Fri. Apr 12th, 2024

The Host

Julie Rovner
KFF Health News


@jrovner

Read Julie’s stories.

Julie Rovner is chief Washington correspondent and host of KFF Health News’ weekly health policy news podcast, “What the Health?” A noted expert on health policy issues, Julie is the author of the critically praised reference book “Health Care Politics and Policy A to Z,” now in its third edition.

Autumn is for pumpkins and raking leaves — and open enrollment for health plans. Medicare’s annual open enrollment began Oct. 1 and runs through Dec. 7. It will be followed shortly by the Affordable Care Act’s annual open enrollment, which starts Nov. 1 and runs until Jan. 15 in most states. But what used to be a fairly simple annual task — renewing an existing health plan or choosing a new one — has become a confusing, time-consuming mess for many, due to our convoluted health care system.

Meanwhile, Ohio will be the next state where voters will decide whether to protect abortion rights. Those on both sides of the debate are gearing up for the November vote, with anti-abortion forces hoping to break a losing streak of state ballot measures related to abortion since the 2022 overturn of Roe v. Wade.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of KFF Health News, Joanne Kenen of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Politico, Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico, and Lauren Weber of The Washington Post.

Panelists

Joanne Kenen
Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Politico


@JoanneKenen


Read Joanne’s stories

Alice Miranda Ollstein
Politico


@AliceOllstein


Read Alice’s stories

Lauren Weber
The Washington Post


@LaurenWeberHP


Read Lauren’s stories

Among the takeaways from this week’s episode:

  • The U.S. House of Representatives has been without an elected speaker since Oct. 4. That means lawmakers cannot conduct any legislative business, with several important health bills pending — including renewal of the popular international HIV/AIDS program, PEPFAR.
  • Open enrollment is not just for people looking to change health insurance plans. Plans themselves change, and those who do nothing risk continuing in a plan that no longer meets their needs.
  • A new round of lawsuits has sprung up related to “abortion reversals,” a controversial practice in which a patient, having taken the first dose of a two-dose abortion medication regimen, takes a high dose of the hormone progesterone rather than the second medication that completes the abortion. In Colorado, a Catholic-affiliated health clinic says a state law banning the practice violates its religious rights, while in California, the state attorney general is suing two faith-based chains that operate pregnancy “crisis centers,” alleging that by advertising the procedure they are making “fraudulent and misleading” claims.
  • The latest survey of employer health insurance by KFF shows annual family premiums are again escalating rapidly — up an average of 7% from 2022 to 2023, with even larger increases expected for 2024. It’s not clear whether the already high cost of providing insurance to workers — an annual family policy now averages just under $24,000 — will dampen companies’ enthusiasm for providing the benefit.

Also this week, Rovner interviews KFF Health News’ Arielle Zionts, who reported and wrote the latest KFF Health News-NPR “Bill of the Month” feature about the wide cost variation of chemotherapy from state to state. If you have an outrageous or inscrutable medical you’d like to send us, you can do that here.

Plus, for “extra credit,” the panelists suggest health policy stories they read this week they think you should read, too:

Julie Rovner: NPR’s “How Gas Utilities Used Tobacco Tactics to Avoid Gas Stove Regulations,” by Jeff Brady.

Lauren Weber: KFF Health News’ “Doctors Abandon a Diagnosis Used to Justify Police Custody Deaths. It Might Live On, Anyway,” by Markian Hawryluk and Renuka Rayasam.

Joanne Kenen: The Washington Post’s “How Lunchables Ended Up on School Lunch Trays,” by Lenny Bernstein, Lauren Weber, and Dan Keating.

Alice Miranda Ollstein: KFF Health News’ “Pregnant and Addicted: Homeless Women See Hope in Street Medicine,” by Angela Hart.

Also mentioned in this week’s episode:

Click to open the transcript

Transcript: The Open Enrollment Mixing Bowl

KFF Health News’ ‘What the Health?’Episode Title: The Open Enrollment Mixing BowlEpisode Number: 319Published: Oct. 19, 2023

[Editor’s note: This transcript was generated using both transcription software and a human’s light touch. It has been edited for style and clarity.]

Julie Rovner: Hello, and welcome back to “What the Health?” I’m Julie Rovner, chief Washington correspondent for KFF Health News, and I’m joined by some of the best and smartest health reporters in Washington. We’re taping this week on Thursday, Oct. 19, at 10 a.m. As always, news happens fast, and things might have changed by the time you hear this. So here we go. Today, we are joined via video conference by Alice Ollstein of Politico.

Alice Miranda Ollstein: Good morning,

Rovner: Lauren Weber of The Washington Post.

Lauren Weber: Hello, hello.

Rovner: And Joanne Kenen of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Politico.

Joanne Kenen: Hi, everybody.

