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Updated: 15 hours 13 min ago

How Will Rural Americans Fare During Medicaid Unwinding? Experts Fear They’re on Their Own

September 20, 2023

Abby Madore covers a lot of ground each day at work.

A staffer at a community health center in Carson City, Nevada, Madore spends her days helping low-income residents understand their health insurance options, including Medicaid. Her phone is always ringing, she said, as she fields calls from clients who dial in from the state’s remote reaches seeking help.

It’s a big job, especially this year as states work to sort through their Medicaid rolls after the end of a pandemic-era freeze that prohibited disenrollment.

A few dozen specialists work for seven navigator organizations tasked with helping Nevadans enroll in or keep their coverage. Madore said she mostly works with people who live in rural Nevada, a sprawling landmass of more than 90,000 square miles.

Katie Charleson, communications officer for Nevada’s state health marketplace, said it’s always a challenge to reach people in rural areas. Experts say this problem isn’t unique to the state and is causing concern that limited resources will throw rural Americans into jeopardy as the Medicaid unwinding continues.

KFF’s Medicaid Enrollment and Unwinding Tracker shows that 72% of people who have lost Medicaid coverage since states began the unwinding process this year were disenrolled for procedural reasons, not because officials determined they are no longer eligible for the joint state-federal health insurance program.

By late August, federal officials directed state Medicaid overseers to pause some procedural disenrollments and reinstate some recipients whose coverage was dropped.

Experts say those procedural disenrollments could disproportionately affect rural people.

A brief recently published by researchers at the Georgetown University Center for Children and Families noted that rural Medicaid recipients face additional barriers to renewing coverage, including longer distances to eligibility offices and less access to the internet.

Nationwide, Medicaid and CHIP, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, covered 47% of children and 18% of adults, respectively, in small towns and rural areas, compared with 40% of children and 15% of adults in metropolitan counties.

“As is clear from our research, rural communities rely on Medicaid to form the backbone of their health care system for children and families,” said Joan Alker, who is one of the brief’s co-authors, the executive director of the Center for Children and Families, and a research professor at Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy. “So if states bungle unwinding, this is going to impact rural communities, which are already struggling to keep enough providers around and keep their hospitals.”

A lack of access to navigators in rural locales to help Medicaid enrollees keep their coverage or find other insurance if they’re no longer eligible could exacerbate the difficulties rural residents face. Navigators help consumers determine whether they’re eligible for Medicaid or CHIP, coverage for children whose families earn too much to qualify for Medicaid, and help them enroll. If their clients are not eligible for these programs, navigators help them enroll in marketplace plans.

Navigators operate separately from Nevada’s more than 200 call center staffers who help residents manage social service benefits.

Navigators are required by the federal government to provide their services at no cost to consumers and give unbiased guidance, setting them apart from insurance broker agents, who earn commissions on certain health plans. Without them, there would be no free service guiding consumers through shopping for health insurance and understanding whether their health plans cover key services, like preventive care.

Roughly 30 to 40 certified enrollment counselors like Madore work at navigator organizations helping consumers enroll in plans through Nevada Health Link, the state health marketplace, which sells Affordable Care Act plans, said Charleson. One of these groups is based in the small capital city of Carson City, 30 miles south of Reno, where fewer than 60,000 people live. The rest are in the urban centers of Reno and Las Vegas.

Availability of navigators and their outreach tactics vary from state to state.

In Montana, which is larger than Nevada but has one-third the population, six people work as navigators. They cover the entire state, reaching Medicaid beneficiaries and people seeking help with coverage by phone or in person by traveling to far-flung communities. For example, a navigator in Billings, in south-central Montana, has worked with the Crow and Northern Cheyenne Tribes, whose reservations lie relatively nearby, said Olivia Riutta, director of population health for the Montana Primary Care Association. But officials struggle to reach northeastern Montana, with its Fort Peck Reservation.

Having navigators in rural communities to help people in person is an ongoing challenge the country faces, said Alker. But the unwinding circumstances make it an especially important moment for the role navigators play in guiding people through complex insurance processes, she said.

This became clear following a recent survey regarding what consumers encounter when independently searching for health coverage on Google. “The results are really concerning,” said survey co-author JoAnn Volk, a research professor and the founder and co-director of the Georgetown University Center on Health Insurance Reforms.

The researchers found that former Medicaid enrollees looking for health plans on the private market face aggressive, misleading marketing of limited-benefit products that don’t cover important services and fail to protect consumers from high health costs.

Researchers shopped for coverage using two profiles of consumers who were losing Medicaid coverage and were eligible for a plan with no premiums or deductibles on the ACA marketplace.

The team reported, though, that none of 20 sales representatives who responded to their queries mentioned that plan, and more than half pushed the limited-benefit products. The representatives also made false and misleading statements about the plans they were touting and misrepresented the availability or affordability of the marketplace plans.

The sales reps and brokers quoted limited plans that cost $200 to $300 a month, Volk said. Such an expense could prove unaffordable for consumers who may still be low-income despite being ineligible for Medicaid.

“If they can’t get to a navigator, I would not trust that they would get to their best coverage option in the marketplace, or to the marketplace at all, frankly,” Volk said.

Making a difficult problem more challenging, the federal government does not require states to break down Medicaid disenrollment data by county, making it harder for experts and researchers to track and differentiate rural and urban concerns. The Center for Children and Families does so with data from the Census Bureau, which Alker pointed out won’t be available until next fall.

A data point that will be important to watch as states continue the redetermination process, Alker said, is call center statistics. People in rural areas rely more heavily on that method of renewing coverage.

“Call abandonment rate” is one such statistic. CMS defines it as the percentage of calls that drop from the queue in two separate measures — calls dropped up to and including 60 seconds, and calls dropped after 60 seconds. In August, the agency sent a letter to the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services about its rate: An average of 56% of calls dropped in May, the first month after Nevada’s unwinding began.

The agency “has concerns that your average call center wait time and abandonment rate are impeding equitable access to assistance and the ability for people to apply for or renew Medicaid and CHIP coverage by phone and may indicate non-compliance with federal requirements,” said Anne Marie Costello, deputy director of CMS.

In the letter, Costello also cited the 45% of Medicaid enrollees whose coverage was terminated for procedural reasons in May.

All 50 states received letters about early data, but only Idaho, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah had higher disenrollment rates than Nevada, and no state had a higher rate of call abandonment.

Officials at Nevada’s Division of Welfare and Supportive Services said its call center, staffed by 277 family service specialists, receives more than 200,000 calls a month. A spokesperson said the phone system offers self-service options whereby customers can obtain information about their Medicaid renewal date and benefit amounts by following prompts. Because those calls aren’t handled by a case manager, they are considered “abandoned,” the spokesperson said, raising the rate even though callers’ questions may have been fully addressed.

People shopping around for coverage after a lapse might go into a panic, Madore said, and the best part of her job is providing relief by helping them understand their options after disenrollment from Medicaid or CHIP.

When people find out the wide range of free services navigators like Madore offer, they’re shocked, she said.

“They’re unaware of how much support we can provide,” Madore said. “I’ve had people call me back and they say, ‘It’s my first time using insurance. Where do I go to urgent care?’”

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


This story can be republished for free (details).

KFF Health News' 'What the Health?': Underinsured Is the New Uninsured

September 14, 2023
The Host Emmarie Huetteman KFF Health News Emmarie Huetteman, associate Washington editor, previously spent more than a decade reporting on the federal government, most recently covering surprise medical bills, drug pricing reform, and other health policy debates in Washington and on the campaign trail.

The annual U.S. Census Bureau report this week revealed a drop in the uninsured rate last year as more working-age people obtained employer coverage. However, this year’s end of pandemic-era protections — which allowed many people to stay on Medicaid — is likely to have changed that picture quite a bit since. Meanwhile, reports show even many of those with insurance continue to struggle to afford their health care costs, and some providers are encouraging patients to take out loans that tack interest onto their medical debt.

Also, a mystery is unfolding in the federal budget: Why has recent Medicare spending per beneficiary leveled off? And the CDC recommends anyone who isat least 6 months old get the new covid booster.

This week’s panelists are Emmarie Huetteman of KFF Health News, Margot Sanger-Katz of The New York Times, Sarah Karlin-Smith of the Pink Sheet, and Joanne Kenen of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Politico.

