KHN Morning Briefing

Summaries of health policy coverage from major news organizations

First Edition: February 4, 2016

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Kaiser Health News: Licking Wounds, Insurers Accelerate Moves To Limit Health-Law Enrollment
Stung by losses under the federal health law, major insurers are seeking to sharply limit how policies are sold to individuals in ways that consumer advocates say seem to discriminate against the sickest and could hold down future enrollment. In recent days Anthem, Aetna and Cigna, all among the top five health insurers, told brokers they will stop paying them sales commissions to sign up most customers who qualify for new coverage outside the normal enrollment period, according to the companies and broker documents. (Hancock, 2/4)

Kaiser Health News: Cutting Edge DNA Technology Could Boost Cystic Fibrosis Screening For Newborns
Stanford University scientists say they’ve devised a more accurate and comprehensive DNA test to screen newborns for cystic fibrosis, the most common fatal genetic disease in the United States. Affecting about one in 3,900 babies born in the U.S., cystic fibrosis causes mucus to build up in the lungs, pancreas and other organs, leading to frequent lung infections and often requiring lifetime treatment for patients, whose median lifespan is 37 years. (Feder Ostrov, 2/4)

The Associated Press: Health Care Law Makes Tax Season Tougher For Small Companies
As more requirements of the health care law take effect, income tax filing season becomes more complex for small businesses. Companies required to offer health insurance have new forms to complete providing details of their coverage. Owners whose payrolls have hovered around the threshold where insurance is mandatory need to be sure their coverage — if they offered it last year — was sufficient to avoid penalties. (Rosenberg, 2/3)

Reuters: Obama Budget To Adjust Health Insurance 'Cadillac Tax': Adviser
President Barack Obama will propose tailoring the controversial "Cadillac tax" on expensive private health insurance plans to reflect regional differences when he releases his 2017 budget plan next week, a senior White House adviser said in an article released on Wednesday. Obama's proposal would reduce the bite of the unpopular tax by raising the threshold where it takes effect in areas where healthcare is particularly expensive, according to the article in the New England Journal of Medicine co-written by Jason Furman, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers. (Walsh, 2/3)

The Associated Press: Kentucky Tops Coverage Gains As GOP Looks To Remake Medicaid
As Gov. Matt Bevin prepares to remake Kentucky’s Medicaid program, a new national survey shows what’s at stake: gains in insurance coverage matched only by one other state. Kentucky and Arkansas had the largest drops in the percentage of people without health insurance in the country, according to the Gallup-Healthways survey. In 2013, more than 20 percent of Kentuckians did not have health insurance. By the end of 2015, after the state expanded its Medicaid program and created a health-insurance exchange, that figure was down to 7.5 percent. (Beam and Alonso-Zaldivar, 2/4)

The Washington Post: Affordable Care Act Dispute Could Hang Up Confirmation Of New Federal Personnel Chief
A long-simmering dispute over how the Obama administration applied the Affordable Care Act to members of Congress and some of their staff has been revived and could hang up the confirmation of a new federal personnel chief. In advance of the scheduled Thursday confirmation hearing for Beth Cobert to become Office of Personnel Management director, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) raised the prospect of putting a hold on her nomination. (Yoder, 2/4)

The Wall Street Journal: U.S. Debt Burden: It’s Gotten a Bit Less Bad
Budget watchdogs for years have warned of a looming debt crisis in the U.S. The federal debt, already its highest as a share of the economy since 1950, is poised to rocket higher as retiring baby boomers draw on Medicare and Social Security. Here’s the surprise: Compared to seven years ago, the long-term budget outlook has gotten better, not worse, thanks to slower health-care inflation and, more important, much lower interest rates. The hands on the doomsday debt clock have been moved back. (Ip, 2/3)

The Washington Post: Even As Obama Brags About Slashing The Deficit, Analysts Predict Its Growth
The federal deficit this year will jump $105 billion from last year, but it will also increase as a portion of the economy for the first time since 2009, according to the Congressional Budget Office. ... In the budget proposal next week, President Barack Obama is likely to leave this problem for the next president. To do otherwise would mean addressing the rate of growth of entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare, which currently make up two-thirds of the federal budget and which will grow nearly 7 percent this year, according to CBO. (Mufson, 2/3)

The Associated Press: Ryan Calls For Unity, Less Anger From His Fractious GOP
House Speaker Paul Ryan called on Republicans Wednesday to unify and stop fighting each other as he tried steering his fractious party into an election year devoid of the collisions between conservatives and pragmatists that transformed parts of 2015 into a GOP nightmare. "We have to be straight with each other and more importantly, we have to be straight with the American people," Ryan, R-Wis., said at a Heritage Action for America policy meeting. "We can't promise that we can repeal Obamacare when a guy with the last name Obama is president. All that does is set us up for failure and disappointment and recriminations." (2/3)

