KHN Morning Briefing

Summaries of health policy coverage from major news organizations

First Edition: May 9, 2014

Today's headlines include highlights from the first Senate confirmation hearing for Sylvia Mathews Burwell, President Barack Obama's pick for Health and Human Services Secretary.  

Kaiser Health News: Health On The Hill: Bipartisan Praise For Nominee To Lead HHS In Senate Hearing
Despite the warm reception from members of the Senate HELP panel, Republican senators had tough questions for Sylvia Mathews Burwell about implementation of the health law. Kaiser Health News staff writer Mary Agnes Carey and CQ Roll Call's Melissa Attias discuss what's next for the nomination (5/8). Read the transcript or listen to the audio.

Kaiser Health News: A Reader Asks: Where Can I Find Insurance Options Between Open Enrollments?
Kaiser Health News consumer columnist Michelle Andrews answers a reader’s question about what happens when, because of special circumstances, one must shop for health coverage through the online insurance marketplaces even though it’s not open enrollment season (Andrews, 5/9). Read her response.

Kaiser Health News: Cops In Conn. Train In Mental Health 101 Class
WNPR’s Jeff Cohen, working in partnership with Kaiser Health News and NPR, reports: “How do you tell the difference between someone who needs to be taken to jail and someone who needs to be taken to the hospital? That’s a big concern in Connecticut, where the intersection of law enforcement and mental health has been a huge issue since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown in 2012” (Cohen, 5/8). Read the story.

Kaiser Health News: Capsules: During Confirmation Hearing, Burwell Pledges Support For CHIP
Now on Kaiser Health News’ blog, Mary Agnes Carey writes: “Advocates of the Children’s Health Insurance Program cheered Thursday when President Obama’s choice to head the Department of Health and Human Services said she supports continued funding for the program, which covers about 8 million low-income children whose families’ income exceeds Medicaid’s eligibility guidelines” (Carey, 5/9). Check out what else is on the blog.

The New York Times: Pick To Replace Sebelius Draws Senators’ Praise At Confirmation Hearing
Sylvia Mathews Burwell, President Obama’s nominee to replace Kathleen Sebelius as secretary of health and human services, charmed senators at a surprisingly cordial confirmation hearing on Thursday. And she even picked up a couple of Republican endorsements (Pear, 5/8).

Los Angeles Times: Obama’s Pick To Head Health And Human Services Draws GOP Support
President Obama’s pick to take over the administration of his signature health law drew support Thursday from several Republicans in her first appearance before a congressional committee, signaling her likely confirmation to head the Department of Health and Human Services. “Regardless of my objections to Obamacare, the Department of Health and Human Services needs competent leadership,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told the Senate health committee in introducing Sylvia Mathews Burwell. “I believe Ms. Burwell has the qualifications” (Levey, 5/8).

The Washington Post: Fixing Would Be Top Priority, HHS Nominee Sylvia Mathews Burwell Says
But the wide-ranging hearing also touched on some of the more contentious aspects of the law that she would be mired in: the technical problems that continue to plague the federal health insurance Web site, the unfinished job of expanding Medicaid and the president’s broken promise that people who liked their old plans could keep them (Somashekhar, 5/8).

The Associated Press: HHS Nominee Faces GOP Questions On Health Law
Sylvia Mathews Burwell defended the Affordable Care Act, asserting that it has improved the economy, held down the growth of health costs, reduced premiums and expanded coverage. … Republican senators disagreed. The top committee Republican, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, warned her that Republicans hope to retake the Senate in November and scale back the law in numerous ways (5/8).

The Wall Street Journal: Sylvia Burwell, HHS Nominee, Answers Senators' Questions
Ms. Burwell was asked about her plans to continue the Obama administration's policies in implementing the health law, including whether she would further extend canceled policies or back other substantive changes to provisions in the law, such as the requirement that employers offer coverage to all workers clocking 30 hours a week or more, or pay a penalty. The nominee gave careful, noncommittal answers (Radnofsky and Hughes, 5/8).

Politico: Burwell Gets Some GOP Boost For HHS Post
Health and Human Services nominee Sylvia Mathews Burwell began her confirmation hearings Thursday with a defense of Obamacare — and with strong endorsement from a prominent Republican critic of the health law: John McCain. Burwell made no promises to change the Affordable Care Act as she testified in front of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Democrats widely praised her while Republicans blasted the health law that Burwell will have to operate and focused on state-specific health care issues (Haberkorn, 5/9).

