Jobless claims spike to another weekly record amid coronavirus crisis

https://www.axios.com/jobless-claims-unemployment-coronavirus-e54561c2-ed25-4f1e-8e32-7fbec81a9a24.html?stream=top&utm_source=alert&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=alerts_all

Jobless claims spike to 6.6 million, another weekly record amid ...

6.6 million people filed for unemployment last week, a staggering number that eclipses the record set just days ago amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to government data released Thursday.

Why it matters: Efforts to contain the outbreak are continuing to create a jobs crisis, causing the sharpest spikes in unemployment filings in American history.

  • The colossal number of unemployment filings is worse than most Wall Street banks were expecting.

The big picture: Nearly 10 million Americans have filed for unemployment claims in recent weeks, as businesses around the country shut down in response to the pandemic.

  • But the data lags by a week, so it’s almost certain labor departments around the country are still processing claims and people are still applying.

 

 

 

Trump rejects Obamacare special enrollment period amid pandemic

https://www.politico.com/news/2020/03/31/trump-obamacare-coronavirus-157788?fbclid=IwAR1nbCE7Uwvo2CNi6d6W5NG9zEIQulyh-noy1RXdk_0RJstMM0C5VYJ8mO4

Trump rejects opening ObamaCare special enrollment period amid ...

Before the coronavirus outbreak, nearly 30 million Americans were uninsured and as many as 44 million were under-insured, paying for bare-bones plans with soaring deductibles and copays. Today, millions more Americans will begin losing their employer-based health insurance because they’ve lost their jobs during this pandemic.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is still actively trying to repeal the entirety of the Affordable Care Act in court, which would cause an additional 20 million people to lose insurance *in the middle of a pandemic*.

And today, Trump refused to reopen ACA enrollment to those millions of uninsured Americans for a special enrollment window, leaving them without any affordable options to get covered. People are going to die because they can’t afford to seek treatment or end up saddled with thousands of dollars of medical debt if they do. Remember this the next time someone tries to tell you Medicare for All is too radical.

What do you think?

The Trump administration has decided against reopening Obamacare enrollment to uninsured Americans during the coronavirus pandemic, defying calls from health insurers and Democrats to create a special sign-up window amid the health crisis.

President Donald Trump and administration officials recently said they were considering relaunching HealthCare.gov, the federal enrollment site, and insurers said they privately received assurances from health officials overseeing the law’s marketplace. However, a White House official on Tuesday evening told POLITICO the administration will not reopen the site for a special enrollment period, and that the administration is “exploring other options.”

The annual enrollment period for HealthCare.gov closed months ago, and a special enrollment period for the coronavirus could have extended the opportunity for millions of uninsured Americans to newly seek out coverage. Still, the law already allows a special enrollment for people who have lost their workplace health plans, so the health care law may still serve as a safety net after a record surge in unemployment stemming from the pandemic.

Numerous Democratic-leaning states that run their own insurance markets have already reopened enrollment in recent weeks as the coronavirus threat grew. The Trump administration oversees enrollment for about two-thirds of states.

Insurers said they had expected Trump to announce a special enrollment period last Friday based on conversations they had with officials at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which runs HealthCare.gov enrollment. It wasn’t immediately clear why the Trump administration decided against the special enrollment period. CMS deferred comment to the White House.

Trump confirmed last week he was seriously considering a special enrollment period, but he also doubled down on his support of a lawsuit by Republican states that could destroy the entire Affordable Care Act, along with coverage for the 20 million people insured through the law.

People losing their workplace coverage have some insurance options outside of the law’s marketplaces. They can extend their employer plan for up to 18 months through COBRA, but that’s an especially pricey option. Medicaid is also an option for low-income adults in about two-thirds of states that have adopted Obamacare’s expansion of the program.

Short-term health insurance alternatives promoted by Trump, which allow enrollment year-round, is also an option for many who entered the crisis without coverage. Those plans offer skimpier coverage and typically exclude insurance protections for preexisting conditions, and some blue states like California and have banned them or severely restricted them. The quality of the plans vary significantly and, depending on the contract, insurers can change coverage terms on the fly and leave patients with exorbitant medical bills.