Panelists Sarah Karlin-Smith Pink Sheet @SarahKarlin Read Sarah's stories Joanne Kenen Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Politico @JoanneKenen Read Joanne's stories Margot Sanger-Katz The New York Times @sangerkatz Read Margot's stories

Among the takeaways from this week’s episode:

  • The Census Bureau reported this week that the uninsured rate dropped to 10.8% in 2022, down from 11.6% in 2021, driven largely by a rise in employer-sponsored coverage. Since then, pandemic-era coverage protections have lapsed, though it remains to be seen exactly how many people could lose Medicaid coverage and stay uninsured.
  • A concerning number of people who have insurance nonetheless struggle to afford their out-of-pocket costs. Medical debt is a common, escalating problem, exacerbated now as hospitals and other providers direct patients toward bank loans, credit cards, and other options that also saddle them with interest.
  • Some state officials are worried that people who lose their Medicaid coverage could choose short-term health insurance plans with limited benefits — so-called junk plans — and find themselves owing more than they’d expect for future care.
  • Meanwhile, a mystery is unfolding in the federal budget: After decades of warnings about runaway government spending, why has spending per Medicare beneficiary defied predictions and leveled off? At the same time, private insurance costs are increasing, with employer-sponsored plans expecting their largest increase in more than a decade.
  • And the push for people to get the new covid booster is seeking to enshrine it in Americans’ annual preventive care regimen.

Plus, for “extra credit,” the panelists suggest health policy stories they read this week that they think you should read, too:

Emmarie Huetteman: KFF Health News’ “The Shrinking Number of Primary Care Physicians Is Reaching a Tipping Point,” by Elisabeth Rosenthal.

Sarah Karlin-Smith: MedPage Today’s “Rural Hospital Turns to GoFundMe to Stay Afloat,” by Kristina Fiore.

Joanne Kenen: ProPublica’s “How Columbia Ignored Women, Undermined Prosecutors and Protected a Predator for More Than 20 Years,” by Bianca Fortis and Laura Beil.

Margot Sanger-Katz: Congressional Budget Office’s “Raising the Excise Tax on Cigarettes: Effects on Health and the Federal Budget.”

Also mentioned in this week’s episode:

Credits Francis Ying Audio producer Terry Byrne Copy chief Gabe Brison-Trezise Deputy copy chief

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


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CDC Faces Dilemma Over Recommending New Covid Booster for All

September 11, 2023

A small percentage of Americans got the most recent covid-19 booster shot, and even fewer probably realize the federal government is preparing to recommend yet another shot as early as Tuesday.

Until a week or two ago, William Schaffner read that indifference as a sign the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should advocate vaccinating only those most at risk from the virus.

But then Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, changed his mind.

Members of the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices won him over to the argument that the vaccine be recommended for all Americans above 6 months of age, he said in an interview. The committee, which sets U.S. vaccination policy and helps determine insurance coverage for vaccines, will vote on the question Tuesday as it weighs the benefits of updated vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna, and Novavax.

Not all vaccine experts see it quite as Schaffner, a nonvoting liaison representative to the ACIP, does.

“I don’t plan to get it myself,” said Paul Offit, 72, the director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. He’s had two boosters and got covid last year. Another vaccine might increase his protection against mild infection for a few months, but like most Americans’ immune systems, his is already familiar enough with the virus to protect him from serious disease, Offit believes.

Some of Schaffner’s scientific colleagues argue the government should be recommending the shot only for frail, older, sick, and immunocompromised people. Over 95% of the U.S. population are already covid-immunized through vaccination, infection, or both, and the risks of serious illness for healthy younger people are not great.

Schaffner doesn’t disagree. But lots of not-necessarily-vulnerable Americans do want the shot for themselves and their children, and, without a CDC recommendation, insurance companies wouldn’t have to pay for the vaccine.

It’s “pretty awful” that Pfizer and Moderna, the two main covid vaccine producers, have decided to charge up to $130 a shot, compared with $30 last year for the booster, which was produced under government contract, said Kathryn Edwards, a professor of pediatrics at Vanderbilt and a member of an ACIP working group on covid. (Pfizer spokesperson Amy Rose said the price was “consistent with the value delivered” and reflected higher expenses to provide the shots commercially.)

But a partial recommendation could leave the very groups who suffered most during the pandemic — minorities and other disadvantaged groups — unable to get vaccinated if they want but can’t afford to.

“The last thing we need are financial barriers that would enhance disparities,” Schaffner said.

A 1993 law requires the federal government to pay for childhood vaccines recommended by the ACIP, and more recent legislation requires coverage of adult vaccines within 15 days of an ACIP recommendation.

Pfizer and Moderna continue to make billions of dollars in sales of covid vaccines, although they are producing fewer doses. Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel told investors in August that the company expected its global covid vaccine sales to be $6 billion to $8 billion this year, depending on uptake in the U.S. Pfizer expects about $14 billion this year.

Within a few years, both companies expect to be producing combination vaccines protecting against influenza, covid, and possibly respiratory syncytial virus. About 170 million flu vaccines were distributed last flu season in the U.S., so a combination product could lock in a large market for covid vaccines as well.

Despite broad recommendations for the updated covid booster shot released last fall, only 17% of the U.S. population got it — and about 43% of those over 65. How many will get the vaccine this season is uncertain, as is the benefit of the shot. A study of the new Moderna vaccine showed that while it increased antibodies to various covid strains, it provided roughly the same protection against them as last year’s booster shot, which was given again to the control group.

The new vaccine is “not remotely a game changer,” said John Moore, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Weill Cornell Medical College.

For healthier adults and children, “it’s a boost in protection for a few months,” Moore said. Who exactly will benefit most is impossible to predict because the U.S. is “not a cookie-cutter population.” Its people have by now been exposed to a bewildering combination of vaccines, boosters, and different strains of the virus.

Christopher Ridley, a Moderna spokesperson, said the updated vaccine was well matched to current viral strains, adding, “We encourage people to get vaccinated for covid when they get their annual flu shot.”

Fearmongering has distorted the threat of the virus, Moore said. He is skeptical of the significance of the recent uptick in covid hospitalizations, and criticized social media posters who have raised fears about new viral strains that don’t seem to pose any fundamental challenge to the new vaccines.

“Editorial FOMO drove summer surge worries,” Moore said, using an acronym for “fear of missing out.” Despite worrying comments and tweets by physicians such as Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, about a new covid variant called BA.2.86, “it turned out to be a real nothingburger,” Moore said.

Even Ashish Jha, who coordinated the Biden administration’s covid response until returning to his post as dean of the Brown University School of Public Health this year, agrees there is some ambiguity in the issue. While he recommends that 20-year-olds get the booster, “a reasonable person” could disagree.

Unfortunately, such discussions in the current environment are clouded by “nonsense and bad information” that causes confusion and hurts people, he said in a recent podcast interview.

Whether truly needed or not, the vaccines, proponents say, are safe enough that even the small benefit of taking them will outweigh the risks. The major, though rare, serious side effect of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines — myocarditis, which particularly affected men in their teens and 20s — appears mainly to have occurred during the first two-shot series.

Paradoxically, those who most need protection from covid are often likely to have weakened immune systems that fail to generate the hoped-for response to vaccination.

So the vaccine is arguably most relevant for healthy people who come in frequent contact with vulnerable individuals. With that in mind, England has announced the new booster would be offered only to people who are 65 or older, in nursing homes, or immunologically vulnerable — or who work or live with members of those groups.

“Any efforts to promote the new boosters should focus squarely on those at high risk,” said Norman Hearst, a family physician in San Francisco. While recommending the vaccine for older patients, he said he wouldn’t advise a booster for young males because of the rare risk of myocarditis and the negligible benefit. “The question is all the other people in between.”

In a commentary last November, infectious disease doctors Shira Doron and Monica Gandhi said vaccination campaigns should be radically honest about the limited value of vaccines for long-term protection against infection. Such a campaign might advocate vaccinating children because even though it won’t protect durably, “it might prevent the rare case of severe disease.”

Meanwhile, the vaccine makers have their own plans for publicizing the vaccines. In its call with investors last month, Moderna said it was focused on increasing sales and solidifying Moderna’s market share with branded promotion. Its “awareness campaigns” will tout ACIP recommendations and “connect covid-19 with seasonal flu vaccines with the goal to drive consumers to get vaccinated this fall,” a company official said.

Moderna is co-sponsoring tennis’ U.S. Open this year and aired a video at the event Sept. 8 honoring Arthur Ashe, the only Black man to win Grand Slam titles, whom it credited with helping destigmatize HIV by revealing he had the virus.

The video presentation suggested that Moderna, like Ashe, has done well by being bold.

