KFF Health News’ ‘What the Health?’
Episode Title: Underinsured Is the New Uninsured
Episode Number: 314
Published: Sept. 14, 2023
[Editor’s note: This transcript, generated using transcription software, has been edited for style and clarity.]
Emmarie Huetteman: Hello and welcome back to “What the Health?” I’m Emmarie Huetteman, a Washington editor for KFF Health News. I’m filling in for Julie [Rovner] this week, who’s on vacation. And I’m joined by some of the best and smartest health reporters in Washington. We’re taping this week on Thursday, Sept. 14, at 11 a.m. As always, news happens fast, and things might have changed by the time you hear this. So, here we go. We’re joined today by video conference by Margot Sanger-Katz of The New York Times.
Margot Sanger-Katz: Good morning, everybody.
Huetteman: Sarah Karlin-Smith of the Pink Sheet.
Sarah Karlin-Smith: Hi there.
Huetteman: And Joanne Kenen of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Politico.
Joanne Kenen: Hi, everybody.
Huetteman: No interview this week, so let’s get right to the news. The percentage of working-age adults with health insurance went up last year, according to the annual Census report out this week. As a result, the uninsured rate dropped to 10.8% in 2022. But lower uninsured rates may be obscuring another problem: the number of people who are underinsured and facing high out-of-pocket costs. The Commonwealth Fund released a report last month on how difficult it is for many older adults with employer coverage to afford care. And recent reporting here at KFF Health News has probed how medical providers are steering patients toward bank loans and credit cards that saddled them with interest on top of their medical debt. So, the number of people without insurance is dropping. But that doesn’t mean that health care is becoming more affordable. So what does it mean to be underinsured? Are the policy conversations that focus on the uninsured rate missing the mark?
Sanger-Katz: So, two things I would say. One is that I even think that the Census report on what’s happening with the uninsured is obscuring a different issue, which is that there’s been this artificial increase in the number of people who are enrolled in Medicaid as a result of this pandemic policy. So the Congress said to the states, if you want to get extra money for your Medicaid program through the public health emergency, then you can’t kick anyone out of Medicaid regardless of whether they are no longer eligible for the program. And that provision expired this spring. And so this is one of the big stories in health policy that’s happening this year. States are trying to figure out how to reevaluate all of these people who have been in their Medicaid program for all these years and determine who’s eligible and who’s not eligible. And there’s been quite a lot of very good reporting on what’s going on. And I think there’s a combination of people who are losing their Medicaid coverage because they really genuinely are no longer eligible for Medicaid. And there also appears to be quite a large number of people who are losing their Medicaid coverage for administrative hiccup reasons — because there’s some paperwork error, or because they moved and they didn’t get a letter, or some other glitch in the system. And so when I looked at these numbers on the uninsured rate, in some ways what it told us is we gave a whole bunch of people insurance through these public programs during the pandemic and that depressed the uninsured rate. But we know right now that millions of people have lost insurance, even in the last few months, with more to come later this year. And so I’m very interested in the next installment of the Census report when we get back to more or less a normal Medicaid system, how many people will be without insurance. So that’s just one thing. And then just to get to your question, I think having insurance does not always mean that you can actually afford to pay for the health care that you need. We’ve seen over the last few decades a shift towards higher-deductible health care plans where people have to pay more money out-of-pocket before their insurance kicks in. We’ve also seen other kinds of cost sharing increase, where people have to pay higher copayments or a percentage of the cost of their care. And we’ve also seen, particularly in the Obamacare exchanges, but also in the employer market, that there’s a lot of insurance that doesn’t include any kind of out-of-network benefit. So it means, you know, if you can go to a provider who is covered by your insurance, your insurance will pay for it. But if you can’t find someone who’s covered by your insurance, you could still get hit with a big bill. The sort of surprise bills of old are banned. But, you know, the doctor can tell you in advance, and you can go and get all these medical services and then end up with some big bills. So whether or not just having an insurance card is really enough to ensure that people have access to health care remains an open question. And I think we have seen a lot of evidence over recent years that even people with insurance encounter a lot of financial difficulties when they get sick and often incur quite a lot of debt despite having insurance that protects them from the unlimited costs that they might face if they were uninsured.
Kenen: I would say two big things. The uninsurance rate, which we all think is going to go up because of this Medicaid unwinding, it’s worth stopping and thinking about. It’s what? 7.9[%]? Was that the number?
Huetteman: It was 10.8, was the uninsured rate last year.
Sanger-Katz: It depends if you look at any time of the year or all of the year.
