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Recovery From Addiction Is a Journey. There’s No One-and-Done Solution.

Kaiser Health News:States - 3 hours 54 min ago

The atmosphere inside the Allen House is easygoing as residents circulate freely through the hallways, meet in group sessions, or gather on a large outdoor patio that features a dirt volleyball court with an oversize net.

The 60-bed safety-net residential treatment center in Santa Fe Springs, run by Los Angeles Centers for Alcohol and Drug Abuse, has a dedicated detox room, on-site physicians and nurses, substance abuse counselors, licensed therapists, and other practitioners. It offers group counseling as well as individual and family therapy, and it endorses the use of medications for addiction treatment, such as buprenorphine and naltrexone, which are increasingly considered the gold standard.

Willard Sexton, a staff member and former Allen House patient, says the most important part of his job is speaking with each resident daily. Most of them, like him, came to treatment straight from jail or prison, and he knows as well as anybody how stressful it is to stop using.

“It’s similar to grief and loss,” says Sexton, 35. “The drug was their best friend for a long time.” Interacting with them, he says, helps him in his own ongoing recovery.

At a time when drug use is among the nation’s gravest public health crises, a visit to the Allen House offers key lessons: Addiction is a chronic illness requiring constant vigilance, there’s no one-and-done solution, and relapses are part of the journey to recovery. Peer mentoring is an invaluable element of drug counseling, since people who have plodded the difficult path from dependence to sobriety understand the mindset of patients on a visceral level.

And most importantly for those who feel despair in the grip of addiction, there is hope. “Recovery happens,” says Michelle Doty Cabrera, executive director of the County Behavioral Health Directors Association of California. “Every single day people come into treatment and succeed in addressing their substance use disorders.”

Drug-related overdoses kill almost as many Californians as lung cancer, more than diabetes, and two to three times as many as car accidents, according to a report by California Health Policy Strategies, a Sacramento consulting group. The report showed there were about 11 times as many fentanyl-related deaths in 2021 as in 2017, accounting for more than half of overdose fatalities. And addiction can ruin lives even if it doesn’t end them.

But proper care for substance use disorders can still be hard to find. Experts in the field say residential treatment beds are in short supply. A pandemic-driven shortage of health care workers has hit the drug treatment world. Unscrupulous operators, with an eye on their bottom lines, may take advantage of people desperate for any answer. Commercial insurers often deny treatment requests or propose cheaper alternatives.

Some treatment programs shun anti-addiction medications that have proven effective. Physicians, nurse practitioners, and other providers with the requisite training can prescribe these drugs in California, but too few seem willing or able to do so — though that could change now that federal law no longer requires them to get a special waiver.

A page on the website of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration ( allows you to find practitioners in your area who treat patients with buprenorphine.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for addiction. Treatment can differ depending on the substance — opioids, alcohol, or methamphetamine, for example. And people with substance use problems come from all walks of life: Some are straight off the streets or out of jail or may have serious mental or medical conditions that require additional care. Others may be otherwise healthy with good jobs and insurance. If a clinic tries to sell you on a standardized treatment program, cross the place off your list.

And if someone tells you that after one stint in their program you or a loved one will be drug-free for life, run the other way. For many people, addiction is a chronic condition that ebbs and flows over many years. Too often, patients in the throes of an overdose are revived and then discharged with no follow-up.

“If we talked about treating other chronic illnesses like diabetes or asthma in the same way we often approach treating substance use, people would think we were crazy or would sue the doctor for malpractice,” says Bradley Stein, a psychiatrist and senior physician policy researcher at the Rand Corp.

Finding the treatment that is right for you or a loved one will take legwork.

Whether it should be a residential or outpatient program depends on multiple factors. People who need to be shielded from exposure to a dealer or a toxic domestic situation, require detox, or have mental health or medical conditions on top of their drug use generally are better off in a residential setting, says Randolph Holmes, medical director of the Los Angeles Centers for Alcohol and Drug Abuse. Outpatient settings are more suitable for people with stable lives and better health or those transitioning from residential treatment, he says.

The cost of treatment can vary widely depending on duration and the patient’s circumstances. In some cases, it can reach tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Various websites allow you to search for nearby addiction treatment. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has a treatment locator at, or you can call its help line at 800-662-HELP (4347). Shatterproof ( is another source for finding treatment. In California, the Department of Health Care Services publishes a list of substance use help lines by county.

If you’re on Medi-Cal, California’s version of the federal Medicaid program for low-income residents, your county is a good place to start. It can point you to several options, at least in more populous areas. Almost all patients with the Los Angeles Centers for Alcohol and Drug Abuse, for example, are Medi-Cal enrollees.

If you have commercial insurance, call your health plan first. Parity laws require insurers to cover substance use treatment, though they often find reasons not to provide the treatment your provider recommends. If your plan denies you treatment you think you need, you can file an appeal. The Department of Managed Health Care (, the state’s primary health plan regulator, has a help line (888-466-2219) that can assist in appealing your case. Or you can do it online. If the department does not regulate your plan, it can steer you in the right direction.

And remember that recovery is a long-term commitment.

When Sexton first started using in his early 20s, his drug of choice was meth. He later started smoking it with heroin and fentanyl mixed in, he says.

Several years ago, Sexton spent 45 days in residential rehab and got clean. Then he started seeing a woman who was addicted to heroin. He thought he’d help her get sober but ended up doing drugs with her instead. He landed in jail for two months, and a judge ordered him back into residential drug treatment.

Sexton says he continues to actively pursue his recovery even as he helps others do the same. “There are bumps in the road, but I feel like I’m in a Range Rover,” he says. “I’m not going to spill my coffee.”

This article was produced by KFF Health News, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation. 

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.


This story can be republished for free (details).

As Fewer MDs Practice Rural Primary Care, a Different Type of Doctor Helps Take Up the Slack

Kaiser Health News:Health Industry - 3 hours 54 min ago

WINTERSET, Iowa — For 35 years, this town’s residents have brought all manner of illnesses, aches, and worries to Kevin de Regnier’s storefront clinic on the courthouse square — and he loves them for it.

De Regnier is an osteopathic physician who chose to run a family practice in a small community. Many of his patients have been with him for years. Many have chronic health problems, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or mental health struggles, which he helps manage before they become critical.

“I just decided I’d rather prevent fires than put them out,” he said between appointments on a recent afternoon.

Broad swaths of rural America don’t have enough primary care physicians, partly because many medical doctors prefer to work in highly paid specialty positions in cities. In many small towns, osteopathic doctors like de Regnier are helping fill the gap.

Osteopathic physicians, commonly known as DOs, go to separate medical schools from medical doctors, known as MDs. Their courses include lessons on how to physically manipulate the body to ease discomfort. But their training is otherwise comparable, leaders in both wings of the profession say.

Both types of doctors are licensed to practice the full range of medicine, and many patients would find little difference between them aside from the initials listed after their names.

DOs are still a minority among U.S. physicians, but their ranks are surging. From 1990 to 2022, their numbers more than quadrupled, from fewer than 25,000 to over 110,000, according to the Federation of State Medical Boards. In that same period, the number of MDs rose 91%, from about 490,000 to 934,000.

Over half of DOs work in primary care, which includes family medicine, internal medicine, and pediatrics. By contrast, more than two-thirds of MDs work in other medical specialties.

The number of osteopathic medical schools in the U.S. has more than doubled since 2000, to 40, and many of the new ones are in relatively rural states, including Idaho, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. School leaders say their locations and teaching methods help explain why many graduates wind up filling primary care jobs in smaller towns.

De Regnier noted that many MD schools are housed in large universities and connected to academic medical centers. Their students often are taught by highly specialized physicians, he said. Students at osteopathic schools tend to do their initial training at community hospitals, where they often shadow general practice doctors.

U.S. News & World Report ranks medical schools based on the percentage of graduates working in rural areas. Osteopathic schools hold three of the top four spots on the 2023 edition of that list.

William Carey University’s osteopathic school, in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, is No. 1 in that ranking. The program, which began in 2010, was intentionally sited in a region that needed more medical professionals, said Dean Italo Subbarao.

After finishing classwork, most William Carey medical students train in hospitals in Mississippi or Louisiana, Subbarao said. “Students become part of the fabric of that community,” he said. “They see the power and the value of a what a primary care doc in a smaller setting can have.”

Leaders from both sides of the profession say tension between DOs and MDs has eased. In the past, many osteopathic physicians felt their MD counterparts looked down on them. They were denied privileges in some hospitals, so they often founded their own facilities. But their training is now widely considered comparable, and students from both kinds of medical schools compete for slots in the same residency training programs.

Michael Dill, director of workforce studies at the Association of American Medical Colleges, said it makes sense that osteopathic school graduates are more likely to go into family practice, internal medicine, or pediatrics. “The very nature of osteopathic training emphasizes primary care. That’s kind of their thing,” said Dill, whose group represents MD medical schools.