Reuters: U.S. Lawmakers Unlikely To Get Answers From Ex-Drug Executive Shkreli
Martin Shkreli, the former drug executive who raised the price of a lifesaving medicine by 5,000 percent, is set to appear as a witness at a congressional hearing on Thursday but is unlikely to answer lawmakers' questions about price spikes. Shkreli, 32, sparked outrage last year among patients, medical societies and Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton after his company Turing Pharmaceuticals raised the price of 62-year-old Daraprim to $750 a pill from $13.50. The medicine, used to treat a parasitic infection, once sold for $1 a pill. The U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform is scheduled to hold a hearing on drug prices at 9 a.m., with Shkreli and others from the pharmaceutical industry as witnesses. (Ingram and Lynch, 2/4)

The Wall Street Journal: Valeant’s Interim CEO To Seek Change To Rules For Prescription Assistance
Howard Schiller, interim chief executive of Valeant Pharmaceuticals International Inc., is expected to urge House lawmakers Thursday to rewrite rules that make it illegal for drug companies to help Medicare patients pay the out-of-pocket costs of their prescriptions. Such assistance for patients in Medicare and other government-funded health-care programs is considered an illegal kickback under federal law, so drug companies limit offering the help only to patients who are commercially insured. (Rockoff, 2/3)

The New York Times: Drug Firms Expected To Defend Huge Price Increases In House Testimony
Valeant Pharmaceuticals International rationalized substantial increases in the prices of two heart drugs by arguing that the company would merely be taking money from hospitals, not hurting patients, the company’s interim chief executive is expected to tell a congressional panel on Thursday. “Because these drugs are hospital-administered and not purchased by patients directly, increasing the cost of the drugs to hospitals would affect the hospital’s profits on these procedures, but it should not reduce patient access,” the executive, Howard. B. Schiller, said in prepared testimony that was released before a hearing Thursday morning by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. (Pollack, 2/4)

Politico: Great Plains Indian Healthcare Is 'Malpractice' Says Sen. Barrasso
Senate testimony Wednesday painted a grim picture of the poor healthcare afforded Great Plains Indians — caught in a federal system plagued by substandard medical facilities and persistent problems in attracting health professionals. Despite promised reforms, three Indian Health Service hospitals in the four-state region are listed as seriously deficient by inspectors from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services — leading to the sudden pre-Christmas closing of a critical emergency room facility in South Dakota. (Rogers, 2/3)

The Associated Press: Health Officials Want More Zika Samples, Data From Brazil
Brazil is not sharing enough samples and disease data to let researchers determine whether the Zika virus is, as feared, linked to the increased number of babies born with abnormally small heads in the South American country, U.N. and U.S. health officials say. The lack of data is forcing laboratories in the United States and Europe to work with samples from previous outbreaks, and is frustrating efforts to develop diagnostic tests, drugs and vaccines. Scientists tell The Associated Press that having so little to work with is hampering their ability to track the virus' evolution. (2/4)

The New York Times: Surge Of Zika Virus Has Brazilians Re-Examining Strict Abortion Laws
The surging medical reports of babies being born with unusually small heads during the Zika epidemic in Brazil are igniting a fierce debate over the country’s abortion laws, which make the procedure illegal under most circumstances. Legal scholars in Brasília, the capital, are preparing a case to go before Brazil’s highest court, saying pregnant women should be permitted to have abortions when their fetuses are found to have abnormally small heads, a condition known as microcephaly that Brazilian researchers say is linked to the virus. (Romero, 2/3)

NPR: CDC Sees Major Challenges Ahead In The Fight Against Zika
"If you are a woman who is pregnant living in the U.S., there's one really important thing you need to know: You shouldn't go to a place that has Zika spreading." That's the strongly worded advice from Dr. Tom Frieden, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Frieden's statement is a sign of just how seriously the CDC is taking the Zika outbreak, which has been linked to a surge in birth defects in Brazil. CDC is one of the lead global agencies in the battle against this virus, and officials there say the outbreak is far from over, with major challenges ahead. (Beaubien, 2/3)

The Associated Press: Study: Texas Birth Control Fell After Planned Parenthood Cut
A study found that Texas saw a drop in women obtaining long-acting birth control after Republican leaders booted Planned Parenthood from a state women's health program in 2013, which researchers said may explain an increase in births among poor families. The research examined the effects of Texas severing taxpayer ties with the largest abortion provider in the U.S. The same year Texas barred Planned Parenthood from state family planning services, then-Gov. Rick Perry signed abortion restrictions that shuttered clinics under a sweeping law that the U.S. Supreme Court will review next month. (2/3)

Los Angeles Times: After Texas Stopped Funding Planned Parenthood, Low-Income Women Had More Babies
The state of Texas’ sustained campaign against Planned Parenthood and other family planning clinics affiliated with abortion providers appears to have led to an increase in births among low-income women who lost access to affordable and effective birth control, a new study says. The researchers, from the Population Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin, say their findings offer a sneak peak of what may happen in other states that have cut funding to Planned Parenthood. Lawmakers in Arkansas, Alabama, New Hampshire, Louisiana, North Carolina and Utah have enacted policies to keep public funds out of Planned Parenthood clinics. Ohio is expected to be the next state to follow suit. (Netburn, 2/3)

