Happy Friday, where we’re 20 days and so-and-so hours (depending on when you read this) into the partial federal shutdown. As of today, it’s tied as the second-longest one in U.S. history, matching the funding gap that stretched from December ’95-January ’96 under President Bill Clinton. (Side note: The history of U.S. shutdowns is a good read for us policy nerds.)
Although health care has been somewhat insulated from the standoff (because funding for the Department of Health and Human Services had already been approved), the battle is really a lesson in the power of a ripple effect. Among the health-related things that have been touched by the impasse in some way: the CVS-Aetna merger, domestic violence victims, food stamps, wildfire and storm disaster funding, pollution inspections, drug approvals and the Affordable Care Act lawsuit.
But a lot of focus this week was on how the shutdown is curtailing food safety inspections by the Food and Drug Administration, especially following a year that was marked by several high-profile foodborne illness outbreaks.
This week, my pharma files in Morning Briefing were bursting at the seams, and to be honest, I don’t see that changing anytime soon. This is definitely going to be a year of drug-pricing news, especially because it’s one of the few bipartisan topics that Capitol Hill watchers say might gain traction in a divided Congress.
In recent days, that — along with the fact that drug prices are most certainly a winning election issue — was on stark display. Democratic hopefuls for 2020 are jostling at the starting line to be the one to get THE big, flashy pharma bill out, with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (joined by fellow hopeful New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and others) as the latest to announce a proposal.
Sanders’ bundle of bills includes allowing the importation of cheaper drugs from Canada, letting Medicare negotiate prices and stripping monopolies from drug companies if their prices exceed the average price in other wealthy countries.
One interesting thing to note (from Stat’s coverage) is that even potential candidates from states that have a heavy biopharma presence (like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and New Jersey’s Booker) are coming out swinging against the industry — a sure sign that being firmly against Big Pharma is seen as crucial to securing the Democratic nomination.
The pharma action this week wasn’t limited to the Hill, because the movers and shakers in the industry were all thinking big thoughts at the annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference. There, Johnson & Johnson CEO Alex Gorsky argued that drugmakers were going to have to step up their own self-policing when it comes to pricing or face “onerous” alternatives. Looking at the stories above, I’m thinking he’s not wrong.
Meanwhile, health systems tired of shortages and high prices are flocking by the dozens to the fledgling nonprofit that was created by a group of hospitals to manufacture its own generic drugs.
It was hard to pick just a few pharma stories this week, considering the abundance of choices, but one that you should absolutely make time to read is this insulin-rationing piece. Insulin has become the new face of public outrage against outrageous price increases, and this piece presents a good overview of how that came to be, as well as the human toll the hikes have taken. The gut-punch sentence: “Within a month of going off [his mother’s] policy, [Alec Raeshawn Smith] would be dead.”
In a largely symbolic move, House Democrats voted to intervene in the health care lawsuit — a strategy geared more toward putting Republicans on record voting against the law (and thus against popular provisions they promised in the midterms to protect) than anything else.
The vote highlighted a problem the GOP faces as it eyes 2020: For the longest time, Republicans have fallen back on “repeal and replace” as their main health care message. Now, the party is going to have to come up with a “positive vision” if they want to regain ground with voters, experts say.
States, states, states! Everyone says that’s where the health care movement will be in the next two years, which certainly held true this week.
In California, new Gov. Gavin Newsom revealed his big health care dreams that include reshaping how prescription drugs are paid for, taking steps toward a single-payer system, reinstating the individual mandate, expanding Medi-Cal coverage for immigrants in the country illegally, and creating a surgeon general position for the state.
Meanwhile, up in Washington state, Gov. Jay Inslee proposed a “public option” health care plan for residents, a move that would set the stage for a universal coverage system. (It should be noted that Inslee is a 2020 contender.)
In New York, several big health care developments emerged this week. NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio plans on investing $100 million into making sure that everyone in the city — including residents in the United States illegally — is guaranteed health coverage.
And in Albany, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, citing the looming threat to Roe v. Wade, promised to cement a woman’s right to abortion in the state’s constitution.
It seems these days, you can’t swing a cat without hitting someone talking about “Medicare-for-all,” but what about a Medicaid “buy-in”? Some states are considering the option as a politically palatable alternative to help people who are struggling to buy coverage on the exchanges. The plans might not offer the full range of benefits available to traditional beneficiaries, but it could be something.
Speaking of MFA: A new Politico/Harvard poll shows that 4 in 5 Democrats favor Congress enacting a taxpayer-funded national health plan. Also to note, a fair amount of Republicans (60 percent) supported the idea of letting Americans under 65 buy into Medicare.
As of Jan. 1, hospitals have had to post their prices online — which has resulted in much grumbling from industry and experts alike who say the numbers are meaningless to consumers. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Administrator Seema Verma acknowledged the flaws with the rules this week, but still called them an important first step toward transparency.
In the miscellaneous file for the week:
• The Chinese scientist who used CRISPR to edit the genes of human embryos had scientists up in arms over the ethical dilemma late last year. But the path of medical breakthroughs is often littered with lapses such as his. Do the ends ever justify the means in these cases? And if so, where should the line be drawn?
• Juul: Public health crusader? That’s the image the e-cigarette company (under ever-increasing government scrutiny for its marketing practices directed toward youths) is going with these days. But experts are calling its new ad campaign — which touts Juul products as a way to tackle adults’ smoking habits — revisionist history.
• A woman who was in a vegetative state for more than 10 years reportedly gave birth last month. The workers at the nursing facility she was in didn’t realize she was even pregnant until she went into labor, raising all kinds of questions about quality of care, abuse and the medical complications of the process.
• HIV prevention medication has been shown to be highly effective and, quite literally, a lifesaver to vulnerable populations. But taking it was costing some people their chance at qualifying for life insurance. Now, though, one insurer has settled a lawsuit over the denials, possibly leading the way to changes in the industry.
And good news! The E. coli outbreak is officially over, so you can go back to your romaine (yay?). Have a great weekend!