Dill said he would be confident in the care provided by both types of doctors. “I would be equally willing to see either as my own primary care physician,” he said.

Data from the University of Iowa shows osteopathic physicians have been filling rural roles previously filled by medical doctors. The university’s Office of Statewide Clinical Education Programs tracks the state’s health care workforce, and its staff analyzed the data for KFF Health News.

The analysis found that, from 2008 to 2022, the number of Iowa MDs based outside the state’s 11 most urban counties dropped more than 19%. Over the same period, the number of DOs based outside those urban areas increased by 29%. Because of the shift, DOs now make up more than a third of rural Iowa physicians, and that proportion is expected to grow.

In Madison County, the picturesque rural area where de Regnier practices, the University of Iowa database lists seven physicians practicing family medicine or pediatrics. All are DOs.

De Regnier, 65, speculated that the local dominance of the osteopathic profession is partly due to the proximity of his alma mater, Des Moines University, which runs an osteopathic training center 35 miles northeast of Winterset.

Des Moines University has one of the country’s oldest osteopathic medical schools. It graduates about 210 DO students a year, compared with about 150 MD students who graduate annually from the University of Iowa, home to the state’s only other medical school.

Many patients probably pay no attention to whether a physician is an MD or a DO, but some seek the osteopathic type, said de Regnier, who is a past president of the American College of Osteopathic Family Physicians. Patients might like the physical manipulation DOs can use to ease aches in their limbs or back. And they might sense the profession’s focus on patients’ overall health, he said.

On a recent afternoon, de Regnier worked his way through a slate of patients, most of whom had seen him before.

One of them was Ben Turner, a 76-year-old pastor from the nearby town of Lorimor. Turner had come in for a check of his diabetes. He sat on the exam table with his shoes off and his eyes closed.

De Regnier took out a flexible plastic probe and instructed Turner to say when he felt it touch his feet. Then the doctor began to gently place the probe on the patient’s skin.

“Yup,” Turner said as the probe glanced against each toe. “Yup,” he said as de Regnier brushed the probe against his soles and moved to the other foot. “Yeah. Yeah. Yup. Yeah.”

The doctor offered good news: Turner had no signs of nerve damage in his feet, which is a common complication of diabetes. A blood sample showed he had a good A1C level, a measure of the disease. He had no heaviness in his chest, shortness of breath, or wheezing. Medication appeared to be staving off problems.

Chris Bourne, 55, of Winterset, stopped in to consult de Regnier about his mental health. Bourne has been seeing de Regnier for about five years.

Bourne takes pills for anxiety. With input from the doctor, he had reduced the dose. The anxious feelings crept back in, and he had trouble sleeping, he told de Regnier, sounding disappointed.

De Regnier noted the dose he prescribed to Bourne is relatively low, but he had approved of the attempt to reduce it. “I’m glad you tried,” he said. “Don’t beat yourself up.”

In an interview later, Bourne said that until he moved to Winterset five years ago, he’d never gone to an osteopathic physician — and didn’t know what one was. He’s come to appreciate the patience de Regnier shows in determining what might be causing a patient’s problem.

“When he sits down on that stool, he’s yours,” Bourne said.

Another patient that day was Lloyd Proctor Jr., 54, who was suffering from previously undiagnosed diabetes. His legs were swollen, and he felt run-down. Tests showed his blood sugar was more than four times the normal level.

“The pancreas isn’t happy right now, because it’s working too hard trying to take care of that blood sugar,” the doctor told him.

De Regnier diagnosed him with diabetes and prescribed medication and insulin, saying he would adjust the order if necessary to minimize Proctor’s costs after insurance. He brought out a syringe and showed Proctor how to give himself insulin injections. Proctor listened to advice on how to measure blood sugar.

“And maybe I should quit grabbing Mountain Dew every time I’m thirsty,” the patient said, ruefully.

De Regnier smiled. “I was just getting to that,” he said.

The appointment was one of the doctor’s longest of the day. At the end, he reassured Proctor that they could get his diabetes under control together.

“I know that’s a lot of info. If you get home and think, ‘What’d he say?’ — don’t hesitate to pick up the phone and give me a call,” de Regnier said. “I’m happy to visit anytime.”

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.


This story can be republished for free (details).

A ‘Payday Loan’ From a Health Care Behemoth

Kaiser Health News:Health Industry - 3 hours 54 min ago

Alex Shteynshlyuger, a urologist with a practice in New York City, feels surrounded by UnitedHealth Group. He has seen the company gobble up private practices and says it’s slow to pay claims. It also started offering cash-flow services that, Shteynshlyuger says, feel a lot like payday loans.

UnitedHealth Group is the largest employer of physicians in the United States. And it’s growing.

Has the company become too big?

In this episode of “An Arm and a Leg,” host Dan Weissmann looks into this “behemoth” company and the obstacles antitrust regulators face in keeping up with its rapid growth.

Dan Weissmann @danweissmann Host and producer of "An Arm and a Leg." Previously, Dan was a staff reporter for Marketplace and Chicago's WBEZ. His work also appears on All Things Considered, Marketplace, the BBC, 99 Percent Invisible, and Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Credits Emily Pisacreta Producer Adam Raymonda Audio Wizard Afi Yellow-Duke Editor Click to open the Transcript Transcript: A ‘Payday Loan’ From a Health Care Behemoth

Note: “An Arm and a Leg” uses speech-recognition software to generate transcripts, which may contain errors. Please use the transcript as a tool but check the corresponding audio before quoting the podcast.

“An Arm and a Leg” is a co-production of KFF Health News and Public Road Productions.

To keep in touch with “An Arm and a Leg,” subscribe to the newsletter. You can also follow the show on Facebook and Twitter. And if you’ve got stories to tell about the health care system, the producers would love to hear from you.

To hear all KFF Health News podcasts, click here.

And subscribe to “An Arm and a Leg” on SpotifyApple PodcastsStitcherPocket Casts, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.


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HHS Office for Civil Rights Reaches Agreement with Health Care Provider in New Jersey That Disclosed Patient Information in Response to Negative Online Reviews

HHS Gov News - June 05, 2023
Press release for HHS Office for Civil Rights Reaches Agreement with Health Care Provider in New Jersey That Disclosed PHI in Response to Negative Online Review

California Confronts the Threat of ‘Tranq’ as Overdose Crisis Rages

Kaiser Health News:States - June 05, 2023

SAN FRANCISCO — When the city’s medical examiner announced in February that four people who had recently died of overdoses had the animal sedative xylazine in their systems, public health workers across the state sprang into action.

Drug dealers on the East Coast had in recent years begun mixing xylazine, which can have devastating effects on people, with the opioid fentanyl, causing a surge in emergency room visits in Philadelphia and other cities. But there had not been much evidence of it in California.

Now state and local officials are ramping up efforts to combat xylazine, commonly called “tranq,” by monitoring its spread, distributing test strips, and pushing to “schedule” it, meaning classify it as a controlled substance. Still, some worry it will be hard to prevent the pernicious drug — which has also begun appearing in Los Angeles, Santa Clara, and San Joaquin counties — from worsening the state’s overdose epidemic.

“Unless significant change happens in scheduling xylazine and really reducing its availability, we could be on the heels of what’s happening on the East Coast,” said Jeffrey Hom, director of population behavioral health at the San Francisco Department of Public Health.

Hom, who previously led overdose prevention services in Philadelphia, said San Francisco’s public health department is collaborating with the medical examiner, the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, the city’s fire department and homeless and supportive housing agencies, and methadone clinics and hospitals to collect data, share updates, and conduct regular testing for xylazine.

“We’re trying to think through how do we develop a system that can surveil for drugs like xylazine — or whatever the next drug will be,” Hom said.

The California Department of Public Health is monitoring news reports of xylazine and has posted an issue brief about it, but a spokesperson told KFF Health News it does not yet have a “standardized and uniform statewide monitoring system.”

Xylazine is a cost-effective way to extend the strong yet short-lived fentanyl high, said Philippe Bourgois, a UCLA anthropology and social medicine professor and co-author of the book “Righteous Dopefiend,” the product of a 10-year immersion in San Francisco’s heroin and crack street culture. But the trade-offs can be catastrophic.

Taken on its own, xylazine is so powerful it can knock a person out for up to 18 hours, said Bourgois. In Philadelphia, people who use tranq are getting “concrete burns,” which are similar to bedsores but are caused by lying passed out on the sidewalk for long periods, he added. Xylazine also has necrotizing effects that rot the skin and lead to amputations.