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


This story can be republished for free (details).

Hollywood’s A-List Health Insurance Is Jeopardized by the Labor Strikes

September 07, 2023

The issues dominating the dual Hollywood strikes by actors and writers are artificial intelligence, residual payments, and job protections. But one topic that’s often a contentious point in labor negotiations — health insurance — has slipped under the radar.

A-list stars have been out in force snapping selfies on picket lines in the bright California sun, but it’s the people who may have never walked the red carpet who are forgoing a paycheck and potentially their health insurance as the negotiations drag on and work dries up.

The health insurance offered by both unions is predicated on the notion that it is for members who work consistently and lucratively enough to make a minimum amount of money. That makes the insurance difficult first to attain and then to sustain. In exchange, it is very, very good health insurance.

Often referred to in hushed, reverent tones as the “Cadillac of health insurance” by those who have it, the policy offered by the Writers Guild of America, formerly the Screen Writers Guild, feels like a holdover from a bygone age. It has no monthly premiums, costs $600 a year to cover the rest of your immediate family, and has deductibles in the hundreds — not thousands — of dollars.

But the biggest strike in more than six decades in Hollywood threatens that security. The WGA has been on strike since May 2, and the actors’ union, SAG-AFTRA, since mid-July. Together they represent over 170,000 workers, who have refused to perform any part of their job since talks with studios and streamers stalled. Writers and actors could lose their eligibility for insurance simply because they aren’t working while striking.

Filmmaker and Writers Guild member Susanna Fogel said no matter how good her union health insurance is, members are always at risk of losing it. “If we’re this close to not having it, then we’re already on a razor’s edge,” she said, “which is kind of why we’re striking, even though in the short term it sort of just shines a light on the problem.”

A Complicated Formula for Writers

For writers to qualify for health insurance, they must earn a little over $41,700 in covered union work within a year. Residuals don’t count. The income requirement continues to rise, which, coupled with the increasingly uncertain reliability of employment, means even experienced writers can have a hard time qualifying.

Writers can accumulate credits by qualifying for WGA health insurance for 10 years and by earning more than $100,000 in covered work. Top earners can rack up three points per year, which can be cashed in when writers experience a dry spell and can’t make the minimum income requirement, but health coverage ends the quarter after the credits are used up.

For example, a writer who qualifies for health insurance for 10 years but earns less than $100,000 can cash in all their points and continue their insurance for up to a year and a half if they are insuring only themselves.

But insuring dependents uses up more credits, meaning people with families have less of a stopgap to fall back on.

As the strike stretches into another quarter, many union writers are furtively calculating how many credits they have and how long this temporary measure will buy them, if they have credits at all.

Actors’ Good Deal Is Precarious

By contrast, residual payments do count toward the $26,000 per year that members of SAG-AFTRA must earn to qualify for health insurance offered by the actors’ union. So boosting residual payments, especially from streamers like Netflix, which can pay almost nothing, is a high priority for members on the margins.

Plan premiums from SAG-AFTRA are $125 a month for union members. For a family of four or more, the monthly cost rises to $249 a month, or $2,988 a year. That’s less than half of the $6,680 that the average California worker with employer-sponsored health insurance paid for coverage for a family of four in 2022, according to a report by the California Health Care Foundation. (KFF Health News produces California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.)

Members of both unions say it took them years to make enough money to qualify for the union health insurance, while other union members who have worked in the industry for years never have.

“The moments that I’ve been at risk of or have lost health insurance in the past, pre-strike, were when I was working,” said filmmaker Fogel, who is also a member of the Directors Guild of America. “I was working, but there were particulars to the work that just made it fall short or fall in the wrong month to stay covered. So it was just always a stress.”

Should the unions simply drop the income requirement to a lower amount so more members could qualify? Alex Winter, a longtime member of three industry unions, doesn’t think so.

“It seems draconian to turn back to the unions and say, ‘Well, since we have these oligarchs who are hoovering up all the profits, let’s try to take what few squirrel nuts we have and scatter them out amongst whoever survived staying in the industry,’ as opposed to fighting to get equitable pay, which is what we’re doing,” Winter said.

Both SAG-AFTRA and WGA were approached for interviews about their health insurance offerings. SAG-AFTRA declined to be interviewed and WGA sent LAist a link to its FAQ page.

SAG-AFTRA sent members a letter on Aug. 30 saying health insurance would be extended for certain members who would otherwise have lost eligibility on Oct. 1. Members who made at least $22,000 before the strike began will continue to get union health insurance through the end of the year.

A New California Law Could Help Strikers on the Margins

All California workers who lose their employer-sponsored health insurance may be eligible for the state’s Medicaid program, known as Medi-Cal, or qualify to buy health insurance through Covered California, where their costs could be low if they have minimal income. Still, it would be a disruption to lose their low-cost SAG-AFTRA or WGA plans, and an additional expense at a time when striking workers are making much less money.

Writers and actors who lose their union health insurance because of the strike could benefit from a new California law that took effect July 1 aimed at averting just that situation.

AB 2530 received $2 million in funding under the new state budget. To qualify, a union worker must first lose coverage as a result of the strike. According to Covered California spokesperson Craig Tomiyoshi, eligible workers will have their premiums covered as if their incomes were just above the Medicaid eligibility level.

Not all striking workers will enroll in a free plan. Striking workers will be able to pick plans that are more expensive than the benchmark plan. If they do, they will pay the difference in premiums.

“Covered California has seen fewer than 150 applicants who have identified an affiliation to WGA or SAG-AFTRA apply for coverage,” said spokesperson Kelly Green. She added that they expect to see more if the strikes continue and that people who anticipate losing their union health insurance should get in touch.

On Jan. 1, another new law kicks in. Covered California will end deductibles on the middle-tier benchmark plans, meaning a striking worker could receive free premiums under one law and no deductibles in the new year, if the labor dispute lasts that long.

These new rules don’t cover crew members who are not part of the striking unions but have lost health insurance due to the work stoppage.

A new mutual aid group was created to fill that gap.

The Union Solidarity Coalition, known by the acronym TUSC, has raised more than $315,000 to give assistance to International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and Teamsters members, said founding member Winter.

“I don’t know anyone, honestly, in a lot of the primary crew areas who isn’t in danger of losing their health insurance, and I know a lot of people who have lost their health insurance,” Winter said.

The idea for the nonprofit began with conversations between crews and filmmakers, said Fogel, a fellow founding TUSC member.

“Because their coverage is based on the hours that they get within a certain window of time, some of the [crew members] mentioned they or people they knew were at risk for not making their hours due to productions shutting down, or if they opted not to cross a picket line, that could cost them their health insurance,” she said.

TUSC has partnered with the Motion Picture and Television Fund and its Entertainment Health Insurance Solutions, which acts as an insurance navigator for people in the industry.

Fogel said it’s about making sure that everyone in the industry has access to high-quality health care no matter the current industry conditions.

“Every so often, when there’s one group of people that are going on strike, and it’s our turn to strike right now, we just wanted to kind of let the other unions know that we consider ourselves to be part of a collective, and we hope that they feel that love from us,” Fogel said.

Could studios and streamers continue the industry members’ coverage? They could, but it’s unlikely because decision-makers are on the other side of the bargaining table.

Half of the trustees of the Motion Picture Industry Pension & Health Plans are represented by companies involved in the strike. The WGA’s strike FAQ tells members “there is no Health Fund requirement that the Health Plan extend health insurance coverage during a strike, and Trustees are 50% management and 50% Guild.”

In July, Matt Loeb, president of IATSE, the union that represents behind-the-scenes workers, called for studios and streamers to offer an extension of health care benefits to those who may lose them if they fall short of qualifying during the strikes. IATSE is not on strike.

“Make no mistake — if the studios truly cared about the economic fallout of their preemptive work slowdown … they could continue to pay crewmembers and fully fund their health care at any moment, as they did in 2020 during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Loeb wrote.

This article is from a partnership that includes LAist, NPR, and KFF Health News.

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


This story can be republished for free (details).

KFF Health News' 'What the Health?': 3 Health Policy Experts You Should Know

August 31, 2023
The Host Julie Rovner KFF Health News @jrovner Read Julie's stories. Julie Rovner is chief Washington correspondent and host of KFF Health News’ weekly health policy news podcast, “What the Health?” A noted expert on health policy issues, Julie is the author of the critically praised reference book “Health Care Politics and Policy A to Z,” now in its third edition.

In this special episode, host Julie Rovner, KFF Health News’ chief Washington correspondent, interviews three noted health policy experts.

