Friday, December 31, 2021

Why do we have to wait so long to see the doctor? It's all about the money...

I have seen a number of articles describing the difficulty of getting doctor’s appointments in the era of COVID-19. In many parts of the country it was difficult to get a quick appointment even before the pandemic, but it has become much worse. I hear from friends in a several different cities that they cannot get into their doctors offices for weeks or, commonly, months. This is not OK for routine care; it is certainly not ok when something urgent, or relatively urgent, or even a little bit “needs to happen before I get really sick” is going on. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal by Devorah Goldman (‘The doctor’s office becomes an assembly line’, December 30, 2021) describes a woman who came to her father’s Brooklyn office from New Jersey because she couldn’t get an appointment for 8 months!

There are Emergency Rooms, of course, but waiting (frequently for hours!) in them increases your risk of acquiring COVID infection. And, as in “regular” times, they should be for emergencies, not for care for chronic diseases or minor acute disease. Of course, if you cannot get regular care for your chronic disease, it can become an emergency. And, as I have written before (Emergency services, COVID, and the health system: Your life could well be at risk, Jan 19, 2021), when you have an emergency, like a ruptured appendix, waiting in an ER for hours is also very dangerous, and the more “non-emergent” people waiting the more likely this is to happen. There are Urgent Care Clinics, but these have their own issues: they can only take care of a limited (and variable by location) menu of problems, most of which are those your mother used to take care of, and they may not take your insurance (if you have it). Also the prices and profit margins are very high.

So why are the waits so long, and what can be done about it? Goldman’s emphasis is the takeover of physician private practices by hospital systems and large groups; she notes that, according to the AMA, 75% of physicians owned their own practices in 1983, but by 2018 it was 46%. This is part of the problem; even if an individual physician is compassionate and caring, the big corporation they work for probably is not. Another part is the maldistribution of physician specialists. Studies of efficient and effective health care systems indicate that 40-50%+ of physicians should be in primary care, seeing people for most problems, providing continuity of care for a patient panel, and diagnosing “undifferentiated patients” (those who do not have a specific diagnosis) and caring for them or appropriately referring them. In the US, however, it is less than 30% and dropping. Quite reasonably, subspecialists want to see people with the problems that they know how to take care of; this works well when they are referred by family physicians and other primary care clinicians, and much less well when people have to self-refer, essentially having to diagnose themselves. Such direct self-referral also backs up the subspecialist practices with patients whose problems could have been well taken care of by a primary care clinician (not everyone with a heart needs a cardiologist!) making it more difficult for those with complicated or rarer conditions that need the subspecialist’s care to get in. Medicare’s reimbursement method figures prominently in Goldman’s article; she identifies ways that it tends to give preference (i.e., pays more) to large, and especially hospital-owned, medical groups. And, of course, since COVID the demand for care has gone up, and the number of clinicians available (because of sickness and overwork) has gone down.

Many other articles claim to provide the reasons for this problem, and some even have proposed solutions, but most of them examine only one aspect of it. I am reminded of the old Indian story about the blind men and the elephant, each touching a different part of the beast and thus presuming, based on contact with the trunk, the tail, or a leg, that they knew what the whole elephant looked like. Often this is influenced by the agenda of the writer and whether (like, e.g., Goldman) they get their information mainly from groups like the AMA (“oh, for the days of physician-owned private practice!”), hospital associations (“consolidation is good!”), government agencies (“reimbursement policy is governed by competing needs”), or academics, think tanks, or nonprofits like the Commonwealth Fund, Kaiser Family Foundation, and Pew Trusts, often with their own biases. To me, it is clear what the whole elephant looks like, what is the common factor in this equation, what can be seen behind all of the decisions that have led us to where we are (and continue to make it worse) and, by implication, could show us the way out: Money. Corporate profit.

We live in a profit-driven capitalist society. More than that, we have moved well beyond simple “Adam Smithian” capitalism to what Noam Chomsky identifies as “gangster capitalism”. In this stage, merely making money is not sufficient – the only goal becomes to make ever more money, by any and every means possible, no matter who, or what is destroyed. This includes people, animals, plants and the earth itself -- it hurts, screws, destroys, even though neither those who control it nor their descendants could ever spend it all. Fewer and fewer people control more and more and it would be naïvete to assume this is not the case in health care.

Virtually all the systemic bad things (as opposed to the much less common individual error) in healthcare derive from corporate owners’ efforts to make more money, and to game the system to maximize profit. While huge practice groups owned by hospitals or investors could operate more efficiently to improve both the quality of and access to care for patients, they don’t since they are interested in squeezing every dollar of profit. Conversely, small physician-owned practices couid do better than they do, but often, in pursuit of income, do not care for significant portions (poor, uninsured, badly insured) of the population. Explicitly for-profit (as opposed to ostensibly non-profit, but still fixated on making as much as possible) healthcare entities, whether large hospitals and hospital systems or more ‘niche’ services like dialysis, physical therapy, and long-term care, are the worst. There is certainly plenty of blame to go around – healthcare systems blame insurance companies for not paying them enough and insurance companies blame healthcare systems for demanding too much, but both are seeking to earn money for themselves, not to ensure all people get the highest quality health care.

Pharmaceutical companies are notoriously rapacious. For example, see Aduhelm® (FDA approves Alzheimer's drug against the recommendation of its scientific panel. Be very concerned, June 21, 2021); every (60 million!) Medicare recipient’s Part B payments will now rise $11/month so some Alzheimer’s patients can receive this drug that, though probably ineffective, costs a huge amount (now, graciously, reduced to only $28,200/year!). It was approved by the FDA over the recommendation of its scientific advisory panel in a move completely reminiscent of the fraudulent labeling of Oxy-Contin® described in the film “Dopesick”, which I recently discussed ("Dopesick": The story of the marketing of killer opioids will really make you sick. Don't trust any of them!, Dec 7, 2021).

