KHN Morning Briefing

Summaries of health policy coverage from major news organizations

First Edition: March 17, 2014

Today's headlines include reports about new health coverage rules and guidances announced by the Obama administration.

Kaiser Health News: Thousands Of Young California Immigrants Eligible For Coverage -- Though Often They Don’t Know It
Kaiser Health News staff writer Anna Gorman, working in collaboration with the Los Angeles Daily News, reports: "Carlos Velazquez’s skateboard slipped out from beneath his feet and he spiraled onto the ground, landing hard on his left arm. He decided not to go to the doctor after the 2012 accident, resorting to over-the-counter pain medication and home remedies. The reason: He and his mother had overstayed their visas when he was a child, so he wasn’t eligible for government-funded health insurance. And he couldn’t afford a private plan" (Gorman, 3/17). Read the story

Kaiser Health News: Capsules: Sebelius Pushes Lagging Enrollment In Ohio; HHS Says Insurers’ Coverage For Same-Sex Spouses Must Match Other Married Couples; Federal High Risk Pools Extended For A Month; California Marketplace Still Lags In Signing Up Latinos And Young Adults
Now on Kaiser Health News’ blog, WCPN’s Sarah Jane Tribble reports on enrollment efforts and how the federal exchange is doing in Ohio: "With two weeks left before open enrollment ends under the Affordable Care Act, 79,000 Ohioans have selected a plan on the federally run insurance exchange" (Tribble, 3/17). 

Michelle Andrews writes about an HHS director on coverage for same-sex spouses: "The change means that same-sex married couples who have been unable to buy family policies will be able to do so. The guidance, presented in an FAQ format from the Department of Health and Human Services, applies to health plans in the group and individual markets that were not in operation before the health law and grandfathered in the federal health law. It clarifies existing federal rules, the guidance said" (Andrews, 3/14).

In addition, Mary Agnes Carey reports on the latest extension for high-risk pools: "In a notice posted on the Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan website, officials announced that program enrollees who have not yet purchased coverage through the health law’s online marketplaces, or exchanges, could keep their current coverage until April 30 while they continue their search. But they must enroll in a new plan by April 15 to avoid any gaps in coverage" (Carey, 3/14). 

Also on the blog, Anna Gorman writes about enrollment efforts for California’s insurance marketplace: "With just a few weeks remaining before the March 31 enrollment deadline, California has signed up more than 923,000 people in its new insurance marketplace—more than a fifth of the national tally, officials announced Wednesday. But the state’s success story continues to be marred by slow progress in reaching Latinos and young people in general, both considered crucial to the success of Obamacare" (Gorman, 3/14). Check out what else is on the blog

The New York Times: White House Tightens Health Plan’s Standards After Consumers Complain 
The Obama administration issued stringent new standards on Friday for health insurance to address a flood of complaints from consumers who said that costs were too high and that the choice of doctors, hospitals and prescription drugs was too limited in many health plans offered this year under the Affordable Care Act. In deciding which products can be sold in the federal marketplace next year, officials said, they will scrutinize health plans more closely and rely less on evaluations by state insurance regulators and private groups that accredit health plans. ... Officials issued the new standards, buried in a stack of documents, at 7:15 p.m. on Friday even as President Obama was stepping up efforts to increase enrollment in health plans this year (Pear, 3/14). 

The Washington Post: White House Orders Broader Obamacare Health Plans In 2015 
The Obama administration is requiring health plans in Obamacare insurance marketplaces to include a more robust offering of care providers in 2015 after some early backlash over limited networks in the health care law's first year. Health plans selling on the federal marketplaces in 2015 must include 30 percent of area "essential community providers," which are usually health centers and other hospitals serving mostly low-income patients. That's up from a 20 percent requirement in 2014, the first year of expanded overage under the health care law (Millman, 3/14). 

The Wall Street Journal: Health Site Plans Deadline Leeway 
Federal officials are planning a workaround that would effectively extend the March 31 deadline to enroll for health-care coverage for some users if technical glitches hamper a last-minute surge of signups on, people familiar with the matter say. ... Under the workaround plan, people who can demonstrate that they tried to enroll in a plan before the deadline, but failed because of website troubles, would be able to sign up after March 31. Details are still being hammered out including how long the so-called special-enrollment period would last and what documentation people might need to offer as proof they were blocked by glitches, say people familiar with the matter (Weaver, Ante and Radnofsky, 3/14). 

