Happy Friday, where yours truly is recovering from seeing “Avengers: Endgame” last night. If you’re still emotionally fragile, as I am, I deliver a distraction in the form of health policy and political news. You’re welcome.
All right, here’s what you may have missed!
The opioid epidemic was top of mind this week, with President Donald Trump speaking at a summit held in Atlanta to address the crisis. Trump made big promises about “smashing the grip of addiction” in the U.S., but experts weren’t impressed by the rhetoric. In perhaps my favorite quote of the week, Brandeis University’s Andrew Kolodny said to the NYT: “It’s like pointing to a burning building, saying there is an emergency, then not calling the fire department.”
Big Pharma bore the brunt of the president’s blame at the summit, but the drug companies themselves are just one part of the puzzle of the epidemic. Another one that has flown largely under the radar (until now): the distributors. The financial giants at the heart of the crisis are on their way to facing a reckoning like the ones Purdue and Johnson & Johnson are dealing with.
That was seen earlier this week when, in a first-of-its-kind prosecution, officials hit the Rochester Drug Cooperative with charges of conspiring to distribute drugs, conspiracy to defraud the United States and failing to file suspicious-order reports. Prosecutors say that the company’s executives had shipped tens of millions of oxycodone pills and fentanyl products to pharmacies they knew were distributing drugs illegally and that they ignored other red flags in the face of high profits.
Trump’s controversial changes to Title X family planning funding (a new policy that critics blast as a “gag rule” that targets Planned Parenthood) were blocked by two separate judges this week. The judges did not mince words. In Oregon, Judge Michael McShane blasted the rules as an “arrogant” and “ham-fisted” way for the government to dictate a woman’s health care decisions; while in Washington state, Judge Stanley Bastian — who issued a nationwide injunction — deemed them a violation of “the ethical standards of health care professions.” The changes were set to take effect May 3.
LGBTQ advocates are braced for a new rule change expected soon from the Trump administration, which they say will strip away protections baked into the health law for transgender patients. At issue is whether the word “sex” (when it comes to defining discrimination) includes gender identity — which is how the Obama administration implemented it. Without the protections in place, insurers could refuse to pay for pricey and/or complicated transition-related procedures for transgender patients, and doctors could deny them care unrelated to their gender identities.
In a long-expected move, former Vice President Joe Biden tossed his hat in the ring for the 2020 campaign. But what does his plan on health care look like? The truth is, we don’t know. Will he stick to defending his buddy’s (aka former President Barack Obama) signature domestic achievement (which he famously called a big … deal) or will he drift left with the progressive wing of the race? He’s been pretty quiet on the issue — which voters have repeatedly ranked at the top of their priority lists. Vox looks back on his history with health care.
Biden (and others) might find a new poll about what Americans want Congress to focus on worth checking out. Although “Medicare-for-all” is the buzz phrase you can’t escape on the campaign trail, many people just want lawmakers to find a way to address high drug costs, preserve preexisting conditions protections and cushion patients from surprise medical bills.
And my be-on-the-lookout warning for next week: The Congressional Budget Office is slated to release a new report on single-payer health care.
It’s finally official: The number of measles cases this year has swept past 2014’s record. Although I’m relieved to no longer have to torture headlines with “likely to become” or “expected to be” qualifiers, the fact that there are still eight months to go in the year has everyone worried about what that final total will look like. The record that still stands, for now, is 963 cases in 1994.
Meanwhile, as the outbreak rages on, advocates are wondering why there have been crickets coming from the White House. Trump has been mostly absent from the conversation among many public health and state officials across the country. But some view his silence as a blessing because, in the past, he has voiced doubts about vaccination strategies.
Big Pharma’s track record is riddled with stories of dubious morality and lies for the sake of profit. So advocates are left struggling with the question: How do you convince parents who have been burned before by drug companies that, in the case of vaccines, it’s the right choice to trust the industry? With public disdain and anger toward pharma bubbling up, in general, it’s an uphill battle.
In the miscellaneous file for the week:
• A story that made me go “whoa” (literally out loud): A renowned cancer hospital in Houston ousted three of its scientists over espionage concerns as part of a string of investigations nationwide. More could be coming as federal officials have increasingly been warned of foreign exploitation of American-backed research — particularly from the Chinese.
• Walgreens announced it will raise the age it allows customers to purchase tobacco products to 21. While this move cheered public health activists, the timing of it (coming just weeks after it was the main target of an FDA crackdown on sales to minors) is … notable, to say the least.
• Two cool developments related to speech coincidentally came out this week. The first is that scientists found a way to analyze the speech patterns of people who may be suffering from PTSD — a notoriously tricky thing to diagnosis (because oftentimes those who have it will try to hide their symptoms). Interestingly, the results surprised the researchers: They had been expecting more agitated speech patterns but, instead, found that flat, atonal speech was what they needed to be on the lookout for.
• And scientists may have found a way to turn brain signals into understandable speech. This would be a huge breakthrough for people who can’t speak because of strokes, neurodegenerative diseases, accidents and other reasons.
Apparently we Americans are very stressed-out. So I’m going to tell you to have a relaxing weekend, and please listen to that advice!