KFF Health News’ ‘What the Health?’
Episode Title: 2023 Is a Wrap
Episode Number: 327
Published: Dec. 21, 2023
[Editor’snote:[Editor’snote:[Editor’snote:[Editor’snote: 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, Dec. 21, at 10 a.m. As always, news happens fast and things might’ve changed by the time you hear this, so here we go.
We are joined today via video conference by Joanne Kenen of the Johns Hopkins University and Politico Magazine.
Joanne From: Hi, everybody.
Rovner: Sandhya Raman of CQ Roll Call.
Sandhya Raman: Good morning.
Rovner: And Rachel Cohrs of Stat News.
Rachel Cohrs: Hi.
Rovner: Later in this episode, we’ll have my interview with KFF Health News’ Jordan Rau, co-author of a super scary series done with The New York Times about long-term care. It’s called “Dying Broke.” But first, this week’s news. I thought we would try something a little bit different this week. It just happened that most of this week’s news also illustrates themes that we’ve been following throughout the year. So we get a this-week update plus a little review of the last 12 months, since this is our last podcast of the year. I want to start with the theme of, “The Biden administration has gotten a ton of things done in health, but nobody seems to have noticed.”
We learned this week that, with a month still to go, Affordable Care Act plan sign-ups are already at historic highs, topping 15 million, thanks, at least in part, to extra premium subsidies that the administration helped get past this Congress and which Congress may or may not extend next year. The administration has also managed to score some wins in the battle against high drug prices, which is something that has eluded even previous Democratic administrations. Its latest effort is the unveiling of 48 prescription drugs officially on the naughty list — that’s my phrase, not theirs — for having raised their prices by more than inflation during the last quarter of this year, and whose manufacturers may now have to pay rebates. This is something in addition to the negotiations for the high-priced drugs, right, Rachel?
Cohrs: Yeah, this was just a routine announcement about the drugs that are expected to be charged rebates and drugmakers don’t have to pay immediately; I think they’re kind of pushing that a little further down the road, as to when they’ll actually invoice those rebates. But the announcement raised a question in my mind of — certainly they want to tout that they’re enforcing the law; that’s been a big theme of this year — but it brought up a question for me as to whether the law is working to deter price hikes if these companies are all doing it anyway, so just a thought.
Rovner: It is the first year.
Cohrs: It is. This started going into effect at the end of last year, so it’s been a little over a year, but this is assessed quarterly, so the list has grown as time has gone on. But just a thought. Certainly there’s time for things to play out differently, but that’s at least what we’ve seen so far.
Rovner: They could say, which they did this week, it’s like, Look, these are drugs because they raised the prices, they’re going to have to give back some of that money. At least in theory, they’re going to have to give back some of that money.
Cohrs: In Medicare.
Rovner: Right. In Medicare. Some of this is still in court though, right?
Cohrs: Yes. So I think at any moment, I think this has been a theme of this year and will be carrying into next year, that there are several lawsuits filed by drugmakers, by trade associations, that just have not been resolved yet, and I think some of the cases are close to being fully briefed. So we may see kind of initial court rulings as to whether the law as a whole is constitutional. It is worth noting that most of those lawsuits are solely challenging the negotiation piece of the law and not the inflation rebates, but this could fall apart at any moment. There could be a stay, and I expect that the first court ruling is not going to be the last. There’s going to be a long appeals process. Who knows how long it’s going to take, how high it will go, but I think there is just a lot of uncertainty around the law as a whole.
Rovner: So the administration gets to stand there and say, “We did something about drug prices,” and the drug companies get to stand there and say, “Not yet you didn’t.”
Cohrs: Exactly. Yes, and they can both be correct.
Rovner: That’s basically where we are.
Rovner: That’s right. Well, meanwhile, in other news from this week and from this year, the Federal Trade Commission, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Health and Human Services are all adding staff to go after what Biden officials call “corporate greed” — that is their words — in health care. Apparently these new staffers are going to focus on private equity ownership of health care providers, something we have talked about a lot and so-called roll-ups, which we haven’t talked about as much. Somebody explain what a roll-up is please.
Whose: Julie, why don’t you?
Rovner: OK. I guess I’m going to explain what a roll-up is. I finally learned what a roll-up is. When companies merge and they make a really big company, then the Federal Trade Commission gets to say, “Mmm, you may be too big, and that’s going to hurt trade.” What a roll-up is is when a big company goes and buys a bunch of little companies, so each one doesn’t make it too big, but together they become this enormous — either a hospital system or a nursing home system or something that, again, is not necessarily going to make free trade and price limits by trade happen. So this is something that we have been seeing all year. Can the government really do anything about this? This also feels like sort of a lot of, in theory, they can do these things and in practice it’s really hard.
