Health and Human Services secretary hospitalized

HHS Secretary Alex Azar was admitted to a hospital after suffering "a minor infection" and treated with intravenous antibiotics, the agency told reporters Sunday night

HHS said Azar was admitted "out of an abundance of caution" to undergo observation.

"The Secretary is being treated for a minor infection," HHS spokesperson Caitlin Oakley said in response to questions from POLITICO about the nature of Azar’s condition and where he was hospitalized. "We cannot disclose the hospital location due to privacy and security concerns."

White House tweaks plan to seek death penalty as part of opioid response

President Donald Trump’s plan to fight the opioid epidemic will call for the death penalty in some cases, White House officials said Sunday, scaling back the administration’s plan to punish drug dealers.

“The Department of Justice will seek the death penalty against drug traffickers when appropriate under current law,” said Andrew Bremberg, the White House’s director of the Domestic Policy Council. White House officials referred follow-up questions to DOJ.

An earlier version of the plan, obtained by POLITICO last week, would have called for the death penalty in some cases involving drug dealers, too.

Trump will announce his opioid plan on his visit to New Hampshire on Monday. POLITICO first reported on Thursday that the White House was finalizing its opioid plan, which includes a mix of administration actions and initiatives that would require new funds or laws from Congress.

There were more than 64,000 drug overdose deaths in 2016, Continue reading “White House tweaks plan to seek death penalty as part of opioid response”

Exclusive: Trump finalizing opioid plan that includes death penalty for dealers

The Trump administration is finalizing a long-awaited plan that it says will solve the opioid crisis, but it also calls for law enforcement measures — like the death penalty for some drug dealers — that public health advocates and congressional Republicans warn will detract from efforts to reverse the epidemic.

The ambitious plan, which the White House has quietly been circulating among political appointees this month, could be announced as soon as Monday when President Donald Trump visits New Hampshire, a state hard hit by the epidemic. It includes a mix of prevention and treatment measures that advocates have long endorsed, as well as beefed-up enforcement in line with the president’s frequent calls for a harsh crackdown on drug traffickers and dealers.

The White House’s most concrete proposal yet to address opioids comes after complaints from state health officials and advocates that Trump has moved too slowly to combat the Continue reading “Exclusive: Trump finalizing opioid plan that includes death penalty for dealers”

HHS official who spread conspiracy theories allowed back on job

Jon Cordova, the HHS principal deputy assistant secretary for administration, will formally resume his duties on Wednesday after being placed on a two-week administrative leave while leaders reviewed his use of social media to promote conspiracy theories.

“Mr. Cordova has expressed sincere and deep apology for those statements and for any harm or injury he may have caused to readers of any of his social media posts,” an HHS spokesperson told POLITICO. “While he continues to work at HHS, Mr. Cordova – along with all department employees – will be expected to demonstrate a full commitment to inclusiveness and respect for all Americans that we serve.”

Cordova, a former Trump campaign staffer, shared false stories about former President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and others, CNN reported last month. For instance, he suggested that Cruz frequented prostitutes, and he called for a boycott on Budweiser because Continue reading “HHS official who spread conspiracy theories allowed back on job”

Trump administration dismantles LGBT-friendly policies

The nation’s health department is taking steps to dismantle LGBT health initiatives, as political appointees have halted or rolled back regulations intended to protect LGBT workers and patients, removed LGBT-friendly language from documents and reassigned the senior adviser dedicated to LGBT health.

The sharp reversal from Obama-era policies carries implications for a population that’s been historically vulnerable to discrimination in health care settings, say LGBT health advocates. A Health Affairs study last year found that many LGBT individuals have less access to care than heterosexuals; in a Harvard-Robert Wood Johnson-NPR survey one in six LGBT individuals reported experiencing discrimination from doctors or at a clinic.

The Trump administration soon after taking office also moved to change the agency’s LGBT-related health data collection, a window into health status and discrimination. Last month it established a new religious liberty division to defend health workers who have religious objections to treating LGBT patients.

Continue reading “Trump administration dismantles LGBT-friendly policies”

The religious activists on the rise inside Trump’s health department

A small cadre of politically prominent evangelicals inside the Department of Health and Human Services have spent months quietly planning how to weaken federal protections for abortion and transgender care — a strategy that’s taking shape in a series of policy moves that took even their own staff by surprise.

