Actions by people in power – lawmakers, regulators and the like – can make a difference to your health, for better or for worse. We keep you informed


State Revokes Blue Shield of California’s Tax-Exempt Status

(Steve Rhodes via Flickr)

(Steve Rhodes via Flickr)

On the Blue Shield of California Web page called “What Does Being a Not-for-Profit Mean to Us?” the health insurer provides an answer:

Operationally, it means we don’t answer to Wall Street – we don’t need to generate returns to shareholders. Philosophically, being a not-for-profit means we’re guided by our mission to ensure all Californians have access to high-quality health care at an affordable price.

Well, the state’s Franchise Tax Board may have found that something in that description does not conform with reality. In a story first reported by the L.A. Times and confirmed by Blue Shield of California to KQED, the board has stripped the company of its tax-exempt status.

Yes the loss of tax exemption is true and we have filed a formal protest of the decision with the FTB,” Blue Shield said in an email. The tax board said the revocation occurred on Aug. 28, 2014, and the Times said the company must now file returns from 2013 on. When asked the reason for the revocation, the board responded that is not considered public information and could not be disclosed.

Whatever the reason, the Times said the move could transfer tens of millions of dollars each year from the company to the state. Calling the action highly unusual, the newspaper said it came on the heels of a state audit investigating the justification for the company’s tax exemption. Continue reading

Feinstein and Boxer Say Pregnant Women Should Get Special Obamacare Enrollment

(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

U.S. Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein are calling on California’s health insurance marketplace, Covered California, to allow women to sign up for coverage when they become pregnant.

Under the current rules of the Affordable Care Act, uninsured women who discover they’re pregnant outside of open enrollment periods can only sign up for coverage once the baby is born. The senators sent a letter to Covered California on Wednesday urging the agency to change the policy to make pregnancy a “qualifying life event” that allows women to enroll in coverage at that time.

“Allowing women to purchase health insurance during pregnancy will increase access to care and has the potential to improve health, save lives, and reduce future health costs,” the senators wrote. Continue reading

‘Sugar Papers’ Show Industry’s Influence in 1970s Dental Program, Study Says

(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

Hundreds of pages of newly-found documents show that the sugar industry worked closely with the federal government in the late 1960s and early 1970s to determine a research agenda to prevent cavities in children, researchers who analyzed the documents say.

“The sugar industry … is following the tobacco industry’s playbook.”
In the analysis, published Wednesday in the journal PLOS Medicine, researchers concluded that industry influence starting in the late 1960s helped steer the National Institute of Dental Research, part of the National Institutes of Health, away from addressing the question of determining a safe level of sugar.

“What this paper has shown is that our (NIH) was working toward potentially answering that question,” said Cristin Kearns, a fellow at UC San Francisco and lead author of the analysis, “and the sugar industry derailed them from doing the research to help to answer that question, so we’re still debating (it) here in 2015.” Continue reading

For Breast-feeding Teen Moms, High Schools Don’t Make the Grade

Norma Acker hangs out in the kitchen with her mom and her daughter. (Alice Daniel/KQED)

Norma Acker (right) hangs out in the kitchen with her mother and her daughter, Samantha Grace. She breast-fed her for eight months. (Alice Daniel/KQED)

By Alice Daniel

Norma Acker’s 3-year-old daughter Samantha Grace has opened a bottle of bright red fingernail polish without anyone noticing. Now it’s everywhere.

California has strong employer laws to accommodate breast-feeding mothers, but high schools are different.  

“Oh Gracie!” says Acker. “Let me see. Give it to mommy. Go wash your hands.” She then laughs the laugh of a mother who has had many a day like this.

Parenting is hard, Acker says. Being a teen parent is even harder. Acker was barely 15 when she had Gracie.

Even though she was a young mother, she’d heard about the benefits of breast-feeding and decided she would try to breast-feed while attending her local high school in the Central Valley town of Reedley. Continue reading

California Not Affected by Obamacare Court Challenge; At Least Not Yet

(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

It’s been three years, but the Affordable Care Act is before the Supreme Court again. The constitutionality of the law was settled then. This time, the question is subsidies. Oral arguments happen Wednesday.