Major insurers selling Obamacare plans were initially reluctant to reopen the law’s marketplaces, fearing they would be crushed by a wave of costs from Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. But the main insurance lobby, America’s Health Insurance Plans, endorsed the special enrollment period roughly two weeks ago while also urging lawmakers to expand premium subsidies to make coverage more affordable for middle-income people.

Congress in last week’s $2 trillion stimulus passed on that request, as well as insurers’ petition for an open-ended government fund to help stem financial losses from an unexpected wave in coronavirus hospitalizations.

Democrats pushing for the special enrollment period are also grappling with the high costs facing many people with insurance despite new pledges from plans to waive cost-sharing. Obamacare plans and a growing number of those offered by employers impose hefty cost-sharing and high deductibles that could still burden infected Americans with thousands of dollar in medical bills.

House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) on a press call Monday contended that “we also need to have free treatment” after Congress eliminated out-of-pocket costs for coronavirus tests.

“We did the testing, which is now free, and everybody, regardless of their insurance, gets it,” Pallone said. “But that has to be for the treatment as well.”

 

 

 

 

BANKS PRESSURE HEALTH CARE FIRMS TO RAISE PRICES ON CRITICAL DRUGS, MEDICAL SUPPLIES FOR CORONAVIRUS

https://theintercept.com/2020/03/19/coronavirus-vaccine-medical-supplies-price-gouging/

Image result for BANKS PRESSURE HEALTH CARE FIRMS TO RAISE PRICES ON CRITICAL DRUGS, MEDICAL SUPPLIES FOR CORONAVIRUS

IN RECENT WEEKS, investment bankers have pressed health care companies on the front lines of fighting the novel coronavirus, including drug firms developing experimental treatments and medical supply firms, to consider ways that they can profit from the crisis.

The media has mostly focused on individuals who have taken advantage of the market for now-scarce medical and hygiene supplies to hoard masks and hand sanitizer and resell them at higher prices. But the largest voices in the health care industry stand to gain from billions of dollars in emergency spending on the pandemic, as do the bankers and investors who invest in health care companies.

Over the past few weeks, investment bankers have been candid on investor calls and during health care conferences about the opportunity to raise drug prices. In some cases, bankers received sharp rebukes from health care executives; in others, executives joked about using the attention on Covid-19 to dodge public pressure on the opioid crisis.

Gilead Sciences, the company producing remdesivir, the most promising drug to treat Covid-19 symptoms, is one such firm facing investor pressure.

Remdesivir is an antiviral that began development as a treatment for dengue, West Nile virus, and Zika, as well as MERS and SARS. The World Health Organization has said there is “only one drug right now that we think may have real efficacy in treating coronavirus symptoms” — namely, remdesivir.

The drug, though developed in partnership with the University of Alabama through a grant from the federal government’s National Institutes of Health, is patented by Gilead Sciences, a major pharmaceutical company based in California. The firm has faced sharp criticism in the past for its pricing practices. It previously charged $84,000 for a yearlong supply of its hepatitis C treatment, which was also developed with government research support. Remdesivir is estimated to produce a one-time revenue of $2.5 billion.

During an investor conference earlier this month, Phil Nadeau, managing director at investment bank Cowen & Co., quizzed Gilead Science executives over whether the firm had planned for a “commercial strategy for remdesivir” or could “create a business out of remdesivir.”

Johanna Mercier, executive vice president of Gilead, noted that the company is currently donating products and “manufacturing at risk and increasing our capacity” to do its best to find a solution to the pandemic. The company at the moment is focused, she said, primarily on “patient access” and “government access” for remdesivir.

“Commercial opportunity,” Mercier added, “might come if this becomes a seasonal disease or stockpiling comes into play, but that’s much later down the line.”

Steven Valiquette, a managing director at Barclays Investment Bank, last week peppered executives from Cardinal Health, a health care distributor of N95 masks, ventilators and pharmaceuticals, on whether the company would raise prices on a range of supplies.

Valiquette asked repeatedly about potential price increases on a variety of products. Could the company, he asked, “offset some of the risk of volume shortages” on the “pricing side”?

Michael Kaufmann, the chief executive of Cardinal Health, said that “so far, we’ve not seen any material price increases that I would say are related to the coronavirus yet.” Cardinal Health, Kaufman said, would weigh a variety of factors when making these decisions, and added that the company is “always going to fight aggressively to make sure that we’re getting after the lowest cost.”

