Two Women’s Health Policy Issues to Monitor in 2021

With President-elect Joe Biden and a new Congress taking office next month, newly updated KFF briefs examine two women’s health policy issues awaiting federal policymakers in 2021. President-elect Biden campaigned on reversing the Trump Administration’s regulations for the Title X family planning program, which require complete financial and physical separation from abortion services, including referrals,More

KHN’s ‘What the Health?’: 2020 in Review — It Wasn’t All COVID

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COVID-19 was the dominant — but not the only — health policy story of 2020. In this special year-in-review episode of KHN’s “What the Health?” podcast, panelists look back at some of the biggest non-coronavirus stories. Those included Supreme Court cases on the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid work requirements and abortion, as well as a year-end surprise ending to the “surprise bill” saga.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of KHN, Joanne Kenen of Politico, Anna Edney of Bloomberg News and Sarah Karlin-Smith of Pink Sheet.

Among the takeaways from this week’s podcast:

  • The coronavirus pandemic strengthened the hand of ACA supporters, even as the Trump administration sought to get the Supreme Court to overturn the federal health law. Many people felt it was an inopportune time to get rid of that safety valve while so many Americans were losing their jobs — and their health insurance — due to the economic chaos from the virus.
  • Preliminary enrollment numbers released by federal officials last week suggest that more people were taking advantage of the option to buy coverage for 2021 through the ACA marketplaces than for 2020, even in the absence of enrollment encouragement from the federal government.
  • The ACA’s Medicaid expansion had a bit of a roller-coaster ride this year. Voters in two more states — Oklahoma and Missouri — approved the expansion in ballot measures, but the Trump administration continued its support of state plans that require many adults to prove they are working in order to continue their coverage. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a challenge to that policy. Although lower courts have ruled that the Medicaid law does not allow such restrictions, it’s not clear how the new conservative majority on the court will view this issue.
  • Concerns are beginning to grow in Washington about the near-term prospect of the Medicare trust fund going insolvent. That can likely be fixed only with a remedy adopted by Congress, and that may not happen unless lawmakers feel a crisis is very near.
  • The Trump administration has sought to bring down drug out-of-pocket expenses for Medicare beneficiaries. Among those initiatives is a demonstration project to lower the cost of insulin. About a third of Medicare beneficiaries will be enrolled in plans that offer reduced prices in 2021. But the effort could have a hidden consequence: higher insurance premiums.
  • Many members of Congress began this session two years ago with grand promises of working to lower drug prices — but they never reached an agreement on how to do it.
  • President Donald Trump, however, was strongly motivated by the issue and late this year issued an order to set many Medicare drug prices based on what is paid in other industrialized nations. Drugmakers detest the idea and have vowed to fight it in court. Although some Democrats endorse the concept, it seems unlikely that President-elect Joe Biden would want to spend much capital in a legal battle for a plan that hasn’t been carefully vetted.
  • The gigantic spending and COVID relief bill that Congress finally approved Monday includes a provision to protect consumers from surprise medical bills when they are unknowingly treated by doctors or hospitals outside their insurance network. The law sets up a mediation process to resolve the charges, but the process favors the doctors. Insurers are likely to pass along any extra costs to consumers through higher premiums.

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Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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A New Way to Ease the Worry That You May Be Pregnant

Marketed as “missed-period pills,” abortion drugs administered as early as 28 days after a woman’s last period can offer comfort in uncertainty to those who want it.

Trump’s Anti-Abortion Zeal Shook Fragile Health Systems Around the World

In Ethiopia, health clinics for teenagers once supported by U.S. foreign aid closed down. In Kenya, a decades-long effort to integrate HIV testing and family planning unraveled. And in Nepal, intrepid government workers who once traversed the Himalayas to spread information about reproductive health were halted.

Around the world, countries that depend on U.S. foreign aid have scrapped or scaled back ambitious public health projects, refashioning their health systems over the past four years to comport with President Donald Trump’s sweeping anti-abortion restrictions that went further than any Republican president before him.

The effects have been profound: As groups scrambled to meet the administration’s strict ideologically driven rules, they severed ties with health care providers that discuss abortion in any way, deleted references to abortion on websites and in sexual education curricula, and stopped discussing modern contraception for fear of forfeiting vital American aid.

President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to reverse the policy when he takes office, and he campaigned on a promise to enshrine abortion rights in federal law. But for many foreign aid groups, the changes may be permanent.

“The U.S. has lost its position as a leader and lost its credibility,” said Terry McGovern, of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health who has overseen research of the Trump policy in multiple countries.

Since Ronald Reagan, Republican presidents have barred foreign aid organizations from using U.S. global health funds to counsel women about abortion or refer them to a safe abortion provider. But the Trump administration vastly expanded those anti-abortion restrictions, known as “the global gag rule” by opponents. Under Trump, the rule applies to some $9 billion of aid touching nearly every facet of global health funding, including groups working on HIV, malaria, tuberculosis and water sanitation. Under President George W. Bush, the policy applied to a fraction of that, $600 million in foreign aid.

The Trump administration proudly touted these efforts to protect “the unborn abroad,” but the rules have left international aid groups deeply skeptical of U.S. promises and deepened the nation’s rift with European countries that have long viewed abortion access as vital to women’s health and safety.

Some major organizations opted out of any U.S. funding rather than comply with the new strictures, including Marie Stopes International and International Planned Parenthood Federation, among the largest providers of reproductive health care in the developing world. Untold numbers of front-line health care workers — in large cities and remote villages alike — have been confused by what seem like sudden swings in American policy.

And that trepidation may not be quick to dissipate even with a Democrat in the White House.

“Biden and Trump may seem radically different to Americans,” said Jennifer Sherwood, a policy manager at Amfar, the Foundation for AIDS Research. “But if you’re a small organization in sub-Saharan Africa, you may not understand what this new [Biden] administration means and if you can trust the United States.”

The restrictions intentionally constrict the activities of foreign aid groups, many of which have worked in close coordination with American counterparts for decades. The rules also have a ripple effect on their funding: U.S. funding to foreign groups is contingent on their not accepting money from other countries, or even private foundations, to underwrite abortion-related services. They are not allowed to subcontract with other organizations that run separate abortion-related projects.

