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KFF Health News’ ‘What the Health?’: The Supreme Court and the Abortion Pill

KFF Health News’ ‘What the Health?’: The Supreme Court and the Abortion Pill

KFF Health News’ ‘What the Health?’
Episode Title: ‘The Supreme Court and the Abortion Pill’
Episode Number: 340
Published: March 28, 2024

[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, March 28, 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: Hello.

Rovner: Sarah Karlin-Smith of the Pink Sheet.

Sarah Karlin-Smith: Morning, everybody.

Rovner: And Lauren Weber of The Washington Post.

Lauren Weber: Hello, hello.

Rovner: Later in this episode, we’ll have my Bill of the Month interview with my KFF Health News colleague Tony Leys, about Medicare confusion and a really expensive air ambulance ride. But first, this week’s news.

So the big news of the week here in Washington were the oral arguments at the Supreme Court on a case that could seriously restrict the availability of the abortion pill mifepristone. This was the first major abortion case to come before the justices since they overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022, and the buildup to this case was enormous. But judging from the oral arguments, it seems like this huge case might kind of fizzle away? Alice, you were there. What happened?

Ollstein: Yeah, Sarah and I were both there. We got to hang out in the obstructed-view section of the press section. Luckily, most of the justices’ voices are easily recognizable. So even from behind the curtain, we could tell what was going on. What was obviously expected was that the court’s three more-progressive justices would take a really skeptical and hard look at this case brought by anti-abortion doctors.

But what was somewhat more surprising is that several, at least two, arguably three, of the conservatives joined them in their skepticism. And they really went after two core pieces of this challenge to the FDA. One on “standing,” whether these doctors can prove that they have been harmed by the availability of these pills in the past and are likely to be in the future. There was a lot of talk about how the FDA doesn’t require these doctors to do or not do anything, and the case relies on this speculative chain of events, from the FDA approving these pills to someone seeking out one of these doctors, in particular, to treat them after taking one, and that being way too loose a connection to establish standing.

The other piece that the conservative justices were maybe not in favor of was the demand for this sweeping universal ruling, restricting access to the pills for everyone. They were saying, “Wouldn’t something more tailored to just these doctors make more sense instead of imposing this policy on everyone in the nation?” So that really undermines their case a lot. Although, caveat, you cannot tell how the court’s going to rule based on oral arguments. This is just us reading the tea leaves. Maybe they’re playing devil’s advocate, but it is telling.

Rovner: Yeah, somebody remind us what could happen if the justices do reach the merits of this case. Obviously from the oral argument, it looks like they’re going to say that these particular doctors don’t have standing and throw the case out on that basis. But if in case, as Alice says, they decide to do something else, what could happen here? Sarah, this is a big deal for drug companies, right?

Karlin-Smith: Right. So in terms of the actual abortion pill mifepristone itself, the approval of the drug is not on the line at this point. That was taken off the table, though a lower court did try and restrict the drug entirely. What’s on the table are changes FDA made to its safety programs for the drug since 2016 that have had the impact of making the drug more available to people later in pregnancy. It’s just easier to access. You no longer have to go to a health provider and take the drug there. You can pick it up at a pharmacy, it can be sent via mail-order pharmacy. It’s just a lot easier to take and has made it more accessible. So those restrictions could basically go back in time to 2016.

Rovner: And I know. I remember at some point, one of the people arguing the case was there for Danco, the company that makes the pill, or the brand-name company that makes the pill. And at some point, they were saying if they rolled back the restrictions to 2016, they’d have to go through the labeling process all over again because the current label would be no longer allowed. And that would delay things, right?

Karlin-Smith: Right. All of the drug that is currently out there would be then deemed misbranded and it’s not superfast to have to update it. The other thing, I don’t think this came up that much on arguments but it’s been raised before is that actually, you can make a strong case that going back to [the] 2016 state might be actually potentially more dangerous for people because they actually also adjusted the dosing of mifepristone a bit. So there’s actually been changes that people might actually say actually would create more potential. … If you believe these doctors might actually be injured in the sense of they would see more women in the ER because of adverse events from these drugs, there’s a case you can make that actually says it would be more unsafe if you go back to 2016 than if you operate under the current way the drug is administered today.

