Happy first day of March! Yours truly could barely keep up with all the news coming off Capitol Hill this week (yes, there were other things going on besides a certain high-profile hearing, as hard as that is to believe). So let’s get right to it!
Seven Big Pharma executives were hauled in front of Congress this week during a Senate Finance Committee hearing on high drug prices. Everyone expected fireworks. The executives were lawyered to the gills, preparing for a public flogging the likes of which Big Tobacco and Big Banks have received in years past. Lobbyists packed the room, media jostled for positions, advocates of all stripes were watching with bated breaths. And then … nothing. Those fireworks amounted to nothing but fizzled sparklers. So what went down?
The executives’ strategy going in was essentially their version of: don’t hate the player, hate the game. The rebate system is broken, they argue. It’s not our fault, it’s the pharmacy benefit managers who are the root of all evil. In response to any tough line of questioning, they pivoted to old arguments, making sure to highlight the innovation and cures coming out of their companies.
Overall, the hearing lacked the grandstanding that’s been par for the course for lawmakers who see it as a winning issue with voters. Muted and respectful seemed to be the most common descriptors, and at the end of the day, not much was resolved, leaving some wondering what exactly the point was.
Side note: Even though the hearing has passed, this Stat piece on the “dark and elaborate art” of preparing for a congressional grilling is a fun read.
To much fanfare, progressive Democrats in the House rolled out their ambitious “Medicare-for-all” plan this week. Here’s the meat of the bill: health care would be available to all Americans without premiums, copayments, deductibles or similar charges. There would be a two-year span of moving consumers over to a government insurer, and then people would be automatically enrolled at birth. It would be illegal for a private health insurer or an employer to provide the same medical insurance benefits as the new program. And the bill includes a crackdown on the pharmaceutical industry aimed at lowering drug prices, as well as the creation of a new government-run long-term care program to help people with disabilities.
The legislation is mostly symbolic, as it faces certain death in the Senate. But it also serves as the signal that progressives are drawing battle lines, as cracks continue to deepen in the Democratic Party. Leadership is walking a tightrope trying to keep the far-left happy, but also to mitigate any political fallout that could come from the aggressive proposal. Progressives, meanwhile, thrilled and invigorated from their announcement, are charging full-tilt in the direction they see their voters wanting to go.
As that all plays out, the health industry is quietly assembling a small army of lobbyists to kill the idea.
The House passed two gun control bills (both closing gaps in background checks) this week in what is the most sweeping legislation on the issue in decades. That sounds impressive, and is more than lawmakers have attempted in the past, but advocates say that Democrats, despite feeling more emboldened on guns, are still carefully and strategically picking their fights. And those fights usually have to do with low-hanging fruit, such as the above-mentioned restrictions on background checks or the “boyfriend loophole,” which allows some domestic abusers to own guns.
Scott Lloyd, former head of the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement and a controversial figure who has avoided testifying in front of Congress for months, finally faced lawmakers Tuesday. During the hearing, Lloyd admitted he hadn’t passed on information to his superiors regarding the psychological trauma of the separations. It also emerged that there have been at least 4,500 accusations of sexual abuse and harassment of migrant children in government-funded shelters over the past four years.
Meanwhile, the House Oversight Committee voted to subpoena Trump administration officials over the family separations. “I believe this is a true national emergency,” said Chairman Elijah Cummings of Maryland. Federal officials however, say they’ve already sent over thousands of pages of documents and wrote off the subpoenas as a “political stunt.”
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a 2020 hopeful, has built a reputation for herself as a champion for consumers. But her long history with the medical device industry may throw a wrench in that particular talking point.
There was so much movement in the states this week on abortion that I’m going to link you guys to the newsletter roundups instead of individual stories. One trend to note is that red states are getting a move on with “trigger laws.” The measures would essentially ban — to different extents, depending on the state — abortion the minute Roe v. Wade were overturned. It might be posturing, but the uptick provides insight into just how high the anti-abortion movement’s hopes are these days. At the federal level, Democrats blocked a bill that would have threatened prison for doctors who don’t try saving the life of infants born alive during abortions.
And in case you missed it late last week: The Trump administration announced that it will cut off family planning funding for organizations that offer abortion referrals. The move was largely viewed as targeting Planned Parenthood, and it has already drawn court challenges.
Time’s Up for the health care industry: The organization formed by women in the entertainment industry to deal with sexual harassment and assault is turning its attention to health care. After a string of shocking stories about doctors’ inappropriate behavior, advocates say it’s important to look at the environment that spawned them. “They had a rich petri dish,” says Dr. Esther Choo, one of the doctors in the eight-person steering committee leading the effort. Choo went on to liken the atmosphere in hospitals and medical facilities to that of locker rooms.
On that note, a science conference sparked fierce backlash when it made the point to invite only women to speak at the event. Critics said it violated anti-discrimination policies, but the organizers defended the decision as wanting to show that it could be done.
In this very busy news week, I have quite a full miscellaneous file for you:
• Why are there so many stories of uber-successful bosses exhibiting bullying behavior? It’s been shown that it’s a terrible management style in terms of eking out productivity from workers, and yet the behavior persists.
• If you are not following along with the Insys opioid trial in Massachusetts, you’re doing yourself a disservice. It is a train wreck of terrible revelations, including this week’s, which is that the call center designed to help patients with reimbursements was essentially built all on lies.
• Speaking of revelations, the dirty laundry between Anthem and Cigna is being aired at court proceeding over their failed merger, and Anthem isn’t pulling any punches. The company says Cigna did everything in its power to sabotage the deal, calling Cigna CEO David Cordani a “bully.” It’s an interesting peek inside the inner workings of a huge health care merger.
• Readers of The Friday Breeze are well aware that medical scams and too-good-to-be-true “miracle cures” are thick on the ground these days. So how do you protect yourself?
• While on the topic of scams: Check out this hilarious article about a health care reporter who was offered a “Top Doctor” award for the low, low cost of $289. (Hint: He is not a doctor.)
• Why do hospital patients who have scheduled procedures get prioritized for hospital beds over actual emergencies? If you guessed for financial reasons, you’d be right.
• And a quick plug for KHN’s new database that lets you look up if your hospital was hit with a penalty from Medicare. It’s super snazzy, so make sure to check it out!
Have a great weekend, and be safe if you’re out there walking around! Pedestrian deaths have skyrocketed to the highest rate in decades.