Those officials include Roger Severino, an anti-abortion lawyer who now runs the Office of Civil Rights and last week laid out new protections allowing health care workers with religious or moral objections to abortion and other procedures to opt out. Shannon Royce, the agency’s key liaison with religious and grass-roots organizations, has also emerged as a pivotal player.

"To have leaders like Roger, like Shannon, it’s so important," said Deanna Wallace of Americans United for Life, an anti-abortion group that was frequently at odds with the Obama administration. "It’s extremely encouraging to have HHS on our side this time."

Continue reading “The religious activists on the rise inside Trump’s health department”

First There Was Prince. Now Tom Petty. When Will America Finally Wake Up to the Opioid Crisis?

When pop star Prince died in April 2016, a gaggle of health care researchers and reporters—including me—tried to see the silver lining in his surprising, opioid-linked death. If even Prince, a famous teetotaler with access to the best medical care, could end up addicted to painkillers, surely that would show that the opioid epidemic was reaching every corner of America. Maybe in death, his celebrity could illuminate the high stakes of the crisis and force a reckoning.

We were very wrong. More than 55,000 Americans—rich, poor, famous and not—have since died from their own opioid overdoses. The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that the death rate in 2018 could be even worse. And Friday night’s news that rock star Tom Petty died from his own preventable painkiller overdose, more than a year after Prince, underscores how far there is to go.

In Continue reading “First There Was Prince. Now Tom Petty. When Will America Finally Wake Up to the Opioid Crisis?”

Anti-birth control official who led Title X departs HHS

Teresa Manning, the controversial official in charge of the Title X federal family planning program, was escorted from HHS premises on Friday.

Two sources with knowledge of Manning’s departure tell POLITICO that she was fired by HHS. An HHS spokesperson disputed that account, saying that Manning resigned.

"HHS is very grateful for her service," the spokesperson said. "Her departure after resignation was not unusual in any way."

Manning could not be reached for comment.

Manning, who previously worked for anti-abortion groups including the Family Research Council and National Right to Life, had been serving as deputy assistant secretary for HHS’ Office of Population Affairs. In that role, she was responsible for helping set national policy around family planning, contraception and teen pregnancy — a development that alarmed abortion-rights groups worried about Manning’s history of statements and actions opposing birth control and abortion.

Manning stated in a 2003 public radio Continue reading “Anti-birth control official who led Title X departs HHS”

A tarnished hospital tries to win back trust

NEW HAVEN, Conn.. — Fifteen years ago, this city’s flagship hospital became a national punching bag.

Yale New Haven Hospital — a teaching hospital that got big tax breaks because it was supposed to be serving the community — was found to be hounding low-income patients, suing them for unpaid bills, even putting liens on their houses and hoarding money meant to help them. The hospital’s nearly two-century-old reputation as a charitable organization was ruined overnight. What followed instead: embarrassing billboards, vocal protests and a wave of angry lawmakers, as hospital leaders worked to survive the mushrooming scandal.

"We learned a lot about ourselves," said Marna Borgstrom, who took over as CEO in 2005 and worked to repair the hospital’s broken reputation.

Today, both the hospital and its community partners see a remarkable success story, one that’s helping revitalize New Haven’s dilapidated neighborhoods. The hospital has poured millions of dollars Continue reading “A tarnished hospital tries to win back trust”

GOP fails to pressure hospitals on community benefits

Despite Republicans’ boasts about closing tax loopholes, there’s one sector that the sweeping tax reform bill mostly leaves alone: The tax-exempt hospital sector, which enjoys billions of dollars in tax breaks even as big hospitals raise prices and perform less free care.

Mayo Clinic, a nonprofit health system, cleared more than $1 billion in profit between 2015 and 2016. Cleveland Clinic, another nonprofit hospital, topped more than $715 million in profits in that span.

Congress’ most significant overhaul of the tax code in more than 30 years — finalized on Wednesday — protects those hospitals’ multibillion-dollar tax exemptions, an outcome that frustrates consumer advocates, officials and researchers who say that hospitals are taking advantage of rules that fail to adequately define the benefits they must provide to their communities in order to remain tax-exempt.