Trump telegraphed the worldwide anti-abortion gains in appeals to evangelical Christians. In early October, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo touted the policy during a speech to the Florida Family Policy Council, a conservative anti-abortion group, calling it an “unprecedented defense of the unborn abroad.”

“Our administration has drawn on our first principles to defend life in our foreign policy like no administration in all of history,” said Pompeo, who is an evangelical Christian.

The hard-right policies of the Trump administration stand in stark contrast to the steady liberalization of abortion laws in countries around the world over the past two decades. Since 2000, more than two dozen countries have eased abortion laws, including Ireland, South Korea, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ethiopia.

Even in countries where abortion is forbidden, the rules are having an impact on reproductive health care. In Madagascar, where abortion is illegal with no exceptions, the largest provider of contraception, Marie Stopes, turned down U.S. money, endangering its ability to offer unfettered medical care to women, ending support for nearly 200 public and private facilities.

Mamy Jean Jacques Razafimahatratra, a researcher at the Institut National de Santé Publique et Communautaire in Antananarivo, found that led to shortages of contraception, in a poor country where travel to nearby towns is difficult.

“The women asked us, ‘What is the cause of this rupture?’” said Razafimahatratra. “We tried to explain to them the reason, and [they say], ‘But that regulation is for abortion, so we don’t understand why we are also penalized?’”

Researchers at Amfar and Johns Hopkins, in a study published in Health Affairs, found the anti-abortion policies could have deadly consequences, specifically in preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS. Sherwood said young African women face the highest risk of HIV and many clinics had combined HIV testing and treatment with family planning services.

But, fearing they would run afoul of the Trump policy and thus forfeit funding, clinics have curtailed family planning for patients, reducing the number of women seeking care in African countries.

“A lot of the times, they want contraception,” said Sherwood. “That is what’s on their mind, and HIV is the secondary thing, something we can tack on to meet their needs all at once.”

Jennifer Kates, director of global health and HIV policy at KFF said, “I have no doubt some groups are going to say, ‘We are not going to play there anymore.’” (KHN is an editorially independent program of KFF.)

The practical challenges of restarting these programs are steep: rehiring staff, reopening clinics, retraining employees, rewriting curricula.

“You can imagine being a health care worker that was under threat of losing their funding for counseling a patient on abortion,” Sherwood said. “To us, it’s like a light switch that can turn off and on, but to them, this is a very opaque and confusing process. It’s not how health systems work. You can’t just change the way they work overnight.”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Coming Abortion Fight Could Threaten Birth Control, Too

Abortion opponents were among those most excited by the addition of Justice Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. And they had good reason to be.

As a law professor and circuit court judge, Barrett made it clear she is no fan of abortion rights. She is considered likely to vote not only to uphold restrictions on the procedure, but also, possibly, even to overturn the existing national right to abortion under the Supreme Court’s landmark rulings in Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey.

Her first opportunity to weigh in could come soon. A Mississippi ban on abortions after 15 weeks — impermissible under existing court precedents — is awaiting review by the justices, who could decide as early as this week to take up the case.

That’s the headline. But many overlook other things that could flow from a new abortion jurisprudence — such as erasing the right to birth control that the court recognized in a 1965 case, Griswold v. Connecticut. During her confirmation hearings, Barrett specifically refused to say whether she felt Griswold was correctly decided.

That was a flashing red warning light for Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, a legal advocacy group that argues cases on abortion and contraception. Roe, said Northup, is part of a century of jurisprudence based on the idea that the Constitution protects the liberty of individuals. “It began with cases about how one educates one’s children, and includes same-sex marriage, contraception and abortion,” she said. “You can’t just take Roe out and not unravel the whole fabric.”

Yet from what Barrett has said and written about the Constitution, continued Northup, “it’s clear she doesn’t believe it protects the right to personal liberty.”

Abortion rights advocates worry that the court could go beyond overturning Roe and Casey. If those precedents are overturned, abortion decisions would return to the states. But the court could go a step further and recognize “fetal personhood,” the idea that a fetus is a person with full constitutional rights from the moment of fertilization. That would create a constitutional bar to abortion, among other things, meaning even the most liberal states could not allow the procedure.

Personhood amendments were on the ballot in several states about a decade ago. They were rejected by voters even in conservative states like Mississippi after opponents argued that recognizing life at fertilization would outlaw not just abortion, without exceptions, but also things like in vitro fertilization and many forms of contraception, including some birth control pills, “morning after” pills, and intrauterine devices (IUDs) that some think could cause very early abortions by preventing a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus. (More recent scientific evidence suggests nearly all those methods actually prevent ovulation, not  implantation.)

But an abortion law passed in Georgia in 2019 not only includes a ban on abortion at the point a heartbeat can be detected — often before a woman is aware she is pregnant — but also has a fetal personhood provision. Georgia is appealing a federal district court ruling that struck down the law as a violation of Roe.

Proponents of these personhood provisions are cautiously optimistic. “It looks like there will be a court more friendly to a challenge to Roe,” said Les Riley, interim president of the Personhood Alliance, the group pushing the concept. “But to some extent we’ve been down this road before.”

Previous courts since the early 1990s that were thought poised to overturn Roe did not.

And even if the court were to uphold a law like the Mississippi ban it is considering now, he said, “all that’s saying is they agree that states can regulate or ban abortion at 15 weeks. What we want to do is have the factual reality that life begins at conception recognized in law.”

Mary Ziegler, a law professor at Florida State University who has written two books on the abortion battle, said the court wouldn’t have to recognize fetal personhood to threaten many forms of contraception.

States could effectively ban contraception by arguing that some contraceptives act as abortifacients, she said. The court has already opened the door to this argument. In the 2014 Hobby Lobby case, it allowed some companies to decline to offer birth control coverage otherwise required by the Affordable Care Act to their employees. The owners of the companies that brought the suit said they believe some contraceptives are a form of abortion, and the court said the requirement violated their religious freedom. The court used a similar reasoning in a 2020 case exempting the Roman Catholic order Little Sisters of the Poor from even having to sign a paper that would officially exempt them from the ACA contraceptive mandate.

Medical groups and the federal government don’t consider any form of contraception approved by the Food and Drug Administration an abortion equivalent, because the standard medical definition of the start of pregnancy is when a fertilized egg implants in the uterus, not when sperm and egg first unite. Yet the court has not always followed science on the issue.

