Readers and Tweeters Weigh In on America’s Medical Debt, Obesity Epidemic, and Opioid Battles

KHN gives readers a chance to comment on a recent batch of stories.

Letters to the Editor is a periodic feature. We welcome all comments and will publish a selection. We edit for length and clarity and require full names.

So, you're American, you have a lousy health insurance plan, you get cancer. You survive cancer. But can you survive your massive medical $$$ debt?https://t.co/e6Jzw9W4SR

— Laurie Garrett (@Laurie_Garrett) June 17, 2022

— Laurie Garrett, New York City

Medical Debt as the Ultimate Medical Mystery

I read your investigation about health care and debt on NPR’s site (“Diagnosis: Debt: 100 Million People in America Are Saddled With Health Care Debt,” June 16). However, it seems the story’s focus is wrong. It shouldn’t be about how we pay for these astronomical medical bills but why are they so high to begin with? How do hospitals get away with their fees? For example, my daughter, who is 7, has been to the hospital/emergency room five times in her life. Each bill has been completely different with no rhyme or reason. The latest one was $7,000 for about a three-hour ER visit and for two IVs! It’s the highest bill we have ever seen, and that includes a two-night stay at a hospital. In addition to this bill, collections called us — and it hadn’t even been 60 days since our visit and had been only a few weeks since the hospital visit. So now our credit score could be affected, and we haven’t even had a chance to review or figure out how to pay this bill. Would love all this explained.

— Ilyssa Block, Kansas City, Missouri

A Hard-Learned History Lesson

Although I liked the article by Noam N. Levey and Aneri Pattani on people burdened by medical debt (“Diagnosis: Debt: Upended: How Medical Debt Changed Their Lives,” June 16), it uses the term “grandfathered in.” This term was used as a rule to prevent Black people from voting after the Civil War. Please make an effort to refrain from using this offensive term.

— MB Piccirilli, Portland, Oregon

Upended: How Medical Debt Changed Their Lives https://t.co/IbJwJoOt3N @khnews This has to stop! NFP healthcare systems destroying the lives of the people they are designed to serve?!? Unethical. STOP! #healthcare #UniversalHealthCare #MedicareForAll #bankruptcy

— Andrew Gallan PhD ⛳️🇺🇦 (@agallan) June 20, 2022

— Andrew Gallan, Boca Raton, Florida

Steering Clear of Predatory Billing

Every month I see and hear these “Bill of the Month” stories on NPR’s webpage or broadcast on the NPR affiliate station in my area (“Her First Colonoscopy Cost Her $0. Her Second Cost $2,185. Why?” May 31). Every month I pat myself on the back for having decided that there is no way I am ever going to put myself through so-called screenings, which are just one more avenue for the U.S. health delivery system to screw people over as that health delivery system is well aware that there is no oversight for this type of predatory billing. I can tell you at my age and with only Social Security retirement as sole income, I couldn’t ever hope to hire legal help to dispute a bill like those featured in “Bill of the Month” — a bill like that would either cause me to have an immediate heart attack or file bankruptcy or both. Nope. No screenings. I actually have decided that, if I have any choice in the matter, I will simply forgo any so-called medical care. Obviously, if I keel over and pass out and someone hauls my sorry self into the emergency room, I won’t have the choice (except to walk out once “revived”). Given the state of health care and the predatory behaviors of the bottom-lining money-hungry hospitals, clinics, and even just doctors, my choice is simply to opt out. KHN needs to use its voice to tell the U.S. medical community that people are so tired of the garbage that they simply refuse care.

— Jan Baldwin, Coburg, Oregon

First colonoscopy: $0Second colonoscopy: $2kAnother example of how the fine print can put patients on the hook for bills that should be covered, especially in this case of a preventative screening. Patients deserve better.https://t.co/v55XVdGAeB

— Terry Wilcox (@Terrilox) June 2, 2022

— Terry Wilcox, Vienna, Virginia

In Michelle Andrews’ story about unexpected costs after a polyp removal during a colonoscopy, she states the anesthesiologist “merely administers a sedative.” This is an understatement. Anesthesiologists perform a review of the patient’s chart, see the patient pre-procedure, monitor their vitals during the procedure, and assess them post-procedurally. Furthermore, anesthesiologists are prepared to manage unexpected emergencies, including unexpected aspiration, allergic reactions, cardiac arrest, etc. This is more than “merely administering a sedative.”

We keep folks from dying or having complications and train a long time to do so. The flippant manner in which our actions are framed in the article is unfortunate.

— Dr. Elizabeth Leweling, Chicago

Preventive care, like screening colonoscopies, are free of charge to patients under the Affordable Care Act. @DrLindaMD @AlexMMTri @EvanKirstel @FriedbergEric @nkagetsu @rstraxMDhttps://t.co/qLP9l5SSPl

— Ian Weissman, DO (@DrIanWeissman) June 1, 2022

— Dr. Ian Weissman, Milwaukee

As president of the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy, I listened with interest to a recent segment on “All Things Considered” regarding patient cost sharing for a screening colonoscopy. The segment featured patient Elizabeth Melville, who received a bill for her screening colonoscopy that involved a removal of a polyp.

I was dismayed by the segment, which included several factually incorrect and misleading statements by Dr. Elisabeth Rosenthal, and which were incredibly damaging to efforts to eliminate impediments and misinformation about screening colonoscopy. ASGE has been at the forefront of policy efforts to eliminate patient out-of-pocket costs for screening colonoscopy, including those screenings that involve the removal of a polyp or other tissue. As the segment correctly noted, the Affordable Care Act provides for coverage without patient cost sharing of preventive services that have an “A” or “B” rating from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, which includes colorectal cancer screening. Recognizing that colonoscopy is the only cancer screening modality that also allows for actual removal of precancerous lesions in real time (and thus preventing the cancer), it is particularly important that patients and consumers understand the facts.