Ollstein: This also didn’t come up, but Sarah is exactly right. And, if this case did end up in the future going after the original FDA approval of mifepristone, providers around the country have said they would switch to a misoprostol-only regimen where people just take the second of the two pills that are usually taken together. And that brings up a very similar issue to what Sarah just mentioned because if that happens, there is a, not hugely, but slightly greater risk of complications if that happens. And so, exactly, the relief that these doctors are seeking could, in fact, lead to more people coming for treatment in the future.

Rovner: Well, it seemed like the one … the merits of this case that the justices did ask about was the idea of judges substituting their medical judgment for that of the FDA. That’s obviously a big piece of this. I was surprised to see even some of the conservative justices, particularly Amy Coney Barrett, wondering maybe if that was a great idea.

Ollstein: It was also just so notable how much talk there was of just the particulars of reproduction and abortion and women’s bodies. You just don’t hear that a lot in the Supreme Court, and I don’t know if that is a function of there being more women than before sitting on the Supreme Court. You heard about how to diagnose ectopic pregnancies without an ultrasound. You heard about pregnancies being dated by the person’s last menstrual period. I don’t know when I’ve heard the words “menstrual period” said in the Supreme Court before, but we heard them this week.

Rovner: And it was notable, and several people noted it, all three attorneys who argued this case were women. Both the attorney for the plaintiff, the solicitor general, Elizabeth Prelogar, who is a woman, and the attorney for Danco were all women. And the women, the four, now four women on the court, were very active in the questioning and it was. I’ve sat through a lot of reproductive health arguments at the Supreme Court and it was, to me at least, really refreshing to hear actual specifics and not euphemisms, but that were to the point of what we were talking about here, which often these arguments are not.

So one of the things that came up that we did expect was some discussion of the 1873 Comstock Act, mostly brought up by Justices [Samuel] Alito and [Clarence] Thomas. This is the long-dormant anti-vice law that could effectively impose a nationwide ban on abortion if it is resurrected and enforced, right?

Ollstein: Yes. So this was really interesting because this was not part of the core case arguments, but it’s something that the challengers really want to be part of the court arguments. And you had two of the court’s justices, arguably furthest to the right, really grilling the attorneys on whether the FDA should have taken Comstock into account when it approved mail delivery of abortion pills. And the solicitor general said, “Not only would that have been inappropriate, it would arguably have been illegal for the FDA to have done that.” She was saying, “The FDA is by statute only supposed to consider the safety and efficacy of a drug when creating policies.” If it had said, “Oh, we’re not going to do this thing that the science indicates we should do,” which is allow mail delivery because of this long-dormant law that our own administration put out a memo saying it shouldn’t ban delivery of abortion pills, that would’ve been completely wrong.

Now, they asked the same of the attorney for the challengers and she obviously was in favor of taking the Comstock Act into account. And so I think it’s a sign that this is not the last we’re going to hear of this.

Karlin-Smith: I believe the solicitor general also did reference the fact that FDA did to some degree acknowledge the Comstock Act, but deferred to the Biden administration’s Justice Department’s determination that, first of all, not only has this law not really been enforced for years, but that it doesn’t actually ban the mail distribution of a legal, approved drug.

And the other thing, again, they went into this a little bit more in briefs, but FDA has its role and sometimes other agencies have other laws they operate on and you can operate on separate planes. So FDA and DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] often have to intersect when you’re talking about controlled substances like opioids and so forth. And what happens there is actually, FDA approves the drug and then DEA comes back in later and they do the scheduling of it and then the drug gets on the market. But FDA doesn’t have to take into account and say, “Oh, we can’t approve this drug because it’s not scheduled that they approve it.” Then DEA does the scheduling. So it seems like they’re twisting FDA’s role around Comstock a little bit.

Weber: Just to echo some of that, I think a lot of court watchers and a lot of abortion protectors were alarmed by the mention of the Comstock Act over and over again and are watching to see if there will be a fair amount of road-mapping laid out in the legal opinions that Alito and Thomas are expected to give, likely in dissent to the decision probably to dismiss this case. And I think it’s really interesting that this is coinciding with a lot of reporting that we’ve talked about on this podcast over and over again of Donald Trump talking about a 15- to 16-week abortion ban and his advisers, who are setting a roadmap for his presidency were he to win, talking explicitly about how they would revive the Comstock Act.

