Public Health Archives - California Healthline Mon, 18 Dec 2023 18:34:18 +0000 en-US hourly 1 161476318 Mysterious Morel Mushrooms at Center of Food Poisoning Outbreak Mon, 18 Dec 2023 10:00:00 +0000 A food poisoning outbreak that killed two people and sickened 51, stemming from a Montana restaurant, has highlighted just how little is known about morel mushrooms and the risks in preparing the popular and expensive delicacy.

The FDA conducted an investigation into morel mushrooms after the severe illness outbreak linked to Dave’s Sushi in Bozeman in late March and April. The investigation found that undercooked or raw morels were the likely culprit, and it led the agency to issue its first guidelines on preparing morels.

“The toxins in morel mushrooms that may cause illness are not fully understood; however, using proper preparation procedures, such as cooking, can help to reduce toxin levels,” according to the FDA guidance.

Even then, a risk remains, according to the FDA: “Properly preparing and cooking morel mushrooms can reduce risk of illness, however there is no guarantee of safety even if cooking steps are taken prior to consumption.”

Jon Ebelt, spokesperson for Montana’s health department, said there is limited public health information or medical literature on morels. And samples of the morels taken from Dave’s Sushi detected no specific toxin, pathogen, pesticide, or volatile or nonvolatile organic compound in the mushrooms.

Aaron Parker, the owner of Dave’s Sushi, said morels are a “boutique item.” In season, generally during the spring and fall, morels can cost him $40 per pound, while morels purchased out of season are close to $80 per pound, he said.

Many highly regarded recipe books describe sauteing morels to preserve the sought-after, earthy flavor. At Dave’s, a marinade, sometimes boiling, was poured over the raw mushrooms before they were served, Parker said. After his own investigation, Parker said he found boiling them between 10 and 30 minutes is the safest way to prepare morel mushrooms.

Parker said he reached out to chefs across the country and found that many, like him, were surprised to learn about the toxicity of morels.

“They had no idea that morel mushrooms had this sort of inherent risk factor regardless of preparation,” Parker said.

According to the FDA’s Food Code, the vast majority of the more than 5,000 fleshy mushroom species that grow naturally in North America have not been tested for toxicity. Of those that have, 15 species are deadly, 60 are toxic whether raw or cooked — including “false” morels, which look like spongy edible morels — and at least 40 are poisonous if eaten raw, but safer when cooked.

The North American Mycological Association, a national nonprofit whose members are mushroom experts, recorded 1,641 cases of mushroom poisonings and 17 deaths from 1985 to 2006. One hundred and twenty-nine of those poisonings were attributed to morels, but no deaths were reported.

Marian Maxwell, the outreach chairperson for the Puget Sound Mycological Society, based in Seattle, said cooking breaks down the chitin in mushrooms, the same compound found in the exoskeletons of shellfish, and helps destroy toxins. Maxwell said morels may naturally contain a type of hydrazine — a chemical often used in pesticides or rocket fuel that can cause cancer — which can affect people differently. Cooking does boil off the hydrazine, she said, “but some people still have reactions even though it’s cooked and most of that hydrazine is gone.”

Heather Hallen-Adams, chair of the toxicology committee of the North American Mycological Association, said hydrazine has been shown to exist in false morels, but it’s not as “clear-cut” in true morels, which were the mushrooms used at Dave’s Sushi.

Mushroom-caused food poisonings in restaurant settings are rare — the Montana outbreak is believed to be one of the first in the U.S. related to morels — but they have happened infrequently abroad. In 2019, a morel food poisoning outbreak at a Michelin-star-rated restaurant in Spain sickened about 30 customers. One woman who ate the morels died, but her death was determined to be from natural causes. Raw morels were served on a pasta salad in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 2019 and poisoned 77 consumers, though none died.

Before the new guidelines were issued, the FDA’s Food Code guidance to states was only that serving wild mushrooms must be approved by a “regulatory authority.”

The FDA’s Food Code bans the sale of wild-picked mushrooms in a restaurant or other food establishment unless it’s been approved to do so, though cultivated wild mushrooms can be sold if the cultivation operations are overseen by a regulatory agency, as was the case with the morels at Dave’s Sushi. States’ regulations vary, according to a 2021 study by the Georgia Department of Public Health and included in the Association of Food and Drug Officials’ regulatory guidelines. For example, Montana and a half-dozen other states allow restaurants to sell wild mushrooms if they come from a licensed seller, according to the study. Seventeen other states allow the sale of wild mushrooms that have been identified by a state-credentialed expert.

The study found that the varied resources states use to identify safe wild mushrooms — including mycological associations, academics, and the food service industry — may suggest a need for better communication.

The study recognized a “guidance document” as the “single most important step forward” given the variety in regulations and the demand for wild mushrooms.

Hallen-Adams said raw morels are known to be poisonous by “mushroom people,” but that’s not common knowledge among chefs.

In the Dave’s Sushi case, Hallen-Adams said, it was obvious that safety information didn’t get to the people who needed it. “And this could be something that could be addressed by labeling,” she said.

There hasn’t been much emphasis placed on making sure consumers know how to properly prepare the mushrooms, Hallen-Adams said, “and that’s something we need to start doing.”

Hallen-Adams, who trains people in Nebraska on mushroom identification, said the North American Mycological Association planned to update its website and include more prominent information about the need to cook mushrooms, with a specific mention of morels.

Montana’s health department intends to publish guidelines on morel safety in the spring, when morel season is approaching.

This article was produced by KFF Health News, formerly known as Kaiser Health News (KHN), a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF — the independent source for health policy research, polling, and journalism. 

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.


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‘They See a Cash Cow’: Corporations Could Consume $50 Billion of Opioid Settlements Mon, 18 Dec 2023 10:00:00 +0000 The marketing pitches are bold and arriving fast: Invest opioid settlement dollars in a lasso-like device to help police detain people without Tasers or pepper spray. Pour money into psychedelics, electrical stimulation devices, and other experimental treatments for addiction. Fund research into new, supposedly abuse-deterrent opioids and splurge on expensive, brand-name naloxone.

These pitches land daily in the inboxes of state and local officials in charge of distributing more than $50 billion from settlements in opioid lawsuits.

The money is coming from an array of companies that made, sold, or distributed prescription painkillers, including Johnson & Johnson, AmerisourceBergen, and Walgreens. Thousands of state and local governments sued the companies for aggressively promoting and distributing opioid medications, fueling an epidemic that progressed to heroin and fentanyl and has killed more than half a million Americans. The settlement money, arriving over nearly two decades, is meant to remediate the effects of that corporate behavior.

But as the dollars land in government coffers — more than $4.3 billion as of early November — a swarm of private, public, nonprofit, and for-profit entities are eyeing the gold rush. Some people fear that corporations, in particular — with their flashy products, robust marketing budgets, and hunger for profits — will now gobble up the windfall meant to rectify it.

“They see a cash cow,” said JK Costello, director of behavioral health consulting for the Steadman Group, a firm that is being paid to help local governments administer the settlements in Colorado, Kansas, Oregon, and Virginia. “Everyone is interested.”

Costello receives multiple emails a week from businesses and nonprofits seeking guidance on how to apply for the funds. To keep up with the influx, he has developed a standard response: Thanks, but we can’t respond to individual requests, so here’s a link to your locality’s website, public meeting schedule, or application portal.

California Healthline obtained email records in eight states that show health departments, sheriffs’ offices, and councils overseeing settlement funds are receiving a similar deluge of messages. In the emails, marketing specialists offer phone calls, informational presentations, and meetings with their companies.

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall recently sent a letter reminding local officials to vet organizations that reach out. “I am sure that many of you have already been approached by a variety of vendors seeking funding for opioid initiatives,” he wrote. “Please proceed with caution.”

Of course, not all marketing efforts should prompt concern. Emails and calls are one way people in power learn about innovative products and services. The country’s addiction crisis is too large for the public sector to tame alone, and many stakeholders agree that partnering with industry is crucial. After all, pharmaceutical companies manufacture medications to treat opioid addiction. Corporations run treatment facilities and telehealth services.

“It’s unrealistic and even harmful to say we don’t want any money going to any private companies,” said Kristen Pendergrass, vice president of state policy at Shatterproof, a national nonprofit focused on addiction.

The key, agree public health and policy experts, is to critically evaluate products or services to see if they are necessary, evidence-based, and sustainable — instead of flocking to companies with the best marketing.

Otherwise, “you end up with lots of shiny objects,” Costello said.

And, ultimately, failure to do due diligence could leave some jurisdictions holding an empty bag.

Take North Carolina. In 2022, state lawmakers allotted $1.85 million of settlement funds for a pilot project using the first FDA-approved app for opioid use disorder, developed by Pear Therapeutics. There were high hopes the app would help people stay in treatment longer.

But less than a year later, Pear Therapeutics filed for bankruptcy.

The state hadn’t paid the company yet, so the money isn’t lost, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. But the department and lawmakers have not decided what to do with those dollars next.

$1 Million for Drug Disposal Pouches

Jason Sundby, CEO of Verde Environmental Technologies, said the Deterra pouches his company sells are a low-cost way to prevent expensive addictions.

Customers place their unused medications in a Deterra pouch and add water, deactivating the drugs before tossing them, ensuring they cannot be used even if fished out of the trash. A medium Deterra pouch costs $3.89 and holds 45 pills.

The goal is to “get these drugs out of people’s homes before they can be misused, diverted, and people start down the path of needing treatment or naloxone or emergency room visits,” Sundby said.

Sundby’s company ran an ad about spending settlement dollars on its product in a National Association of Counties newsletter and featured similar information online.

It may be paying off, as Deterra is set to receive $1 million in settlement funds from the health department in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, and $12,000 from the sheriff’s office in Henry County, Iowa. The company also has partnerships with St. Croix and Milwaukee counties in Wisconsin, and is working on a deal in Connecticut.

Several other companies with similar products have also used their product sites to urge jurisdictions to consider the settlements as a funding stream — and they’re seeing early success.

DisposeRx makes a drug deactivation product — its version costs about a dollar each — and received $144,000 in South Carolina for mailing 134,000 disposal packets to a program that educated high school football players, coaches, and parents about addiction.

SafeRx makes $3 pill bottles with a locking code to store medications and was awarded $189,000 by South Carolina’s opioid settlement council to work with the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office and local prevention groups. It also won smaller awards from Weld and Custer counties in Colorado.

None of the companies said they are dependent on opioid settlements to sustain their business long-term. But the funds provide a temporary boost. In a 2022 presentation to prospective investors, SafeRx called the opioid settlements a “growth catalyst.”

Critics of such investments say the products are not worthwhile. Today’s crisis of fatal overdoses is largely driven by illicit fentanyl. Even if studies suggest the companies’ products make people more likely to safely store and dispose of medications, that’s unlikely to stem the record levels of deaths seen in recent years.

“The plausible mechanism by which they would even be able to reduce overdose is a mystery because prescription medications are not driving overdose,” said Tricia Christensen, policy director with the nonprofit Community Education Group, which is tracking settlement spending across Appalachia.

Safe storage and disposal can be accomplished with a locking cabinet and toilet, she said. The FDA lists opioids on its flush list for disposal and says there is no evidence that low levels of the medicines that end up in rivers harm human health.

But Milton Cohen, CEO of SafeRx’s parent company, Caring Closures International, said keeping prescription medicines secure addresses the root of the epidemic. Fentanyl kills, but often where people start, “where water is coming into the boat still, is the medicine cabinet,” he said. “We can bail all we want, but the right thing to do is to plug the hole first.”

Products to secure and dispose of drugs also provide an opportunity for education and destigmatization, said Melissa Lyon, director of the Delaware County Health Department in Pennsylvania. The county will be mailing Deterra pouches and postcards about preventing addiction to three-quarters of its residents.

“The Deterra pouch is to me a direct correlation” to the overprescribing that came from pharmaceutical companies’ aggressive marketing, she added. Since the settlement money is to compensate for that, “this is a good use of the funds.”