Most troubling of all, Bourgois said, is that xylazine constricts breathing, increasing the risk of an overdose when it’s mixed with fentanyl. By itself, it doesn’t respond to the overdose reversal drug naloxone, which has been one of the state’s key tools in trying to reduce overdose deaths. But since xylazine is often mixed with fentanyl and other opioids, health authorities advise using naloxone to respond to suspected overdoses.

“Xylazine is a disastrous drug,” Bourgois said. “Public health has to get ahead of this tragedy.”

About a dozen people who smoke or inject fentanyl and live on the streets of San Francisco told KFF Health News they are at the mercy of what drug dealers sell and have little insight into what’s actually in the drugs. They said they’ve never used xylazine knowingly and didn’t want it in their drugs.

Kris Franklin, 41, has been buying fentanyl in San Francisco for five years and acknowledged she’s gambling with her life. She’s lost count of the friends and acquaintances who have died from overdoses or street-related illnesses but estimates it at around 40 people.

“I’m scared it’s going to be in my dope,” Franklin said of tranq. “You don’t know what you’re getting. … It’s not like a prescription from a doctor.”

Rep. Jimmy Panetta (D-Calif.), whose district includes Santa Cruz and Monterey, introduced federal legislation in March to make xylazine a controlled substance.

“It gives our law enforcement the tools that they can use to crack down and hopefully remove this type of deadly combination of fentanyl and xylazine off the streets,” Panetta said of the bill. “I think we got a good chance of getting this passed this year.”

Governors in Pennsylvania and Ohio are using their executive powers to restrict access to xylazine. In California, lawmakers are wrestling with several measures that would increase penalties for fentanyl dealers, but none address xylazine.

One potential downside to any crackdown is that it could make it much harder for veterinarians and other customers to obtain the drug for their animals. And the FDA said late last year that it was not known whether tranq was being diverted from the animal supply or manufactured illicitly.

Siddarth Puri, associate medical director of prevention at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, noted that the data was sparse but that xylazine was likely more widespread than is known.

Puri and his public health colleagues learned only recently, from a Los Angeles Times report, that county law enforcement officials had been spotting xylazine in the fentanyl supply for years. The county Sheriff’s Department recently launched a pilot project to track the presence of the drug.

“There are probably hundreds of other illicit synthetic substances that are being cut into the drugs that we don’t know about yet, and we don’t know how they’re going to impact people,” Puri said. “Right now, the spotlight is on xylazine.”

This article was produced by KFF Health News, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation. 

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.


This story can be republished for free (details).

Will a ‘National Patient Safety Board,’ Modeled After the NTSB, Actually Fly?

People concerned about the safety of patients often compare health care to aviation. Why, they ask, can’t hospitals learn from medical errors the way airlines learn from plane crashes?

That’s the rationale behind calls to create a “National Patient Safety Board,” an independent federal agency that would be loosely modeled after the National Transportation Safety Board, which is credited with increasing the safety of skies, railways, and highways by investigating why accidents occur and recommending steps to avoid future mishaps.

But as worker shortages strain the U.S. health care system, heightening concerns about unsafe care, one proposal to create such a board has some patient safety advocates fearing that it wouldn’t provide the transparency and accountability they believe is necessary to drive improvement. One major reason: the power of the hospital industry.

Two measures are underway to create a safety board: A bill filed in the U.S. House in December by Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragán (D-Calif.), which is expected to be refiled this session, calls for the creation of a board to help federal agencies monitor safety events, identify conditions under which problems occur, and suggest preventive measures.

However, the board would need permission from health care organizations to probe safety events and could not identify any health care provider or setting in its reports. That differs from the NTSB, which can subpoena both witnesses and evidence, and publish detailed accident reports that list locations and companies.

A related measure under review by a presidential advisory council would create such a board by executive order. Its details have not been made public.

The push comes as many patients continue to get hurt, according to recent reviews of medical records. The Department of Health and Human Services’ inspector general found that 13% of hospitalized Medicare patients experienced a preventable harm during a hospital stay in October 2018. A New England Journal of Medicine study of patients hospitalized in Massachusetts in 2018 showed that 7% had a preventable adverse event with 1% suffering a preventable injury that was serious, life-threatening, or fatal.

Learning about safety concerns at specific facilities remains difficult. While transportation crashes are public spectacles that make news, creating demand for public accountability, medical errors often remain confidential, sometimes even ordered into silence by court settlements. Meaningful and timely information for consumers can be challenging to find. However, patient advocates said, unsafe providers should not be shielded from reputational consequences.

“People pay vast amounts of money for health care,” said Helen Haskell, president of South Carolina-based Mothers Against Medical Error, an advocacy group she founded because her 15-year-old son died from septic shock following elective surgery in 2000. “Providers shouldn’t be able to sweep things under the rug.”

Barragán’s bill follows a 2014 effort to create a national patient safety board to investigate incidents and make more providers’ safety records publicly available. It stemmed from the Institute of Medicine’s landmark 1999 report that called medical error in hospitals a leading cause of death and recommended a nationwide mandatory reporting system for serious adverse events. That campaign never got enough traction to become a congressional bill.

Patients and their families would still like to know the rate of harm in every hospital, said Lisa McGiffert, president of the Patient Safety Action Network, a group discontented with some aspects of the current bill. “We are so far away from that now,” she added.

But Karen Wolk Feinstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, a Pittsburgh-based philanthropy that leads more than 70 groups pushing the latest safety board campaign, said during an online forum in January that public reporting would compromise data integrity by leading hospitals to scrub records to hide bad events.

“You’re going to have to protect data for a while — de-identify it,” she said, “so that we can do what needs to be done.”

She said that a patient safety board “will not happen” without broad support, including from hospitals and medical societies. Those groups have long opposed measures to publicly identify facilities where errors occur.

That industry influence is “the elephant in the room,” said McGiffert. Hospitals, nursing homes, and medical professionals pour hundreds of millions of dollars into federal political campaigns each election cycle and spent $220 million lobbying Congress last year, according to OpenSecrets, a nonprofit that tracks money in U.S. politics.

Moreover, health care is the dominant employer in at least 47 states, according to Health Affairs, which means that, when legislation is in play, the industry “can always drum up local people to talk about how it affects them,” McGiffert added.

Feinstein agreed that legislators always ask about the position of their local health systems. “That is the first question,” she said during the January forum.

Although patient safety groups represent the interests of millions of people, they don’t have the same financial firepower on hand as the health care industry does. McGiffert said her own organization’s bank balance is $6,000. Feinstein said her foundation is using its endowment — created with proceeds from the sale of a tax-exempt hospital — to fund the patient safety board campaign, among other initiatives. The foundation reported assets of nearly $186 million in 2021.

The American Hospital Association declined to comment about the patient safety board proposal because it was still reviewing it, said spokesperson Colin Milligan. He provided a statement from the association’s senior director of quality and patient safety policy, Akin Demehin, saying hospitals are “deeply committed” to safety and have urged that “publicly reported measures assess hospitals accurately and fairly while giving patients meaningful information.”

The safety board campaign initially declared the NTSB as its model. However, Feinstein said, it now envisions it as “something of a hybrid” of the NTSB and the Commercial Aviation Safety Team, a lesser-known government-industry partnership that analyzes a massive amount of data to detect emerging risks.

Christopher Hart, a former NTSB chairperson who serves on the board of the Joint Commission, a health care accrediting body, likened the proposed patient safety board to the voluntary reporting of aviation errors and near misses, which are statutorily protected from public disclosure. Protecting such tips about non-public events has “enabled a flood of voluntarily provided information” that is “foundational to improving airline safety,” Hart said.

But some consumer advocates argue that in health care, secrecy and voluntarism have fallen short. They point to the 2005 Patient Safety Act, which lets health care providers submit data confidentially to research groups called patient safety organizations. As of 2018, about 40% of hospitals reimbursed by Medicare didn’t report to such organizations despite liability and public disclosure protections, and most of the organizations didn’t submit data to national research databases, according to the HHS inspector general.

With safety indicators worsening during the pandemic, supporters of a patient safety board argue the current proposal would be a step forward. It could hasten adoption of surveillance technology, launch a national portal for anyone to report events, and coordinate efforts of states, federal agencies, and accrediting bodies.

Barragán will reintroduce the bill in the current term but declined to give a date, said spokesperson Kevin McGuire. “From our understanding, the stakeholders we are working with are discussing the concerns” raised by advocates, McGuire said.

Sue Sheridan, a co-founder of Patients For Patient Safety US, became a patient safety advocate after untreated jaundice left her son brain-damaged and her husband died of cancer that went untreated for months because a pathology result was not properly communicated. She now is a member of a working group for the presidential advisory council and said she expects consumer-friendly tweaks to the proposal, including putting patient representatives on the board itself — a step she said she would support. And she backs the overall effort, despite saying the plan needs to be somewhat refined.

“We will be safer with it than without it,” Sheridan said.

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.


