KFF Health News' 'What the Health?': SCOTUS Ruling Strips Power From Federal Health Agencies


The Host

Julie Rovner
KFF Health News


@jrovner

Read Julie’s stories.

Julie Rovner is chief Washington correspondent and host of KFF Health News’ weekly health policy news podcast, “What the Health?” A noted expert on health policy issues, Julie is the author of the critically praised reference book “Health Care Politics and Policy A to Z,” now in its third edition.

In what will certainly be remembered as a landmark decision, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority this week overruled a 40-year-old legal precedent that required judges in most cases to yield to the expertise of federal agencies. It is unclear how the elimination of what’s known as the “Chevron deference” will affect the day-to-day business of the federal government, but the decision is already sending shockwaves through the policymaking community. Administrative experts say it will dramatically change the way key health agencies, such as the FDA and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, do business.

The Supreme Court also this week decided not to decide a case out of Idaho that centered on whether a federal health law that requires hospitals to provide emergency care overrides the state’s near-total ban on abortion.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of KFF Health News, Joanne Kenen of the Johns Hopkins schools of public health and nursing and Politico Magazine, Victoria Knight of Axios, and Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico.

Panelists

Joanne Kenen
Johns Hopkins University and Politico


@JoanneKenen

Read Joanne’s articles.

Victoria Knight
Axios


@victoriaregisk

Read Victoria’s stories.

Alice Miranda Ollstein
Politico


@AliceOllstein

Read Alice’s stories.

Among the takeaways from this week’s episode:

  • In 1984, the Supreme Court ruled broadly that courts should defer to the decision-making of federal agencies when an ambiguous law is challenged. On Friday, the Supreme Court ruled that the courts, not federal agencies, should have the final say. The ruling will make it more difficult to implement federal laws — and draws attention to the fact that Congress, frequently and pointedly, leaves federal agencies much of the job of turning written laws into reality.
  • That was hardly the only Supreme Court decision with major health implications this week: On Thursday, the court temporarily restored access to emergency abortions in Idaho. But as with its abortion-pill decision, it ruled on a technicality, with other, similar cases in the wings — like one challenging Texas’ abortion ban.
  • In separate rulings, the court struck down a major opioid settlement agreement, and it effectively allowed the federal government to petition social media companies to remove falsehoods. Plus, the court agreed to hear a case next term on transgender health care for minors.
  • The first general-election debate of the 2024 presidential cycle left abortion activists frustrated with their standard-bearers — on both sides of the aisle. Opponents didn’t like that former President Donald Trump doubled down on his stance that abortion should be left to the states. And abortion rights supporters felt President Joe Biden failed to forcefully rebut Trump’s outlandish falsehoods about abortion — and also failed to take a strong enough position on abortion rights himself.

Plus, for “extra credit,” the panelists suggest health policy stories they read this week that they think you should read, too:

Julie Rovner: The Washington Post’s “Masks Are Going From Mandated to Criminalized in Some States,” by Fenit Nirappil.  

Victoria Knight: The New York Times’ “The Opaque Industry Secretly Inflating Prices for Prescription Drugs,” by Rebecca Robbins and Reed Abelson. 

Joanne Kenen: The Washington Post’s “Social Security To Drop Obsolete Jobs Used To Deny Disability Benefits,” by Lisa Rein.  

Alice Miranda Ollstein: Politico’s “Opioid Deaths Rose 50 Percent During the Pandemic. in These Places, They Fell,” by Ruth Reader.  

Also mentioned in this week’s podcast:

  • Politico’s “Inside the $100 Million Plan To Restore Abortion Rights in America,” by Alice Miranda Ollstein.
  • JAMA Network Open’s “Use of Oral and Emergency Contraceptives After the US Supreme Court’s Dobbs Decision,” by Dima M. Qato, Rebecca Myerson, Andrew Shooshtari, et al.
  • JAMA Health Forum’s “Changes in Permanent Contraception Procedures Among Young Adults Following the Dobbs Decision,” by Jacqueline E. Ellison, Brittany L. Brown-Podgorski, and Jake R. Morgan.
  • JAMA Pediatrics’ “Infant Deaths After Texas’ 2021 Ban on Abortion in Early Pregnancy,” by Alison Gemmill, Claire E. Margerison, Elizabeth A. Stuart, et al.

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SCOTUS Ruling Strips Power From Federal Health Agencies

KFF Health News’ ‘What the Health?’Episode Title: ‘SCOTUS Ruling Strips Power From Federal Health Agencies’Episode Number: 353Published: June 28, 2024

[Editor’s note: This transcript was generated using both transcription software and a human’s light touch. It has been edited for style and clarity.] 

Mila Atmos: The future of America is in your hands. This is not a movie trailer, and it’s not a political ad, but it is a call to action. I’m Mila Atmos and I’m passionate about unlocking the power of everyday citizens. On our podcast, “Future Hindsight,” we take big ideas about civic life and democracy and turn them into action items for you and me. Every Thursday, we talk to bold activists and civic innovators to help you understand your power and your power to change the status quo. Find us at futurehindsight.com or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Julie Rovner: Hello, and welcome back to “What the Health?” I’m Julie Rovner, chief Washington correspondent for KFF Health News, and I’m joined by some of the best and smartest health reporters in Washington. We’re taping this week on Friday, June 28, at 10:30 a.m. As always, news happens fast and things might’ve changed by the time you hear this, so here we go.