Kenen: Back when the ACA [Affordable Care Act] was passed, it was closer to something like 18. So in terms of really changing the magnitude of the uninsurance problem in America, the work isn’t done. But this is a really significant change. Secondly, some aspects of care are better — or within reach because the ACA made so many preventive and primary care services free. That, too, is a gain. Obviously, through the medical debt, which KFF [Health News] now has done a great job — oh, and believe me, and other reporters, you’ve done an amazing job, story after story. You know, the “Bill of the Month” series that you edited, it’s … but they’re not isolated cases. It’s not like, oh, this person ran into this, you know, cost buzz saw. There’s insane pricing issues! And out-of-pocket and, you know, deductibles and extras, and incredibly hard to sort out even if you are a sophisticated, insured consumer of health care. Pricing is a mess. There have been changes to the health care market, in terms of consolidation of ownership, more private equity, bigger entities that just have created … added a new dimension to this problem. So have we made gains? We’ve made really important gains. Under the original ACA passed under the Obama administration and the changes, the access and generosity of subsidy changes that the Biden administration has made, even though they’re time-limited, they have to be renewed. But, you know, are people still being completely hit over the head and every other body part by really expensive costs? Yes. That is still a heartbreaking and really serious problem. I mean, I can just give one tiny incident where somebody … I needed a routine imaging thing in network. The doctor in that hospital wasn’t reachable. I had my primary care person send in the order because she’s not part of that health care system. She’s in network. The imaging center is in network. The doctor who told me I needed this test is in network. But because the actual order came from somebody not in their hospital and in … on the Maryland side of the line, instead of the D.C. side of the line, the hospital imaging center decided it was going to be out of network. And because she’s not ours and wanted to charge me an insane amount of money. I sorted it out. But it took me an insane amount of time and I shouldn’t have needed to do that.
Huetteman: Yeah, that’s absolutely true.
Kenen: I could have paid it, if I had to.
Huetteman: Absolutely. And as you noted, I do edit the “Bill of the Month” series. And we see that with all kinds of patients, even the most enterprising patients can’t get an answer to simple questions like, is this in network or out of network? Why did I get this bill? And it’s asking way too much of most people to try and fit that into the rest of the things that they do every day. You know, Margot brought up the Medicaid unwinding. Well, let’s speaking of insurance, let’s catch up there for a moment because there was a little news this week. We’re keeping an eye on those efforts to strip ineligible beneficiaries from state Medicaid rolls since the covid-19 public health emergency ended. Now, some state officials are worried that people who lose coverage could opt to replace it with short-term insurance plans. You might know them as “junk plans.” They often come with lower price tags, but these short-term plans do not have to follow the Affordable Care Act’s rules about what to cover. And people in the plans have found themselves owing for care they thought would be covered. The Trump administration expanded these plans, but this summer the Biden administration proposed limiting them once more. Remind us: What changes has Biden proposed for so-called junk plans and for people who lose their coverage during the Medicaid unwinding? What other options are available to them?
Sanger-Katz: So the Biden administration’s proposal was to basically return these short-term plans to actual short-term coverage, which is what they were designed to do. Part of what the Trump administration did is they kept this category of short-term plans. But then they said basically, well, you can just keep them for several years. And so they really became a more affordable but less comprehensive substitute for ACA-compliant insurance. So the Biden administration just wants to kind of squish ’em back down and say, OK, you can have them for like a couple of months, but you can’t keep them forever. I will say that a lot of people who are losing their Medicaid coverage as a result of the unwinding are probably pretty low on the income scale, just as a result of them having qualified for Medicaid in the first place. And so a very large share of them are eligible for free or close-to-free health plans on the Obamacare exchanges. Those enhanced subsidies that Joanne mentioned, they’re temporary, but they’re there for a few years. They really make a big difference for exactly this population that’s losing Medicaid coverage. If you’re just over the poverty line, you can often get a free plan that’s a — this is very technical, but — it’s a silver plan with these cost-sharing wraparound benefits. And so you end up with a plan where you really don’t have to pay very much at the point of care. You don’t have to pay anything in a premium. So I think, in general, that is the most obvious answer for most of these people who are losing their Medicaid. But I think it is a challenge to navigate that system, for states to help steer people towards these other options, and for them to get enrolled in a timely way. Because, of course, Obamacare markets are not open all the time. They’re open during an open enrollment period or for a short period after you lose another type of coverage.
Huetteman: Absolutely. And a lot of these states actually have efforts that are normally focused on open enrollment right now. And some officials say that they are redirecting those efforts toward helping these folks who are losing their Medicaid coverage to find the options, like those exchange plans that are available for zero-dollar premiums or low premiums under the subsidies available.
