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  • 23 Feb 2024 4:37 PM | Addie Thompson (Administrator)

    By Daniel Chang and Andy Miller | KFF Health News

    As a part-time customer service representative, Jolene Dybas earns less than $15,000 a year, which is below the federal poverty level and too low for her to be eligible for subsidized health insurance on the Obamacare marketplace.

    Dybas, 53, also does not qualify for Medicaid in her home state of Alabama because she does not meet the program requirements. She instead falls into a coverage gap and faces hundreds of dollars a month in out-of-pocket payments, she said, to manage multiple chronic health conditions.

    “I feel like I’m living in a state that doesn’t care for me,” said Dybas, a resident of Saraland, a suburb of Mobile.

    Alabama is one of 10 states that have refused to adopt the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid, the government health insurance program for people who are low-income or disabled.

    But lawmakers in Alabama and some other Southern states are reconsidering their opposition in light of strong public support for Medicaid expansion and pleas from powerful sectors of the health care industry, especially hospitals.

    Expansions are under consideration by Republican legislative leaders in Georgia and Mississippi, in addition to Alabama, raising the prospect that more than 600,000 low-income, uninsured people in those three states could gain coverage, according to KFF data.

    Since a 2012 Supreme Court ruling rendered the ACA’s Medicaid expansion optional, it has remained a divisive issue along party lines in some states. Political opposition has softened, in part because North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature voted last year to expand the program. Already, more than 346,000 residents of the Tar Heel State have gained coverage.

    And lawmakers in nearby states are taking notice.

    “There has certainly been a lot of discussion of late about Medicaid expansion,” said Georgia House Speaker Jon Burns, a Republican, in a speech to the state chamber of commerce shortly after the legislative session began on Jan. 8.

    “Expanding access to care for lower-income working families through a private option — in a fiscally responsible way that lowers premiums — is something we will continue to gather facts on in the House,” Burns said.

    In addition to Georgia, state House speakers in Alabama and Mississippi have indicated a new willingness to consider coverage expansion. All three states have experienced a large number of hospital closures, particularly in rural areas.

    Medicaid expansion has become “politically safer to consider,” said Frank Knapp, president of South Carolina’s Small Business Chamber of Commerce. In his state, Republican lawmakers are weighing whether to appoint a committee to study expansion.

    It’s the kind of momentum some health policy analysts view as a favorable shift in the political discourse about expanding access to care. And it comes as a new crop of conservative leaders grapple with their states’ persistently high rates of poor, uninsured adults.

    An additional incentive: Under President Joe Biden’s 2021 American Rescue Plan Act, the federal government pays newly expanded states an additional 5 percentage points in the matching rate for their regular Medicaid population for two years, which would more than offset the cost of expansion for that period.

    But even as new discussions take place in legislatures that once froze out any talk of Medicaid expansion, considerable obstacles remain. Republican Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, for example, still opposes expansion. And several nonexpansion states appear to have little to no momentum.

    “A lot of things need to come together in any given state to make things move,” said Robin Rudowitz, director of the Program on Medicaid and the Uninsured at KFF.

    Under Medicaid expansion, adults earning up to 138% of the federal poverty level, or about $35,600 for a family of three, qualify for coverage.

    Expansion has reduced uninsured rates in rural areas, improved access to care for low-income people, and lowered uncompensated care costs for hospitals and clinics, according to KFF analyses of studies from 2014 to 2021. In states that have refused to expand Medicaid, all of those challenges remain acute.

    Alabama’s legislative session began Feb. 6. Republican House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter has suggested that he’s open to debating options for increased coverage. So many hospitals are in “dire straits,” he said at a Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce meeting in January. “We’ve got to have the conversation.”

    Expansion could make as many as 174,000 uninsured people in Alabama eligible for coverage, according to KFF data. Still, Ledbetter prefers a public-private partnership model, and has looked at Arkansas’ program, which uses federal and state money to pay for commercial insurance plans on the Obamacare marketplace for people who would be eligible for Medicaid under expansion.

    In Alabama, lawmakers have introduced a plan that would levy a state tax on gaming revenue and could help fund health insurance coverage for adults with annual incomes up to 138% of the federal poverty level.

    Robyn Hyden, executive director of advocacy group Alabama Arise, which supports Medicaid expansion, has seen progress on efforts to increase coverage. “The devil’s going to be in the details,” she said.

