KHN’s ‘What the Health?’: 100 Days of Health Policy

It’s 100 days into Joe Biden’s presidency and a surprisingly large number of health policies have been announced. But health is notably absent from the administration’s $1.8 trillion spending plan for American families, making it unclear how much more will get done this year. Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention loosens its mask-wearing recommendations for those who have been vaccinated, but the new rules are confusing. Joanne Kenen of Politico, Mary Ellen McIntire of CQ Roll Call and Sarah Karlin-Smith of the Pink Sheet join KHN’s Julie Rovner to discuss these issues and more. Plus, Rovner interviews KHN’s Julie Appleby, who reported the latest KHN-NPR “Bill of the Month” episode.

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It’s been a busy 100 days for the Biden administration on health policy. The promise Joe Biden made as president-elect to get 100 million covid vaccinations in arms was doubled, healthcare.gov reopened to those without insurance, and steps were taken to undo a raft of health policies implemented by President Donald Trump. The covid relief bill passed by Congress in March also boosted subsidies for those who buy their own coverage and provided incentives for the 12 states that have yet to expand their Medicaid programs under the ACA.

But those actions may prove the high point for health policy this year. Administration officials initially promised that health would be a major part of the president’s $1.8 trillion American Families Plan, but major changes, particularly those addressing prescription drug costs, were nowhere to be seen when the plan was unveiled Wednesday.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of KHN, Joanne Kenen of Politico, Mary Ellen McIntire of CQ Roll Call and Sarah Karlin-Smith of the Pink Sheet

Here are some takeaways from this week’s podcast:

  • Among the Trump administration health policies the Biden administration has moved to reverse are those on women’s reproductive health and Medicaid work requirements. Some experts suggest that Democratic officials pushed forward on this with good speed because the past administration’s health policies were easier to disentangle than its rules on environment, where Biden also wants to make changes.
  • Democratic lawmakers had seemed eager to use Biden’s family plan to expand Medicare or drive down prescription drug prices. It likely signals that while health care is a key issue for Democrats on Capitol Hill, it is not as big a priority in the White House. Biden, who did mention those policies favored by progressive lawmakers in his speech to Congress on Wednesday, seems to be putting his emphasis on strengthening the Affordable Care Act.
  • Right now, the pharmaceutical industry is scoring high with voters and politicians because of the successes of the covid vaccines. So, getting Senate approval of a bill to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices is likely to be difficult. Those odds get even tougher without pressure from the White House.
  • Biden may also have shied away from the drug pricing initiative in his formal plan for helping families because he was concerned that it could divide the Democratic caucus and imperil the overall initiative.
  • The administration is gearing up to provide India with help to fight the pandemic. Public health officials point out that although the vaccination effort in the U.S. is going well, it is imperative to tamp down the virus in other countries so variants that could evade the vaccines don’t develop. However, there is already a debate about how much U.S. vaccine to ship abroad before authorities determine how to vaccinate children here.
  • Federal health officials have lifted the pause on using the Johnson & Johnson covid vaccine, but that decision has been controversial and some scientists question whether there was enough study or it was the right move.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention loosened its mask-wearing recommendations for people who have been vaccinated, but the new rules are confusing and even sparked some jokes among late-night TV comedians.
  • As the vaccination efforts in the U.S. gain steam, interest is growing among people with long-term cases of covid-19. A hearing on Capitol Hill this week looked at some of the issues, such as what sorts of disabilities these patients face and what workplace accommodations are necessary.
  • The National Institutes of Health is beginning major studies of “long covid” and its myriad symptoms. Although health officials do not yet have a clear definition of long covid, they are generally not dismissing patients’ complaints about the disorder. That differs from some mysterious ailments in the past.
  • The Biden administration has loosened the rules governing who can prescribe the drug buprenorphine, a controversial but effective treatment for opioid addiction. The policy eliminates a training requirement and seeks to allow medical professionals other than doctors to prescribe the drug. But hurdles to its use remain, leading some to question how much more widely the drug will be used as a result of the new policy.

Also this week, Rovner interviews KHN’s Julie Appleby, who reported the latest KHN-NPR “Bill of the Month” feature — about the intersection between car insurance and health insurance. If you have an outrageous medical bill you’d like to share with us, you can do it here.

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

Julie Rovner: This American Life’s “The Herd,” by Ira Glass, Anna Maria Barry-Jester and David Kestenbaum. Also, KHN’s “We’re Coming for You’: For Public Health Officials, a Year of Threats and Menace,” by Anna Maria Barry-Jester.

Joanne Kenen: The New Yorker’s “How Vaccine Hesitancy Is Driving Breakthrough Infections in Nursing Homes,” by Masha Gessen.

Mary Ellen McIntire: CQ Roll Call’s “FEMA’s Tasks Pit COVID-19 Vaccinations Against Hurricane Prep,” by Emily Kopp.

Sarah Karlin-Smith: The Pink Sheet’s “Conflicts Galore: Upcoming Accelerated Approval Cancer Panel Includes Many Industry Relationships,” by Sarah Karlin-Smith.

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KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.

