First Edition: October 17, 2014
Today's headlines include coverage of the Ebola response by public health officials and President Barack Obama as well as the related policies being debated and discussed by lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
Kaiser Health News: Administration Signals Doubts About Calculator Permitting Plans Without Hospital Benefits
Kaiser Health News staff writer Jay Hancock reports: “Insurance consultants were shocked recently to learn that Obama administration rules allow large companies to offer 2015 worker health plans that don’t include hospital benefits. Now the administration is concerned too. Treasury Department officials are preparing to reverse course on an official calculator that permits plans without hospital coverage to pass the health law’s strictest standard for large employers, said industry lawyers who have spoken to them. These sources expect the administration to disallow such coverage by the end of the year” (Hancock, 10/17). Read the story, which also appeared in The Washington Post.
Kaiser Health News: Consumers Whose Income Drops Below Poverty Get Break On Subsidy Payback
Kaiser Health News consumer columnist Michelle Andrews writes: “Right about now, some low-income people who just barely qualified for subsidies on the health insurance marketplace are starting to worry: What if my income for the year ends up below the poverty level? Will I have to pay back the premium tax credits I received? A couple of readers have posed this question in recent weeks” (Andrews, 10/17). Read the story.
Kaiser Health News: Capsules: Poll: Many Unaware How Ebola Is Spread; California’s Insurance Exchange Gears Up For Round Two
Now on Kaiser Health News’ blog, Phil Galewitz reports on a poll that explores public understanding of Ebola: “The survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that while nearly all adults (97 percent) know a person can become infected through direct contact with the blood or other body fluids of someone who is sick with Ebola, there are still misconceptions. (KHN is an editorially independent program of the foundation.) One third of respondents are unaware they cannot become infected through the air. About 45 percent are unaware they cannot contract Ebola by shaking hands with someone who has been exposed to the virus but who does not have symptom” (Galewitz, 10/16).
Also on Capsules, Anna Gorman reports on how California’s health exchange is gearing up for round 2: “California’s insurance exchange began mailing renewal notices this week to more than 1.1 million people already enrolled in health plans, officials announced Thursday. Consumers who want to make changes must do so by Dec. 15 for coverage effective Jan. 1, while those who want to keep their current plans will be renewed automatically. The renewals are occurring as the state’s marketplace, Covered California, gears up for the open enrollment period for new consumers. Between Nov. 15 and Feb. 15, Covered California hopes to enroll more than 500,000 new people, which would bring the total to about 1.7 million” (Gorman, 10/16). Check out what else is on the blog.
The Washington Post’s Fact Checker: Obama’s Claim That Obamacare Has Helped Produce A ‘$1,800 Tax Cut’
Remember that 2008 campaign promise touted by then-candidate Obama — that his health care law would reduce the cost of premiums by $2,500 by 2014? As we have noted, he was quickly called out by fact checkers for making a dubious claim based on shaky assumptions. Moreover, the pledge came with a large asterisk: He was not saying that premiums would drop by $2,500, but that health-care costs per person would be that much lower than anticipated. Of course, the Affordable Care Act turned out to be different from the plan Obama discussed during the campaign, and longer to implement than expected, so the White House in 2011 amended the pledge to say it would $2,000 in savings by 2019 (Kessler, 10/17).
The Wall Street Journal: UnitedHealth’s Profit Boosted By Lower Medical Costs
UnitedHealth Group Inc. reported better-than-expected third-quarter earnings and raised its profit forecast for the year, driven by lower medical costs. “Medical utilization remained restrained,” the health insurer said in a news release Thursday. UnitedHealth added that its medical-care ratio, a key industry metric that reflects the portion of insurance premiums used for patient care, fell to 79.7% in the third quarter from 80.6% a year earlier (Calia and Wilde Mathews, 10/16).
The New York Times: After Hospital Scandal, V.A. Officials Jump Ship
After a national scandal erupted this year over veterans dying while waiting for care at Veterans Health Administration hospitals, Congress passed a law making it easier to fire executives who were responsible for the problems, which included systemic efforts to cover up lengthy wait times that kept patients from seeing doctors (Philipps, 10/16).
The Washington Post’s Wonkblog: Ebola Is Scarier When You Don’t Know How It’s Spread
As Americans are becoming increasingly fearful of Ebola, there's still some pretty notable confusion about how the deadly virus is spread, according to new polling. Even though 70 percent of U.S. adults say they're closely following news about Ebola, just 36 percent know that a person infected with the deadly virus must be showing symptoms to transmit the infection to others, according to a new Kaiser Family Foundation Tracking Poll (Millman, 10/16).
The Washington Post: CDC Director’s Challenge: Deadly Ebola Virus And Outbreak Of Criticism
Frieden, the 53-year-old doctor who for the past five years has served as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is immersed in an epidemiological and political crisis. He has become the face of that crisis, and more than that, the voice. It’s a deep voice, sonorous, and he speaks slowly, deliberately, assuredly, and he declared at the end of September: “I have no doubt that we’ll stop this in its tracks in the U.S.” But his confident statements have had to compete with the onslaught of bad news, including the infection of two health-care workers in Dallas, and he is now on the defensive (Sun, Bernstein and Achenbach, 10/16).
