying up providers.
  • On reproductive health, an Alabama woman is suing the county government that jailed her on the suspicion she had exposed her fetus to drugs. Her issue? She was not pregnant. The case raises questions about how changes to abortion access are playing out across the country.

Plus, for extra credit, the panelists recommend their favorite health policy stories of the week they think you should read, too:

Julie Rovner: The AP Stylebook’s “Abortion Topical Guide,” by The Associated Press

Anna Edney: The Washington Post’s “Drugs Killed 8 Friends, One by One, in a Tragedy Seen Across the U.S.,” by Lenny Bernstein and Jordan-Marie Smith

Joanne Kenen: Columbia Journalism Review’s “Anonymous Woman,” by Becca Andrews

Sandhya Raman: CQ Roll Call’s “At International Conference, Dobbs Dominates Debate,” by Sandhya Raman

Also mentioned in this week’s podcast:

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KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.

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