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Dancing Under the Debt Ceiling

The Host

Julie Rovner
KFF Health News


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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.

If Congress fails to raise the nation’s debt ceiling in the next few months, the U.S. could default on its debt for the first time in history. Republicans in Congress, however, say they won’t agree to pay the nation’s bills unless Democrats and President Joe Biden agree to deep cuts to health and other programs. Among the proposals in a bill House Republicans passed April 26 is the imposition of new work requirements for adults who receive Medicaid.

Meanwhile, many of the states passing restrictions on abortion are also passing bills to restrict the ability of trans people to get health care. The two movements — both largely aimed at conservative evangelicals, a key GOP constituency — have much in common.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of KFF Health News, Jessie Hellmann of CQ Roll Call, Shefali Luthra of The 19th, and Sarah Karlin-Smith of the Pink Sheet.


Jessie Hellmann
CQ Roll Call


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Shefali Luthra
The 19th


Read Shefali’s stories

Sarah Karlin-Smith
Pink Sheet


Read Sarah’s stories

Among the takeaways from this week’s episode:

  • The Republican-controlled House’s proposal to raise the debt ceiling contains enough politically poisonous measures that the plan is a non-starter in the Senate. They include substantial funding cuts to major federal health programs, including the FDA and the National Institutes of Health — cuts that would force the federal government to cut back on grants and other funding.
  • The proposal would also impose work requirements on adults enrolled in Medicaid — which covers low-income and disabled Americans, as well as pregnant women — and in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which helps needy families buy food. Under the plan, the government would save money by cutting the number of people helped. But most beneficiaries cannot work or already do so. Experience shows the change would mostly affect people who struggle to report their work hours through what can be complicated online portals.
  • Multiple congressional committees have released plans to fight high drug costs, promoting efforts to explore how pharmacy benefit managers make decisions about cost and access, as well as to encourage access to cheaper, generic drugs on the market. And during congressional testimony this week, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, said the agency would no longer issue warnings to hospitals that fail to comply with a law that requires them to post their prices, but instead would move directly to fining the holdouts.
  • Also in news about cost-cutting legislation, a plan to address an expensive glitch in Medicare payments to hospital outpatient centers and physician offices is gaining steam on Capitol Hill. Hospital consolidation has helped increase costs in the health care system, and lawmakers are eager to keep health spending under control. But the hospital industry is ramping up advertising to make sure lawmakers think twice before legislating.
  • In abortion news, it will likely be at least a year before the Supreme Court rules on whether the abortion pill mifepristone should remain accessible. Some justices suggested in last summer’s Dobbs decision, which overturned abortion rights, that they would leave further abortion questions to the states, yet the nation is finding that overturning a half-century of legal precedent is messy, to say the least. Meanwhile, reporting and polling are revealing just how difficult it is for doctors in states with abortion bans to determine what constitutes a “medical emergency” worthy of intervention, with a grim consensus emerging that apparently means “when a woman is near death.”

Also this week, Rovner interviews Renuka Rayasam, who wrote the latest KFF Health News-NPR “Bill of the Month” feature, about a pregnant woman experiencing a dangerous complication who was asked to pay $15,000 upfront to see one of the few specialists who could help her. If you have an outrageous or exorbitant medical bill you want to share with us, you can do that here.

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

Julie Rovner: The Nation’s “The Poison Pill in the Mifepristone Lawsuit That Could Trigger a National Abortion Ban,” by Amy Littlefield.

Shefali Luthra: The Washington Post’s “The Conservative Campaign to Rewrite Child Labor Laws,” by Jacob Bogage and María Luisa Paúl.

Jessie Hellmann: Politico’s “Gun Violence Is Actually Worse in Red States. It’s Not Even Close,” by Colin Woodard.

Sarah Karlin-Smith: The Wall Street Journal’s “Weight-Loss Drugmakers Lobby for Medicare Coverage,” by Liz Essley Whyte.

Also mentioned in this week’s episode:


Francis Ying
Audio producer

Emmarie Huetteman

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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).

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