Tools for Law Enforcement That Superheroes Would Envy

Other businesses making pitches for settlement funds have a less clear relationship to opioids.

Wrap Technologies creates tools for law enforcement to reduce lethal uses of force. Its chief product, the BolaWrap, shoots a 7½-foot Kevlar tether more than a dozen feet through the air until it wraps around a person’s limbs or torso — almost like Wonder Woman’s Lasso of Truth.

Terry Nichols, director of business development for the company, said the BolaWrap can be used as an alternative to Tasers or pepper spray when officers need to detain someone experiencing a mental health crisis or committing crimes related to their addiction, like burglary.

“If you want to be more humane in the way you treat people in substance use disorder and crisis, this is an option,” he said.

The company posts body camera footage of officers using BolaWrap on YouTube and says that out of 192 field reports of its use, about 75% of situations were resolved without additional use of force.

When officers de-escalate situations, people are less likely to end up in jail, Nichols said. And diverting people from the criminal justice system is among the suggested investments in opioid settlement agreements.

That argument convinced the city of Brownwood, Texas, where Nichols was police chief until 2019. It has spent about $15,000 of opioid settlement funds to buy nine BolaWrap devices.

“Our goal is to avoid using force when a citizen is in need,” said James Fuller, assistant police chief in Brownwood. “If we’re going to take someone to get help, the last thing we want to do is poke holes in them with a Taser.”

After Brownwood’s purchase, Wrap Technologies issued a press release in which CEO Kevin Mullins encouraged more law enforcement agencies to “take the opportunity afforded by the opioid settlement funds to empower their officers.” The company has also sent a two-page document to police departments explaining how settlement funds can be used to buy BolaWraps.

Language from that document appeared nearly word-for-word in a briefing sheet given to Brownwood City Council before the BolaWrap purchase. The council voted unanimously in favor.

But the process hasn’t been as smooth elsewhere. In Hawthorne, California, the police department planned to buy 80 BolaWrap devices using opioid settlement funds. It paid its first installment of about $25,000 in June. However, it was later informed by the state Department of Health Care Services that the BolaWrap is not an allowable use of these dollars.

“Bola Wraps will not be purchased with the Settlement Funds in the future,” Hawthorne City Clerk Dayna Williams-Hunter wrote in an email.

Carolyn Williams, a member of the advocacy group Vocal-TX, said she doesn’t see how the devices will address the overdose crisis in Texas or elsewhere.

Her son Haison Akiem Williams dealt with mental health and addiction issues for years. Without insurance, he couldn’t afford rehab. When he sought case management services, there was a three-month wait, she said. Police charged him with misdemeanors but never connected him to care, she said.

In February, he died of an overdose at age 47. His mother misses how he used to make her laugh by calling her “Ms. Carol.”

She wants settlement funds to support services she thinks could have kept him alive: mental health treatment, case management, and housing. BolaWrap doesn’t make that list.

“It’s heartbreaking to see what the government is doing with this money,” she said. “Putting it in places they really don’t need it.”

This article was produced by KFF Health News, formerly known as Kaiser Health News (KHN), a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF — the independent source for health policy research, polling, and journalism. 

KFF Health News' 'What the Health?': Abortion and SCOTUS, Together Again Thu, 14 Dec 2023 19:45:00 +0000 The Host Julie Rovner KFF Health News @jrovner Read Julie's stories. Julie Rovner is chief Washington correspondent and host of KFF Health News’ weekly health policy news podcast, “What the Health?” A noted expert on health policy issues, Julie is the author of the critically praised reference book “Health Care Politics and Policy A to Z,” now in its third edition.

The Supreme Court this week agreed to hear a case that could further restrict abortion — even in states where it remains legal. The case to determine the fate of the abortion pill mifepristone is the first major abortion case to come before the court since its overturn of Roe v. Wade in 2022. It could also set a precedent for judges to second-guess scientific rulings by the FDA.

Meanwhile, legislation is finally moving in the House and Senate to renew a long list of health programs that technically expired at the end of the last fiscal year, on Sept. 30. But the bills to fund community health centers and build on programs to fight the opioid epidemic are unlikely to become law until January, at the soonest.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of KFF Health News, Riley Griffin of Bloomberg News, Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico, and Lauren Weber of The Washington Post.


Riley Griffin Bloomberg @rileyraygriffin Read Riley's stories Alice Miranda Ollstein Politico @AliceOllstein Read Alice's stories Lauren Weber The Washington Post @LaurenWeberHP Read Lauren's stories

Among the takeaways from this week’s episode:

  • The Supreme Court will consider a case challenging access to mifepristone, opting to review FDA decisions in recent years governing the loosening some requirements for distribution and use of the so-called abortion pill — such as the agency’s call allowing pregnant people to obtain the drug without a doctor’s visit. While the drug’s overall approval is not in question in this case, the drug industry argues undermining the FDA’s authority could open the floodgates for challenges to other pharmaceuticals and have a chilling effect on drug development.
  • Legal experts say the Texas high court’s ruling blocking the abortion of a pregnant woman whose fetus has a fatal condition calls into question whether doctors are able to identify any medically necessary circumstance under existing legal exceptions. And, in other court news, the Supreme Court will let stand a Washington state law banning conversion therapy.
  • On Capitol Hill, lawmakers are bundling an assortment of bipartisan, generally unrelated health measures so they can be approved, possibly as part of a government spending package in January. But can this Congress — which has proved unproductive even by recent standards — finish its work in a presidential election year?
  • One piece of legislation under consideration would address the opioid epidemic, renewing grants for state efforts to prevent and treat opioid use disorder. The epidemic has taken a toll, but it is not the only problem contributing to a troubling drop in U.S. life expectancy.
  • And cyberattacks are on the upswing in health care, with new revelations about an attack that targeted the Department of Health and Human Services at the onset of the pandemic.

Also this week, Rovner interviews University of Maryland professor and social media superstar Jen Golbeck about her new book, “The Purest Bond,” which lays out the science of the human-canine relationship.

Plus, for “extra credit,” the panelists suggest health policy stories they read this week that they think you should read, too:

Julie Rovner: The Washington Post’s “They Watched Their Husbands Win the Heisman — Then Lost Them to CTE,” by Kent Babb.

Alice Miranda Ollstein: Politico’s “A Deadly Delivery Highlights ‘Falsified’ Heat Records at USPS,” by Ariel Wittenberg.

Lauren Weber: The Washington Post’s “Applesauce Lead Cases in Kids Surge Amid Questions on FDA Oversight,” by Amanda Morris, Teddy Amenabar, Laura Reiley, and Jenna Portnoy.

Riley Griffin: Bloomberg News’ “The Next Blockbuster Drug Might Be Made in Space,” by Robert Langreth.

Also mentioned in this week’s episode:

click to open the transcript Transcript: Abortion and SCOTUS, Together Again

KFF Health News’ ‘What the Health?’Episode Title: Abortion and SCOTUS, Together AgainEpisode Number: 326Published: Dec. 14, 2023

[Editor’s note: This transcript was generated using both transcription software and a human’s light touch. It has been edited for style and clarity.]

Julie Rovner: Hello, and welcome back to “What the Health?” I’m Julie Rovner, chief Washington correspondent for KFF Health News, and I’m joined by some of the best and smartest health reporters in Washington. We’re taping this week on Thursday, Dec. 14, at 10 a.m. As always, news happens fast, and things might’ve changed by the time you hear this. So here we go. We are joined today via video conference by Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico.

Alice Miranda Ollstein: Good morning.

Rovner: Lauren Weber of The Washington Post.

Lauren Weber: Hello, hello.

Rovner: And we welcome to the podcast for the first time Riley Griffin of Bloomberg News.

Riley Griffin: Thanks for having me.

Rovner: Later in this episode, we’ll have my interview with University of Maryland professor Jen Golbeck, who is probably better known to anyone on social media as “GR Mom,” the woman who takes in half a dozen special-needs golden retrievers at a time. She’s co-author of a new book called “The Purest Bond” that explains why our love for dogs is not just all in our heads. But first, this week’s news.

We will start with abortion this week. In news, Alice, that you anticipated last week, the Supreme Court has decided to hear a case out of Texas regarding the abortion pill mifepristone. Depending on how the court rules, it could make abortion less available even in states where it remains legal. But Alice, this might not be as consequential as it looks at first blush because they didn’t take the case that could have impacted the overall approval of the drug, right?

Ollstein: That’s right. So they’re basically taking up what the 5th Circuit decided, not what the district court decided. The district court, as we remember very dramatically, decided that FDA approval of mifepristone decades ago was done incorrectly and would have moved to effectively ban the drug nationwide. What’s at issue before the Supreme Court are subsequent FDA decisions to make the pill more easily accessible, but those are really important and sweeping. I mean, I feel like the mail delivery piece is getting a lot of attention, but it’s not just that.

These are decisions that, one, approved a generic version of the pill, which made it cheaper and more accessible all over the country. It expanded its use from just the first seven weeks of pregnancy to the first 10 weeks of pregnancy. Those crucial weeks are when a lot of people realize they’re pregnant and make a decision about that. And more recently, allowing retail pharmacies to dispense the pills and, crucially, not requiring an in-person doctor visit to obtain them.

So the companies that make the pills say that if the Supreme Court were to side with the groups challenging these rules, it would be a de facto ban, at least temporarily, while they have to go through relabeling and retooling and everything. And that could take a while. So I think while abortion rights groups are celebrating that the overall approval of the pills is not in question, this is still very, very consequential, and it’s going to be decided just months before the presidential election, keeping this really front and center in people’s minds.

Rovner: Just to confirm though, the Supreme Court has already weighed in and put even what the 5th Circuit did on hold, right?

Ollstein: Yes.

Rovner: So nothing has changed at the moment from what’s originally available.

Ollstein: That’s right. And so in states that have their own bans, the bills are still banned. In states where they’re protected, they’re still protected, and that will continue until the high court hears and rules on the case.

Rovner: But even though, I mean, the court is not going to take up the case where the lower-court judge said that the FDA shouldn’t have approved this in the first place, this could still be the Supreme Court basically overruling FDA’s judgment about what’s safe and effective, which could have big implications for drugs way beyond mifepristone, right?

Ollstein: That’s what the companies that make the pills and other unrelated pharmaceutical companies have been arguing. They say that this could open the floodgates for anyone with a grievance against any drug to try to challenge it. People are worried about contraception. People are worried about covid shots. Anything that’s generated any level of pushback and controversy, that would greenlight this strategy for them.

And the pharmaceutical industry has also argued that it could put a chilling effect on companies even submitting new drugs for approval, saying, if they don’t have the confidence that a court could come in later and yank away the approval, why would they feel confident in putting this out on the market? So this has the potential to be really disruptive. And I would note it comes at a time when the Supreme Court is overall really questioning deference to federal agency decisions across the board, anything from the Commerce Department to … there was a case about phishing regulations. And so, overall, it’s this “war on the administrative state” effort and this is definitely a piece of it, and it could affect health care in a lot of ways.

Rovner: Riley, you watch the drug industry. First, they were staying out of it, and then they finally decided, oh, we should get a little bit exercise because this could be important. Where are they these days?

Griffin: I think what’s been so novel for me situated here in D.C. is to watch industry lobby conservatives on this agenda. To say, this is about business interests. And if you break this house of cards, what else is going to come crashing down? So Alice made that point, and it’s a really important one. The implications here are far-reaching. And in questioning the FDA’s authority in this space, you are really going so much further, and it calls into question other drugs.

Rovner: So great, we’ll have something to talk about for weeks and weeks to come. Well, still in Texas — why does it seem that all the abortion news comes out of Texas? Last week we talked about Kate Cox, a 31-year-old mom of two, whose fetus was diagnosed at 20 weeks with a birth defect incompatible with life.

When we left off taping last Thursday morning, her lawyers were asking a Texas state judge for permission for her to have an abortion because her doctor said continuing the pregnancy could threaten her health and/or her ability to have more children in the future. Alice, a whole bunch of things happened after that. Catch us up.

