The CVS/Aetna Deal: The Promise in Data Integration

By Wendy Netter Epstein

Earlier this month, CVS announced plans to buy Aetna— one of the nation’s largest health insurers—in a $69 billion deal.  Aetna and CVS pitched the deal to the public largely on the promise of controlling costs and improving efficiency in their operations, which they say will inhere to the benefit of consumers. The media coverage since the announcement has largely focused on these claims, and in particular, on the question of whether this vertical integration will ultimately lower health care costs for consumers—or increase them.  There are both skeptics  and optimists.  A lot will turn on the effects of integrating Aetna’s insurance with CVS’s pharmacy benefit manager services.

But CVS and Aetna also flag another potential benefit that has garnered less media attention—the promise in combining their data.  CVS CEO Larry Merlo says that “[b]y integrating data across [their] enterprise assets and through the use of predictive analytics,” consumers (and patients) will be better off.  This claim merits more attention.  There are three key ways that Merlo might be right. Continue reading

Limited Seats Still Available, Register Now! 12/12: Sixth Annual Health Law Year in P/Review

The Sixth Annual Health Law Year in P/Review symposium will feature leading experts discussing major developments during 2017 and what to watch out for in 2018. The discussion at this day-long event will cover hot topics in such areas as health policy under the new administration, regulatory issues in clinical research, law at the end-of-life, patient rights and advocacy, pharmaceutical policy, reproductive health, and public health law.

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2017’s Word Of The Year In Health Law And Bioethics: Uncertainty

This is the first post by Carmel Shachar and I. Glenn Cohen that appears on the Health Affairs Blog in a series stemming from the Sixth Annual Health Law Year in P/Review event to be held at Harvard Law School on Tuesday, December 12, 2017.

2017 was a year of tremendous uncertainty for many areas of public policy. Health care policy was no exception, most prominently with an almost successful push by Congressional Republicans to radically revise the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Medical research and bioethics also faced uncertainty, with the struggle to ethically engage with new technologies and to better understand the boundaries around self-determination. As we look over the past year and anticipate the coming one, the overarching question remains: Is it possible to run a health law and health care system given this level of flux?

Healthcare Policy in Flux

2017 saw a new presidential administration and Congress. Seeking to capitalize on the Republican control of the White House and both Houses of Congress, Congressional Republicans sought to make good on their campaign promise to “replace and repeal” the ACA. The proposed legislation would have dramatically reshaped our health care landscape, including ending Medicaid’s financial status as an entitlement program, and undercutting the health insurance Marketplaces championed by the Obama administration. Despite the fact that the ACA is not yet a decade old, this would have been a seismic shift in the way many Americans receive their health care. […]

Read the full post here.

We will be discussing these issues and more at the Sixth Annual Health Law Year in P/Review conference, held on December 12, 2017, at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, MA. If you find these issues interesting, we invite you to join us as the event is free and open to the public (registered required). For those unable to join us in Cambridge, some of our conference presenters will participate in a blog series to follow  at the Health Affairs Blog. Stay tuned!

REGISTER NOW (12/12)! Sixth Annual Health Law Year in P/Review

The Sixth Annual Health Law Year in P/Review symposium will feature leading experts discussing major developments during 2017 and what to watch out for in 2018. The discussion at this day-long event will cover hot topics in such areas as health policy under the new administration, regulatory issues in clinical research, law at the end-of-life, patient rights and advocacy, pharmaceutical policy, reproductive health, and public health law.

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The NHS in England: Running to Stand Still?

By John Tingle

The Health and Social Care Regulator of the NHS in England, the Care Quality Commission (CQC) has published its latest annual report on the state of health and adult social care in England 2016/17.When reading the report ,the reader is left wondering whether the NHS as currently established can cope adequately with current future health and social care demands. The NHS turns seventy years of age next year and there is much to celebrate but there is also a lot of increasing concern about NHS efficiency, sustainability, safety and quality. The number of people aged 65 is projected to increase in all regions of England by an average of 20 % between mid-2014-and mid-2024.People are also increasingly presenting with complex, chronic or multiple conditions. The total number of people with Dementia is projected to reach one million by 2027.We are also living longer. Life expectancy at birth, 2013-2015 is 79 years for men and 83 for women. All these factors test the model of NHS care that we have and its long-term sustainability.