Cohrs: I feel like what we’ve seen in this space — I think my colleague Brittany wrote about kind of this move — is that the corporate structures around these entities are so complicated. Is it going to discourage companies from doing anything by hiring a couple people? Probably not. But I think the people power behind understanding how these structures work can lay the groundwork for future steps on understanding the landscape, understanding the tactics, and what we see, at least on the congressional side, is that a lot of times Congress is working 10 years behind some of the tactics that these companies are using to build market power and influence prices. So I think the more people power, the better, in terms of understanding what the most current tactics are, but it doesn’t seem like this will have significant immediate difference on these practices.
Whose: I think that the gap between where the government is and where the industry is is so enormous. I think the role of PE [private equity] in health care has grown so fast in a relatively short period of time. Was there a presence before? Yes, but it’s just really taken off. So I think that if those who advocate for greater oversight, if they could just get some transparency, that would be their win, at the moment. They cannot go in and stop private equity. They would like to get to the point where they could curb abuse or set parameters or however you want to phrase it, and different people would phrase it in different ways, but right now they don’t even really know what’s going on. So, even among the Democrats, there was a fight this year about whether to include transparency language between [the House committees on] Energy and Commerce and Ways and Means, and I don’t think that was ever resolved.
I think that’s part of the “Let’s do it in January” mess. But I think they just sort of want not only greater insight for the government, but also for the public: What is going on here and what are its implications? People who criticize private equity — the defenders can always find some examples of companies that are doing good things. They exist. We all know who the two or three companies we hear all the time are, but I think it’s a really enormous black box, and not only is it a black box, but it’s a black box that’s both growing and shifting, and getting into areas that we didn’t anticipate a few years ago, like ophthalmology. We’ve seen some of these studies this year about specialties that we didn’t think of as PE targets. So it’s a big catch-up for roll-up.
Rovner: Yeah, and I think it’s also another place that the administration — and I think the Trump administration tried to do this too. Republicans don’t love some of these things either. The public complains about high health care costs. They’re right; we have ridiculously high health care costs in this country, much higher than in other countries, and this is one of the reasons why, is that there are companies going in who are looking to simply do it to make a profit and they can go in and buy these things up and raise prices. That’s a lot of what we’re seeing and a lot of why people are so frustrated. I think at very least it at least shows them: It’s like, “See, this is what’s happening, and this is one of the reasons why you’re paying so much.”
Whose: It’s also changing how providers and practitioners work, and how much autonomy they have and who they work for. It’s in an era when we have workforce shortages in some sectors and burnout and dissatisfaction. There are pockets at least, and again, we don’t really know how big, because we don’t have our arms around this, but there are pockets; at least we do know where the PE ownership and how they dictate practice is worsening these issues of burnout and dissatisfaction. I’m having dinner tomorrow night with a expert on health care antitrust, so if we were doing this next week, I would be so much smarter.
Rovner: We will be sure to call on you in January. Workforce burnout: This is another theme that we’ve talked about a lot this year.
Whose: It’s getting into places you just wouldn’t think. I was talking to a physical therapist the other day and her firm has been bought up, and it’s changing the way she practices and her ability to make decisions and how often she’s allowed to see a patient.
Rovner: Yeah. Well, another continuing theme. Well, yet another big issue this year has been the so-called Medicaid unwinding, as states redetermine eligibility for the first time since the pandemic began. All year, we’ve been hearing stories about people who are still eligible being dropped from the rolls, either mistakenly or because they failed to file paperwork they may never have received. Among the more common mistakes that states are making is cutting off children’s coverage because their parents are no longer eligible, even though children are eligible for coverage up to much higher family incomes than their parents. So even if the parents aren’t eligible anymore, the children most likely are.
This week, the federal government reached out to the nine states that have the highest rates of discontinuing children’s coverage, including some pretty big states, like Texas and Florida, urging them to use shortcuts that could get those children’s insurance back. But this has been a push-and-pull effort all year between the states and the federal government, with the feds trying not to push too hard. At one point, they wouldn’t even tell us which states they were sort of chiding for taking too many people off too fast. And it feels like some of the states don’t really want to have all these people on Medicaid and they would just as so on drop them even if they might be eligible. Is that kind of where we are?