This story can be republished for free (details).

In Newly Released Audit Report, HHS Announces New Accountability Team, Additional Efforts to Protect the Safety and Well-being of Unaccompanied Children

HHS Gov News - June 02, 2023
Audit Found HHS Adhered to Program Policies and Procedures Designed to Meet or Exceed Statutory Requirements When Placing Unaccompanied Children

HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra Declares Public Health Emergency for Guam in Response to Typhoon Mawar

HHS Gov News - June 02, 2023
Personnel and resources deployed to support the response

The Gun Violence Epidemic Is ‘Locking Us Back in Our Room’

Kaiser Health News:States - June 02, 2023

NEW ORLEANS — Erin Brown recalls all too well the dreadful call he received from his mother in 2021, while in the thralls of the covid-19 pandemic: His cousin — his “brother” — had been shot six times.

Although it was not the first time gun violence had reached the then-17-year-old Brown’s social circle, that incident was different. It involved family. So it hit Brown harder, even though his cousin, then 21, survived the gunshot wounds.

Now, while Brown works toward high school graduation and a career in graphic design, he said, he stays indoors in his neighborhood, the Lower 9th Ward. The frequent accidental shootings there frighten him the most. The gunfire outside his windows makes it hard to sleep.

“We were all just quarantined, now we can’t even go outside,” said Thomas Turner, 17, Brown’s classmate at the campus of the NET: Gentilly charter school, in New Orleans’ Gentilly neighborhood. “Just because you want to shoot and stuff, I feel like that is just locking us back in our room.”

It’s an all-too-common feeling in pockets of this city — which had one of the nation’s highest rates of homicides among large cities in 2022 — and other communities across the country where shots ring out regularly. As gun violence soars nationwide, children’s health experts are advocating for such traumatic exposure to be considered what’s known as an “adverse childhood experience.”

For decades, the definition for these adverse childhood events has excluded exposure to community gun violence. That means young people exposed to shootings outside the home have been without access to the broad range of intervention efforts and support at various stages of life given to youth facing other forms of traumatic events, such as child abuse or household dysfunction, said Nina Agrawal, a pediatrician who has researched how such experiences have been handled.

“We need to start recognizing that our children are experiencing trauma and it may not show up overtly, but we have to start recognizing it and listening,” said Agrawal, who chairs the Gun Safety Committee for the New York state chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Agrawal’s young patients who have witnessed the effects of gun violence are developing chest pain, headaches, and other health concerns, a commonality among youth experiencing a lack of sleep due to gun violence paranoia, she said. The more time a child spends on high alert, the more disruptions to the immune system and brain function occur, as well as effects on mental and behavioral health, said Agrawal.

For Turner, it was the day of his grandmother’s funeral in 2021 that brought gun violence too close to home. As young children and older relatives gathered to honor her life in the Holly Grove neighborhood, shots were fired outside the church.

Turner recalled how his first instinct was to find his younger sister and mother, who were also attending the funeral. Although he is relieved that the suspect in the shooting was arrested — something locals complain is rare — Turner said he now feels as if he’s susceptible to such capricious violence while living in New Orleans.

Gun injuries, including suicides, are the leading cause of death for children and teens nationwide. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not differentiate which injuries come from stray bullets, and electronic health records don’t typically record how patients feel about their safety. So Agrawal regularly asks her patients if they feel safe at home, school, and other places.

Brown and Turner are aware of the ever-present risk, so they channel their energy into the classroom, where they recently competed, with a small group of fellow NET students, in the national Aspen Challenge, aiming to pinpoint societal solutions to curb the epidemic of gun violence and reduce the damage it causes to mental health. The group, Heal NOLA, recommended coping mechanisms such as creating artwork and encouraging anonymous story-sharing of the mental trauma through social media. They also said the normalization of gun violence needs to end.

Before debuting their proposals in competition, Turner and classmate Chainy Smith spoke at a city-sponsored public safety summit in early April about how the internet and social media further the culture of gun ownership as self-defense. They advocated for a cultural shift in which flaunting one’s gun doesn’t earn respect and popularity.

For them, mental health resources are available inside the halls of the NET, the students said, and the intimate classroom where they work on the Aspen Challenge feels like a safe space for emotional processing. But Turner, Brown, and their other classmates know that isn’t always the reality elsewhere — outside of school, they said, they’ve been told by family and other adults that they are too young to understand depression.

Terra Jerome, a student participating in the Aspen project, said that when she has spoken out about mental health she feels as if no one understands where she is coming from. “Like, you’re not getting what I’m saying,” she said.

And the veneer of safety disappears when they leave school each day.

During spring break, two students from the school died in separate shootings.

“New Orleans is very traumatized,” said Erin Barnard, the Heal NOLA faculty adviser. “Everybody seems to know that everyone’s traumatized, but then, what are we doing to get out of that?”

Brown and Turner each worry about what lies beyond for them — and for their mothers — when they leave home. Both are close to their moms. They can talk openly about mental health with them, something they realize isn’t the case for every kid.

This element of being heard is a crucial intervention, Agrawal said. She said medical research needs to further understand the effects of youth isolation, adding that she has seen how it leads to increased rates of mental health problems, from intergenerational trauma to suicidal ideation. The younger children are when exposed to gun violence, she said, the higher their susceptibility to post-traumatic stress disorder. She is advocating for intervention for children under age 5 and before they’re exposed to gun violence.

Rather than feel the all-too-common urge of retaliation, Turner and Brown reflect on the incidents from a mental health perspective, wondering what was going on in the heads of the individuals who carried out the shootings.

“It all leads back to mental health, because why is that person carrying a gun in the first place?” Turner said.

Turner said he sees things he shouldn’t have by age 17. But he said his fear may not always be visible to others when he is on the basketball court, in the gym, or at the Uptown pizza spot that employs him. He’s just trying to live his life, he said. He hopes to become a firefighter and, someday, have kids. He said he doesn’t want them to endure such mental trauma.

For now, Turner feels it is his role to get the word out that young people are hurting mentally.

“If somebody need a hug, just a hug, I don’t have to know you, I’ll give you a hug,” said Turner. “You want to talk to me and tell me anything? I’m going to sit here and listen, because I’d want someone to do that for me.”

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.


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Statements by HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra and HHS Principals on Pride Month

HHS Gov News - June 01, 2023
HHS raised the Progress Pride Flag outside its headquarters building today to commemorate Pride Month.

The Debt Ceiling Deal Takes a Bite Out of Health Programs. It Could Have Been Much Worse.

Kaiser Health News:Medicaid - June 01, 2023

[UPDATED at 8:10 p.m. ET]

Policy analysts, Democrats, and Republicans dissatisfied with the deal agree: Federal health programs have dodged a budgetary bullet in the Washington showdown over raising the nation’s debt ceiling.

A compromise bill — approved in a bipartisan vote by the House of Representatives on Wednesday night, and expected to be approved by the Senate late Thursday — includes some trims and caps on health spending for the next two years.

But the deal spares health programs like Medicaid from the deep cuts approved in April by the Republican-led House. The bill suspends the debt ceiling — the federal government’s borrowing limit — until January 1, 2025, after the next presidential election.

The need for Congress to act to avoid an unprecedented debt default and its rippling economic consequences gave House Republicans leverage to extract spending concessions from Democrats. But in the end the compromise bill, negotiated primarily by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Biden administration officials, limits health spending only slightly.

The most conservative Republicans said they are outraged at what they see as a giveaway to Democrats. “It is a bad deal,” said Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), one of the bill’s most outspoken opponents, during a news conference at the Capitol. “No one sent us here to borrow an additional $4 trillion to get absolutely nothing in return.”

Besides the spending limits, the main health-related concession made by Democrats is the clawback of about $27 billion in money appropriated for covid-related programs but not yet spent.

Only a portion of the money being reclaimed from covid programs is specifically health-related; money is also being returned to the federal government from programs centered on housing and transportation, for example.

Of the unspent covid funds, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the biggest single rescission is nearly $10 billion from the Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund. The CDC would have to give back $1.5 billion. But exempted from those health-related givebacks are “priority” efforts such as funding for research into next-generation covid vaccines; long covid research; and efforts to improve the pharmaceutical supply chain.

“The deal appears to have minimal effect on the health sector,” concluded Capital Alpha Partners, a Washington-based policy strategy firm.

That would not have been the case with the House Republicans’ “Limit, Save, Grow Act,” their first offer to raise the debt ceiling and slow — in some areas dramatically — the growth of federal spending. That bill would have reduced the federal deficit by nearly $5 trillion over the next decade, including through more than $3 trillion in cuts to domestic discretionary programs, which account for roughly 15 percent of federal spending. A part of that 15 percent goes to health programs, including the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the FDA.