Amy Finkelstein is a health economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-author of “We’ve Got You Covered: Rebooting American Health Care,” which posits a new approach to universal health insurance. Sylvia Morris is a physician and one of the co-authors of “The Game Plan: A Woman’s Guide to Becoming a Doctor and Living a Life in Medicine,” in which five former medical school classmates share things they wish they had known earlier about how to thrive in what is still a male-dominated profession. And Michael LeNoir is a pediatrician, allergist, former broadcaster, and health educator in the San Francisco Bay Area who founded the African American Wellness Project, aimed at helping historically underserved African American patients better participate in their own care.

Click to open the transcript Transcript: 3 Health Policy Experts You Should Know

[Editor’s note: This transcript, generated using transcription software, has been edited for style and clarity.]

Julie Rovner: Hello and welcome back to “What the Health?” I’m Julie Rovner, chief Washington correspondent for KFF Health News. Normally I’m joined by some of the best and smartest health reporters in Washington. But today we have a very special episode. Rather than our usual news wrap, we have three separate interviews I did earlier this month with three very interesting guests: author and health economist Amy Finkelstein, author and physician Sylvia Morris, and physician and medical educator Michael LeNoir. So let’s get right to it.

I am pleased to welcome to the podcast Amy Finkelstein, professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, noted health policy wonk, and one of my favorite people in health care. She’s got a new book, just out, called “We’ve Got You Covered: Rebooting American Health Care.” Amy Finkelstein, welcome to “What the Health?”

Amy Finkelstein: Thanks so much for having me on, Julie.

Rovner: So it’s been a minute since large-scale health system reform was on the national agenda — I think, even in the research community — which is in some ways odd because I don’t think there’s ever been as much unanimity that the health system is completely dysfunctional as there is right now. But I’m starting to see inklings of ideas bubbling up. I interviewed Kate Baicker, your former partner in research, a couple of months ago, and I don’t know if you saw it, but there’s a new Republican health reform plan just out from the Hoover Institution. Why is now the time to start talking about this again?

Finkelstein: I mean, I think the right question is why haven’t we been talking about it all along? I think it’s, unfortunately, always timely to talk about how to fix the incredibly rooted rot in our health care quote-unquote “system.”

Rovner: Why has it been so hard to reach any consensus about how health insurance should work? We don’t … I mean, we’re at a point even in the United States where we don’t all agree that everyone should have health insurance.

Finkelstein: So it’s a really good question. I think my co-author, Liran Einav, who’s my long-term collaborator, and I came to realize in writing this book is that we weren’t getting the right answers and consensus on them because we weren’t asking the right questions, both as researchers and in the public policy discourse. There’s a lot of discussion of “What do you think of single-payer?” or “Should we have a public option?” or “What about health savings accounts?” But what we came to realize, and it’s kind of idiotically obvious once we say it, but it still unfortunately bears saying: You can’t talk about the solution until you agree on what is the goal. What are we trying to do in health policy and health policy reform? And there are, of course, many admirable reasons to want health policy reform, or government intervention, more generally, in health policy. You can think, and this is what we’ve worked on for many years, that, you know, Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” doesn’t work that well in medical marketplace. You can be interested in making sure that we try to improve population health. You can think that health care is a human right. There are many possible reasons. What we came to realize in working on this book, and what then provided startling clarity and, hopefully, ultimately consensus on the solution, is that while all of these may be admirable goals, none of them are actually the problem that we have been trying but failing to solve with our health policy for the last 70-plus years. What becomes startlingly clear when you look at our history — and it’s the same in other countries as well, they’ve just succeeded more than we have — is that there is a very clear commitment, or a social contract, if you will, that we are committed that people should have access to essential medical care regardless of their ability to pay. Now, that may sound absurd in the only high-income country without universal health coverage, but as we discuss in our book, that represents our failure to fulfill that commitment, not its absence. And as we describe in great detail, it’s very clear from our history of policy attempts that there is a strong commitment to do this. This is not a liberal or a conservative perspective. It’s, as we discuss, an innate and in some sense psychological or moral impulse. And once you recognize this, as people have across the political spectrum, fundamentally we’re not going to ever consciously deny access to essential medical care for people who lack resources, and that an enormous number of our existing policies have been a backhanded, scrambling, not coherently planned attempt to get there. And I’m not just talking about the requirement that people can’t be turned away from the emergency room. If you look at all of these public policies we have to provide health insurance if you’re poor, if you’re young, if you’re old, if you’re disabled, if you’re a veteran, if you have specific diseases — there’s a program for low-income women with breast and cervical cancer. There’s a program for people with tuberculosis, for people with AIDS, for people with kidney failure. All of these arose out of particular political circumstances and salient moments where we felt compelled to act. It becomes very clear that we’re committed to doing this, and then a solution then becomes startlingly simple, once we agree. And, hopefully, if you don’t already, our book will convince you that whether or not you support this mission, it’s very clear it is the mission we’ve adopted as a society. Then the solution becomes startlingly simple.

Rovner: And the solution is …?

Finkelstein: Universal, automatic, basic coverage that’s free for everyone with the option — for those who want to and can afford it — to buy supplemental coverage. So the key is that the coverage be automatic, right? We’ve tried mandating that people have coverage … requiring it doesn’t make it so. In fact, a really sobering fact is that something like 6 out of 10 of the people who currently lack insurance actually are eligible for either free or heavily discounted coverage. They just don’t have it. And that’s because there’s a very, very complicated series of paths by which you can navigate coverage, depending, again, on your specific circumstances: age, income, disease, geography, disability, what have you. Once you have patches like this, you’ll always have gaps in the seam. So that’s why it has to be universal and automatic. We also argue that it has to be free, something that may get us kicked out of the economists’ club because, as economists for generations, we’ve preached that patients need some skin in the game, some copays and deductibles, so they don’t use more care than they actually really need. And in the context of universal coverage, we take that back. It was kind of a really sobering moment for us. We’ve written enormously on this issue in the past. We weren’t wrong about the facts. When people don’t have to pay for their medical care, they do use more of it. We stand by that research. And that of many other …

Rovner: This goes back to Rand in the 1970s, right?

Finkelstein: Exactly. And the Oregon Health Insurance Experiment, which I ran with Kate Baicker, whom you mentioned earlier. It’s just that the implications we drew from that we’re wrong — that if we actually are committed to providing a basic set of essential medical care for everyone, the problem is, even with very small copays, there will always be people who can’t afford the $5 prescription drug copay or the $20 doctor copay. And there’s actually terrific recent work by a group of economists — Tal Gross, Tim Layton, and Daniel Prinz — that show this quite convincingly. So what we’ve seen happen when we look at other high-income countries that have followed the advice of generations of economists going back, as you said, to Rand, and introduced or increased cost sharing in their universal basic coverage system to try to reduce expenses, it’s extraordinary. Time and time again, these countries introduced the copays with one hand and introduced the exceptions simultaneously with the other — exceptions for the old, the young, the poor, the sick, veterans, disabled. Sound familiar? It’s the U.S. health insurance in a microcosm applied to copays. And so what you see happen, for example, in the U.K., that was famously, you know, free at the point of service when it was started in 1948, but then, bowing to budgetary pressures and the advice of economists introduced, for example, a bunch of copays and prescription drugs. They then introduced all these exceptions. The end result is that currently 90% of prescriptions in the U.K. are actually exempted from these copays. So it’s not that copays don’t reduce health care spending. They do. That economic research is correct. It’s that they’re not going to do that when they don’t exist. All we do is add complexity with these patches. So that’s, I think, the part that we can get up and stand up and say and get a lot of cheers and applause. But I do want to be clear, it’s not all rainbows and unicorns. We do insist that this universal, automatic, free coverage be very basic. And that’s because our social contract is about providing essential medical care, not about the high-end experience that obviously everyone would like, if it were free. And so …

Rovner: And that’s exactly where you get into these fights about how — even, we’re seeing, you know, with birth control and pretty much any prescription drug — you have to offer one drug, but there are other drugs that might be more expensive, and insurance plans, trying to save money, don’t want to offer them. You can see already where the tension points are going to end up. Right?