Still, Ziegler said, “personhood has always been the endgame” for abortion foes, not simply overturning Roe, which would let each state decide whether to outlaw abortion. “Allowing states to leave abortion legal has never been the endgame,” she said.

Interestingly, however, Riley of the Personhood Alliance said that while he hopes his side will win eventually, he is not necessarily hoping that win will come from the Supreme Court.

“We think the strategy has been misguided for years,” he said. “Right now, five justices can overturn anything. That’s not the system of government our founders had in mind.”

Rather, he said, his organization is working more at the state and local level “to lay the groundwork of people’s hearts being changed.”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Sin presidente todavía, el futuro de la salud también sigue siendo incierto

Sin un ganador y sin saber todavía qué partido controlará el Senado, el futuro del sistema de salud de la nación también sigue siendo incierto.

Lo que está en juego es si el gobierno federal desempeñará un papel más importante en el financiamiento y el establecimiento de las reglas básicas para la cobertura de atención médica o cederá más autoridad a los estados y al sector privado.

Si el presidente Donald Trump gana y los republicanos retienen el control del Senado, es posible que Trump aún no pueda hacer cambios radicales mientras la Cámara siga bajo control demócrata.

Pero, gracias a las reglas establecidas por los republicanos del Senado, se podrían seguir apilando demandas en los tribunales federales con juristas conservadores que probablemente defiendan el uso expansivo del poder ejecutivo por parte de Trump para tomar decisiones de salud.

El presidente también se ha comprometido a continuar sus esfuerzos para deshacerse de la Ley de Cuidado de Salud a Bajo Precio (ACA). Si la Corte Suprema anula la ley general como parte de un desafío que escuchará la próxima semana, se pondrá a prueba la promesa de los republicanos de proteger a las personas con condiciones médicas preexistentes.

En un segundo mandato, la administración probablemente también continuará sus esfuerzos para modificar Medicaid instituyendo requisitos laborales para los adultos inscritos y brindando más flexibilidad a los estados para cambiar el diseño del programa.

Si Joe Biden gana y los demócratas obtienen la mayoría en el Senado, sería la primera vez que el partido controla la Casa Blanca y ambas cámaras del Congreso desde 2010, el año en que se aprobó ACA.

Una de las principales prioridades será lidiar con la pandemia de COVID-19 y sus consecuencias económicas. Biden hizo de este tema una piedra angular de su campaña, prometiendo implementar políticas basadas en el asesoramiento médico y científico, y proporcionar más directrices y ayuda a los estados.

Pero también ocupa un lugar destacado en su agenda abordar partes de ACA que no han funcionado tan bien como esperaban sus autores. Se comprometió a agregar una “opción pública” administrada por el gobierno, que sería una alternativa a los planes de seguros privados en los mercados, y a reducir la edad de elegibilidad para Medicare a 60 años.

Si bien los demócratas continuarán controlando la Cámara, aún no se ha determinado la composición final del Senado. E incluso si los demócratas ganan el Senado, no se espera que obtengan una mayoría que les permita aprobar leyes sin el apoyo de algunos senadores republicanos, a menos que cambien las reglas del Senado.

Pero quién controle Washington es solo una parte del impacto de las elecciones en las políticas de salud. Varios problemas de salud clave están en manos de los estados. Algunos de ellos:

Aborto

En Colorado, una medida que habría prohibido los abortos después de las 22 semanas de embarazo, excepto para salvar la vida de la embarazada, fracasó, según The Associated Press. Colorado es uno de los siete estados que no prohíben los abortos en algún momento del embarazo.

También alberga una de las pocas clínicas del país que realizan abortos en el tercer trimestre del embarazo, a menudo por complicaciones médicas graves. La clínica atrae pacientes de todo el país, por lo que los residentes de otros estados se habrían visto afectados si se aprobara la enmienda de Colorado.

En Louisiana, sin embargo, los votantes aprobaron fácilmente una enmienda a la constitución estatal para indicar que nada en el documento proteja el derecho al aborto o a financiarlo. Esto facilitaría que el estado prohíba el aborto si la Corte Suprema anula Roe v. Wade, que hace que las prohibiciones estatales del aborto sean inconstitucionales.

Medicaid

El destino del programa de salud para las personas de bajos ingresos no está en la boleta electoral directamente en ninguna parte de esta elección. (Los votantes aprobaron expansiones del programa en Missouri y Oklahoma a principios de este año).

Pero el programa se verá afectado no solo por quién controle la presidencia y el Congreso, sino también por quién controle las legislaturas en los estados que no han expandido Medicaid en el marco de ACA. Carolina del Norte es un estado clave donde un cambio en la mayoría de la legislatura podría modificar el rumbo de la expansión.

Marihuana y alucinógenos

En seis estados, los votantes están decidiendo la legalidad de la marihuana de una forma u otra. Montana, Arizona y Nueva Jersey estaban decidiendo si unirse a los 11 estados que permiten su uso recreativo.

Los votantes de Mississippi y Nebraska estaban eligiendo si legalizarían la marihuana medicinal, y Dakota del Sur se convirtió en el primer estado en votar sobre la legalización de la marihuana medicinal y recreativa en la misma elección.

Las setas alucinógenas (hongos) están en dos papeletas. Se aprobó una medida en Oregon para permitir el uso de hongos productores de psilocibina con fines medicinales, y una propuesta del Distrito de Columbia para despenalizar los hongos alucinógenos estaba ganando adeptos.

También se aprobó una pregunta en la boleta electoral en Oregon para despenalizar la posesión de pequeñas cantidades de drogas duras, incluida la heroína, cocaína y metanfetamina, y ordenar el establecimiento de centros de recuperación de adicciones, utilizando parte de los ingresos fiscales de las ventas de marihuana para establecer esos centros.

California

Como de costumbre, los votantes de California se enfrentaron a una larga lista de medidas electorales relacionadas con la salud.

Por segunda vez en dos años, la rentable industria de diálisis renal del estado fue cuestionada en las urnas. Una iniciativa patrocinada por un sindicato habría requerido que las empresas de diálisis contrataran a un médico en cada clínica y presentaran informes sobre casos de infecciones al estado. Pero la industria gastó $105 millones en contra de la medida. La medida falló, según AP.

También se les pidió a los votantes que decidieran, nuevamente, si financiarían la investigación con células madre del Instituto de Medicina Regenerativa de California a través de la Proposición 14. Los votantes aprobaron por primera vez el financiamiento para la agencia en 2004 y, desde entonces, se han gastado miles de millones con pocos resultados que derivaran en curas. La medida estaba ganando en los primeros resultados.