“Are you able to raise the price on some of this to offset what could be some volume shortages such that it all kind of nets out to be fairly consistent as far as your overall profit matrix?” asked Valiquette.

Kaufman responded that price decisions would depend on contracts with providers, though the firm has greater flexibility over some drug sales. “As you have changes on the cost side, you’re able to make some adjustments,” he noted.

The discussion, over conference call, occurred during the Barclays Global Healthcare Conference on March 10. At one point, Valiquette joked that “one positive” about the coronavirus would be a “silver lining” that Cardinal Health may receive “less questions” about opioid-related lawsuits.

Cardinal Health is one of several firms accused of ignoring warnings and flooding pharmacies known as so-called pill mills with shipments of millions of highly addictive painkillers. Kaufmann noted that negotiations for a settlement are ongoing.

Owens & Minor, a health care logistics company that sources and manufactures surgical gowns, N95 masks, and other medical equipment, presented at the Barclays Global Healthcare Conference the following day.

Valiquette, citing the Covid-19 crisis, asked the company whether it could “increase prices on some of the products where there’s greater demand.” Valiquette then chuckled, adding that doing so “is probably not politically all that great in the sort of dynamic,” but said he was “curious to get some thoughts” on whether the firm would consider hiking prices.

The inquiry was sharply rebuked by Owens & Minor chief executive Edward Pesicka. “I think in a crisis like this, our mission is really around serving the customer. And from an integrity standpoint, we have pricing agreements,” Pesicka said. “So we are not going to go out and leverage this and try to ‘jam up’ customers and raise prices to have short-term benefit.”

AmerisourceBergen, another health care distributor that supplies similar products to Cardinal Health, which is also a defendant in the multistate opioid litigation, faced similar questions from Valiquette at the Barclays event.

Steve Collis, president and chief executive of AmerisourceBergen, noted that his company has been actively involved in efforts to push back against political demands to limit the price of pharmaceutical products.

Collis said that he was recently at a dinner with other pharmaceutical firms involved with developing “vaccines for the coronavirus” and was reminded that the U.S. firms, operating under limited drug price intervention, were among the industry leaders — a claim that has been disputed by experts who note that lack of regulation in the drug industry has led to few investments in viral treatments, which are seen as less lucrative. Leading firms developing a vaccine for Covid-19 are based in Germany, China, and Japan, countries with high levels of government influence in the pharmaceutical industry.

AmerisourceBergen, Collis continued, has been “very active with key stakeholders in D.C., and our priority is to educate policymakers about the impact of policy changes,” with a focus on “rational and responsible discussion about drug pricing.”

Later in the conversation, Valiquette asked AmerisourceBergen about the opioid litigation. The lawsuits could cost as much as $150 billion among the various pharmaceutical and drug distributor defendants. Purdue Pharma, one of the firms targeted with the opioid litigation, has already pursued bankruptcy protection in response to the lawsuit threat.

“We can’t say too much,” Collis responded. But the executive hinted that his company is using its crucial role in responding to the pandemic crisis as leverage in the settlement negotiations. “I would say that this crisis, the coronavirus crisis, actually highlights a lot of what we’ve been saying, how important it is for us to be very strong financial companies and to have strong cash flow ability to invest in our business and to continue to grow our business and our relationship with our customers,” Collis said.

The hope that the coronavirus will benefit firms involved in the opioid crisis has already materialized in some ways. New York Attorney General Letitia James announced last week that her lawsuit against opioid firms and distributors, including Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen, set to begin on March 20, would be delayed over coronavirus concerns.

MARKET PRESSURE has encouraged large health care firms to spend billions of dollars on stock buybacks and lobbying, rather than research and development. Barclays declined to comment, and Cowen & Co. did not respond to a request for comment.

The fallout over the coronavirus could pose potential risks for for-profit health care operators. In Spain, the government seized control of private health care providers, including privately run hospitals, to manage the demand for treatment for patients with Covid-19.

But pharmaceutical interests in the U.S. have a large degree of political power. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar previously served as president of the U.S. division of drug giant Eli Lilly and on the board of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, a drug lobby group.