Ollstein: People are really seizing on this case because it really calls the question on a lot of the assumptions of our post-Roe legal and health care landscape. And so a lower court ruled in her favor and said she should be able to get an abortion to protect her health and her ability to have another child. They said that the state should be barred from bringing criminal charges against the doctor performing the procedure. So that was all set to go forward.

And then the Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who recently survived an impeachment attempt, I should note, moved to intervene and moved to ask the Texas Supreme Court to stop this abortion from happening. He argued that the woman should not qualify for a medical exemption, and the Texas Supreme Court put a hold on the lower-court ruling and said it needed a little more time to think about it. And then they came back and ruled against the woman and said she should not be allowed to get an abortion. But it was moot in terms of her specific situation because of the threats to her health. She had already been to the emergency room several times at this point, and so she decided to go out of state for the procedure.

When I wrote about this, I tried to look into what are the bigger implications here. And a legal expert said something that really struck me, which is that the entire Dobbs premise is that you could ban so-called elective abortions, but maintain access to medically necessary ones. Sometimes they’re called therapeutic abortions. There’s a lot of weird terminology. And this really calls that question, can you always distinguish between those two?

Who’s to say? Here, the doctor’s interpretation of which was which clashed with the state’s interpretation of which was which. A lot of states have these so-called “life of the mother” exemptions, and this really shows that they are very difficult to use in practice.

Rovner: I’ve covered this for so many years at the federal level with little wording changes to the Hyde Amendment, and the big fight has always been between exceptions for the life of the mother and for the health of the mother. And the anti-abortion movement has always said, you can’t have a health exception because that would include mental health and it would just include anyone who said she doesn’t want to be pregnant.

So the phrase is always “It’s a loophole you can drive a truck through.” But then you get to these cases where it clearly is women whose water breaks at 20 weeks, it will eventually be life-threatening, but is immediately health-threatening. But a lot of these states don’t have health exceptions because they say that they could be used too broadly, and that’s kind of where they get stuck, right?

Weber: Yeah. I just wanted to chime in and say that I think what’s interesting about this case is this is the first time I’ve heard a lot from folks that aren’t in the media at all, don’t read the media every day, don’t see the flood of stories that this podcast group and folks, probably many of the listeners to this podcast, have seen about abortion coverage. It’s the first time I got a wave of phone calls being like, “Hey, can you explain this to me? What does this mean?” So I think that this story out of Texas, this reality, this lawsuit, has broken through to the rest of the country.

I mean, granted, this is an anecdotal sample size of my family and friends that live in the heart of the country, but I do think this has broken through in a way that many of the other stories that we’ve all written here have not. And so I’m very curious to see how this continues to play out because I do think this is gaining a lot more awareness with these lawsuits. We have this one, and then I know there’s one in Kentucky that I think we’ll see play out in the next couple weeks and months, obviously.

Rovner: Yeah, and I think one of the things that’s really important about this is that we know her name and we know what she looks like because she’s been brave enough to come forward in the middle of this medical crisis and allow them to use her name and do TV interviews. And Alice, I interrupted you.

Ollstein: Oh, yes. A couple things. We haven’t mentioned that this was a non-viable pregnancy. Her fetus was diagnosed with a almost certainly fatal condition. So I think that’s another key piece of it. Other states have an exemption for fetal diagnoses like this where someone can get an abortion. Texas does not. And I talked to some Texas anti-abortion groups who were insistent that she should not be granted an exception and that the “compassionate” thing to do would be to force her to give birth and then watch the child die and mourn it. They were very explicit about that.

And so I think that is also capturing a lot of people’s attention, like Lauren was saying, where they’re fighting for a potential life that is very potential at this point. And you’re hearing a lot of rhetoric from conservatives right now that are insisting that allowing exemption for fatal fetal conditions is akin to eugenics. They say that these fetuses should be given every chance at life, even if that life is very brief and sometimes painful. So I think this is a debate we’ll continue to see play out.

Rovner: Yeah, I was surprised. I mean, Kellyanne Conway, of all people, who’s not just the former Trump aide, a prominent Republican pollster, actually had a tweet this week that suggested this is not great for Republicans. What’s happening to this woman? The fact that it’s so public. Riley, you wanted to say something?

Griffin: Yeah, just another point Alice mentioned, “this potential life,” but the attorneys have also mentioned the potential for future lives … that this woman, it’s not just her health being impacted, but it also could decrease her ability to have children in the future, which is another part of this story that I think is really tugging at people’s heartstrings. And just that the ruling came hours after she made the announcement that she’d left the state to get the procedure. I mean, all of these things combined make for such a poignant story.

And I want to bring in some research that has also recently been published, which suggests she’s not alone. Nearly 1 in 5 people seeking an abortion have traveled out of state, according to the Guttmacher Institute, citing data from the first half of 2023. And experts are saying this is probably an underestimate. And when you do get to those states in places where abortion remains legal, wait times are increasingly long.

So there are so many dynamics at play. It’s not just the states where access is limited and we’re seeing these very difficult rulings come down, but what are the consequences in the places where access remains available? But that flood of folks trying to get these procedures have to make that travel. Sorry, I jumbled my words there, but you understand what I’m saying, or I can try again.

Rovner: The other piece of that, if you play that all the way out, where women are having to travel and they often have other kids, so they have to get someone to watch their kids and they have to get time off of work, and they have trouble getting appointments in other states, and that means that these abortions are happening later in pregnancy, which is, I know, not what the anti-abortion movement wants. And also the later in pregnancy you get, the more risks there are and the more expensive the whole thing gets.

So it’s just the whole thing is piling on each other. But I think, Riley, something you said that I think I keep highlighting and want to keep highlighting, most of the women we’ve been talking about individually are women who got pregnant because they wanted to have a baby. These are not women who weren’t using birth control and like, oops, I got pregnant. Kate Cox wants to have more children. This was a very wanted pregnancy. … I think one of the things we’re discovering through all of this is that more pregnancies go wrong than people realize. It’s just that when pregnancies go wrong, people tend not to want to talk about it. It’s painful and awful, and it’s not like having your appendix out. So I think we’re kind of, as a population, discovering that pregnancy is fairly fraught. For every baby that’s born happy and healthy, there are a lot of pregnancies that just don’t work the way they’re supposed to.

Ollstein: And I also have seen a lot of chatter saying, “This is the new frontier. We’re going to see this wave of individual women suing for the right to have an abortion.” And I don’t think that’s true. Kate Cox’s lawyers don’t think that’s true. Most women in this circumstance can’t do this or are not willing to be the public face of a lawsuit and get all kinds of threats and harassment.

And a lot of people aren’t able physically to wait for a court to rule. Even Kate Cox wasn’t. And so the idea that there’s going to be so many people who are actively pregnant and seeking an abortion and have the resources to find an attorney willing to represent them and are willing to go through this, I think I’m hearing that that is not likely at all, that this is somewhat of an outlier.

Rovner: While we were talking about asking permission for courts, the Supreme Court this week declined to review a challenge to a Washington state law that banned so-called conversion therapy. I’m still having trouble wrapping my head around this because it’s like a quadruple negative, but what is conversion therapy and where are we now that the appeals court ruling is being allowed to stand?

Weber: I think a lot of people don’t realize this, but there was actually a report that just came out from The Trevor Project. Conversion therapy is a process in which people try to, they call it, convert LGBTQ folks to have heterosexual relationships, and there could be a wide array of what that means. It involves sometimes psychological therapy, sometimes physical therapy, all kinds of things. Many, many states have banned this because science has shown it is not an effective treatment and can lead to mental health effects.

But I think why this ruling is important is that, as I was saying, The Trevor Project has identified there’s over 1,300 practitioners of conversion therapies across the country. Even though this is banned in so many states, this is a practice that goes on and on and on, despite what seems to be a lot of negative health impacts of it. So the fact that the Supreme Court decided not to take this up at all is considered very much a win for the LGBTQ community, especially considering the fact that this does still go on in many, many states.

Rovner: At least … that’s one thing that’s off the table, at least for the very moment. Well, let us go back to Capitol Hill, where lawmakers are actually passing stuff, albeit so late in the session that these policies are unlikely to make it over the finish line until 2024.

The House Monday night passed a bill that includes a bunch of things we’ve been talking about all year: site-neutral payments in Medicare to prevent hospital outpatient departments from charging multiples more to Medicare than non-hospital affiliated facilities; banning some pricing practices by pharmacy benefit managers; clarifying and extending some price transparency rules for hospitals and insurers, particularly those not making their prices public even though it is now required by law; funding community health centers; and stopping some scheduled cuts to hospitals that serve a high proportion of low-income patients.

Yes, that’s a whole lot of things that don’t necessarily go together, but this is how Congress works. All of these things were supposed to happen before the start of the new fiscal year, Oct. 1. Now, let me check, it is the second week of December. These are pretty bipartisan policies, most of them. What the heck took them until December to get this through?

Ollstein: This has been, even by Congress’ standards, a historically unproductive Congress. We spent a lot of the year battling over who should be the House speaker, for instance. That took up a lot of time. They took a really long summer recess, and there’s been all kinds of back and forth over just keeping the government funded. So that has not left a lot of room for basic policymaking. And there’s the fear that heading into next year — a lot of this stuff is getting punted into next year — that only gets harder in an election year. They’re in session less time. There’s less of an incentive to compromise. People are really retreating into their corners. And so it’s not a great outlook, even for things that really are popular on both sides of the aisle.

I will say, on the site-neutral payments piece, that’s been a long-time goal for a lot of people. And what’s being debated now is seen by some as inadequate, way not enough. It’s only a narrow set of drugs within Medicare. People would like this to be implemented way more broadly.

But you also have the hospital industry really mobilizing against it and saying, “You know all those rural hospitals that are closing down and going out of business? That’s going to get worse if you do this.” And as we know, hospitals are often the biggest employer in a lot of congressional districts, and so that could make this hard to pass as well.

Rovner: The same thing with the PBM [pharmacy benefit manager] reforms, and you’ve got the drug industry and you’ve got the hospital industry. So even though these things are “bipartisan,” that doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty of opposition out there, which I guess kind of answers my question of why this took so long. I imagine we expect this — now that it’s in a package — to go on the next government funding bill, which should be in January, right? That’s what we’re looking for?

Weber: Yes, it should go in the next government possible spending bill, but who knows? Are we headed towards another shutdown when that happens? I mean, we’ll have to see. And I just want to echo what Alice said. I mean, not doing a lot of lawmaking this year does have real consequences. I mean, when we talk about these site-neutral payments — I’ll never forget when I was at KHN [KFF Health News], I wrote a story about a seamstress who had rheumatoid arthritis, and she went to the same doctor’s office every time to get arthritis shots. Very normal treatment, right? Her doctor’s office moved up one floor and her bill went up 10 times. Her shots went from $30 to $300 because they were then considered an in-hospital facility. So when we talk about things like site-neutral payments, which are jargony words, they disguise what happens to everyday Americans and the actual cost — literal cost, physical and emotional and financial — of legislation like this not making it through.

Rovner: And I think the biggest irony is that when you look at public opinion polls, Democrats and Republicans are so divided on so many things, but one of the things that they are not divided on at all is that health care costs too much and the Congress should be doing things to make health care cost less. So these are things that, if they can get them over the finish line, would actually be popular.

Well, speaking of things Congress was supposed to do before the start of the fiscal year, Riley, you’re watching the progress of another bill we’ve been following, the SUPPORT [Substance Use Disorder Prevention that Promotes Opioid Recovery and Treatment for Patients and Communities] Act, that authorized programs to fight the opioid epidemic. Remember the opioid epidemic? What’s the status of that bill?

