Health Care

Zucker Touts Hoosick Falls Water As Among Cleanest In U.S.

State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker on Thursday touted efforts to filter drinking water in the village of Hoosick Falls, insisting it is “probably the cleanest water in the entire nation.”

“It’s very important to recognize that water in Hoosick Falls is not contaminated,” he said. “It is probably the cleanest water, among the cleanest water, in the entire state. For that matter, it’s probably among the cleanest water in the entire nation.”

His comments come amid renewed concerns in the rural village near the Vermont border after officials at Honeywell while testing for PFOA found levels of volatile organic compounds — an airborne contaminant that has been used in household products.

In comments to reporters after testifying before a joint legislative budget hearing on health care spending, Zucker said the state was practicing “aggressive” oversight at the Honeywell site.

“Honeywell is the corporate polluter there. We are monitoring,” he said. “It’s their responsibility to look at the soil — the soil evaporation process is the concern there. Honeywell is responsible for that and we have aggressive oversight — DEC and DOH — on that issue.”

But at the same time, Zucker sought to assure residents the water filtration system installed by the state have been working well by removing PFOA contaminants from the drinking water.

“It’s provided unbelievable success there,” he said.

Here’s some video of the exchange:

Cuomo Admin: Prescription Drug Plan Will Withstand Legal Challenge

The plan to have New York regulate and control the price of prescription drugs will withstand legal challenges, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s top health officials told state lawmakers at a joint budget hearing on Thursday.

“We considered and worked on this project and proposal for a good long time because we are well aware that other states have had proposals challenged in the courts,” said Jason Helgerson, the governor’s top Medicaid adivsor. “We are confident the governor’s proposal will stand up to any legal scrutiny.”

The proposal is aimed at creating a price ceiling for drug costs, cracking down of “abusive business practices” of pharmacy benefit managers and impose a fee on high-cos drugs when sold in the state.

Democratic Assemblyman John McDonald, a pharmacist, is skeptical of the proposal and its $55 million cost.

“I think today’s hearing is giving some insight into their strategy, which is if they put up a very strong policy, the manufacturers will adhere to it,” McDonald said.

But at the same time, he was taken aback by the degree of certainty Helgerson and Health Commissioner Howard Zucker had over the plan holding up in court given the struggles other states have had enacting similar policies.

“They were very clearly that it would. I was surprise to hear that,” he said. “Obviously it has not done well in other states, but at the end of the day there’s a $55 million price tag tied to this in the budget.”

Rep. Collins On Obamacare: ‘We’re Not Going To Be Pulling The Rug Out From Anyone’

Repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act was a rallying cry for Republicans and President-elect Donald Trump throughout the campaign season, but one of Trump’s top surrogates in Congress said he doesn’t expect everything to change overnight.

“I believe the plans that people are now signing up for will be their insurance plans for 2017. There’s nothing we can do today that would impact that,” Rep. Chris Collins, R-New York, told CNN’s Chris Cuomo this morning.

Despite pending Republican control of both houses and the executive branch, Collins doesn’t believe a full repeal of the law in plausible. The GOP doesn’t have the 60 votes in the Senate required to avoid a Democratic filibuster.

Rather, Collins said in Trump’s first 100 days, Republicans will repeal pieces of the law through the reconciliation process, which requires fewer votes but limits what can be removed.

“It’ll be like the repeal we put on his (President Obama’s) desk (last year), medical device tax, health insurance tax, employer mandate, employee mandate, 40 hour week, work week. We can do that through reconciliation,” Collins said.

As for the replacement piece, he said the GOP Congress has some ideas but will have to run them by the Trump administration. He said the American people can expect a transition period.

“You don’t cut it off on a Tuesday and on Wednesday say here’s the new plan. Insurance companies have to put out their plans for 2018, in many cases, by April. So we do have a timeline that we have to adhere to and I think everyone realizes, for the year of 2017, we’re not going to be pulling the rug out from anyone.”

DFS Releases 2017 Insurance Rates

The state’s insurance regulators on Friday released the 2017 health insurance rates for New York individual and small group markets, showing increases for both.

The Department of Financial Services announced small group market rates will increase 8.3 percent. For the individual market, rates will increase to 16.6 percent.

Both rate increases are smaller than what insurers had sought earlier this year with state regulators, with rates of 12.3 percent for the small group market and 19.3 percent for individual plans.

Officials at DFS insisted the lower rate increases will ultimately save policyholders money.

“DFS carefully examined the rates requested by health insurers to reduce excessive health insurance premium increases in the face of rising national healthcare and pharmaceutical costs,” said DFS Superintendent Vullo.