“It was, in my view, a missed opportunity,” said Daniel Skinner, an Ohio University political scientist Continue reading “GOP fails to pressure hospitals on community benefits”

HHS holds back critical comments on faith-based rule

HHS is refusing to make public more than 10,000 comments on a Trump administration proposal to reduce federal regulations for religious and faith-based groups that could affect access to abortion and care for transgender patients, according to sources with knowledge of the decision.

The agency has instead posted 80 comments — less than 1 percent of all submissions — that overwhemingly back the administration’s anti-abortion policies or attack regulations advanced by the Obama administration, such as a rule forcing health care providers that accept federal funding to provide services to transgender patients.

HHS’ selective disclosure could lead to legal challenges, particularly under the Administrative Procedure Act, and is raising new questions at a time when the agency’s transparency is already under scrutiny. If HHS doesn’t post and address comments on the rule, “there may be grounds for an APA challenge for whatever rule comes out of the process,” said Alison Continue reading “HHS holds back critical comments on faith-based rule”

How to reboot the FDA

In the United States, there’s just one way to sell a medical drug or device: Get it approved by the Food and Drug Administration, a century-old institution with thousands of reviewers who rigorously check evidence to ensure drugs and devices are effective and safe. That sounds like a good thing, but a growing number of people and institutions — including the Defense Department — aren’t so sure. They argue that there are too many drugs and products bound up in regulatory review that could save lives, if only the government’s health care agency wasn’t so hidebound and slow.

That argument swayed some congressional Republicans, who last month attempted to go around the FDA and give the Defense Department authority to approve its own medical products. The move was beaten back in a joint assault from congressional health staff and the FDA itself.

While the Pentagon’s insurgency has ended, calls for Continue reading “How to reboot the FDA”

Murkowski says she backs Obamacare mandate repeal

Sen. Lisa Murkowski says she supports GOP efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, the Alaska Republican wrote in an op-ed for a local newspaper Friday.

"I have always supported the freedom to choose," Murkowski wrote in her op-ed for the Daily News-Miner, an Alaska newspaper. "I believe that the federal government should not force anyone to buy something they do not wish to buy, in order to avoid being taxed."

Murkowski’s renewed support for repealing the mandate — after repeatedly opposing her party’s Obamacare repeal bills this year — may be a boon for Senate Republicans’ tax legislation, which includes mandate repeal and is expected to be taken up on the Senate floor next week.

A spokesperson for Murkowski told POLITICO that the comments should not be construed as support for the tax bill, which does not yet appear to have sufficient support to pass the Continue reading “Murkowski says she backs Obamacare mandate repeal”

Tax-exempt Mayo Clinic grows, but rural patients pay a price

ROCHESTER, Minn. — The Mayo Clinic, which sprawls across this Midwestern city, is the nation’s top-ranked hospital, according to U.S. News & World Report. But that might undersell its prominence: The clinic is arguably the best-regarded health care system on the entire planet.

Patients from nearly 150 countries travel to Mayo Clinic sites in Minnesota, Arizona, Florida and beyond. Famed filmmaker Ken Burns is making a documentary about Mayo and the story of its founders — Will and Charlie Mayo, a pair of brothers and doctors who have assumed near-mythic status in the health care field. It’s the system that lawmakers around the nation cite when pushing health reforms, and that clinical researchers praise as a model for other caregivers.

But in Albert Lea, Minnesota, a small city set among cornfields and lakes about 64 miles from Rochester, the Mayo Clinic is something else: the enemy.

Mayo took over Continue reading “Tax-exempt Mayo Clinic grows, but rural patients pay a price”

Price investigation continues to roil HHS

Tom Price left his job as Health and Human Services secretary in September, but the investigation into his use of private jets for official travel now threatens to enmesh others in the department.

The department’s inspector-general’s probe will review who approved — or should have been approving — Price’s use of private jets on at least 26 trips from May to September, some of them quick jaunts on routes heavily traveled by commercial aircraft, according to three people with knowledge of the probe.

The investigation, along with escalating demands from Congress for information on how Price obtained permission to use at least $400,000 of taxpayer money for the private jets, adds an extra dose of uncertainty to a department that’s already roiled by questions of who will replace Price, and internal feuds over who may have leaked information about Price’s travels, according to current and former HHS officials.

Price’s use Continue reading “Price investigation continues to roil HHS”

A nation of McHospitals?