Rovner: Later in this episode, we’ll have my interview with Arielle Zionts, who reported and wrote the latest KFF Health News-NPR “Bill of the Month” about how chemotherapy can cost five times more in one state than in another. But first this week’s news. So, it’s Oct. 19, the House of Representatives is still without a speaker. That’s 2½ weeks now. That means legislation can’t move. Are there health care items that are starting to stack up? And what would it mean if the House ends up with an anti-federal government conservative like Rep. Jim Jordan, who, at least as of this moment, is not yet the speaker and does not yet look like he has the votes?

Ollstein: So in terms of unfinished health care business, the three big things we are tracking are things that actually lapsed at the end of September. Congress did manage to keep the government open, but they allowed three big health care things to fall by the wayside, and those are PEPFAR, the global HIV/AIDS program, the SUPPORT Act, the programs for opioids and addiction, and PAHPA, the public health, pandemics, biohazards big bill. And so those …

Rovner: I think one of those P’s stands for “preparedness,” right?

Ollstein: Exactly, yes. But it’s related to pandemics, and you would think after all we just went through that that would be more of a priority, but here we are. The reauthorization of all three of those is just dangling out there and it’s unclear if and when Congress can act on them. There is some level of bipartisan support for all of them, but that is what is stacking up, and nothing is really happening on those fronts, according to my conversations with sources on the Hill because everything has just ground to a halt because of the speaker mess.

Rovner: And, of course, we’re less than a month away from the current continuing resolution running out again, and we may go through — who knows? They may get a new speaker and then he may lose his job or her job once they try to keep the government open in November. It’s a mess. I’ve never seen anything like this …

Kenen: Also, in addition to those three very political … even public health and pandemics are now politics … that Alice correctly pointed out, these three huge ideological, how are we going to get them reauthorized in the next 30 days? But there’s also more routine things that are not controversial but are caught up in this such as community health center funding, which has bipartisan support, but they need their apropos and all that stuff. So in addition to these sort of red-blue fights, there’s just, how do we keep the doors open for people who need access to health care? That’s not the only program. There are many day-to-day programs that like everything else in the government are up in the air.

Rovner: I mean, we should point out this is unprecedented. The only other time the House has been without a speaker this long was one year when they didn’t come in at the beginning of the Congress until later in January. It’s literally the only time. There’s never been a mid-session speakerless House. So everything that happens from here is unprecedented. Well, meanwhile, if you have turned on a TV in the past week, you already know this, but Medicare open enrollment began last Sunday, Oct. 15. To be clear, when you first become eligible for Medicare, you can sign up anytime in the three months before or after your birthday. But if you enroll in a private Medicare Advantage plan or a private prescription drug plan, and most people are in one or the other or both, open enrollment is when you can add or change coverage. This used to be pretty straightforward, but it’s only gotten more confusing as private plans have proliferated. This year the Biden administration is trying to fight back against some of the misleading marketing efforts. Politico reports that the government has rejected some 300 different ads. Is that enough to quell the confusion? I’m already seeing ads and kind of look at it, like, “I don’t think that says what it means to say.”

Weber: Yeah, we see this every year. It’s a ton of ads. It’s a barrage of ads that all say, “Hey, this plan is going to get you X, Y, Z, and that’s better than traditional Medicare.” But you got to read the fine print, and I think that is the big thing for all the folks that are looking at this every time. Open enrollment is very confusing, and a lot of times people are trying to sell you things that are not what they appear. So it does appear that there has been more movement to crack down on those ads. But look, the family members I talked to are still confused, so I don’t know how much that’s proliferating down quite yet.

Kenen: And even if the ads were honest, our health system is so confusing. Even if you’re at an employer health system. All of us are employed, all of us get insurance at work, and none of us really know we have made the best choice. I mean, you need a crystal ball to know what illness you and your relatives are going to get that year, and what the copays and deductibles for that specific condition. I’ve never been sure. I have three choices. They’re all decent, whether it’s the best for me and my family, with all that I know about health care, I still don’t know I made the best choice ’cause I don’t have a crystal ball or not one that works.

Rovner: Right. I also have choices, and I did my mom’s Medicare for years, as Joanne remembers …

Kenen: You did a great piece on that one.

Rovner: … this is the way I remember it. I did do a piece on that. Long time ago, when they were first starting the prescription drug benefit and you had to sort of sign up via a computer, and in 2006, not that many seniors knew how to use computers. At least we’re sort of over that, but there’s still complaints about the official website Medicare.gov, which does a pretty good job. It’s just got an awful lot of steps. It’s one of those things, it’s like, “OK, set aside two hours,” and that’s if you know what you’re doing to do this. So meanwhile, if this isn’t all confusing enough, open enrollment for the Affordable Care Act opens in two weeks, and while Medicare open enrollment ends Dec. 7, ACA enrollment goes through Jan. 15 in most, but not every, state. In both cases, if you get your insurance through Medicare or through the ACA, you should look to see what changes your plan might be making. I should say also, if it’s open enrollment for your employer insurance, plans make changes pretty much every year. So you may end up, even if you’re in the same plan, with a plan that you don’t like or a plan that you don’t like as much as you like it now. This is insanely complicated, as you point out, for everybody with insurance. Is there any way to make it easier?