NPR: Forecast Predicts A Shift Away From Employer-Sponsored Insurance
A Senate committee is grilling Sylvia Matthews Burwell, the nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services. If confirmed, she would oversee the next phase of the Affordable Care Act. A new forecast says the health care law will drive some employers to stop offering coverage to their employees, pushing employees onto the new government exchanges (Horsley, 5/8).

The New York Times: Massachusetts Pushes Fix For State Health Exchange
The board of the broken Massachusetts health insurance exchange voted on Thursday to support a state plan to buy new software to help people enroll in coverage, while also preparing to join the federal marketplace if the system is not ready by fall. But insurers complained about the plan, and several members of the exchange board expressed concerns about the cost — an estimated $121 million, on top of tens of millions already spent on the broken exchange, known as the Health Connector (Goodnough, 5/8).

Los Angeles Times: Regulating State’s Health Premiums Could Hurt Exchange, Report Says
Obamacare in California could suffer setbacks, delays and legal challenges if voters this year approve a statewide ballot initiative to regulate insurance rates, a new industry-backed report warns. Those predictions drew immediate fire from Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones. He said the concerns are nonsense and passage of the ballot measure is essential for consumers to reap the full benefits of the Affordable Care Act (Terhune, 5/8).

The Washington Post: Fact Check: Did Only Four People Sign Up For Health Insurance Through Maryland’s Web Site? 
The Web site that Maryland built so that residents in need of health insurance could shop for low-priced plans made possible by the Affordable Care Act has not been working well. In fact, it’s so buggy and structurally flawed that officials have decided to scrap nearly all of it and rebuild before the next enrollment period starts in November. This made it difficult for thousands of people to get insurance, and Maryland only signed up a fraction of the number of people officials had originally hoped would enroll in private plans.
But is it really possible that only four people signed up directly through the Web site? (Johnson, 5/8).

The Wall Street Journal’s CIO Journal: Connecticut’s ‘Exchange In A Box’ Stymied By Government IT Culture
Maryland Health Exchange staffers will meet next week with Connecticut’s Access Health CT team to learn how the state exchange’s technology works, as well as best practices, says Joshua Sharfstein, the chairman of the board of Maryland’s defunct health benefit exchange. Maryland last month decided to scrap its existing exchange and pay consulting firm Deloitte LLP roughly $50 million to rebuild its broken website using Connecticut’s software. Connecticut’s state health exchange has begun commercializing its expertise, but is still looking for a full-fledged buyer for its “exchange in a box” – a package of hosting and consulting services it is offering states struggling with their own exchange (Boulton, 5/8).

The Washington Post: How North Carolina Republicans Are Helping Kay Hagan
Will Republicans take the Senate? The answer will hinge in part on the race between Sen. Kay Hagan and State House Speaker Thom Tillis in North Carolina. Many analysts see this election as a referendum on President Obama and the Affordable Care Act. There is likely some truth in that. According to an April 25-28 Elon University Poll I helped conduct, Hagan is supported by 61 percent of voters who think the ACA will improve healthcare in North Carolina. Among those who think the ACA will make things worse, only 14% support her. However, the North Carolina race will also allow voters to evaluate not only national politics but state politics, especially the recent policy shift in Raleigh. For the first time in a century, the state has a Republican governor and legislature. The GOP quickly moved to pass many controversial measures — including restrictions on abortion facilities, requirements of voter photo identification, elimination of teacher tenure and implementation of a less progressive tax code. Tillis presided over the NC House of Representative when these measures passed (Husser, 5/8).

The Wall Street Journal’s Washington Wire: Hagen Uses Burwell Hearing To Criticize N.C. GOP On Health Law
Sen. Kay Hagan (D., N.C.), in a tough re-election race, used her time Thursday at Sylvia Mathews Burwell‘s hearing to be Health and Human Services secretary to criticize North Carolina Republicans for declining to expand the Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act. Ms. Hagan, like some other vulnerable Democrats, has pushed the administration to make changes to the health-care law to make it more palatable to her constituents. But she has also taken a tack used by other vulnerable Democrats by criticizing Republican efforts to obstruct the law (Radnofsky, 5/8).

