It is time to give Medicare beneficiaries effective obesity care

Sally Greenberg

By Sally Greenberg, Chief Executive Officer

“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”

As one of the most recognized quotes of all time, this line from the 1967 movie, Cool Hand Luke, originally addressed the struggle of a person’s will over government control.

Now the line is applicable to another and equally intractable struggle: ending outdated Medicare rules that leave millions of seniors with diagnosed obesity – particularly members of Black and Latino communities – vulnerable to disability, disease and premature death due to lack of access to the full range of treatment options.

The struggle is not new. As documented in a 2010 report from the US Surgeon General, the prevalence of obesity began to increase sharply in the 1980s and by the 1990s, public health leaders were calling obesity a national emergency. Now, the obesity rate among adult Americans exceeds 40 percent but is even higher among communities of color: virtually half of African Americans (49.6 percent) and 44.8 percent of Hispanics are living with obesity. Moreover, because obesity is directly linked to over 230 medical conditions, the disease is responsible for an estimated 400,000 deaths a year, costing the nation over $1.72 trillion annually in direct and indirect health costs.

Confronting this growing crisis, in 2012, the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) issued guidelines recommending screening all U.S. adults aged 18 and above for overweight and obesity and encouraging clinicians to treat or refer adults with obesity for treatment. Then, in 2013, the American Medical Association officially recognized obesity as “a disease state” on a par with other serious chronic diseases, like type 2 diabetes and hypertension, so healthcare professionals (HCPs) would be motivated to diagnose, counsel and treat obesity. These actions were the impetus for most private insurers, state health plans and state Medicaid programs to cover obesity care to some degree. Moreover, the Office of Personnel Management, which oversees health coverage for federal employees, now requires that insurers cover the full range of obesity treatment options, including intensive behavioral therapy (IBT), prescription weight loss drugs, and bariatric surgery. Additionally. Tri-Care, which covers military personnel and their families, and the Veterans Administration cover AOMs for adults who do not achieve weight loss goals through diet and exercise alone.

This leaves the Medicare program, which today represents the biggest obstacle impeding access to quality obesity care. Outdated Medicare Part B policy places undue restrictions on intensive behavioral therapy by allowing only primary care providers to deliver IBT and severely restricting the physical locations where this care can occur. Equally troubling, new FDA-approved anti-obesity medications (AOMs) are excluded from Medicare coverage based on a statutory prohibition tracing back to the start of the Part D program. This was in 2003 when fen-phen (the drug combination of fenfluramine and phentermine) controversy raised questions about the safety of weight loss drugs, leading the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to classify these medicines as “cosmetic” treatments not eligible for coverage, just like hair loss drugs and cold and flu treatments.

But obesity medicine has improved substantially since 2003. Due to the latest science on obesity as a serious chronic disease, there have been major advances in drug development, including new anti-obesity medications that achieve meaningful weight loss. Yet, while science has moved forward, CMS policy is stuck in the past.

To change this situation, advocates have gone to both Congress and CMS for help. In Congress, public health and aging organizations have been working to pass bipartisan legislation called the Treat and Reduce Obesity Act (TROA) that would end the exclusion under Medicare Part D prohibiting coverage for AOMs and change Medicare Part B rules to permit all qualified health practitioners to provide Intensive Behavioral Therapy (IBT) to Medicare beneficiaries. With CMS, advocates have written to and met with key staffers on several occasions, urging the agency to use its inherent authority to allow flexibility to include drugs under Part D that might otherwise be excluded. One key argument is that CMS has already done this on multiple occasions, ending exclusions for treatments for AIDS wasting and other medical conditions when it is urgent to do so.   And yet, ten years have passed since AMA classified obesity as a chronic disease with no action from either Congress or CMS. In Congress, TROA did not receive a floor vote in the House of Representatives in 2022 despite having 154 co-sponsors and widespread support from medical societies, public health organizations and the aging community. Similarly, CMS has kept the exclusion on coverage for anti-obesity medications, even though the Biden Administration has asked for ways to address systemic racial inequity and obesity is a throughline to better health outcomes.

To start a dialogue that could lead to meaningful action, the National Consumers League and the National Council on Aging decided to change the dynamic. In September 2022, our organizations sent an urgent letter to CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure requesting a meeting so we could speak to her directly on behalf of  about 18 million traditional Medicare beneficiaries whose diagnosis of obesity puts them at risk of other serious conditions. Our letter was well received and on January 17, this meeting took place.