The Wall Street Journal: 'High Risk' Federal Health-Insurance Enrollees May Extend Coverage
The Obama administration said Friday that thousands of "high risk" people who are still enrolled in a federal health-insurance program slated to close in two weeks will have the option of extending their coverage for one more month. A notice appeared Friday on the website of the Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan telling enrollees that, if they had not yet found new coverage through health-insurance exchanges, they could purchase an additional month of coverage through April 30 (Radnofsky, 3/14).

The Washington Post: HHS Will Let Sickest Patients Stay On Their Health Plans Longer 
The Obama administration is again extending a temporary Obamacare program insuring some of the sickest patients in the country amid concerns not enough people will find new coverage by the end of the month. People enrolled in the temporary Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan, which was set to expire March 31, can purchase an extra month of coverage, the Obama administration said this afternoon (Millman and Eilperin, 3/14). 

The Washington Post: Obama Says Enrollment Is High Enough To Ensure His Health Law’s Survival
President Obama said Friday he was confident enough Americans had enrolled under the Affordable Care Act to make the program "stable." In an interview with WebMD, Obama said the fact that 4.2 million people have already signed up for plans under federal and state marketplaces mean enough companies will be invested to stay in the system (Eilperin, 3/14).

Politico: Obama: Health Care Law Has Enough Customers To Work 
Obamacare may not be beloved, but President Barack Obama says it’s got enough customers to survive. In a sit-down interview with WebMD posted Friday, the president dismissed any concern that people resisting the law could somehow keep it from functioning. ... During the wide-ranging interview with WebMD’s Lisa Zamosky, Obama also called out governors and state lawmakers who have resisted the health care law’s massive expansion of Medicaid — a decision he said was based purely on politics. "This is a source of great frustration for me," he said. "We don't have the ability at the federal level to pressure those states to do what they should be doing" (Cheney, 3/14). 

The Associated Press/Washington Post: McAuliffe Travels Va. Touting Medicaid Expansion
In his first months on the job, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe is trying to capitalize on Democrats’ takeover of top state offices and the state Senate by pushing a key element of President Barack Obama’s health care law through a Republican-dominated House of Delegates (3/15).

The Associated Press/Washington Post: Medicaid Expansion Supporters Rally At Capitol
Several hundred supporters of Medicaid expansion gathered at the state Capitol on Saturday to send a message to Republic lawmakers who have blocked Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s top legislative priority (3/16).

USA Today: Obama Team Uses March Madness To Sell Health Care Plan
For the Obama administration, March Madness is another chance to press young people — particularly young men — to sign up for health care. Health care officials are launching a new marketing campaign wrapped around the NCAA men's and women's college basketball tournaments that start this week. Starting Monday, Obama, some of his aides and celebrity athletes who back the health care plan will conduct interviews, make public service ads and use social media appeals as a key deadline looms on March 31 (Jackson, 3/16).

Politico: Obamacare Meets March Madness
With the arrival of college basketball’s March Madness, the White House is looking to capitalize on the annual tournament to encourage Americans to enroll in Obamacare.
The promotional effort will include athletes and coaches as well as administration officials, according to CNN, and will begin on Monday. Sunday was “Selection Sunday,” the day the teams in the tournament are announced and the schedule and bracket are released (Kopan, 3/17). 

Politico: RNC Chair: Obamacare 'Main Target'
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus called Obamacare "complete poison" on Sunday and vowed the GOP would continue to target the new health law in upcoming races. Appearing on CNN's "State of the Union," he called the Affordable Care Act the "main target" for Republicans. And he said that David Jolly's victory over Democrat Alex Sink in last week's special congressional race in Florida's 13th District was largely due to opposition to Obamacare (Topaz, 3/16).

Politico: White House Likes Dem Chances This Fall
The White House is confident that Democrats will keep the Senate despite the continued politicization of Obamacare. White House Senior Adviser Dan Pfeiffer said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that President Barack Obama will not delay Obamacare’s individual mandate -- and that this election will be less about the Affordable Care Act and more about voter turnout. “We absolutely have to do a better job of turning out in midterm elections." Pheiffer said. "If more Democrats don't turn out, we will not do well. We have to get as many people to the polls in November as possible" (Everett, 3/16).