Following passage of the ACA, legislative and regulatory corrective actions have been necessary to ensure that patients who undergo a screening colonoscopy that includes a polyp removal are not stuck with a surprise bill. As noted, screening colonoscopy is a unique preventive service in that it not only detects cancer, but it can prevent it through removal of suspicious or potentially precancerous polyps or lesions. In 2020, Congress passed legislation that would phase out by 2030 cost sharing for Medicare beneficiaries when a screening colonoscopy turns diagnostic during the screening encounter. That means, if a Medicare beneficiary has a screening colonoscopy today and a polyp is removed, that patient is likely to have an out-of-pocket payment obligation.

The difference in cost-sharing rules for commercially insured patients and Medicare beneficiaries has created confusion for patients, and the changes in regulation have created complex billing scenarios. Dr. Rosenthal referred to billing for colonoscopy as a “gray area.” This is not a gray area to ASGE, as coding rules are clear. But there are scenarios that could impact whether a patient has an out-of-pocket obligation for a colonoscopy. For example, often insurers will not cover a screening colonoscopy without cost sharing if the screening occurs less than 10 years after the patient’s previous colonoscopy. These shorter screening intervals typically occur when a patient is considered high-risk, or if there was a finding during the previous colonoscopy, such as a polyp, as used in your illustration. Many insurers regard these colonoscopies as “surveillance” or “high-risk” colonoscopies and will not cover them as a preventive screening without cost sharing. This is not the decision of the physician or hospital; this is a decision made by the insurance company.

I was particularly struck by Dr. Rosenthal’s comment that “it is not OK to change the game in the middle of the test,” which leads to a patient getting a bill. I want to be very clear that when a patient is scheduled for a screening colonoscopy, the physician performing the colonoscopy has no idea whether a polyp or tissue will be found and will need to be removed. This is not a “gotcha” game that physicians are playing with patients, as insinuated by Dr. Rosenthal’s remarks; there are coding and billing rules that must be followed when facilities and physicians are submitting claims to insurance companies. ASGE continually works to ensure that we educate and promulgate coding rules and updated guidance for our 15,000 members worldwide.

The cost-sharing policy for colorectal cancer screening, and screening colonoscopy specifically, is complex and confusing. We are disappointed that NPR did not use the segment as an opportunity to work through the complexity to provide consumers with a better guide of questions to ask their insurance company before scheduling a colonoscopy, including whether a screening colonoscopy performed at an interval of less than 10 years will be covered under their health plan without cost sharing.

— Dr. Bret T. Petersen, ASGE president, Rochester, Minnesota

Great Bill of the Month reporting today by @mandrews110 for @KHNews. Nobody likes getting a colonoscopy. Patients shouldn't be penalized for doing the right thing and getting recommended cancer screenings: https://t.co/cNlEj85IZ4

— Ryan Holeywell (@RyanHoleywell) May 31, 2022

— Ryan Holeywell, Washington, D.C.

Taking the Doctor’s Advice

Dr. Taison Bell was wonderful to listen to (“Watch: UVA Doctor Talks About the State of the Pandemic and Health Equity,” May 26). I really appreciated his presentation and the valuable things he had to say. Thanks for including it in your KHN mailing!

— Jan McDermott, San Francisco

I spoke with ⁦@hnorms⁩ from ⁦@KHNews⁩ about the state of the pandemic and health equity. There is still a lot to be done to movement smart policies that help high risk communities of color. https://t.co/LAf2WCIN0X

— Dr. Taison Bell (@TaisonBell) May 26, 2022

— Dr. Taison Bell, Charlottesville, Virginia

Mad Over ‘New MADD’ Coverage

This article is grossly inaccurate and insulting (“The New MADD Movement: Parents Rise Up Against Drug Deaths,” May 23). Most fentanyl users are not all-star athletes or honor students. Their parents are not more educated than the parents of addicts. And the parents of addicts have been mobilized for years, with many feeling that the fentanyl movement has distracted attention away from needed health care. The article says that the drugs are being introduced by Mexican cartels that seek vengeance against low-level dealers, many of whom are just friends getting things for one another. The article distinguishes between drug users and fentanyl “victims,” creating and reinforcing the stigma these groups claim to be trying to eliminate. It does a great disservice to those of us who lost children to addiction and overdose, and is insulting to our children and to us as parents. Thank you.

— Susan Elamri, Detroit

Interesting read detailing the lack of accountability for drug dealers selling fentanyl laced counterfeit pills resulting in death/overdoses. Consequences and rehabilitation should not be mutually exclusive solutions, we can do both. https://t.co/KlvBH3O1kq

— Chief Paco Balderrama (@BalderramaPaco) May 23, 2022

— Paco Balderrama, chief of police, Fresno, California

When ‘Overweight’ Is ‘Normal’

Quoting from the article “‘Almost Like Malpractice’: To Shed Bias, Doctors Get Schooled to Look Beyond Obesity” (May 24): “Research has long shown that doctors are less likely to respect patients who are overweight or obese, even as nearly three-quarters of adults in the U.S. now fall into one of those categories.”

Perhaps the answer is to change the scale of weight. Why do 25% of adults get to be called “normal” and 75% of adults are “overweight”? Let’s base the decision on reality-based observation!

— Leslie Rigg, Lake Worth Beach, Florida

1) Anti-fat bias is real and certainly an issue. For physicians and others who treat people with #obesity, the question becomes where to draw the line. 'Almost Like Malpractice': To Shed Bias, Doctors Get Schooled to Look Beyond Obesity https://t.co/ap127widIs via @khnews

— Stewart Lonky, MD (@LonkyMD) May 24, 2022

— Dr. Stewart Lonky, Los Angeles

Innocent Until Proven Otherwise

I wanted to raise a concern about the story “‘Desperate Situation’: States Are Housing High-Needs Foster Kids in Offices and Hotels” (June 1) — and it’s certainly not unique to your story. It says:

“These children already face tremendous challenges, having been given up by their parents voluntarily or removed from their homes due to abuse, neglect, or abandonment.”

Sometimes, of course, that’s true. But no reporter would write that every person in jail is a criminal. Many are awaiting trial and can’t make bail. Similarly, children can be in foster care for weeks, even months before any court ever determines if they have been “abused” or “neglected.” Until then, they are in foster care because their parents have been *accused* of abuse or neglect.