“While premiums are increasing nationally, New York’s rates are comparable or lower than rates requested and approved in other states. More than 50 percent of consumers buying plans through the NY State of Health will receive a tax credit offsetting the increases in premiums, and for some the credit will result in lower actual premiums. DFS will continue to protect consumers and ensure access to healthcare, while maintaining a vibrant and competitive New York insurance market.”

The main factor driving insurance rate increases has been underlying medical costs, DFS said. With the 2017 rate announcement, the department estimated the average claim trend for insurers is at 7 percent for the individual market and 8.5 percent for the group market. Inpatient hospital and drug costs made up the largest portion of medical costs.

Cuomo and DOH Announce Action Plan for Zika Virus

Governor Cuomo and Health Commissioner Howard Zucker, Thursday, announced a 6-point action plan to prevent the spread of the Zika Virus in New York.

The Department of Health has identified nine counties in the New York City area, the northern suburbs and Long Island as areas of outbreak. The virus is spread through either sexual contact or by a specific strain of mosquito, which Zucker says makes up about three to five percent of mosquitoes in New York.

The plan focuses on stopping the spread of that type of mosquito while providing services to those who may be impacted by the virus.

The state will distribute 100,000 larvicide tablets for residents to use in standing water where the mosquitoes typically reproduce. They will also distribute 1,000 mosquito traps to study the population. Zucker says that will include testing 60,000 mosquitoes per month at a lab in Albany.

They will also distribute 20,000 Zika kits for pregnant women, who can find them at health care providers in the affected areas. A Rapid Response Team will also be formed to visit areas where Zika has been found, or if Zika continues to spread north.

Zucker is also requiring local health officials to develop their own Zika action plans to be used in the case of a widespread outbreak. His department is also launching a public awareness campaign on the virus.

Evidence suggests that Zika virus may be linked to microcephaly, a condition where children are born with less than average size heads and possible neurological issues. Zucker says about 80 percent of people who have the virus do not exhibit symptoms, though the virus can also lead to paralysis or death.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 193 travel-related cases of Zika Virus had been identified in the United States as of March 9. Governor Cuomo says 49 cases have been identified in New York and the number is expected to increase.

Senators: “Grave Concern” Over State’s Handling of Health Republic Shutdown

State Senators Kemp Hannon and Jim Seward sent a letter, Thursday, to the state’s health exchange and the Department of Financial Services “with grave concern” over how the state is handling the closing of Health Republic – a health co-op that was shut down by state regulators in September.

The Senators write in the letter that the top priority for the state in the immediate future should be to transition Health Republic customers to new health insurance plans.

The state has worked to alleviate the transition for customers by extending open enrollment in the state health exchange until November 30th for customers. The state also plans to auto-enroll some people in new plans, but “it is unclear how the mechanics of this will be implemented”, the Senators write.

The letter also brings up a new issue in the Health Republic debacle – group coverage. The Senators write that customers should be notified sooner rather than later if their employer will no longer provide small group health coverage.

This comes as the Department of Financial Services works to investigate the shutdown of Health Republic. Congressman Chris Gibson has called for an independent investigation into the closure, while Senator Chuck Schumer has said the state is best equipped to handle the investigation.

State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli also told us on Capital Tonight this week he’s considering his own investigation into the shutdown.

Read the full letter below:

Regulators Close Health Insurance Co-Op

healthxchangeState regulators on Friday ordered a health-insurance co-op that was part of the state-based insurance exchange in New York to close as it was in danger of becoming insolvent.

In a statement, the Department of Financial Services said the Health Republic Insurance of New York co-op’s closure comes after an increasingly troubled financial situation.

“Given Health Republic’s financial situation, commencing an orderly wind down process before the upcoming open enrollment period is the best course of action to protect consumers,” said Anthony Albanese, the acting superintendent of the Financial Services Department, which oversees and regulates insurers in New York. “Moving forward, we will work closely with New York State of Health and federal regulators to help ensure continuity of coverage for Health Republic’s customers.”

New York’s roll out of the health-care exchanges, part of the federal health-care overhaul aimed at expanding insurance rolls, was conducted relatively smoothly as the uninsured enrolled in various plans.

So far, Health Republic Insurance of New York has 150,000 customers, including 83,000 individuals who enrolled through the state this year. They will now have to find new insurance polices for next year. More >

SCOTUS Upholds Major Obamacare Component

A major part of the Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare”, was upheld by the Supreme Court Thursday morning.

In a ruling of 6 – 3, the court ruled in favor of a part of the law that provides subsidies for low and middle-income people to purchase health insurance.