California ha estado a la vanguardia de la lucha por la llamada economía de los gig, y la votación de este año incluyó una propuesta impulsada por empresas de transporte como Uber y Lyft que les permitiría seguir tratando a los conductores como contratistas independientes en lugar de empleados.

Según la Proposición 22, las empresas no tendrían que proporcionar beneficios de salud directos a los conductores, pero tendrían que darles a los que califiquen un estipendio que podrían utilizar para pagar las primas de seguro médico comprado en el mercado del estado, Covered California. La medida fue aprobada.

Finalmente, se preguntó a los votantes si imponer impuestos a la propiedad más altos a los dueños de propiedades comerciales con terrenos y tenencias de propiedades valoradas en $3 millones o más, lo que podría ayudar a proporcionar nuevos ingresos destinados a ciudades y condados con problemas económicos afectados por el COVID-19, así como escuelas K-12 y colegios comunitarios.

Las clínicas comunitarias, las enfermeras de California y Planned Parenthood se lanzaron a la espinosa batalla política por la Propuesta 15, enfrentándose a poderosos grupos empresariales, con la mira puesta en los ingresos para ayudar a reconstruir el empobrecido sistema de salud pública de California.

Los demócratas en California, que controlan todos los cargos electos en todo el estado y tienen una supermayoría en la legislatura, se han estado posicionando para una victoria de Biden, y algunos ya estaban redactando una ambiciosa legislación de atención médica para el próximo año.

Si gana Biden, dijeron que planean tomar medidas enérgicas contra la consolidación de hospitales y terminar con las facturas sorpresa de las salas de emergencias, y algunos estaban discutiendo en silencio iniciativas liberales como buscar un sistema de atención médica de pagador único y expandir Medicaid para cubrir a más inmigrantes sin papeles.

JoNel Aleccia, Rachel Bluth, Angela Hart, Matt Volz y Samantha Young colaboraron con esta historia.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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No Winner for President Yet and Health Care Hangs in the Balance

With the winner of the presidency and party control of the Senate still unclear the morning after Election Day, the future of the nation’s health system remains uncertain. At stake is whether the federal government will play a stronger role in financing and setting the ground rules for health care coverage or cede more authority to states and the private sector.

Should President Donald Trump win and Republicans retain control of the Senate, Trump still may not be able to make sweeping changes through legislation as long as the House is still controlled by Democrats. But — thanks to rules set up by the Senate GOP — the ability to continue to stack the federal courts with conservative jurists who are likely to uphold Trump’s expansive use of executive power could effectively remake the government’s relationship with the health care system even without signed legislation.

The president has also pledged to continue his efforts to get rid of the Affordable Care Act, and if the Supreme Court overturns the sweeping law as part of a challenge it will hear next week, the Republicans’ promise to protect people with preexisting medical conditions will be put to the test. In a second term, the administration would also likely push to continue to revamp Medicaid with its efforts to institute work requirements for adult enrollees and provide more flexibility for states to change the contours of the program.

If former Vice President Joe Biden wins and Democrats gain a Senate majority, it would represent the first time the party has controlled the White House and both houses of Congress since 2010 — the year the ACA was passed. A top priority will be dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic fallout. Biden made that a keystone of his campaign, promising to implement policies based on advice from medical and scientific advisers and provide more directives and aid to the states.

But also high on his agenda will be addressing parts of the ACA that haven’t worked as well as its authors hoped. He pledged to add a government-run “public option,” which would be an alternative to private insurance plans on the marketplaces, and to lower the eligibility age for Medicare to 60.

While Democrats will continue to control the House, the final makeup of the Senate is still to be determined. And even if the Democrats win the Senate, they are not expected to come away with a majority that would allow them to pass legislation without support from at least some GOP senators, unless they change the Senate’s rules. That could lower expectations of what the Democrats can accomplish — and may lead to some tensions among members.

But who controls Washington, D.C., is only part of the election’s impact on health policy. Several key health issues are on the ballot both directly and indirectly in many states. Here are a few:

Abortion

In Colorado, a measure that would have banned abortions after 22 weeks of pregnancy — except to save the life of the pregnant person — failed, according to The Associated Press. Colorado is one of seven states that don’t prohibit abortions at some point in pregnancy. It is also home to one of the few clinics in the nation that perform abortions in the third trimester, often for severe medical complications. The clinic draws patients from around the nation, so residents of other states would have been affected if the Colorado amendment passed.

In Louisiana, however, voters easily approved an amendment to the state constitution to say that nothing in the document protects the right to, or requires the funding of, abortion. That would make it easier for the state to outlaw abortion if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, which makes state abortion bans unconstitutional.

Medicaid

The fate of the Medicaid program for people with low incomes is not on the ballot directly anywhere this election. (Voters approved expansions of the program in Missouri and Oklahoma earlier this year.) But the program will be affected not only by who controls the presidency and Congress, but also by who controls the legislatures in states that have not expanded the program under the Affordable Care Act. North Carolina is a key swing state where a change in majority in the legislature could turn the expansion tide.

Drug Policy

In six states, voters are deciding the legality of marijuana in one form or another. Montana, Arizona and New Jersey were deciding whether to join the 11 states that allow recreational use of the drug. Mississippi and Nebraska voters were choosing whether to legalize medical marijuana, and South Dakota became the first state to vote on legalizing both recreational and medical pot in the same election.

Magic mushrooms are on two ballots. A measure in Oregon to allow the use of psilocybin-producing mushrooms for medicinal purposes was leading, as was a District of Columbia proposal to decriminalize the hallucinogenic fungi.

Also apparently heading for approval was a separate ballot question in Oregon to decriminalize possession of small amounts of hard drugs, including heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine, and mandate establishing addiction recovery centers, using some tax proceeds from marijuana sales to establish those centers.

California

As usual, voters in California faced a lengthy list of health-related ballot measures.

For the second time in two years, the state’s profitable kidney dialysis industry was challenged at the ballot box. A union-sponsored initiative would have required dialysis companies to employ a doctor at every clinic and submit infection reports to the state. But the industry spent $105 million against the measure. The measure failed, according to AP.