    Mississippi’s new House speaker, Jason White, a Republican, has said he wants to protect hospitals and keep residents from seeking regular care through the emergency room. More than 120,000 uninsured people in Mississippi would become newly eligible for Medicaid under expansion, according to KFF data.

    White told KFF Health News in a written statement that improving access to health care is a priority for business leaders, community officials, and voters.

    “The desire to keep Mississippians in the workforce and out of the emergency room transcends any political party and is a vital component to a healthy workforce and a healthy economy,” he said. State legislators are determined to work with Reeves on the issue, he said.

    Burns, the Georgia House speaker, has said that he’s open to a proposal for an Arkansas-style plan. Republican Gov. Brian Kemp said he would reserve comment until after the legislative process, according to spokesperson Carter Chapman.

    He emphasized Kemp’s commitment to his recently launched plan requiring low-income adults to work, volunteer or receive schooling or vocational training for 80 hours a month in exchange for Medicaid coverage. As of mid-January, the cumulative enrollment was right around 3,000. Expansion could make at least 359,000 uninsured people in Georgia newly eligible for Medicaid, according to KFF data.

    In South Carolina, Republican lawmakers are considering legislation that would allow them to form a committee to study expansion. State Sen. Tom Davis, a Republican from Beaufort who sponsored the bill and previously opposed expanding Medicaid, said he’s not endorsing or opposing Medicaid expansion at this time.

    “We need to have a debate,” Davis said during a committee meeting in January.

    The state legislature would likely have to work with Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican, who, according to spokesperson Brandon Charochak, remains opposed to Medicaid expansion.

    North Carolina started enrolling residents under its expansion Dec. 1. They included Patrick Dunnagan, 38, of Raleigh. The former outdoor guide said he hasn’t been able to work for years because of kidney disease and chronic pain.

    He has relied on financial support from his family and said his medical debt stands at more than $5,000. Medicaid coverage will provide financial security.

    Dunnagan said people with chronic health conditions in nonexpansion states “are accumulating medical debt and not getting the care they need.”

    Bills proposed in Texas’ legislature didn’t get a vote last year. And the state doesn’t allow voter-initiated referendums, which have been a route to expansion in some Republican-led states. An estimated 1.2 million uninsured people would be eligible for coverage — more than in any other state still holding out — if Texas expanded.

  • 23 Feb 2024 4:36 PM | Addie Thompson (Administrator)

    CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Hospital care at home could stay a reality in South Carolina thanks to a new bill working through the State Legislature, and one Lowcountry hospital is hoping for just that.

    The bill’s sponsor, South Carolina Senator Tom Davis, says during the COVID-19 Pandemic, a lot of healthcare regulations were suspended, including the extent of care hospitals can offer at home.

    “COVID was sort of a whole experimental process, it pushed the envelope as to how can we do things differently, are these rules and regulations really necessary, can we do things and provide more options?” Davis says.

    Right now hospital care at home is still allowed, but Davis says they’re working against the clock to get Bill S.858 signed into law before the regulations come back.

    Roper and Berkeley Hospitals Regional President Troy Powell says their Hospital at Home Program typically offers care to patients with chronic conditions, or to patients recovering from surgery.

    A nurse or community paramedic will visit the patient’s home at least twice a day. The patient is also constantly monitored with a “biosticker,” which is a patch that collects data like blood pressure and oxygen saturation and feeds it back to a monitoring center, he says.

    Powell is hoping the bill is signed into law because hospital-at-home care produces better outcomes for patients by lessening the risk of infection, delirium, and falls.

    “Also, what the patients are reporting is much better. They’re much more comfortable being in their home, being able to eat their meals, not being woken up at all times of the night because we’re able to monitor it,” Powell says.

    After getting part of her colon removed, Tracy Marley received hospital-at-home care from Roper. She says she felt safe and confident she was in good hands.

    “It was tremendous, I got to sleep in my own bed, I wasn’t disturbed at night, I got to eat my own food,” she says.

    Davis says they’re holding subcommittee hearings on the bill next week and will hopefully get it on the Senate floor in the next three weeks. He says he’s optimistic to get the bill passed before adjourning in May.

    Copyright 2024 WCSC. All rights reserved.

  • 23 Feb 2024 4:35 PM | Addie Thompson (Administrator)

    South Carolina lawmakers are taking sweeping action to consolidate, with the goal to hopefully improve the delivery of health care services in the state.

    The SC Senate on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024 overwhelmingly gave final approval to a bill that restructures the giant Department of Health and Environmental Control, known as DHEC, by combining the state agency’s public health functions with those of five other health care agencies.