We are joined today via video conference by Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico.

Alice Miranda Ollstein: Hello.

Rovner: Victoria Knight of Axios News.

Victoria Knight: Hello, everyone.

Rovner: And Joanne Kenen of the Johns Hopkins Schools of Nursing and Public Health and Politico Magazine.

Joanne Kenen: Hi, everybody.

Rovner: I hope you enjoyed last week’s episode from Aspen Ideas: Health. This week we’re back in Washington with tons of breaking news, so let’s get right to it. We’re going to start at the Supreme Court, which is nearing, but not actually at, the end of its term, which we now know will stretch into next week. We have breaking news, literally breaking as in just the last few minutes: The court has indeed overruled the Chevron Doctrine. That’s a 1984 ruling that basically allowed experts at federal agencies to, you know, expert. Now it says that the court will get to decide what Congress meant when it wrote a law. We’re obviously going to hear a lot more about this ruling in the hours and days to come, but does somebody have a really quick impression of what this could mean?

Ollstein: So this could prevent or make it harder for health agencies, and all the federal agencies that touch on health care, to both create new policies based on laws that Congress pass and update old ones. Things need to be updated; new drugs are invented. There’s been all these updates to what Obamacare does and doesn’t have to cover. That could be a lot harder going forward based on this decision. It really takes away a lot of the leeway federal agencies had to interpret the laws that Congress passed and implement them.

I think kicking things back to courts and Congress could really slow things down a lot, and a lot of conservatives see that as a good thing. They think that federal agencies have been too untouchable and not have the same accountability mechanisms because they’re career civil servants who are not elected. But this has health policy experts … Honestly, we interviewed members of previous Republican administrations and Democratic administrations and they’re both worried about this.

Rovner: Yeah, going forward, if Donald Trump gets back into the presidency, this could also hinder the ability of his Department of Health and Human Services to make changes administratively.

Knight: These agencies are stacked with experts. This is what they work on. This is what they really are primed to do. And Congress does not have that same type of staffing. Congress is very different. It’s very young. There’s a lot of turnover. There are experienced staffers, but usually when they’re writing these laws, they leave so much up to interpretation of the agency because they are experts.

So I think pushing things back on Congress would really have to change how Congress works right now. When I talked to experts, we would need staffers who are way more experienced. We would need them to write laws that are way more specific. And Congress is already so slow doing anything. This would slow things down even more. So that’s a really important congressional aspect I think to note.

Rovner: I think when we look back at this term, this is probably going to be the biggest decision. Joanne, you want to add something before we move on?

Kenen: We’re recording. We don’t know if immunity just dropped, which is all still going to be, not a health care decision but an important decision of the country. I’ve got SCOTUSblog on my other screen. Here’s a quote from [Justice Elena] Kagan’s dissent. She says, because it’s very unfocused for what we do on this podcast, “Chevron has become part of the warp and woof of modern government, supporting regulatory efforts of all kinds, to name a few, keeping air and water clean, food and drugs safe and financial markets honest.” So two of the three of us. Financial markets affect the health industry as well.

Rovner: Oh, yeah.

Kenen: But I think that what the public doesn’t always understand is how much regulatory stuff there is in Washington. Congress can write a 1,000-page law like the ACA [Affordable Care Act]. I’ve never counted how many pages of regulation because I don’t think I can count that high. It’s probably tens of thousands.

Rovner: At least hundreds of thousands.

Kenen: Right. And that every one of those, there’s a lobbying fight and often a legal fight. It’s like the coloring book when we were kids. Congress drew the outline and then we all tried to scribble within the lines. And when you go out of the lines, you have a legal case. So the amount of stuff, regulatory activity is something that the public doesn’t really see. None of us have read every reg pertaining to health care. You can’t possibly do it in a lifetime. Methuselah couldn’t have done it. And Congress cannot hire all the expert staff and all the federal agencies and put them in; they won’t fit in the Capitol. That’s not going to happen. So how do they come to grips with how specific are they going to have to be? What kind of legal language can they delegate some of this to agency experts. We’re in really uncharted territory.

Rovner: I think you can tell from the tones of all of our voices that this is a very big deal, with a whole lot of blanks to be filled in. But for the moment …

Kenen: Maybe they’ll just let AI do it.

Rovner: Yeah, for the moment, let’s move on because, until just now, the biggest story of the week for us was on Thursday. We finally got a decision in that case about whether Idaho’s near-total ban on abortion can override a federal law called EMTALA, the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act, which requires doctors in emergency rooms to protect a pregnant woman’s health, not just her life. And much like the decision earlier this month to send the abortion pill case back to the lower courts because the plaintiffs lacked legal standing, the court once again didn’t reach the merits here. So Alice, what did they do?

Ollstein: So like you said, both on abortion pills and on EMTALA, the court punted on procedural issues. So it was standing on the one and it was ripeness on the other one. This one was a lot more surprising. I think based on the oral arguments in the mifepristone case, we could see the standing-based decision coming. That was a big focus of the arguments. This was more of a surprise. This was a majority of justices saying, “Whoops, we shouldn’t have taken this case in the first place. We shouldn’t have swooped in before the 9th Circuit even had a chance to hear it. And not only take the case, but allow Idaho to fully enforce its law even in ways that people feel violate EMTALA in the meantime.” And so what this does temporarily is restore emergency abortion access in Idaho. It restores a lower-court order that made that the case, but it’s not over.