Raman: You can kind of look to see the tea leaves at what some of these states are. The states that the health secretary wrote to, that have 60% of the decline in the kids being disenrolled, align pretty well with the states that have not expanded Medicaid. So they’re already going to have much fewer people enrolled than states where the eligibility levels are a lot more generous. So it’s not surprising, and some of these states have been just a little bit more aggressive from the get-go or said that they wanted to do the eligibility redeterminations a lot faster than some of the other states that wanted to take the longer time, reevaluate different ways to see if someone was still eligible, whether they were maybe getting SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] benefits or other things like that. So it’s not surprising.
Rovner: You mean do it more carefully.
Raman: Yeah, yeah, so I think that the letter is one step, but if those states are really going to take up implementing these other strategies to kind of decrease that drop-off, unclear, just because they have been pretty proactive about doing this in a quick process.
Rovner: I also noticed that the states that the HHS secretary wrote to kind of tracked with the states that didn’t expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, but interestingly, that meant that there would’ve been fewer parents who were eligible in the first place. So there shouldn’t have been as many children cut off, because there weren’t as many parents who ever got onto Medicaid in those states, which is why it made me raise my eyebrows a little bit. Again, I think this is something that we shall continue to follow going into next year.
Whose: But we should also point out that even the more pro-Medicaid, liberal states have not done a great job with unwinding. It’s been bumpy pretty much across the board. It’s been very problematic. It’s a clumsy process in a normal year, and trying to catch up on three years’ worth — this is a population where people’s income varies a lot. Are you just over the line? Are you just under the line? It’s fluctuating, the eligibility changes. But you try to do three years at once after all the chaos, with political undercurrents such as the nonexpansion states, and it makes it harder and messier.
Rovner: Which was predicted and came true. So yet another theme from this year is what I’m calling the managed care backlash redux. In the late 1990s, when lots of people were herded into managed care for the first time, there were lots of horror stories about patients being denied care, doctors being put through bureaucratic hoops, unqualified people making medical decisions. There’s a bipartisan bill that almost came to fruition in 2001 for what was called a patient’s bill of rights, but it was pushed off the agenda by 9/11. Most of the protections in that bill, however, were eventually included in the Affordable Care Act.
So now it’s 2023, and lo and behold, those same issues are back. A top issue for the American Medical Association this year is reining in prior authorization requirements, which require doctors to actually get permission before their patients can get recommended care. In one particularly painful story recentlya woman who’d been approved for a lung transplant had her surgery canceled by her insurer, literally on the way to the OR [operating room]. Later, and not coincidentally after a public outcry, the insurer, Cigna, called the whole thing, quote, “An error.” So she did finally get her lung transplant. Joanne, you covered the patient’s bill of rights fight with me back in the day. Most things that are being complained about now are now illegal. So why are we seeing so much of it again?
Whose: Because there’s confusion about — patients don’t know what their rights are. All of us are savvy and all of us have had something in our own insurance that we don’t understand, or maybe we end up navigating it, but it’s not ever easy. Things like prior authorization — they say, “Well, we have to make sure people are getting appropriate care.” There is an element of truth there; there is overuse in American health care. There are people who get things they don’t really need or should try something less intrusive and less expensive first. So you have this genuine issue of overtreatment, back surgery being the classic example. Many people will do just as well with physical therapy and things like that than they will with an $80,000 operation. In fact, they might do better with the PT and not with the $80,000 operation.
So is there any validity to the idea of making sure people get appropriate care? Yes, but they say no to stuff that they should be covering. That’s clear, and that patients don’t always know what the right pathway is, because doctors also have incentives, or just the way they’re trained and the way they look at their — surgeons like to cut. It’s what they’re trained to do. They trained for years. So it’s really complicated, because there’s this collision between overuse and overtreatment and overcharging and all the over, over, over stuff that comes from the provider world and the no, no, no, no, no, no, no, “you can’t have that” stuff that comes from the insurer world, sometimes appropriately, but often not appropriately.
Rovner: Then I guess you load onto that the private equity and now the providers whose overlords are in it to make a profit. Then you have sort of private equity butting heads with insurance, which is one of the reasons I think we are sort of ending up here. But it certainly does feel very reminiscent of things that I’ve been through before. We’re seeing yet a similar story with Medicare Advantage, which is the private Medicare managed care program that now enrolls more than half of the Medicare population and makes lots of money for its private insurance companies that offer them.