(Also, by the way, neglect laws are so broad and vague that often what the parent really is guilty of is poverty — but that’s another issue.)

— Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, Alexandria, Virginia

[Editor’s note: Thanks so much for your insight. The article has been updated to reflect that the parents are absent “due to accusations of abuse, neglect, or abandonment.”]

.@sclaudwhithead looks at "hoteling," Georgia's practice that makes high-need foster kids sometimes sleep in hotels or offices. The pandemic made the problem worse, but state lawmakers spent more to try to pay extra for foster parents to take kids. #gapol https://t.co/xRXbKCSVEM

— Jeff Amy (@jeffamy) June 1, 2022

— Jeff Amy, Atlanta

Key to Harm Reduction: Buy-In From People With Addiction

With overdose deaths skyrocketing to never-before-seen levels, the United States needs harm reduction strategies to protect the health and wellness of Americans. In 2020, 41 million Americans needed substance use treatment within the previous year; however, of those who needed such treatment but did not receive it at a specialty facility, a staggering 97.5% did not feel they needed it. Although America has a troubling treatment gap exacerbated by systemic legal and regulatory barriers to evidence-based addiction care, most people who need substance use treatment don’t want this treatment as it is currently being offered.

To support our friends and family members living with addiction, our system must also embrace harm reduction approaches that engage people who use drugs (PWUD) before they are ready for abstinence-based treatment (“As Biden Fights Overdoses, Harm Reduction Groups Face Local Opposition,” June 14).

Harm reduction saves lives. Drug checking services and naloxone distribution prevent overdose deaths, while syringe and related service programs help stop the spread of infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis. These are all worthy ends in themselves, but harm reduction has the further benefit of building a meaningful alliance between health care professionals and PWUD. With this therapeutic relationship, PWUD have facilitated access to high-quality, evidence-based treatment and services when they become ready for this help. It’s an obvious point, but too many people overlook the fact that a person can’t receive treatment or enter recovery if they’re dead.

As a physician, I swore an oath to do no harm — not to do nothing. Failing to embrace and expand harm reduction efforts, by definition, leaves too many of our friends, family members, and loved ones at an unacceptable risk of dying. The dichotomy between offering more addiction treatment and providing PWUD with the tools they need to live healthier lives is a false choice. The United States must simultaneously invest in treatment expansion and increase the availability of low-threshold harm reduction services; otherwise, I fear the country’s addiction and drug overdose crisis will continue to get worse.

— Dr. Brian Hurley, president-elect of the American Society of Addiction Medicine’s Board of Directors, Los Angeles

. @POTUS wants to expand #harmreduction programs as part of strategy to reduce #drug #overdose deaths, but idea faces complicated reality on the ground as programs operate on fringes of legality, w/ scant budgets, & fierce opposition. @renurayasam @khnews https://t.co/qbSBtMkn38 pic.twitter.com/pYV8mB1nEc

— Deni Carise (@DeniCarise) June 21, 2022

— Deni Carise, Philadelphia

How to Beat the Opioid Epidemic

Do you want to control the scourge of fentanyl in America (“The Blackfeet Nation’s Plight Underscores the Fentanyl Crisis on Reservations,” May 25)? There are two options:

1. Distribute the drug solely by the government, ensuring its purity, proper dosage, and safe setting for the user, providing real-time overdose care and optional consulting for anyone who wants to quit, all for free.

2. Make some nonaddictive antidepressants (generally SSRIs, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) less restrictive. You know, how health care in your country is expensive, visiting a psychiatrist or psychologist, refilling, blah-blah. I know, the nation who can’t agree on banning AR-15s from being sold to 18-year-olds won’t agree on this.

What if you let people have some SSRIs over the counter? These are not recreational, are generally safe (way safer than opioids), and do help with anxiety. Hey, what drives people to opioids? Aren’t anxiety levels at their highest all across the globe?

Also, the drugmaker mafia will support it.

Just as we have embraced over-the-counter drugs for widespread diseases like colds, we might adopt the same concept in mental health care as well. Anxiety is becoming more widespread compared with colds (my gut says).

— Alireza Mohamadi, Tehran, Iran

Fentanyl spreads west, including to the Blackfeet Nation.https://t.co/ZrykuZQ06c

— Keith Humphreys (@KeithNHumphreys) May 25, 2022

— Keith Humphreys, Stanford, California

Dust-Up Over Pollution Coverage

This article appears written from a lopsided viewpoint (“Some People in This Montana Mining Town Worry About the Dust Next Door,” June 8).

Very few cities pass the World Health Organization’s unrealistic threshold of 5 micrograms per cubic meter, and why would you get a mechanical engineer to provide input on environmental issues? Why, because the real environmental specialist said this was not an issue? As for dust on a picnic table, that is a horrible example. We get dust on our picnic table anytime the wind blows, and we don’t live by a mine. Maybe WHO should recommend that the wind stop blowing because it causes dust.

From the WHO’s website: “In 2019, 99% of the world population was living in places where the WHO air quality guidelines levels were not met.” This is not a reasonable standard and was selected by bureaucrats that are out of touch with life and the real world. All of the real information and statistics say there is not a problem, but your article makes a problem where one does not exist and people who are not willing to fact-check you will think there is a problem. All these people with health issues are unfortunate and that’s very sad, but people everywhere have sad health issues. Stick to the scientific facts and real monitoring numbers, and don’t drag “The Sky Is Falling” people into news articles. Facts matter!

— John Utaz, Salt Lake City

Cultivating an interest in ‘dusts’ at the moment and this article includes extractive industries/ mining. https://t.co/JsXCA7rxkD

— Cat Rushmore (@CatRushmore) June 9, 2022

— Cat Rushmore, Glasgow, Scotland

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.

USE OUR CONTENT

This story can be republished for free (details).