The Republican bill would also have imposed nationwide work requirements on the Medicaid health program, a proposal that was vehemently opposed by Democrats in Congress and the Biden administration.

Democrats argued that such requirements would not increase work but rather would separate eligible people from their health insurance for failing to complete required paperwork. That is already happening, according to a KFF Health News analysis, as states begin to trim rolls following the end of the covid public health emergency.

The compromise bill, however, leaves untouched the major federal health programs, Medicare and Medicaid — amounting to a political victory for Democrats, who prioritized protecting entitlement programs. The deal includes no new work requirements for Medicaid.

The bill also freezes other health spending at its current level for the coming fiscal year and allows for a 1% increase the following year. It will be up to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees to determine later exactly how to distribute the funds among the discretionary programs whose spending levels they oversee.

Advocacy groups have argued that even a funding freeze hurts programs that provide needed services to millions of Americans. The result, said Sharon Parrott, president of the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “will still be cuts overall in key national priorities when the very real impact of inflation is taken into account.”

Even less happy, however, are conservatives who had hoped the debt ceiling fight would give them a chance to take a much bigger bite out of federal spending.

“Overall, this agreement would continue America’s trajectory towards economic destruction and expanded federal control,” Kevin Roberts, president of the conservative Heritage Foundation, said in a statement.

[Update: This article was updated at 8:10 p.m. ET on June 1, 2023, to reflect news developments.]

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.


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Our 300th Episode!

The Host Julie Rovner KFF Health News @jrovner Read Julie's stories. Julie Rovner is chief Washington correspondent and host of KFF Health News’ weekly health policy news podcast, “What the Health?” A noted expert on health policy issues, Julie is the author of the critically praised reference book “Health Care Politics and Policy A to Z,” now in its third edition.

This week, KFF Health News’ weekly policy news podcast — “What the Health?” — celebrates its 300th episode with a wide-ranging discussion of what’s happened in health policy since it launched in 2017 and what may happen in the next decade.

For this special conversation, host and chief Washington correspondent Julie Rovner is joined by three prominent “big thinkers” in health policy: Ezekiel Emanuel of the University of Pennsylvania; Jeff Goldsmith, president of Health Futures; and Farzad Mostashari, CEO of Aledade.

Among the takeaways from this week’s episode:

  • Since 2017, dissatisfaction has permeated the U.S. health care system. The frustrations of providers, patients, and others in the field point to a variety of structural problems — many of which are challenging to address through policymaking due to the strength of interest-group politics. The emergence of the huge, profitable “SuperMed” firm UnitedHealth Group and the rise of urgent virtual care have also transformed health care in recent years.
  • As high costs and big profits dominate the national conversation, lawmakers and policymakers have delivered surprises, including the beginnings of regulation of drug prices. Even the Trump administration, with its dedication to undermining the Affordable Care Act, demonstrated interest in encouraging competition. Meanwhile, on the clinical side, a number of pharmaceuticals are proving especially effective at reducing hospitalizations.
  • Looking forward, the face of insurance is changing. Commercial insurance is seeing profits evaporate, private Medicare Advantage plans are draining taxpayer dollars, and employers are making expensive, short-sighted coverage decisions. Some stakeholders see a critical need to reconsider how to be more efficient and effective at delivering care in the United States.
  • The deterioration of the patient’s experience signals a major disconnect between the organizational problems providing care and the everyday dedication of individual providers: The local hospital may provide excellent service to a patient experiencing a heart attack, yet Medicare will not pay for patients to have blood pressure cuffs at home, for instance. Low reimbursements for primary care providers exacerbate these problems.

Plus, our experts — drawing on extensive experience making government and private-sector policy and even practicing medicine — name their top candidates for attainable improvements that would make a big difference in the health care system.

Further reading by the panelists from this week’s episode:

Credits Francis Ying Audio producer Emmarie Huetteman Editor

To hear all our podcasts, click here.

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

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.


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Biden-Harris Administration Announces $65 Million to Strengthen Hurricane Response and Emergency Preparedness at Health Centers

HHS Gov News - June 01, 2023
Funding will support underserved communities previously impacted by disasters with new protections to keep health centers open during future emergencies

Watch: Payback for the Opioid Crisis: How Did the Sackler Family Skirt Liability?

This week, a federal appeals court ruling concerning opioid manufacturer Purdue Pharma spared its owner, the Sackler family, from further civil litigation in exchange for a $6 billion settlement.

KFF Health News senior correspondent Aneri Pattani appeared on PBS NewsHour to discuss the ruling and her reporting into the ongoing distribution of more than $54 billion in opioid settlement funds.

Pattani also participated in a May 9 panel discussion on “Spotlight PA” investigating how Pennsylvania might spend the $1 billion it’s receiving through the opioid settlement.

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.


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As Medicaid Purge Begins, ‘Staggering Numbers’ of Americans Lose Coverage

More than 600,000 Americans have lost Medicaid coverage since pandemic protections ended on April 1. And a KFF Health News analysis of state data shows the vast majority were removed from state rolls for not completing paperwork.

Under normal circumstances, states review their Medicaid enrollment lists regularly to ensure every recipient qualifies for coverage. But because of a nationwide pause in those reviews during the pandemic, the health insurance program for low-income and disabled Americans kept people covered even if they no longer qualified.

Now, in what’s known as the Medicaid unwinding, states are combing through rolls and deciding who stays and who goes. People who are no longer eligible or don’t complete paperwork in time will be dropped.

The overwhelming majority of people who have lost coverage in most states were dropped because of technicalities, not because state officials determined they no longer meet Medicaid income limits. Four out of every five people dropped so far either never returned the paperwork or omitted required documents, according to a KFF Health News analysis of data from 11 states that provided details on recent cancellations. Now, lawmakers and advocates are expressing alarm over the volume of people losing coverage and, in some states, calling to pause the process.

KFF Health News sought data from the 19 states that started cancellations by May 1. Based on records from 14 states that provided detailed numbers, either in response to a public records request or by posting online, 36% of people whose eligibility was reviewed have been disenrolled.

In Indiana, 53,000 residents lost coverage in the first month of the unwinding, 89% for procedural reasons like not returning renewal forms. State Rep. Ed Clere, a Republican, expressed dismay at those “staggering numbers” in a May 24 Medicaid advisory group meeting, repeatedly questioning state officials about forms mailed to out-of-date addresses and urging them to give people more than two weeks’ notice before canceling their coverage.

Clere warned that the cancellations set in motion an avoidable revolving door. Some people dropped from Medicaid will have to forgo filling prescriptions and cancel doctor visits because they can’t afford care. Months down the line, after untreated chronic illnesses spiral out of control, they’ll end up in the emergency room where social workers will need to again help them join the program, he said.

Before the unwinding, more than 1 in 4 Americans — 93 million — were covered by Medicaid or CHIP, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, according to KFF Health News’ analysis of the latest enrollment data. Half of all kids are covered by the programs.

About 15 million people will be dropped over the next year as states review participants’ eligibility in monthly tranches.

Most people will find health coverage through new jobs or qualify for subsidized plans through the Affordable Care Act. But millions of others, including many children, will become uninsured and unable to afford basic prescriptions or preventive care. The uninsured rate among those under 65 is projected to rise from a historical low of 8.3% today to 9.3% next year, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Because each state is handling the unwinding differently, the share of enrollees dropped in the first weeks varies widely.

Several states are first reviewing people officials believe are no longer eligible or who haven’t recently used their insurance. High cancellation rates in those states should level out as the agencies move on to people who likely still qualify.

In Utah, nearly 56% of people included in early reviews were dropped. In New Hampshire, 44% received cancellation letters within the first two months — almost all for procedural reasons, like not returning paperwork.

But New Hampshire officials found that thousands of people who didn’t fill out the forms indeed earn too much to qualify, according to Henry Lipman, the state’s Medicaid director. They would have been denied anyway. Even so, more people than he expected are not returning renewal forms. “That tells us that we need to change up our strategy,” said Lipman.

In other states, like Virginia and Nebraska, which aren't prioritizing renewals by likely eligibility, about 90% have been renewed.

Because of the three-year pause in renewals, many people on Medicaid have never been through the process or aren’t aware they may need to fill out long verification forms, as a recent KFF poll found. Some people moved and didn’t update their contact information.

And while agencies are required to assist enrollees who don’t speak English well, many are sending the forms in only a few common languages.

Tens of thousands of children are losing coverage, as researchers have warned, even though some may still qualify for Medicaid or CHIP. In its first month of reviews, South Dakota ended coverage for 10% of all Medicaid and CHIP enrollees in the state. More than half of them were children. In Arkansas, about 40% were kids.

Many parents don’t know that limits on household income are significantly higher for children than adults. Parents should fill out renewal forms even if they don’t qualify themselves, said Joan Alker, executive director of the Georgetown University Center for Children and Families.

