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KFF Health News’ ‘What the Health?’: A Very Good Night for Abortion Rights Backers

KFF Health News’ ‘What the Health?’: A Very Good Night for Abortion Rights Backers

[Editor’s note: This transcript was generated using both transcription software and a human’s light touch. It 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, and I’m joined by some of the best and smartest health reporters in Washington. We’re taping this week on Thursday, Nov. 9, at 10 a.m. As always, news happens fast, and things might’ve changed by the time you hear this. So, here we go. We are joined today via video conference by Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico.

Alice Miranda Ollstein: Good morning.

Rovner: Tami Luhby of CNN.

Tami Luhby: Hello.

Rovner: And Sandhya Raman of CQ Roll Call.

Sandhya Raman: Hello, everyone.

Rovner: Later in this episode, we’ll have my interview with my colleague Julie Appleby, who wrote the latest KFF Health News-NPR “Bill of the Month.” This month’s patient had a very small bill, but it violated an important principle. But first, this week’s news, and there is more than enough.

Election night 2023 has come and gone, and it was a very good night for abortion rights supporters in Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Alice, catch us up here.

Ollstein: Yeah, so this was a really striking example that I think undermined some of the talking points from the anti-abortion side after the 2022 midterms, where they also did worse than they expected. The narrative after that was that they lose when Republican candidates shy away from the abortion issue and don’t forcefully campaign on it. And the results this week sort of undermined that because, in Ohio, the Republican state officials went all in. I was at rallies where they were speaking, they cut ads saying, “Vote no on this abortion rights amendment.” They really put political capital into it.

An even stronger example is in Virginia, where Gov. Glenn Youngkin went all in on promoting his 15-week ban, wanting to flip the state legislature in order to advance that. He put a lot of his own money into this, et cetera. And it just …

Rovner: And the state legislature did flip, just not his way.

Ollstein: Exactly. It flipped the other way. So it really flopped in both places. And so now you have another round of finger-pointing on the right and disagreements over why they lost and what they need to do better. And so you have some people staying on that same narrative from last year saying, “Oh, they need to campaign even harder on restricting abortion.” And then you have other people saying, “Look, this is clearly a loser for us. We need to talk about other topics.”

But what was really striking, you mentioned New Jersey, and that’s sort of a counter-example because there, the Republican candidates tried to sidestep the abortion issue and say, “Look, this is settled. Abortion is legal in our state. This is not something we’re going to touch.” And they still lost. So it’s like, they lose on abortion when they campaign hard on it, they lose on abortion when they don’t campaign hard on it. And you have people arguing over what sort of magic words to use to connect with voters, but it really seems that it’s not really about the words; it’s about the policy itself.

Rovner: I want to dig a little harder into the whole 15-week-ban thing, and in Ohio it was just a straight up or down, are we going to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution? And voters said yes, which did surprise a lot of people in a red state, although it’s, what, the fifth red state to do this?

But in Virginia, it was a little more subtle. The governor was trying to push a 15-week and they were calling it a limit, not a ban. And that’s apparently been the talking point for national Republicans, too, on federal, that this could be a compromise to have only a 15-week limit. Not working so well, right?

Ollstein: That’s right. I mean, that goes to what I was saying about you can sort of rebrand all you want. There’s been talk about rebranding “ban” to “limit.” There’s been talking about rebranding the term “pro-life,” but, ultimately, because of the events of the last several years, people associate Republicans with wanting to ban abortion. And that’s true whether it’s a total ban or a 15-week ban. It’s true whether you call it a ban or a limit or a restriction or whatever. And, like I said, it’s true when Republicans talk about it and when they don’t talk about it.

Most people, the country is still quite divided on this, but most people, a majority, enough to sway these elections, are saying that they would rather not have these kinds of imposed restrictions. And that’s really been galvanized by the overturning of Roe [v. Wade]. A lot of people were bringing up what Justice [Samuel] Alito wrote in his opinion overturning Roe saying, “Women are not without political power.” And people are saying, “Hey, look, that’s quite true. Thank you, Justice Alito.”

Rovner: So the other big political event obviously this week was the third Republican presidential candidate debate, this time with only five candidates on the stage, none of them named Trump.

