Sunday, February 18, 2018

Killing our children: Guns, mortality and morality

There is really nothing to write about at this time other than the ongoing carnage in our nation as a result of angry young men (always men!) shooting up their schools, most recently (at least at the time of this writing) with the death of 17 students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas HS in Parkland, FL. It is hard to write through the tears. This should not be going on. Many people have written pieces on the subject -- sad, or angry, or articulate, or all of these. One of the most moving appeared in the New York Times on February 18, 2018, by a man named Gregory Gibson whose son was killed in a school shooting 25 years ago. The online headline, “A message from the club no one wants to join”, is different from, and in this case is much weaker than, the print headline: “Why wasn’t my son the last victim?”

Why indeed? Twenty-five years ago. And since then, countless school shootings, and other mass murders (such as, if we needed reminders, the Las Vegas country music concert, the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, TX) have occurred, and every parent, every family member, wants to know why the most recent prior child to die was not the last, instead of their child. People are terrified; a friend, a rational physician, embarrassedly admits to looking online for Kevlar backpacks for his children. He does international “mission” work and is taking his 14-year old daughter to Africa; when people ask him if he is worried about her safety there, he says “no”, but he is worried about her safety attending school two miles from his home in an affluent suburban community in the US. His day job includes being a leader for the quality program in his hospital, where he searches the actual data for root and contributing causes to problems; he wonders why this country cannot do the same for gun violence. Arizona Star columnist Dave Fitzsimmons expresses similar fears for his children.

This country could, but so far it shows no sign of doing so. Gibson quotes the author Chester Himes commenting on the lynching of 14-year old Emmett Till in 1955 that “The real horror comes when your dead brain must face the fact that we as a nation don’t want it to stop.” Himes was talking about lynching, but it is clear that the same can be said today, more than 60 years later, about school shootings. We don’t want it to stop. Because, if we did, we would do something about it.

Of course, we do, most of us. Various surveys, asking the question in different ways, find different percentages, but always large majorities, of Americans want stricter gun laws, often up to 90%. Even most people who are members of the NRA and/or are registered Republicans want limitations on who can buy guns based on mental illness and other criteria (always “me, and people like me”, but not the people like you) and some kinds of guns or gun modifiers (like “bump stocks”, used by the Las Vegas shooter to turn his AR-15 semi-automatic – and by the way almost all these shootings involve AR-15s) and armor-piercing bullets. No, the “we” who don’t want to stop it, in this case is, beyond a small minority of zealots, the even smaller minority of those who are politicians, in Congress, in the Executive Branch, and in our statehouses.

Why would they do this? Or, rather, not do anything about gun violence? Well, there is a small minority of this small minority who are, themselves, zealots whose interpretation of the Second Amendment is such that our dead children are just collateral damage in pursuit of the higher cause of unrestricted gun ownership. But, for most, opposition to even the most rational restrictions is tied to money, specifically to money from the NRA. A staffer for Jimmy Kimmel, Bess Kalb, looked at how much each of the Senators and Congresspeople tweeting their sadness and condolences took from the NRA, noting that “In the 2015-2016 election cycle alone, GOP candidates took $17,385,437 from the NRA,” (quoting a tweet from Republican National Convention chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel), and that “This is NOT counting the $21 million given to President Trump.” Another article documents the individual contributions, led by $4.4 million to Thom Tillis (R-NC, or, excuse me, R-NRA).

These legislators, and sadly even the President, when not crying their hypocritical crocodile tears and then voting with the NRA to kill any sort of gun reform, talk instead about the need to focus on mental health. This, by the way, is a good idea; the mental health system in this country is terrible; insurance companies cover it inadequately, those who are not insured and need public facilities find them cut back yearly, and there is no shortage of news stories focusing on a poor mentally-ill person pushed out of a treatment facility found wandering the street, or worse. Our jails and prisons have become our new mental hospitals, documented, for example, in this comprehensive Atlantic article from 2015, “America’s largest mental hospital is a jail”. However, it is not the diagnosed mentally ill who commit these murders and mass murders. Most such murderers do not have a diagnosis, although they probably suffer from “anger management disorder” (not in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), but “intermittent explosive disorder“ will be in DSM-V). This is important because it is the angry who commit these murders. An article in Slate by Laura L. Hayes from 2014,”How to Stop Violence; Mentally ill people aren’t killers. Angry people are”, contains this persuasive data:
80 to 90 percent of murderers had prior police records, in contrast to 15 percent of American adults overall. In a study of domestic murderers, 46 percent of the perpetrators had had a restraining order against them at some time. Family murders are preceded by prior domestic violence more than 90 percent of the time.
Hayes concludes that “Violent crimes are committed by people who lack the skills to modulate anger, express it constructively, and move beyond it.” Sadly, this also describes many of the most virulent opponents of gun control.