Kenen: I have seen some online ads from HHS [the Department of Health and Human Services], saying, you know, “Did you lose your Medicaid?” and it’s state-specific — “Did you lose your Medicaid in Virginia?” I don’t live in Virginia, so I’m not sure why I’m getting it. My phone is telling me the Virginia one. But there is an HHS [ad], and it is saying if you lost your Medicaid, go to healthcare.gov, we can help. You know, we may be able to help you. So they are outreaching, although I’m afraid that somebody who actually lost it in Virginia might be getting an ad about Nebraska or whatever. I live close to Virginia. It’s close enough. But there is some effort to reach people in a plain English, accessible pop-up on your phone, or your web browser, kind of way. So I have seen that over the last few weeks because the special enrollment period, I mean, most people who are no longer eligible for Medicaid are eligible for something, and something other than a junk plan. Some of them have insurance at work now because the job market is better than it was in 2020, obviously. Many people will be eligible for these highly subsidized plans that Margot just talked about. Very few people should be left out in the cold, but there’s a lot of work to be done to make those connections.
Huetteman: Absolutely. Absolutely. And going back to the Census report for a second, it had noted that a big part of the increase in coverage came from employer-sponsored coverage among working-age adults, although we have, of course, seen those reports that say … and then they try to afford their health care costs. And it’s really difficult for a lot of them, even when they have that insurance, as we talked about. All right. So let’s move on. The New York Times is reporting a mystery unfolding in the federal budget. And I’d like to call it “The Case of Flat Medicare Spending.” After decades of warnings about runaway government spending, a recent Times analysis shows that spending per Medicare beneficiary has actually leveled off over more than a decade. Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal reports that private health insurance costs are climbing. Next year, employer-sponsored plans could see their biggest cost increase in more than a decade, and that trend could continue. So what’s going on with insurance costs? Let’s start with Medicare. Margot, you were the lead reporter on the Times analysis. What explains this Medicare spending slowdown?
Sanger-Katz: So part of the reason why I have found it to be a somewhat enjoyable story is that I think there is a bit of a mystery. I talked to lots of people who have studied and written about this phenomenon over the years, and I think there was no one I talked to who said “I 100% understand what is going on here. And I can tell you, here’s the thing.” But there are a bunch of factors that I think a lot of people think are contributing, and I’ll just run through them quickly. One of them is Medicare is getting a little younger. The baby boomers are retiring generally, like, 65-year-olds are a little cheaper to take care of than 85-year-olds. So as the age mix gets younger, we’ve seen the average cost of taking care of someone in Medicare get a little smaller. That’s like the easiest one. I think another one is that Obamacare and other legislative changes that Congress has passed during this period have just mechanically reduced the amount of money that Medicare is spending. So the two most obvious ways are, in the Affordable Care Act, Congress took money away from Medicare Advantage plans, paid them a smaller premium for taking care of patients, and they also reduced the amount that hospitals get every year, as what’s called a productivity adjustment. So hospitals get a little raise on their pay rates every year. And the legislation tamped that down. There was also, some listeners may remember, the budget sequester that happened in 2011, 2012, where there was kind of a haircut that Medicare had to take across the board. So there have been these kind of legislative changes. They explain like a little bit of what is going on. And now I think the rest of it really has to do with the health care system itself. And part of that seems to be that this has been a period of relatively limited technological improvement. So, you know, for years medicine just kept getting better and better. We had these miracle cures, we had these amazing surgeries. We, you know, especially like in the area of cardiovascular disease, just enormous advances in recent decades where, you know, first bypass surgery and then stents and then, you know, drugs that could prevent heart attacks. And so I think, you know, health care spending kept climbing and climbing in part because there was better stuff to spend it on. It was expensive, but it really improved people’s health. And in recent years, there’s just been a little less of that. There have clearly been medical advances, particularly in the pharmaceutical space. You know, we have better treatments for cancer, for certain types of cancers, than we had before and for other important diseases. But these expensive innovations tend to affect smaller percentages of people. We haven’t had a lot of really big blockbusters that everyone in Medicare is taking. And so that seems to explain some of the slowdown. And then I think the last piece is, like, kind of the piece that’s the hardest to really explain or pin down, but it seems like there’s just something different that doctors and hospitals are doing. They’re getting more efficient. They’re not always buying the latest and greatest thing, if there’s not evidence to support it. They’re reducing their medical errors. And, you know, I think Obamacare probably gets a share of the credit here. It really created a lot of changes in the way we pay for medical care and in the Medicare program itself. And it created this innovation center that’s supposed to test out all of these different things. But I think also over the same period, we’ve seen the private sector make many of the same moves. You know, private insurers have gotten a little bit more stingy about covering new technologies without evidence. They’ve tended to pay physicians and hospitals in bundles, or paying them incentives for quality, not paying them for certain types of care that involve errors. And so a lot of people I talked to said that they think the medical system is reacting to all of the payers crunching down on them. And so they’re just not being quite as aggressive and they’re trying to think more about value, which I feel like is like kind of a lame buzzword that often doesn’t mean anything. But I think, you know, it’s a way of thinking about this change. And, you know, that’s the kind of thing, if culturally that endures, you know, could continue into the future. Whereas some of these other factors, like the demographics, the lack of technological development, those — the Obamacare, which was kind of a one-time legislative change, you know — those things may not continue into the future, which is why the fact that we’ve had 15 years of flat Medicare spending is no guarantee that Medicare spending won’t spike again in the future. And I think you were right to point to what’s happening in the private sector, because private sector insurance premiums also have been like a little bit on the flat side through this period. And I think there is potential for them to take off again.