Griffin: Yeah, great question. So more than two months ago, provisions from a major 2018 opioid law, the SUPPORT Act, which provides grants for states to pay prevention, treatment, and recovery services for people with opioid use disorders, expired. But on Tuesday, the House and Senate HELP Committee advanced that legislation in an effort to expand treatment for opioid use disorder amid the ongoing epidemic. And, as you’d mentioned, this is known as the Support for Patients and Communities Reauthorization Act and the Modernizing Opioid Treatment Access Act.

And we saw the House overwhelmingly vote to reauthorize the law. And, meanwhile, the Senate HELP Committee also approved its version of the bill, setting up consideration by the full Senate and likely enactment of a new law quite soon. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont said that passing this $4.3 billion piece of legislation to reauthorize and expand the SUPPORT Act would be a huge success and will do a lot to increase the number of substance abuse counselors and mental health professionals.

Rovner: But again, not likely before the end of the year, this bill that should have been done before Oct. 1.

Griffin: Precisely. But again, also a place where you see that bipartisan support. I mean, the opioid epidemic is something that is coming up on the debate stage. Fentanyl is a buzzword that is being used by Democrats and Republicans alike. And not just to talk about the state of affairs here in the United States, where more than 100,000 people die every year of overdose-related deaths, but also to talk about immigration reform and China, right? These topics have all become a swirling part of the discourse on the opioid epidemic, and it’s something to watch going into the 2024 election.

Rovner: Yes. Something else that is linked to the whole opioid epidemic is this concern about life expectancy. We’ve had some new statistics on life expectancy, which is creeping back up now that deaths from covid are falling off, but not as fast as in many other industrialized countries. Women’s life expectancy is still substantially longer than men’s. What is up with this and what is holding the U.S. back? Why is our life expectancy still so much worse than people across the pond?

Weber: I think there’s a lot of things at play in the U.S. and a lot of it has to do … right now, we’re seeing it creep up because of the covid numbers. But what covid exposed was an absolute failure of primary care across the United States, an absolute failure of public health, an absolute failure to confront the fact that the vast majority of the reason that our life expectancy is so much worse than other countries is because of our chronic disease problem that is not getting dealt with.

And frankly, post-covid, it’s not like we’ve seen some sort of ginormous wake-up call overhaul either. I mean, this is the reality that we’re continuing to live in. So while it is heartening to see that the life expectancy numbers are changing a little bit because the covid death rates have gone down, I think the U.S. still has to grapple with the fact that we live in a country that is not addressing these issues. And I mean, I’ve talked about this on this podcast, but to reiterate again, politics does play into this.

As you see, there are … red states’ life expectancies are typically lower than blue states’ life expectancies. And that’s due in part to the fact that in the 1980s, Reagan and Congress allowed the states to decide how they were going to spend their public health and safety-net dollars in different ways, and we’ve seen that play out in this grand experiment over the last couple decades. And, again, doesn’t seem to be much reckoning with that either. So I think these life expectancy trends, where the U.S. lags behind other countries, are going to continue.

Rovner: Yeah, I wanted to actually call out a piece that Paul Starr at Princeton wrote about these red state-blue state differences because a lot of them we had talked about. Red states had earlier death rates because of the opioid epidemic and fentanyl and these deaths of despair.

But, actually, what the research that Paul Starr looked at was more what you’re saying, Lauren, which is that the states that enrolled children in Medicaid earlier are having better outcomes now, 30, 40, 50 years later, than the states that didn’t. And, also, the states that had restrictive gun laws are having longer life expectancies than states that didn’t. Riley, you’re nodding your head.

Griffin: It’s an amazingly unique American paradox to see greater spending on health care and yet shorter lives compared to other countries. Wealthy nations which spend half per person on health care compared to the United States are seeing their citizens outlive Americans by an average of more than five years. I mean, that data when you put it together is just so jarring. And it, as Lauren has been saying, has been cementing itself before the covid pandemic, which obviously had such a devastating toll.

But as we start to see that trend shift, where in 2022 life expectancy at birth was 77.5 years compared to 76.4 the year prior, that change is largely due to a decrease in covid deaths. We’re still seeing deaths from flu, pneumonia, fetal and infant conditions continue to rise. So the infectious disease front doesn’t look good in other spaces. And as you mentioned, Lauren, these chronic diseases that really set the U.S. apart from its peers, GDP-size-wise, is just so jarring.

Rovner: Finally, this week, because there isn’t already enough for us to worry about with the health system, cyberattacks appear on the upswing. Every week we hear about hospital IT systems literally being held for ransom and hacks into databases with our very most sensitive personal information, like 23andMe. Riley, you have a story about a hack at HHS [the Department of Health and Human Services] that was more serious than we thought.

Griffin: Yeah, thank you for allowing me to speak about this story. So my colleague Jordan Robertson and I investigated a cyberattack that hit HHS at the very outset of the pandemic. And at the time, we found that it was downplayed by department leadership. So only years later, it’s three-plus years down the road, we’ve learned through on-record interviews and other discussions that it was actually quite an unusual and rather concerning case. Some of the officials described the attack as an attempt by a nation-state to break into the department managing the U.S. covid response just as HHS’ IT staff were temporarily loosening security to its more than 80,000 employees so that they could log in remotely. They used a common technique, which is called a DDoS, or a distributed denial-of-service attack, where hackers disrupt a computer network by flooding it with traffic.

Now, typically when people think of this kind of attack, it’s meant to overwhelm and then shut down the system. But what we learned through interviews with these officials is that it was more of an act of espionage. Rather than shutting down the system, it was intended to map HHS’ network. So a pretty concerning story to say the least. And another novel part of this is that the officials, the Chief Information Officer Jose Arrieta and Chief Information Security Officer Janet Vogel, said the attack began ramping up as early as October of 2019.

So a lot of strange pieces at play. Those two officials attribute the attack to China, though HHS has said it did not come to that conclusion. And the Office of Inspector General complicated the picture further by saying that they actually found it was connected to a person, an entity in Ukraine. So not all the questions are yet answered, but I think the takeaway from this story is that when a cyberattack hits, not everything is as it seems.

Rovner: Yeah, OK. All right, one more thing that we will consider on our watch list. All right, well, that is this week’s news. Now we will play my interview with Jen Golbeck about her book on the science of dog love, and then we’ll come back and do our extra credits.

I am so excited to welcome to the podcast Jen Golbeck, a computer science professor at the University of Maryland who studies the internet for a living. She does serious research about some pretty grim corners of the online community, which we will talk about in a moment. But she’s probably better known on social media as “GR Mom,” head wrangler of The Golden Ratio media universe that brings the joy of her ever-changing pack of special-needs golden retrievers to her hundreds of thousands of followers every day, myself included, I have to say. Jen, thanks so much for being here.

Jen Golbeck: My pleasure. Thank you.

Rovner: So we’ll get to your new book, “The Purest Bond,” in a moment. But first, I know you spent a lot of time tracking the behavior of some of the most unpleasant and reprehensible people online. Is that part of why you started your little social media corner of happiness?

Golbeck: Yes. So I am very on social media. I’m a computer scientist by training. And after [President Donald] Trump got elected, everybody was angry online. Regardless of who you voted for, everyone was angry. And I just found myself needing an escape from that and I couldn’t really find it. And at the time, I had four golden retrievers and I was like, you know what? That can’t get much happier, so let’s just start putting pictures of them up.

So it was as much therapy for me as anything else, but it really ended up resonating with people and bringing together this wonderful community of people. And anybody who’s not nice, we block and keep them out of there. Things have not necessarily gotten better, but different, since 2016, 2017, and people still need that escape, including me. So yeah, it’s been a real balm in contrast to my regular research work to do that.

Rovner: Which is, you should say, looking at how hate spreads online. Is that a lot of what you do?

Golbeck: That’s pretty close, yeah. I think my technical term I use is malicious online behaviors. So we look at hate speech and extremism, misinformation, conspiracy theories, all that kind of stuff. So dogs are a really nice antidote to that.

Rovner: So with all the terrible things that go on online, I’m fascinated by the devotion of little groups of people who share interests and love to interact with each other. I still obviously have to be on Twitter, or whatever it’s called now, for my job. And I remember when I first met Matt Nelson, actually at your live show, who’s the creator of WeRateDogs (dogrates), I thanked him for making the online hellscape just a little bit less hellish. Do we underestimate how much online relationships can benefit people as much as cause mischief?

Golbeck: Yeah. The research on this is so interesting. Because since Facebook became a thing, we’ve been really interested in what’s the impact, the psychological impact, of social media? And the answer is always it’s super mixed, which is a kind of an academic cop-out answer, but totally true. There’s all kinds of ways that, obviously, the internet can harm people, and we see that now especially with Instagram and girls with eating disorders and body image issues. We know that generally people who spend a lot of time on social media are less happy than people who don’t.

So there are unquestionably some negative impacts, but it’s a little bit easy to forget, and some people weren’t even alive, when we didn’t have access to communities online and how profoundly isolating life could be and how difficult it was to get access to anything, especially social support. So now you can be in a very rural isolated space and very different from what the social mores of your community would dictate you should be. And that’s something where, in the 1990s, you probably would’ve ended up very lonely and depressed and totally unsupported. And with the internet, you’re not. You can find all kinds of people in exactly the same position as you and get that social support. And that’s an extreme example of what we find, which is you can form real relationships online. And that’s why I tend to resist this distinction between the real world and online. The real world absolutely exists online, and I’ve found lots of real friends who I’ve met offline, but also just keep up relationships with online, and it’s so important.

Rovner: So you and your husband, Ingo, don’t just take in rescue golden retrievers, you take in rescue golden retrievers that are often older and sicker and who have been the most neglected and the most mistreated. Was that something intentional or did it just happen?

Golbeck: It a little bit evolved that way. I got to say, I am always drawn to the seniors, and when I started fostering really wanted to get some seniors. That’s not most of the dogs that come into rescue, actually. It’s usually young dogs who people got and weren’t prepared for, and we fostered 20 of those dogs, too. But, eventually, we did get a pair of seniors. I always thought three dogs was too many, so we would have three with a foster. But I was like, I’ll never actually have three dogs. And then we got this bonded pair. Both were seniors, and so there were four dogs. And as soon as they showed up at my house, I was like, oh, they have always lived here. Now I have four dogs. What am I going to do? And it was great, of course. And about a year later, the rescue was like, “We have this 13-year-old and her people don’t want her. Will you take her?” And I asked my husband, I’m like, “What do you think about five dogs?” And he said, “What’s the difference between four and five? It’s fine.” So then we had five kind of old dogs, or old rescues, three of them were old rescues.

And I think, eventually, the rescue group started realizing that I’d just say yes to whatever they would give me. And so the dogs that they were having a hard time finding someone to take, I’d be like, “Yeah, sure, send them over.” It’s been so rewarding, though, to take these dogs who need a lot of love and attention and care and who haven’t been getting it and being able to give them the love and support and medical care that they need. It’s really rewarding. So I was interested, and then we stumbled our way into something that’s turned into a mission for both of us.

Rovner: So I know a lot has been written over the years about the science of how pets can improve human health and vice versa. I actually looked it up. I wrote my first pet therapy story in 1982. I was 5. No, seriously, it was my first job out of college. But you’ve done something with this book that I haven’t really seen before. You’ve merged a lot of the scientific study with some actual practical advice for pet owners. I assume that was very much on purpose.

Golbeck: Yeah. We didn’t want this to be a self-help book or a dog-training book. At the same time, there’s a lot of things that people want to know as they’re discovering the science of how they bond with their dogs. And so we try to work a little bit of tips in there, along with a lot of science and then stories from people who have really seen those benefits in their everyday relationship with their dogs.

Rovner: What’s been the response?

Golbeck: It’s interesting. I was like, I don’t know that all of this is super surprising. There are some surprising results in there. At the same time, what we’re basically saying is that dogs make us feel good and they love us back and we love them a whole lot. And I think anybody who has a dog knows that that’s true. And the response has been consistently people saying, “I was so excited to see my experience reflected in there.”