Politico: CDC Chief Survives Trial By Fire On Hill
Tom Frieden is getting a lot of public scoldings for all of the missteps in the handling of the Dallas Ebola cases — and there have been plenty of them. But so far, the criticisms don’t appear to be rising to the level where the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention needs to worry about his job. Frieden came through a three-hour House hearing Thursday with some bruises but also with his ability to function as director seemingly intact (Nather and Norman, 10/16).
The New York Times: Obama May Name ‘Czar’ To Oversee Ebola Response
President Obama raised the possibility on Thursday that he might appoint an “Ebola czar” to manage the government’s response to the deadly virus as anxiety grew over the air travel of an infected nurse. Schools closed in two states, hospitals and airlines kept employees home from work, and Americans debated how much they should worry about a disease that has captured national attention but has so far infected only three people here (Healy, Tavernise and Goodnough, 10/16).
Politico: Obama’s Ebola Challenge
The White House playbook for handling natural disasters is clear cut: Get the president in front of the cameras early, pledge every federal resource for the recovery, make a sympathetic visit to the devastated area and never pass up an opportunity to show who’s in charge. But the strategy for dealing with a deadly infectious disease that’s unlikely to turn into an epidemic yet is still terrifying to the public? Murky, at best (Budoff Brown and Epstein, 10/17).
The Washington Post: Ebola Presents Health, Political Challenges For Obama
Cognizant of the dangers that come from going before the public without answers, Obama has emphasized the low probability that the deadly disease will become a large-scale outbreak in the United States because it is not easily transmitted. But in the wake of acknowledged errors that led to the infections of two nurses in Dallas, the White House is now engulfed in a crisis that has resurrected questions about the president’s governing style. After meeting with top aides in the Oval Office for nearly two hours Thursday night, Obama sought to address some of the criticism lawmakers have lodged against him by saying he may appoint one person, or “czar,” to oversee the federal response. But he reiterated that Americans remain safe (Eilperin, 10/16).
NPR: Health Officials Face Ebola Questions On Capitol Hill
A day after news that a second healthcare worker in Texas has Ebola, members of Congress grilled Centers for Disease Control and Prevent Director Tom Frieden about the federal response (10/16).
The Washington Post: Congress Presses For Ebola Travel Ban
Members of Congress sharply questioned top public health officials Thursday about banning travel from West African countries where the Ebola virus is out of control to the United States, demanding to know why the administration has not adopted that tactic. “It’s not a drill,” said Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), a member of the of the House Energy and Commerce oversight and investigations subcommittee, which held Thursday’s hearing. “People’s lives are at stake, and the response so far has been unacceptable” (Berman and Berstein, 10/16).
The Wall Street Journal: U.S. Ebola Response Is Slammed By Lawmakers
President Barack Obama , after a day of withering criticism over the government’s handling of the Ebola virus, said Thursday he may name a point person to oversee the administration’s response and is open to a travel ban but isn’t planning one. His evening remarks, which sought to show a more forceful response while assuring Americans they remain safe, were the first sign the White House could adopt ideas that Republican lawmakers have emphasized in ratcheting up their attacks this week. They have called for creating an Ebola czar and for travel restrictions from virus epicenters in West Africa (Armour and Lee, 10/16).
Politico: Why A Travel Ban Wouldn’t Work
The political momentum for a travel ban on West African nations continued to swell Thursday, but health and transportation experts were uniform in saying it wouldn’t stem the spread of Ebola — and could do more harm than good. That hasn’t stopped politicians and pundits — ranging from House Speaker John Boehner to former Obama press secretary Jay Carney — from calling for a travel ban. The appeal is obvious: It sounds like a no-brainer to build an infectious-disease moat around the U.S., blocking some flights and barring people who come from the countries suffering the worst Ebola outbreaks (Caygle and Wolfe, 10/16).
Los Angeles Times: Dallas Hospital Shifts Blame To CDC On Ebola Protocols
The hospital's response -- its second in two days -- in part shifted responsibility to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and to the protocols the agency issued this summer to guide the handling of a patient infected by the virus, which is thought to have killed more than 4,400 people in West Africa. The hospital said the protocols changed frequently, frustrating caregivers and management (Mohan, 10/16).
The New York Times: In Cities With West African Populations, Hospitals Take Extra Steps
Hospitals in cities with large West African populations are bracing for the first patients with Ebola, a prospect that no longer seems so far-fetched, ramping up screening, protections for hospital staff, and efforts to encourage people to report symptoms and take precautions (Belluck, 10/16).
Los Angeles Times: Big Money, Complex Issues Make Prop. 45 Tough Issue For State Voters
Almost three decades ago, a small band of consumer activists persuaded California voters to slap tough new rate regulations on auto insurance. Now that same group wants to crack down on health insurance rates. And the insurance industry and its business allies are back with a multimillion-dollar war chest to fight Proposition 45 with an omnipresent media campaign. The combination of big money and complex regulatory issues makes Proposition 45 a tough issue for voters, said Larry Levitt, a senior policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation, unrelated to insurer Kaiser Permanente (Lifsher, 10/16).
The Associated Press: Binghamton Hospital Pays $3.4M To Settle Case
Federal authorities say a Binghamton hospital has paid $3.4 million to resolve claims it improperly billed Medicare. Our Lady of Lourdes Memorial Hospital, a 242-bed facility, found billing issues and overpayments from the federal health care program for hyperbaric oxygen therapy (10/17).
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