So all of these things taken together would seem to indicate that it would certainly play a role if the administration were to be a Trump administration.

Rovner: Perfect segue to my next question, which is that assuming this case goes away, Alice, you wrote a story about backup plans that the anti-abortion groups have. What are some of those backup plans here?

Ollstein: Yeah, I thought it was important for folks to remember that even though this is a huge deal that this case even got this far to the Supreme Court, it is far from the only way anti-abortion advocates and elected officials are working to try to cut off access to these pills. They see these pills as the future of abortion. Obviously, they’ve gained popularity over the recent years and now have jumped from just over half of abortions to more than two-thirds just recently. And so there are bills in Congress and in state legislatures. There are model draft bills that these anti-abortion groups are circulating. There are other lawsuits, and like you said, there are these policy plans trying to lay a groundwork for a future Trump administration to do these things through executive orders, going around Congress. There’s not a lot of confidence of winning a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, for instance. And so while congressional plans also include attempting to use the appropriations process, as happened unsuccessfully this year, to ban abortion, I think people see the executive branch route as a lot more fruitful.

In addition to all of that, there are also just pressure campaigns and protest campaigns. It’s the same playbook that the anti-abortion movement [used] to topple Roe. They are good at playing the long game, and so there are plans to pressure the pharmacies like Walgreens and CVS that have agreed to dispense abortion pills. I just think that you’re seeing a very throw-everything-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks kind of strategy amongst these groups.

Rovner: Meanwhile, as Lauren already intimated, abortion is playing a major role in this year’s campaigns and elections. This week, a Democrat in deep-red Alabama flipped a Statehouse seat running on a reproductive freedom platform. She actually went out and campaigned on trying to reverse the state’s abortion ban. Meanwhile, Donald Trump, who earlier hinted that he might favor some sort of national ban, with exceptions for rape and incest and threats to life, said the quiet part out loud last week, telling a radio show that “people are agreeing on a 15-week ban.” That’s exactly what Republicans running for reelection in the Senate don’t want to hear right now. This has not gone well for Republicans in discussions of abortion as we saw this week in Alabama.

Weber: Yeah. As someone who was born in Alabama — and I’ve talked about this on this podcast, there are a fair amount of influencers that are regular people that I follow that live in Alabama — the IVF ruling was a huge shock to the system for conservative Alabama, especially women, and I think this win by a Democrat in the Deep South like this is a real wake-up call. And probably why all the Republican senators don’t want to talk about abortion or any sort of ban, or really get close to this reproductive issue because it is a real weak spot as this race unfolds with two candidates that are arguably both unpopular with both of their parties.

So this could become a turnout game, and if one side is more activated due to feeling very strongly about IVF, abortion, et cetera, that really could play out in not only the presidential race but the trickle-down races that are involved.

Rovner: I was amused. There’s the story that The Hill had this week about Senate Republicans wincing at Trump actually coming out for a federal ban. And one of them was Josh Hawley, who is not only very avowedly pro-life but whose wife argued the case for the plaintiffs in the Supreme Court, and yet he was saying he doesn’t want to see this on a federal level because he’s up for reelection this year.

Karlin-Smith: It’s interesting because one thing we’ve seen is that when there’s been specific abortion measures that people got to vote for at the state or local level, abortion rights are very popular. But then people have always raised this question of, “Well, would this look the same if you were voting more for a candidate, a person, and you were thinking about their broader political positions, not just abortion?” And this case in Alabama, I think, is a good example when you see that that can carry the day and it’s people who care about abortion rights may be willing to sacrifice potentially other political positions where they might be more aligned with a candidate if that’s an issue that’s a top priority.

Rovner: Yeah. And I think a lot of people took away, the Democrat in Alabama won by 60%, she got 60% of the vote. And she’d run before and lost, I think they said by 7%. It was more than a fluke. She really won overwhelmingly, and I think that raised an awful lot of eyebrows. Speaking of health care and politics and Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee also reiterated his desire to, and again, I quote from his post, this time on Truth Social, “Make the ACA much, much, much better for far less money or cost to our grest,” I presume he meant great, “American citizens who have been decimated by Biden.” This harkens back to all the times when he as president repeatedly promised a replacement for the ACA coming within a few weeks and which never materialized.

