Jan 8, 2018

Axios Vitals

By Caitlin Owens
Caitlin Owens

Good morning ... Who authorized this "bomb cyclone," and can they be fired?

CHIP is about to run out of money again

It's been 100 days since Congress let federal CHIP funding expire. Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Some states could run out of money for the Children’s Health Insurance Program as early as Jan. 19, despite short-term funding that Congress had hoped would last through March.

The details:

  • It’s now been 100 days since federal CHIP funding expired.
  • Lawmakers approved roughly $3 billion in stopgap CHIP money last month, which was designed to last through the end of March.
  • But federal officials told Kaiser Health News that while the money “should carry all the states through January 19th … we are unable to say with certainty whether there is enough funding for every state to continue its CHIP program through March 31, 2018.”
  • That means states could find once again themselves needing to freeze enrollment and begin notifying families that their CHIP coverage could be ending — steps some of them had already begun to take in December.

Notable: Jan. 19 also happens to be the deadline by which Congress needs to pass a spending bill to avert a government shutdown.

A CHIP deal should be much easier now. The Congressional Budget Office on Friday slashed its estimates of what it would cost to renew federal CHIP funding for five years. That price tag is now at $800 billion — a $7.5 billion discount.

  • What changed? The repeal of the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate, which will cause premiums to rise in the ACA's exchanges.
  • With more kids covered by CHIP instead of the exchanges, the government doesn't have to spend as much on subsidies through the exchanges, CBO said.
  • CBO also expects more parents will now enroll their kids in CHIP but remain uninsured themselves, instead of covering the whole family with an exchange plan.
Pfizer abandons Alzheimer’s research

Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer will stop trying to develop treatments for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, Reuters reports. The company will lay off 300 people and reallocate its spending toward work that’s more likely to yield profitable drugs.

The numbers that matter:

  • Roughly 5.5 million Americans live with Alzheimer’s, making it the 6th leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
  • The disease cost the health care system $259 billion last year — and that doesn’t count the labor of the roughly 15 million people who provide unpaid care to Alzheimer’s patients.
  • Pfizer recently announced a $10 billion stock buyback, thanks to the new tax law.

Go deeper: All medical research is hard, but Alzheimer’s — and the brain, generally — is especially daunting. I profiled some of the scientists trying to come up with new Alzheimer’s treatments back in 2014.

Trump-supporting pharma CEO weighs Senate bid

Bob Hugin, executive chairman of the pharmaceutical company Celgene, might run against Sen. Bob Menendez, Politico reports. Menendez is up for re-election this year; his corruption trial recently ended in a mistrial.

Between the lines: My colleague Bob Herman notes that Hugin is one of the only health care executives who actively supported President Trump in 2016, when Trump was saying drug companies were “getting away with murder.”

  • He gave $100,000 to Trump’s PAC in 2016 and also has close ties to Trump confidante Chris Christie.
  • Hugin could self-finance a serious campaign — he made $196 million as Celgene’s CEO, just in the seven years after the ACA passed.
Indian Health Service nominee may have exaggerated resumé

Robert Weaver, Trump’s nominee to lead the Indian Health Service, says he’s qualified for the job in part because of his experience helping run a Missouri hospital for almost 10 years. But there’s a problem: The Wall Street Journal called some people who worked at the hospital at the same time, and they say Weaver wasn’t nearly as senior as he claims.

What they're saying, per WSJ:

  • “I don’t recall that name whatsoever,” the hospital’s former CFO told the newspaper.
  • It’s also not clear whether Weaver is a college graduate.

Response: “Any suggestion Mr. Weaver is unqualified to run IHS is a pure act of character assassination,” an HHS spokeswoman told the WSJ.

Why it matters: The IHS is a critically important agency, with an annual budget of roughly $6 billion — and a lot of problems. The extent of Weaver’s management experience is relevant because it’s part of the rationale for entrusting him to execute the turnaround that tribes say the IHS desperately needs.

About that CDC briefing on nuclear explosions...

I noted in Friday’s Vitals that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is planning a briefing for the public about what to do in the event of a nuclear blast.

It was hard not to notice that the announcement coincided with Trump’s brinkmanship with North Korea, but lest you think the whole thing was some wildly elaborate CDC subtweet, the agency says planning for this presentation began last April.

While you were weekending …
  • The nation’s prison systems are turning to telemedicine to help offset a major shortage of mental health professionals, Modern Healthcare reports.
  • Funding the National Institutes of Health is about the only health care issue Congress can agree on, but new therapies don’t help people who can’t access them, The New York Times notes.
  • Oof. This one sentence, from STAT, really says it all: “There are more men named Michael (22) than female CEOs (20) giving company presentations at this week’s J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference.”
  • New guidelines on blood pressure could spark a rash of "overzealous medication," per The Washington Post.
Caitlin Owens

What we’re watching this week: Bob is going to be in San Francisco all week for the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference, so stay tuned for a heavy dose of health care business coverage. And email him at bob@axios.com if you’ll be there, too.

The Senate Finance Committee holds its confirmation hearing Tuesday for Alex Azar, Trump’s nominee for HHS secretary. Also on Tuesday, the HELP Committee will hold a hearing on the opioid crisis.

Trump gets a physical exam on Friday.

Congress has 11 days to avert a government shutdown.

My New Year’s resolution is to receive more tips from you: baker@axios.com