Finkelstein: Exactly. And every other country has dealt with this, which is why we know it can be done. But they do one thing that is startlingly absent from U.S. health policy. Besides the universal coverage part, they also have a budget. And it’s kind of both incredibly banal and incredibly radical to say, “We should have a budget in our U.S. health care policy as well.” Everything else has a budget. When school districts make education policy, they do it given a budget and they decide how to make tough choices and allocate money across different types of programming. Or they decide to raise taxes, and go to the voters to raise taxes to fund more. We don’t have a budget for health care in the U.S. When people talk about the Medicare budget, they’re not actually talking about a budget in the sense that when I give my kids an allowance, that’s their budget, and they have to decide which toy to buy or which candy to purchase. When we talk about the Medicare budget, we just mean the amount we have spent or the amount that Medicare will spend. There’s no actual constraint, and that has to change. And only then can we have those tough conversations, as every other country does, about what’s going to be provided automatically and for free, and what’s obviously nice and desirable, but not actually part of essential medical care and our social contract to provide it.

Rovner: But, of course, the big response to this is going to be — and I’ve covered enough of these debates to know — you’re going to ruin innovation if we have a budget, if we limit what we can pay, the way every other country does, that we’re not going to have breakthrough drugs or breakthrough medical devices or breakthrough medical procedures, and we’re all going to be the worse for it.

Finkelstein: That, I think, is a very real concern, but it’s not a problem for us, because if that’s the concern, when the next administration adopts our policy, they can set a higher budget. Right? If we think that we want to induce innovation, and the way to do that is through higher prices for medical care, then we can decide to pay more for it — or we can decide, oh, my goodness, right, get it coming and going. On the other hand, we don’t want to raise taxes. We don’t want to spend even more of public money on health care. OK, well, then we’ll decide on less innovation. That’s in some sense separable from universal, automatic, basic free coverage. We can then decide what level we want to finance that at. And also, to be clear, we fully expect, in the context of our proposal, that about two-thirds of Americans would buy supplemental coverage that would get you access to things that aren’t covered by basic or greater choice of doctor or shorter wait times. And so that, again, might also — but that would be privately financed, not publicly financed — but that would also help with the innovation angle.

Rovner: And this is not a shocking thing. This is exactly how Switzerland works, right?

Finkelstein: Yeah, the somewhat sobering or, dare I say, humbling realization we came to is that, as I said, we very much thought about this — I guess, as academics — from first principles, you know, what is the objective that we’re trying to achieve it? And given that, how do we achieve it? But once we did that and we looked around the rest of the world — right? — it turns out that’s actually what every other high-income country has done, not just Switzerland, but all of them have some version. And they’re very different on the details, but some version of automatic, universal, basic coverage with the ability to then supplement if you want more. So, with many things when you do research on them and then you run into the man on the street and they say, “Isn’t this simple? Can’t we just do what every other country does?” When it comes to health care delivery and how to cut waste and overuse and deal with underuse in the health care system, the man on the street is, unfortunately, wrong. And we have a lot more work to do to figure out how we can get more bang for our health care buck. But it turns out they were right all along. And we, or I and my co-author and many other, I think, academic economists and policymakers, just didn’t realize it, that actually the coverage problem has a really, really simple solution. And that’s the key message of our book.

Rovner: So one of the things that’s stuck with me for 15 years now is a piece that Atul Gawande wrote in The New Yorker just before the debate on the Affordable Care Act about how, yes, every other country has this, but, in fact, every other country had some kind of event that triggered the need to create a system. You know, in England, it was coming out of World War II. Every country had some turning point. Is there going to be some turning point for the U.S. or are we just going to have to sort of knuckle under and do this?

Finkelstein: So we deliberately steer clear of the politics in most of the book because our view is the question you started with, like, “Why can’t we agree?” So let’s at least … can we agree on the solution before we figure out how to achieve it? But, of course, in the epilogue, we do discuss this, you know, how could we get there? And I guess the main lesson that we take away from our read of history is that universal health insurance was neither destined to happen in every other country, nor destined not to happen in the U.S. We talk about several incredibly near-misses in the U.S. Probably the closest we got was in the early 1970s, when both the Republican Nixon administration and the Democratic Congress under Kennedy had competing proposals for universal coverage on the table. They were actually arguing over whether there should be copays when there are different accounts of whether the Democrats got overly optimistic with Watergate looming and thought they could get more, or some senator got drunk and had a car accident and Ways and Means got derailed. But we had a near-miss there. But also, and to your point about the U.K., more soberingly, if you look at the history of other countries, it wasn’t easy there. I mean, the British Medical Association threatened to go on strike before the implementation of the National Health Service in 1948. So, despite that, you know, now it’s … the National Health Service is as popular as the British monarchy — or actually more popular, perhaps …

Rovner: [laughs] Probably more!

Finkelstein: … and is beloved by much of the British population. But if you look at the narrative that this was destined to come out of the postwar consensus, the Labour leader, [Aneurin “Nye”] Bevan, who was pushing for it on the eve of its enactment, described the Tories as, quote, “lower than vermin for their opposition to it.” I mean, it was just … and similarly in Canada, when Saskatchewan was the first province to get universal medical insurance, there the doctors did go on strike for over three weeks. So this idea that every other country just had their destiny, their moment, when it clearly came together, and we were destined not to have it? Neither seems to be an accurate reading of history.

Rovner: Well, it’s a wonderful read. And I’m sure we’ll come back and talk again as we dive back into this debate …

Finkelstein: I’d love to.

Rovner: … which I’m sure we’re about to do. Amy Finkelstein, thank you so much for joining us.

Finkelstein: Thank you so much for having me.

Rovner: Hey, “What the Health?” listeners. You already know that few things in health care are ever simple. So, if you like our show, I recommend you also listen to “Tradeoffs,” a podcast that goes even deeper into our costly, complicated, and often counterintuitive health care system. Hosted by longtime health care journalist and friend Dan Gorenstein, “Tradeoffs” digs into the evidence and research data behind health care policies and tells the stories of real people impacted by decisions made in C-suites, doctors’ offices, and even Congress. Subscribe wherever you listen to your podcasts.

Next, we have Sylvia Morris, one of a group of friends who are women physicians who want to make it easier for the next generation of women physicians.

I am pleased to welcome to the podcast Dr. Sylvia Morris. She’s an internist from Atlanta and one of five authors of a new book called “The Game Plan: A Woman’s Guide to Becoming a Doctor and Living a Life in Medicine.” Dr. Morris, welcome to “What the Health?”

Sylvia Morris: Thank you so much for having me.

Rovner: So why does there even need to be a book about being a woman in medicine? Aren’t medical schools more than half women students these days?

Morris: They are. But when you look at some of the specialties, and once you get out into practice, women leaders are still not as plentiful. They are not 50%. So, we just wanted to write from our perspective some tips and tools of the trade.

Rovner: So before we talk about the book, tell us about how you and your co-authors got together. It is rare to find a book that has five listed authors.

Morris: Exactly. So we actually went to med school together. We were classmates at Georgetown, and we met, I will say, in the early ’90s, shall we say? 1992, 1993. And after we finished med school, as well as training, we started doing girls’ trips. Our first one was, like, to Las Vegas and then subsequently have just really evolved. And probably 10 years ago, we were sitting around in Newport Beach and we thought, you know what? We should figure out something to do to really, to give back, but also to share information that we didn’t have. I am a first-generation physician. Several of my co-authors are as well. And it would have been nice for someone to say, “Hey, Doc, maybe you should think about this.” So that’s why we wrote the book.

Rovner: I noticed that, yeah, I mean, you start very much at the beginning — like, way before med school and go all the way through a career. I take it that was very intentional.

Morris: Yes, because I don’t think most people wake up and decide they’re going to be a doctor and then apply to medical school. And although we all have different journeys, some of us decided to become physicians later. Later, meaning in college. I was a kid that always wanted to be a doctor. So at 5, I would say “I want to be a doctor,” and here I am a physician. So we really wanted to highlight the different pathways to becoming a physician and just so that people can just … we’re going to peel the curtain back on what’s happening.

Rovner: I love how sort of list-forward this book is. Tell us the idea of actually making a game plan.

Morris: Well, we’re big “list people.” I think in med school, you kind of learn, well, what’s your to-do list for today? You need to check that CBC. Yeah, you know, you have to follow up on physical therapy, all of those things. So lists become a really inherent part of how we do business. And I think people understand the list, whether it’s a grocery shopping list. So we wanted to be prescriptive, not specific, meaning you must do X, but here are some of the things that you need to think about. And a list is very succinct, and everyone can get it.

Rovner: Which leads right into my next question. I love how this is such a nitty-gritty guide about all of the balancing that everybody in such a demanding profession of medicine, but particularly women, need to think about and do. What do you most wish that you had known when you were starting out that you’d like to spare your readers?