Recognizing that there has been a “failure to communicate” the urgency of the moment, our purpose was to put a human face on seniors with obesity and to convey that bureaucracy and intransigence cannot be the reason that 18 million older adults are denied effective obesity care. As such, we asked Administrator Brooks-LaSure to end the impasse in Part D coverage of FDA-approved AOMs by making access to obesity treatment an agency priority. This action could be the catalyst empowering CMS staff to think differently about obesity and be more open to interpreting the statutory exclusion provision in a way that would permit coverage for anti-obesity medications.

It is too soon to know what the outcome of the meeting will be. We opened a door and pledged to maintain a frank and constructive dialogue with Administrator Brooks-LaSure and staff she designates on the needs of Medicare beneficiaries living with obesity. Our hope is to elevate obesity as a priority for CMS policy and to work with CMS and other stakeholders to remove the access barriers that keep too many Americans from seeking obesity care.

Nancy Glick

Alcohol labeling: We’re in it to win it

Nancy GlickBy Nancy Glick, Director of Food and Nutrition Policy

For historians, 2003 will be remembered as the year that the space shuttle Columbia crashed, scientists finished sequencing the human genome, and the U.S. launched war against Iraq.

But 2003 also marks an important milestone for American consumers. In December of that year, three national consumer organizations – the National Consumers League (NCL), Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), and the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) – first petitioned the federal government to require an easy to read, standardized “Alcohol Facts” label on all beer, wine and distilled spirits products. This sparked a 19-year battle that is finally paying off for the estimated 67 percent of Americans[1] who drink alcoholic beverages.

In 2003, the Nutrition Facts label on processed foods and non-alcoholic beverages had been in use for almost a decade (1994) and many consumers said they frequently or almost always read the label. Thus, public acceptance and use of the Nutrition Facts label created built-in public support for an Alcohol Facts label. In fact, polling NCL commissioned in both 2005 and 2007 showed overwhelming public support for comprehensive alcohol labeling. Now, polling consistently shows that 75 percent of Americans think alcoholic beverages should have standardized alcohol content labels and 72 percent say this labeling will encourage responsible alcohol use.

Even more significantly, not knowing what is in a beer, wine or distilled spirits drink increases the risk for overconsumption of alcohol, a serious and costly public health problem. According to the latest research findings, alcohol is a source of empty calories that contribute to obesity,[2] and can impact blood sugar control in people with diabetes.[3] Additionally, alcohol is a roadway killer accounting for about 30 percent of all traffic crash fatalities in the U.S.,[4] and excessive drinking increases the risk of liver disease, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, alcohol use disorders, certain cancers and severe injuries.[5] Consequently, an estimated 140,000 people in the United States die annually from alcohol- related causes,[6] which is why the cost of excessive alcohol use reached $249 billion in 2010 and is likely higher today..[7]

Based on this documented evidence, the 2003 petition, which was also signed by 73 nutrition/public health organizations and experts, called for a label that gives consumers the needed information to make responsible drinking decisions, such as the serving size, amount of alcohol and calories per serving, the percent alcohol by volume, and the number of standard drinks per container. And yet, the lead federal agency that regulates alcoholic beverages – the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) – deliberated but failed to take meaningful action for almost two decades.

The arcane process started in 2005 with an advance notice of proposed rulemaking, which produced over 19,000 public comments. In 2006, TTB issued another notice of proposed rulemaking on allergen labeling followed by a notice in 2007 on alcohol and nutrition labeling. Unfortunately, however, TTB allowed these proposed rules to languish, ultimately deciding in 2013 to issue a voluntary rule allowing companies to decide what nutrition and calorie information to disclose – and what to keep hidden. Not surprisingly, many manufacturers opted out of TTB’s program so most alcoholic beverage products on the market remain unlabeled or carry incomplete information.

Even with these setbacks, the consumer community kept up the pressure on TTB because the need for alcohol labeling has only increased. This became apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic when a 2020 RAND study charted a 14 percent increase in alcohol consumption among adults over age 30 in one year.[8] Another national study found that excessive (binge) drinking increased by 21 percent during the pandemic, with the potential for 8,000 additional deaths from alcohol-related liver disease by 2040.[9]

And then, the sand started to shift. Also related to the pandemic, consumer demand skyrocketed for hard ciders, some types of beers, wine coolers and the other low-alcohol drinks sold in supermarkets and convenience stores and what consumers saw were complete alcohol labels on these products. This is because low-alcohol drinks fall under the purview of the Food and Drug Administration, not TTB. Armed with this evidence, NCL leaders met online with Department of Treasury and TTB officials in June 2021 and put TTB in the uncomfortable position of having to explain why often the same manufacturers who must put a standardized content label on brands regulated by FDA don’t bother to do so when their products are under TTB’s jurisdiction.