At a Tennessee Crossroads, Two Pharmacies, a Monkey, and Millions of Pills

Prosecutors say opioid-seeking patients drove hours to get their prescriptions filled in Celina, Tennessee, where pharmacies ignored signs of substance misuse and paid cash — or “monkey bucks” — to keep customers coming back.

CELINA, Tenn. — It was about 1 a.m. on April 19, 2016, when a burglary alarm sounded at Dale Hollow Pharmacy in Celina, a tiny town in the rolling, wooded hills near the Kentucky border.

Two cops responded. As their flashlights bobbed in the darkness, shining through the pharmacy windows, they spotted a sign of a break-in: pill bottles scattered on the floor.

The cops called the co-owner, Thomas Weir, who arrived within minutes and let them in. But as quickly as their flashlights beamed behind the counter, Weir demanded the cops leave. He said he’d rather someone “steal everything” than let them finish their search, according to a police report and body camera footage from the scene.

“Get out of there right now!” Weir shouted, as if shooing off a mischievous dog. “Get out of there!”

The cops argued with Weir as he escorted them out. They left the pharmacy more suspicious than when they’d arrived, triggering a probe in a small town engulfed in one of the most outsize concentrations of opioids in a pill-ravaged nation.

Nearly six years later, federal prosecutors have unveiled a rare criminal case alleging that Celina pharmacy owners intentionally courted opioid seekers by filling dangerous prescriptions that would have been rejected elsewhere. The pharmacies are accused of giving cash handouts to keep customers coming back, and one allegedly distributed its own currency, “monkey bucks,” inspired by a pet monkey that was once a common sight behind the counter. Two pharmacists admitted in plea agreements they attracted large numbers of patients from “long distances” by ignoring red flags indicating pills were being misused or resold. In their wake, prosecutors say, these Celina pharmacies left a rash of addiction, overdoses, deaths, and millions in wasted tax dollars.

“I hate that this is what put us on the map,” said Tifinee Roach, 38, a lifelong Celina resident who works in a salon not far from the pharmacies and recounted years of unfamiliar cars and unfamiliar people filling the parking lots. “I hate that this is what we’re going to be known for.”

Celina, an old logging town of 1,900 people about two hours northeast of Nashville, was primed for this drug trade: In the shadow of a dying hospital, four pharmacies sat within 1,000 feet of each other, at the crux of two highways, dispensing millions of opioid pills. Before long, that intersection had single-handedly turned Tennessee’s Clay County into one of the nation’s pound-for-pound leaders of opioid distribution. In 2017, Celina pharmacies filled nearly two opioid prescriptions for every Clay County resident — more than three times the national rate — according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Visitors once came to Celina to tour its historical courthouse or drop their lines for smallmouth bass in the famed fishing lake nearby. Now they came for pills.

Soon after Weir’s police encounter in 2016, the Drug Enforcement Administration set its sights on his two Celina pharmacies, three doors apart — Dale Hollow Pharmacy and Xpress Pharmacy. Separately, investigators examined the clinic of Dr. Gilbert Ghearing, which sat directly between Dale Hollow and Xpress and leased office space to a third pharmacy in the same building, Anderson Hometown Pharmacy. Its owners and operators have not been charged with any crime.

In December, a federal judge unsealed indictments against Weir and the other owners of Dale Hollow and Xpress pharmacies, Charles “Bobby” Oakley and Pamela Spivey, alleging they profited from attracting and filling dangerous and unjustifiable opioid prescriptions. Charges were also filed against William Donaldson, the former pharmacist and owner of Dale Hollow, previously convicted of drug dealing, who allegedly recruited most of the customers for the scheme.

The pharmacists at Dale Hollow and Xpress, John Polston and Michael Griffith, pleaded guilty to drug conspiracy and health care fraud charges and agreed to cooperate with law enforcement against the other suspects.

Ghearing was indicted on drug distribution charges for allegedly writing unjustifiable opioid prescriptions in a separate case in 2019. He pleaded not guilty, and his case is expected to go to trial in September.

‘An American Tragedy’

The Celina indictment comes as pharmacies enter an era of new accountability for the opioid crisis. In November, a federal jury in Cleveland ruled pharmacies at CVS, Walgreens, and Walmart could be held financially responsible for fueling the opioid crisis by recklessly distributing massive amounts of pain pills in two Ohio counties. The ruling — a first of its kind — is expected to reverberate through thousands of similar lawsuits filed nationwide.

Criminal prosecutions for such actions remain exceedingly rare. The Department of Justice in recent years increased prosecutions of doctors and pain clinic staffers who overprescribed opioids but files far fewer charges against pharmacists, and barely any against pharmacy owners, who are generally harder to hold directly responsible for prescriptions filled at their establishments.

In a review of about 1,000 news releases about legal enforcement actions taken by the Department of Health and Human Services since 2019, KHN identified fewer than 10 similar cases involving pharmacists or pharmacy owners being criminally charged for filling opioid prescriptions. Among those few similar cases, none involved allegations of so many opioids flowing readily through such a small place.

The Celina case is also the first time the Department of Justice sought a restraining order and preliminary injunction against pharmacies under the Controlled Substances Act, said David Boling, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Tennessee. DOJ used the civil filing to shut down Dale Hollow and Xpress pharmacies quickly in 2019, allowing prosecutors more time to build a criminal case against the pharmacy owners.

Former U.S. Attorney Don Cochran, who oversaw much of the investigation, said the crisis in Celina was so severe it warranted a swift and unique response.

Cochran said it once made sense for small pharmacies to be clustered in Celina, where a rural hospital served the surrounding area. But as the hospital shriveled toward closure, as have a dozen others in Tennessee, the competing pharmacies turned to opioids to sustain themselves and got hooked on the profits, he said.

“It’s an American tragedy, and I think the town was a victim in this,” Cochran said. “The salt-of-the-earth, blue-collar folks that lived there were victimized by these people in these pharmacies. I think they knew full well this was not a medical necessity. It was just a money-making cash machine for them.”

