First, as we all are frustrated because of the government shutdown, most Federal Health Agencies are OK despite the shutdown. The FDA is feeling the pinch; IHS, ATSDR are affected also. However, it does point out the problems that Congress will face in the next 2 or more years because of political differences and the lack of civility.
News Editor Joyce Frieden pointed out that the partial shutdown of the federal government doesn’t appear to have had an immediate effect on most healthcare-related agencies, but observers expressed concern over what the shutdown might mean for the long term.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), obviously the largest healthcare-related agency, has been largely unaffected by the shutdown, which began at 12:01 a.m. December 22, since most of the department is already funded through fiscal year 2019. However, the FDA is affected because its appropriations fall under a different authorization bill than the rest of HHS, so the agency had to furlough 7,053 staff members; the remaining 10,344 staff members were retained, either because they were performing functions critical to public health and safety, such as protecting ongoing experiments, or because their programs — such as tobacco regulation or new drug development — are funded by user fees.
The Alliance for a Stronger FDA — a group of patient organizations, trade associations, and pharmaceutical and biomedical companies that support adequate funding for the agency — expressed some concerns about the shutdown. “The FDA regulates products that make up 20% of consumer spending,” the organization said in a statement. “The agency’s responsibilities cannot be fully met when 7,000 employees are furloughed. Further, when the FDA is not fulfilling its critical public health responsibilities, there is no backstop to the agency’s work.”
However, “having said that, we have confidence that [FDA Commissioner] Dr. [Scott] Gottlieb and FDA leadership have ensured the emergency and critical public health and safety functions will be covered during a shutdown,” the statement continued. “Consumers should not panic — the FDA is still on the job. The immediate problem, quite a serious one, is the slowing of work on longer-term priorities and items that aren’t absolutely essential. Managing only those items that could turn into an immediate crisis is no way to run an agency that is critical to public health.”
The shutdown also hits the Indian Health Service (IHS), although direct patient care is not affected, HHS explained in its FY 2019 Contingency Staffing Plan, which was issued before the shutdown actually began. In the event of a shutdown, “IHS would continue to provide direct clinical health care services as well as referrals for contracted services that cannot be provided through IHS clinics,” the document noted. As for other IHS services, “many administrative activities are impacted due to the lapse in funding for the IHS,” a spokeswoman said in an email to MedPage Today.
Asked for examples of administrative services that IHS would continue to perform, the spokeswoman said, “The IHS can only perform administrative, oversight, and other functions that are necessary to meet the immediate needs of its patients, medical staff, and medical facilities.” Other media are reporting that some tribes will need to furlough staff and cut back services at their tribally run health clinics if the shutdown continues.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is largely unaffected by the shutdown except for the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, based in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. There, Superfund Research Program staff are furloughed and oversight work dealing with about 50 grants is suspended, according to the staffing plan. An NIH spokeswoman confirmed in an email that no other NIH divisions have been affected.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry in Atlanta is another HHS division affected by the shutdown. Although the agency, which deals with environmental health threats and emergencies, will continue carrying out emergency-related functions, it cannot “support most environmental health professional training programs, continuous updating of health exposure assessments and recommendations, and technical assistance, analysis, and [provide] other support to state and local partners,” the staffing plan noted.
Susannah Luthi noted that a new single-payer health system concept will have a set of congressional hearings in the new Democratic House, and a new draft of a so-called “Medicare for all” proposal could be released as soon as next week.
Washington state progressive Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who over the summer launched the Medicare for All Caucus, said the hearings, with the support of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), will start in the House Rules and Budget committees before moving on to the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
“My goal is that these are opportunities to make the case not to the American people—the American people already had the case made to them—but to members of Congress, to really put forward what the legislation looks like,” Jayapal said Thursday after the new Congress elected Pelosi to the speakership.
Pelosi spokesperson Henry Connelly confirmed the speaker supports holding the hearings, although Jayapal acknowledged House Energy and Commerce Chair Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) hasn’t yet committed his panel.
“But I have the speaker’s commitment that she will help me do this, and I’ve spoken to Frank Pallone and he is not opposed,” Jayapal said. “He just hasn’t said ‘yes’ yet.”
A Pallone spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.
Jayapal has not yet discussed possible hearings with the head of the other key health panel, Chair Richard Neal (D-Mass.) of the House Ways and Means Committee, but Neal said he is open to discussing the policy as one of the “many options that are out there” as part of holding his committee to regular order.
“That’s what committees are supposed to do, to flesh out alternatives,” Neal said.
This will be the first House hearing since the Affordable Care Act debate when the health panel of the House Committee on Education and Workforce looked at the option.
Details of the bill, a draft of which Jayapal said should be available in the next couple of weeks, are under wraps but she said it does vary from the legislation introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in 2017. Sanders catapulted talk of “Medicare for all” to the fore during his 2016 presidential bid and key Democratic senators has signed on to his policy since.
This is a different bill, Jayapal said. It’s largely the work of her staff and the staff of Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), who sits on the Energy and Commerce Committee.