Huetteman: Absolutely. And that’s what The Wall Street Journal’s reporting had just said, that the health care costs for coming into next year are climbing. Let’s talk about that for a minute. Why are private insurance costs rising as Medicare spending levels off? One of the things that I noticed is we talked about technological innovation. Pharmaceutical innovation seems to be one of the things that’s contributing to rising private health insurance costs and elsewhere, in particular, those weight-loss drugs I know.
Kenen: And the Alzheimer’s drugs.
Huetteman: And the Alzheimer’s drugs.
Kenen: Eventually they’ll become more widely available. Sarah knows way more than the rest of us.
Karlin-Smith: The Alzheimer’s drugs will probably be less of an issue for the private health insurance population. But certainly weight-loss drugs are something that private insurers are worried about what percentage of the population they will cover with these drugs. And I think insurance companies, they have to balance that … difficult balance between what percentage of the drug cost rate you put on patients and what do you build into premiums. And sometimes there’s only so much flexibility they can have there. So I think that’s a big reason for what you’re seeing here.
Huetteman: Yeah, absolutely.
Sanger-Katz: I think the weight-loss drugs are interesting because they kind of are, potentially, an example of the kind of technology that is both expensive and good for public health, right? So, you know, when we have all these improvements in cardiac disease, like, that was great. People didn’t have heart attacks. They didn’t have disability in old age. They lived longer lives. That was great. But it cost a ton of money. And I think because we have been going through this period in which costs have been kind of level, and there hasn’t been a lot of expensive breakthrough technology, we haven’t had to weigh those things against each other in the way that we might now, where we might have to say, OK, well, like, this is really expensive, but also, like, it has a lot of benefits. and how do we decide what the right cost benefit is as a society, as an employer, as a public insurance program? And I think we’re going to see a lot of payers and economists and other analysts really thinking hard about these trade-offs in a way that they, I think, haven’t really been forced to do very much in the last few years with … I mean, maybe with the possible exception of those breakthrough therapies for hepatitis C —also expensive, huge public health benefit. And it was a struggle for our system to figure out what to do with them.
Kenen: But, like the statins, which, you know, revolutionized heart health, these drugs that are useful for both diabetes and … weight loss, the demand of people who just want them because they want to lose those 20 pounds, insurers are not — Medicare at least is not — covering it. Insurers have some rules about “Are you pre-diabetic?” and etc., etc., but they cost a lot of money and a lot of people want to take them. So I think they’re clearly great for diabetes. They clearly are a whole new class of drugs that are going to do good things. We still don’t. … There’s still questions about who should be using them for the rest of their lives, for weight control, etc., etc. Yes, there are going to be benefits, but this era of … what is the typical cost per month, Sarah?
Karlin-Smith: The list price of these drugs are thousands of dollars per month. But I think to your point, Joanne, though, the trouble for insurance companies who are figuring out how to cover this is they’re starting to get more research that there are these actual health benefits outside of just weight loss. And once you start to say, you know, that these drugs help prevent heart attacks and have hard evidence of that, it becomes harder for them to deny coverage. I think to Margot’s point of the long-term benefits, you might see to health because of it, we get back to another issue in the U.S. health system is, which is these private health insurance companies might essentially basically be footing the bill for benefits that Medicare is going to reap, not necessarily the insurance companies, right? So if somebody, you know, doesn’t have a heart attack at 50 because they’re on these drugs, that’s great. But if the savings is actually going to Medicare down the line, you know, the private health insurer doesn’t see the benefit of that. And that’s where some of the tensions you get into it in terms of, like, how we cover these products and who we give them to.
Kenen: Because that trade-off: quality of life and longevity of life. That’s what health is about, right? I mean, is having people live healthy, good lives, and it costs money. But there’s this issue of the drug prices have gotten very high, and hepatitis C is a perfect example. I mean, now it’s like we were freaked out about $84,000 in, you know, 2013, 2015, whenever that came out. You know, now that looks quaint. But that price was still so high that we didn’t get it to people. We could have wiped out hepatitis C or come damn close to wiping out hepatitis C, but the price the drug was an obstacle. So we’re still, I mean, there’s a big White House initiative now, you know, there’s creative … the Louisiana model of, you know, what they call the Netflix model where, you know, you have a contract to buy a whole ton of it for less per unit. I mean, these are still questions. Yes. I mean, we all know that certain drugs make a big difference. But if they’re priced at a point where people who need them the most can’t get them, then you’re not seeing what they’re really invented for.
