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ONC and OCR Bolster the Security Risk Assessment (SRA) Tool with New Features and Improved Functionality

HHS Gov News - October 17, 2018

Patients expect not only quality health care to keep them healthy, but also trust that their most sensitive health information will be protected from threats and vulnerabilities that could lead to the compromise of one’s health information.  An enterprise-wide risk analysis is not only a requirement of the HIPAA Security Rule, it is also an important process to help healthcare organizations understand their security posture to prevent costly data breaches.  What is an enterprise-wide risk analysis?  It is a robust review and analysis of the risks to the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of electronic health information -- across all lines of business, in all facilities, and in all locations.

The HHS Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) and the HHS Office for Civil Rights (OCR) have updated the popular Security Risk Assessment (SRA) Tool to make it easier to use and apply more broadly to the risks to health information.  The tool is designed for use by small to medium sized health care practices – those with one to 10 health care providers – covered entities, and business associates to help them identify risks and vulnerabilities to ePHI. The updated tool provides enhanced functionality to document how such organizations can implement or plan to implement appropriate security measures to protect ePHI.

ONC and OCR conducted comprehensive usability testing of the SRA tool (version 2.0) with health care practice managers.  Analysis of the findings across the user base informed the development of the content and the requirements for the SRA Tool 3.0.  ONC and OCR then conducted testing of the SRA tool 3.0 to compare the user experience in completing the same tasks presented in the first round of testing.  You’ll find the tool to be more user friendly, with helpful new features such as:

  • Enhanced User Interface
  • Modular workflow with question branching logic
  • Custom Assessment Logic
  • Progress Tracker
  • Improved Threats & Vulnerabilities Rating
  • Detailed Reports
  • Business Associate and Asset Tracking
  • Overall improvement of the user experience

Using a Windows operating system? Download the Windows version of the tool at http://www.HealthIT.gov/security-risk-assessment. The iOS iPad version was not updated, but the previous version is available at the Apple App Store (search under “HHS SRA Tool”).

And don’t forget to explore the SRA Tool’s website, which provides a revised User Guide to help you get started.

Remember: All HIPAA covered entities and business associates are required to conduct an accurate and thorough assessment of the potential risks and vulnerabilities to the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of electronic protected health information held by their organization.  If you haven’t conducted a recent enterprise-wide risk analysis, now is the time to download the HHS SRA Tool to help with this foundational element upon which the security activities necessary to protect ePHI are built.

Disclaimer

The Security Risk Assessment Tool at HealthIT.gov is provided for informational purposes only. Use of this tool is neither required by nor guarantees compliance with federal, state or local laws. Please note that the information presented may not be applicable or appropriate for all covered entities and business associates. The Security Risk Assessment Tool is not intended to be an exhaustive or definitive source on safeguarding health information from privacy and security risks. For more information about the HIPAA Privacy and Security Rules, please visit the HHS Office for Civil Rights Health Information Privacy website.

NOTE: The NIST Standards provided in this tool are for informational purposes only as they may reflect current best practices in information technology and are not required for compliance with the HIPAA Security Rule’s requirements for risk assessment and risk management. This tool is not intended to serve as legal advice or as recommendations based on a provider or professional’s specific circumstances. We encourage providers, and professionals to seek expert advice when evaluating the use of this tool.

States Act To Safeguard Young Cancer Patients’ Chances To Have Children

Kaiser Health News:Insurance - October 17, 2018

When Katherine Frega was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma eight years ago at age 17, she was so sick that all she could focus on was starting chemotherapy to treat her aggressive blood cancer. It was her dad who thought to ask the oncologist, “How is this treatment going to affect her ability to have children?”

The oncologist discussed the risks but stressed that Frega needed to start treatment right away.

The question of fertility is often overlooked when young cancer patients are battling a life-threatening illness. And since health insurance doesn’t typically cover fertility preservation care, patients and their families may be deterred by the cost.

But a growing number of states now require plans to cover such services when medically necessary treatment jeopardizes fertility.

In 2012, Katherine Frega had a bone marrow transplant to battle her aggressive blood cancer. Doctors told her the procedure would likely cause permanent infertility, so she had her eggs retrieved and frozen. But her insurance company wouldn’t pay for the services.(Courtesy of Katherine Frega)

Treatment for cancer and other serious conditions involves toxic chemotherapy drugs, radiation and surgery that can cause infertility in women and men.

The cost to freeze patients’ healthy eggs, sperm or embryos for future use can be a major barrier, said Dr. Eden Cardozo, a reproductive endocrinologist and director of the fertility preservation program at the Women & Infants Fertility Center in Providence, R.I. Cardozo was instrumental in getting Rhode Island’s law passed last year.

“[Patients] have to move quickly,” she said. “They don’t have time to raise funds from family and friends. They don’t have time to petition their insurance company.”

Reproductive health advocates argue that fertility preservation should be viewed as a core component of cancer care in younger people, not as an optional infertility offering. Some compare this type of coverage to the federal Women’s Health and Cancer Rights Act, which requires plans that cover a patient’s mastectomy to also provide for breast reconstruction.

New laws in Delaware, Illinois and Maryland require plans to include this benefit. The Delaware law applies to plans issued or renewed after June of this year; the requirement in the other two states starts in 2019. Connecticut and Rhode Island passed similar laws last year. New Jersey lawmakers are considering a bill, and advocates in New York plan to make another attempt after both legislative chambers passed fertility preservation bills in the last session but failed to reconcile them.

The state measures don’t apply to companies that are self-funded, meaning they pay their employee claims directly rather than buying state-regulated insurance policies for that purpose. They also don’t apply to government-funded programs such as Medicaid or the military’s Tricare program.

Although freezing sperm and embryos has been common medical practice for decades, egg freezing was considered experimental by professional groups until 2012. As the technology has improved, the need for insurance coverage has grown, said Joyce Reinecke, executive director of the Alliance for Fertility Preservation, an advocacy group for cancer patients.

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When Frega’s cancer didn’t respond to chemotherapy, her doctors recommended a bone marrow transplant in January 2012. Even if her eggs hadn’t been damaged by the chemotherapy, the transplant would likely cause permanent infertility, she was told. So Frega took hormones to stimulate her ovaries to produce more eggs, among other things, and seven were retrieved during an outpatient procedure days before her transplant.

Frega’s parents paid $10,000 for the medications and egg retrieval, a significant amount but less than what many pay. They were aided by Livestrong Fertility, a nonprofit group that provides access to discounted fertility preservation services for cancer patients who meet income guidelines.

Frega has good insurance through her mother’s employer plan. “They covered everything else, except for this,” she said. “They considered it not medically necessary.”

Cancer-free following two bone marrow transplants, Frega, now 25, is a third-year medical student at the Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, N.Y. She plans to specialize in oncology.

Between 20 and 70 percent of cancer patients experience some degree of fertility impairment, according to Cardozo in Rhode Island. Though they make up the largest at-risk group, the complication isn’t unique to cancer patients. People with other conditions such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis who are treated with chemotherapy drugs may be affected, as may patients with conditions such as endometriosis who require surgery.

Despite the much-ballyhooed examples of tech companies like Facebook, Apple and Google that offer egg freezing as an employee perk, cryopreservation, as it’s called, isn’t a typical employee benefit.

Only 6 percent of large companies with 500 or more workers offer egg freezing for employees or their spouses, according to the 2017 annual employer survey by benefits consultant Mercer. About a quarter cover in vitro fertilization. Forty-four percent of large employers don’t offer any infertility services, the survey found.

Men face the same infertility risk when they need cancer treatment.

When Blake Hornbrook, an Army medic at Fort Campbell, Ky., had surgery to remove a cancerous testicle in the fall of 2015, he and his wife, Kelsey, were stationed in Germany. Hornbrook, then 26, looked into fertility preservation while overseas, but the annual storage fee of 1,000 euros (about $1,150) deterred the couple.

Hornbrook required a second surgery several months later to see if the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes. The couple returned to the United States and drove directly from the airport to a sperm bank in Fairfax, Va. It cost roughly $400 for the initial appointment to provide a sperm specimen and store it, Hornbrook said.

Tricare covered Hornbrook’s cancer treatment, but it didn’t pay for fertility preservation or for IVF, which he estimated cost the couple $6,500 in clinic fees. Tricare provided discounts on some of the fertility drugs.

Their daughter, Harper, was born seven months ago, and Hornbrook’s cancer remains in remission.

For young cancer patients, the cost of storing the eggs or sperm that have been preserved can add up. Even if a state has a fertility preservation law, it typically doesn’t cover those costs, Reinecke said.

The Hornbrooks pay $480 annually to store his sperm and $375 to store their remaining embryos. Frega pays $1,000 annually to store her eggs.

Frega hopes to be able to conceive naturally and knowing she has frozen eggs available is “relieving, but also anxiety-producing,” she said. If she can’t get pregnant later on, she may have to pay $10,000 or more for IVF as well. “That’s what lies ahead,” she said.

Sixteen states require insurers to offer or cover infertility services to some extent, according to infertility advocacy organization Resolve. Requirements vary: Insurers may have to cover diagnosis or testing for infertility, for example, but not treatments like in vitro fertilization or fertility medications, said Barbara Collura, president and CEO of Resolve.

Typically, state infertility coverage laws require couples to try to get pregnant for a year or two before they’re eligible for insurance coverage of IVF or other treatments.

That requirement makes little sense for patients trying to preserve their fertility before undergoing medically necessary cancer or other treatment.

“These people aren’t infertile,” said Collura. “They need to undergo some sort of intervention that is going to impair their future fertility, and what we say is that if it’s medically necessary, they should have a right to have it covered.”

KHN’s coverage of women’s health care issues is supported in part by The David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

Medicare For All? CMS Chief Warns Program Has Enough Problems Already

Kaiser Health News:HealthReform - October 16, 2018

The Trump administration’s top Medicare official Tuesday slammed the federal health program as riddled with problems that hinder care to beneficiaries, increase costs for taxpayers and escalate fraud and abuse.