Does anybody think he has anything specifically in mind now? I guess as we’ve talked about with abortion, but haven’t really said, there is this Heritage Foundation document that’s supposed to be the guiding force should he get back into office.

Ollstein: But if I’m correct, even that document — which is like a wish list, dreamland, they could do whatever they want, “This is what we would love to do” — even that doesn’t call for repealing Obamacare entirely. It calls for chipping away at it, allowing other alternatives for people to enroll in. But I think it’s telling that even in their wildest dreams, they are not touching that stove again after the experience of 2017.

Weber: Julie, I’m just sad you didn’t read that in all caps. I feel like you really missed an opportunity to accurately represent that tweet.

Rovner: I also didn’t read the whole thing. It’s longer than that. That was just the guts of it. Well, one group that is not afraid to shy away from the specifics is the Republican Study Committee in the U.S. House, which has released its own proposed budget for fiscal 2025. That’s the fiscal year that starts this Oct. 1. The RSC’s membership includes most but not all of Republicans in the U.S. House. And it used to be the most conservative caucus before there was a Freedom Caucus. So it’s now the more moderate of the conservative side of the House.

I should emphasize that this is not the proposed budget from House Republicans. There may or may not be one from the actual House Budget Committee. It’s due April 15, by the way, the budget process — even though the president just signed the last piece of spending legislation for fiscal 2024 — the 2025 budget process is supposed to start as soon as they get back.

In any case, the RSC budget, as usual, includes some pretty sweeping suggestions, including raising the retirement age, block-granting Medicaid, repealing most of the Affordable Care Act and Medicare’s drug price negotiation authority, and making Medicare a “premium support program,” which would give private plans much more say over what kind of benefits people get and how much they pay for them. Basically, it’s a wish list of every Republican health proposal for the last 25 years, none of which have been passed by Congress thus far.

The White House and Democrats, not surprisingly, have been all over it. Both the president and the vice president were on the road this week, talking up their health care accomplishments, part of their marking of the 14th anniversary of the ACA, and blasting the Republicans for all of these proposals that some of them may or may not support or may or may not even know about. Republicans desperately don’t want 2024 to become a health care election, but it seems like they’re doing it to themselves, aren’t they?

Ollstein: So putting out these kinds of policy plans before an election, it’s a real double-edged sword because you want to rev up your own supporters and give your base an idea of “Hey, if you put us in power, this is what we will deliver for you.” But it also can rev up the other side, and we’re seeing that happen for sure. Democrats very eagerly jumped on this to say, “This shows why you can’t elect Republicans and put them in control. They would go after Obamacare, go after Medicare, go after Medicaid, go after Social Security,” all of these very sensitive issues.

And so yeah, we are definitely seeing the backlash and the weaponization of this by Democrats. Are we seeing this inspire and excite the right? I haven’t really seen a ton of chatter on the right about the Republican Study Committee budget, but if you have, let me know.

Rovner: As the campaign goes on, we’ll see more people throwing things against the wall. I think you’re right. I think the Republicans want this election to be about inflation and the border, so, I’m sure we will also hear more about that. Well, moving on, I have a segment this week that I’m calling “This Week in Things That Didn’t Work Out as Planned.” First up was hard-drug decriminalization in Oregon. Longtime listeners will remember when we talked about Oregon voters approving a plan in 2020 to have law enforcement issue $100 citations to people caught using small amounts of hard drugs like cocaine and heroin, along with information on where they can go to get drug treatment. But the drug treatment program basically failed to materialize, overdoses went up, and drug users gathered in public on the streets of Portland and other cities to shoot up.

Now the governor has signed a bill recriminalizing the drugs that had been decriminalized. I feel like this has echoes of the deinstitutionalization movement of the 1960s when people with serious mental illness were supposed to be released from facilities and provided community-based care instead. Except the community-based care also never materialized, which basically created part of the homeless problem that we still have today.

So in fact, we don’t really know if drug decriminalization would work, at least not in the way it was designed. But Alice, you point to a story that one of your colleagues has written about a place where it actually did work, right?

