KHN’s ‘What the Health?’: Trump vs. COVID


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President Donald Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis — and that of two dozen or more other officials in the White House and Capitol Hill — has scrambled an already confusing autumn. The president’s illness has thrown into doubt the remaining two presidential debates, and positive tests for several Republican senators may threaten the effort to push through a new Supreme Court justice before Election Day.

Meanwhile, it looks increasingly unlikely Congress will approve another round of economic relief before the election, even though that would be good for the president’s political fortunes and could help Democrats, too. And the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continue to fight for scientific credibility.

This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of Kaiser Health News, Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico, Kimberly Leonard of Business Insider and Erin Mershon of Stat News.

Among the takeaways from this week’s podcast:

  • Trump’s physician, Dr. Sean Conley, has been heavily criticized for his lack of transparency about the president’s health while battling the coronavirus. Conley repeatedly said federal rules under the HIPAA law limited his ability to answer reporters’ questions. That’s because HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) requires a patient’s consent to release medical information.
  • Nonetheless, Trump’s COVID diagnosis renews questions about whether the public has a right to know the details of a president’s health status, especially this year when both candidates are older than 70. Trump’s opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, has released only limited information, too.
  • Trump’s decision to unilaterally call off negotiations on a coronavirus relief package baffled and concerned Republican lawmakers and strategists because it undermines their narrative that the Democrats have refused to budge during talks.
  • Although the president has said he would support smaller stimulus bills that would help specific industries or consumers, it’s not clear what Congress would be willing to push out before the election. So, many Republican lawmakers are turning their attention to the upcoming hearings on the Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to rally support.
  • The widespread cases of COVID-19 tied to the White House highlight the president’s messages about masks, social isolation and other protective measures and have the potential to alienate voters, especially those who have lost loved ones or know people who have been afflicted with the disease.
  • Trump’s comments after coming home from the hospital urging the public to not be afraid of the virus or let it “dominate your life” have tapped into frustration by many people who have suffered from the economic consequences of the pandemic and are eager to put the issue behind them.
  • In the vice presidential debate Wednesday, Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris was criticized by Vice President Mike Pence for undermining public confidence in a vaccine when she said she wouldn’t take it if it were being pushed by Trump and not endorsed by public health officials. It’s a tricky issue for Democrats who believe Trump is using the vaccine trials to generate political support and his promise of approval by Election Day is politicizing the process. Yet, they know the public is eager for a successful vaccine.

This week, Rovner also interviews Amy Howe, co-founder of SCOTUSblog and host of the “SCOTUStalk” podcast. Howe explains what the Supreme Court might do with the latest case challenging the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act.

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

Julie Rovner: The Atlantic’s “Trump’s Doctor Comes From a Uniquely American Brand of Medicine,” by Eleanor Cummins

Alice Miranda Ollstein: The New York Times’ “How Much Would Trump’s Coronavirus Treatment Cost Most Americans?” by Sarah Kliff

Kimberly Leonard: Business Insider’s “Meet the 30 Leaders Under 40 Who Are Transforming the Future of Hhealthcare in 2020,” by Lydia Ramsey Pflanzer

Erin Mershon: Kaiser Health News’ “Not Pandemic-Proof: Insulin Copay Caps Fall Short, Fueling Underground Exchanges,” by Markian Hawryluk

To hear all our podcasts, click here.

And subscribe to What the Health? on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, Spotify, or Pocket Casts.

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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