Sanger-Katz: Oh, I was just going to say, I think that part of what interests me about this particular class of drugs and the debates that we are likely to have about them, and there are, you know, the way that they’re going to be adopted into our health care system is that setting aside the diabetes indication for a moment, the idea of drugs that effectively treat obesity, I think obesity is a very stigmatized disease in our country. And in fact, Medicare has statutory language that says that Medicare cannot cover drugs for weight loss. So it would actually require an act of Congress for these drugs to be approved for that purpose in Medicare. And in Medicaid, in general, states are required to cover FDA-approved drugs. You know, they can put some limitations, but they’re supposed to cover them. Again, there is a special statutory exclusion for weight-loss drugs where the states really have discretion they don’t have for a cancer drug, for a drug for diabetes, a drug for other common diseases. And so I do think that, you know, a lot of this debate is colored by people’s prejudices against people who have obesity, and the way that our medical care system has thought about them and the treatment for their disease over time. And I’m curious about that aspect of it as well. I mean, of course, I think that Joanne is absolutely right that we do not know long term how these drugs are going to help people with obesity, whether it’s really going to reduce the burden of disease down the road for them, whether it’s going to have other health consequences in an enduring way. You know, I think there are unknowns, but I think if you take the most optimistic possible look at these drugs, that there’s quite a lot of evidence that they really do improve people’s health. And if we treat these drugs differently than we would an expensive drug for an infectious disease like hepatitis C or different from an expensive drug for cancer diseases that are less stigmatized, I think that would maybe be a little bit sad.
Karlin-Smith: I mean certainly the reason why the initial restrictions in Medicare and other programs are baked in goes back to stigma to some degree. But also, I mean … because they were thinking of these as weight-loss drugs and sort of vanity treatments people would only be using for vanity. And at that time, the drugs that were available did not work quite as well and had a lot of dangers and certainly did not show any of these other health benefits that we’re starting to see with this new class of medicine. So I think that would be the hope that, you know, as the science and the products shift, as well as our medical understanding around what causes obesity, what doesn’t cause obesity, how much of it is … right, again, just as medical as any other condition and not all about a person’s behavior. And I think we will see that the benefits of some of these drugs for certain people, in particular, are probably a lot bigger than maybe the benefits of certain cancer treatments that we pay a lot more money for. The challenge is going to be the amount of people and the amount of time they are going to be on these drugs, right? You know, if you’re talking about these hepatitis C drugs, I think one reason they didn’t shock the budgets in the way people were expecting, besides the fact that, unfortunately, we didn’t get them to everybody, is they’re actually really short-term cures, right? I think it’s like 10 weeks or something.
Kenen: Some are like eight.
Karlin-Smith: Right. Ballpark. And with the obesity drugs, what we know … these new drugs so far is that you seem like you have to consistently take them. Once you get off them, the weight comes back. And then the assumption would be you lose all those health benefits. So we’re talking about a high-cost drug on a chronic basis that our system can’t afford.
Kenen: Margot, do you know? I mean, my guess is that the ban on covering weight-loss drugs was written into MMA [the Medicare Modernization Act] in 2003. That’s my guess. I don’t know if anyone …
Sanger-Katz: That’s right. Yeah. It was part of the creation of the drug benefit program.
Kenen: So I think that you’re totally right that it’s what both of you said. You know, we tended to say it was someone’s fault, like they didn’t have enough willpower. Or they, you know, didn’t do what they were supposed to do. And there was stigma and we thought about it diffrently. I also think the science, you know, Sarah alluded to this, I think the science of obesity has really changed, that we didn’t talk about it — even though obesity experts — really didn’t talk about it as a disease a generation ago. We thought of it as maybe as a risk factor, but we didn’t think of it as a disease in and of itself. And we now do know that. So I think that the coverage issues are going to change. But what are the criteria? How fast do they change, for who do they change? Do you really want to put somebody on a drug because they want to lose 10 or 15 punds, which is … versus someone who really has struggled with weight and has physical risk factors because of it, including, you know, heart disease, diabetes, all these other things we know about. I mean, I just think we don’t know. I mean, there was a piece in the Times about the Upper East Side of Manhattan is like this beehive of people taking these weight loss drugs because they can afford it, but they’re also thinner than the rest of the population. So it becomes, you know, a luxury good or another disparity.
Sanger-Katz: If insurance won’t cover these drugs ,of course, rich people are going to take them more than people of limited means. Right? Like, I think you can only really test the hypothesis of, like, who are these drugs meant to reach once … if you have coverage for them, right? I thought that story was very good, and it did reveal something that’s happening. But I also thought … it felt like it was focusing on the idea that that rich people were taking these drugs just for vanity. And I think …
Kenen: Some of them, not all clearly some of them.