Voters were also asked to decide, again, whether to fund stem cell research through the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine via Proposition 14. Voters first approved funding for the agency in 2004, and since then, billions have been spent with few cures to show for it. The measure was winning in early returns.

California has been at the forefront of the fight over the so-called gig economy, and this year’s ballot included a proposal pushed by ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft that would let them continue to treat drivers as independent contractors instead of employees. Under Proposition 22, the companies would not have to provide direct health benefits to drivers but would have to give those who qualify a stipend they could use toward a premium for health insurance purchased through the state’s individual marketplace, Covered California. The measure also appeared to be headed for approval.

Finally, voters in the Golden State were asked whether to impose higher property taxes on commercial property owners with land and property holdings valued at $3 million or more, which could help provide new revenue earmarked for economically struggling cities and counties hit hard by COVID-19, as well as K-12 schools and community colleges. Community clinics, California nurses and Planned Parenthood jumped into the thorny political battle over Proposition 15 — taking on powerful business groups — eyeing revenue to help rebuild California’s underfunded public health system. The measure was too close to call in early returns.

Democrats in California, who control all statewide elected offices and hold a supermajority in the legislature, have been positioning for a Biden win, and some were already penning ambitious health care legislation for next year. Should Biden win, they said they plan to crack down on hospital consolidation and end surprise emergency room bills, and some were quietly discussing liberal initiatives such as pursuing a single-payer health care system and expanding Medicaid to cover more unauthorized immigrants.

JoNel Aleccia, Rachel Bluth, Angela Hart, Matt Volz and Samantha Young contributed to this story.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Colorado Initiative Would Further Limit Access in Middle America’s ‘Abortion Desert’

Colorado voters are deciding a ballot question that seeks to limit how far into pregnancy an abortion can be legally performed. While the measure would change the law only in Colorado, it would resonate throughout the Rocky Mountain states and Midwest amid an intensifying national fight, fueled by a Supreme Court vacancy, over the future of abortion.

In 1967 — six years before the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision protected the right to an abortion in the U.S. — Colorado became the first state to pass a law widening access to legal abortion. More than 50 years later, it remains one of just seven states without gestational limits on the procedure, making Colorado one of the few options for people nationwide who need abortions later in pregnancy.

Proposition 115 seeks to change that. It would outlaw abortion in the state after 22 weeks. The proposition makes an exception to save the life of the pregnant person, but none for cases of rape or incest or to protect the health of the pregnant individual or fetus.

But the impact of the measure also would be felt by neighboring states where people have little or no access to abortion. Kelly Baden, vice president of reproductive rights at the left-leaning policy group State Innovation Exchange, called the surrounding region an abortion desert.

“Colorado really plays an important role in the region in being a haven for access for people who live in those highly restrictive states, some of which neighbor us, like Kansas, Nebraska — that whole swath of the Midwest from the Dakotas on down to Texas,” Baden said.

A study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research in 2018 found the Midwest has fewer abortion clinics per capita than any other U.S. region, with 92 facilities across 10 states.

Colorado providers have stepped in, and approximately 1 in 10 abortions are performed on people from out of state. A billboard on Interstate 70 welcomed visitors from Utah with the message “Welcome to Colorado, where you can get a safe, legal abortion.”

Colorado voters have rejected three abortion-related ballot measures since 2008, which advocates pointed to as evidence that the state’s residents are fine with the status quo.

“Colorado has already voted on ridiculous abortion restrictions multiple times and said, ‘We don’t want them.’ It’s insulting that these extremists keep trying,” said Whitney Woods, speaking on her own behalf while on maternity leave from Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains.

Over the past decade, however, those measures have been rejected by smaller and smaller margins, said Bob Enyart, a spokesperson for Colorado Right to Life — one of several groups pushing for Proposition 115 to pass.

“Coloradoans increasingly voted to recognize each unborn child as a person from 2008 to 2010 to 2014,” said Enyart.

Indeed, 2008’s Amendment 48, which proposed redefining personhood in the state constitution as starting at conception, received support from 27% of voters. Six years later, that support grew to 35% for Amendment 67.

A recent poll by 9News in Denver and Colorado Politics showed that voters are more evenly divided about the new proposition, with 45% saying they’ll vote no, 42% planning to vote yes, and a crucial 13% still undecided.

Randi Davis, a mom in Aurora, is one voter whose own experience illustrates how personal and nuanced the question can be. When she was pregnant, Davis was advised to have an abortion, as her baby’s odds of survival were slim to none. She said she opted against abortion and went on to give birth to a full-term stillborn baby.

“I’m not necessarily for abortion,” Davis said. “However, I do believe every woman should have their own choice to abort for whatever reason.”

She said she’s voting against the proposition.

Dr. Thomas Perille heads the medical advisory team for the Coalition for Women and Children (also known as Due Date Too Late), the group that petitioned to put Proposition 115 on the ballot and calls abortions later in pregnancy “too extreme.” Perille contends the new proposition “bears no relation” to the previous measures, giving it a better chance of passing.

“Those were bans on abortion, and Prop 115 is a reasonable restriction of abortion after fetal viability,” he said.

Abortion-rights activists worry that bans of abortions after the first trimester aim to gradually shift public opinion and gain traction to fully outlaw the procedure.

“They’re hoping that they can slide this under the radar and really cast it as a compromise between anti-abortion and pro-choice voters,” said Fawn Bolak, spokesperson for ProgressNow Colorado. “But that’s not what this is. This is a violation of Roe v. Wade.”

Perille said that, while first-trimester abortions are “relatively safe,” late abortions pose a “substantial risk” to the people having them. Advocates for the initiative said studies show the risk of death to the pregnant person from an abortion increases with each week of gestation.

Opponents point to another study that shows legal abortions overall tend to be safer and pose less of a threat to pregnant people’s lives than childbirth.

Colorado isn’t the only state voting on an abortion initiative this election cycle. Voters in Louisiana are considering a constitutional amendment that says nothing in the state constitution can be interpreted as protecting a right to, or requiring funding of, abortion.

The measure’s advocates say that, if Roe v. Wade is overturned, the legality of abortion in Louisiana would be up to state lawmakers. Opponents say the measure, if it passes, would eliminate legal access to abortion in the state if Roe v. Wade is dismantled.