Not long after this meeting, the Treasury Department conducted its own review and on February 9, 2022, issued a report, Competition in the Markets for Beer, Wine and Spirits, that advanced the importance of labeling information to foster competition within the beverage alcohol industry. The report contains several recommendations, including the recommendation that “TTB should revive or initiate rulemaking proposing ingredient labeling and mandatory information on alcohol content, nutritional content, and appropriate serving sizes.”

This was encouraging news, so NCL doubled down, combining forces with CSPI and the Consumer Federation of America to get TTB to mandate alcohol labeling across the board. Recognizing that public pressure alone will not ensure success, the organizations turned to Congress, hosting briefings for lead staffers of the House and Senate appropriations committees with jurisdiction over TTB’s budget and sending a joint letter to key Congressional leaders from 23 consumer, health/nutrition, and alcohol policy organizations about the need for mandatory alcohol labeling. This led to report language in the draft House and Senate 2023 appropriations bills that encourages TTB to initiate a final rulemaking.

The last step was filing a lawsuit against TTB in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia on October 3, 2022, asking the court to direct TTB to grant or deny the 2003 petition within 60 days. The lawsuit was a gamble, but it worked: on November 17, 2022, TTB accepted the 2003 petition and committed to publish three rulemakings covering mandatory nutrient and alcohol content labeling, mandatory allergen labeling, and mandatory ingredient labeling within the next year.

However, this is not the end of the story. The proposed rules will be accompanied by open public comment periods where we can anticipate that segments of the alcohol industry will be aggressive in fighting robust consumer labeling.  Therefore, NCL will also be actively engaging a wide range of stakeholders to weigh in on behalf of consumers so the American public to have access to standardized and complete labeling information on beer, wine and distilled spirits. It has taken 19 years to get to this point, but our message is clear: alcohol labeling is long past due, consumers overwhelmingly want to see it, and we will stay in the fight until alcohol labeling is a reality.

[1] Gallup. Alcohol & Drinking. July 2022

[2] U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. 9Th Edition. December 2020.

[3] Emanuele NV, et al. Consequences of Alcohol Use in Diabetics. Alcohol Health Res World. 1998; 22(3): 211–219.

[4] National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Risky Drunk and Drugged Driving Statistics.

[5] U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Alcohol and Public Health. Last reviewed April 14, 2022. https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm

[6] U.S. Centers for Disease and Control Prevention. Deaths from Excessive Alcohol Use in the U.S. Page last reviewed April 14, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/features/excessive-alcohol-deaths.html . Accessed June 2, 2022.

[7] U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Alcohol and Public Health. Page last reviewed April 14, 2022. https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/features/excessive-drinking.html. Accessed June 2, 2022.

[8] Pollard MS, et al. Changes in Adult Alcohol Use and Consequences During the COVID-19 Pandemic in the US. JAMA Netw Open. 2020;3(9):e2022942.

[9] Julien J, et al. Effect of increased alcohol consumption during COVID-19 pandemic on alcohol-associated lover disease: A modeling study. Hepatology. Vol. 75; Issue 6; June 2022; 1480-1490.

Promising new therapies are giving hope to Alzheimer’s patients and families, so why limit access?

Sally Greenberg

By Sally Greenberg, Executive Director

For years, Alzheimer’s patients, families, and caregivers have battled a condition with no treatment options. This year alone, an estimated 6.5 million Americans age 65 and older are living with Alzheimer’s.

The good news is, we’ve recently seen remarkable progress in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease as innovative treatments demonstrated the ability to halt disease progression in a major clinical trial and proved to curb cognitive decline. These therapies targeting the buildup of amyloid beta plaque in the brain (one of the telltale signs of Alzheimer’s) have shown promise for so many patients and families facing this fatal diagnosis.

The first such therapy was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in June of last year. This should give us all hope for a brighter future, but this progress may be moot if regulatory barriers hinder patient access.

Rather than ensure broad coverage through the Medicare program – as is the case for nearly every other type of drug that receives FDA approval – the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) decided this spring to restrict access to these new Alzheimer’s treatments only to patients participating in approved clinical trials. This puts severe limitations on coverage for an entire class of innovative Alzheimer’s disease treatments, with CMS in direct conflict with the FDA, whose medical experts approved the drug as safe and effective.