Morris: If I could go back to my 17-year-old self who was just dropped off at Berkeley, I really would say, “Enjoy the ride.” And that sounds so trite, because we get very caught up in “it has to be this way.” And quite honestly, things have not turned out how I thought they were going to turn out. Certainly, in many ways, much grander and beyond my wildest imagination. But you do have to be intentional about what you want. So I’ve been very clear about wanting to be a physician, and I’ve worked along that path. It is never a straight line. So just embrace the fact that there are going to be some ups and some downs, but keep in focus on the goal and persevere. I’d like to borrow the word from Associate Justice [Ketanji Brown] Jackson, how she talked about persevere.

Rovner: I noticed that there are a number of places where there are key decisions that need to be made. And I think, you know, you talk about being intentional. I think people don’t always think about them as they’re doing them, as in deciding where to go to medical school, where to do a residency, what specialty to choose, what type of practice to participate in. The five of you are all in different specialties in different sort of practice modalities, right?

Morris: Yes, we are. And I think that that really adds to the richness of the book. And again, there’s no one way to get to your goal. But we have the benefit of being able to sort of bounce ideas off of each other. So if we are looking for a new job or kind of a career pivot, then we have someone to reach out to to say, “Hey. You did this. What are your thoughts? What should I look out for?”

Rovner: How important is it to have a support system? I mean, obviously, you talk about family and kids, but, I mean, to have a support system of friends and colleagues and people you can actually share stresses and successes with, that others will understand.

Morris: It is so important to know that you are not alone. There’s nothing new under the sun. So if you are going through something where we suffer in silence and isolation, that’s when bad things happen. So having a trusted group of friends, and whether it’s one person or three people — I’m lucky to have at least four people in my life that I can be candid and vulnerable with. It makes all the difference in the world. My mom died when I was in medical school, and having the support of my colleagues, my friends, to say, “Hey, yeah, you can keep going. You can do this.” That’s important. And there are some very low periods in residency, just because you’re tired all of the time. So having a group, whether it’s one or three or four, then please, have friends.

Rovner: I’m curious that while you are all African American women, you don’t really have a separate section on navigating medicine as members of an underrepresented group. Is that for another book entirely? Was there a specific reason that you didn’t do that?

Morris: I think certainly when people see us on the cover, then you’d realize, “Oh, they are women of African descent.” And I also think that because … women are still underrepresented in medicine, in particular in leadership, that we wanted to make sure we reached the broadest audience. And quite truthfully, our message works for not only women, but also works for men, it works for people of color. We just really wanted to say, “Hey, these are the things that we can think about when you are applying to medical school and as you embark on your career.” But I like the idea of a second book.

Rovner: Actually, that’s my … my next question is, what do you hope that men get out of this? Because, you know, flipping through, it’s a really good guide, not just to being a woman in medicine, but to being anyone in medicine or really anyone in a very time-demanding profession.

Morris: Yes, the word “ally” is kind of overused now, but I think that it gives the men in our lives, whether they be our partners and husbands, our fathers — I have a favorite uncle, Uncle William — to have an inkling of what’s happening and how to best support us. So I think that there’s just some valuable pearls.

Rovner: Well, thank you very much. It is a really eye-opening guide. Dr. Sylvia Morris, thank you for joining us.

Morris: Thank you.

Rovner: Finally for this special episode, here’s my chat with Michael LeNoir, a physician who spent much of his career trying to improve the health of African American patients.

We are pleased to welcome to the podcast Dr. Michael LeNoir, an allergist and pediatrician who spent the last 4½ decades serving patients in the East Bay of San Francisco and working to improve health equity nationwide. He’s a former president of the National Medical Association, which represents African American physicians and patients, and a founder of the African American Wellness Project, a nonprofit that grew out of the realization of just how large and persistent health disparities are for people of color. Dr. LeNoir, welcome to “What the Health?”

Michael LeNoir: Well, thank you so much.

Rovner: Health disparities and health equity have become, if you will, trendy research topics in the past couple of years in the health policy community because we know that people of color have worse health outcomes in general than white people, regardless of income. But this is hardly a new problem. When did it become obvious to you that, despite other civil rights advances, the health system is still not serving the Black community equally?

LeNoir: Well, I think it goes back to, actually, 2002, when as a doctor in a community that had people of color, physicians of color, I recognized that there was a difference in how African Americans were treated both professionally and personally. And it was such a stark difference. So I gathered together most of the Black health leaders in the Bay Area, some running hospitals, some running programs, two were directors of health, some Congress people, and some local politicians. And there were about 30 people in the room. And I … go around the room and asked, give me one instance where the health system that you engaged in treated you disrespectfully or you didn’t get information, or you felt abandoned without advocates. And we weren’t four people in when some people started crying about experiences that they’d all had. Now, I knew they had these experiences because of that as a doctor. You know, I’m in the doctor’s lounge as a consultant in allergy and immunology. I see the differences in how Black people were treated as opposed to whites. And I see the respect that was given to white physicians that was not given to Black physicians. So at that point, I decided, you know, there’s something upside down in this health system. The concept is that health is supposed to take care of you from the top down. Either your insurance company is supposed to take care of you, or the feds, or somebody. But my feeling was, you know, for African Americans the health system was not going to change unless we changed it from the bottom up. And so that’s when we started the African American Wellness Project to educate African Americans how to deal with some of the aspects of early detection, disease prevention, exercise, and things like that. But more importantly, what to happen when you have a problem, when you engage with the system. What tools do you need? What resources do you need? How do you get the best possible outcomes?

Rovner: So just this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a survey that found that 1 in 5 women reported being mistreated by medical professionals during pregnancy or delivery. For Black women, it was closer to 1 in 3. This is clearly some sort of systemic problem even in addition to racism, isn’t it? The health system is not functioning well.

LeNoir: We did a piece on this yesterday because it’s pretty clear that this has been a problem as long as I’ve been a physician. Where it’s really a problem is the increasing incidence of maternal mortality among Black women. And so now we know that there’s something going on that’s not being taken care of. There’s one classic video that we show when we talk about this subject. It was a Black physician in Illinois who was in a small Illinois town, was in the intensive care unit, and could not get the care that she needed when she had covid respiratory issues. And so what happened was she was broadcasting from the ICU about what was being given to her, what was being talked to her about, what was not being done. And her care … when her symptoms were ignored, how they delayed in doing stuff. And she died four days after she did this video. But, you know, we’re not surprised. I mean, I see these studies of Black people don’t like the health care system. You know, Kaiser Foundation [KFF] must have spent, I don’t know how many dollars, looking at a study we did five years ago. On every study I’ve seen, Black people are not happy with the health care system. They had 12,000 people. We had 400. But the conclusions are the same. And it’s not so much because of the availability or the capacity of the health care system to close the gap on the health of Blacks and others in this society. It has a lot to do with unconscious bias and the fact that the system doesn’t recognize itself. And no matter how much you call attention to it, it continues year after year, decade after decade.

Rovner: Is there anything we can do about unconscious bias? I mean, now we all know it’s there, but that doesn’t seem to get around to fixing it.

LeNoir: There’s several things that have been talked about: change in medical schools and showing them more positive images so that when they come out of medical school, then the only patients that we see are poor, Black, uneducated, you know, down and out, because those are the ones that go to the VA hospital or the public hospitals. So that’s one thing. And the other thing is a Black person should call it out when they see it. That’s the big thing. And I think we’re much too docile in the health care system. Here’s what I always would feel is that if we get as mad about health care that is disrespectful and unequal as we do when someone cuts in front of us in the Safeway line, we wouldn’t have that problem.

Rovner: Seriously, I mean, so you think people really just need to speak up more?

LeNoir: Absolutely. And in the piece that we did yesterday, the piece was entitled “Health Care System Not Equal,” don’t put up with it.

Rovner: What can Black doctors do and how do we get more of them? I know that’s a big piece of this is that people don’t feel represented within the health care provider community.