    The bill also creates a separate environmental division, which currently is a part of DHEC.

    “It’s all about improving healthcare outcomes for South Carolinians,” Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, told SC Public Radio.

    “The bill brings South Carolina’s delivery of public health services from the 20th century to the 21st century,” David added.

    If it becomes law, the measure calls for the following agencies to join with DHEC’s Division of Public Health: Commission on Aging, Alcohol and other Drug Abuse Services, Disability Services, Health and Human Services, and Mental Health.

    A new cabinet-level secretary, appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate, would run the new Executive Office of Health and Policy.

    For years, many state leaders have maintained that South Carolina’s delivery of health care and human services have been too fractured with little planning and cooperation among the involved agencies.

    The Senate approved bill was two years in the making.

    It followed dozens of public hearings and subcommittee meetings. It now goes to the S.C. House of Representatives where a similar bill is pending.

    Restructuring DHEC and the state’s healthcare services is one of the top priorities in this year’s General Assembly session.

  • 22 Feb 2024 12:55 PM | Addie Thompson (Administrator)

    New guardrails for Medicare Advantage plans' use of AI may not be clear enough, experts told members of the Senate Finance Committee. 

    CMS sent a message to Medicare Advantage plans Feb. 6, clarifying how new prior authorization rules set forth by the agency apply to AI. The agency wrote that AI programs can be used to assist in coverage determinations, but it is the plans' responsibility to "ensure that the algorithm or artificial intelligence complies with all applicable rules for how coverage determinations by MA organizations are made." 

    The agency will also up its auditing of denials in Medicare Advantage plans, according to the message. 

    Lawmakers have urged CMS to do more to regulate the use of AI by Medicare Advantage plans. The Senate Finance Committee held a hearing probing the use of AI in healthcare Feb. 8. 

    At the hearing, Michelle Mello, PhD, professor of health policy at Stanford University, told the committee CMS should implement more specific guidelines on requirements for meaningful human review of claims denied by algorithms. 

    "Audits by CMS need to look very closely, as I believe they intend to, at denials where algorithms were involved," Dr. Mello said. 

    UnitedHealthcare and Humana, the largest Medicare Advantage insurers, are facing lawsuits alleging they wrongfully denied members care using an AI-powered algorithm. A spokesperson for Optum, the UnitedHealth Group subsidiary that operates the algorithm, told Becker's the tool is not used to make coverage determinations. 

    A spokesperson for Humana told Becker's its augmented intelligence maintains a "human in the loop" whenever AI is used, and "adverse coverage decisions are only made by physician medical directors."

    Ziad Obermeyer, MD, Blue Cross of California Distinguished Associate Professor of Health Policy and Management at the University of California Berkeley, told the committee AI learns from historical data and can reinforce existing trends rather than improve them. 

    "[AI] trolls through millions of records, and sees there are some privileged people with great insurance who stay in nursing homes longer than they should, and there are also vulnerable, underinsured people who are often kicked out too early," Dr. Obermeyer said. "Rather than undoing that problem, the AI reinforces it and encodes it as policy." 

    Well-designed AI programs could make these decisions better than humans, Dr. Obermeyer said. 

    "It could look at the patient's X-ray, it could look at the public transportation in their neighborhood, it could look at the layout of their house, and integrate all those things into a far better judgment than a doctor is able to make on who needs to be in that nursing home and who doesn't," he said. 

    Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a frequent critic of Medicare Advantage, said CMS should prevent MA plans from using AI in prior authorization until it can confirm algorithms do not result in wrongful denials of care. 

    "It takes the bad information and accelerates it, or [accelerates] the information that is bad practice," Ms. Warren said.

  • 22 Feb 2024 12:55 PM | Addie Thompson (Administrator)

    Algorithms and artificial intelligence-powered software tools can be used to support Medicare Advantage plans in making coverage decisions for members, but payers are still bound by CMS' internal benefits requirements and nondiscrimination rules under the ACA, the agency said in guidance to insurers regarding its final 2024 MA rule.

    "We are concerned that algorithms and many new artificial intelligence technologies can exacerbate discrimination and bias," the agency wrote Feb. 6. "MA organizations should, prior to implementing an algorithm or software tool, ensure that the tool is not perpetuating or exacerbating existing bias, or introducing new biases."  

    The guidance comes as scrutiny of payers' use of AI increased in 2023. UnitedHealthcareHumana and Cigna are facing lawsuits alleging they used AI tools or algorithms to wrongfully deny care to Medicare Advantage members.