Kenen: There’s no politically palatable way to make it easier. And then things they’ve done to try to make it easier, like consistent claims forms, which most of us don’t have to fill out anymore. Most of that’s done online, but they’re not using consistent claim forms and there’s nothing simple and there’s nothing that’s getting simpler. And we’re all savvy …

Rovner: It’s what keeps our “Bill of the Month” project in business.

Kenen: Right. We’re all pretty savvy and none of us are smart enough to solve every health care problem of us and our family.

Rovner: It’s one of those things where compromise actually makes for complexity. When policymakers can’t do something they really want to do, they do something smaller and more incremental. And so what you end up with is this built on, in every which way, kind of health care system that nobody knows how it works.

Kenen: Like the year I hurt both a finger and a toe. And I had a deductible for the finger, but not for the toe. Explain that!

Rovner: I assume it was in and out of network or not even.

Kenen: No. They were both in network. All of my digits are in network.

Weber: I just got a covid test bill from 2020 that I had previously knocked down by calling, but they rebilled me again. And because I am a savvy health care reporter, I was like, “I’m not paying this. I know that I don’t have to pay this.” But it took probably 10 hours to resolve, I mean, and that’s not even picking insurance. So I’m just saying it’s an incredibly complex marketplace. Shout-out to Vox who had a really nice series that tried to make it easier for people to understand the differences between Medicare and Medicare Advantage, open enrollment, what that all means. If you haven’t seen that and you’re confused about your insurance options, I would highly recommend it.

Rovner: And I will link to the Vox series, which is really good, but it was kind of looking at it. I mean, they had to write six different stories. It’s like that’s how confusing things are, which is really kind of sad here, but we will move on because we’re not going to solve this one today. So speaking of things that are complicated and getting more so, let’s turn to reproductive health. Alice, the big event that people on both sides are waiting for — one of those events, at least — is a ballot measure in Ohio that would establish a state constitutional right to abortion. So far, every state ballot measure we’ve seen has gone in favor of the abortions rights side. How are abortion opponents trying to flip the script here?

Ollstein: So I was in Ohio a couple of weeks ago and was really focused on that very question, just what are they doing differently? How are they learning lessons from all of the losses last year? And why do they think Ohio will be any different? I will say, since my piece came out, there was the first poll I’ve seen of how people are approaching the November referendum, and it showed overwhelming support for the abortion rights side, just like in every other state. So have that color, what I’m about to say next, which is that the anti-abortion side thinks they can win because they have a lot of structural factors working in their favor. They have the governor of Ohio really actively campaigning against the amendment. So that’s in contrast to [Gov. Gretchen] Whitmer in Michigan last year, campaigning actively for it. When you have a fairly popular governor, that does have an impact, they’re a known trusted voice to many. Also …

Rovner: And the governor of Ohio is also a former senator and I mean a really well-known guy.

Ollstein: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. You just have the entire state structure working to defeat this amendment. They tried in a special election in August to change the rules. That didn’t work. Now, you just have all of these top officials using their bully pulpit and their platforms to try to steer the vote in the anti-abortion direction. Also, the actual campaign itself is trying to learn lessons from last year and doing a few things differently. They’re going really aggressively after the African American vote, particularly through Black churches. And so that’s not something I saw in the states I reported on last year, and they’re really aggressively going after the student vote. And I went to a student campus event at Ohio State that the anti-abortion side was holding, and it seemed pretty effective. There was a ton of confusion among the students. A lot of the students are like, “Wait, didn’t we just vote on this?” referring to the August special. They said, “Wait a minute, which side means yes, and which side means no?” There was just rampant confusion, and it wasn’t helped … I observed the anti-abortion side, telling people some misleading things about what the amendment would and wouldn’t do. And so all of that could definitely have an impact. But like I said, since my story came out, a poll came out showing really strong support for the abortion rights amendment, which would block the state’s six-week ban, which is now held up in court, but the court leans pretty far to the right. This would block that from going back into effect potentially.

Rovner: Ohio, the ultimate swing state, probably the reddest swing state in the country. But Ohio is not the only state having an off-year election next month. Virginia doesn’t have an abortion measure on the ballot, but its entire state House and Senate are up for reelection. And from almost every ad I’ve seen from Democrats, it mentions abortion, and there’s a lot of ads here in the Washington, D.C., area for some of the Virginia elections. Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who’s not on the ballot this year, thinks he has a way of talking about abortion that might give his side the edge. What are we going to be able to tell from the ultimate makeup of the very narrowly divided Virginia Legislature when this is all said and done?

