KHN’s ‘What the Health?’: Paging the HHS Secretary

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Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra is becoming a target for both Democrats and Republicans over what they call a lack of coordination of covid efforts within his department. But at the same time, officials from the Biden administration have made it clear from the start that the covid campaign would be orchestrated by the White House, so it’s not clear whether the secretary was supposed to play a major role.

Meanwhile, as covid cases decline, covid-weary politicians and the public are pushing to ease the latest round of restrictions. But those with compromised immune systems and other disabilities fear they could pay the price.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of KHN, Margot Sanger-Katz of The New York Times, Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico, and Rachel Cohrs of Stat.

Among the takeaways from this week’s episode:

  • The criticism seeping out about Becerra could signal frustration in the administration and on Capitol Hill that the country is still subject to so many pandemic-driven restraints and the public is looking for solutions.
  • Nonetheless, it appears that congressional Republicans — if they win a majority later this year in the midterm elections — could use this issue to press their contention that the administration has not been effective enough in the battle against covid.
  • The nomination of Dr. Robert Califf to head the FDA appears to be languishing in the Senate. Some Democrats are concerned that when he worked there before he wasn’t attuned to the growing dangers of the opioid epidemic, while others object to his ties to industry. Republicans, whom the administration was counting on to help push the nomination through, are under pressure to resist from their allies in the anti-abortion movement who charge that Califf will allow more flexibility for women seeking medication abortions.
  • The Department of Labor, armed with new enforcement authority, is investigating 30 health insurance plans for failing to abide by the requirements for insurance coverage parity for mental health. Congress has been trying to require equal treatment for mental and physical health since the mid-1990s, but so far it remains more of an aspiration.
  • A federal appeals court has allowed to stand, at least for now, a Tennessee law that bans abortions based on sex, race, or a Down syndrome diagnosis. An appeals court panel had temporarily halted the law, but the full appeals court overturned that decision and said it would wait to see what the Supreme Court decides this year in a Mississippi case that could change the landmark Roe v. Wade decision making abortion legal throughout the country.
  • Some experts have suggested that the decision years ago by doctors to move most abortions out of their offices and into specialized clinics has made the clinics an easy target and given groups opposed to the procedure an advantage in their fight. That might be countered by the increasing use of abortion pills that doctors can prescribe for women.
  • California lawmakers seeking to set up a state-funded health system, often called a single-payer system, this week conceded they didn’t have the votes to move forward. The proposal was hugely expensive and it would have had two major exemptions: people on Medicare and those covered by large companies that have plans regulated by the federal government.

Also this week, Rovner interviews KHN’s Noam N. Levey, who reported and wrote the latest KHN-NPR “Bill of the Month” episode about a very large bill for a very small amount of medical care. If you have an outrageous medical bill you’d like to share with us, you can do that here.

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

Julie Rovner: The Washington Post’s “Researchers Are Asking Why Some Countries Were Better Prepared for Covid. One Surprising Answer: Trust,” by Adam Taylor

Alice Miranda Ollstein: Politico’s “Next Big Health Crisis: 15M People Could Lose Medicaid When Pandemic Ends,” by Megan Messerly

Margot Sanger-Katz: KHN’s “Faxes and Snail Mail: Will Pandemic-Era Flaws Unleash Improved Health Technology?” by Bram Sable-Smith

Rachel Cohrs: Stat’s “How a Decades-Old Database Became a Hugely Profitable Dossier on the Health of 270 Million Americans,” by Casey Ross

Also discussed on this week’s podcast:

The New York Times’ “In Medicine, a Lack of Courage Has Helped Put Roe in Jeopardy,” by Eyal Press

The New York Times’ “On Abortion Law, the U.S. Is Unusual. Without Roe, It Would Be, Too,” by Claire Cain Miller and Margot Sanger-Katz

The New York Times Magazine’s “The New Abortion Providers,” by Emily Bazelon

Mother Jones’ “Desperate Patients Are Shelling Out Thousands for a Long Covid Cure. Is It for Real?” by Kiera Butler

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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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