I have often advocated for a single-payer health insurance system, such as Medicare for All. The advantage of this would be that 1) everyone in the US is covered, and 2) everyone in the US has the SAME coverage, The second is not a minor point, as it means that the educated and powerful will make sure it works, also helping the disenfranchised and disempowered. A universal health insurance system (or something comparably effective) is necessary, but not sufficient. Medicate for All needs to be an improved and expanded Medicare, as described in the bills introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders, Rep. Pramila Jayapal and others.(See this good analysis by Sen. Sanders on the “Vulgarity” of the US health system.) It must be expanded to cover not only everyone but everything (mental health, dental, vision, hearing, long-term care) and improved to cover them completely without co-pays, co-insurance, deductibles. This will eliminate the flaws Goldman describes in Medicare payments.

Since we already spend 2-3x as much per capita on health care as any other wealthy country, including premiums, deductibles, co-pays, government benefits, and the profits and administrative costs sucked out of the “healthcare” pool by insurers and providers, we don’t even need to tax the richest a lot more to pay for it. We just need to spend it on actually providing healthcare! Not that we shouldn’t make the billionaires and corporations pay at least their fair share of taxes; we can use that money to providea adequate housing, food and education to all our people – really, the biggest factors in health.

Don’t get distracted by the circuses and diversions created by those with a profit-motivated dog in the fight. Profit has little place in healthcare. Obscene profit has none.

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

"Dopesick": The story of the marketing of killer opioids will really make you sick. Don't trust any of them!

I have recently been watching “Dopesick”, the Hulu/Disney+ quasi-documentary drama about how the Sackler family-owned Purdue Pharma developed and marketed Oxy-Contin®, and about the efforts of some brave federal prosecutors and DEA and DOJ agents brought them (somewhat) down. Based on the book by Beth Macy, it is a good series, with terrific performances and many sympathetic characters (not the Sacklers, though, none of them) and although I am sure that there fictional elements involving the personalities portrayed, it is essentially factual. It is also infuriating, and nauseating.

If you haven’t watched it, you probably should, but you probably already know the main theme, so what I write won’t be spoilers. It is still worth watching, to understand the extent of the evil, and the way in which the medical profession and federal agencies were “played” successfully as thousands of Americans became addicted and died. A few of the outrages include that when Purdue developed Oxy-Contin, using a delivery scheme developed for MS-Contin®, which was going off patent, they claimed its slow-release delivery mechanism made it essentially non-addictive (less than 1%), and got a first-ever special label for a Class II narcotic from the FDA saying it was less addictive (it was not). They did a very effective job not only marketing (detailing) to physicians with this lie, but created new diseases (conditions) that justified its use. This was also taken from a previous drug and scam, when Arthur Sackler invented the condition “psychic tension” to market Valium®. When, predictably, people first got pain relief, then developed tolerance they invented the condition of “breakthrough pain” which required a higher dose. Then folks got tolerant of that. And when they stopped, they went through awful withdrawal. This is what happens with opiates and opioids. And yet Purdue was able to convince doctors to continue to prescribe it – and prescribe it in increasing amounts.

This was part of a movement going on in the 1990s to address the issue of people not always receiving adequate pain relief. The pain of diseases, such as cancer, that occurs as people approach death, got conflated with the moderate chronic pain that millions have from work related injuries (the focus of the drama is on a mining area of Virginia) and from conditions such as osteoarthritis. These are real problems, but the answer was presented as opioids, and ever increasing doses of them. What was not well-known at the time is that, to a large degree, this “movement” was in fact a campaign funded by Purdue. They funded – and thus heavily influenced -- most of the medical Pain Management groups, as well as the campaign to label pain the “fifth vital sign” (after temperature, pulse, respiration, and blood pressure), an idea they invented. It was a drumbeat that was ubiquitous. The pain movement was essentially, a marketing campaign for a lethal drug. It was successful, in both ways. It made the company, and the family, a lot of money, and it addicted and killed a lot of people.

The Sacklers didn’t seem like the meanest of billionaire families (of course, this is a low bar). They were philanthropists, who gave a lot of money to the arts, and to Israel and Jewish organizations, and health care, and even funded a medical school, the Sackler School of Medicine, part of Tel Aviv University and located in Israel but chartered in NY state. It still exists. They were, however, and remain, avaricious and essentially amoral, continuing to refuse to recognize their evil-doing, while remaining #30 on the Forbes wealthiest list, and managing to retain and hide nearly $11B in their own private money despite the $8.3B settlement. And thousands of people are dead and addicted. The people most affected were poor and working class people, those who work with their bodies and most often experience chronic pain, such as those the series focuses on, miners.

But the story cannot end with the Sacklers, Purdue, and Oxy-Contin. While some of their tactics were particularly creative and perfidious, the effort to market drugs with high profit margins (even when they are often less effective and more dangerous than other existing drugs) is the Holy Grail of the pharmaceutical industry. What Purdue did was possibly more insidious – and effective -- but it was typical in being multi-pronged, targeting consumers, physicians and the federal government.

The government was targeted by lying to them, and knowing they were unlikely to be caught as the FDA’s staff (as the staffs of almost all regulatory agencies) had been decimated by cuts beginning with the Reagan administration, aimed at allowing corporations to have freer rein – to lie, cheat, and profit at the public’s expense in $$ and, in this as in many cases, their health. It was a flagrant example of the corruption of the ubiquitous “revolving door”, where those who are tasked with regulating industries then leave government service and get high-paying jobs in those same industries. Indeed, this is what happened with the FDA official who approved the novel labeling of Oxy-Contin -- he went to work for a big salary at Purdue -- and it happens every day in every field, not just pharmaceuticals. It is, pure and simple, graft.