Rovner: Right. It had stayed Idaho’s ban to the extent that it conflicted with EMTALA.

Ollstein: So this goes back to lower courts and it’s almost certain to come back to the Supreme Court as early as next year, if not at another time. Because this isn’t even the only major federal EMTALA case that’s in the works right now. There’s also a case on Texas’ abortion ban and its enforcement in emergency situations like this. And so I think the main reaction from the abortion rights movement was temporary relief, but a lot of fear for the future.

Rovner: And I saw a lot of people reminding everybody that this Texas ruling in Idaho, now the federal law is taking precedence, but there’s a stay of the federal law in the 5th Circuit. So in Texas, the Texas ban does overrule the federal law that requires abortions in emergency circumstances to protect a woman’s health. That’s what the dispute is basically about. And of course, you see a lot of legal experts saying, “This is a constitutional law 101 case that federal law overrides state law,” and yet we could tell by some of the add-on discussion in this case, as they’re sending it back to the lower court, that some of the conservatives are ready to say, “We don’t think so. Maybe the federal law will have to yield to some of these state bans.” So you can kind of see the writing on the wall here?

Ollstein: It’s really hard to say. I think that you have some justices who are clearly ready to say that states can fully enforce their abortion bans regardless of what the federal government’s federal protections are for patients. I think they put that out there. I think the case is almost certain to come back to them, and there was clearly not a majority ready to fully side with the Biden administration on this one.

Rovner: And clearly not a majority ready to fully side with Idaho on this one. I think everything that I saw suggested that they were split 3-3-3. And with no majority, the path of least resistance was to say, “Our bad. You take this back lower court. We’ll see when it comes back.”

Ollstein: It was a very unusual move, but some of the justification made sense to me in that they cited that Idaho state officials’ position on what their abortion ban did and didn’t do has wavered over time and changed. And what they initially said when they petitioned to the court is not necessarily exactly what they said in oral arguments, and it’s not exactly what they have said since. And so at the heart here is you have some people saying there’s a clear conflict between the patient protections under EMTALA — which says you have to stabilize anyone that comes to you at a hospital that takes Medicare — and these abortion bans, which only allow an abortion when there’s imminent life-threatening situation. And so you have people, including the attorney general of Idaho, saying, “There is no conflict. Our law does allow these emergency abortions and the doctors are just wrong and it’s just propaganda trying to smear us. And they just want to turn hospitals into free-for-all abortion facilities.” This is what they’re arguing. And then you have people say …

Rovner: [inaudible 00:11:12] … in the meanwhile, we know that women are being airlifted out of Idaho when they need emergency abortions because doctors are worried about actually performing abortions …

Ollstein: Correct.

Rovner: And possibly being charged with criminal charges for violating Idaho’s abortion ban.

Ollstein: Sure, but I’m saying even amongst conservatives, there are those who are saying, “There’s no conflict between these two policies. The doctors are just wrong either intentionally or unintentionally.” And then there’s those who say there is a conflict between EMTALA and state bans, and it should be fine for the state to violate EMTALA.

Rovner: No. Obviously this one will continue as the abortion pill case is likely to continue. Well, also in this end-of-term Supreme Court decision dump, an oddly split court with liberals and conservatives on both sides, struck down the bankruptcy deal reached with Purdue Pharma that would’ve paid states and families of opioid overdose victims around $6 billion, but would also have shielded the company’s owners, the Sackler family, from further legal liability. What are we to make of this? This was clearly a difficult issue. There were a lot of people even who were involved in this settlement who said the idea of letting the Sackler family, which has hidden billions of dollars from the bankruptcy settlement anyway, and clearly acted very badly, basically giving them immunity in exchange for actually getting money. This could not have been an easy… obviously was not an easy decision even for the Supreme Court.

Kenen: No, it wasn’t theoretical. The ones who opposed blowing up the agreement were very much, “This is going to add delay any kind of justice for the families and the plaintiffs.” It was not at all abstract. It was like there are a lot of people who aren’t going to get help. At least the help will be delayed if this money doesn’t start flowing. So I was struck by how practical, relating to the families who have lost people because of the actions of Purdue. But the other side was, also that was much more a clear-cut legal issue, that people didn’t give up their right to sue. It was cutting off the right to sue was imposed on potential plaintiffs by the settlement. So that was a much more legalistic argument versus, it was a little bit more real world, but they need the help now. And including some of the conservatives. This is an interesting thing to read. This was painstaking. This is a huge settlement. It took so long. It had many, many moving parts. And I don’t know how you go back and put it together again.

Rovner: But that’s where we are.

Kenen: Yes.

Rovner: They have to basically start from scratch?

Kenen: I don’t know if they have to start entirely from scratch. You’d have to be nuts to get the Sacklers to say, “OK, we’ll be sued,” which they’re obviously you’re not going to. Is somebody going to come up with a “Split the difference, let’s get this moving and we won’t sue anymore?” I don’t know. But I don’t know that you have to start 100% from scratch, but you’re surely not anywhere near a finish line anymore.

Rovner: That’s big Supreme Court case No. 3 for this week. Now let’s get to big Supreme Court case No. 4. Earlier this week, the court turned back a challenge that the government had wrongly interfered with free speech by urging social media organizations to take down covid misinformation. But again, as with the abortion pill case, the court did not get to the merits. But instead, they ruled that the states and individuals who sued did not have standing. So we still don’t know what the court thinks of the role of government in trying to ensure that health information is correct. Right?

