Sarah Fentem

Sarah Fentem reports on sickness and health as part of St. Louis Public Radio’s news team. She previously spent five years reporting for different NPR stations in Indiana, immersing herself deep, deep into an insurance policy beat from which she may never fully recover. A longitme NPR listener, she grew up hearing WQUB in Quincy, Illinois, which is now owned by STLPR. She lives in the Kingshighway Hills neighborhood, and in her spare time likes to watch old sitcoms, meticulously clean and organize her home and go on outdoor adventures with her fiancé Elliot. She has a cat, Lil Rock, and a dog, Ginger.

The number of people enrolled in the state’s Medicaid program reached a five-year low in December, falling to 846,554. That’s 130,000 fewer people — including 100,000 children — on the rolls since January 2018.

Democratic lawmakers and other critics said the large drop in enrollment is a sign that the state agency in charge of administering the program is culling people unfairly and leaving them without needed medical services.

Missouri had the highest increase in the rate of uninsured children in the nation over the two-year period that ended in 2018, according to a study from Georgetown University. 

In 2018, 5.3% of Missouri children under age 6 were uninsured, up from 3.6% two years earlier. Nationwide, uninsured rates in that age group rose to more than 4%.

Not having health coverage could have severe consequences for young children, pediatricians said. Without health insurance, kids miss doctor’s appointments that can identify health problems and provide preventative care such as vaccinations.

The petition to put a Medicaid expansion in Missouri to a statewide vote has garnered more than 25% of the needed signatures to place the measure on the November 2020 ballot, according to campaign officials.

The effort to extend eligibility for the state-sponsored health insurance program to those making up to $18,000 a year also has received support from several high-profile state organizations, including Washington University and BJC HealthCare.

People in rural areas have more unnecessary hospital visits and are more likely to die from chronic conditions than people in cities because they have little access to specialists, according to a study by St. Louis researchers.

Researchers from St. Louis University, Washington University and Harvard studied nationwide survey and claims data from thousands of Medicare patients with chronic conditions.

The chief doctor at Planned Parenthood’s St. Louis clinic testified during a high-profile regulatory hearing on Wednesday that the abortions performed there are safe and that the facility has an above-average record of successful procedures.

State health officials earlier this year decided not to renew the license for Planned Parenthood’s abortion clinic, citing concerns about patient safety.

The four instances of patient care that caused state regulators alarm were in line with acceptable legal and medical standards of care, said Dr. Colleen McNicholas, chief medical officer of Planned Parenthood Reproductive Health Services. The clinic performs thousands of procedures a year, she said. 

On the first day of an administrative hearing that could determine the fate of Missouri’s sole abortion clinic, attorneys for the state questioned the safety of Planned Parenthood’s clinic and said state regulators acted with patients in mind when they did not renew its license.

The lawyers spent hours attempting to prove through witness testimony the state’s Department of Health and Human Services acted legally when it did not issue a renewed license to Planned Parenthood Reproductive Health Services in St. Louis last June.

A member of the Administrative Hearing Commission, a nonpartisan state body that resolves regulatory disputes, will decide if the department acted properly.

More than 12% of Missouri children are obese, but the 2018 rate held steady from the year before, according to a report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Although obesity among Missourians age 10-17 is relatively unchanged, doctors say the stabilizing rate is a sign that public awareness campaigns and other health initiatives are working. 

“I think the fact it’s not going up is a great thing to see,” said Julie Benard, a Columbia pediatrician who specializes in treating childhood obesity. “It’s a great thing to see, at least for our initial efforts in making sure we’re at least curbing the trend of childhood obesity.”

Public health experts are urging Missourians to get a flu shot ahead of a flu season that could likely arrive earlier and be more severe than last year’s. 

The vaccine is the most effective way for people to protect themselves and others in the community from the flu, state health officials said. 

“Herd immunity” also can protect at-risk people including the elderly, young children and people who cannot safely receive vaccines, but only if high numbers of people who can receive the shot are immunized.

Missouri health officials have confirmed two cases in the state of a mysterious vaping-related pulmonary illness that has sickened hundreds of people across the nation. 

Missouri officials are investigating the cases of seven other patients to determine if their symptoms match the criteria for the illness. They’re also warning consumers not to tamper with vaping products.

Patients with the illness report nausea, shortness of breath, fever and elevated heart rates. The nine Missouri patients have reported modifying pre-packaged vaping products to smoke other substances such as vitamin E or THC, said Randall Williams, director of the state Department of Health and Senior Services.

Proponents of a Medicaid expansion in Missouri want to allow voters to override the state's Republican leaders, who have refused to extend coverage to more people.

The Healthcare for Missouri coalition is collecting signatures on a petition that would place a Medicaid expansion on the November 2020 ballot. If approved by voters, Missouri would expand the health insurance program to those who earn up to $18,000 a year. Missouri is one of 14 states that has not made the program available to more low-income people.

Campaign organizers say the expansion is necessary to extend health care coverage to people who have jobs but lack health insurance.

A federal judge has put a hold on Missouri’s eight-week abortion ban, but has left other provisions of the controversial law intact.

The parts of the law that prohibit abortions because of race, sex or Down syndrome diagnosis and updated requirements to pre-abortion counseling went into effect last week. Doctors say those new regulations victimize patients and compromise doctors’ medical ethics. 

On Aug. 9, Holly Uchtman and her 7-year-old son Zyler headed to their weekly appointment at Mercy Hospital in Springfield. Zyler has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a rare, terminal disease that causes muscles to weaken and eventually stop working. For two years, Zyler had been receiving eteplirsen, gene therapy that helped his muscles keep their shape.

But that day, there was a surprise on the other side of their journey. The state had removed Zyler from Medicaid, which pays for his nearly $40,000-a-week treatment. They were turned away, and he missed his appointment.

Updated at 11:46 a.m. Aug. 23 with a comment from Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft

Opponents of Missouri’s eight-week abortion ban have dropped their efforts to gather the needed 100,000 signatures to place a referendum on the November 2020 ballot. They claim Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft did not give them enough time to do so by Wednesday, when the law will take effect.

The abortion-rights coalition No Bans On Choice and the ACLU of Missouri have instead turned their attention to making sure state officials cannot block future referendums. On Thursday, they filed a lawsuit against Ashcroft, a Republican, alleging that the laws that allowed him to delay releasing the referendum’s language violate the state’s constitution.

When Missouri officials announced earlier this year that more than 100,000 people, many of them children, had been dropped from the state Medicaid program, critics assailed the cuts as callous and unnecessary.

But House Speaker Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, said Monday that the cuts largely resulted from a new computer system's ability to weed out enrollees who earned too much money to qualify for the program.

Updated at 12:15 p.m. on Thursday with Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft's comments

The abortion-rights group No Bans on Choice faces an "impossible" task to collect enough signatures on a petition that would allow voters to overturn a Missouri law that bans most abortions after eight weeks of pregnancy, officials from the committee said Wednesday. 

Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft on Wednesday released the wording for the ballot initiative after a months-long legal battle. 

American Civil Liberties Union representatives say it’s unlikely they would collect the 100,000 signatures they need to place a referendum on the ballot before the law goes into effect on Aug. 28.

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