The Washington Post: House Republican Leaders Craft Their Vision For An Alternative To Health-Care Law
House Republican leaders are adopting an agreed-upon conservative approach to fixing the nation’s health-care system, in part to draw an election-year contrast with President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. The plan includes an expansion of high-risk insurance pools, promotion of health savings accounts and inducements for small businesses to purchase coverage together (Costa, 3/16). 

NPR: House Passes Payment Fix For Medicare Docs, But At What Cost?
Bipartisan support dissolved this week for compromise legislation that would have fixed a longstanding problem with the way Medicare pays physicians. Though the bill passed the House of Representatives Friday, it now contains a provision almost certain to invite veto unless a Senate version can quickly nudge the ultimate bill back toward compromise. Republican leaders in the House finally brought to a vote this week the legislation they'd unveiled in February (Rovner, 3/15).

The Wall Street Journal: House Approves Changes To Doctors' Medicare Payments
The House passed legislation on Friday to overhaul how physicians are paid for treating Medicare patients, in a largely partisan vote reflecting continued divisions over the 2010 health-care law. The bill, approved by a 238-181 vote, includes a bipartisan deal reached among members of key committees last month to increase the amount Medicare pays physicians by 0.5% each year for the next five years. The proposal was intended to end the perennial scramble to prevent large cuts to physicians' payments. No Republicans voted against the bill, and 12 Democrats supported it (Peterson, 3/14).

Politico: Obamacare Fight Breaks 'Doc Fix'
A once-bipartisan proposal to finally reform the deeply flawed way that Medicare pays doctors succumbed Friday to the partisan politics of Obamacare, particularly the unpopular individual mandate. The House voted 238-181 to replace the payment formula — the complicated equation that for more than a decade has required annual “doc fixes” — and to pay for it by delaying Obamacare’s individual mandate for five years (Haberkorn, 3/14).

The Wall Street Journal: Some Democrats Balk At Confirming Obama's Surgeon General Pick
A number of Senate Democrats have indicated that they might oppose President Barack Obama's choice of Vivek Murthy for the post of U.S. Surgeon General, according to Senate aides, putting the nomination at risk over the issue of gun control. Dr. Murthy's nomination is opposed by the National Rifle Association, the country's largest gun lobby, because he has expressed support for gun control, calling it a public-health issue (Peterson, Nelson and Corbett Dooren, 3/15). 

Los Angeles Times: NRA Opposition May Sink Obama's Surgeon General Nominee 
Intense opposition from the National Rifle Assn. has all but doomed prospects for President Obama's nominee for surgeon general, officials said Saturday as pro-gun Senate Democrats peeled away from the White House on a volatile issue in an election year. Facing a potential high-profile setback for the president, the White House is not pushing for a vote to confirm Dr. Vivek Hallegere Murthy, a Harvard- and Yale-educated internist and former emergency room doctor who has advocated for stricter gun control laws, the officials said (Mascaro, 3/15).

The New York Times: Senate Balks At Obama Pick For Surgeon General
Facing a possible defeat in the Senate, the White House is considering delaying a vote on President Obama’s choice for surgeon general or withdrawing the nomination altogether, an acknowledgment of its fraying relationship with Senate Democrats. The nominee, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, an internist and political ally of the president’s, has come under criticism from the National Rifle Association, and opposition from the gun-rights group has grown so intense that it has placed Democrats from conservative states, several of whom are up for re-election this year, in a difficult spot (Peters, 3/14).

The Associated Press: White House Backing Off Push For Surgeon General
Democratic officials said the Senate leadership was trying to figure out how to proceed with Murthy's nomination and assessing whether he would have enough votes for confirmation. He was approved by committee vote last month with the support of all Democrats and one Republican. Murthy, 36, would be the first Indian-American surgeon general and is backed by a long list of medical groups. But the NRA said that Murthy's support of gun control, including a letter he sent to Congress last year in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, raised questions about whether he is motivated by science or politics. Murthy sent the letter as president of Doctors for America, a group he co-founded that supported Obama's plans for health care reform (Pickler, 3/14).