And much of that money came from taxpayers. In its court filings, DOJ argues the pharmacies sought out customers with Medicaid or Medicare coverage — or signed them up if they didn’t have it. To keep these customers coming back, the pharmacies covered their copays or paid cash kickbacks whenever they filled a prescription, prosecutors allege. The pharmacies collected more than $2.4 million from Medicare for opioids and other controlled substances from 2012 to 2018, according to the court filings.

Prosecutors say the pharmacies also paid kickbacks to retain profitable customers with non-opioid prescriptions. In one case, Dale Hollow gave $100 “payouts” to a patient whenever they filled his prescription for mysoline, an anti-seizure drug, then used those prescriptions to collect more than $237,000 from Medicare, according to Polston’s plea agreement.

Attorneys for Weir, Oakley, Donaldson, Spivey, Polston, and Griffith either declined to comment for this article or did not respond to requests for comment.

Ronald Chapman, an attorney for Ghearing, defended the doctor’s prescriptions, saying he’d done “the best he [could] with what was available” in a rural setting with no resources or expertise in pain management.

Chapman added that, while he does not represent the other Celina suspects, he had a theory as to why they drew the attention of federal law enforcement. As large corporate pharmacies made agreements with the federal government to be more stringent about opioid prescriptions, they filled fewer of them. Customers then turned to smaller pharmacies in rural areas to get their drugs, he said.

“I’m not sure if that’s what happened in this case, but I’ve seen it happen in many small towns in America. The only CVS down the street, or the only Rite Aid down the street, is cutting off every provider who prescribes opioids, leaving it to smaller pharmacies to do the work,” Chapman said.

Donaldson, reached briefly at his home in Celina on March 9, insisted the allegations levied against Dale Hollow and Xpress could apply to many pharmacies in the region.

“It wasn’t just them,” Donaldson said.

The Monkey and the Monkey Bucks

Long before it was called Dale Hollow Pharmacy, the blue-and-white building that moved millions of pills through Celina was Donaldson Pharmacy, and Donaldson was behind the counter doling out pills.

Donaldson owned and operated the pharmacy for decades as the eccentric son of one of the most prominent families in Celina, where a street, a park, and many businesses bear his surname. Even now, despite Donaldson’s prior conviction for opioid crimes and his new indictment, an advertisement for “Donaldson Pharmacy” hangs at the entrance of a nearby high school.

“Bill has always had a heart of gold, and he would help anyone he could. I just think he let that, well …” said Pam Goad, a neighbor, trailing off. “He’s always had a heart of gold.”

According to interviews with about 20 Celina residents, including Clay County Sheriff Brandon Boone, Donaldson is also known to keep a menagerie of exotic animals, at one point including at least two giraffes, and a monkey companion, “Carlos,” whom he dressed in clothing.

The monkey — a mainstay at Donaldson Pharmacy for years — both attracted and deterred customers. Linda Nelson, who owns a nearby business, said Carlos once escaped the pharmacy and, during a scrap with a neighbor’s dogs, tore down her mailbox by snapping its wooden post in half.

But the monkey wasn’t the only reason Donaldson Pharmacy stood out.

According to a DEA opioid database published by The Washington Post, Donaldson Pharmacy distributed nearly 3 million oxycodone and hydrocodone pills from 2006 to 2014, making it the nation’s 20th-highest per capita distributor during that period. It retained its ranking even though the pharmacy closed in 2011, when Donaldson was indicted for dispensing hydrocodone without a valid prescription.

Donaldson confessed to drug distribution and was sentenced to 15 months in prison. The pharmacy’s name was changed to Dale Hollow and ended up with Donaldson’s brother-in-law, Oakley. In 2014, Oakley sold 51% of the business to Weir, who also bought a majority stake of Xpress Pharmacy, three doors away, according to the DOJ’s civil complaint.

Under Weir’s leadership, these two pharmacies became an opioid hub with few equals, prosecutors say. From 2015 to 2018, Dale Hollow and Xpress pharmacies were the fourth-and 11th-highest per capita opioid purchasers in the nation, according to the DOJ, citing internal DEA data.

Many of these prescriptions were for Subutex, an opioid that can be used to treat addiction but is itself prone to abuse. Unless the patient is pregnant or nursing or has a documented allergy, Tennessee law requires doctors instead to prescribe Suboxone, an alternative that is much harder to abuse.

But at the Celina pharmacies, prescriptions for Subutex outnumbered those for Suboxone by at least 4-to-1, prosecutors say. In their plea agreements, pharmacists from Dale Hollow and Xpress described stores that thrived on the trade in Subutex, and said Weir set “mandates” for how many Subutex prescriptions to fill and instructed them to “never run out.”

Griffith, the head pharmacist at Xpress, said the pharmacy in 2015 created flyers specifically advertising Subutex, then delivered them on trays of cookies to practices throughout Tennessee, including some hours away. In the following two years, the amount of Subutex dispensed by Xpress increased by about eightyfold, according to his plea agreement.

Dale Hollow didn’t need flyers or cookies. It had Donaldson.

After getting out of prison in 2014, Donaldson was hired by the pharmacy he once owned, where he “recruited and controlled” about 50% to 90% of customers, according to the indictment filed against him. The pharmacy also enticed customers by distributing a Monopoly-like currency called “monkey bucks” — an apparent callback to Carlos — that could be spent at the pharmacy like cash, the indictment states.

Prosecutors also allege that, from a desk inside Dale Hollow, Donaldson would sign customers up for Medicare or Medicaid, then use a vehicle provided by the pharmacy to drive them to a doctor’s office to get opioid prescriptions, then back to Dale Hollow where he’d offer to cover their copays himself if they kept their business at the pharmacy. Sometimes, he would text the Dale Hollow pharmacist with instructions to fill specific prescriptions, or just to fill more of them, according to federal court records.

“Y’all have got to get your numbers up. Fill fill,” Donaldson texted Polston in 2018, according to his plea agreement.

By then, however, all those prescriptions had drawn unwanted attention.

In August 2018, Dale Hollow and Xpress pharmacies were raided by DEA agents, who brought with them Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera and a television crew. Six months later, DOJ filed its civil complaint, persuading a federal judge to immediately close both pharmacies.