Kenen: It won’t be veto-proof. Unlike North Carolina now, even if it’s the Democrats hold the one chamber they have or win both of them, and it’s really close. These are very closely divided, so we really don’t know how it’s going to turn out. But I mean he …

Rovner: One year it was so close that they literally had to draw rocks out of a bowl.

Kenen: Yeah, right. There’s highly unlikely that there will be a scenario where there’s a really strongly Democratic legislature with a Republican governor. That’s not likely. What’s likely is a very narrowly divided, and we don’t know who has the edge in which chamber. So the governor can’t just do things unilaterally, but how it plays out. And Youngkin’s backing a 15-week ban with some exceptions after that for life and health. A year ago, that would’ve seemed like an extreme measure. And now it seems moderate, I mean compared to zero weeks and no exceptions. So Virginia’s a red state, it’s swung blue. It’s now reddish again, I mean, it’s not a swing state so much in presidential, but on the ground, it’s a swing state. And …

Rovner: But I guess that’s what I was getting at was Youngkin’s trying to sort of paint his support as something moderate …

Kenen: That’s how he’s been trying to thread this needle ’cause he comes across as moderate and then he comes across as more conservative. And on abortion, what’s moderate now? I mean, in the current landscape among Republican governors, you could say his is moderate, but Alice follows the politics more closely, but half the country doesn’t think that’s moderate.

Rovner: If the Democrats retain or win both houses of the legislature, I mean, will that send us a message about abortion or is that just going to send us a message about Virginia being a very narrowly divided state?

Ollstein: I think both. I think Joanne is right in that the polling and the voting record over the last year reflect that a lot of people are not buying the idea that 15 weeks is moderate. And a lot of polls show that when presented the choice between a total ban and total protections, even people who are uncomfortable with the idea of abortions later in pregnancy opt for total protections. And so you’ve seen that play out. At the same time, there’s a lot of people on the right who correctly argue that the vast majority of abortions happen before 15 weeks, and so 15 weeks is not going far enough. And they’re not in favor of that as so-called compromise or moderate policy. And so …

Rovner: There are no compromises in abortion.

Ollstein: Truly, truly.

Rovner: If we’ve learned anything, we’ve learned that.

Ollstein: And when you try to please everyone, sometimes you please no one, as we’ve seen with both candidates and policies that try to thread this needle. And so I think it will be a really interesting test because yes, right now the legislature is sort of the firewall between what the governor wants to do on abortion, and whether that will continue to be true is a really interesting question.

Rovner: Meanwhile, we have dueling abortion reversal lawsuits going on in both Colorado and California. Abortion reversal, for those who don’t follow all the jargon, is the concept of interrupting the two-medication regime for abortion by pill. And instead of taking the second medication, the pregnant person takes large doses of the hormone progesterone. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says there is no evidence that this works to reverse a medication abortion and that it’s unethical for doctors to prescribe it. But in Colorado, a Christian health clinic is charging that a state law that bans the practice offering abortion reversal violates their freedom of religion. In California, it’s actually the opposite. The state attorney general is suing a pregnancy crisis center for false advertising, promoting the practice. Alice, how big a deal could this fight over abortion reversal become? And that’s assuming that the pill remains widely available, which is going to be decided by yet another lawsuit.

Ollstein: Yeah, absolutely. Although it’ll be a long time before we know whether mifepristone is legally available on a federal basis. But I’ve been watching this bubble up for years, but it’s up till now been more of a rhetorical fight in terms of: “Abortion reversal is a thing.” “No, it’s not.” “Yes, it is.” “No, it’s not.” “Here’s my expert saying it is.” “Here’s my expert saying it’s not.” But this is really moving it into a more sort of concrete, legal realm, and not just rhetoric. And so it is an escalation, and it will be interesting to see. Mainstream health care organizations do not support this practice. There was a clinical trial of it going on that was actually called off because of the potential dangers involved and risks to participants …

Rovner: Of doing the abortion reversal method …

Ollstein: Exactly. Yes.

Rovner: … of trying to interrupt a medication abortion.

Ollstein: Yes. This is really on the cutting edge of where medicine and politics are clashing right now.

Rovner: Yeah, we’ll see how it, and, of course, if they end up in different places, this could be something else that ends up in front of the Supreme Court. And this is, I think, less of an argument about religious freedom than an argument about the ability of medical organizations to determine what is or isn’t standard of practice based on evidence. I mean, I guess in some ways it becomes the same thing as the broader mifepristone case, where it’s like, do you trust the FDA to determine what’s safe? And now, it’s like, do you trust ACOG and the AMA [American Medical Association] and other organizations of doctors to decide what should be allowed?

Kenen: I mean, progesterone has medical purposes, it’s used to prevent miscarriages, but it’s off-label. It goes into these other questions, which all of us have written about — ivermectin, and who gets legal substances, and how do you use them properly, and what’s the danger? And there’s a bunch of them.