    Four key takeaways:

    1. Because of how rapidly software technologies are evolving and overlapping definitions, CMS clarified its perspective on the difference between algorithms and artificial intelligence. Algorithms "can imply a decisional flow chart of a series of if-then statements," while AI is a "machine-based system that can — for a given set of human-defined objectives — make predictions, recommendations or decisions influencing real or virtual environments.

    2. Payers can use algorithms to support coverage decisions, but it is their responsibility to ensure that an algorithm or an AI-based tool is compliant with the agency's coverage decision requirements. For example, MA carriers must base coverage decisions on an individual member's medical history, physician recommendations or clinical notes, not on a larger data set.

    3. Algorithms can be used only to help predict length of stay for post-acute services and not as the basis for terminating coverage. Terminating coverage can be determined only by first reexamining a member prior to the termination notice. For inpatient admissions, algorithms and artificial intelligence alone cannot be used as the reason to deny admission or downgrade to an observation stay.

    4. MA organizations may deny coverage for basic benefits only for reasons such as network limitations or noncompliance with prior authorization rules. Algorithms should be used only to ensure compliance with internal coverage criteria. AI cannot be used to shift coverage criteria over time, and predictive algorithms cannot apply internal coverage criteria that are not public.

  • 22 Feb 2024 12:54 PM | Addie Thompson (Administrator)

    A Texas federal judge on Monday dismissed a lawsuit challenging the Biden administration’s Medicare drug price negotiations filed by the pharmaceutical industry lobbying group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA). 

    The decision marks a small victory for the Biden administration, as it’s the first time a court has outright dismissed a challenge to Medicare’s new price negotiation powers.  

    There are eight other lawsuits filed by drug companies and other plaintiffs, and the legal fight could stretch for years. The federal government sent out its initial offer to drug companies earlier this month, and while the negotiations will end in August, the prices won’t take effect until 2026.

    Judge David Alan Ezra in the Western District of Texas granted the Biden administration’s request to dismiss the lawsuit, ruling that the plaintiffs lacked standing. 

    PhRMA was joined in the lawsuit by the National Infusion Center Association (NICA) and the Global Colon Cancer Association, but Ezra dismissed the NICA from the case because he said the court lacked jurisdiction.  

    As the NICA was the only plaintiff that resided in Texas, the entire case was dismissed. However, it was dismissed without prejudice and could be brought up again.  

    “We are disappointed with the court’s decision, which does not address the merits of our lawsuit, and we are weighing our next legal steps,” PhRMA spokesperson Nicole Longo said in a statement to The Hill.

    PhRMA represents some of the largest drug companies in the world. The group sued the administration in June, arguing Medicare negotiation is unconstitutional and violated drug companies’ due process.

  • 22 Feb 2024 12:53 PM | Addie Thompson (Administrator)

    Harrisburg, PA - The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (DHS) today released recommendations from its Blueprint Workgroup, an interdisciplinary group comprised of representation from state and local governments, health care, education, service providers, managed care, and family advocates. The workgroup sought to evaluate challenges children and youth with complex, co-occurring physical and behavioral health care needs and their families experience like accessing care and services that adapt to a youth’s changing circumstances and needs, lessening the likelihood of child welfare system involvement, reducing trauma experienced by instability, prioritizing emotional wellbeing, and supporting family- and youth-driven care and choice.

    “The detailed recommendations outlined by the Blueprint Workgroup set a course that now allows DHS and partners at the local level and systems of care to begin the work necessary to see how we make change happen so children with complex needs get the care that improves their quality of life, and the family is supported as they navigate these systems,” said Dr. Val Arkoosh, Secretary of DHS. “Systems of care should uplift those we seek to help, not create confusion and consequences from lack of coordination. The Blueprint Workgroup recommendation align our focus around the children and families we must always prioritize, and I am grateful for the work to this point and moving forward that will build a better future for children and families in Pennsylvania.” 

    One in six children have a diagnosed behavioral or developmental disorder, and rates of depression and anxiety are growing among children and young adults. Youth with co-occurring physical health, behavioral health, and/or intellectual disability or autism-related needs are considered complex cases because they require close coordination between multiple care and service providers in order to ensure the child and their family are receiving comprehensive supports and services that meet their unique and evolving needs.  

