KHN Morning Briefing

Summaries of health policy coverage from major news organizations

First Edition: February 17, 2016

Today's early morning highlights from the major news organizations.

Kaiser Health News: Needle Exchanges Can Now Get Federal Funding
Needle exchanges could receive a financial boost this year following a decision by Congress to lift a ban on federal funding. As abuse of prescription drugs and opiates continues to spread across the nation, more states are considering exchanges as a way to save lives. The change in federal policy, part of a spending bill approved earlier this month, allows funding only in areas where drug-related cases of hepatitis and HIV are rising or are likely to. State and city health departments will make that determination along with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to the legislation. (Gorman, 2/17)

Kaiser Health News: Alabama Puts Hospitals At Forefront Of Medicaid Managed Care
Despite having one of the strictest eligibility requirements in the country, Alabama has struggled to control the rising costs of Medicaid, which provides health coverage to more than 1 million residents. Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, a popular two-term Republican governor, and a dermatologist, is offering an unusual cure. The state last week won federal approval to shift most of its Medicaid recipients into managed care organizations, which are paid a fixed monthly fee from the state for each person in the plan. (Galewitz, 2/17)

Kaiser Health News: Health Reform Roils Downton Abbey
This season, Downton Abbey has a new plot line that has health wonks on the edge of their seats: a heated debate about hospital consolidation that closely parallels what’s going on in the U.S. health care system today. It’s 1925 for the lords and ladies at Downton Abbey. A big hospital in the nearby city of York is making a play to take over the Downton Cottage Hospital next to the posh estate. Or as Maggie Smith’s character sees it, “The royal Yorkshire county hospital wants to take over our little hospital, which is outrageous!” (Gold, 2/17)

Kaiser Health News: Task Force: Not Enough Evidence To Recommend ‘For Or Against’ Universal Autism Screening For Very Young Kids
Sparking strong reaction from doctors and child development experts, an influential task force says there’s “insufficient evidence” to argue definitely that the benefits of screening all young children for autism outweigh the harms. “There’s not enough evidence for us to recommend for or against screening in children for autism under 30 months,” said David Grossman, vice chair of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force and a Seattle pediatrician. (Luthra, 2/16)

The New York Times: Supreme Court Path Is Littered With Pitfalls, For President And G.O.P.
The death of Justice Antonin Scalia immediately prompted lofty-sounding pronouncements from leaders of both parties. But behind the public statements, the two parties are engaged in raw political calculations about how to best leverage the vacancy, underscoring the country’s deep polarization and the reality of how elections are waged nowadays. ... If Mr. Obama wants to protect his legacy on health care, immigration and other issues, as well as rally Democratic voters in the presidential election and key Senate races, he could shrug off the idea of accommodating Republican concerns and instead choose an admired progressive politician or an established liberal judge. (Martin and Healy, 2/16)

Politico: Clinton, Sanders Blaze Different Trails On Supreme Court Nomination
Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have expressed their outrage at Republican threats to block President Barack Obama's choice to replace Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. That's where the similarities end. For Clinton, the opening on the court has provided a chance to aggressively talk about abortion rights, immigration reform and voting rights — issues that rile up her base and closely align her with the sitting president. Clinton, with deep support from Hispanic voters and the full weight of abortion rights groups behind her, reminds those blocs of their uncertain futures by singling out individual cases that could directly affect them. (Debenedetti, 2/16)

The New York Times: After A Rocky Start, Ted Cruz Had Success Before Justices
On the first Monday in October 2003, a 32-year-old lawyer who then called himself R. Edward Cruz made his first appearance before the justices. It did not go well. Mr. Cruz had only recently taken a job as the Texas solicitor general. ... Speaking in South Carolina on Monday, he described his two-decade relationship with Justice Scalia with favorite tales of his judicial prowess and wit. At that first argument, though, the relationship looked rocky. Mr. Cruz was making a states’ rights argument. Texas had agreed to settle a federal lawsuit accusing it of denying medical treatment to children. But Mr. Cruz said the state had the constitutional authority to ignore the settlement, one that had taken the form of a consent decree. Justice Scalia was not convinced. “Why would the other side ever accept such a consent decree?” he asked. “It’s crazy.” Mr. Cruz lost, nine to nothing. (Liptak and Flegenheimer, 2/16)

The Washington Post: For Ted Cruz, The 2013 Shutdown Was A Defining Moment
In 2013, freshman Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said he had a plan to do something that seemed impossible. He could force President Obama to strip the funding from the landmark health-care law that had come to bear his name — Obamacare — by threatening to shut down the government. To some other conservatives, there was a problem with Cruz’s plan. It still seemed impossible. (Fahrenthold and Zezima, 2/16)

The Washington Post: Federal Health Officials, Insurers Agree On How To Rate Doctors’ Quality
For the first time, the Medicare program and the health insurance industry have agreed on a set of ratings to gauge how well doctors do their jobs. Leaders of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the trade group America’s Health Insurance Plans announced Tuesday that they have reached a consensus on how to measure physician quality in seven medical areas, from primary care to treatment of patients with cancer or AIDS. (Goldstein, 2/16)