Today, Dale Hollow Pharmacy sits shuttered, as it has been for the past three years, and a paper sign taped to the door says animals are not allowed inside by order of the DEA. The building that was once Xpress Pharmacy reopened this year as an unrelated pharmacy with a fresh coat of paint. Ghearing’s clinic and Anderson Hometown Pharmacy are closed.

Most of Celina’s opioid prescriptions are gone, too. According to the latest available CDC data, Clay County reported about 32 opioid prescriptions per 100 residents in 2020 — one-sixth the rate of 2017’s.

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.

USE OUR CONTENT

This story can be republished for free (details).

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.

Can’t see the audio player? Click here to listen on SoundCloud.

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.

To hear all our podcasts, click here.

And subscribe to What the Health? on iTunesStitcherGoogle PlaySpotify, or Pocket Casts.

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.

USE OUR CONTENT

This story can be republished for free (details).

Must-Reads Of The Week From Brianna Labuskes

Newsletter editor Brianna Labuskes wades through hundreds of health care policy stories each week, so you don’t have to.

Happy Friday! Where yours truly has parsed approximately 4,346,276,986 coronavirus stories to bring you the most important ones — such as the fact that 38% of Americans won’t buy Corona beer “under any circumstances” because of the outbreak; that apparently dog masks are now all the rage, despite the fact that health professionals say even healthy humans don’t need them; and that if you need of a cheat sheet on what facial hairstyles are officially called you can head over to the CDC for a nifty graphic. (The “walrus” might be my favorite.)

More seriously, here’s what you need to know about the outbreak dominating global attention, sending stocks plunging and creating a booming demand for hand sanitizer. I can tell you one common thread running through coverage about experts’ advice: Keep calm, carry on and wash your hands.

President Donald Trump cracked jokes about his germophobia and downplayed the severity of the coronavirus outbreak at a press conference this week, in which he put Vice President Mike Pence in charge of the country’s coronavirus response. This raised immediate eyebrows, considering that under Pence’s watch Indiana weathered a major HIV outbreak largely attributed to decisions he made as governor.

By contrast, you have the CDC’s Dr. Nancy Messonnier, who has become a leading player in the crisis, saying it’s not a question of if but when the coronavirus will sweep into the U.S. She also said that she’s been talking with her kids about how to prepare and that “the disruption to everyday life might be severe.”

Not surprisingly, after all that whiplash, the administration decided all information released to the public must first get the OK from Pence.

Politico: Coronavirus Gets a Trumpian Response

The New York Times: Pence Will Control All Coronavirus Messaging From Health Officials

The New York Times: What Has Mike Pence Done in Health?

The New York Times: C.D.C. Officials Warn of Coronavirus Outbreaks in the U.S.

Meanwhile, a new case out of California put a harsh spotlight on the deep flaws of the CDC’s original testing parameters. The patient — who may be the first in the U.S. with no link to traveling abroad — was in the hospital for more than 10 days before the CDC approved a coronavirus test. The delay exposed about 100 health workers to the virus as well as set back any attempts to contain people she’d been in contact with.

Stat: A Single Coronavirus Case Exposes a Bigger Problem: The Scope of Undetected U.S. Spread Is Unknown

ProPublica: Key Missteps at the CDC Have Set Back Its Ability to Detect the Potential Spread of Coronavirus

If a whistleblower is to be believed, those testing missteps weren’t the only ones made by the government in the early days of the response: New allegations have come to light that HHS workers who were sent to help with the U.S. evacuees weren’t given proper medical training or gear before being exposed to the patients.

The Washington Post: U.S. Workers Without Protective Gear Assisted Coronavirus Evacuees, HHS Whistleblower Says

Meanwhile, for a president who has tied his fate to the health of the stock markets, the global financial turmoil is more worrisome than ever.

Politico: Trump Faces ‘Black Swan’ Threat to the Economy and Reelection

One of the few good things about the coronavirus is that the vast majority of cases are mild. However, that’s also one of the things that might tip it into a pandemic. For more extreme illnesses (like Ebola), it’s far easier to isolate patients. But for those with symptoms that are essentially presenting as a mild cold, it’s harder to contain the spread.

On that note, it’s hard to tell just how lethal the disease is (and anyone who tells you otherwise, question their motives). Because so many cases are mild, some experts say we’re seeing only the tip of the iceberg, and the mortality rate would drop if we had a better sense of how many people are actually infected. Others argue that there’s no evidence that officials don’t have an accurate count.

Right now, from what’s available, it seems the death rate outside the epicenter in China was 0.7%. That’s still soberingly high, but also a long way away from SARS’ 10%.

The New York Times: Most Coronavirus Cases Are Mild. That’s Good and Bad News.

Stat: New China Coronavirus Data Buttress Fears About High Fatality Rate

As someone who has little kiddos in their life (and who affectionately calls them Typhoid Marys), I can’t help but include this story. Are kids innocent bystanders in this outbreak, getting infected if someone brings the virus into their households? Or are they, in fact, a population that is stealthily driving this epidemic, as they can do with the flu?

Stat: Key Question for Coronavirus Response: What’s Kids’ Role in Spreading It?

Globally, cases are climbing, with patients showing up in Lithuania, the Netherlands, Iran, Kuwait, the United Kingdom … you get the gist. Although we’re not really seeing it yet in Latin or South American countries beyond a Brazilian patient who had traveled to Italy, where cases skyrocketed 45% in one day.

In China, officials are tapping their tried-and-true propaganda playbook, but the anger that has boiled up over the government’s handling of the outbreak may be cracking the party’s stronghold. Meanwhile, authorities, in an ongoing attempt to contain the spread, are offering people more than $1,400 to self-report if they have coronavirus symptoms.

The New York Times: Coronavirus Weakens China’s Powerful Propaganda Machine

Reuters: China City Offers $1,400 Reward for Virus Patients Who Report to Authorities

And South Korea gets a shoutout for implementing a very cool idea to create “drive-thru” testing for potential patients.

