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Health Programs Are at Risk as Debt Ceiling Cave-In Looms

The Host

Julie Rovner
KFF Health News


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 partisan fight in Congress over how to raise the nation’s debt ceiling to prevent a default has accelerated, as the U.S. Treasury predicted the borrowing limit could be reached as soon as June 1. On the table, potentially, are large cuts to federal spending programs, including major health programs.

Meanwhile, legislators in two conservative states, South Carolina and Nebraska, narrowly declined to pass very strict abortion bans, as some Republicans are apparently getting cold feet about the impact on care for pregnant women in their states.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of KFF Health News, Joanne Kenen of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Politico, Rachel Cohrs of Stat, and Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico.


Alice Miranda Ollstein


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Rachel Cohrs
Stat News


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Joanne Kenen
Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Politico


Read Joanne’s stories

Among the takeaways from this week’s episode:

  • The United States is approaching its debt limit — much sooner than expected. And it is unclear how, or if, lawmakers can resolve their differences over the budget before the nation defaults on its debts. Details of the hastily constructed House Republican proposal are coming to light, including apparently inadvertent potential cuts to veterans’ benefits and a lack of exemptions protecting those who are disabled from losing Medicaid and nutrition benefits under proposed work requirements.
  • A seemingly routine markup of a key Senate drug pricing package devolved this week as it became clear the committee’s leadership team, under Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), had not completed its due diligence to ensure members were informed and on board with the legislation. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee plans to revisit the package next week, hoping to send it to the full Senate for a vote.
  • In more abortion news, Republican lawmakers in North Carolina have agreed on a new, 12-week ban, which would further cut already bare-bones access to the procedure in the South. And federal investigations into two hospitals that refused emergency care to a pregnant woman in distress are raising the prospect of yet another abortion-related showdown over states’ rights before the Supreme Court.
  • The number of deaths from covid-19 continues to dwindle. The public health emergency expires next week, and mask mandates are being dropped by health care facilities. There continue to be issues tallying cases and guiding prevention efforts. What’s clear is the coronavirus is not now and may never be gone, but things are getting better from a public health standpoint.
  • The surgeon general has issued recommendations to combat the growing public health crisis of loneliness. Structural problems that contribute, like the lack of paid leave and few communal gathering spaces, may be ripe for government intervention. But while health experts frame loneliness as a societal-level problem, the federal government’s advice largely targets individual behaviors.

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

Julie Rovner: The Washington Post’s “Dog-Walking Injuries May Be More Common Than You Think,” by Lindsey Bever.

Joanne Kenen: The Atlantic’s “There Is No Stopping the Allergy Apocalypse,” by Yasmin Tayag.

Rachel Cohrs: ProPublica’s “This Pharmacist Said Prisoners Wouldn’t Feel Pain During Lethal Injection. Then Some Shook and Gasped for Air,” by Lauren Gill and Daniel Moritz-Rabson.

Alice Miranda Ollstein: The Wall Street Journal’s “Patients Lose Access to Free Medicines Amid Spat Between Drugmakers, Health Plans,” by Peter Loftus and Joseph Walker.

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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