Seema Verma, administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), said those troubles underscore why she opposes calls by many Democrats for dramatically widening eligibility for Medicare, now serving 60 million seniors and people with disabilities, to tens of millions other people.

“We only have to look at some of Medicare’s major problems to know it’s a bad idea,” Verma told health insurance executives at a meeting in Washington.

CMS lacks the authority from Congress to operate the program effectively, Verma said, which means it often pays higher-than-necessary rates to doctors and hospitals and can’t take steps used by private insurers to control costs.

“We face tremendous barriers to supporting and bringing innovation to Medicare, and it literally takes an act of Congress to add new types of benefits for the Medicare population,” she added.

Since Medicare was approved in 1965, Congress has held power over eligibility and benefits — largely to control spending. That has meant efforts to expand services can get weighed down by partisan politics and swayed by lobbying groups, which significantly delay changes. One example: Congress didn’t add a pharmaceutical benefit to Medicare until 2003 — decades after drugs became a mainstay in most treatments.

Advocates for seniors have called for adding vision and dental benefits for many years, but the proposals have gotten little traction because of cost concerns.

Another problem, according to Verma, is that her agency reviews less than 0.2 percent of the more than 1 billion claims that Medicare receives from providers. “That is ridiculously low,” she said.

Verma also lamented the traditional Medicare program’s limited ability to require doctors and hospitals to get prior authorization from the federal government before performing certain procedures. That process — which has been routine for decades in the private sector — can lead to higher improper payments to doctors and more fraud and abuse, she said.

Jonathan Oberlander, a professor in the department of health policy and management at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, agreed with Verma that “Medicare is not always nimble, particularly in adjusting benefits,” and officials have long complained that Congress micromanages the program. Still, he added, “with a program as large and important to Americans as Medicare, it is perfectly appropriate for Congress to weigh in on the addition of new benefits, especially since taxpayers will bear the costs of those changes.”

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Verma for months has spoken out against the “Medicare-for-all” proposals pushed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and a growing chorus of Democrats. But her 35-minute address to the meeting of the trade group America’s Health Insurance Plans marked the first time she listed the litany of problems with Medicare, which she has run since March 2017.

Proponents of “Medicare-for-all” are reacting to problems caused by the Affordable Care Act, she said, and should know expanding Medicare will worsen the program’s existing challenges of controlling costs and improving care.

“But their solution is literally to do more of what’s not working,” she added. “It’s like the man who has a pounding headache, who then takes a hammer to his head to make it go away.”

Verma’s comments, however, overlooked the key leadership role that Medicare plays in the health sector, which is often emulated by private insurers, Oberlander said.

“In payment reform, Medicare has a record of being a leader and innovator,” he said. “For all of their supposed advantages, private insurers pay much higher prices than Medicare does for medical services. Verma ignores the fact that Medicare’s price regulation has produced substantial savings.”

Although Verma heavily criticized the traditional Medicare program, which covers two-thirds of enrollees, she boasted about how she and the Trump administration were running Medicare Advantage, the fast-growing alternative program that is operated by private insurers such as UnitedHealthcare and Humana.

More than 20 million Medicare beneficiaries are enrolled in these plans, which often cost members less than traditional Medicare and have additional benefits. But they generally require members to use only the plan’s network of providers.

“Medicare Advantage represents value for our beneficiaries and taxpayers,” Verma said.

She touted a 2019 CMS initiative that will for the first time allow the Advantage plans to offer supplemental health benefits that go beyond traditional dental and health services. These include adult day care, in home support services and meals.

It is “one of the most significant changes made to the Medicare program” and “will have a major impact” on improving health for plan members, she said.

But the private plans have taken a cautious approach to adding those benefits.

About 270 Medicare Advantage plans — or fewer than 10 percent of the total — agreed to offer these services next year.

At the AHIP conference on Monday, health insurance executives said they were still trying to figure out which of their members would most likely benefit from the new offerings.

“We are operating in a vacuum of good evidence,” said William Shrank, chief medical officer of UPMC Health Plan in Pittsburgh. Nonetheless, Shrank said the opportunity to offer new benefits going beyond just health care could help beneficiaries stay out of the hospital and lead healthier lives.

Verma did not mention a report last month by the Department of Health and Human Services’ inspector general that found many Advantage plans were improperly denying claims from patients and doctors.

Administration critics were quick to note that omission.

“Her intemperate attack on traditional Medicare — on which two-thirds of all beneficiaries rely and which millions value so highly” — is “striking,” said Sara Rosenbaum, a professor of health law and policy at George Washington University. As is “her utter failure to acknowledge the serious challenges in making Medicare Advantage operate fairly, which her own inspector general underscored.”

Anthem Pays OCR $16 Million in Record HIPAA Settlement Following Largest U.S. Health Data Breach in History

HHS Gov News - October 16, 2018

Anthem, Inc. has agreed to pay $16 million to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and take substantial corrective action to settle potential violations of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy and Security Rules after a series of cyberattacks led to the largest U.S. health data breach in history and exposed the electronic protected health information of almost 79 million people.

The $16 million settlement eclipses the previous high of $5.55 million paid to OCR in 2016.

Anthem is an independent licensee of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association operating throughout the United States and is one of the nation’s largest health benefits companies, providing medical care coverage to one in eight Americans through its affiliated health plans.  This breach affected electronic protected health information (ePHI) that Anthem, Inc. maintained for its affiliated health plans and any other covered entity health plans.

On March 13, 2015, Anthem filed a breach report with the HHS Office for Civil Rights detailing that, on January 29, 2015, they discovered cyber-attackers had gained access to their IT system via an undetected continuous and targeted cyberattack for the apparent purpose of extracting data, otherwise known as an advanced persistent threat attack.  After filing their breach report, Anthem discovered cyber-attackers had infiltrated their system through spear phishing emails sent to an Anthem subsidiary after at least one employee responded to the malicious email and opened the door to further attacks. OCR’s investigation revealed that between December 2, 2014 and January 27, 2015, the cyber-attackers stole the ePHI of almost 79 million individuals, including names, social security numbers, medical identification numbers, addresses, dates of birth, email addresses, and employment information.

“The largest health data breach in U.S. history fully merits the largest HIPAA settlement in history,” said OCR Director Roger Severino.  “Unfortunately, Anthem failed to implement appropriate measures for detecting hackers who had gained access to their system to harvest passwords and steal people’s private information.” Director Severino continued, “We know that large health care entities are attractive targets for hackers, which is why they are expected to have strong password policies and to monitor and respond to security incidents in a timely fashion or risk enforcement by OCR.”

In addition to the impermissible disclosure of ePHI, OCR’s investigation revealed that Anthem failed to conduct an enterprise-wide risk analysis, had insufficient procedures to regularly review information system activity, failed to identify and respond to suspected or known security incidents, and failed to implement adequate minimum access controls to prevent the cyber-attackers from accessing sensitive ePHI, beginning as early as February 18, 2014.

In addition to the $16 million settlement, Anthem will undertake a robust corrective action plan to comply with the HIPAA Rules.  The resolution agreement and corrective action plan may be found on the OCR website at http://www.hhs.gov/hipaa/for-professionals/compliance-enforcement/agreements/anthem/index.html.

What You Need to Know about Putting Drug Prices in TV Ads

HHS Gov News - October 16, 2018

“If we want to have a real market for drugs, why not have [companies] disclose their prices in the ads, too? Consumers would have much more balanced information, and companies would have a very different set of incentives for setting their prices.” – HHS Secretary Alex Azar

In May 2018, President Trump and Secretary Azar introduced the American Patients First blueprint to bring down prescription drug prices.

  • The blueprint laid out four strategies for solving the problems patients face: boosting competition, enhancing negotiation, creating incentives for lower list prices, and bringing down out-of-pocket costs.
  • To create better incentives for list prices, the blueprint called for HHS to consider requiring the inclusion of list prices in direct-to-consumer advertising.

Right now, drug companies are required to disclose the major side effects a drug can have—but not the effect that buying the drug could have on your wallet. Patients deserve more transparency.

HHS is now proposing to require that TV ads for prescription drugs include their list price.

  • The proposal will require direct-to-consumer television advertisements for prescription drug and biological products paid for by Medicare or Medicaid to include the list price if the list price—the Wholesale Acquisition Cost—is greater than $35 for a month’s supply or the usual course of therapy, with the prices updated quarterly.
  • The 10 most commonly advertised drugs have list prices ranging from $535 to $11,000 per month or usual course of therapy.

Many patients either pay list price or pay prices calculated based on list price.

  • 47 percent of Americans have high-deductible health plans, under which they often pay the list price of a drug until their insurance kicks in.
  • All seniors on Medicare Part D have coinsurance for certain types of drugs, which means their out-of-pocket expenses are calculated as a share of list price.
  • List prices are also what patients pay if a drug is not on their insurance formulary, and list prices help determine insurance plans’ placement of drugs on their formulary.

HHS is exploring additional ways to improve drug price transparency and inform consumer decision-making.

  • As Secretary Azar has said, “You ought to know how much a drug costs and how much it’s going to cost you, long before you get to the pharmacy counter or get the bill in the mail.”
  • Another area in need of more transparency, as laid out in the blueprint, is the opaque system of rebates, which drive list prices up and do not fully benefit patients.

HHS Secretary Azar Comments on Drug Industry Price Transparency Announcement

HHS Gov News - October 16, 2018

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar issued the following statement regarding pharmaceutical companies’ announcement that they would be providing access to more information on drug prices:

“Patient empowerment and transparency are at the core of the President’s drug-pricing blueprint that was released five months ago. Our vision for a new, more transparent drug-pricing system does not rely on voluntary action. The drug industry remains resistant to providing real transparency around their prices, including the sky-high list prices that many patients pay. So while the pharmaceutical industry’s action today is a small step in the right direction, we will go further and continue to implement the President’s blueprint to deliver new transparency and put American patients first. “ 

Influential Leapfrog Group Jumps In To Rate 5,600 Surgery Centers

Kaiser Health News:Marketplace - October 16, 2018

The influential Leapfrog Group, which grades nearly 2,000 U.S. hospitals, is launching a national survey to evaluate the safety and quality of up to 5,600 surgery centers that perform millions of outpatient procedures every year.