So we have, for example, a chapter about dogs in the community and how if you have a dog, you meet everybody in your neighborhood by walking your dog. And you don’t even know their names. You maybe know their dogs’ names. And people are like, “Oh yeah, that’s totally it.” But they also feel really validated because we have these feelings about our relationship with our dogs, and some people tell us that we’re crazy. Some people say that we’re making it up. And what people are finding in the book is that there’s actually a ton of really rigorous scientific research to support them having those feelings that they already have. So it’s this great way of being like, “Yes, I’m not crazy. My dog really does love me back. This really is as deep as I feel like it is.” So that’s been a great response that I wasn’t necessarily expecting that’s what it would be.

Rovner: Well, good. Well, Jen Golbeck, thank you for the book. Thank you for all you do. Thank you for what you do for golden retrievers and for the rest of us dog lovers out in the community.

Golbeck: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Rovner: OK, we are back and it’s time for our extra-credit segment. That’s when we each recommend a story we read this week we think you should read, too. As always, don’t worry if you miss it. We will post the links on the podcast page at and in our show notes on your phone or other mobile device. Alice, why don’t you go first this week?

Ollstein: Yes. I chose a really upsetting and important investigation by my colleague Ariel Wittenberg. It hits at the intersection of health, labor, climate. It’s about mail carriers around the country who are dying from heat exposure. This is actually killing more male carriers than car crashes or dog bites or any of the things you think of being the hazards of that job. And not only is this happening amid soaring temperatures in the summers in a lot of places in the South, but the Postal Service is not following its own rules for training workers on how to notice the signs of dangerous heat exposure and take steps to protect themselves. And not only are they lying, according to these documents she obtained about having done these trainings, they are pressuring these workers to move faster, to not take breaks because of the competition from other private delivery services like Amazon. So really, really important piece.

Rovner: Yeah, and I think also important for everybody who works outside, with climate change. Riley, why don’t you go next?

Griffin: Yes, my colleague Robert Langreth also has a story in this week’s Bloomberg Businessweek issue, and it is titled “The Next Blockbuster Drug Might Be Made in Space.” It’s a fun one. It describes how companies, including Big Pharma names like Eli Lilly, are using microgravity to develop drugs and improve formulations of existing blockbusters. So it’s a fun read. You can find it in print or online.

Rovner: Not everything in tech is bad. Lauren.

Griffin: Not everything is bad.

Weber: I’m continuing the trend of shouting-out my colleagues this week. So a bunch of my colleagues had an investigation titled “Applesauce Lead Cases in Kids Surge Amid Questions on FDA Oversight.” And so we’ve all heard about these applesauce packets for toddlers and babies that were contaminated with lead, but the official FDA numbers say it’s only like 60-something cases, but my colleagues called around the state health departments and they believe it’s at least suspected in over 118 cases, potentially more, which leads to the question of how widespread is all of this.

It lends itself to the questions of: Is the FDA’s oversight enough, especially when it comes to baby food? This is not the first baby food issue we’ve obviously had in the last couple years. It really is just a horror story for everyone. I mean, you’re just trying to feed your kids stuff that they like and then they’re sucking on something that could damage their brain development and hurt them for years to come. Really heart-rending storyline, and my colleagues did a great job showing that this is much further-reaching than has been previously disclosed.

Rovner: So another continuing theme of this year, the FDA’s regulation of food as opposed to the FDA’s regulation of drugs and how that sometimes falls by the wayside. Well, my story is also from The Washington Post, by Kent Babb. It’s called “They Watched Their Husbands Win the Heisman — Then Lost Them to CTE.” And it’s a really wrenching story about how the very best players in college football have something else in common besides athletic talent: That, over the years, more and more have joined the not-so-exclusive club of ex-players with brain injuries and related behavioral … excuse me. Over the years, more and more have joined the not-so-exclusive club of ex-players with brain injuries and related behavioral issues.

It’s the serious dark side of a sport that is so beloved in the United States, including by me, and that deserves not just a hard look but action to prevent some of these horrendous aftereffects.

OK, that is our show. As always, if you enjoy the podcast, you can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. We’d appreciate it if you left us a review; that helps other people find us, too. Special thanks, as always, to Francis Ying for his technical expertise and amazing patience. As always, you can email us your comments or questions. We’re at, or you can still find me at X, @jrovner, or @julierovner at Bluesky and Threads. Alice.

Ollstein: I’m @AliceOllstein on X and @alicemiranda on Bluesky.

Rovner: Lauren.

Weber: I’m @LaurenWeberHP on X and clearly need to improve the rest of my social media profiles.

Rovner: Riley.

Griffin: You can find me on Threads and X @rileyraygriffin.

Rovner: We will be back in your feed next week. Until then, be healthy.


Francis Ying Audio producer Emmarie Huetteman Editor

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Rift Over When to Use N95s Puts Health Workers at Risk Again Thu, 14 Dec 2023 10:00:00 +0000 Three years after more than 3,600 health workers died of covid-19, occupational safety experts warn that those on the front lines may once again be at risk if the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention takes its committee’s advice on infection control guidelines in health care settings, including hospitals, nursing homes, and jails. In early November, the committee released a controversial set of recommendations the CDC is considering, which would update those established some 16 years ago.

The pandemic illustrated how a rift between the CDC and workplace safety officials can have serious repercussions. Most recently, the giant hospital system Sutter Health in California appealed a citation from the state’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, known as Cal/OSHA, by pointing to the CDC’s shifting advice on when and whether N95 masks were needed at the start of the pandemic. By contrast, Cal/OSHA requires employers in high-risk settings like hospitals to improve ventilation, use air filtration, and provide N95s to all staff exposed to diseases that are — or may be — airborne.

The agencies are once again at odds. The CDC’s advisory committee prescribes varying degrees of protection based on ill-defined categories, such as whether a virus or bacteria is considered common or how far it seems to travel in the air. As a result, occupational safety experts warn that choices on how to categorize covid, influenza, and other airborne diseases — and the corresponding levels of protection — may once again be left to administrators at hospitals, nursing homes, and jails or prisons.

Eric Berg, deputy chief of health at Cal/OSHA, warned the CDC in November that, if it accepted its committee’s recommendations, the guidelines would “create confusion and result in workers being not adequately protected.”

Also called respirators, N95 masks filter out far more particles than looser-fitting surgical masks but cost roughly 10 times as much, and were in short supply in 2020. Black, Hispanic, and Asian health workers more often went without N95 masks than white staffers, which helped explain why members of racial and ethnic minorities tested positive for covid nearly five times as often as the general population in the early months of the pandemic. (Hispanic people can be of any race or combination of races.)

Cal/OSHA issued dozens of citations to health care facilities that failed to provide N95 masks and take other measures to protect workers in 2020 and 2021. Many appealed, and some cases are ongoing. In October, the agency declined Sutter’s appeal against a $6,750 citation for not giving its medical assistants N95 masks in 2020 when they accompanied patients who appeared to have covid through clinics. Sutter pointed to the CDC’s advice early in the pandemic, according to court testimony. It noted that the CDC called surgical masks an “acceptable alternative” in March 2020, “seemed to recommend droplet precautions rather than airborne precautions,” and suggested that individuals were unlikely to be infected if they were farther than 6 feet away from a person with covid.

This is a loose interpretation of the CDC’s 2020 advice, which was partly made for reasons of practicality. Respirators were in short supply, for example, and physical distancing beyond 6 feet is complicated in places where people must congregate. Scientifically, there were clear indications that the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 spread through the air, leading Cal/OSHA to enact its straightforward rules created after the 2009 swine flu pandemic. Workers need stiffer protection than the general population, said Jordan Barab, a former official at the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration: “Health workers are exposed for eight, 10, 12 hours a day.”

The CDC’s advisory committee offers a weaker approach in certain cases, suggesting that health workers wear surgical masks for “common, often endemic respiratory pathogens” that “spread predominantly over short distances.” The draft guidance pays little attention to ventilation and air filtration, and advises N95 masks only for “new or emerging” diseases and those that spread “efficiently over long distances.” Viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens that spread through the air don’t neatly fit into such categories.

“Guidelines that are incomplete, weak, and without scientific basis will greatly undermine CDC’s credibility,” said a former OSHA director, David Michaels, in minutes from an October meeting where he and others urged CDC Director Mandy Cohen to reconsider advice from the committee before it issues final guidance next year.

Although occupational safety agencies — not the CDC — have the power to make rules, enforcement often occurs long after the damage is done, if ever. Cal/OSHA began to investigate Sutter only after a nurse at its main Oakland hospital died from covid and health workers complained they weren’t allowed to wear N95 masks in hallways shared with covid patients. And more than a dozen citations from Cal/OSHA against Kaiser Permanente, Sharp HealthCare, and other health systems lagged months and years behind health worker complaints and protests.

Outside California, OSHA faces higher enforcement obstacles. A dwindling budget left the agency with fewer workplace inspectors than it had in 45 years, at the peak of the pandemic. Plus, the Trump and Biden administrations stalled the agency’s ongoing efforts to pass regulations specific to airborne infections. As a result, the agency followed up on only about 1 in 5 covid-related complaints that employees and labor representatives officially filed with the group from January 2020 to February 2022 — and just 4% of those made informally through media reports, phone calls, and emails. Many deaths among health care workers weren’t reported to the agency in the first place.

Michaels, who is now on the faculty at the George Washington University School of Public Health, said the CDC would further curtail OSHA’s authority to punish employers who expose staff members to airborne diseases, if its final guidelines follow the committee’s recommendations. Such advice would leave many hospitals, correctional facilities, and nursing homes as unprepared as they were before the pandemic, said Deborah Gold, a former deputy chief of health at Cal/OSHA. Strict standards prompt employers to stockpile N95 masks and improve air filtration and ventilation to avoid citations. But if the CDC’s guidance leaves room for interpretation, she said, they can justify cutting corners on costly preparation.

Although the CDC committee and OSHA both claim to follow the science, researchers arrived at contradictory conclusions because the committee relied on explicitly flawed trials comparing health workers who wore surgical masks with those using N95s. Cal/OSHA based its standards on a variety of studies, including reviews of hospital infections and engineering research on how airborne particles spread.

In decades past, the CDC’s process for developing guidelines included labor representatives and experts focused on hazards at work. Barab was a health researcher at a trade union for public sector employees when he helped the CDC develop HIV-related recommendations in the 1980s.

“I remember asking about how to protect health care workers and correction officers who get urine or feces thrown at them,” Barab said. Infectious disease researchers on the CDC’s committee initially scoffed at the idea, he recalled, but still considered his input as someone who understood the conditions employees faced. “A lot of these folks hadn’t been on hospital floors in years, if not decades.”

The largest organization for nurses in the United States, National Nurses United, made the same observation. It’s now collecting signatures for an online petition urging the CDC to scrap the committee’s guidelines and develop new recommendations that include insights from health care workers, many of whom risked their lives in the pandemic.

Barab attributed the lack of labor representation in the CDC’s current process to the growing corporate influence of large health systems. Hospital administrators prefer not to be told what to do, particularly when it requires spending money, he said.

In an email, CDC communications officer Dave Daigle stressed that before the guidelines are finalized, the CDC will “review the makeup of the workgroups and solicit participation to ensure that the appropriate expertise is included.”

This article was produced by KFF Health News, formerly known as Kaiser Health News (KHN), a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF — the independent source for health policy research, polling, and journalism. 

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.


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Watch: Journalist Explores the Health Challenges and Costs Gunshot Survivors Face Sat, 09 Dec 2023 10:00:00 +0000 KFF Health News senior correspondent Liz Szabo described how being a victim of gun violence affects kids’ health in the long term on Spectrum News 1’s “LA Times Today” show on Dec. 6.

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.


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Readers Slam Hospital Monopolies and Blame the Feds for Understaffed Nursing Homes Wed, 06 Dec 2023 10:00:00 +0000 Letters to the Editor is a periodic feature. We welcome all comments and will publish a selection. We edit for length and clarity and require full names.