Doctors were targeted through pharmaceutical sales representatives (“detail” people) who provide them with incomplete and often inaccurate information (e.g., that Oxy-Contin was only 1% addictive), and take them to expensive dinners and even vacation retreats under the guise of medical lectures. And the company, of course, encouraged their own reps to lie with enticements such as vacations. And the public? They present tantalizing, incomplete, and dangerous information through ads, especially on TV.

I have written about TV direct-to-consumer advertising, (e.g, DTC Advertising on TV illustrates the corruption and inequity of the US medical care system, Mar 6, 2021) and think it is pretty much all bad. I think that the marketing of drugs to doctors, to get them to prescribe expensive drugs, is mostly all bad. I have thought that, by the way, pretty much since at least medical school. I didn’t meet with drug reps, was very skeptical of information they provided (which I saw in journal ads and heard from colleagues) and assumed any positive claim was very likely incomplete or untrue. During my career, any number of highly-touted drugs were pulled from the market after causing major morbidity and mortality that was either not predicted in the pre-approval studies or suppressed by the companies. As a teacher of medicine, I sponsored “counter-detailing” to point out the flaws of the pharmaceutical company claims. I was aghast when residents would come back from conferences supposedly sponsored by professional associations but funded by drug companies that recommended the substitution of new expensive drugs for old standards that worked at least as well. This has been recently documented for diabetes (another field in which much of the funding has come from the drug makers) in an article from Reuters, ‘Drugmakers Pushed Aggressive Diabetes Therapy. Patients Paid the Price’, featured by Medscape Nov 5, 2021.

And yet, even so, I was not immune to the campaigns that Purdue funded, especially the idea that pain was being undertreated, although I remained unconvinced that it was the “fifth vital sign”. To be sure, I was much more skeptical than many of my colleagues, and was careful to distinguish between relieving the pain of a terminal cancer patient and addicting a person with chronic moderate pain. But it was a very well-done campaign, and I knew that at least sometimes we were undertreating pain. At Cook County Hospital, where I worked, we saw many patients with sickle-cell pain crises, treated with opiates and opioids, and frequently becoming addicted (interestingly, the chief of pediatric hematology only used aspirin and hydration, but as soon as those children became adults they began to receive narcotics).

We must remember that it was and is not just Purdue. Don’t trust what any drug company (or maybe any company) says in TV ads. Don’t trust what the pharma reps say. And sadly we cannot always trust recommendations of professional organizations when they are getting money from drug companies. This is real conflict of interest, and makes our professional organizations suspect.

It is all about making the most possible money by any means necessary, no matter who gets hurt, what Noam Chomsky calls “gangster capitalism”. You’re better off trusting real gangsters who literally put a gun to your head. At least you know where you stand.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

The NIH - Moderna patent controversy: private profit at public cost is a major problem

The NY Times recently reported on the controversy between Moderna and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) regarding the patenting of the Moderna (which NIH has called “NIH-Moderna”) vaccine for COVID-19. Moderna has applied for sole ownership of the patent, while NIH claims that at least 3 scientists it employs were instrumental in the basic science behind the vaccine’s development. This issue is important for a number of reasons: the specifics of this particular – and major – controversy regarding the vaccine, the larger issue of taxpayer support through NIH for projects that become private profit centers, the wider use of federal funds to support private profit, and even more generally the willingness and enthusiasm of both corporations and individuals to benefit from public expenditures while abjuring the responsibility for paying the taxes that make them possible.

The specific case of the “Moderna” COVID-19 vaccine is about more than money or glory; the Times reports

If the three agency scientists are named on the patent along with the Moderna employees, the federal government could have more of a say in which companies manufacture the vaccine, which in turn could influence which countries get access. It would also secure a nearly unfettered right to license the technology, which could bring millions into the federal treasury.

These two issues are very important. Most of the people in the world have not had access to the vaccine, and if the US government (through NIH) owns or controls the patent, it could (although so far it has not, and arguably could also do it under the Defense Production Act) ensure that poor countries with need can get it, and get it at an affordable price. This is far more important than the second, which is that it could make money from selling it to countries that can afford to buy it. It could even license the production of the vaccine by other countries in their own manufacturing process. This is a critically important concern; if all people across the world do not have access to effective vaccination, the coronavirus will continue to spread and mutate and spread back to the US and other more privileged countries. Getting vaccines to the world’s poorest countries must happen, but Moderna has been the worst of all the vaccine manufacturers (and none have been great), refusing to make the vaccine available to most countries, only offering it to those wealthy countries that can pay. (The company will make at least $18B from the vaccine.)

The larger issue is the support that the NIH gives to basic science research, mostly in universities, which is then acquired by pharmaceutical companies who manufacture the drugs based on that research and make enormous profits. No one disputes the huge profits made by Big Pharma, and only the most willfully blind (and of course the companies themselves) argue that they are fair or justified. Pharmaceutical companies like to talk about how much they spend on “R&D”, Research and Development, but (while cost allocation can be done in a number of ways), they spend much more on marketing than on R&D.   


NIH spends over $40B annually on scientific research, and in 2020 and 2021 each about $5B specifically on emerging infectious disease research.  Most of the profit goes to the pharmaceutical companies, sometimes with some going to the universities who did the research, using NIH money, through collaborative agreements. But YOU* paid for the basic research.