The group now issues hospitals an overall letter grade and evaluates how hospitals handle myriad problems, from infections to collapsed lungs to dangerous blood clots — helping patients decide where to seek care.

Simple Surgeries. Tragic Results.

The new surgery center effort will focus on staffing, surgical outcomes and patient experience in facilities that are performing increasingly complex procedures and seeing more aging patients. The grades will also cover surgery centers’ closest competitor, hospital outpatient departments.

Leah Binder, Leapfrog Group’s chief executive, said she wants to fill gaps in information about same-day surgery, which employers and health plans have embraced for its lower costs.

Employers, she said, “don’t have enough information on quality and safety of that care.”

Binder said a recent Kaiser Health News/USA Today Network investigation highlighted the need for independent information about surgery centers. The investigation found that since 2013, more than 260 patients died after care at centers that lacked appropriate lifesaving equipment, operated on very fragile patients or sent people home before they fully recovered.

“Your reporting did highlight the real lack of information from the federal government and the need for us to have an independent means of reporting,” Binder said. “People are going in for surgery, and our federal government doesn’t think it’s important to tell us how it’s going. Maybe that was OK 30 years ago, but now it’s not OK.”

The news report was based on inspection reports, lawsuits and data from many states that tally patient deaths but which refuse to note where they occurred. Seventeen other states collect no data on deaths at all.

The new Leapfrog plan will start with a survey of 250 centers in 2019 and include up to 5,600 surgery centers in 2020. At that point, it will publish data on the outcomes of specific procedures, like total knee replacements, across the hospital outpatient departments and surgery centers nationwide.

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The Leapfrog Group is funded by employers and health plans that cover the health care of the half of Americans who get health benefits through their job, Binder said. The organization was founded to shed light on health care quality and safety to help consumers pick high-value providers. It plans to disseminate the new surveys through its 40 business group members that steer millions in health spending.

Bill Prentice, chief executive of the Ambulatory Surgery Center Association, an industry trade group, said he supports the move toward greater transparency. However, he said the work to determine the specific measures is still underway, and “the devil is in the details.”

Ty Tippets, administrator of St. George Surgical Center in Utah, said he welcomes what Leapfrog is doing.

“Anytime [data] is gathered and provided in a transparent, easily accessed forum — it helps empower patients,” said Tippets, who recently testified before Congress about transparency in health care.

The Leapfrog Group announcement comes as Medicare is reviewing the data it will collect to gauge the quality of surgery centers.

The agency previously asked each surgery center to report its emergency transfer rate, or how often a patient 65 or older was sent from a center to the hospital. Yet the agency only required the centers to send data for half or more of its Medicare patients.

In the current rule-making period, Medicare declared the resulting data of little value, given the minimal differences among centers’ scores. The agency proposed dropping the measure, but has not yet finalized the proposal.

Going forward, Medicare has said it will use its own billing data to report the percent of surgery center patients who seek care at a hospital in the week after a procedure.

Medicare recently announced plans to shine more light on the performance of accreditors, which play a key role in granting or denying health facilities approvals to operate. A recent KHN investigation into accreditor performance in California — the only state where the private bodies’ inspection reports are public — showed repeated lapses in oversight.

A Medicare spokesman said new reports will show how well accreditors fare when state health officials inspect the same facilities.  In recent years, Medicare has found that accreditors overlooked the majority of problems that government officials uncovered.

In September, the White House Office of Management and Budget approved another health agency’s proposal to collect and report data about the “culture of safety” in surgery centers. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality will ask surgery center staff about issues such as whether staff feel comfortable speaking up about patient care concerns.

The plan says summary data — not facility-by-facility data — on the survey’s results will be reported publicly.

That effort would add to the overall information the public has about surgery centers, said Dr. Ashish Jha, a patient safety expert at Harvard’s School of Public Health.

“Places that do badly on safety culture surveys tend to have worse outcomes,” Jha said. “But you can’t bank on it.”

He said the most useful data for the public would cover actual events — such as deaths after surgery, admissions to the hospital or functional status and pain three months after surgery.

“Those are the things that actually matter,” he said.

KHN’s coverage related to aging and improving care of older adults is supported in part by The John A. Hartford Foundation.

Drugmakers Funnel Millions To Lawmakers; A Few Dozen Get $100,000-Plus

Kaiser Health News:Marketplace - October 16, 2018

Explore The Database Campaign Contributions Tracker

Pharma Cash To Congress

By Elizabeth Lucas and Sydney Lupkin 2:00 AM EDT

A new Kaiser Health News database tracks campaign donations from drugmakers over the past 10 years.

Before the midterm elections heated up, dozens of drugmakers had already poured about $12 million into the war chests of hundreds of members of Congress.

Since the beginning of last year, 34 lawmakers have each received more than $100,000 from pharmaceutical companies. Two of those — Reps. Greg Walden of Oregon, a key Republican committee chairman, and Kevin McCarthy of California, the House Republican majority leader — each received more than $200,000, a new Kaiser Health News database shows.

As voters prepare to go to the polls, they can use a new database, “Pharma Cash to Congress,” tracking up to 10 years of pharmaceutical company contributions to any or all members of Congress, illuminating drugmakers’ efforts to influence legislation.

The drug industry ranks among lawmakers’ most generous patrons. In the past decade, Congress has received $79 million from 68 pharma political action committees, or PACs, run by employees of companies that make drugs treating everything from cancer to erectile dysfunction.

This story also ran on Daily Beast. This story can be republished for free (details). Drugmakers’ campaign contributions have reached record-breaking levels in recent years as skyrocketing drug prices have become a hot-button political issue. By June 30, 52 PACs funded by pharmaceutical companies and their trade organizations had given about $12 million to members of Congress for this election cycle. It is unclear whether drugmakers will top their previous 10-year record of $16 million, given during the 2016 election season.

While PAC contributions to candidates are limited, a larger donation frequently accompanies individual contributions from the company’s executives and other employees. It also sends a clear message to the recipient, campaign finance experts say, one they may remember when lobbyists come calling: There’s more where that came from.

The KHN analysis shows that pharmaceutical companies tend to play the field, giving to a wide swath of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

The drug industry favors power. Since the beginning of 2017, drugmakers contributed to 217 Republicans and 187 Democrats, giving only slightly more on average to Republicans, who currently control both chambers of Congress. This was also the case for Democrats during the 2010 election cycle, when they controlled Congress.

As with other industries, drugmakers tend to give more to lawmakers in leadership roles. For example, Rep. Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, became speaker of the House halfway through the 2016 election cycle, prompting drugmakers to pour $75,000 more into his war chest than they had the previous cycle.

Money also tends to flow to congressional committees with jurisdiction over pharmaceutical issues that can affect things like drug pricing and FDA approval. Walden, a nine-term Republican congressman, has watched his coffers swell with help from drugmaker PACs since he became chairman of the powerful House Committee on Energy and Commerce in early 2017.

With six months to go in the 2018 cycle, Walden had already raised an additional $71,000 over the 2016 cycle — or 11 times more than drugmakers gave him a decade ago.

Asked to comment on the increase in Walden’s contributions from drugmakers, Zach Hunter, his committee spokesman, called attention to Walden’s work to lower prescription drug prices and said “no member of Congress has done more” to end the opioid crisis.

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Pharmaceutical company PACs also gave to dozens of other members of committees, such as the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. And they appear to target congressional districts that are home to their headquarters and other facilities.

The PAC for Purdue Pharma, the embattled opioid manufacturer, gave to only a handful of members this cycle. However, it focused much of its giving on lawmakers from North Carolina, its headquarters for manufacturing and technical operations.

This election cycle, 28 percent of lawmakers did not receive any contributions from pharmaceutical PACs.

Under federal law, corporations cannot donate directly to political candidates. Exploiting a common loophole, they instead set up PACs, funded by money collected from employees. Those PACs then donate to campaigns, which are free to spend that money as they wish on necessities like advertising or campaign events.

Campaign contributions tell only part of the story. Drugmakers also spend millions of dollars lobbying members of Congress directly and give to patient advocacy groups, which provide patients to testify on Capitol Hill and organize social media campaigns on drugmakers’ behalf.

A previous investigation by Kaiser Health News, “Pre$cription for Power,” examined charitable giving by top drugmakers and found that 14 of them donated a combined $116 million to patient advocacy groups in 2015 alone.

To learn more about how Kaiser Health News built the Pre$cription for Power database, read our methodology.

And like other industries, pharmaceutical companies wield their political power in ways veiled from the public, giving to “dark money” groups and super PACs — independent groups barred from directly donating to or coordinating with campaigns — bent on swaying lawmaking.

Brendan Fischer, who directs federal reform programs at the Campaign Legal Center, cautioned that a campaign contribution from a corporate PAC does not directly translate into a vote in the drugmaker’s favor.

“Contributions help keep the door open for company lobbyists,” he said.

KHN data editor Elizabeth Lucas contributed to this story.

KHN’s coverage of prescription drug development, costs and pricing is supported in part by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

Pharma Cash To Congress

Kaiser Health News:Marketplace - October 16, 2018

Every year, pharmaceutical companies contribute millions of dollars to U.S. senators and representatives as part of a multipronged effort to influence health care lawmaking and spending priorities. Use this tool to explore the sizable role drugmakers play in the campaign finance system, where many industries seek to influence Congress. Discover which lawmakers rake in the most money (or the least) and which pharma companies are the biggest contributors. Or use our search tool to look up members of Congress by name or home state, as well as dozens of drugmakers that KHN tracks.

Methodology

Kaiser Health News uses campaign finance reports from the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to track donations from political action committees (PACs) registered with the FEC by pharmaceutical companies. Totals include donations to the principal campaign committees and leadership PACs for current members of Congress. We include only donations to members for election cycles in which they hold office (even if they weren’t in office for the full cycle, in the case of special elections). Donations are assigned to the quarter in which they were given, regardless of when they are reported by the receiving committee or PAC. Exact amounts can change as amendments and refunds are reported; KHN will update the analysis quarterly. Occasionally, refunds are reported in a different cycle from the original contribution, resulting in a negative total for the cycle.