In fact, this puts the FDA’s entire accelerated approval pathway in the crossfire, sounding an alarm to millions of patients hoping for medical breakthroughs.

No one is arguing the therapy is a miracle cure, but that’s not how new therapies tend to work. History has shown that when it comes to serious conditions with high unmet medical needs, even small improvements are critical.

Accelerated approval first surfaced during the AIDS crisis, when HIV was a death sentence and there were no treatments. AIDS advocates demanded something – anything — despite minimal benefits “because we have nothing now and no hope.” The first AIDS treatments in the 1980s were grueling regimens with serious side effects, but they had to start somewhere. Today, as medicines have evolved, HIV-positive patients require one pill a day and can live with the disease.

The same is true for Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy, a terminal disease that lands young boys in wheelchairs often before they reach 10 years old. Approval of the first drug to treat Duchenne’s met significant controversy in 2016 because it was minimally effective. Yet, the FDA approved it because these patients had no hope. Today there are five treatment options for the disease that slows down the progression and buys time.

And in 2001, a game-changing therapy for chronic myeloid leukemia received approval; the treatment helped to spur innovation in what became targeted therapies for cancers.

The science and medical ecosystem will continue to naturally progress, moving us from zero treatment options to medicines that mitigate symptoms, to treatments that halt disease progression, and eventually, cures. This is true in the Alzheimer’s space, but by limiting access to an entire class of Alzheimer’s treatments, CMS is putting future scientific breakthroughs at risk and creating a ripple effect throughout the entire healthcare system. This new promising drug class will only be available to those with the financial wherewithal to pay thousands of dollars out of their own pockets.

With this precedent, any drug that emerges from the rigorous development pipeline could be deemed too expensive or too early in the discovery phase. CMS acting as the final arbiter on what new treatments will be made available and overriding the scientific judgment of FDA experts should concern all of us.

As we look ahead toward a new Congress, our lawmakers can and should put pressure on CMS to keep pace with the science and give hope to Alzheimer’s patients and families.

Jeanette Contreras portrait

Leaders in Congress support safe OTC hearing aid standards

By NCL Director of Health Policy Jeanette Contreras

Mild to moderate hearing loss is a difficult reality that millions of Americans struggle with, which is why the availability of over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aids is exciting for those who are impacted by hearing loss. While making OTC hearing aids more accessible is a promising step for consumers, we at NCL would be remiss if we didn’t underscore our concerns around the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) proposed OTC hearing regulations as they currently exist.

In December of last year, NCL was one of hundreds of organizations who submitted a comment to FDA’s public docket on the issue; and last month we submitted a letter voicing our concerns to the FDA that was supported by 29 not-for-profit, public health organizations across the country. These organizations collectively represent the concerns of millions of consumers, patients, and individuals impacted by hearing loss.

We want to reiterate our enthusiasm for OTC hearing aids, but as the gold standard of safety in our country, it is imperative that the FDA make sure these devices are safe for consumers and do not worsen a problem they are intended to mitigate. As written, the draft regulations would allow for a maximum sound output level of 120 dBA – equivalent to the volume of a chainsaw or fire engine siren. This is concerning, as exposure to sounds at 120 dB can be dangerous in as little as nine seconds according to the CDC. This is why NCL, along with other leading consumer and healthcare voices, encourage the FDA to follow the recommendations of hearing care professionals, including the American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery that recommend a maximum output of 110 dB and a gain limit of 25 dB. Without a limit on gain, OTC hearing aids users will be able to amplify sounds to dangerous levels, and far beyond what Congress authorized when it said these devices must be limited to adults with moderate hearing loss or less.

The safety parameters we are recommending would in no way compromise the efficacy of OTC hearing aids intended for individuals with perceived mild to moderate hearing loss. In fact, a recent study concluded that commercially-available hearing aids programmed according to parameters typical of those used for individuals with mild to moderate hearing loss yield effective output and gain levels and are within the recommended limits specified by leading hearing care organizations and medical experts.

Importantly, the FDA has already cleared several hearing aids for adults with perceived mild to moderate hearing loss that were found to be safe and highly effective during clinical trials. While these devices were authorized under a different category of hearing aids, these devices limit the maximum output to 115 dB or below and gain to 30 dB or less, lower than the amplification limits currently proposed by the FDA. At the very least, the FDA should incorporate these amplification limits in the final OTC hearing aid regulation.