Thus, beyond any issue with Moderna, the federal government spends lots of your money to support scientific research at the basic level, where the highest risk is (i.e., where the probability of discovering something that is likely to be marketable is lowest) with the drug companies acquiring only the most promising innovations to develop further. And it goes beyond drug companies, although they are among the most regular feeders at this government trough. Remember the bailout of the banks and financial services industries? The savings and loan crisis of the late 1980s which cost the US government (and YOU*, the taxpayer) $32B a year for 30 years, followed by the much larger bailout of the financial services industry in 2009? Remember “too big to fail”? Huge banks and other financial companies nearly wrecked our economy in offering subprime mortgages and other flawed instruments, and were happy to take the profit when it was coming in. While the capitalist principle is supposed to be that their profits are justified by the risks they take, it turns out that they took the profit but eschewed the risk. When it all collapsed, and threatened to collapse the entire economy, they were bailed out by the federal government to the tune of, ostensibly, $700B, but as Forbes columnist Mike Collins reported, this was the tip of the iceberg, with a total cost of over $16 TRILLION!!! To the BANKS, which were, by the way, thrilled to return thereafter to the old way – that is, they make and keep all the money – immediately after being bailed out by YOU*. Just think about the fuss being made about President Biden’s Build Back Better (BBB) proposal, of whether it should be $3.5T or $1T over 10 years (or nothing!) and keep that $16T+ we GAVE to the wealthiest banks in the US in mind! So, the subsidization of pharmaceutical companies like Moderna and others is right in the tradition of YOU* taking all the risk while big corporations make all the profit.

The final issue is that these big corporations often pay little or no tax, as a result of having the money to pay scads of accountants who are adept at finding the loopholes that have been written into the tax laws by a Congress often dependent upon contributions from these same corporations (which would often be illegal corruption at the state or local level but is legal for Congress). Using tax havens abroad, incorporating elsewhere, stashing money in Ireland and the Caymans and other countries may be beyond what you can do, but you do have an important role to play: bankrolling it! Thus my * on YOU* several times above; especially if you are employed and have your federal income tax withheld and thus are paying your taxes, you are funding all this while these corporations – and the billionaires who pay little or nothing, and even less thanks to the $1T Trump tax cut for them – are getting a free ride. No, more than a free ride, they get to charge you – and charge you a lot – for the ride that they are taking!

The sad part – well, it is all sad – is that the YOU* includes lots of minimum wage workers, lots of people who are members of marginalized minority groups, lots of folks just squeaking by (or not), lots of folks who cannot afford and do not have health insurance, and cannot pay for the drugs they need, who are paying the taxes that support the drug companies and the banks. Yes, the fallacy of the common good (see this interesting analysis which identifies the fallacy in the tragedy of the commons) means that there are many regular people who wish they were not paying, or paying so much, in taxes despite the fact that they are happy to benefit from and think they are entitled to benefit from publicly funded (ie, tax-funded) things like roads, fire and police protection, national defense, Social Security, etc. This is short-sighted and wrong, but most of us just get to grouse and still pay.

But not the corporations, banks, pharmaceutical companies. The COVID-19 vaccine patent controversy, while very important, has implications far beyond the immediate issue.

Monday, October 25, 2021

Medicare Advantage, Direct Contracting Entities, and other scams to transfer your money to insurance companies

In my post DTC Advertising on TV illustrates the corruption and inequity of the US medical care system (March 6, 2021) I talked a little about advertisements for Medicare Advantage (MA), an alternative to traditional Medicare (TM, not ™) that involves an insurance company taking over your Medicare and you maybe paying additional money to, essentially, be enrolled in their HMO or PPO, with its concomitant advantages and disadvantages to you personally. Advantages include a variety of additional services that are not currently included in TM (they should be, but this is a different issue), such as vision care (or at least glasses), hearing aids, and sometimes dental care. This can save you money. The disadvantages are, essentially, the same as those for any HMO or PPO – a limited “network” of physicians and hospitals (and big charges for which you are liable if you go out of network) and, related to that, a limited geographic area in which your network applies. This is not generally a big issue for the occasional traveler (emergencies are usually covered) but can be a big problem for those who split their time between two or more areas. Plus, it doesn’t protect you from “surprise medical bills”, as they are called in Congress (which discusses them but has yet to enact anything to protect you from them). These occur when, while both your doctor and hospital are “in network”, someone else --  the ambulance company, some doctors caring for you (say, the group that staffs the Emergency Department, or the surgeon assisting your surgeon) are not. They can – and do – then send you big bills. This should be a caution.

Why I am bringing this up again now is that the pace and frequency of solicitations for people to abandon TM and enroll in MA have greatly accelerated because we have entered the “open enrollment” period, when people with Medicare can change their insurer or plan type, and the MA plans, mostly owned by insurance companies, really want you*. This is why in addition to adding more former NFL quarterbacks to their ads (Joe Theismann, who is only my age, joins the 78-year-old Joe Namath), you have (if you are of Medicare age) been getting dozens of information packets in your mail for the plans available in your area – almost all of which pick names and design their envelopes and otherwise do their best to make it look as if they are official and from Medicare (I was going to share the link to one with a name that prominently features “Medicare”, but I figured why advertise them?)  They’re not. And they’re being successful. As documented by the Kaiser Family Foundation, MA plans had an 8% increase from 2018 to 2019 and a 15% increase from 2019 to 2020. Advertising really pays off! And, boy, does it pay! Thanks to your generosity (well, Congress’ generosity, on your behalf, or at least using your money) MA plans (and, by the way, “Medicare Advantage” is the official term specified in the legislation, in case you had any doubts about the influence of insurance companies over Congress) get paid a lot more than the government pays on your behalf to TM. For starters, their administrative overhead – comparable to that of most private insurers – is about 13.2%. Is that a lot? Well, the overhead for TM is about 1.8%! Some sources have cited the overhead for “Medicare” as about 3% -- still a lot better – but that is because it is combining the two. And, of course, as MA increases as a share of Medicare that figure will continue to rise.