The Associated Press: A Step Forward For Measuring Health Care Quality
The government, doctors' groups, insurers and patient advocates say they're coming together on a common set of measurements for what constitutes quality health care. A collaborative representing the various players Tuesday released quality measures for seven broad areas: primary care, cardiology, digestive system, HIV and hepatitis C, medical oncology, orthopedics, and obstetrics and gynecology. (2/16)

The Washington Post: WHO Says $56 Million Needed To Fight Zika Spread In Coming Months
The World Health Organization says it will take $56 million to kickstart a coordinated international response to the Zika virus outbreak racing through much of the Americas, and the WHO plans to tap a newly created emergency contingency fund to pay for the initial efforts. In a lengthy action plan published Tuesday, the organization said a hefty chunk of the money will go toward disease surveillance, which will include tracking new Zika cases and the suspected birth defects and rare autoimmune syndrome that scientists suspect are linked to the mosquito-borne virus. (Dennis, 2/16)

The Wall Street Journal: CDC, Brazil To Work Together On Zika-Birth Defect Study
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has begun working with medical researchers in northeast Brazil to investigate the suspected link between the Zika virus and a rare condition that causes brain and skull deformities in newborns. About 15 epidemiologists and experts in birth defects will be working in coming weeks in João Pessoa, the capital of Paraíba state, one of the states that has recorded surging numbers of cases of the condition called microcephaly. The first several members of the CDC’s team arrived Sunday, the organization said. (Johnson, McKay and Jelmayer, 2/16)

The New York Times: F.D.A. Issues Zika Virus Guidelines For Blood Supply
The Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday issued new guidelines for blood banks intended to help prevent the contamination of the nation’s blood supply with the Zika virus. Among other measures, the agency called for blood banks in areas where the virus is transmitted locally — like Puerto Rico and the United States Virgin Islands — to import whole blood and red blood cells from regions without an outbreak instead of using local donations. (Saint Louis, 2/16)

USA Today: Experts Dismiss Claims That Pesticide, Not Zika, Causes Birth Defects
Experts say there's no evidence that an increase in birth defects in Brazil, which has coincided with an outbreak of Zika virus, is due to pesticides used to kill mosquito larvae. ... The Argentine environmentalists' claims have stoked conspiracy theories online and in social media, causing some to proclaim the Zika virus a hoax. On its web site, the group claims that spraying mosquitoes using planes is "criminal, useless and a political maneuver" to make it appear that governments are taking action. The root of Zika, the group claims, "lies in inequality and poverty." (Szabo, 2/16)

The Wall Street Journal: Pfizer To Pay $785 Million To Settle Medicaid Claims
Drugmaker Pfizer Inc. on Tuesday said it reached an agreement in principle to pay $784.6 million to settle a long-running U.S. government investigation of allegations that its Wyeth unit overcharged government Medicaid health programs for the heartburn drug Protonix. Pfizer said the agreement doesn’t include any admission of liability by Wyeth. The deal is subject to negotiation of a final agreement and court approval. A trial in the case had been scheduled to begin March 7 in federal court in Boston. (Loftus, 2/16)

The Associated Press: Pfizer Reports $784.6 Million Charge For Protonix Deal
Drugmaker Pfizer Inc. swung to a fourth-quarter financial loss, instead of a modest profit, as a result of a just-announced charge to settle a long-running federal case over reimbursements for its former blockbuster heartburn pill. Pfizer, which is planning a mega-acquisition of Irish drugmaker Allergan meant to reduce Pfizer's corporate tax bill, said Tuesday that it has a tentative agreement to pay the federal government $784.6 million. (2/16)

USA Today: Pfizer Settles Medicaid Claims For $785 Million
The long-running case involves practices relating to the calculation of Medicaid rebates by drug maker Wyeth for its drug Protonix between 2001 and 2006. Pfizer acquired Wyeth in 2009. ... Officials had said the miscalculations amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars and the Justice Department had estimated total damages could total more than $2 billion. ... Back in December 2012, Pfizer paid $55 million to resolve allegations that Wyeth promoted Protonix for uses that were not approved by the Food and Drug Administration. (Snider, 2/16)

The Wall Street Journal: New Drug Ads Tout Serious Conditions, Costly Treatments
TV audiences have grown accustomed to ads for treatments for erectile dysfunction, overactive bladder and a host of common or “lifestyle” conditions. But viewers of the Jan. 31 Fox broadcast of “Grease Live” caught a glimpse of the industry’s newest marketing tack: a clip promoting a lung-cancer drug. The spot is one of several hitting the airwaves for drugs treating serious, life-threatening conditions or those with relatively small patient populations—often expensive medicines prescribed by specialist doctors. For example, Opdivo costs about $12,500 a month for the average U.S. patient. (Loftus, 2/16)