Reuters: South Korea Launches ‘Drive-Thru’ Coronavirus Testing Facilities As Demand Soars

Remember, there are plenty more stories were those came from. If you’re interested in the full scope of coronavirus coverage, check out all our Morning Briefings from the week.


Believe it or not, there was other news this week! Democrats held a rowdy debate in South Carolina ahead of Super Tuesday, where Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) fielded the inevitable attacks that come with being a front-runner. He was put on the hot spot about topics ranging from the cost of his “Medicare for All” plan to his past stance on guns.

Reuters: At Rowdy Debate, Democratic Rivals Warn Sanders Nomination Would Be ‘Catastrophe’

The New York Times: Fact-Checking the Democratic Debate in South Carolina

Sanders (after releasing a plan on how he was going to pay for his ambitious agenda) said that “‘Medicare for All’ will lower health care costs in this country by $450 billion a year and save the lives of 68,000 people who would otherwise have died.” But experts are skeptical of the findings.

KHN: Sanders Embraces New Study That Lowers ‘Medicare For All’s’ Cost, But Skepticism Abounds


A federal appeals court upheld a Trump administration ban on federally funded family planning centers referring women for abortions, arguing that the rule is slightly less restrictive than a 1988 version upheld by the Supreme Court. What’s interesting to note is that the court was the California-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. Trump has now named 10 judges to the 9th Circuit — more than one-third of its active judges — compared with seven appointed by President Barack Obama over eight years.

The Washington Post: Appeals Court Upholds Trump Ban on Abortion Referrals by Family Planning Clinics

Los Angeles Times: Trump Has Flipped the 9th Circuit — and Some New Judges Are Causing a ‘Shock Wave’

WBUR: Looking at Changes Happening Within the Nation’s Largest Federal Appeals Court

Beyond fighting for survival in the courts, abortion clinics are often faced with so many fees and unexpected costs that they can face closure from their financial burdens alone. Among those are: security to protect staff and patients; airfare to get doctors to areas lacking trained physicians willing to perform abortions; higher rates for contractors concerned about protesters and boycotts; more stringent loan terms; insurance that can be canceled unexpectedly; and, for some clinic owners, legal fees for defending the constitutionality of the procedure.

Bloomberg: Abortion Clinics Are the Most Challenging Small Business in America


Vocal opposition continues to pour in about the arcane Medicaid rule change that could reduce Medicaid spending by 6% to 8%, or $37 billion to $49 billion, a year. The Trump administration says the change would increase transparency and prevent abuses that enable states to draw down more federal money than they’re entitled to. But, so far, more than 4,200 organizations or individuals from both parties are sounding alarm bells about it.

Stateline: Medical Groups Slam Trump Medicaid Rule


In the miscellaneous file for the week:

— The Sacklers, under fire over allegations about their role in the opioid crisis, turned to Mike Bloomberg to help them manage their reputation. Will that haunt him in his presidential bid?

ProPublica: When the Billionaire Family Behind the Opioid Crisis Needed PR Help, They Turned to Mike Bloomberg

— Are some people immune to Alzheimer’s? Scientists studying donated brains have identified patients who have all the markers for the debilitating disease but didn’t seem to have any symptoms when alive. The findings offer hope that the seemingly inherent protection could be replicated by a drug.

Stat: They Have ‘Alzheimer’s Brains’ But No Symptoms. Why?

— America is facing an autopsy crisis: Large swaths of the country don’t have a medical examiner. Bodies are even having to be shipped across state lines if an autopsy is needed. At one point the problem was so bad that Oklahoma’s overloaded medical examiner declined to perform autopsies on people over 40 who died of unexplained causes.

The New York Times: Piled Bodies, Overflowing Morgues: Inside America’s Autopsy Crisis

— Colorado is continuing to move forward with plans for its public option, this week unveiling reimbursement rates that officials say would keep hospitals profitable under the system. Hospitals were … uh … a little skeptical of those claims.

The Denver Post: Colorado Consumers Could Save Up to 20% Under State Health Insurance Option, Polis Says

— In this terrifying story, a student died after calling 911 because the responders couldn’t locate him.

The Washington Post: College Student Yeming Shen Died of Flu in Troy, N.Y., After 911 Couldn’t Track His Location.


That’s it from me! Have a great weekend.

Must-Reads Of The Week From Brianna Labuskes

Newsletter editor Brianna Labuskes wades through hundreds of health care policy stories each week, so you don’t have to.

Happy Friday! The gloves came off and the knives came out at the debate this week, so let’s jump right into the fray.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) came out swinging on Wednesday night in an all-around livelier debate than most we’ve seen this primary season. When it came to health care, few were safe from Warren’s jabs — South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s plan was deemed “paper-thin,” Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s was so short it could fit on a Post-it note. Even Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (whose plan Warren supports) was criticized as not being realistic or a team player.

Warren wasn’t the only one on the attack. Former Vice President Joe Biden hit at new-comer and billionaire Mike Bloomberg for once upon a time labeling the Affordable Care Act “a disgrace.” But Biden left out some context in that particular attack — such as the fact that Bloomberg was commenting that the law wasn’t enough to fix the deeply flawed health system.

Meanwhile, Midwestern Nice was put to the test as tensions between Buttigieg and Klobuchar boiled over. “You voted to confirm the head of Customs and Border Protection under Trump, who was one of the architects of the family-separation policy,” Buttigieg pointed out. At one point, Klobuchar shot out: “Are you trying to say that I’m dumb? Or are you mocking me here, Pete?”

The Washington Post: A Guide to the Most Biting Brawls of the Contentious Las Vegas Presidential Debate

The Washington Post: Fact-Checking the Ninth Democratic Debate

Buttigieg also tried to get Sanders to take some responsibility for his supporters’ social media behavior. The issue was top of mind this week after a powerful culinary union in Nevada condemned the “vicious attacks” its members were receiving following the union’s criticism of Sanders’ “Medicare for All” plan.