Like the previous year’s annual report,this year’s warns that the health and care system is operating at full stretch and that care quality in some areas is deteriorating. The situation can only get worse unless more resources are made available or new ways of the NHS operating are devised. The NHS faces an infinite public demand for its finite resources. Continue reading

The Illusion of Choice in Health Care Consumerism

By Aobo Dong

The rhetoric of “choice” has been pervasive in U.S. health care reforms and the consumerist health care culture for a long time. The idea is that giving patients more choices over doctors and insurance plans would increase competition in the industry and consequently improve the quality of health care patients receive. However, Allison Hoffman made a convincing case debunking this seemingly intuitive idea in this week’s HLS health law workshop. She argued that reform efforts aimed at increasing consumer choice often fail to empower patients to make better health care choices, and instead, create a wasteful market bureaucracy that is anathema to free market ideals. Her argument reminds me of one of my earlier blog posts on U.S. drug prices, where I compared insurance companies to the Central Planner in a socialist economy. Indeed, there are ironically many institutions and features in the so-called market-driven U.S. health care system that resemble authoritarian and technocratic practices that are directly against the principles of a laissez-faire health care economy.

I will expand Professor Hoffman’s argument by making a few additional points. First, her presentation discusses a number of revealing ways in which the market-based competition creates a false sense of choice in health care. Even Obamacare, which is supposed to offer patients more choices in the Exchange, fails to transcend the falsity of consumer choice. Most patients do not make the best available choice, even when they’re “nudged” by experts in the decision-making process. I’d like to also point out that even if consumers are capable of making the best choice for themselves, whether by thinking with perfect rationality or by accepting “expert opinions,” the choice they ultimately make could still be suboptimal or even disastrous. To understand why this might be the case, it is important to realize that the target population for Obamacare is the minority of people who do not have adequate employer-sponsored plans. Thus, many people enrolled in Obamacare may not have stable jobs and income levels. Nonetheless, the mechanism that determines how much premium for which one qualifies is predicated on an estimation of that individual’s projected annul earnings – a number that is hard to know in advance for those without stable income levels. Hence, a person who made the “right choice” by selecting a silver plan with only $100 monthly premium after receiving a $900 subsidy to cover a $1,000 plan at the beginning of a year may find herself owing the federal government thousands of dollars at the end of the tax year, if she happens to end up with a much higher income level. Had she known the future outcome, she would have chosen a less expensive plan to begin with, but either choice would be a gamble for her. This arbitrariness must be attended to in future health reforms. Continue reading

The Mexico City Rule and Maternal Death

By Clíodhna Ní Chéileachair

The ‘Mexico City Rule’ is a Reagan-era regulation which bars US funding to worldwide NGOs which provide counselling relating to abortion, or referrals for abortion services, or which advocate for the expansion of abortion access. The regulation is a sticking point for the two-party reality of US politics, and has been rescinded by every Democratic president since Reagan, and reinstated by each Republican president. Trump is no exception, and his administration’s approach to the policy has been exceedingly expansionist; where the policy traditionally only applied to aid tied to family planning projects, the policy now extends to all international health care aid provided by the US government, amounting to almost $9 billion every year, and covering US aid policies in the areas of family planning and reproductive health, infectious diseases, TB treatment, children’s health, nutrition, HIV/AIDS prevention, water and sanitation programs, and tropical diseases.

The effect of the policy extends past the years in which it is actively in place. Population Action International reports on a reluctance on the part of US governmental officials and non-governmental partners to enter into agreements with organizations that may be ineligible for funding in the future based on the putative reinstatement of the policy, in effect operationalizing the policy beyond the times in which it is in active effect. Beyond the expanded remit given to the policy by the Trump administration, and the temporal expansion based on likely reinstatement, the wording of the policy itself goes some way to expanding the scope of the policy beyond what might be necessary in a vacuum. The structural effect of the policy is to prevent the funding of abortion access with US aid money (an outcome which is illegal regardless through the Helms Amendment) and abortion advocacy. The policy contemplates a neat categorization of organizations such that it is possible to carve out the aspects of a healthcare organization that deal with abortion care as an aspect of reproductive health and justice. Continue reading

REGISTER NOW (12/12)! Sixth Annual Health Law Year in P/Review

The Sixth Annual Health Law Year in P/Review symposium will feature leading experts discussing major developments during 2017 and what to watch out for in 2018. The discussion at this day-long event will cover hot topics in such areas as health policy under the new administration, regulatory issues in clinical research, law at the end-of-life, patient rights and advocacy, pharmaceutical policy, reproductive health, and public health law.