The question surrounding the case of King v. Burwell was mostly in the language of the controversial health law. The Affordable Care Act guarantees subsidies for people who may not be able to afford health insurance on their own.

The wording of the law points specifically to subsidies being provided in states that have set up their own health exchange marketplaces. New York is one of those states.

But more than thirty states did not set up such exchanges, leaving their health care system up to the federal government. The argument was whether residents in those states should also be guaranteed subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.

The six justices who ruled in favor of the Affordable Care Act said that in this case the context outweighs the plain language of the law. The three dissenting justices said the majority’s reading of the law “is of course quite absurd, and the Court’s 21 pages of explanation make it no less so.”

This is just one of many hurdles the Affordable Care Act has had to pass since it was enacted in 2010. It was also one of two major cases the Supreme Court is handling this year. The other – Obergefell v. Hodges – deals with whether same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry.

The next opinion day for the court is Friday. Five more opinions are left for the court to rule on. If they do not deliver all five Friday, they will be back Monday for those remaining.

UPDATEDX2: Gottfried Bill Would Speed Up Medical Marijuana Program

A bill that would expedite the state’s medical marijuana program to treat patients suffering from extreme circumstances has been introduced into the state Assembly.

The bill was introduced last week by Manhattan Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, a long-time advocate of medical marijuana in New York State.

This bill would make the treatment available for patients as soon as possible, if their condition is serious enough to merit treatment from the drug.

Gottfried, along with Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, who is a co-sponsor of the bill, held a hybrid press conference and rally outside the Assembly chamber Tuesday morning.

Besides this law, Gottfried said the Governor could direct the Department of Health to take emergency action to help those who may benefit from medical marijuana. He also said the state’s decades-old Olivieri Law could be used. That law is said to allow hospitals to administer medical marijuana to patients after a medical review.

But even if the law was passed as soon as possible, it’s unclear when the treatment would actually be available to patients requesting it. The drug would either need to be grown in New York, or imported from another medical marijuana approved state. For the latter, the legality is unclear, but Gottfried said he sees no barriers.

“It is still not entirely clear to me that the federal government would prohibit the movement of medical marijuana under state supervision from one legal medical marijuana state to another,” Gottfried said earlier today. “I don’t think the Governor has ever really pressed the federal government to agree to that.”

The bill currently has no sponsor in the Senate, though a similar bill was introduced earlier this session by Senator Bill Larkin. That bill would have established an emergency medical marijuana program for much of the same reason. The same bill was sponsored by Brian Kolb in the Assembly. Neither have moved since they were introduced and referred to their respective health committees.

Senator Diane Savino, who sponsored the initial medical marijuana bill in the Senate, said at the time that she did not support the Larkin bill, citing the Department of Health’s plan for implementation.

“Any deviation from that effort will delay the entire program,” Savino said during an interview.

Update: A representative from Senator Larkin’s office said they’re reviewing the new bill from Assemblyman Gottfried before they decide whether they’ll take it up in the Senate.

Update X2: A spokesman from the Cuomo administration sent a statement to State of Politics reacting to the Gottfried bill Tuesday afternoon.

“Our top priority is to deliver relief to those in pain and we are doing so as expeditiously as possible under current federal guidelines and within the confines of the Compassionate Care Act, which Assemblyman Gottfried sponsored, supported and passed through his own house. Just yesterday, applications for vendors were released per the timeline laid out in that legislation.  The last thing that anyone would want is legal complications to arise from importing marijuana products over state lines without federal approval, or for  unnecessary delays with the implementation of the current program to come as a result of layering a separate process on top of it.”


Stefanik Ad Reiterates ‘Commitment’ To Social Security, Medicare

NY-21 GOP candidate Elise Stefanik is answering the attack ad released earlier today by her Democratic opponent, Aaron Woolf, with an ad of her own on the same issue, reiterating her “commitment protect and preserve Social Security and Medicare programs for our seniors.”

The ad, which stars airing across the district today, repeats Stefanik’s claim that she doesn’t believe those who are “in or near retirement” should see any changes in these benefits. The only problem: The ad doesn’t define what “near retirement” means in Stefanik’s mind – a point that has gotten her into hot water before.

In fact, it was Stefanik’s reluctance to offer any specifics on that key point that led her to walk away from reporters at her own press conference back in August – the very press conference Woolf highlighted in his ad.

In her ad, Stefanik takes a swipe at Woolf (without mentioning him by name, of course), saying: “(M)y opponent has no proposal to modernize these programs so that they exist for my generation and your grandchildren’s.”