Happy Friday! As you all know, when I come across an outrageous medical mystery story I like to drag you all down with me because horrified misery loves company. This week’s offering: A man in Kentucky went into his doctor complaining of eye irritation. And what did his doctor pull out of his eyeball? That’s right! A tick. (You’re welcome.)
Quickly moving on! Here’s what you might have missed during this very hot week.
The tensions in the Democratic presidential field that have been brewing for a while erupted into verbal sparring between Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former Vice President Joe Biden. The mini-war seems to be more than just your typical political posturing — both men have deep personal stakes in the issue (which, if you haven’t noticed, voters care a lot about right now). Sanders’ “Medicare for All” plan is nearly synonymous with the man himself, while Biden experienced firsthand the blood, sweat and tears it took to actually get the health law passed.
Earlier in the week, Biden dropped his own health plan, which could be summed up as the Affordable Care Act on steroids. And his promise that went along with the reveal — “If you like your plan … you can keep it” — was a blast-from-the-past that highlights all the advantages (the health law is quite popular at the moment) and pitfalls (that promise when President Barack Obama made it was ranked PolitiFact’s “Lie of the Year”) of taking this particular path.
It also nudged Biden and Sanders into a collision over their philosophical differences that played out in public at various events this week. Neither candidate pulled punches, but Sanders, in particular, had some tough words for his rival. “Unfortunately, he is sounding like Donald Trump,” he said. “He is sounding like the health care industry, in that regard.”
On that note, Sanders called on the Democratic candidates to join his pledge not to take donations from the health industry or pharma. Though he didn’t name names, it seemed to many like another jab at Biden.
Biden also took shots of his own, calling Medicare for All costly and complicated, and insinuating that those looking to get rid of the health law are no better than Republicans.
Whatever the outcome of this particular scuffle, it highlights that, in a crowded field, candidates are looking for things to set them apart. And in this particular election cycle, looks like it’s health care.
Meanwhile, the health law faced off against an unlikely foe this week: Democrats. Lawmakers in the House delivered what is in all intents and purposes a death blow to the “Cadillac tax,” a cost-containing provision that at one point in time was looked at as crucial to the law’s success. (The Senate hasn’t voted on it yet, but Republicans are not exactly fans of the tax, so its fate seems decided.)
But as hell has not frozen over, it’s not as if the Democrats are suddenly jumping on the GOP bandwagon to dismantle the law. The tax was disliked by unions (a key constituency) and some liberal-leaning economists. Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.), the author of the repeal bill, even (subtly) called it, the “Middle Class Health Benefits Tax Repeal Act.”
As a side note, you should be following Noam Levey’s great series on the ways Americans are hurting in the wake of the high-deductible revolution.
The Democratic field’s fireworks over candidates’ philosophical differences weren’t the only ones on display this week. Dr. Leana Wen was ousted from her position as head of Planned Parenthood after only eight months in the role. Although there have been reports about managerial styles, Wen has hinted that the friction comes from her desire to view the organization through a public health prism. During a time when the abortion wars grow only more intense, Wen’s strategy to emphasize abortion as part of a larger part of improving women’s health felt out of step to some.
As if underscoring that very tension, the ousting came as the Trump administration announced that the changes to family planing funding, often called a “gag rule” by critics, would be enforced immediately, now that it has the court’s go-ahead.
After a yearlong legal battle, The Washington Post and HD Media, which publishes the Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia, obtained information from a Drug Enforcement Administration database that shows how 76 billion oxycodone and hydrocodone pain pills saturated the country as the opioid epidemic was gaining steam. Just six companies distributed 75% of the pills from 2006 to 2012, sending millions of pills into tiny rural towns with only a few thousand residents. The numbers reveal a trail of bright, screaming red flags that were overlooked as the country barreled toward a crisis point.
There was some rare good news on the opioid front this week: For the first time since 1990, fatal drug overdoses actually fell. There are (of course!) caveats, though: Experts still see worrying trends when it comes to synthetic drugs such as fentanyl.
Everyone in Congress and the administration is really, very, extremely angry about high drug prices … and yet pharma is still racking up the wins on Capitol Hill. Stat has a great read on exactly what’s going on with the industry’s influence, and looks at a new strategy from drugmakers, who seem to be targeting a pair of vulnerable Republicans to get their way.
In a landscape where everyone is jonesing to cut costs, why is it so breathtakingly easy to scam insurers? Some investigators estimate that fraud eats up 10% of all health care spending. Consumers’ gut reaction is that insurers would, of course, be stepping in to police these bad actors. But they don’t seem to have any desire — or, at least, not enough — to actually act. Maybe that’s because consumers are the ones getting stuck with the losses.
Speaking of, a former VA employee who was supposed to help veterans navigate insurance for their kids who had spina bifida used the position to collect millions in kickbacks, prosecutors allege.
A lot of very cool (or at least interesting) news came out of the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference this week. A look at highlights:
And in the miscellaneous file:
• What’s it like to be a Border Patrol agent? Because access to them can be tightly controlled, it’s rare to hear about their experiences. This story contains a chilling, yet fitting musing: “Somewhere down the line people just accepted what’s going on as normal.”
• It’s one of health care’s biggest challenges: weaning people off the habit of going to the ER instead of a primary care doctor. Well, New York City is going to invest $ 100 million a year to try to do just that.
• More than 200,000 kids in Tennessee were either cut or slated to be cut from insurance because the state’s unwieldy system heavily relied on hard-copy forms.
• Do service dogs actually help veterans with PTSD? Although there are plenty of heart-warming anecdotal stories about the benefits, doctors in the VA are hesitant to recommend them over treatment that has been shown to work because there’s little hard science on their benefits. The thing is, the VA is supposed to be doing research on it. Yet, for some reason, it’s been lagging, despite the burgeoning mental health crisis among veterans.
• A look at law enforcement in Alaska, where violence against women is gaining national attention, shows that dozens of convicted criminals have been hired as cops for these communities. In one small village, every single policeman on the force, including the chief, has a criminal record of domestic violence.
That’s it from me! Try to stay cool and make sure to hydrate this weekend!