    Care coordination for these cases involve multiple county and state-level entities that coordinate health care, education, and disability services, and, at times, the child and their family may be involved with child welfare, foster care, and justice systems. Children and youth with complex needs are also more likely to have experienced abuse, neglect, and trauma, disruptions to their education, communications challenges, and a complex diagnostic history causing delayed or incorrect services. These circumstances create opportunities for confusion and lack of communication that can affect care. 

    Children and youth with complex needs deserve access to the care and supports they need without barriers, delays, or risks of new or additional trauma, and their families and guardians deserve support as they navigate systems of care for their child. The Blueprint Workgroup was established to help guide systems of care towards a renewed focus on youth and family engagement, respect for individual choice, support for the caring workforce, better collaboration and integrated planning between systems that serve youth with complex needs, and timely, accessible, and coordinated service delivery for youth that is responsive to their evolving needs. 

    Recommendations from the workgroup include: 

    • Prioritizing prevention through early identification of needs, accurate and timely diagnosis, and prompt service intervention; 

    • Improving information sharing and resource navigation among child-serving systems of care; 

    • Developing clear and strong guidance to inform multi-system case planning and management that prioritizes family engagement, evidence-based practices, peer supports between families, streamlining processes for families, and avoids trauma or re-traumatization that can occur when a case information has to be presented by the youth or their family repeatedly;  

    • Supporting a qualified, dedicated workforce, assessing payment models, and increasing efficiencies for people working in this system where appropriate; 

    • Conducting a system needs and gaps analysis across child-serving systems to determine opportunities for improvement and establishing multidisciplinary care coordination teams where needed; and,  

    • Building further understanding of trauma and embed trauma-informed care and principles across systems that serve and interact with children and youth with complex needs and their families.  

    Moving forward, DHS and Blueprint Workgroup members will begin work to determine work necessary to implement recommendations and identify barriers to implementation at the state and local level. The recommendations outlined in the workgroup’s report are a first step to strengthen supports for children and youth with complex needs and their families. Pennsylvania was also recently selected as one of eight states participating in a children’s behavioral health policy collaborative organized by Health Management Associates, the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors, the National Association of Medicaid Directors, the Child Welfare League, and the American Public Human Services Association. The convening will build on this work by helping better align multi-system work to support youth with behavioral health needs. 

    To learn more about the Blueprint Workgroup and DHS’ work to support children and youth with complex needs, visit https://www.dhs.pa.gov/Services/Children/Pages/Complex-Case-Planning.aspx.

    MEDIA CONTACT: Brandon Cwalina - ra-pwdhspressoffice@pa.gov

    # # #

  • 20 Feb 2024 12:28 PM | Addie Thompson (Administrator)

    Opposition to expanding Medicaid programs to cover more low-income individuals is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain amid growing public support for adoption across states, policy analysts say.

    Ten years after the Affordable Care Act first allowed Medicaid programs to cover nearly all adults with incomes up to 138% of the federal poverty level—now roughly $15,000 for a single person in most states—all but 10 states have adopted the expansion. An estimated 1.9 million people in the states that haven’t expanded fall into what’s known as the Medicaid coverage gap, having incomes above their state’s eligibility for Medicaid but below the poverty level, according to KFF data.

    North Carolina became the latest state to expand in 2023 with the help of Republicans who came on board after multiple unsuccessful attempts to overturn the ACA in the courts and the American Rescue Plan Act’s temporary fiscal incentive to states that haven’t yet expanded their Medicaid programs. The American Rescue Plan Act, signed into law in 2021, included $1.9 trillion in federal funding to respond to the public health and economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.

    Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly (D) introduced a proposal in January that would expand Medicaid to an additional 150,000 people in the state. But Republican leadership in the state legislature have vowed to block the legislation.

    A vocal segment of Republicans across the country has long opposed Medicaid expansion over concerns about strains to state budgets, with many calling for requirements that individuals have a job to qualify for coverage.

    While policy analysts predict a second Trump administration could lead to attempts to repeal or make cuts to Medicaid expansion, they say court wins supporting expansion, and voter demands for improved health access and affordability are likely to bring more bipartisan agreement on expanding Medicaid in the coming years.

    “As long as the national situation stays status quo with the Affordable Care Act not being repealed or extensively trimmed or modified or reduced, I think it is very likely we will eventually get all 50 states on board,” said Patrick O’Mahen, an assistant professor of medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine.

    Expansion Holdouts

    Without more states adopting expansion, “there’s just these massive gaps in what Medicaid does in terms of health-care coverage for people,” said Matt Salo, founder and CEO of Salo Health Strategies and former executive director of the National Association of Medicaid Directors.