Reuters: Anti-Abortion Activists In Covert Videos Head To Texas Court
One of two anti-abortion activists indicted for using a fake government ID to aid secret filming inside Planned Parenthood facilities appeared at a Texas court on Wednesday while the other will do so a day later, legal officials said. David Daleiden, indicted in January by a Houston-area grand jury, will appear at Harris County District Court in Houston on Thursday and then go through booking, lawyer Jared Woodfill said. Daleiden will likely seek to have charges against him thrown out, he added. (Herskovitz, 2/3)

Reuters: GSK Dismisses Near-Term Split As New Drugs Offset Falling Advair
GlaxoSmithKline said on Wednesday the chance of it spinning off or selling its consumer health business before 2018 was "extraordinarily low", arguing the group's strategy was delivering, helped by rising sales of new medicines. Growing demand for recently launched HIV and respiratory drugs helped Britain's biggest drugmaker beat forecasts for fourth-quarter earnings by a small margin, lifting the shares in a sharply lower market. (Hardcastle and Potter, 2/3)

The Wall Street Journal: GlaxoSmithKline: Playing The Waiting Game
The cogs are turning at GlaxoSmithKline. The U.K. pharmaceuticals group’s latest results landed without the type of operational or financial mishap that has dogged the company in recent years. Indeed, there was some reason for cheer. Sales of Glaxo’s new respiratory products have (finally) picked up; overall, it looks set to hit its $8.6 billion 2020 target for sales of new products two years early. (Thomas, 2/3)

The Wall Street Journal: Merck Posts Lower Revenue And Profit
Merck & Co. posted declines in sales and profit as the pharmaceutical giant gave revenue projections below analyst forecasts and earnings expectations on the lower end of them. ... Merck said it expects 2016 adjusted earnings per share of between $3.60 and $3.75 and revenue between $38.7 billion and $40.2 billion. One contributor to 2016 sales will be Zepatier, a new treatment for hepatitis C that was approved last week by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The market for hepatitis C drugs is now dominated by Gilead Sciences Inc., but Merck hopes to gain ground partly by competing on price. (Hufford and Loftus, 2/3)

The Wall Street Journal: Merck: A Leg Up In The Cancer Drug Race
In the search for the next blockbuster, Merck has a chance to make some headway in the cancer-drug race this year. Merck announced Wednesday that sales of its new cancer treatment Keytruda totaled $566 million in 2015. Keytruda is a bright spot in Merck’s portfolio, and expectations are high. Wall Street analysts forecast annual sales of about $5 billion by 2020, according to FactSet. That would make Keytruda the company’s second largest drug by sales. (Grant, 2/3)

USA Today: Feds To Study Health Benefits Of Screening And Linking To Social Services
The Obama administration is working to build evidence supporting increased federal and state spending on anti-violence, social service and other programs to improve life in poor neighborhoods and limit the growth in health care costs. The move comes despite more limited reports done by outside groups and is designed to create a paper trail that makes the need for and efficacy of the programs for Medicare and Medicaid recipients indisputable by showing the cost savings. In the next step in the Affordable Care Act, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services will spend nearly $160 million in grants to community groups, health care providers or other public or private entities that will screen patients for unmet social needs and link them with services that help with housing, hunger, interpersonal violence and other social ills. (O'Donnell, 2/3)

The Associated Press: FTC Shuts Down Diet-Pill Distributor For Alleged Fake Claims
A Glendale, California, company shut down 10 months ago will pay about $10 million to settle claims by the Federal Trade Commission that it wildly exaggerated the results of its diet supplements, used fake endorsements from people like Oprah Winfrey and hired marketers to send millions of spam emails. FTC Midwest Region attorney Matthew H. Wernz said the $43 million settlement allows $33 million to be suspended if the defendants comply with conditions of the settlement. If they fail to comply, the full amount will be reinstated. (2/3)

NPR: Boosting Life Span By Clearing Out Cellular Clutter
Mice were much healthier and lived about 25 percent longer when scientists killed off a certain kind of cell that accumulates in the body with age. What's more, the mice didn't seem to suffer any ill effects from losing their so-called senescent cells. These are cells that have stopped dividing, though not necessarily because the cells themselves are old. (Greenfieldboyce, 2/3)

NPR: Babies With Genes From 3 People Could Be Ethical, Panel Says
Would it be ethical for scientists to try to create babies that have genetic material from three different people? An influential panel of experts has concluded the answer could be yes. The 12-member panel, assembled by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, released a 164-page report Wednesday outlining a plan for how scientists could ethically pursue the controversial research. (Stein, 2/3)

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