Why Hospital Monopolies Are a Bad Idea

I recently read the article about Ballad Health by Brett Kelman and Samantha Liss regarding the Mountain States Health Alliance and Wellmont Health System merging to create Ballad Health, upon state approval (“These Appalachia Hospitals Made Big Promises to Gain a Monopoly. They’re Failing to Deliver,” Sept. 29). Well, it was approved, and here is another reason that monopolies are a bad idea. My husband is a teacher in Tennessee, and it complicated our open enrollment selections for 2024 insurance. We have used BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, a widely selected insurer in our state. We were sent notification that Ballad Health and BCBST were in negotiations and that there was a high probability that Ballad will soon be an out-of-network provider for those with BCBST plans. Luckily, the school district offers Cigna insurance as well, but not all providers accept that insurance (as I said, BCBST is a huge insurer in this area).

Please explain to me how it is OK for a monopoly to decide not to be in-network with any health plans. They should be required to be in-network with any insurer from this area. I find this very upsetting. I shouldn’t have to worry that if a catastrophic event were to happen that my insurance coverage would be reduced to 60%-40% from 80%-20%, all because my only option for emergency care (Ballad) chose not to negotiate with the largest insurance provider in my area. Just food for thought.

— Kimberly Ensor, Johnson City, Tennessee

On X, formerly known as Twitter, a user whose tagline is “a one-woman wrecking ball” had this to say about nursing home worker shortages:

This is DEVASTATING! If CMS is saying they cannot identify a safe nursing staff level for residents than how can surveyors hold homes accountable? It ain't happening anyway. Biden's policy is WEAK. CMS is a joke. The gov't is throwing away $. Wash & repeat

— Politics, Policies & Pop Culture ✍️ (@out2sea90210) August 29, 2023

— Ashley Thomas, Cleveland, Ohio

The Crisis of Understaffed Nursing Homes

I wanted to thank you for providing a platform for discussion of nursing home staffing (“Exclusive: CMS Study Sabotages Efforts to Bolster Nursing Home Staffing, Advocates Say,” Aug. 29). As a nursing student entering my final semester at SUNY Downstate, I have seen firsthand the destitute conditions of understaffed nursing homes. Staffing ratios are abysmal and, as I see it, the only solution for the well-being of nursing home residents is a responsible staff-to-resident ratio.

I wholeheartedly agreed with the sentiment of the article: The Abt Associates study was a shameful attempt to undermine the movement toward standardized staffing ratios at nursing homes. People become residents at nursing homes for many reasons, but the fact is they are there, above all, because they need specialized care, which these homes need nurses to provide — services such as ventilator care, tube feedings, medication, continuous monitoring, and frequent interventions to prevent pressure injuries, and so much more. There is something terribly wrong when nursing homes cannot provide the services that define them, especially when families and residents depend on them to do so.

I do think there were some missed opportunities in the article. For example, Jordan Rau writes that “immobile residents are not repositioned in bed, causing bedsores that can lead to infection.” While this statement is true, it is rather vague. Infections are a life-threatening risk associated with pressure injuries, but the sores themselves are grotesque and painful, a point I think should have been included to emphasize the injustice of allowing pressure injuries to develop and worsen. Health care workers should make every effort to prevent them. And nurses should understand their roles as advocates in being a voice for patients who are unable to speak for themselves.

It’s easy for the public to imagine the residents of nursing homes as homogenous and stereotypical elderly people who have been forgotten as they became burdensome, which is not only false, but actively harmful and agist. People of all ages and backgrounds live in nursing homes, and their needs are as diverse as they are themselves. The only universal commonality they have is that they live in nursing homes and need respect, dignity, care, and an adequate number of nurses and staff to protect these needs.

— Tara L. Clark, Freeport, New York

A union activist who supports a national single-payer health system also weighed in on X:

CMS is the agency that is supposed to protect patients. But CMS, instead, follows the bidding of the nursing home industry. Shame! This is the same agency that presides over handing Medicare to the for-profit industry.

— Kay Tillow (@KayTillow) August 29, 2023

— Kay Tillow, Louisville, Kentucky

Avoiding Financial Ruin for Aging Elders

As Jordan Rau and Reed Abelson identify (“Facing Financial Ruin as Costs Soar for Elder Care,” Nov. 14), too many of today’s older adults are falling through the cracks. They may struggle with daily activities and declining health but don’t necessarily need 24/7 nursing home care.

Within the patchwork of long-term care, the Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly is underutilized. PACE offers integrated care through its campus-based model, where participants can receive comprehensive, coordinated medical care and social services in a combined Medical Clinic and Day Center, while also receiving at-home support with essential tasks like dressing, bathing, and eating.

This care is free to our dually eligible participants who are never saddled with copays, out-of-pocket costs, or deductibles. PACE has saved states thousands annually per participant. Further, participants are grateful to stay at home and remain engaged with family and friends.

PACE acts as a critical safety net for low-income seniors, so they and their families aren’t forced into financial ruin. For those not Medicaid-eligible, it costs less than the nursing home alternative.

To close our system’s gaps and lower spending, programs like PACE need to become a more prominent part of the discussion. Policymakers should expand access to PACE services so more people can benefit from this successful model of senior care.

— Richard Fish, CEO of One Senior Care, Erie, Pennsylvania

JoAnne Dyer echoed the dire warning about the draining cost of long-term care in an X post:

Something scary that you're probably not thinking about but you probably should be thinking about. Long-term care can bankrupt you. Yes, you. You with your savings account and your 401k.

— JoAnne Dyer (@7Madronas) November 15, 2023

— JoAnne Dyer, Seattle

More Power to Suzanne Somers

Age 76 is pretty long to fight an aggressive, metastatic breast cancer without chemotherapy (“Suzanne Somers’ Legacy Tainted by Celebrity Medical Misinformation,” Oct. 18). I’d say Suzanne Somers proved her point! None of us lives forever. I got a lumpectomy in 2015 and refused tamoxifen. Chemotherapy wasn’t needed. I refuse mammograms and gynecology. I am doing well. I found Ms. Somers’ book on cancer, called “Knockout,” very informative. I didn’t buy into the supplements angle, but it empowered me in my own fight, when there were no answers, to ask questions and research. Quality of life is more important.

— Kerry McCracken, Milan, Illinois

A Las Vegas reader reacted on X to the same article published by the Los Angeles Times, one of California Healthline’s media partners:

Ruthless Progressives and their corporate media trolls will continue to hate you long after you're dead and buried. #hate #corporatemedia #disinformation

— Grant David Gillham 🐎🗡️🌊🛩🔫🇲🇽🏍⛳🎸 (@CaptG2) October 19, 2023

— Grant David Gillham, Las Vegas

Over-the-Counter Narcan a Big Leap for Humankind

Thank you for sharing your article highlighting barriers to accessing Narcan (“Narcan, Now Available Without a Prescription, Can Still Be Hard to Get,” Oct. 6). While some experts have questioned the significance of making Narcan available over the counter, I firmly believe this development is a major milestone in our ongoing battle against opioid-related fatalities.

One may argue that this change is merely a “tiny, tiny baby step” and not deserving of applause; however, I would contend that every positive change, no matter how small or late in the game, is a vital part of a larger solution. Making Narcan available without a prescription is a tangible acknowledgment of the urgency of the opioid crisis and a recognition of the need for swift, accessible interventions.

Narcan’s OTC status can help reduce the stigma surrounding opioid overdose and encourage open conversations about addiction and harm reduction. It sends a message that saving lives is a priority, and it encourages individuals to be prepared to act in emergencies.

Still, there are certainly challenges related to affordability of OTC Narcan. While $45 isn’t an ideal price tag, community groups, first responders, state and local governments, and harm reduction groups — many of whom may purchase Narcan in bulk — can buy Narcan for a cheaper price, $41 per two-dose carton.

It is also important to continue educating pharmacists on the use of Narcan. Only 19 states require that pharmacists complete a training course prior to dispensing naloxone in any capacity. All pharmacists, especially those located in areas with high rates of opioid deaths, need to be firmly equipped with the necessary information on administering Narcan to be a trusted source among the public. Provider education is a key steppingstone to improving access.

Narcan’s OTC availability represents a positive shift in our approach to combating opioid overdoses, and it is a step that deserves acknowledgment and support. Let us not underestimate the impact of this change and continue working toward a future where every person has access to the tools they need to prevent opioid-related fatalities.

— Sana Imam, master’s student at George Washington University, Washington, D.C.

The HIV Prevention Trials Network chimed in on X:

As an over-the-counter product, Narcan ideally would appear on store shelves in the same way as ibuprofen and cough medication.

— HPTN (@HIVptn) October 11, 2023

A ‘Hit Piece’ on Rival Hospital Systems

I recently read your article of a couple of years ago comparing for-profit versus nonprofit medical schools (“Montana Med School Clash Revives For-Profit Vs. Nonprofit Flap,” June 7, 2021). I am an anesthesiologist with 24 years of experience, and almost every health care institution or hospital has become for-profit. In fact, most anesthesiology groups are managed by corporations like NorthStar Anesthesia, U.S. Anesthesia Partners, etc. Hospitals have merged into gigantic multibillion-dollar corporations like Ascension, Universal Health Services, HCA Healthcare, and CHI Health.

So why is it so bad to have a for-profit medical school, exactly? Almost every aspect of modern health care has become for-profit, and those nonprofit institutions have colluded with larger systems to shut down smaller hospitals. So this clearly is a “hit piece” on the for-profit educational system by their competitor, Touro College and University System.

I am one of the few doctors truly trained in a nonprofit — called the U.S. Army, where I did my residency in anesthesiology at Brooke Army Medical Center. This is quite an uninformed and unreasonable article, especially given the state of the corporate health care industry that is pervasive in our country. When I left the military for private practice, I could not believe what was being passed for elective surgery outside the military.

So let’s not get the pot and kettle confused here. Calling out a for-profit medical school in an era dominated by large multibillion-dollar health care corporations is certainly the pot calling the kettle black. And the rural Montana area is just as much of a deserving area for any medical school — for-profit or nonprofit — as the rural state of West Virginia, where I practice.

— Lance R. Hoover, Morgantown, West Virginia

Medicare Cuts Harm Seniors’ Access to Physical Therapy Care

It’s disheartening to hear stories of physical therapists who are increasingly struggling to afford their training and cost of living while facing lower pay (“Back Pain? Bum Knee? Be Prepared to Wait for a Physical Therapist,” Nov. 21). No one should have to give up their dream of being a physical therapist because they worry the pay is unsustainable — especially at a time when many patients already have limited access to therapy care.

Unfortunately, that’s the reality for many — especially since the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services recently finalized yet another year of steep payment cuts to physical, occupational, and speech therapy in its recently released Medicare Physician Fee Schedule Final Rule for CY 2024.

CMS’ final rule includes a troubling pay cut of at least 3.4% to therapy providers in 2024. But in some geographic regions, that cut could be as high as over 4% because of the highly technical formula CMS uses to determine reimbursement. Not only will this cut weaken the pipeline of new physical therapists entering the field, but it will also put significant financial strain on physical therapists currently practicing, hurting retention, and potentially leading to practice closings, which all negatively impact patient access to physical therapy.

Physical therapy care is a critically important non-pharmacological treatment option for our nation’s aging population. It helps patients manage pain, improve mobility, and protect their independence, while avoiding reliance on powerful painkillers and preventing potentially deadly falls. It even saves CMS money: On average, Medicare spending for beneficiaries who receive physical therapy as the first treatment option is 75% lower than the total average spending for Medicare patients who undergo surgery first.

Though it’s disappointing that CMS did not listen to the patient and provider communities when finalizing yet more cuts, there’s still time for Congress to act. I urge our lawmakers on Capitol Hill to work together and swiftly reverse the serious cuts in the new rule to help stabilize our nation’s health care system and expand access to physical therapy care for patients.

— Nikesh Patel, executive director of the Alliance for Physical Therapy Quality and Innovation (APTQI), Washington, D.C.