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TODAY, 11/13 at 5 PM: Health Law Workshop with Allison Hoffman

November 13, 2017 5-7 PM
Hauser Hall, Room 104
Harvard Law School, 1575 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA

Presentation: “Health Care’s Market Bureaucracy”

To request a copy of the paper in preparation for the workshop, please contact Jennifer Minnich at jminnich@law.harvard.edu.

Allison K. Hoffman joined the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania Law School in fall 2017. Hoffman’s research examines the role of regulation and the welfare state in promoting health, as well as how regulation affects conceptions of risk and responsibility. Her recent work includes “Reimagining the Risk of Long Term Care” in the Yale Journal of Health Policy Law and Ethics—an article that argues for a more capacious vision of how we think about long-term care risk—and the Oxford Handbook of U.S. Health Law (2017), a volume co-edited with I. Glenn Cohen and William M. Sage. She also contributed a chapter to this volume entitled “What Health Reform Reveals about Health Law,” which explores the Affordable Care Act as a window into the idiosyncrasies of U.S. health care law and the values that have shaped this field. Her work and commentary has been featured in top media outlets, including the New York Times, The Huffington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, Morningstar, CNBC, the New York Daily News, Marketplace by American Public Media, Jotwell, and Penn Law’s Regulatory Review (formerly RegBlog).

Hoffman received her AB summa cum laude from Dartmouth College and her JD from Yale Law School. After graduating from law school, she practiced law at Ropes & Gray LLP, where she focused on health care regulation. Previously, she provided strategic advice to corporations and nonprofit organizations as a consultant at The Boston Consulting Group and The Bridgespan Group. Prior to joining the Penn faculty, Hoffman was a faculty member at UCLA Law School. She was previously an Academic Fellow at the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School.

REGISTER NOW (12/12)! Sixth Annual Health Law Year in P/Review

The Sixth Annual Health Law Year in P/Review symposium will feature leading experts discussing major developments during 2017 and what to watch out for in 2018. The discussion at this day-long event will cover hot topics in such areas as health policy under the new administration, regulatory issues in clinical research, law at the end-of-life, patient rights and advocacy, pharmaceutical policy, reproductive health, and public health law.

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From Westworld to U.S. Prisons: Reframing the Debate on the Right to Health

Is there a “Right to Health?” For many countries in the world, including Latin American countries like Brazil, the answer is easily in the affirmative. Similarly, in the hit HBO show Westworld, the “hosts” (androids on the verge of discovering consciousness) also possess a right to health. How so? Despite atrocious cruelty the human “guests” constantly inflict upon them, the company that runs Westworld maintains a highly extensive, functional “universal health care system” that employs the latest medical technologies for androids to take care of any health problems of all damaged hosts. The efficiency of the system is breathtaking: a cowboy host with 20 bullet wounds and a broken arm could be fully restored overnight; when the sun rises the next morning, the host returns to the simulated reality as if nothing happened.

Of course, the right to health in Westworld is not a result of democratic deliberations or judicial activism that invokes the UDHR or related treaty obligations. Instead, it originates in the sheer necessity of running a seamless alternate reality that requires good maintenance of the hosts, whom the Board depend on to please the guests and maximize the company’s profits. In other words, the physical wellbeing of the hosts is intrinsically tied to the functioning of the entire Westworld machinery and its profitability. Fixing them quickly and adequately allows them to return to their respective, pre-determined roles in a complex narrative with countless plots and subplot twists meticulously designed by their human masters. Continue reading