During a congressional hearing last month, Azar rejected the notion that any vaccine or treatment for Covid-19 should be set at an affordable price. “We would want to ensure that we work to make it affordable, but we can’t control that price because we need the private sector to invest,” said Azar. “The priority is to get vaccines and therapeutics. Price controls won’t get us there.”

The initial $8.3 billion coronavirus spending bill passed in early March to provide financial support for research into vaccines and other drug treatments contained a provision that prevents the government from delaying the introduction of any new pharmaceutical to address the crisis over affordability concerns. The legislative text was shaped, according to reports, by industry lobbyists.

As The Intercept previously reported, Joe Grogan, a key White House domestic policy adviser now serving on Donald Trump’s Coronavirus Task Force, previously served as a lobbyist for Gilead Sciences.

“Notwithstanding the pressure they may feel from the markets, corporate CEOs have large amounts of discretion and in this case, they should be very mindful of price gouging, they’re going to be facing a lot more than reputational hits,” said Robert Weissman, president of public interest watchdog Public Citizen, in an interview with The Intercept.

“There will be a backlash that will both prevent their profiteering, but also may push to more structural limitations on their monopolies and authority moving forward,” Weissman said.

Weissman’s group supports an effort led by Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich., who has called on the government to invoke the Defense Production Act to scale up domestic manufacturing of health care supplies.

There are other steps the government can take, Weissman added, to prevent price gouging.

“The Gilead product is patent-protected and monopoly-protected, but the government has a big claim over that product because of the investment it’s made,” said Weissman.

“The government has special authority to have generic competition for products it helped fund and prevent nonexclusive licensing for products it helped fund,” Weissman continued. “Even for products that have no connection to government funding, the government has the ability to force licensing for generic competition for its own acquisition and purchases.”

Drug companies often eschew vaccine development because of the limited profit potential for a one-time treatment. Testing kit companies and other medical supply firms have few market incentives for domestic production, especially scaling up an entire factory for short-term use. Instead, Levin and Weissman have argued, the government should take direct control of producing the necessary medical supplies and generic drug production.

Last Friday, Levin circulated a letter signed by other House Democrats that called for the government to take charge in producing ventilators, N95 respirators, and other critical supplies facing shortages.

The once inconceivable policy was endorsed on Wednesday when Trump unveiled a plan to invoke the Defense Production Act to compel private firms to produce needed supplies during the crisis. The law, notably, allows the president to set a price ceiling for critical goods used in an emergency.

 

 

 

 

This Is One Anxiety We Should Eliminate for the Coronavirus Outbreak

Image result for This Is One Anxiety We Should Eliminate for the Coronavirus Outbreak

A patient can do everything right and still face substantial surprise medical bills.

In his recent Oval Office speech, President Trump pledged that Americans won’t receive surprise bills for their coronavirus testing.

The goal is good; we need people who are lightly symptomatic to be tested without fear of high personal costs. But it was an empty promise. Unless swift action is taken, surprise bills are coming. And they could exacerbate a public health crisis that is already threatening to spiral out of control.

As demand for coronavirus testing surges and beds start to fill with the sick, hospitals and clinics will roll out contingency plans that call on any available resources in their communities. Test samples will be sent to whichever private laboratories have capacity, patients will be transferred from overloaded hospitals to less-crowded locations and physicians and nurses will make greater use of telemedicine.

Emergency rooms will be slammed with visits from the worried well and the dangerously sick alike. College students are already being sent home and will seek treatment far from the universities that offer them health insurance.

All of this will be chaotic.

To their credit, health insurers recognize the need to eliminate out-of-pocket spending that might discourage people from seeking care. At a meeting earlier this week with Vice President Mike Pence, they publicly committed to eliminating deductibles and co-pays for coronavirus testing. The federal government is also taking some needed steps to eliminate or ease cost-sharing.

But insurance companies aren’t the ones sending surprise bills. They’re coming from private labs and emergency-room doctors and other providers of health care services — and they weren’t at Vice President Pence’s meeting.

A patient with insurance through work or the health-insurance exchanges can be surprise-billed when she seeks medical care at a hospital or clinic that’s in her insurance “network” — but then receives medical care from a person or an institution that’s outside the network.