LeNoir: Well, unfortunately, we know and probably you kno, and probably most patients know, that a good doctor may not be the smartest person in a medical school. They may have a variety of different prejudices and a variety of different talents or a variety of different capacity to engage patients in a positive way. But our medical system and our system that screens students for medical school really kinda looks more at analytics. I mean, what kind of grades you make, what your SATs look like, what kind of symbolic social things did you do in order to get into medical school? And so, consequently, that shuts out a lot of students at a very early place in the system. A Black student often goes into the system determined to be a doctor, but he doesn’t have those resources, those networks, those connections. So he bombs out in junior college. I can remember I had a unique educational experience. I went to a college-educated … well, middle school in Cincinnati. It’s called Walnut Hills High School No. 3. [To get in] you took a test, and my dad was a YMCA executive. So we moved to Dallas, Texas, which was completely segregated. So I recognized immediately when I got there that the learning experience was different, but the education was not. Because I learned as a Black student in an environment that was college preparatory that … I didn’t have many allies in that many networks. And my parents, like so many Black parents, said, there’s no excuses. You can’t … don’t be coming on with the excuse of discrimination, when we were facing it every day. And more than that, on the positive side, we’re not being encouraged like the white students were. When I got to Dallas, you know, we didn’t have all the books, we didn’t have all the stuff, but the teachers knew I had talent, and they pushed me and pushed me, pushed me. So when I went off to a university by choice — could have gone to Stanford, all these other places — that I had the talent. Whereas back in my high school there were students as good as I was as students. And then they went off to the University of Texas, where I ultimately transferred, which didn’t seem to be a big deal for me because I thought Howard actually was harder. But they go to the University of Texas, they were from a segregated school, and then by themselves and they bomb out … and so consequently they don’t get to realize the bigger part of themselves. So getting back to this question that you asked five minutes ago. The reason is that the parameters to choose people for medical school need to start earlier, and they need to encourage Blacks, especially Black males of talent, so they can then go on and do some things that are necessary to get into medical school.

Rovner: Yeah, I’ve seen some programs that are trying to recruit kids as young as 11 or 12 to gauge interest in going into a medical career.

LeNoir: Yeah, well, I think that’s, you know, that’s so unnecessary. But it’s a game. I mean, who is it … the doctor … your old Dr. So-and-So didn’t go to Harvard. So the talents to be a good doctor, you know, I don’t know whether you feel this way. I don’t think you can teach judgment by the time somebody gets out of high school. You know, physicians, the first thing I think that you have to have is good judgment, and good judgment can be sometimes assessed on the MCAT and these other things that they use to prioritize things for that.

Rovner: I know the Association of American Medical Colleges is very concerned about the Supreme Court decision that came down earlier this year banning affirmative action. Are you also worried about what that might mean for medical school admissions?

LeNoir: Well, you have to realize that in California, we’ve been dealing with this since the Bakke decision, so we’ve not been able … and I served on medical school committees. I served on the University of California-San Diego, and one year here at UC-San Francisco, kinda chaired the clinical faculty, so had the chance to kind of get engaged in policy here. And what we found out was that you can’t change that. You have to change the system itself.

Rovner: Yeah, I mean, how worried are you, obviously in California, I guess, things have gone OK, but it’s going to be a big change at a lot of other medical schools about how they’re going to go about admitting their next classes and trying to at least further more culturally diverse classes of medical students.

LeNoir: Well, you know, California’s not done OK. I mean the percentage of California students — I believe diversity in California is probably 50% less than it was in the days when we had more liberal affirmative action guidelines. And so in those days, we were reporting 24, 25 Black students in these classes. That’s not happening anymore. So … I do worry. I mean, the reality is right in front of us. And I think that some schools … not necessarily the schools themselves, but the politicians that supervise these schools that have oversight over these schools are going to use this as a weapon. I know that already many of the attorney generals have sent letters to the university saying, look, I don’t care what you do, it’s not going to happen anymore. And the first persons to leave jobs now are diversity. Good jobs in diversity management … those jobs are disappearing almost as we speak.

Rovner: So if you could do just one thing that would help the system along to make things a little bit less unequal, what would it be?

LeNoir: I think it would be making certain that the system has the tools to detect two types of unconscious bias: this personal unconscious bias on the part of providers, but this institutional unconscious bias. And I think we have to attack that first. Institutions don’t look at African Americans the same way. And here’s … let me give you an example of what that falls out to. Let’s look at the statistics on vaccinations in ethnic groups. The impression is that Black people didn’t get vaccinated. But at the end of the day, if you looked at the numbers, we were vaccinated pretty much about the same level as the rest of America. But when we got ready to look at this, what we found out is hesitancy was based upon the fact that Black people did not trust the system. And institutions are expected to come out, here you are, you know, you’re part of an institution. You see a different doctor every week. And they come out to tell you you’re supposed to do your shots and stuff like that. Then Black people don’t believe that. They don’t go, they don’t go with that. And so consequently, at the end of the day, once the information came out and people got a chance to look at it, we started getting vaccinations at the same rate. But the people who are asking us to trust them had never attempted institutionally to obtain our trust. And so I think under those circumstances, that’s one of the reasons, that’s one of the things we most have to attack is institutional unconscious bias, institutional racism that’s covered over by the fact that we’re taking care of the poor. You know, we do all these things here and there, but poor people have opinions, too. And if we expect to change the system where everybody is treated equally, we have to look at what the institutional policies, or the institutional character or personality that results in the kinds of outcomes that we see in hospitals. And then we start looking at providers and other people. And they have to start engaging in this community now. There’ll be another pandemic, you know that. I know that. Probably this summer, this winter, things are going to … Look, what have doctors done? What have institutions done to gain the trust of the populations they serve? Probably nothing.

Rovner: Well, we’ve seen, you know, one of the things the pandemic has shown us is that now all Americans don’t trust institutions anymore. Is there maybe even a way to help everyone gain more trust? I mean, I guess it’s becoming much more obvious to at least the public health community that much of the public in general is distrustful of public health advice, of medical advice, of expertise in general.

LeNoir: Oh, yeah, there’s no question. This is not a unique problem among African Americans. I mean, it’s hard to trust a system where you have a problem and your doctor refers you somewhere and your next appointment is four months away. And here’s what the tragedy is: Nobody in Washington is talking about changing the system. I can remember the big furor over what were we going to do? Are we going to do single-payer? Are we going to do this? At least there was a dialog. Have you heard a dialog in Washington about changing this awful health care system that denies people access, overcharges them, and then is not blamed for the outcomes? I haven’t seen any of that. I haven’t seen anybody talk about health care at the national level. We used to do pieces, I remember years ago when I worked for CBS Radio, I tried to get a curriculum for hypertension, diabetes. Now you barely see anything on health except violence, and you don’t see too many pieces that people could use for health education. So I think the system is really broken and nobody’s … I don’t see any, even in the discussions last night [during the first Republican presidential primary debate], health never came up. You know, Ukraine, but not the health care system, which is really cheating us all.

Rovner: Yeah, I know. I mean, we’re … an entire Republican debate, and there was not a single mention of the Affordable Care Act or anything else that Republicans might want to do to fix a health care system that I think even Republican voters know is broken.

LeNoir: Yeah, I think that [Donald] Trump has sucked all the oxygen out of the room. And they’re not talking policy very much at all. I mean, even the undertones of the policy discussions have Trump all over it. So I think we’re in a very bad place, but I hate to see that escalating discussion on how to change the health care system, not just for the good of the poor people and Black people, I don’t think white people are really particularly excited about the system, and that dialog is not taking place.

Rovner: Is there anything you can offer that’s at all optimistic about this?