For years, the nation’s hospital chains worked to get bigger, bigger, bigger. In the 1980s and 1990s, for-profit companies like HCA and Tenet emerged as juggernauts, snapping up local hospitals and opening clinics in one town after another. Their ambitious not-for-profit cousins, the big academic medical centers like Harvard-affiliated Partners Healthcare, scooped up smaller rivals in response. Just four years ago, the Tennessee-based Community Health Systems spent $7.6 billion to buy a competitor and become the nation’s largest for-profit hospital company, with more than 200 hospitals in 29 states.

Today, in any town or city, in any region of the country, you’ll almost certainly see the same scenario: Only a handful of hospitals, sometimes owned and operated by a company thousands of miles away.

As the pace and scale of consolidation picked up, the outcome long appeared inevitable: an American future in which a handful of hospital chains dominate Continue reading “A nation of McHospitals?”

GOP senators say they’ll oppose defense bill if Pentagon drug policy stays in

The Pentagon is facing growing resistance in Congress over its plan to approve drugs and medical products without FDA involvement just hours before congressional negotiators are set to finalize a defense policy bill.

Senate HELP Chairman Lamar Alexander and Sen. Richard Burr on Tuesday said that they won’t back the annual defense policy bill H.R. 2810 (115) if negotiators keep a provision that shifts some decision-making from the FDA to the Defense Department, raising the stakes in a fight first reported by POLITICO on Monday. Their decision followed a series of warnings, including from FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, that the Pentagon’s plan puts soldiers at risk and would undermine the FDA’s historic role.

“We share your goal of ensuring military service members have access to safe life-saving medical products during battlefield emergencies or combat settings,” Alexander and Burr wrote to Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), who Continue reading “GOP senators say they’ll oppose defense bill if Pentagon drug policy stays in”

‘Unprecedented’ Pentagon health committee could undermine FDA

The Defense Department — and not FDA — would have the power to approve drugs and medical devices under the defense policy bill that’s being hammered out by a conference committee, alarming congressional staff and Health and Human Services officials who say it would undermine medical safety and potentially put soldiers at risk.

Section 732 of the Senate’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act creates a new regulatory structure that would allow the Pentagon to sign off on unapproved devices and drugs for emergency use on military personnel and others in harm’s way. The bill is in conference committee with final language expected as early as this week.

FDA currently has sole authority to authorize drugs and devices for emergency use.

“It’s unprecedented,” said one Democratic aide who works on medical safety issues. “We’ve never had a process for where an individual agency could [approve] drugs and devices … for Continue reading “‘Unprecedented’ Pentagon health committee could undermine FDA”

Backed by UnitedHealth, HHS nominee would now help oversee it

Five months after President Donald Trump nominated Stephen Parente to be an assistant secretary for Health and Human Services, the nation’s largest health insurer quietly gave a $1.2 million gift to a tiny academic research center that Parente helped found and served as director over the past decade.

Parente, who is still awaiting confirmation as HHS’ assistant secretary of planning and evaluation, for which he was nominated in April, would head an office that often assesses policies that affect the insurance industry. It is currently researching the impact of Obamacare on the insurance market.

The gift — which comes after a long association between Parente and UnitedHealth Group, along with other major health-insurance carriers — raised concerns among watchdogs.

“The timing doesn’t look good,” said Scott Amey of the Project on Government Oversight. “I think Mr. Parente should take some steps to assure the public that he’s working in Continue reading “Backed by UnitedHealth, HHS nominee would now help oversee it”

CBO: ‘Skinny repeal’ could boost uninsured by 16 million

Republicans’ rumored slimmed-down Obamacare repeal bill could lead to 16 million more uninsured Americans next year, according to a CBO estimate requested by Senate Democrats and shared Wednesday.

Democrats asked the CBO to score a mock-up of the bill based on provisions that the GOP is reportedly considering, two Democratic aides said. The mock-up included repealing Obamacare’s individual and employer mandates, medical device tax, community health center funding and prevention fund, in addition to defunding Planned Parenthood.

Based on those provisions, the CBO projected that the so-called skinny repeal bill would result in premiums about 20 percent higher compared to current law, according to a Democratic aide. Premium projections were not included in CBO tables released by Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s office tonight.

Senate Republicans downplayed the estimate. "It’s speculation written up by some [Democratic] staffers," said one Republican aide. "That’s embarrassing on their part. CBO hasn’t issued any Continue reading “CBO: ‘Skinny repeal’ could boost uninsured by 16 million”