“Constitutions are supposed to be about preserving and enshrining freedom, but this amendment takes away freedom and rights while allowing the government to tell people what they can and cannot do with their body,” said Michelle Erenberg, executive director for Lift Louisiana, a group that advocates for abortion rights.

Abortion-rights advocates also point out that Louisiana passed its own 22-week abortion ban a decade ago, and worry that Colorado could follow a similar path toward even greater restrictions.

The decisions before voters in Colorado and Louisiana come amid renewed attention nationwide on abortions since Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s death last month. Senate Republicans are now pushing through President Donald Trump’s nominee, Judge Amy Coney Barrett. That has led voters and activists on both sides of the issue to become heavily focused on what Barrett’s appointment could mean for the future of Roe v. Wade.

Abortion opponents contend it’s not clear that Barrett’s confirmation would doom Roe.

“We have seen no evidence that Amy Coney Barrett has ever recognized that the unborn child is a person or has a right to life,” Enyart said. “We are concerned that she may disagree with the Roe opinion merely as a matter of process, not morality.”

But The Guardian recently reported on Barrett’s previous involvement with an anti-abortion organization, noting she signed a newspaper ad that called Roe “barbaric,” which put abortion-rights advocates on edge.

Erika Christensen, who helped pass New York’s Reproductive Health Act, said she is concerned but added that these new threats to abortion rights have become a rallying point for advocates.

Baden agreed, saying the renewed energy is particularly strong locally.

“We need to turn to the state level, and do whatever we can to prepare for what might come one day, be it from the Supreme Court or from another Trump executive order, or something else coming,” she said. “Roe is the floor, not the ceiling, right?”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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KHN’s ‘What the Health?’: A Little Good News and Some Bad on COVID-19

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For the first time in a long time, there is some good news about the coronavirus pandemic: Although cases continue to climb, fewer people seem to be dying. And there are fewer cases than expected among younger pupils in schools with in-person learning. But the bad news continues as well — including a push for “herd immunity” that could result in the deaths of millions of Americans.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is doubling down on efforts to allow states to require certain people with low incomes to prove they work, go to school or perform community service in order to keep their Medicaid health benefits. The administration is appealing a federal appeals court ruling to the Supreme Court and just granted Georgia the right to impose a work requirement.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of Kaiser Health News, Margot Sanger-Katz of The New York Times, Paige Winfield Cunningham of The Washington Post and Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico.

Among the takeaways from this week’s podcast:

  • Opinions seem to be slowly shifting on opening schools around the country. As fall approached, many people were hesitant to send their children back to school because they feared a resurgence of coronavirus infections, but early experiences seem to show that there has been little transmission among young kids in classrooms.
  • Even with good results in those school districts that have reopened, however, the debate about whether schools should be conducting in-person learning is quite polarized. President Donald Trump repeatedly calls for all schools to resume, while groups, such as unions representing teachers and other employees, are more likely to be calling for continued online learning.
  • California, which had a strong resurgence of the virus during the summer, is seeing signs of success in fighting back. The state has been among the most aggressive in shutting down normal activities to reduce case levels. It devised a county-specific method to determine closures, restrictions and reopenings — and it appears to be working.
  • A proposal by some researchers to move the country toward a “herd immunity” plan, in which officials would expect the virus to spread among the general population while also trying to protect the most vulnerable — such as people living in nursing homes — is gaining support among some of Trump’s advisers. Public health advocates are raising alarms because it would likely lead to hundreds of thousands more deaths. They also fear the administration’s focus on restoring normalcy would by default move in this direction.
  • Federal researchers this week announced that nearly 300,000 excess deaths have been recorded this year and much of it is attributed to COVID-19 or the lack of other health care by people who could not or did not seek treatments because they were frightened by the pandemic.
  • With the Senate poised to confirm Amy Coney Barrett, who opposes abortion, to the Supreme Court within days, the fate of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision is in question. If the court overruled that decision, abortion policies would likely fall back to individual states. A recent report on the effects of such a scenario finds that a huge swath of the South and the Midwest would be left without a local facility offering abortion services.

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

Julie Rovner: Cook’s Illustrated’s “The Best Reusable Face Masks,” by Riddley Gemperlein-Schirm, and The Washington Post’s “Consumer Masks Could Soon Come With Labels Saying How Well They Work,” by Yeganeh Torbati and Jessica Contrera

Margot Sanger-Katz: The Hill’s “Republicans: Supreme Court Won’t Toss ObamaCare,” by Peter Sullivan

Paige Winfield Cunningham: The Wall Street Journal’s “Some California Hospitals Refused Covid-19 Transfers for Financial Reasons, State Emails Show,” by Melanie Evans, Alexandra Berzon and Daniela Hernandez

Alice Miranda Ollstein: ProPublica’s “Inside the Fall of the CDC,” by James Bandler, Patricia Callahan, Sebastian Rotella and Kirsten Berg

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Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Abortion at SCOTUS: Potential Cases this Term and Possible Rulings

A new KFF issue brief examines the implications of a Supreme Court with a solid conservative majority. Two abortion cases have pending requests for Supreme Court review: Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization and FDA v. ACOG. If the Court chooses to take these cases, abortion laws and who can legally challenge them could beMore

KFF Health Tracking Poll – October 2020: The Future of the ACA and Biden’s Advantage On Health Care

The poll examines the public’s views on the Supreme Court case to overturn the Affordable Care Act and its protections for people with pre-existing conditions. Less than a month from the results of the 2020 presidential election, this poll examines the top issues for voters (the economy, the coronavirus pandemic, health care, criminal justice and policing, among others) as well as which candidate, Biden or Trump, they think has the better approach to handle key health care policy areas.

Election 2020: State Health Care Snapshots

Health care is a top issue for voters in the 2020 election. To understand the health care landscape in which the 2020 election policy debates will unfold, these state health care snapshots provide data across a variety of health policy subjects, including health care costs, health coverage—Medicaid, Medicare, private insurance—and the uninsured, women’s health, health status, and access to care.

Outnumbered on High Court Nomination, Democrats Campaign for a Different Vote

Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee know that, barring something unexpected, they lack the votes to block President Donald Trump from installing his third justice in four years on the Supreme Court and creating a 6-3 conservative majority.