NPR: Lawmakers Seek To Lay Roadblock To Powerful Painkiller
Sen. Joe Manchin is introducing a bill to force the Food and Drug Administration to ban potent new painkiller Zohydro, backed by a bipartisan effort to get the FDA to remove its approval of the drug (Sullivan, 3/14).

The Wall Street Journal: More Screenings Put Dent In Colon Cancer
The incidence of colon cancer, declining since the mid-1980s, plunged a further 30% last decade among Americans 50 and older as more people had colonoscopies, a new study found. The drop in colon-cancer death rates accelerated as well, falling about 3% a year between 2001 and 2010, compared with 2% a year in the previous decade, according to the American Cancer Society study of government data (Beck, 3/17).

USA Today: Colon Cancer Rates Drop Sharply Due To Screenings
The biggest declines in colon cancer incidence were in people over age 65, who qualify for Medicare, which makes colon cancer screenings available for free. Those who have other forms of insurance also can get free colon cancer screenings and other preventive services, due to the Affordable Care Act (Szabo, 3/17).

The New York Times: States Urge Retail Giants With Pharmacies To Stop Selling Tobacco Products
More than two dozen attorneys general sent letters on Sunday to five of the country’s largest retailers, encouraging them to stop selling tobacco products in stores that also have pharmacies, which would follow the example CVS Caremark set with its announcement earlier this year that it would stop selling such products in its drugstores (Harris, 3/16). 

The Wall Street Journal: The Day The Drills Paid Off
"Someone came up and said, 'A building fell,' and I said, 'I think that's what I just saw on television,'" said Dr. Wright, medical director at Harlem Hospital Center. Over the next three days Dr. Wright became one of the public faces of the medical response to the disaster, providing updates on the injured in his distinctive voice—uncommonly deep and accented by his adopted homeland of Jamaica. Far from the public eye, Dr. Wright has played a central role in the hospital's continuing improvement over the past several years, emphasizing better tracking of each department's performance and overall attention to detail (Bashan, 3/14).

Los Angeles Times: Class-Action Lawsuit Filed Over Breach Of Patient Medical Data
A patient whose personal information was stolen in a break-in at a medical billing contractor's office in Torrance has filed a class-action lawsuit against the company and Los Angeles County. Two Los Angeles law firms filed a complaint Friday in Superior Court. The suit was initially filed on behalf of a single patient whose name was not disclosed, but seeks class-action status. An office of Sutherland Healthcare Solutions, which handles billing and collections for the county's Department of Health Services and Department of Public Health, was burglarized Feb. 5 and computers were stolen. County officials said personal data of as many as 168,500 patients may have been stolen (Sewell, 3/15).

The Associated Press: North Dakota Abortion Lawsuit Settled
North Dakota's sole abortion clinic has settled a lawsuit it filed over a new law requiring doctors who perform abortions to obtain hospital-admitting privileges, officials said Friday. Wayne Stenehjem, the state attorney general, and an attorney for the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, which assisted the Red River Women's Clinic in its lawsuit, told The Associated Press that the settlement was reached late Thursday and sent to Judge Wickham Corwin for approval Friday (Macpherson, 3/14).

Los Angeles Times: Legal Attacks On Abortion Getting Some Victories But Losses Too 
With it doubtful the Supreme Court ruling legalizing abortion will be overturned any time soon, opponents of abortion have been attacking it piecemeal, passing legislation to make it more difficult to obtain the procedure. The tactic was vividly on display Friday as judges took up the issue in Arkansas and North Dakota. The results, echoing legal battles in other states, were mixed. In Arkansas a federal judge called a key portion of an antiabortion law unconstitutional. However, the judge upheld other parts of the law. As a result, observers of the debate say, abortion opponents will continue to support state-by-state legislation to chip away at Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion (Serna, 3/15).

The Associated Press: Newtown Struggles To Meet Mental Health Demand
Some of the charities paying for mental health care for children and families affected by the Sandy Hook massacre are running short of money and officials don't know how much they'll need — and for how long — to repair the psychological scars from the mass shooting. Newtown officials are applying for a federal grant and charities are pooling their resources in an attempt to ensure that free long-term mental health care remains available following the December 2012 shooting that left 20 first graders and six educators dead (Eaton-Robb, 3/16).

Check out all of Kaiser Health News' e-mail options including First Edition and Breaking News alerts on our Subscriptions page.

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