New Hampshire has moved most families with children to the end of the review process. Lipman, the state’s Medicaid director, said his biggest worry is that a child will end up uninsured. Florida also planned to push kids with serious health conditions and other vulnerable groups to the end of the review line.

But according to Miriam Harmatz, advocacy director and founder of the Florida Health Justice Project, state officials sent cancellation letters to several clients with disabled children who probably still qualify. She’s helping those families appeal.

Nearly 250,000 Floridians reviewed in the first month of the unwinding lost coverage, 82% of them for reasons like incomplete paperwork, the state reported to federal authorities. House Democrats from the state petitioned Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis to pause the unwinding.

Advocacy coalitions in both Florida and Arkansas also have called for investigations into the review process and a pause on cancellations.

The state is contacting enrollees by phone, email, and text, and continues to process late applications, said Tori Cuddy, a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Children and Families. Cuddy did not respond to questions about issues raised in the petitions.

Federal officials are investigating those complaints and any other problems that emerge, said Dan Tsai, director of the Center for Medicaid & CHIP Services. “If we find that the rules are not being followed, we will take action.”

His agency has directed states to automatically reenroll residents using data from other government programs like unemployment and food assistance when possible. Anyone who can’t be approved through that process must act quickly.

“For the past three years, people have been told to ignore the mail around this, that the renewal was not going to lead to a termination.” Suddenly that mail matters, he said.

Federal law requires states to tell people why they’re losing Medicaid coverage and how to appeal the decision.

Harmatz said some cancellation notices in Florida are vague and could violate due process rules. Letters that she’s seen say “your Medicaid for this period is ending” rather than providing a specific reason for disenrollment, like having too high an income or incomplete paperwork.

If a person requests a hearing before their cancellation takes effect, they can stay covered during the appeals process. Even after being disenrolled, many still have a 90-day window to restore coverage.

In New Hampshire, 13% of people deemed ineligible in the first month have asked for extra time to provide the necessary records. “If you're eligible for Medicaid, we don't want you to lose it,” said Lipman.

Clere, the Indiana state representative, pushed his state’s Medicaid officials during the May meeting to immediately make changes to avoid people unnecessarily becoming uninsured. One official responded that they’ll learn and improve over time.

“I’m just concerned that we’re going to be ‘learning’ as a result of people losing coverage,” Clere replied. “So I don’t want to learn at their expense.”

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.


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More States OK Postpartum Medicaid Coverage Beyond Two Months

At least eight states this year have decided to seek federal approval to extend postpartum Medicaid coverage, leaving just a handful that have opted not to guarantee at least a year of health care for women during that critical period after pregnancy.

The new states on the list include Montana, where lawmakers in the recently ended legislative session voted for a state budget that contains $6.2 million in state and federal funds over the next two years to extend continuous postpartum eligibility from 60 days to 12 months after pregnancy. That would ensure coverage for between 1,000 and 2,000 additional parents in the state each year, according to federal and state estimates.

Maggie Clark, the program director for Georgetown University’s Center for Children and Families, has been tracking statehouse bills to expand postpartum coverage under Medicaid, the federal-state health insurance program for low-income people. What’s driving the wave is the recognition by policymakers of all political affiliations that the U.S. is in a maternal health crisis, she said. Maternal mortality rates increased during the pandemic, particularly among non-Hispanic Black women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Whether you’re conservative, liberal, or somewhere in between, people are really supportive of maternal health and helping moms and babies get a good start,” Clark said.

More than 4 in 10 births in the U.S. are covered under Medicaid. But the default postpartum coverage period is 60 days.

State by state, momentum has been building to ensure that new mothers’ medical care isn’t interrupted by loss of health care coverage. The American Rescue Plan Act made it easier for states to extend postpartum Medicaid coverage by allowing them to simply amend their Medicaid plans instead of applying for a full waiver from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

Besides Montana, legislators in Alaska, Mississippi, Missouri, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming passed measures this year to extend postpartum Medicaid coverage from 60 days to a year. States must submit amendments to their Medicaid plans to federal officials for approval. South Dakota officials submitted a proposed amendment to the state’s Medicaid plan in March.

That amendment is pending with CMS, which has approved 12-month postpartum coverage plans for 33 states and Washington, D.C., as of May 30. New York and Vermont also have applications pending, and the states with newly passed measures are expected to submit theirs soon. It typically takes a couple of months for CMS to approve state Medicaid plan amendments to extend postpartum coverage, Clark said.

Lawmakers in Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin are considering measures to extend postpartum Medicaid coverage to 12 months.

Three other states considered but failed to pass legislation this year that would have authorized 12 months of postpartum Medicaid coverage: Idaho; Iowa; and Arkansas, which has the nation’s highest reported maternal mortality rate, according to the CDC.

Support in statehouses for such measures has been mostly bipartisan at a time of polarizing debate over reproductive health policy since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year.

Abortion has crept into the debate in some instances. The Texas House, for example, passed a 12-month postpartum coverage bill in April, only to see the measure amended in the state Senate to bar coverage for women after an abortion. After negotiations, the bill that passed said, “Medicaid coverage is extended for mothers whose pregnancies end in the delivery of the child or end in the natural loss of the child,” leading some to worry that federal officials won’t approve the amendment to the state plan.

The bill is headed to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who has said he supports the measure.

Extended postpartum coverage allows new parents to establish a relationship with their health provider and manage their care and chronic illnesses without a disruption in insurance coverage. Continuous care is particularly important in the first year after birth, when patients face an increased risk of post-pregnancy complications and a significant number of maternal deaths occur from suicide and substance use, said Annie Glover, a senior research scientist at the University of Montana’s Rural Institute for Inclusive Communities.

“The year that follows the delivery is a very vulnerable year for the pregnant person,” Glover said. “They have a new infant in their family, and this is a time when they probably need health care more than ever.”

It’s particularly important to provide access to mental health and substance use treatment, said Stephanie Morton, the director of programs and impact for the nonprofit Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies: the Montana Coalition. “We know that suicide and overdose combined are a leading cause of death for new mothers,” she said.

Montana’s Republican governor, Greg Gianforte, included the postpartum coverage extension in his original budget proposal last fall. But a moment of confusion occurred on May 22 when Gianforte vetoed a bill that would have directed how certain provisions of the state budget are implemented, including the postpartum coverage extension. State health officials and the bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Bob Keenan, said the veto does not affect the ability of the state to extend postpartum Medicaid coverage.

“Supporting new mothers and infants by extending Medicaid coverage for up to 12 months postpartum was a top priority for the governor and his administration this session,” said state Department of Public Health and Human Services Director Charlie Brereton in an emailed statement. “We’re thankful for the Legislature’s support.”

States were not allowed to drop most beneficiaries from their programs during the covid-19 pandemic, so parents losing Medicaid coverage after the birth of a child wasn’t an issue. But states are reviewing their Medicaid rolls now that the public health emergency has ended. The Biden administration has estimated that 15 million people could lose Medicaid as a result.

That could include some people who would qualify for postpartum coverage in states whose approval of the extension is pending. But state agencies have a lot of discretion in how they redetermine Medicaid enrollment, and Clark said she expects they will do what they can to make sure new parents don’t lose coverage as part of what’s being called the Medicaid unwinding.

“We hope the state agencies would honor the wishes of the legislature,” she said.

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.


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How a Medical Recoding May Limit Cancer Patients’ Options for Breast Reconstruction

The federal government is reconsidering a decision that breast cancer patients, plastic surgeons, and members of Congress have protested would limit women’s options for reconstructive surgery.

On June 1, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services plans to reexamine how doctors are paid for a type of breast reconstruction known as DIEP flap, in which skin, fat, and blood vessels are harvested from a woman’s abdomen to create a new breast.

The procedure offers potential advantages over implants and operations that take muscle from the abdomen. But it’s also more expensive. If patients go outside an insurance network for the operation, it can cost more than $50,000. And, if insurers pay significantly less for the surgery as a result of the government’s decision, some in-network surgeons would stop offering it, a plastic surgeons group has argued.

The DIEP flap controversy, spotlighted by CBS News in January, illustrates arcane and indirect ways the federal government can influence which medical options are available — even to people with private insurance. Often, the answers come down to billing codes — which identify specific medical services on forms doctors submit for reimbursement — and the competing pleas of groups whose interests are riding on them.

Medical coding is the backbone for “how business gets done in medicine,” said Karen Joynt Maddox, a physician at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis who researches health economics and policy.

CMS, the agency overseeing Medicare and Medicaid, maintains a list of codes representing thousands of medical services and products. It regularly evaluates whether to add codes or revise or remove existing ones. Last year, it decided to eliminate a code that has enabled doctors to collect much more money for DIEP flap operations than for simpler types of breast reconstruction.

