KHN Morning Briefing

Summaries of health policy coverage from major news organizations

First Edition: March 12, 2014

Today's headlines include stories about the Obama administration's latest tallies regarding how many Americans have signed up for Obamacare coverage and the outcome of a Florida special election that was marked by health law themes.  

Kaiser Health News: UCLA Memory Program Offers 'Gym For Your Brain'
Kaiser Health News staff writer Anna Gorman, working in collaboration with The Washington Post, reports: “Memory loss can have profound impact on patients, leading to an erosion of independence, a sense of helplessness and depression. Yet in some ways, it can affect their caregivers more. It’s hard to be the only one who can remember shared times. “It is extremely stressful for the spouse,” said Barry Gordon, professor of neurology and cognitive science at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “It is like taking care of a child … and it never stops” (Gorman, 3/12). Read the story.

Kaiser Health News: Nearly 1 Million More Sign Up For Obamacare Plans In February
Kaiser Health News staff writer Phil Galewitz reports: “About 4.2 million Americans have signed up for private health plans through the end of February via the online insurance marketplaces established by the federal health law -- with enrollment jumping by nearly 1 million people last month, the Obama administration said Tuesday” (Galewitz, 3/11). Read the story.

Kaiser Health News: Capsules: Cost Of New Hepatitis C Drugs Ignites Debate About Who Needs Them Now
Now on Kaiser Health News’ blog, Julie Appleby reports: “New treatments for hepatitis C that cost at least $66,000 to $84,000 may work better than older drugs, but their cost undermines their value to the health system, a panel of experts said during a daylong forum in San Francisco” (Appleby, 3/11). Check out what else is on the blog.

NPR: March Marks A Crucible For Obamacare As Deadline Nears
Facing a deadline, the Obama administration is desperate to boost enrollment in health care exchanges. Still millions from their goal, they're stepping up outreach and forgetting politics — for now (Liasson, 3/11).

The New York Times: Health Care Enrollment Falls Short Of Goal, With Deadline Approaching
Almost a million people signed up last month for private health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, federal officials said Tuesday, bringing the total to date to 4.2 million but leaving the Obama administration well short of its original goal, with less than a month to go before the end of the open enrollment period (Pear, 3/11).

Los Angeles Times: More Than 4.2 Million People Sign Up For Obamacare
The new enrollment report confirms that the administration and its allies probably will fall well short of the 7 million sign-ups that they had hoped to get in 2014. Administration officials would not even say if they believe they will enroll 6 million people, as projected by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (Levey, 3/11).

The Washington Post: Pace Of Health Exchange Enrollment Slows In February, Figures Show
The pace at which Americans signed up for health plans slowed last month in the fledgling federal and state insurance marketplaces, according to new government figures showing that slightly fewer than 1 million people enrolled in February. The Obama administration said 943,000 Americans selected health plans, compared to 1.2 million in January. Overall, enrollment stood at 4.2 million as of the end of last month (Somashekhar and Goldstein, 3/11).

NPR: Young People Lag Behind In Health Insurance Enrollment
While the 943,000 people who signed up in February through the federal site or a state health exchange is slightly less than the original February projection of about 1.3 million, the exchanges have mostly put behind them their very sorry starts, when enrollments were often counted in the tens or hundreds (Rovner, 3/11).

The Wall Street Journal: More Americans Buy Insurance Under Health Care Law
The total signals the administration has been able to move beyond the technical issues of the site that shut out many would-be users in the fall. But the administration's effort to boost enrollment by the March 31 deadline still faces stiff challenges stemming from last year's problems. Supporters are ramping up those efforts, including deploying President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama to promote the law (Radnofsky and Meckler, 3/11).

The Associated Press/Washington Post: Steady Health Care Sign-Ups May Miss Goal
The Obama administration said Tuesday it’s making steady progress on health care sign-ups, but the White House needs something close to a miracle to meet its goal of enrolling 6 million people by the end of this month. It could happen with a sustained surge in consumer demand and a foolproof website. But they’re not seeing it yet, and time is running out (3/11).