Weber: I think the fight over standard of care has really become the next frontier in medical lawsuits. I mean, we’ve all written about this, but ivermectin, obviously, misinformation, prescribing hydroxychloroquine, all of these things are now getting into the legal field. Is that the standard of care? What is the standard of care and how does that play out? So I agree with you. I think this is going to end up by the Supreme Court and I think it has much broader implications than just for mifepristone and abortion drugs too.

Rovner: Yeah, I do too. Well, finally, in an update I did not have on my post-Roe Bingo card, it appears that vasectomies are up in some states, including Oregon, where abortion is still legal, and Oklahoma, where it’s not very widely available. Are men finally taking more responsibility for not getting the women they have sex with pregnant? That would be a big sea change.

Ollstein: Yeah, we’ve been hearing anecdotally that this has been the case definitely since Dobbs and even before that as abortion restrictions were mounting. Politico Magazine did a nice piece on this last year profiling vasectomy [in] a mobile van. And it’s also just fascinating and a lot of people have been highlighting just how few restrictions on vasectomies there are compared to more permanent sterilization for women: no waiting periods, no fighting about it. And so it does provide an interesting contrast there.

Rovner: I know there have been stories over the years about how the demand for vasectomies goes up right before the NCAA tournament in March and April because men figure that they can just recuperate while watching basketball.

Ollstein: I thought that was a myth then I looked it up and it’s absolutely true.

Rovner: It is absolutely true.

Kenen: I mean, it also seems to be more common among older men who’ve had a family and because it’s permanent, I mean usually permanent. It’s usually permanent and right, it’s one thing to decide after a certain point in your life when you’ve already had your kids. I mean, it’s not going to be an option for younger men who haven’t had children.

Rovner: It’s also reliable, it is one of those things that you don’t have to worry about.

Kenen: Even though I looked up the figures once, it’s a very, very low failure rate, but it’s not zero.

Rovner: True. We are moving on to what I call this week in declining life expectancy. I’m glad that Lauren is back with us because The Washington Post has published the next pieces of its deep dive into the U.S. population’s declining life expectancy. And we’re going to start with a story that was co-written by Lauren, but that is Joanne’s extra credit this week. So Joanne, you start, and then Lauren, you can chime in.

Kenen: OK. It’s “How Lunchables Ended Up on School Lunch Trays.” For those of you who have never been in a supermarket or who have closed your eyes in certain aisles, Lunchables are heavily processed, encased in plastic, small lunchboxes of a — it’s not even much of a meal or small — which you can buy in the supermarket. And now two of them have been modified so that they’re allowed in schools as healthy enough …

Rovner: They’re quote, unquote, “balanced” because it’s a little piece of meat and a little piece of cheese.

Kenen: They have so far just a turkey cheese option that qualifies for schools and a pizza that qualifies for schools. Not a whole pizza, a little … but the kid in the story, the second grader in the story, didn’t even know it was turkey. It has 14 ingredients. He thought it was ham. So I mean, that just sort of says it, but it’s beyond the lack of nutrition, it started out sort of like what is this child putting in his mouth and why is it called school lunch? But the story was deeper because it was a very long investigation by Lauren and Dan Keating on the relationship between the food industry, the trade group, and the government regulation. And just say, it leaves a lot to be desired. And you should all read the story only because you can click on the story of the oversized Cheez-It.

I mean, it’s a fake one, but the replica of this as big as the planet Mars. I mean, it’s just this huge Cheez-It. And it’s a really good story because it’s overprocessed food is really bad for us. And I mean, scientists have matched the rise of this overprocessed stuff that began as food and the rise of obesity in America. And it’s not just taking the salt out of it, which they’re doing, the sodium out of or adding a little calcium or something to these processed foods. They’re ultra-processed foods, and that’s not what our body needs.

Rovner: So, Lauren, I mean, how does this relate to the rest of this declining life expectancy project and what else is there to come?

Weber: This is our big tranche of stories. I mean, we should have some follows, but that’s it. And well, Joanne, thank you for the kind words on it. We really appreciate that. But I mean, I think the point that she made that I want to highlight for this in general is what was wild in investigating this story is pizza sauce is a vegetable in the U.S. when it comes to school lunch and french fries are also a vegetable. And that’s really all you need to sum up how the industry influence in Congress has resulted in what kids are having for their school lunch today. One of the things we got to do for the story is go to the national School Nutrition Association conference, which is where we saw the giant Cheez-It. And it’s this massive trade fair of all these companies where they throw parties for the school nutrition personnel to try all the different food. And it’s wild to see in real life. And what Joanne made a good point of about ultra-processed food and what the rules do right now is they don’t consider the integrity of the food. They set limits on calories and sodium, but they don’t consider what kids are actually eating. And so you end up with these ultra-processed foods that growing body of research suggests really have some negative health consequences for you. And so, as Joanne talked about, and as our series gets into, obesity is a real problem in this country, and obesity has huge, long-lasting, life-shortening impacts. One of the folks we talked to for the piece, Michael Moss, said, he worries that processed food is the new tobacco because he feels like smoking’s going down, but obesity’s going up. And something he said to me that didn’t make the piece, but I thought was really interesting is that at some point he thinks there’ll be some sort of class-action lawsuit against ultra-processed food, much like a cigarette lawsuit-

Rovner: Like with tobacco.