There is a legal limit to how much each PAC can give to a member of the Senate or House of Representatives: $5,000 per election (including primaries and general elections) and per committee, or $10,000 per cycle. Each cycle is two calendar years, e.g. Jan. 1, 2017-Dec. 31, 2018.

When calculating changes in contributions from one cycle to another, we compare the latest quarter in the current cycle to the same point in the previous cycle for all drugmakers and for members of the House, who run for re-election every two years. For senators, who run for re-election every six years, we compare the current cycle to the cycle six years prior. We use the ProPublica Congress API to gather some information about past and present members. We use both Open Secrets and CQ Political Moneyline to collect additional information about PACs and verify our work.

KHN’s coverage of prescription drug development, costs and pricing is supported in part by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

Listen: Health Care Issues Reverberate In The States

Kaiser Health News:HealthReform - October 15, 2018

Julie Rovner, chief Washington correspondent for Kaiser Health News, joined “1A” host Joshua Johnson, Scott Greenberger, the executive editor of Stateline, and Reid Wilson, national correspondent for The Hill, to discuss health policy initiatives in the states.

Among the topics they examined are Medicaid expansion efforts, work requirements that some states are implementing for Medicaid, efforts to bring down the price of prescription drugs and programs to battle the opioid epidemic. You can listen to the discussion on the “1A” broadcast page.

TV Ads Must Trumpet Drug Prices, Trump Administration Says. Pharma Tries A Plan B.

Kaiser Health News:Marketplace - October 15, 2018


[UPDATED at 6:45 p.m. ET]

The Trump administration proposed Monday that drugmakers reveal the list prices of their medicines in television ads, effectively setting the stage for months or possibly years of battle with the powerful industry.

The proposal, released late in the day, would require pharmaceutical companies to include in its television advertising the price of any drug that cost more than $35 a month. The price should be listed at the end of the advertisement in “a legible manner,” the rule states. It goes on to explain that the price should be presented against a contrasting background in a way that is easy to read.

Related Story More Stories On Drug Costs

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, nodding to an industry proposal announced earlier in the day, said voluntary moves are not enough.

“We will not wait for an industry with so many conflicting and perverse incentives to reform itself,” Azar told the audience gathered at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C.

If approved, the proposed rule has no government enforcement mechanism that would force the companies to comply. Rather, it depends on shaming, noting that federal regulators would post a list of companies violating the rule. It would depend on the private sector to police itself with litigation.

“It is noteworthy that the government is unwilling to take enforcement action,” said Rachel Sachs, an associate professor of law at Washington University at St. Louis and expert in drug-pricing regulation. The rule might never be finalized, she added.

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“It will take many months if not years for this regulation to be implemented and free from the cloud of litigation that will follow it. And the administration knows that,” Sachs said.

Earlier Monday, the pharmaceutical industry trade group went on the offensive in anticipation of Azar’s speech by announcing its own plans.

“Putting list prices in isolation in the advertisements themselves would be misleading or confusing,” argued Stephen Ubl, CEO of the Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA, the major trade group for branded drugs.

Instead, Ubl, whose trade group represents the largest pharmaceutical manufacturers on the globe, promised that pharma companies would direct consumers to websites that include a drug’s list price and estimates of what people can expect to pay, which can vary widely depending on coverage.

Drug manufacturers would voluntarily opt in to this disclosure starting next spring, he said. Ubl remained strongly critical of the White House proposal.

The Trump administration’s proposal comes weeks before midterm elections in which health care is a top voter concern. Polling from the Kaiser Family Foundation suggests most voters support forcing price transparency in drug advertisements. (Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the foundation.)

The White House’s plan, which was teased in President Donald Trump’s blueprint this summer, has won praise from insurance groups and the American Medical Association.

Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) also proposed the plan in the Senate last month, but it failed to garner enough support.

Experts pointed out a host of complications, suggesting that neither PhRMA’s approach nor the White House’s would fully explain to consumers what they’ll actually pay for drugs.

On Monday, Grassley applauded Azar’s announcement, saying it was a “common-sense way to lower prices.”

But Dale Cooke, a consultant who works with drug companies trying to meet Food and Drug Administration requirements for advertising, warned there is no reason to believe posting prices would help drive down prices.

“No one has ever explained to me why this would work,” Cooke said. “What’s the mechanism by which this results in lower drug prices?”

Even more, it could be confusing for patients, Cooke said. The proposed rule seemed to acknowledge this danger, he said, noting, “On the other hand, consumers, intimidated and confused by high list prices, may be deterred from contacting their physicians about drugs or medical conditions.”

A drug’s list price — the metric HHS wants to emphasize — often bears little relationship to what a patient pays at the drugstore. Insurance plans and pharmacy benefit managers often negotiate cheaper prices than the list price. Some patients qualify for other discounts. And often patients pay only what their copay or deductible requires at any given time.

Other consumers could be stuck paying the full cost, depending on how their insurance plan is designed, or if they don’t have coverage.

“The system is very opaque, very complicated and, importantly, there isn’t a huge relationship between list prices for drugs and what patients will expect to pay out-of-pocket,” said Adrienne Faerber, a lecturer at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice who researches drug marketing.

But the industry’s strategy, she said, also appeared lacking.

Under PhRMA’s plan, drugmakers would not standardize how they display their information. Where consumers go could vary on Pfizer’s website versus Merck’s to learn about the list price and the range of out-of-pocket costs. That, Faerber argued, would make it difficult for people to unearth relevant information.

PhRMA also announced it is partnering with patient advocacy groups to create a “patient affordability platform,” which could help patients search for costs and insurance coverage options.

Ubl cast their proposal as a way to address more effectively the government and public concern about drug price transparency.

Pharmaceutical manufacturers rely heavily on national advertising and together represent the third-highest spender in national television advertising, according to Michael Leszega, a manager of market intelligence at consulting firm Magna.

At certain times of day, pharmaceutical ads make up more than 40 percent of TV advertisements. And those commercials stand out because they are generally longer, with a long list of side effects and warnings the pharmaceutical industry must tag on at the end.

Those disclaimers highlight another challenge for the administration: legal action.

The rule notes its legal justification was based on the responsibility of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to ensure the health coverage programs that it administers — Medicare and Medicaid — must be operated in a manner that “minimizes reasonable expenditures.”

Sachs noted that the argument may be weak because most drugs are marketed to a wider audience than Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries.

A body of Supreme Court decisions dictate how disclaimers and disclosures can be required, said constitutional law expert Robert Corn-Revere. He filed a “friend of the court” brief in a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court case related to commercial speech and the pharmaceutical industry.

Generally, the administration’s requirement must meet the standards of being purely factual, noncontroversial and not burdensome, Corn-Revere said.

On the question of whether requiring drug prices be listed in advertising violates the First Amendment’s free-speech guarantee, Corn-Revere said it “all comes down to the specifics.”

Ubl, when asked earlier about legal action, didn’t rule out the possibility. “We believe there are substantial statutory and constitutional principles that arise” from requiring list-price disclosure, Ubl said, adding: “We do have concerns about that approach.”

KHN’s coverage of prescription drug development, costs and pricing is supported in part by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

Readout of Secretary Azar’s Community Pharmacy and Patient Roundtable in Pittsburgh

HHS Gov News - October 15, 2018

Today, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Chief of Staff Paul Mango traveled to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to participate in a roundtable discussion at Spartan Pharmacy. The discussion included community pharmacists and their senior patients and covered the legislation recently signed by President Trump banning pharmacy gag clauses.

This significant bipartisan achievement is one of many actions the Trump administration has taken since the President rolled out the American Patients First Blueprint to Lower Drug Prices and Reduce Out-of-Pocket Costs. Pharmacists can now always inform patients when it’s possible to pay less out of pocket for prescription drugs, in both private insurance plans and in Medicare prescription drug plans.

At the roundtable, Secretary Azar stressed the importance of patients’ asking their pharmacists if they are getting the best deal on the prescription drugs they need. He listened to the participants’ healthcare concerns and their ideas to lower prescription drug prices. Secretary Azar concluded the roundtable by thanking the participants for the robust discussion and voiced his and President Trump’s commitment to lower healthcare and prescription drug costs for American patients.

To read Secretary Azar’s full statement on the legislation banning pharmacy gag clauses, please visit: https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2018/10/10/hhs-secretary-azar-praises-results-of-president-trumps-leadership-on-drug-pricing.html

Medicare Advantage Riding High As New Insurers Flock To Sell To Seniors

Kaiser Health News:HealthReform - October 15, 2018

Health care experts widely expected the Affordable Care Act to hobble Medicare Advantage, the government-funded private health plans that millions of seniors have chosen as an alternative to original Medicare.

To pay for expanding coverage to the uninsured, the 2010 law cut billions of dollars in federal payments to the plans. Government budget analysts predicted that would lead to a sharp drop in enrollment as insurers reduced benefits, exited states or left the business altogether.

But the dire projections proved wrong.

Since 2010, enrollment in Medicare Advantage has doubled to more than 20 million enrollees, growing from a quarter of Medicare beneficiaries to more than a third.

“The Affordable Care Act did not kill Medicare Advantage, and the program looks poised to continue to grow quite rapidly,” said Bill Frack, managing director with L.E.K. Consulting, which advises health companies.

And as beneficiaries get set to shop for plans during open enrollment — which runs from Monday through Dec. 7 — they will find a greater choice of insurers.

Fourteen new companies have begun selling Medicare Advantage plans for 2019, several more than a typical year, according to a report out Monday from the Kaiser Family Foundation. (KHN is an editorially independent part of the foundation.)