Ireland’s Abortion Referendum and Medical Care in Pregnancy

By Clíodhna Ní Chéileachair

This week, Ireland made international headlines as the governing political party announced a date-range for a referendum on the Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution, the provision which recognizes a fetal right to life, and places it on an equal footing to the right to life of the woman carrying the fetus. The move wasn’t a surprise to Irish voters – the referendum had been promised by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar since his election last June, and comes after decades of protest and organization by a multitude of activist groups, protesting what they view as an archaic, unworkable and agency-destroying constitutional provision that has led to the exporting of abortion care for Irish woman to the UK and Netherlands, and the deaths of women in Ireland. The implications of the Eighth Amendment for access to abortion care are obvious enough – it is illegal in almost all cases. Less prominent has been the pronounced effect that this constitutional ban on abortion has had for medical treatment and care in pregnancy, where the doctor involved is, constitutionally speaking, treating two patients with equal rights to life.

The only scenario in which an abortion in Ireland is legally permissible is in cases where the woman’s life is at risk from the continuance of the pregnancy. In all other cases, including cases where the fetus is non-viable, where the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest, or where the fetus will risk the health of the woman, but not her life, abortion is illegal. Criminal punishment for illegally procuring an abortion runs to a prison term of 14 years, which includes doctors who provide illegal treatment. Women who can afford it travel to the United Kingdom to avail of abortion services there, but doctors in Ireland cannot legally refer their patients to clinics in the UK, even in cases where continuing the pregnancy risks the health of the woman. It is unknown how many women have ended a pregnancy with illegal, imported abortion pills.

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Medical Bills are Open-Price Contracts: A Victory for the Little Guy

This blog has often covered the problem of outrageous medical bills, and explored whether patients have a responsibility to pay the balance on charges that are not covered by insurance.  One common pattern is that the patient agrees to pay “all reasonable charges” when they arrive at the emergency room or other provider, and then months later receives an incomprehensible bill for seemingly outrageous amounts.  The costs of the same healthcare can vary wildly from provider to provider, even in the same locale, and there seems to be little rhyme or reason.  (This is a common refrain of Elizabeth Rosenthal’s 2017 book.)

According to very basic contract law, when the agreement between a buyer and seller does not specify the prices to be charged (aka an “open price contract”), the seller may not demand more than a “reasonable” amount.   Years ago, I was involved in nationwide litigation against non-profit hospitals, raising this theory and alleging that their billing practices contradicted their state and federal “charitable” tax exemptions, since they were driving poor people into bankruptcy and foreclosure.  That litigation had a few notable wins, when several hospital systems agreed to adopt explicit charity care policies and stop some of the more egregious practices, such as putting liens on their patients’ houses.  Some of these reforms became an industry standard and then part of the Affordable Care Act.

Overall, however, this litigation was challenging, because courts tended to hold that the reasonableness of each patient’s medical bills had to be litigated individually – often with expert witnesses and comparable data from the healthcare provider and other competitors.  With only a few thousand dollars at stake for each patient, the courts’ refusal to aggregate the litigation left many consumers without an effective recourse to challenge their unreasonable bills. Contingent-fee attorneys tend to look for larger stakes to make their investment of time and expenses worthwhile. Continue reading

Autopsy of a Failed Health Insurance Experiment: Did It Die of Natural Causes, or Was It Murdered?

By Anthony Orlando

It was just another week for the Trump administration. A senior official resigned after admitting to major ethics violations, the President insulted millions of innocent brown-skinned Americans on Twitter, and quietly—so quietly that almost no one noticed—the Department of Health and Human Services pulled another Jenga block out of the teetering tower that is the Affordable Care Act. Fortunately, it did not fall.

But it did become more expensive. And in that understated tragedy, we find our mystery: Was that HHS’s intent all along?

It all started back in February when Gov. Mary Fallin announced that Oklahoma would submit a 1332 waiver request to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. At the time, no one really knew how 1332 waivers would work. All they knew was that Oklahoma needed to try something different.

