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House Democrats, now in power, will steer health policy, attack drug prices

This is a Kaiser Health news story.

For the first time since passing the Affordable Care Act, Dem..

This is a Kaiser Health news story.

For the first time since passing the Affordable Care Act, Democrats will soon control the House of Representatives and its powerful health committees. But Republicans tightened grip on the Senate means those hoping for another round of dramatic, progressive reforms may be disappointed.

Empowered by voters outraged over Republican attempts to chip away at the laws protections for the sick, Democrats owe much of their midterm takeback to health care issues. And Democratic leaders say they are ready to get back to work, this time training their sights on skyrocketing drug prices, among other policy conundrums, with a majority of House votes and a slate of new committee chairmanships in hand.

In a few weeks, House Democrats will meet to elect their leaders, including several committee chairs who will be responsible for the nations health care policy and spending in the coming years. Hill denizens expect those currently serving as the top Democrat on most House committees to ascend to the chairmanships, with few if any members mounting serious challenges.

Those basking in a post-“blue wave” glow would do well to temper their expectations, recalling that the Republican-controlled House had already voted 54 times to unravel some or all of the Affordable Care Act by its fourth birthday in 2014. In most cases, Democrats in the Senate and White House stopped those efforts in their tracks.

With the Senate (and the presidency) remaining under Republican control and even fewer moderate Republicans left in the House after this election, Democrats will struggle to move legislation without Republican support. What they can do is hold hearings, launch investigations and generally unnerve the pharmaceutical industry, among other likely adversaries.

And theres a chance they could strike a deal with President Donald Trump, whose administration is moving to crack down on drug companies.

Who are the members most likely to wield the gavels? And what will they do with that power? Heres a look at some of the major committees that influence health policy — and the people who may lead them.

Pallone, who has served in the House for 30 years, became the top Democrat on this influential committee in 2015. Should he become chairman, he would be responsible for the broadest health portfolio in the House, which includes Medicaid, public health, insurance and drug safety. This is the committee that marked up the Affordable Care Act in 2009 (when Pallone chaired the health subcommittee) and the House Republican repeal effort in 2017.

Under the Trump administration, Pallone has touted his stewardship of bipartisan legislation reauthorizing the fees charged to manufacturers to review the safety of prescription drugs and medical devices. He has also called for hearings on “mega-mergers” like the proposed merger between CVS and Aetna and worked with other Democrats to counter Republican attempts to undermine the Affordable Care Act.

Unsurprisingly, his influence over health care issues has attracted a lot of money from pharmaceutical companies, health professionals, HMOs and other industry players. By mid-October, Pallone had received more than $945,000 in campaign contributions from the health sector for this election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. According to a KHN analysis, nearly $170,000 came from political action committees associated with pharmaceutical companies.

Cummings could prove the pharmaceutical industrys biggest headache come next year. Having served as the committees ranking member since 2011 — a post that lacks the chairmans subpoena power — he has been champing at the bit to hold drugmakers accountable.

Shortly after Trumps inauguration, Cummings approached him about working together to lower the cost of prescription drugs (to no immediate avail), and he has partnered with other lawmakers to demand information from pharmaceutical companies about their drug pricing strategies. Previewing what a Cummings-led committee might look like, he has even launched his own investigations into drug costs, releasing reports with his findings.

Drugmakers have wasted few campaign contributions on Cummings: He has received just $1,000 from their PACs this election, according to data analysis by KHN.

In a statement to Kaiser Health News, Cummings said Democrats would conduct “credible, responsible oversight” of the Trump administration, adding: “For healthcare, that means investigating skyrocketing prescription drug prices, actions that would threaten protections for people with preexisting health conditions, and efforts to undermine the Medicaid program.”

Ways and Means oversees Medicare and influences health policy through its jurisdiction over taxes. Though Neal became the top Democrat on this committee in 2017, he has been involved in health care much longer, having played a part in the crafting of both the Affordable Care Act and the failed reform effort under the Clinton administration in 1993.

