Happy Friday! This week brought us one of the most perfect click-bait stories in recent memory — each part of it adding to the what on earth? feeling you get reading it. Click here for what it was. (Just kidding!) Apparently, New York’s Medicaid program has paid nearly $60,000 for erectile dysfunction drugs for … wait for it … sex offenders. (The less click-bait-y part: State officials say those drugs can treat a broad range of problems, and dismissed much of the criticism.)
Now on to what else you may have missed.
2020 hopeful and former Vice President Joe Biden set off a political firestorm early in the week when his campaign clarified that he supports the Hyde Amendment, a provision that states that Medicaid cannot pay for an abortion unless the woman’s life is in danger or the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest. (Feeling hazy on the details of the amendment? The New York Times has you covered.)
Biden’s rivals were quick to condemn the comments and were joined by abortion rights groups in pointing out that it is the most vulnerable women who are affected by the amendment. Biden reversed course, citing current threats to Roe v. Wade and saying “times have changed.” But with abortion at center stage in the national conversation, his opponents are unlikely to let voters forget Biden’s original stance (which, he says, he makes no apologies for).
The Trump administration took steps this week to restrict fetal tissue funding and research in another win for the president’s anti-abortion supporters. HHS has discontinued all internal research that involves fetal tissue. Outside projects that receive government funding will continue but require approval from an ethics board if they’re up for renewal. The behind-the-scenes decision-making was apparently somewhat heated, according to Politico’s reporting. White House officials wanted an outright ban, while HHS Secretary Alex Azar sought to allow current research to go forward.
Scientists were dismayed by the decision, saying that fetal tissue research is at the root of medical breakthroughs across a spectrum of diseases.
Residents in a small Colorado town who were sick of playing David to the Goliath of health care costs banded together to become their own version of a giant — or at least a slightly bigger David. The residents formed what could be a first-of-its-kind alliance that brings businesses and individuals together to collectively negotiate prices from hospitals and doctor groups before getting any insurance company involved. The alliance went to different systems and asked, “What kind of deal will you give us?” That seemed to work. According to the group, participating members could see premium prices 20% lower. In a world where the patient often is left with almost zero leverage, this model might flip that on its head.
As this and countless other stories about our unsustainable system show, health care will be a potent topic in the 2020 elections with the potential to woo single-issue voters. Have any of the candidates struck on a winning formula to do so?
“No one’s found the magic fairy dust yet,” said Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), which seems to sum up the current state of affairs fairly well. Health care is complicated, after all.
Meanwhile, the first proposed rate hikes for health law plans rolled in this week and they are … not terrible. Not the world’s most ringing endorsement, but experts took heart that it’s just one more sign the marketplace is stabilizing. To be fair, those increases are likely moderate because of how much insurers overcompensated in years past. But they do offer hope that last year’s numbers weren’t a fluke and the era of eye-popping hikes is history.
And a quick note: KHN launched its new partnership with the podcast “An Arm and a Leg,” which, as you can probably work out from the title, explores painful high health care costs.
A new report released by Pennsylvania’s senators shows that the federal government has been keeping a hidden list of the names of hundreds of nursing homes around the country found by inspectors to have serious ongoing health, safety or sanitary problems. CMS does disclose a smaller list of about 80 nursing homes that are getting special scrutiny, but they seem indistinguishable from the ones on the long roster. In response to the criticism, CMS announced it will start posting the extended version publicly.
Skeptical lawmakers and veterans’ advocates looked on as the VA implemented its expanded privatized care program Thursday. Although veterans were warned there could be “a few hiccups,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said he was confident in his team to handle the rollout.
In 2015, Pfizer realized that its rheumatoid arthritis drug appeared to cut the risk of Alzheimer’s in those who took it by 64% — an astounding and startling discovery in a field riddled with heartbreaking disappointments. But the world was never told about it because the company opted out of running a clinical trial, calling it a dead end. Critics say the decision had more to do with the fact the drug’s patent is expiring and Pfizer wants to put its market muscle behind a new drug rather than an old one. Wagering money on a clinical trial that the company’s leaders had doubts about anyway did not show good business sense.
And read the story of the man behind one of those legions of disappointments in Alzheimer’s research, including an engrossing tick-tock of the day he was told about the results of his promising study.
The opioid crisis has created a “Generation O” — kids who consider it normal to be dealing with their parents’ debilitating addiction as that’s all they’ve known. They’re trapped in a life of begging parents not to use drugs, finding them passed out or worse, dealing with days-long disappearances, all at the mercy of the financial insecurity that comes with opioid abuse. The psychological ramifications for these kids growing up in the heart of an epidemic are likely to be wide-reaching.
In the miscellaneous file this week:
• In a check on human hubris, a study finds that people with the genetic mutation to protect against HIV — which the Chinese scientist who edited embryos was trying to mimic — actually leads to a shorter life span overall. (It’s almost as if there are best practices on ethics in place to protect against that.)
• At its worst, the booming stem cell industry can be a Wild, Wild West of unscrupulous snake oil salesmen luring patients into trying untested treatments. But the lawless landscape might have some sheriffs to contend with soon. A federal judge just granted FDA authority to regulate one of the more dangerous of the popular procedures performed by the clinics.
• A study finds that states that expanded Medicaid under the health law were able to chip away at some of the racial disparities surrounding cancer care.
• As genetic testing becomes more widespread, parents are learning that the sperm donor they spent a long time deliberating over is not necessarily the one they got. The anecdotes piling up raise questions about whether the sperm bank industry should be tighter regulated.
• Do political threats amount to anything or are they all bluster? A look at how the Republicans who voted to expand Medicaid tell a story of the latter.
Have a great weekend!