Knight: Right. And I thought it was interesting. Basically the White House was like, “Well, we talked to the tech companies, but it was their decision to do this. So we weren’t really mandating them do this.” I think they’re just being like, “OK, we’ve left it up to the tech companies. We haven’t really interfered. We’re just trying to say these things are harmful.” So I guess we’ll have to see. Like you said, they didn’t take it up on standing, but overall, conservatives that were saying, “This was infringing on free speech.” It was particularly some scientists, I think, that promoted the herd immunity theory, things like that.

So I think they’re obviously going to be upset in some way because their posts were depromoted on social media. But I think it just leaves things the way they are, the same way. But it would be interesting, I guess, if Trump does go to the White House, how that might play out differently?

Rovner: This court has been a lot of the court deciding not to decide cases, or not to decide issues. Sorry, Alice, go ahead.

Ollstein: Yeah, so I think it is pretty similar to the abortion pill case in one key way, which is that it’s the court saying, “Look, the connection between the harm you think you suffered and the entity you are accusing of causing that suffering, that connection is way too tenuous. You can’t prove that the Biden administration voicing concerns to these social media companies directly led to you getting shadow-banned or actual banned,” or whatever it is. And the same in the abortion pill case, the connection between the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] approving the drug and regulating the drug and these individual doctors’ experiences is way too tenuous. And so that’s something to keep in mind for future cases that, we’re seeing a pattern here.

Rovner: Yes, and I’m not suggesting that the court is directly trying to duck these issues. These are legitimate standing cases and important legal precedents for who can sue in what circumstance. That is the requirement of constitutional review that first you have to make sure that there’s both standing in a live controversy and there’s all kinds of things that the court has to go through before they get to the merits. So more often than not, they don’t get there.

Well, meanwhile, we have our first hot-button, Supreme Court case slotted in for next term. On Monday, the court granted “certiorari” [writ by which a higher court reviews a decision of a lower court] to a case out of Tennessee where the Biden administration is challenging the state’s ban on transgender care for minors. It was inevitable that one of these cases was going to get to the high court sooner or later, right?

Kenen: Yeah, I think it’s not a surprise, the politics of it and the techniques or tools used by the forces that are against the treatment for minors. It’s very similar to the politics and patterns of the abortion case, of turning something into an argument that it’s to protect somebody. A lot of the abortion requirements and fights were about to protect the woman. Ostensibly, that was the political argument. And now we’re seeing we have to protect the children so that it’s the courts, as opposed to families and doctors, who are, “protecting the children.”

There’s a lot of misunderstanding about what these treatments do and who gets them and at what age;  that they’re often described as mutilation and irreversible. For the younger kids, for preteen, middle school age-ish, early teens, nothing is irreversible. It’s drugs that if you stop them, the impact goes away. But it has become this enormous lightning rod for the intersection of health and politics. And I think we all have a pretty good guess as to where the Supreme Court’s going to end up on this. But you’re sometimes surprised. And also, there could be some …

Rovner: Maybe they don’t have standing.

Kenen: There could be some kind of moderation, too. It could be a certain … they don’t have to say all … it depends on how clinical they want to get. Maybe they’ll rule on certain treatments that are more less-reversible than a puberty blocker, which is very reversible, and some kind of safeguards. We don’t know the details. We’re not surprised that it ended up … and we know going in, you could have a gut feeling of where it’s likely to turn out without knowing the full parameters and caveats and details. They haven’t even argued it yet.

Rovner: This is a decision that we’ll be waiting for next June.

Kenen: Right. Well, could not. Maybe it’s so clear-cut, it’ll be May. Who knows, right?

Rovner: Yeah, exactly. All right, well, moving on. There was a presidential debate last night. I think it was fair to say that it didn’t go very well for either candidate, nor for anybody interested in what President Biden or former President Trump thinks about health issues. What did we learn, if anything?

Ollstein: Well, I was mainly listening for a discussion of abortion and, boy was it all over the place. What I thought was interesting was that both candidates pissed off their activist supporters with what they said. I was texting with a lot of folks on both sides and conservatives were upset that Trump doubled down on his position that this should be entirely left to states, and they disagree. They want him to push for federal restrictions if elected.

And on the left, there was a lot of consternation about Biden’s weird, meandering answer about Roe v. Wade. He was asked about abortions later in pregnancy. One, neither he nor the moderators pushed back on what Trump’s very inflammatory claims about babies being murdered and stuff. There was no fact-checking of that whatsoever. But then Biden gave a confusing answer, basically saying he supports going to the Roe standard but not further, which is what I took out of it. And that upset a lot of progressives who say Roe was never good enough. For a lot of people, when Roe v. Wade was still in place, abortion was a right in name only. It was not actually accessible. States could impose lots of restrictions that kept it out of reach for a lot of people. And in this moment, why should we go back to a standard that was never good enough? We should go further. So just a lot of anxiety on both sides of this.

Rovner: Yeah. Meanwhile, Trump seemed to say that he would leave the abortion pill alone, which jumped out at me.

