KHN’s ‘What the Health?’: The Politics of Science

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The headlines from this week will be about how President Donald Trump knew early on how serious the coronavirus pandemic was likely to become but purposely played it down. Potentially more important during the past few weeks, though, are reports of how White House officials have pushed scientists at the federal government’s leading health agencies to put politics above science.

Meanwhile, Republicans appear to have given up on using the Affordable Care Act as an electoral cudgel, judging, at least, from its scarce mention during the GOP convention. Democrats, on the other hand, particularly those running for the U.S. House and Senate, are doubling down on their criticism of Republicans for failing to adequately protect people with preexisting health conditions. That issue was key to the party winning back the House in 2018.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of Kaiser Health News, Joanne Kenen of Politico, Mary Ellen McIntire of CQ Roll Call and Sarah Karlin-Smith of the Pink Sheet.

Among the takeaways from this week’s podcast:

  • The Affordable Care Act has become a political vulnerability for Republican officials, who have no interest in reopening the debate on it during this campaign. Trump vowed before his 2016 election to repeal the law immediately after taking office and members of Congress had berated it for years. But they could not gain the political capital to overturn Obamacare.
  • Trump’s comments to journalist-author Bob Woodward about holding back information on the risks of the coronavirus pandemic from the public may not have a major effect on the election since so many voters’ minds are already set on their choices. For many, the president’s statements are seen by partisans as identifying what they already believe: for Trump’s supporters, that he is protecting the public; for his critics, that he is a liar.
  • The number of COVID-19 cases appears to have hit another plateau, but it’s still twice as high as the count last spring. Officials are waiting to see if end-of-the-summer activities over the Labor Day holiday will create another surge.
  • The stalemate on Capitol Hill over coronavirus relief funding shows no sign of easing soon. Republicans in the Senate are resisting Democrats’ insistence on a massive package, but it’s not exactly clear what the GOP can agree on.
  • The vaccine being developed by AstraZeneca ran into difficulty this week as experts seek to determine whether a neurological problem that developed in one volunteer was caused by the vaccine. Some public health officials, such as NIH Director Francis Collins, said this helps show that even with the compressed testing timeline, safeguards are working.
  • Nonetheless, another vaccine maker, Pfizer, said it might still have its vaccine ready before the election.
  • The recent controversy at the FDA over the emergency authorization of plasma to treat COVID patients and the awkward decision at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to change guidelines for testing asymptomatic people have created a credibility gap among some Americans and played into concerns that the administration is undercutting science.

Also this week, Rovner interviews KHN’s Elizabeth Lawrence, who reported the August NPR-KHN “Bill of the Month” installment, about an appendectomy gone wrong, and the very big bill that followed. If you have an outrageous medical bill you would like to share with us, you can do that here.

Plus, for extra credit, the panelists recommend their favorite health policy stories of the week they think you should read too:

Julie Rovner: ProPublica’s “A Doctor Went to His Own Employer for a COVID-19 Antibody Test. It Cost $10,984,” by Marshall Allen

Joanne Kenen: The Atlantic’s “America Is Trapped in a Pandemic Spiral,” by Ed Yong

Sarah Karlin-Smith: Politico’s “Emails Show HHS Official Trying to Muzzle Fauci,” by Sarah Owermohle

Mary Ellen McIntire: The Atlantic’s “What Young, Healthy People Have to Fear From COVID-19,” by Derek Thompson

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Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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