Overall, Medicare beneficiaries can choose from about 3,700 plans for 2019, or 600 more than this year, according to the federal government’s Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

CMS expects Medicare Advantage enrollment to jump to nearly 23 million people in 2019, a 12 percent increase. Enrollees shopping for new plans this fall will likely find lower or no premiums and improved benefits, CMS officials say.

With about 10,000 baby boomers aging into Medicare range each day, the general view of the insurance industry, said Robert Berenson, a Medicare expert with the nonpartisan Urban Institute, “is that their future is Medicare and it’s crazy not to pursue Medicare enrollees more actively.”

Bright Health, Clover Health and Devoted Health, all for-profit companies, began offering Medicare Advantage plans for 2018 or will do so for 2019.

Mutual of Omaha, a company owned by its policyholders, is also moving into Medicare Advantage for the first time in two decades, providing plans in San Antonio and Cincinnati.

Some nonprofit hospitals are offering Medicare plans for the first time too, such as the BayCare Health system in the Tampa, Fla., area.

While Medicare beneficiaries in most counties have a choice of several plans, enrollment for years had been consolidated into several for-profit companies, primarily UnitedHealthcare, Humana and Aetna, which have accumulated just under half the national enrollment.

These insurance giants are also expanding into new markets for next year. Humana in 2019 will offer its Medicare HMO in 97 new counties in 14 states. UnitedHealthcare is moving into 130 new counties in 13 states, including for the first time Minnesota, its headquarters for the past four decades.

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Extra Benefits

Seniors have long been attracted to Advantage plans because they often include benefits not available with government-run Medicare, such as vision and dental coverage. Many private plans save seniors money because their premiums, deductibles and other patient cost sharing are lower than what beneficiaries pay with original Medicare. But there is a trade-off: The private plans usually require seniors to use a restricted network of doctors and hospitals.

The federal government pays the plans to provide coverage for beneficiaries. When drafting the ACA, Democratic lawmakers targeted the Medicare Advantage plans because studies had shown that enrollees in the private plans cost the government 14 percent more than people in the original program.

Medicare plans weathered the billions in funding cuts in part by qualifying for new federal bonus payments available to those that score a “4” or better on a five-notch scale of quality and customer satisfaction.

Health plans also gained extra revenue by identifying illnesses and health risks of members that would entitle the companies to federal “risk-adjustment” payments. That has provided hundreds of billions in extra dollars to Medicare plans, though congressional analysts and federal investigators have raised concerns about insurers exaggerating how sick their members are.

A study last year found that those risk adjustments could add more than $200 billion to the cost of Medicare Advantage plans in the next decade, despite no change in enrollees’ health.

For-profit Medicare Advantage insurers made a 5 percent profit margin in 2016 — twice the average of Medicare plans overall, according to the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, which reports to Congress. That’s slightly better than the health insurance industry’s overall 4 percent margin reported by Standard & Poor’s.

Those profit margins could expand. The Trump administration boosted payments to Medicare Advantage plans by 3.4 percent for 2019, 0.45 percentage points higher than the 2018 increase.

Betsy Seals, chief consulting officer for Gorman Health Group, a Washington company that advises Medicare Advantage plans, said many health plans hesitated to enter that market or expand after President Donald Trump was elected because they weren’t sure the new administration would support the program. But such concerns were erased with the announcement on 2019 reimbursement rates.

“The administration’s support of the Medicare Advantage program is clear,” Seals said. “We have seen the downstream impact of this support with new entrants to the market — a trend we expect to see continue.”

Getting Consumers To Switch

Since the 1960s, Mutual of Omaha has sold Medicare Supplement policies — coverage to help beneficiaries in government-run Medicare pay the portion of costs that program doesn’t pick up. But the company only briefly entered the Medicare Advantage business once — in its home state of Nebraska in the 1990s.

“In the past 10 or 20 years it never seemed quite the right time,” said Amber Rinehart, a senior vice president for the insurer. “The main hindrance was around the political environment and funding for Medicare Advantage.”

Yet after watching Medicare Advantage enrollment soar and government funding increase, the insurer has decided now is the time to act. “We have seen a lot more stability of funding and the political tailwinds are there,” she said.

One challenge for the new insurers will be attracting members from existing companies since beneficiaries tend to stick with the same insurer for many years.

Vivek Garipalli, CEO of Clover Health, said his San Francisco-based company hopes to gain members by offering low-cost plans with a large choice of hospitals and doctors and allowing members to see specialists in its network without prior approval from their primary care doctor. The company is also focused on appealing to blacks and Hispanics who have been less likely to join Medicare Advantage.

“We see a lot of opportunity in markets where there are underserved populations,” Garipalli said.

Clover has received funding from Alphabet Inc., the parent company of Google. Clover sold Medicare plans in New Jersey last year and is expanding for 2019 into El Paso, Texas; Nashville, Tenn.; and Savannah, Ga.

Newton, Mass.-based Devoted Health is moving into Medicare Advantage with plans in South Florida and Central Florida. Minneapolis-based BrightHealth is expanding into several new markets including Phoenix, Nashville, Cincinnati and New York City.

BayCare, based in Clearwater, Fla., is offering a Medicare plan for the first time in 2019.

“We think there is enough market share to be had and we are not afraid to compete,” said Jim Beermann, vice president of insurance strategy for BayCare.

Hospitals are attracted to the Medicare business because it gives them access to more of premium dollars directed to health costs, said Frack of L.E.K. Consulting. “You control more of your destiny,” he added.

HHS Secretary Azar declares public health emergency in Georgia due to Hurricane Michael

HHS Gov News - October 12, 2018

Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar today declared a public health emergency in Georgia due to damage from Hurricane Michael. The declaration follows President Trump’s emergency declaration for the state and gives the HHS Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services beneficiaries and their healthcare providers and suppliers greater flexibility in meeting emergency health needs.

“We are working closely with state health authorities and private sector partners from hospitals and other healthcare facilities to save lives and protect public health after Hurricane Michael,” Secretary Azar said. “This declaration will help ensure that our fellow Americans who rely on Medicare and Medicaid have continuous access to the care they need.”

To assist state and local officials in lifesaving efforts for medically vulnerable people, HHS also provided state health officials with information on Medicare beneficiaries who rely on dialysis or use special medical equipment at home, such as oxygen concentrators, in the potentially impacted areas. For these people power outages can be life threatening within hours. CMS also activated the Kidney Community Emergency Response Program to monitor dialysis access and needs of these facilities after the hurricane.

HHS moved about 400 medical and public health personnel along with their caches of medical equipment into impacted areas, ready to respond to medical and public health needs in Florida and Georgia. An additional 300 personnel are now on alert from the National Disaster Medical System and the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps.

Some of these medical personnel are working with Florida Urban Search and Rescue teams to triage people rescued. Other HHS medical personnel are working alongside local hospital staffs in providing medical care in hospital emergency departments in Florida.

HHS teams also can provide basic medical care for evacuees at shelters, help the health department with disease surveillance, offer behavioral health support for residents and responders, and more. HHS incident managers are working with state officials to determine whether federal medical and public health support is needed in Georgia.

To assist residents in the impacted area in coping with the stress of the disasters, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration activated the Disaster Distress Helpline. The Disaster Distress Helpline provides immediate 24/7, 365-days-a-year crisis counseling and support to people experiencing emotional distress related to natural or human-caused disasters. This toll-free, multilingual, and confidential crisis support service is available to all residents in the United States and its territories. Stress, anxiety, and other depression-like symptoms are common reactions after a disaster. Call 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746 (for Spanish, press 2 or text Hablanos to 66746) to connect with a trained crisis counselor.

Additionally, the HHS Office of Civil Rights (OCR) issued guidance to state and local agencies and community organizations to help ensure equal access to emergency services and the appropriate sharing of medical information during Hurricane Michael, including how federal civil rights laws apply in an emergencyhow HIPAA laws apply in an emergency. OCR also provided a HIPAA Disclosures for Emergency Preparedness Decision Tool.

Secretary Azar declared a public health emergency in Florida Tuesday. In declaring the public health emergencies in Florida and Georgia and authorizing flexibilities for CMS beneficiaries, Secretary Azar acted under his authority in the Public Health Service Act and Social Security Act. These actions and flexibilities are retroactive to October 9, 2018, in Georgia and October 7, 2018, in Florida.

Public health and safety information for Hurricane Michael can be found on the HHS emergency website, https://www.phe.gov/emergency/events/2018-Severe-Storms/Pages/default.aspx.

Must Reads Of The Week From Brianna Labuskes

Kaiser Health News:HealthReform - October 12, 2018
The Friday Breeze

Newsletter editor Brianna Labuskes, who reads everything on health care to compile our daily Morning Briefing, offers the best and most provocative stories for the weekend.

Just in case our ever-decreasing anonymity in this tech-driven world hasn’t scared you enough, new studies find that within a few years 90 percent — 90 percent! — of Americans of European descent will be identifiable from their DNA. If you fall into that group, it doesn’t even matter whether you’ve given a DNA sample to one of the popular gene-testing sites (like 23andMe). Enough of your distant relatives have, so there’s a good chance you’re in the system.

Take your mind off that by checking out what you may have missed in health care this week.

The biggie, of course, was President Donald Trump’s opinion piece in USA Today about “Medicare-for-all.” (And the rebuttal from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.)

Fact checkers came out in droves to comb through Trump’s arguments and found that nearly every paragraph contained a misleading statement or falsehood.

The Washington Post: Fact-Checking President Trump’s USA Today Op-Ed on ‘Medicare-for-All’

More than shedding any kind of light on the complicated topic, the back-and-forth highlights how much of a role health care is playing in the upcoming midterm elections. Each side has doubled down on its respective talking points (read: preexisting conditions and Medicare-for-all — I warned you you’d get tired of me saying that). In fact, health care is featured so heavily in ads that it trumps the topics of jobs or taxes.

The Wall Street Journal: Health Care Crowds Out Jobs, Taxes in Midterm Ads

(Side note: If you do want some light shed on Medicare-for-all and single-payer systems, check out these great pieces from KHN’s own Shefali Luthra.)