Sanger-Katz: Some of them are, of course. But I thought the thing that was less explored in that story is all of the people in poor neighborhoods of New York who were not accessing those drugs. Was it because they couldn’t find any way to get them?
Kenen: Right, and some of them were pre-diabetic. Some of them. I mean, the other thing is people who are overweight are often pre-diabetic. And that is an indication. I mean, you can … it’s in flux. It’s going to change over the coming months, you know, but what a cost and how those benefits paid off and who’s going to end up paying and where the cost shifting is going to come, because there is always cost shifting. We just don’t know yet. But these drugs are here to stay. And there are questions. There are a lot of questions. The mounting evidence is that they are going to be a benefit. It’s just, you know, what do we pay for them? Who gets them? How long do the people stay on them, etc., etc., etc.
Sanger-Katz: And just to come back to Emmarie’s first question, like, what is this going to mean for our insurance premiums, right? With something like 40% of adults in the United States have obesity. If we start to see more and more people taking these drugs to treat this disease, all of us are going to have to pay for that in some way. And, you know, that affects overall health care.
Huetteman: Absolutely. Well, let’s move to the week’s big covid news now. This week, the FDA approved a new booster, which comes amid an uptick in cases and concerns about a surge this fall and winter. Before the CDC made its recommendations, though, there was debate over whether the booster should be recommended only for a couple of higher-risk groups. So who does the CDC say should get the shot? And what’s the response been like from the health care community so far?
Karlin-Smith: So the CDC decided their advisers and the CDC themselves to recommend the shot for everybody. That really didn’t surprise me because I think that was the direction FDA wanted to go as well. I think the majority came down to the fact that a broad recommendation would be the best for health equity and actually ensuring the people we really want to get the shots get them. If you start siphoning off the population and so forth, it actually might prevent people that really should get the shots from getting it. I think the booster debate has actually been really similar since we started approving covid boosters, which is that the companies that provided for the boosters is not the same as the original data they presented to get the vaccines approved. So we don’t have as much understanding with the type of rigorous research some people would like to know: OK, what is the added benefit you’re getting from these boosters? We know they provide some added benefit of protection for infection, but that’s very short-lived. And then I think there’s … people have differences of opinions of how much added protection it’s giving you from severe disease and death. And so there are factions who argue, and I think Paul Offit has become one of the most known and vocal cheerleaders of this mindset, which is that, well, actually, if you’ve already had, you know, two, three, four shots, you’ve already had covid, you’re probably really well protected against the worst outcomes. And these shots are not really going to do that much to protect you from an infection. “So why take them anymore?” — essentially, is sort of his mindset. And there are people that disagree. I think the thing that probably might help change mindsets is, at least in this country, probably not going to happen, which is, you know, more rigorous outcomes research here. But I think the sentiment of the CDC and its advice has been, well, these shots are extremely low risk and there’s at least some added benefit. So for most people, the risk-benefit balance is: Get it. And if you make it kind of simple, if you say, OK, you know, everybody, it’s time to get your next covid booster, the feeling is that will get the most people in the U.S. to go out and do it. Unfortunately, most covid booster recommendations have been fairly broad — the last, at least, and that hasn’t translated. But we’ll see. This is actually the first time that everyone, except for babies under 6 months — because you can’t start your covid vaccination until then —everybody is really included in the booster recommendation at the same time. In previous rounds, particularly for younger kids, it was more staggered. So this will be the simplest recommendation we have yet.
Kenen: And that’s part of the public health strategy, is to not talk about it so much as boosters, just as an annual shot. The way you get an annual flu shot. I mean, most people don’t get them. But the idea is that to normalize this, you know, you get an annual flu shot, you get an annual covid shot, for certain age groups you get annual RSV now that’ll be available. But that’s not for everybody. I mean, I think they really want to make this simple. OK, it’s fall, get your covid shot. We don’t think uptake is going to be real high. It hasn’t been for boosters. But in terms of trying to change, this is just, you know, this is one of those things to add to your to-do list this year and to, sort of, less “pandemicize” it. I don’t think that’s a word. But, you know, everyone will forgive me. And more just, you know, OK, you know, this is one of the things you got to do in the fall. Maybe “pandemicize” is a word or maybe it should be.
Sanger-Katz: I like it. Maybe we should use it.
Huetteman: Pandemicize your care.
Kenen: Right. You know, it’s part of your preventive care and just … I mean, good luck trying to de-politicize it. But that’s part of it. I mean, the CDC director, Mandy Cohen, she wrote an op-ed this week and it was all about, you know, I’m a doctor, I’m the CDC director, and I’m a mom. And, you know, my family is going to get it. You know, Ashish Jha was tweeting about how he’s going to get it, his elderly parents are going to get theirs as soon as possible, etc., etc. So it’s not going to be … the hard-core people who really don’t want these shots and haven’t taken the shots and believe the shots cause more harm than good, etc. It won’t change a lot of their minds. But there are a lot of people who are uncertain in the middle and their minds can be changed. And they have … they were changed in the initial round of shots. So that’s who the messaging is … it’s sort of a reminder to people who take the shots and an invitation to those who … haven’t been getting boosted that just start doing this every year.