As popular as abortion is turning out to be as a voting issue, President [Joe] Biden is not popular. In fact, I’ve seen many, many of these charts that showed that support for abortion rights is running 10 or 15 points better than President Biden. So these Republicans, who are hoping that something happens to Donald Trump, did finally talk about abortion, and most of them still seem to be in the “I’m proudly pro-life” stage. I mean, is there any way to walk this tightrope for them?

Ollstein: I think what was fascinating about the debate was you’re not really seeing a shift in reaction to this electoral shellacking that they got. The candidates who were for national bans and restrictions are still for national bans and restrictions. The candidates who want the states to decide say, “I want the states to decide.”

And it’s interesting that Nikki Haley is getting a lot of praise for her position, which she came out and said, “Yes, I’ll sign whatever Congress is able to pass that restricts abortion, but we should be upfront with voters and say that it is highly unlikely that anything will be able to pass the Senate.” It’s interesting that that seems to be appealing to people because …

Rovner: It’s true.

Ollstein: It is true, but it pisses off multiple groups. Democrats are zeroing in and hammering her on saying, “I will sign whatever ban Congress is able to pass” as evidence that she is still a threat to abortion access. Meanwhile, folks on the right, conservatives, anti-abortion people, they want her to champion a ban. They don’t want her to sort of downplay its likelihood. They want her to say, “Look, this might be very hard to get done, but I will be your champion for it.” And so she’s sort of not appealing to the left or the right with that stance, but it seems like there are some she is appealing to.

Rovner: Yeah. If anybody has ever succeeded in straddling the middle, she’s certainly making the effort.

I want to go back to the states for a minute. I think it was in your story that I read that one of the anti-abortion groups was talking about “the tyranny of the majority,” which took me a minute to think about, trying to get some of these states that could still put abortion constitutional amendments on their ballots, trying to get that stopped. Is that basically the next battleground we’re going to see?

Ollstein: Oh, yes. And it’s already started, but what really struck me is how open they’re being about it. So over the past year, a lot of states have quietly moved with legislation and through other means to try to make it harder or impossible to put an up-or-down question about abortion before voters, raising the threshold, raising the signature limit, mandating that people get signatures from this many counties and this and that and the other thing, making it more difficult. Mississippi is trying to make a carve-out so you can do a ballot measure on anything but abortion. We’ll see where that goes.

And so this has been going on, but the statements after Tuesday’s election from anti-abortion groups openly saying, “This is the tyranny of the majority and the human rights of babies should not be subject to a popular vote,” just completely going down this anti-Democratic road and being explicit about it. So I think it’s definitely something to keep an eye on.

Luhby: And this started with expanding Medicaid also because there’ve been multiple states now that have expanded Medicaid through ballot measures, multiple red states, and several states, including states that eventually passed that, have been trying to limit the ability of voters to pass it.

Rovner: Yes, we’ve got all these sort of Republican-dominated legislatures, but when the voters actually go to these single topics, they don’t necessarily agree with the legislators that they have elected.

Raman: Last year, one of the ones that abortion rights supporters had really championed was Michigan as the first citizen-led constitutional amendment to codify abortion rights. And then this week, we had a lawsuit brought against to invalidate that passing last year, and it’s unclear how that’ll go and play out in the courts, but it really seems like they’ve been slowly ramping up the strategies to see what sticks to be able to claw back some of this stuff.

Rovner: They, the anti-abortion force.

Raman: Yes, yes. And I was also going to say that when we’re talking about Mississippi, that is probably one of the one places where I think abortion opponents really had their win in that we had Lynn Fitch, their attorney general, who was the one that litigated the Dobbs decision that is making this such a big topic now, who pretty handily won reelection. And her opponent was pretty vocally an abortion rights supporter, Greta Kemp Martin. So that is one …

Rovner: The Republican governor also won in Mississippi.

Raman: Yes, yeah.

Rovner: It kind of prevented it from being a clean sweep for Democrats.

All right, well, I want to go back to the debate for a minute because they also talked mostly about foreign policy, but they did talk about entitlement reform, which had not come up, I don’t think, before. Talk about trying to straddle the middle. Here, Donald Trump has come out and vowed not to cut Social Security and Medicare, and yet we know that both programs need to have some kind of change or else they’re going to run out of money.