Oklahoma had the same problem that a lot of heavily rural states had. Even with the subsidies in the ACA, it wasn’t very profitable for health insurers to compete in many counties. Sparsely populated areas have always been harder to service. It’s why Lyndon Johnson led the charge to electrify Texas, why rural phone rates went up after the courts broke up Ma Bell, and why small-town Post Offices are closing around the country. Add in the fact that rural Americans pose higher health risks on average, and it’s not hard to see why insurers are wary of setting up shop in these communities. Continue reading

What’s Next for the ACA?: A Lecture by Larry Levitt

What’s Next for the ACA?: A Lecture by Larry Levitt
October 3, 2017 12:00 PM
Wasserstein Hall, Room 1010
Harvard Law School, 1585 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA

Join Larry Levitt for a talk about the future of the Affordable Care Act and health care in America.

Larry Levitt is Senior Vice President for Special Initiatives at the Kaiser Family Foundation and Senior Advisor to the President of the Foundation. Prior to joining the Foundation, he served as a Senior Health Policy Advisor to the White House and Department of Health and Human Services. He holds a bachelors degree in economics from the University of California at Berkeley, and a masters degree in public policy from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

This event is free and open to the public.

Sponsored by the Center for Health Law Policy and Innovation, the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics, and the Harvard Health Law Society, all at Harvard Law School.

Triple Canopy and Evolving Standards of Materiality Under the Civil False Claims Act (FCA)

By Joan H. Krause

[Cross-posted from L3: Long Leaf Law Blog]

In Universal Health Services v. United States ex rel. Escobar (UHS), the Supreme Court upheld the Civil False Claims Act (FCA) theory of “implied certification,” under which the submission of a claim for reimbursement “implies” that the claimant is in compliance with the statutes, regulations, and contract provisions necessary for that claim to be paid. Escobar was filed by the parents of a young woman who died after receiving Medicaid-covered mental health treatment from a Massachusetts clinic that violated state licensing and supervision regulations. Her parents alleged that the clinic’s claims were fraudulent because they implicitly (and falsely) represented that the facility was in compliance with the relevant provisions. A district court dismissed the suit, but the First Circuit reversed. In a unanimous opinion written by Justice Thomas, the Supreme Court held that where a defendant “makes specific representations about the goods or services provided, but knowingly fails to disclose . . . noncompliance with a statutory, regulatory, or contractual requirement[,] . . . liability may attach if the omission renders those representations misleading.”  But cautioning that such misrepresentations must be “material to the Government’s payment decision,” the Court reversed and remanded because the First Circuit had applied an impermissibly broad test.

Escobar was not the only federal appellate case to grapple with implied certification in recent years. In 2015, the year the First Circuit considered Escobar, no fewer than four federal appellate cases confronted the theory. Arguably the most important of these cases, at least from the standpoint of national security, was United States ex rel. Badr v. Triple Canopy, Inc., a Fourth Circuit case reversing the dismissal of a suit alleging that a military contractor had falsified marksmanship scores for Ugandan security guards hired to protect Al Asad Airbase in Iraq. Noting that the contract did not expressly condition payment on marksmanship, the district court had concluded that the claims did not contain any factually false statements. The Fourth Circuit disagreed, upholding the allegations under the theory of implied certification. Perhaps due to the tragic facts and sympathetic plaintiffs, or perhaps in recognition of the important role Medicare and Medicaid FCA cases now occupy, the Court instead chose to review Escobar rather than Triple Canopy. Nevertheless, in light of Escobar, Triple Canopy was reversed and remanded for further proceedings. On May 16, 2017, the Fourth Circuit issued its long-awaited decision on remand.

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The U.S. Drug Price Catastrophe and the Central Planner

By Aobo Dong

If you are fortunate enough to have an insurance plan with extensive coverage and low co-pays for prescription drugs, chances are you may not be overly concerned with the U.S. drug price catastrophe. For millions of Americans without such a plan, getting the much-needed prescribed medicine often involves frustrating multi-player exchanges between the pharmacy, the insurance company, and the doctor, due to complications such as drug pricing and pre-authorization.