Ollstein: Yeah, so they did a really interesting comparison between Oregon and the country Portugal, and made a pretty convincing case that Oregon did not give this experiment the time or the resources to have any chance of success. Basically, Oregon decriminalized drugs, they barely funded and stood up services to help people access treatment. And then after just a couple of years, politicians panicked at the backlash and are backpedaling instead of giving this, again, the time and resources to actually achieve what Portugal has achieved over decades, which is a huge drop in overdose deaths.

But in addition to more time and resources, you can’t really carve this out of just basic universal health care, which Portugal has, and we definitely do not. And so I think it’s a really interesting discussion of what is needed to actually have an impact on this front.

Rovner: Yeah, obviously it’s still a big problem, and states and the federal government and localities are still trying to figure out how best to grapple with it. Well, next in our things that didn’t work out as planned is arbitration for surprise medical bills. Remember when Congress outlawed passing the cost of insurer-provider billing disputes to patients? Those were these huge bills that suddenly were out-of-network. The solution to this was supposed to be a process to fairly determine what should be paid for those services. Well, researchers from the Brookings Institution have taken a deep dive into the first tranche of data on the program, which is from 2023, and found that at least early on the program is paying nearly four times more than Medicare would reimburse for the disputed services, and that it has the potential to raise both premiums and in-network service prices, which is not what lawmakers intended.

I feel like this was kind of the inevitable result of continuing compromises when they were writing this bill to overcome provider opposition. They were afraid they wouldn’t get paid enough, and so they kept pushing this process and now, surprise, they’re getting paid probably more than was intended. Is there some way to backpedal and fix this? Lauren, you look like you have feelings here.

Weber: I take us back to the name of this podcast, “What the Health?” I feel like this sums up everything in health care. Literally, legislators try to get a fix that it turns out could actually worsen the problem because the premiums and so on could continue to escalate in a never-ending war for patients to share more of the burden of the cost. So it’s good that we have this research and know that this is what’s happening, but yeah, again, this is the name of the podcast. How is this the health care system as we know it?

Karlin-Smith: Also, again, you start to understand why other countries just have these — as much as they’re politically unpopular in the U.S. — these systems where they just set the prices because trying to somehow do it in a more market-based way or these negotiating ways, you end up with these pushes and pulls and you never quite achieve that cost containment you want.

Rovner: Yeah, although we have gotten the patient out of the middle. So in that sense, this has worked, but certainly …

Karlin-Smith: Right, for the people actually getting the surprise bills, they’ve been helped. Again, assuming that down the line, as Lauren mentioned, it doesn’t just raise all of our inpatient bills and our premiums.

Rovner: Yes, we will all be employed forever trying to explain what goes on in the health care system. Finally, diabetes online tools, all those cool apps that are supposed to help people monitor their health more closely and control their disease more effectively. Well, according to a study from the Peterson Health Technology Institute, the apps don’t deliver better clinical benefits than “usual care,” and they increase health spending at the same time — the theme here.

This is the first analysis released by this new institute created to evaluate digital health technology. Although not surprisingly, makers of the apps in question are pushing back very hard on the research. Technology assessment has always been controversial, but it clearly seems necessary if we’re ever going to do something about health spending. So somebody’s going to have to do this, right?

Weber: As we move into this ever more digital health world where billions of dollars are being spent in this space, it’s really important that someone’s actually evaluating the claims of if these things work, because it’s a lot of Medicare money, which is taxpayer dollars, that get spent on some of these tools that are supposedly supposed to help patients. And I believe, in this case, they found a 0.4% improvement, which did not justify, I think it was several hundred dollars worth of investment every year, when other tactics could be used. So quite an interesting report, and I’m very curious, and I’m sure many other digital health creators, too, are curious to see who they’ll be targeting next.

Karlin-Smith: It’s an old story in U.S. health care, right? That the tech people are going to come in and save us all, and then what happens when they come into it and realize that there’s root problems in our system that are not easily solved just by throwing more complicated money and technology at it. So these are certainly not the first people that thought that some innovative technological system would work.

Rovner: So in drug news this week, Medicare has announced it will cover the weight loss drug Wegovy, which is the weight loss version of the drug Ozempic. But not for weight loss, rather for the prevention of heart disease and stroke, which a new clinical trial says it can actually help with. Sarah, is this a distinction without a difference and might it pave the way for broader coverage of these drugs in Medicare?