They also know that, in a normal year, by mid-October Congress would be out of session and members home campaigning. But 2020 is obviously no normal year. So, while the rest of Congress is home, Democratic Judiciary members are trying something very different in the hearings for nominee Amy Coney Barrett. Rather than prosecuting their case against Barrett, currently a federal appeals court judge, they are refighting the war that helped them pick up seats in 2018 — banging on Republicans for trying to eliminate the Affordable Care Act.

Conveniently, the ACA is relevant to the Supreme Court debate because the justices are scheduled to hear a case that could invalidate the law on Nov. 10 — exactly a week after Election Day.

As California Sen. Kamala Harris, a member of the Judiciary Committee and the Democratic vice presidential candidate, put it to Barrett on Tuesday, “Republicans are scrambling to confirm this nominee as fast as possible because they need one more Trump judge on the bench before Nov. 10th to win and strike down the entire Affordable Care Act. This is not hyperbole. This is not hypothetical. This is happening.”

Said Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), also on Tuesday: “We really believe the Supreme Court’s consideration of that case is going — could literally change America for millions of people.”

To be sure, Republicans too were playing to their electorate during the questioning of Barrett, as they expounded on her conservative credentials on issues such as gun rights.

Nonetheless, Democrats were uniformly disciplined in their assault on her potential vote in the ACA case. They chided both Barrett and the Republicans who are rushing her nomination to the floor literally days before a presidential election. In addition, Democrats criticized Republicans for spending time on a nonemergency nomination while continuing to ignore the need for financial and other relief for the COVID-19 pandemic.

And they raised what in more normal times would be the featured talking point for Democrats: the threat to abortion and other reproductive rights from Barrett, who before her elevation to the federal bench publicly opposed abortion and taught law at Notre Dame, one of the nation’s preeminent Catholic universities.

“For many people, and particularly for women, this is a fundamental question,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the committee’s top Democrat.

Barrett, like every other Supreme Court nominee for the past three decades, declined to offer positions that could suggest which way she might rule on hot-button issues, including abortion and the ACA.

She repeatedly cited what has come to be called the “Ginsburg rule” — after the justice she would replace, Ruth Bader Ginsburg — saying “no hints, no previews, no forecasts.”

Still, Democrats suggested that she may have tipped her hand on the Affordable Care Act case. In pointing out that the issues in the case, now known as California v. Texas, are different from the previous cases upholding the health law in 2012 and 2015, she said the current case will turn on “severability.”

She was referring to the question of whether, if one portion of a law is found to be unconstitutional, the rest of the law can stand without it. In the current ACA case, a group of Republican attorneys general — and the Trump administration — are arguing that when Congress reduced the ACA’s penalty for not having insurance to zero, the requirement to be covered no longer had a tax attached, and therefore the law is now unconstitutional. They based their argument on Chief Justice John Roberts’ 2012 conclusion that the ACA was valid because that penalty was a constitutionally appropriate tax.

The law’s opponents say the rest of the law cannot be “severed” and must therefore fall, too. A federal district judge in Texas agreed with them.

But merely saying the case turns on severability suggests that Barrett has already prejudged major parts of the case, Democrats said. Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) noted, “You don’t get to the question of severability if you haven’t already determined the question of constitutionality.”

Barrett insisted repeatedly that despite an article she wrote in 2017 suggesting that the 2012 case upholding the law was wrongly decided, “I have no animus to nor agenda for the ACA,” as she told Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) on Wednesday.

In their rare show of unity of message, Democrats made clear that their primary audience in these hearings was not their Senate colleagues, but the voting public. While this battle looks lost, they hope to win the War of Nov. 3.

HealthBent, a regular feature of KHN, offers insight and analysis of policies and politics from KHN’s chief Washington correspondent, Julie Rovner, who has covered health care for more than 30 years.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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A Reconfigured U.S. Supreme Court: Implications for Health Policy

U.S. Supreme Court decisions shape health policy in important ways. The nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett, if confirmed, is expected to establish a solid 6:3 conservative majority that could affect case outcomes in several areas. This issue brief considers the potential implications of a reconfigured Court for health policy issues, including those already on the Court’s docket for the coming term and those that the Court may choose to consider in this term or in the future.

Republican Convention, Day 4: Fireworks … and Shining a Light on Trump’s Claims

President Donald Trump accepted the Republican Party’s nomination for president in a 70-minute speech from the South Lawn of the White House on Thursday night.

Speaking to a friendly crowd that didn’t appear to be observing social distancing conventions, and with few participants wearing masks, he touched on a range of topics, including many related to the COVID pandemic and health care in general.

Throughout, the partisan crowd applauded and chanted “Four more years!” And, even as the nation’s COVID-19 death toll exceeded 180,000, Trump was upbeat. “In recent months, our nation and the entire planet has been struck by a new and powerful invisible enemy,” he said. “Like those brave Americans before us, we are meeting this challenge.”

At the end of the event, there were fireworks.

Our partners at PolitiFact did an in-depth fact check on Trump’s entire acceptance speech. Here are the highlights related to the administration’s COVID-19 response and other health policy issues:

“We developed, from scratch, the largest and most advanced testing system in the world.” 

This is partially right, but it needs context.

It’s accurate that the U.S. developed its COVID-19 testing system from scratch, because the government didn’t accept the World Health Organization’s testing recipe. But whether the system is the “largest” or “most advanced” is subject to debate.

The U.S. has tested more individuals than any other country. But experts told us a more meaningful metric would be the percentage of positive tests out of all tests, indicating that not only sick people were getting tested. Another useful metric would be the percentage of the population that has been tested. The U.S. is one of the most populous countries but has tested a lower percentage of its population than other countries.

The U.S. was also slower than other countries in rolling out tests and amping up testing capacity. Even now, many states are experiencing delays in reporting test results to positive individuals.

As for “the most advanced,” Trump may be referring to new testing investments and systems, like Abbott’s recently announced $5, 15-minute rapid antigen test, which the company says will be about the size of a credit card, needs no instrumentation and comes with a phone app through which people can view their results. But Trump’s comment makes it sound as if these testing systems are already in place when they haven’t been distributed to the public.

“The United States has among the lowest [COVID-19] case fatality rates of any major country in the world. The European Union’s case fatality rate is nearly three times higher than ours.”

The case fatality rate measures the known number of cases against the known number of deaths. The European Union has a rate that’s about 2½ times greater than the United States.

But the source of that data, Oxford University’s Our World in Data project, reports that “during an outbreak of a pandemic, the case fatality rate is a poor measure of the mortality risk of the disease.”