MEDPAC, the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, an independent agency created by the federal government to monitor and recommend on issues related to Medicare, notes that MA plans receive more money from Medicare but spend less on providing patient care to their members, costing Medicare an additional $8B. So it is definitely worth pursuing your business! Unless, of course, and this was the reason for the asterisk (*) above following really want you, you are sick. Then you would cost them money, and they would rather that you switch to regular TM. Which would be better for you, of course, but it would have been better for you to have never been in MA. This is a core part of their business strategy: attracting healthy seniors who will not cost them much money with the lure of cheap glasses and hearing aids and such (“cherry picking”) and then getting rid of those beneficiaries who really get sick and would cost them a lot of money (“lemon dropping”). All this is an effort to improve their “Medical Loss Ratio”, which is to say decrease the % of the money that they collect which they have to spend on actually taking care of you. If it sounds weird or offensive (and it is both) that their spending money on what they are supposed to be in the business of doing is called “loss”, it is a term that comes from the overall insurance industry. The % of homeowner’s premiums that have to be paid out to clients because their homes burn down, or auto insurance premiums that have to be paid if you are in a car wreck, is called the loss ratio. Of course, you don’t expect (and certainly don’t hope) to be in a car wreck or have your house burn down, but you do (or should) expect to receive medical care. Indeed, a more apt comparison to your house burning down might be made to “major medical” – coverage for costly hospitalizations – but in fact most people will need those if they live long enough. Much more about the cost of MA and the reasons for it can be found in the Health Affairs Blog posts of September 29 (Medicare Advantage, Direct Contracting, And The Medicare ‘Money Machine,’ Part 1: The Risk-Score Game), and 30 (Medicare Advantage, Direct Contracting, And The Medicare ‘Money Machine,’ Part 2: Building On The ACO Model) by Rick Gilfilan and former CMS administrator Donald Berwick. Another article on MA can be found in Consumer Reports.

Since not everyone who would be a good health risk is forgoing TM for MA, a new scam (excuse me, option!) has been developed by CMMI, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation, a branch of CMS, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which has been granted authority to implement such changes as they (or the insurance company lobbyists) can come up with without needing further Congressional approval. This one is Direct Contracting Entities (DCEs). A company, particularly a health system or medical group, may send people a complicated letter telling them that (for their benefit!) the group has enrolled them in a DCE. The client has the choice to opt out, but this is disguised in complex legal language, and the benefits(!) are so strongly sold, that many people do not.  Remember, this is not being sent to folks who are in MA, but those who have purposely and specifically chosen TM and NOT MA. Thus, they are not expecting that their providers will try to enroll them, backdoor, in a plan that, while it has benefits(!) – like those of MA – also lets insurance companies (wait, how di I get to an insurance company? I thought I was in TM!) collect a lot more money from CMS – like under MA! What a cool idea! If you resist MA because you are more concerned about your healthcare than insurance company profits, CMMI will find a way to allow you to help the insurance companies anyway! A lot more can be learned from a short (15 minute) youtube presentation by PNHP (Physician’s for a National Health  Plan) member Ana Malinow.

Medicare, along with its parent, Social Security, is the most popular government program in the nation, and for good reason. It actually provides important benefits to the taxpaying American people. Instead of paying out lots of extra money to Wall St. and insurance companies, Congress should expand the benefits available under TM to include all necessary health care, including dental care, vision care, and hearing care. Instead of forbidding Medicare to negotiate drug prices with BigPharma and the Pharmacy Benefits Mangers (PBMs) that control access to drugs, Congress should ENCOURAGE and REQUIRE it. Finally, it should extend all these Medicare benefits to EVERYONE in the country, not just the elderly and disabled.

This would be what the American people need.  But if you want to have this, you are going to need to shout it from the rooftops – and write letters to Congress -- to be heard over the sound of cash flowing from insurance companies into your Congresspeople’s pockets.

Then go to and sign the petition asking Sec. Becerra to close the DCE program!

Friday, October 15, 2021

Public Health, Abortion and Childcare: US far behind other countries

On October 3, I wrote about the viciously restrictive Texas (anti-) abortion law, The Texas Abortion Law is contrary to women, to science, and to human values. Texas is not the only state with such restrictive laws; in my own state, Arizona, a very restrictive abortion law has been passed by the legislature and signed by Republican governor Doug Ducey that makes it a crime for a doctor to perform an abortion on a woman “just” because it has a genetic defect (including those incompatible with life, or worse, yet, compatible with a short life full of suffering). While a US district court judge has enjoined the law, Arizona’s attorney general, Mark Brnovich, has asked the judge to allow him to continue to enforce that law while his appeal is pending. That could mean, of course, felony convictions for physicians. This follows the Supreme Court, in a “shadow docket” ruling, declining to invalidate that law despite a prior US Court of Appeals ruling that did so.

These actions by Republican-controlled states are all predicated on the assumption that the Supreme Court will soon invalidate Roe v. Wade and take away any Constitutional protection for women seeking, or doctors or others providing, abortions. This may well happen with a case on the agenda for this year challenging Mississippi’s draconian law virtually outlawing abortion. That this is a distinct possibility is because of the success of the Republican party and Sen. Mitch McConnell in ensuring that The Former Guy, Donald Trump, was able to appoint 3 justices to the Court, first by preventing President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland (the current US Attorney General) on the specious grounds that it was the last year of his term (while there were over 9 months left), and then going ahead and then entirely hypocritically approving the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett just a week before the election, which Trump lost. Thus we have a Supreme Court with 6 Republican justices of which Chief Justice John Roberts, Jr., is the least reactionary – but no longer a swing vote. Many, including Coney Barrett (referred to by NY Times columnist Maureen Dowd in her recent piece “The Supreme Court v. Reality” (Oct 9, 2021) as “Lady Handmaid’s Tale” for her advocacy for some of the repugnant and misogynistic practices described in Margaret Atwood’s book and the later TV series, strongly opposed to abortion. It is, of course, worth remembering that large majorities of the American people favor retaining the rights in Roe v. Wade, and that in some circumstances (such as rape and incest and a threat to the life of the mother) that support is overwhelming. Not, however, on GOP legislatures or on the Supreme Court.