    Coverage “can vary widely from state to state,” Salo said in an interview.

    Medicaid expansion has succeeded in getting support when brought to voters via ballot initiatives in six states—Idaho, Maine, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Utah. But out of the 10 states that have yet to adopt expansion, only Florida and Wyoming have pathways for expanding Medicaid through ballot measures.

    Elsewhere, “conservative Republican-controlled state legislatures seem to be the most common blocking mechanism,” said O’Mahen, whose research focuses on interactions between governments and health systems.

    Kansas, Texas

    Some Republicans have called for a hearing in Kansas on Kelly’s latest proposal. Last year, lawmakers left their legislative session without action on Kelly’s expansion proposal, despite the governor’s attempt to address Republican concerns by adding a work requirement, a tax on the Medicaid funding that hospitals receive to offset state costs, and allowing individuals to stay on private insurance while still receiving assistance from the state.

    Kansas House Speaker Dan Hawkins (R) said in an emailed statement, “right now, the votes aren’t there to pass Medicaid expansion.” He added, though, there will be an opportunity to discuss the issue more when the House Health Committee holds a hearing on the proposal this legislative session.

    “The facts remain though—Medicaid expansion siphons benefits away from the truly needy and disabled and gives them to a whole new population of able-bodied adults with other coverage options available … all on the backs of taxpayers,” Hawkins said.

    A 2023 poll by the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin found 76% of survey participants supported Medicaid expansion, with just 17% opposed.

    But in the Lone Star State, where Republicans control both the governor’s office and legislature, the path toward expansion will likely be “longer given the depth of the ideological opposition,” said Jocelyn Guyer, senior managing director at Manatt Health.

    For Tanner Aliff, policy director of the Right on Healthcare Initiative at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, health workforce shortages and rural populations’ difficulty accessing hospital care are more important issues for the state of Texas to address. More than 20 rural hospitals have closed in Texas over the past decade, according to the Texas Hospital Association.

    “What’s the point of putting a Medicaid card in the hands of somebody that still has to travel 80 miles to the nearest critical access hospital just to wait in the ER,” Aliff said in an interview.

    ‘Here to Stay’

    Despite the opposition, policy analysts and proponents of Medicaid expansion say it’s possible these holdout states will eventually come on board.

    Roughly 76% of US adults included in a March 2023 KFF Health Tracking Poll said they had either a “very favorable” or “somewhat favorable” view of the Medicaid program, and two-thirds of respondents living in the states that haven’t expanded their programs said they want their state to do so.

    “The dominant sentiment, including among Republicans in places like North Carolina, is that the Affordable Care Act is here and it’s here to stay, and every single congressional effort to repeal, every single effort at litigation to get rid of it has failed,” Guyer said.

    In North Carolina, Republicans like Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, who referred to himself as “one of the staunchest opponents to expanding Medicaid in North Carolina” for more than a decade, eventually changed his position. In a March 2023 op-ed, Berger argued the ACA and Medicaid expansion are “not going away, and refusing to accept that reality hurts North Carolinians and the state’s finances.”

    “Medicaid expansion if implemented in a reasonable, responsible manner is a positive for state fiscal and healthcare policy,” Berger wrote at the time, citing the fact that the federal government pays for 90% of Medicaid expansions in states.

    With former President Donald Trump currently the front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, O’Mahen said a second Trump term likely means “legislation repealing the ACA’s Medicaid expansion and making deeper cuts to the program is very much on the table.”

    During the Trump administration, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services broke from previous administrations by approving several Section 1115 waivers that conditioned Medicaid coverage on meeting work and reporting requirements—though courts later struck down many of these.

    Despite some roadblocks to future efforts, universal expansion across the country is not an unlikely scenario, O’Mahen said.

    “It becomes tougher and tougher for the holdouts to hang on because they can see that they’re leaving a lot of federal money on the table and everybody else is doing it,” he said.

    Continue Reading

  • 20 Feb 2024 12:25 PM | Addie Thompson (Administrator)

    South Carolina’s Senate passed a medical marijuana legalization bill on Wednesday, sending it to the House of Representatives for consideration.

    The vote on third reading passage was 24-19 and came one day after the body gave initial approval to the legislation from Sen. Tom Davis (R), which if enacted will allow medical cannabis access for patients with certain health conditions.

    In order to get to the desk of Gov. Henry McMaster (R), the bill still needs to clear the House—a prospect that’s far from certain. The Senate had passed an earlier version of the legislation in 2022 but it stalled in the opposite body over a procedural hiccup.