Kenen: But that was a completely … CNN made a decision not to push back. They were going to have online fact-checking. Everybody else had online fact. … And they didn’t challenge. And I guess they assumed that the candidates would challenge each other, and Biden had a different kind of challenging night. Trump actually said that the previous Supreme Court had upheld the use of the abortion drug and that it’s over, it’s done. That was not a true statement. The Supreme Court rejected that case, as Alice just explained, on standing. It’s going to be back. It may be back in multiple forms, multiple times. It is not decided. It is not over, which is what Trump said, “Oh, don’t worry about the abortion drug. The Supreme Court OK’d it.” That’s not what the Supreme Court did, and Biden didn’t counter that in any way.

And then Biden, in addition to the political aspect that Alice just talked about, he also didn’t describe Roe, the framework of Roe, particularly accurately. And, as Alice just pointed out, the things that Trump said were over-the-top even for Trump, and that they went unchallenged by either the moderators or President Biden.

Rovner: I was a little bit surprised that there wasn’t anything else on health care or there wasn’t much else.

Knight: Biden tried to hit his health care talking points and did a very terrible job. Alice had a really good tweet getting the right. … He initially said wrong numbers for the insulin cap, for the cap on out-of-pocket for Medicare beneficiaries, how much they can spend on prescription drugs. He got both of those wrong. I think he got insulin right later in the night. And then the very notably, “We will beat Medicare.” That was just unclear what he even meant by that. Maybe it was about drug price negotiations, I’m sure. So he was trying, but just could not get the facts right and I don’t think it came across effective in any way. And health care does do really well for Democrats. Abortion does really well for Democrats. So he was not effective in putting those messages.

I also noticed the moderators asked a question about opioids, addressing the opioid epidemic. Trump did not answer at all, pivoted to I think border or something like that. I don’t think Biden really answered either, honestly. So that was an opportunity for them to also talk about addressing that, which I think is something they could both probably talk about in a winning way for both. But I thought it was mentioned more than I expected a little bit. I thought they may want to talk about it at all. So it was still not much substantive policy discussion on health care.

Kenen: Biden tried to get across some of the Democratic policies on drug prices and polls have shown that the public doesn’t really understand that is actually the law in going forward. So if any attempt to message that in front of a very large audience was completely muddled. Nobody listening to that debate would’ve come out — unless they knew going in — they would’ve not have come out knowing what was in the law about Medicare price negotiations. They would’ve gotten four different answers of what happened with insulin, although they probably figured something good, helpful happened. And a big opportunity to push a Democratic achievement that has some bipartisan popularity was completely evaporated.

Rovner: I think Biden did the classic over-prepare and stuff too many talking points into his head and then couldn’t sort them all out in the moment. That seemed pretty clear. He was trying to retrieve the talking point and they got a little bit jumbled in his attempt to bring them out. Well, back to abortion: Alice, you got a cool scoop this week about abortion rights groups banding together with a $100 million campaign to overturn the overturn of Roe. Tell us about that?

Ollstein: Yeah, so it’s notable because there’s been so much focus on the state level battles and fighting this out state by state, and the ballot initiatives that have passed at the state level and restored or protected access have been this glimmer of hope for the abortion rights movement. But I think there was a real crystallization of the understanding that that strategy alone would leave tens of millions of people out in the cold because a lot of states don’t have the ability to do a ballot initiative. And also, if there were to be some sort of federal restrictions imposed under a Trump presidency or whatever, those state level protections wouldn’t necessarily hold. So I think this effort of groups coming together to really spend big and say that they want to restore federal protections is really notable.

I also think it’s notable that they are not committing to a specific bill or plan or law they want to see. They are keeping on the, “This is our vision, this is our broad goal.” But they’re not saying, “We want to restore Roe specifically, we want to go further,” et cetera. And that’s creating some consternation within the movement. I’ve also, since publishing the story, heard a lot of anxiety about the level of spending going to this when people feel that that should be going to direct support for people who are suffering on the ground and struggling to access abortion. Right now you have abortion funds screaming that they’re being stretched to the breaking point and cannot help everyone who needs to travel out of state right now. So, of course, infighting on the left is a perennial, but I think it’s particularly interesting in this case.

Rovner: Well, meanwhile, we have a trio this week of examples of what I think it’s safe to call unintended consequences of the Supreme Court’s overturn of Roe. First, a study in the medical journal JAMA Pediatrics this week, found that in the first year abortion was dramatically restricted in Texas — remember, that was before the overturn of Roe — infant deaths rose fairly dramatically. In particular, deaths from congenital problems rose, suggesting that women carrying doomed fetuses gave birth instead of having abortions. What’s the takeaway from seeing this big spike in infant mortality?

Ollstein: So I’ve seen a lot of anti-abortion groups trying to spin this and push back really hard on it. Specifically picking up on what you just said, which is that a lot of these are fatal fetal anomalies. And so they were saying, “Were abortion still legal, those pregnancies could have been terminated before birth.” And so they’re saying, “There’s no difference really, because we consider that an infant death already. So now it’s an infant death after birth. Nothing to see here.”

Rovner: When everybody has suffered more, basically.

Ollstein: Yeah, that is the response I’m seeing on the right. On the left, I am seeing arguments that anyone who labels themselves pro-life should think twice about the impact of these policies that are playing out. And like you said, we’re only just beginning to get glimmers of this data. In part because Texas was out in front of everybody else, and so I think there’s a lot more to come.

The other pushback I’ve seen from anti-abortion groups is that infant mortality also rose in states where abortion remains legal. So I think that’s worth exploring, too. Obviously, correlation is not always causation, but I think it’s hard when you’re getting the data in little dribs and drabs instead of a full complete picture that we can really analyze.