This article was produced by KFF Health News, formerly known as Kaiser Health News (KHN), a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF — the independent source for health policy research, polling, and journalism. 

Grassroots College Networks Distribute Emergency Contraceptives on Campus Wed, 06 Dec 2023 10:00:00 +0000 Limya Harvey and Cydney Mumford set up a folding table a few times a month on the University of Texas-San Antonio campus to give away kits containing emergency contraceptives, condoms, and lube, or menstrual products like tampons and pads. They typically bring 50 of each type of kit, and after just an hour or two everything is gone.

The 19-year-old sophomores — Harvey is enrolled at UTSA and Mumford at Northeast Lakeview College — founded the organization Black Book Sex Ed last spring. Their mission is to educate students and others in need about sexual health and connect them with free services and products packaged into kits they distribute on campus, in the community, and through their website.

“Both of us grew up rather lower-income,” Mumford said, “so there’s a soft spot as it relates to people who say, ‘Oh, I just don’t have it right now.’ That’s part of the reason we started doing this.”

Harvey and Mumford aren’t alone. A growing number of students on college campuses nationwide are stepping in to provide other students with free or low-cost emergency contraceptives, birth control, and menstrual products.

They are also pushing back against threats to their reproductive freedom since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision last year, which eliminated federal abortion protections.

Although emergency contraceptives are legal in every state, some policymakers worry that in states that ban or severely restrict abortion, access to emergency contraceptives and other types of birth control may erode because of people failing to distinguish between drugs that prevent pregnancy and medications used for abortions.

“Our requests for help have quadrupled since Dobbs,” said Kelly Cleland, the executive director of the American Society for Emergency Contraception, which provides toolkits and technical assistance to help students develop what are becoming known as peer-to-peer distribution networks. Those student networks provide emergency contraceptives and bring vending machines to their campuses that carry the medications and other personal health care products. The organization has worked with students at more than 200 campuses.

Many types of emergency contraceptive pills are available over the counter and without age restrictions. Students who distribute them are generally not putting themselves at legal risk, especially if they ensure the products are in their original packaging and haven’t expired and refrain from providing medical advice, Cleland said. It’s like giving a friend a Tylenol, one advocate explained.

“It’s really growing and a really interesting new route for people to get what they need in trusted ways, especially in Texas and other states where there are repercussions from the Dobbs decision,” said Mara Gandal-Powers, director of birth control access at the National Women’s Law Center.

Like those of many student groups, Harvey and Mumford’s kits contain products — emergency contraceptive pills, tampons, lube, etc. — donated by nonprofits and companies. Black Book Sex Ed accepts financial donations as well and uses the money to buy items at big-box stores.

The University of Texas-San Antonio didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Across the country, at Bowie State University in Maryland, a graduate student took a different approach to improving student access to contraceptives.

What started as a class project last year for Jakeya Johnson’s master’s degree program in public administration and policy, eventually became state law.

Starting next year, the measure will require many Maryland public colleges to provide round-the-clock access to emergency contraception and develop a comprehensive plan to ensure students have access to all FDA-approved forms of birth control, plus abortion services.

As part of her project, Johnson, 28, started researching the availability of reproductive health care at Bowie State, and she quickly learned that options were somewhat limited. When she called the health center, she was told that emergency contraception was available only to students who went through counseling first and that, while the college prescribed birth control, there was no pharmacy on campus where students could fill their prescriptions. She proposed that the school install a vending machine stocked with emergency contraceptives, condoms, pregnancy tests, and other sexual health products. But college officials told her they didn’t have money for the machines. Her research showed that students at other colleges in Maryland faced similar roadblocks.

So, Johnson approached state Delegate Ariana Kelly, now a state senator, about introducing a bill that would require schools to provide access to emergency contraceptives and other contraceptive services.

The bill, which was signed in May, requires the schools to provide the services by August 2024.

“There was definitely some pushback” from conservative legislators during the process, Johnson said. Although the final bill didn’t include requirements for transportation services or school reporting that Johnson wanted, she was heartened by the amount of support the bill received from parents and students.

In the spring, Johnson received a public service fellowship from the University System of Maryland that has enabled her to work with her student health center to develop a blueprint for Bowie State that other schools can follow, she said.

“It’s something that in 2023 we shouldn’t have to be fighting for,” she said.” We should already have it.”

“The legislation was confirmation and affirmation of the direction we were headed anyway,” said Michele Richardson, director of the Henry Wise Wellness Center at Bowie State. She noted that the school is in the process of bringing to campus wellness vending machines, which will be installed by August.

But increasing access is more challenging elsewhere.

At Loyola University Chicago, a Jesuit college, members of the organization Students for Reproductive Justice aren’t permitted to host events on campus or reserve space in meeting rooms. The Loyola for Life group, which opposes abortion, faces no such restrictions.

While Loyola “welcomes an open exchange of ideas,” only registered student organizations that are “congruent with our values as a Jesuit, Catholic institution” can submit activity requests or reserve space on campus, said Matthew McDermott, a spokesperson for the university.

Oral contraceptives are provided only to students who need them for reasons unrelated to preventing pregnancy, and resident advisers are not permitted to distribute condoms or other forms of birth control.

“That’s where Students for Reproductive Justice comes in,” said Andi Beaudouin, 21, who for the past two years has overseen the group’s distribution of free emergency contraception. “We were like, ‘If the university isn’t going to do it then we will.’ Everyone deserves this and we don’t need to feel embarrassed or hesitant about getting the resources that we need.”

Beaudouin and other volunteers take orders for emergency contraception by email. They package pills with two pregnancy tests and some pads and liners in case of bleeding and hand off the kits to students either on campus or nearby. In the past two years, they’ve filled orders for more than 100 kits.

When the Supreme Court ruled in Dobbs, the number of requests skyrocketed, Beaudouin said. The group posted on Instagram pleading with students not to stockpile pills, because its supplies were very limited.

“People understood, but I felt really bad about it,” they said. (Beaudouin uses the pronoun they.)

Beaudouin doesn’t think university officials know that the reproductive health group distributes emergency contraceptives on campus. And Loyola for Life has picketed their off-campus condom distribution events, but it has gotten better since the reproductive health group asked them to stop, Beaudouin said.

Loyola for Life didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The national anti-abortion group Students for Life of America wouldn’t object to students distributing free pregnancy tests and menstrual products, said Kate Maloney, manager of the group’s Campaign for Abortion Free Cities. But they would object to distribution of emergency contraception, which they claim is an abortion-causing drug.

Still, the reproductive justice groups shouldn’t be prohibited from operating on campus, Maloney said. “We’re not going to say whether a group should be denied the right to exist,” she said, “because that has happened a lot to us.”

This article was produced by KFF Health News, formerly known as Kaiser Health News (KHN), a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF — the independent source for health policy research, polling, and journalism. 

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.


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Watch and Listen: Opioid Settlement Case Triggers Protests Outside the High Court Tue, 05 Dec 2023 19:40:00 +0000 The Supreme Court heard a case this week about who could claim bankruptcy protection from civil lawsuits. The case stems from the opioid epidemic and lawsuits brought by state and local governments against the companies that made, sold, or distributed prescription painkillers — in this instance, Purdue Pharma, which marketed OxyContin.

The company filed for bankruptcy and agreed to pay settlements to governments, as well as individual victims of the opioid crisis. That bankruptcy provided Purdue Pharma liability protection from future civil cases about opioids. The family behind this company, the Sacklers, did not seek bankruptcy but requested the same liability protections.

Family members have offered to pay $6 billion from their personal fortune into the settlement, but only if they’re given immunity. It’s this stipulation that the Department of Justice opposes.

KFF Health News senior correspondent Aneri Pattani went to the site of the protests outside the Supreme Court building and talked to advocates and people affected by the opioid crisis to get their take on the case. She also was interviewed on WBUR’s “Here & Now.”

This article was produced by KFF Health News, formerly known as Kaiser Health News (KHN), a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF — the independent source for health policy research, polling, and journalism. 

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.


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Explosive DeSantis-Newsom Debate Reflects Nation’s Culture Wars Fri, 01 Dec 2023 14:15:00 +0000 Fox News officially titled it “The Great Red vs. Blue State Debate.” But the faceoff quickly turned into a full-out political brawl between Gavin Newsom, California’s Democratic governor who isn’t running for president; and Ron DeSantis, the Florida Republican governor who is, and is not gaining ground against former President Donald Trump in voter polls.

The event was held in Alpharetta, Georgia, aired on Fox News, and moderated by Sean Hannity. Our PolitiFact partners examined the two state officials’ wide-ranging statements. You can read the full coverage here.

Newsom has relished taunting DeSantis on social media and Fox News and, earlier this year, he invited DeSantis to debate — arguing that the red-state policies DeSantis has passed are stripping Americans of their freedoms. DeSantis counters that he is the stronger defender of freedom, and has blasted California as “the petri dish for American leftism” and argues that “everything [President Joe] Biden is doing, they would accelerate.”

True to the event’s billing, the nation’s culture wars were front and center on the debate stage. DeSantis portrayed California as a failed state with rampant crime and homelessness led by an “elite” politician too liberal for the rest of the country. “They have failed because of his leftist ideology,” DeSantis said.

Newsom shot back, playing up California’s immense economy and describing his state as one without peer. He expressed his commitment to Biden’s reelection. He also called out DeSantis for his covid-19 policies, saying more Floridians died of covid due to his more relaxed public health rules: “Tens of thousands of people lost their lives and for what, Ron?”

Abortion was a clear flashpoint. Newsom defended California’s strong abortion protections and attacked DeSantis, alleging he “criminalizes” women and doctors. He also suggested that if DeSantis became president, he would further roll back abortion rights nationwide. Newsom, asked by Hannity if he would sign a law banning abortion later in pregnancy, argued that such cases are extremely rare.

“I trust the mother and her doctor to make that decision,” he said.

The two also sparred over book bans, parental rights, and policies regarding the LGBTQ+ community.

DeSantis criticized Newsom on California’s growing homelessness, which he said contributed to the “destruction of qualify of life” in the state.

Newsom pointed out that the crisis has been brewing for decades. He noted, though, that under his leadership, billions of dollars in taxpayer money has been directed toward countering homelessness. He also boasted about the state’s investments in mental health and addiction programs.

“The difference is I’m the first governor in California history to take this head-on,” Newsom said, arguing that under his policies 68,000 people have been moved off the streets and into shelter or housing.

Here are the health-related claims PolitiFact examined:

Covid-19 Lockdowns

Newsom borrowed a page from Trump’s playbook by misleadingly portraying DeSantis as a lockdown leader. Newsom’s comments focused on DeSantis’ actions in the pandemic’s first few weeks, when nearly all governors operated in lockstep. Newsom omits that DeSantis reopened earlier than most governors in spring 2020.

“You passed an emergency declaration before the state of California did,” Newsom said. “You closed down your beaches, your bars, your restaurants. It is a fact.”

Many local governments closed beaches for a limited time, but DeSantis did not close them statewide.

DeSantis issued an executive order on March 17, 2020, directing Floridians to “limit their gatherings” at beaches to no more than 10 people and to “support beach closures at the discretion of local authorities.”

He also ordered beaches in Broward and Palm Beach counties to close for 11 days, following recommendations from local officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The governor’s refusal to close most beaches to spring break crowds drew heavy criticism and litigation.

Newsom was on firmer ground in his claim about closing bars. DeSantis ordered all bars and nightclubs closed for 30 days. Restaurants did not close. His March 17 order said restaurants were limited to 50% customer capacity and had to separate seating by 6 feet.

Governors nationwide issued multiple orders in March 2020 in response to the pandemic. DeSantis issued an order March 1 to establish covid response protocol and direct a public health emergency. On March 4, Newsom declared a state of emergency to help California prepare for the pandemic.

Florida’s Abortion Limits and DeSantis’ Abortion Survivor Story

As Hannity pressed Newsom on whether he supported any abortion restrictions, Newsom attacked Florida’s abortion laws.