Speaking of midterms, the Democrats’ attempt to block the administration’s expansion of short-term plans (very predictably) failed, with only Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins joining the Democrats. It was never about winning, though. What it did was force Republicans to go on record with a vote that is potentially politically dangerous in the current landscape.

Politico: Senate Democrats Fail to Block Trump’s Short-Term Health Plans

In stark contrast to the sharply partisan discourse, Trump signed two bipartisan health care measures into law this week. The bills banned “gag clauses” on pharmacists, which had prohibited them from offering consumers cheaper options. The legislation won’t directly affect drug prices, but it might mean people will pay less at the register.

The New York Times: Trump Signs New Laws Aimed at Drug Costs and Battles Democrats on Medicare

The Friday Breeze

Want a roundup of the must-read stories this week chosen by KHN Newsletter Editor Brianna Labuskes? Sign up for The Friday Breeze today.

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For the first time, premiums for the most popular level of insurance sold in the health law marketplaces have gone down. The numbers are the latest sign that the marketplace is stabilizing. (Centene’s expansion into new states is another from this week.) CMS Administrator Seema Verma touted the success, saying the news counters any accusations of sabotage. Health experts, however, said those price tags would have been even lower if not for the administration’s actions over the past year.

The Washington Post: Premiums for Popular ACA Health Insurance Dip for the First Time

The Justice Department approved CVS’ $69 billion merger with Aetna, and although the deal still needs approval from state regulators, the green light is a major hurdle cleared. The merger would reshape the health landscape and mark the end of an era for free-standing pharmacy benefit managers. The potential consolidation is just one of many in recent years in a fast-evolving industry — a trend critics worry will lessen competition and drive up prices for consumers.

The New York Times: CVS Health and Aetna $69 Billion Merger Is Approved With Conditions

Hospitals scrambled to ensure patient safety as Hurricane Michael battered Florida and Georgia this week. “It was like hell,” said one doctor who rode out the storm at Bay Medical Center in Panama City, Fla. The hurricane brought with it memories of last year’s power outages that came with Hurricane Irma and were linked to the deaths of several nursing home residents.

The New York Times: Hospitals Pummeled by Hurricane Michael Scramble to Evacuate Patients

Now that the Brett Kavanaugh battle is over and he’s taken a seat on the Supreme Court, Planned Parenthood has gone into planning mode in case anything happens to Roe v. Wade. A key component of the organization’s plan is to shore up networks in states where abortion would likely remain legal (with longer hours for clinics, for example). On the other side, abortion-rights opponents are getting primed for a new high court that’s likely friendlier to them by strategizing what cases would be best to move forward with.

NPR: With Kavanaugh Confirmed, Both Sides of Abortion Debate Gear Up for Battle

How do you fight measures to expand abortion rights in progressive states? Make it about money. A battle in Oregon illustrates a strategy that — although unlikely to be successful — gives opponents of the bills at least a hope of winning.

Politico: Oregon’s Unlikely Abortion Fight Hinges on Taxes

Holes in the court system have allowed state judges to grant full custody of migrant children to American families — without notifying their parents. Federal officials say it should never happen, but oversight of the problem is scattershot and challenging because states handle adoption proceedings differently.

The Associated Press: Deported Parents May Lose Kids to Adoption

Democrats have been vocal about what they don’t like when it comes to immigration policy. But they have a problem: a lack of cohesion within the party about the correct way forward.

The New York Times: The Democrats Have an Immigration Problem

In the miscellaneous, must-read file:

• A gripping piece takes you into the bowels of a Philadelphia neighborhood dubbed the “Walmart of heroin.” “Drug tourists” come from all over to buy the cheap, pure heroin flowing through the veins of the streets, and some never make it out. (Warning: Make sure you have some time before you start, it will suck you in completely.)

The New York Times: Trapped by the ‘Walmart of Heroin’

• Why were nursing home residents getting extremely pricey therapy in the last weeks of their lives? Bloomberg takes a closer look at these cash-strapped facilities and the questionable decisions made about patients’ rehab.

Bloomberg: Nursing Homes Are Pushing the Dying Into Pricey Rehab

• In good news from the segment of people who were too old to take advantage of the HPV vaccine, the Food and Drug Administration just approved its use for those up to age 45.

The Associated Press: FDA Expands Use of Cervical Cancer Vaccine up to Age 45

As an office of ardent dog lovers, we were distressed to hear the news that therapy dogs in hospitals are little germ machines, leaving behind happiness but also superbugs.

Have a great (hopefully superbug-free) weekend!

HHS awards $2.34 billion in grants to help Americans access HIV/AIDS care and medication

HHS Gov News - October 11, 2018

Today, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced that approximately $2.34 billion in Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program grants were awarded to cities, counties, states, and local community-based organizations in fiscal year (FY) 2018. This funding through the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) supports a comprehensive system of HIV primary medical care, medication, and essential support services to more than half a million people living with HIV in the United States.

“New medical advances and broader access to treatment have helped transform HIV/AIDS from a likely death sentence into a manageable chronic disease,” said HHS Secretary Alex Azar. “The Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program is an important way to ensure that these life-saving treatments reach the Americans who need them, and the Trump Administration is committed to continuing to improve the care by Americans living with HIV/AIDS receive.”

"The Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program plays a vital role in the United States' public health response to ending the HIV epidemic,” said HRSA Administrator George Sigounas, M.S., Ph.D. "These grants will help ensure that the most vulnerable Americans living with HIV/AIDS have access to life-saving care and treatment needed to improve their health quality and medical outcomes."

HRSA oversees the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program, which is a patient-centered system that provides care and treatment services to low income people living with HIV to improve health outcomes and reduce HIV transmission among hard to reach populations. The program serves approximately 50 percent of people living with diagnosed HIV infection in the United States. In 2016, approximately 85 percent of Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program clients who received HIV medical care were virally suppressed, up from 69 percent in 2010.

"The Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program is critical to improving clinical and public health outcomes by reducing HIV transmission and serves as an important source of ongoing access to HIV treatment and antiretroviral medication," said Laura Cheever, M.D., Sc.M., Associate Administrator, HIV/AIDS Bureau. "Today people living with HIV who take HIV medication daily as prescribed and who achieve and maintain an undetectable viral load have effectively no risk of sexually transmitting the virus to an HIV-negative partner.”

Under Part A of the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program, approximately $624.3 million was awarded to 52 metropolitan areas to provide core medical and support services for people living with HIV. These grants were awarded to 24 eligible metropolitan areas and 28 transitional grant areas with the highest number of people living with HIV and AIDS and experiencing increases in HIV and AIDS cases and emerging care needs. For a list of the FY 2018 Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program Part A award recipients, visit https://hab.hrsa.gov/awards/fy-2018-ryan-white-hivaids-program-part-a-final-awards.

Under Part B of the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program, approximately $1.4 billion was awarded to 59 states and territories to improve the quality, availability and organization of HIV health care and support services and for the AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP). Additionally, 16 states received Emerging Community grants based on the number of AIDS cases over the most recent five-year period. Thirty-three states and territories were also awarded approximately $10.5 million in Part B Minority AIDS Initiative grants. For a list of the FY 2018 Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program Part B award recipients, visit https://hab.hrsa.gov/awards/fy-2018-ryan-white-hivaids-program-part-b-grant-awards.

Under Part C Early Intervention Services (EIS) of the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program, approximately $181.9 million was awarded across the country to 351 local, community-based organizations to provide core medical and support services to people living with HIV. Additionally, 52 organizations were awarded approximately $6.9 million in Part C Capacity Development grants. For a list of the FY 2018 Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program Part C EIS award recipients, visit https://hab.hrsa.gov/awards/fy-2018-ryan-white-hivaids-program-part-c-early-intervention-services-eis-awards. For a list of the FY 2018 Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program Part C Capacity Development award recipients, visit https://hab.hrsa.gov/awards/fy-2018-ryan-white-hivaids-program-part-c-capacity-development-awards.

Under Part D of the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program, approximately $70.3 million was awarded to 115 local community-based organizations across the country to provide family-centered comprehensive HIV care and treatment for women, infants, children, and youth. For a list of the FY 2018 Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program Part D award recipients, visit  https://hab.hrsa.gov/awards/fy-2018-ryan-white-hivaids-program-part-d-grant-awards.

Under Part F of the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program, approximately $68.6 million was awarded to support clinical training, oral health services, quality improvement, and the development of innovative models of care through several different programs. Approximately $8.9 million was awarded to 51 recipients through the HIV/AIDS Dental Reimbursement Program, and approximately $3.5 million was awarded to 12 recipients through the HIV/AIDS Community-Based Dental Partnership Program. For a list of the FY 2018 Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program Part F HIV/AIDS Dental Reimbursement Program award recipients and HIV/AIDS Community-Based Dental Partnership Program award recipients, visit https://hab.hrsa.gov/awards/fy-2018-ryan-white-hivaids-program-part-f-grant-awards.

Also under Part F, the AIDS Education and Training Centers Program (AETC) awarded approximately $31.2 million through 14 grants, cooperative agreements and contracts to support education and training of health care professionals, which includes a network of eight regional and two national centers. For a list of the FY 2018 Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program AETC award recipients, visit https://hab.hrsa.gov/awards/fy-2018-ryan-white-hivaids-program-aids-education-and-training-center-awards.

In addition, $25 million was awarded through the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program Special Projects of National Significance (SPNS) Program under Part F, which supports the development of innovative models of care, informing evidence-based interventions with populations living with HIV who are significantly difficult to engage, retain in care, and achieve viral suppression. For a list of current SPNS initiatives, visit here.

Grant awards in FY 2018 also support states, cities, counties, and communities to achieve the goals of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy for the United States: Updated to 2020. These include efforts to reduce new HIV infections, increase access to HIV care and improve health outcomes for people living with HIV infection, and reduce HIV-related disparities and health inequities.

To learn more about HRSA’s Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program, visit hab.hrsa.gov. For more information about HIV/AIDS prevention, testing, treatment, and research, visit HIV.gov.