USA Today: 4.2 Million Enrolled In Insurance Through February
The latest statistics show the gulf between the original estimate of 7 million new customers from the Congressional Budget Office and how many people have come forward to comply with the requirement that those without insurance buy it or pay a fine. They provide mixed messages in terms of who is buying insurance and how quickly. For example, 942,000 people signed up for private plans in February, a drop from 1,146,000 in January. That's about 3,300 a day fewer in February. More than 1 million people signed up in both December and January (Kennedy, 3/11).

Politico: Administration: 4.2 Million People Signed Up For Obamacare Plans Through February
Yet the pace of new sign-ups wasn’t appreciably stronger than in January, when 1.1 million people selected health plans. That appears to be largely because there were fewer days in February than there were in the previous month’s report, but it’s an explanation that doesn’t help support messaging about major momentum (Cheney, 3/11).

The Washington Post’s Wonkblog: Facing Obamacare Enrollment Deadline, These States Are Pushing For More Times
As the Obama administration emphasizes the March 31 deadline to enroll in Obamacare health plans, some states running their own health insurance exchanges are weighing an extension of the enrollment period because of struggles signing people up for coverage. There was some early talk of extending the open enrollment period across the country back in October, when was a technological nightmare. That talk has subsided now that the major problems are well in the rear-view mirror, but some states controlling their own insurance marketplaces have struggled with glitchy exchange websites the past five months of open enrollment and now want more time to get their residents covered (Millman, 3/11).

Los Angeles Times: Website Glitch Slows Obamacare In California
Enrollment in Obamacare coverage slowed last month in California, hurt by a recent website outage. New federal data show 868,936 Californians signed up for health insurance in the state's exchange through March 1. But that's a modest gain of about 40,000 people since mid-February. More than 100,000 people had picked a health plan during the first two weeks of February, according to the Covered California exchange (Terhune, 3/11). 

The Associated Press/Washington Post: Va. Health Insurance Signups Meeting Projections
Virginia is meeting federal projections for enrollment in the Obama administration’s health care program but still has a ways to go to reach the final target on March 31. Figures released Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services show that 102,815 Virginians had enrolled by March 1. The government had projected 101,600 by Feb. 28 (3/11).

NPR: You Might Pay A Lot More Than $95 For Skipping Health Insurance
2014 is the first year most Americans will have to either have health insurance or face a tax penalty. But most people who are aware of the penalty think it's pretty small, at least for this first year. And that could turn into an expensive mistake (Rovner, 3/12).

Politico: White House: ‘Funny Or Die’ Generating Record Referrals To ACA Site
President Barack Obama’s sit-down with Zach Galifianakis led to a spike in traffic to on Tuesday, the administration said, as it touted the effectiveness of the president’s latest effort to reach out to young adults. As of 1 p.m. ET Tuesday, the website had racked up more than 19,000 referral visits from Obama’s “Between Two Ferns” video for Funny or Die, which was posted around 7 a.m., Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services spokesman Aaron Albright said (Epstein, 3/12).

The Wall Street Journal’s Washington Wire: WSJ Poll: Majority Agree With Obamacare Contraception Rule
A majority of Americans side with the Obama administration in saying that most employers should be required to include contraception coverage in workers’ health plans even if the business owners have moral objections. An NBC News/ Wall Street Journal poll found 53% of Americans believed that employers who opposed the use of birth control should not be exempt from the coverage requirement in the 2010 federal health law. Some 41% said employers who had objections should have the same exemption as religious organizations. Around 6% said they were not sure (Radnofsky, 3/12). 

The Wall Street Journal: House Votes To Widen Religious Insurance Exemption
The House on Tuesday approved three bills that would modify the Affordable Care Act including one that would expand religious exemption requirements in the law. The measures were all approved with broad bipartisan support, marking a departure from most prior measures brought up in the House that would have either partly or fully repealed the 2010 federal health law. The measures would have to clear the Democratic-controlled Senate before becoming law, and prospects for action there weren't clear, according to senior Democratic aides (Corbett Dooren, 3/11). 

The Washington Post: In Rare Bipartisan Effort, Congress Votes To Shift Convention Money To Health Research
In a rare instance of Senate Democrats and House Republicans working together, Congress agreed Tuesday to shift funding formerly allocated to presidential conventions to programs focused on pediatric medical research (Costa, 3/11). 