Rachel, your colleagues wrote about a Humana algorithm that was being used to deny care after a patient had received it for, quote-unquote, “an average period of time, regardless of the patient’s condition,” meaning that if patient is sicker than average, they were saying, “Too bad, we’re only going to give this to you for 18 days because that’s what the average patient needs. If you need more, sorry about that.” So Congress is now trying to get into the act, trying to ensure that Medicare patients, who tend to vote in disproportionate numbers, get their needed care. The insurance industry is pushing back against the pushback. What’s the outlook for Congress actually getting something done on this issue? I’ve heard a lot of talk. I haven’t seen a whole lot of action.
Cohrs: Yeah, I mean certainly there has been talk — and just to point out that the Humana lawsuit is related to the UnitedHealth Group lawsuit that we saw earlier; it’s the same company making the algorithm. Bob and Casey’s reporting was just more focused on UnitedHealth Group, because they got internal documents showing the correlation between the quote-unquote “recommendation” of this algorithm and care decisions and denials and people being cut off from their rehab services. So I think certainly, I think there has been a lot of outcry. We’re seeing this play out in the legal system beforehand. This is an issue that we’ve discussed as well.
Are we going to regulate through the courts, because everything else is too slow? I think AI is certainly a hot topic on the Hill at the moment, and there is lawmaker interest, but this is just a very complicated space. Lawmakers, though they might try their best, are not the most tech-savvy people. These are very powerful interests that I would imagine would oppose some of these regulations if they were to actually materialize. So, there’s nothing imminent. Certainly if we see these lawsuits keep piling up, if we see discovery, if we see some more examples of this happening where other companies are using the algorithms as well, a groundswell — as you mentioned, Medicare patients are an important constituency — I think we could see some action, but it’s not looking imminent at this time.
Whose: The other thing is there’s been a number of reports from a number of media outlets, Stat and others, that these algorithms are being used without any people to work with them. Like, OK, here’s this algorithm and it’s doing these batches of like, I’m going to say no to 50,000 people in 20 seconds. I’m exaggerating a little bit there, but yes, is there legitimate questions about what is appropriate treatment? Yes.
Or you hear these stories about people told, “You can’t have this drug; you have to have that drug at first,” but they would try that drug and it didn’t work for them, and there’s just no way of — the reason we have five or six similar drugs is that in some cases, those slight differences, people respond differently, mental health being a huge example of that, right? Where it could be very hard to get people on the right drugs, if person A doesn’t respond the same way as person B, even if they have the same condition. But 50,000, I don’t know if that’s the right number, but I think I remember reading one where it was 50,000 going through an algorithm. That’s not appropriate use; that’s mass production of saying no to some legitimate needs.
Rovner: Sandhya, I see you nodding there. I know that this is something that’s kind of bipartisan, right? Members of Congress get complaints about Medicare, which is something that they do, members of Congress, oversee. It is a government program, even though these are being run by private companies. I’m sort of wondering when this is going to reach a boiling point that’s going to require something to be done.
Raman: I think with some of these issues that we face that are kind of evergreen here, there has been a bipartisan push to find kind of ways to reform the prior authorization process. We’ve had people as different as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) say they want reform, or Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) is very different from Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), and they’ve both said that, similar things that …
Rovner: Some of the most conservative and the most liberal members of Congress.
Raman: Yeah, so we’ve got a broad stretch, but I think at the same time, if you look at some of the other things that we have to deal with here — Congress is out for the year, but for next year, we are fairly behind in that we have a long list of things that need to be extended by mid-January. Then we have just funding all of HHS and a number of other government things by early February. So getting something from start to finish next year, which is also an election year, is going to be tough. So I think that there’s interest there, but I don’t know that getting something hashed out is going to be the easiest next year of all years.
Rovner: Yeah, I think it’s fair to say that Congress took an incomplete in most subjects this year. Well, finally this week, the topic that I think has been in every podcast this year, which is abortion. One of the threads that has wound through this year’s coverage is the strong support for abortion rights from voters, even in red and red-ish states. This year, Ohio voters affirmed a right to abortion, twice actually; there was a technical vote back in the summer. And in Virginia, Democrats flipped the legislature by running against Republican promises to impose a compromise 15-week ban, which apparently did not seem to be a compromise to most of the voters. That was after a half a dozen states voted in favor of the abortion rights position in the 2022 midterms. So this week we have a pair of stories, one from Politico and one from The New York Timesabout how anti-abortion forces are working to keep future abortion-related questions off of the ballot in states where there’s still that possibility, including Florida, Missouri, Arizona, and Nevada.