Karlin-Smith: Distinction does matter. CMS [Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services] has been pretty clear in guidance. This does not yet open the door for somebody who is just overweight to have the drug in Medicare. And health plans will have a lot of leeway, I think, to determine who gets this drug through prior authorization, and so forth. Some people have speculated they might only be willing to provide it to people that have already had some kind of serious heart event and are overweight. So not just somebody who seems high risk of a heart attack.

So I think at least initially, there’s going to be a lot of tight control over at AHIP. The biggest insurance trade group has indicated that already, so I don’t think it’s going to be as easy to access as people want it to be.

Rovner: Meanwhile, a separate study has both good and bad news about these diabetes/weight loss medications. Medicare is already spending so much money on them because it does cover them for diabetes, that the drugs could soon be eligible for price negotiations. Could that help bring the price down for everyone? Or is it possible that if Medicare cuts a better deal on these drugs everybody else is going to have to pay more?

Karlin-Smith: You mean outside of Medicare or just …?

Rovner: Yeah, I mean outside of Medicare. If Medicare negotiates the price of Ozempic because they’re already covering it so much for diabetes, is that going to make them raise the price for people who are not on Medicare? I guess that’s the big question about Medicare drug price negotiation anyway.

Karlin-Smith: Yeah. Certainly, people have talked about that a little bit. I think the sense that you can raise prices a lot in the private market. People are skeptical of that. There’s also these drugs because they’re actually old enough that they’re getting to the point of Medicare drug price negotiation under the new law. They’re actually more heavily rebated than people realize. The sense is that both private payers and Medicare are actually getting decent rebate levels on them already. Again, they’re still expensive. The rebates are very secretive. They don’t always go to the patients. But there’s some element of these drugs being slightly more affordable than is clearly transparent.

Rovner: There’s a reason that so many people on Ozempic for diabetes can be on Ozempic for diabetes, in other words. Finally, “This Week in Medical Misinformation”: Lauren, you have a wild story about birth control misinformation on TikTok. So we’re going from the Medicare to the younger cohort. Tell us about it.

Weber: Yeah. As everyone on this podcast is aware, we live in a very fractured health care system that does not invest in women’s health care, that is underfunded for years, and a lot of women feel disenfranchised by it. So it’s no surprise that physicians told myself and my reporting [colleague] Sabrina Malhi to some extent that misinformation is festering in that kind of gray area where women feel like they’re sometimes not listened to by their physician or they’re not getting all their information. And instead, they’re turning to their phone, and they’re seeing these videos that loop over and over and over again, which either incorrectly or without context, state misinformation about birth control. And the way that algorithms work on social media is that once you engage with one, you see them repeatedly. And so it’s leaving a lot of younger women in particular, physicians told us, with the impression that hormonal birth control is really terrible for them and looking to get onto natural birth control.

But, what these influencers and conservative commentators often fail to stress, which your physician would stress if you had this conversation with them, is that natural forms of birth control, like timing your sex to menstrual cycles to prevent pregnancy, can be way less effective. They can have an up to 23% failure rate, whereas the pill is 91% effective, the IUD is over 99% effective. And so physicians we talked to said they’re seeing women come in looking for abortions because they believe this misinformation and chose to switch birth controls or do something that impacted how they were monitoring preventing pregnancy. And they’re seeing the end result of this.

Rovner: And obviously there are side effects to various forms of hormonal birth control.

Weber: Yes. Yes.

Rovner: That’s why there are lots of different kinds of them because if you have side effects with one, you might be able to use another. I think the part that stuck out to me was the whole “without context,” because this is a conversation that if you have with a doctor, they’re going to talk about, it’s like, “Well, if you’re having bad side effects with this, you could try this instead. Or you could try that, or this one has a better chance of having these kinds of side effects. And here’s the effectiveness rate of all of these.” Because there actually is scientific evidence about birth control. It’s been used for a very long time.

Ollstein: Oh, yeah. And I think it’s important to remember that this is not just random influencers on TikTok promoting this message. You’re hearing this from pretty high-level folks on the right as well, raising skepticism and even outright opposition to different forms of birth control. The hormonal pills, devices like IUDs that are really effective. They are saying that they are abortifacients in some circumstances when that is not accurate according to medical professionals. And there was just this really interesting backlash recently. I interviewed Kellyanne Conway and she said her polling found that if Republican politicians came out in favor of access to birth control, that would help them. And then she got this wave of criticism after that, accusing her of promoting promiscuity. And so there’s a big fight over contraception on the right, and it’s, Lauren found in her great story, trickling down to regular folks who are trying to figure out how to use it or not use it.