The Wall Street Journal: Democratic Debate in Nevada: The Moments That Mattered

The incident between the union and Sanders’ supporters is the tip of the iceberg of a larger Medicare for All civil war roiling organized labor. On one side, you have liberal unions who argue a government-run plan would free them up to refocus and allow them to concentrate on other important matters. The other side of the coin says there’s no way the health care provided under such a system would be as good as the hard-earned plans they have now.

Politico: Labor’s Civil War Over ‘Medicare For All’ Threatens Its 2020 Clout


I was overly optimistic last week in everyone’s desire to adopt an official name for the coronavirus outbreak. Sorry scientists, “COVID-19” does not seem to have taken off, and, at least colloquially, you might be stuck with “coronavirus.” But no matter what it’s called, it is still demanding the world’s attention. Here’s a look at some of the more noteworthy and interesting stories from the week:

— The number of cases in China keeps dropping, in a sign that the outbreak might be stabilizing, at least in the epicenter. But that doesn’t mean anyone should be optimistic (heaven forbid!), because it’s likely cases outside China are on the cusp of blooming into a pandemic.

The New York Times: Coronavirus Epidemic Keeps Growing, But Spread in China Slows

— The Washington Post peels back the curtain on a fight between the State Department and the CDC over whether infected cruise ship passengers should be flown back to America without telling the other people on the plane. Guess who won …

The Washington Post: Diamond Princess: State Department Flew Coronavirus-Infected Americans to the US Against CDC Advice

— Who in our cast of characters holds the responsibility of steering the world through this crisis? (All I keep thinking is: “Responders…Assemble!” Anyone else? Or only your resident Marvel geek here?)

Stat: The Responders: Who Is Leading the Charge in the Coronavirus Outbreak

— Why is a hospital in Omaha, Nebraska, making news? Because in the early 2000s a group of doctors and scientists came up with the idea of creating a biocontainment unit there. Not everyone was on board at the time, calling it “overkill.” But nearly two decades of epidemics have proved the skeptics wrong.

The Associated Press: Why Treat People Exposed to Virus in Omaha? Why Not?

The New York Times: First Ebola, Now Coronavirus. Why an Omaha Hospital Gets the Toughest Cases.

— Are computers better at spotting an outbreak before humans’ puny minds can? Well, they’re quicker, certainly, but they lack our finesse. AI is more like an overly anxious car alarm, and disease fighters are still needed to come in and tease out the complexities of the situation.

The Associated Press: Can AI Flag Disease Outbreaks Faster Than Humans? Not Quite

— More men than women are falling victim to the coronavirus, and that might have something to do with smoking rates.

The New York Times: Why the Coronavirus Seems to Hit Men Harder Than Women

— The prejudice that tagged along with this outbreak is nothing new. Experts warn that there’s a long history of this kind of reaction, and that if we don’t heed warnings about the consequences of such behavior we’ll just be repeating mistakes of the past again.

Undark: Coronavirus Spurs Prejudice. History Suggests That’s No Surprise.

— The vast majority of coronavirus cases are mild. But in 2% of cases, it’s brutally lethal. So what’s happening?

The Washington Post: How the New Coronavirus Can Kill People or Sicken Them

— Is COVID-19 here to stay or will it disappear like its coronavirus brethren?

Los Angeles Times: SARS Killed Hundreds and Then Disappeared. Could This Coronavirus Die Out?

— And, something I had not considered, but with the Olympics coming up, experts say the world needs to have a better grip on the virus before countries should think about attending.

The Associated Press: Virologist: Tokyo Olympics Probably Couldn’t Be Held Now


As the Trump administration pushes to increase patients’ access to their electronic health records, tech companies wait hungrily in the wings for the data to slip out from under the protection of HIPAA. Supporters of the administration’s moves say that Big Tech will be mindful of their own brands and reputations and treat the potential of (lucrative, sweeping) health data responsibly. Critics are a little less sure about that rose-colored-glasses view of an industry mired in data-privacy scandals.

Politico: Trump’s Next Health Care Move: Giving Silicon Valley Your Medical Data


Covered California enrollment numbers gave health law supporters something to be smug about this week: Thanks to a state-level individual mandate and more subsidies, the marketplace saw a 41% jump in new sign-ups. Covered California officials were pretty much, like, “See what can be done when you support this model?”

Sacramento Bee: Covered California Health Insurance Sign-Ups Rise in 2020

Speaking of California, Gov. Gavin Newsom made a big statement by devoting the entirety of his State of the State address to the homelessness crisis. “Let’s call it what it is. It’s a disgrace,” he said. A main focus for Newsom was the intersection of mental health and homelessness, and what the state can be doing to better help those who need it.

Los Angeles Times: California Homelessness Crisis ‘A Disgrace,’ Newsom Says in State of the State


In the miscellaneous file for the week:

— Pharma used to rule the roost on Capitol Hill. But those days are looking more and more like a thing of the past. The WSJ dissects the once-ironclad relationship between the industry and Republicans, and what went wrong for the drugmakers.

The Wall Street Journal: How the Drug Lobby Lost Its Mojo in Washington

— These days we’re used to courts demanding scientific evidence, to jurors being presented with experts in the field when having to make a decision about the medical ramifications of something like a pesticide or other chemical. But that wasn’t always the case. Undark looks back on when that changed, and the family that’s cited so often in court cases their name has become a verb.

Undark: For Science in the Courts, the Daubert Name Looms Large

— Ever wonder why things are priced to the 99 cents? That’s because of the way people perceive numbers and the greater likelihood you’ll buy something priced at $4.99 versus $5.00. When it comes to pennies, that might seem inconsequential. But it turns out the same kind of thinking can be applied to age — and, thus, decisions about where the cutoff should be on procedures like open-heart surgery.

Stat: How Psychology of a $4.99 Price Tag May Affect Doctors’ Decisions

— Everyone went into the opioid lawsuits with high hopes, buzzing about the possibility of the reckoning (and settlement) being akin to that of Big Tobacco’s in the 1990s. But the reality is likely to be a letdown.

The New York Times: Payout From a National Opioids Settlement Won’t Be As Big As Hoped


And that’s it from me! Have a great weekend.