Finally, as we await finalized guidance from the FDA, we applaud leaders in Congress who are standing behind consumers in supporting safe and effective amplification limits. Last month, Congresswoman Betty McCollum (D-MN) and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) sent a letter to the FDA echoing their safety concerns. The letter states, “[The proposed rule] hurts consumers and patients in two ways. First, it means individuals suffering from greater levels of hearing loss could put off a needed visit with a licensed hearing professional. Doing so could lead to worsening their existing symptoms, delaying an accurate diagnosis and treatment, and even creating irreparable damage to their hearing. Secondly, it means those with perceived mild-to-moderate hearing loss would be exposed to harmful levels of noise that could result in further damage to their long-term hearing. In order to avoid these concerns, FDA should impose a gain limit of 25 dB and an overall output limit of 110 dB.”

Similar to the countless other experts that have also weighed in, we believe that establishing safe amplification limits would not reduce the efficacy of these devices or limit the advancement of innovative technologies. We thank Congresswomen McCollum and DeLauro for being a voice for consumers and patients on this important issue. To learn more about gain and output and how to protect yourself from hearing loss, check out our infographic.

The decline in COVID-19 testing nationwide could derail pandemic response wins

Nissa Shaffi

By Nissa Shaffi, NCL Associate Director of Health Policy

COVID-19 testing has been a critical component of the nation’s pandemic response, as health officials monitored the virus’s progression and set policies that supported back-to-school and return-to-work initiatives. Increased testing capacity has enabled our most essential industry sectors to resume activities that continue to carry us through the pandemic. However, as vaccines become more accessible and we surpass initial goals for population-wide immunizations, testing has declined by 35 percent daily since mid-January.

Testing provides a reliable snapshot into the virus’s trajectory that allows for proper allocation of vital resources (e.g., supplies, personal protective equipment (PPE), and medical equipment) and essential personnel. Data from testing rates are also critical for vaccine manufacturers, as they evaluate how the virus is mutating and further efficacy of the vaccine. The uptick in vaccinations, while incredibly promising, may have induced an inflated sense of security and diminished caution towards the virus. However, in the midst of rising variants, the decline in testing may very well be the Trojan horse that derails national efforts to combat the virus.

Testing has also declined in part due to a shift in focus to getting vaccinated. While vaccines are equally important, we need adequate COVID-19 testing for public health surveillance purposes. There needs to be sufficient capacity and public health messaging in place to encourage individuals who have potentially been exposed to SARS-CoV-2, or coronavirus, to get tested immediately.

Dr. Nasia Safdar, Medical Director for Infection Prevention at UW Health, states “we are seeing a decline in testing,” she said. “If we see the numbers continue to decline sharply, at some point then it may not be worthwhile to do widespread testing, but we’re certainly not there yet.” Without these measures, our healthcare system will be rendered unequipped to deal with dormant and emerging threats, like potential outbreaks and continuous mutations of the virus.

There are a couple of strategies that could help us get a hold on precipitous testing rates. It is estimated that a national program for universal mass testing for unvaccinated people would cost a few billion dollars a week—an amount that still presents a cost-benefit when considering potential shutdowns. The American Rescue Plan has appropriated $50 billion for expanded testing, which could help the situation significantly.

Another aspect of the problem is a lack of testing sites. With so many resources currently devoted to expanding vaccination sites at pharmacies and hospitals, people need places to get tested. Greater corporate involvement in the response could be a potential avenue for increasing capacity.

Finally, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is working to advance development and approval for over-the-counter (OTC) and point-of-care (POC) tests. Obtaining a greater number of FDA-approved OTC and POC COVID-19 tests could help address issues with logistics and access, and would give schools, workplaces, and communities more options for reliable and accurate screening.

The pandemic is far from over and experts predict that COVID-19 will likely be endemic, meaning it will be detected regularly, even if within small pockets of the population. We need all possible public health interventions at our disposal to ensure that we can effectively limit the spread of the virus and preserve ongoing plans to reopen the economy so that we can start the process to sustainably reintegrate back into society.

Dr. Safdar further emphasized, “the vaccines are great as they are, they’re not 100 percent. There will be a certain number of people that will…contract the illness despite having been vaccinated. It might be a milder condition which is very welcome news, but nonetheless, to make a diagnosis and figure out what treatment is required, you have to get a test.” Testing continues to be a simple, yet powerfully effective measure to prevent the massive spread of COVID-19 and we must persist in our efforts towards early detection.