The Wall Street Journal: Couple To Give $7.2 Million Toward Efforts To Lower Drug Prices
A Houston-based philanthropist couple is adding their financial firepower to efforts to make prescription drugs more affordable in the U.S. The Laura and John Arnold Foundation will provide a total of $7.2 million to four organizations to fund research and pilot projects aimed at reining in drug costs and lowering financial barriers for patients, according to the foundation. (Loftus, 2/16)

The Wall Street Journal: Bosses Harness Big Data To Predict Which Workers Might Get Sick
Employee wellness firms and insurers are working with companies to mine data about the prescription drugs workers use, how they shop and even whether they vote, to predict their individual health needs and recommend treatments. Trying to stem rising health-care costs, some companies, including retailer Wal-Mart Stores Inc., are paying firms like Castlight Healthcare Inc. to collect and crunch employee data to identify, for example, which workers are at risk for diabetes, and target them with personalized messages nudging them toward a doctor or services such as weight-loss programs. Companies say the goal is to get employees to improve their own health as a way to cut corporate health-care bills. (Silverman, 2/16)

The Wall Street Journal: Community Health Systems’ Shares Plunge After Weak Earnings
Community Health Systems Inc.’s share price plummeted Tuesday after a weak earnings report, the latest threat to U.S. hospital investors who have seen big gains of recent years from an improving economy and the 2010 federal health law largely erased in recent months. Community announced Monday that revenues in the last quarter of 2015 fell 2.4% compared with the final three months of 2014. The company added it was setting aside $169 million to cover unanticipated losses on unpaid bills. (Weaver, 2/16)

NPR: Misuse Of ADHD Drugs By Young Adults Drives Rise In ER Visits
It's no secret that stimulant medications such as Adderall that are prescribed to treat symptoms of ADHD are sometimes used as "study drugs" aimed at boosting cognitive performance. And emergency room visits linked to misuse of the drug are on the rise, according to a study published Tuesday in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. ... Overall, the study found that nonmedical use of Adderall and generic versions of the drug increased by 67 percent among adults between 2006 and 2011. The findings are based on data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The number of emergency room visits involving Adderall misuse increased from 862 visits in 2006 to 1,489 in 2011 according to data from the Drug Abuse Warning Network. (Aubrey, 2/16)

NPR: Panel Says Evidence Is Lacking On Universal Screening For Autism
The earlier a child with autism can be identified and get treatment the better, child development specialists say. So there's been a push to have pediatricians give all toddlers screening tests for autism during well child visits. But the influential U.S. Preventive Services Task Force said Tuesday that there's not yet enough evidence to show that screening all children delivers measurable benefits, a decision sure to frustrate or anger many in the autism community. (Shute, 2/16)

The New York Times: Transgender Patients Face Challenges At The Hospital
After a skiing accident in January left him with a smashed knee, Beck Bailey, a transgender man in Greenfield, Mass., spent 15 days in a Vermont hospital undergoing a handful of surgeries. As part of his normal routine, Mr. Bailey gives himself regular shots of testosterone. But the endocrinologist on duty in Vermont told him that patients should not take testosterone post surgery. Mr. Bailey explained that he couldn’t just stop his hormone treatment. But the doctors were so resistant that he finally had them call his primary care physician, who explained he should resume his usual protocol. Mr. Bailey’s experience is echoed by many transgender patients, both those who have fully transitioned and those in the process. (Ellin, 2/16)

The Wall Street Journal: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie Proposes Hospital Cuts
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s seventh budget proposal, released on Tuesday, sticks to his pledge against raising taxes, but it assumes that public-sector unions agree to benefit cuts. The $34.8 billion plan also includes steep cuts to state hospitals to fund so-called charity-care cases, which involve treating uninsured or underinsured patients. (Haddon, 2/16)

Reuters: Colorado Surgical Tampering Case Prompts Review Of 3,000 Patients
An ex-medical technician has been indicted on charges of tampering with narcotics at a Colorado hospital, leading authorities to urge nearly 3,000 people who had surgery there to be tested for blood-borne diseases, federal prosecutors said on Tuesday. The case was brought after the defendant was caught swapping a syringe containing fentanyl citrate, a powerful synthetic opiate, for a dose of an unspecified substance during a patient’s surgery last month, U.S. Attorney John Walsh said in a statement. (Gorman, 2/16)

The Associated Press: Report: 3 of 5 Californians May Have Had Data Stolen in 2015
California's attorney general says as many as three in five Californians may have had electronic records stolen last year. Attorney General Kamala Harris said Tuesday that there were 178 data breaches in California endangering 24 million records. Her report blames a few large breaches for most of the thefts. That includes records exposed by health insurer Anthem Inc. affecting more than 10 million Californians. (2/16)

The Associated Press: Teen Charged With Running Illegal Medical Office
A South Florida teen has been arrested after authorities say he was posing as a doctor at an illegal medical office he ran. The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office says in a news release that 18-year-old Malachi Love-Robinson was arrested Tuesday and charged with practicing medicine without a license. At the West Palm Beach clinic he opened, officials say Love-Robinson performed a physical exam on an undercover agent and offered medical advice Tuesday. (2/16)

This is part of the KHN Morning Briefing, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.