KHN’s ‘What the Health?’: Oh, Oh, Omicron

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This week, the U.S. passed the milestone of 800,000 dead from covid-19, as hospitals are starting to fill following the Thanksgiving holiday and the ominous omicron variant starts to spread rapidly.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court signals it’s likely to roll back abortion rights in the next year, and Congress runs out of time to pass President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better bill in 2021.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of KHN, Margot Sanger-Katz of The New York Times, Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico and Mary Ellen McIntire of CQ Roll Call.

Among the takeaways from this week’s episode:

  • A recent article in The Atlantic tapped into a troubling mindset around the nation. In great swaths of the country, the pandemic has become somewhat ho-hum. Many people — either because they are vaccinated and feeling impervious or because they doubt the veracity of the reports on the disease — are not paying much attention to public health officials’ calls to follow safeguards, such as using masks or avoiding large gatherings.
  • Despite that indifference, deaths in the U.S. are up more than 40% in recent weeks and about 1,300 people are dying each day.
  • The Supreme Court’s decision last Friday allowing abortion providers in Texas to continue to press to overturn a state law banning abortions after six weeks also limited the routes that the providers can use in their legal challenges. And abortions rights advocates are disappointed that the court allowed the law to remain in effect while the legal battle continues.
  • The justices are also considering a case from Mississippi, and some abortion opponents believe they may use it to overturn or greatly diminish the guarantee of abortion rights in the landmark Roe v. Wade decision. Experts say could lead to at least 22 states banning all abortions, leaving women with very few options. Many women seeking abortions have low incomes, and traveling to other states is not easy for them because of the cost, the need to care for their children and the inability to get time off work.
  • A decision from the Food and Drug Administration is believed to be imminent on whether to ease federal rules on the prescription of drugs used to induce a medical abortion. The FDA originally required that the pills be provided directly to a patient by a doctor. The agency loosened that restriction during the covid pandemic because of concerns about spreading the virus in medical settings. Abortion rights advocates are pressing for the FDA to continue to allow people to get the medication through a telehealth appointment.
  • Dr. Robert Califf, the nominee to head the FDA, had his Senate confirmation hearing this week. Although he faced tough questioning on the FDA’s response to the opioid epidemic, he is expected to gain enough bipartisan votes for confirmation.
  • Most Democratic lawmakers are realizing that the Senate will not meet Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s pledge to vote on Biden’s social spending and climate package before the end of the year. Biden and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) are still negotiating on provisions of the package. To pass, the package needs all 50 Democratic senators’ support — so, until Biden or Schumer can get Manchin’s vote, the package will wait.
  • One especially popular provision in that legislation would limit the out-of-pocket cost of insulin for many consumers to $35 a month. It is a blunt instrument in trying to bring down costs for a lifesaving drug and one the public generally supports making widely and cheaply accessible. But there may be a strong legal argument that this effort can’t pass as part of the budget bill; Senate rules allow a simple majority for passage, but also require that all provisions directly affect federal spending.
  • The American Medical Association and the American Hospital Association last week filed suit seeking a change in a Biden administration rule on implementing the law protecting consumers from surprise medical bills. These expensive charges occur when patients unexpectedly get care from a doctor or hospital outside their insurer’s network of providers. The new law would shield consumers from those higher charges. The groups are not trying to block the law, but instead seek to change the calculus for arbitrators deciding how much the health care providers should be paid.

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 “West Virginia Sen. Manchin Takes the Teeth Out of Democrats’ Plan for Seniors’ Dental Care,” by Phil Galewitz

Margot Sanger-Katz: HuffPost’s “Insulin Prices Could Be in for a Pretty Big Change if Democrats Get Their Way,” by Jonathan Cohn

Alice Miranda Ollstein: The AP’s “How a Kennedy Built an Anti-Vaccine Juggernaut Amid COVID-19,” by Michelle R. Smith

Mary Ellen McIntire: CQ Roll Call’s “Burnout Among Pharmacists Slows COVID-19 Booster Shots,” by Emily Kopp and Ariel Cohen

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