    Davis said during last week’s initial Senate debate on the current bill that his goal has always been to “come up with the most conservative medical cannabis bill in the country that empowered doctors to help patients—but at the same time tied itself to science, to addressing conditions for which there’s empirically based data saying that cannabis can be of medical benefit.”

    “I think when this bill passes—and I hope it does pass—it’s going to be the template for any state that truly simply wants to empower doctors and empower patients and doesn’t want to go down the slippery slope” to adult-use legalization, he said. “I think it can actually be used by several states that maybe regret their decision to allow recreational use, or they may be looking to tighten up their medical laws so that it becomes something more stringent.”

    Davis said during last week’s initial Senate debate on the current bill that his goal has always been to “come up with the most conservative medical cannabis bill in the country that empowered doctors to help patients—but at the same time tied itself to science, to addressing conditions for which there’s empirically based data saying that cannabis can be of medical benefit.”

    “I think when this bill passes—and I hope it does pass—it’s going to be the template for any state that truly simply wants to empower doctors and empower patients and doesn’t want to go down the slippery slope” to adult-use legalization, he said. “I think it can actually be used by several states that maybe regret their decision to allow recreational use, or they may be looking to tighten up their medical laws so that it becomes something more stringent.”

    Other changes that were adopted would prevent lawmakers and their immediate family members from owning or receiving compensation from medical marijuana businesses until 2029, ensure that vertically integrated businesses performing a certain function in the industry count against the total number of licenses allowed to be issued for that function, require dispensaries to have a pharmacist physically present on their premises during dispensing hours and further clarify that the definition of medical use does not include smoking.

    The body had previously approved two amendments during second reading consideration on Tuesday.

    One would make it so no more than three medical cannabis dispensaries could be located in any county. The other would clarify that regulators cannot prevent the “accurate listing of ingredients on a cannabis product that is a beverage,” with the sponsor of the amendment citing a recent letter from health officials that he said has “caused confusion” about the components of hemp-derived beverages.

    Other changes that were adopted would prevent lawmakers and their immediate family members from owning or receiving compensation from medical marijuana businesses until 2029, ensure that vertically integrated businesses performing a certain function in the industry count against the total number of licenses allowed to be issued for that function, require dispensaries to have a pharmacist physically present on their premises during dispensing hours and further clarify that the definition of medical use does not include smoking.

    The body had previously approved two amendments during second reading consideration on Tuesday.

    One would make it so no more than three medical cannabis dispensaries could be located in any county. The other would clarify that regulators cannot prevent the “accurate listing of ingredients on a cannabis product that is a beverage,” with the sponsor of the amendment citing a recent letter from health officials that he said has “caused confusion” about the components of hemp-derived beverages.

    Certain lawmakers have also raised concerns that medical cannabis legalization would lead to broader reform to allow adult-use marijuana, that it could put pharmacists with roles in dispensing cannabis in jeopardy and that federal law could preempt the state’s program, among other worries.

    Here are the main provisions of the bill

    • “Debilitating medical conditions” for which patients could receive a medical cannabis recommendation include cancer, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Crohn’s disease, autism, a terminal illness where the patient is expected to live for less than one year and a chronic illness where opioids are the standard of care, among others.
    • The state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) and Board of Pharmacy would be responsible for promulgating rules and licensing cannabis businesses, including dispensaries that would need to have a pharmacist on-site at all times of operation.
    • In an effort to prevent excess market consolidation, the bill has been revised to include language requiring regulators to set limits on the number of businesses a person or entity could hold more than five percent interest in, at the state-level and regionally.
    • A “Medical Cannabis Advisory Board” would be established, tasked with adding or removing qualifying conditions for the program. The legislation was revised from its earlier form to make it so legislative leaders, in addition to the governor, would be making appointments for the board.
    • Importantly, the bill omits language prescribing a tax on medical cannabis sales, unlike the last version. The inclusion of tax provisions resulted in the House rejecting the earlier bill because of procedural rules in the South Carolina legislature that require legislation containing tax-related measures to originate in that body rather than the Senate.
    • Smoking marijuana and cultivating the plant for personal use would be prohibited.
    • The legislation would sunset five years after the first legal sale of medical cannabis by a licensed facility in order to allow lawmakers to revisit the efficacy of the regulations.
    • Doctors would be able to specify the amount of cannabis that a patient could purchase in a 14-day window, or they could recommend the default standard of 1,600 milligrams of THC for edibles, 8,200 milligrams for oils for vaporization and 4,000 milligrams for topics like lotions.
    • Edibles couldn’t contain more than 10 milligrams of THC per serving.
    • There would also be packaging and labeling requirements to provide consumers with warnings about possible health risks. Products couldn’t be packaged in a way that might appeal to children.
    • Patients could not use medical marijuana or receive a cannabis card if they work in public safety, commercial transportation or commercial machinery positions. That would include law enforcement, pilots and commercial drivers, for example.
    • Local governments would be able to ban marijuana businesses from operating in their area, or set rules on policies like the number of cannabis businesses that may be licensed and hours of operation. DHEC would need to take steps to prevent over-concentration of such businesses in a given area of the state.
    • Lawmakers and their immediate family members could not work for, or have a financial stake in, the marijuana industry until July 2029, unless they recuse themselves from voting on the reform legislation.
    • DHEC would be required to produce annual reports on the medical cannabis program, including information about the number of registered patients, types of conditions that qualified patients and the products they’re purchasing and an analysis of how independent businesses are serving patients compared to vertically integrated companies.

