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Morning news brief

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Authorities in Hawaii have reported a higher death toll from wildfires.

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Hundreds of acres on Maui and the big island of Hawaii have burned. The historic town of Lahaina, a popular tourist destination, is mostly destroyed, and at least 36 people have died as fires stirred up by hurricane winds continue to burn.

INSKEEP: Hawaii Public Radio's Bill Dorman comes to us from Honolulu. Hey there, Bill.

BILL DORMAN, BYLINE: Aloha, Steve.

INSKEEP: Thank you. What do people there think about when they think of the town of Lahaina?

DORMAN: You know, Lahaina is a beautiful spot on the west side of Maui island. It's tucked between the West Maui Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, right on the water. It's a beautiful place for sunsets. And it's really - it's a place of tremendous Hawaiian history. In the early 1800s, it was the capital of the Hawaiian kingdom. A few years after that, it became one of the real centers of Hawaii's whaling industry, which, long before tourism, was a commercial motor here across Hawaii. These days, a popular tourist attraction, especially the street lining the dock at the edge of the harbor, Front Street. It's also got a lot of wood there - wooden buildings, wooden docks. And right now, that's history that's, in many cases, burned to the ground and charred.

INSKEEP: Well, we heard from Sylvia Luke, the lieutenant governor of Hawaii, about that. She toured the area by helicopter. Here's some of what she told us.

SYLVIA LUKE: The homes were destroyed. Businesses were destroyed. It just looked like the whole town dissolved into ashes.

INSKEEP: Bill, as someone who's been to Lahaina, what goes through your mind when you see these images and videos?

DORMAN: Yeah, heartbreak is a word that's used a lot, but just seeing those pictures of the helicopter, it's really - it's devastating on those charred ruins. One of the problems, also, just in getting precise information really from this area on the extent of that and what that means in human terms. Power and phone service have both been down in West Maui. They're still down - landlines and cellphone service. And while there are fears the casualty numbers will climb - you mentioned the latest numbers now - injuries also reported, people hospitalized for smoke inhalation and burns. Some of those folks have been evacuated to hospitals in Hawaii - in Honolulu, rather. And people across the state really are feeling the pain of the folks in Maui.

INSKEEP: We mentioned the death toll - 36 as of now. What are some of the other numbers that you have that give some shape to this disaster?

DORMAN: Yeah, it's really still developing. But one area that we're turning to now is the people who are leaving Maui. These are visitors. They're tourists. They're also residents there. The Hawaii Convention Center here in Honolulu has been turned into an emergency shelter of sorts. They say they're prepared to handle 2,000, potentially up to 4,000, people if needed. State transportation director in that news conference said about 11,000 visitors left Maui Wednesday - some going home, some going elsewhere in the state. Another 600 people are staying overnight at the main Maui airport for early morning flights. Officials expect maybe another 1,500 people or so to leave Maui today.

INSKEEP: Are people surprised that a wildfire like this would strike in Hawaii?

DORMAN: You know, Hawaii does have wildfires. They're part of the seasonal realities here. It gets hurricanes. But that combination is unusual, not unprecedented. It happened on Maui and Oahu in 2018. But that combination is dangerous because - not just the high winds spreading the flames, but those storms dry out the atmosphere. So that gives the fires more fuel to burn.

INSKEEP: Bill Dorman with Hawaii Public Radio, thanks so much for the update.

DORMAN: Thanks, Steve. Aloha.

INSKEEP: Inflation has been falling steadily over the last year, but that streak appears to have broken.

MCCAMMON: The Labor Department is set to deliver its cost of living report for the month of July, and forecasters expect it will show inflation heading in the wrong direction.

INSKEEP: NPR's Scott Horsley joins us. Whether inflation goes up or down, Scott, good morning.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So if we get an official increase, what's behind it?

HORSLEY: Well, it's partly just math. Prices were flat last July, so any increase between June and July this year would raise the annual inflation rate. Energy prices are also a factor. Gasoline prices have been on the way up in recent weeks. And while the average gas price is still well below the record $5 mark we saw last summer, pump prices are once again putting upward pressure on inflation. Petroleum analyst Patrick De Haan, who's with GasBuddy, blames production cuts by Saudi Arabia for driving up the price of crude oil, while hotter than usual weather on the Gulf Coast has made it harder for refineries to turn crude oil into gasoline.

PATRICK DE HAAN: Oil prices finally broke out of their kind of well-established range and didn't get any help by some of the triple-digit temperatures down in Texas and Louisiana. That caused some issues on the refining side.

HORSLEY: And that's not the only way sizzling summer weather is hitting people in their pocketbooks. Air conditioning bills are also likely to be higher in many parts of the country. The federal government does offer low-income families some help with their energy costs. But Mark Wolfe, who heads an association of state energy assistance officials, says most of that money goes to help with heating bills in the winter. It's not really set up to deal with the growing price of staying cool in the summer.

