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.
Dr. Mike Magee has spent his life inside the medical-industrial complex, eventually working at Pennsylvania Hospital and later becoming the doctor who sold Viagra to the world at Pfizer. He’s also an award winning medical broadcaster and historian who appears regularly on THCB these days. For the October THCB Book Club Jessica DaMassa and Matthew Holt had Mike on to discuss Code Blue — his magnum opus on how the American system become the medical-industrial complex that it is, the part he played, and what we might do to fix it! A fascinating and rich discussion.
Within the ever-widening array of Democratic contenders for the Presidency, the “Medicare-for-all” debate continues to simmer. It was only six weeks ago that Kamala Harris’s vocal support drew fire from not one, but two billionaire political rivals. Michael Bloomberg, looking for support in New Hampshire declared, “I think we could never afford that. We are talking about trillions of dollars… [that] would bankrupt us for a long time.” Fellow billionaire candidate Howard Schultz added, “That’s not correct. That’s not American.”
Remarkably, neither man made the connection between large-scale health reform’s potential savings (pegged to save 15% of our $4 trillion annual spend according to health economists) and the thoughtful application of these newly captured resources to all U.S. citizens without discrimination. Bloomberg’s own 2017 Health System Efficiency Ratings listed the U.S. 50th out of 55, trailed only by Jordan, Columbia, Azerbaijan, Brazil, Russia. Yet he seemed unable to connect addressing waste with future affordability.
Schultz was similarly short sighted. While acknowledging that the
manmade opioid epidemic, mental health crises, and income inequality are
“systemic problems” and at levels “the likes of which we have not had in a long
time”, he failed to connect the cause (a remarkable dysfunctional and
inequitable health care system) with these effects.
As I outline in “Code Blue: Inside the Medical Industrial Complex” (Grove Atlantic/ June 4, 2019), today’s greatest risk to continued progress and movement toward universal coverage and rational health planning is sloppy nomenclature. To avoid talking past each other, we need to define the terms of this debate while agreeing on common end points.