Rovner: Well, in another JAMA study, this one in JAMA Network Open, they found that the use of Plan B, the morning-after birth control pill, fell by 60% in states that implemented abortion bans after the Dobbs [v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization] decision. Now, for the millionth time, Plan B is not the same as the abortion pill. It’s a high-dose contraceptive. But apparently, a combination of the closure of family planning clinics in states that impose bans, which are an important source of pills for people with low incomes who can’t afford over-the-counter versions, and misinformation about the continuing legality of the morning-after pill, which continues to be legal, contributed to the decline. At least that’s what the authors theorize. This is one of many ironies in the wake of Dobbs; that states with abortion bans may well be ending up with more unintended pregnancies rather than fewer.

Ollstein: Well, one trends that could be feeding this is that some of the clinics where people used to go to to access contraception, also provided abortion and have not been able to keep their doors open in a post-Roe environment. We’ve seen clinics shutting down across the South. I went to Alabama last year to cover this, and there are clinics there that used to get most of their revenue from abortion, and they’re trying to hang on and provide nonabortion gynecological services, including contraception, and the math just ain’t mathing, and they’re really struggling to survive.

And so this goes back to the finger-pointing within the movement about where money should be going right now. And I know that red state clinics that are trying to survive feel very left behind and feel that this erosion of access is a result of that.

Kenen: Julie, and also to put in, even before Dobbs, it was not easy in many parts of the country for low-income women to get free contraception. There are states in which clinics were few and far between. Federal spending on Title X has not risen in many years.

Rovner: Title X is a federal [indecipherable].

Kenen: Right. Alice knows this, and maybe I’ve said on the podcast, I once just pretty randomly with me and my cursor plunked my cursor down on a map of Texas and said, “OK, if I live here, how far is the nearest clinic?” And I looked at the map of the clinics and it was far, it was something like 95 miles, the nearest one. So we had abortion deserts. We’ve also had family planning deserts, and that has only gotten worse, but it wasn’t good in the first place.

Rovner: Well, finally, and for those who really want to make sure they don’t have unintended pregnancies, according to a study in a third AMA journal, JAMA Health Forum, the number of young women aged 18 to 30 who were getting sterilized doubled in the 15 months after Roe was overturned. Men are part of this trend, too. Vasectomies tripled over that same period. Are we looking at a generation that’s so scared, they’re going to end up just not having kids at all?

Kenen: Well, there are a lot of kids in this generation who are saying they don’t want to have kids for a variety of reasons: economic, climate, all sorts of things. I think that I was a little surprised to see that study because there are safe long-acting contraceptives. You can get an IUD that lasts seven to nine years, I think it is. I was a little surprised that people were choosing something irreversible because.. I do know young people who… You’re young, you go through lots of changes in life, and there is an alternative that’s multiyear. So I was a little surprised by that. But that’s apparently what’s happening. And it’s for… This generation is not as… What are they, Gen[eration] Z? They’re not as baby-oriented as their older brothers and sisters even.

Knight: Well, that age range is millennial and Gen Z. But I don’t know. I’m a millennial. I think a lot of my friends were not baby-oriented. So I think that’s probably a fair statement to say. But it is interesting that they wouldn’t choose an IUD or something like that instead. But I do think people are scared. We’ve seen the stories of people moving out of states that have really strict abortion bans because they are so concerned on what kind of medical care they could have, even if they think they want to get pregnant. And sometimes you don’t have a healthy pregnancy and then need to get an abortion. So I’m sure it has something to do with that but…

Rovner: Yeah, it’s one of those trends to keep an eye out for. Well, moving on, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has been busy these past couple of weeks. First, he published an op-ed in The New York Times calling for a warning label for social media that’s similar to the one that’s already on tobacco products, warning that social media has not been proven safe for children and teenagers. Of course, he doesn’t have his own authority to do that. Congress would have to pass a law. Any chance of that? I know Congress is definitely into the “What are we going to do about social media” realm.

Kenen: But talking about it and doing something or thinking, it’s a long way. Is this as, compared to his other topic of the week, which was gun safety? He’s got a lot more bipartisan …

Rovner: We’re getting to that.

Kenen: … He’s got a lot more bipartisan support for the concern about health of young people and what social media is. What is social media? Social media is mixed. There are good things and bad things, and what is that balance? There is a bipartisan concern. I don’t know that that means you get to the labeling point. But the labeling point is one thing. That the larger concept of concern about it, and recognition about it, and what do we do about it, is bipartisan up to a point. How do you even label? What do you label? Your phone? Your computer? I’m not sure where the label goes. Your eyelids? [inaudible 00:33:07]

Knight: Right. Well, tech bills in Congress in general are like… Even though TikTok was surprisingly able to get done in the House. But TikTok lobby was big. But there would be a big social media lobby, I’m sure, against that. I guess there is bipartisan support. I don’t know. It’s not something I’ve asked members about, but I think that would be pretty far off from a reality actually happening.

Rovner: Well, also this week, as Joanne mentioned, the surgeon general issued a Surgeon General’s Advisory, declaring gun violence a public health crisis, calling for more research funding on gun injuries and deaths, universal background checks for gun buyers, and bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. I feel like the NRA [National Rifle Association] has lost some of its legendary clout on Capitol Hill over the past few years, thanks to a series of scandals, but maybe not enough for some of these things. I feel like I’ve heard these suggestions before, like over the last 25 or 30 years.

