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Category: Public Health

What a Waste of a Healthcare System

By KIM BELLARD

An essay in Aeon had me at the title: The Waste Age.  The title was so evocative of the world we live in that I almost didn’t need to read further, but I’m glad I did, and I encourage you to do the same.  Because if we don’t learn to deal with waste – and, as the author urges, design for it – our future looks pretty grim.

Healthcare included.

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The Eisenhower Principle

By KIM BELLARD

I’ve finally come to understand why the U.S. healthcare system continues to be such a mess, and I have President Dwight Eisenhower to thank.

I’ve been paying close attention to our healthcare system for, I hate to admit, over forty years now. It has been a source of constant frustration and amazement that – year after year, crisis after crisis – our healthcare system doesn’t get “fixed.” Yes, we make some improvements, like ACA, but mostly it continues to muddle along.

Then I learned about President Eisenhower’s approach to problems:

That’s it!  All these smart people, all these years; they didn’t know how to solve the problem that is our healthcare system, so they all took the Eisenhower approach: enlarge the problem.  Let our healthcare system get so bad that not addressing it no longer is possible.

If, indeed, there is such a point.

The actual Eisenhower quote is more nuanced than the above version. It was:

Whenever I run into a problem I can’t solve, I always make it bigger. I can never solve it by trying to make it smaller, but if I make it big enough, I can begin to see the outlines of a solution.

I guess we’re not yet at the point when the outlines of a solution are clear (Bernie Sanders notwithstanding). 

Instead, we’ve been chipping away at the problem, trying to make it smaller. For example:

  • Employer-sponsored health insurance tax preference (WWII)
  • Hill-Burton Act (1946)
  • Medicare/Medicaid (1965)
  • Federal HMO Act (1973)
  • Stark Physician Self-Referral Law (1989)
  • DGRs (1983) & RBRVS (1992)
  • CHIP (1997)
  • Medicare Modernization Act (2003)
  • Affordable Care Act (2010)
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The Kids Aren’t Alright

By KIM BELLARD

America, like most cultures, claims to love and value children, but, gosh, the reality sure seems very different. Three recent reports help illustrate this: The Pew Research Center’s report on the expectation of having children, Claire Suddath’s searing look at the childcare industry on Bloomberg, and a UNICEF survey about how young people, and their elders, view the future.   

It’s hard to say which is more depressing.

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Pew found that the percentage of non-parents under 50 who expect to have children jumped from 37% in 2018 to 44% in 2021. Current parents who don’t expect to have more children edged up slightly (71% to 74%). The main reason given by childless adults for not wanting children was simply not wanting children, cited by 56% of those not wanting children. Among those who gave a reason, medical and financial reasons were cited most often. Current parents were even more likely – 63% – to simply say they just didn’t want more.

This shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. Earlier this year the Census Bureau reported that the birthrate in America dropped for the sixth consecutive year, the largest percentage one year drop since 1965 and the lowest absolute number of babies since 1979. It’d be easy to blame this on the pandemic, but, as sociologist Phillip N. Cohen told The Washington Post: “It’s a shock but not a change in direction.” 

In many ways, having children seems like ignoring everything that’s going on. We have a climate change/global warming crisis that threatens to wreak havoc on human societies, we’re still in the middle of a global pandemic, and our political/cultural climate seems even more volatile than the actual climate. One Gen Xer told The New York Times: “As I think of it, having a child is like rolling dice with the child’s life in an increasingly uncertain world.”

Yikes.

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Healthcare Not a Part of the US Inflation Surge: Who Knew?

By JEFF GOLDSMITH

When I first appeared in The Health Care Blog fourteen long years ago, it was to decry the policy community’s obsessive search for bad news about the health system: https://thehealthcareblog.com/blog/2007/10/03/the-perpetual-health-care-crisis-by-jeff-goldsmith/. So while we struggled with the COVID pandemic, we continued hearing regularly about pharmaceutical price gouging, anti-competitive hospital mergers, bad labor relations, and provider burnout.  Thus, we can expect to hear nothing whatsoever about the failure of the health system to participate in the current outburst of inflation in the US economy.

The Washington think tank Altarum Institute tracks such things, and in its November 16 report https://altarum.org/sites/default/files/uploaded-publication-files/SHSS-Price-Brief_November_2021.pdf, we learn that healthcare prices rose by an annualized rate of just 2% in October 2021 compared to the Consumer Price Index’s 6.2% and the Producer Price Index’s 8.6%. Altarum commented that this was “surprising given that  many of the same factors impacting economywide  prices (labor shortages, supply chain issues, and increased demand for economywide services) would be expected to impact health care as well.”  