Karlin-Smith: And it is important to emphasize when the boosters have been tweaked and, you know, updated to try to match as close as they possibly can the current version of the virus. The virus has evolved and shifted a lot over time to the point where even these boosters, you know, they can’t quite keep up with the virus. But the idea is that we’re helping broaden everybody’s protection by keeping it as up to date with the science. So I think that’s an important element of that, that people don’t appreciate. They’re not just giving you the exact same shot over and over again. They’re trying to, like we do with the flu vaccine every year, be as close to what is circulating as possible.
Kenen: And there’s a new, new, new, new variant that looked very — do I have enough “news” in there? — that looked, and I don’t remember the initials; I can’t keep track — that is really quite different than the other ones. And there was a lot of initial concern that this vaccine would not work or that we wouldn’t … that our protection would not work against that. The follow-up research is much more reassuring that the fall shot will work against that. But that one really is different, and it’s got a lot of mutations. And, you know, we don’t know yet how … some of these things come and go pretty quickly. I mean, who remembers Mu? That one people were very worried about and it seemed quite dangerous and luckily it didn’t take root. You know, people don’t even know there was a Greek letter called Mu. M-u, not m-o-o, in case anyone’s wondering. If relatives ask me if they should take it, the two things that struck me in reading about it are, yes, it works against this new variant, and we’re not really sure what are the new, new, new, new, new, new, new, new ones. And also, I mean, there’s some research that it does protect against long covid. And I think that’s a big selling point for people. I think there are people who still, with reason, worry about long covid, and that vaccination does provide some protection against that as well.
Huetteman: That’s a great point. I mean, anecdotally, you talk to your friends who’ve had covid, there’s going to be at least a few of them who say they haven’t quite felt like themselves ever since they had covid. And I think that is one of the things that really motivates people who aren’t in those higher-risk categories, to think about whether they need the booster or not.
Kenen: Yeah, and also the myocarditis … Sarah, correct … you follow this more closely than I do, so correct me if I’m wrong here, but I believe that they’re finding that the myocarditis risk in the newer formulations of the vaccine has dropped, that it is not as much of a concern for young men. And covid itself can cause myocarditis in some individuals. Did I get that right?
Karlin-Smith: Yeah, I think that that’s right. The general sense has been that the risk was more with the initial shots, and it seems to have gone down. I think that there are people that still worry about particular age groups of, like, young men in certain age groups, that maybe for them the benefit-risk balance with the myocarditis risk is, you know, might be a little bit different. And that’s where a lot of the pushback comes through. But right, like you said, there is a fairly high … there’s myocarditis risk from covid itself that needs to be balanced.
Huetteman: Well, OK. That’s this week’s news. Now we’ll take a quick break and then we’ll come back with extra credits.
Julie 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.
Huetteman: OK, we’re back. And it’s time for our extra-credit segment. That’s when we each recommend a story we read this week that we think you should read, too. As always, don’t worry if you miss it; we’ll post the links on the podcast page at kffhealthnews.org and in our show notes on your phone or other mobile device. Sarah, why don’t you go first?
Karlin-Smith: Sure. So I looked at a MedPage Today page by Kristina Fiore that talks about a GoFundMe campaign that was started by a small rural hospital in Pennsylvania. They’re trying to raise $1.5 million to basically keep the hospital open. It’s the only hospital in the county. It’s a small critical-access hospital. And I think people who follow health care and health policy in the U.S. are probably used to seeing GoFundMe campaigns for individual health care, as we talked about earlier in the episode, right? The unaffordability that can happen even for people with good insurance if you … depending on your medical situation. But this situation, I thought, was really unique, a whole hospital, which is, I guess, community-owned, and they’re essentially turning to the internet to try and stay open. And it touches on some of the payment differences in how rural hospitals make their money, or the payment rates they get reimbursed versus more urban hospitals. Other issues it brings up is just, you know, how do you keep an institution open that’s serving a relatively small population of people? So, you don’t necessarily want to have people going to the hospital, but they’re basically arguing that if we don’t get this amount of people in our ER per day, we can’t stay open. But then that means you don’t have an ER for anybody. And I think it’s just worth looking at, looking at the facts they put on their GoFundMe page, just thinking about, you know, what this says about various policies in the U.S. health system. And, unfortunately for them right now, they’re well short of their $1.5 billion goal.
Huetteman: Yeah, it’s amazing to see this get translated into an institution-saving effort as opposed to an individual-saving effort. Joanne, you want to go next?