One Republican Missouri lawmaker said that the right to life, quote, “should not be taken away because of a vote by a simple majority,” which frankly felt a little breathtaking to me. He has filed a bill that would require ballot measure s to pass not just statewide, but with a majority in more than half of the state’s congressional districts. So basically in the really red parts of the states, a majority there would also have to vote for this. These people are getting very creative in their attempts to stop these votes from happening, maybe because they don’t think they can win them if it’s just straight up or down.
Raman: I think one thing to look at is kind of how we see some of these similar tactics in the same way that we saw with Medicaid. When Medicaid expansion started winning on different ballots, there were states that tried to put in measures to kind of tamp that down, saying, “You need a higher threshold,” and maybe that doesn’t pass, but still putting in different tactics to reduce the likelihood of that passing. I think that’s kind of what we’ve been seeing here, whether or not it’s Ohio trying to change its threshold, or we’ve had states say that even if something passed, let’s try to tear that back so that it doesn’t actually get implemented, or ahead of the ones for next year, let us find tactics to reduce the likelihood they’ll get the signatures to be on the ballot or reduce the likelihood of it passing by changing the language or pushing for challenging the language.
So there’s kind of what we saw right after the Dobbs decision, which was just a very “throw spaghetti at the wall, see what sticks,” just kind of ramp up things and see what will work, given that the last — all of the elections that we’ve had post-Dobbs have been in the favor of abortion rights. Even when we’ve tried to pass an anti-abortion measure, it’s not passed at the ballot. In the stories that you mentioned, there was another quote that stuck out to me, where they’d also mentioned that maybe this should not be subject to majority vote, I think in the Politico piece as well. So I think that’s something that is interesting that I haven’t really seen vocalized before, that this should be done in a different manner rather than this is how the majority of people feel one way or the other.
Rovner: Yeah, it felt so ironic because when in the Dobbs decision, Justice [Samuel] Alito wrote, “Well, now we’re turning this back to the states to be decided by their voters.” Well, here are their voters deciding, and it turns out the anti-abortion side don’t like the way the voters are voting, so they’re going to try to not have the voters vote, basically. We will see how this one all plays out. The other continuing story this year is women being prosecuted basically for bad pregnancy outcomes. Last week we talked about the case of Brittany Watts, an Ohio woman who was sent home from a hospital emergency room twice, had a miscarriage, and this week had formal charges filed against her for, quote, “abusing a corpse.” This case hasn’t gotten nearly the attention of the case of Kate Cox, the Texas woman whose fetus was diagnosed with fatal defects and who filed suit to be allowed to have an abortion.
She eventually had to go to another state, and that was even before the permission that had been granted by a lower-court judge was overturned by the Texas Supreme Court. It may be at least in part because Brittany Watts is black, or that she didn’t put herself out in public the way Kate Cox did, but this is a way that prosecutors can punish women even in states where abortion remains legal. Remember Ohio voted twice this year to keep abortion legal, and this wasn’t even an abortion; it was a miscarriage. The medical examiner determined that the fetus was already dead when it passed. What are the prosecutors trying to do here? We talk about chilling effects. This is kind of the ultimate chilling effect, right?
Raman: It really is, because here we have someone that was not, as you said, seeking an abortion. She miscarried, and I think that she was 21 weeks and five days pregnant, and then they had the 21-week cutoff. So it gets sent into really murky waters here because I’m not sure what they’re going for, kind of picking this case to prosecute and go with. We’ve had this happen before where people have self-managed or miscarried, and then they’ve ended up being prosecuted. But at this point, I’m not sure why they’re making a case out of this particular woman, kind of dragging this into the debate.
Rovner: Yeah, there was a famous case in Indiana — 2013, may have been even before that — a pregnant woman who tried to kill herself and failed to kill herself, but did kill her fetus, and she was put in jail for several years. There have been, at least there was sort of the question there, were you trying to self-abort at that point? But there was nothing here. This was a woman with a wanted pregnancy whose pregnancy ended via natural circumstances, which happens, I think we’ve discovered now, a lot more than people realize.
I think people don’t talk about unhappy pregnancy outcomes, so people don’t realize how common they actually are. But I wonder — and I’ve been saying this all year — again, if women are fearing prosecution, even women who want babies, they may fear getting pregnant. I’ve seen some stories about more permanent types of birth control happening because women don’t want to get pregnant, because they don’t want to end up in a place where their health is being risked or they’re trying to get health care they need and their doctor or they could be facing prison time.
