Obamacare premiums dip for first time. Some call it a correction.

After two years of double-digit price hikes, the average premium for individual health coverage on the federal health law’s insurance marketplace will drop by 1.5 percent for 2019, the Trump administration said Thursday. The announcement  marked the first time average premiums have fallen since the exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act went into effect in 2014. It also comes during a bitter midterm congressional campaign season in which health care is a central issue following last year’s efforts by Republicans to repeal the ACA. Administration officials claimed credit for the price drop, saying it was due to their actions to make changes to the law. Health policy experts said it was a reaction to insurers’ huge profits following hefty premium increases on plans offered this year.

‘Contraception Deserts’ likely to widen under new Trump administration policy

LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. — When Nikia Jackson needed to be screened for a sexually transmitted disease, she wanted a clinic that was reputable, quick and inexpensive. After searching online, Jackson, 23, ended up at the Obria Medical Clinics’ sparkling new facility in an office park in suburban Atlanta. She was unaware that the clinic does not offer condoms or other kinds of birth control beyond so-called natural family planning methods. Religious conservatives say these types of clinics are the future of women’s sexual health care in the United States.

States leverage federal funds to help insurers lower premiums

When Tracy Deis decided in 2016 to transition from a full-time job to part-time contract work, the loss of her employer’s health insurance was not a major worry because she knew she could get coverage through the marketplace set up by the Affordable Care Act. But price was a big concern. “The ACA made it possible to make the switch in my life,” said Deis, 48, who lives in Minneapolis. But she quickly added, “I was really worried about the cost.”

Her anxiety was understandable. In Minnesota, the average cost of insurance in the state-run exchange soared 57 percent in 2017, after a 40 percent rise in 2016.

As Trump targets immigrants, elderly brace to lose caregivers

BOSTON — After back-to-back, eight-hour shifts at a chiropractor’s office and a rehab center, Nirva arrived outside an elderly woman’s house just in time to help her up the front steps. Nirva took the woman’s arm as she hoisted herself up, one step at a time, taking breaks to ease the pain in her hip. At the top, they stopped for a hug. “Hello, bella,” Nirva said, using the word for “beautiful” in Italian. “Hi, baby,” replied Isolina Dicenso, the 96-year-old woman she has helped care for for seven years.

Poll: Americans aghast over drug costs but aren’t holding their breath for a fix

The recent school shootings in Florida and Maryland have focused attention on the National Rifle Association’s clout in state and federal lobbying activities. Yet more than the NRA or even Wall Street, it’s the pharmaceutical industry that Americans think has the most muscle when it comes to policymaking. A poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 72 percent of people think the drug industry has too much influence in Washington —outweighing the 69 percent who feel that way about Wall Street or the 52 percent who think the NRA has too much power. Only the large-business community outranked drugmakers. (Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the foundation.)

Drug prices are among the few areas of health policy where Americans seem to find consensus.

Congress tackles the opioid epidemic. But how much will it help?

The nation’s opioid epidemic has been called today’s version of the 1980s AIDS crisis. In a speech Monday, President Donald Trump pushed for a tougher federal response, emphasizing a tough-on-crime approach for drug dealers and more funding for treatment. And Congress is upping the ante, via a series of hearings — including one scheduled to last Wednesday through Thursday — to study legislation that might tackle the unyielding scourge, which has cost an estimated $1 trillion in premature deaths, health care costs and lost wages since 2001. Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician by training and the health commissioner for hard-hit Baltimore, said Capitol Hill has to help communities at risk of becoming overwhelmed. “We haven’t seen the peak of the epidemic.

Trump administration proposes rule to loosen curbs on short-term health plans

Insurers will again be able to sell short-term health insurance good for up to 12 months under a proposed rule released Tuesday by the Trump administration that could further roil the marketplace. “We want to open up affordable alternatives to unaffordable Affordable Care Act policies,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. “This is one step in the direction of providing Americans health insurance options that are more affordable and more suitable to individual and family circumstances.”

The proposed rule said short-term plans could add more choices to the market at lower cost and may offer broader provider networks than Affordable Care Act plans in rural areas. But most short-term coverage requires answering a string of medical questions, and insurers can reject applicants with preexisting medical problems, which ACA plans cannot do. As a result, the proposed rule also noted that some people who switch to them from ACA coverage may see “reduced access to some services,” and “increased out of pocket costs, possibly leading to financial hardship.”

The directive follows an executive order issued in October to roll back restrictions put in place during the Obama administration that limited these plans to three months.

Pharmacists slow to dispense lifesaving overdose drug

Gale Dunham, a pharmacist in Calistoga, Calif., knows the devastation the opioid epidemic has wrought, and she is glad the anti-overdose drug naloxone is becoming more accessible. But so far, Dunham said, she has not taken advantage of a California law that allows pharmacists to dispense the medication to patients without a doctor’s prescription. She said she plans to take the training required at some point but has not yet seen much demand for the drug. “I don’t think people who are heroin addicts or taking a lot of opioids think that they need it,” Dunham said. “Here, nobody comes and asks for it.”

In the three years since the California law took effect, pharmacists have been slow to dispense naloxone, which reverses the effects of an overdose.

Trump administration relaxes financial penalties against nursing homes

The Trump administration — reversing guidelines put in place under President Barack Obama — is scaling back the use of fines against nursing homes that harm residents or place them in grave risk of injury. The shift in the Medicare program’s penalty protocols was requested by the nursing home industry. The American Health Care Association, the industry’s main trade group, has complained that under Obama inspectors focused excessively on catching wrongdoing rather than helping nursing homes improve. “It is critical that we have relief,” Mark Parkinson, the group’s president, wrote in a letter to then-President-elect Donald Trump in December 2016. Since 2013, nearly 6,500 nursing homes — 4 of every 10 — have been cited at least once for a serious violation, federal records show.

Stopping opioid addiction at one key source: The hospital

It may not be rocket science, but a group of surgeons at the University of Michigan’s Michigan Medicine have devised a strategy to curb the nation’s opioid epidemic — starting at their own hospital. Their findings appeared online Wednesday in the journal JAMA Surgery. Opioid addiction has been deemed a “national emergency.” It’s estimated to have claimed 64,000 lives in 2016 alone. And research shows that post-surgical patients are at an increased risk of addiction because of the medication they receive to help manage pain during recovery. This story originally appeared at Kaiser Health News.