Much of the support that exists in the US for overturning Roe v. Wade, and in general opposition to abortion, justifies itself by claiming abortion is murder, that they are only advocates for helpless fetuses, whom they call “babies”. There are undoubtedly many in their ranks who are consistent in their opposition to killing, opposing the death penalty and war (the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago comes to mind, and perhaps the current Pope Francis), but the vast majority of them, including all these legislators and SCOTUS justices, are not. And, indeed, their concern for babies and children only extends back from birth to conception, not forward from birth. We got you to there, they effectively say, but then you’re on your own. Or your parents are. This country is the meanest, using the word in both its senses, unkind and stingy, of all wealthy countries in providing support for infants, children and their parents. No box of baby necessities as in Finland (available for sale in the US, but provided by the government in Finland) . No requirement for parental leave. No guarantee of health insurance coverage, not to mention adequate coverage. No support for childcare. This one is the subject of a dramatic graphic included in the NY Times demonstrating how much countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development spend per child on early childhood care. The mean is $14,436. The second-lowest, Israel, is $3,327. Hungary spends twice that, Lithuania is over $8,000 and Slovenia over $11,000. The “poor” US comes in, as in virtually all measures of caring for its people, last, at $500. Well, you know, it costs a lot to provide care for its least needy; for the billionaires who need tax cuts.

This, of course, does not bother the majority of the Supreme Court. They are not looking for consistency. They are looking for two things: 1) to enact their political agendas, and those of the Presidents who appointed them, and 2) to have people ignore #1 and lash out at people who point it out, painting themselves as victims.

Meanwhile, thing as better on the health front in the small Central American nation of Costa Rica, as described by surgeon and health care pundit Atual Gawande in the New Yorker (‘Costa Ricans Live Longer Than We Do. What’s the Secret?’, August 23, 2021). In a country with a “per-capita income is a sixth that of the United States—and its per-capita health-care costs are a fraction of ours—life expectancy there is approaching eighty-one years. In the United States, life expectancy peaked at just under seventy-nine years, in 2014, and has declined since.” This latter fact has been described in great detail in recent years, particularly in the work of Anne Case and Angus Deaton (in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,Rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st century”, and discussed by me in Rising white midlife mortality: what are the real causes and solutions?, Nov. 14, 2015). Costa Rica, in 1970, had an infant mortality rate of 7%. By 1980, it was only 2%. “In the course of the decade, maternal deaths fell by eighty per cent. Part of the change is due to improvements in access to medical care, a characteristic of middle-income countries such as Costa Rica as well as most (obviously excepting the US) upper-income countries.” This points to the second big reason, and the focus of Gawande’s article, the emphasis on public health, on the health of communities, on interventions (and spending money) on things that improve the health of all people, in great contradistinction to the US focus on providing medical care for individuals.

Public health in the US is grossly underfunded, as has been apparent since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Well, it has long been apparent to those who thought about those things. The emphasis in the US is on individual medical care, and this is what is discussed by those who have power and those who fund them, and of course the mass of journalists and pundits.This is a failure of those who should be providing accurate information, but it is also the fault of our people’s willingness to deny a problem until it is right in their face. Many Americans do not even take the preventive measures that are easily available to them (the COVID vaccine, for some reason, comes to mind) and many others are unable to avail themselves of screening and early treatment because of a lack of money or decent health insurance and so end up in extremis and grateful for whatever invasive, expensive, and often unlikely-to-be-successful medical care is available. But, as I have said before, it is less common for people to wake each morning and be thankful that they don’t have cholera because they have clean water.

It is not that the American people are stupid or have the wrong values. If a large majority support Roe v. Wade, and much larger majority believes everyone has the right to health care and that we should have a universal health insurance system. And a huge majority (about 88% including 77% of Republicans) believe that drug costs are too high, that the reason is that drug companies make too much money, and that Medicare should be able to use its clout as the nation’s biggest insurer to negotiate drug prices. Also, while we’re on it, that all children should have an excellent education, and that childcare and parental leave are truly important priorities.

But we don’t have that. We don’t have the “Finnish baby boxes”, and we don’t have universal health insurance, and we don’t have requirements that all health insurance cover everything needed, and we don’t have childcare or parental leave or excellent education for all our children or a decently supported and effective public health system or even the ability of Medicare to negotiate drug prices. Of course the poster child for opposing this latter while her constituents favor it is my senator from Arizona, Kyrsten Sinema, who has gotten a lot of money from the pharmaceutical industry. Do we think that is part of it??

The only solution is to vote them out. Make supporting public health and universal health care and affordable drugs more important to re-election than opposing abortion rights.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

The Texas Abortion Law is contrary to women, to science, and to human values

The new Texas abortion law and the Supreme Court tacit endorsement of it is the latest (as of this writing – there will be more!) assault on science, medicine, and the will of the people, in an almost unbroken string of such actions. Another example of this process is the effort to spread COVID by opposing mandates for masking, vaccination, or social distancing, under the pretense of “individual liberty”, by a variety of jurisdictions, mostly at the state level and mostly in Republican-controlled states.

First, a quick review: the Texas law prohibits abortions after 6 weeks without exceptions for anything, including rape and incest, or ability of the fetus to survive outside the womb. It employs a cute (in the sense that the term “cute” can be applied to, say, a giant, mean, ugly, evil, violent ogre) trick to try to get around potential lawsuits that would be based on fact that the Roe v. Wade decision gives women a Constitutional right to abortion. The law does not mandate that state officials enforce it. Instead, anyone, from any state, is empowered to be a “whistleblower” and turn in anyone enabling the abortion (doctor, nurse, counselor, taxi driver) with the potential reward of $10,000 (from the state, of course) if successful.