    After Davis’s Senate-passed medical cannabis bill was blocked in the House in 2022, he tried another avenue for the reform proposal, but that similarly failed on procedural grounds.

    The lawmaker has called the stance of his own party, particularly as it concerns medical marijuana, “an intellectually lazy position that doesn’t even try to present medical facts as they currently exist.”

    Meanwhile, a poll released last year found that a strong majority of South Carolina adults support legalizing marijuana for both medical (76 percent) and recreational (56 percent) use—a finding that U.S. Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC) has promoted.

  • 20 Feb 2024 12:23 PM | Addie Thompson (Administrator)

    When North Carolina launched Medicaid expansion on Dec. 1, state officials said the measure would provide health insurance to an estimated 600,000 low-income adults over a span of two years.

    It took just two months to reach 58 percent of that goal. More than 346,400 newly eligible beneficiaries have been approved for coverage as of Feb. 1, according to data from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

    The fast pace of enrollment was one of several expansion-related success stories that DHHS leaders shared with lawmakers during last week’s meeting of the monthly Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Medicaid. It was the first formal report the department had presented to the 14-person committee since expansion took effect.  

    Expansion raised the state’s income limit for Medicaid, extending eligibility to people who make an annual income of up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level based on their household size ($25,820 for a family of three). The previous limit was 100 percent. 

    Jay Ludlam, the state’s deputy secretary for Medicaid, told the committee that DHHS launched expansion “in a way that was member-focused.” About 273,000 adults who had been enrolled in Family Planning Medicaid, a limited-coverage program for reproductive health services, were automatically upgraded to full Medicaid coverage when expansion went live in December

    “We ran the algorithm on the information that we had for that population,” Ludlam said. “We determined those individuals who would qualify for Medicaid expansion and those who wouldn’t, and we moved those individuals who [did] qualify onto expansion.”

    That strategy, he said, allowed the department to hit the ground running. Most of the new beneficiaries gained Medicaid with little or no action needed on their end.

    “Those individuals didn’t have to go into an office,” Ludlam said. “They didn’t have to call a DSS worker. They didn’t have to fill out a form. Effectively, they woke up on December 1st with a card in hand, and they were able to access the full Medicaid benefit on Day One.”

    People who were not part of the initial wave of automatic enrollments have been signing up for Medicaid at a steady clip since expansion launched. Ludlam said DHHS is adding an average of 1,000 beneficiaries to the rolls each day — a number he believes will taper off in the coming weeks.

    A disproportionate share of the state’s new enrollees are residents of rural, economically distressed counties. That isn’t entirely surprising, according to Ludlam. He said expansion was expected to have an outsize impact in rural areas. 

    “Broadly, in some of these communities, we would have anticipated high enrollment,” he said. “These are areas where individuals are working potentially more than one job to make ends meet.”

    ‘Knocking on death’s door’

    For people like DeAnna Brandon, the value of Medicaid can be measured in days rather than dollars.

    Diagnosed with a rare blood cancer in 2022, the Rowan County resident was told she had less than three years to live unless she received a stem cell transplant. Brandon, whose story was first reported by NC Health News, couldn’t afford the expensive procedure without health insurance — and her biological window of opportunity was growing smaller.

    The chemotherapy that helped Brandon manage the symptoms of her cancer threatened to cause irreversible damage to her cells, undermining the effectiveness of the transplant. The physical toll of the treatment also left her unable to work.

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