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What is the “Right” to Health Care Worth? It Depends

By MIKE MAGEE

In my course this Fall at the University of Hartford, titled “The Right to Health Care and the U.S. Constitution”, we have concentrated on the power of words, of precedents, and the range of interests with which health has been encumbered over several hundred years.

The topic has been an eye-opener on many levels. On the most basic level, it is already clear that the value of this “right” depends heavily on your definition of “health.”

We’ve highlighted three definitions worth sharing here. 

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Tech Can’t Fix the Problems in Healthcare

By KIM BELLARD

Shira Ovide, who writes the On Tech newsletter for The New York Times, had a thoughtful column last week: Tech Can’t Fix the Problem of Cars.  It was, she said, inspired by Peter Norton’s Autonorama: The Illusionary Promise of High Tech DrivingThe premise of both, in case the titles didn’t already give it away, is that throwing more tech into our cars is not going to address the underlying issues that cars pose. 

It made me think of healthcare. 

What’s been going on in the automotive world in the past decade has truly been amazing. Our cars have become mobile screens, with big dashboard touchscreen displays, Bluetooth, and streaming. Electric cars have gone from an expensive pipedream to an agreed-upon future, with Tesla valued at over a trillion dollars, despite never having sold a half-million cars annually before 2021. 

If we don’t feel like driving, we can use our smartphones to call an Uber or Lyft. Or we can use the various autonomous features already available on many cars, with an expectation that fully self-driving vehicles are right around the corner. Soon, it seems, we’ll have non-polluting, self-driving vehicles on call: fewer deaths/injuries, less pollution, not as many vehicles sitting around idly most of the day. Utopia, right? 

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Godwin’s Law and the Rise of Hyperbole on MedTwitter 🙄

By @roguerad

I first clashed with authority when I was eight. Every Saturday bunch of brown kids, children of Indian immigrants to Britain with an identity crisis who longed for the culture they left behind, attended a class in the temple about “our culture” taught by a joyless scholar of Hinduism – a pundit – whose major shtick was punctuality. When I turned up late, even by a minute, he’d make me stand outside, even if freezing. Some kids called him “Hitler,” or “Hitler uncle,” the qualifier “uncle” indicated that because he was as old as our fathers, he deserved respect. 

Then, I believed that Hitler meant authority. I preferred calling the pundit “wanker” or “asshole” but the foul language would have gotten me afoul with my parents, my authority figures. “Hitler” amply conveyed disdain for our pot-bellied teacher who exercised his authority whenever he could, without tarnishing our nubile vocabulary.  

Eventually, I understood the significance of Hitler, and of World War 2, the Nazis, and the Holocaust. Though related neither morphologically to the perpetrators nor ethnically to the victims of this ghastly period in human history, I developed a reverence, a sensitivity if you will, to such allusions. The Lord of the Old Testament instructed Moses that his name be not used in vain, lest every blocked sink or traffic jam evoked “oh my God.” I resolved never to use Nazi as an epithet frivolously. 

I was surprised how common Nazi name-calling was in American political discourse across the political spectrum, which peaked during the Trump Presidency. Some likened migrant detention facilities to “concentration camps.” Many saw in the rise of white nationalism during Trump’s reign parallels with the Third Reich. The former White House strategist, Steven Bannon, was compared to the Nazi propagandist, Goebbels. Bannon is loathsome, detestable, a wanker. Goebbels is a mass murderer – no adjectives are needed to describe him further. 

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The Vaccine Brawl – A Legal Battle in Process

By MIKE MAGEE

The power to mandate vaccines was litigated and resolved over a century ago. Justice John Marshall Harlin, a favorite of current Chief Justice Roberts, penned the 7 to 2 majority opinion in 1905’s Jacobson v. Massachusetts. Its impact was epic.

In 1905, Massachusetts was one of 11 states that required compulsory vaccinations. The Rev. Henning Jacobson, a Lutheran minister, challenged the city of Cambridge, MA, which had passed a local law requiring citizens to undergo smallpox vaccination or pay a $5 fine. Jacobson and his son claimed they had previously had bad reactions to the vaccine and refused to pay the fine believing the government was denying them their due process XIV Amendment rights.

In deciding against them, Harlan wrote, “liberty for all could not exist under the operation of a principle which recognizes the right of each individual person to use his own [liberty]…” 

Of course, a state’s right to legislate compulsory public health measures does not require them to do so. In fact, as we have seen in Texas and Florida among others, they may decide to do just the opposite – declare life-saving mandates (for masks or vaccines) to be unlawful. At least 14 states have passed laws barring employer and school vaccine mandates and imposing penalties in Republican-controlled states already.  