So how are these candidates trying to separate themselves on this thorny problem, Tami? They all seemed to say as much as they could without really saying anything.

Luhby: Exactly. I’m not sure there’s a lot of separation there, other than just saying, “We’ll look at it and we’ll see it.” But I mean, to some extent they’re right. The moderators were really trying to press them on what’s the age? What are you going to raise the age to? It’s now, the full retirement age is being ramped up to 67. The early retirement age has stayed at 62, and the moderators were like … they wanted a number.

And the candidates were sort of right in saying that they can’t just give a number because there are multiple things that can be done. I mean, a little bit more than I think what Nikki Haley said, or one of them had said it was three things that can be done. There’s more levers than that, but the age will ultimately depend on what they do with the formula, what they do with COLA, what they do with taxes. So there’s multiple things that can be done.

But what is definitely true is you can’t say that discussions are off the table because, according to the latest Trustees Report, Social Security will not be able to pay full benefits after 2034. At that time, it’ll only be able to pay about 80%. Medicare Part A can only pay full-schedule benefits till 2031. After that, it’ll only be able to cover 89%. And the new [House] speaker, Mike Johnson, has called for a debt commission and he says he wants to address Medicare and Social Security’s insolvency as part of the debt commission, which has really scared a lot of Social Security and Medicare advocates because of his Republican Study Committee background.

Rovner: Of actually wanting to cut Social Security and Medicare.

Luhby: Right. And do a lot of the things, although not raise taxes, but do a lot of things that the advocates don’t like. But yeah, there wasn’t really a lot to take away from the debate on Social Security and Medicare, other than them saying they wanted to do something, which they need to do.

Rovner: I was amused, though, that Nikki Haley said she wanted to expand Medicare Advantage without pointing out that Medicare … as if that was a way to save money because, as we’ve talked about many, many, many times, Medicare Advantage actually costs more than traditional Medicare at the moment. That’s one of the things that’s hastening the demise of Medicare’s trust fund in other places.

While we are on the subject of Washington and spending, we have yet another funding deadline coming up, this one Nov. 17, which is a week from Friday. We’ll obviously talk more about this next week, but Sandhya, how is it looking to keep the lights on?

Raman: I think we could just put a big question mark and that would be evergreen, but we’re still not close to a consensus, either short-term or long-term. So ideally, in the next several days, we’re going to get some sort of short-term selection, solution, and that it would get the votes. And those are big maybes.

Speaker Mike Johnson has said that he would come up with kind of a stopgap plan by the weekend, but this is all allegedly, and if that is something that would also be appeasable to the senators. And so a lot of that is still a question mark, but the House is still going ahead on trying to get HHS funding. So they recently released a revised version of their Labor, HHS, and Education bill. It’s still all the same topline spending, but it has additional …

Rovner: Which is lower than was agreed to. Right?

Raman: Yes, yeah.

Rovner: I mean, this bill’s having trouble … because of the magnitude of the cuts that it would make.

Raman: Yeah. They didn’t do any additional cuts to that, but they did add several more social policy riders. So the revised version would prevent funding from going to a hospital that requires abortion training or funding from athletic programs in schools that allow trans children to participate, which is something the House has passed legislation on earlier this year, calls for barring … calling for a public health emergency related to guns, a lot of just social issues that they’ve been messaging on.

So if this were to pass, this is also going to make it even more difficult to come to an agreement with the Senate. So the next thing to watch is that Monday, the House Rules Committee is going to meet and see the path to get it to the floor. And then even there, if it gets past the Rules Committee, it’s a will-or-will-not pass there. Because if you look at some of the other spending bills that have been going through, a lot of them have been getting pulled or not getting votes or getting pulled and repulled and all sorts of things.

Rovner: Pulled from the House floor?

Raman: Yes.

Rovner: Pulled like … they put them on the House floor and they don’t have the votes and they say, “Oops,” so they pull them back.

Raman: Yeah. So it’s all very tenuous. And I think one other interesting thing is that we didn’t have a full committee markup of this bill, which is something that the House has traditionally done and the Senate has not done in a few years. But the Senate did have their full markup. They did have a bipartisan consensus on it. And so we’ve kind of flipped roles, at least for now, in terms of how the regular order of Congress is going.

Rovner: Yeah, that’s right. Again, because the cuts were so big that the HHS bill couldn’t get through the Appropriations Committee.