Facing a primary challenger who touted her support for “Medicare-for-all” in his deep-blue district, Neal denied that he opposes the progressive single-payer proposal. But he also said Democrats should focus on shoring up the Affordable Care Act, particularly its protections for those with preexisting conditions and caps on out-of-pocket expenses. (He won handily.)

The health sector was by far one of the top contributors to Neals re-election campaign this year, giving more than $765,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Neals district includes the headquarters of several health insurers and other medical companies, which makes him a prime target for campaign contributions.

If chosen, Lowey would become the first woman to chair the powerful House Committee on Appropriations, holding the nations purse strings.

Like Neal and Pallone, Lowey was first elected to Congress in 1988, and she became the committees top Democrat in 2013. She has been a dedicated and effective advocate for investing in biomedical research into major diseases like diabetes and Alzheimers, as well as public health programs like pandemic preparedness.

She has also long championed womens health issues, proving a vocal critic of the Trump administrations proposed gag rule on Title X funding, among other policies. Watch for her to continue to push back on the administrations efforts to restrict access to abortion rights.

And on the Senate side, the Committee on Finance: Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa?

The rumor mill favors Grassley, the Republican who has served most recently as the chairman of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, to replace retiring Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).

Senate Republican leaders have signaled that entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid could use trimming and, with Republicans emerging from the midterms with a slightly bigger majority, this committee could have its hands full.

Hatch proved a friend to the pharmaceutical industry, and his war chest reflected that, taking in more than $850,000 in campaign contributions from drugmaker PACs in the past decade alone, according to a Kaiser Health News analysis. But Grassley has taken a more adversarial approach to the industry, working with a Democratic colleague last summer to pressure drug companies to list their prices in direct-to-consumer ads, for instance.

Grassley held the chairmanship from 2003 to 2006, leaving him two more years at the top, should he want it. (Senate Republican chairs may serve for only six years.) But he might choose to stay on as head of the Judiciary Committee, in which case the next chairman may be the next-most-senior Republican: Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho.

Kaiser Health News is a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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The organization helping to bring new drugs for rare diseases to market

A research team has reason to celebrate after the Food and Drug Administration granted it approval o..

A research team has reason to celebrate after the Food and Drug Administration granted it approval on Friday to begin a clinical trial for a new pediatric brain cancer drug, one that might have ended up overlooked by pharmaceutical companies.

The lead researcher on the team, Dr. Teresa Purzner has already beat impossible odds. The neurosurgeon and mom of three managed to get the approval in record time and with little money thanks to the help of a team of scientific altruists called SPARK.

The development of new medications in the United States is driven by pharmaceutical companies; researchers at universities rarely bring their discoveries to the bedside. For every 10,000 potential new medicines sitting on laboratory shelves around the country, only one will ever reach patients in need, according to the National Institutes of Health. Why? Because the process can take 10 to 15 years, costing upwards of a billion dollars per drug.

As a result, the number of new medications approved by the FDA has remained stagnant at about 31 per year over the past 10 years. The majority of these medications are similar to already existing ones, and many target diseases for which there are large markets — like hypertension and high cholesterol — and therefore, a return on investment.

Enter SPARK, a non-profit program created in partnership between Stanford University and volunteers from the biotechnology, pharmaceutical, and investment industries, which helps academic researchers bring their discoveries to patients. Since its founding, SPARK has given special consideration to projects typically neglected by pharmaceutical companies, including rare diseases and diseases affecting children.

Purzner put her neurosurgery practice on pause to study medulloblastoma, a type of childhood brain cancer. Compared to diseases like hypertension and high cholesterol, which affect millions of Americans, medulloblastoma is rare, affecting only 250 to 500 children every year.

“Theres something especially poignant about seeing children —beautiful, wonderful, innocent things — and seeing the impact of the therapies we are giving them. The medications, the radiation therapies impact their cognition, their quality of life and their ability to function as independent adults in the future,” Purzner said in an interview with ABC News.

Purzner had a clear goal: to find a targeted therapy that could shut down the basic biochemical pathway responsible for the development of this cancer, and she did. She tested the potential drug in mice with good results, and she just received FDA approval to test it in clinical trials, which she will do through the Pediatric Brain Tumor Consortium. She did it all in five years and for a price tag of $500,000.