In 2006, CMS established an “S” code — S2068 — for what was then a relatively new procedure: breast reconstructions with deep inferior epigastric perforator flap, or DIEP flap. S codes temporarily fill gaps in a parallel system of billing codes known as CPT codes, which are maintained by the American Medical Association, a physician group.

Codes don’t dictate the amounts private insurers pay for medical services; those reimbursements are generally worked out between insurance companies and medical providers. However, using the narrowly targeted S code, doctors and hospitals have been able to distinguish DIEP flap surgeries, which require complex microsurgical skills, from other forms of breast reconstruction that take less time to perform and generally yield lower insurance reimbursements.

CMS announced in 2022 that it planned to eliminate the S code at the end of 2024 — a move some doctors say would slash the amount surgeons are paid. (To be precise, CMS announced it would eliminate a series of three S codes for similar procedures, but some of the more outspoken critics have focused on one of them, S2068.) The agency’s decision is already changing the landscape of reconstructive surgery and creating anxiety for breast cancer patients.

Kate Getz, a single mother in Morton, Illinois, learned she had cancer in January at age 30. As she grappled with her diagnosis, she said, it was overwhelming to think about what her body would look like over the long term. She pictured herself getting married one day and wondered “how on earth I would be able to wear a wedding dress with only having one breast left,” she said.

She thought a DIEP flap was her best option and worried about having to undergo repeated surgeries if she got implants instead. Implants generally need to be replaced every 10 years or so. But after she spent more than a month trying to get answers about how her DIEP flap surgery would be covered, Getz’s insurer, Cigna, informed her it would use a lower-paying CPT code to reimburse her physician, Getz said. As far as she could see, that would have made it impossible for Getz to obtain the surgery.

Paying out-of-pocket was “not even an option.”

“I’m a single mom. We get by, right? But I’m not, not wealthy by any means,” she said.

Cost is not necessarily the only hurdle patients seeking DIEP flaps must overcome. Citing the complexity of the procedure, Getz said, a local plastic surgeon told her it would be difficult for him to perform. She ended up traveling from Illinois to Texas for the surgery.

The government’s plan to eliminate the three S codes was driven by the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, a major lobbying organization for health insurance companies. In 2021, the group asked CMS to discontinue the codes, arguing that they were no longer needed because the American Medical Association had updated a CPT code to explicitly include DIEP flap surgery and the related operations, according to a CMS document.

For years, the American Medical Association advised doctors that the CPT code was appropriate for DIEP flap procedures. But after the government’s decision, at least two major insurance companies told doctors they would no longer reimburse them under the higher-paying codes, prompting a backlash.

Physicians and advocacy groups for breast cancer patients, such as the nonprofit organization Susan G. Komen, have argued that many plastic surgeons would stop providing DIEP flap procedures for women with private insurance because they wouldn’t get paid enough.

Lawmakers from both parties have asked the agency to keep the S code, including Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who have had breast cancer, and Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.).

CMS at its June 1 meeting will consider whether to keep the three S codes or delay their expiration.

In a May 30 statement, Blue Cross Blue Shield Association spokesperson Kelly Parsons reiterated the organization’s view that “there is no longer a need to keep the S codes.”

In a profit-driven health care system, there’s a tug of war over reimbursements between providers and insurance companies, often at the expense of patients, said Joynt Maddox, the Washington University physician.

“We’re in this sort of constant battle” between hospital chains and insurance companies “about who’s going to wield more power at the bargaining table,” Joynt Maddox said. “And the clinical piece of that often gets lost, because it’s not often the clinical benefit and the clinical priority and the patient centeredness that’s at the middle of these conversations.”

Elisabeth Potter, a plastic surgeon who specializes in DIEP flap surgeries, decided to perform Getz’s surgery at whatever price Cigna would pay.

According to Fair Health, a nonprofit that provides information on health care costs, in Austin, Texas — where Potter is based — an insurer might pay an in-network doctor $9,323 for the surgery when it’s billed using the CPT code and $18,037 under the S code. Those amounts are not averages; rather, Fair Health estimated that 80% of payment rates are lower than or equal to those amounts.

Potter said her Cigna reimbursement “is significantly lower.”

Weeks before her May surgery, Getz received big news — Cigna had reversed itself and would cover her surgery under the S code. It “felt like a real victory,” she said.

But she still fears for other patients.

“I’m still asking these companies to do right by women,” Getz said. “I’m still asking them to provide the procedures we need to reimburse them at rates where women have access to them regardless of their wealth.”

In a statement for this article, Cigna spokesperson Justine Sessions said the insurer remains “committed to ensuring that our customers have affordable coverage and access to the full range of breast reconstruction procedures and to quality surgeons who perform these complex surgeries.”

Medical costs that health insurers cover generally are passed along to consumers in the form of premiums, deductibles, and other out-of-pocket expenses.

For any type of breast reconstruction, there are benefits, risks, and trade-offs. A 2018 paper published in JAMA Surgery found that women who underwent DIEP flap surgery had higher odds of developing “reoperative complications” within two years than those who received artificial implants. However, DIEP flaps had lower odds of infection than implants.

Implants carry risks of additional surgery, pain, rupture, and even an uncommon type of immune system cancer.

Other flap procedures that take muscle from the abdomen can leave women with weakened abdominal walls and increase their risk of developing a hernia.

Academic research shows that insurance reimbursement affects which women can access DIEP flap breast reconstruction, creating a two-tiered system for private health insurance versus government programs like Medicare and Medicaid. Private insurance generally pays physicians more than government coverage, and Medicare doesn’t use S codes.

Lynn Damitz, a physician and board vice president of health policy and advocacy for the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, said the group supports continuing the S code temporarily or indefinitely. If reimbursements drop, some doctors won’t perform DIEP flaps anymore, she said.

A study published in February found that, of patients who used their own tissue for breast reconstruction, privately insured patients were more likely than publicly insured patients to receive DIEP flap reconstruction.

To Potter, that shows what will happen if private insurance payments plummet. “If you’re a Medicare provider and you’re not paid to do DIEP flaps, you never tell a patient that it’s an option. You won’t perform it,” Potter said. “If you take private insurance and all of a sudden your reimbursement rate is cut from $15,000 down to $3,500, you’re not going to do that surgery. And I’m not saying that that’s the right thing to do, but that’s what happens.”

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.


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Mood-Altering Mushroom Sales Bloom Despite Safety Concerns

Kaiser Health News:States - May 31, 2023

TAMPA, Fla. — When a hemp dispensary in this Florida city started to stock edibles with certain mushroom extracts last year, state regulators quickly ordered it to stop selling the items.

The shop had been advertising fruit-flavored gummies and other products containing tiny doses of mood-altering chemicals from the mushroom Amanita muscaria. The red-capped, white-spotted fungus — rooted in popular culture through the Super Mario Nintendo game franchise, “The Smurfs,” and “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” — is legal for consumers to possess and eat in every state except Louisiana, according to a review of state laws.

Products with the mushroom’s extracts have cropped up at stores and online retailers from Florida to Minnesota and Nebraska to Pennsylvania. Businesses advertise a milder high compared with psilocybin, the Schedule 1 psychedelic that remains illegal at the national level, to people hoping to ease anxiety, depression, or joint pain.

But federal officials and fungi experts have urged caution, and Florida regulators have clamped down on sales in at least five counties. Some uses of the mushroom and its chemicals have led to serious side effects, including delirium with sleepiness and coma, according to Courtney Rhodes, an FDA spokesperson.

No human clinical trials have evaluated the products’ safety and effectiveness, said Heather Hallen-Adams, a faculty member at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who researches fungi in food.

Chillum, a hemp dispensary in the Ybor City neighborhood, stopped selling the edibles in December after regulators from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services ordered it to do so, calling A. muscaria a dangerous ingredient. The shop returned $30,000 worth of merchandise to Psilo Mart, a Las Vegas-area supplier that says it imports the mushroom from Lithuania. The agriculture department, which regulates shops that sell products like hemp vapes, then lifted its restrictions on the dispensary.

Drew Gennuso, president of Psilo Mart, said he hasn’t heard of any “major issues” with the edibles. Chillum’s owner, Carlos Hermida, said he believes the products are safe.

“It’s so mild,” he said of the fungus’s effects. “It’s not anything where you’re going to smell the color purple.”

Hermida recently began selling the products again for between $20 and $55 — but, attempting to avoid another state order, he said Chillum added labels warning they are solely for “educational” or “spiritual” purposes and not human consumption.

Federal officials haven’t approved the fungus and its chemicals to be sold as food additives or to treat medical conditions.

The Tampa case highlights the gaps in oversight of this nascent national market despite concerns from federal officials.

“The companies are moving faster than the research,” said John Michelotti, who heads the medicinal mushrooms committee of the North American Mycological Association and founded Catskill Fungi, an upstate New York business that sells mushroom extracts.