LeNoir: Well, no. No, I really can’t. As a doctor, I can tell you. Here’s the expanding issue. It just seems now that the solution to all the health problems that we have are the social determinants of health. I mean, you know, income and poverty and food, you know, issues and employment, all of that, they all contribute definitely to health outcomes. And so until we change those, then obviously the system, they say, will not change. Every chronic disease that I’ve looked at over the last 10 or 15 years, and especially recently, what Black people don’t do as well, it’s not because they don’t get into the system at the right time. They may even have early disease detection. It’s because they are not treated the same way. So if you look at statistics, all Black women have more deaths from breast cancer, our Black children have more asthma. It’s not because they don’t enter the system. It’s how they’re treated when they get into the system. So then going back to what we can do, we have to arm the patient, Black or white, to understand what you need to do to get the most effective outcomes. How do you select your primary care doctor? It’s critically important to everything that happens to you. How you’re able to challenge the system with a second opinion when you want that. To have an advocate, if you go into the hospital, not your brother or sister, but somebody who knows something about health care. So what we’re trying to do with the African American Wellness Project is to do that. We talk about early detection. Here’s the other problem with this. Now, I’d rather have penicillin than get rid of poverty or to get everybody a job. And in the New England Journal probably maybe a week ago, there was an editorial about how we as physicians should be able to manage the other elements, the social determinant elements, as part of our visits. Now I’ve barely got enough time to see the patients that I have. Now I’m supposed to get somebody food, a job and all that … but I’m not saying that that doesn’t need to change. It does. But if every solution to the problem of health equity is the social determinants like I’m seeing, then I mean, we might not get penicillin, but we may get somebody a job. But I think that that that process is important. It is important. But if you look at studies that at the VA, especially with men with prostate cancer, or if you have prostate cancer and … everything’s done exactly the same: early detection, the PSAs, the biopsy, the identification — the prostate is done not by biopsy, but by MRI — and they treat it the same, Black people do better. And the same thing is true with breast cancer and other chronic diseases. All these studies. You can go to PubMed, and you look at all these studies and you see every study talks about that, that the reason that they’re not doing as well, is because of the social determinants of health. Now, I mean, I appreciate that, but I’m not going to wait for everybody to get a job before I try to get a stent put in my artery, or I try to get some concern for my position. So to go back to your question again that you asked me five minutes ago, is that we need to talk to people about the system they face, and they need to go into it with less naivete and more organization. And that’s what we try to do with the African American Wellness [Project]. We try to provide you with that information and the tools that you need when you need to go into the system. If you need to know what questions to ask … we’ll tell you how to do that. One of the things I found out is I engage social media as a way to talk to people, because I’ve always used traditional media and, boy, I recognize now that you have to do it a little differently. You can’t do it exactly the same way. And so I just think we have to prepare people and we have to tell them the things that they need to do to recognize and understand before they enter the system. Until we start to get more serious in this country, about that dialog on our health care system, I think the individual is the only way we can approach it.

Rovner: Dr. LeNoir, thank you. Thank you so much for all of what you’re doing and thank you for joining us today.

LeNoir: Thank you for having me.

Rovner: OK, that’s our show for this week. As always, if you enjoy the podcast, you can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. We’d appreciate it if you left us a review; that helps other people find us, too. Special thanks, as always to our amazing engineer, Francis Ying. And also, as always, you can email us your comments or questions. We’re at Or you can tweet me or X me or whatever. I’m still @jrovner, also on Bluesky and Threads. I hope you enjoyed this special episode. We’ll be back with our regular podcast panel after Labor Day. Until then, be healthy.

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Timing and Cost of New Vaccines Vary by Virus and Health Insurance Status

August 24, 2023

As summer edges toward fall, thoughts turn to, well, vaccines.

Yes, inevitably, it’s time to think about the usual suspects — influenza and covid-19 shots — but also the new kid in town: recently approved vaccines for RSV, short for respiratory syncytial virus.

But who should get the various vaccines, and when?

“For the eligible populations, all three shots are highly recommended,” said Georges Benjamin, a physician and the executive director of the American Public Health Association.

Still, there’s no need to get them all at the same time, and there are reasons to wait a bit for two of them. Some people may also face cost issues. Let’s break this down.

What’s the Price?

It depends on the vaccine — and on your insurance coverage.

For covid shots, including the updated ones expected to be available this fall, most people will still be able to get the vaccines for free. People became accustomed to that no-cost availability during the pandemic, but the federal government stopped picking up the entire tab with the end of the public health emergency this spring.

Now the actual cost of the vaccine, which manufacturers said could be far higher than what the government paid during the pandemic, will be borne by private insurers and Medicare and Medicaid. For people without insurance, the Biden administration set up the Bridge Access Program, which will make free vaccines available this fall through community health centers and state health departments. Eventually, retail pharmacies may also participate.

Pfizer and Moderna, two of the companies producing updated covid vaccines, previously suggested they would charge $110 to $130 per dose, and plan to offer programs for people who cannot afford the vaccines. In July, the Biden administration urged both makers to set a “reasonable” rate for the updated versions. Another company, Novavax, has said it will also have an updated vaccine for the U.S. market. It is still unclear how prices will shake out. In a recent Moderna earnings call, company officials indicated they are negotiating contracts with payers but did not give per-dose figures. The company expects covid vaccine sales worldwide to tally $6 billion to $8 billion this year.

The Affordable Care Act says patients don’t have to pay for certain preventive care, including some vaccines. That means flu shots are offered at no cost to people with insurance, including those on Medicare and Medicaid. Those without insurance may be able to land a free or low-cost shot from some health centers and state health departments. The cost of the flu vaccine depends on the type of shot and the pharmacy or medical outlet providing it but can range from $20 to more than $70.

Similar rules apply to the new RSV vaccines, which may carry a price tag between $180 and $295 a shot. Because they are recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, they are covered for people with private insurance without a copay. The Inflation Reduction Act did the same for Medicare beneficiaries and provided incentives for states to follow suit with Medicaid. Still, Medicare beneficiaries should note that the RSV vaccine is covered under Part D of the program, so those who have not signed up for the drug benefit may have to pay out-of-pocket.

It may take a while for insurers to list the RSV vaccine on their formularies, so patients are advised to check their health plans before making an appointment.

The uninsured, however, will need to turn to low-cost clinics or health departments, although those programs may vary.

Such lack of access “means we will have another health disparity for people who can’t afford it,” said Benjamin, of the public health association.

Luckily, most of those seeking the shot are likely to be on Medicare, which will cover it, he said. “But if you are 60 to 65 and not yet on Medicare, you might have some challenges.”

RSV Vaccines

The newest of the vaccines target RSV, a common respiratory illness. The season for RSV infections usually begins in the fall and lasts into the spring, potentially peaking in January and February.

The CDC estimates that 60,000 to 160,000 people 65 and older are hospitalized because of RSV annually, with approximately 6,000 to 10,000 deaths among that age group. Infants and older adults are most at risk.

Risk factors for having a more severe case include increased age, but also underlying conditions like lung diseases, cardiovascular problems like congestive heart failure, diabetes, and kidney and liver disorders, and being immunocompromised. The illness can also aggravate existing conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

The two new vaccines have been approved for older adults, with the CDC’s vaccine advisory panel saying people 60 or older should be able to get one of them if they and their doctor or other medical provider agree it would be a good precaution.

If you fall into those categories, don’t wait too long, said William Schaffner, a physician and professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University. “That’s one you can do and get out of the way right now.”

Those who get one of the new RSV vaccines now should take a brief pause of at least two weeks before getting any other vaccination because there isn’t much data on whether they interact with other shots when received concurrently, he said.

The effectiveness of the RSV vaccines in preventing severe disease is expected to remain high through this year’s RSV season, and they may also provide some protection the following year, based on information from the clinical trials.

In early August a new monoclonal antibody, which contains lab-made antibodies against RSV, was approved for infants under 8 months and certain other young children, and it should be available soon. The shot is similar to a vaccine, but it works faster because it supplies the antibodies itself rather than spurring a baby’s immune system to produce them. Among children under 5, RSV causes 58,000 to 80,000 hospitalizations and 100 to 300 deaths each year, according to the CDC. On Monday, the FDA approved Pfizer’s RSV vaccine to be given during pregnancy to convey protection to infants after they are born until they are 6 months old. It isn’t yet known when the vaccine will become available or the specific recommendations the CDC will make about who should get it.

As with any drug or vaccine, side effects are possible with any of the new shots, including pain at the injection site, headache, fatigue, and some other, rarer side effects.

“It’s always good to sit down and talk with your doctor. They know your medical history,” said Mahdee Sobhanie, an infectious diseases physician at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

Covid and Influenza Vaccines

Both covid and flu shots are worth getting, but it might be a good idea to wait a little bit.

One reason is that updated covid shots awaiting approval are formulated to work against strains more commonly circulating now, known as the XBB lineage. The boosters will not directly target the new “Eris” variant currently rising in the U.S., though Eris is considered a descendant of XBB.

If approved, the updated vaccines are expected to become available around late September.

When to get vaccinated can be confusing, with the seasonality of the illnesses varying a bit. Flu season usually starts in late fall and runs into spring. We have fewer years’ data on covid, but it appears to vary with the seasons, too, with upticks in winter when people gather inside, but also during hot summer months, when people are more likely to seek air-conditioned indoor venues.

With the updated covid vaccines expected in the next couple of months, patients should be able to get a covid vaccination and an influenza shot at the same time, said Schaffner.

“We have good info they don’t interact,” he said.

The influenza vaccine is designed to last through the season, but effectiveness can wane. For that reason, even though you might start seeing ads in August, many experts suggest waiting until the end of September or early October to get a flu shot.

“If you get it too early, it might not cover you too well toward the end of the season,” Schaffner said.

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


This story can be republished for free (details).