Addressing health inequity: A critical step towards a successful national vaccine rollout strategy

Nissa Shaffi

By Nissa Shaffi, NCL Associate Director of Health Policy

The COVID-19 vaccines have provided much needed doses of hope as consumers eagerly wait for their shots. However — due to competing pressures of managing inadequate supplies, complex state-managed distribution plans, emerging viral variants, and unaddressed health disparities — the national vaccine rollout has fallen short of its intended goals.

To date, more than 40 million have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and 16+ million people are currently fully-vaccinated. On average, providers around the country are administering 1.6 million doses per day. According to experts, 70 to 90 percent of the population will need to be vaccinated if we are to achieve herd immunity and return to normal everyday activities.

The delays in the vaccine rollout have been attributed to variations among states and territories, which have been expected to set their own distribution plans and eligibility criteria. All states have made the vaccine available for healthcare workers, and nearly 43 states and the District of Columbia have expanded their eligibility to include occupation-based vaccination programs. These include members of the non-medical essential workforce, like grocery store employees and police officers.

While vaccine hesitancy among some Americans remains a problem, it’s becoming less of a concern as more and more people are getting vaccinated. COVID-19 has further exposed both vulnerabilities in our infrastructure and social determinants of health — conditions in the environments in which people are born, live, learn, work, play, worship, and age that affect their overall health — that threaten to impede access. Throughout the rollout, vulnerable communities have experienced barriers in booking vaccine appointments due to limited access to broadband, phones, and accessible, affordable transportation.

Vaccine hesitancy and social determinants of health remain the primary obstacles in the rollout process. Going forward, addressing health disparities will be a critical strategy in realizing a successful national response, because — without health equity — the virus will continue to ravage the most vulnerable communities. The National Consumers League supports comprehensive strategies to address the glaring disparities in health and access that COVID-19 has exposed.

What the new COVID-19 variants mean for consumers

Nissa Shaffi

By Nissa Shaffi, NCL Associate Director of Health Policy

Viruses mutate, and SARS CoV-2—more commonly known as COVID-19—is no exception to that rule. When a virus evolves and mutates from its predominant virus, all that we know about it changes as well. It may be too soon to glean what impact the variants could have on vaccine rollout and efficacy, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have provided the detailed evidence they’ve uncovered thus far.

Three new strains of COVID-19 have been identified presently in four countries: the United Kingdom (B.1.1.7), Japan and Brazil (P.1), and South Africa (B.1.351). These new variants have not been observed to be more deadly, nor have they made people sicker, but one thing they all have in common is that they are more contagious than COVID-19. Cases for these strains have been found in 33 countries, including the United States.

While the variants all differ slightly in their function, they all possess a specific mutation called D614G — a shared trait that allows these new strains to spread more quickly than the predominant virus. The strain found in the United Kingdom, B.1.1.7, has an estimated 50 percent transmissibility rate, or how quickly it spreads from person to person. Considering ongoing efforts to release new vaccines for inclusion in a national rollout to curb this pandemic, a mutating virus presents unique challenges for an already overburdened healthcare system.

So, what does this mean for travel, testing, vaccines, and so on? The CDC has released a helpful questionnaire for individuals to consider before they pursue travel, requesting that people delay non-essential travel whenever possible. For those that plan to travel, the CDC has released guidance which states that individuals traveling via air into the United States must provide proof of a negative test result or documentation of recovery, before boarding their flight. Masks are required on all forms of public transportation, including planes. The CDC has issued travel notices regarding global travel and each country’s corresponding risk-level.

Scientists are continuously gathering data to determine how the variants will impact the efficacy of certain therapies, vaccines, and tests. Until further evidence suggests, states are reluctant to enforce stringent lockdown procedures. According to public health experts, the best way to rein in the transmission of these highly contagious variants and to ensure a successful vaccine rollout, is to practice physical distancing and double masking. Layering two masks, as double masking suggests, provide added layers of protection and a better-fitting face covering. Not all masks are equal. To learn more about how to maximize protection against the coronavirus with masks, click here.

As new information emerges, it is important to adjust our safety measures to successfully navigate an ever evolving situation. Consumers are understandably experiencing pandemic-fatigue. Rest assured that the fruits of our collective efforts are closer than they appear, if only we work together towards protecting ourselves and our communities from unnecessary transmission.