“It’s the wild West.”

The crackdown at Chillum began in October. The Florida agriculture department collected samples of products for lab testing. Returning in December, the agency said a Psilo Mart hemp joint with A. muscaria powder had elevated levels of toxic heavy metals, department records show.

Hermida threw out his inventory of the mushroom joints, he said, and regulators ordered him to stop selling the other fungus products. They cited a state law that says food is “adulterated” if it “bears or contains any poisonous or deleterious substance which may render it injurious to health.”

The gummies with the extracts elicit a feeling of “being high and drunk,” Hermida said, while the capsules cause a “tingly body sensation” and throw off depth perception.

The mushroom is poisonous, though likely not fatal, and can be detoxified in boiling water. Consuming the raw fungus isn’t the same as using low doses of its chemicals, Hermida maintained.

The Florida Poison Information Center in Tampa gets one report a week, on average, of a hallucinogenic mushroom poisoning, but many callers don’t explain what kind they ate, and doctors don’t have a quick way to verify, said Alexandra Funk, its managing director. She said A. muscaria products should be kept away from children.

In the Tampa Bay area, medical examiners haven’t recorded any recent deaths from the mushroom. Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg and local AdventHealth emergency rooms haven’t seen poisonings, according to spokespeople. But there appears to be a lack of routine testing for the fungus.

The edibles sold at Chillum appealed to Antwan Towner, a 40-year-old Ybor City magician who said he struggles with anxiety. He eats half a gummy when having a bad day, he said, and it produces euphoria that lasts about four hours, then peace of mind for a week. He said he hasn’t experienced a negative reaction or hallucinations.

“It was never about getting high,” he said. “It was just about trying something that may be effective.”

There’s a “lot of anecdotal evidence” that low doses of the mushroom may be useful therapeutically, said Hallen-Adams, who chairs the toxicology committee of the North American Mycological Association.

But more data is needed to prove if it helps those with various medical conditions or if it’s simply a placebo, she said.

Last year, a Canadian company said an independent group of scientists found that its A. muscaria extract was “generally recognized as safe.”

The Toronto company, Psyched Wellness, conducted preclinical studies on its “Calm” extract, a sleep aid, said CEO Jeffrey Stevens.

Other businesses, Stevens said, haven’t invested in such research. “We have so many cowboys right now who are just saying, ‘Oh, this is a legal psychedelic mushroom, let’s just put product into the market.’”

Since early February, Florida regulators have cited five businesses in Daytona Beach, Largo, Plant City, Tallahassee, and Tamarac for selling merchandise containing A. muscaria, according to state agriculture department records. Because federal officials haven’t approved the mushroom to be used in food, the Florida agency orders businesses to stop selling these products when its inspectors find them, Aaron Keller, a spokesperson for the state agriculture department, wrote in an email.

In this emerging market with many unknowns, Hallen-Adams urged consumers to “be careful if this is something you’re going to experiment with.”

Under Chillum’s new labeling, consuming the edibles it sells is an “abuse of product,” Hermida said.

“If you want to study it, or if you want to pray to it, that’s fine with me.”

This article was produced in partnership with the Tampa Bay Times.

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.


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Health Care Coalition Jockeys Over Medi-Cal Spending, Eyes Ballot Initiative

SACRAMENTO — Influential health care interests are jockeying over a potential infusion of $19.4 billion into Medi-Cal, California’s Medicaid program, while also angling for a 2024 ballot initiative to permanently lock in that funding, California Healthline has learned.

The Coalition to Protect Access to Care, which includes groups representing doctors, hospitals, insurance companies, and clinics, is lobbying Gov. Gavin Newsom and his fellow Democratic lawmakers on allocating proceeds from a tax on health insurance companies. The governor earlier this month proposed to spend nearly $820 million from renewing the Managed Care Organization, or MCO, tax to boost Medi-Cal reimbursement rates and divert $8.3 billion to the state general fund, leaving $10.3 billion up for grabs.

Each sector has its own idea of how that money should be spent, even as the health care industry presents a unified front, according to interviews with hospital leaders, health insurance executives, doctor groups, and community clinics. The coalition also wants to cement higher Medi-Cal funding into the state constitution, potentially through a ballot initiative in November 2024.

“We are actively exploring a plan to provide permanent and predictable funding, and stability, in the health care system,” said Dustin Corcoran, CEO of the California Medical Association, who confirmed talks with other industry groups and health care advocates about an initiative.

Medi-Cal, a massive safety-net program, has long failed to deliver timely, comprehensive health care and adequately meet the needs of 15.8 million low-income and disabled Californians who depend on it. Hospitals, clinics, and other health care providers say reimbursement rates fall short of the cost of their services.

“Health care has eluded patients for a long time,” Corcoran said. “This is absolutely a generational opportunity to improve Medi-Cal and ensure that patients can access care whenever they need it.”

California is among more than a dozen states that levy taxes on managed care organizations, a type of health plan, to draw in extra federal health care money for Medicaid. California adopted the tax back in 2005 and it has been renewed five times, according to state Department of Finance spokesperson H.D. Palmer. The last version, which expired in December, generated $2 billion annually.

However, the tax revenue has never been dedicated for new initiatives in Medi-Cal and Newsom wants to change that, such as by paying providers higher rates for primary care, mental health and addiction treatment, and maternity care.

While health groups and lawmakers agree on propping up Medi-Cal and raising reimbursement rates, various sectors of the health industry are positioning themselves to benefit from the portion still up for grabs. Hospitals say they are especially deserving of a large share of the $10.3 billion in revenue but have not indicated how they want the money distributed.

“It’s not that every other player isn’t important,” said Carmela Coyle, the president and CEO of the California Hospital Association, which is lobbying Newsom and lawmakers for a broad bailout even though not all hospitals need help. “But we did take the lion’s share of the hit during covid.”

Corcoran, of the California Medical Association, which represents doctors, contends that all providers who serve Medi-Cal patients should benefit, not just one type. “The tax has to deal with the entire ecosystem of health care,” he said. “You can’t just focus on a particular part of it.”

Insurers say they are still mulling over support of the tax, arguing it should benefit all Medi-Cal patients. In California, health insurance companies agreed to be taxed by the government, which brings in extra federal dollars to plug holes in Medi-Cal. Health insurers don’t get the money back directly. Instead, the money is spread across the entire health care system.

“We don’t just run around supporting new taxes. It’s not an easy decision,” said Charles Bacchi, the president and CEO of the California Association of Health Plans, which represents public and private insurers in the state. “For the health plans that have to add this tax to their premiums, it needs to be affordable for our customers.”

Newsom and lawmakers are hoping to agree on the tax by the June 15 budget deadline. However, negotiations on how to spend the money could continue well into summer and perhaps even next year.

Newsom wants to levy the tax through 2026 and spend the money over an eight- to 10-year period. But health providers and consumer advocates want it spent over roughly three years. The Newsom administration argues that stretching the money over 10 years protects against potential federal health care rule changes that could result in less revenue for California.

“We’ve spread those dollars out for a long period of time to provide sustainability and longer-term fiscal certainty to our providers,” Michelle Baass, director of the state Department of Health Care Services, which administers Medi-Cal, told lawmakers last week.

Health industry groups, community clinics, and patient advocates are pushing back, arguing there is always federal uncertainty. They say Medi-Cal, which has undergone major expansions, including to cover unauthorized immigrants, needs an infusion of money now.

“We should invest today because the need is so high,” said Francisco Silva, president and CEO of the California Primary Care Association, which represents community clinics that overwhelmingly serve low-income patients.

Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access California, is prodding industry groups and the administration to come up with a deal addressing disparities by targeting all the money to improve patient care and promote more equitable access to doctors.

“Frankly, your experience in the Medi-Cal program is really different around the state — county by county, plan by plan,” Wright said, arguing investments must be made “in those areas where there are real problems.”

Doctors and insurance industry leaders are arguing to use the $10.3 billion for even higher Medi-Cal rates, and health plans say specifically there should be bigger rate increases for specialty care and loan forgiveness for doctors in underserved areas.

Community clinics, which offer one-stop care, want more payments that reimburse them each time a patient shows up for care rather than bundling them into one visit for one fee. And public hospitals are eyeing the revenue to offset their projected losses from caring for a disproportionate share of low-income people. The Newsom administration wants to raise Medi-Cal rates for hospital emergency room and outpatient visits, Baass told lawmakers.

If health interests can strike an agreement, it’s an opportunity for them to secure and direct billions in spending as they see fit. But the coalition could also splinter.

“It needs to be done in a way that’s fair to everybody,” said Democratic state Sen. John Laird of Santa Cruz, who sits on the budget committee. “The worry is that everybody wants a piece of it.”

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.


This story can be republished for free (details).