Podcast: KHN’s ‘What The Health?’ Falling Premiums And Rising Political Tensions

Kaiser Health News:HealthReform - October 11, 2018
Mary Agnes Carey

Kaiser Health News

@MaryAgnesCarey

Read Mary Agnes' Stories Rebecca Adams

CQ Roll Call

@RebeccaAdamsDC

Read Rebecca's Stories Julie Appleby

Kaiser Health News

@Julie_Appleby

Read Julie's Stories Anna Edney

Bloomberg

@annaedney

Read Anna's Stories

The Trump administration announced that, for the first time, the average premium for a key plan sold on the federal health law’s insurance marketplaces will fall slightly next year. Federal officials said that changes they have made helped facilitate the reduction, but others argue that it was because more plans are moving back into those federal exchanges and making money.

The news is likely to further inflame the political debate on health care in the run-up to the midterm elections. Democrats and Republicans are battling over which party is more attuned to consumers’ needs on protections for people with preexisting conditions and affordable health care.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump signed two bills this week that would ban efforts to keep pharmacists from telling customers that their prescriptions would be cheaper if they paid in cash, rather than using their insurance. And the Food and Drug Administration this week announced it will ease the process for drugmakers to bring some products to market.

This week’s panelists for KHN’s “What the Health?” are Mary Agnes Carey of Kaiser Health News, Rebecca Adams of CQ Roll Call, Anna Edney of Bloomberg News and Julie Appleby of Kaiser Health News.

Among the takeaways from this week’s podcast:

  • The drop in the average price for ACA plans follows a recent analysis that found insurers are regaining profitability in the individual market.
  • Democrats this week were unsuccessful in their effort to get the Senate to reverse a new policy that eased rules for short-term health plans. The administration argues that these plans help provide a more affordable option for many people, but Democrats complain that they are junk insurance because they don’t have many of the protections offered through the ACA.
  • Trump and members of Congress celebrated a rare moment of bipartisanship on health care when the president signed the two bills restricting gag orders on pharmacists. Despite the goodwill, the much-touted aim of the administration to constrain drug prices has not made much progress.
  • Health care has been a key issue in midterm campaigns, with Democrats hitting hard at their opponents to charge that the GOP would not guarantee ACA protections for people with preexisting conditions. But Republicans are fighting back with personal stories of their own health concerns — and an op-ed by the president on concerns about some Democrats’ plans to expand Medicare.
  • The new policy announced by the FDA this week will apply to complex drugs, which are drugs that are coupled with a device, such as patches or auto-injectors. The agency said it would be more flexible in reviewing materials for approving those devices.

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

Mary Agnes Carey: The Washington Post’s “Patrick Kennedy Shepherded a Major Mental-Health Bill Into Law. Ten Years Later, Big Barriers Remain,” by Colby Itkowitz

Rebecca Adams:  The New York Times’ “Migrant Children in Search of Justice: A 2-Year-Old’s Day in Immigration Court,” by Vivian Yee and Miriam Jordan

Julie Appleby: Kaiser Health News’ “Spurred By Convenience, Millennials Often Spurn The ‘Family Doctor’ Model,” by Sandra G. Boodman

Anna Edney: The New York Times’ “These Cholesterol-Reducers May Save Lives. So Why Aren’t Heart Patients Getting Them?” and “In Medical Reporting, the Impact of Patients’ Stories,” both by Gina Kolata

To hear all our podcasts, click here.

And subscribe to What the Health? on iTunesStitcher or Google Play.

Obamacare Premiums Dip For First Time. Some Call It A Correction.

Kaiser Health News:HealthReform - October 11, 2018

After two years of double-digit price hikes, the average premium for individual health coverage on the federal health law’s insurance marketplace will drop by 1.5 percent for 2019, the Trump administration said Thursday.

The announcement  marked the first time average premiums have fallen since the exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act went into effect in 2014.

It also comes during a bitter midterm congressional campaign season in which health care is a central issue following last year’s efforts by Republicans to repeal the ACA.

Administration officials claimed credit for the price drop, saying it was due to their actions to make changes to the law. Health policy experts said it was a reaction to insurers’ huge profits following hefty premium increases on plans offered this year.

The federal exchange covers about 9 million people in 39 states. The other states and the District of Columbia have their own online marketplaces and were not included in the report.

The analysis by federal officials looked at the price of the second-lowest silver plan for a 27-year-old nonsmoker on the marketplaces. Those silver plans are used by the ACA to set subsidies.

Open enrollment for 2019 runs from Nov. 1 through Dec. 15.

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Charles Gaba, a Michigan-based blogger who tracks ACA sign-ups, noted that the numbers released by the administration were just one snapshot of the marketplace.

He said premiums next year will “still be a whopping 30% higher than they were in 2017, with the vast bulk of that due specifically to sabotage actions taken by the Trump Administration and Congressional Republicans.”

Before the 2010 health law passed, it was typical for individual health insurance rates to increase yearly, largely because people needing the insurance had above-average health risks.

The health law’s marketplace was designed to allow shoppers to easily compare rates for policies that had to meet federal benefit requirements, such as covering mental health and pregnancy care.

Under President Barack Obama, insurance rates on the marketplace rose 1 percent for plans available in 2015 and 8 percent in 2016. But, just as Obama was leaving office, rates rose 20 percent for 2017 plans. Premiums for plans in 2018 soared 34 percent, following changes made by the Trump administration that included dropping subsidies paid to insurers to help cover the cost of out-of-pocket expenses they shoulder for low-income customers.

“Premiums would have dropped more on average if not for harmful Trump administration actions,” said Sarah Lueck, senior policy analyst for the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. She cited decisions to expand the use of plans that don’t provide all ACA patient protections and the dramatic cut in outreach and enrollment assistance for consumers.

The vast majority of consumers buying on the exchange have been shielded from rate hikes because their incomes are low enough to qualify for federal subsidies. But the marketplace price hikes have become a political lightning rod — bolstering the arguments from Trump and congressional Republicans to repeal the health law.

Administration officials said a decision they made allowing seven states to set up reinsurance programs helped insurance companies lower premiums.

Seema Verma, administrator of the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, also pointed to new regulations allowing insurers to sell short-term policies. These policies can be renewed for up to three years and don’t have to meet federal minimum benefit rules. She said that caused carriers to drop rates on the exchange to be more competitive.

Those new plans are not yet available and are not included in the marketplace rates.

Despite the drop in prices, Verma said, premiums are still high. “To open the markets to more Americans … as well as the millions who are priced out of the market, the law needs to change,” she said.

Verma, like Trump, has repeatedly called for the health law to be repealed, but she did not repeat that call on Thursday.

During a briefing with reporters, she was asked about policy experts who say flat or declining rates for 2019 come mainly because insurers raised premiums so much in 2018 in response to Trump administration actions. She replied, “We heard a lot of predictions that didn’t turn out to be true.”

Cynthia Cox, who monitors the marketplaces for the Kaiser Family Foundation, wrote on Twitter: “One big reason insurers are lowering premiums: Individual market insurers are currently so profitable it would be hard for many companies to justify a rate increase.”

Those profits are also driving new companies into the Obamacare marketplace in several states, she said. (Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the foundation.)

Cox said some efforts by the Trump administration have made the marketplace more attractive to insurers, such as cutting in half the open-enrollment period and approving some states’ reinsurance plans. That green light allows states to help insurers pay for extremely costly patients so that premiums for the overall patient pool can remain relatively modest.

Rates still vary dramatically by state. For example, average premiums are dropping 26 percent in Tennessee but rising 16 percent in Delaware.

The drop in rates is good news for people buying unsubsidized coverage — those with incomes over 400 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $49,000 for an individual.

Consumers will get less assistance this fall in shopping for exchange plans. The Trump administration cut millions of dollars in funding to the program that pays groups to work with people needing help selecting coverage.

Nonetheless, Verma said the falling premiums show the administration has been defying its critics.

“While some have publicly been accusing us of sabotage, the reality is we have been working hard to mitigate damage caused by Obamacare,” she said. “Our actions have succeeded.”

Fact Check: Who’s Right On Protections For Preexisting Conditions? It’s Complicated

Kaiser Health News:Insurance - October 11, 2018

Ensuring that people with preexisting health conditions can get and keep health insurance is the most popular part of the Affordable Care Act. It has also become a flashpoint in this fall’s campaigns across the country.

And not only is the ACA, which mostly protects people who buy their own coverage, at risk. Also potentially in the crosshairs are preexisting conditions protections that predate the federal health law.

Democrats charge that Republicans’ opposition to the ACA puts those protections in peril, both by their (unsuccessful) votes in Congress in 2017 to “repeal and replace” the law, and via a federal lawsuit underway in Texas.

“800,000 West Virginians with preexisting conditions in jeopardy of losing their health care,” claimed Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).

Republicans disagree. “Preexisting conditions are safe,” President Donald Trump declared at a rally in West Virginia for Manchin’s GOP opponent, Patrick Morrisey. Morrisey, West Virginia’s attorney general, is one of a group of state officials suing to overturn the ACA.

Who is right? Like everything else in health care, it’s complicated.

What is clear, however, is that voters want protections. Even majorities of Republicans told pollsters this summer that it is “very important” that guarantees of coverage for preexisting conditions remain law.

Here are some key details that can help put the current political arguments in perspective.

Preexisting conditions are common.

Preexisting conditions are previous or ongoing medical issues that predate health insurance enrollment. The problem is that the term is a grab bag whose limits have never been defined. It certainly applies to serious ongoing conditions such as cancer, heart disease and asthma. But insurers also have used it to apply to conditions like pregnancy or far more trivial medical issues such as acne or a distant history of depression.

The Kaiser Family Foundation estimated in 2016 that more than a quarter of adults younger than 65 — about 52 million people — have a preexisting health condition that likely would have prevented them from purchasing individual health insurance under the pre-ACA rules. (Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the foundation.)

Protections vary by what kind of insurance you have.

But what protections people with preexisting conditions have depends on how they get their coverage. For that reason, it’s not right to say everyone with health problems is potentially at risk, as Democrats frequently suggest.