Kenen: Sure. This is a story that it was by Bianca Fortis from ProPublica, Laura Biel, who wrote this for ProPublica and New York Magazine, and also Laura, who’s a friend of mine, also has a fabulous podcast called “Exposed.” And in this case, I want to mention the photographer, too, because if you click on this, it’s quite extraordinary visuals. Hannah Whitaker from New York Magazine. And the title is “How Columbia …” — and this is the university, not the country — “How Columbia Ignored Women, Undermined Prosecutors and Protected a Predator for More Than 20 Years.” This is an OB-GYN who was abusing his patients, and it’s hundreds, hundreds that have been identified and known. We knew about him because some of the patients had come forward, including Evelyn Wang, who was Andrew Wang — is Andrew Wang’s wife, the presidential candidate last cycle. But we didn’t know this. You know, first of all, it’s even bigger than we knew three years ago, and he has been prosecuted — finally. But it took 20 years. And this is really more of a story about how the medical system, the health care system, had warning after warning after warning after warning, and they didn’t do anything. And also, many of the people who tried to give the warnings, some of the employees, including the medical assistants, and the nurses, and the receptionists, knew what was going on. And they thought that they, as lower-level women going up against a white male doctor, wouldn’t be believed. And they didn’t even try. They just felt like he’s the guy, he’s the doctor. I’m the, you know, I’m the nurse. They won’t listen to me. So that was another subtheme that came out to me. I had known vaguely about this. It’s really long, and I read every word. It’s a really horrifying saga of an abdication of responsibility to women who were really harmed. Vulnerable women who were really harmed.
Huetteman: Yeah, it’s a really troubling story, but it’s an important piece of journalism. And I advise that people give it a little time. Margot, would you like to go next?
Sanger-Katz: Yeah. So this is a very nerdy, deep cut. I wanted to talk about a CBO [Congressional Budget Office] report from 2012 called “Raising the Excise Tax on Cigarettes: Effects on Health and the Federal Budget.” So when I published this article about how Medicare spending has sort of flattened out, we got so many reader comments and emails and tweets and several people asked, “Could it be that the decline in smoking has led to lower costs for Medicare?” And that caused me to do some reporting and to read this paper. And I think the finding, the sort of counterintuitive finding that I will tell you about in a minute, from the CBO really speaks to some of the discussion that we were having earlier about these obesity drugs, which is that there are many beneficial preventive therapies in health care that are great for people’s health. They make them healthier, they have happier lives, they live longer, they have less burden of disease, but they are not cost-effective in the sense that they reduce our total spending on health care. And the simplest way to think about this is that if everyone in America just died at age 65, Medicare’s budget would look amazing. You know, it would be great. We would save so much money if we could just kill everyone at age 65. But that’s not what the goal of Medicare is. It’s not to save the maximum amount of money. It’s to get a good value, to improve people’s life and health as much as possible for a good value. And so this report was looking at what would happen if we had a really effective policy to reduce smoking in the United States. They looked at a tax that they estimated would reduce the smoking rate by a further 5 percentage points. And what they found is that it would cost the government more money, that people would be healthier, they would live longer lives, more of them would spend more years in Medicare, and they would end up having some other health problem that was expensive that they weren’t going to have before. And also they would collect a lot of Social Security payments because they would live a lot longer. And so I found it so stunning because the economics of it, I think, make a lot of sense. And when you think about it, it’s true. But it does go to show how, I think, that sometimes when we, and when politicians, talk about preventive health care, they always talk about it like it’s a win-win. You know, this is going to be great for people and it’s going to save money. And I think that in health care, many times things that are good and beneficial improve health and they cost money and we have to decide if it’s worth it.
Huetteman: Absolutely. That’s great. Thank you. My extra credit this week comes from KFF Health News. Dr. Elisabeth Rosenthal, our senior contributing editor, writes: “The Shrinking Number of Primary Care Physicians Is Reaching a Tipping Point.” And we’ve seen some great coverage lately on the disappearance of the primary care doctor in this country. And Dr. Rosenthal also offers some solutions to this yawning gap in our health care system. She reports that the percent of U.S. doctors that have moved into primary care is now at about 25%, which is much lower than in previous decades. And one point she makes, in particular, about a problem that’s leading to this is the payment structure that we have in our country favors surgeries and procedures, of course, not diagnostic tests, preventative care, when it comes to reimbursing doctors. And of course, this lack of primary care doctors has implications for our overall health, both individually and as a country. So I recommend that you give that article a little bit of your time this week.
All right. 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 a review; that helps other people find us, too. Special thanks, as always, to our amazing engineer, Francis Ying. And as always, you can email us your comments or questions. We’re at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can tweet me. I’m @emmarieDC. Sarah?
Karlin-Smith: I’m @SarahKarlin.
Huetteman: And Margot.
Sanger-Katz: @sangerkatz in all the places.
Huetteman: We’ll be back in your feed next week. Until then, be healthy.