The NYT recently launched an investigation into a simple question: “Why Are Drug Prices So High?” One surprising revelation from the study is that deep drug pricing problems may have been contributing to the ongoing opioid crisis, as insurers restrict patient access to less addictive alternatives. For instance, UnitedHealthcare stopped covering Butrans – a drug that had successfully helped Alisa Erkes to ease her excruciating abdominal pain for two years – just to lower its own expenses. Instead, Alisa’s doctor had to put her on long-acting morphine – a drug in a higher category for risk of abuse and dependence than Butrans. However, since it costs the insurance company only $29 a month, UnitedHealthcare covered it with no questions asked. Continue reading

ERISA and Graham-Cassidy: A Disaster in Waiting for Employee Health Benefits and for Dependents under 26 on their Parents’ Plans

Graham Cassidy § 105 would repeal the ACA “employer mandate”.  Although its sponsors claim that the bill will give states a great deal of flexibility, it will do nothing to help states ensure that employers provide their employees with decent health insurance; quite the reverse.  It will also give employers the freedom to ignore the popular ACA requirement that allows children up to age 26 to receive coverage through their parent’ plans, at least when their parents get health insurance from their employers.  Here’s why.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) was designed to foster and build on health insurance plans that employers in the US provide to their employees.  With limited exceptions such as provisions about wellness plans, it left in place the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), the federal statute that governs benefits that employers offer their employees.  Rather than amending ERISA to place new federal requirements on employer-provided plans, ACA imposed a tax penalty (called a “shared responsibility payment”) on employers (with at least 50 full-time equivalent employees) with employees who receive tax credits for purchasing insurance through the ACA exchanges.  This is the ACA “employer mandate,” aimed to deter employers from dumping their existing health care plans.  It is the ACA provision that supported the mantra: “you’ll get to keep the insurance you have.” This mandate is imposed through a tax and otherwise leaves in place the regulatory vacuum created by ERISA.  Let me explain how.

ERISA, enacted in 1974, is the federal statute that governs employee “welfare” plans: benefits, including health benefits, that employers offer their employees.  Although ERISA imposes quite substantial requirements on pension plans, it imposes only disclosure and fiduciary responsibilities on welfare plans.  Employers must state clearly for their employees what they are given—but may also reserve the right to change plans, as long as they tell their employees that they might do this.  Employers also must manage their plans as a good fiduciary would, but this does not mean that employers must offer minimum benefits to their employees, or indeed any benefits at all. Continue reading

Block Grants: Sound Theory or Doomed to Fail?

Block grants are all the rage. Take the latest G.O.P. proposal to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act: the Graham-Cassidy bill. It proposes to replace the current system and instead give grants to the states, essentially taking the funds the federal government now spends under the ACA for premium subsidies and Medicaid expansion and give those funds to the states as a lump sum with little regulation.

There is a complicated formula by which the bill proposes divvying up this money among the states. Many think the formula is unfair, that it benefits red states over blue states, and that it just flat isn’t enough money. These are incredibly important concerns. But let’s put them to the side for just a moment and consider the theory behind block granting. Is there any world, for instance assuming that the amount and allocation of the funding could be resolved (probably crazy talk), in which switching to block granting may actually improve upon the status quo?

Proponents of block granting health care make two main arguments. First, it will reduce costs. By block granting Medicaid and the ACA subsidies, we end the blank check open entitlement that these programs have become and give states more skin in the game. Second, these cost savings will come from empowering states to innovate. States will become more efficient, improve quality, and solve their own state-specific problems.

These arguments have an understandable appeal. But how will states really react to providing health care coverage on a budget? Continue reading

What’s Next for the ACA?: A Lecture by Larry Levitt

What’s Next for the ACA?: A Lecture by Larry Levitt
October 3, 2017 12:00 PM
Wasserstein Hall, Room 1010
Harvard Law School, 1585 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA

Join Larry Levitt for a talk about the future of the Affordable Care Act and health care in America.

Larry Levitt is Senior Vice President for Special Initiatives at the Kaiser Family Foundation and Senior Advisor to the President of the Foundation. Prior to joining the Foundation, he served as a Senior Health Policy Advisor to the White House and Department of Health and Human Services. He holds a bachelors degree in economics from the University of California at Berkeley, and a masters degree in public policy from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

This event is free and open to the public.

Sponsored by the Center for Health Law Policy and Innovation, the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics, and the Harvard Health Law Society, all at Harvard Law School.