Whose: And in this case, she had gone to the hospital. It’s complicated. She went in and out of the hospital. She went to the ER; they sent her home. I think then once they sent her home another time, she left against medical advice, but she wasn’t trying to get an abortion. She was having pregnancy complications. It’s documented. She was in and out of medical care. Pregnancies can fail, and early, the first trimester, it’s a very high rate. It’s less common later on, but it still happens. There are times when an early miscarriage, you might not even know that it’s a miscarriage. It’s early. You don’t know what’s even going on with your own body, or you’re not certain. So she didn’t know what to do at home when she did miscarry. It seems very punitive. Did she behave in an absolutely ideal, textbook-perfect, the way you wish she might have? But she did what she could do at the time.
Rovner: Yeah, it’s hard to know what to do. Well, we will watch this case, I think, even though it’s not, as I say, it’s not getting quite the attention of some of the other cases. Our final this week in health information of 2023 goes to an ad that came to my email from the All Family Pharmacy in Boca Raton, Florida. The headline is “Miracle Drug Ivermectin for Covid-19 Could Save Lives,” and it claims that, quote, “a growing body of evidence from dozens of studies worldwide demonstrates ivermectin’s unique and highly potent ability to inhibit SARS-CoV-2 replication and aid in the recovery from covid-19.”
That sounded not quite right to me, so I looked up some of the studies that they cited and found that most had been thoroughly debunked, that ivermectin is not really good treatment for covid-19. I even found one study from an open-access journal that had to publish a correction, noting that two of its authors were paid consultants to ivermectin manufacturers, though they had failed to disclose that conflict. Meanwhile, if you don’t want ivermectin or hydroxychloroquine, which the All Family Pharmacy also sells, they will also sell you semaglutide, which is the scientific name of the hard-to-get weight loss drug Ozempic. And they say their price even includes a doctor consult. I will post the links in the show notes. All right, that is this week’s news. Now we will play my interview with Jordan Rau about his long-term care financing series. Then we’ll come back with our extra credits.
I am pleased to welcome to the podcast my KFF Health News colleague Jordan Rau. I asked Jordan to join us to talk about his latest project, “Dying Broke,” done in partnership with The New York Times. It’s about the growing expense of long-term care and the declining ability of Americans to pay for it. Jordan, welcome to “What the Health?”
Jordan Rau: Glad to be here, Julie.
Rovner: So I want you to start with the 30-second elevator pitch about what you found working on this, for two years?
For: Just about. The big-picture view is that when you’re elderly, if you need long-term care, by which we’re talking about nonmedical things, like personal aides, if you need help in your daily activities going to the bathroom or eating or such, or if you have a cognitive impairment like dementia, it’s exceedingly expensive, except if you are destitute. The private market solutions, which are long-term care insurance, really don’t work, and most people don’t hold it. The government solution, which is Medicaid, is only available to you once you’ve exhausted just about all of your assets and have very low income. And that’s led the vast majority of people out on their own financially to either rely on themselves or their family or other people to take up the burden. And that burden is significant for the children of older people.
Rovner: So it’s not just nursing home care that costs more than all but the richest can afford; assisted living and home care, which people assume are going to be a lot cheaper and that maybe their retirement savings will cover — they’re also increasingly out of reach. Why has the price of long-term care gone up so much faster than Americans’ retirement savings?
For: All of medical inflation has gone up enormously, but I think a lot of it is that there’s so little regulation on prices. There’s frankly no regulation on prices of assisted living, and you don’t have a large payer that can control prices. That’s one of the good things about Medicare, is that they set their own prices and that’s helped keep prices down. That’s why it’s less expensive for Medicare to send someone to a nursing home than for someone to pay out-of-pocket. But there’s none of that. So the prices have just gone where they’ve gone, and now you have a scarcity of workers as well. So that’s driving up wages.
Rovner: People who’ve been socking away money and thinking they’re going to be able to pay for this themselves get kind of a rude awakening when they need, and it’s not — as you say, it’s not even medical long-term care; it’s just help with activities of daily living.
For: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think one of the problems is that people assume they have the best-case scenario when they’re envisioning their retirement. They’re going to be off golfing, they’re going to be playing around with their grandkids, they’re going to be taking trips. The fact is, you’re very likely — if you live well into your 80s and 90s, as many people do — to not be able to live independently anymore, to need help with at least a little bit of things, and in worst-case scenario everything. People just don’t expect that that’s going to happen.