MARK WOLFE: The underlying problem is they don't have enough money to run a year-round program, and that's what we're concerned about. The program and the state rules are all oriented around heating. They're not oriented around rising temperatures.

HORSLEY: Steve, that may have to change if we have more hot summers in our future.

INSKEEP: Scott, as you're talking, I'm remembering an event from a couple of days ago. I was driving past a gas station that was 4.99 a gallon. And I said, wait a minute, that just seems like from some other time. Is inflation likely, though, to cool off as we head into the fall?

HORSLEY: Energy prices could well come down this fall. Electricity prices are expected to drop as a result of lower natural gas prices. And demand for gasoline typically dips once kids go back to school. Also, in mid-September, refiners switch over to a cheaper winter blend of gas. So the summer spike in gas prices could be short-lived, De Haan says, unless a tropical storm blows into the Gulf, in which case all bets are off.

DE HAAN: That's the other wildcard. If we get hit by a hurricane, that could pose problems not only for oil production at a time that the Saudis are cutting back - think of all those rigs in the Gulf of Mexico - but that also could really hit us on refining. And you can't make up for lost time.

HORSLEY: Now, keep in mind, while gasoline prices do pack a big psychological punch, they're actually a pretty small piece of the overall inflation picture. Gas accounts for less than 3.5% of the consumer price index.

INSKEEP: OK. What's happening with the rest of that index?

HORSLEY: If you strip out volatile food and fuel prices, so-called core inflation is projected to be about 4.7% for the 12 months ending in July. That would be down a little bit from the 4.8% we saw in June. We do expect to see a further drop in the price of used cars, possibly the price of new cars as well. Now, the Federal Reserve has been worried about the price of services, things like getting your car fixed or going to the dentist. The Fed's concerned that could keep inflation elevated. But service prices have moderated in recent months, and we'll find out this morning if that trend continued into July. By the way, the Fed's next interest rate decision will be in late September. So we'll have another month of pricing data before that comes.

INSKEEP: OK. NPR's Scott Horsley, thanks so much.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: A drug company has been lobbying Congress to get Medicare to cover its weight loss drugs.

MCCAMMON: Novo Nordisk makes Wegovy and Ozempic. They're very popular. And aside from weight loss, the company claims they may prevent heart attacks, too. But for many people, the cost of those drugs puts them out of reach. Many insurance plans do not cover them, and now the company is leaning on lawmakers to get these new weight loss drugs covered under Medicare, the health care program for seniors.

INSKEEP: Rachana Pradhan from our partner KFF Health News is here to discuss this. Good morning.

RACHANA PRADHAN, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Steve. Thanks.

INSKEEP: Why doesn't Medicare cover these drugs?

PRADHAN: Well, there is an explicit ban under federal law that says that Medicare's prescription drug benefit cannot cover drugs that are used for weight loss.

INSKEEP: I'd like to understand why there would be a ban, because it does seem obvious for many people in many health situations that losing some weight will be beneficial for them. So why would the federal law explicitly forbid that kind of drug?

PRADHAN: Well, when Medicare's prescription drug benefit was created in 2003, we were living in a different time. Weight loss drugs that were on the market were not nearly as effective as the new generation of drugs that we are seeing on the market now. And at that time, it was really fresh, I think, in lawmaker's memory that there were some pretty major diet pill debacles that made lawmakers extremely skeptical about covering these drugs under Medicare.

INSKEEP: So there was this environment 20 years ago when the law was passed. Now things have changed, or Novo Nordisk would like people to think so anyway. What are they doing to try to get Congress to change this ban so that Medicare would cover their drugs?

PRADHAN: They are focused on the Congressional Black Caucus and associations that are kind of affiliated with that caucus of lawmakers to communicate their message and get allies in their pursuit of this policy goal.

INSKEEP: Does this include campaign contributions or what?

PRADHAN: Well, certainly Novo Nordisk and other pharmaceutical companies give campaign cash to lawmakers regardless of political party. But they oftentimes will sponsor panels, webinars and give to these nonprofits that are associated with these different groups of lawmakers as a way to sort of bolster their advocacy work, if you will.

INSKEEP: Is this particularly bad, though? I'm thinking about studies that find that Black Americans do have certain kinds of health problems more often than other people, and that can include problems like heart attacks and strokes and obesity.

PRADHAN: For sure. I mean, based on the body mass index, the BMI, African Americans have the highest rates of obesity in the U.S. And so I think there's a reason why Novo Nordisk would want Black figures to be a part of its messaging on this. And it is true that these drugs really do have significant benefit in that the weight loss experience among patients is very significant. However, as with anything in American medicine, you can't separate costs from the benefits. And any drug, regardless of what it is, has benefits but also has risks. And so I think that that is the thing that needs to be balanced - right? - which is that you have to look at the bigger picture from all of these different factors.

INSKEEP: Rachana Pradhan of KFF Health News has been covering a lobbying effort by Novo Nordisk for its weight loss drugs. Thanks so much.

PRADHAN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.

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