The case is King v. Burwell, and the heart of the matter is whether the ACA permits subsidies to be granted to people who live in the 34 states that use the federally-run marketplace, healthcare.gov.

Note well: people in California, and the 13 other states that set up their own insurance marketplaces are not affected by this case. No one is challenging the legality of the subsidies as a whole — only whether they may legally go to people who live in states using healthcare.gov. Continue reading

California Lawmakers Scrutinize Psychotropic Drug Prescriptions to Foster Kids

In California, 63,000 children and teenagers are in foster care in private homes or group homes run by the state.

A quarter of them were prescribed potent psychotropic drugs.

That sobering statistic was unearthed in a Bay Area News Group investigation last year, which analyzed a decade of state statistics. The drugs include Lithium and Depakote as well as anti-psychotics such as Haldol, Risperdal and Abilify. Continue reading

More Pressure on Providers in Face of Medi-Cal Expansion

Dr. Davi Pakter, of Berkeley LifeLong Clinic, prepares to see patients. (Julie Small/KQED)

Dr. Davi Pakter, of Berkeley LifeLong Clinic, (right) prepares to see patients. (Julie Small/KQED)

Medi-Cal — the public health insurance program for low-income Californians — is growing faster under federal health care reform than the state expected. Twelve million residents — nearly a third of the state’s population — now rely on Medi-Cal, and that’s increased pressure to find more doctors willing and able to treat patients for what has historically been low reimbursement rates.

At the LifeLong Clinic in West Berkeley most of the patients waiting to see a doctor are on Medi-Cal. Among them, 26-year-old Amanda Hopkins, says she enrolled half a year ago when the state expanded the benefits program.

“It’s been relieving to have Medi-Cal and know that if something happened — I needed an ambulance or there was an emergency — I wouldn’t have to worry about being in debt thousands of dollars,” she said. Continue reading

Covered California Considering Enrollment ‘Contingency Plans’ Tied to Tax Deadline

Screenshot from the Covered California website.

Screenshot from the Covered California website.

Covered California open enrollment ends this Sunday. Sort of.

Special enrollment for people who did not know about the tax penalty?    

For starters, the agency announced Thursday that people who start an application by this Sunday get until next Friday, Feb. 20, to finish it. That’s similar to steps that Covered California has taken in the past. 

But advocates have long been frustrated with the timing of open enrollment. That’s because of how penalties for lacking insurance are assessed — on your taxes. The tax deadline is not for another two months, April 15. Continue reading

Statewide Soda Warning Bill Returns

(Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

(Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

By David Gorn, CaliforniaHealthline

State Sen. Bill Monning (D-Carmel) is not giving up in the battle to put a health-risk warning label on sugared drinks. On Wednesday, Monning reintroduced the legislation (SB 203) that failed to pass during the last session.

But expect a different result this year, Monning said.

“We certainly hope for a different outcome this year, and again we expect strong resistance as we had last year,” Monning said. “But this is part of a larger general public health effort … Tobacco was a decades-long struggle. Now we see a change in the number of people who are affected by tobacco. We’re in the early stages.” Continue reading

Cancer Patients, Doctors Sue State to Allow Aid in Dying

Brittany Maynard, 29, terminally ill with brain cancer, ended her own life on Nov. 1, 2014 in Oregon. (Compassion and Choices/BrittanyFund.org)

Brittany Maynard, 29, terminally ill with brain cancer, ended her own life on Nov. 1, 2014, in Oregon.
(Compassion and Choices/BrittanyFund.org)

Cancer patients and doctors are suing the state of California to allow physicians to prescribe lethal medication to terminally ill patients who request it. The lawsuit was filed Wednesday, just three weeks after lawmakers proposed an “aid in dying” bill.

“I want to be in control of my life and die a peaceful death here in California, which is my home,” said Christie White, a plaintiff in the case.

She spent two years in the hospital battling leukemia. She’s in partial remission now, but the sense of helplessness she felt during her treatment haunts her. She says she’s suing the state so she can have more say over when and where she dies.

Continue reading