“To get from my initial findings in the lab to the point where the Pediatric Brain Tumor Consortium picked it up for clinical trials would have never happened without the help of SPARK… they gave me a clear pathway and made me believe it was possible,” said Purzner.

Every year, SPARK provides 10 teams with funding and expert mentorship to promote efficient and cost-effective drug development. (more…)

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Widowed father works with congresswoman on legislation to prevent maternal deaths

Sitting in the hospital room, mother and newborn baby were sound asleep.

“I was overjoyed. I reme..

Sitting in the hospital room, mother and newborn baby were sound asleep.

"I was overjoyed. I remember thinking my family is complete," Charles Johnson told ABC News.

But then he looked down and saw his wife Kiras catheter turn pink and then red with blood.

April 12, 2016 was supposed to be a joyous day for the Johnson family, but it turned into a "nightmare."

Ten hours later, Kira Johnson died as a result of internal bleeding following a cesarean section.

Now, two years later, Johnson is raising two children on his own and advocating to rectify the country's maternal health policies and regulations to prevent anyone else from sharing the same tragedy. Johnson took to Capitol Hill to share his wife's story before members of Congress, working alongside a congresswoman who experienced her own personal difficulties during pregnancy.

Charles and Kira Johnson welcomed their first son Charles V. in 2014. He was delivered via C-section. Two years later, the Johnson family relocated from Atlanta to Los Angeles and learned they were expecting their second baby boy.

"Kira and I had always wanted two boys," Johnson said. "I was excited."

The Johnsons decided to have Langston delivered at Cedars Sinai medical center, a non-profit hospital that is currently ranked as the eighth best hospital in the country by U.S. News and World Report.

Charles Johnson said his wife was in exceptional health and that she took all the necessary prenatal measures to ensure their second child would be born healthy. Since their first son was born via C-section, the doctor suggested the same for their second. (more…)

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States look to breathalyze convicted drunk drivers to reduce fatalities

This story is from Kaiser Health News

On Jan. 1, California joined the majority of states that ha..

This story is from Kaiser Health News

On Jan. 1, California joined the majority of states that have laws requiring drivers with drunken-driving convictions to install breathalyzers in vehicles they own or operate.

Researchers, public health advocates and political leaders believe these laws are helping reduce alcohol-related road deaths.

The gadgets, known as ignition interlock devices, are mounted on the steering wheel of a vehicle and prevent it from starting if the drivers blood-alcohol reading is above a predetermined level.

In California, the breathalyzers are mandatory only for repeat offenders. Five other states — Georgia, Indiana, Massachusetts, Montana and Ohio — have similar laws. Thirty-two states and D.C. require the devices even for first-time offenders.

The advent of such laws across the United States in the past 15 years has been accompanied by some good news: Deaths involving drunken driving are only about half of what they were in the early 1980s, though they have ticked back up in recent years. The long-term decline is largely attributable to greater public awareness, stricter seat belt enforcement and the establishment in 2000 of a nationwide legal blood-alcohol threshold of 0.08 percent — far below the 0.15 percent standard commonly used before then.

State Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), the author of the California law, said breathalyzers in cars will make roads safer than under the current law, which generally relies on license restrictions and suspensions.

“Weve seen people on a suspended license continue to drive and continue to cause destruction,” said Hill, who lost his best friend to drunken driving in the 1980s.

There is some evidence that the breathalyzers have an impact. Nationally, from 2006 to 2016, ignition-locking breathalyzers prevented 2.3 million attempts to drive by people with a blood-alcohol level at or above 0.08 percent — the legal threshold for driving under the influence — according to a 2017 report by the advocacy group Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Emma McGinty, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, found that laws requiring interlocks for all DUI offenders were associated with a 7 percent drop in the rate of fatal crashes caused by drunken drivers. Another study found that laws covering all offenders were associated with 15 percent fewer alcohol-related fatalities compared with states that have less stringent laws. (more…)

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