Kenen: I think one of the interesting things about Vivek Murthy is he came to public prominence on gun safety and guns in public health before people were really talking about guns in public health. I forgot what year it was — 2016, 2017, whenever Obama first nominated him. Because remember, this is his second run as surgeon general. It was an issue that he had spoken about and had made a signature issue, and as he became a more public figure before the nomination. And then he went silent on it. He had trouble getting confirmed. He didn’t do anything about it. We never really heard … as far as I can recollect, we never even heard him talk about it once. Maybe there was a phrase or two here or there. He certainly didn’t push it or make it a signature issue.

Right now, he’s at the end of the last year with the Biden administration. Some kind of arc is being completed. He’s a young man, there’ll be other arcs. But this arc is winding down and the president cares about gun violence. Congress actually did, not the full agenda, but they did something on it, which was unusual. And I think that this is his chance to use his bully pulpit while he still has it in this particular perch to remind people that we do have tools. We don’t have all the solutions to gun violence. We do not understand everything about it. We do not understand why some people go and shoot a movie theater or a school or a supermarket or whatever, and there are multiple reasons. There are different kinds of mass killers. But we do know that there are some public health tools that do work. That red flag laws do seem to help. That safe gun storage … There are things that are less controversial than a spectrum of things one can do.

Some of them have broader support, and I think he is using this time — not that he expects any of these things to become law in the final year of the Biden administration — but I think he’s using it. This is bully pulpit. This is saying, “Moving forward, let’s think about what we can come to agreement on and do what we can on certain evidence-based things.” Because there’s been a lot of work in the last decade or so on the public health, not just the criminal… Obviously, it’s a legal and criminal justice issue. It’s also a public health issue, and what are the public health tools? What can we do? How do we treat this as basically an epidemic? And how can we stop it?

Rovner: Finally this week, since we didn’t really do news last week, there have been a couple of notable stories we really ought to mention. One is a court case, Braidwood v. Becerra. This is the case where a group of Christian businesses are claiming that the Affordable Care Act’s preventive services provisions that require them to provide no cost-sharing access to products, including HIV preventive medication, violates their freedom of religion because it makes them complicit in homosexual behavior. Judge Reed O’Connor, district court judge — if that name is familiar, it’s because he’s the Texas judge who tried to strike down the entire ACA back in 2018. Judge O’Connor not only found for the plaintiffs, he tried to slap a nationwide injunction on all of the ACA’s preventive services, which even the very conservative 5th Circuit appeals court struck down. But meanwhile, the appeals court has come up with its ruling. Where does that leave us on the ACA preventive services?

Ollstein: It leaves us right where we were when the 5th Circuit took the case because they said that, “We’re going to allow the lower court ruling to be enforced just for the plaintiffs in the meantime, but we’re not going to allow the entire country’s preventive care coverage to be disrupted while this case moves forward.” And so that basically continues to be the case. Some of the arguments are getting sent back down to the lower court for further consideration. And we still don’t know whether either side will appeal the 5th Circuit’s ruling to the Supreme Court.

Rovner: But notably, the appeals court said that U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, which is appointed by the Department of Health and Human Services, is basically illegally constituted because it should be nominated by the president, approved by the Senate, which it is not. That could in the long run be kind of a big deal. This is a group of experts that supposedly shielded from politics.

Kenen: Yeah, I don’t think this story is over either. It is for now. Right now we’re at the status quo, except for this handful of people who brought recommendations on all sorts of health measures, including vaccination and cancer screenings and everything else. They stand. They’re not being contested at this moment. How that will evolve under the next administration and this court remains to be seen.

Rovner: Finally, finally, finally, to end on a bit of a frustrating note, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, has found that two decades after it first called out some of the most egregious inequities in U.S. health care, not that much has changed. Joanne, this has been a very high-profile issue. What went wrong?

Kenen: Well, I think this report got very little attention probably because it’s like, oh, reports aren’t necessarily news stories. And it was like nothing changed, so why do we report it? But I think when I read the report — and I did not get through all 375 pages yet, but I did read a significant amount of it and I listened to a webinar on it — I think what really struck me is how we’re not any better than we really were 20 years ago. And what really was jarring is the report said, “And we actually know how to fix this and we’re not doing it. And we have the scientific and public health and sociological knowledge. We know if we wanted to fix it, we could, and we haven’t. Some of that is needing money and some of it is needing will.” So I thought the bottom line of it was really quite grim. If we didn’t know how bad it was, if the general public didn’t know how bad it was, the pandemic really should have taught them that because of the enormous disparities, and we’re back on this glide path toward nothing.

Rovner: I do think at very least, it is more talked about. It’s a little higher profile than it was, but obviously you’re right.

Kenen: They didn’t say no gains in any… I mean, the ACA helped. There are people who have coverage, including minorities, who didn’t have it before. That was one of the bright spots. But there’s still 10 states where it hasn’t been fully implemented. It was a pretty discouraging report.

Rovner: All right, well, that is this week’s news. Now it is time for our extra-credit segment. That’s when we each recommend a story we read this week we think you should read, too. As always, don’t worry if you miss it. We will post the links on the podcast page at kffhealthnews.org and in our show notes on your phone or other mobile device. Victoria, why don’t you go first this week?