This new momentum for single payer—an issue that sharply divides the party—comes as Democrats are focused on defending Obamacare and as insurers hold out hope for more funding to shore up the law and draw more people into the individual market.
House Democrats will formally intervene in the lawsuit to overturn the Affordable Care Act following a Texas federal judge’s invalidation of the law—largely a political move around litigation that proved to help the Democrats in November’s elections.
In his first hearing announcement of the new Congress on Thursday, Pallone said his panel will focus on the lawsuit and its impacts. “This decision, if it is upheld, will endanger the lives of millions of Americans who could lose their health coverage,” the release from the Energy and Commerce Committee said. “It would also allow insurance companies to once again discriminate against more than 133 million Americans with pre-existing conditions.”
Judge Reed O’Connor, the Texas judge presiding over the case, ordered that the law is to remain in place as the lawsuit winds its way through the courts on appeal. It is headed next to the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Louisiana.
The lawsuit was a political winner for Democrats in their campaign to reclaim the House in November, denouncing the GOP state attorneys general who filed the lawsuit and the Trump administration, which sided with the plaintiffs and refused to defend the ACA.
New Maine governor orders Medicaid expansion
Harris Meyer pointed out that the new Democratic Gov. Janet Mills signed an executive order Thursday implementing Maine’s Medicaid expansion, which was overwhelmingly approved by the state’s voters in 2017.The previous governor, Republican Paul LePage, had strongly resisted the expansion, resulting in a court battle that dragged through most of last year and ended with a judge ordering him to move forward with the Medicaid changes. In previous years, he vetoed five bills passed by the legislature to expand the program. An estimated 70,000 low-income adults will be eligible for Medicaid coverage under the expansion. Maine will become the 33rd state to extend the program under the Affordable Care Act to people with incomes up to 138% of the federal poverty level. Voters in Idaho, Nebraska and Utah approved similar Medicaid expansions.
‘Medicare for all’ advocates emboldened by ObamaCare lawsuit
Nathaniel Weixel looked at the ObamaCare lawsuit and its relationship to Medicare for All. Progressive groups and lawmakers plan to use a Texas judge’s ruling against ObamaCare to jump-start their push for “Medicare for all” in the next Congress.
Supporters of a single-payer health system are arguing that now is the time to start moving in a new direction from the Affordable Care Act, in part because they feel the 2010 health law will never be safe from Republican attempts to destroy or sabotage it.
“In light of the Republican Party’s assault, a version of Medicare for all is necessary for the future,” said Topher Spiro, vice president for health policy at the Center for American Progress. “There are just too many points of vulnerability in the current system.”
The court decision in Texas that invalidates ObamaCare in its entirety came on the heels of sweeping Democratic victories in the midterm elections, a combination that has energized advocates of Medicare for all.
“We need to do everything we can to ensure every single American has access to affordable, quality healthcare. Medicare for all has the potential to do just that as it can reduce the complexity and cost with a single payer health care system,” Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), co-chair of the Medicare for All Caucus, said in a statement to The Hill.
Yet the effort could very well create divisions within the Democratic Party, as leaders who want to protect and strengthen the health law are reluctant to completely embrace government-run universal health insurance.
In the House and Senate, leading Democrats have said their priorities should be strengthening ObamaCare, rather than fighting over single-payer.
The lawsuit in Texas is almost certain to be overturned, they argue, and their time is better spent making sure people with pre-existing conditions remain free from discrimination by insurers.
“I think the ruling gets overturned within a couple months, so I’m not sure it matters in the long-term fight over the next generation of health-care reform,” said Sen. Chris Murphy(D-Conn.).
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said Democrats should focus on making sure the insurance landscape doesn’t revert to what it was before ObamaCare.
“The first thing we have to do is make sure people don’t lose what they have today — the pre-existing conditions protections — and going back to the days when there was health care for the healthy and the wealthy,” he said.
U.S. District Court Judge Reed O’Connor this month struck down the Affordable Care Act, throwing a new round of uncertainty into the fate of the law.
O’Connor ruled that the law’s individual mandate is unconstitutional, and that because the mandate cannot be separated from the rest of the law, the rest of the law is also invalid.
The court case, brought by 20 GOP-led states, was at the center of this year’s midterm campaign after Democrats attacked Republicans for supporting the lawsuit and seeking to overturn ObamaCare’s protections for pre-existing conditions.
The Trump administration, in a rare move, declined to defend the law in court, arguing instead that the pre-existing condition protections should be overturned.
“This is an outrageous, disastrous decision that threatens the health care and lives of millions of people. It must be overturned,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) tweeted shortly after the decision was published. “We must move forward to make health care a right for every American.”
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who will be vice chairman of the House Progressive Caucus next year, said the decision “absolutely” makes a case for Medicare for all.
“There’s no doubt that would be constitutional. Medicare is already constitutional and what we’re saying is extend it to everyone, so there can be no constitutional argument,” Khanna told The Hill.
Eagan Kemp, a health-care expert with the advocacy group Public Citizen, also noted how uncontroversial Medicare is compared to ObamaCare.