Los Angeles Times: New Legal Battle Opens Over Obamacare And Contraceptives
Even as the Supreme Court weighs one challenge to the Obama administration's rule that female employees be offered health plans that include a full range of contraceptives, lawyers for several prominent Catholic groups are seeking to set up a potential Round 2 in the fight. In arguments Thursday before a U.S. appeals court, lawyers for the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington clashed with administration attorneys over whether Catholic schools, colleges and charities should have a complete religious exemption from the so-called contraceptive mandate that forms part of President Obama's healthcare law (Savage, 5/8).

The Associated Press: Health Insurers Just Say No To Marijuana Coverage
Once the drug of choice for hippies and rebellious teens, marijuana in recent years has gained more mainstream acceptance for its ability to boost appetite, dull pain and reduce seizures in everyone from epilepsy to cancer patients. Still, insurers are reluctant to cover it, in part because of conflicting laws. While 21 U.S. states have passed laws approving it for medical use, the drug still is illegal federally and in most states (5/8).

The New York Times: V.A. Officials Subpoenaed For Inquiry Into Wait List
A House committee voted Thursday to subpoena the head of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki, and other top department officials, stepping up scrutiny of the agency amid allegations that secret waiting lists were used to cover up long delays for doctors’ appointments. The subpoena from the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs covers all emails and other correspondence related to the “destruction or disappearance of an alternate or interim wait list” at the department’s Phoenix medical center. It asked for all emails from April 9 to May 8 sent to or from Mr. Shinseki; Dr. Robert A. Petzel, the department’s under secretary for health; Will A. Gunn, the department’s general counsel; and five other senior officials (Oppel, 5/8).

The Wall Street Journal: House Committee Subpoenas Emails From Veterans Affairs Officials
The House Committee on Veterans Affairs voted Thursday to subpoena Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki and other top officials in the department to turn over materials related to the panel's investigation of practices at a VA hospital in Phoenix. The panel voted unanimously to subpoena email and correspondence written over the past month by eight VA officials, including Mr. Shinseki and the VA's general counsel, that may relate to an alleged secret wait list intended to make official patient wait times at the Phoenix VA Health Care System seem shorter than they actually were (Kesling, 5/8).

USA Today: Congressmen Introduce Competing Mental Health Bills
In the weeks after the shootings in Newtown, Conn., many mental health advocates hoped that the tragedy would lead Congress to address problems in the country's fragmented mental health system. Nearly a year and a half later — and in spite of several additional shootings — Congress has yet to pass major mental health reforms (Szabo, 5/8).

Politico: Graham Plans Push On Abortion Bill 
Senate Republicans, led by Lindsey Graham, are planning to ramp up their advocacy for an abortion bill around the high-profile anniversary of a former abortion provider’s murder conviction. The South Carolina Republican is organizing a group of his colleagues to speak in support of a bill that would federally ban abortions after more than 20 weeks of pregnancy, legislation that has the support of 41 Senate Republicans and has already passed the House. Graham is centering this legislative push on the May 13 anniversary of Kermit Gosnell’s conviction for killing infants that were born alive (Everett, 5/8).

The Wall Street Journal: Where Does It Hurt? Log On. The Doctor Is In
Can downloading an app, and describing your symptoms to a doctor you'll never meet, take the place of an office visit? Can sending a "selfie" of your sore throat help diagnose strep? Those are some of the issues state and federal regulators—and the medical profession itself—are wrestling with as telemedicine spreads rapidly (Beck, 5/8).

The Wall Street Journal: Virtual Doctor Visits: What's Treated And What's the Cost?
A growing number of Web-based companies offer virtual medical visits, where users can go online and consult with a doctor or other health-care provider, any time of the day or night, from wherever they are (Beck, 5/8).

The New York Times: Medicaid Shift Fuels Rush For Profitable Clients
When Hurricane Sandy flooded two adult homes in Queens, hundreds of disabled, elderly or mentally ill residents were caught in the surge. After weeks in public shelters, they were bused, over their objections, to a dilapidated four-story building called King’s Hotel, in a crime-ridden section of Brooklyn. Many had not showered in days. Crammed three cots to a room, they lacked basics like clean underwear. But in the parallel universe of New York’s redesigned Medicaid program, they represented a gold mine (Bernstein, 5/8).

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