Raman: Yeah. A lot of this is to be determined in the next few days.

Rovner: And this whole “laddered CR” that the speaker was talking about that nobody seems to quite understand except it would create different deadlines for different programs, that doesn’t seem to be on the table anymore or is it?

Raman: It also further complicates something that when they all have the same deadline, we’re still already struggling to get that done. So changing the dates is going to make it even more complicated to get to that point, but so much has really been in flux that I don’t think that that’s really on the table right now.

Rovner: Maybe he was hoping that having a partial shutdown would not be as disruptive or look as bad as having a full shutdown. I mean, I kept trying to figure out why he would try to do this because it just seemed, as you say, way more complicated.

Raman: If you look at the letter that he sent to other members of the House before he was elected as speaker, he did have a plan of outlining when he intends to get various bills done. And if you look at Labor, HHS, and Education, that one was one of the later ones kind of pegged to getting a deal for fiscal 2024 in April or so as the deadline, versus we’re still in November and the deadline was technically the end of September. There’s so many loose-hanging threads that hopefully they will come together with some sort of short-term solution over the next few days.

Rovner: They will, obviously, we shall see. Well, the House, as we say, is not getting a lot done, but the Senate is sort of.

The National Institutes of Health has a new director, former Cancer Institute director Monica Bertagnolli, whose nomination was approved on a bipartisan vote of 62 to 36 after being held up for months by Democrats who were upset that she wouldn’t, in the words of Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, “take on Big Pharma enough.”

So when did controlling drug prices become part of the NIH portfolio? That’s not something that I was aware necessarily went together.

Ollstein: I think it was just that her nomination was the one that was up, so you got to sort of dance with the partner you can find. Obviously, other agencies and other official positions would have made more sense and had more direct power over drug prices. But this was the open seat, and so this was the leverage they thought they could use, and whether what they got out of it made it worth it, that’s up for debate. But yeah, it is very unusual to see somebody going against a president with whom they are largely aligned.

So this was eventually cleared, but Bernie Sanders wasn’t the only one. There were some other Democratic senators who were asking for ethics pledges and other things around this nomination, but it did ultimately go through.

Rovner: Yeah, there was a statement from John Fetterman. He said, “I’m not going to vote for her because she’s not going to be tough enough on the drug industry.” It’s like, I’m pretty sure that’s not her job as the head of NIH.

I mean, before people start to complain, I know that there are some levers that NIH can pull in deciding how to do some of their clinical trials. They can have sort of a secondary effect on drug prices, but it’s certainly not …

Ollstein: Not as direct.

Rovner: … their main role in the federal bureaucracy.

Well, meanwhile, there was some actual real stuff on drug prices this week. The Federal Trade Commission, which the last time I checked was in charge of unfair pricing practices, is officially challenging 100 drug industry patent listings charging that the listings are inaccurate. And because those listings help prevent cheaper generics from entering the market, that’s not fair. This is one of those things that’s kind of mind-numbingly complex, but it can have a real impact, right? If some of these patents get disallowed or delisted, I guess, from the Orange Book, the official listing of patents for drugs?

Luhby: If that happens, it does clear the pathway for us to get generics and cheaper drugs that way. So there definitely is that that could lower the prices of some of these, and some of the ones listed are pretty commonly used things that people use on a regular basis like inhalers, that kind of stuff.

Rovner: So if there was a generic, it could have a big impact because a lot of people would end up using it.

Finally, this week the Biden administration — remember the Biden administration? — issued a rule that would crack down on some marketing tactics by Medicare Advantage plans. Meanwhile, the Senate Finance Committee approved a health “extenders” bill that extends programs that would otherwise expire, and it includes, among lots of Medicare and Medicaid odds and ends, a requirement that Medicare Advantage plans keep a more timely list of the providers that are in and out of network, which I think might be the most frustrating thing about most managed-care plans, not just Medicare Advantage.

Both the administration’s proposed rule and the finance bill are smallish, but they represent stuff that keeps these programs up to date. I mean, Tami, there’s some significant stuff here, isn’t there?

