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Brainstorm Health Daily: March 10, 2017

I’ve been waiting for Harry & Louise.

Those of you old enough to remember the first season of “NYPD Blue”—no, the first season: long before Dennis Franz bared his butt on prime time TV—will no doubt recall the ads that featured a fortysomething couple sitting at their kitchen table in an unspecified, but bleak future time period. On the table in front of them is a pile of medical bills that their new, low-rent insurance plan apparently won’t cover.

“Things are changing, and not all for the better,” warns a deep-voiced announcer. “The government may force us to pick from a few healthcare plans designed by government bureaucrats.”

Sighs Louise: “Having choices we don’t like is no choice at all.”

The spots—which starred actors actually named Harry and Louise—were sponsored by a health insurance lobby and ran for much of a year, starting in September 1993. And they did much to sink President Clinton’s health care reform plan, or as it was best known: “Hillarycare.”

So, ever since the reveal of Trumpcare, I’ve been waiting for the Democrats’ answer to this famous campaign. And last night I saw it: an ad featuring a woodsy middle-aged guy and a squirrel named Charlie. The woodsy guy is splitting wood in the woods (to build a new home for his woodland rodent friend)—but he’s not too busy to tell us about the new “age rating” provision in the GOP replacement bill (see yesterday’s note for more).

“What the heck is age rating?” you ask. (Hey, that’s just what our woodsy hero asked.)

“But then Charlie explained that it’s Washington Politician speak for overcharging older Americans for their health insurance while lining the insurance companies’ pockets…Here’s how it works. Age rating is like an age tax. It means that health insurers can charge you a higher premium just because of your age. See here?”

(And then a bar chart appears with two different sized logs.)

“This log [the smaller one] represents how much an older person currently pays for healthcare. This log [the bigger one] represents how much that same person will pay if the age-rating bill passes…No, I don’t think it’s fair either, Charlie.”

The message, sponsored by AARP, prompts viewers to call their member of Congress on a toll-free number and tell them to “give the age tax the ax!” And, yes, it’s campy and clever—and possibly even effective.

But in any case, it’s a great reminder of the political danger of owning something. Healthcare reform, as fraught as it is, is now Republican- owned and operated. Which means that whenever anything gets taken away from anyone around the American healthcare table, they’re going to blame the GOP leadership—and probably President Trump, too. After all, whether he likes it or not, it’s still going to end up being called Trumpcare.

It’s almost as if we’ve been in this same spot over and over and over again. Which reminds me: You know what else came out in 1993? The movie Groundhog Day.

Enjoy the weekend. Here’s Sy with the news.

Clifton Leaf


FDA clears testing for Pfizer and Servier’s “universal” CAR-T cancer treatment. The Food and Drug Administration has given Pfizer and partner Servier the go-ahead  to begin testing a novel experimental cancer treatment that reconfigures immune cells to home in on and destroy blood cancers. As Brainstorm Health readers know, chimeric antigen receptor T-cell (CAR-T) therapies are being developed by companies like Kite Pharma and Novartis, who are both close to filing marketing applications to the FDA. But the Pfizer/Servier collaboration focuses on a different type of CAR-T – one which wouldn’t require extracting each individual patients’ cells and then reinserting them into their bodies. The therapy, UCART19, is a universal, “off-the-shelf” CAR-T which can be mass produced and administered to patients. It’s being tested in people with a specific form of B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

The tests that can tell you the cause of a stillbirth. A new study points to the three types of tests which are most effective in determining the cause of a stillbirth: examining the placenta, a fetal autopsy, and genetic testing. The first two, however, are far more helpful than the more high-tech genomic route. In fact, placenta examination helped root out the cause in two-thirds of cases and fetal autopsies helped 40% of the time. Genetic testing was effective in just 12% of cases. (New York Times)


The heat is mounting on Soon-Shiong as investor launches potential class action suit. Controversial biotech billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong is now facing at least three potential class action lawsuits in connection with recent reports that he structured charitable donations to the University of Utah in a manner that ensured the vast majority of the money would be re-funneled into his own companies (and allowed Soon-Shiong to exaggerate the demand for his product to investors). The latest was launched by just one investor but may become a class action down the line if others join in. Soon-Shiong’s company, NantHealth, has shed 40% of its market value since the report emerged and is now down nearly 77% since its blockbuster IPO last summer.

Pharma’s favorite defense for high drug prices doesn’t stack up. Drug makers like to say that their products must be priced “reasonably” in order to ensure a return that fuels the very life-saving innovation that’s the beating heart of the industry. But an analysis posted by Health Affairs earlier this week finds that the premium prices set by biopharma companies more than makes up for their R&D spending. “We found that the premiums pharmaceutical companies earn from charging substantially higher prices for their medications in the US compared to other Western countries generates substantially more than the companies spend globally on their research and development,” wrote the authors. In the analysis of 15 major pharmaceutical companies’ pricing habits, the authors found that bringing premium pricing in the U.S. in line with actual global research spending would have saved the country $40 billion in 2015 – more than 12% of all drug-related expenses that year. (Health Affairs)

Scott Gottlieb is reportedly Trump’s top choice for FDA commissioner. In a development that many in the scientific community will likely greet with a sigh of relief, sources have told Bloomberg that former Bush administration HHS official Dr. Scott Gottlieb is President Donald Trump’s top choice to head the Food and Drug Administration. Trump had reportedly also been considering some truly unconventional candidates, including Peter Thiel associate Jim O’Neill, who has advocated for drug approvals that are based only safety (and not efficacy, too). (Bloomberg)


Americans are officially drinking more bottled water than soda. The U.S. has now officially crossed a milestone which has seemed inevitable for the last several years: Americans are consuming more bottled water than they are carbonated soft drinks, according to an analysis by the Beverage Marketing Corp. Part of this has to do with the recent public health and PR crackdown on sugar and its deleterious effects. But there may also be another, more depressing aspect to the story in certain regions: America’s dilapidated water infrastructure, which led to the lead-in-water crisis in Flint, Michigan. (Fortune)

Dentists are trying to use fewer opioids. Dentists are fighting back against the U.S. opioid and heroin addiction epidemic by pulling back on the number of addictive painkillers they prescribe. Kaiser Health News and NPR note that state dental boards have been reassessing their policies for pain pill prescriptions. For instance, Pennsylvania is now requiring dentists who are renewing their licenses to receive training in responsible opioid prescription habits. Others are promoting the use of alternative treatments like anti-inflammatories. In the overall health sector, there’s been a recent push to steer pain patients to physical therapy, counseling, and other such techniques to avoid the use of opioids. (Kaiser Health News)

Moody’s, S&P warn that Trumpcare would trash hospital finances. The U.S. medical sector has issued the GOP Obamacare replacement plan, the American Health Care Act, a resounding thumbs down over widespread expectations that it would lose massive coverage losses. And rating agencies agree with their assessment. “The overall payor mix for providers would weaken as the number of people without insurance would most likely rise, as would the hospital sector’s level of bad debt and charity care expenses,” said S&P analysts. Moody’s added that the legislation would “increase bad debt and uncompensated care costs” due to its freezing of Medicaid expansion in 2020. As of Thursday, two key House committees had advanced the bills. (Modern Healthcare)


The SEC Says This Marijuana Vending Machine Penny Stock Made Up Bogus Revenue, by Lucinda Shen

Amazon’s Alexa Puts a Stop to CIA Rumorby Jeff John Roberts

Airbnb Has No Plans to Go Public ‘Anytime Soon’ After Closing Billion Dollar Roundby Polina Marinova

Capital One’s Chatbot Is Gender Neutralby Reuters

Produced by Sy Mukherjee

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