The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness
The Health 202

A newsletter briefing on the health-care policy debate in Washington.

March for Life convenes today during a pivotal time for abortion rights

The Health 202

A newsletter briefing on the health-care policy debate in Washington.

Hey, it’s your Health 202 researcher, Alex. Rachel's got a great rundown today of where we are in the national battle over abortion. But first, I wanted to say goodbye. Today’s my last day on the newsletter. I’m leaving The Post for another job opportunity, one where I’ll hopefully continue to think about and do research on health-care issues. I wanted to thank you for the tips and feedback over the past year and half. I’ve learned so much from working on this newsletter and so much of that has come from our incredible readers.

Today: The CIA finds no “worldwide campaign” by any foreign power behind the “Havana syndrome” and a dive into how private insurers are covering at-home tests. But first: 

Abortion protesters march today with the prospect of a post-Roe world

State legislatures will consider a slew of abortion bans this year amid one of the most pivotal moments in decades for access to the procedure. 

Last year, states passed a record number of abortion restrictions — a trend that’s expected to continue in 2022. Though legislative sessions are just beginning, lawmakers in a handful of states have already introduced bills similar to Texas’s “heartbeat” ban, with more likely on the way. 

  • “We’re really encouraging lawmakers that this is an opportunity to go full speed ahead,” said Katie Glenn, government affairs counsel for Americans United for Life, one of the largest antiabortion groups.

Lawmakers are ramping up efforts ahead of a potentially seismic shift on whether women have a fundamental right to end their pregnancies. The Supreme Court appears willing to uphold a Mississippi law banning most abortions after 15 weeks, a ruling that could undermine Roe v. Wade’s decades-old protections for abortions before the point of viability. That’s left some Democratic-leaning states to take the opposite approach, moving to protect the procedure. 

Today, tens of thousands of people rally in Washington D.C. today for the March for Life, an annual event protesting abortion on the anniversary of Roe. Advocates on both sides view abortion as a potent issue in the midterms, believing it’ll motivate voters to head to the polls in November.

Across the country

Texas has one of the most watched abortion laws in the nation. That’s because it has a twist: Private citizens are charged with enforcing the ban on the procedure once a fetal heartbeat is detected, typically around six weeks of pregnancy. Courts typically strike down abortion bans for violating Roe, but Texas’s unusual structure is why it has remained in effect today. 

Some states will soon consider similar measures, while others are focusing on other bans, like ones mirroring Mississippi’s. Here’s a snapshot of what’s been introduced around the country so far:  

  • Lawmakers in at least five states have introduced bills modeled after Texas. This includes Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Missouri and Ohio.
  • Others announced intentions to follow suit, such as in Oklahoma.
  • In Florida, a bill banning abortions after 15 weeks cleared its first hurdle earlier this week. Such a measure could impact abortions in surrounding states, since some Southerners living in areas with less access to the procedure travel to Florida, the Tampa Bay Times reports.

“Right now, we’re seeing the beginning of what might be another wave,” said Elizabeth Nash, an interim associate director at Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights and tracks state measures.

Preparing for a post-Roe world

The landscape for abortion laws has one fundamental difference this year. Laws banning the procedure before viability — roughly estimated as between 22 to 24 weeks — could actually go into effect, depending on how the Supreme Court rules. 

That’s upped the ante for advocates on both sides. 

  • “It they let the Mississippi abortion ban stand, then it's just such a clear greenlight for all these other states that have trigger bans or have enjoined laws, or have legislative majorities and governors hostile to reproductive rights to go at it,” said Kristin Ford, vice president of communications and research at NARAL, an abortion rights group.

What that could look like: More than 20 states have laws that could be used to restrict abortions. That includes 12 states that have triggers automatically barring all or nearly all abortions if the precedent is overturned, according to the Guttmacher Institute. 

On the other side, at least 15 states and Washington D.C. have laws protecting abortion rights. 