Knight: Sure. So I was reading a story in The New York Times about PBMs [pharmacy benefit managers]. It was called “The Opaque Industry Secretly Inflating Prices for Prescription Drugs.” It’s by Rebecca Robbins and Reed Abelson. And so it kind of is basically an investigation into PBM practices. It was interesting for me because I cover health care in Congress, and so it’s always the different industries are fighting each other. And right now, one of the biggest fights is about PBMs. And for those that don’t know, PBMs negotiate with drug companies, they’re supposed to pay pharmacies, they help patients get their medications. And so they’re this middleman in between everyone. And so people don’t really know they exist, but they’re a big monopoly. There’s only three of them, really big ones in the U.S. that make up 80% of the market. And so they have a lot of control over things.

Pharma blames them for high drug prices and the PBMs blame pharma. So that’s always a fun thing to watch. There actually is quite a bit of traction in Congress right now for cracking down on PBM practices. Basically, The Times reporters interviewed a bunch of people and they came away with saying that PBMs …

Rovner: They interviewed like 300 people, right?

Knight: Yes, it said 300.

Rovner: A large bunch.

Knight: Yeah, and they came away with a conclusion that PBMs are causing higher drug prices and they’re pushing patients towards higher drugs. They’re charging employers of government more money than they should be. But it was interesting for me to watch this play out on Twitter because the PBM lobby was, of course, very upset by the story. They were slamming it and they put out a whole press release saying that it’s anecdotal and they don’t have actual data. So it was interesting, but I think it’s another piece in the policy puzzle of how do we reduce drug prices? And Congress thinks at least cracking on PBMs is one way to do it, and it has bipartisan support.

Rovner: And apparently this story is the first in a series, so there’s more to come.

Knight: Yes, I saw that. Yeah, more to come, so it’ll be fun. I also just noticed as I was just pulling it up on my phone and they had closed the comment section. It was causing some robust debate.

Rovner: Yes, indeed. Joanne?

Kenen: I should just say that after I read that story in The Times that same day, I think I got a phone call from a relative, a copay that had been something like $60 for 30 days is now $1,000. And this relative walked away without getting the drug because that’s not OK. So anyway, my extra credit [“Social Security To Drop Obsolete Jobs Used To Deny Disability Benefits,”] is from The Washington Post. Lisa Rein posted an investigation a couple of years ago, and this was the coda of the Social Security Administration finally followed through on what that investigation revealed. And Lisa wrote about the move, how it’s being addressed. That to get disability benefits, you have to be unemployable basically. And the Social Security Administration had a list of … it’s called the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. It had not been updated in 47 years. So disabled people were being denied Social Security disability benefits because they were being told, well, they could do jobs like being a nut sorter or a pneumatic tube operator or a microfilm something or other. And these jobs stopped existing decades ago.

So the Social Security Administration got rid of these obsolete jobs. You’re no longer being told, literally, to go store nuts. If you are, in fact, legitimately disabled, you’ll now be able to get the Social Security disability benefits that you are, in fact, qualified for. So thousands of people will be affected.

Rovner: No one can see this, but I’m wearing my America Needs Journalists T-shirt today. Alice?

Ollstein: I chose a piece [“Opioid Deaths Rose 50 Percent During the Pandemic. in These Places, They Fell”] by my colleague Ruth Reader, about a county in Ohio that, with some federal funds, implemented all of these policies to reduce opioid overdoses and deaths, and they had a lot of success. Overdoses went down 20% there, even as they went up by a lot in most of the country. But bureaucracy and expiring funding means that those programs may not continue, even though they’re really successful. The federal funding has run out. It is not getting renewed, and the state may not pick up the slack.

So it’s just a really good example. We see this so often in public health where we invest in something, it works, it makes a difference, it helps people, and then we say, “Well, all right, we did it. We’re done.” And then the problems come roaring back. So hopefully that does not happen here.

Rovner: Alas. Well, my extra credit this week is from The Washington Post. It’s called “Masks Are Going From Mandated to Criminalized in Some States.” It’s by Fenit Nirappil. I hope I’m pronouncing that right. In some ways, it’s a response to criminals who have obviously long used masks, and also to protesters, particularly those protesting the war in Gaza. But it’s also a mark of just how intolerant we’ve become as a society that people who are immunocompromised or just worried about their own health can’t go out masked in public without getting harassed. The irony, of course, is that this is all coming just as covid is having what appears to be now its annual summer surge, and the big fight of the moment is in North Carolina where the Democratic governor has vetoed a mask ban bill, that’s likely to be overridden by the Republican legislature. Even after covid is no longer front and center in our everyday lives, apparently a lot of the nastiness remains.

All right, that is our show. As always, if you enjoy the podcast, you can subscribe wherever you get your podcast. We’d appreciate it if you left us a review. That helps other people find us, too. Special thanks as always to our technical guru, Francis Ying, and our editor, Emmarie Huetteman. As always, you can email us your comment or questions. We’re at whatthehealth@kff.org, or you can still find me at Twitter, which the Supreme Court has now decided it’s going to call Twitter. I’m @jrovner. Alice?

Ollstein: I’m @AliceOllstein on X.

Rovner: Victoria?

Knight: I’m @victoriaregisk.

Rovner: Joanne?

Kenen: I’m at Twitter, @JoanneKenen. And I’m on Threads @joannekenen1, and I occasionally decided I just have better things to do.

Rovner: It’s all good. We will be back in your feed next week. Until then, be healthy.

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Emmarie Huetteman
Editor

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