“This is one more example of how tenuous the law really is,” Kemp said. “You don’t see the same type of sabotage to Medicare. So to me it highlights that the Medicare program remains the third rail of politics, so if we’re going to build a new health-care system, it’s something that can be safe.”
Some lawmakers said they understand the need to be pragmatic since centrist Democrats might not take the same message from the Texas ruling as progressives.
Khanna said he doesn’t think protecting ObamaCare from Republican attacks has to be a separate endeavor from Medicare for all.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), a member of the Medicare for All Caucus, told The Hill the fallout from the lawsuit “may help us move in an even more bold and aggressive agenda” on health care.
“We’ll see, though. I think this is the kind of issue that needs a broad consensus, may need some more outreach to the public,” Schakowsky said. “But I am interested in pursuing that agenda.”
Judge grants stay after ruling Affordable Care Act unconstitutional, Obamacare stays in effect
William Cummings of USA Today, reviewed the latest wrinkle in the Obamacare sage, a federal judge on Sunday said his decision declaring the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional will not take effect while the appeals of his ruling move through the courts.
U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor wrote in a 30-page court filing that while he believes the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals “is unlikely to disagree” with his ruling, he agreed to stay his decision because “many everyday Americans would otherwise face great uncertainty” while the appeals play out.
On Dec. 14, O’Connor sided with a coalition of conservative states in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of former President Barack Obama’s signature health care law. He found that the individual mandate requiring people to buy health insurance was unconstitutional and said that meant the rest of the law was invalid as well.
In 2012, the Supreme Court upheld the law on the grounds that mandate fell within Congress’ taxation powers. When Congress removed the tax penalty for not buying insurance, that constitutional foundation was knocked out, O’Connor reasoned.
The Trump administration announced in June that it would not defend the individual mandate and other provisions of the law – such as protections for people with pre-existing conditions. But the Justice Department argued those provisions of the law could be thrown out without striking down the entire. O’Connor disagreed.
A group of Democratic states and congressional Democrats have said they plan to appeal O’Connor’s decision, which will next head to the Fifth Circuit. Although O’Connor did not grant an injunction blocking Obamacare in his initial ruling, the coalition led by California asked the judge on Dec. 17 to issue a stay and make it clear that the law will stay in place pending the appeal.
Many experts expect that appellate court to disagree with O’Connor’s ruling that the individual mandate can’t be separated from the rest of the law. If O’Connor’s ruling is upheld it is expected that the case would head to the Supreme Court.
Calif. Medical Assn. President Shares Medical Horror Story
Cheryl Clark, a contributing writer for MedPage Today wrote that the new president of the California Medical Association was expecting to spend New Year’s at a wedding in Las Vegas.
Instead, David Aizuss, MD, posted on Facebook about his “eye opening” first-hand view of “American medicine at its worst.” (The post is visible only to his Facebook friends and he declined MedPage Today‘s request to elaborate, citing ongoing “medical issues.”)
In his post, Aizuss said he was rushed by ambulance to a hospital Monday morning. “I spent hours in the emergency room where I received inadequate treatment of mind boggling pain, was never touched or examined by a physician, was mixed up with another patient and almost inadvertently transferred to another hospital, (and) was scheduled for emergency surgery based on a third patient’s lab work that was confused with mine,” he wrote.
He “finally signed out of the hospital against medical advice so I could obtain care from physicians that I know and trust.” He did not name the hospital.
Aizuss, an ophthalmologist who practices in Calabasas, northwest of Los Angeles, posted his complaint New Year’s Eve, apparently while at the LAX International airport in Los Angeles, where he said he was “just returning from Las Vegas where we were supposed to attend a wedding.”
Dozens of Facebook friends, several apparently also physicians, expressed their shock that the CMA president could receive such poor emergency room response, and some said they were happy he was speaking out about poor quality of hospital care.
“If you get terrible care like this (at least you know the difference) think about the care that Joe Sixpack gets; he doesn’t have the resources to get better care. This system is broken and we need to fix it,” posted one.
Wrote another, “As president of the CMA, your voice can be loud! Don’t be timid and do not be afraid of making enemies. Remember our patients know and respect us when we stand against poor medicine.”
Aizuss ended the post by saying, “Truly an eye-opening experience for the President of the California Medical Association. Happy New Year to all!”
He began his one-year term as CMA president in mid-October, saying he wanted to focus on physician burnout, practice sustainability, and payment. He is also past chairman of the CMA Board of Trustees.
He is a medical staff member at Tarzana Hospital and West Hills Hospital, in Los Angeles County, and serves as an assistant clinical professor of ophthalmology at the UCLA Geffen School of Medicine.
The CMA represents about 43,000 physicians in the state and is the second largest organized medicine group of any state, next to the Texas Medical Association, which represents about 52,000 physicians.
Why did I end with this article? It points out the fact that whatever the politics, we all have to continue to forge a better health care system. We need to get rid of the biases and the politics and strive, no demand a better healthcare delivery system. But we also have to realize that it will take some radicle changes, but it will be worth it in the end.
Let us continue the research and discussion into what the healthcare system will look like in our future!