Weber: Like a tobacco lawsuit, like an opioid lawsuit. I think that’s kind of interesting to think about, but this was just one of the many life expectancy stories. I want to shout out my colleague Frances Stead Sellers’ story, which talked about how it compared is brilliant. It compared two sisters with rheumatoid arthritis, one who lives in the U.S. and one who lives in Portugal. They’re both from Portugal. The one in Portugal has all this fabulous primary health care. The doctors even call her on Christmas and they’re like, “We’re worried you’re going to have chocolate cherries with brandy that would interact with your medicine.” Whereas the one in the U.S. has to go to the ER all the time because she doesn’t have steady health care and she can’t seem to make it work, ends meet. She doesn’t have a primary health care system. She’s a disjointed doctor system. And the end of the story is the sister in the U.S. who has this severe health problem is moving to Portugal because it’s just so much better there for primary care. And I think that gets at a lot of what our stories on life expectancy have talked about, which is that primary care, preventative care in the U.S. is not a priority and it results in a lot of downstream consequences that are shortening America’s life expectancy.

Rovner: Well, I hope when this project is all published that you put all the stories together and send them to every school of public health in the United States. That would be fairly useful. I bet public health professors would appreciate it.

Weber: Thank you.

Rovner: So it is mid-October, that means it is time for the annual KFF survey of employer health insurance. And for the first time since the pandemic, most premiums are up markedly, an average of 7% from 2022 to 2023 with indications of even larger increases coming for 2024. Now, to people like me and Joanne, who’ve been doing this for a long time, lived through years of double-digit increases in the early 2000s, 7% doesn’t seem that big, but today, the average family health insurance premium is about the same as the cost of a small car. So is there a breaking point for the employer health system? I mean, one of the things — to go back to what we were talking about at the beginning — one of the compromised ways we’ve kept the system functional is by allowing these pieces to remain in pieces. Employers have wanted to offer health insurance. It’s an important fringe benefit to help attract workers. But you’re paying $25,000 a year for a family plan, unless you’re a really big company. And even if you are a really big company, that’s an awful lot of money.

Kenen: One of the things that struck me is, we’re at a point when we’ve had a lot of strikes and reactivated labor movement, but 20 years ago, the fights were about the cost of health care. The famous Verizon strike. They were big strikes that were about health care, the cost. And right now, I’m not really hearing that too much. I’m sure it’s part of the conversation, but it’s not the top. It’s not the headline of what these strikes are about. They’re about salaries mostly and working conditions with nurses and ratios and things like that. I’m not hearing health care costs, but I sort of think we will because, yes, we are being subsidized by our employers, most of us. But you said, “What’s the breaking point?” Well, apparently there isn’t one. We’ve asked ourselves that every single year. And when do we stop doing it? No one has a good answer for that. And related is to what Lauren was just talking about, life expectancy. The lack of primary care in this country, in addition to improving our health, it would probably bring down cost. We used to spend 6 cents on the dollar on primary care, 6 cents. Other countries spend a lot more. Now, we’re down to 4.5 cents. So the stuff that keeps you well and spots problems and has somebody who recognizes when something’s going wrong in you because you’re their patient as opposed to … there’s nothing. I don’t mean that urgent care doesn’t have a place. It does, but it’s not the same thing as somebody who gives you continuity of care. So these are all related. I’ll stop. It’s a mess. Someone else can say it’s a mess now.

Rovner: It’s definitely a mess and we are not going to fix it today, but we’ll keep trying.

Kenen: Maybe next week.

Rovner: All right. Yeah, maybe next week. That is this week’s news. Now, we will play my “Bill of the Month” interview with Arielle Zionts. And then we will come back and do our extra credits.

I am pleased to welcome to the podcast my KFF Health News colleague Arielle Zionts who reported and wrote the latest KFF Health News-NPR “Bill of the Month” installment. Arielle, welcome to the podcast.

Arielle Zionts: Thanks for having me.

Rovner: So this month’s patient is grappling with a grave cancer diagnosis, a toddler, and some inexplicable bills from hospitals in two different states. Tell us a little bit about her.

Zionts: Sure. So Emily Gebel is from Alaska and has a husband and two young kids. She home-schools them. She really likes the outdoors, reading, foraging, and she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Just something that makes me so sad is she found out when she was basically breastfeeding because she felt a lump. And then when she was diagnosed, her baby was asleep in her arms when she got that call. So it just really shows what it’s like to be a mom and to have cancer. She was living in Juneau at the time. Her friends who’ve had cancer suggested [they] wanted to go to a bigger city. Whether it’s true or not, the idea was, OK, bigger cities are going to have bigger care. Juneau is not a big city, and you cannot drive there. You have to take a ferry or you have to fly in, and this is the capital of Alaska. So that might …

Rovner: Yes, I’ve been there. It’s very picturesque and very small and very hard to get to.