Luhby: Yeah. Medicare Advantage is getting more attention because it’s getting larger. I think this is the first year that it’s crossed the 50% threshold and it’s expected to just continue growing as younger baby boomers coming in who are used to employer health insurance want to keep that. And there are a lot of pros and cons about Medicare Advantage for the consumer, and the administration is making sure … or is trying incrementally to make sure that people understand what they’re getting into.

I’ve seen a couple, now that it’s open enrollment time, I’ve seen a couple of the ads, which interestingly do seem to be targeted towards older women, not necessarily baby boomers coming in, but they’re kind of crazy and they can be very misleading. And the administration, in this latest effort, is trying to limit commissions of brokers because there are additional incentives that companies and insurers can provide to brokers beyond just the fees. So they’re trying to rein that in. Previously, they were working on Medicare Advantage marketing, so there’s a lot that they’re trying to do to just make sure that people are aware of what they can do.

This proposed rule would require that these supplemental benefits, which are one of the attractive features of Medicare Advantage, because Medicare doesn’t cover vision, dental, hearing, et cetera, but the administration wants to make sure that people actually know about these benefits and are using them and it’s not just a sweetener that the insurers are dangling at open enrollment time.

Rovner: To get people to sign up.

Luhby: They’re incremental, but they’re trying to make it a little more transparent.

Rovner: Yeah, I think it’s just important to remember that the incessant marketing, and boy, it is incessant, suggests that these companies are making a lot of money on Medicare Advantage.

Luhby: Oh, yeah.

Rovner: They would not be spending all of this money to advertise if this were not a very profitable line of business for them.

Luhby: And a growing line, of course, because more and more people are going to be eligible.

Rovner: Yeah. So we will watch that space too.

Well, before we get to our “Bill of the Month” interview, it’s time for “This Week in Medical Misinformation.” I chose this week a study from the Ohio State University of health advice related to gynecologic cancers that was most popular on TikTok. The study found at least 73% of content was inaccurate and of poor educational quality and that it furthered already existing racial disparities in cancer care. We will link to the study in the notes, but at least we know that there are people trying to quantify the amount of misinformation that’s out there, if not figure out what to do about it.

OK. That is this week’s news. Now we will play my interview with my colleague Julie Appleby, then we will come back with our extra credits.

I am pleased to welcome back to the podcast my colleague Julie Appleby, who reported and wrote the latest KFF Health News-NPR “Bill of the Month” installment. Julie, thanks for joining us again.

Julie Appleby: Thanks for having me.

Rovner: So this month’s patient had a very small bill compared to most of them, but likely the kind that affects millions of patients. Tell us who she is and what brought her to our attention.

Appleby: Yes, exactly. Her name is Christine Rogers and she lives in Wake Forest, North Carolina. And like a lot of us, she went in for an exam with her doctor, sort of an annual-type exam. And while she was in the waiting room, they handed her a screening form for depression and for other mental health concerns, and she filled it out, and then went and saw her doctor.

During the discussion with her doctor, her doctor asked her about depression and her general mood, and Rogers had lost her mother that year, and so she told her doctor, “Yeah, it’s been a horrible year. I lost my mom.” So they had some discussion about that, and Rogers estimates it was about a five-minute discussion about depression, and then the visit wrapped up. Her doctor didn’t recommend any treatment or refer her for counseling or anything like that. It was just a discussion.

So Rogers was a little surprised when, later, she got a bill for that visit because, as you’ll remember, under the Affordable Care Act, preventive services, including depression screening, is supposed to be covered without a copay or a deductible. So she was a little surprised, and yeah, it wasn’t much. It was $67. That was her share of the visit. So she was just curious, why is this happening and what’s going on?

Rovner: So she calls the doctor’s office and said, “This is supposed to be free.” And what did they say?

Appleby: Right. She said that, and they explained to her that she had a discussion above and beyond just preventive, and so she was billed for a separate visit, basically, a 20- to 29-minute visit, specifically for the discussion treatment and that’s why she owed the money. So really, it wasn’t part of the wellness exam. It was part of a separate exam even though she was in the same office at the same time.

Rovner: But when I go for an annual physical, they give you a questionnaire. It’s not just about mental health. It’s about a lot of things, and it includes mental health. If you had a discussion about any of them, would that be billed separately? Could it be billed separately?