Rovner: I will link to a story that I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how contraception has always been controversial among Republicans. And it still is. Lauren, you want to say one last thing before we move on?

Weber: No, I think Julie, your point that you mentioned, birth control side effects are real and it is important for patients to speak with their physicians. And what physicians told me is that over the years, their guidance and their training has changed to better involve patients in that decision-making. So women many years ago may not have gotten that same walking-through. And also, birth control is often stigmatized, especially for younger populations. And so all of this feeds into, as Alice has pointed out, and as this piece walks through, how some of these influencers with more holistic paths that they’re possibly selling you, and conservative commentators are getting in these women’s phones and they’re trusting them because they don’t necessarily have a relationship with their physician.

Rovner: They don’t necessarily have a physician to have a relationship with. All right, well, that is the news for this week. Now we will play my Bill of the Month interview with Tony Leys, and then we’ll be back with our extra credits.

I am pleased to welcome to the podcast my colleague Tony Leys, who reported and wrote the latest KFF Health News-NPR Bill of the Month installment. Thank you for joining us, Tony.

Tony Leys: Thanks for having me.

Rovner: So this month’s patient passed away from her ailment, but her daughter is still dealing with the bill. Tell us who this story is about and what kind of medical procedure was involved here.

Leys: Debra Prichard was from rural Tennessee. She was in generally good health until last year when she suffered a stroke and several aneurysms. She twice was rushed to a medical center in Nashville, including once by helicopter ambulance. She later died at age 70 from complications of a brain bleed.

Rovner: Then, as we say, the bill came. I think people by now generally know that air ambulances can be expensive, but how big is this bill?

Leys: It was $81,739 for a 79-mile flight.

Rovner: Wow. A lot of people think that when someone dies, that’s it for their bills. But that’s not necessarily the case here, right?

Leys: No, it’s on the estate then.

Rovner: So they have been pursuing this?

Leys: Right. That would amount to about a third of the estate’s value.

Rovner: Now, Debra Prichard had Medicare, and Medicare caps how much patients can be charged for air ambulance rides. So why didn’t this cap apply to this ride?

Leys: Yeah, if she’d had full Medicare coverage, the air ambulance company would’ve only been able to collect a total of less than $10,000. But unbeknownst to her family, Prichard had only signed up for Medicare Part A, which is free to most seniors and covers inpatient hospital care. She did not sign up for Medicare Part B, which covers many other services including ambulance rides, and it generally costs about $175 a month in premiums.

Rovner: I know. Medicare Part B used to be “de minimis” in premium, so everybody signed up for it, but now, Medicare Part B can be more expensive than an Affordable Care Act plan. So I imagine that there are people who find that $175 a month [is] more than their budget can handle.

Leys: Right. And there is assistance available for people of moderate incomes. It’s not super well publicized, but she may very well have been eligible for that if she’d looked into it.

Rovner: So what eventually happened with this bill?

Leys: Well, her estate faced the full charge. The family’s lawyer is negotiating with the company and they’re making some progress, last we heard.

Rovner: But as of now, the air ambulance company still wants the entire amount from the estate?

Leys: They put in a filing against the estate to that effect, but they apparently are negotiating it.

Rovner: So what’s the takeaway here for people who think they have Medicare or think, no, they don’t have Part B, but think it might cost too much?

Leys: Well, the takeaway is Medicare coverage sure is complicated. There’s free help available for seniors trying to sort it out. Every state has a program called the State Health Insurance Assistance Programs, and they have free expert advice and they can point you to programs that help pay for that premium if you can’t afford it. I don’t know about you, Julie, but I plan to check in with those programs before I sign up for Medicare someday.

Rovner: Even I plan to check in with those programs, and I know a lot about this.

Leys: If Julie Rovner wants assistance, everyone should get it.

Rovner: Everyone should get assistance. Yes, that’s my takeaway, too. Medicare is really complicated. Tony Leys, thank you very much.

Leys: Thanks for having me.