If anything could be even more sad than the fact that the mass killing of our children is tacitly endorsed through inaction by our political leaders, it is that it is only one face of the epidemic that is child mortality in the US. This January, Ashish P. Thrakar and colleagues published “Child Mortality In The US and 19 OECD Comparator Nations: A 50-Year Time-Trend Analysis” in the journal Health Affairs. The picture was bleak. The first sentence of their Abstract summarizes their findings: “The United States has poorer child health outcomes than other wealthy nations despite greater per capita spending on health care for children.” Guns are part of it, and the “social determinants of health”, a sanitized way of saying that in the richest country in the world there are millions of children with inadequate food, housing, warmth, safety, healthcare, and educational opportunities, are ultimately the other causes. We may be the richest country in the world, but we are also the most unequal in the developed world, and the increases in the wealth of the top 0.1% does not “trickle down” to those in need.

Indeed, even the outrageous and disproportionate child mortality rates in this country are not the whole story. As I have noted before (Rising white midlife mortality: what are the real causes and solutions?, November 14, 2015; Tom Petty, the opioid epidemic and changing structural inequities in the US, January 23, 2018) the US is the only wealthy country in which mortality rates are rising, a completely shocking finding since, of course, it didn’t used to be true. And this rising mortality is driven by the white non-Hispanic population (although, it must continue to be said, that the absolute mortality rate of minorities, and especially African-Americans, still exceeds that of whites), and more particularly, poor whites.

In a terrific effort to try to explain to the international community what is happening in the US, Steven Woolf recently wrote an editorial for the BMJ, Failing Health of the United States. He notes the causes of the increases in mortality (more than opioids, more than guns, although these are major contributors), provides data, and proposes solutions. “In theory,” he says,
…policy makers would promote education, boost support for children and families, increase wages and economic opportunity for the working class, invest in distressed communities, and strengthen healthcare and behavioral health systems.

Politicians need to address these issues, and they need to be made to do so. By us, the people they are supposed to work for, not the huge money contributors like the NRA. But we can only do this if we stay angry, and stay organized. We cannot heed calls to “not talk about this now” while families are grieving, because it will, based on history, not be very long before it happens again.

It is our job and we must take it on. 

Friday, February 9, 2018

Nursing homes, assisted living, and home care: Can we have reliable quality?

Getting older is unavoidable (until the end); I myself have been doing it all my life. When I was a child and getting older (being a teenager! Or an adult!), it was an entirely positive aspiration. Now, not so much. We know that we will die, and as we grow old, if we are lucky enough to not die young, we know that are going to meet that end sooner rather than later.

As I have grown past “Medicare age”, I have personally experienced many of the issues that I have worked through with patients over the decades, and am also experiencing (vicariously, but closer) the travails of my much-older parent. While not everything that happens with aging is negative (retirement, not going to work every day, is a major positive, provided you can afford it!), the body and the mind can’t do what they once did and often really start to fall apart. Those of us who are lucky enough to avoid dementia, from Alzheimer’s disease or another cause, still find ourselves with memory lapses. And hopefully, we can continue to find ourselves, and our keys, and remember the word or name that we know so well but just is evading us, or the reason we came into this room. A colleague of mine calls this “benign senile forgetfulness”, and I guess it is benign, as long as it doesn’t progress too fast.

Aging is a process of the body falling apart. Different pieces fall apart in different people at different rates, and some folks overall do better for longer than others, but there is an inexorable downward progression. There are things that we can do to help, to slow it, to lessen the risks we face (see, for example, Jane Brody’s article on How to Prevent Falls); among the most important is continued physical activity, as vigorous as we are able to do. I tell people, with a straight face because I am serious, that when I was young I worked out to get fitter and stronger, but now I work out to just fall apart a little more slowly.

As we age we are more likely to acquire disease. These include both the diseases associated with aging (although they can occur younger ages) like Alzheimer’s and arthritis, as well as almost all other diseases that become more common and often more serious: heart disease, most cancers, diabetes, stroke, high blood pressure, influenza, etc. The real question becomes when and even whether to treat them. In youth and well into (and past) middle age we are conditioned to think of illness as curable, or at least significantly treatable. This attitude is enabled by the medical profession, that can do so much more than it used to be able to, and the health care industry, which makes money on it. And we tend to take these views into older age, even when the treatment is worse than the disease, as it often is, or there is no demonstrated benefit, and sometimes definite evidence of harm, both in treatment and even in “preventive” screening (see the CDC and USPSTF recommendations for age-appropriate screening).