Ad-Blocking: Is it a dirty word or good security practice? – National Consumers League

Ad blocking is a dirty word for many in the online publishing and advertising industries. The head of one of the largest industry associations famously called a AdBlock Plus, one of the biggest ad blocker software companies an “unethical, immoral, mendacious coven of techie wannabes.”Why the hate? Unsurprisingly, the answer comes down to money. As their name suggests, ad blocking technology allows Web users (i.e. you and me) to prevent advertisements from appearing in desktop and mobile browsers. When consumers don’t see ads online, websites don’t make as much money, which makes it harder to produce the content that draws users in the first place. In the publishing industry’s nightmares, this threatens to create a vicious cycle that leads to the end of free content on the Web.

The advertising industry’s heartburn about ad blockers is driven by the explosive growth of the technology. As of December 2016, nearly one in five (18 percent) Web users in the United States had an ad blocker installed on their browser. In other countries, the use of ad blockers is far higher. For example, 58 percent of Web users in Indonesia and 29 percent of German users use ad blockers. Globally, the number of devices using ad blocking software grew by 142 million from 2015-2016, a trend which shows no signs of slowing, particularly on mobile devices.

That said, there are efforts to address the need for consumers to have ad blockers installed in the first place. For example, on June 1 Google confirmed reports that it plans to have its Chrome browser automatically block ads that do not conform to advertising standards published by the Coalition for Better Ads. That standard prohibits egregious ads that do things like autoplay videos, take up too much screen real estate, or make users wait to see content while an ad displays.

Given Google’s 53 percent market share, this announcement has the potential to significantly improve consumers’ data security. That’s because insecure ads can pose a significant malware threat to users. A May 2015 study by Google, the University of California, Berkeley and University of California, Santa Barbara found that tens of millions of visitors to Google’s services had unwanted adware installed on their computer. Within that group, half had at least two, and nearly one-third of users had at least four such programs infecting their machines. A similar study by security firm Namogoo found that 15-30 percent of e-commerce website visitors were infected with malware that causes them to view injected ads, malicious links, and fraudulent spyware on otherwise legitimate sites.

Given these threats, moving ad-blocking into the mainstream could have a significantly positive impact on consumers’ vulnerability to malware. By dramatically increasing the number of users with ad-blocking technology on their browsers, the pressure on the worst offenders in the advertising ecosystem to clean up their acts in increased. When users see fewer bad ads, it increases user trust in online advertising overall. In the long term and somewhat counterintuitively, this may actually reduce the need for users to rely on third-party ad blockers to help reduce their data security risk.

The New York Times has called the growth of ad blocking an “existential threat” to the $50 billion online advertising industry. It is therefore serendipitous that the ultimate solution to the war over ad blocking may be more, not less ad blocking.

The failure of the AHCA is a victory for the American people – National Consumers League

j_johnson92.jpgSpotlight on Health Care Series, Part 2: As America’s health care system is facing uncertainty, NCL staff is exploring the topic in a new weekly blog series.

Ding dong, the bill is dead! Democrats, health advocates, patients, and consumers across the country are rejoicing after the GOP’s first attempt to repeal and replace major pieces of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) crashed and burned. Republicans ultimately could not coalesce around House Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) American Health Care Act (AHCA) and, in a stunning turn of events, the bill was pulled from the House floor without a vote last Friday.While inability to build a solid block of support for the AHCA in Congress became painfully obvious over time, the American people made their disdain of the bill apparent from the start. In the weeks following its introduction, citizens from every corner of the nation fervently expressed their disgust with the attack being waged on their health care. By the time the would-be vote was to have taken place, the AHCA had a meager 17 percent public approval rating, according to a Quinnipiac poll. Though dismal, this figure is hardly surprising, as the bill did nothing to improve access to care or quality of coverage for a clear majority of Americans – and, in many cases, the bill would have left many worse off than before the ACA.

The AHCA touted several policy changes that would have undoubtedly wreaked havoc on our health care system. Paramount was the spending cap (read: MASSIVE CUT) on Medicaid, the defunding of Planned Parenthood, an exponential premium increase for older Americans, a cost shift from the federal government to states and their citizens, and a general rationing and reduction of care to cover massive tax cuts for the wealthy. Arguably, one of the bill’s most odious aspects was the elimination of the essential health benefits – a measure put on the table in a last-ditch effort to get the unyielding, far-right, so-called “Freedom Caucus” block of the House on board. The essential health benefits are 10 services the ACA requires all plans to cover, including maternity and newborn care, ambulatory services, preventive and wellness services, and substance use treatment that can address issues such as the opioid epidemic ravaging communities across the country. Women of child-bearing age would have experienced significantly higher health care costs due to the elimination of maternity care and contraception from the standard benefits package – and they would either have considerably higher premiums than their male counterparts or be forced to pay for their maternity care or contraceptive methods out-of-pocket.