Rovner: OK, we are 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. Sarah, you were first up this week. Why don’t you go first?

Karlin-Smith: I’ve looked at a Washington Post story, “The Confusing, Stressful Ordeal of Flying With a Breast Pump,” by Hannah Sampson and Ben Broch, and it’s essentially about how there’s no federal rule that protects people flying with a breast pump and being able to bring it on the plane as a carry-on, not a checked bag, and the problems this could cause. If you are pumping breast milk and need to pump it, you often need to pump it as often as every three hours, sometimes even less. And there are medical consequences that can happen if you do not. And the current system in place is just left to each airline to have its own policy. And it seems like flying is the luck of the draw of whether these staff members even understand this policy. And a lot of this seems to date back to basically when the laws that were put in place that protect people with various sorts of medical needs to be able to bring their devices on planes, the kinds of breast pumps people use today really didn’t exist.

But some of this is just an undercurrent of a lack of appreciation for the challenges of being a young parent and trying to feed your kid and what that entails.

Rovner: Maybe we should send it to the Supreme Court. They could have a real discussion about it. People would learn something. Sorry. Alice, why don’t you go next?

Ollstein: Sure. So I have a piece from Stat by Olivia Goldhill called “Fetal Tissue Research Gains in Importance as Roadblocks Multiply.” And it’s about how the people in the U.S. right now doing research that uses fetal tissue — this is tissue that’s donated from people who’ve had abortions, and it’s used in all kinds of things, HIV research, different cancers — it could be really, really important. And the piece is about how that research has not really recovered in the U.S. from the restrictions imposed by the Trump administration.

Not only that, the fear that those restrictions would come back if Trump is reelected is making people hesitant to really invest in this kind of research. And already they’re having to source fetal tissue from other countries at great expense. And so just a fascinating window into what’s going on there.

Rovner: Yeah, it is. People think that these policies that flip and flip back it’s like a switch, and it’s not. It really does affect these policies and what happens. Lauren?

Weber: So I picked a story from Stateline, which by the way, I just want to fan girl about how much I love Stateline all the time. Anyways, the title is “Deadly Fires From Phone, Scooter Batteries Leave Lawmakers Playing Catch-Up on Safety,” written by Robbie Sequeira. And I just have anecdotal bias because my sister’s apartment next to her caught on fire due to one of these scooter batteries. But, in general, as the story very clearly lays out, this is a real threat. Lithium batteries, which are proliferating throughout our society, whether they’re scooter batteries or other different types of technology, are harder to fight when they light on fire and they are more likely to light on fire accidentally. And there’s really not a good answer. As lawmakers are trying to get more funding or try to combat this or limit the amount of lithium batteries you can have in a place, people are dying.

There was a 27-year-old journalist, Fazil Khan, who passed away from a fire of this sort. You’re seeing other folks across the country face the consequences. And it’s really quite frightening to see that modern firefighting has made so many strides but this is a different type of blaze, and I think we’ll see this play out for the next couple of years.

Rovner: I think this is a real public health story because this is one of those things where if people knew a lot more about it, there are things you can do, like don’t store your lithium-ion battery in your apartment, or don’t leave it charging overnight. Take it out of the actual object. There are a lot of things that you could do to prevent fires, but the point of this story is that these fires are really dangerous. It’s really scary.

All right, well, my story this week is from my KFF Health News colleague Arthur Allen. It’s called “Overdosing on Chemo: A Common Gene Test Could Save Hundreds of Lives Each Year,” and it’s about a particular chemotherapy drug that works well for most people, but for a small subset with a certain genetic trait can be deadly. There’s a blood test for it, but in the U.S., it’s not required or even recommended in some cases. It’s a really distressing story about how the FDA, medical specialists, cancer organizations can’t seem to reach an agreement about something that could save some cancer patients from a terrible death.

All right, 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 technical guru, Francis Ying, and our editor, Emmarie Huetteman. 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 or @julie.rovner at Threads. Lauren, where are you these days?

Weber: Just on X, @LaurenWeberHP

Rovner: Sarah?

Karlin-Smith: @SarahKarlin or @sarahkarlin-smith, depending on the various social media platform.

Rovner: Alice?

Ollstein: @AliceOllstein on X, and @alicemiranda on Bluesky

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

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