Health Care
Bob Herman Feb 16
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Wellmark met with Trump officials about short-term health plans
A person fills out a health insurance form.
Health insurer Wellmark met with federal officials last month regarding a pending rule. Photo: Tetra Images via Getty Images

John Clendenin and Scott Sundstrom, the top lawyers at Wellmark, last month held a teleconference with Trump administration health policy officials and an assistant to Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) to discuss pending rules on short-term health plans, according to lobbying meeting records. Wellmark and Rounds' office did not immediately answer questions about what was discussed.

Between the lines: New regulations on short-term health plans are expected to be released any day now. Large insurers like Wellmark have advocated for easing restrictions on short-term plans — and could be getting their wish.

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84 kids have died from flu this season so far
Data: Centers for Disease Control; Chart: Axios Visuals

The latest update from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates the U.S. flu season remains "elevated" and deaths continue to rise. There were 84 flu-related pediatric deaths recorded between Oct. 1 and Feb. 10 — up from 63 announced the prior week.

Reminder: On Thursday, federal health officials urged people to get a flu shot, which is estimated to be 36% effective overall and 59% effective for children younger than 9. They say roughly three-fourths of children who died did not receive a vaccination.

Axios Feb 16
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Why you should get a flu shot
Woman getting this year's flu shot at Walgreens. Photo: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

It’s true that this year’s flu vaccine isn’t quite as helpful as it could have been — it’s about 36% effective overall, according to new estimates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But it’s as high as 59% effective for children younger than 9, health officials said yesterday.

Why it matters: This is an especially deadly flu season, and it’s not over.

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D.C. doesn't know what to do about the opioid crisis
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Washington is still falling behind in helping to address the country's opioid crisis, some lawmakers and policy experts say, even as the epidemic rages on across the country. Congress recently provided $6 billion for the effort, and it's getting the ball rolling on another legislative push as well. But lawmakers aren't yet sure what that push will entail.

Why it matters: Roughly 64,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2016; the overwhelming majority of those cases involved some combination of prescription painkillers, synthetic opioids or heroin. Yet because the problem is so sweeping, the push for a policy response is being pulled in several directions — from immediate treatment to law enforcement to community rebuilding to new medical practices.

Bob Herman Feb 15
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Roche buys Flatiron Health for $2.1 billion
A Roche plant in the U.S.
Roche is a major seller of cancer drugs. Photo: Smith Collection / Gado via Getty Images

Roche is buying out the rest of Flatiron Health for $1.9 billion, the companies said Thursday. The total investment for Roche, a drug maker based in Switzerland, is about $2.1 billion in cash since it already owned about 13% of Flatiron, a tech company that handles electronic health records and data mining specifically for cancer doctors, researchers and patients.

The bottom line: Roche led Flatiron's latest funding round, which valued the company at $1.1 billion, and Roche's cancer drugs like Avastin and Herceptin represent more than 60% of its pharmaceutical sales — so it's no surprise Roche is enamored with technology that builds on its main products.

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CVS lawsuit could have implications for Aetna merger
CVS pharmacy
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

When CVS agreed to acquire insurer Aetna last fall for $66 billion, some wondered about how the deal would impact CVS customers who have different insurance. Would they have to pay higher prices, be denied service, etc? Worst-case scenario sorts of stuff, but clearly matters that government regulators would examine.

Now there is a lawsuit in Florida that, were its allegations borne out, could give those regulators something to dig into.

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This terrible flu season: What you need to know
Vials of the Fluvirin influenza vaccine.
Vials of the Fluvirin influenza vaccine. Photo: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

The current flu season is particularly deadly due to the specific virus strains combined with a "fluke" that rendered this year's vaccine less effective than desired, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, tells Axios. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention today announced interim results of the vaccine's overall effectiveness, which is 36%.

Why this matters: Healthy individuals are being struck down by the flu this season and some communities have taken steps like shutting schools to combat the contagion, which has killed at least 63 kids in the U.S. since the start of this flu season in the fall. While the CDC will update its influenza data soon, authorities say early indications do not show a slowdown yet.

Sam Baker Feb 15
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Idaho kicks off the next big ACA battle
Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter said last month he would let insurance companies sell policies that do not comply with the Affordable Care Act. And yesterday, Blue Cross of Idaho took him up on it.

The bottom line: This is a huge test for Health and Human Services secretary Alex Azar. And if he doesn’t step in enforce the ACA now, the Trump administration could ultimately find itself tied up in just as much ACA litigation as the Obama administration. (Medicaid work requirements are also being challenged in the courts.)

Bob Herman Feb 14
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Buffett buys $358 million stake in Teva
A Teva drug manufacturing plant in Israel.
A Teva drug manufacturing plant in Jerusalem. Photo: Menahem Kahana / AFP via Getty Images

The stock price of Teva Pharmaceutical Industries shot up more than 7% in after-hours trading Wednesday after Warren Buffet's firm, Berkshire Hathaway, revealed it spent $358 million to buy 19 million shares in the drug company, representing 2% of Teva's outstanding shares.

Between the lines: Existing Teva investors are cheering Buffett's entrance, but the drug company still faces several problems. Teva is losing a ton of money, undertook massive job cuts, has $32.5 billion of debt, and recently found out its best-selling multiple sclerosis drug, Copaxone, will face a second generic competitor sooner than expected.

Bob Herman Feb 14
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America's $3.5 trillion health care system
Doctors perform surgery to fix a patient's ruptured disc.
Americans spent about $3.5 trillion on health care in 2017. Photo: Andy Cross / The Denver Post via Getty Images

Americans continue to spend a lot of money on health care. Don't expect that to change. New preliminary federal data show annual health care spending climbed 4.6% to $3.5 trillion in 2017 — higher than the 4.3% growth rate in 2016 and still a lot higher than the broader inflation rate.

The bottom line: The new data reinforce the point that hospital visits, doctor appointments, surgeries, prescriptions and other health care services are gobbling up more of the U.S. economy right now and in the future at the expense of other societal priorities.