In addition, the AHCA would have effectively gutted consumer health protections, particularly for patients with pre-existing conditions, by eliminating out-of-pocket caps and reinstating lifetime coverage limits. In the long run, adequate care would be far beyond the reach of many Americans who would be left with bare-bones coverage and a higher cost burden. What is worse, by 2026, 24 million Americans would lose their coverage altogether. Americans heard that message loud and clear and they didn’t like what they heard.

While we can breathe a sigh of relief that the ACA is still the law of the land, NCL is among the many groups that agree that the ACA needs some tweaks to make it work better for all Americans. Now more than ever, a bipartisan approach to bringing affordable care and coverage to ALL Americans is not only desired, but essential. Rather than trying to undermine the ACA, Republicans and Democrats should embrace this opportunity to work together to come up with solutions that address the current insufficiencies in health care and make our system one that works for everyone.

The defeat of the AHCA is a big victory for the American people. The persistence and hard work of everyday Americans who spoke up, who called their members of Congress, who attended rallies, wrote to their local papers, and used social media ultimately made the difference. The National Consumers League, which since our inception in 1899 has spoken up for consumers and supported health insurance for all Americans, is proud to have stood alongside our colleagues in the consumer and public health communities in this battle to defend our care and oppose policies that would send us backward. We will continue to fight to protect the ACA, preserve consumer health protections, and argue that it is good for the economy and good for America’s future if all of us have access to health care coverage.

Medicaid per-capita caps: A recipe for disaster – National Consumers League

j_johnson92.jpgSpotlight on Health Care Series, Part 1: As America’s health care system is facing uncertainty, NCL staff is exploring the topic in a new weekly blog series.

No matter how you slice it, the proposed changes to Medicaid in the GOP’s new health care bill are not a spending compromise–but rather a massive cut in funding that will decimate the Medicaid program as we know it.House Republicans recently introduced the American Health Care Act (AHCA) as a first step in fulfilling their promise to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA).  The AHCA would cut $880 billion in federal support for state Medicaid programs over the next decade, while dramatically altering the funding structure of Medicaid from a flexible federal entitlement to a rigid per-capita cap. Under the current system, the federal government matches state Medicaid spending as enrollment increases and health care needs change. The new plan proposed by Republicans would cap federal funding solely based on the number of Medicaid enrollees.

This cap would not match the dynamic nature of health care. If Medicaid spending increases–perhaps due to a natural disaster, a sudden disease epidemic, or even a breakthrough drug the state wants to cover–states would be left to foot the bill for any costs over the strict per-person cap. This policy also makes Medicaid particularly susceptible to deeper cuts in the future; if Congress succeeds in divorcing federal support from the actual cost of providing health care, it will have greater liberty to continue to slash funding over time to generate more federal savings.

Republicans assert that the capping approach will slow the growth of Medicaid and expand states’ flexibility to innovate and provide patients with the care they want. The reality is, rather than curtailing spending, the costs will simply shift away from the federal government and onto the backs of state governors–sending state budgets into turmoil and placing millions of Americans at risk. Ultimately, states will be faced with the choice of raising taxes on their residents to meet funding needs, cutting funding from critical programs such as infrastructure or education, or imposing devastating cuts to Medicaid eligibility, benefits, and coverage for millions.

Among those most severely affected by a Medicaid spending cap are rural communities, where at least one-quarter of residents rely on public insurance. Several health crises already plague this population, including the onset of disease in coal workers and the Opioid epidemic. These issues, among many others, have contributed to a spike in the mortality rate of lower and middle class white Americans, and a huge reduction in federal funding would only further limit states’ ability to respond.  Capping will also have negative ramifications for children, who account for approximately 40 percent of the Medicaid population. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), a slash in funding for Medicaid will have devastating consequences for children’s health, educational attainment, and earning potential, leading to long term damage to state economies. In short, this colossal overhaul of Medicaid would jeopardize health care for our country’s most vulnerable populations.

Today, 70 million low-income and disabled Americans rely on Medicaid to fulfill its guarantee to provide coverage for all eligible men, women, and children just as it has done for over 50 years. The GOP proposal reneges on that guarantee. Capping funding for a program that serves as an essential lifeline for so many will not lead to a more efficient health system or healthier Americans–it’s a recipe for disaster.