Rovner: So why do so many Americans still not know that Medicare doesn’t pay for long-term care? I feel like I’ve been saying this since 1980-something.
For: I wonder how much of it would’ve been different if they had decided to name Medicaid something that isn’t so close to Medicare. Maybe that would’ve helped, but realistically, everyone I think has a sense. Well, first of all, who’s paying attention to this stuff when you’re in your 30s and 40s, right? You’re not thinking about what’s going to happen to you in the 60s. And then I think that people just don’t expect that this is going to happen to them, and Medicare has a well-earned reputation as being pretty comprehensive. It doesn’t cover certain things, and there is a “donut hole” situation, so you’ve got to get supplemental. But people know that for the most part, it’s covered. And people don’t understand that long-term care, the nonmedical side, is — not just here, everywhere — it’s the backwater of health care. It’s not even considered health care in some ways.
So you just assume — I mean, I would assume, right, if Medicare is going to cover my heart transplant, why would I not th ink that it’s going to cover someone to come to my house a couple hours a day to help me with stuff or to put me in an assisted living facility if it covers nursing home care? It’s such a complicated, Byzantine system. You and I, we’ve been doing this probably combined, well, I don’t want to say how long, but it’s been a long time, and it’s hard for us to untangle exactly what is covered and what overlaps with what and what are the eligibility rules. So to expect a regular person, who isn’t paid to do this 50 hours a week, to know it is highly unrealistic.
Rovner: Yeah, and I was going to say the fact that Medicare actually has a home care benefit and it has a nursing home benefit; they’re just super limited. I think that sort of adds to the confusion too, doesn’t it?
For: Yeah. Well, even Medicare is confused about its home care benefit, right? There’s the whole Jimmo case and a whole debate about what you need to qualify for it.
Rovner: So listeners will know that long-term care and our country’s complete lack of a long-term care policy is a pet issue of mine and has been since I started writing about it in 1986. It isn’t like the government hasn’t tried to do something. There was the ill-fated Medicare Catastrophic Coverage Act in 1988 that ended up getting repealed. There were efforts to subsidize private long-term care insurance in the 1990s that didn’t really go anywhere, and there was the CLASS [Community Living Assistance Services and Supports] Act that was briefly part of the Affordable Care Act when it passed in 2010, only to be abandoned as financially unfeasible. Why has this been such a hard issue to address from a policy point of view?
For: The one-word answer obviously is money. It’s incredibly expensive. So to have that type of lift, it would be to expand either Medicaid or Medicare or to create a new program; would be inordinately expensive. But beyond that, I think basically, to do this, you either have to tag on something to one of those existing programs, which is a major expansion, or you have to have a mandatory insurance program. It could be a public one; it can be a private one. I think that it’s hard because it’s not universal. Auto insurance — everybody drives, right? So if you say, OK, you all know you’re going to drive, and people know like, Oh, I may get into an accident. So then you have a functioning insurance market.
Health insurance, sort of the same thing. Everyone knows that they’re going to need health insurance maybe next year. So that’s an easier sell. Even that, right, with the Affordable Care Act — that passed by just one vote. That was a heavy lift. So here you’re saying, here’s something that you may need but you very well may never tap. By the way, we want you to pay for it now or buy into it now, and it’s not relevant for your life until 30 years. I just think that’s a hard sell politically to the population, to the political system. It’s a hard sell.
Rovner: So if there was just one message that you hope people take away after reading this exhaustive series, what do you think it should be?
For: Printing the series out and frame it and put it on your wall would be my main message. But I would say that this stuff is so unpredictable that you really have to have some flexibility in your expectations and planning, because you can’t plan to not get early-onset dementia. You can’t plan to need help. So I think that you need to — people obviously need to have as much of a cash cushion as they can, and they need to bone up on this before it’s a crisis, because by the time it’s a crisis — and this is a problem, right, with health insurance too. By the time you’ve got the emotional and health issues, to throw on top of it a bureaucratic sort of financial issue is just so hard for most people to juggle. So there isn’t an easy solution, but it is important for people to realize that this is as much of a risk as smashing your car into a telephone pole and that you cannot have one answer.
Your answer cannot be like, “Oh, well I’m just going to stay in my house, because you may not be able to stay in your house.” Or your answer can’t be, “Well, I’m going to go into a fancy assisted living facility with a great chandelier and great food,” because unless you save an inordinate amount of money, even if you go in there, you may not be able to afford to stay there. So it’s really a recognition that you can’t really concretely plan for this, but you may very well not be able to live independently if you are lucky enough to live into your eighth and ninth decade.
