Welcome to Capsule—your weekly dose of health-care news, where we give you a recap of this week’s highs and lows for key players in the health-care industry. You can expect us every Friday morning as a bookend for your week.
The one bit of solace an American can have right now during this shutdown: At least things aren’t as crazy here as they are in Venezuela. Of course, there’s still time for things to get rowdy in the U.S., especially because senators rejected legislative efforts Jan. 24 to reopen the rest of the government. Before you suit up in your protest gear though, catch up on your health-care news.
Here’s who ended the week on a high note:
- Consumers finally have an idea of what goes on behind closed doors with drug supply middlemen thanks to a new watchdog group analysis, Robert Langreth for Bloomberg News writes. Pharmacy-benefit managers are taking increasingly large markups on generic drugs in New York, according to the analysis of Medicaid prescriptions at independent pharmacies in the state.
- Meanwhile watchdogs on Capitol Hill are gearing up for a hearing Jan. 29 that will dig into drug pricing and why costs for patients are so high. The first set of experts to testify before the House Oversight Committee will include patient advocates and researchers, Shira Stein reports. Drugmakers are feeling the pressure from Congress and their leading lobbying group disclosed this week it spent a record $27.5 million on lobbying in 2018, Bill Allison of Bloomberg News writes.
- House Democrats are also calling for Health and Human Services Department head Alex Azar to testify about President Donald Trump’s child separation policy, Alex Ruoff reports. Azar this week refused to testify, but Democrats say they’re willing to drag him to Capitol Hill with a subpoena.
- Finally, the HHS could reclassify drugs, impose penalties, and recover rebate payments under legislation prompted by Mylan’s 2017 settlement with the Justice Department over classification of the allergy-shot EpiPen, John Hughes of Bloomberg News writes.
The AIDS Council
- A White House panel on HIV/AIDS policy that Trump scuttled is set to make its comeback with two new leaders at the helm, Madison Alder writes.
- Carl Schmid, deputy executive director of the AIDS Institute, and Washington state Secretary of Health John Wiesman will lead the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS when it convenes in March. That will be the panel’s first meeting since Trump fired its remaining members in December 2017 after six members left in protest, saying the administration didn’t have a plan to address HIV/AIDS issues.
- The council is especially important since the opioid epidemic has led to an uptick in the spread of the immune system disease in certain areas.
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a silver lining, though: America’s drug overdose epidemic eased in 10 states, primarily in the West, with flat or declining levels between June 2015 and June 2018, Alex Tanzi from Bloomberg News writes.
- You’ve probably used one to DJ your favorite playlist. Now, doctors are using voice-activated digital assistants like Alexa to boost patient engagement and simplify the work of doctors and nurses, James Swann reports.
- The voice-activated devices are being used both in hospitals and at home and can help patients check their medications, look up wait times at the ER, and even help doctors pull data from patient electronic health records.
- New York-based Northwell Health, for example, is a month away from rolling out a program that will put Alexa devices in every private room and let patients access data from their medical records.
- But privacy issues abound. Alexa has faced privacy concerns since the device debuted in 2014, including charges that it’s recording conversations even when seemingly turned off. So any systems using this technology have to make sure they’re also complying with federal health privacy laws.
It was a bleak week for others. Here’s whose Thursday closed on a downswing:
- Two Utah lawmakers are fashioning a bill that would repeal and replace the voter-approved ballot measure extending Medicaid coverage to an additional 150,000 low-income state residents, Trip Baltz writes.
- Legislators are “trying to take Prop 3 and mold it into something completely different,” state Rep. James Dunnigan (R) told Baltz. “This is not what the public voted on.”
- There’s also tension in Wisconsin as the governor pledged in his first State of the State address to withdraw the state as a plaintiff from a federal court case in Texas seeking to invalidate the Affordable Care Act, Stephen Joyce reports. These and other health-policy goals will have to overcome entrenched opposition from the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature.
- Congress’s latest response to the opioid crisis could be stymied by the partisan fight over border wall funding that led to the partial government shutdown, Jeannie Baumann and Alex Ruoff report.
- Since the bill that funds the HHS for fiscal year 2019 (Pub. L. 115-769) was enacted, agencies like the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the National Institutes of Health can carry out their opioid-related work. But the FDA’s funding lapsed in December, although the agency is still working on carrying out some of the opioid law’s provisions, a spokesman said.
- The shutdown could hinder the ability of the states and federal government to coordinate their efforts, senators and lawyers told Baumann and Ruoff.
Medical Device Makers
- The leading medical device lobbying group is angling for legislation that would allow the FDA to collect new application fees from medical device companies despite the partial government shutdown. But the House Energy and Commerce Committee—one of the congressional panels with jurisdiction over this sort of legislation—would never go for it, a committee staffer told me.
- The lobbying group AdvaMed is “reading the political tea leaves,” its CEO Scott Whitaker, said. He imagines lawmakers won’t reach an agreement to end the shutdown altogether, but anticipates Congress will start making concessions about bipartisan funding for TSA agents or Federal Trade Commission employees.
- The group is hoping to ride that conciliatory wave. Right now, device makers are worried about potential blocks in the FDA’s device application pipeline, which is what the legislation is intended to resolve.
Thanks for joining us this week and have a great weekend. I’m all ears when it comes to your two cents, tips, critiques, or coordinating exclusive interviews. Send them my way at firstname.lastname@example.org.