Zionts: Yeah, so that might be surprising for some people. The closest major American city is Seattle. So she went there for her surgery and then she decided to have chemo, and she opted for this special type of chemo that uses lower dose, but more frequent doses. The idea is that it creates less of the side effects, and she went to this standalone clinic in Seattle, flying there every week. It’s not a quick flight. It can take up to two hours and 45 minutes. And that just got really tiring. I mean, physically …

Rovner: And she’s got kids at home.

Zionts: Yes, physically and mentally and just taking up time. So she decided to switch to the local hospital in Juneau. So they had bills from the first clinic in Seattle, and then they got some estimates from the one in Juneau and then finally got a bill from there as well.

Rovner: Yes, as we say, “Then the bill came.” And, boy, there was a big difference between the same chemotherapy in Seattle and in Juneau, Alaska, right?

Zionts: I compared two of Emily’s treatments that used a similar mix of drugs and also had overlapping non-drug charges, such as how much it costs for the first hour of treatment, subsequent hours. And in the Seattle clinic, one round cost about $1,600. And then in Juneau it cost more than $5,000, so more than three times higher. And we were able to look at specific charges. So that first hour of chemo was $1,000 in Juneau, which is more than twice the rate in the Seattle clinic. There was a drug that cost more than three times the price at the clinic. And then even the cheaper charges were more expensive. So the hospital charged $19.15 for Benadryl, which is about 22 times the price at the clinic, which was 87 cents.

Rovner: Now to be clear, the Gebel family seems to have pretty comprehensive insurance. So this case wasn’t as much about their out-of-pocket costs as some of the other Bills of the Month that we’ve covered, but they did want to know why there was such a big difference, and what did they, and we find out?

Zionts: Yeah. So we started the story for NPR, we basically started saying, “Hey, this is a little different than the other ones because the family has met their maximum out-of-pocket.”

Rovner: For the year?

Zionts: Yes. Once you pay a certain amount of money for the year, your insurance will cover everything, and that can be a high number. But if you have cancer, cancer’s expensive, so you will probably hit it at some point. By the time she switched her treatment to Juneau, she had met that, so she wouldn’t actually owe anything.

Rovner: But what did they find out nevertheless, about why it costs that much more in Juneau than it did in Seattle?

Zionts: Yes. So Jered, her husband, he is somewhat of a self-taught medical billing expert. He gained this knowledge by listening to “Bill of the Month” and then reading some books about this. I mean, at first, he thought maybe they would owe money, but then he learned they wouldn’t. But he still didn’t think it was fair. I mean, he didn’t think it was fair for the insurance companies. And he did catch two errors. One of them, an estimate, was wrong. The hospital said, “Oh, it looks like there was a computer error,” and that was lowered. And then when it came for the actual bill, there was a coding error. It made one of the drugs not covered when it should have been. So that would’ve actually left them out-of-pocket costs. So he was able to lower an estimate, lower the bill. But again, even with those changes, it was still so much more expensive. And that’s when I called some experts and someone’s gut reaction or initial hypothesis might be, “Well, of course, it’s more expensive in Alaska. Alaska is small, it’s remote. I mean, it’s just going to cost more to ship things there. You need to pay doctors more to entice them to live there.”

Rovner: And it costs more for doctors to live there anyway, right?

Zionts: Yes.

Rovner: The cost of living is high in Alaska.

Zionts: Yes. The expert I spoke with, an economist who has studied this issue. He said, “Yes, that is part of it.” Like you said, everything is more expensive in Alaska, but even when accounting for that, the prices are even higher. So the growth of cost in the health care sector in Alaska is higher than the growth of overall cost. And he listed some policies or trends that might explain that. There’s one that really stood out, which is something called the “80th percentile rule,” but it was meant to contain cost for when you’re seen by out-of-network providers. And it seems that it may have actually backfired, and the state is considering repealing that. But as Elisabeth Rosenthal, one of our editors at KFF Health News, and she’s written an entire book about this, as she said, “This is how our health system works. There’s no law saying, this is how much you can upcharge for some intrinsic value of a medicine or of a service. So hospitals can do what they want.” So …

Rovner: And we should point out, I mean, this is not a for-profit hospital, right? It’s owned by the city.

Zionts: Yes. This is a nonprofit hospital owned by the city, and they don’t get a ton of money from the city or state, which is interesting though. So they’re really getting their funding from the services they provide. And the hospital said they try to make it fair by comparing it to wholesale costs, what other hospitals in the region are charging. But they also said, “Yes, we do need to account for the higher costs.”

Rovner: So what’s the takeaway here? I mean, basically what it costs is going to depend on where you live?