That out-of-network provider will first send a bill to the patient’s insurer. But if the insurer doesn’t pay the full amount, the provider may bill the patient directly for the remaining balance. Because the provider is basically free to name its own price, these surprise bills can be wildly inflated.

In a coronavirus pandemic, a patient can do everything right and still face substantial surprise bills. Take someone who fears that she may have contracted Covid-19. After self-quarantining for a week, she develops severe shortness of breath. Her partner rushes her to the nearest in-network emergency room. But she’s actually seen by an out-of-network doctor — who may soon send her a hefty bill for the visit.

Matters get worse if the in-network hospital is approaching capacity and the patient is healthy enough to be sent to a hospital across town with spare beds. If the second hospital is outside her insurance network, she could potentially receive a second surprise bill. A third could come from the ambulance that transfers her — it too might not be in-network, and no one will think to check during a crisis. She could get a fourth surprise bill if her coronavirus tests are sent to an out-of-network lab. And so on.

Even in normal times, patients with private insurance receive roughly one surprise bill for every 10 inpatient hospital admissions.

These are not normal times.

Federal law currently provides little protection. The Affordable Care Act does cap an individual’s out-of-pocket spending — but the cap only applies to in-network care. For surprise bills, the sky is the limit.

Reputable providers will appreciate that now is not the time for price gouging. But many won’t and will seek to exploit people’s medical needs for financial gain, much as they did before the coronavirus began to spread. They may calculate that can collect enough money charging exorbitant fees for out-of-network services — and still make it to an airport ahead of a mob carrying pitchforks and torches.

We need more than gauzy commitments from the president. We need a law to ban bills incurred from out-of-network providers for medical care associated with the coronavirus outbreak. Unless that commitment is ironclad, people may not believe it. And if they don’t believe it, they won’t get tested.

To date, Congress — cowed by a furious public relations campaign led by private equity and specialty physicians — has been unable to pass a law banning routine surprise billing. Though Congress has moved closer to a watered-down deal in recent months, neither the House nor the Senate has actually passed a bill.

The coronavirus should refocus Congress’s attention. At a minimum, the legislature should quickly pass a temporary measure to limit out-of-network charges for coronavirus testing and treatment.

In the meantime, states can take action. About half have already passed surprise-billing laws, including California and New York, two of the hardest-hit states. But the laws in many states are patchy: Some cover only emergency room care, others don’t contain a legal mechanism for cutting back on excessive bills, and none are tailored for the current outbreak.

Already, reports of people who have received eye-popping bills for coronavirus testing or emergency room visits are circulating. As these stories proliferate, people will become even more reluctant to get tested or treated when they should. That will obscure the spread of the virus, complicate efforts to adopt measures for social distancing, and lead to unnecessary deaths.

It’s a national disgrace that the United States didn’t ban surprise bills in a time of relative prosperity and security. It could become a public health calamity if we do not end them in a world with coronavirus.

 

 

 

Experts agree that Trump’s coronavirus response was poor, but the US was ill-prepared in the first place

https://theconversation.com/experts-agree-that-trumps-coronavirus-response-was-poor-but-the-us-was-ill-prepared-in-the-first-place-133674?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Latest%20from%20The%20Conversation%20for%20March%2017%202020%20-%201565314971&utm_content=Latest%20from%20The%20Conversation%20for%20March%2017%202020%20-%201565314971+Version+A+CID_6ce2ffeb273f535ccdcb368c4649a7ee&utm_source=campaign_monitor_us&utm_term=Experts%20agree%20that%20Trumps%20coronavirus%20response%20was%20poor%20but%20the%20US%20was%20ill-prepared%20in%20the%20first%20place

As the coronavirus pandemic exerts a tighter grip on the nation, critics of the Trump administration have repeatedly highlighted the administration’s changes to the nation’s pandemic response team in 2018 as a major contributor to the current crisis. This combines with a hiring freeze at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, leaving hundreds of positions unfilled. The administration also has repeatedly sought to reduce CDC funding by billions of dollars. Experts agree that the slow and uncoordinated response has been inadequate and has likely failed to mitigate the coming widespread outbreak in the U.S.