So state powers are clearly a double-edged sword when it comes to health care. 

Questions anyone?

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Health Care Needs A Hero

By MIKE MAGEE

Health care needs its heroes.

I came to that conclusion this week through a roundabout route.

First I read Maureen Dowd’s interview entitled “Dara Khosrowshahi, Dad of Silicon Valley”, in which she, with some affection, gives the reader a look behind the scenes at the personal life of the current Uber CEO. At one point, Dowd shares her conversation with Dara’s 20-year-old daughter, Chloe, a Brown student, who wants us to know her father was a seriously good dad. In support of this belief, she reports that “When she was little, her father – a fan of Joseph Campbell…would concoct children’s stories set in faraway kingdoms…”

This, of course, forced me to acknowledge that I didn’t know who Joseph Campbell was. Bill Moyers came to the rescue. His June 21, 1988 interview titled “Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth — ‘The Hero’s Adventure’”, begins with a clip from Star Wars where Darth Vader says to Luke, “Join me, and I will complete your training.” And Luke replies, “I’ll never join you!” Darth Vader then laments, “If you only knew the power of the dark side.” Moyers asked Campbell to comment.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: He (Darth Vader) isn’t thinking, or living in terms of humanity, he’s living in terms of a system. And this is the threat to our lives; we all face it, we all operate in our society in relation to a system. Now, is the system going to eat you up and relieve you of your humanity, or are you going to be able to use the system to human purposes.

BILL MOYERS: So perhaps the hero lurks in each one of us, when we don’t know it.

By then, I was aware that Joseph Campbell, who died in 1987 at the age 83, was a professor of literature and comparative mythology at Sarah Lawrence College. His famous 1949 book,  “The Hero With a Thousand Faces” made the case that, despite varying cultures and religions, the hero’s story of departure, initiation, and return, is remarkably consistent and defines “the hero’s quest.” His knowledge of this quest gained him a large following that included George Lucas who was a close friend and has said that Star Wars was largely influenced by Campbell’s scholarship.

Whether health care or technology, unfettered capitalism is more than adept at breeding predatory systems that beg for redemption.  Author Emily Chang spoke to this predilection in her 2018 book, “Brotopia”, describing Silicon Valley types as “secretive, orgiastic, and dark.” Dara Kharowshaki’s  CEO predecessor at Uber, Travis Kalanick, was labeled one of the worst. When Dara took over, New York Times technology expert, Mike Issac asked in 2019, “Can this rational, charming chief without the edge, ego, or cult following of wacky founders succeed in today’s insane economy?”

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Biden Should Extend a “Public Option” as a Message to “Health Care Royalists”

By MIKE MAGEE

In this world of political theatrics, with Democratic legislators from Texas forced into exodus to preserve voters’ rights, and Tucker Carlson rantings about Rep. Eric Swalwell riding shirtless on a camel in Qatar streaming relentlessly, Americans can be excused if they missed a substantive and historic news event last week.

On Friday, July 9th, President Biden signed a far-reaching executive order intended to fuel social and economic reform, and in the process created a potential super-highway sized corridor for programs like universal healthcare. In the President’s view, the enemy of the common man in pursuit of a “fair deal” is not lack of competition but “favoritism.”

To understand the far-reaching implications of this subtle shift in emphasis, let’s review a bit of history. It is easy to forget that this nation was the byproduct of British induced tyranny and economic favoritism. In 1773, citizens of Boston decided they had had enough, and dumped a shipment of tea, owned by the British East India Company, into the Boston Harbor. This action was more an act of practical necessity than politics. The company was simply one of many “favorites” (organizations and individuals) that “got along by going along” with their British controllers.  In lacking a free hand to compete in a free market, the horizons for our budding patriots and their families were indefinitely curtailed.

Large power differentials not only threatened them as individuals but also the proper functioning of the new representative government that would emerge after the American Revolution. Let’s recall that only white male property owners over 21(excluding Catholics and Jews) had the right to vote at our nation’s inception.

Over the following two centuries, power imbalances have taken on a number of forms. For example, during the industrial revolution, corporate mega-powers earned the designation “trusts”, and the enmity of legislators like Senator John Sherman of Ohio, who as Chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, led the enactment of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890.

He defined a “trust” as a group of businesses that collude or merge to form a monopoly. To Sen. Sherman, J.D. Rockefeller, the head of Standard Oil, was no better than a monarch. “If we will not endure a king as political power, we should not endure a king over the production, transportation and sale of any of the necessities of life”, he said.   The law itself stated “[e]very contract, combination in the form of trust or otherwise, or conspiracy, in restraint of trade or commerce among the several States, or with foreign nations, is declared to be illegal.”

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