KHN’s ‘What The Health?’: Republicans in COVID Disarray

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President Donald Trump’s pivot to a more serious view of the coronavirus pandemic didn’t last long. This week, he was again touting hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug that has not been shown to work against the virus. Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, Republicans continue to struggle to come up with a proposal for the next round of COVID-19 relief even as earlier bills expire. That’s leaving millions of Americans without the ability to pay rent or meet other necessary expenses, as the economy continues to sink.

Also on the agenda, at least briefly, is the subject of high drug prices. Once considered a leading health issue for the 2020 elections, it has been all but wiped from the headlines by the pandemic. Trump issued a series of executive orders he said would produce an immediate impact, but experts point out they are mostly wish lists of things the president has already said he supports.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of Kaiser Health News, Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico, Mary Ellen McIntire of CQ Roll Call and Anna Edney of Bloomberg News.

Among the takeaways from this week’s podcast:

  • Despite much disarray on Capitol Hill about which coronavirus relief economic provisions Republican senators will agree on, there is largely agreement within the party and among Democrats on the health provisions, such as the need for more money for testing and for health care providers.
  • Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell insists the stimulus package must include liability protection for employers to protect businesses struck by a COVID-19 outbreak through no fault of their own. But Democrats are opposed and argue that the promise of liability waivers may keep employers from taking adequate safety precautions.
  • The Atlantic magazine recently explored the issue of “hygiene theater” in which people take measures they hope will keep the coronavirus at bay — such as excessive scrubbing, temperature checks, etc. — that science suggests have limited or no effect. These measures may give people comfort, but the efforts can also be dangerous in that they give a false sense of security and divert attention and resources from other, more complicated methods to stop the disease.
  • Much attention in recent weeks has been given to the development of a vaccine. Several options are in advanced stages of testing. But public health advocates fear that the speed of the testing and the administration’s past erroneous statements about the disease may raise fears among consumers about taking the vaccine. Nonetheless, Democrats looking ahead to the election worry that the administration will make a major announcement about vaccine availability as an October surprise.
  • COVID-19 has basically eclipsed efforts to make progress on several other key health issues that were expected before the election, including drug pricing and surprise medical bills.
  • With great fanfare this week, Trump announced orders for the administration to move toward new drug pricing policies. But the orders have little or no effect and haven’t created any momentum for advancing legislation in Congress.
  • The president surprised many people this week when he announced he was loaning Kodak millions of dollars to produce ingredients needed for the generic drug industry. Many of those chemicals have been made overseas, so the effort does follow the administration’s quest to establish more manufacturing in the U.S. But one reason few companies do the work here is that there is not a big profit margin on the drugs.

Also this week, Rovner interviews KHN’s Markian Hawryluk, who reported the July NPR-KHN “Bill of the Month” installment, about a surprise bill from a surprise participant in the operating room: a surgical assistant. If you have an outrageous medical bill you would like to share with us, you can do that here.

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

Julie Rovner: The New York Times’ “Disability Pride: The High Expectations of a New Generation,” by Joseph Shapiro

Alice Miranda Ollstein: Politico’s “Pelosi Mandates Wearing Masks on the House Floor After Gohmert Case,” by Heather Caygle and Sarah Ferris

Mary Ellen McIntire: The Atlantic’s “Why Can’t We Just Have Class Outside?” by Olga Khazan

Anna Edney: ProPublica’s “How to Understand COVID-19 Numbers,” by Caroline Chen

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