Appleby: Well, here’s where the nuance kicks in. So, as I said, under the Affordable Care Act, there’s a lot of preventive services that are covered without a copay. Things like certain cancer tests, certain vaccines, and yes, depression screening, but if you bring up something else during your wellness visit, they can indeed bill you for that.

So let’s say, for example, you mentioned to your doctor, “My shoulder’s really been killing me ever since I started playing pickleball,” and so then the doctor did some more exam of your shoulder. That could potentially be billed separately because it’s not part of the wellness visit. And in this case, initially, the doctor’s office coded it as two separate visits because it went above and beyond just a quick discussion of the questionnaire or just filling out the questionnaire.

Rovner: She goes to the doctor, the doctor says, “No, this is correct.” Then what happens?

Appleby: So then after we started calling around, we did talk to the insurer, Cigna, and the doctor’s practice, which is owned by WakeMed Physician Practices. And initially, they said the bill was coded correctly from the doctor’s office because it was a separate discussion. But after Cigna got involved, eventually after we talked to them, Rogers got a new explanation of benefits that zeroed out the visit. And a Cigna spokesperson said that the wellness visit was initially billed incorrectly with these two separate visit codes, basically, and that they had fixed that.

And so Christine Rogers did get her $67 back. But I think this does illustrate the issue of not all preventive services are covered without a copay if it goes beyond what they consider preventive. And that can be challenging. And many people that I spoke with for this article said Rogers did the exact right thing. She talked to her doctor honestly, and everybody emphasized that people should not avoid discussing health concerns with their doctors at a wellness visit for fear of getting a bill because, really, you’re there to get health care.

So what they do suggest is if after one of these wellness visits, if you do get a bill, you should ask about it, ask for an explanation of benefits, ask for an itemized billing statement. And if something seems off, question that. But keep in mind that some things, if they go beyond the preventive care guidelines, that you might get a separate bill even during what you might otherwise think would be a no-cost wellness visit.

Rovner: And if your shoulder’s bothering you after you take up pickleball, you probably should let a doctor look at it.

Appleby: You probably should.

Rovner: And I know that this was a fairly small bill, certainly in the scope of the bills that we usually look at, but this happened a lot with colonoscopies, that people would go in for the preventive colonoscopy that was paid for, but then if they found a polyp and took it off, suddenly they’d be charged for the surgery having the polyp removed. And that’s a lot more than $67.

Appleby: Right. And that has since been fixed. There’s been some clarification issued by CMS and others that that is not supposed to happen. So again, you go in for a screening colonoscopy, and that is supposed to be covered whether they find a polyp or not.

Now, if you go in because you have symptoms and there’s some other kind of problem, that’s where it can get more complicated. And we’ve seen that with other screenings too, such as mammograms. A screening mammogram is covered under the preventive services guidelines, but if you find a lump, there may be some questions to whether it’s gone from a screening mammogram to a diagnostic mammogram, which is covered under different guidelines.

Rovner: Bottom line, you should always look at your bill even if it’s for something small.

Appleby: Yes, that’s always a good rule of thumb. And if you have any questions, certainly contact your physician’s office and start there and ask about that. And you may also want to ask your insurer.

Rovner: Great. Julie Appleby, thanks for joining us.

OK, we’re back. It’s time for our extra-credit segment. That’s when we each recommend a story we read this week we think you should read, too. As always, don’t worry if you miss it. We will post the links on the podcast page at kffhealthnews.org and in our show notes on your phone or other mobile device.

Sandhya, why don’t you go first this week?

Raman: So my extra credit is called “Sex Trafficking, Drugs and Assault: Texas Foster Kids and Caseworkers Face Chaos in Rental Houses and Hotels,” and it’s by Karen Brooks Harper at the Texas Tribune.

Her story examines a report that looks at the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services that was done by some court-appointed watchdogs to report about some of the efforts to improve the foster care system. And they found a lot of overworked case workers that didn’t have training and no round-the-clock security. And it’s just a really important story about what’s trying to be done and what needs to be done for caring for some very vulnerable kids. Many of them, as the title suggests, are sex trafficking victims or from psychiatric facilities, and it’s just an unsafe environment for both the workers and the kids. So check that out.

Rovner: Alice?