Rovner: Great. Jordan Rau, anything I didn’t ask?
For: Never. Never, Julie.
Rovner: Jordan Rau, thank you so much for joining us.
For: Great to see you.
Rovner: OK. We are back, and it’s time for our last extra credit segment of the year. 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. Rachel, why don’t you go first this week?
Cohrs: Sure. The story I chose is in ProPublica. The headline is “Doctors With Histories of Big Malpractice Settlements Work for Insurers, Deciding If They’ll Pay for Care,” by Patrick Rucker at The Capitol Forum and David Armstrong and Doris Burke at ProPublica. I think this article very much fits into the larger theme we were talking about earlier about insurance denials. This was pretty shocking still to me, of these instances of doctors with big malpractice settlements that had been disciplined by medical boards failing up essentially and getting jobs. If they can’t practice anymore, then they’re getting jobs in insurance companies instead, deciding whether a much larger volume of patients get care. So I think it was just a fascinating, really well-done investigation. It sounded like it was really difficult to match up all the records with the lawsuits and the settlements, and there aren’t necessarily databases that exist of what doctors work for insurance companies. So it was just really well done and just a really important space that we’ll continue to talk about.
Whose: That was a great piece. These doctors are making $300,000 to $400,000 a year, these people who failed up, as Rachel just put it. Yeah.
Rovner: Yeah. That’s the perfect phrase. Sandhya.
Raman: My extra credit this week is called “Mississippi Community Workers Battle Maternal Mortality Crisis,” and it’s from my colleague at Roll Call Lauren Clason. This story also illustrates a combination of themes from this year. It touches on some of the maternal health inequities, the racial inequities, and rural health inequities, and how politics kind of comes into all of that. Mississippi Black women die at a rate four times higher than white women, and the state also leads in infant mortality rates nationwide. At the same time, it’s also a nonexpansion state for Medicaid. So Lauren went to Mississippi to look at some of the community and state-led groups that are trying to reduce these inequities that are caused by the different racial, socioeconomic, and access factors that are happening at the same time that an increasing number of hospitals are closing in the state.
Rovner: Also another really good story. Joanne?
Whose: The theme of the day is yearlong, or decades-long in some cases, but ongoing health stories that have dominated the year. Another one that we didn’t touch on today but clearly is an ongoing multiyear health crisis is gun violence, which is a public health problem as well as a criminal justice problem. The Trace did a fantastic end-of-year project by Justin Agrelo. It’s called “Chicago Shooting Survivors, in Their Own Words.” They worked with both people who had survived shootings as well as people who had lost family members to shootings, and they worked with them about how to write and tell stories.
These five stories are in these people’s own words, and it was partnered with a bunch of other Chicago-based publications. They’re very powerful. In the introduction, they wrote that the Chicago media has been really good about trying to cover every homicide but that these people end up being defined by their death, not everything else about their life. These essays, they didn’t just talk about grief, which is obviously a huge — grief and trauma — but also the lives, not just the deaths. It’s really, really worth spending some time with.
Rovner: Yeah, and we haven’t talked as much as we probably should have about gun violence, but we will put that on the list for 2024. My extra credit this week is from Business Insider. It’s called “I Feel Conned Into Keeping This Baby.” It’s by Bethany Dawson, Louise Ridley, and Sarah Posner. It’s about an anti-abortion group that promised pregnant women financial support for their babies if they agreed not to get an abortion. But even though the women signed contracts, the group, called Let Them Live, did not provide the aid promised. Apparently they promised more money than they could raise in contributions. Now, I have heard of pregnancy crisis centers promising things like diapers and formula, but this group said it would help with groceries and rent and other significant expenses until it didn’t. Apparently the small print in the contract said the benefits could be reduced or stopped at any time. This was supposed to help answer the criticism that anti-abortion groups don’t actually care about the women, particularly after they give birth, except maybe promising things that you can’t deliver isn’t the best way to do that.
OK. That is our show for this week and for this year. 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 technical guru, Francis Ying, and our editor, Emmarie Huetteman. Also as always, you can email us your comments or questions. We’re at email@example.com. Or you can still find me at X, @jrovneror @julierovner at Bluesky and @julie.rovner at Threads. Sandhya, where are you on social media these days?
Rovner: We will be back in your feed in 2024. Until then, have a great holiday season, and be healthy.