KHN’s ‘What the Health?’: It’s Scandal Week

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President Donald Trump finally released his promised executive order aimed at bringing down drug costs. It factors in international prices to determine what Medicare pays for prescriptions. But the order has no force of law unless the Department of Health and Human Services issues regulations, which could take months or even years if drug companies challenge the effort in court, as they have promised.

Meanwhile, several agencies within HHS are engulfed in scandal. The White House-installed HHS spokesperson took medical leave after a spate of stories about how he tried to interfere with the work of career scientists regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. The head of the Medicare and Medicaid programs spent millions of taxpayer dollars to burnish her personal image, according to Democratic congressional investigators. And HHS Secretary Alex Azar apparently overruled the Food and Drug Administration over efforts to regulate a class of COVID diagnostic tests.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of KHN, Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico, Tami Luhby of CNN and Sarah Karlin-Smith of the Pink Sheet.

Among the other takeaways from this week’s podcast:

  • Trump’s comments Wednesday contradicting testimony by Dr. Robert Redfield, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about the importance of masks and the timing of a coronavirus vaccine are not the first time he has disputed statements by his scientific and medical advisers. But confusion created by the differing statements could erode trust in a vaccine development process that has already been highly politicized.
  • Drugmakers oppose any efforts to limit the prices of Medicare drugs and vow to fight the effort in court and politically. They may have some allies in the Senate, where Republicans are not keen on the idea of endorsing price controls.
  • Although the president frequently speaks about his efforts to curb high prescription drug costs, he has not made much headway in helping consumers. Still, the issue has great political appeal, and he has been able to keep the heat on the pharmaceutical industry.
  • It’s been a traumatic week at the Department of Health and Human Services. The head of the communications team, Michael Caputo, has taken medical leave after acknowledging that he and his aides tried to influence studies published in the CDC’s journal and then hosting an online event in which he alleged without any proof that government scientists were working to undermine the administration. Also, the head of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, Seema Verma, was criticized in a congressional report for spending millions to hire consultants to help raise her public profile.
  • Data reported by the Census Bureau this week shows that the number of uninsured in the U.S. grew by nearly a million people in 2019. That came even as the number of workers rose by more than 2 million and median household income increased. The numbers are based on 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic.

Plus, for extra credit, the panelists recommend their favorite health policy stories of the week they think you should read too:

Julie Rovner: KHN’s “Lack of Antigen Test Reporting Leaves Country ‘Blind to the Pandemic,” by Rachana Pradhan, Lauren Weber and Hannah Recht

Alice Miranda Ollstein: Politico’s “Harvest of Shame: Farmworkers Face Coronavirus Disaster,” by Helena Bottemiller Evich, Ximena Bustillo and Liz Crampton

Tami Luhby: The Washington Post’s “Medicaid Rolls Swell Amid the Pandemic’s Historic Job Losses, Straining State Budgets,” by Amy Goldstein

Sarah Karlin-Smith: KHN’s “Hospitals, Nursing Homes Fail to Separate COVID Patients, Putting Others at Risk,” by Christina Jewett

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Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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