A better way to measure the threat of the virus, experts say, is to look at the number of deaths per 100,000 residents. Viewed that way, the U.S. has the 10th-highest death rate in the world.

“We will produce a vaccine before the end of the year, or maybe even sooner.”

It’s far from guaranteed that a coronavirus vaccine will be ready before the end of the year.

While researchers are making rapid strides, it’s not yet known precisely when the vaccine will be available to the public, which is what’s most important. Six vaccines are in the third phase of testing, which involves thousands of patients. Like earlier phases, this one looks at the safety of a vaccine but also examines its effectiveness and collects more data on side effects. Results of the third phase will be submitted to the Food and Drug Administration for approval.

The government website Operation Warp Speed seems less optimistic than Trump, announcing it “aims to deliver 300 million doses of a safe, effective vaccine for COVID-19 by January 2021.”

And federal health officials and other experts have generally predicted a vaccine will be available in early 2021. Federal committees are working on recommendations for vaccine distribution, including which groups should get it first. “From everything we’ve seen now — in the animal data, as well as the human data — we feel cautiously optimistic that we will have a vaccine by the end of this year and as we go into 2021,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious diseases expert. “I don’t think it’s dreaming.”

“Last month, I took on Big Pharma. You think that is easy? I signed orders that would massively lower the cost of your prescription drugs.”

Quite misleading. Trump signed four executive orders on July 24 aimed at lowering prescription drug prices. But those orders haven’t taken effect yet — the text of one hasn’t even been made publicly available — and experts told us that, if implemented, the measures would be unlikely to result in significant drug price reductions for the majority of Americans.

“We will always and very strongly protect patients with preexisting conditions, and that is a pledge from the entire Republican Party.”

Trump’s pledge is undermined by his efforts to overturn the Affordable Care Act, the only law that guarantees people with preexisting conditions both receive health coverage and do not have to pay more for it than others do. In 2017, Trump supported congressional efforts to repeal the ACA. The Trump administration is now backing GOP-led efforts to overturn the ACA through a court case. And Trump has also expanded short-term health plans that don’t have to comply with the ACA.

“Joe Biden recently raised his hand on the debate stage and promised he was going to give it away, your health care dollars to illegal immigrants, which is going to bring a massive number of immigrants into our country.”

This is misleading. During a June 2019 Democratic primary debate, candidates were asked: “Raise your hand if your government plan would provide coverage for undocumented immigrants.” All candidates on stage, including Biden, raised their hands. They were not asked if that coverage would be free or subsidized.

Biden supports extending health care access to all immigrants, regardless of immigration status. A task force recommended that he allow immigrants who are in the country illegally to buy health insurance, without federal subsidies.

“Joe Biden claims he has empathy for the vulnerable, yet the party he leads supports the extreme late-term abortion of defenseless babies right up to the moment of birth.”

This mischaracterizes the Democratic Party’s stance on abortion and Biden’s position.

Biden has said he would codify the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade and related precedents. This would generally limit abortions to the first 20 to 24 weeks of gestation. States are allowed under court rulings to ban abortion after the point at which a fetus can sustain life, usually considered to be between 24 and 28 weeks from the mother’s last menstrual period — and 43 states do. But the rulings require states to make exceptions “to preserve the life or health of the mother.” Late-term abortions are very rare, about 1%.

The Democratic Party platform holds that “every woman should have access to quality reproductive health care services, including safe and legal abortion — regardless of where she lives, how much money she makes, or how she is insured.” It does not address late-term abortion.

PolitiFact’s Daniel Funke, Jon Greenberg, Louis Jacobson, Noah Y. Kim, Bill McCarthy, Samantha Putterman, Amy Sherman, Miriam Valverde and KHN reporter Victoria Knight contributed to this report.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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KHN’s ‘What the Health?’: The Trump Administration’s War on Fauci


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Not only does the Trump administration lack a comprehensive plan for addressing the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, it spent much of the past week working to undercut one of the nation’s most trusted scientists, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Reporters were given “opposition research” noting times when Fauci was allegedly wrong about the course of the pandemic, and Peter Navarro, a trade adviser to President Donald Trump, published an op-ed in USA Today attacking Fauci personally.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court may not hear the case challenging the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act before the November elections, although its existence is likely to serve as fodder for Democrats up and down the ballot.

And lower courts have been active on the reproductive health front since the high court declined to fully exercise its anti-abortion majority. Federal judges in Tennessee and Georgia blocked abortion bans, while one in Maryland blocked an administration rule requiring insurance companies that sell plans on the Affordable Care Act exchanges to send customers a separate bill for abortion coverage if it is offered.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of Kaiser Health News, Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico, Paige Winfield Cunningham of The Washington Post and Erin Mershon of Stat News.

Among the takeaways from this week’s podcast:

  • Despite rosy pronouncements by federal officials that testing efforts in the country are progressing well, many states still report problems getting supplies they need, and delays in getting test results are making contact tracing all but impossible.
  • The testing problems create major hurdles to opening schools on time, as testing and contact tracing have been prerequisites to open schools safely.
  • Researchers are complaining that the Trump administration’s decision to have hospitals report their coronavirus data to HHS, instead of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, may make it difficult for them to study aspects of the outbreak.
  • Groups that oppose abortion see efforts by Chief Justice John Roberts to moderate decisions this year as a signal he may not be receptive to their arguments to overturn Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion nationally. The chance to get one more conservative on the court to replace one of the current liberals could galvanize more support for President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign.
  • On the issue of abortion, House Democrats surprised some people by keeping the Hyde Amendment — which outlaws federal spending for abortions in nearly all cases — in the HHS appropriations bill. That was likely an effort to protect vulnerable Democrats in conservative districts.

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

Julie Rovner: The New Yorker’s “How Trump Is Helping Tycoons Exploit the Pandemic,” by Jane Mayer

Alice Miranda Ollstein: The New York Times Magazine’s “Why We’re Losing the Battle With Covid-19,” by Jeneen Interlandi

Erin Mershon: The New York Times’ “Bottleneck for U.S. Coronavirus Response: The Fax Machine,” by Sarah Kliff and Margot Sanger-Katz

Paige Winfield Cunningham: Politico’s “Inspector General: Medicare Chief Broke Rules on Her Publicity Contracts,” by Dan Diamond and Adam Cancryn


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