The Associated Press/Washington Post: Medical Groups Question Price Of New Hep C Drug
An innovative hepatitis C drug that was only recently hailed as a breakthrough treatment is facing skepticism from some health care providers, as they consider whether it is worth the $1,000-a-pill price set by manufacturer Gilead Sciences Inc. A panel of California medical experts voted Monday that Gilead’s Sovaldi represents a “low value” treatment, considering its cost compared with older drugs for the blood-borne virus (3/11). 

The New York Times: Questions About A Popular Heart Procedure
Enter a newcomer, transcatheter aortic valve replacement. T.A.V.R., as it is known, involves a catheter, usually inserted through the groin, that delivers a new valve without a big incision and sometimes without general anesthesia. The Food and Drug Administration approved it in 2011 for patients whose aortic stenosis is considered inoperable, then in 2012 for the larger group of patients deemed “high risk” (an expansion skeptics call “indication creep”). It sounded like a big step forward. “Here was this new, sexy-sounding procedure that had a huge amount of press,” said Dr. Torrey Simons, a palliative care specialist at Stanford University who has been analyzing the operation’s cost-effectiveness (Span, 3/12). 

The Associated Press/Washington Post: Florida House Race Could Be Warning For Democrats
After months of railing against President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul, Republicans scored a key victory in a hard-fought congressional race that had been closely watched as a bellwether of midterm elections in November. Republican David Jolly defeated Democrat Alex Sink in a Florida special election Tuesday that largely turned on the federal health care law, with both sides using the race to audition national strategies in one of the country’s few competitive swing-voting districts (3/12).

The Wall Street Journal: Republican David Jolly Wins Florida Congressional Race
The results are likely to embolden Republican candidates intent on attacking Democratic opponents over the troubled rollout of the federal health-care law. Mr. Jolly and his GOP supporters made Obamacare a centerpiece of their attacks on Ms. Sink, seeking to wed her to the law and calling for its repeal (Campo-Flores, 3/11). 

USA Today: GOP Wins Special Election For Florida House Seat
Republican David Jolly defeated Democrat Alex Sink in a hotly contested special election Tuesday for the U.S. House with a campaign in which he championed repeal of President Obama's health care law and said Sink would be a vote to advance the president's agenda (Davis, 3/11). 

Politico: Florida Loss Big Blow To Democrats’ 2014 Hopes
Democrats are scrambling to launch a counteroffensive — and if they don’t come up with one fast, Tuesday’s loss could foreshadow a brutal year for the party at the ballot box this fall (Isenstadt, 3/12).

Los Angeles Times: More Than $12 Million Later, Florida Voters Deliver Verdict
The topic in the spotlight all along has been President Obama’s healthcare law, which Jolly advocates repealing. He and his allies, including GOP campaign committees, the Chamber of Commerce, the National Rifle Assn. and conservative "super PACs," pounded relentlessly at Obamacare during the campaign, hoping to stimulate a large turnout of conservative voters. Sink and her allies, including Democratic campaign committees, environmental groups, unions and women’s advocacy groups, pushed back with ads saying that the health law should be fixed, not abandoned (Lauter, 3/11).

Los Angeles Times: Split Decision In No-Bid Contract Suit Against County Health Agency
Both sides are claiming victory in the latest flare-up between Los Angeles County and the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. In a March 7 decision, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Luis A. Lavin struck down the foundation's challenge to two county contracts that were awarded without a competitive bidding process. The contracts went to UCLA and St. John's Well Child and Family Center for providing healthcare and other services to young people living with or at risk for HIV (Brown, 3/11).

The Associated Press/Washington Post: Florida Hospital Settles Medicare Lawsuit
A Florida hospital has agreed to pay $85 million to settle a Medicare fraud whistle-blower lawsuit. Halifax Hospital Medical Center of the Daytona Beach area reached the agreement with federal authorities Monday (3/11). 

The Associated Press/Wall Street Journal: NY Medicaid Payments Called ‘Excessive’
Federal oversight officials say New York's Medicaid payments for disabled residents have been "excessive," with the federal share $320 million higher than actual costs in 2010. In a report Wednesday, the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says New York's Medicaid reimbursement rates at state-operated residences were more than double the rates at privately operated residences offering the same services (3/12).

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