Zionts: Basically, what we’ve learned from all these Bill of the Months is that it’s going to vary depending on what facility you go to. And that could be within one city, the prices could vary. And then you might see some more variation between states and especially in states where the cost of living is higher or it’s more remote.

Rovner: Of which Alaska is both.

Zionts: Yes. And actually, something to add is that the amount of money that this hospital has to spend to fly in doctors and nurses and also just staff, even nonmedical staff, they spent nearly $11 million last year to transport them and pay them because they don’t have enough local people. And the other takeaway, though, is that yes, this can be explained, but also, it’s unexplainable in the sense that our health care system doesn’t have some magic formula or some hard rules about what is, quote, “fair.”

Rovner: Yes, at least when it comes to Medicare, Congress has been trying to do that for, oh, I don’t know, about 50 years now. Still working on it. Arielle Zionts, thank you very much for joining us.

Zionts: Thank you for having me.

Rovner: OK. We are back, and it’s time for our extra-credit segment. That’s when we each recommend a story we read this week we think you should read, too. As always, don’t worry if you miss it. We will post the links on the podcast page at kffhealthnews.org and in our show notes on your phone or other mobile device. Joanne, you’ve already done yours. Alice, why don’t you go next?

Ollstein: I did a piece by my former colleague Angela Hart for KFF Health News, and it’s about street medicine. So teams of doctors working with unhoused people, and this is profiling mainly in Northern California, but it’s sort of discussing this across the country. And in addition to the really very moving personal stories that she found in her reporting, she also talked about some of the structural stuff that is supporting the expansion of this kind of health care. And so California was already putting a lot of money into health care services for the homeless, but in hospitals and in clinics, they were finding that people just aren’t able to come in. Whether it’s because they don’t want to leave all of their earthly possessions unguarded or because they can’t get the transportation or whatever. And so that money’s now being redirected into having the doctors go to them, which seems to be successful in some ways, but the depth of health care problems is just so deep. And …

Rovner: But also, really the importance of primary care.

Ollstein: Absolutely. And so what they’re finding is just a lot of pregnancies and problems with pregnancy in the homeless population. And so they’re doing more services around that and more offering contraception and prenatal care for the people who are already pregnant. It’s very sad, but somewhat hopeful. And the other more structural thing is changing rules so that doctors can get reimbursed at a decent rate for providing street medicine as opposed to in brick-and-mortar facilities.

Rovner: Thanks. Lauren?

Weber: So I also have a KFF special from my former colleagues, Markian [Hawryluk] and Renu [Rayasam]. It’s just a great piece. It’s called “Doctors Abandon a Diagnosis Used to Justify Police Custody Deaths. It Might Live On, Anyway.” So what the piece does is it interviews the doctor who helped debunk what excited delirium is for his medical organization, but it reveals that that may not help in terms of court cases that have already been decided and in terms of science in general. And I think it’s so fascinating because what this piece does is it gets at what happens when flawed science then is used for lawsuits and consequential things for many, many years to come. I think we’ve seen a lot of stories this year about flawed science and what the actual ramifications are after, and this is clearly horrible ramifications here. And it’s just kind of a fascinating question of how does that ever get made right and how do things slowly or ever go back to what they should be after flawed science is revealed? So really, really great work from the team.

Rovner: Yeah, it’s really good piece. Well, keeping with the theme of choosing stories by our former colleagues. Mine is from a former colleague at NPR, Jeff Brady, and it’s “How Gas Utilities Used Tobacco Tactics to Avoid Gas Stove Regulations.” And if you don’t know what that refers to, I have a book or several for you about the huge sums of money that the tobacco industry paid over many decades to have captive, scientific, quote-unquote, “experts” counterclaims that smoking is bad for your health. It turns out that the gas stove industry likewise knew that gas stoves were worse for your health than electric ones, and that those vent hoods don’t really take care of all the problems of the things that gas stoves emit. And that it also paid for studies intended to muddy the waters and confuse both customers and regulators. It’s a pretty damning story, and I say that as someone who is very much attached to my gas stove but am now having second thoughts.

OK, that is our show for this week. As always, if you enjoy the podcast, you can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. We’d appreciate it if you left us a review; that helps other people find us too. Special thanks as always to our amazing and patient engineer, Francis Ying. Also, as always, you can email us your comments or questions. We’re at [email protected], or you can still find me holding down the fort at X, I’m @jrovner or @julierovner at Bluesky and Threads. Joanne, where are you these days?

Kenen: I’m more on Threads, @joannekenen1. I still have a Twitter account, @JoanneKenen, where I’m not very active.

Rovner: Alice?

Ollstein: I am @AliceOllstein on X and @alicemiranda on Bluesky.

Rovner: Lauren?

Weber: I’m @LaurenWeberHP on X, the HP stands for health policy, as I like to tell people.

Rovner: We will be back in your feed next week. Until then, be healthy.

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