  • In Vermont, lawmakers are moving to include a measure on this November’s ballot that would enshrine the right to an abortion in the state’s constitution.
  • In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy (D) signed a bill last week codifying Roe. Its bill sponsors took direct aim at the high court, contending abortion rights were “under attack in the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Reproductive wars

Here's what else you need to know on the abortion front:

  • More than 225 organizations — such as Planned Parenthood, the Center for American Progress and MomsRising — sent a letter today urging the Senate to pass the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would establish a statutory right to abortion. But the bill faces an uphill battle in the chamber, where it would need 60 votes to pass.
  • Organizers expect reduced attendance at March for Life amid high levels of coronavirus cases, and a new D.C. mandate requiring anyone age 12 and over to show proof of at least one coronavirus vaccine shot before going inside many indoor spaces, The Post’s Casey Parks reported earlier this week.


Getting insurance reimbursement for coronavirus tests can be a hassle

As of Saturday, insurance companies were required to cover at-home coronavirus tests. But some Americans are wading through what they consider overly complex insurance forms, and requirements that forms be mailed or faxed — a tricky proposition for those without a printer. It’s a situation that many experts warned about when President Biden first announced the initiative.

The Kaiser Family Foundation released a report looking at how 13 different private insurers are covering the tests. 

  • Six insurers have a direct coverage option, allowing enrollees to purchase tests at certain pharmacies without paying anything upfront. 
  • Seven insurers are instead relying on reimbursing consumers later. Of those, four require that receipts and a form be mailed in. Cigna also offers a fax option. Only Anthem and Kaiser Permanente offer an online option for submitting the forms. CVS/Aetna does not describe the reimbursement process.

CIA finds no ‘worldwide campaign' behind mysterious ‘Havana syndrome'

The Central Intelligence Agency has determined that there is likely no foreign power behind the mysterious symptoms that have been dubbed “Havana syndrome,” The Post’s Shane Harris and Missy Ryan report.

The first cases of U.S. personnel suffering from symptoms like dizziness and headache were reported in the U.S. embassy in Havana in 2016. Since then, government investigators have reviewed 1,000 cases of “anomalous health incidents,” most, but not all, of which could be attributed to a preexisting medical condition or other factors, one senior official said. Several dozen cases couldn't be explained and will continue to be investigated.

The CIA’s finding that many cases could be explained by medical or environmental factors could make it harder to implement a law signed by Biden last year aimed at compensating victims of anomalous health incidents.

Patients are suffering amid surgery delays

Hospitals are delaying surgeries and other procedures, as a surge in coronavirus cases leads to staffing shortages among health-care workers and forces hospitals to close beds. For many patients, the wait is excruciating, The Post’s Christopher Rowland reports.

Doctors said that calling patients to tell them their surgeries are being postponed has been among their hardest tasks during the pandemic. They said the term “elective surgery” can be misunderstood to mean something like a cosmetic surgery when it actually applies to a broad range of critical procedures.

Here's what else you need to know:

  • The chair of the Senate’s health panel is urging the Biden administration to do more to protect worker safety. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) called on the administration to institute permanent workplace safety standards for health-care employers, such as requirements to provide protective equipment, notify workers of potential coronavirus exposures and conduct visitor screening, The Post’s Dan Diamond reports.
  • Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who challenged Biden’s vaccine mandates, tested positive for the coronavirus, our colleague Ellen Francis writes. Paxton’s office did not respond to questions about whether he had been vaccinated.
  • California, Rhode Island and New York are requiring coronavirus tests for visitors to nursing homes in an effort to protect the vulnerable population. But many family members say they can’t secure the tests, making it impossible to visit their loved ones, Kaiser Health News’s Judith Graham reports.

On the Hill

Democrats are scrambling to scale down Build Back Better

Democrats are deciding what parts of Biden’s sweeping social spending bill to keep and which parts to scrap after the president acknowledged that the bill won’t pass Congress in its current form, The Post's Tony Romm reports.

That could spell an end to enhancing Medicare, as we reported yesterday, given opposition from moderate holdout Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). But the West Virginia senator seems eager to include measures aimed at reducing drug prices, saying that lawmakers need to “take care” of pharmaceuticals. “You’re gouging the people with high prices. We can fix that,” he told reporters Thursday.

What’s in a name? Build Back Better may be out. “We may have to rename it,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said at her weekly news conference.

Meanwhile, Manchin gestured toward a total reset after a year of debate. “We’ll just be starting from scratch,” Manchin told reporters. The comments affirmed reporting from our colleague Jeff Stein earlier this month that the senator's $1.8 trillion counteroffer to the White House is no longer on the table.

Quote of the week

Sugar rush

Thanks for reading! See y'all Monday.