“He signed a bill banning any exceptions for rape and incest,” Newsom said of DeSantis. “And then he said it didn’t go far enough and decided to sign a six-week ban … that criminalizes women and criminalizes doctors.”

DeSantis signed legislation in 2022 that outlawed abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. It does not make exceptions for cases of incest, rape or human trafficking but includes an exception for a mother’s life.

DeSantis signed a stricter bill in April that bans abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. Whether the law takes effect hinges on how the Florida Supreme Court rules in a lawsuit against the current 15-week ban. The 2023 law does contain exceptions, including to save a pregnant woman’s life or in cases of fatal fetal anomalies. Abortions for pregnancies involving rape, incest, or human trafficking would be allowed until 15 weeks of pregnancy if a woman has documentation such as a restraining order, police report, or medical record.

The law penalizes physicians, but whether it also criminalizes women is less clear, so we have rated a similar claim Half True. The law says that anyone who “actively participates in” an abortion commits a third-degree felony, which opens the door to prosecutors charging women, but we don’t yet know whether they will or how courts would respond to such charges. DeSantis has also said that he doesn’t want women prosecuted, only doctors.

Defending the law, DeSantis repeated an anecdote from the first GOP presidential debate about a Floridian named Penny Hopper. Miriam “Penny” Hopper is a real person, and an anti-abortion activist. Some of the details about her birth story have been called into question.

Hopper said she survived an abortion attempt in Florida in 1955. Her claim has been featured by anti-abortion groups and used to support what abortion opponents call “born alive” bills in state legislatures, which aim to protect infants who survive abortions, even though there are federal laws for that purpose.

In interviews, Hopper has said she had been delivered around 23 weeks of gestation after her mother went to a hospital in Wauchula, Florida, while experiencing bleeding. Hopper said the doctor induced labor, and she was born at 1 pound, 11 ounces, and that the doctor told staff to discard her “dead or alive.” She said her grandmother found her the next day on the hospital porch in a bedpan. Then, Hopper said, a nurse volunteered to take her to a larger hospital that was about 40 miles away.

That a baby born at 23 weeks could survive overnight without medical attention in 1955 is medically dubious, experts said. From the 1950s through 1980, “newborn death was virtually ensured” for infants born at or before 24 weeks of gestation, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology says on its website.

The Washington Post also reported that contemporaneous newspaper accounts offer a different scenario at the hospital, and said the staff spent days keeping her alive before arranging a police escort to rush her to another hospital.

This article was produced by KFF Health News, formerly known as Kaiser Health News (KHN), a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF — the independent source for health policy research, polling, and journalism. 

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.


This story can be republished for free (details).

‘Forever Chemicals’ Found in Freshwater Fish, Yet Most States Don’t Warn Residents Fri, 01 Dec 2023 10:00:00 +0000 Bill Eisenman has always fished.

“Growing up, we ate whatever we caught — catfish, carp, freshwater drum,” he said. “That was the only real source of fish in our diet as a family, and we ate a lot of it.”

Today, a branch of the Rouge River runs through Eisenman’s property in a suburb north of Detroit. But in recent years, he has been wary about a group of chemicals known as PFAS, also referred to as “forever chemicals,” which don’t break down quickly in the environment and accumulate in soil, water, fish, and our bodies.

The chemicals have spewed from manufacturing plants and landfills into local ecosystems, polluting surface water and groundwater, and the wildlife living there. And hundreds of military bases have been pinpointed as sources of PFAS chemicals leaching into nearby communities.

Researchers, anglers, and environmental activists nationwide worry about the staggering amount of PFAS found in freshwater fish. At least 17 states have issued PFAS-related fish consumption advisories, California Healthline found, with some warning residents not to eat any fish caught in particular lakes or rivers because of dangerous levels of forever chemicals.

With no federal guidance, what is considered safe to eat varies significantly among states, most of which provide no regulation.

Eating a single serving of freshwater fish can be the equivalent of drinking water contaminated with high levels of PFAS for a month, according to a recent study from the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization that tracks PFAS. It’s an unsettling revelation, especially for rural, Indigenous, and low-income communities that depend on subsistence fishing. Fish remain a large part of cultural dishes, as well as an otherwise healthy source of protein and omega-3s.

“PFAS in freshwater fish is at such a concentration that for anyone consuming, even infrequently, it would likely be their major source of exposure over the course of the year,” said David Andrews, a co-author of the study and researcher at EWG. “We’re talking thousands of times higher than what’s typically seen in drinking water.”

Dianne Kopec, a researcher and faculty fellow at the University of Maine who studies PFAS and mercury in wildlife, warned that eating fish with high concentrations of PFAS may be more harmful than mercury, which long ago was found to be a neurotoxin most damaging to a developing fetus. The minimal risk level — an estimate of how much a person can eat, drink, or breathe daily without “detectable risk” to health — for PFOS, a common PFAS chemical, is 50 times as low as for methylmercury, the form of mercury that accumulates in fish, according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. But she emphasized, “They’re both really nasty.”

Just like mercury, PFAS bioaccumulate up the food chain, so bigger fish, like largemouth bass, generally contain more chemicals than smaller fish. Mercury is more widespread in Maine, but Kopec said PFAS levels near contamination sources are concerningly high.

‘Fishing Is a Way of Life’

The Ecology Center, an environmental group in Michigan, educates anglers about consumption advisories and related health impacts. But Erica Bloom, its toxics campaign director, noted that for many people out on the river, “fishing is a way of life.”

Eisenman participated in an Ecology Center community-based study published this year, which tested fish from Michigan’s Huron and Rouge rivers for PFAS that poured out from auto and other industry contamination. Across 15 sites, anglers caught 100 fish samples from a dozen species, and what they found scared him.

“There were no sites that registered zero,” said Eisenman, noting that some had significantly higher levels of chemicals than others. “You need to make a value judgment. I’m going to still eat fish, but I don’t know if that’s a good thing.”

Last year, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine published a sweeping federally funded report that associated PFAS exposure with health effects like decreased response to vaccines, cancer, and low birth weight.

There are thousands of PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, many of them used to make both household and industrial products stain-resistant or nonstick. They’re in fire-retardant foam used for decades by fire departments and the military, as well as in cookware, water-repellent clothing, carpets, food wrappers, and other consumer goods.

In late October, the EPA added hundreds of PFAS compounds to its list of “chemicals of special concern.” This will require manufacturers to report the presence of those PFAS chemicals in their products — even in small amounts or in mixtures — starting Jan. 1.

Sparse Testing Leaves Blind Spots

About 200 miles north of Detroit, in rural Oscoda, Michigan, state officials have warned against eating fish or deer caught or killed near the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base because of PFAS contamination.

“We have a 9-mile stretch of river system in which the state determined way back in 2012 that it wasn’t safe to even eat a single fish,” said Tony Spaniola, an advocate for communities affected by PFAS. He owns a home across a lake from the shuttered military site.

In Alaska, several lakes are designated catch and release only because of PFAS contamination from firefighting foam. A study by the U.S. Geological Survey and Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection released in August led to a warning to avoid eating fish from the Neshaminy Creek watershed.

Nationwide, use of firefighting foam and other PFAS-loaded products by the Department of Defense alone has led to the contamination of at least 359 military bases and communities that need to be cleaned up, with an additional 248 still under investigation as of June.

But many lakes and streams haven’t been tested for PFAS contamination, and researchers worry far more sites hold fish laced with high levels of PFAS.

Federal efforts to curb PFAS exposure have focused mostly on drinking water. Earlier this year, the EPA proposed the nation’s first PFAS drinking water standards, which would limit contamination from six types of chemicals, with levels for the two most common compounds, PFOA and PFOS, set at 4 parts per trillion.

But the EWG researchers found that one serving of fish can be equivalent to a month's worth of drinking water contaminated with 48 parts per trillion of PFOS.

Store-bought fish caught in the ocean, like imported Atlantic salmon and canned chunk tuna, appear to have lower PFAS levels, according to FDA research.

A biomonitoring project focused on the San Francisco Bay Area’s Asian and Pacific Islander community measured PFAS levels in the blood and found higher amounts of the compounds compared with national levels. The researchers also surveyed participants about their fish consumption and found that 56% of those who ate locally caught fish did so at least once a month.

Eating a fish’s fillet is often recommended, as it accumulates fewer chemicals than organs or eggs, but many participants reported eating other parts of the fish, too.

California is one of many states with no fish consumption advisories in place for PFAS. Jay Davis, senior scientist at the San Francisco Estuary Institute, said that’s in part because of “limited monitoring dollars” and a priority on legacy chemicals like PCBs as well as mercury left over in particularly high concentrations from gold and mercury mining.

Wesley Smith, a senior toxicologist with California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, said the state is reviewing the latest scientific literature but needs more data to develop an advisory that is “neither too restrictive nor too permissive.”

States like New Hampshire, Washington, Maine, and New Jersey have some of the most protective guidance, while other states, such as Maryland and Michigan, lag when it comes to designating fish unsafe to eat.

Advisory levels for at-risk groups — such as children and women of childbearing age — are usually lower, while “do not eat” thresholds for the general population range from 25.7 parts per billion in New Hampshire to 300 ppb in Michigan, 408 ppb in Maryland, and 800 ppb in Alabama.

“That’s wicked outdated to have levels that high and consider that safe for folks to eat,” said Kopec, the University of Maine researcher.

Though it is no longer made in the U.S., PFOS remains the most commonly found — and tested for — PFAS chemical in fish today.

The primary maker of PFOS, 3M, announced it would begin phasing the chemical out in 2000. This year, the company said it would pay at least $10.3 billion to settle a class-action lawsuit brought by public water system operators. But in July, attorneys general from 22 states asked the court to reject the settlement, saying it was insufficient to cover the damages.

The military first documented health concerns surrounding PFAS chemicals in the 1970s yet continued to use firefighting foam made with them. Mandated by Congress, the Defense Department was required to stop buying retardant containing PFAS by Oct. 1 and phase it out altogether by 2024. A recently published study linked testicular cancer among military personnel to PFOS.

Tackling Pollution at the Source

Pat Elder, an activist and director of the environmental advocacy group Military Poisons, has tested water for PFAS up and down the East Coast, including in Piscataway Creek, which drains from Joint Base Andrews, the home of Air Force One.

In 2021, after testing fish from Piscataway Creek, Maryland officials released the state’s sole PFAS fish consumption advisory to date. But Elder worries Maryland has not gone far enough to protect its residents.

“People eat the fish from this creek, and it creates an acute health hazard that no one seems to be paying attention to,” Elder said.

Since then, Maryland’s Department of the Environment has conducted more fish monitoring in water bodies near potential PFAS sources, as well as at spots regularly used by subsistence anglers, said spokesperson Jay Apperson. He added that the state plans to put out more advisories based on the results, though declined to give a timeline or share the locations.

Part of the challenge of getting the word out and setting location-specific consumption advisories is that contamination levels vary significantly from lake to lake, as well as species to species, said Brandon Reid, a toxicologist and the manager of Michigan’s Eat Safe Fish program.

Michigan set its screening values for fish consumption advisories in 2014, and the state is in the process of updating them within the next year, Reid said.

But to see the chemicals dip to healthier levels, the pollution needs to stop, too. There is hope: Andrews, the EWG researcher, compared EPA fish sample data from five years apart and found about a 30% drop on average in PFAS contamination.

Bloom has watched this cycle happen in the Huron River in southeastern Michigan, where PFAS chemicals upstream seeped into the water from a chrome plating facility. While the levels of PFAS in the water have slowly gone down, the chemicals remain, she said.

“It's very, very hard to completely clean up the entire river,” Bloom said. “If we don't tackle it at the source, we're going to just keep having to spend taxpayer money to clean it up and deal with fish advisories.”

This article was produced by KFF Health News, formerly known as Kaiser Health News (KHN), a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF — the independent source for health policy research, polling, and journalism. 

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.


This story can be republished for free (details).