For example, Medicare, the federal health program for seniors, and Medicaid, the federal-state health plan for low-income people, do not discriminate in either coverage or price on the basis of preexisting conditions. The two programs together cover roughly 130 million Americans — nearly a third of the population.

The majority of Americans get their coverage through work. In 1996, Congress protected people with preexisting conditions in employer-based coverage with the passage of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, known as HIPAA.

HIPAA was intended to eliminate “job lock,” or the inability of a person with a preexisting condition (or a family member with a preexisting condition) to change jobs because coverage at the new job would likely come with a waiting period during which the condition would not be covered.

HIPAA banned those waiting periods for people who had maintained “continuous” coverage, meaning a break of no more than 63 days, and the law limited waiting periods to one year for those who were previously uninsured. In addition, it prohibited insurers from denying coverage to or raising premiums for workers based on their own or a family member’s health status or medical history.

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HIPAA was less successful in protecting people without job-based insurance. It sought to guarantee that people with preexisting conditions leaving the group market could buy individual coverage if they had remained continuously covered. But the law did not put limits on what individual insurers could charge for those policies. In many cases, insurers charged so much for these “HIPAA conversion” policies that almost no one could afford them.

The Affordable Care Act, passed in 2010, built on those 1996 protections, and specifically sought to help people buying their own coverage. It barred all health insurers from excluding people due to preexisting conditions, from charging them higher premiums and from imposing waiting periods for coverage of that condition.

While the protections were mostly aimed at the individual insurance market, where only a small portion of Americans get coverage, the ACA also made some changes to the employer market for people with preexisting conditions, by banning annual and lifetime coverage limits.

Will protections on preexisting conditions become collateral damage?

In 2017, the GOP-controlled House and Senate voted on several versions of a bill that would have dramatically overhauled the ACA, including its protections on preexisting conditions. Under the last bill that narrowly failed in the Senate, states would have been given authority to allow insurers to waive some of those protections, including the one requiring the same premiums be charged regardless of health status.

In February, 18 GOP attorneys general and two GOP governors filed suit in federal court in Texas. They charge that because Congress in its 2017 tax bill eliminated the ACA’s penalty for not having insurance, the entire federal health law is unconstitutional. Their argument is that the Supreme Court upheld the ACA in 2012 based only on Congress’ taxing power, and that without the tax, the rest of the law should fall.

The Trump administration, technically the defendant in that case, said in June that it disagreed that the entire law should fall. But it is arguing that the parts of the law addressing preexisting conditions are so tightly connected to the tax penalty that they should be struck down.

Clearly, if the lawsuit prevails in either its original form or the form preferred by the Trump administration, preexisting protections are not “safe,” as the president claimed.

Even more complicated, the protections written into HIPAA were rewritten and incorporated into the ACA, so if the ACA in whole or part were to be struck down, HIPAA’s preexisting conditions protections might go away, too.

Republicans in Congress have introduced a series of proposals they say would replicate the existing protections. But critics contend none of them covers as many situations as the ACA does. For example, a bill unveiled by several Republican senators in August would require insurers to offer coverage to people with preexisting health conditions, but not require coverage of the conditions themselves.

That hasn’t stopped Republicans from claiming that they support protections for preexisting conditions.

“Make no mistake about it: Patients with preexisting conditions should be covered,” said Wisconsin GOP Senate candidate Leah Vukmir, who is running to unseat Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin. Health care has been a major issue in that race, as well as many others. Yet Vukmir was recently hailed by Vice President Mike Pence as someone who will vote to “fully repeal and replace Obamacare.”

Meanwhile, Democrats who are chastising their Republican opponents over the issue are sometimes going a bit over the top, too.

An example is Manchin’s claim about the threat to coverage for 800,000 people in West Virginia. West Virginia’s population is only 1.8 million and more than a million of those people are on Medicare or Medicaid. That would mean every other person in the state has a preexisting condition. A recent study found West Virginia has a relatively high level of preexisting conditions among adults, but it is still less than 40 percent.

Fact-Check: Who’s Right On Protections For Preexisting Conditions? It’s Complicated

Kaiser Health News:HealthReform - October 11, 2018

Ensuring that people with preexisting health conditions can get and keep health insurance is the most popular part of the Affordable Care Act. It has also become a flashpoint in this fall’s campaigns across the country.

And not only is the ACA, which mostly protects people who buy their own coverage, at risk. Also potentially in the crosshairs are preexisting conditions protections that predate the federal health law.

Democrats charge that Republicans’ opposition to the ACA puts those protections in peril, both by their (unsuccessful) votes in Congress in 2017 to “repeal and replace” the law, and via a federal lawsuit underway in Texas.

“800,000 West Virginians with preexisting conditions in jeopardy of losing their health care,” claimed Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).

Republicans disagree. “Preexisting conditions are safe,” President Donald Trump declared at a rally in West Virginia for Manchin’s GOP opponent, Patrick Morrisey. Morrisey, West Virginia’s attorney general, is one of a group of state officials suing to overturn the ACA.

Who is right? Like everything else in health care, it’s complicated.

What is clear, however, is that voters want protections. Even majorities of Republicans told pollsters this summer that it is “very important” that guarantees of coverage for preexisting conditions remain law.

Here are some key details that can help put the current political arguments in perspective.

Preexisting conditions are common.

Preexisting conditions are previous or ongoing medical issues that predate health insurance enrollment. The problem is that the term is a grab bag whose limits have never been defined. It certainly applies to serious ongoing conditions such as cancer, heart disease and asthma. But insurers also have used it to apply to conditions like pregnancy or far more trivial medical issues such as acne or a distant history of depression.

The Kaiser Family Foundation estimated in 2016 that more than a quarter of adults younger than 65 — about 52 million people — have a preexisting health condition that likely would have prevented them from purchasing individual health insurance under the pre-ACA rules. (Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the foundation.)

Protections vary by what kind of insurance you have.

But what protections people with preexisting conditions have depends on how they get their coverage. For that reason, it’s not right to say everyone with health problems is potentially at risk, as Democrats frequently suggest.

For example, Medicare, the federal health program for seniors, and Medicaid, the federal-state health plan for low-income people, do not discriminate in either coverage or price on the basis of preexisting conditions. The two programs together cover roughly 130 million Americans — nearly a third of the population.

The majority of Americans get their coverage through work. In 1996, Congress protected people with preexisting conditions in employer-based coverage with the passage of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, known as HIPAA.

HIPAA was intended to eliminate “job lock,” or the inability of a person with a preexisting condition (or a family member with a preexisting condition) to change jobs because coverage at the new job would likely come with a waiting period during which the condition would not be covered.

HIPAA banned those waiting periods for people who had maintained “continuous” coverage, meaning a break of no more than 63 days, and the law limited waiting periods to one year for those who were previously uninsured. In addition, it prohibited insurers from denying coverage to or raising premiums for workers based on their own or a family member’s health status or medical history.

Email Sign-Up

Subscribe to KHN’s free Morning Briefing.

Sign Up Please confirm your email address below: Sign Up

HIPAA was less successful in protecting people without job-based insurance. It sought to guarantee that people with preexisting conditions leaving the group market could buy individual coverage if they had remained continuously covered. But the law did not put limits on what individual insurers could charge for those policies. In many cases, insurers charged so much for these “HIPAA conversion” policies that almost no one could afford them.

The Affordable Care Act, passed in 2010, built on those 1996 protections, and specifically sought to help people buying their own coverage. It barred all health insurers from excluding people due to preexisting conditions, from charging them higher premiums and from imposing waiting periods for coverage of that condition.

While the protections were mostly aimed at the individual insurance market, where only a small portion of Americans get coverage, the ACA also made some changes to the employer market for people with preexisting conditions, by banning annual and lifetime coverage limits.

Will protections on preexisting conditions become collateral damage?

In 2017, the GOP-controlled House and Senate voted on several versions of a bill that would have dramatically overhauled the ACA, including its protections on preexisting conditions. Under the last bill that narrowly failed in the Senate, states would have been given authority to allow insurers to waive some of those protections, including the one requiring the same premiums be charged regardless of health status.

In February, 18 GOP attorneys general and two GOP governors filed suit in federal court in Texas. They charge that because Congress in its 2017 tax bill eliminated the ACA’s penalty for not having insurance, the entire federal health law is unconstitutional. Their argument is that the Supreme Court upheld the ACA in 2012 based only on Congress’ taxing power, and that without the tax, the rest of the law should fall.

The Trump administration, technically the defendant in that case, said in June that it disagreed that the entire law should fall. But it is arguing that the parts of the law addressing preexisting conditions are so tightly connected to the tax penalty that they should be struck down.

Clearly, if the lawsuit prevails in either its original form or the form preferred by the Trump administration, preexisting protections are not “safe,” as the president claimed.

Even more complicated, the protections written into HIPAA were rewritten and incorporated into the ACA, so if the ACA in whole or part were to be struck down, HIPAA’s preexisting conditions protections might go away, too.

Republicans in Congress have introduced a series of proposals they say would replicate the existing protections. But critics contend none of them covers as many situations as the ACA does. For example, a bill unveiled by several Republican senators in August would require insurers to offer coverage to people with preexisting health conditions, but not require coverage of the conditions themselves.

That hasn’t stopped Republicans from claiming that they support protections for preexisting conditions.

“Make no mistake about it: Patients with preexisting conditions should be covered,” said Wisconsin GOP Senate candidate Leah Vukmir, who is running to unseat Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin. Health care has been a major issue in that race, as well as many others. Yet Vukmir was recently hailed by Vice President Mike Pence as someone who will vote to “fully repeal and replace Obamacare.”

Meanwhile, Democrats who are chastising their Republican opponents over the issue are sometimes going a bit over the top, too.

An example is Manchin’s claim about the threat to coverage for 800,000 people in West Virginia. West Virginia’s population is only 1.8 million and more than a million of those people are on Medicare or Medicaid. That would mean every other person in the state has a preexisting condition. A recent study found West Virginia has a relatively high level of preexisting conditions among adults, but it is still less than 40 percent.

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