Aging and its accompanying diseases and infirmities may require a change in our living situation. Options can include living with family members, or having a health aide (living in or commuting, see below), or a variety of institutional settings ranging from “independent living” (your own place, but some easily accessible help, such as available meals and nurse visits), to “assisted living” (regular meals, more nursing and cleaning help, more protected environment) to full-on nursing home (skilled) care. Given the variety of options, both in terms of “level” of care and in terms of quality and cost of provider, we should be able to depend on licensing, legal standards, and ratings. Unfortunately, we are not always able to do so.

Care Suffers as More Nursing Homes Feed Money Into Corporate Webs”, in the NY Times on January 2, 2018, documents just what the title says. Most nursing homes are owned by for-profit companies, often very large regional or national corporations, and thus there can be cuts in the quality of care (the service ostensibly being rendered) in order to increase profits. Or, looking at it the other way, every dollar spent on actually delivering care is a dollar lost to profit. The insurance industry has a cute term for this, “medical loss ratio”, which is the money lost to the bottom line by paying health insurance claims. In addition, nursing homes contract “out” for many services (food, cleaning, etc.), and management of the homes, and rent for the buildings. The companies that they contract with are often owned by the same people, but through this trick these costs now become fixed expenses, not covered by regulations governing the nursing home itself. VoilĂ ! Instant profit!

Similar problems abound in other levels of care. “U.S. Pays Billions for ‘Assisted Living,’ but What Does It Get?”, NY Times February 3, 2018, documents the low quality of care often provided to people in assisted living for whom Medicaid is paying as much as $30,000 a year (for assisted living, mind you, not even for skilled nursing services). Part of the problem in this case is that, because Medicaid is a joint state-federal program, they operate “…under a patchwork of vague standards and limited supervision by federal and state authorities.” And, again the people being cared for are the ones who suffer.

So there is good reason to be concerned about these institutions. What about home care? At least that is in your own house, right? On January 31, 2018, the Times had two articles about it. One was from Britain, although it is actually describing institutions, “home care” settings that are like small private assisted living facilities. “Britain Was a Pioneer in Outsourcing Services. Now, the Model Is ‘Broken,” discusses serious adverse health outcomes for people in “home care” there. This could be seen as a ‘gotcha’ for those of us who advocate a national health system, which Britain has, but there are some important caveats. One, of course, is that these are not “home care” in the US sense, and a second is that the fault is clearly not with having a national health system, but rather the efforts to privatize aspects of it (“outsourcing”) which has failed because – surprise – these private sector companies make more profit if they provide cheaper, read “worse”, care! The less national, government involvement, the worse the care.

The other important point is to remember the difference between how much money is spent and how it is distributed. The US spends a lot of money, but it is incredibly unequally distributed among the population. Britain distributes it much more equitably, but has (particularly under Tory governments) underfunded it, including the efforts to privatize aspects of it described in this article. Now, if the US distributed its health care funds in a manner similar to the British NHS, it could spend a lot less and the people would get a lot more!

The other article, from the US, is about what we truly understand to be home care, but its focus is not on the quality of care for patients but the difficulties confronted by the home care workers. Titled “For Health Care Workers, the Worst Commutes in New York City,” it specifically addresses the commutes (from poorer neighborhoods where the mostly-minority mostly-female home care workers live to where they work). But these workers are also poorly paid and lack benefits, often including paid time off, and ironic but true, health coverage! They are, of course, employed by for-profit companies. We depend on these people to care for our parents, or us, but like many involved in the doing-actually-important-things-that-make-a-real-difference-in-people’s-lives industries (e.g., teaching, social work, etc.) they are underpaid and undervalued in comparison to those in the let’s-make-a-lot-of-money-for-ourselves-and-the-heck-with-them industries.

Those who advocate a for-profit capitalist market as the solution to all problems, and particularly the privatization of currently government-run activities, claim that the private sector can operate more efficiently and more cost-effectively, and provide better service than a government bureaucracy. This claim usually turns out to be untrue. Such companies, particularly when gifted with government contracts, are better at making profit, especially by keeping down workers’ wages and cutting back services. When we talk about the care of our seniors, our parents, ourselves, the tradeoff between adequate care and profit is not one any of us would want to make; we want the best quality of care, period. So whether this is compromised by inadequate funding, as in the case of British home care, or (almost worse) adequate funding but excessive profit-taking by the private sector, it is unacceptable.

There is an answer. Have the structure of our society reflect the things that most people actually value. Have a well-funded national health system or a well-regulated private one, that ensures quality of care for its clients and living wages for its workers. The elimination of excessive profits (or all profit in a government-run system) would make it not only better, but still cheaper than the way we do it now, where the “care” is the “medical loss” to profit.

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