Neat, huh? The Supreme Court majority thought so too, and, using another trick (called the “shadow docket”) declined to invalidate it. This method obviates the need for a hearing, presentation of arguments on either side, questions from the justices, and thought-out opinions which present the reasoning of the majority and the dissenters. It thus does not require the identification of those voting in the majority (we only know in this case that it was 5-4 and who the 5 and 4 were because each of the 4 issued their own dissenting statement). It also does not allow the lower courts to know what the reasons and arguments were, resulting in inconsistent interpretation of the decision by those courts. This, of course, was on purpose. Justice Sotomayor (one of the 4) put it succinctly “The court has rewarded the state’s effort to delay federal review of a plainly unconstitutional statute, enacted in disregard of the court’s precedents, through procedural entanglements of the state’s own creation.”

Several of the justices who created this problem have defended their action, and Justice Alito, in a speech at Notre Dame, not only defended the shadow docket but portrayed himself and the other members as the actual victims. This is another neat trick, which has been employed by the right, including former president Trump, and billionaires and corporations who have been criticized for such things as underpaying their workers and not paying taxes. The best defense, it is said, is a good offense.

 Let’s review the science:

1.      a large percentage of pregnant women do not even know that they are pregnant, particularly if they usually have irregular periods, before 6 weeks,

2.      the assertion in the Texas law that the fetus has a heartbeat at 6 weeks, thus why they chose that timeframe, is incorrect. In fact, the embryo is not even a fetus at 6 weeks.

There is in fact a lot more relevant science, but let’s move on, since the science is only an issue for those of us who believe in it.

The reason for the restrictive abortion law in Texas (and all the other states’) is not in the least because they have any respect for science or medicine. For different individuals, of course, there are different reasons. For some it is because of their religious beliefs, Catholic or otherwise, that all life is sacred and thus abortion is murder. That this may result in the death of the mother, or that it should then require the same level of commitment to helping the parents ensure that children have a reasonable chance at life (housing, food, clothing, education) may be positions supported by some Catholics, including the current Pope, but is not a corollary of opposition to abortion for most of these people. This is important, because in the case of taking a human life by say, murdering them with a gun, the public is not empowered to sue anyone who might have enabled them, like the gun dealers or manufacturers.

For others, the abortion restrictions are, explicitly or not, about restricting the rights of women and relegating them to their place. This is so essentially the results of such laws and policies that denial of it is virtually always disingenuous. Even those who take the “life is life” Catholic anti-abortion position find themselves in this situation (arguably, this position on women is part of the justification by an entirely male-run church). None of these laws or policies create any penalty or responsibility for the male whose role in creating the pregnancy was central. And 100% of unintended pregnancies are directly caused by men.

Finally, the reason for these laws is political. They garner support for a generally right-wing, pro-corporate political agenda from those who would not support it as such. This trend has always been part of US politics, but more explicitly so since Richard Nixon. Ultimately, of course, whatever the ostensible position of any individual is, the issue is essentially about politics. You put together a coalition, and then you implement the laws you want to. Make no mistake, this is what it is about. Nationally, a large majority of Americans oppose overturning Roe v. Wade (about 60%). In individual states, it may differ. A good history of the right-wing of the GOP looking for an issue that would mobilize the evangelical community in support of them, and their segregationist, pro-corporate agenda, is found in a recent issue of Politico. Abortion turned out to work after other issues didn’t, despite evangelical ambivalence on the issue at the time.

For nearly two decades, [right-wing activist and segregationist Paul] Weyrich, by his own account, had been trying out different issues, hoping one might pique evangelical interest: pornography, prayer in schools, the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, even abortion. “I was trying to get these people interested in those issues and I utterly failed.”

To the extent that the Texas anti-abortion law is about a rejection of science to achieve a political or religious or misogynist agenda, it is not entirely a separate issue from COVID and opposition to mask or vaccination or distancing mandates. The politicians want what they want – mainly power – and are willing to pander to whoever to get it, even fomenting anti-science agendas. Truth no longer matters, and it has gotten beyond an abstract concept to the point where people are dying, and yet others are still unwilling to believe in the cause-and-effect. A recent article in Rolling Stone notes that in parts of Oklahoma, hospitals are not only full of people with COVID and its complications but with people who are overdosing on ivermectin, an anti-parasitic drug that has widely -- and falsely – been promoted as a treatment for COVID. Since ivermectin requires a prescription for people (and it is indicated for certain kinds of worm infestations and actually does work to treat scabies), people are buying it at feed stores where it is sold for deworming horses! If the RS article is correct, many of these hospitals are even too full for gunshot victims!

COVID is a virus, and one that mutates and evolves (whether you believe in evolution or not) and can create more dangerous strains like the Delta variant. It is infectious. Immunization offers great, if not perfect protection; while it is possible to get infected after being immunized, it is less likely and, more important, it is much less likely that you will be hospitalized, ventilated, and die. This is  a fate reserved almost exclusively for the unvaccinated. Masks do help, although they are better at protecting others from being infected by you than protecting you from others – this is why OTHER people wearing masks makes a difference. This is science. On abortion – a “6 week” pregnancy is measured since the last menstrual period, which could easily mean 4 weeks since ovulation, 2-3 weeks since fertilization, and less since implantation, not to mention a positive pregnancy test. A very high percent of women don’t yet know that they are pregnant.

Scientific answers are arrived at through experimentation and re-experimentation; “truth” changes as more information becomes available. It is messy, not simple and easy to understand like a “belief”, or something you read on the internet. If it is one-dimensional and simple it is probably wrong.