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Doctors More Likely to Prescribe Opioids to Covid ‘Long Haulers,’ Raising Addiction Fears

Chronic pain from covid can linger for months after patients appear to recover from the disease.

Covid survivors are at risk from a possible second pandemic, this time of opioid addiction, given the high rate of painkillers being prescribed to these patients, health experts say.

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A new study in Nature found alarmingly high rates of opioid use among covid survivors with lingering symptoms at Veterans Health Administration facilities. About 10% of covid survivors develop “long covid,” struggling with often disabling health problems even six months or longer after a diagnosis.

For every 1,000 long-covid patients, known as “long haulers,” who were treated at a Veterans Affairs facility, doctors wrote nine more prescriptions for opioids than they otherwise would have, along with 22 additional prescriptions for benzodiazepines, which include Xanax and other addictive pills used to treat anxiety.

Although previous studies have found many covid survivors experience persistent health problems, the new article is the first to show they’re using more addictive medications, said Dr. Ziyad Al-Aly, the paper’s lead author.

He’s concerned that even an apparently small increase in the inappropriate use of addictive pain pills will lead to a resurgence of the prescription opioid crisis, given the large number of covid survivors. More than 3 million of the 31 million Americans infected with covid develop long-term symptoms, which can include fatigue, shortness of breath, depression, anxiety and memory problems known as “brain fog.”

The new study also found many patients have significant muscle and bone pain.

The frequent use of opioids was surprising, given concerns about their potential for addiction, said Al-Aly, chief of research and education service at the VA St. Louis Health Care System.

“Physicians now are supposed to shy away from prescribing opioids,” said Al-Aly, who studied more than 73,000 patients in the VA system. When Al-Aly saw the number of opioids prescriptions, he said, he thought to himself, “Is this really happening all over again?”

Doctors need to act now, before “it’s too late to do something,” Al-Aly said. “We must act now and ensure that people are getting the care they need. We do not want this to balloon into a suicide crisis or another opioid epidemic.”

As more doctors became aware of their addictive potential, new opioid prescriptions fell, by more than half since 2012. But U.S. doctors still prescribe far more of the drugs — which include OxyContin, Vicodin and codeine — than physicians in other countries, said Dr. Andrew Kolodny, medical director of opioid policy research at Brandeis University.

Some patients who became addicted to prescription painkillers switched to heroin, either because it was cheaper or because they could no longer obtain opioids from their doctors. Overdose deaths surged in recent years as drug dealers began spiking heroin with a powerful synthetic opioid called fentanyl.

More than 88,000 Americans died from overdoses during the 12 months ending in August 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Health experts now advise doctors to avoid prescribing opioids for long periods.

The new study “suggests to me that many clinicians still don’t get it,” Kolodny said. “Many clinicians are under the false impression that opioids are appropriate for chronic pain patients.”

Hospitalized covid patients often receive a lot of medication to control pain and anxiety, especially in intensive care units, said Dr. Greg Martin, president of the Society of Critical Care Medicine. Patients placed on ventilators, for example, are often sedated to make them more comfortable.

Martin said he’s concerned by the study’s findings, which suggest patients are unnecessarily continuing medications after leaving the hospital.

“I worry that covid-19 patients, especially those who are severely and critically ill, receive a lot of medications during the hospitalization, and because they have persistent symptoms, the medications are continued after hospital discharge,” Martin said.

While some covid patients are experiencing muscle and bone pain for the first time, others say the illness has intensified their preexisting pain.

Rachael Sunshine Burnett has suffered from chronic pain in her back and feet for 20 years, ever since an accident at a warehouse where she once worked. But Burnett, who first was diagnosed with covid in April 2020, said the pain soon became 10 times worse and spread to the area between her shoulders and spine. Although she was already taking long-acting OxyContin twice a day, her doctor prescribed an additional opioid called oxycodone, which relieves pain immediately. She was reinfected with covid in December.

“It’s been a horrible, horrible year,” said Burnett, 43, of Coxsackie, New York.

Doctors should recognize that pain can be a part of long covid, Martin said. “We need to find the proper non-narcotic treatment for it, just like we do with other forms of chronic pain,” he said.

The CDC recommends a number of alternatives to opioids — from physical therapy to biofeedback, over-the-counter anti-inflammatories, antidepressants and anti-seizure drugs that also relieve nerve pain.

The country also needs an overall strategy to cope with the wave of post-covid complications, Al-Aly said

“It’s better to be prepared than to be caught off guard years from now, when doctors realize … ‘Oh, we have a resurgence in opioids,’” Al-Aly said.

Al-Aly noted that his study may not capture the full complexity of post-covid patient needs. Although women make up the majority of long-covid patients in most studies, most patients in the VA system are men.

The study of VA patients makes it “abundantly clear that we are not prepared to meet the needs of 3 million Americans with long covid,” said Dr. Eric Topol, founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute. “We desperately need an intervention that will effectively treat these individuals.”

Al-Aly said covid survivors may need care for years.

“That’s going to be a huge, significant burden on the health care system,” Al-Aly said. “Long covid will reverberate in the health system for years or even decades to come.”

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.

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This story can be republished for free (details).