Ollstein: So I picked a piece I did this week that sort of fell through the cracks in the news, but people should really be paying attention to this. It was a pretty scary report out of the Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention] about congenital syphilis. This is syphilis in pregnant people that is passed to infants in birth. And when not treated, it can be really deadly. It can cause stillbirths, it can cause birth defects, it can cause all kinds of issues, infertility in the parent, et cetera. And this has jumped tenfold over the last decade. It is killing hundreds of infants.

This is really scary. They sound that … so many people are just getting no prenatal care at all. And even when they are, they’re not getting tested for syphilis. And even when they’re getting tested and even when it’s detected, they’re not getting the treatment. And so people are really falling through the cracks. And, hopefully, this gets some more attention on this, but it’s also coming at a time when Congress is debating cutting these kinds of sexual health programs and services even more, not expanding them, which is what the report says is needed.

Rovner: That’s right. These are some of the things that would be cut in the proposed HHS spending bill that’s still kicking around in the House. Tami?

Luhby: So I looked at a ProPublica story. ProPublica has done several excellent deep dives into health insurers’ rejections of policyholders’ claims. These are very hard stories to do. They really are good at pulling back the curtain on these decisions that most people know very little about. So the latest story is by T. Christian Miller. It’s titled, “Big Insurance Met Its Match When It Turned Down a Top Trial Lawyer’s Request for Cancer Treatment.” It’s a long story, but it’s a piece about Robert Salim, I think, a litigator who was diagnosed with stage 4 throat cancer in 2018. His doctor recommended proton therapy, which specifically would minimize the damage to the surrounding tissues. Some of the side effects could be loss of hearing, damage to the sense of taste and smell, brain issues, memory loss. But the insurer, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Louisiana, refused to pay for it, saying it was not medically necessary. So Salim was able to pay the nearly $100,000 cost of treatment because he didn’t want to do these additional therapies first, which could leave him with hearing loss and all these other problems.

Rovner: Yeah, because he’s a rich trial lawyer, so he could afford it.

Luhby: Right, so he could afford it and he didn’t want to waste the time. But he also decided to battle Blue Cross and Blue Shield because, as he put it, he’s paid them $100,000 in premiums for him and for his employees at his law firm. And he’s just like, “Now that I need it, they’re not there.” So the story goes into the lengths that Salim had to go to, including his doctor sending in a 225-page request to Blue Cross to do an independent medical review. But what was interesting was that multiple doctors that were hired by the insurer to battle Salim’s appeal kept referring to guidelines that are created by this company called AIM Specialty Health, which is actually part of Anthem. So Salim, who has now been cancer-free for nearly five years, the appeal didn’t work, so he ended up taking Blue Cross to court and he actually won, but he’s still waiting to get his reimbursement. So read the story. It has a lot of twists and turns and shows that even someone with means and expertise, the battle is still so difficult. How can people who don’t have the resources, both financially and legally to do this … he had to hire a friend of his to take them to court, like a childhood friend or a college friend, because it was such a difficult case to put before the courts. It’s a good story.

Rovner: Yeah, it’s the juicy story of the week.

Luhby: It’s a scary story.

Rovner: Scary and juicy. Well, my story actually builds on Tami’s story. It’s also from ProPublica. It also builds on our “Bill of the Month” project. It is a new tool that can help patients file the paperwork to find out why their insurer denied a claim. As we have pointed out so many times, most people simply don’t bother to argue with their health care providers or insurers because they don’t know how, and it is not easy. They make it difficult on purpose. This tool actually walks you through a key part of the process: how to ask for the information that the insurance company used to deny the claim. It’s super helpful and it’s a good place to go rather than doing the sort of one at a time, “I have this bill, will you look at it, journalist?” Here’s a way where people can at least start to do their own digging. As Tami says, it gets harder, but many people are being denied care that they are, in fact, eligible to. So here’s a way to at least start to try and get that care.

OK. That is our show. 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 tireless engineer, Francis Ying.

Also, as always, you can email us your comments or questions. We’re at whatthehealth@kff.org, or you can still find me at X, @jrovner or @julierovner at Bluesky and Threads. Sandhya?

Raman: @SandhyaWrites.

Rovner: Tami?

Luhby: Well, I’m at @Luhby, but it’s not really worth looking at it.

Rovner: Alice?

Ollstein: @AliceOllstein.

Rovner: We will be back in your feed next week. Until then, be healthy.

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