But more important, it is usually out there to accomplish another agenda.

Friday, September 17, 2021

Should hospitals and doctors make value judgements about who deserves treatment?

I heard on NPR’s “Here and Now” (Sept 9, 2021) that Jimmy Kimmel, the late night TV host, had expressed anger and frustration with people continuing to refuse vaccination for COVID-19. He noted that many hospitals no longer have available Intensive Care (ICU) beds available, and were going to have to triage who was admitted to them. According to the host, Robin Young, Kimmel said the decision was easy: you have a heart attack, you’re in; you have COVID and didn’t get vaccinated, you’re out. (His monologue is summarized by The Hill, among other sources.) Kimmel is not the only one to express outrage at the unvaccinated -- “shock jock” Howard Stern has responded to those who would cite their freedom to not be vaccinated with “F—k their freedom; I want my freedom to live!”— and is also not the only one called for such “ICU triage”.

Daniel Wikler, a professor of medical ethics from the Harvard School of Public Health was Ms. Young’s guest, and he said that, while he understood the anger that Kimmel and others were expressing, and empathized with it, he did not believe that it was the business of doctors or hospitals to make such decisions. It was the tradition and history of medicine, he said, to treat the illness of the patient if it was treatable, not to decide that someone had done something to themselves to make them undeserving of treatment. As an example, he noted a skier who might ignore all warnings, ski down the back of the hill, and get injured. There are lots of other potential examples, and they are valid.

I agree with Dr. Wikler on both points. First, I understand and empathize with Mr. Kimmel and others who are furious that those who have refused vaccination not only threaten the health of the rest of us but also end up utilizing a huge amount of health resources and services that not only can limit access to these services for others in need, and in any case cost huge amounts in time and effort by health professionals as well as in money. But I also agree that doctors and hospitals have no business refusing to care for these people, and that a core ethical value in medical care has been to provide care, if you are able, to help the illness of the patient, not to judge whether they are worthy of care because of their previous actions. One of the most dramatic and important examples are medical facilities in war zones, which are obligated by the Geneva Convention to treat all injured on the basis of need, not which side they fought on. To treat one’s own soldiers and not injured enemy soldiers who are prisoners is a war crime.

Many of those people who have the heart attacks that Mr. Kimmel thinks should get them into the ICU smoked cigarettes, or ate a very poor diet, or did not exercise, or all of these. While I’m sure that there are some people who are judgmental and smug enough to believe that they should suffer the results of their own life decisions and not receive care, this is not the approach that doctors and hospitals take.

There are certainly many people whose illnesses are at least partly a result of other poor decisions, including use of alcohol – both heavy lifetime use and even one episode which led to the car accident that has them in the emergency room – or other drugs. In addition, while less common than from alcohol, illness and death related to illegal drugs such as opiates and opioids and stimulants is still very common; we have all heard of the “opioid epidemic”. And there are infinite possibilities for blame when you go beyond “sins of commission” – things you did that were bad for you – and enter the realm of “sins of omission” – thing that you didn’t do that are, at least in the view of the one making the judgement, would have been good for you (e.g., diet and exercise).

Back to domestic hospital use, I would like to discuss two examples from my own experience. Suicide attempts are definitely self-inflicted, but the motivation to act is often transient, and many people who attempt suicide and survive do not attempt it again. Guns are very lethal, however, with well over 90% of suicide attempts by gun being “successful”; drugs are less so. My son killed himself with a gun, but if his attempt had been with a less lethal method, I  certainly would have wanted him treated.

On our inpatient services, residents and I have cared for many people who are repeatedly admitted with the effects of their use of alcohol or other drugs. One person I remember well. Regularly admitted for the toxic effects of alcohol overdose, on treatment and release he always pledged to get treatment for his disease, most strongly motivated by caring for his daughter, but never followed through. After many admissions, some residents thought it wasteful to continue to treat him and argued against it. My position was not only was recovery a difficult process, often with many failed attempts, but that our role was to treat his medical condition and refer him for treatment for his alcoholism. We could make the judgement that he was at fault, and each of us might have our own opinion about whether he “deserved” treatment, but that was irrelevant to our obligation to take care of it. It would be a slippery slope indeed. And I would be remiss to not point out the most common reason people are “triaged” to not receive care, at least in the US, is financial: they do not have money or good insurance. That is totally immoral and unacceptable.

There are some differences with those who refused to be vaccinated against COVID or wear masks or distance, but these are variations on a theme. Yes, they put others as well as themselves and their families at risk, but so do those who drink and drive or use other drugs, or who do many other things. It is our job to take care of them to the best of our ability. To do otherwise is to risk great hypocrisy, thinking that those who do the dangerous things we ourselves do are less culpable than those who do dangerous things we do not do and decry. I call it the “Jesse Helms fallacy” after the former powerful North Carolina senator who both opposed treatment for people with HIV/AIDS, who he said were suffering God’s punishment for their homosexuality, and also smoked like a chimney and fought for the tobacco industry. When he had developed heart disease, he sought and received treatment, despite being largely personally responsible for it.

That so many are refusing vaccination and care that there are no beds in ICUs in many states (as a person from Alabama did from heart disease after being unable to get a bed in 43 hospitals in 3 states, and as is occurring across the poorly-vaccinated South) is shameful, discouraging, and incredibly dangerous. These people are misguided, stupid, and many are even evil. But we also hear of those who (because they are dying, to be sure) regret their decisions. We can feel some sense of self-righteousness when we hear about anti-vax personalities who have died. If we are in institutions where there are not enough beds and patients have to be triaged, that triage must be on the basis of their condition and our ability to help them. The social/political fight cannot be waged at the bedside of an individual patient.

As much as we might be tempted to do so.

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