THIS WEEK IN REVIEW: Monday, Feb. 10th – Friday, Feb. 14th

February 14, 2020 by B. Cameron Webb, MD, JD

THIS WEEK IN REVIEW: Monday, February 10th – Friday, February 14th

Happy Valentine’s Day! Forget romantic dinners and engagement rings in champagne – we’ve got health policy to discuss!

Love is in the air… and so are budget cuts! The Trump administration, on Monday, released their proposed budget for the upcoming 2021 fiscal year. The budget includes a number of proposed cuts to federal programs and agencies, such as the proposed removal of about 50 Environmental Protection Agency programs and a $1 billion cut to the Department of Energy. Pertaining to health care, the budget includes the continued promotion of work requirements and eligibility checks on state Medicaid expansion programs, as well as decreases to provider Medicare payments and slight reductions in discretionary spending to the Department of Health and Human Services. The budget also calls on lawmakers to promote “the president’s health reform vision” – widely understood to be the administration’s push to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The administration claims this would save an additional $844 billion.

While some departments may get their budgets cut, The Department of Veterans Affairs requested to double its electronic health record office budget to $2.6 billion. This comes with a delay in rolling out the switch from physical to electronic medical records.

All these smoking hot budget requests sparked a new proposal regarding tobacco control: President Trump is suggesting the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) no longer directly regulate tobacco and instead allow the Center for Tobacco Products (which currently is under the FDA) to operate separately. A few health and policy experts didn’t love the idea, and weighed in with thoughts on why the Center for Tobacco Products should remain under FDA oversight, where it has been housed since its creation by President Obama in 2009.

In other news, the abortion debate is heating up in Congress as leaders in both the Senate and House of Representatives have sought to garner support for their respective bills. This week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell began to set up two votes on anti-abortion bills for later this month. In spite of general support for the bills by social conservatives, it remains unclear whether they will be able to clear the 60 vote threshold in the Senate. Meanwhile, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health held a hearing for a bill that, if passed, would codify elements of the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court case Roe v Wade.

Speaking of court cases, Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union are suing the Trump administration over requiring a separate bill for abortion services from insurers that provide plans on the ACA marketplace. It won’t add additional charges, but it will increase the administrative burden and may encourage insurers to stop covering abortion services.

While this holiday may be all about lovely surprises (we’re thinking chocolate and roses), surprise medical billing is one most people could do without. Two bills are working their way through committee, each with a different approach. For the first proposed bill, an outside arbiter would decide what insurers pay. The second, approved on Tuesday, would “benchmark” payment rates on the average cost of a service in a geographic area. The White House is in favor of this option as they believe an overreliance on arbitration could increase healthcare costs. Doctors and hospitals disagree, and would much prefer arbitration. Looks like we still may be a ways away from a conclusion to the surprise billing saga.

On Thursday, the Massachusetts state senate said, “we heart mental health” as they unanimously approved a bill that would improve mental health care by changing billing procedures, removing barriers for multicultural persons to enter the mental health workforce, and facilitating insurer-provider cooperation. The bill embraces the state’s existing push to equalize access for mental health to that of traditional medical care and now moves to the Massachusetts House of Representatives where it’s expected to pass.

At least one lawmaker in Minnesota wants to promote mental health access in his state as well, by taxing a potential source of mental illness: social media companies. Based on the idea that social media contributes to poor mental health, the bill would create a “social media impact fund” to counteract any potential harm. #NoLoveForFacebook 

On Tuesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) gave the Wuhan coronavirus an official name – COVID-19. The 15th case of COVID-19 in the US was confirmed on Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The patient is the first case reported from the many Americans who were evacuated from Wuhan and placed into quarantine upon arrival. Over 600 evacuees are currently in quarantine across the US.  

On Friday, China reported a large increase in COVID-19 cases due to a change in the criteria for diagnosing and reporting infections. The reported number of cases in China is now more than 63,000, and the death toll has climbed above 1,000. Due to increasing restrictions on the city of Wuhan, most of the citizens have been left as “virtual prisoners” in their homes. In another form of “prison,” 3,600 passengers aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship are quarantined off the coast of Japan. There have been 218 confirmed cases on board, and Japanese health officials say they will begin to let uninfected passengers voluntarily leave the ship to move to on-shore housing before the two-week quarantine is up on February 19.  

This epidemic is causing many economic challenges for China, including a reported 95% drop in flower sales this Valentine’s Day. For the sake of the world’s second-largest economy, Beijing has urged countries that have suspended travel to restore it. Despite this, United Airlines is extending its ban on flights to mainland China and Hong Kong. Both Delta and American Airlines have similar bans in place.

And to all our readers on Valentine’s Day: we love you and appreciate your support! If you were a booger, we’d pick you…but we’d definitely wash our hands after. <3

 


This Week’s Viewpoints Writing Team:
Avery Bullock, Carina Clawson, Annie Duncan, Jo McClain, Steven Moore and Nana Owusu