As a health policy expert, I agree with this assessment. However, it is also important to acknowledge that we have underfunded our public health system for decades, perpetuated a poorly working health care system and failed to bring our social safety nets in line with other developed nations. As a result, I expect significant repercussions for the country, much of which will disproportionately fall on those who can least afford it.

Decades of underfunding

Spending on public health has historically proven to be one of humanity’s best investments. Indeed, some of the largest increases in life expectancy have come as the direct result of public health interventions, such as sanitation improvements and vaccinations.

Even today, return on investments for public health spending is substantial and tends to significantly outweigh many medical interventions. For example, one study found that every US$10 per person spent by local health departments reduces infectious disease morbidity by 7.4%.

However, despite their importance to national well-being, public health expenditures have been neglected at all levels. Since 2008, for example, local health departments have lost more than 55,000 staff. By 2016, only about 133,000 full-time equivalent staff remained. State funding for public health was lower in 2016-2017 than in 2008-2009. And the CDC’s prevention and public health budget has been flat and significantly underfunded for years. Overall, of the more than $3.5 trillion the U.S. spends annually on health care, a meager 2.5% goes to public health.

Not surprisingly, the nation has experienced a number of outbreaks of easily preventable diseases. Currently, we are in the middle of significant outbreaks of hepatitis A (more than 31,000 cases), syphilis (more than 35,000 cases), gonorrhea (more than 580,000 cases) and chlamydia (more than 1,750,000 cases). Our failure to contain known diseases bodes ill for our ability to rein in the emerging coronavirus pandemic.

Failures of health care systems

Yet while we have underinvested in public health, we have been spending massive and growing amounts of money on our medical care system. Indeed, we are spending more than any other country for a system that is significantly underperforming.

To make things worse, it is also highly inequitable. Yet, the system is highly profitable for all players involved. And to maximize income, both for- and nonprofits have consistently pushed for greater privatization and the elimination of competitors.

As a result, thousands of public and private hospitals deemed “inefficient” because of unfilled beds have closed. This eliminated a significant cushion in the system to buffer spikes in demand.

At any given time, this decrease in capacity does not pose much of a problem for the nation. Yet in the middle of a global pandemic, communities will face significant challenges without this surge capacity. If the outbreak mirrors anything close to what we have seen in other countries, “there could be almost six seriously ill patients for every existing hospital bed.” A worst-case scenario from the same study puts the number at 17 to 1. To make things worse, there will likely be a particular shortage of unoccupied intensive care beds.

Of course, the lack of overall hospitals beds is not the most pressing issue. Hospitals also lack the levels of staffing and supplies needed to cope with a mass influx of patients. However, the lack of ventilators might prove the most daunting challenge.

Limits of the overall social safety net

While the U.S. spends trillions of dollars each year on medical care, our social safety net has increasingly come under strain. Even after the Affordable Care Actalmost 30 million Americans do not have health insurance coverage. Many others are struggling with high out-of-pocket payments.

To make things worse, spending on social programs, outside of those protecting the elderly, has been shrinking, and is significantly smaller than in other developed nations. Moreover, public assistance is highly uneven and differs significantly from state to state.

And of course, the U.S. heavily relies on private entities, mostly employers, to offer benefits taken for granted in other developed countries, including paid sick leave and child care. This arrangement leaves 1 in 4 American workers without paid sick leave, resulting in highly inequitable coverage. As a result, many low-income families struggle to make ends meet even when times are good.

Can the US adapt?

I believe that the limitations of the U.S. public health response and a potentially overwhelmed medical care system are likely going to be exacerbated by the blatant limitations of the U.S. welfare state. However, after weathering the current storm, I expect us to go back to business as usual relatively quickly. After all, that’s what happened after every previous pandemic, such as H1N1 in 2009 or even the 1918 flu epidemic.

The problems are in the incentive structure for elected officials. I expect that policymakers will remain hesitant to invest in public health, let alone revamp our safety net. While the costs are high, particularly for the latter, there are no buildings to be named, and no quick victories to be had. The few advocates for greater investments lack resources compared to the trillion-dollar interests from the medical sector.

Yet, if altruism is not enough, we should keep reminding policymakers that outbreaks of communicable diseases pose tremendous challenges for local health care systems and communities. They also create remarkable societal costs. The coronavirus serves as a stark reminder.